Art historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.
Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.
Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.
Under One Roof: Lessons I Learned from a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House by Barry Martin is a truly one-of-a-kind story. When Martin, head of a construction project, first hears of the octogenarian Edith Wilson Macefield, all he knows is that she’s feisty, fiery and will not give up her modest home to the developers constructing the shopping mall around her…not even for a million dollars. As he does with every one of his sites, he makes rounds in the neighborhood to apologize for the noise and to tell the residents to contact him with any concerns.
He could not have anticipated the call he soon receives from Edith asking him to drive her to a hair appointment. After a while, he finds himself walking over to visit her while she’s putting out seeds for the birds, watching Lawrence of Arabia and reciting poetry. Soon, he’s drawn into the fascinating details of her life, which contains multitudes of tales that could fill five lifetimes. From being a 14-year-old spy for the British in Nazi Germany to memories of receiving a clarinet from her cousin, the American swing musician Benny Goodman, Martin is pulled into the hidden yet wondrous existence of the resolute elderly woman.
Martin’s firsthand account of his tender companionship with this small but mighty force of a woman undoubtedly makes this a touching read. All at once, he is concerned, bewildered and very much intrigued by Edith, who stands her ground. When social services start calling, she reveals her wish to pass away on her couch, the very same place her own mother passed. Without denying Edith her independence, Martin begins to assist her as her physical strength declines so that she can die the way she’s always lived—on Edith’s terms.
This biography verges on indescribable in the way humor, compassion and sadness are simultaneously intertwined to recount the infallibility of the human spirit and pricelessness of human kindness.
Twelve years ago on the day she was born, Cassie Romano’s town was flooded to make way for a new dam and the residents of Old Lower Grange were moved uphill to a brand new town, New Lower Grange. The whole town turned out to celebrate the flooding except for Cassie’s family. They were busy racing to the hospital to deliver Cassie eight weeks earlier than planned. In Meg McKinlay’s children’s novel, Below, Cassie is envious of her family’s memories of a place she will never know and she grows up imagining a mysterious town underneath the still waters of the manmade lake. Fascinated with the past, she has spent hours studying old pictures, maps and historic documents and knows where every oak tree stood and where every road leads.
When a summertime drought causes the water levels in the lake to recede dramatically, Cassie and her friend Liam stumble on a long kept secret, a secret that was submerged under 200 of water. Despite their own physical limitations, they work together to solve the mystery below the water.
Below is based on the author’s own experience as a teenager standing next to a drowned town and wondering what remained underneath the water and the mud.
Jo Baker’s engaging new novel Longbourn focuses on the life of housemaid Sarah and her fellow servants for a behind-the-scenes retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Fans of Austen’s novel will be intrigued by the lives of the underclass in Regency England, no less intriguing and dramatic than those of the gentry they serve.
Sarah, orphaned and raised almost as a daughter to housekeeper Mrs. Hill, fills her days from early morning to late night with the strenuous labor it takes to run a country household. Baker fills her novel with detailed accounts of the housemaid’s chores, from emptying the chamber pots to heading to town in the rain and cold to purchase ornamental roses to decorate the Bennet girls’ shoes. Readers will learn fascinating period housekeeping hints, like the fact that cold tea leaves sprinkled on floors will bind with dust, hair and insects, making sweeping easier.
Even as she supports the sisters in their complicated courtships, she dreams of a life of her own. She becomes flustered in her dealings with Mr. Bingley’s handsome, flirtatious footman Ptolemy, the man charged with delivering letters. His goal is to open a tobacco shop one day. Mysterious James Smith, the newly arrived servant with hazel eyes and a secret cache of seashells, intrigues her as he lightens her daily work burdens and takes an interest in her. Sarah wonders “Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?” Longbourn is a book to savor almost as much as its inspiration.
Fannie Flagg’s new novel The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion will remind readers of why they originally fell in love with her writing. The story’s wit, wisdom and colorful cast of characters are utterly captivating.
Having just survived her three daughters’ four weddings in less than two years, Sookie Poole is ready to enjoy some peace at last. She is looking forward to spending her days tending her birdfeeders, relaxing, traveling with her long-suffering husband Earle and caring for her eccentric mother Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Her biggest concern these days is that one day she will go crazy like all the Simmonses do. There’s a fine line between eccentric and crazy, and in the Simmons family they all end up in the Pleasant Hill Sanitarium eventually. Then, Sookie receives a certified letter and learns a shocking family secret. She begins to search for answers and learns much more about Lenore’s past. Layers of the story unfold and Flagg takes readers back to 1943, Fritzi Jurdabralinski and the women who ran the Phillips 66 gas station in Pulaski, Wisconsin.
This story is a perfect fit for readers who enjoy novels by Adriana Trigiani, Rebecca Wells and Ann B. Ross. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is an absolute delight. Like Flagg’s bestselling Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café, this story moves between past and present, telling a family’s story with effervescent humor and irresistible Southern charm.
Just One Year, the sequel to Gayle Forman’s teen novel Just One Day is the conclusion to Allyson and Willem’s whirlwind love story, told this time from Willem’s perspective. Picking up from when Allyson and Willem were separated in Paris, Just One Year follows Willem as he wakes up there, alone, confused and missing Allyson. After their day in Paris, Willem only knows Allyson as Lulu, a nickname he gave her based on her resemblance to actress Louise Brooks. Despite the small amount of time they spent together, their feelings for each other are strong. Just as Allyson searched for Willem, tried to get over him and find herself in Just One Day, Willem does much the same in Just One Year.
As Willem travels the world, readers are taken along on his physical and emotional journey. Those who read both books will see the number of close misses Allyson and Willem had during the year following their single day together in Paris. But most of all, readers will enjoy learning who Willem really is. His secretive nature in Just One Day kept readers and Allyson second-guessing his motives. However in Just One Year, Willem’s character and his struggles are shown, and Forman makes him a relatable character.
For those who have read Just One Day and patiently (or not so patiently) waited for the conclusion, Just One Year will not disappoint. Forman writes a heartfelt end to Allyson and Willem’s love story, which romance fans will enjoy. As an added bonus, readers will feel like they have traveled the world with Allyson and Willem by the end of the two books. As she previously did with If I Stay and Where She Went, Forman does a fabulous job telling one story from two perspectives.
Nick and Maxine are off on another adventure with their babysitter in Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice by Daniel Pinkwater. In this delightful sequel to Mrs. Noodlekugel, the four mice friends make a terrible mess at tea-time, causing Mrs. Noodlekugel to realize that it is time to have them checked by an eye doctor. Nick and Maxine keep Mrs. Noodlekugel and Mr. Fuzzface, her talking cat, company on the bus trip to the oculist’s office. It is a story loaded with whimsy (talking cats), eccentricities (the mice can’t talk, but they do need glasses), and a little bit of mystery. The absurdity of a monkey waiter, mice riding on hats and eye doctors who treat mice will make the reader giggle. An unexpected family reunion ties the story together and provides a neat conclusion.
The charming narrative is broken up into easy-to-manage chapters with large print, making this series a perfect choice for the new chapter book reader. Engaging illustrations by Adam Stower add to the overall appeal. Reminiscent of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, but without the character building lessons, the Mrs. Noodlekugel series is pure fun.
In Sharon Creech’s latest book, The Boy on the Porch, a young couple find a boy asleep on their front porch one day and decide to take him in. The child has a note in his pocket stating: “Plees tak kair of Jacob. He is a good boy. Wil be bak wen we can.” With that little bit of information, John and Marta begin to care for the boy who does not speak, yet communicates to them by tapping and painting pictures such as they’ve never seen before. As the bond between the three of them grows stronger, they all realize that any day someone may take Jacob away from them and tear apart their newly formed family.
Newbery Medal winner Creech effectively uses short chapters and sparse descriptions to draw a wonderfully fleshed out story and characters that are quirky yet totally believable. Jacob stands in for the child that John and Marta never had, but he is also able to bond with the animals on the farm better than the couple ever could. As the story unfolds, all three main characters go through changes that are heartwarming yet never maudlin. The different ways that Jacob is able to share his innermost thoughts and feelings without ever saying a word is both inspirational and eye-opening.
Life on the run might appear glamorous. Travelling to new places, assuming new names and identities, and trying out new living arrangements all seem like obvious perks. But as the young heroines of two new teen novels learn, the truth is far from that.
In The Rules for Disappearing, by Ashley Elston, “Meg” (her latest identity) and her family have been in the Witness Protection Program for eight months, and have already lived in six different places. She is tired of the subpar housing and lifestyle, but mostly she is worried about the toll the program is taking on her family: her mom is drowning her anxieties and depression in alcohol, her little sister is a shell of her former self, and her father seems oblivious to it all. Mainly, Meg just wants to know what her father did to land them in the program in the first place. Elston creates grounded characters, realistic depictions of small-town high school life and a suspenseful mystery that draws the reader in.
In Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Marina is a young dancer living in the lap of luxury in the Soviet Union, thanks to her famous ballerina mother’s connections. But when her mother disappears, Marina and her father must defect to the United States to protect themselves. As Marina tries to continue her dance training, she must also juggle more practical responsibilities, navigate Manhattan and Brooklyn and adapt to the new capitalist culture. At the same time, Soviet secrets are casting a long shadow from halfway around the world, and what her family knows about the government cover-ups becomes the crux of this dark tale. Kiem brings the 1980s landscapes of gritty Brooklyn and frozen Moscow to life with a suspenseful story of overprotected teenager meets international intrigue.
Few writers can jump from one form of media to another and still produce award-winning work, but with his 2013 Hugo Award winning series Saga, Brian K. Vaughan has proven he is one of those rare writing talents. Vaughan is no stranger to accolades; his previous comic book series, Y: the Last Man and Ex Machina, not only won awards but were both optioned for films. His heart-wrenching graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, looks at the non-human consequences of war.
Vaughan, who has been writing for TV shows like Lost and Under the Dome, and artist Fiona Staples have created a family drama that is half Romeo and Juliet and half Firefly. Saga, Vol. 1 is the tale of two worlds and two species at war. In the midst of the conflict, a man and a woman from opposing sides meet and fall -- slowly and painfully -- in love. They escape their families and their worlds and have a child together. That’s when things get interesting for them. Neither side in the conflict likes what their love and their child represent and make the elimination of the trio a priority.
Saga, Vol. 1 is full of interesting worlds and species, like a slew of bounty hunters out for blood and cash. If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it is given fresh life by Vaughan’s writing and Staples’ art. Vaughan is known for his snappy and often funny dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joss Whedon film. A great deal of the charm of the series is the characters and their interactions, which always come off fresh and, well, human. The first volume follows the initial pursuit and escape.
Vaughan has again found a way to take an unusual concept and tell an incredible story.
Saga is for mature audiences only, due to violence, language and adult situations.