A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.
Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.
Children’s literature is a booming business, and with good reason. As a genre, it is among the most densely populated with high quality, richly developed stories – new classics in the making. And yet, amidst this abundance of new literary treasures, have you found yourself pining for the pastoral tales of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame? Do you fear that children’s classics of a bygone era are in danger of becoming bygone themselves? Newbery Honoree Jacqueline Kelly and illustrator Clint Young put such fears to rest in a new masterpiece: Return to the Willows.
Both a sequel and homage to Grahame’s time-honored The Wind in the Willows, author Kelly has created a joyful continuance to the collective adventures of the original author’s beloved characters, Toad, Mole, Ratty, and others. Demonstrating a keen sense of Grahame’s voice and whimsical style, Kelly succeeds in deftly merging Grahame’s attractive setting and fanciful characters with her own conversational and lively style of narration. The result is a jubilant new adventure in the style of the original, rendered uniquely accessible to a 21st-century audience.
Because of its playful tone and engaging language, Kelly’s Return to the Willows shines as a read-aloud and is best enjoyed as shared reading. Some of the words may be challenging for younger readers, who may wish to follow along looking at the lush pictures as an adult reads aloud. Recommended for fans of pastoral, anthropomorphic tales, in the tradition of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame. Longing for read-alikes? Kelly is not the only author revisiting the classics. Readers who find they are craving similar titles will also enjoy Emma Thompson’s tribute to Beatrix Potter in The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Are You Normal? More Than 100 Questions That Will Test Your Weirdness satisfies one of the most basic and pressing needs of tweens and near-tweens: to minutely assess how they compare to others. Look at Greg Heffley, the “hero” of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – he introduces himself as the “52nd most popular kid” in school. Greg is pretty oblivious to the feelings of others, but he knows exactly where he stands in relation to his peers.
For this book, author Mark Schulman and his team polled hundreds of kids about their school and leisure activities, family situations, habits and preferences. Readers will learn that if they cut their spaghetti instead of twirling it, they are in the minority – only “15% of kids cut it, versus 82% who twirl (3% don’t eat spaghetti at all).” So whether you like pepperoni on your pizza or not, bite your fingernails or toenails (eww!), or prefer smooth peanut butter to chunky, there’s something in this book that everyone can say “yes” to. Sneaky math bonus – the book uses a variety of graphing techniques to meaningfully display relationships between numbers.
“Will my personality change as I get older?” “Is my voice unique?” “Does my brain stop working when I am asleep?” Older kids love learning about themselves too, and Richard Walker’s Who Am I? The Amazing Science of Existence discusses topics ranging from emotions to metaphysics, and delivers concrete answers to questions teens might not have even considered. The author presents facts about issues related to bioethics, such as stem cell research, but avoids controversial statements. Sharp photos and snappy design add to this book’s appeal, while puzzles and other interactive elements keep it challenging.
The 2013 Stonewall Book Awards were announced at this year’s American Library Association Midwinter meeting. The Stonewall Book Awards are given each year to exceptional books reflecting the gay, lesbian and transgender experience. Each year a fiction, nonfiction, and children's or young adult title is chosen for the award. Honor books are also chosen in each category. This year’s Barbara Gittings Literature Award went to The Last Nude by Ellis Avery. It tells the story of the passionate, tortured relationship between Tamara de Lempicka and her muse, Rafaela. The Last Nude is highly recommended to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the Lost Generation of Paris, learn more about twentieth century art or simply wants to read a fascinating, wholly engrossing love story.
The Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award went to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Aristotle and Dante, two Mexican-American teens, are trying to figure out where they fit in the universe and how to navigate their ever-evolving friendship. Aristotle and Dante walked away with multiple awards this year. In addition to the Stonewall Award, it was also the winner of the Pura Belpre’ Award, which goes to the work for children and youth that best represents the Latino cultural experience. The book also garnered a Printz honor award, which highlights teen books of excellent literary merit.
This year’s Israel Fishman Nonfiction Award was given to For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out and Coming Home, edited by Keith Boykin. For Colored Boys is a collection of over 40 essays and personal stories from gay and transgender people of color. The collection features essays on coming out in communities of color, religion, HIV/AIDS, family dynamics and finding love. A powerful and diverse collection, For Colored Boys gives voice to life stories that are rarely told.
A complete list of The Stonewall Winners and Honor Books can be found on the ALA website.
Widely regarded as one of the best spy writers alive, Robert Littell is often compared to John LeCarre and Alan Furst. In his new novel Young Philby, readers are treated to an absorbing fictional biography of the notorious double agent. Anyone interested in spies and Cold War history will certainly know the name Hadrian Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of modern espionage. He was a high ranking British double agent and one of the members of the infamous Cambridge Three. While spying for the Russians, Philby managed to have a successful career in both the British and American intelligence agencies. He caused incalculable damage with the secrets he shared.
Littell explores Kim Philby’s life story as a young man, including his early attraction to communism. Littell also tells of the Soviets tapping Philby, and details the methods they used to make him look attractive to the British Secret Service. Littell’s narrative is particularly compelling because he tells his subject’s story through the lens of a various people who knew him throughout his life. We get to know “Philby the man” through his lovers and his father, and “Philby the spy” through the eyes of his Soviet handlers. But even with the distinctly different views into this notorious spy, Kim Philby remains an enigma. As with Littell’s other novels, Young Philby manages to be both a well-researched historical novel as well as a riveting read.
HBO and BBC have partnered to bring Parade’s End, based on Ford Madox Ford’s classic modernist tetralogy, to the screen in a new five-part miniseries that will premiere in the US on February 26th on HBO. Ford’s novels, published separately between 1924 and 1928, were first combined and reissued as Parade’s End in 1950. The story follows Christopher Tietjens, the wealthy heir to the estate of Groby, who is serving in the British army during World War I. Christopher’s personal life is complicated by a love triangle. He is torn between his socialite wife Sylvia, who Graham Greene called "surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel," and his suffragette mistress Valentine. Rather than focusing on the upstairs/downstairs themes of Downton Abbey, Parade’s End portrays a broader view of England and the English gentry around World War I. Parade’s End is a challenging but worthwhile read. The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch calls the novel “The Better Downton Abbey,” citing the characters’ sharper edges and the novel’s drama that excels where he feels Downton Abbey has begun to fall flat.
The miniseries was adapted for the small screen by Sir Tom Stoppard. Director Susanna White says that Parade’s End, which was commissioned before the Downton Abbey craze, is its own unique take on the time period. Get a sneak peak at this critically-acclaimed drama, featuring the BBC’s Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher, here.
Abraham Lincoln was an inexperienced president in 1862 when he faced his troubled country's most daunting crises to date. With the new year came the inescapable truth of a nation divided, broken, and at war. To realize his vision for the union would take patience, even-keeled fortitude, and the ability to draw in friend and foe alike. In David Von Drehle's terrific and highly readable book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year, the historian reconstructs in a dramatic but disciplined tone the year's greatest challenges for the self-schooled Illinois lawyer. Unfolding month by month, Lincoln's growth as a leader is as transformative for the 16th president as it is for the state and stabilization of the union.
There is no doubt that issues were burning for Lincoln and the country. Aside from a civil war and unabated "secession fever,” the president was facing a government overwhelmed, a treasury without money, and a war department reported in shambles. Europe was exhibiting impatient leanings toward the south. At home, Lincoln's domestic situation presented its own challenges and heartache. The moral crisis of slavery, which would eventually catapult Lincoln to greatness, was looming.
Von Drehle's careful chronology of this tumultuous year begins with New Year's Day and concludes a year later with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In captivating narrative guided by hefty research, layers of political, military and diplomatic maneuvering are peeled away as Von Drehle attempts to define the man Lincoln became as a result of the year's high stakes. Micro-biographies of the usual players add color, as do the plethora of Lincoln quotes, many poignant. Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough will recognize here the republic at a crossroads and the bellwether of a nation who saw beyond.
The inspirational story of a Ugandan teen is deftly shared by Tim Crothers in The Queen of Katwe: a Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Phiona Mutesi lives in poverty with her mother and three siblings. Meals are hard to come by and Phiona’s education has been haphazard at best. In 2005, at age nine, Phiona met Robert Katende, who had also grown up in slums, was a war refugee, and worked tirelessly as a missionary. His dream was to empower children through chess – highly unlikely since the game was so foreign there wasn’t even a word for it in the children’s language.
Children were enticed to the chess lessons by the promise of porridge, but soon many grew to love the game. Of these children, Phiona stood out as a talented, thinking chess player. In 2007, she was her country’s junior champion and continued winning titles over the next several years. In September 2010, she traveled to Siberia to compete in the Chess Olympiad, the world’s most prestigious team-chess event. Although she didn’t win, she did earn the respect of competitors and teammates. The Queen of Katwe is the story of a young girl struggling against every conceivable obstacle to pursue her dream. Readers will root and hope that Phiona will one day succeed as a Grandmaster and will remember her uplifting spirit long after the book is closed.
Crothers first shared Phiona’s story in an ESPN Magazine article, which was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. To hear some of the story in Phiona’s own words, watch this video from ESPN. In September, 2012, Phiona again competed in the Chess Olympiad, and her strong performance earned her the title of Woman Candidate Master, making her the first titled female player in Ugandan history. This fantastic dream may just become reality.
Take a peek inside the mysterious and mischievous world of twins in three books for children with appeal for multiples and singletons alike. The nineteenth century counting rhyme “Over in the Meadow” inspired Ken Geist’s Who’s Who which puts the spotlight on twin animals. These six pairs of twins include calves, bunnies, monkeys, and fish and are featured in their natural habitats. Illustrator Henry Cole vividly depicts these landscapes in acrylic and colored pencil and moves from farmyard to jungle to bat cave. The memorable rhymes highlight the twins’ activities through the day and match the warm, detailed illustrations.
The Twins’ Blanket, written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, shares the story of identical twin sisters who at age five are growing up and a little apart. The girls’ favorite blanket is no longer big enough for sharing, so Mom creates new blankets for each girl with pieces from the old. Yum does a fabulous job of differentiating between these twins, by giving each girl her own side of the book. It isn’t until the girls reach out to comfort each other that they cross over the center of the book. Yum, a twin herself, uses prints, colored pencil, watercolor, and other media in her bright illustrations, and makes great use of white space to complement the quiet, narrative text.
In Take Two: a Celebration of Twins, J. Patrick Lewis, the current Children's Poet Laureate teams with Jane Yolen to present more than forty poems about life as a twin. Sophie Blackall’s watercolor, pencil, and collage illustrations complement the varied poems which are divided into sections representing stages and milestones, and a final section features famous twins. Lewis is a twin himself and Yolen is the grandmother of twins, so the two are quite familiar with the world of doubles. Readers will also enjoy the “Twin Fact” feature found throughout, such as the Russian woman who was mother to sixteen sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets!
Ask a kid where their dinner comes from and you might hear, “McDonald’s”. That trend is reversing, however, as more of today’s families are re-discovering the joy of cooking and paying attention to where their food comes from as well as how to prepare it. Cooking with kids is a hot activity right now and an easy way to introduce skills such as reading, math, science, even art.
Tyler Florence, celebrity chef on the Food Network and co-founder of Sprout organic baby food, encourages kids to explore cooking in Tyler Makes Pancakes! Little Tyler and his dog, Tofu, decide to start the day right with a plan to make breakfast for mom and dad. Armed with a list of ingredients they head to the local market. Simply colored stick figure illustrations by Craig Frazier are highlighted by lots of white space and short text which gives a pleasing clean-as-a-chef’s-kitchen flavor to each page. Tyler’s blueberry buttermilk pancake recipe is included so kids can learn to measure and combine ingredients and make a quick and easy meal. A list of interesting food facts will encourage them to learn even more.
The life of Julia Child, doyenne of classic French cooking in the U.S., has had renewed interest in recent years. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, by Susanna Reich, is a charming picture book homage which will delight both children and adults. While Julia perfected her cooking skills, she would prepare a variety of delicacies and offer tastes to little cat Minette, who more often than not, preferred a simpler palette of traditional mouse or bird. This gentle story blends facts from Julia’s life and her various books into a mélange of fact and fiction. Peppered throughout are quotes from Julia’s original letters and a sprinkling of French words and cooking terms. Amy Bates draws the reader in with engaging pencil and watercolor illustrations of multi-colored Minette and charming kitchen and street life scenes in muted tones.