It is the year 1811, just before King George III of Britain is set to be declared unfit to rule and his son, Prince George IV, is to be named Prince Regent. This distinctive and tumultuous time in history is the setting for C.S. Harris’ mystery novel, What Angels Fear . I must confess that the majority of Regency era books that I have read are primarily romance novels, beginning with all things Jane Austen and ending with all sorts of popular fiction that is not nearly so well written.
While sharing some familiar aspects with Regency romances, Harris gives us a grittier and more complex look at this time in history. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin has recently returned from the Peninsular Wars. Unconventional at the best of times, he is now accused of the brutal murder of a young actress named Rachel York. Using skills he acquired in the war, Devlin is on the run from authorities and hiding in the underbelly of 1811 London. He is determined to bring Rachel York’s murderer to justice and clear his own name.
What Angels Fear is the first in C.S. Harris’s St. Cyr mystery series. It is a fast paced, suspenseful, and at times dark, mystery peppered with both real and imagined historical figures. C.S. Harris is a historian whose specialty is 19th century Europe and her expertise is demonstrated throughout this novel. The reader is shown the somewhat familiar world of Regency Era British aristocracy as well as the brutal poverty and desperation of the British poor. Overall, What Angels Fear is the beginning of a thoughtful and entertaining mystery series. I can see fans of Deanna Raybourn , Charles Tood , or Tasha Alexander enjoying this series as well.
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There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and find my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The Merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop, he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
-W. Somerset Maugham
And with this short tale from W. Somerset Maugham does John O’Hara begin his debut novel, appropriately entitled Appointment in Samarra and published in 1934. I remember still the first time I read the prologue. A feeling of discomfort swept over me as I came to the realization of the meaning – one cannot escape fate, a debatable point to be sure, I told myself, and yet, the hair continued to stand on the back of my neck.
Specifically, the story involves a broad cast of characters of varying backgrounds during a three-day period around Christmas 1930 in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a mining town in the vicinity of Pittsburgh. Despite the many personalities that are introduced, the focus is clearly set on Julian and Caroline English, who are numbered among the social elite of Gibbsville, and while many in the town admire and envy them, their reality both within and between them is not reflected in their refined and sophisticated image, as Julian and Caroline face pasts that to most are coveted but are littered with experiences that have resulted in two very damaged adults.
The main action begins with Julian throwing his highball into the face of a social climber at the exclusive Lantenengo Country Club at the Christmas Eve Party, and while this status seeker is detested, he happens to be very rich and to whom Julian owes a good deal of money, and it is through this thoughtless action that Julian sets in motion his personal appointment in Samarra. Through the torrent of these three days, the reader follows the various plot lines with increasing uncertainty as mistakes mount leading to the story’s climax, one that begs the question: does fate await us, too?
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Spoon by Amy Krauss Rosenthal
“All my friends have it so much better than me.” Who hasn’t sang that song at least once or twice?
This feeling of incompleteness is at the center of our story, where young Spoon is in desperate need of someone to polish his ego. The illustrator provides a glimpse of the exciting times had by the other folks that share the cutlery drawer. We’re shown forks lassoing spaghetti, chopsticks that tango among the sushi rolls with precision, and knives happily spreading jam on bread. All culinary feats never, ever achieved with a spoon.
Lucky for him, Mama Spoon is around to reassure her boy that life is indeed grand for their kind. She helps Spoon work through his envy of the other utensils by pointing out what makes him special. “Your friends will never be able to twirl around in a mug or relax in a hot cup of tea.” And she’s right, you can’t eat ice cream with a knife.
Mama Spoon ponders to her son, “I wonder if you realize just how lucky you are?” Everyone needs someone to remind them of this time to time, and Rosenthal’s Spoon aims to tell parents that their children need to be tenderly polished not unlike little Spoon.
And of course, the book doesn’t end without some spooning.
Spork by Kyo Maclear
Kids Can Press 2010
Spork stuck out. His mother a spoon, his father a fork, which made him one of a kind in the kitchen drawer they called home. He routinely gets asked, “What are you anyway?” an experience taken from multiracial author Kyo Maclear’s own life.
A sweet faced little guy. Too round for some, too pointy for others, but perfect in circumstances where nothing else would do. He’s like the kid who never gets picked at kickball. That is, until a new and very messy customer comes to the table giving Spork a chance to prove his utility.
With very similar messages and formats, it would be easy to confuse Rosenthal’s Spoon with Maclear’s Spork. Both books have style and endearing cartoonish leads, but the lovely mixed media illustrations in Spork make it my favorite to look through
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Comics, horror, noir crime, sword and sorcery, and YA lit are all brought to the fore in Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands . This collection of short essays riffs on the gamut of genre fiction, finding interesting ways to defend genre fiction and to connect it to “high” literature. Chabon brings his own insights on writing - a process often obscured by one’s experiences as a reader - as he alchemically unites diverse and disparate topics from Norse epics to Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Not just dry literary theory here, no sir.
In the essay from which the book derives its name, Chabon regales readers with a childhood tale of his family’s move to an unfinished subdivision. Rather than the typical narrative of being stifled by suburban newness and sterility, Chabon imparts a feeling of awe at such open opportunity. It is an awe that motivates him to fill a sketchy map of the subdivision with wonders, as if drawing out secrets from the air. Readers are able to vicariously feel that rush of power inherent in the creative process, one which leaves you in its afterglow wondering how you have gotten from start to finish.
Filling in the map is – to the author – part of a more general aesthetic of writing from the vantage point of exile. As he sees it, both Jews and lovers of genre fiction are vibrant communities often excluded from the mainstream of society and literature respectively. It is this position of exile which tethers Chabon to his Jewish roots and to genre fiction as a collective whole.
Other pieces are, in some ways, meditations on loss of youth and its closely-associated sense of adventure. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is characterized in such a manner. The only criticism in this laudatory essay is that the heroine of the trilogy, Lyra Belacqua, becomes a much flatter, less interesting character as she moves from unbounded agency to dutiful fulfillment of destiny. In essence, Chabon views Pullman as much greater at exploring the map of his richly developed tale than in reaching the story’s destination.
Maps and Legends is for fans of genre fiction, particularly those who do not mind blending and blurring of genre’s boundaries, or of writing about writing.
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Once a year, lovers of books for children await the announcement of the American Library Association’s youth media awards with as much anticipation as filmgoers reserve for the Oscars. I thought I would use this post to talk about a few of the winners. The complete list of this year’s winners, which were announced at the ALA midwinter convention in San Diego on January 10th, may be found here: http://ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/news/pr.cfm?id=6048
A Sick Day for Amos McGee : written by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
The Caldecott medal is given to the most distinguished American picture book for children. The author and illustrator for this year’s winner are a husband and wife team, with this being the illustrator’s first book. The story is very sweet. Amos McGee is the zoo keeper who gives his animal friends special attention every day. When he has the sniffles and doesn’t show up for work, his animal friends pay him a visit and give him some special attention. The pictures were done with woodblock prints and pencil and have an old-fashioned feel. This is an excellent choice for preschoolers and early elementary age children.
Moon Over Manifest: written by Clare Vanderpool
Amazingly, this is the author’s first book. She said she based the fictional town of Manifest on the real town of Frontenac, Kansas, home of her grandparents. Twelve-year-old Abilene, the book’s protagonist, has spent most of her young life riding the rails with her father during the Great Depression. Now her father has sent her to Manifest, a town where he spent part of his own youth, to live with his friend, Shady, a bartender/preacher. Abilene misses her father terribly, but comes to know some of the town’s colorful characters, including the newspaper woman, Hattie Mae, and the town diviner, Miss Sadie, who lives down the Path to Perdition. After Abilene finds a cigar box of old letters and mementoes, Miss Sadie helps her uncover some secrets about the town in 1918, when her father lived there. This is a wonderful read for elementary school children on up to adults.
Mildred L. Batchelder Award
A Time of Miracles : written by Anne-Laure Bondoux, translated from the French by Y. Maudet
The Batchelder award is given to a book for children published abroad in a language other than English, then subsequently translated and published in the USA. This very unusual story follows the journey of a refugee mother and son as they travel from the Caucasus to France in the early 1990s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It is absorbing reading for teens through adults.
Theodor Seuss Geisel Award
Bink and Gollie : written by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile
This award is given to the best beginning reader. These two veteran authors have created a quirky pair of girls. The illustrations perfectly complement the text. This is a great choice not only for new readers, but for all of the elementary set. (Psst… Adults will be charmed too!)
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