From the Shelf
Catch a Ride on the Reading Train
Last Saturday was National Train Day. I'll celebrate this morning by boarding Amtrak's Empire Service and flowing south from Albany to New York City on steel rails in tandem with the Hudson River. More than two hours of spectacular water and mountain scenery will be on display before we burrow into the subterranean depths of Penn Station.
If I had a choice of NYC destinations, I'd opt for Grand Central, of course. The cathedral of rail travel celebrates its centennial this year and a number of books have been released tracing its history, including Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America by Sam Roberts and Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark by Anthony W. Robins.
I love riding trains, reading on trains and even reading stories--fiction as well as nonfiction--in which trains play a significant role. My current rail-reading schedule includes Alexander McCall Smith's Trains and Lovers (June 11 release) and The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux, whose work I started boarding long ago with The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express.
Trains may well be part of our DNA. Despite being born into an automobile-mad culture, kids are still obsessed with books like The Little Engine that Could, Thomas the Tank Engine or The Polar Express. And you don't need me to tell you the impact Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station has had upon thousands of muggles who dreamed of catching a life-changing ride on the Hogwarts Express.
As readers, we're always boarding book-trains to somewhere. Among my many favorites are Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, Alan Furst's The Spies of Warsaw and Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. I'm sure you have your own. So here's wishing you a belated Happy Train Day. Catch a bookish train soon. --Robert Gray, contributing editor, Shelf Awareness
In this Issue...
by Antonia Fraser
A surprisingly thrilling account of Britain's reform of the House of Commons in 1832.
by Cecil Castellucci
A graphic novel about two friends who realize that their oddities are part of what attracts them to each other.
by Norman Lock
A masterful collection of short fiction by a writer discovered by Philip Roth who transcends his roots in experimental fiction and reveals a perfect ear for language.
Review by Subjects:
From Garden District Book Shop
06/02/2020 - 11:45AMTuesday, June 2nd 4PM Our next author in the Okra Pick series is Ruby McConnell. Ruby will be talking with us about her book, Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of Life and answering your questions. Ruby is one of many authors we’ll be bringing to your living room. Ruby McConnell is a writer, geologist, and adventuress whose work focuses on nature, the environment, and the relationship between landscape and the human experience. Her experiences as a...
06/04/2020 - 5:00PMIt's Happy Hour! 5-6PM Welcome to Virtual Happy Hour, this week poets Skye Jackson and Ben Aleshire will be joining us to discuss poetry, traveling, NOLA, and anything else that comes to mind as we unwind with a drink and some good conversation. So, grab a cocktail and join us on our Facebook page for this Live event. https://www.facebook.com/GardenDistrictBookShop/
Literary Salons; Book Wine Glass Charms; Books About Siblings
Flavorwire conducted a brief tour of "some of history's most famous literary salons."
Gwyneth Rees, author of My Super Sister, chose her "top 10 books about siblings" for the Guardian, noting that "real sibling relationships are complex and strong positive and negative emotions can exist simultaneously and it is therefore no wonder they are such fantastic material for fiction."
Kate Pankhurst, author of The Ghostly Guinea Pig: Mariella Mystery 1, picked her "top 10 young detectives" for the Guardian.
Cheers! EssenTiles are "choose your books Scrabble tile wine glass charms being sold on Etsy.
Richard Tuttle's "incredible one-of-a-kind bindings for classic books" were showcased by Flavorwire. "I make literary artifacts," he said. "They are designed to pull books down off the shelf and display them in the salon, gallery or home as if they were works of art, which, of course, they are."
The Sling Wall Shelf by Weena Lee "has five different lengths of sides and tilts easily depending on the weight and the shape of stored items," Design Milk reported.
The Writer's Life
Dwayne Ballen: Autism's Appreciation for the Moment
Dwayne Ballen is a television journalist whose broadcast résumé includes CBS Sports, the ESPN networks, the Golf Channel, Fox Sports, USA Network and TNT's NBA Playoffs coverage. He has been a contributor to NPR and the Fox News Channel. His book, Journey with Julian (Strebor Books, $12 paper), is the story of his family's experiences with autism and what their oldest son, Julian, has brought to their lives.
Julian has opened up a world of his interests to you, reminding you that "there are myriad ways to experience happiness." Would you expand on that?
At some point, in Julian's early adolescence, I realized that getting into his world, and therefore closer to him, meant I had to open myself to another way of thinking about things I previously may have thought of as belonging to a specific stage of life. For instance, I never considered that Disney animated movies would hold such prominence in the life of my son at age 19, that I would be pondering the life lessons each movie has to offer. Yet, just a few weeks ago Julian was explaining to me how each one has given him something to use in his day to day life. According to Julian, The Lion King is about the importance of family and always being there for each other. The Princess and the Frog reminds us that belief in yourself and holding on to your dreams can take you a long way. The Sword and the Stone reaffirms what personal courage, in whatever form it may be, can help you accomplish. Julian has one for almost every one of Disney's animated movies.
On a recent walk through our neighborhood Julian stopped near a small creek and started telling me about the beaver, or maybe it was an otter, that he'd seen a few days earlier. He wanted to wait, in hopes of another sighting. We stood there for about 15 minutes, as he talked about all manner of creatures, and finally the otter, or the beaver, appeared! Julian was ecstatic. All I could do was smile as I thought how this very simple scene brought such joy to my son. That was happiness. Moments like that, and there have been many, have made me come to appreciate the brilliance of simply being alive and enjoying each day that is given to us.
The point is, he's helped me to appreciate that success and happiness can take many forms. When he played violin in his first middle school recital, it was a triumphant moment for Martina and me--he had reached the point that allowed him to focus and learn enough to participate in the group endeavor. That was clearly an example of success.
You say, "If we all could bring the passion, knowledge and joy to our endeavors that Julian has for his favorite subjects, I suspect we'd all be a little happier." What can we learn from Julian here?
He brings unalloyed enthusiasm to his pursuit of learning and sharing about his community of interests--animals, Disney animated movies and mythological creatures. No matter how many times he has discussed something related to one of these topics, it always seems like the first time when you inquire about them. Most times you don't have to ask; Julian will, happily, start the dialogue. Martina and I have lost count of the number of times we heard his excited laughter coming from a distant room, followed by, "Mom, Dad come look at this!" Sometimes it is something he's shown us many times before, other times it could be the discovery of a new resource for learning about animals--the Africa cam on the National Geographic website, a funny moment in a Disney movie, a picture of the mythological creature Chupacabra--no matter what it is, Julian's appreciation for the moment is always evident. That is something, I hope, we all can employ in our day to day lives. Enjoy the wonderment of each day, because if you pay attention amazing things happen with little fanfare. You just have to learn to recognize and appreciate them. At the end of each day ask yourself what special moments you experienced that day. If you can't identify any, then you're not really paying attention to the beauty, privilege and fun of being alive. Without ever verbalizing it in any specific manner, Julian gets that.
You write about a woman giving you and Julian a disapproving look when he embraced you. How can people be educated about different ways of being?
We should all be more aware of the importance of expanding our respective worldviews. When you "look," take a moment to make sure you "see." If you don't understand, then at least recognize that you have come upon a moment of happiness, and that is never a bad thing. A smile and nod will go a long way in helping you process what you're witnessing. Turning away does no service to you or to anyone else. It's about enlightenment and appreciating the different paths that others are on. I actually think it is okay to stare, it's natural. What people should consider is when they find themselves staring, why not initiate a short conversation? It is amazing what can happen when people take a moment out of their day to engage with someone new.
Father's Day is coming up. Do you have any words particularly for men with an autistic child?
There is no way around it: hearing the words, "Your child has autism," can shake you to your core. Our society has us conditioned to recognize certain "universal" markers of success--doing well in school, graduating near or at the top of your class, being a social leader, going to the right college, getting a great job with a good salary, etc. We raise and expect our children to follow this formula. Accepting that your child's pathway will be different from those traditional societal dictates is not easy. But you must come to the understanding that it is not about you, much less greater society. It is about that amazing child who lives in a special world that you have to gain access to in order that they may live a happy and fulfilling life. On their terms, not yours.
That doesn't mean you still can't have dreams for and expectations of your child; I do, they're just different. For Martina and me, Julian's upcoming graduation from high school will be a major accomplishment, one worthy of a grand celebration. You see, just a few years ago we sat in a room with education professionals who told us he could never get a high school diploma, just a certificate of attendance. We remind him every day just how proud we are of him and how great he's doing. Those daily affirmations give him such a lift that it makes my heart skip a beat. Just as he conquered that mountain, I know he can do the same, in his own way, with others. As dads of children with autism consider their station on Father's Day, I hope it is with a sense of pride and honor to be parent to that child. Remember, it's not about you, it's about them.
How can we access the deep reservoir of talent and resources autistic people have?
We could start with some mental conditioning on our part; let's not just look at them for what needs they have but also for what they have to offer. There are some incredibly creative persons in the autism community. Let's find ways to make the work arena more flexible and accessible for them; in turn we may receive the next great idea in technology, a new way of approaching some age-old problem, the next big animated movie.... With all the pressing issues this world faces, we need "all hands on deck," and some of the most talented, though maybe unconventional, may very well belong to persons with autism. This idea is gaining some traction. In my book I reference the Danish innovator Thorkill Sonne who has been recognized by the World Economic Forum for his efforts in finding a way to connect the talents and abilities of persons with autism with the broader world. Over the last year, through speaking engagements, I've met a number of business leaders thinking this way. It can be done, it has to be done. As Julian puts things to me sometimes, "Dad, what if...." --Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers
Love Among the Particles
by Norman Lock
Norman Lock is one of the best writers you've never heard of, but that could change with Love Among the Particles, a collection of stories that combines absurdist elements and avant-garde fiction with conventional storytelling to satirize our romance with devices and our penchant for confusing technology with living.
The worlds in these stories are nearly recognizable, familiar but disguised by Lock's fabulist instincts. The first story, "A Monster in Winter," adopts flawless Edwardian language to tell the story of an ambitious journalist's efforts to exploit Mr. Hyde, with horrifying consequences. In the title story, with a nod to Kafka's Metamorphosis, a man dematerializes, becoming nothing more than particles in a digital space alongside data bits, longing for true love as he observes the world happen around him.
Lock's writing is beautiful, with clean, clear, perfect sentences. He might delight in pyrotechnics but they are never self-indulgent; his language and imagination are always in service of the story. Each story feels total, complete, seducing the reader with language and narrative into a fully realized alternative world to say something new about our own.
Philip Roth invited a young Lock to his writing seminar and helped launch a career that has included recognition from George Plimpton at the Paris Review and the publication of four novels and hundreds of short stories and plays. Love Among the Particles is topical, astonishing and provocative--and should help Lock reach his widest audience yet. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: A masterful collection of short fiction by a writer discovered by Philip Roth who transcends his roots in experimental fiction and reveals a perfect ear for language.
The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories
by Ethan Rutherford
The Peripatetic Coffin, Ethan Rutherford's debut collection of short stories, is a keeper. His work creeps up on you when you're not looking, like the title story. The coffin in question is the Civil War-era submarine H. L. Hunley: 40 metallic feet long, with a four-foot beam and a cabin height of four feet, it is the Confederacy's secret savior. With a bomb attached to the bow, it will, with underwater stealth, destroy the Union ships blockading Charleston harbor. Narrated by Ward Lumpkin, who mans the second crank station, the tale is one of honor, courage and blind faith in a "contraption that has killed thirteen men, including its inventor, on test runs alone." Their night attack on the USS Housatonic succeeds, but the sub never makes it back to port. In the dark, as the water rises, Ward wonders if they were "but a spectacle of self-defeat."
In "A Mugging," a middle-aged couple is mugged at night. Charles is punched in the face; the first time ever. Quietly, painfully, Rutherford reveals the "unsettling" effects of the incident. "Summer Boys," about two inseparable fifth-graders, opens all nostalgic: the joys of youth, skateboarding, adventures. Then, as with "A Mugging," the story takes a turn down a dark corridor.
Add two other beautifully rendered nautical tales, a whimsical, absurdist story about a summer camp where campers die trying to retrieve a stolen mascot moose head, a powerful portrait about a son gone wrong and its devastating effect on the family and, to round things out, ruminations on lost love and a sick alpaca, and you've got a revelatory feast of storytelling. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: In these eight masterful tales, Ethan Rutherford injects power, subtlety and emotion into an unforgettable cast of beleaguered, doomed characters.
by Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin (Evensong; A Mother and Two Daughters) has created another atmospheric novel of place, character and time in Flora, narrated by a woman in her 70s recounting the summer of 1945.
Helen is a precocious 10-year-old living in North Carolina with her beloved grandmother Nonie. Her mother died when she was three, and her father is working on a secret project in Oak Ridge, Tenn., allowing him to come home only occasionally. Then Nonie dies, Helen's best friend Brian comes down with polio and another friend moves away. These losses leave the child bereft and grieving, and then Helen's father invites his late wife's cousin to move in for the summer.
Flora is 22, a "simple-hearted girl," a chatterbox, is waiting for a teaching appointment for the next school year. Helen can barely stand Flora. To make matters worse, Helen's father is convinced Brian's polio is the sign of an epidemic, so he forbids them to go visiting, swimming or even into town. Mrs. Jones comes to clean and Finn delivers groceries.
In this hermetically sealed world, Helen develops a crush on Finn. Helen and Flora learn a great deal from each other and by summer's end might even have become friends--until Helen catches Flora and Finn in an embrace. She bolts from the house and sets in motion a series of events that ends in tragedy.
Having Helen tell her story so many years after the fact is a brilliant strategy on Godwin's part--the novel is filled with sadness and regret, but also illuminated by the wisdom and understanding that distance lends. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.
Discover: A haunting and intimate novel about loss and remorse, set against the final months of World War II.
Is This Tomorrow
by Caroline Leavitt
"I'm Jewish. I'm divorced. I have a son." Ava Lark lays out the facts when meeting prospective suitors, refusing to set herself up for disappointment and accepting her limited chances for happiness in 1950s suburban Boston. In Is This Tomorrow, Caroline Leavitt's 10th novel, Ava is working in a demeaning typing pool to provide a home for her and 11-year-old Lewis when a horrific incident changes the course of their lives.
Shunned by the neighbors, Ava and Lewis have two friends: Jimmy and Rose, the kids next door. The three children are all fatherless--Jimmy and Rose's dad died--and, with that common bond, develop a loyalty and reliance that is charming but foreboding. When Jimmy disappears, Lewis and Rose are despondent, fearful and wracked with guilt. Investigations and searches are fruitless. The community moves forward, but in alternating chapters beginning seven years after Jimmy vanishes, readers learn that as adults Lewis and Rose cannot escape the haunting loss.
Leavitt establishes three storylines in the last half of this well-drawn novel: Lewis, Rose and Ava live in different cities, yet share the trauma of their past. Will the mystery of Jimmy's disappearance be solved, or must they learn to cope without resolution?
There's redemption in Ava gaining acceptance as the 1960s unfold, but Leavitt spotlights the prejudice, McCarthyism, sexism and stultifying mores of the previous decade. And the details of Jimmy's fate surface in unexpected plot twists, impacting Ava, Lewis and Rose in surprising and dramatic ways. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: A literary mystery set in a quiet Boston suburb brings the dark side of the 1950s to bear on a missing child case.
by Tom Drury
Tom Drury's 1994 debut novel, The End of Vandalism, captures the resolve of hapless Midwesterners with deadpan comic empathy. In Pacific, his fifth novel, Drury demonstrates that his dialogue-dominated style is equally suited to West Coast adolescent anomie. One of the great strengths of Drury's fiction is his ability to suggest the deep funny-sadness of life without sinking to ridicule or bathos. He celebrates quirkiness of speech and habit for its ability to particularize the individual beyond stereotype. Unexpected gestures connect characters and reveal wounds of the heart. There is no condescension or mockery toward anyone; even at their most self-deluded or mentally unstable, Drury invests his characters with a warm-blooded immediacy that demands respect.
It's a very leveling perspective, one in which the hopes and disappointments of a lifelong miscreant and a retired sheriff are given equal weight, and the privileged princesses of Los Angeles are no less deserving of understanding than a Midwestern boy who has been imported into a landscape that seems friendly yet offers him little connection.
It's rare to read a novel with so little cliché or convoluted prose, in which the dialogue is both believable and exceptional. Composed of forward-moving scenes, with very little exposition and zero banal musing, Pacific covers a lot of ground for such a lean novel: two very different American communities, a dozen well-developed characters, several career transitions, two noirish subplots and, most affectingly, one Midwestern teen's root shock when he gets plunked down in L.A. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts
Discover: A dialogue-rich novel about life in the quirky Midwest and shiny Los Angeles by the author of The End of Vandalism.
Mystery & Thriller
by John Sandford
John Sandford's Silken Prey finds Minnesota law enforcer Lucas Davenport entangled in deadly political machinations, when the governor asks him to clear the name of a state senator caught with child pornography on his computer only days before the election. Lucas's investigation leads him to the disappearance of a political fixer known for his dirty tricks--no one has seen Bobby Tubbs since the day the porn was discovered, and he's soon presumed dead by Lucas and his colleagues at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Lucas suspects Tubbs was working for the beautiful, young and rich Taryn Grant, the opposing candidate in the senate race, and planted the porn as a smear tactic. Trouble is, he has no proof, and Grant's bodyguards are a pair of former special ops guys--trained killers, they're proud to admit--prepared to eliminate anyone getting in the way of her ambition.
With Sandford's sharp, lean writing, new readers should have no problem jumping right in--even though this is the 23rd book in the Prey series. Davenport is a winning character, a smart investigator with a stable home life and dry sense of humor; his colleagues are amusing, too, each with a distinct personality--especially Virgil Flowers, the long-haired, cowboy-boot-wearing agent who has his own series of novels when not helping Davenport solve cases. Sandford's fans will also recognize two lead characters from yet another series playing integral roles in Silken Prey. It's like Sanford's All-Stars, assembled in one fast-paced, entertaining read. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, writer/editor blogging at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: An entertaining read that features characters from all of John Sandford's series of suspense novels.
Murder as a Fine Art
by David Morrell
David Morrell takes a break from his typical thrillers with Murder as a Fine Art--a historical mystery set in 1854 London. The main character is Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), an author and philosopher best remembered for Confessions of an Opium Eater, a memoir in which he detailed addictions that most Victorians considered unmentionable. When someone hacks five people to death, eerily echoing a decades-old crime described in his essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," De Quincey becomes the prime suspect. After all, a man of education could never commit such a dreadful crime, conventional wisdom suggests, but a lower-class man couldn't have read the book.
With the help of his daughter, Emily, and the somewhat unwilling assistance of Detective Shawn Ryan, De Quincey sets out to prove his innocence and find the true murderer before it's too late. He wrote about two sets of vicious murders, you see, and he's convinced the killer means to strike again.
Morrell juxtaposes fascinating details of daily Victorian life with vivid descriptions of De Quincey's oddities, the viciousness of the crimes, the prejudices of the people investigating and the idiosyncrasies of Victorian culture. Written in a third-person omniscient style that may strike the modern reader as odd (but which was very popular during Victorian times), Morrell's novel is a throwback to the sensationalist literature of the period. Murder as a Fine Art is not to be missed. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: A gripping Victorian murder mystery featuring Thomas De Quincey, the infamous "Opium-Eater" of English literature.
Biography & Memoir
Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas
by Eric Fischl , Michael Stone
Eric Fischl's iconic painting Bad Boy is a dim, dreamy scene of 20th-century suburban unease: a voluptuous naked woman luxuriates on a sun-slatted bed; she appears oblivious (or indifferent) to the young boy standing at the foot of the bed, staring at her--and reaching one hand into her open purse behind him.
The painting is about "desire, voyeurism, appropriateness, and boundaries," Fischl writes in his memoir, also titled Bad Boy. Like much of his work, Bad Boy explores the taboo, drawing attention to the contradiction between public appearances and private truths.
Fischl also suggests the painting is in some sense autobiographical, a depiction of the confusion and chaos underneath the shiny, idyllic surface of his suburban youth. Fischl grew up on Long Island in New York in the 1950s and '60s, the son of a latently creative, "ferociously" alcoholic mother and an ineffectual father. The "numbing disconnect" between his family's public and private lives, so traumatic for Fischl as a child, eventually became the force that drove his creativity.
Bad Boy chronicles Fischl's maturation into an extraordinarily successful artist, particularly as a narrative painter during a period in which the art world revered formalist abstraction and conceptual art. A part of the wildly innovative, excess-fueled downtown New York scene of the 1980s, Fischl rocketed to art stardom following the 1982 exhibition of Bad Boy--then struggled to stay true to his art as the art world became the art market.
Fischl's memoir is an engrossing account of that heady time, and he writes candidly, without apology, about himself. Bad Boy is worth a read, even for those uninterested in Fischl's work: his memoir, like his art, tells a good story. --Hannah Calkins
Discover: In this candid, insightful memoir, artist Eric Fischl chronicles his evolution from "suburban bad boy" to premier American narrative painter.
Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832
by Antonia Fraser
Political gerrymandering as historical thriller: Who would have guessed? In Perilous Question, Antonia Fraser makes precisely that leap--presenting the history behind Britain's Great Reform Act of 1832 in terms that are both historically thorough and deeply fascinating.
At the start of the 1830s, Britain's parliamentary system was deeply flawed. Entire cities, burgeoning with people drawn to manufacturing jobs created by the Industrial Revolution, had no representation in the House of Commons at all, while locales like the notorious Old Sarum--a 14th-century village that had dwindled to a rock in a field--still sent two members to Parliament. Yet opposition to reform was fierce: many, including the Duke of Wellington, feared it would lead to revolution and the demise of Britain's monarchy.
Perilous Question traces the political machinations that lead to the Reform Bill's eventual passage, including not only keen insight into the relationships and arguments at play, but vivid details about the conditions under which Parliament and its members labored to produce the bill--including an overcrowded House of Commons where hearing speakers was difficult for the members and nearly impossible for visitors and the press. With her usual perception and clarity, Fraser (author of the the nonfiction Marie Antoinette and Cromwell and the Jemima Shore novels) draws life from a seemingly dry topic, turning political history into real story. --Dani Alexis Ryskamp, blogger at The Book Cricket
Discover: A surprisingly thrilling account of Britain's reform of the House of Commons in 1832.
Loopers: A Caddie's Twenty-Year Golf Odyssey
by John Dunn
John Dunn opens the entertaining and humorous Loopers with Bill Murray's famous lines from Caddyshack about being "a looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock," and carrying clubs for "the Dalai Lama himself." Dunn never looped for anyone as eminent, but he did pretty well. Growing up in Connecticut, he fell in love with golf, and the "ragtag, bohemian subculture" of caddying "became my ticket to Neverland."
He confesses he never made much (caddies at exclusive country clubs might top $40,000 a year), but he loved the freedom and the quick cash. And the travel: he's caddied at some of the world's greatest courses: Shinnecock Hills, Augusta National, Olympic Club (with its surprisingly Bad News Bears caddy yard), St. Andrews, Bandon Dunes, Sherwood and many others. All golfers will enjoy reading his accounts of walking these hallowed grounds.
Dunn's memoirs yield up great golf tidbits, including anecdotes about caddying for Bill Gates and Arnold Palmer at Augusta--where guests aren't allowed to tip their caddies. (Nevertheless, Dunn reports, three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson "showers the caddies with hundreds" when he's there.) You'll also learn about Oregon's Bandon Dunes Resort, which has what Dunn says are the best caddy perks by far, and a course hailed by many "as the greatest... in the galaxy," luring players from around the world. For any golfer, Loopers is a delight. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Discover: An enjoyable insider's account about the vocation of caddying and the beautiful grounds where caddies ply their trade.
Children's & Young Adult
by Cecil Castellucci , illust. by Sara Varon
Theodora is irresistibly quirky. Her beige bunny slippers, laid out next to her bed, align with her webbed feet just so, when she wakes in the morning. She buys mango salsa for her Duck Food at the grocer's, and checks out dusty volumes from the library. Castellucci (The Year of the Beasts) and Varon (Robot Dreams) convey how much Theodora enjoys her life of solitude and order.
When a neighbor moves in next door, however, he ruffles her orderly life. Theodora bakes him a cake (that could have come right out of Varon's Bake Sale) and heads over to introduce herself. At first, she's put off by the artwork that litters his lawn, his dyed feathers and dirty dishes: "She and Chad would not be friends." But then Chad shows Theodora his telescope and the world it unveils, and they discover their shared love of the stars: "Even though they were very different, they felt the same way about most things."
Trouble hits paradise when they overhear three townsfolk whisper, "Odd duck"; Chad and Theodora each assume they're talking about the other and wind up arguing. They give each other the silent treatment until the standoff becomes too much, and they meet halfway between their yards. This is a gentle tale about learning that what other people think of you is their business, and that true friendship cannot be hijacked by the opinions of outsiders. Sometimes the little eccentricities are what attract us most about the people we love. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A graphic novel about two friends who realize that their oddities are part of what attracts them to each other.
The Meanest Birthday Girl
by Josh Schneider
Geisel Award winner Josh Schneider (Tales for Very Picky Eaters) invents a hard-to-like heroine who will soon win over readers as she develops some perspective and a sense of empathy.
"It was Dana's birthday and she could do whatever she liked," the book begins. Dressed in her favorite birthday dress, Dana eats waffles, calls classmate Anthony an "ickaborse" and pinches him hard at the bus stop. At school, she eats two desserts, then eats Anthony's, too: "Dana liked dessert." She hosts a birthday party and opens her presents. When she gets ready for bed, she hears a knock on the door. Anthony has brought her a gift: a white elephant. Adults will immediately get the joke, but children soon will, too, as the burden of the pachyderm plays out. The other children pine for her pet. But, as Dana tells them, "Not everyone deserves an elephant." Youngsters will chuckle over Schneider's watercolor images of the animal depleting Dana's food, usurping her bed and flattening her bike in an attempt to ride it. Finally, Dana finds someone as deserving as she, to whom she can bequeath the elephant.
This humorous tale of comeuppance with its short chapters, repetition of phrases and brief chapters will hook newly independent readers and hold their rapt attention. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A funny beginning reader starring a prickly narrator who learns her lesson--from Geisel Award winner Schneider.
by Terra Elan McVoy
Terra Elan McVoy (Pure; Being Friends with Boys) hits an emotional and heartbreaking punch with this tale of obsessive love.
Nikki can't imagine life without her boyfriend, Dee, though he hasn't earned a favorable report from her friends. From page one, it's clear she is completely engulfed in her feelings for him (and loves that he has a tattoo of her initials on his chest), and they lead Nikki down a path she'd never imagined for herself. After Dee involves Nikki in a murder, her first instinct is to protect him, especially when he assures her, "You don't have nothing to worry about. Nobody knows what happened. I made sure." Even so, it's not long until Nikki is in jail, where she worries about and continues loving Dee.
Taking on a deeper and darker story line than her previous works, McVoy spins a complicated web of young love and desperation. Readers may think it's easy to judge Nikki's thoughts, actions and feelings as she works through her obsession with Dee, but this reaction only serves as testament to how realistic and tightly written Criminal is. McVoy uses the full length of the novel to develop Nikki's revelations. The author strips down the dialogue and scene descriptions to the bare essentials, allowing readers to explore what infatuation can mean (and do) in the wrong situation. --Shanyn Day, blogger at Chick Loves Lit
Discover: A warped understanding of love lands a girl in jail, where she is forced to confront her true feelings.