For Dr. Gabriella Mondini, there is no other option besides following in her father’s footsteps into a life of medicine in Regina O’Melveny’s debut, The Book of Madness and Cures. She is passionate about healing the citizens of Venice. For a woman residing in this part of the word in the late 16th Century this proves to be a challenging feat. In the male dominated Italian medical society, Gabriella gains credibility with her father’s colleagues by assisting him with research on “The Book of Diseases.”
A few years prior, Gabriella’s father, the elder Dr. Mondini, disappeared unexpectedly with only an occasional letter as to his whereabouts. In addition to the sporadic correspondence, his writings are cryptic and give little clue to Gabriella and her mother of his condition, which has a tendency to gravitate toward madness. With the prospect of continuing her medical career in jeopardy without her father’s guidance, Gabriella, her maid and a few additional servants embark on a journey to solve the mystery of what happened to her father. The journey takes them across Europe to France, Germany, England, Spain and south to the tip of Morocco, all the while encountering danger while traveling and encountering locals who met her father and are able to provide clues to the group of travelers.
While in Morocco, Gabriella finds out the shocking truth about her father, his nearly completed book on diseases and her own future. O’Melveny’s debut provides a rich look at late 16th century day to day life, the logistics of cross continent travels and the lives of women during this time.
When the Iowa weather is gray and bleak, it can be a relief to enter the colorful world of picture books! Here are a few books that have thrilled me lately from the “E” section:
- Beware of the Frog by William Bee: vividly colored illustrations and a sinister frog make this twisted fairy tale unforgettable.
- And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano: more lovely illustrations from Caldecott winner Erin E. Stead of A Sick Day For Amos McGee. Here, the story is about seeds planted at the beginning of a long gray spring and the anticipation that follows. A gradual increase in color and warmth marks the passage from winter to spring, and as in Amos, touches of humor are added in the illustrations that aren’t part of the text.
- Olivia and the Fairy Princesses: Ian Falconer’s beloved pig is NOT just going to be a pink frilly fairy princess like all the other girls (and some of the boys)! Olivia is at her feisty finest in this tale of individuality and being true to yourself. I adore the contrast of turquoise and pink on the cover, too!
- Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters: Of the picture books I’ve written about, this is the only one in which the text was more memorable than the illustrations (although the pictures are great too). For example: “Cousin Clara’s cottage was consumed by a crocodile…[Lester] added crocodiles to his list of Suspicious Stuff Starting with C.” Thus, cousin Clara comes to live with Lester and his family, and as a “curiously speedy knitter,” Lester’s wardrobe is soon bursting with hideous handmade creations that he is forced to wear to school, leading to the inevitable humiliation and eventual sweater-murdering. Lester is a brainy, neurotic young man, and the way he squirms out of this pickle is satisfying.
- This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen: Klassen’s second book exactly mirrors the plot of his first, but from the point of view of a thief, rather than a victim. Also, it’s fish instead of woodland critters. Just as beautiful, just as funny, just as appealing as I Want My Hat Back.
The Good: What Happens in London by Julia Quinn
This is the perfect Regency romance. It’s funny (actually funny, not just peppered with lines that the characters laugh at but the reader never would), heartwarming (but not schlocky), and steamy (but not gratuitous). There’s a fussy, arrogant Russian prince, a heroine who scorns novels and reads every word of the Times, and a dashing hero who wears funny hats. It’s historically accurate (mostly), but it never gets boring by slogging through too much detail. I devoured this in just two very enjoyable sittings. (Available via WILBOR)
The Bad: A Lady Never Lies by Juliana Gray
Oh, dear. This is the kind of book that always made me hate romance novels. It’s nonsensical, it’s boring, its characters have no substance, and the romantic moments are gratuitous and badly written. Gray tries to heighten the drama by having everyone be cagey about their pasts/financial situations/parentage but honestly, it goes over like a lead balloon. Three single young women and three single young men accidentally rent the same Tuscan castle for the summer! They decide to keep both leases and stay in separate wings! They make a wager not to interact with one another to prove some bologna 21st-century-argument that the author has needlessly inserted into an allegedly historical novel! I wonder what will happen!!!???
The Awesome: Soulless by Gail Carriger
I never thought I’d like a book about vampires, werewolves, and parasols, but I was deeply mistaken. Soulless is a steampunk novel (steampunk: a sub-genre of SF in which the industrial revolution of Victorian times has gone into hyperdrive, producing steam powered dirigibles and other retro-futuristic contraptions and necessitating a lot of metal eyewear with round lenses). Alexia Tarabotti is half Italian and half an orphan, hardly a favorite in London society, but her appearance and parentage aren’t her only problems: in the middle of a ball, she has just been attacked by a vampire. The encounter breaks all the rules of supernatural etiquette AND destroys her plate of treacle tart! Miss Tarabotti soon finds herself in the thick of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences for the supernatural vampires and werewolves she befriends and for herself. Alexia is fierce, fun, and generally unforgettable. The romance is well balanced against the world building and it makes sense for the characters, all of which are interesting, exciting, and well written. Brava, Ms. Carriger! I can’t wait to read the other four books in this series. (Available via WILBOR)
“Line up every kind of plant and animal on Earth and one of every four will be a beetle.” If your reaction to this fact is an uncomfortable mix of fascination and horror, get your hands on The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins. In this fact-filled picture book (written for children, but hey, this twenty-something learned a lot reading it), there are big, beautiful illustrations of bugs: hissing cockroaches, June bugs, fireflies, dung beetles, ladybugs, and hundreds of other creepy crawlies – all of them beetles. The full-color bugs are set against ample white space and accompanied by thematically grouped facts. Small (or big!) all-black silhouettes on every page show the actual size of the beetles that have been magnified for illustrations. Staring down the five-inch mandibles of a six-spotted green tiger beetle gets a lot easier when its 3/4-inch-tall silhouette reminds you just how tiny the beast really is!
A few other great books for the budding naturalist or the latent scientist:
- A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston, an artistically illustrated look at the life cycle of a butterfly. Lots of facts and gorgeous images make this appropriate for all ages. (if you like this, look at her others: An Egg is Quiet, A Rock Is Lively, and A Seed is Sleepy)
- Step Gently Out by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder, a poem about the beauty and variety of nature illustrated with huge, zoomed-in photos of insects and plants.
- You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim, a rumination on the interconnectivity of nature and humanity accompanied by lovely, lighthearted illustrations.
The 2013 Newbery award winner, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, is everything you might expect it to be, plus a little extra. Ivan is a silverback gorilla, a natural-born protector and warrior of the animal kingdom; as the narrator, his stream-of-consciousness thoughts and memories make up the novel. After poachers pluck the infant Ivan away from his home in the jungle, his domain of 27 years is a run-down circus, and his only friends are the other few animals there. But with the arrival of Ruby, a baby elephant, Ivan suddenly has someone to protect, and he sets off on a course to change all their lives for the better.
Like other winners, Applegate tackles a delicate, powerful subject and makes it accessible to children. Also like others, the writing is elegant and spare, made accessible to a young audience but no less sophisticated for it. There’s humor and heartbreak, but they don’t exactly balance each other – if you can’t handle sad animal stories you will have to stay far, far away from Ivan. Despite a hopeful, happy, neatly-wound-up ending, the grim tone of this book and its experimental structure make it an unusual book for children, but one that I’d recommend to them as wholeheartedly as I would recommend it to an adult. It’s a story of friendship and adventure and creativity, and a great addition to the list of Newbery winners.
If you’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven (or virtually any other high-tech/high-energy heist film), you’re familiar with the plot of Star Wars: Scoundrels. Danny Ocean – I mean, Han Solo – enlists a crack team of a eleven people with specialized skills to steal a ridiculous amount of money. Headed up by Han, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian, this handful of ne’er-do-wells makes a bold attempt to steal 163 million credits in a make-or-break heist that could get Han out from under Jabba’s thumb for good. Or, it could get him (and all his accomplices) killed. There are two surprises at the end of this novel – one of them involving a whip and a gigantic boulder – and for those two alone, it’s worth reading. It’s also a lot of fun to re-enter the world of Star Wars and Han Solo: they’re enduring favorites for a reason, and this well-told, twisty tale does justice to that legacy.
Scoundrels takes place in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the first Death Star (aka, right after A New Hope). The general public has only sketchy information about that debacle: they know that Alderaan is a cloud of space debris, and that the Death Star is now gone, but rumors of Rebel involvement are hardly realistic – surely a scrappy ill-funded few could never stand against the might of the Empire? And that, the central theme the original Star Wars is built upon, is what makes Scoundrels a success too. Surely this band of misfits can’t beat down the impossible odds against them and come away alive, let alone successful? But instead of Palpatine’s evil Empire, it’s a high-security vault owned by a powerful criminal organization. And instead of Danny Ocean, it’s Han Solo (who absolutely, positively, shot first).
The recent news that the skeleton of King Richard III of England has been found (under a car park in Leicester) may have you thinking about this seminal figure of English history, a lightening rod for controversy from his lifetime to the present. Was he the cruel, twisted, power mad monster responsible for killing the two Princes in the Tower? Or was he a benevolent, innovative leader, wrongly maligned by history?
Most of us know about Richard through Shakespeare and his scathing depiction of him as an evil hunchback in his play Richard III (it is fact that Richard suffered from severe scoliosis) However, take a minute to remember the ruler Shakespeare lived under – Elizabeth I, direct descendant of Henry VII who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, claiming (rather tenuously) the throne of England. History, as Tey points out, is written by the victors. While we’re unlikely to answer the question definitively, it’s a fascinating question to debate by examining the life of Richard and the times he lived in. Rather than digging through dense academic tomes though, I’d like to point you to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, an excellent detective story that will entertain as well as give you lots to think about.
In The Daughter of Time, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital, recovering from a broken leg. To save off boredom he begins reading history and becomes intrigued by the mystery surrounding Richard III. With the help of a researcher, he applies his investigative skills to study the controversial King’s life and the people around him. Written in the early 1950s, Inspector Grant does not have the advantage of google or wikipedia, instead using old-fashioned observation and deduction. The story builds and the evidence grows; Tey is masterful in creating tension and complex characters true to their time period. By the time Inspector Grant is ready to leave the hospital, he is convinced by his findings – will you be too? Can truth indeed be the daughter of time?
Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina is my new favorite book of dragon fantasy. In it, dragons – an unfeeling, coldly mathematical species which can fold themselves into human shape – have shared an uneasy peace with Seraphina’s homeland of Goredd for 40 years. Prejudice and naked hatred between the two races exists everywhere, and on the eve of the peace treaty’s fortieth anniversary, tensions are running high. Add to this mix a murdered prince (whose missing head strongly suggests dragon involvement) and a smart, curious young woman with a unique ability to understand dragon culture and you have a recipe for intrigue. Seraphina is a gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer, which makes her a minor member of the royal court. Her talent is making her famous, but she has secrets to keep; preserving those secrets while at the same time investigating a royal murder and befriending the presumptive heirs (Princess Glisselda and her fiancé, the bastard Prince Lucian) puts Seraphina in a lot of tight spots. Her friends; her life; her sanity; her secrets – what will Seraphina sacrifice to protect the peace?
I have no complaints about this novel; it’s perfectly paced, gorgeously written, and well imagined, all of which shines through a multi-layered and complicated plot that never gets out of Hartman’s control. The characters are inspirational in their intelligence and bravery yet relatable in their worries and failures. There’s intrigue and mystery as well as philosophy and breathless action, and even a bit of romance. Seraphina’s romance with Lucian is wonderfully subtle and genuine – a true meeting of the minds. Hartman is so busy writing about their meaningful conversations and compatible personalities that I’m not even sure I know what Lucian looks like! Seraphina has more important things to think about than the color of his eyes.
I have recently been hearing parents mention how their kids are no longer being taught cursive handwriting in school. GASP! ::fainting spell:: Although this educational shift horrified me at first, I had to admit that cursive’s practical benefit of speedy textual communication had long been eclipsed by the QWERTY keyboard. Luckily, as things often do, handwriting’s decreasing efficiency seems to correspond to a rising swagger for the beauty of calligraphy. I have collected a few items as evidence (available at your local library, of course) to support my case:
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming is perfect example of calligraphy swagger. I read A LOT of books about Amelia Earhart as a kid, but this recent kids’ nonfiction is so amazing that I cannot walk past it on the shelf without stopping and giving it a little hug. Part of my love is due to the fantastic, thrilling writing of Candace Fleming, but it is the book’s design, specifically the hand-lettered chapter titles, that really makes me go weak in the knees. I would like to frame and hang on my wall one page in particular– the opening page for the chapter titled “Vagabonding, Record Breaking and Romance: 1928 to 1935.” Glorious.
As one of the most star-reviewed graphic novels of 2011, Craig Thompson’s Habibi is an epic tale about relationships with people, religion, and text. The story, in addition to the printed pages, drips with intricate lettering:
“The healer wrote out magic squares and sacred texts on a wooden board. A mirrored bowl was filled with water, and the ink was washed into the bowl. I was asked to make a wish in the mirror, and drink the inky water.
Drink each of the letters
The closest one can get to the text
The body absorbs the message
The word becomes flesh”
The Illuminator and a Bible for the 21st Century is a fascinating documentary about the creation of the Saint John’s Bible–yup, the very Bible project displayed at our Davenport Public Library last summer (which I absolutely GEEKED out about). I originally saw this documentary about five years ago as a graduate student in the University of Iowa Center for the Book and it has stayed on the fringes of consciousness ever since. While hearing about the development and production of a such a massive cultural project happening during our time is in itself fully worth the viewing of this documentary, it is watching the brilliant artistry and craftsmenship of the head calligrapher, Donald Jackson, and his staff, which makes me want to dedicate my entire life to improving my handwriting.
Showtime’s critically acclaimed series Homeland stars Claire Danes as CIA counterterrorism agent Carrie Mathison, who has just received startling information from one of her contacts: an American POW has been turned. Months later, US Marine Nicholas Brody (played expertly by Damian Lewis) is found alive in Afghanistan after being presumed dead for eight years. Though his return is heralded as a great victory and he is touted as a war hero, Carrie is certain that he is working for al-Qaeda. She goes behind the back of her superiors, setting up illegal surveillance equipment in Brody’s house and monitoring him at all times, doggedly pursuing the truth at any cost.
I could give you a list a mile long of adjectives describing how great this show is (compelling, thrilling, captivating, mind-blowing, etc.), but nothing I can think of really does it justice. The acting, particularly Danes in her portrayal of a very zealous woman suffering from bipolar disorder, is absolutely superb. The story will grab ahold of you and not let you go, with twists and turns that constantly keep you guessing where Brody’s allegiance lies. I finished the entire first season of this show in about two days because I couldn’t stand to not be watching it. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this series, but make sure you plot out several hours of free time to watch it. Once you start, you won’t want to stop.