Christian Ferrar, a childhood émigré from Spain to France, is a lawyer for the Paris branch of a liberal New York law firm in 1938. He's asked by a contact in the Spanish embassy to help broker arms purchases for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. It's not really part of his job, but the New York bosses agree to let him do it. For his first caper he frees a fellow trader from the clutches of a blackmailing blackguard, pays off an arms manufacturer, and hijacks a diverted trainload of anti-tank guns. In his next, a criminal gang in Odessa is hired to steal anti-aircraft shells from a Soviet naval arsenal. Ferrar travels with the munitions on a Mexican freighter that is unequipped to fight off an impending interdiction by the Italian Navy.
Why I picked it up: I like espionage fiction, especially that set in the first half of the 20th century. Furst's work came highly recommended by a trusted friend.
Why I finished it: Furst explores much more than Ferrar’s life of international intrigue. His family is almost completely unworldly, and Christian is the sole breadwinner. His sharp, elderly grandmother is the only other person who takes notice of world events such as the rise of fascism. Ferrar’s love affair with a New York City librarian is satisfying, though neither want a commitment. And his day job as a corporate lawyer includes unsuccessfully mediating the ownership struggles within a bank managed by a dysfunctional family.
Readalikes: Sorry Alan Furst, but nobody has written better Odessa gangster stories than Isaac Babel, and there's plenty of them in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler, first published in 1938, also takes place amid the political tensions of Europe before WWII, although protagonist Josef Vadassy, a language teacher whose hobby is photography, is far less equipped to deal in a world of intrigue and lies than suave Christian Ferrar.
“Gather round—prepare to be amazed! A sight so very gruesome that you simply won’t believe it. Ladies and gentlemen … the Elephant Man!”
Every night people swarm to a theater in London to see the Elephant Man, whose real name is Joseph Merrick. They scream in terror at the sight of him. But beneath Joseph’s shocking exterior, he longs for affection and understanding.
Disfigured in childhood by a rare disease, Joseph is rejected by his family, bullied in the streets, and ridiculed at his job. While touring Europe with a freak show, he's robbed and abandoned. Joseph seems to encounter misfortune at every turn, but eventually finds friendship with a kind doctor. Though he died young, Joseph became world famous and inspired many with his gentleness and dignity.
Masterful illustrations and archival photographs are joined with simple but moving language, bringing the celebrated true story of the Elephant Man to life for young readers. This is a tremendously affecting book about being different, refusing to be a victim, and finding happiness in even the most challenging of circumstances.
“… compassionate …” —Kirkus Reviews, 06/06/15
“A solid addition to biography collections.” —School Library Journal, 07/15
Chester Greenwood didn't invent earmuffs, but a whole lot of people think he did, including those who have an earmuff parade in his honor in his hometown. Why?
Why I picked it up: I love inventor stories, and the bug-eyed cartoony characters made me smile.
Why I finished it: The book shows how patents work, how people improve on existing inventions, and how Greenwood’s life and legacy was exaggerated by people who wanted to celebrate the state of Maine. It contains a lot of cool and complex ideas for a picture book.
It's perfect for: Heather, who does primary historical research as a hobby. The author's notes on how what she thought would be a simple story turned into serious detective work will inspire her.
Much of the popular discourse on Native Americans and Aboriginals focuses on reservation life. But the majority of Natives in North America live off the rez. How do they stay rooted to their culture? How do they connect with their community?
Urban Tribes offers unique insight into this growing and often misperceived group. Emotionally potent and visually arresting, the anthology profiles young urban Natives from across North America, exploring how they connect with Native culture and values in their contemporary lives. Their stories are as diverse as they are. From a young Dene woman pursuing a MBA at Stanford to a Pima photographer in Phoenix to a Mohawk actress in New York, these urban Natives share their unique perspectives to bridge the divide between their past and their future, their cultural home, and their adopted cities.
Unflinchingly honest and deeply moving, contributors explore a wide-range of topics. From the trials and tribulations of dating in the city to the alienating experience of leaving a remote reserve to attend high school in the city, from the mainstream success of Electric Pow wow music to the humiliation of dealing with racist school mascots, personal perspectives illuminate larger political issues. An innovative and highly visual design offers a dynamic, reading experience.
“… stereotype-dispelling … ”—Kirkus Reviews, 08/26/15
An alien destroyed seventy percent of the moon. Next year he’s going to do the same thing to the Earth. In the meantime he wants to teach class 3-E at Kunugigaoka Junior High, which is full of the school’s losers and rejects. Armies have failed to kill him, so our planet’s only hope is that the students can assassinate him and save the planet. (The alien doesn’t mind, as long as the attempts don’t interfere with studying.)
Publisher’s Rating: T+ For Older Teens.
Why I picked it up: It really stood out from other manga on the library shelves because of the big smiley faces on each cover.
Why I finished it: The madness starts early. In the opening scene, the students all pull out guns and try to kill their homeroom teacher (an academic robe-wearing, many tentacled, sphere-headed alien with a smily face). He’s so fast he keeps taking attendance as he dodges bullets. He tells the students they’re going to have to be more original if they want to kill him, and then proves that the special bullets they’re using can harm him. Then he makes them clean up so that class can start, and teaches high school like he’s really enjoying it and determined to be a great teacher.
It's perfect for: I meet a lot of librarians who still find manga (and anime) visually confusing. They don’t get the significance of popping veins on a character’s forehead, nose bleeds, cat fangs, and characters who suddenly look chibi. This is easy to follow, story-wise, and it has a compellingly weird hook. And they'd identify with the students in the book, who are trying to figure out the significance of their teacher’s facial expressions. These are changes in color or geometric patterns of color that appear on his face at different times, and they hope that understanding them will help them figure out when he’s vulnerable.
The 1800s were a dangerous time to be a black girl in the United States, especially if you were born a slave. Ella Sheppard was such a girl, but her family bought their freedom and moved to Ohio where slavery was illegal; they even scraped enough money together to send Ella to school and buy her a piano. In 1871, when her school ran out of money and was on the brink of closure, Ella became a founding member of a traveling choir, the Jubilee Singers, to help raise funds for the Fisk Free Colored School, later known as Fisk University.
The Jubilee Singers traveled from Cincinnati to New York, following the Underground Railroad. With every performance they endangered their lives and those of the people helping them, but they also broke down barriers between blacks and whites, lifted spirits, and even helped influence modern American music: the Jubilees were the first to introduce spirituals outside their black communities, thrilling white audiences who were used to more sedate European songs.
Framed within Ella’s inspiring story, Give Me Wings! is narrative nonfiction at its finest, taking readers through one of history’s most tumultuous and dramatic times, touching on the Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction Era.
“Recommended for all libraries, this excellent title will be especially useful in collaboration with school curricula.”—School Library Journal, *starred review, 08/15
Open from the left side and read through a boy’s family tree from his father’s European ancestry, starting with his great-great-grandfather and his great-great-grandmother. Open from the “back” of the book (like you’re reading manga), and step through his mother’s Asian family tree. Each turn of the page brings you to another generation.
Why I picked it up: The oddly shaped people on the cover are drawn in a style that reminded me of Bill Plympton’s.
Why I finished it: It’s incredibly short, for one. For another, in most of the drawings there’s a reference to the previous generation in the form of a photo on the wall (or on a computer). It all leads up to an amazingly diverse family portrait in the center of the book.
It's perfect for: My cousin, Linda. She’s an obsessed genealogist, and has told me more about my father’s side of the family than I ever knew, including that I’m not the only member who went to college and likes to read.
What happens when the sun goes down at the end of the day?
When the streets are empty and kids are called home for dinner and put to bed, the world becomes a magical place. It’s only then that the night children emerge from the shadows, ready to play. In this evocative and lyrical picture book, it is the night children who rule, taking over the world that the day children have left behind.
The mischievous night children frolic in the twilight, rummaging for treasures and scattering surprises, stealing slices of the moon and dancing on rooftops. Only when dawn breaks do they tuck themselves away. But if you look very closely, you might just catch a glimpse of them disappearing as you wake up. Were the night children ever really there, or did you dream them?
Complemented by beautiful, glowing artwork, this poetic story about the allure of a world unknown and the parallels between imagination and reality will ignite the creative souls of children everywhere.
“A poetic and lovely book, this is a luminous bedtime story.”—Walking Brain Cells, 07/30/15
“… will hit just the right tone for more sophisticated picture-book connoisseurs.”—Quill & Quire, 09/15
Zack Lightman is a video-game nerd. He spends a lot of time playing Armada with his friends -- it’s a space-based fighting game about an overwhelming alien threat -- and he is one of the top-ranked players in the world.
Outside a school window at school he sees a UFO that looks just like an enemy ship in the game. At first he thinks he’s hallucinating, but he’s wrong. He is soon picked up, taken to a secret military base, and sworn into service to pilot the futuristic fighters that the earth has been quietly creating for decades, ever since we pissed off the first alien species we met.
Billions of alien ships are just hours away from Earth. Zach and gamers everywhere are our only hope.
Why I picked it up: Cline's Ready Player One is my favorite book of the last five years (I’ve read over 1,500 books in that time).
Why I finished it: Because I could not stop! I am actually mad at myself for blowing through it as fast as I did. I should have allowed myself only ten pages a day just to extend the fun of reading the book. Creative, clever, chock full of funny moments and references to pop culture, games, and movies. I loved the idea of the people of the world using everything from video game systems to smartphones to fight off aliens. The picture he paints of a networked world rising up to fight aliens is patriotic, cool as hell, and a smashing read.
It's perfect for: My childhood friend Mark. He’s not only a video game fan, but also someone who could identify with one of the main themes of the book, how Zack missed his dead father and found comfort in video games and a father figure, his boss at the local game store. Mark's father was away for long stretches while working in a foreign country, and Mark stayed with my family for months at a time. He would get Zack’s longing to have his father know and be proud of him.
A daring bank vault heist, a cat burglar who would only steal jewels from people on the social register, the possible real identity and fate of hijacker D.B. Cooper, the obsessive love that led to the downfall of the real Napoleon of Crime (the basis of Arthur Conan Doyle's Moriarty), and more hair-raising true crime stories.
Why I picked it up: I really liked the bizarre, true stories in Schroeder's previous book, Scams! because its story of WWII counterfeiters made for a great booktalk.
Why I finished it: The details of the crimes were like the best heist movies, with hundreds of well-planned details coming together. But the criminals are more complicated than movie heroes: they often stole things that were hard to sell, or were driven by obsession to steal over and over again. Their crimes were not just motivated by the hope to get rich quick, but sometimes by national pride, family loyalty, or wanting to prove how clever or brave they were.
It's perfect for: Fans of stupid criminal stories. The best in the book is the Larder Lake Bank Robbery, which hit a snag at every step. During a failed escape attempt by float plane, the robbers dropped all the money over the lake.
To the locals on the idyllic Nantucket Island, Penny Alistair seemed to have it all -- a lovely singing voice, a handsome boyfriend, a superstar athlete brother, a loving mother, and loads of friends. Then she died after a party: the Jeep she was driving went off a cliff, killing Penny and injuring her brother badly enough to end his athletic career. The signs all indicate it was no accident and that Penny committed suicide. The repercussions are felt all over the island, revealing family secrets and changing the lives of dozens.
Why I picked it up: The cover and title hinted this might be a light and fluffy beach read. Since it was on a remainder shelf at a bargain price, I couldn’t resist.
Why I finished it: Obviously it turned out to be a more serious topic than I first expected, but I was completely captivated. The narrator is an unidentified local insider who reveals the thoughts and secrets of the island residents. Their stories flow back and forth in time and from character to character, almost like a conversation with an old friend. Every chapter brought something new and surprising, and it turned out to be delightfully distracting after all.
It's perfect for: My mother-in-law, Sue. She loves family stories filled with drama. It’s also a plus that the author tells the story with very little profanity or graphic sex, which means I can recommend it to her without embarrassment.
Teacher Jessica Lahey offers advice, research, and cautionary tales in this helpful guide to raising kids with emotional resilience, steady confidence, and basic life skills. Frustrated by her tendency to overparent her own kids instead of letting them screw up and figure things out themselves, Lahey recalibrated both her parenting and teaching styles. No more racing to bring forgotten assignments to school: her kids had to remember on their own or face the consequences. No more losing patience at students who continually screwed up the basics: now she acknowledged their efforts to improve and celebrated when they finally succeeded. It’s a parenting manual and a breath of fresh air in a conversational, practical package.
Why I picked it up: Though I pride myself on being a slacker mom, I know I’m vulnerable to the competitive parenting that seems to run rampant in affluent suburbs like mine. I wanted ammunition to help me fight back against the pressure.
Why I finished it: As the parent of a sixth grader, I found the section on middle school useful and reassuring. No, your child will not fail at life if it takes her a semester to figure out she needs to bring her science book to math because she won’t have time to stop at her locker between classes. And yes, it will take her at least that whole semester to figure it out, even if you and her teachers remind her every day. IT’S NORMAL.
It's perfect for: My friend Jen, a dynamo dance instructor who works with tween girls and has a ton of influence among parents in our community. Oh, the counter-revolution she could start!