Book – Top Chef meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a fun adventurous seafaring tale that mainly takes place on a pirate ship called the Flying Rose in 1819. Owen Wedgwood is the renowned personal chef to Lord Ramsey, the wealthy owner of the Pendleton Trading Company. The ruthless pirate is Captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who murders Owen’s employer and has her right hand man Mr. Apples kidnap the chef. Though the ship has a cook, Hannah feels that she deserves a gourmet meal once a week and tells Owen that she will spare him his life as long as he obliges her. Though his culinary skills are extensive, even Owen is challenged to create edible fare with the limited supplies on board, such as gruel, rat meat, and moldy potatoes. Though a prisoner, Owen dines with Hannah weekly and learns that her mercenary pursuit of another rogue pirate, the Brass Fox, might be for noble reasons. As time goes on his cooking skills evolve with the help of provisions picked up along the journey and the reader’s mouth will water with the delicacies he creates. This swashbuckling read is a pure delight!
Book- Set in 17th-century Edo (now called Tokyo), this mystery series follows the career of Sano Ichiro, a samurai investigator who rises from an ordinary policeman to the Shogun’s Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. This position does not come without some attendant danger. In addition to the obvious dangers of police work, Sano must navigate the viper-pit of nobles, courtesans, and hangers-on that wield the weak-willed shogun’s power for him and who view Sano as a threat. The primary conflicts in the series derive from Sano’s strong idealized moral consciousness and samurai principles clashing with the actual degradation and corruption of the Tokugawa shogunate that he serves.
The series includes tons of fascinating historical details and personages and paints such a strong visual image that, despite the uncommon setting, it is not hard to picture Sano’s world. These novels will appeal to fans of other mystery series with a strong sense of place, such as Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mystery series. Sano Ichiro’s adventures are finished, clocking in at 18 volumes altogether, so there’s no agonizing wait for a sequel. Start with Shinju and see if you like it!
Book – Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of murder, and in the spring, she will be executed. The governor has decided that it’s too expensive to send her to the seat of government in Denmark, so she’s been sent to the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, to live there with his family until the execution date can be set.
Between scattered documents – real translations; this is based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland for murder – detailing the problems the government is having in getting an execution set for Agnes and her two co-defendants, we learn more about the family hosting her and about Agnes’s own life. She grew up practically an orphan, working for her keep in a variety of small farms, before falling in love with Natan – the man she’s been convicted of murdering.
This was a moving story, stark and bleak but beautifully told, of a woman who is famous but not very sympathetic in her home country. Hannah Kent helps us to understand Agnes, who has been so terribly isolated for much of her life, who fell in love with the wrong kind of man, who lost a life she had never been very successful at in the first place.
Book- This collection is comprised of fourteen stories revolving around themes of immigration, travel, and drifting throughout North America. As an immigrant herself from the UK to Canada, Donoghue has a particular emotional insight into these topics. Emma Donoghue’s short stories (and, in fact, her novels) often stem from a small historical detail, such as the 1864 murder of a slave master by his slave and mistress, which becomes a fleshed out story, as in “Last Supper at Brown’s” in this collection. Particularly strong stories in Astray include “Man and Boy,” which chronicles the relationship between a zookeeper and his elephant, “The Hunt,” where the topic of war crimes during the Revolutionary War is explored, and, my favorite, “Snowblind,” which details the harsh first winter of two gold mining partners in the 1890s.
The audiobook version of Astray is a real treat, with several different narrators throughout to suit the disparate characters, and a part at the end narrated by Donoghue herself sharing the process by which she developed each story. I found that on audiobook, the stories were a perfect length for a shorter drives so you don’t have to keep jumping in and out of the plot as you would with a novel. These stories will appeal to fans of other historical fiction with keenly observed details, such as The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich.
Book – When I started reading this book, I didn’t know much about it, other than that it had a glow-in-the-dark octopus on the cover. And really, what else do you need to know? The octopus, fortunately, is a character (although he doesn’t glow in the dark) – Katsu, a mechanical octopus made by the titular watchmaker, Mori, a Japanese nobleman who has moved to England to practice the art of making tiny things out of even tinier gears. We meet him through Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphist recently recruited by Scotland Yard, who is being used by his superiors to investigate Mori as a suspect behind a high-profile bombing.
This is fantasy only by the thinnest hair, and steampunk only because of the prominence of Mori’s fantastic clockwork creations (and their proximity to Japantown’s fireworks shops). The plot circles around the investigation of the bombing, but Thaniel and Mori’s relationship is the real core of the book, growing slowly through mistrust and uncertainty into a deep, heartfelt connection. I was a little iffy about it for the first few chapters; by the end, I was entirely in love.
Book – Circling the Sun is based on the true life story of Beryl Markham. In the early 1900’s, Beryl, her parents and brother arrive from England to farm 1500 acres of untouched bush in Kenya. Two years later, when Beryl turns five, her mother and brother return to England, unable to handle the primitive conditions. Beryl remains on the farm with her father, running wild in the stable and with the nearby Kipsigis children, particulary her best friend Ruta. As Beryl grows up, she resists conventions and finds herself most comfortable training horses. After a disastrous marriage, she builds a life for herself among the decadent expats living in Kenya. Her circle of friends includes Karen Blixen and Karen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton. (Blixen wrote her memoir Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen). Beryl also discovers the joy of flying, becoming a bush pilot and record-setting aviator. I was inspired by Beryl’s determination to follow her own path, despite many roadblocks and much hardship. Paula McClain also wrote a novel based on Hemingway’s early married life titled The Paris Wife.
Book – Chris Bohjalian pays homage to his Armenian roots in Sandcastle Girls, by telling the story of “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”. The genocide of over ½ million people by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The account is relayed through Laura Petrosian, the great granddaughter of Elizabeth, an American from Boston and Armen from Armenia. While researching her genealogy for a book, Laura comes across letters and photographs of her great grandparents that help her piece together her family history.
Elizabeth and Armen meet in Aleppo Syria in 1915. Elizabeth, is a nurse recently graduated from college who accompanies her father on a mission to provide humanitarian aid to Armenian Refugees. Armen is an engineer working for the Germans who is desperately looking for his missing wife and baby who were lost during the deportations and mass murders. The two soon become very fond of each other. They are separated when Armen leaves to fight for the British Army. Elizabeth and Armen’s love flourishes in spite of continuing genocide and war, as they write letters to each other.
This is an enduring love story that also gives us heartbreakingly gritty details about the atrocities of the horrific events. It was a bit difficult to get through due to the subject matter, but definitely worthwhile.
Book – One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd is a fascinating account of the “Brides for Indians” program, which was a treaty between Ulysses S. Grant and Cheyenne India Chief Little Wolf in 1875. May records the adventures of herself and the other 999 brides- to-be. This is her ticket out of the insane asylum, where she was incarcerated for having an affair. All of the women were prostitutes, prisoners, mental patients, or indigents that were offered full pardons. The agreement being that they would be indentured to the Cheyenne for two years, would have to bear them children, and then would have the option to leave. The U.S. government felt that, the women would be able to tame the savages and that in turn the Indians would take on the white ways once they were given children that were half breeds.
May’s personal journals are full of humor, love, and respect for the other women. She thoughtfully reflects on the beauty and wilderness of the land as they journey across the west to meet their husbands. Her accounts also detail the culture and lifestyle of the tribe, as she becomes one of Little Wolf’s wives.
Book – The genre of novels in verse often gets swept under the rug, lost in the muddle of YA fiction. As opposed to the narrative style of most YA novels (words organized in sentences and paragraphs), verse novels tell stories in the form of free verse poetry. Aside from their unique formatting, novels in verse excel at covering difficult topics and creating emotionally charged stories.
Here are a few examples of novels in verse, in a variety of themes:
Substance Abuse: Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Ellen Hopkins challenges taboo subjects such as drug addiction, abuse, sex, and suicide in her novels. In her first verse novel, titled Crank, Hopkins addresses drug addiction through the experiences of the main character, Kristina, otherwise known as Bree. Hopkins bases the story off of her own experience with her daughter’s addiction. The strength in this novel is the connection the author has to the subject matter.
Historical Fiction: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
This story follows fourteen year old Billie Joe and her experiences during the dust bowl of the Great Depression. Billie Joe’s narration is a diary of daily life on her family’s farm where she lives with her Daddy and Ma. Emotionally charged, this story provides insight into the lives of those living through the dust bowl, while the free verse form helps readers connect to the characters more fully.
Other verse novels at the Warrenville Library include: Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, A Girl Named Mister by Nick Grimes, May B: A Novel by Caroline Starr Rose,
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham, and Sold by Patricia McCormick
Book – As a children’s librarian, there is no doubt that I am biased in favor of children’s books, but you don’t need to take my word for it that this one makes a fun read even for grown-ups. Besides the vote of confidence from the Newbery Committee, I have the testimony of my grandparents–neither of whom is a children’s book reader in general but each of whom devoured this one in a day, laughing all the way–to back me up in that claim.
1962 is the summer of eleven-year-old Jack Gantos’ perpetual grounding. With a nose that won’t stop bleeding, on the outs with both his parents and forbidden from playing baseball with his friends, Jack might have a grim few months ahead of him if not for his feisty elderly neighbor. Mrs. Volker, the resident historian of the small town of Norvelt, needs the loan of Jack’s hands to type up obituaries of her fellow orginal Norvelters, the rare task for which Jack is released from house-arrest. But when those obituaries start coming a little too thick and fast, Jack and Mrs. Volker become an unlikely team of sleuths, and fast friends into the bargain.
Part mystery story, part fictionalized memoir, entirely small town slice-of-life, Dead End in Norvelt explores questions of community and memory without ever feeling preachy. Centering as it does on an inter-generational friendship, it’s a great choice to share within families–but even if you don’t have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin to pass it on to, it’s well worth the rollicking ride.