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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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1. The book you write when you find out your great great grandmother is a ghost

Now this is a book on family history you don't find to often! Hannah Nordhaus has roots that go far back in New Mexico history and her great great grandparents owned one of the finer homes in Santa Fe. Now a hotel (and out of the family's hands), the hotel has been famously haunted for decades supposedly by Nordhaus's gg grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab who died in 1896. American Ghost is the story of how the author went looking for Julia, both her ghost and her truth.

German Jews who relocate to Santa Fe is a pretty interesting family history without much added to it, but Nordhaus finds out a lot more as she looks for the reasons why Julia left Germany. Because the Staab family was so prominent in New Mexico history, newspaper coverage is abundant and there are also letters, diary entries and some personal histories along with general records that Nordhaus is able to mine for information. She also goes in a different direction as well and tries to communicate with Julia's ghost.

At first, the "ghostbusting" chapters seemed odd to me, like the author was padding the narrative. But slowly she makes it clear that her attempts to reach out to the ghost, (and find out of there even is a ghost), are also a bit about finding herself or perhaps finding how she feels about her ancestors. These chapters also provide a bit humor which is welcome as Julia's life has some truly tragic downturns and, as expected, not all of the family left Germany so there is some enormous sadness found there.

I have read several books about finding your family but this is the first one where a family member is a famous ghost which is really fairly outrageous when you think about it. I will admit I am envious of Nordhaus however--she has so much family history to fall back on, such a solid place to start from and I have only the tiniest shreds in comparison. But that envy did not reduce my ability to enjoy American Ghost a lot or glean some tips from her search.

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2. The Eterna Files

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author who I find both wildly appealing and sometimes frustrating. I read and enjoyed very much one of her previous series which began with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Her gaslamp fantasies excel at world building and have beguiling characters placed in intriguing and challenging situations. Sometimes though, I feel overwhelmed by so many people and so many things going on. It's not that the plots are dense but rather somewhat frenetic. This is not a bad thing but can be exasperating (at least for me). But it doesn't keep me from going back for more from Hieber and so I was quite pleased to dive into her latest book, The Eterna Files.

In the wake of President Lincoln's assassination, Clara Templeton sets in motion events to find the secret to immortality. Flash forward 17 years and the American team pursuing this goal is mysteriously (almost magically) killed. Clara seeks to find out what happened but soon finds herself in a race against the British who are looking for their own answers as their competing team has also been killed.

Hieber splits the narrative primarily between Clara in New York City. and Harold Spire and Rose Everhart in London. Each side with their own trusted Scooby squads, they follow clues and try to find out what happened, all the while suspecting each other of the nefarious deeds. Of course (of course!!) there is more to it than that, but I'm sure Hieber will bring the groups together in the next installment and hopefully they will join forces sooner rather than later.

All the characters are good, especially Clara and Rose, who are smart and talented on their own while also realistically dealing with the gender politics of the day. Everyone else is quirky as all get out which makes sense as Hieber excels at quirky. There's all kinds of paranormal bits going on from mediums and clairvoyants to Voodoo. There are also class differences, a few jerks and some PTSD from lots of childhood trauma. So far, no romance but hints of some to come which would fit well in the layers of this mystery/thriller/drama.

So yeah, The Eterna Files is off to a bang-up start and shows Hieber doing what she does best yet again. I'll be back for the sequel; I just can't manage to stay away.

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3. "An aristocratic family, a high-society scandal and an extraordinary legacy"

Because I continue to have an unquenchable attraction to big sweeping biographies of dysfunctional British families (I have no idea where this came from), I was delighted to have The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff arrive at my door. (How in the heck Harper Collins knew I would want this book I will never know.)

Set in the period between the wars and forward (although there is some discussion of WWI as well), The Mad Boy tells the story of Lord Berners, one of those spectacularly unusual Brits (they dyed the birds at his estate in pastels as decorations!!!!) of a certain era who happened to be gay and fell hard for Robert Heber-Percy, a younger aristocrat who liked both men and women, lived life in a crazy near-suicidal way and was really really good looking.

And then there's Jennifer, who married Robert, promplty had his child and all of them lived (for a time*) at Berner's estate. Together. While all of English society wondered what the heck was going on.

It's not as salacious as you think (no wild orgies!) but more complicated and full of parties and marriages and divorces and things suspected but left unsaid and parties. LOTS OF PARTIES.

Here's what gets me about England and why I find so many aspects of its society so unbelievable:

The rules of primogeniture has kept together the huge fortunes of English lords; it has also formed the class system. It is the great distinction between the English aristocracy and any other; whereas abroad every member of a noble family is noble, in England non is except the head of the family. The sons and daughters may enjoy courtesy titles but as a rule the younger offspring of even the richest lords receive comparatively little money. Younger sons have thus habitually been left without money, property or title, often without the skills to acquire them and, above all, without belonging to the place they care most about. As clergymen, soldiers, sailors and resentful ne'er-do-wells, these high-born outcasts litter the pages of nineteenth-century English novels, with their hopeless attempts to make a way in the unfriendly world and their irresponsible sprees of adventuring.

So, while the The Mad Boy is a lot about people of the upper class having a certain life before WW2 and that how much that changed after WW2, it's also about a lot of people who weren't the first-born sons who were cast out of the lives they had known, the homes the loved and the lifestyles they were born to enjoy. It's.....well, it's crazy. You literally can never go home again and yet you also aren't supposed to (or prepared to) go get a job somewhere either.

Plus, you had parties with dyed birds because that kind of thing is just what you do!!

Zinovieff has done an enormous amount of research for this book and for all that there are a zillion names dropped, (visitors included all the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador DalĂ­ and on and on), she keeps it well organized and easily sucks you in. (The pictures are stunning!!!) Consider it a guilty pleasure maybe, but a real eye-opener as well.

*Shockingly, the marriage did not last but Jennifer went on to marry Alex Ross and then live for a while in a cult before she really settled down.

For more see The Guardian review.

[Photo from the book cover, taken by Cecil Beaton. L-R, Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy holding daughter Victoria, wife Jennifer on right.]

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4. Ships on ice

From Gizmodo:

Three U.S. Navy icebreakers pushing an iceberg out to sea to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 29th December 1965. The ships are, left to right: the USS Burton, USS Atka and USS Glacier.

I am endlessly fascinated by ships and ice - no idea why but it explains why I loved that Polar Literature course in college so much. (Follow the link for more wicked cool pics!)

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5. My great great aunt Ernestine and her secret British husband

ernestine (1).jpgOf my great grandmother Julia's three younger half sisters, Ernestine seemed to be the least mysterious. She was born in NYC in 1895, eventually married a man named "Mac" MacLeod and moved to Santa Barbara where they bought and ran a motel. I knew they were in California in the early 1930s as my great uncle Robie made a rather crazy motorcycle trip cross country then to visit them in a story I heard many many times. We have a few pics from that trip. And my mom remembered visiting the MacLeods in the 1950s, and we also have pictures of that.

Aunt Tina and Uncle Mac did not have children and I knew she passed away, after him, in the late 1990s. My genealogy goals were thus pretty small: get the marriage certificate for them, get death certificates and likely just move on. Nothing to see here, right?*

The biggest problem with Tina is that I don't know Mac's first name. Obviously, he went by a nickname derived from MacLeod, so that's a bit of a puzzle. But I figured Ernestine Pressl (her maiden name) was odd enough that a marriage certificate shouldn't be too difficult. So I set them up at ancestry.com, did a search and there you go, a 1915 marriage certificate in NYC for Ernestine Pressl.

And William A. Wilson of London.

ernestine2.jpgI paid to get a copy because I had to know if this was our Aunt Tina. How many Ernestine Pressls can there be after all? So after a few weeks it showed up and there she was, with the correct names for her parents (Marie Filak and Rudolph Pressl) and there was lovely William A., born in 1889, with his parents Pattie Clark and Arthur Wilson. It was a first marriage for both of them and took place in the same church as Tina's parents. This was definitely my family, I just didn't know a thing about what I was looking at.

First, I told my mother and she spent some time being shocked. ("No, Aunt Tina's husband was Uncle Mac. I met Uncle Mac, I remember Uncle Mac. Who in the world is William A. Wilson?")

Then I looked for a marriage between Ernestine Wilson (as that was her name for the 2nd marriage) and a MacLeod which came up with nothing. No idea what happened there. I'm thinking I'll have to spring for an international search as I've heard from family that Mac might have been Canadian. Maybe they went up there to get married? And beyond that, what happened to William? I looked in the records for British WWI deaths and there are, no surprise, more than a dozen William Wilsons. I'll have to find a way to search through those and see if my William is one of them (with a widow named Ernestine and middle name "A" which I bet is for Arthur). (How hard could it be to find him, right?!)

In the meantime I am looking at these pictures of Tina, taken around 1915, and wondering why on earth this had to be such a secret. There was never a mention of Tina as a widow, or divorced or with a man other than Mac. I can't help but think he disappeared from the family history simply because he was little known to all them. He was there and then he was gone and I guess didn't make enough of an impression.

Poor William A. Wilson; he didn't even rate a mention let alone a memory. And poor Aunt Tina, whose story, though a bit sadder, has just gotten a heckuva lot much more interesting.

[Post pic of Ernestines around 1910-1915. She was born in 1895, I figure she is in her late teens in these.]

*When am I going to learn to stop thinking that way? (Rhetorical question - genealogists never expect the kind of surprises that seem to be coming my way left and right lately.)

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6. Isabel's War by Lila Perl

I approached Isabel's War with a bit of trepidation--it's a WW2 novel with heavy mention of the Holocaust (although set in the US) and I feel like way too many books have been published over the years that use the pain of that war to gain easy sympathy. (You know who I'm talking about.)

Isabel's War is something different however, it opens in a summer vacation hotel ala Dirty Dancing for one, and the title character is a twelve-year old American with a healthy chip on her shoulder and an awareness of her own shortcomings that is quite refreshing.

(Her mother is also the world's most critical women, but Isabel can deal with her.)

Isabel meets teenage Helga, the newly arrived German niece of her mother's good friend, while at Shady Pines. The girls are quickly thrown together as adults will do to kids, ("I'm sure you girls will get along just fine!"), and though they have little in common, a small friendship begins to develop. Soon enough though Isabel's family is thrown in to turmoil, and must return home, when her older brother enlists. She doesn't expect to see Helga anytime soon but then the family friend becomes ill, Helga needs a place to stay for awhile and just like that the girls are practically 24/7 together.

One of the things Perl did so well with this novel is let Isabel and Helgo become friends slowly. There's no rush to BFF-dom here and the fits and starts in their relationship make both girls easier to relate to. Two other great characters are Isabel's friend Sibby and her mother who are heavily involved in the news of the war (Sibby's father is a merchant marine). They force Isabel to become more engaged and it is through their influence that she begins to ask Helga smart questions about her past and finally uncovers just how she came to America.

There's some very good history in Isabel's War, especially about the Kindertransport which is rarely covered in teen history or literature. It's also nice to see how Sibby's mother learns about the horrors Jewish people faced in Europe--she makes a point of telling Isabel that you have to read the small parts of the newspaper on the back pages to get the whole truth. As this was how news of the Holocaust slowly came to the world, it's a nice touch that Perl has it explained that way in the text.

There's a bit of Nancy Drew appeal to Isabel's War; all of Helga's secrets get revealed and Isabel is relentless to get to the truth. There is also some self-righteous fury here aimed at willfully ignorant adults and some expected coming-of-age angst. It's all good and I enjoyed this novel a lot.

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7. The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky

The title of The Stonehenge Letters immediately caught my eye for reasons obvious to any history lover. The description though was the real seller - a novel about a researcher who discovers a cache of letters in the Nobel Prize "crackpot" file that are all written by Nobel winners, (Marie Curie, TR Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling and Ivan Pavlov), and all seek to solve the mystery of Stonehenge. The narrator, who previously was occupied with trying to determine why Sigmund Freud was not awarded a Nobel, then changes course and seeks to discover what Nobel's connection was to Stonehenge. That historical mystery (which actually is true) along with the letters and why their authors were interested in writing them (all of which is fiction) makes up the plot of this diverting and smart novel.

Much of The Stonehenge Letters is straight up nonfiction and previously published in many other places, from Nobel's childhood, the conflicted relationship with his family (one of his brothers was blown up in an accident) and his romantic affairs. Karlinsky does a nice job of providing brief biographies of the major players at the end as well as a bit of his own historical research. Personally, I never knew that Stonehenge was privately owned (or for how long) and found that very interesting. (Nothing like being told by the government you own something crucial to the nation and thus can't sell it but you are responsible for its upkeep, protecting it from the public and the public from it and the government won't help you in any way financially.) (Go Britain!)

I loved the diversionary aspect of this novel, it's dips into and out of history, (the photos are fantastic!) and the cheekiness of the author. The narrator is a rather stuffy person but committed to the truth of his story and the truth here is as wild as you would expect. Roosevelt in particular does not disappoint with his outlandish proposal which includes bonus (!) Robert Peary!

You could believe all of this, it's that well thought out, and personally I loved the fun of believing it for awhile. It's exactly the sort of imaginative pop-culture/history mash-up that I don't think we get enough of in literature. Karlinsky took a chance here with his idea but his execution is perfect. Well done on Coach House Books for publishing such a fun book.

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8. Assessing January on the resolution scale


So, one month gone in 2015 and time to take a moment and assess what was accomplished. Here we go:

1. Eight books reviewed for Booklist. This is a way higher number than usual, as four of the books were read in December but I didn't write about them until I got home in mid-January. Getting all of the books reviewed cleared my decks for Booklist though--I've got nothing waiting in the wings for them.

2. One book read and reviewed for Locus.

3. Four articles written and edited for the Bush Pilot blog. Only two of them ran in January but two more should run this week. My schedule there means running two items a week in the blog which I hope to be consistent with. I have one piece drafted to turn in and notes on two more. My editor is out of town until the 8th, but I'll have articles ready for him when he gets back.

4. Essay written and submitted. One of my resolutions is to have an essay submitted somewhere each month. Drafting on essay #2 for 2015 begins now.

5. Pitches made on two longer book-related pieces. Followed up on an earlier pitch to the same place and heard it is still in the mix and hopefully now, after my nudge, I'll hear back on it.

And that is all on that. It's important to note that all of this work was for paying outlets--I'm officially done with writing for free (with the exception of here and Guys Lit Wire, of course).

I also sent out a letter making a Freedom Of Information Act request for an AK aviation article. This will be a big one to write (a two-parter I think) and I'm hoping to start a draft on it this week.

And there's a research letter I need to send out on another essay; I don't know why I've been nervous about even writing this but I have. It's just a letter, but I guess I have such high hopes for this piece that even starting it concerns me a little.

And finally a pitch to put together for a short piece in another magazine. It's less than a thousand words, a straightforward profile of an interesting Alaskan. This is on my "to do" list for February.

So, not too bad a beginning to 2015. I've met my goals, didn't fall behind on anything and have been consistent in posting and reviewing. I'm going to call this a win for January. My biggest resolution for this year is consistency; so far, so good.

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9. Best Novel of the Year: The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Okay folks, I'm calling it now--The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken) is the best novel I'm going to read this year. A perfect follow-up to Laurain's delightful The President's Hat, this upcoming release has the most common of set-ups and yet becomes the best meet-up story ever. That it manages to be a fairly traditional romance that is not the slightest bit mushy but rather the very definition of wit and smarts and downright cool is proof positive that any tale can be retold in a refreshing way. I knew there would be a happy ending here as I knew the protagonists would meet (beyond that we can't know), but the journey was so lovely; I'm still trying to figure out just how Laurain accomplished so much in so few pages.

Book of the year, folks. Book.Of.The.Year.

The plot is straightforward: Laure is mugged on her doorstep returning home late one night, losing her purse and getting hit in the head in the process. With no way to get into her apartment, she walks across the street to a hotel, convinces them to let her have a room for the night and then, more injured than she realized, slips into unconsciousness overnight. She is rushed to the hospital in the morning and her part of the story is thus paused.

Divorced bookseller Laurent comes across a discarded high quality purse while out getting breakfast and impulsively picks it up and even though it lacks identification, decides to try and find the owner. Going through the contents, an image forms in his mind of the woman who owns them and he can not resist the allure of the mystery she poses. Laurent thus becomes an amateur detective and even though the reader already knows about Laure, it's impossible to resist Laurent's search for clues and be cheered by his every success.

Slowly, Laurent finds his way to Laure's life just as she reenters the story through her friends and co-workers and recovery. Laurent's daughter and ex-wife are introduced, readers learn more of his life and Laure's own past is revealed as well. They are two extremely ordinary people--there are no tales of horror and high drama to force the plot along. But Laurain is such a great writer that these characters become more and more compelling the more they are on the page. Laurent's previous career, Laure's job, their mutual love of books (bibliophiles will rejoice!), their families, their hopes, their dreams and of course, the red notebook.

Laure keeps a notebook in her purse where she writes lists of what she loves, what she's afraid of, what she longs for. Here's a bit:

More things I like:

Summer evenings when it gets dark late.
Opening my eyes underwater.
The names 'Trans-Siberian Express' and 'Orient Express' (I'll never travel on either).
Lapsang Souchong tea.
Haribo Fraises Tagada.
Watching men sleep after making love.
Hearing 'Mind the gap' on the tube in London.

The Red Notebook resonated with me for several reasons, I think but mostly it was the extraordinary appeal of these characters who managed to sneak up on me and settle into my heart. This book could have been so many things--it seemed destined to be Meg Ryanesque* more than anything else--but it's a thoroughly grown-up story about how two adults come to know each other. That it is remarkably literary as well is just a huge bonus.

Don't miss this one; it's really something special.

*Not that there's anything wrong with that!

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10. Catalogging Consortium

Lots of great titles from lots of great small press publishers in the 2015 Consortium catalog - here are the ones that caught my eye with some catalog copy to describe them:

Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock and the Making of the American Highways by Riley Hanick (Sarabande Books). In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim commissioned a mural from Jackson Pollock to hang in the entryway of her Manhattan townhouse. It was the largest Pollock canvas she would ever own, and four years later she gave it to a small Midwestern institution with no place to put it. When the original scroll of On the Road goes on tour across the country, it lands at the same Iowa museum housing Peggy's Pollock, revitalizing Riley Hanick's adolescent fascination with the author. Alongside these two narrative threads, Hanick revisits Dwight D. Eisenhower's quest to build America's first interstate highway system. When catastrophic rains flood the Iowa highways with their famous allure and history of conquest, they also threaten the museum and its precious mural. In Three Kinds of Motion, his razor-sharp, funny, and intensely vulnerable book-length essay, Hanick moves deftly between his three subjects. He delivers a story with breathtaking ingenuity.

The Shark That Walks on Land....and Other Strange But True Tales of Mysterious Sea Creatures by Michael Bright (Biteback Publishing). When you dive into the sea, do you ever wonder what's down there, beneath you, poised to take an inquisitive bite? Author of Jaws Peter Benchley and film director Steven Spielberg certainly did, for below the waves lies a world we neither see nor understand; an alien world where we are but the briefest of visitors. The Shark that Walks on Land uncovers tales of ancient and modern mariners, with stories of sea serpents, mermaids and mermen, sea dragons, and the true identity of the legendary Kraken. But this book contains more than just a medley of maritime myths and mysteries for marine biologists; it celebrates wonderful discoveries by blending the unknown and the familiar in an entertaining miscellany of facts, figures, and anecdotes about the myriad creatures that inhabit the oceans. Along the way we meet the giants, the most dangerous, the oddballs, and the record breakers; and the shark that really does walk on land!

Enormous Smallness: The Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, Illus by Kris Di Giacomo (Enchanted Lion Books). Here E.E.'s life is presented in a way that will make children curious about him and will lead them to play with words and ask plenty of questions as well. Lively and informative, the book also presents some of Cummings's most wonderful poems, integrating them seamlessly into the story to give the reader the music of his voice and a spirited, sensitive introduction to his poetry.

In keeping with the epigraph of the book -- "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are," Matthew Burgess's narrative emphasizes the bravery it takes to follow one's own vision and the encouragement E.E. received to do just that.

Mischief and Malice
by Berthe Amos (Lizzie Skurnick Books).
Set in New Orleans, Louisiana, on the eve of World War II, Mischief and Malice is a brand new work from an iconic figure in young adult literature. Following the death of her Aunt Eveline, fourteen-year old Addie; who we first met in Berthe Amoss's classic Secret Lives; is now living with her Aunt Tooise, Uncle Henry, and her longtime rival cousin, Sandra Lee. A new family has just moved into Addie's former house, including a young girl who is just Addie's age. Meanwhile, Louis, the father of Tom, Addie's lifelong neighbor and best friend, suddenly returns after having disappeared when Tom was a baby. Between school dances, organizing a Christmas play, fretting about her hair, and a blossoming romance with Tom, Addie stumbles upon a mystery buried in the Great Catch All, an ancient giant armoire filled with heirlooms of her family's past, which holds a devastating secret that could destroy Louis and Tom's lives. Once again, Berthe Amoss has created an indelible portrait of a young girl coming of age in prewar New Orleans.

The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim (Text Publishing Company). Avicenna Crowe's mother is missing.

The police suspect foul play. Joanne is an astrologer, predicting strangers' futures from their star charts. Maybe one of her clients had a bad reading?

But Avicenna has inherited the gift. Armed with Joanne's journal, she begins her own investigation that leads into the city's dark underworld. The clock is ticking, and as each clue unravels Avicenna finds her life ever more in danger.

The Keeper's Daughter
by Jean-Francois Caron, Translated by Don Wilson (Talonbooks)
. Young Dorothea is appointed by the tourist bureau to direct a documentary film re-enacting life at a lighthouse off Quebec's North Shore in the 1940s and '50s. To obtain material for the film, she is advised to interview an old woman, Rose Brouillard, the daughter of a fisherman who grew up on a nearby island in the St. Lawrence. Rose is finally tracked down in Montreal. She is now old: her memory and grasp of reality are hazy; nevertheless she tells her story and takes Dorothea back to scenes from her childhood. We see fishermen on the docks with their nets, hard-at-work villagers with shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow, leafy gardens and tree-lined streets, all recreated from Rose's failing memory. The problem is that many of these scenes are invented, not real. Does that matter? Or are the stories we tell more important?

(This one is listed as "Finding Rose" in the catalog but "The Keeper's Daughter" at the publisher and online booksellers - not sure what it really is, though.)

Load Poems Like Guns: Women's Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan compiled & translated by Farzana Marie (Holy Cow! Press). A groundbreaking collection of poetry by eight contemporary Afghan women poets in English translation en face with the original Persian Dari text. These poets live in Herat, the ancient epicenter of literature and the arts.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books). Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner.

The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet.

Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?

The Little Free Library Book by Margret Aldrich (Coffee House Press). Take a book. Return a book." In 2009, Todd Bol built the first Little Free Library as a memorial to his mom. Five years later, this simple idea to promote literacy and encourage community has become a movement. Little Free Libraries; freestanding front-yard book exchanges; now number twenty thousand in seventy countries. The Little Free Library Book tells the history of these charming libraries, gathers quirky and poignant firsthand stories from owners, provides a resource guide for how to best use your Little Free Library, and delights readers with color images of the most creative and inspired LFLs around.

Fanny Says by Nickole Brown (BOA Editions, Ltd). In this "unleashed love song" to her late grandmother, Nickole Brown brings her brassy, bawdy, tough-as-new-rope grandmother to life. With hair teased to Jesus, glued-on false eyelashes, and a white Cadillac Eldorado with atomic-red leather seats, Fanny isn't your typical granny in a rocking chair. Instead, think of a character that looks a lot like Eva Gabor in Green Acres, but tinted with a shadow of Sylvia Plath.

Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy (Wilmington Square Books). How would you make sense of your life if you thought it might end tomorrow? In this captivating and best-selling memoir, Vesna Goldsworthy tells the story of herself, her family, and her early life in her lost country. There follows marriage, a move to England, and a successful media and academic career, then a cancer diagnosis and its unresolved consequences. A profoundly moving, comic, and original account by a stunning literary talent.

The Surfacing by Cormac James (Bellevue Literary Press). Far from civilization, on the hunt for Sir John Franklins recently lost Northwest Passage expedition, Lieutenant Morgan and his crew find themselves trapped in ever-hardening Arctic ice that threatens to break apart their ship. When Morgan realizes that a stowaway will give birth to his child in the frozen wilderness, he finds new clarity and courage to lead his men across a bleak expanse as shifting, stubborn, and treacherous as human nature itself.

Well Fed, Flat Broke by Emily Wright (Arsenal Pulp Press). This collection of 120 recipes ranges from the simple (perfect scrambled eggs, rice and lentils) to the sublime (Orecchiette with White Beans and Sausage, Mustard-fried Chicken). Chapters are organized by ingredient so that you can easily build a meal from what you have on hand. Well Fed, Flat Broke has flavours to please every palette including Thai, Dutch, Indonesian, and Latin American-inspired recipes such as Kimchi Pancakes, Salvadoran Roast Chicken, and Pantry Kedgeree, reflecting a diverse array of affordable ingredients and products in grocery stores, markets, and delis.

Emily is a working mother and wife who lives with a picky toddler in one of Canada's most expensive cities. She offers readers real-talk about food, strategic shopping tips, sound advice for picky eaters, and suggestions on how to build a well-stocked, yet inexpensive pantry. Cooking every night can be challenging for busy families who are short on time and lean in budget; Emily includes plenty of one-pot dishes to keep everyone healthy, full, and happy.

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11. Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

Continuing on my quest to find books for my soon to be nine-year old niece, I read Karen Harrington's Sure Signs of Crazy last week. While I enjoyed the book a lot and recommend it for the over ten crowd, I think I'm going to hold off my girl until she's a wee bit older.

Protagonist Sarah is 12 and new in town. She and her father move around a lot as Sarah's mother was the object of a notorious trial and is now committed to a mental hospital. Her father was also tried but found innocent; he still struggles a decade later to cope and while a loving father, definitely self-medicates with alcohol.

In the course of one summer, Sarah fulfills an English assignment by writing letters to Atticus Finch, crushes on the college boy across the street (we've all been there) and builds up her courage to challenge the family secrets. She's smart and funny and determined which makes for a great protagonist. Most interestingly though, considering her family drama, Sarah is also very easy to identify with and I'm sure many young readers will like her a lot.

For my purposes though, I think the alcohol and the reasons behind her mother's trial, are just too much for my particular nine-year old. At least a year, maybe two and she will be ready. I'll be keeping Sure Signs of Crazy for the future.

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12. Living next to a Superfund site

We don't really hear much about Superfund sites anymore but they haven't gone away. From last month's National Geographic Magazine:

Money remains a constant problem. The Superfund program once had two pillars: rules that held past polluters liable for cleanup and a "Superfund"--financed by taxes on crude oil and chemicals--that gave the EPA the resources to clean up sites when it could not extract payment from the responsible parties. Congress let those taxes expire in 1995; the program is now funded by taxes collected from all Americans. It's low on staff. The Superfund itself is nearly empty.

Superfund sites have entered a mostly benign but lingering state, dwarfed in the public's eye by issues like climate change, says William Suk, who has directed the National Institutes of Health's Superfund Research Program since its inception in the 1980s. "It's not happening in my backyard, therefore it must be OK," is how Suk sees the prevailing attitude. "Everything must be just fine--there's no more Love Canals."

Check out the full photo gallery here.

[Post pic by Fritz Hoffman via Nat Geo: "The municipal water supply in Hastings was contaminated by landfills--and by the FAR-MAR-CO grain elevator. Fumigants sprayed to control rodents and insects leached into the ground. The city closed some wells, but cleaning the groundwater will take decades."]

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13. The Secret Rooms

Courtesy my mother, (who always pays attention when you write notes in a catalog* with the words "I WANT THIS!!!!"), I received The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey for Christmas. This incredibly compelling book follows Bailey's search for truth while engaged in a relatively innocuous WWI research project at the Belvoir Estate in England. Stymied in her plans to find out about the war's devastation on the men in the nearby villages (many of whom lost their lives), she can not help but wonder why the estate's meticulous records should have such a deep hole during the war period. So Bailey digs a little deeper and finds other holes, all of them tied to the 9th Duke of Rutland who died in 1940 and apparently, until his final moments, was feverishly working to hide something in "secret rooms" beneath the castle.

This book has literally everything you would want in an epic family drama plus some serious upstairs/downstairs social commentary.

Bailey is a careful researcher--she methodically moves through the existing records at the estate and then sets out to other archive collections to find information to fill the Belvoir gaps. What she finds is a story of family strife and conflict that includes everything from parental neglect to attempts to sway military decisions during WWI. There's also a lot here about dukes in general and how one becomes a duke and what happens to a duke's holdings when he dies. That kind of thing was candy for me--I never get tired of trying to figure out how the royal thing works in England.

As an aside - The 9th Duke's sister, Diana, married Duff Cooper after WWI and they were quite the famous couple in their day. (Although he cheated on her with basically everyone if wikipedia is to be believed. How on earth do these men find the time for all this messing around?)

For all the dramarama in The Secret Rooms, it is surprisingly not all that gossipy. Mostly, I found it shocking how the Duke's family chose to live. For all their wealth and social status these were deeply unhappy people who seemed more intent upon inflicting pain on each other than anything else.

[Post pic of Belvoir Castle taken in 2011 via Creative Commons.]

*Bas Blue catalog - a great collection of carefully selected books and bookish gifts that I heartily recommend!

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14. Alan Cumming & the amazing "Not My Father's Son"

cumming.jpgFrom Alan Cumming's incredible memoir which I can't stop thinking about*:

Eventually of course we all escaped him. Tom and I entered adulthood and moved away: Tom at twenty-one to get married and I, two years later at seventeen, to go to drama school in Glasgow. And Mary Darling started her own independent life soon after. We all stitched together facades that we were all okay. Fine. Normal. Of course we weren't. You can't go through sustained cruelty and terror for a large swathe of your life and not talk about it and be okay. It bites you in the arse big time.

Cumming was starring in an episode of Britain's Who Do You Think You Are? about family history when his own life implodes with a stunning assertion from his father. The book follows the revelations from the show, (which are all about his maternal grandfather who died mysteriously in SE Asia after WW2), and the simultaneous trauma that accompanies his father's statements. It's written in a wry self-deprecating manner that alternates with sad memories of his troubled childhood and the warmth that comes from his current happy life. Mostly though, Not My Father's Son is about how much it hurts to keep family secrets and that always--always--the truth is what you must have to live strong and happy.

Oh, how I loved this book!

*Tom is his older brother and "Mary Darling" his mother.

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15. Yep, I read that decluttering book & it has sort of changed my life (at least a little)

I am not immune to the irony of reading a book about decluttering in order to figure out how to declutter my life. I get how silly it is to buy something that helps you get rid of things, but I couldn't help it when I saw Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. This book is such a beautiful object--no dust jacket, small size, lovely textured cover--that I wanted to own it anyway.

Which should explain exactly why I need a decluttering book in the first place.

Lots of folks have reviewed Kondo's book and her method. It's a gazillion seller, she's basically a rock star in Japan and all the major newspapers and magazines have covered it. What I can tell you is the part that affected me which is Kondo's assertion that one should not sort by geography, ("today I will clean out the closet"), but rather by type. You need to pull every like item into one place and then gaze upon what you've got and then go all the way through that pile.

Don't stop.

This means you don't go through the clothes in one dresser or room, you gather all of your clothes, all of your shirts and socks and gloves and coats and whatever, and you put it all on the floor somewhere and then you, I imagine, freak out as you gaze upon just how many shirts and socks and gloves and coats and whatever you actually own. Then, with the realization that you have way too much staring you in the face, Kondo tells you to start going through that pile and get rid of everything that does not work for you. (Or in her words, "gives you joy".)

I don't have a ton of stuff (I swear), but I have now gone through the homes of multiple deceased relatives and I am so tired of sorting through piles and piles of stuff that just ends up in the donate bin or the trash can. I am tired of that being my job - to clean up the messes that my relatives did not get to when they were alive. The thing is, as I listen to a lot of relatives bemoaning the fact that they never can get to dealing with their stuff, I'm sure I'll be doing it again and again in the future.

And again.

My frustration over all of that has few outlets, which is where Kondo's book comes in. At the very least, I can better sort through my own stuff and at least feel like I am in control of that part of my life.

Plus, I think I have way too many pairs of socks.

[Post pic of Kondo's method of vertical folding from Modern Mrs. Darcy .)

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16. A Snicker of Magic & Seven Stories Up

I have an 8-year old niece who has always been able to read above her reading level. The problem, of course, is the content found in books for older children and teens. So I'm always on the lookout for middle grade titles that are written in a more sophisticated style but still tell stories that are appropriate for a typical little girl.

It's ridiculous how not easy this can be.

I just burned through a couple of great books for her though and wanted to share them. In A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, Felicity Pickle is used to traveling at a moment's whim with her mother and younger sister. They have now unexpectedly arrived in her mother's hometown of Midnight Gulch however and Felicity finds the idea of leaving to be terribly upsetting. She has found a home, not just a stopping place and hopes her mother will realize this before they move on yet again.

In Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder, Annie and her mother have returned to the Hotel Calvert, which Annie's rather unpleasant and now dying grandmother owns and has lived in all of her life. Annie goes to sleep in the crumbling hotel and wakes up in 1937 where she meets "Molly" - her grandmother as a young girl. The girls bond, Annie learns a lot about her grandmother's difficult childhood and in the process of trying to get back to her own time, she discovers the Baltimore that was. (And of course Molly & Annie are deeply changed by their time together.)

Both of these books emphasize family and the weight of unsaid words and worries. It is only when Annie arrives in her life that Molly is able to verbalize her fears and Felicity feels protective toward her own mother and thus does not tell her how much she wants to stop moving until her friends and family in Midnight Gulch convince her to speak up. Both girls also learn the value of friendship and adventure, the importance of being brave and honest. They are both quite heartwarming but not the slightest bit cloying and for my purposes (a certain 8-year old girl) dang near perfect.

I liked all the kids in these books--protagonists and supporting characters. They are smart but not magically brilliant, caring and thoughtful, concerned and questioning. They also occasionally say the wrong thing, act defensively and make a mistake. They are just kids, but especially delightful ones and a lot of fun to spend time with while reading.

Add both of these books to your lists for discerning 8-12 year old readers; they are excellent and highly recommended.

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17. Hello 2015

Back home again after two weeks of sickness, death and funeral and I'm having trouble, as always after this sort of experience, easing back into regular life.

I'm sure all of you have been through something similar can understand.

I have 2015 resolutions but they sound rather banal I think: organize, create, be brave, be strong.

And eat better, of course.

I am reviewing YA SFF this year for Locus and continuing with aviation articles for Alaska Dispatch News. I broke into LARB last fall and have another review piece to finish and submit this month (on MG/YA nonfiction). I'd like to break in someplace else with some personal essays but nothing concrete to share on that score yet.

And of course, still and always Booklist.

The book is still in research phase. It's a very personal project, (about my ancestors as I have shared in the family history posts here), and I want to get it right. It's a time-consuming subject but I've gotten further along than I ever imagined. Right now I have to work on a marriage I never knew occurred in 1919 and gathering info on an asylum commitment in 1940. I love this project and I want it to succeed. Mostly, this year I just want to keep at it and continue to move forward with it.

I don't want to waste this year in talking about writing, like so many of us do.

There is nothing revolutionary about my 2015 hopes and dreams; just work. I want this year to be about work.

Finally, some sad news here - Ray Bradbury's house has been torn down. He lives forever in his stories and books but man, it's sad to think that the floors he walked for so long have disappeared.


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18. Obituary for my stepfather, Edmund B. Everette

dad2.jpgDue to an epic failure between the funeral home and local newspaper, my stepfather's obituary will not run this weekend as promised to us. I am loading it here in the hopes that I can spread the word at least a bit this way.

Edmund B. Everette passed away on December 28, 2014. He is survived by his loving wife Maureen and children, Edmund Jr, Donna, Patrick and Colleen and grandchildren Hannah, Ben, Pierce and Emma.

Ed was born on a farm near Lake City, Florida. He attended the University of Florida with plans to teach and farm but the Korean War changed that. He enrolled in AFROTC and upon graduation was commissioned as a lieutenant in the USAF. He completed flight training and served in the US and Japan before being stationed with the Tactical Air Command and later attended Command and Staff College. He was assigned to the Fourth ATAF in Germany and was then sent to Vietnam where he was a squadron operations officer and commander with Forward Air Control. He flew more than 600 hours of combat time and was awarded numerous air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He then was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in operations and was briefer to the Chairman. His last assignment was Chief of Operations Air Base Group at Patrick AFB.

Dad.jpgEd then obtained his FAA flight instructor ratings and was employed by Florida Institute of Technology as a flight instructor and professor. He earned an MBA there and held various positions until appointment as Dean of the School of Aeronautics and President of FIT Aviation. During his tenure, the School of Aeronautics grew to over 850 students and averaged 50,000 flight hours a year.

After Ed obtained an FAA grant, a new building, now called the College of Aeronautics, was constructed on campus. After leaving FIT he was named Professor Emeritus and became the Florida representative for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

During the course of his career, Ed logged over 10,000 hours of flight time and was recognized by the FAA with the Wright Brothers Master Pilots Award for more than 50 years of accident-free flight.

A celebration of Ed Everette's life will be held at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Indialantic on January 7 at 1:30 PM with reception following. In lieu of flowers the family asks donations be made to the Wounded Warriors Project.

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19. And now, tackling the email

Between my website and the email automatically forwarded to me from Guys Lit Wire, I have been averaging about 150 emails a day for a very long time and it is completely insane. I scan through my inbox every morning and delete with abandon, my junk mail is even worse. (I wish I could ignore the junk mail but a couple of times a week real mail ends up in there so I have to check it at least every few days.)

Email is a stupid thing to worry about but when it's there everyday it becomes a burden and when I can't tell what is good and what isn't, my day just ends up starting with an annoyance. So, I decided a couple of weeks ago to start trying to get off some of the zillion mailing lists that I somehow got put on without my knowledge.

My daily goal was really tiny: just open 5 emails and unsubscribe. I figured out pretty quickly that a lot of emails are from the same lists, and also that unsubscribing is not that tough. I was able to get through my five often in just a couple of minutes. Some days that was all I did and I still felt like I accomplished something which was huge.

At least I wasn't just passively accepting all this crap everyday.

Some of the lists respond that it takes 5-7 days to be removed, others say it takes as long as 10 days. Because of that I don't think I'll get a really good idea of how successful I've been until the end of the month. By then, hopefully, I will be left with only the real junk (the Nigerian prince emails, etc.) and then I plan to blacklist those and see if I can outright block them.

I am really puzzled how I ended up on all these list. Several of them involve wine, which I don't drink and haven't ordered. Bloomberg News and the Economist like me a lot - several lists from each of them and again, no idea why. I also get a lot of stuff from people selling window blinds and hair replacement treatments.


Today, I am down to 45 emails a day total. Since I doubt I spent 45 minutes of my time getting down to this, I think I've been pretty successful. I'm not done yet, but at least I don't feel angry every time I check my email which is huge.

Ending 2014 this way is actually a pretty good thing to do. Between the e-hoarding and the email, I feel like I'm cleaning up my computer life quite a bit. This week I start on the bookmarks with the same tactic - looking at 5 a day minimum and either deleting or organizing them into folders. I have no idea what I'm going to find but at least this is all stuff I definitely wanted at some point which is a huge improvement over the email.

It's the little things, right? *grin*

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20. Meg Wolizter's Belzhar and the cult of Sylvia Plath

I surprised myself the first time I read The Bell Jar by falling hard for Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel of a young woman in New York City and the fallout of her stressful summer. It was the Plath angle that sparked my initial attraction to Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar but that ended up being a way more complicated novel than I expected (with a truly amazing twist).

Introspective Jam Gallahue is a classic Plath heroine. Depressed over the death of her boyfriend Reeve, Jam has been sent by her parents to a "therapeutic boarding school" in Vermont. Selected for enrollment into a small English class, she and her fellow students immerse themselves in The Bell Jar and find themselves experience strange dreams attached to the individual traumas that brought each of them to the school.

Wolitzer uses the class to bring the misfits together and the mysterious dreams cause them to bond rapidly as they share their experiences and why they came to the school. Jam watchers a lot, observing her classmates and tentatively making friends. Mostly though she immerses herself in her dreams and memories of Reeve, rehashing every moment of their brief but powerful romance. It's a classic boarding school set-up and then Wolitzer hits readers with the wallop of a twist that blows every inch of the plot out of the water and yet also makes perfect sense.

I liked the teens in this novel and I think Wolitzer did a good job of showing how some things that bring us down can be remarkably small but still nonetheless devastating. And I liked how Plath fit into the novel and how seeing The Bell Jar through the eyes of Jam and her friends made me reconsider that novel a bit more as well. If Belzhar ends up being a way for readers to find Plath, then that is a really good thing and why I think that an excellent gift for teenage girls in particular would be copies of Belzhar, The Bell Jar and also Mad Girl's Love Song and Ariel: The Restored Edition.

More on Sylvia Plath at Brain Pickings.

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21. "It has to start with the art"

This book comes with a certain amount of baggage because Amanda Palmer, of the largest Kickstarter ever, of the viral TED talk, of the marriage to Neil Gaiman and the punk cabaret sound and the look that no one completely understands, is a person who carries a lot of baggage. Some folks love her and some folks hate her and some folks won't be able to set aside comments they might have read online or things they heard about her when considering her book. But they should, because it's really something special.

The Art of Asking is about Palmer's experiences as a creative person and how she has both made her music and supported herself while doing it. One of the key issues she brings up early on is how much she did not want a job, which we all know is not the same thing as earning a living. Everyone and their cousin told her over the years that she needed a job and supported her efforts at obtaining jobs while also making clear more than once that making art (or words or music or sculpture) is not the same thing as working. (And consequently, not a job.)

All of you who proudly told your parents you wanted to be a writer (or artist or musician or...) and were answered with the words "That is a good hobby but you need to set yourself up for a decent career first," well, you know how frustrated Palmer was for a long time and you can't help but admire her decision to strike out on her own and set herself up on a crate as a living statue in Harvard Square. What she learns through this daily interaction with strangers (and the money they give her) changed her life and set her on the path that eventually led to where she is today.

What I got from The Art is Asking is less a dose of personal empowerment (although it's certainly here) but more some serious thoughtful writing on figuring out what you want to do as a creative and how to get to that place. Palmer's message is that you have to accept help when it's offered and not be afraid to ask, but she is also serious about the level of hard work involved as well. You have to be willing to stand in the rain in Harvard Square dressed as bride if need be; you have to keep your eye on the goal and not be dissuaded by the doubtful chorus that might be filling your ears.

Honestly, I'm still thinking about much of what I've read and over the next couple of weeks I plan to read The Art of Asking again. I spent a lot of years cultivating a professional existence that did not include the word "writer" in it, because I thought that was what any writer, other than someone impossibly famous, (hello Stephen King & Nora Roberts), was supposed to do or expected to do or had to do.

We all waste so much time thinking that way, don't we? Palmer has challenged that belief every step of the way and how she got to the moment she's living now makes for fascinating reading and, if you are a creative, sheds some light on just how you might alter your path as well. That's she's remarkably candid about her own missteps and fears is just icing in the cake of this truly outstanding book. I wish I had it when I was 21 but mostly, I'm glad to be reading it now.

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22. Round-up of recent reads

Capsule reviews on several recent reads for those looking for a recommendation or two:

Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman. This is the first short story collection from this prolific and outstanding fantasy author. Sherman is tough to pin down; her stories (and novels) are sly and wink a bit at expectations. Sometimes the fantasy elements are barely there--a whiff of a ghost story perhaps as in the title story, or suburban witchcraft in "Walpurgis Afternoon". The point is not always even the fantasy, as significant as it might be to the plot, but rather the characters and the setting and, (I love this), the language.

Delia Sherman writes sentences you want to read out loud and that, perhaps more than anything, is why I advise you to read each and everything she ever writes.

Unwept: Book One of the Nightbirds by Tracy & Laura HIckman. The set-up here is straightforward: Ellis is on a train alone with a nurse who is also caring for an infant. Most of her memory is gone and the nurse assures her that she is being sent to stay with family and friends in a small town to recuperate from a long illness. Everything will be better if she rests in Gamin with her cousin Jenny. But then of course, after she arrives, nothing is as it seems.

The tension in Unwept is outstanding and readers will find themselves flinching along with Ellis as she finds herself uncomfortable and alarmed while among the local literary group, "The Nightbirds," who claim to be her dear friends. As she puts things together, and finds more reasons to be afraid, the book shifts into thriller mode. It's set up for a sequel (of course) and I hope the reasons behind all this drama get fleshed out more. But a solid start and a true page-turner.

The Spiritglass Charade (A Stoker & Holmes Novel) by Colleen Gleason. Evaline Stoker, vampire hunter, and Mina Holmes, detective, return for this next adventure in an alternate Victorian London. This time the teens have been tasked to help a friend of Princess Alix , 17 year old Willa who has become obsessed with spiritualism as she searches for clues about her missing brother's whereabouts. The princess thinks Willa is being taken advantage of and Mina immediately agrees. There is a lot more going on though, including Charles Babbage's computing machines, vile murder, sleep walking, and vampires (of course!).

What I like about the Stoker & Holmes books is that the lead characters are not great friends. They are prickly characters who have been brought together by circumstance and continue to work together because otherwise they would be bored out of their minds. But Evaline & Mina don't especially like each other. They do however trust each other and that is important. In the midst of chaos, both professional and personal, they know they won't let each other down. Their evolving relationship is what draws me in even more than the mysteries themselves (which are always fun). Good stuff for the 13 & up crowd.

Nobody's Home: An Anubis Gates Story by Tim Powers. This novella might appeal more to fans of Powers and his wicked creepy 19th century London than anyone else, but I found it a lot fun to read, especially as the two main characters are young women who defy quite a few expectations.

Jacky Snapp is looking for the man who killed her fiancee Colin when she saves Harriet, who is under attack from the ghost of her husband. (Already crazy weird, right?) Post scuffle, Jacky and Harriet find themselves catching the attention of a lot London's ghosts and must travel to a barge moored below Westminster Palace called "Nobody's Home". They might have to pay in blood, but Nobody is their only shot to lose their attraction to London's ghosts. As it turns out though, Nobody knows a lot more about Jacky then she suspects.

Loads of atmosphere, breakneck pace, smart characters and no shortage of creepiness. It's short, fast and fun and includes outstanding illustrations from JK Potter. It's an expensive stocking stuffer, but Powers fans will be thrilled. (Excerpt here.)

And beyond these books there have been several for Booklist which I can't talk about and one for Locus which I can't talk about and....well, a couple of others but I'll post about them tomorrow.

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23. Going Over by Beth Kephart & wondering why we don't have more Cold War novels for teens

Set in 1983 Berlin, Going Over is a combination of romance and coming-of-age that dwells a lot more with the fallout of the Cold War than just about any book I have read for teenagers. It works because the plot is driven less by the international politics of containment then the angst of Ada, 16, and Stefan, 18, who are separated by the Berlin Wall. They don't have hopes of changing the world, they'd just like to hang out together when they want to which is not easy with all the concrete and guns between them.

Basically, Stefan's got to go over the wall.

Before we get to the adventure aspect ,(which is comparatively quite brief), Kephart immerses readers in the complicated relationship between Ada and Stefan, whose grandmothers are childhood friends who became separated when the wall was constructed. Over the years Ada and her grandmother traveled to East Berlin to visit, (a relatively common occurrence readers may not know about), and what began as a friendship between the children slowly became more.

Stefan's life is small; his future predetermined by the stringent rules of education and work that dominate socialist society. Ada, a graffiti artist who lives with her mother and grandmother and works in a small day care, is wide open to possibility. Her Germany can be grim as well, but the chance of what might happen next is something she embraces. Ada is all about taking big leaps and encourages (practically forces!) Stefan to consider big leaps as well. Fearlessness doesn't come easy to East Germans however, not with so many examples of how badly things can go when you try to be brave.

In hoping to persuade Stefan to leave, Ada collects reports on successful crossings and smuggles them in to him to read. (These are all true.) Bit by bit, Stefan forms a plan, while on the other side Ada watches and waits and dreams of a world where they are both able to imagine a future of their choice.

Going Over is a teen novel of far bigger ideas than most I have come across. The setting is brilliant and the split narrative, between Ada and Stefan, provides readers with a close look at just how different Berlin became after the split. (Which also makes the reunification that much more impressive.) There are so many novels set during WWII, while the Cold War remains stubbornly overlooked. I'm thus delighted with what Kephart has done here and find these characters, in their decidedly European setting, to be different in the best way. It's a thought provoking title with exceedingly likeable characters and a great ending; all of which make Going Over a winner.

[Post pic courtesy LIFE of a mother & daughter speaking across the wall in August 1961.]

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24. Vango Book 1: Between Sky and Earth - a grand epic tale

It is not often that I come across a grand tale that unfolds over decades and includes adventure across the land and sky, the pounding drums of war, religion, politics, romance, fast cars, fast boats, the love of a parent to a child, and characters who sweep you along with their words, actions and heart.

Frankly, it's almost exhausting to list all the parts of Vango: Between Sky and Earth that I enjoyed.

takes place in Europe between the two world wars. Written by Frenchman Timothee de Fombelle and translated by Sarah Ardizzone, there is a rhythm and tempo to the language that speaks to its historic nature. It reads easily but not casually; I truly felt like I was reading a book written in the 1930s although the pages move with more of a comic book speed than I expected. (This is a very good thing by the way.)

The title character, Vango Romano, is a young man who bursts onto the opening pages as he is accused of murder in Paris. Quickly the text moves from his rooftop escape, to the police, to those who witnessed his escape, to a mysterious meeting in Sochi, Russia and and then back sixteen years to Vango's own childhood in Sicily. The reader might be a little confused at first as the action jumps quickly in and out of different characters and back and forth across the map and time, but soon enough it becomes clear that everything is connected. (Also, the time periods and locations are clearly marked at each chapter.) Studying those connections is part of the joy in reading here, as Vango's life became more and more significant as each page turns.

There is no magic in Vango, this is realistic historic fiction where the bad guys are terrifying enough without adding fangs and fur. As the heroes and villains circle each other and the clues are dropped to Vango's past and future, the novel moves from thriller to mystery to political intrigue. By the final pages it all comes together and everyone plays their parts in grand fashion.

Big moves, big action, big issues are the stuff Vango: Between Sky and Earth are made of. Next up is the sequel, out now in Europe, Vango: A Prince Without a Kingdom. which I'm really looking forward to reading.

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25. Before After: An art book with the broadest appeal imaginable

This is one of the most ingenious titles I have come across in ages! It's absolutely basic, the simplest design, and yet the more pages you turn the more appealing it becomes.

On the left side is an image representing "before" and on the right there is "after". The subjects are all over the place - the bud and flower as above and then everything from a honeypot to a beehive, a pigeon to an airmailed letter, a rocket to the moon and a watching lizard to a fly.

There are no words, just fully painted images that range in size but maintain a muted intensity. The whole thing ends up being funny, thoughtful and utterly entertaining. It also has an unexpected calming effect--one enters a bit of a zen-like state while considering the creativity behind the project and can only wonder what comes next before the page is turned.

Before After
was published for children but I can't stress enough the timelessness of the design and idea. It's a great book for pre-readers who will love all the humor and making up stories on their own, but any smart and careful reader is going to embrace this book. It's the best kind of cheeky humor and just so lovely to look at--a real treat for young and old.

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