Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Read Like an Egyptian

The Great Pyramids, the winding Nile, archeological treasures from ancient civilizations—the lure of Egypt is irresistible. Whether it is recreating the lives of ancient Egypt, solving mysteries with mummies, mixing the modern world with ancient mythologies, or exploring the nuances of the country’s long political history, stories that revolve around Egypt are destined for drama and adventure.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips, 2004, Random House Books (Historical Fiction)

In the 1920s, Egyptologist Ralph M. Trilipush (secretive, arrogant, and paranoid) has pinned all his hopes on Atum-hadu. Trilipush translated and published the ancient Egyptian king’s erotic verses, but his fame in the field rests on finding the pharaoh’s tomb and accompanying riches. Trilipush is not especially well respected by his fellow scholars and he’s maddeningly jealous of Howard Carter’s recent discovery of the tomb of King Tut. But now he’s got the funding (from his opium-addicted fianc√©’s wealthy father) for his own dig, and he knows that Atum-hadu is out there, under the Egyptian sun, waiting to be uncovered. If things don’t go according to plan—and with an Australian detective on his tail, investigating the disappearance of an explorer who had connections to our arrogant Egyptologist, plans might very well go awry—Ralph M. Trilipush is equipped with exactly the kind of raving megalomania to cope with the situation. Author Arthur Phillips’ tale of deceit, self-deceit, and exposure unfolds through a series of letters to and from Trilipush. With a streak of macabre humor peeking out amongst the drama and a mean twist of an ending, The Egyptologist is a strange, darkly comic creation that is sure to shock and surprise.

Crocodile on the Sandbank: Amelia Peabody Mysteries, Book 1 by Elizabeth Peters, 1988, Mysterious Press, originally published 1975 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

The first thing Amelia Peabody does when she gets her independence after the death of her father is to head out and explore the wonders of Egypt. Not your typical Victorian spinster, Amelia is destined for adventure. So when she collects an elegant damsel in distress, the handsome archeologist Emerson brothers, and a walking, talking (well, moaning), two-thousand-year-old mummy along the way, it should come as no surprise that the iron-willed, umbrella-wielding Englishwoman knows how to deal with supposed curses and fainting ladies. But in the hot-tempered personality of dashing Radcliffe Emerson, Amelia appears to have met her match. It is hardly spoiling the story to reveal that the comically tempestuous relationship that develops between Amelia and Emerson is the force that drives not just Crocodile on the Sandbank, but the other eighteen books in the series. The real appeal lies not so much in the mysteries (though crime does indeed abound among the ruins of the ancient pharaohs) but in author Elizabeth Peters’ dynamic cast of characters and impeccable re-creation of the sights and sounds of Victorian-era Egypt. Peters has been writing about Amelia and her unconventional family, quirky friends, and deliciously wicked enemies for nigh on thirty years. The books take place in the years 1884 to 1922 (Amelia ages gracefully but never grows an ounce less resolute) and each explores another facet in the relationships of the Peabody-Emerson clan, another archeological site in Egypt, and another chapter in the ever-evolving history of that ancient nation. Fans can also check out Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium, a lovely big book overflowing with details about Amelia and her brood, how they thought, what they did, and what they saw in glorious Egypt.

Amelia Peabody Mysteries by Elizabeth Peters
1. Crocodile on the Sandbank
2. Curse of the Pharaohs
3. The Mummy Case
4. Lion in the Valley
5. The Deeds of the Disturber
6. The Last Camel Died at Noon
7. The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
8. The Hippopotamus Pool
9. Seeing a Large Cat
10. The Ape Who Guards the Balance
11. The Falcon at the Portal
12. He Shall Thunder in the Sky
13. Lord of the Silent
14. The Golden One
15. Children of the Storm
16. Guardian of the Horizon
17. The Serpent on the Crown
18. Tomb of the Golden Bird
19. A River in the Sky

The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet: A Mamur Zapt Mystery, Book 1 by Michael Pearce, 1990, Doubleday Books (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

The complex international politics of early 20th century Egypt provide the background for this first book in a series that stars Captain Gareth Owen, head (or “mamur zapt”) of the Cairo secret police. In 1881 Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive, nearly bankrupted the country and caused a major rebellion. Britain stepped in to “help”—and never left. Egypt is firmly under British rule in 1908 when our story takes place, with a slew of nationalist and anti-nationalist movements (some more extreme than others) striving to make their voices heard. A member of one of these factions must be responsible for the attempted assassination of politician Nuri Pash. A poor villager comes forward with a tale of revenge, but when police determine that his weapon was British army-issued, things become much more complex. This is the case Owen must solve, even as the city seethes with anticipation of the annual religious festival that celebrates the return of the Holy Carpet, the silk wrapping for the sacred stone at Mecca. Owen has many higher-ups to satisfy and many clues to navigate, but the heart of the story is the tentative friendship he forms with his Egyptian counterpart, Mahmoud el Zaki from the Ministry of Justice. The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet (and the other titles in the series) is carefully plotted, precisely paced, and character-driven. Author Michael Pearce offers an authentic perspective into the politics and society of colonial Egypt, evokes a richly detailed Cairo that is a character unto itself, and presents an intricate political thriller to boot.

Mamur Zapt Mysteries by Michael Pearce
1. The Return of the Carpet
2. The Night of the Dog
3. The Donkey-Vous
4. The Men Behind
5. The Girl in the Nile
6. The Spoils of Egypt
7. The Camel of Destruction
8. The Snake-Catcher’s Daughter
9. The Mingrelian Conspiracy
10. The Fig Tree Murder
11. The Last Cut
12. Death of an Effendi
13. A Cold Touch of Ice
14. The Face in the Cemetery
15. The Point in the Market
16. The Mark of the Pasha

Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake, 2007, Harper Collins (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

The ancient pharaoh Ahkenaten is an enigmatic figure even to Egyptologists today. Author Nick Drake re-imagines the king and all the glory of his time in Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead. Ahkenaten is power-hungry and driven, and he’s got a lot on his mind. He’s built a new capital city, created a new style of art and culture, and imposed a new religion on his people. But his vision is severely compromised when his beautiful and beloved wife Nefertiti goes missing. The pharaoh summons Rai Rehotep, chief detective of the Thebes police force, to solve the mystery in ten days—or die trying. Rehotep accepts that his life (and the lives of his family, who will also die if he fails) are in the hands of the strange king, and sets his whole mind and being to the search for the lost queen. He’s given three assistants—ruthlessly ambitious Mahu, cautious Khety, and earnest young Tjenry—and the king’s leave to poke into every nook and cranny of the palace and the city. Rehotep is surprisingly modern in his investigative techniques. He analyzes gossip, interviews suspects, collects forensic evidence, and finds himself deep in conspiracy, scandal, and a fierce battle for power. Ancient Egypt is given the royal treatment in Nefertiti. Ahkenaten is a personality to be reckoned with, the new city of Ahketaten is teeming with intrigue, and readers are completely caught up in Rehotep’s race against time. Nefertiti is the first of a planned trilogy about detective Rehotep; book two is Tutankhamun:  The Book of Shadows.

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, 2008, Random House Books (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Miss Agnes Shanklin is a spinster schoolteacher in rural Ohio, the plain Jane in her family who is loved but overlooked nonetheless. She’s spent her life quietly obeying her hard-working mother and living vicariously through her sister. But when the Great War and the Great Influenza take her family away from her, Agnes is forced into the spotlight. Leaving her grief behind, Agnes takes her modest inheritance and her cheery little dachshund, Rosie, to Egypt. It’s 1921 and the world is still recovering from all those years of trench warfare, but in Cairo a peace conference is underway. Luminaries like Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and Lawrence of Arabia are meeting to determine the fate of the Middle East. When Agnes wanders into their midst, her mild manner gives way to a sharp mind that serves as an ideal sounding board for their plans and ideas. Her attention is also drawn to Karl Weilbacher, an affable gentleman who showers Agnes with more kindness than she’s experienced in an entire lifetime. Karl is excessively interested in everything Agnes has to say—particularly when it relates to Churchill, Bell, Lawrence, and the plans of the European diplomats. Author Mary Doria Russell vividly portrays the real personalities who created the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, but it is Agnes, the fictional character who narrates this history, who readers will relate too. Inexperienced but by no means uninformed, Agnes navigates the waters of Egypt’s shifting political intrigues with a sense of wonder and wry intellect that is appealing and intimate.

The Professor’s Daughter by Joanne Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, 2007, First Second Books (Fantasy/ Historical Fiction/ Graphic Novel)

It’s a romance for the ages, told in that most colorful of narrative forms: the graphic novel. Lillian (pert and pretty) and Imhotep (dashing and dapper) are in love, and the duo makes quite a splash as they gad about Victorian-era London. Of course, many obstacles stand in their way—Lillian is the daughter of an eminent archeology professor, and Imhotep is a bandage-wrapped mummified Prince of Ancient Egypt. Imhotep is three-thousand years old and somewhat out of touch with modern life (a single cuppa turns him into a drunken mess, insulting gentlemen and wrecking tea rooms), and Lillian’s father is unlikely to approve the match (“You are the property of the British Museum. You are dead. Stay out of this!” the Professor cries when he discovers the mummy and his daughter in each other’s arms). Imhotep’s own mummified dad, the British police force, and Queen Victoria herself get tangled up in this whimsical romantic omedy. As the sprightly forms of Lillian and Imhotep dart across the pages, readers become enchanted by the pair’s hijinks and adventures. Originally published in France in 1997, The Professor’s Daughter was translated by noted graphic novel press First Second Books in 2007. Author and artist collaborators Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert are in fine form here—cheeky humor and expressive illustrations combine for a truly delightful romp.

The Red Pyramid: The Kane Chronicles, Book 1 by Rick Riordan, 2010, Hyperion Books for Children (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

Author Rick Riordan is best known for his Percy Jackson and the Olympians books that combine the pantheon of Greek gods with a rag-tag bunch of modern kids on a heroic quest to save the world. In his new series, The Kane Chronicles, Riordan mines the equally rich Egyptian mythos for a similar but no less exciting adventure. Book one introduces Carter Kane (age 14) and Sadie Kane (age 12). Since the death of their mother six years ago, these siblings have lived separate lives. Carter roams the globe with his Egyptologist father, Julius, while Sadie lives in England with grandparents. The scattered family is reunited one Christmas Eve when Julius Kane brings his children to the British Museum. What happens there results in the destruction of the Rosetta Stone, the disappearance of Carter and Sadie’s dad, and the unleashed power of the ancient Egyptian god of chaos. This god, Set, is of course out to destroy the world and Carter and Sadie—who begin to display some unique powers of their own—are the only ones who can stop him. They are aided (and educated in Egyptian lore) by a colorful cast of magicians, gods, goddesses, and monsters. Sadie is cheeky and tenaciously curious; Carter is cautious but steadfast. The siblings’ banter (the tale is presented as a transcript of an audio recording) is as much fun as the action-packed chapters, and it’s a refreshing to have a female hero join a genre that finally features main characters with a biracial heritage (the Kane kids have a black father and a white mother). Riordan brings ancient Egypt to life and sends it crashing into the modern world. The result is non-stop, dynamic, rip-roaring adventure.

Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King by Christine El Mahdy, 2000, St. Martin’s Press (Nonfiction/ Ancient Egyptian History/ Pharaohs/ Biography)

Name an Egyptian pharaoh. Ten to one, the words “King Tut” came rolling out of your mouth almost automatically. When Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s untouched tomb was discovered in 1922 filled to the brim with gold and precious stones, it caused a worldwide sensation. And when several of the people involved in the excavation died of “mysterious causes” attributed to an ancient curse, Tut’s popularity went through the roof. But really, we know very little about the actual life and death of this immensely famous ancient ruler. With Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King, British Egyptologist Christine El Mahdy investigates the mystery that lies behind the legend. El Mahdy devoted most of her life and career to the study of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, which ruled the country more than 3,500 years ago. She outlines the ancient geography, culture, religion, politics, and society. She relates Tutankhamen’s family tree and describes the unique period into which he was born—the pharaoh before Tut was Ahkenaten, the heretic king who turned his back on Egypt’s traditional array of gods and built a brand new city in sole honor of the sun god. She describes the riveting account of the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter. And she constructs a new biography of Tutankhamen, this young man who was crowned king at the age of seven, died in his tender teenage years, and was entombed with almost unimaginable wealth. Tutankhamen is accessible, intriguing, intellectual, and brimming over with the author’s unmistakable enthusiasm for her subject.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Orphans, Half-Orphans, Near-Orphans, and Other Curious Kids

Babies left on doorsteps, dangerous distant relatives, gloomy manor houses inhabited by left-behind children: These are just a few of the hallmarks of the good old-fashioned orphan story. Sometimes the children are half-orphans with just one parent; sometimes they might just as well be orphans for all the attention their self-absorbed parents give them. Whatever the case, a few exceptionally bright and brainy youngsters have to fend for themselves against all manner of evils perpetrated by the dimwitted adults in their lives. Despite the grim premise, these stories are quirky, clever, cute, and crafty. Their authors and illustrators revel in the outlandish wiles of their villains, embrace the absurd, employ a deliciously snarky tone, and generally have a ball letting their infant heroes save the day. Mischief-makers young and old will delight in these oddball tales of childish know-how.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Bret Halquist, 1999, HarperCollins (Children’s Fiction/ Humor)

Oh, despair for the poor little Baudelaire children! Inventive Violent (age 14), bookworm Klaus (age 12), and baby Sunny, who likes to bite, have absolutely no happiness in store for them—and we are assured of that fact from the beginning by a wry narrator who cautions that “If you like stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” Orphaned when their beloved parents and home are consumed by a fire, the trio of Baudelaire siblings are installed in the gloomy home of distant relative Count Olaf. Count Olaf, of course, is a wicked villain with dastardly designs on the hefty Baudelaire fortune. Since every other adult in the book is completely clueless, Violent, Klaus, and Sunny must rely on their own pluck and resolve to get out of this sticky situation. But remember that the title of this series is, after all, A Series of Unfortunate Events. The adults get no wiser, the children no luckier, and at the end of The Bad Beginning the Baudelaires are no better off than they were before. The reader, however, has been in a fit of giggles since page one. Author Lemony Snicket tells his tale of woe in a gleefully tongue-in-cheek fashion. Satirizing the literary conventions of many an old-fashioned classic, Snicket takes the orphan story to wonderfully absurd new heights. His flair for the comically melodramatic continues in The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and ten other cunning titles.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake, 2007, Puffin Classics, originally published 1961 (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

James Henry Trotter is an very unfortunate orphan. When his parents are gobbled up by an escaped rhinoceros, James is sent to live with (and slave for) Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. He chops wood and serves tea to his hideous aunts until he’s seven years old; then, √† la Jack and the Bean Stalk, a mysterious old man gives the boy a bag of tiny green-glowing crystals and promises that if James mixes them up and drinks them down, he will be rewarded with magic and adventures galore. But poor James has no luck—in his excitement he trips and spills his magic crystals under the old peach tree in the yard. The result is an amazing large peach that grows overnight. The Aunts make a bundle showing off their giant peach (and making James clean up after the crowds who pay to see it). One night James, miserable as ever, finds a strange tunnel dug into the peach. In he crawls to meet a crew of magically enormous insects—grinning Centipede, dapper Grasshopper, motherly Ladybug, and all the rest. They welcome the boy with open arms, snip the stem of the peach, and James finally gets the fantastic adventure he was promised. Author Roald Dahl’s trademark sense of humor is in finest form in James and the Giant Peach—sometimes dark, sometimes whimsical, and always fabulously fun. The illustrations are part of the story’s charm; the first edition in 1961 featured elegant pen-and-ink drawings by Nancy Burkert. Quentin Blake’s energetic style is practically synonymous with the works of Roald Dahl and artist Lane Smith re-illustrated the book in a freshly quirky style for the 1996 release of an animated film version.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, 2008, Houghton Mifflin Books (Children’s Fiction/ Humor)

The Willoughbys are a pleasant, old-fashioned sort of family—except that Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby tend to forget that they have children, and get rather tetchy when reminded of the fact. So the Willoughby children—bossy Tim, sweet Jane, and twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B—decide that they really would be better off as orphans. That way, they would at least be assured an adventure or two. A baby left on the doorstep (and re-delivered to a neighboring doorstep) is the catalyst for a series of astounding coincidences, devious plans, and literary conventions turned upside down that make up author Lois Lowry’s sprightly tale. Other characters include a down-in-the-dumps candy bar tycoon (inventor of the delicious Lickety-Split), a no-nonsense nanny who scorns other no-nonsense nannies (like that “fly-by-night” Mary Poppins), and a lederhosen-clad lad who speaks very poor German (he just adds extra syllables “with a vaguely Germanic sound” to English words). The sly, winking tone that Lowry adopts on page one carries through to the utter end, meaning even her glossary of vocabulary words and bibliography of orphan literature are a rare and playful treat to read. Absurd humor with more than a dash of sparkling satire, The Willoughbys contains some of the most impish orphans out there.

Rare Beasts: Edgar and Ellen, Book 1 by Charles Ogden, illustrated by Rick Carton, 2003, Tricycle Press (Children’s Fiction)

Orphans turn downright nasty in Rare Beasts, a slim volume overflowing with the devious deeds of twelve-year-old twins Edgar and Ellen. Their parents are off on a lengthy (it’s been years) round-the-world vacation—and no wonder, because Edgar and Ellen are the terror of the town of Nod’s Limbs. The deceitful duo runs amuck in a tall, narrow old house. They have a gloomy groundskeeper called Heimertz and a pet, named Pet, who they occasionally torment. In fact, it’s the presence of Pet that gives the siblings the idea for their latest evil plan—steal the town’s beloved pets, deck them out in paint and glitter, and sell them for a fortune as rare and exotic beasts. With money in their grubby little pockets, the twins will be able to fund all manner of underhanded schemes. It’s a master plan and Edgar and Ellen are determined to carry it out to perfection—if their own in-fighting and constant bickering (not to mention a very big pet snake) doesn’t get in the way. Rare Beasts is the first offering a series by author Charles Ogden (actually the pen name for a group of writers), and he holds nothing back in making his hero and heroine as gleefully diabolical as possible. Edgar and Ellen are so outlandishly over-the-top awful that he gets away with it and the result is a deliciously naughty little book. Whether the sneaky siblings develop any morals—and we rather hope they don’t—remains to be seen in book two (Tourist Trap) and its many prank-filled sequels.

Dying to Meet You: 43 Old Cemetery Road, Book 1 by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise, 2009, Harcourt Books (Children’s Fiction)

Ignatius B. Grumply is a children’s book author with a severe (twenty years long!) case of writer’s block. Desperate to finally put pen to paper, Mr. Grumply takes up residence in a ramshackle Victorian mansion in the gossipy little town of Ghastly, Illinois. Mr. Grumply does not expect the house to be quite as rickety as it is. He does not expect the house to already be inhabited. He does not expect that inhabitant to be an eleven-year-old boy. And Mr. Grumbly certainly doesn’t expect the boy to announce that he lives there all alone with his cat—and a ghost! But that is indeed Seymour Hope’s story, and he’s sticking to it. His parents (paranormal investigators who have concluded that ghosts do NOT exist) are on tour in Europe; they’ve left their unwanted son behind in the care of whoever happens to rent or buy their equally unwanted home. The house was originally built by Miss Olive C. Spence, an old-fashioned writer-turned-poltergeist who has sworn to haunt her home for all eternity—or at least until one of her books gets published. Olive and Seymour (and the cat) get along swimmingly until old Grumply arrives with his bad moods and house rules. But savvy Olive and confident Seymour are as stubborn as old Mr. Grumply, and now a comical battle of wills rages between man, boy, and ghost. Told through letters that the characters write and receive and scattered throughout with Ghastly Times newspaper clippings and quaint line drawings by the author’s sister, Dying to Meet You is a fresh and funny first entry in a series that promises loads of charm.

Dial-A-Ghost by Eva Ibbotson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, 2001, Dutton’s Children Books (Children’s Fiction)

The Wilkinsons are just the nicest family you could ever imagine. They are also ghosts, and they need a new house to haunt. Luckily, the Dial-A-Ghost agency specializes in finding homes for lost souls. The Wilkinsons are matched with a friendly group of nuns while other ghosts like the Shriekers—a mad child-hating husband and wife duo—are ideally suited for clients like Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle, who have requested the nastiest ghosts possible to haunt their family home at Helton Hall. But a clerical error at the agency sends the Shriekers to the nuns and the Wilkinsons to Helton Hall. The Shriekers are vastly disappointed when there are no children to terrify, but the Wilkinsons are thrilled to find a little boy all alone. This is Oliver, the new heir to Helton Hall. Little orphan Oliver has been whisked away from his comfortable orphanage and installed in the ancestral home for the sole purpose of being scared to death so cousins Fulton and Frieda can have the family fortune all to themselves. Of course the Wilkinsons have no intention of harming a single hair on Oliver’s head. Rather, the ghostly family and the young lad become fast friends get along swimmingly. But the Snodde-Brittles and the Shriekers won’t give up that easily, and the shared happiness that Oliver and the Wilkinsons have finally found is imminently threatened. Author Eva Ibbotson paints a colorful cast of characters, some made of flesh and bone and some made of ectoplasm. There’s a healthy sense of humor, plenty of the macabre (the Shriekers are especially grotesque), and eerie little illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Part comedy of errors, part ghastly ghost story, and with plenty of throwbacks to that old orphan literature of yore, Dial-A-Ghost is a creepy, crawly, comical adventure story.

Spring-Heeled Jack by Philip Pullman, illustrated by David Mostyn, 1991, Random House Books (Children’s Fiction/ Adventure) 

When Rose, Lily, and Ned Summers escape from the Alderman Cawn-Plaster Memorial Orphanage one dark Victorian night, their goal is a ship bound for America so they can start a new life. But the pretty locket around Rose’s neck—containing photos of the orphans’ dear departed parents—attracts the unsavory attention of London cutthroat Mack the Knife. The children are saved by Spring-Heeled Jack, a legendary superhero-esque rogue who roams the city on bouncy shoes (he can leap over buildings in a single bound). But there’s still trouble—Mack manages to nab Ned and hold him hostage, and hot on Rose and Lily’s heels are Mr. Killjoy and Miss Gasket, the greedy caretakers from the orphanage. Rose and Lily and Ned have plenty of guts and gumption, and with Spring-Heeled Jack, a yappy dog named Spangle, a kindhearted sailor and his barmaid girlfriend on their side, there’s little doubt the Summers siblings will reunite and save the day. The real appeal of this thrilling tale of derring-do lies in its unique format. Author Philip Pullman’s action-packed text gives way every now and then to comics-style panels (by illustrator David Mostyn) that continue the plot, complete with witty asides and clever commentary by a crew of cartoon animals who keep pace with the story. There’s enough silliness in this send-up to entertain any adventure-lover.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis, 2007, Little, Brown Books (Children’s Fiction/ Mystery)

“Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?” This unusual newspaper ad catches the eye of an especially observant and inventive orphan named Reynie Muldoon. It also catches the eyes of ready-for-adventure Kate Wetherall, brainy and sensitive George “Sticky” Washington, and very contrary little Constance Contraire. The children pass a series of tests for the mind and spirit and are recruited by the philanthropic Mr. Benedict. Their mission: Infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, a school run by the brilliant but dastardly Ledroptha Curtain. Mysterious messages are issuing forth from the school to brainwash the unsuspecting population, and Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance must combine their unique talents and skills to save the day. The reader follows clues and solves puzzles right along with the kids for a clever and interactive literary adventure. Like all worthy and wise orphans, Reynie and company pull together to outwit the villains and save the day. And like most orphans, their troubles are far from over—their unique capabilities are required in The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. And thank goodness for that, because few things are more fun than saving the day with the Mysterious Benedict Society.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Pat Marriott, 2000, Delacorte Press, originally published 1962 (Children’s Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Willoughby Chase may be an imposing mansion situated on a bleak moor that is teaming with hungry wolves, but indoors everything is cheery. Little Bonnie runs harum-scarum through her big house, beloved of dashing Papa, elegant but sickly Mama, and Pattern the devoted maid. Papa and Mama are embarking on a cruise, but little cousin Sylvia is coming to stay and keep Bonnie company. The two cousins hit it off right away but their new governess, Miss Slighcarp, wastes no time before showing her true colors—cunning, wicked, and cruel. Almost before they can blink, the toys are packed away, the ponies are sold, the helpful servants are dismissed, and Bonnie and Sylvia are declared orphans. Miss Slighcarp sends the girls off to slave away at a horrible school for orphaned girls where they are mistreated, abused, starved, and scolded. But in typical orphan fashion and with the help of a few well-placed allies, Bonnie and Sylvia rally to the challenge. Less snarky in tone and wit than the other books on this list, author Joan Aiken nevertheless delights in heaping burden after burden upon the slender shoulders of her heroines as they face wolves, lawyers, burnt porridge, and more. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the first in a series of plucky-waif-makes-good stories by Aiken (followed by Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, and others), and all serve as prime examples of the classic orphan tale of woe and redemption.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Blitz of Books

 The first German bombs hit London on September 7, 1940, around 4:00pm. They didn’t let up until May 11, 1941. World War II is a time rich in history for stories fictional and true, but the Blitz—that seemingly-endless winter of air raids on England’s biggest city—is a period that is packed with tales of drama and derring-do. The goal of the Blitz was to demoralize Britain to the point of surrender. But Londoners were determined to keep their upper lips stiff and defy Hitler by staying put and living their lives, taking cover when the sirens wailed in basements, backyard shelters, and underground railway stations. A story set against the blacked-out ruins of London’s Blitzed streets is bound to be chock-a-block full of bravery, glory, adventure, tragedy, and triumph.

Blackout by Connie Willis, 2010, Spectra Ballantine Books (Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

In 2060, at Oxford University, history students know that the best way to study the past is to be there. And thanks to the invention of time travel (via “the net”), getting that first-hand experience has never been easier. Polly, Merope, and Mike are three young historians with an interest in World War II. Mike is observing random acts of heroism during the rescue of British troops at Dunkirk. Merope is a maidservant at a big manor house in the country, caring for children evacuated from London to escape the bombings. And Polly is studying the Blitz, working as a London shop girl during the day and taking cover from bombs in cellars and tube stations at night. But soon our three intrepid historians discover a very big problem—their rendezvous points back to 2060 won’t open. Their only hope is to find each other in London, but nothing is as simple as it’s meant to be—including making sure that what happens is what’s supposed to happen. Author Connie Willis has toyed with time travel before in her gripping, award-winning Doomsday Book and her delightfully comic To Say Nothing of the Dog. Like those books, Blackout hooks the reader from the first page. Willis’ depictions of life during World War I—particularly Polly’s constant near-hits and misses during the Blitz—are pitch perfect. The nail-biting suspense will inspire near-frantic page turning. Blackout’s highly-anticipated sequel, All Clear, is due in October 2010.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, 2010, Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons (Historical Fiction)

The Postmistress is the story of two women in the small Cape Cod town of Franklin, Massachusetts—Iris, manager of the local post office, and Emma, the doctor’s bride—and the woman they listen to on the radio, Frankie Bard, reporting live from the London Blitz. These three women are very different. Iris is a no-nonsense spinster of forty who has fallen in love with the town mechanic, Harry Vale. Emma is a pretty young thing with no family except her new husband, the duty-torn Dr. Will Fitch. Plucky Frankie, mentored by Edward R. Murrow and used to dodging bombs in the blacked-out London streets, knows that if she can find the right story to send back to the States, she can spur a reluctant nation into action. The lives—and carefully-kept secrets—of Iris, Emma, and Frankie slowly intertwine as author Sarah Blake weaves a lyrical story that brims with suspense and delicately-wrought drama. Frankie’s reports on the Blitz and other wartime atrocities strike home as much with readers as they do with Iris and Emma, and readers and characters both are left to contemplate the truths and untruths that accompany the unfamiliar turmoil and desperate hopes of war. A haunting piece of literature, The Postmistress goes far beyond the reaches of historical fiction to present a true portrait of a time and its people.

London Calling by Edward Bloor, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Teen Fiction)

Angsty seventh-grader Martin Conway’s family is complicated. His father is an alcoholic, but his grandfather Martin Meehan was an embassy secretary who hobnobbed with the Kennedys in 1940 London. All Souls Prep School, where Martin’s mother works so her son can attend tuition-free, was founded by even more prominent World War II hero General Henry M. “Hollerin’ Hank” Lowery. Stuck in the long shadows cast by the men in his life, Martin broods in his basement bedroom. But he is yanked out of his miserable existence when his grandmother dies and leaves him an antique radio. Martin intends to use it as a night light, but when he plugs it in something very strange happens. While he sleeps Martin is transported to London in 1940, smack dab in the middle of the Blitz, where a scrappy little kid named Jimmy pleads with him to “do his bit.” This is no dream. When Martin wakes up and does a bit of modern research, he discovers that Jimmy and the other Londoners he’s seen and heard are real, documented people. He also uncovers some unexpected truths about the very men he’s been brought up to revere and admire. This is a novel overflowing with the tension of things left unsaid and secrets kept too long. Martin’s fears and insecurities are laid bare by his intimate narrative voice and author Edward Bloor’s evocation of Blitz-ravaged London is hard-hitting. A bit heavy-handed at times when dealing with the ethics of religion, politics, and history, London Calling is nevertheless a poignant coming-of-age story.

A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers, 2003, St. Martin’s Press (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

Author Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was one of the Queens of Crime during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1930s and 40s. Her detective of choice was dapper aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey. The last Wimsey story was published in 1942, but Sayers left a few other tantalizing bits and pieces behind. One of these, “The Wimsey Papers,” is a series of fictional letters to and from members of the Wimsey family that Sayers penned in 1940. In 2003, mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh filled out the details and wrote A Presumption of Death. Lord Peter is offstage most of the novel on a hush-hush government mission, but he is never out of his brainy wife Harriet’s thoughts. And Harriet has a lot on her mind during this winter of 1939—an estate to manage, children to raise, and a war to get ready for. Even more worrisome, a young woman is found murdered in the street during an air raid drill. Since the local police are already overwhelmed by war-time preparations, Harriet is asked to fill in and solve the crime. But everyone knows that the usual rules no longer apply when bombs may soon be falling in their own backyards. Walsh writes with a mastery that equally conveys a compelling murder mystery, the gossipy life of a small village town, and the harsh realities that everyday people faced while the Blitz was hot on their heels. Though they are well worth reading, there’s no need to be familiar with Sayers’ previous novels to enjoy this mysterious, historical slice of British life.

Full Dark House: Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries, Book 1 by Christopher Fowler, 2004, Bantam Books (Mystery)

Today, Arthur Bryant and John May are the oldest detectives in the London police department. When they first met in 1940, they were among the youngest. Thrown together when the Peculiar Crimes Unit—formed to solve unusual crimes that might otherwise strike a blow to London’s fragile morale—was created during World War II, Bryant and May are uniquely suited to their rather odd job. Bryant is an unkempt, unconventional believer in the supernatural; May, handsome and sensible, can be relied upon to be open-minded. Call them the Mulder and Scully of crime fiction, and you won’t be too far off the mark. Bryant and May’s is a partnership built to last—until one night, in modern London of the twenty-first century, a bomb in the department’s headquarters puts an end to Bryant’s long career. May, nearly eighty years old now but still sharp as a tack, is determined to solve his partner’s murder. He retraces Bryant’s last steps and is surprised to find that they lead back to the duo’s very first case together, a gruesome series of murders that plagued the dark passages of the Palace Theatre in 1940 while German bombs destroyed the city of London outside. In chapters that shift back and forth between May’s present-day investigation and the air raids of the Blitz, Full Dark House is a riveting mystery chock-full of forensics, suspects, history, and character. Author Christopher Fowler blesses Bryant and May with enough peccadilloes to be interesting, but the detectives are not mere caricatures; these are men with personality enough to fill a series of mysteries—and indeed, Full Dark House is one of seven whodunits to date featuring Bryant and May and their sixty-odd years of suspenseful crime solving.

Blitz: The Story of December 29,1940 by Margaret Gaskin, 2006, Harcourt Books (Nonfiction/ British History/ World War II)

The night of Sunday, December 29, 1940 was one of the worst nights of the Blitz. The relentless German air force dropped three-hundred tons of bombs on London. Over 15,000 fires sprang up and nearly 3,600 civilians were killed. The historical heart of London was the target, and the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral was very nearly lost to fire—had it not been for the dedicated team of firemen who fought the blaze throughout the night. Ambulance drivers, rescue workers, fighter pilots, and anti-aircraft crews all did their part to save the city, and it’s their story that takes center stage in author and historian Margaret Gaskin’s account of December 29. She employs photographs, first-hand accounts, and news reports to reconstruct the events of that fateful night with special attention to the regular folk who stood fast through the destruction and then emerged from their shelters to help their fellows and put their city back together. Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940 ties all these historical details together to present a historical account that is truly a story told by those who lived it.