>Rarely have I enjoyed reading a book as much as I’ve enjoyed Walter Moers’s The Alchemaster’s Apprentice. I simply never wanted it to end. This zany fantasy novel has everything that I relish most in a story: loveable characters, adventure, peril, mystery, and a talking cat. Pardon me – a talking Crat. In Moers’s weird and wonderful land of Zamonia, Crats are clever creatures that look like ordinary cats but can speak any language. This is a skill that comes in handy for our hero Echo the Crat, who finds himself starving on the streets after the death of his owner. To stave off death – at least temporarily – Echo is forced to strike a bargain with Ghoolion the Alchemaster, a diabolical alchemist who also happens to be a master chef. Ghoolion promises to house Echo for one month, educate him in the ways of alchemy, and feed him on sumptuous gourmet dishes. In return, Echo must surrender his life at the next full moon so that the Alchemaster can use his fat in an alchemical potion. Despite the hefty price, the homeless Crat agrees to the bargain. But once he gains a new lease on life, Echo begins seeking a way out of the pact and must rely upon his sharp wits and good-naturedness – as well as his friendships with such creatures as Leathermice, Ugglies, and Cooked Ghosts – to defeat Ghoolion and his wicked plans.
>While James Bond was out battling the likes of Dr. No and Goldfinger, sipping shaken-not-stirred martinis and racing around in his specially equipped Aston Martin (or BMW, depending on which version of Bond you fancy), Miss Moneypenny was sitting quietly at her desk, typing up his reports and daydreaming about the womanizing secret agent, right? Wrong. Kate Westbrook’s The Moneypenny Diaries paints a very different picture of M’s loyal secretary. Haunted by the disappearance of her father on a mysterious covert mission during World War II, Jane Moneypenny joins MI6 in the hope that the connections she makes in Britain’s spy agency will lead her to the truth about his fate. Meanwhile, the secrecy surrounding her day-to-day work complicates her personal relationships, and the information she is privy to involves her in dangers far removed from her office at MI6 headquarters. And then there’s 007, the dashing but troubled agent with whom she shares a flirtatious friendship, and for whose welfare Jane spends many a worried, wakeful night.
>There are plenty of books with likable characters, or clever characters, or unique characters. But favorite characters? Those are much harder to come by. You know the ones I mean – the characters you wish were real so you could hang out with them, engage them in fascinating conversations, push them out into society and sit back to watch the fireworks. I have just made the acquaintance of such a character in Alan Bradley’s mystery novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Her name is Flavia de Luce, and she’s the youngest of three daughters of an aristocratic British family that has fallen on hard times. She’s diabolically clever, witty, full of vim and vigor, and an expert chemist with a passion for poison.
> Since August of 1888, when the body of Martha Tabram was found in the dismal streets of London’s Whitechapel district stabbed to death thirty-nine times, the identity of history’s most infamous serial killer has fired the imaginations of professional investigators, writers, and the public at large. Over the course of three months the killer who came to be known as Jack the Ripper would terrify the citizens of London, taunt the press and police with letters and grisly souvenirs from his crimes, and take the lives of six unfortunates (the polite Victorian term for prostitutes) in vicious nighttime attacks. To this day the crimes remain unsolved.
> We’ve been thrilled by the enthusiastic response we’ve gotten to our Personalized Reading List service. For months now we’ve been helping patrons find their next favorite book. If you’re wondering what to read next, why not let us help by providing you with a list of fiction and/or non-fiction titles suited to your reading tastes and interests. Just pick up a reading survey at the library, or click here to print one you can mail or bring in at your convenience. Give us at least two weeks and we’ll give you a list of books we think you’ll enjoy.
Here are a few of the well-received titles we’ve recommended to Personalized Reading List users recently:
- What a Girl Wants by Kristin Billerbeck
Norah’s Ark by Judy Baer
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
>No one writes like Charles Dickens these days, but D.J. Taylor comes awfully close with his novel Kept: A Victorian Mystery. Full of period detail and atmosphere, Taylor’s story – which ranges from the grimy, fog-choked streets of 1860′s London to the wild expanses of the Scottish Highlands and Canadian tundra – explores the unseemly labyrinth of secrets, desires, and crime that lay just below the genteel surface of the Victorian era. A mentally unstable widow, an eccentric naturalist, a lawyer with a scandalous past, an inquisitive young kitchen maid, and a cunning debt collector are some of the colorful characters connected by a web of obsession, blackmail, and theft and brought vividly to life by Taylor’s evocative descriptions of 19th century life. You can almost smell the smoke from the coal fires and feel the rain pattering upon your head as you immerse yourself in every page of Kept.
As the chill of autumn starts to creep into the air, I begin longing for a certain type of book: a slightly unsettling kind of story in which old manor houses, family secrets, superstitions, disappearances, and ghosts are all woven into a mystery with multiple twists and turns. I found just such a story in John Harwood’s latest novel, The Séance. Constance Langton, a young woman living in 19th century England, has endured a lonely childhood marred by the death of her younger sister and her mother’s obsession with spiritualism. The chance for a new life comes when Constance unexpectedly inherits a country manor house named Wraxford Hall from a distant relation. But the inheritance is tainted, for Wraxford Hall is known to be cursed, its history plagued by mysterious disappearances, occult experiments, and even murder. As she begins to investigate the tragic nature of her new home, a strange story unfolds before Constance, pulling her eventually within its malevolent embrace. And if, like me, you’re in the mood for a mystery with spectral overtones, you’ll eagerly surrender yourself to the sinister charms of The Séance.
For a list of other Victorian mysteries, check out Murder, Victorian Style, one of the many book lists created by Manhattan Public Library staff members to help you find your next favorite book. And remember to return often to our Staff Picks Page to find new and updated lists!
> In the seaside Irish village of Glennkill, a man lies murdered, pinned to the ground by his own garden spade. His neighbors, a suspicious lot with plenty of secrets to hide, respond to the homicide in their midst with idle talk and bitter recriminations, and the local police show little interest in the case. It falls to the victim’s truest friends to solve the mystery of his murder – provided they can stop grazing long enough to do so!
You see, in Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full the murder victim is a shepherd – and the amateur sleuths are sheep. Led by Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep in the village (and possibly the world), this band of rag-tag, woolly detectives dedicate themselves to solving the crime that took the life of their beloved shepherd. But to track down the necessary clues, the sheep must first overcome their own secrets, fears, and potentially dangerous weaknesses. What became of lead ram Sir Ritchfield’s brother Melmoth when he left the flock? What occurred in Othello’s mysterious past to make him so brave? And will Mopple the Whale be able to conquer his voracious appetite long enough to do some investigating?
You’re sure to be charmed by these wonderful ovine characters with their unique personalities and perspectives – often wrong but always entertaining – into human behavior. (If the long-nosed man lives in the building called the House of God, then surely his name is God?) From the finding of a Thing in their meadow (“Human beings are attached to Things”) to their philosophical musings on the nature of Cloud Sheep (just clouds to us), the detectives of Three Bags Full will stay in your heart long after the last page is turned.
How would you react to such news? Would you join an impromptu street party, or start digging out a bunker in your backyard? Would the revelation usher in world peace – or worldwide panic? What would the message say and how would we respond? And what might our far away neighbors be like?
These are some of the questions deliberated by Seth Shostak, head astronomer at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in his new book Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In layman’s terms, Shostak describes the work that the SETI Institute has been doing for twenty-five years, the science behind the equipment and procedures currently being used to search for radio signals from other stars, and the emerging technologies that he predicts will find such a signal within the next few decades. Shostak also discusses the questions the institute’s scientists most frequently receive from Earthlings both supportive and critical of SETI’s mission: Where in the universe is other intelligent life likely to be found? Are aliens already here? Will we soon be zipping around space like the crew of the Enterprise? What might the aliens look like? Some of Shostak’s conclusions are sure to surprise you. (Think the aliens will have tentacles and six legs? Think again.)
Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, Confessions of an Alien Hunter is a fascinating, good-humored look at one of the most popular and controversial topics of the modern era.
Yet Fawcett, who had become a preeminent South American explorer, seemed assured of success. When he and his companions sent a dispatch back from the village of a friendly Indian tribe they warned friends and relatives that they might be unable to communicate for up to two years. They were confident that during the course of those years they would find Z and unlock its ancient secrets, and the world waited with baited breath for the conclusion of their daring adventure. It never came.
Percy Fawcett disappeared, and it is the fate of he and his young companions – as well as the existence or illusion of Z – that David Grann explores in his book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Grann ventures into the Amazon, following Fawcett’s trail and seeking out the Indian tribes who may hold the key to the explorers’ fates. Through the narrative of his own journey he weaves the tale of Fawcett’s early expeditions, his remarkable ability to survive the most treacherous conditions, and his growing obsession with a lost civilization which may be the fabled El Dorado. It is an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones, a thrilling peek into a part of the world where the past is alive, jealously guarding its secrets.
Or did they? Imagine now that Snow White is the over-worked administrator of a secret government whose ineffectual king – named Cole, by the way – is more of a figurehead than a leader. The Big Bad Wolf, under a spell that renders him human, is a grizzled, chain-smoking detective prone to violently interrogating suspects. And Beauty and the Beast are having marital problems. This is the world of Bill Willingham’s Fables, a series of graphic novels chronicling the (mis)adventures of classic fairy tale characters thrust into modern New York City. Driven from their homelands by an evil sorcerer, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, and other familiar names establish a secret community called Fabletown and try to conceal their magical natures from mortal eyes. Yet being immortal doesn’t keep these characters from getting tangled up in some very human – and very adult – troubles. Murder, infidelity, gambling, and blackmail are just some of the problems Snow and the Wolf find themselves obliged to sort out on behalf of Fabletown’s wayward citizens. Clever, witty, and a lot of fun, Fables is a graphic novel series perfect for adult fairy tale fans.
Sound familiar? It may, but it isn’t the plot of ABC’s hit series Lost which returns this week for its fifth season. It is actually a summary of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. This enigmatic, moving story of a Himalayan Shangri-La and the group of outsiders who stumble upon it will haunt you long after you’ve passed the last page. It’s a must-read for Lost fans – as are other tales of castaways, survivors and mysterious, hidden lands such as Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, Stranger in a Strange Land, Heart of Darkness, and Gulliver’s Travels. Come to the library to find these and other Lost-alikes and prepare yourself for some mind-bending, time-warping, twist-turning adventure!
In 1845 Sir John Franklin sailed from England for the Arctic regions with two ships and 128 men on what was viewed as a mission of certain success. His orders were to find and sail through the Northwest Passage, and to insure his success he was equipped with two of the most technologically-advanced ships ever dispatched to the Arctic – the Terror and the Erebus – and enough supplies to keep him and his men fed and comfortable for at least five years. When the expedition, its ships, and every man on board vanished without a trace, however, the Franklin Expedition turned from a triumphant display of British naval power and ingenuity into one of the greatest and most enduring mysteries in the history of exploration. For the next twenty years England would send out dozens of intrepid men to search for Franklin and his crews – first in the hope of rescue, then simply to solve the puzzle of their fate. Yet to this day only three graves, two cryptic notes, and a scattering of artifacts and human bones have been located to give any indication of what tragedy befell the expedition.
So how is the ill-fated Franklin Expedition connected to the desk in the Oval Office used by U.S. presidents? That is the story that Martin W. Sandler unfolds in his book Resolute: the epic search for the Northwest Passage and John Franklin, and the discovery of the Queen’s ghost ship. It is a fascinating look at the personalities and expeditions – both thrilling and horrifying – that preceded Franklin and ventured into the Arctic wastes after his disappearance.
This and other tales of cold climate adventure and endurance are on display this month at MPL. See how warm January suddenly feels after reading these non-fiction stories of heroism and survival!