Friday, January 30, 2015

M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

M is for Magic is a selection of short stories written by master storyteller, Neil Gaiman. Each (with the exception of one) was previously published in other works. If you’re not familiar with Gaiman’s style of writing, this is a fun place to start. If you know and love Gaiman’s work, this is a must-read collection.

One of my favorite stories in this anthology was “Troll Bridge,” which had a somewhat surprising and stirring depth to it. All of the works in M is for Magic are beautiful, but “Troll Bridge” always stands out in my mind. Other stories include, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and, “The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds.”

This book is nothing short of a roller coaster. As you may have picked up from the titles, some of the stories are moving while others are silly, some can be taken at face value while others make you stop and think. There are a few, sporadic illustrations in the book that really add to its quality and subtly emphasize the overarching dark feeling that seems to be tied to Gaiman’s moniker.

If you like this book, check out The Graveyard Book—which is an expansion of one of the short stories in M is for Magic—or delve deeper into his unique style of writing with Neverwhere. These and more great titles can be found at the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

Twelve-year-old Prosper and five-year-old Bo are orphan brothers on the run. After their mother died, Aunt Esther came forward to adopt Bo. Only Bo. Rather than be separated, the brothers run away to start new lives in Venice, the city that their mother told stories about. Unfortunately, Venice doesn't have much to offer two boys who are obviously too young to tour the sinking city alone.

The brothers are quickly taken in by other runaways and street children who live in an abandoned movie theater. This group of vagabonds is led by Scipio, a young man who styles himself as the Thief Lord. Scipio and his followers make their living by stealing from rich Venetian homes and pawing the items at a particular shop that doesn't ask many questions.

Prosper and Bo, still pursued by Aunt Esther and her hired private eye, are growing to love their new family when the owner of the pawn shop asks the Thief Lord to steal a very particular item. An item that will change all the street children’s lives forever.

The Thief Lord is the first book I ever read by Cornelia Funke, and I was immediately swept away! What starts as a tragic story of loss quickly becomes an exciting tale of adventure and--surprisingly--magic. As is often Ms. Funke’s style magic and real-life are deeply entwined, but in this particular title it’s not until nearly the end that we discover the true magic of Venice.

If you enjoy the real-world magic of The Thief Lord, look for Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy: Inkheart, Inkspell, and Inkdeath. Or try out Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Find these titles and more at the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton

A shark and a train go head-to-head in this epic picture book! Which one will be the best? Join the fun as these two challenge each other to every kind of contest imaginable (and then some). Bowling, pie eating, ping pong… you name it, these two will take up the gauntlet with silly, sometimes surprising results!

Shark Vs. Train is a fun and funny read that parents and children will both enjoy. The pictures are bright, detailed, and engaging. I especially love the in-book commentary from the shark and train (as demonstrated in the following lemonade stand show-down).

To top it all off, the end of the story has a fun and light-hearted twist that aids to the overall charm and playful nature of the book.

If you’re looking for more humorous picture books that both parents and children will enjoy, read Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin or The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak. All these and many more can be found at the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Young Tristran Thorn is head-over-heels in love with the beautiful Victoria Forester. One night, as he professes his undying love to her, they see a far off star fall to Earth. In a moment of love-induced stupidity, Tristran vows to bring the fallen star back to Victoria to prove his love to her. In return, Victoria promises to marry him. So--naturally--Tristran sets off. Unfortunately, the shooting star they saw has landed in the faerie realm on the other side of the wall around his home town. And a star that lands in the faerie realm is much more than a hunk of rock.

Once over the wall, Tristran quickly finds himself mixed up with dangerous and magical individuals who are also searching for the fallen star. Our unwitting hero soon winds up involved in a feud for the throne of Stormhold (a kingdom of the faerie realm) and fighting a sisterhood of witches who quest for eternal beauty. It seems that getting the star back to his beloved Victoria is going to be much harder than Tristran thought.

I love this book. It is mildly dark, but funny and extremely moving. It is so much more than the basic coming-of-age story it appears to be. Stardust is a romantic, sweet, and poignant tale of a young man who goes on a quest for something he wants and instead finds something he didn't know he was missing.

If you love the book, check out Stardust the movie. It stays wonderfully true to the original story but diverges enough to stand on its own in a charming and unique way. Or if you’re looking for more beautiful love stories, read The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman. These wonderful titles and more can be found at the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

No one knows much about Area X or the nearly-impenetrable border surrounding it. The official explanation involves some kind of biological disaster that made the area uninhabitable. Over time, the general public grew to accept that story and lost interest in the mystery in their own back yards.

A number of expeditions have been sent inside Area X to investigate. Some returned to report a land reclaimed by nature, a “pristine wilderness” with no remaining man-made contaminants.  Other expeditions never came back at all. The 11th expedition came back changed and all with the same sudden and aggressive cancer that killed them shortly after their return.

In Annihilation, we join the 12th expedition. An all-women group made up of an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and—our narrator—a biologist. Stripped of their identities and armed only with the most basic technologies, this group of women quickly find much more than a “pristine wilderness” in Area X. And by the first night, one of them is already gone.

I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation after reading a comic/review of it from the Unshelved Book Club. The book is incredibly suspenseful; the author does a masterful job creating a feeling of unease and distrust throughout. The book is written as if it were a personal accounting of Area X from the viewpoint of the biologist.  This choice expertly sets the stage for the unnerving narrative to come, where one event is just as strange and threatening as another.

If Annihilation piques your interest, I suggest reading the rest of the trilogy: Authority and Acceptance. Or if you’re looking for more science fiction about the dangers of the unknown, read The Martian by Andy Weir, soon to be released as a major motion picture. These mysterious titles and more can be found at the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Southern Bite Cookbook by Stacey Little

It seems like everyone under the sun is putting out cookbooks these days, from celebrity chefs to just plain celebrities.  Food blogger Stacey Little is neither, but The Southern Bite Cookbook: 150 Irresistible Dishes from 4 Generations of My Family's Kitchen is well worth checking out.

Full of relatively simple, unpretentious dishes both from Little's family and supplied by readers of his blog,  The Southern Bite Cookbook is organized not by type of food, but by occasion.  So you can quickly look at quick recipes suitable for a weeknight dinner or potluck fare or special dishes for the holidays. You'll find southern staples like biscuits, red beans and rice, and red velvet cake, but also more updated dishes like the summer berry salad with balsamic, which includes feta cheese, hardly a traditional southern ingredient (maybe southern Greece?)

I tried a couple of the recipes with good success.  I brought the slow cooker white beans to a potluck at work, and it disappeared.  The lemon icebox pie was easy and brought a taste of summer to a cold January day.

 Virginia Beach Public Library has a great selection of cookbooks of all kinds.  Check out the selection at your local library, or search the catalog 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley

Chinon, France, in the heart of wine country, has a deep and sometimes dark history. According to a legend told to Englishwoman Emily Braden by her cousin Harry, Chinon was the site where Queen Isabelle, the wife of King John hid her greatest treasure when the castle was besieged in the 13th century.  (It's also the location for The Lion in Winter, which isn't really relevant, but it's one of my favorite films, so I have to get in a mention.)

Emily reluctantly agrees to meet Harry in Chinon for a holiday, but when she gets there, Harry is nowhere to be found.  As she tries to find him, Emily becomes entangled in a complex web of relationships among the guests at the local hotel, and comes into the social circle of mysterious winery owner Armand Valcourt.

There's plenty of mystery in Chinon, and not just Harry's disappearance and the treasure of Queen Isabelle.  Emily learns of another mystery surrounding a second Isabelle, who worked in the hotel during the German occupation of World War II.  And of course, Monsieur Valcourt has secrets of his own.

 The Splendour Falls  is a very well done modern Gothic, with enough close calls, intrigue, and romance to keep the pages turning. Kearsley creates the perfect atmosphere and does her usual solid job of blending past and present.   Perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Victoria Holt, or Kate Morton.