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Posts Tagged ‘Kate DiCamillo’

The further ahead I read, the more I “fall” behind. Even though I started reading fall books back in the summer, I’m still catching up with some of my favorite authors who had new books in September and October. A neighbor who loves Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto wanted to know about her latest novel, The Dutch House (HarperCollins, digital galley). With its emphasis on blended family dynamics, the book is more like Patchett’s Commonwealth than Bel Canto, but she still injects suspense in her domestic drama, and she is still writing about how we struggle to find a home in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s outside Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conroy are the Hansel and Gretel siblings, spiritually orphaned when their mother abandons them to the care of their reserved father. Then, after his sudden death, they are exiled from the suburban mansion of their childhood by a grasping stepmother looking out for her own young daughters. Although the fairy tale motifs are obvious, Patchett doesn’t overplay them as she explores complicated family relationships, how the past impinges on the present, how hard it is to forgive and yet how necessary. Adult Danny narrates, but Maeve — fierce, loving, brilliant, thwarted — is the book’s heart.

John le Carre is such a pro. His nimble new novel Agent Running in the Field (Viking, purchased hardcover), offers timely entertainment. Nat, the veteran British spy who narrates, is a passionate badminton player. “Squash is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.” Le Carre could well be describing his stylish plotting that has Nat taking over a derelict intelligence substation in London and running its motley assortment of agents. One bright spot is his young second in command, Florence, who has a plan to bug the apartment of a Ukranian oligarch with ties to Putin. There’s also Nat’s weekly badminton game with Ed, an odd duck researcher with a media firm, who vehemently dislikes Brexit, Trump and the British government and who vents his displeasure to Nat over post-match drinks. But when the Ukranian operation goes south, Nat finds that he can’t separate work from play, and the game is on — the great game of espionage, that is, complete with lies, spies, moles and betrayals large and small. No one writes it better than le Carre, even if Nat, Ed and Florence aren’t  as memorable as Smiley and the Cold War crowd of Tinker, Tailor days. Then again, it’s hardly the same world. Have to agree with Ed that we’re living in a hot mess.

I remember feeling bereft when I first finished reading Carol Anshaw’s 2012 novel Carry the One about several siblings and friends affected by a fatal car accident. It followed the characters over the years, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them, from Alice the artist to Walter Payton the dog. There’s a cool canine named Sailor in Anshaw’s new novel, Right After the Weather (Atria, digital galley), the same great writing and more complicated characters to care about. In 2016 Chicago, theater set designer Cate is turning 40 and turning over the pieces of her life, trying to get them to fit. Her career is gaining steam, she has an extroverted new girlfriend, and her longtime best friend Neale and her son Joe live nearby. But Cate still gets money from her parents, her angsty ex-husband is living in her spare room and she can’t forget her last girlfriend. Also, Trump has just been elected president. When a couple of addicts invade Neale’s home, Cate comes to her friend’s rescue, but the ensuing violence marks her and those around her in surprising ways. Neale, for one, announces that her estranged husband is returning home. “Pain slams Cate hard in the chest, as though she’s been whacked by an oar. Nothing big happens, she’s beginning to see, without knocking around the adjacent pieces.”

Like her 2016 first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, acclaimed YA author Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel Red at the Bone (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley) reads like a lovely prose poem. It also features a similar time-shifting narrative, but Woodson weaves together five voices in her poignant story of how an unexpected pregnancy brings together two families from different social classes. It opens in 2001 with a party for 16-year-old Melody, whose parents, Iris and Aubrey, had her when they were just 15 and 16. In a turnabout, it is ambitious Iris who left Aubrey and Melody with her parents, Sade and Po’Boy, so she could go to college at Oberlin. Woodson dips in and out of their lives at various junctures in a series of compressed vignettes full of youthful yearning and bittersweet wisdom. There is a lot of pain, but also love and hope, as Red at the Bone cuts close to the bone.

Kate DiCamillo isn’t just one of my favorite authors of books for young readers, but a favorite writer, period.  Beverly, Right Here (Candlewick Press, purchased e-book), the third book in the winning sequence that began with Raymie Nightingale and continued with Louisiana’s Way Home, centers on Beverly Tapinski, the third of the Three Rancheros, best friends in 1970s Central Florida. It’s now 1979, and Beverly is grieving the loss of her dog Buddy when she decides to leave town for good. Without a word to Raymie or her neglectful mom Rhonda, she hitches a ride to Tamaray Beach, where she lies about her age to get a job at a seafood joint and makes the acquaintance of elderly bingo player Iola Jenkins. In exchange for driving Iola around, Beverly gets tuna fish sandwiches and a place to stay. Despite her tough-girl exterior, Beverly has a tender heart, and Dicamillo perfectly captures her bravura and vulnerability. A small group of oddball but caring friends, including store clerk Elmer and waitress Freddie, help Beverly discover her self-worth as she tries to find her place in the world. Supposedly for ages 10-14, Beverly, Right Here should also appeal to so-called grown-ups, especially those who remember what it’s like to be 14. If you don’t, DiCamillo and Beverly are here to remind you.

In the spring of 1941, Berlin is “a tiger of a city filled with soot and ashes, where glass was never swept up, and fires were burned in the hallways of apartment houses, and people disappeared without a trace, and shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.’’ Desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Berlin, Hanni Kohn arranges for forged papers that identify Lea as a Christian. But she also has the rabbi’s clever daughter Ettie make a mystical Jewish being — a golem — to watch over Lea and keep her safe. Ava, the golem fashioned from water and clay, can communicate with birds and angels. Her life is linked to Lea’s, but also to her maker Ettie, who flees Berlin on the same train.  Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance The World That We Knew (Simon and Schuster, review copy), a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy.  I reviewed it last month for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and you can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/yyg5qz3g

 

 

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Some books, you know, are just nice. And it seems this is the time of year when I need them most, when, like Langston Hughes, I am waiting for the world to be good and beautiful and kind.

Second chances, second acts. In Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), the title character’s car skids off an icy road and lands in Lake Superior, but he escapes with a concussion and some memory and speech loss.  His ensuing recovery becomes something of a rebirth for the part-time town clerk and movie-house owner, who is helped by the quirky residents of his small Minnesota town. Enger (Peace Like a River) mixes whimsy, nostalgia and a touch of magical realism to record Virgil’s odyssey.

Joy Davidman was an unhappily married writer and mother of two young sons when she first started writing letters to Oxford don, theologian and author C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).  Her questions about faith and religion impressed “Jack,” and their burgeoning friendship in the 1950s eventually led her from New York to England and an unexpected love. In the novel Becoming Mrs. Lewis (Thomas Nelson, review copy), Patti Callahan realistically explores the meeting of two minds and hearts whose relationship was challenged by Joy’s ill health.

Readers of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful 2016 middle-grade novel Raymie Nightingale will remember Raymie’s irrepressible friend Louisiana Elefante. In Louisiana’s Way Home (Candlewick, purchased e-book), it’s 1977. 12-year-old Louisiana is forced to leave Central Florida and friends Raymie and Beverly when her grandmother decides a middle-of-the night road trip is in order. Only Granny isn’t planning on returning. When Granny’s toothache lands them in a small Georgia town, Louisiana finds kindness, friendship “and free peanuts” in the midst of hard times. Her narration is often a hoot as she despairs of the adults around her, but her resilience is real and endearing.

I’m not surprised Josie Silver’s rom-com One Day in December (Crown, digital galley) is already on the bestseller list. It’s Love Actually meets When Harry Met Sally meets One Day as Londoners Laurie and Jack lock eyes through a bus window. But they don’t actually meet until a year later, by which time Jack is Laurie’s friend Sara’s boyfriend. Mutual attraction, missed opportunities and a few surprises mark the next decade of their friendship, and happily-ever-after remains in doubt until the very end. Sweet.

 

If you’ve ever watched Escape to the Country, Britain’s answer to HGTV’s Househunters, than you’ll know the extraordinary pastoral beauty of South Devon, the setting for Marcia Willett’s contemporary family saga, The Songbird (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Several cottages make up the Brockscombe estate, home to an extended, blended family presided over by Francis, an elderly retired MP. The newcomer is Tim, a renter hiding the secret of his recently diagnosed neurological illness from his friend Mattie and her relatives. But others — a former ballerina, a young navy wife, a man whose wife has moved on (maybe) — have secrets, too, all of which are eventually sorted out in leisurely fashion.

 

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dicamilloWhen a vacuum cleaner swallows a squirrel, obsessive comic-book reader Flora Belle Buckman rushes to the rescue, resucitating the now-not-so-furry creature only to discover she has a superhero on her hands. Ulysses — as Flora calls him after the vacuum cleaner model — has somehow acquired the superpowers of strength, flight and poetry-writing.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick, purchased hardcover), which this week won author Kate DiCamillo her second Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. She won her first 10 years ago for The Tale of Despereaux,  and her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, set in the small-town Central Florida where she grew up, was a Newbery Honor Book in 2000. She now has more than a dozen books for young readers to her credit, including the popular Mercy Watson series. I wrote about her when I was at the Orlando Sentinel and again on this blog a few books back, http://tinyurl.com/owbs4av.  I was getting ready to write about her again because earlier this month, Kate DiCamillo was inaugurated as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature at the Library of Congress. Then came word that Flora and Ulysses had captured the Newbery. Super!

Or holy bagumba, as Flora might say. Like her creator, Flora has a “capacious” imagination, a super-sized vocabulary, a droll wit and a tender heart. All are shown to advantage in the book, where the narrative is nicely complemented by K. G. Campbell’s illustrations and cartoon panels. It’s altogether funny and charming, a whimsical winner if ever there was one.

lockwoodI love books that successfully bend/blend genres. Jonathan Stroud kicks off his new series about teen ghost detectives, Lockwood & Co., with the frightfully funny and wickedly smart The Screaming Staircase (Disney-Hyperion, digital galley). London has a Problem: disagreeable ghosts, spirits and spectres of all kinds. The solution: teenagers with specially honed psychic abilities who have the best luck vanquishing the supernatural foes. Narrator Lucy Carlyle, who hasn’t always been lucky, joins the independent psychic detection agency, Lockwood & Co., teaming up with ambitious Anthony and aggravating George. They rid one London structure of its ghostly occupant only to discover a corpse and burn down the house in the process. Nevertheless, another haunted mansion awaits — Combe Carey Hall, site of way too many sudden deaths, surprising secrets and, of course, the screaming staircase. Great fun for kids (and adults indulging their inner kid).

hollowI’m halfway through Ransom Riggs’  Hollow City (Quirk Books, purchased e-book), the sequel to his fascinating fantasy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar  Children. So far, it’s just as good, if not better, as Jacob and a group of other peculiars flee their Welsh island time loop to participate in the war against the nightmarish creatures known as “hollows.” They’re accompanied by Miss Peregrine in bird form — they’re hoping to find help to change her back — and meet other peculiars, including animals. Really, you have to read the first book, you must, to fully appreciate the exciting and well-crafted backstory in which Jacob discovers he’s more like his mysterious and extraordinary grandfather than he ever supposed. Again, odd black-and-white vintage photos enhance the the tale. I’d write more, but those pages won’t turn themselves. At least not yet . . .

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Because Winn-Dixie is closing its Clermont store, I immediately thought of Kate DiCamillo because she grew up in Clermont and because her award-winning kids’ book Because of Winn-Dixie is set in that small Florida town near Orlando. Not as it is now, with sprawling subdivisions and modern supermarkets in  shopping plazas, but back 30 or 40 years ago, when Highway 50 sliced through the groves of orange trees and dusty roads and pretty lakes, and kids walked to school and made magic of mundane things.

Kate has been making magic with words for more than a decade now. A University of Florida grad, she kicked around Central Florida for several years, then moved to Minneapolis and worked in the children’s section of a book warehouse. She wrote Because of Winn-Dixie during a long, cold Minnesota winter when she was homesick for Florida and wanted a dog. Her apartment didn’t allow pets, so she imagined a big, friendly mutt. A lonely girl named Opal names the stray after the grocery store in which she first rescues him. And then, because of Winn-Dixie, Opal begins to meet people and all sorts of things — some odd, mostly good — begin to happen.

Kate proved to be a winning writer in every way from the start. Because of Winn-Dixie, published in 2000, was a Newbery Honor Book and was Orlando’s One Book, One Community 2003 selection. Her second novel for middle-graders and also set in Florida, The Tiger Rising, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her third, the oh-so-wonderful The Tale of Despereaux, “being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread,” won the 2004 Newbery, the highest award in children’s fiction.

So what does Kate do for an encore — two picture books, six early chapter books starring the toast-loving pig, Mercy Watson, and two more more magical novels, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, about a china rabbit’s unexpected voyage of love and self-discovery, and last September’s The Magician’s Elephant, a dream-like story about an orphan boy, an old soldier, a fortune teller, and a magician who longs to make “true magic” and conjures an elephant instead of lilies.

Kate is a fabulist in the best sense of the word, who long ago discovered the truth in fiction. Coming this fall is a new chapter book written with Alison McGhee, Bink and Gollie, about the comical adventures of two precocious little girls, “one tiny, one tall, both utterly irrepressible.” Looking at the cover illustration by Tony Fucile, I’d bet money the tiny one with the fly-away hair is Kate. I recognize the mischievous grin of a girl about to make more magic.

Open Book: Because she is one of my favorite storytellers, I’d write all these things about Kate even if she wasn’t a friend. Check out her website, www.katedicamillo.com, watch the video about The Magician’s Elephant (Candlewick Press), and be sure to read her most recent journal entry. Wait for the moon.

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