Message in a Bottle
The Case of the Kid Mysteries

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Dragons, time travel, and magic bake shops dominate the middle grade reader display month after month. For the most part this collection of silly, magical, and not-too-scary stories does the trick for the kids who look to me for advice at the Island Books counter. But occasionally a real mystery fan comes along, or more often a kid trying to cover all the required genres for a school reading list. There’s a reason that category is always left to the end, namely because there just hasn’t been a very good selection of mysteries for kids in a long time. Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, and the Hardy Boys can only go so far, though they are the real deal when it comes to good whodunits.

The mysteries I manage to recommend are usually imbedded in a fantasy adventure book or a piece of good general fiction, when a slightly unknown piece of plot business becomes clear at the end of the story. So imagine my surprise and pleasure at seeing our newly curated collection of middle-grade readers literally piled with straight-up mysteries for kids:

  • Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, in which Theodora Tenpenny accidentally uncovers a painting that may be a Renaissance masterpiece. Great news, except that it may have been stolen by her grandfather, who was once a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’ll need all the friends she can gather to sort out this caper. Fans are comparing it to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer, and Kirkus Reviews says Fitzgerald has created a fast-paced Da Vinci Code for middle-graders.
  • Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells is another art-related whodunit that features Eddie, a kid with a photgraphic memory and a knack for sketching. With his parents down on their luck, he lands himself a job with the police department (not typical for sixth graders, but just the sort of thing they’d love to do if they could), helping to track down the Picasso Gang.
  • Poached by Stuart Gibbs centers on a crime I bet you haven’t encountered in fiction before—koala theft. When an animal vanishes from the zoo, suspicion falls on Teddy Fitzroy. He was only hiding in the enclosure to avoid a bully, but now he has to solve the case to get himself off the hook.
  • Swim That Rock by John Rocco. Jake’s dad is missing after a fishing boat accident, and loan sharks are circling the family business in this coming-of-age story set on the picturesque Rhode Island coast.
  • The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage finds Miss Lana the inadvertent auction winner of a decaying inn occupied by a ghost. She calls in Desperado Detectives Mo and Dale to figure out who the haunt is and what it wants. What will the two kids get out of the deal? Hopefully some extra credit in their history class. Who knows more about the past than a ghost, after all? And who knows more about mixing mystery and comedy than Sheila Turnage?
  • Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done by Stephan Pastis. Timmy returns to crack the biggest case of his generation: a school competition to find a stolen globe. It’s his ticket to bringing home a $500 prize, which is guaranteed to set him up for life. If he can remember to get his entry form in on time, that is.

Now I have a full selection of real mysteries to recommend, including art heists, murders, and tales of true detection. Who knows, perhaps we can actually start a Children’s Mystery Section at Island Books one day soon. Step aside, dragons, Harriet and Nancy aren’t alone anymore!

—Nancy

Reading My Way Back to Ireland

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With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I am reminded that my Irish passport is due for renewal. You may wonder why a girl from Walla Walla who married a bookseller from New England even has an Irish passport and you wouldn’t be alone. The short, logical answer is that Ireland is generous in bestowing citizenship rights on the descendants of its residents.

The longer, more personal answer started in an old farm house on the edge of town where I could turn left and walk a mile through tree-lined streets to St. Patrick’s Grade School or borrow the always available pony from the neighbor lady and ride straight out through the green fields of the Palouse. And if I rode that pony far enough in a northwesterly direction, I would land right on the fields that my Irish great-great-uncles and their sister homesteaded long ago. The very mention of their names and the whole idea that homesteading conjured up in my young mind made me think that was all ancient history. Then one day in my late teens an Irish cousin just my age appeared in my life and those ancient times got a whole lot closer.

imageimageOver the last thirty years, I’ve gotten to know more of my relatives and heard many of their tales (and I’ve received many St. Patrick’s Day cards exactly on March 17th—now that’s the luck of the Irish). Their stories aren’t unusual, just American immigrant stories like so many others. Nearly every Irish writer that I have read describes a character just a degree or two off from the ones in my own family. The books, of course, tell about them so much more beautifully than I ever could.

When I read William Trevor’s Lucy Gault or Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scripture the families making their living off the sea and land in Skibbereen come to life. Their stucco farm houses exist on rolling fields that could be placed in the landscape of eastern Washington. The ground in both places is as green, but the ocean is a good bit farther away from Walla Walla, mind.

imageimageWhen Irish fiction turns to America, I recast the starring roles with actors I know. Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn may ostensibly be about a young immigrant to New York, but for me it’s really about my great aunt Ann and her friend Peggy who as young women left the farm for the big city of Cork then decided to really bust out and head for the States. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, which I read for our book club last month, was really about my grandmother, Mary O’Donovan, who was brought to Boston at age 15 for a better life with her cousins. Like Kline’s protagonist, my Irish lass headed west, sent by her uncles Dan and Con down the rails to the wide Palouse.

imageimageFast-forward through history to my most recent visit to the old homeland where cousin Danny, father now of young adults, looked at me and said “We were poor when you came last, and we’re poor again.” He was speaking of the ten-year span when Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger, when its economy soared and an entire generation was raised like American children, privileged and entitled, thinking they were invincible and the world was their oyster. Kevin Barry is the voice of these now thirtysomething children in his collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island. Anne Enright in The Forgotten Waltz reflects on the adult lives torn apart when the boom times were followed by the fall of the housing market. And of course, Roddy Doyle’s expertise with dialogue puts me right into contemporary Dublin; he revisits the rollicking band we first met in The Commitments, now in their declining years, in his latest novel, the funny, poignant The Guts.

imageimageIn Mink River by Brian Doyle it seems that all of my experiences of Ireland and Walla Walla come full circle. Doyle writes about life in a small coastal Oregon town populated by Northwest loggers, Irish immigrants, and Salish storytellers. With a beautiful narrative voice enlivened by just a touch of magic (there’s a speaking crow) and a setting not so different from Skibbereen or the town where I was born, I am there again in my ancestral lands. Perhaps I don’t need that passport renewed after all. I can read my way home.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you all.

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—Nancy

Nancy Talks Story Time at Island Books

Nancy Page sent the email below to James and me yesterday morning. And yes, now I feel lame for staying in last Saturday night and missing all the fun.

—Miriam

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Hi James and Miriam,

Not only are you the great wordsmiths of Island Books, but you are most importantly the parents of young children and I thought how much you all would have enjoyed the storyteller event last night at the store.

You know that we have been hosting the Seattle Storytellers Guild members for more years than I can remember; I’ve come across 30-year-old story time flyers with some of the same tellers that come around today. I inherited the job of scheduling the tellers about 10 years ago, but long before that, I brought my babies, Emma and Lewis, to sit at the knees of some of the same tellers who are the mainstay of our program. To this day, Emma still recalls Pat Peterson in her colorful pinafore pulling felt animals from her pockets. But over time there has entered a new generation, like Norm Brecke, a guitar-toting kindergarten teacher from Renton, who last night brought yet the next generation of tellers to entertain the little ones and all of the adults too.

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Norm’s after school storytelling club has been chugging along for over 3 years and these kids ages 9-11 can tell a story like the best of them, using dramatic hand gestures, changing their voice inflection, and engaging the audience to participate. Each and every one walked off to laughter and hearty applause from the audience. It was one of those moments at Island Books that money can’t buy. In an organic way, in my mind that started back with baby Emma in the circle. Now we find ourselves hosting a young generation of storytellers who have picked up the mantle and carry on the storyteller’s tradition. In part we have continued to host storytellers just because we believe in it and value it, hoping to do our part to keep it alive. I can see that it isn’t going away any time soon. Roger asked if we can have them return some time this spring, so you may have a chance to see them too.

I’ll send you a photo from my phone of the grand finale with Norm and the kids singing.

See ya,
Nancy

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Book (Club) Report: The Black Count

image As you know (at least, I hope you do) Island Books hosts a monthly book club meeting on the last Thursday of every month. It’s open to anyone, drop-ins and regulars alike, so we creatively call it our Open Book Club. The selected reading varies between fiction and non-fiction, and last month’s pick was a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Black Count by Tom Reiss.

It tells the almost unbelievable story of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, better known to history under his mother’s last name as General Alexandre Dumas. He was born in the French colony of St.-Domingue, later known as Haiti, the product of a union between a white French nobleman and an enslaved woman of African descent. Dumas’s father brought him to France as a child in 1776, providing him simultaneously with an education and more importantly with freedom—slavery was illegal in continental France. Dumas joined the military and became one of the greatest generals his nation had ever known. His exploits inspired the entire country, particularly his son, also named Alexandre Dumas, who grew to become one of France’s most beloved writers. The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers wouldn’t exist if not for the swashbuckling Black Count.

Our discussion about this amazing story was one of our most interesting in recent months. Last night we had a surprise visitor at the open book club, a professor emeritus named Jerry Gallaher. He is a tall, elegant, and unassuming man who happens to be an historian specializing in the French revolution and specifically in General Alex Dumas. When walking out he apologized (unnecessarily) for contributing so much to the conversation and on the sly mentioned that he too had written a biography of General Dumas, though he modestly said his was not written as well as Reiss’s.

The members of the book club were out in force that night and a few laser-sharp women such as Karen Neff, Mindy Stern, and Sarah Ellison asked him some of the most inquisitive questions, leading us into all sorts of territory that we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to. It was one of those lasting moments that Roger refers to as “sticking to the walls” of Island Books. I was in awe of the group, really. It reinforced my thought that I don’t necessarily have to be the brains at this gathering (thank God!), I only need to open the door and welcome them in. See you next month, I hope.

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ISLAND BOOKS ANNUAL SUMMER SIDEWALK SALE

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We’ve sold books-by-the-pound at our annual sidewalk sale for over 20 years. But since buying more gifts and toys for the store in the last few years the sale has taken on a whole new frenzy. I just returned from the San Francisco Gift Show and am anxious to be out with the old and in with the new. Every day new titles, toys, and gifts arrive and we need more room! There are scarves, jewelry, ceramics, candles, table linens, and loads of great toys and games, including Moulin Roti plush, Uncle Goose wooden language blocks, science kits, Shrinky Dinks and more. So come by and pick up something you’ve been eying all summer or discover a treasure you’ve never seen before.

THIS FRIDAY AND SATURDAY, AUGUST 23RD AND 24TH

—Nancy

Join the Club

imageThe brave writers who entered our short story contest have given me courage to put pen to paper. You may know me as “the owner’s wife” or the one who buys all the non-book “stuff.” But I too am a bookseller like the rest and have the great pleasure of hosting the store’s regular book club.

Last Thursday evening at the store’s monthly meeting we again had a really good discussion, this time about the novel Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. The wrenching truth about the ungodly days in the mid-nineties, when Rwandan Hutus turned on their Tutsi neighbors as the western world turned a blind eye, was more clear through the fictional tale than it ever could have been with the cold facts of history alone. Our conversation took us on tangents about the persuasive power of propaganda, the pitfalls of colonialism, and above all else, the power of fiction to draw one in emotionally.

But I have to admit while reading this heart breaking nightmare of a tale in the evenings, by day I commented to my co-workers that it felt like I was being forced to eat my vegetables before I could have dessert. And the desserts calling out to me from the new fiction table were novels by a couple of my favorite go-to authors, Kate Atkinson with her new foray into the supernatural, Life After Life,  and Jacqueline WInspear’s tenth Maisie Dobbs novel, Leaving Everything Most Loved. I will get to these books soon, because I know that I will thoroughly enjoy them as I have every other book they’ve written.

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The folks who show up for our book club could draw out a great discussion from anything that we throw at them, which is why we try to serve more than one kind of fare. Sometimes there’s a savory main course, sometimes there’s a side of greens (hopefully tasty as well as nutritious), and sometimes just a snack. All are welcome to join our spring book club series which meets at 7:30pm on the last Thursday of each month at Island Books. It’s a three-course meal with The Barbarian Nurseries In April, The Orchardist in May, and for dessert in June, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

—Nancy

Can It Really Be So Long?

Nancy Stewart and her longtime singing partner MaryLee Sunseri are returning to Island Books to perform as our last P.J. party entertainers of the school year on Saturday, June 2nd at 6:30. With our oldest graduating from high school less than a week later, I can’t help but be sentimental about their music. Wasn’t it only yesterday that the Pages couldn’t leave the house without “Goodnight Sleep Tight” or “Oodles of Animals” in the car CD player? And what about the five-year-old’s birthday party where Roger dressed up in drag and tried convince the wee ones that he was Nancy Stewart until she showed up strumming her guitar and pushing the imposter aside to gales of laughter and relief from all?

There are no musicians more joyful and talented than these two and we are extremely honored to have had them singing inside our four walls for over twenty years. That puts our bookstore in a league with Carnegie Hall, where they performed with the likes of Burl Ives, though you would never guess by the youthful duo’s beauty and energy that they could have shared the stage with him so long ago. Please come join us if you can and remember, pajamas and teddy bears are always welcome but not required!

—Nancy

Nancy Works Her Magic on Me

Island BooksNancy’s in high demand at the store, and I can see why—she’s the quintessential hand seller. Last Wednesday morning when I was in the store doing my weekly blog research, I asked her what she’s excited about these days, and her eyes lit up as she led me around, pointing out what she’d hand-picked at different trade shows and explaining why she’s so passionate about what Island Books is offering these days.

Of course we’re a bookstore, and I’m a book geek, so I was eager to hear what she’s been reading, especially since she’s fresh off a family trip and had some time to read. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear her talk about some of the new gifts we’re featuring. I had glanced at them many times without stopping to look closer and learn more. I was delighted to hear how much thought had gone into Nancy’s choices, as well as the details that make these products so special.

Well I won’t ramble on too much and will do my best to share what Nancy said so the rest of you can be in the know. Then you can chase her down in the store to tell you more. Consider yourself warned: her enthusiasm is infectious. Here’s what she’s championing:

Killed at the Whim of a HatKilled at the Whim of a Hat by Collin Cotterill: Nancy laughed as she told me about the black humor in this mystery, especially how it offers goofy George W. Bush sayings at the start of the chapters (and he provides the title). If you read it you’ll find out the connection with W., and it’s pretty funny. This is a brand new series by the bestselling author of Coroner’s Lunch about Jimm Juree, a crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Daily Mail with a somewhat eccentric family. When Jimm is forced to follow her family to a rural village on the coast of Southern Thailand, she’s convinced her professional life is over. So when bodies turn up and someone else is murdered, suddenly Jimm’s career path becomes more promising—and a lot more deadly.

Parrot & Olivier in AmericaParrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Nancy read most of this one before Roger explained to her that the author Peter Carey was imagining the experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French political philosopher and author of Democracy in America. Carey brings de Tocqueville to life through the fictionalized character of Olivier de Garmont, a stuck-up French aristocrat (Nancy just thought Garmont was saying brilliant stuff all on his own). Olivier can only begin to grasp how the other half lives when forced to travel to the New World with John “Parrot” Larrit, a jaded survivor of lifelong hardship who can’t stand his young master. This odd couple’s stark differences in class and background, outlook and attitude provide a good set-up for contemporary readers to understand the unique social experiment that was democracy in the early years of America.

Joli JewelryJoli Jewelry: Nancy hand-picked this limited edition jewelry, made mostly from ’20s-’60s period glass, ’40s-’80s plastics including celluloid and Bakelite, and semi-precious stones like new jade, coral, agates, carnelian, onyx, amethyst, and more. These unique pieces come from Joli Jewelry, started by Jody Lyons in 1984. Drawn to authentic vintage and cultural components (Asian, African & European), Jody still designs everything in the line. The small production runs are then handmade by a group of wonderful women in their studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They bring together components from all over the world and from all different eras, including the modern, to create funky, modern-yet vintage, limited edition pieces. Whenever possible, the emphasis continues to be on reusing what already exists and valuing the importance of recycling. We even have this cool “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” piece from them that’s perfect for storing your jewelry. I thought it was really unique and cool. I’d almost rather buy the monkeys than the jewelry, but there’s only one, so whoever gets it first will have a special and unique gift.  And besides the monkeys, the jewelry is just beautiful. (http://www.jolijewelry.com).

Joli Jewelry

GLOB™ arts and crafts products: Nancy opened up some of the jars of paint for me and we both started grinning when we realized how good they smelled. The yellow paint was a fragrant lemon and when we opened the red we both said, “Pomegranate!” Yum. Sourced from natural, recyclable and biodegradable materials, GLOB™ specializes in botanically crafted paints made from fruit, vegetables, flowers, and spices with natural food-grade ingredients and organic extracts. GLOB paintsThese non-toxic water-soluble pigments become paint just by adding water. Similar to watercolors, GLOB™ paints can also be used for a variety of arts and crafts activities, both for kids and adults. The vibrant colors in GLOB™ have been used by different cultures throughout the ages in food, artists’ paints and body products. I just loved them. (http://globiton.com).

And finally, I encourage you to comment and tell Nancy how great she looks in the picture above. I thought it captured her personality, and how she can make you laugh and want to buy everything she talks about!

—Miriam

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