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Thirteen-year-old Weldon Applegate (as remembered by 99-year-old Weldon Applegate) is the unlikely hero of Josh Ritter’s The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All (7 hours). Set in Cordelia, Idaho, a lumber town at the end of the lumberjack era, and populated by ghosts, witches and demons, this rollicking tall tale is as true and honest as the honed edge of a jack’s favorite ax.  

Ritter is a renowned singer-songwriter, and his language is exquisite, especially when describing the grandeur of a winter forest or the subtle evil of a greedy man. His nuanced narration gives an authentic voice to both young and ancient Weldon, endowing him with wisdom, humor and valor while never losing sight of the terrible beauty of his vanished world. Ritter’s talents as a ballad singer make this audiobook, which includes an original song, a special pleasure.

Josh Ritter’s talents as a ballad singer make this audiobook, which includes an original song, a special pleasure.

Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk whisks readers away on an enthralling and heartwarming adventure helmed by two young orphans, set in England in the aftermath of World War I. 

Feisty, impetuous Lotti and steady, determined Ben meet by chance and become fast friends at the very moment each needs a friend the most. Lotti is desperate to avoid being shipped off to another dour boarding school by her aunt and uncle. Ben, still grieving the loss of his adoptive father and awaiting news of his brother, Sam, a soldier declared missing and presumed dead, is at risk of being sent back to an orphanage.

The two hatch a plan to take Ben’s narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, to France, where Ben hopes to find Sam and Lotti hopes to reunite with her grandmother. With a handful of extra clothes, some canned soup and their adoring dogs, Elsie and Federico, Ben and Lotti embark on the perilous journey. The Sparrowhawk, a canal boat, is totally unsuited for navigating the swells of the Thames, let alone for crossing the English Channel. Powered by hope and sheer nerve, the pair navigate river locks and crushing storms, all while being stalked by Lotti’s mean-spirited uncle and a police officer who is determined to turn the children over to the proper authorities.

With a light and skilled hand, Farrant stays attuned to the emotional pulse of her winning characters. Ben and Lotti are endearing heroes: courageous, unyielding and committed to doing what’s right and good for each other. As the story’s stakes increase, so does Ben and Lotti’s determination. Farrant lets the novel’s many adult characters play second fiddle, allowing her young protagonists’ pluck and steadfastness to shine in the spotlight. Sometimes poignant, sometimes funny but consistently gripping, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk presses forward with all the purpose and beauty of a small, slim boat on fast-flowing waters. 

Poignant, funny and gripping, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk presses forward with all the purpose and beauty of a small, slim boat on fast-flowing waters.

A Spanish queen. A Florentine printer. An English wool merchant. A disgruntled German monk. A Genoese explorer. According to Patrick Wyman, author and narrator of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (11.5 hours), these are among the actors who gave birth to the modern world. Wyman argues that from 1490 to 1530, a series of economic, religious and state-building revolutions transformed Europe from a backwater into the dominant global power. And like the song says, it was money—in the form of increasingly available credit—that made the world go round.

Creator of the podcast series Tides of History and Fall of Rome, Wyman is a skilled performer with obvious enthusiasm for his subject. His reading is also enhanced by the book’s structure: Each chapter focuses on a particular historical figure who in some way acted as a midwife to the new age, and Wyman’s narration emphasizes their humanity, warts and all. As a result, he makes this economic history of Europe an entertaining and informative audiobook.

Podcaster Patrick Wyman skillfully narrates his engaging economic history of Europe.

In author-illustrator David Biedrzycki’s hilarious new picture book, secret agent Bubble07 is an alien who happens to look like a plush unicorn and has been tasked with a challenging mission: to infiltrate a human Earthling family and determine if the unicorn army should invade Earth. 

Bubble07 is beamed down into a video arcade, where a lucky dad snags it in the claw machine. In a series of interplanetary dispatches, the absurdly adorable unicorn agent files reports on daily life with its new family—an existence made somewhat more difficult by the family’s very huge, very hairy dog, whom Bubble07 suspects “might be onto me.” As time passes, Bubble07 relays many Earthling customs and delicacies that could improve life on the home planet, such as celebrating birthdays, telling bedtime stories and, above all, eating peanut butter cookies. 

Bubble07’s primary Earth contact is the family’s daughter, who hosts tea parties, brings the unicorn to school for show and tell, takes swimming lessons (Alert to home planet: Unicorns don’t float.) and gives the agent lots of loving snuggles. After 100 days, Bubble07 has gathered enough clandestine intelligence to make a final recommendation to its “fearless leader” as to the suitability of Earth for unicorns.

Thanks to the book’s large-format design, inventive text and a final twist in the endpapers, Invasion of the Unicorns succeeds on every level. Biedrzycki has crafted a read-aloud that will delight children, and its wry humor means that adults won’t mind repeat reads. Bubble07 is an endearing protagonist who surveys our world with curiosity and occasional alarm that Biedrzycki always plays for a lighthearted laugh. His pencil and watercolor illustrations are soft and warm as they portray a loving family and their diverse community.

This agent can only conclude this report by declaring Invasion of the Unicorns a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.

In this hilarious picture book, a cuddly plush unicorn is actually an interplanetary spy, and the result is a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.

There is little question that Amazon has radically changed publishing—in both the way readers read and writers deliver their work. But has Amazon’s digital platform changed literature itself? Stanford professor Mark McGurl believes it has. His probing new book, Everything and Less, offers an intriguing examination of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as a tentacle of the larger megabeast that is Amazon and how the digital platform has been shaped by the business ethos of the Everything Store.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

Amazon, of course, started as an online bookstore, and while it’s now responsible for more than half of all book sales, those sales are a shrinking piece of the company’s ever-expanding pie of profits. But with KDP, which McGurl is careful to label as a platform rather than a publisher, the company has “partnered” with hundreds of thousands of writers, further increasing its stranglehold on the reading public.

Unlike a traditionally published writer, those who self-publish on KDP need to be entrepreneurs as much as, or perhaps even more than, artists. Their work, at least as assessed by Amazon, is a product. Readers are customers. The same principles that make customers click on a suggested product have been transferred to the selling of digital books. The result is a proliferation of series and a tilt toward genre fiction, which best accommodates serial storytelling. Literary fiction, McGurl finds, is not the bailiwick of the successful KDP writer-entrepreneur. Indeed, nowadays, the saga-inspired territory once confined to the fantasy and science fiction genres has taken root in unlikely places, especially romance novels and their kinkier erotica siblings. (One of McGurl’s most engaging sections looks at Fifty Shades of Grey and its seemingly millions of KDP imitators as heirs to the marriage plot novels of Jane Austen and Henry James.)

McGurl delivers the occasional sharp quip, but overall he is evenhanded in his assessment of the unimaginable amount of self-published KDP “product” he presumably had to slog through to write this book. He equitably includes examples of the reverse flow of KDP’s influence, as well, as when “serious” writers such as Colson Whitehead and Viet Thanh Nguyen infuse their work with genre tropes.

But the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It neither predicts nor condemns the future. The scholarly McGurl does not always wear his erudition lightly, and portions of the book require some heavy lifting on the part of the general reader. Still, Everything and Less will speak to those who submerge themselves—whether as writers or readers, entrepreneurs or customers—into the KDP landscape, while offering much to think about, a fair bit of it dire, for those who cherish traditional publishing and still place some value in the role that gatekeepers have long played in the book industry.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

All statues are raised, but relatively few are razed; when they are, somebody is always upset. In recent years, statues have been vandalized, pulled down by crowds and plucked from public plinths and placed in secret warehouses in the dead of night—to both applause and outcry. Whenever a statue is removed, the same questions arise: Are we erasing history? Wasn’t he just a man of his time? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope?

In Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, historian Alex von Tunzelmann addresses these questions by examining 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor. Tunzelmann makes the argument that statues are not history but rather representations of history. Josef Stalin’s statues were propaganda to justify his grip on the Soviet Union, for example, not depictions of historical fact. The statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans was erected as part of a deliberate campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War by self-avowed white supremacists.

It’s clear from Fallen Idols that there are many reasons to tear down a statue. Removing Stalin’s statue in Budapest was the start of a revolution. Pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue was a symbolic end to the Iraq War—a symbol that turned out to be disastrously wrong. Taking down a statue can also be an act of truth telling. Leopold II of Belgium was not a benevolent ruler of the Congo, for example, even though that’s how monuments depict him. Even during his lifetime, he was widely condemned for his bloodthirsty exploitation and colonization of the Congolese. In cases like these, Tunzelmann finds that, far from erasing history, the eradication of a statue can actually illuminate it.

In discussing these and other statues, Tunzelmann invites us to consider all public monuments. What are these statues commemorating? What are they hiding? Are there other, better ways to depict history in public spaces without resorting to images of great men (or women)? Fallen Idols is an illuminating guide to a much-needed discussion about history and how it is represented.

Historian Alex von Tunzelmann examines 12 different case histories of statues from around the world that fell (literally) out of favor.

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