Book bits

This week: A modern-day fairy tale, three tail-wagging reads, and an online collection of top 1,000 lists.

Fairest, By Gail Carson Levine

What do you get when you mix one part Ugly Duckling with two parts Cinderella, add a dash of Sleeping Beauty, a healthy sprinkling of modern sensibilities, and mix in the imagination and skill of a Newbery Medal author? A deliciously satisfying recipe for adventure, romance, surprise, disaster, and, of course, the triumph of good over evil.

With Fairest, a newly released novel for young readers, Gail Carson Levine has cooked up another enchanting tale sure to please the middle-grade set and adult readers alike (recommended for readers in grades 7 through 10).

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The novel's heroine, Aza, lives in the kingdom of Ayortha, where people value a fine voice above wit and even prized beauty. Instead of being oppressed by a wicked stepmother, Aza enjoys the affections of a loving family who treat her with kindness – and love to tell the story of the day she was abandoned at their Inn as a newborn babe.

Her family gives her the Ayorthaian name for lark and treats her as one of their own, though they have to shelter her from the rude stares and remarks of others. Alas, Aza suffers from being indescribably ugly. Not only is she large, but she has "a face that made dogs howl."

Despite her appearance, Aza has the finest, most unusual singing ability in her village, and possibly the kingdom. One day she hiccups and discovers that she can "fling" her voice across the room. She adds this trick to her skill of mimicry and names it "illusing."

While Aza aches to be pretty and imagines that a fairy godmother or magic spell might rescue her, instead, fate intervenes in the form of a duchess who stays at the inn and invites Aza to accompany her to the king's wedding. As Aza gets swept into the personal dramas of the royal court, readers share her astonishment as the prince suddenly begins to show her special attentions.

Surprises and plot twists in an adventurous mid-section sweep the reader along, making "Fairest" well-paced and readable.

In a tale complete with a magic mirror and a visit to the land of gnomes, Aza discovers vital secrets of the queen and important revelations about her own identity. At last, our heroine learns that inner transformation, strength, and dignity are more important than physical beauty, and can transform the way others see her and the way she sees herself.

– Enicia Fisher

Three books about dogs

I Have Heard You Calling in the Night, by Thomas Healy (Harcourt)

Thomas Healy was a drinker and a brawler, living the lowlife in Glasgow, when one night, half drunk, he impulsively purchased Martin, a Doberman pup. Healy's memoir tells how the love he came to feel for Martin led him to quit drinking and fighting and make a new life. Healy's tone is whimsical more often than sentimental, but that doesn't prevent him from concluding that Martin was "a gift from God."

A Good Dog: The Story of Orson Who Changed My Life, by Jon Katz (Villard)

Dog-loving readers will undoubtedly be well acquainted with the books of Jon Katz and many will already have enjoyed "A Dog Year," the first part of Katz's love letter to Orson, a troubled border collie to whom he opened his home and his heart. This second book is a bit darker. (Hint: Do not attempt to read without Kleenex.) It's the tender, true story of how Orson, whom Katz considers a once-in-a-lifetime dog, blasted Katz out of midlife ennui in the N.J. suburbs and into a richer world surrounded by animals.

From Baghdad With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava, by Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth (Lyons)

Jay Kopelman knew it was against the rules, but when the marine found himself face to face with a helpless puppy in a deserted building in Fallujah, he ignored the fact that he was on active duty in Iraq and kept the lively young fellow as a pet. The book tells of Kopelman's struggle, first to keep Lava (named for Kopelman's unit, the Lava Boys) alive, and then to get him home to the US. It's a dog-lovers story, but it's also laced with plenty of drama detailing a soldier's daily life in Iraq.

Books online

Lovers of both books and lists will enjoy the "Top 1,000" lists assembled by the Online Computer Library Center and available at their website at www.oclc.org/research/top1000. The site provides lists of the top 1,000 holdings of member libraries across the United States, offering a unique perspective on what constitutes "culture" today in the US. (Musical recordings – mostly classical and opera – are included.) There's a general list and then categories like the Top 1,000 travel books ("Travels of Marco Polo," No.2), the Top 1,000 poetry volumes ("Mother Goose," No.1), and the Top 1,000 banned books (the Bible, No. 1.) Bibliophiles will relish noting the creation of new classics ("The DaVinci Code," No. 469; "Dilbert," No. 399.) It's also interesting to see how great books stack up against one another ("Gulliver's Travels," No. 20 versus "Moby Dick," No. 34) or to see writers compete with siblings ("Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë, No. 28, versus. "Jane Eyre" by sister Charlotte, No. 30) And don't miss the nifty mix of "factoids" connected to the main list.

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