Audacity Jones to the Rescue by Kirby Larson; Scholastic, $16.99. Ages 8 to 12. 209 pages.
The gifted author of “Hattie Big Sky” and “The Friendship Doll” launches a new series with a rip-roaring adventure featuring a colorful cast of orphans, swindlers and circus performers, based loosely on actual events and personalities in the Taft White House. Eleven-year-old orphan Audacity Jones pretty much runs the show at Miss Maisie’s School for Wayward Girls, in Swayzee, Ind., but she longs for adventures like the ones she reads about in the books in Miss Maisie’s library, otherwise known as the Punishment Room. Audie willingly accompanies a local celebrity, Commodore Crutchfield, on a secret mission, only to end up in the company of unsavory characters who have a nefarious plot in mind regarding the president’s niece and the preparation of the president’s favorite terrapin soup. Larson is a very entertaining writer (“soon, all was calm as a Presbyterian potluck”), and the narrative hums along, as the plot unfolds, with the intervention of the loyal cat who has followed Audie all the way to Washington. Larson offers a vivid picture of the Taft White House relying partly on Mrs. Taft’s memoirs of the White House staff and even basing part of the plot on Taft’s niece Dorothy’s actual disappearance. (which turned out to be a mix-up over train times during a visit to L.A.). The rollicking finale brings the tale to a most satisfying conclusion. Or as Audacity might say: “Everything will turn out splendid in the end, If it’s not splendid, it’s not the end.
– Jean Westmoore
The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne, Simon & Schuster, 288 pages ($25)
Suzanne Berne’s “The Dogs of Littlefield” is a crisp, entertaining, darkish comedy of manners that might leave you doubting every “best-of” list you’ve ever read.
The book’s fictional setting, a small town in Massachusetts, has placed sixth on a Wall Street Journal list of “Twenty Best Places to Live in America.”
What makes Littlefield great? “Leafy streets, old Victorian houses, fine public schools and a small university. ... home to roughly one percent of the nation’s psychotherapists.”
That disproportionate figure is one thing that attracted the attention of Clarice Watkins, a sociocultural anthropologist who has just moved to town, ostensibly to teach at the college but really because she’s doing field work on the residents. “How did global destabilization, she wondered, register among what must be the world’s most psychologically policed and probably well-medicated population?”
Clarice arrives just in time to observe Littlefield’s own destabilization. It is, as you might expect of an affluent suburb, a town with lots of dogs. A proposal has been put before the town’s aldermen to create an off-leash dog park in Baldwin Park, Littlefield’s main public green space.
Seems like a no-brainer to dog owners – but then the signs start appearing, handwritten on cardboard or brown paper bags. At first they’re just finger-shaking reminders about picking up poop, but they grow more ominous: “Leash your beast or else.”
Then one fall morning Margaret Downing lets her half-grown black Labrador, Binx, off his leash in the park. He happily tears off, plunges into a creek and climbs up the other side. By the time Margaret catches up with him, he’s sniffing “something enormous and pale, its coat so short as to make it seem hairless. ... Bloodied, yellowish foam had collected around the folds of its muzzle.” It’s the corpse of a white mastiff. Feldman, as the dog is called, has been poisoned.
Feldman’s death is only the first. Berne will introduce us to an array of dogs. Not all of them will survive.
The question of who is killing dogs, and why, runs through the book, but this is satire, not mystery.Revelations will come, but the real payoff of this novel is getting to know the characters Berne creates. Littlefield is a great place to visit – although you wouldn’t want to live there.
– Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times