Tag Archives: adult

Book Review: Family is Central to A Place at the Table

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reading guide.

This review includes a fairly detailed summary of the plot.  I leave the plot twist out though.

I’ve had an ARC of Susan Rebecca White’s book for years now. Sorry, Susan. But I’m glad that I waited this long to read it, because maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before I’d matured some more.

This is a heartbreaking story of pain and trauma, of otherness, of love and marriage and ultimately of survival, finding oneself, forgiveness, family, and accepting one’s roots and backstory.

This story follows three primary characters, whose lives all intersect over a cookbook and a shared love of food and a bright and cozy kitchen. It begins in 1929 in Emancipation Township, a black community in the rural, Jim Crow South. There we’re introduced to young siblings Alice and James Stone, close enough to believe that they are able to read one another’s thoughts. After refusing to play the meek black man, James is forced to flee North Carolina.

Leaving the Stones, we join Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son, white, probably upper-middle class, in 1970 Decatur, Georgia. His Meemaw lives in a neighborhood that is now mostly African American. He tries to befriend one of the neighborhood girls, but his brother’s racist language thwarts that. Later in 1977, he finds himself friends with a displaced Yankee, his equal on the track team. The two of them find themselves more than friends when alcohol, a late night, and a sleepover coincide, and Bobby begins a life in exile from his family, first with his Meemaw and later, in 1981, in New York City, where we stay with him through 1991. Bobby during his early years in New York finds himself working at the restaurant, a once-renowned haunt of writers and bohemians, where Alice Stone was once the well-known and –loved chef. He returns the restaurant to its gentrified-Southern roots and gains fame for himself. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s, and he loses his lover and partner to the disease.

Alice’s editor and friend has a niece, Amelia, living in upper-middle class Connecticut. She marries a Southerner from Georgia, who as they begin their life as empty-nesters in 1990, turns emotionally abusive towards her. She struggles with her desire to make her marriage successful and the fear for her own safety.

Individually, each character’s story of hardship and survival is fascinating.

If I was not necessarily eager to return to this book between minutes I was able to read, neither did I want to stay away, with which as much heartache as was in the book and knowing that I tend to avoid reading about characters in deep pain, I think must mean that these characters were well-developed and compelling.

For all that Alice is the glue that holds these stories together (it’s Alice’s restaurant that takes in Bobby, and Alice’s editor’s niece), it’s Bobby with whom we spend the most time, and whose story is explored most fully. As the true tale unwinds, Bobby, though, seems the outside observer, and the story seems more fully Alice’s and Amelia’s and James’. That was a little jarring, but Alice, Amelia, and James’ story makes up in emotional wallop what it lacks in page count.

What all these characters share—apart from a love of good food and cooking—is an exile from family, a crumbling of the idyllic family, and a longing for the return to home (Alice’s cookbook is Homegrown). Alice’s family is broken when James is forced to flee, and James’ worldview is shattered when he realizes himself to be part-white before being forced to flee his home. Bobby is kicked out of his family home after he is discovered kissing a boy. On his grandmother’s advice, he like James before him, leaves the hostile South altogether for the rumored, liberal paradise of New York City. Amelia has never spent time in New York—her family never visited, though they were nearby—but when her own marriage falls apart and with her children out of the house, she finds herself seeking comfort from her aunt, who lives there. Alice and Bobby both cling to their Southern roots through the food that they eat and prepare for others, even as they make new lives for themselves in New York. Amelia discovers her own Southern roots.

None of the characters return to the South but each of them is awarded some measure of reconciliation with their families. So it seems that family is the root to which White argues that one should return and with which one must reconcile to be fully known to oneself.

***1/2

White, Susan Rebecca. A Place at the Table. New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Rebecca White, Touchstone, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, Miss White is an alumna of the graduate program at my alma mater.

Book Reviews: Best of the Best of 2016

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It’s awards season again, and I’ve read next to none of the winners or honorees this year. The only book that won any medal that I have yet found postings for is Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat, one of this year’s Caldecott award honorees, which I gave four stars.

But I always believe in honoring the books that I’ve read and have awarded five stars.

Only the bolded books on this last were eligible for this year’s awards… and there are only five of them, all of them picture books.

Of the books that I rated five stars that were published in 2016, really, only Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? had any chance at any of the awards–I would have thought that a possible competitor for a Caldecott.

TODDLERS-KIDS (AGES 0-8)

MIDDLE GRADE-YOUNG READERS (AGES 8-12)

TEENS (AGES 13-19)

ADULTS (AGES 20+)

Book Review: Sheep Investigate Humanity and a Murder in Three Bags Full

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9780767927055Set in rural Ireland in the 1990s, I never would have suspected this to be a German work. Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with German crime novels or rural Ireland in the 1990s, but I had always suspected this to be an Irish import because there are a few puns here that I assume work better in English than in German—Miss Maple a nod to Miss Marple but named for the syrup that she steals from George’s pancakes; Ramses the Ram—but also because of the intimate portrayal of the setting.

This is a book I read and enjoyed ages back now—probably in 2007, almost a decade ago (isn’t that terrifying). It’s traveled with me since, but it’s only now that I returned to it, caught between books and not wanting to get sucked into anything too gripping and confined only to what I could reach without displacing my cat.

And I enjoyed it at least as much. It was almost good that that long time had passed because I’d forgotten important details like the identity of the murderer—though I was surprised what details I found myself however vaguely remembering.

Told mainly from the perspective of a flock of sheep whose reclusive shepherd is found dead in their pasture on page 1, this novel winds its way through the sordid histories of a small and insular town—romantic rivalries, past and present sins, rumors of drug runners among them—as well as the sheep’s own histories and prejudices and superstitions. The sheep in their sheepiness only comprehend so much of the human stories. Their misunderstanding, partial understanding, and incomprehension give the human reader time to reflect on the actions and beliefs of the human characters and all human characters by extension, to see them with an outsider’s eye as sometimes confusing or incomprehensible, while laughing at ourselves and at the sheep.

The depth of Swann’s immersion into sheepy thinking and culture was perhaps one of the more impressive aspects for me of the story.

The story rollicks between quaint and racy all while alluding to famous works of literature from Agatha Christie to Shakespeare to Emily Brontë.

For example, “A play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!” the sheep cry—or no, they don’t, but like Hamlet they concoct a play in the hopes that their dramatics might bring about a confession or an arrest—“justice” they actually do bleat repeatedly throughout the novel. Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep in all of Glennkill, concocts a play wherein Zora as George dies spectacularly, Maple plays the killer, and Mopple the Whale brings forth the clues to the killer’s identity that the sheep hope that the humans might understand.

I was amused this time around to discover that the sheep in the corner is not only a flip book illustration set but a barometer of the level of danger the sheep feel at any given point in the text.

I’m not sure how well I can judge this book as a crime novel or a mystery; I read so few books in that genre, but as a work of fiction, I do really enjoy it. It’s so wonderfully different, and it kept me guessing, and it kept me thinking both about the plot and about humanity and reality.

****

Swann, Leonie. Three Bags Full. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Doubleday/Flying Dolphin-Doubleday, 2006. First published 2005 by Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag-Random.

This review is not endorsed by Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell, Doubleday, Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, or Random House.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

It seems that Penguin Random is now the US publisher.

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Book Review: Reconstructing Delphi: Cursed Child SPOILERS

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DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE SCRIPT AND DON’T WANT SPOILERS.

I’m deciding to let others take on some of the more moral issues of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and I’m going to zero in on what bothered me perhaps more than anything else, whatever that says about me, and then how I think it could have been made more palatable to me.

So let’s get to it: Delphi. Now, I have always sort of laughed away the possibility of a Voldemort lovechild, believing it only slightly more likely to be made canon than the fan-favorite Dobby/giant squid pairing but in that same category, though admittedly if such a child existed, I would have expected it to be Bella’s. Bellatrix was not covert about her attraction to Voldemort, but as others have pointed out, the very idea that Voldemort—who is too inhuman to have died prior to the destruction of all seven of his horcruxes, whose greatest weakness is his incomprehension of love, specifically parental love—could desire a woman, desire a child, or frankly not be impotent with his soul in so many pieces is… a stretch of the imagination. But far be it for me to explain the effects of creating horcruxes and splitting one’s soul through Dark magic to J. K. Rowling.

Still, I was rereading my own fanfiction and as Draco said of the possibility that Bellatrix and Voldemort could ever have produced a child, “That is not an image I need planted in my head!” (Coincidentally, that chapter is not my favorite, but quoting without citing seemed wrong.)

The play claims that Delphi was born “before the Battle of Hogwarts,” (4.11), and I’d assumed that that meant just shortly before, but reading the Wikia article on Delphi now I’m realizing that I suppose it’s not that explicit and that potentially Rowling has agreed with us. Which sort of assuages one of my major problems with Delphi: that we—the fans—determined when Bellatrix would have been pregnant if pregnant she ever was, and it’s not when I thought that Rowling in this play claims that she was.

Bellatrix didn’t show up to see her own nephew—her only nephew and the only of her sisters’ children that she would want to lay claim to whatsoever—perform his first deed for Voldemort, kill his first person, even though other Death Eaters—much less important and less potent Death Eaters—were present. And I wasn’t the only one who thought that was odd. If she were ever to have been homebound and kept from missions because she was carrying Voldemort’s child–or anyone else’s child—that would have been the time.

I’m realizing now that some of the fault here might be that I want details that were not explicit in the text, but might be manifest in a production of the play. I want Draco to react to—to be gobsmacked by the news that his cousin is Voldemort’s daughter—and that his cousin kidnaps and threatens to kill his son, whom he clearly cares about (who wouldn’t? Bless the little cinnamon bun). I frankly want him to acknowledge that he knew that he had a cousin by Bellatrix—if in fact he did, and I think that the possibility that he didn’t if she had a child would be small.

Especially if she was born right before the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry and co. saw Draco in Malfoy Manor with his parents and his aunt—not described as visibly pregnant so presumably no longer so—during the Easter holidays (Easter 1998 was April 12, and the Battle of Hogwarts was May 1-2).

And especially if she was Voldemort’s because while I realize that Voldemort and Bellatrix might have had Delphi whisked away to live with the Rowles quite quickly after her birth, possibly before Draco would have had the chance to meet his cousin, I don’t find it likely. Voldemort doesn’t understand love or parental love and is confident in his horcruxes; he has no need of a child. Bellatrix, though, I think would hold onto her—unless Voldemort asked her not to maybe and maybe if she stood in the way of Bellatrix’s duties to Voldemort, but I expect that Bellatrix would want and cherish that child and be loath to send her away.

This is why I suspect that Bellatrix would have had with her in Malfoy Manor before the Battle of Hogwarts while Draco was home.

All this to say that I don’t like that Delphi is canonized embodiment of the Voldemort-Bellatrix lovechild trope and I don’t like how readily Draco accepts the possibility nor how blithely.

What I would have liked—and what I choose to believe because sometimes no canon is enough to sink a theory—is if Delphi is told by Rodolphus that she is Voldemort and Bellatrix’s lovechild. I don’t care if it is though I don’t want it to be true. I want her to be Scorpius’ foil, a rumored child of Voldemort who chose to accept and believe the rumor and to act accordingly.

I could easily see Rodolphus wanting to distance himself from any child of Bellatrix’s—whether it was his or no. There doesn’t seem to have been much love in their relationship, and maybe Bellatrix didn’t turn out to be what he had expected. Maybe he was grieving his wife or grieving the love that he never received from her and saw the child as a reminder of her and found it easier to disentangle himself from them both.

Snape could fly so this is not the proof that Harry and co. seem to believe it is that Delphi is Voldemort’s daughter. The Parseltongue is harder to excuse as a red herring, but Harry can speak Parseltongue, and surely it’s not only the direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin who can speak the language if they and Harry are the only ones that we’ve met.

I’m grasping at straws perhaps plus ignoring what I suppose I must call canon I know, but for me it is just so much easier for me to accept the whole story of The Cursed Child if I believe that Delphi only believes herself to be Voldemort’s daughter, that she is really Roldophus’ maybe. I’m perfectly willing to believe that she was Bellatrix’s out of wedlock, but not Voldemort’s.  And armed with that head canon, The Cursed Child just works better for me as an addition to the seven canon novels and the Potterverse.

***

Thorne, Jack.  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.  New York: Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the play or script.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: A Caution and Plea for Open-Mindedness: SPOILER-FREE

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9781338099133_default_pdpThe majority of the reviews that I’m seeing for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have been negative or underwhelmed—and I sort of want to echo these same feelings, but every time that I try to do so—well, I can moan along with the best, and I can parcel out what exactly didn’t work for me and why, but I feel badly doing so and here’s why: Can you imagine living up to our expectations? We—me, and the majority of the fans that I’ve seen react negatively—are the ones who never really left Hogwarts. We took J. K. Rowling at her word when she said that Hogwarts would always be there to welcome us home. We wept along with Trelawney when she moaned that Hogwarts was her home—because she was echoing our own feelings as we watched a monster destroy the place we loved—and because she is played by Emma Thompson, and that woman is a masterful actress. If we didn’t write fanfiction, we read it, and we had our favorites, and we had personal theories on every minor detail and pet theories on which we couldn’t be swayed and which we’d defend loudly and ardently to anyone (mine, for example, is that there is corruption at some level within St. Mungo’s, and Alice Longbottom is conscious enough to recognize it and has been trying to tell Neville for years through her bubble gum wrappers; I even got to write and publish the essay on it in a book of scholarly and not-so-scholarly articles by fans).

I think we remained more deeply entrenched in the world and engaged more fully with the characters these past nine years perhaps than has J. K. Rowling.

And J. K. Rowling approved but did not actually pen this script. I have to think that John Tiffany and Jack Thorne are fans themselves—the sort of fans that we are—and that they have pet theories too, ones that they won’t put aside despite evidence within the canon.

J. K. Rowling has never discouraged fanfiction.

In some ways the only thing that this play is truly guilty of is that we expect it to live up to the original canon when it is really a fan piece that happens to have been granted a nod by the author—and of not being our fan piece.

The story is and feels like fanfiction—canonized fanfiction—and because so many fan theories and fan ideas—even the ones we held onto only as jokes—were given the nod, it feels a bit like being pandered to—or stolen from when I think—I hope that J. K. Rowling’s idea was to validate some of our theories—though I wish she’d been more selective, and I wish that she had more carefully read over the work and seen that some of the ideas just don’t jive with the already established seven canon novels. But we’ve had more than nine years to mull over, tinker with, and hone these theories—and some of those ideas have been better handled or better written in other texts than this. And again, after all the effort we put into perfecting these ideas to see canon ideas that don’t match our own is off-putting.

So there’s that. But then, there are problems that I had, even as a fan piece, with plot elements and with the writing itself at times—things that have nothing to do with whether or not it was a good addition to the canon and more to do with whether I like the elements within the text, elements I would judge if this were a standalone and not a new piece in the Harry Potter world. There are already boundless articles online detailing some of the problems that this text has: that the badass Hermione Granger’s success seems so dependent upon the approval of one or any man (as written by Kadeen Griffiths for Bustle in “How Hermione Granger Is Portrayed in ‘Harry Potter & The Cursed Child’ Is Offensive to the Fans and the Character”), perhaps an attempt at inclusion of POC gone awry by mishandling in both Hermione (played by Noma Dumezweni) and Rose Weasley (played by Cherrelle Skeete) and the off-screen inclusion of Padma and Panju Weasley (“What The Hell Is A Panju?” And Other Questions I, A Brown Potterhead, Have For J.K. Rowling” published by Krupa Gohil on Buzzfeed). Without going into why it is difficult to reconcile this text with the canon or why I would have handled certain elements differently, these are perhaps its largest flaws.

That and some of the stage directions forget that they are stage directions. Yes, you could darken a character’s eyes with contacts but what I think the stage direction means is that the character is terrified and that—well, if your actor can widen his pupils, fantastic, but don’t command him to do so; let the actor, act. Moreover, unless the play is being filmed and filmed with an intense zoom lens, such a detail won’t be seen. Some stage directions are written as if they can tell the audience how to react too. Without magic you can’t force a whole audience to react in a certain way, certainly not by telling them to do so. Sometimes the novelist snuck into the play. And what sort of stage direction is “And time stops. And then it turns over, thinks a bit”?  What does that even mean?

Expect another more nitpicky review where I will pick apart the things I liked and disliked, but I wanted to answer all the negativity, and I liked the idea of a spoiler-free and a spoiler-filled review.  (Here is that review.)

I’ve already begun a reread.

***

Thorne, Jack.  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.  New York: Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the play or script.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Fahrenheit 451: A Fiery Critique of Modern Entertainment

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16280156After having read a lot of light, modern, conversational Riordan, I was craving something with more depth and more flowery flare. I floundered for a while and asked everyone I knew for suggestions of writers who have a mastery of language to rival Patrick Rothfuss’. In the end, I picked up this old favorite: Fahrenheit 451.

I can’t tell you when I read Fahrenheit 451. It might’ve been almost a decade ago. I didn’t remember as much of the plot as I thought that I had, though I remembered a great bit of the sentiment.

Ray Bradbury’s writing (I’ve already mentioned) has left a deep scar on my heart and mind. His poetic prose and command of language and meter is something to which I aspire and which I greatly admire.

This book was especially impacting to read now—now in the wake of all that is happening in the world and all that I fear may soon happen in the world.

It’s amazing how prophetic some science-fictions/future dystopias can be.

Guy Montag is a firefighter in a future America. Instead of fighting fires, he sets them; he sets fires to books and to the homes of those who are found in possession of books. Books are a source of chaos. Books foment rebelliousness. Books are a toxin to the world that has been sedated and made happy by noise and glitter and flash and distraction. Interaction has been replaced by walls—television screens that are as large as a wall, and of which a person is intended to have four, so that they can be fully immersed in the programming, which also can be set to include a viewer’s name, to further the immersive escapism.

The world outside of the walls is about to go to war, but the newscasters are quick to gloss over the fact, and quick to dismiss the possibility of loss or hurt.

Montag’s been long curious about the nature of the oppression of which he is a part. He has been sneaking books home and hiding them. But it takes a series of encounters with a girl who seems more awake and more alive than anyone he’s ever met to convince him to act upon those secret curiosities and begin to read. A few lines and a desire for real conversation after that girl dies quickly spirals him into the world of secret bibliophiles and thinkers, concerned with preserving the knowledge of the ages and the culture of the past beyond themselves.

I sort of remembered this book ending hopefully, and I suppose in a way it does, but the city as been bombed, and the fringe society of scholars and bibliophiles and thinkers are heading back to the city to see if they can help.

Bradbury never says what becomes of the society, but leaves it with only those few heroes and a bombed ruin, death and loss and pain that most Americans didn’t see coming because they were too distracted by the escape and the light and the sound.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about where this love and fascination with distraction and noise is present today. If I say much else, I’m writing a very different blog post.

Suffice it to say, this is a book that I’m glad that I read in high school, and I’m glad that I read it now.

Bradbury’s vivid prose is escapism of a different kind because it makes me think instead of distracting me from thinking.

There were a few passages that I found significant enough to mark both in high school and again this past June—and this was I think the first book in 2016 to make me get a pencil to mark its passages.  Because they seemed so significant both times, I want to share them here:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up. That way lies melancholy.” (61)

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” (83)

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. […] Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.” (86)

This book has a special place in my heart too for the reverential way that it talks about writers and book; I am something of a bibliophile or I probably wouldn’t have this blog.

*****

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Rey-Random, 1953.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Del Rey Book, Random House Publishing Group, or Simon & Schuster, who seems to have acquired the current rights, because sometimes publishing is weird.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: The Dark Is Rising: The Dark, the Light, and Christianity

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1513207I found Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence—wow—fourteen years ago? It was around the same time as that I was devouring J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Diana Wynne JonesChronicles of Chrestomanci, after Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

That list alone should give you some idea of the genre and the intended audience—or an appropriate audience.

I don’t think I began to really understand its complexities and nuances until maybe four years ago (at the latest). I had always sort of imagined the Dark and the Light as synonymous with the Christian symbolism with which I was most familiar. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (ESV Ps. 119:105) and “[…] the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall man prevail” (ESV 1 Sam. 2:9). I think it was the last book that I was reading, Silver on the Tree, when I realized that Cooper’s Light and Dark has very little to do with Christian ideology (and I think that I’d read one of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series not long before, which is I think heavily influenced by Christian mythology, and seeing the two book series in contrast may have helped to make this revelation so jarring.)

God—the Judeo-Christian God, that is—or any other god for that matter, except perhaps Herne the Hunter, who might according to some theories have evolved from one of several pre-Christian gods—really doesn’t enter into Cooper’s story at all—as much as this book in the series happens around Christmas and the protagonist, Will Stanton, is raised in a Christian household. In Christian ideology, man cannot succeed, cannot be saved apart from God. In Cooper’s mythology, the Old Ones of the Light and the masters of the Dark are more than men, almost gods, and they rely on their own power and on men for success.  That is the starkest divide between Cooper’s mythology and Christian mythology—the source of might and of salvation and the reliance of men on God or gods on men.

Perhaps had I been raised outside of the Christian faith, I would have more fully understood Cooper’s ideas of the Dark and the Light sooner, maybe even when I first read them in middle school.

For all that I’m talking about this now, realize that as a child, I missed the nuance, I missed the replacement of God or any god with more-than-men-but-not-gods. I don’t discourage Christian parents from sharing this story with their children by any means. It’s an excellent story about the conflict of Good and Evil and demonstrates the perfectly human powers of teamwork, phileo love, persistence, and sacrifice needed to combat Evil, and it gives to Evil both a human face and an otherworldly face that I think is congruent with Christian beliefs.

That, again, being said: You may need to be ready to one day have this discussion with your child. They may like me be rocked to find on a reread that the book series that they loved as a child seems now like not the same series.

But this is a beautiful book series, excellently written, neither too poetic nor too prosaic. This book has been a favorite Christmas story for a long time.  I enjoyed rereading it, and I will do so again, probably come next Christmastime.

*****

Cooper, Susan. The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising. New York: Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 1973.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Cooper, Aladdin Paperbacks, or Simon & Schuster.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Sweet, Satisfying, and Quick to Read: The World That Forgot How to Dance

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I am biased toward this book. This is the first published book written by a Hollins classmate to make it to my bookshelves. Many of us left with at least partial manuscripts, a little bit wiser in our craft for our four years of study, and it’s been a bit of a race to paint our words over impressionable minds and hearts. Olivia Berrier and I took English 142 together and together with our classmates demanded that we be allowed to write fantasy, promised to show that fantasy could have literary value—a fight that, for that semester, our class won, and because of that, I got to enjoy some of Olivia’s earlier fantasy works (calling her Berrier is just weird, so I think we’ll have to stick with informal address, even in this more formal review). We’ve kept in touch since, and got together once during the brief time that we were back in the same city, but most of our relationship has since been online, and most of it has been book discussion.

This novelette began as a weekly serial for her blog, Often Clueless, Always Shoeless, but it has been rather seamlessly sewn together here. I shamefully admit to not reading more than an episode or two of the serial while it was being published, so I don’t honestly know whether this is a direct rendering or if the text was edited between the blog and the printed form.

It’s a quick read, only 73 pages long, but with page breaks to allow for a breather or a bit of sleep as needed—and in this form you don’t have to wait a week for the next installment. I took a week to linger over the words and the world, and even so I was sad when the story ended, and I realized that there would be no more. I wrote a message on Olivia’s Facebook wall immediately after I’d finished, telling her essentially that: “I just finished your book, and I’m sad it’s over, and I’m not sure I can offer a better compliment than that.”

Olivia writes lovingly about dance, and the way that she writes about it, it’s easy to believe that dance could be the catalyst for magic.

Her protagonist and point-of-view character Ellsie (Ellsie’s is a fairly close third) is compassionate, passionate, and real in the best ways—longing to be what she is not and struggling to accept herself as she is and realize that she is enough while never seeming weak for having a weakness and never seeming absurdly powerful for having the ability to work magic (an ability that is this world seems fairly universal, though the spells are forgotten now).

Lester, once arrogant and jealous, now scared and hopeless inspires new vigor in Ellsie when she reignites hope in him, and he sets her an unlawful and emotionally heavy task that will save her, one hundred thirty-seven others, and the world that has forgotten magic and forgotten how to dance.

The world is strangely modern and strangely familiar, and I scraped myself once or twice against cars and guns and cell phones and familiar styles of dance, including freestyle. I don’t know why these modern elements seemed so rough against my skin, but perhaps only because I spend so much of my time in technologically early civilizations and perhaps because these objects are sparse, scattered reminders of the modernity of a world that 300 years ago could be so reliant on magic—but then 300 years is a long time, and I frequently forget that (300 years ago, Blackbeard was given his first command of a ship, the Jacobites were fighting against the Hanovers in England, and there were still a few executions of witches to come). Perhaps it’s that these objects are so familiar, that they are staples of our world while magic is not. I could not decide whether I was in an alternate version of our world or another world entirely. I think it was this last, that this confusion of setting was what threw me once or twice briefly from the text.

There were some excellent gems of wordsmithing here, particularly apt and original comparisons and poignant verbs.

Ultimately, the story is a sweet and brief reminder of the magic available to all and the freedom and power of dance.

****

Berrier, Olivia.  The World That Forgot How to Dance.  48HrBooks, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Olivia Berrier or 48HrBooks.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Why Is There So Little Racial Diversity Among Protagonists?

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I’m no expert, and I’m not sure I’m even remotely eloquent when discussing race and racial disparity, but I couldn’t help noticing how few books that I’d read in 2015 had any characters of anything other than “white” skin—or maybe I noticed more how many were unnecessarily white—and how many of those that had some mention or appearance of a person of color still had a white person in a position of power or (and) importance, how many illustrators and writers had defaulted to white for their protagonists. Even being fairly generous, allowing even books that mentioned vaguely and offhandedly the existence of people of color within their worlds or having people of color appear as background characters in the illustrations, I come up with a mere 26 out of 111. Admittedly, 38 of those 111 dodged the question of race by excluding humans altogether, favoring instead only anthropomorphized animals or objects so that the count is really more like 26 out of 85 (just over 30%) with 3 more books of those 85 dodging the question another way: Todd Parr in It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by illustrating his characters in colors so outlandish (purple?) that I’m hesitant to assign them any race, Virginia Burton in Katy and the Big Snow by making figures so small that it’s impossible to tell whether her characters are bundled against the cold or darker skinned, Jack McDevitt in Eternity Road simply escaping on a technicality (I don’t remember the mention of anyone of color, and I didn’t make note of any in my review… but I feel certain there must be someone—this is post-apocalyptic America!).

Literature provides an opportunity to walk the world as someone else and with someone else without ever having to leave the couch.  Literature seeps into minds and hearts.  It can teach us when face-to-face conversation is difficult or impossible.  In a time of too-present, too-rampant racism, the disproportionate examples of white protagonists narrows the world’s (fictional worlds’) vision and silences the very voices that literature can and should promote, that could alter our minds and hearts.

This all said, I did not in 2015 seek out diverse literature.  I read what I wanted, what intrigued me, what I had at the house without giving any thought to the races of the protagonists–other than to be excited when I did stumble across a a person of color as a protagonist (especially in picture books).

But that’s just it:  I shouldn’t have to seek out diverse characters.  Our fictional worlds as diverse as our own, and it seems to me that publishing still has a ways to go to make that so.

I hope you find this survey and these statistics as eye-opening as I did.

So WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR?

Well….

Samurai Santa by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Christmas comes to the ninja dojo. All the characters then are Japanese, but all this really does is reinforce stereotypes. Do children realize that ninjas and dojos are historical aspects of Japan? Is there anything historically accurate about this dojo? Little here could build cultural awareness.

Here they are, in the background where a white person—or a non-human character—is the protagonist.

Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007 and 2013.

There are children of several races in the class, but Iggy and Rosie are both Caucasian.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Every main character—every speaking or named character is white, but there’s mention of an “old man” from Kingston, Jamaica, “his skin very black and his hair very white,” who gets one line of dialogue recorded in a letter that the protagonist receives from his brother (129) and when the Old Ones are magically joined together across/outside of time, Will sees “an endless variety of faces—gay, somber, old, young, paper-white, jet-black, and every shade and gradation of pink and brown between” (232). So, yes, Cooper acknowledges a variety of races and skin pigmentations and does not exclude them from power, but they are not her characters or actors or focus.

Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015.

The protagonists are a small, white, rainbow-spotted elephant and a mouse, but the city scenes show a racially diverse population, all depicted as loving family units.

Library Mouse: Home Sweet Home by Daniel Kirk. Abrams, 2013.

There is some racial diversity among the children seen entering the library, but the story focuses on two mice.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

Again, there are a few POC within the crowds of the city but the protagonist is a non-human… thing, and his soul mate is a light-skinned brunette.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. First published in 2009.

There are POC in the city scenes of this book, but an anthropomorphic truck is actually the protagonist. The mayor of the city is lighter skinned too.

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

This is the story of a Caucasian family, but Stella’s class is ethnically diverse and the family of at least one classmate is multiracial.

How to Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012.

Dinosaurs are the protagonists (main characters anyway) in this story, but there is some variation of skin tones among the humans in whose homes the dinosaurs seem to reside. Honestly, this one may be a stretch, but I think Teague made a conscious effort at least.

Now they are characters! But still only side characters, not protagonists.

A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

Martin’s world is fairly wide, and there are different races and skin tones within the world. Some of those characters like Missandei become important to—or maybe friends with white protagonists. Most darker skinned people are side characters in the extreme, mentioned mostly as slaves. … Really, Martin? In that respect at least the television show has been better. Surprise! Most of the characters you thought were dark-skinned—Grey Worm, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Salladhor Saan—are probably not. The Dothraki are “copper skinned” though, and several Dothraki have been characters.  Khal Drogo may have been a protagonist–but not in this book.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. DAW-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.

Kvothe’s friends and teachers come from several regions of the world and have various racial identities and accompanying pigmentations. Kvothe himself is lighter-skinned, I think, because of the true red hair, but Rothfuss steers far clear of the trap that Martin falls into. There really aren’t slaves at this point in history, and the characters of darker skin that are here—Wilem and Master Kilvin in particular—have strengths and flaws and personalities and are not generally second class because of their skin color.  In fact, they are pretty awesome if I can for a moment be less objective, and Kvothe learns from and leans on both.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2000.

There are a few ethnicities represented within the classes at Hogwarts, not as many as one could hope for, but the dark-skinned Dean Thomas is a friend of Harry’s; Lee Jordan, a friend of the twins’, is another character of African descent; the Patel twins go to the Yule ball with Harry and Ron; and Harry is crushing on Cho Chang, a girl of Asian descent. None of these are particularly main characters, though Cho gets a little more time here than in earlier books, this being the first book where Harry gets to tell her of his interest.

Here they are, slipping quietly into larger roles without any comment.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.

Carle’s classroom includes students of several races, but there’s no real protagonist here, though the Brown Bear is the title character. The teacher is Caucasian.

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

Magnolia might be of Asian descent, I think, based on the illustrations, and there are a few POC in her class.

Intersellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

The handsome prince is dark-skinned.

The Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015.

The family here is multiracial, and no one is upset or comments on it.

The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2014. First published 2011.

There are several races depicted in these wonderful illustrations, though in this book, the faces are obscured a little by glowing crowns.

Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013.

All right, Disney, you win this round. Tiana and Jasmine are both included in this book, though Jasmine’s brief appearance especially (to be fair every character here gets only a very brief appearance) seems more to propagate stereotypes than defy them.

Now we’re letting race inform our characters, but not focusing on race, cultural history, or current social issues.

Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane. Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

I almost forgot about this one, and I’m terribly ashamed! Kit Rodriguez is Hispanic. His family occasionally slips into Spanish and keeps a few specialties—a soda that Nita particularly enjoys—in the refrigerator. He is a truly powerful, empathetic wizard—and a protagonist besides, with most of the weight on him in this book. His sister Carmela is especially good with languages, and though not a wizard herself has learnt the wizards’ Speech.

The Kane Chronicles, Books 2 and 3: The Throne of Fire and The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2011 and 2012.

Sadie and Carter are biracial (though both sides of the family have roots in Egypt), and Carter in particular is mentioned as having darker skin. Walt, Sadie’s love interest and the Kanes’ partner in the fight against Apophis, is dark-skinned too. Carter’s love interest, Zia, is Egyptian.

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.

Our seven heroes are of several ethnicities: Native American (Cherokee), Chinese Canadian, African American, Latino, and Caucasian—and yeah, there are three Caucasians in the group, but there are some excellent representations of different and rarely depicted ethnicities here, and Riordan lets their various heritages inform their characters and their backstories, their strengths and their troubles without I feel defining the characters by their ethnicities. Side characters are of different ethnic backgrounds too, including the Puerto Rican Reyna and her sister Hylla.

Here teaching understanding of racial experience or cultural diversity is the drive behind the story.

Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green. Dover, 2014.

There are female pirates here from all over the world.

Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

This is a story about the African American experience in Reconstruction America.

Sold by Patricia McCormick. Hyperion-Disney, 2008.  First published 2006.

This is a collection of poems documenting the experiences of a fictional Nepali girl taken to India as a sex slave. Many of the characters are Nepali or Indian, though the man who helps Lakshmi escape her slavery is American—though I don’t believe that his race is explicitly stated.