Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: Learning About Franco’s Spain in The Fountains of Silence

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excerpt, teacher's guide, and author's bio.

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I read an ARC of Ruta Sepetys’ The Fountains of Silence for Barnes & Noble’s YA Book Club. It isn’t probably a book that I would have otherwise picked up. Although Sepetys’ books are well reviewed, hers is not a genre into which I often venture, and Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray both about persecuted characters in WWII seem too desperately tragic for me to find reading them enjoyable; I tend to favor literature that helps me to escape the tragedy of life over that that reminds me of the tragedy of the past, as much as I know that it is important to remember.

But it’s only since 2007 that I have found history past the 1600s or so interesting.

Besides hearing the name Franco and knowing him to have been a leader of Spain, I was and am woefully ignorant about this period of Spanish and world history.

I learned a little from this novel.

I won’t pretend that I learned a lot or that I learned enough.

The novel centers one family, now adults or older teenagers, whose parents have been killed in the civil war and who are now living in the slums of Madrid and getting by as best as they can do. The son of an American oil baron comes to stay at a hotel where one member of the family, Ana Torres Moreno, works. Daniel Matheson is an outsider in Texas high society because of his Spanish mother, and his father frowns on his aspiration to become a photographer. In Franco’s Spain, the press is censored. Daniel quickly gets in trouble with the Guardia Civil for photographing aspects of Spanish society that Franco would rather be kept silent and out of the world’s eye—and the novel untangles why that particular photo gets his film confiscated, what act is being perpetrated by the nuns.

Daniel and Ana bond over Daniel’s photography and Daniel’s kindness and dreams of a more free future. Ana opens his eyes to the darker side of the Franco’s Spain, but she cannot open them enough to believe herself able to make a relationship with him—not until after Franco’s death, when the two of them have pined for one another for nearly two decades despite having no contact with one another in that time.

This plot was… too tight for me, a very rare complaint from me, but I could not suspend my belief enough to think that the Morenas and the Mathesons would be so intricately woven together as Sepetys writes them. The writing itself was good, but I had some trouble with that aspect of the plot. On the one hand I am glad that the book did not end on the sorrow of Daniel’s departure from Spain. On the other hand, that first part of the novel that ended in heartbreak was the more believable end. I might have ended with Daniel and Christina arriving in Spain and being greeted by Nick, though that would not have centered the story on the plight of Spain as Sepetys intends I think to do. SPOILERS Or just don’t have Daniel and Ana fall back into one another’s arms so easily! That would have solved a lot. And having Christina be Ana’s stolen niece and the child over which Ana’s cousin Puri, also adopted, so dotes, her Clover…. It’s all just too much—too much convenience and coincidence.

A few positive details: I appreciated the detailed glossary of Spanish terms and phrases in the back of the book. I have seen books suffer from a lack of such a glossary, and while I didn’t need it in every instance, I was glad to be able to check so easily what I remembered of Spanish classes now almost two decades past.

Sepetys opens many chapters with firsthand sources—pieces of interviews with US officials, newspaper clippings, photographs—which lend legitimacy to her portrayal of Franco’s Spain. If only because it shows that she absolutely did her research and dug into archives for information.

This is an entertaining introduction to the plight of the Spanish people under Franco’s rule, but I personally enjoyed learning from it more than I enjoyed the story of it.

***

Sepetys, Ruta. The Fountains of Silence. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12+, Grades 7+.

This review is not endorsed by Ruta Sepetys, Philomel Books, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

A question to my readers:  Do you think I should include a photo of the books’ text in my reviews if I have one?  Will that help you decide to read or skip a book?

Book Review: Adventure, Asexuality, and Fighting the Patriarchy with A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reviews.

Spoiler in white.  Highlight the text to reveal it.

I skipped over the first book in this series, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, (I will almost certainly return to it, especially as this series has just been announced to be continuing with a new book in August 2020) because I discovered that the second in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, features a protagonist who is asexual like me. And that excited me. This is the first book that I have ever read about an asexual character. This is the first book that I have read that includes any asexual person. Though no such term existed in British English in the 1700s, and it is never used in the text, Mackenzi Lee confirmed it in answering a question on Goodreads, and it is made clear in the text.

Seeing myself in text—and without the whole story being about asexuality—was so important, so fulfilling to me. Reading a teen novel in which the protagonist isn’t at any point seeking a relationship—is in fact seeking not to be in a relationship—is so refreshing.  Felicity does have to consider whether or not to settle with a man that she doesn’t love in the way that he loves her, and that undercurrent runs throughout the book, but that actually rings fairly true to my experience with asexuality too unfortunately, despite the 300 or so year difference filled with advances in women’s rights and autonomy between Felicity’s story and mine.  (Lee never specifies the year in which her book occurs, but I have determined it to be later than 1726 as that is the year of the founding of the Edinburgh School of Medicine.)

Felicity Montague is living with a Scottish baker when the book opens, and he fumbles a proposal that she flees, going to her brother and his lover in London. She has been turned out of meetings with every hospital board in Edinburgh. She is turned away by another in London, though one of the doctors afterwards suggests that she query her idol, Dr. Alexander Platt, who is currently in Stuttgart about to marry a childhood friend of Felicity’s with whom she had a falling out over their diverging interests. A Muslim sailor offers to fund Felicity’s travels to Stuttgart if Felicity will ask her no questions and will get her inside the Hoffmans’ home. Despite misgivings and her brother’s warnings, Felicity accepts Sim’s help, and the two embark across Europe.

Neither Felicity, Sim, nor Johanna Hoffman are happy with their lot, with the lot of women in the 18th century. Felicity wants to study and practice medicine. SPOILERS Sim wants to inherit the rule of her father’s pirate fleet. Johanna wants to become a biologist. All three seek to enter fields dominated and controlled and policed by men. Felicity writes a note to herself­—“You deserve to be here. You deserve to exist. You deserve to take up space in this world of men.”—words that still bear repeating by women today, taught to keep compliant, subservient, and quiet.  That these thoughts echo Tumblr and seem equally comfortable there as in a book set in the 18th century reflect on the slow pace of progress of women’s power.

The women’s attempts to overcome the obstacles of a patriarchal society were as much fun for me as was the chase across Europe and Africa and the possible fantastical turn that the book takes.

I finished this book in August, and I have put copies in the hands of several customers looking for something different, something fun, something to inspire hope since.  I have not bought myself a copy yet, but I intend to do so, as I am already wanting to read this book again—and I don’t intend to wait until the book is available in paperback.  I’ll look forward to catching up with these characters in August.

*****

Lee, Mackenzi. The Montague Siblings, Book 2: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. Katherine Tegen-HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 13+.

This review is not endorsed by Mackenzi Lee, Katherine Tegen Books, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Less Compassionate Robin in Hood

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and sample.

I started rereading Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood mid-July 2018 for my August 2018 trip to Wales but was interrupted by the trip, and only now, almost a year later, am I finishing it.

I had read this book 11-12 years earlier; it was one of the books that was allowed to come with me when I moved into my freshman dorm.  (This was before bookstagram was a thing, but apparently, I already had the idea.)

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The Welsh countryside had already stolen parts of my heart via Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series before this novel found its way to me, so I was predisposed to like it.

I had fond memories of it and was excited to reread it, but 11-12 years is a long time.

Now, I have not read Pyle’s version of Robin Hood or any other version that I remember besides Lawhead’s. The versions of the story that I know best are Disney’s with its foxy hero and BBC’s 2006-2009 television series.  It’s been a long while, but I’ve watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights too.  Robin and his entourage showed up once in Doctor Who.  Then I know just bits of the myth that have filtered into common cultural knowledge, that have been referenced in other stories.  And I have actually had the chance to walk the halls of Nottingham Castle and the paths of Sherwood.

I very much like Lawhead’s premise for this novel and the reasons for his conclusions about Robin Hood that he presents in the notes in the back of this book (these notes really ought to preface the book I feel instead of ending it; if you pick this book up for the first time, do yourself a favor and read those first. There is the map. There is the pronunciation guide. Page 473 in my copy begins the notes). In essence he argues that the legend of Robin Hood presumably arose from a historical fact and that the legend makes more sense as a Welshman, the Welsh being masters of the longbow, fighting from the wild, primeval forest of the March than an English noble in the shrinking Sherwood. Robin is believably a bastardization and Anglicization of Rhi Bran, and Lawhead offers several explanations of Hood (coed being a Welsh word for woodland or a reference to the hooded costume that Bran uses).  Like Robin of Nottingham, Bran is disinherited by an overreaching British monarch, not Prince John rewarding loyalists, but William II allowing his nobles to conquer Wales, killing unyielding Welsh kings in battle.

But I don’t find Bran as likeable as Disney’s or BBC’s versions. Lawhead’s Bran has to learn selflessness on a hospital bed, and his motivations are less generous than other Robins throughout, even after that revelation. He is prone to bouts of violence. He is reintroduced as a young man while coercing kisses from Mérian (and that I think more than anything else really soured this book for me; he cares about Mérian’s consent no more as he develops into a leader, though their interaction late in the book is brief, and perhaps he improves in sequels, which I have never read). When he is enjoying himself, he can be impish. When he is contemplative, he shows promise as a ruler. He can be bold, but that boldness borders on recklessness and sometimes endangers others. Some of my unfavorable impression of Robin might be what Lawhead intended. He says Robin in the earliest stories “was a coarse and vulgar oaf much given to crudeness and violence” (474).

I empathize with the ousted and hunted prince, but I too often dislike him. I root for the Welsh cause without much liking the leader of the rebellion.

Mérian just seems young. She is irresolute, one moment wholly opposed to the Ffreinc invaders and the next dreaming of parties in Ffreinc castles. She is acted upon rather than taking any actions herself and seems to hold no firm convictions.

Disney’s Robin is roguish, romantic, and compassionate. Disney’s Marian is gentle.

BBC’s Robin is roguish, romantic, compassionate, and a conscientious objector after he learns respect for Islam while fighting in the Holy Land at King Richard’s side. BBC’s Marian is passionate, a fighter for justice and the poor.  She acts against tyranny despite the risk to herself.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of Hood is historically accurate.  William Rufus, Bernard Neufmarché, his daughter Sybil, and Philip de Braose all are historically recorded. Bernard did capture Talgarth in the early 1090s.  Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed in Bernard’s Welsh conquest in 1093.

But more often, Lawhead relies on common names. There was a Brychan—but not a Brychan ap Tewdwr—who was king of Brycheiniog (a term not used in Hood, but that’s the only King Brychan I can find in Welsh history).  Elfael was not part of Brycheiniog, but was adjacent to it.

And sometimes the facts just don’t line up.  Elfael in fact did not become its own cantref until 1140, and Lawhead’s map sets the story between 1080 CE and 1100 CE.  Before that, Elfael with Maelienydd was Ferlix.  And while there is a Llanelli in Wales, it is nowhere near where it is on Lawhead’s map, being a coastal town in Carmarthenshire.

All this I fact checked using resources freely available on the Internet, but admittedly, there is some fuzziness to the historical records from this period.

Despite my dislike of Bran and Mérian and my uneasiness about some of the history and geography that Lawhead uses to set his novel, I still find this an interesting fictional representation of the Norman invasion of Wales and Welsh life and resistance at the time of William II.

I enjoy the ease with which Lawhead makes his story align with the Robin Hood legend, defending his case for a Welsh genesis for the myth.  And I like Lawhead’s writing. He captures the settings well. He writes a good battle.

I just wish that this story had more central characters that I actually enjoyed being around.  I do like Iwan (Little John) and Friar Tuck.

***

Lawhead, Stephen R. King Raven, Book 1: Hood. Nashville: Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2007. First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Stephen R. Lawhead, Thomas Nelson, Inc, or HaperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Enormous Scope of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

SPOILERS included in an attempt to linearly layout the story.

I have meant for a while to dive into Salman Rushdie’s canon. He is a man whose conviction I greatly admire. For the Satanic Verses, his execution was ordered by an Iranian Ayatollah, leading Rushdie to hide under an alias on British soil.  But he has stood by his publication and continues to write about religions and the big questions.  He has used his fame to speak out on a vast number of social and political issues of our time and to benefit nonprofit programs and generally (to borrow a term) “decrease world suck.”

This is nevertheless the first book of Rushdie’s that I have read.

Rereading The Golem and the Jinni recently ignited in me new interest in the jinn, the mythology of which I think could be useful in my own writing. Finding this book on audio CD at the local library when the book that I’d gone for was missing seemed a sign, and I took it.

The bulk of the story told is about a near future but is told from the perspective of a historian or storyteller 1000 years past the main events, a period of 1001 nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty eight days—that is known as “the time of the strangenesses.”  The story spans from the time of Ibn Rushd’s exile from the court at Cordoba when he lived in the mostly Jewish village of Lucena (c. 1195) until 1000+ years past our present, a stunning scale (1825+ years).

By Rushdie’s account, during Ibn Rushd’s exile, he loved a girl called Dunia, who bore him many children, which Ibn Rushd, when his favor in court was restored, largely cast off along with Dunia. Dunia, awakening the dust of Ibn Rushd long after his death, around our own present, reveals herself to be the princess of Qaf in Peristan, the parallel world that is home to the jinn and other lesser magical creatures. With the veil between the two worlds loosened, other jinn return to the world of men, including the grand ifrits, dark jinn. This sparks a rash of “strangenesses,” unexplainable plagues that affect humanity, and broadly, the return of magic to men. Dunia’s and Ibn Rushd’s descendants have multiplied, and the jinn magic within several of these descendants is awakened by the strangenesses and by Dunia. She deputizes several of these descendants as warriors in her fight against the dark jinn and the grand ifrits. Much of the story focuses on the lives of a few of these deputized warriors, which include a failed graphic novelist who finds himself possessing the powers of his imagined superhero, a woman with lightning’s electricity, and a widowed gardener. These three are viewed as among the human heroes of “the war of the worlds” by the account of the narrator, and they participate in the final battle between Dunia and the last of the grand ifrits. After the closing of the gaps in the veil between the worlds following that battle, according to the narrator, the world is reborn into an age of rationalism, absent the fear of gods or religions or the supernatural, but humanity loses the ability to dream.

It’s a complicated story without a strict linear telling, with many point of view characters, and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interrupts with his opinion and many asides on the nature of the jinn and the nature of humanity.  The action takes place across our globe and in Peristan too.

Mostly I read (or listened to) this story as a fantastical telling of a battle between mythological creatures that takes place mostly in our world, and I was pleased. It is a good action story, a battle between good and evil with a host of characters from around the world and pieces of history thrown in for good measure and grounding. But it is certainly a reflection on the nature of humanity and of the nature and reality or fantasy of a god or gods. It is a warning against prejudice and the creation of the “other.” The world is saved by a several immigrants to the US. It is at once an examination of the worst instincts of humanity and a praise of humanity’s endurance and stolidity. Certainly it is a tale of human reason and ingenuity versus unreasonableness, irrationality, and magic.

This is one of those stories definitely for a much older audience. There are graphic depictions of violence and lots of discussion about sex, consensual and otherwise, if those acts themselves are never described in much detail. I at several times questioned whether I should be playing this audiobook with the windows down at a stoplight, not knowing if young ears were open in cars with open windows around me.

Allusions are dense on the ground in this book, its scope of art almost as vast as its scope of time. I missed many of them but was pleased when I did catch a reference.  I learned more about philosophical texts and ideas than I brought knowledge of philosophy to the book.

Robert G. Slade does voices if not maybe distinct for every character then certainly for some of them who stand out.

****

Rushdie, Salman. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days. Narr. Robert G. Slade. Random House Audio-Penguin Random, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Salman Rusdie, Robert G. Slade, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: February 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Living in Community

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Almost all of these books—and there are a lot of them this month—come back to the idea of community, living together with your fellow creatures, sharing resources, and showing kindness.  One exception is Another Monster at the End of This Book, where two friends argue over the course of action that they should take, one excited for the promised thrill and the other frightened of the promise.  The other exception is Hamilton’s The People Could Fly.

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader copy of this book, which comes out April 2. This is a story about sharing. The Little Guys are tiny creatures like acorns with stick person legs and arms and bulbous, orange noses that travel in a pack. The pack makes them mighty. They are unstoppable through the power of teamwork, able to cross dangerous terrains and “beat up” any animal that they encounter. On their quest to find breakfast, they steal and hoard the forest’s resources—“every… thing…”. But being too greedy results in the creatures tumbling into the forest stream. The animals that they have stolen from band together to help the Little Guys. The Little Guys realize that caring about only their own pack isn’t enough, that they are not as indomitable as they had thought, as the whole pack would have been lost if not for the care of others.  They learn that they need to work with the larger forest community, made up of all of the different creatures that inhabit the area. The text itself is fairly simplistic, told in the plural first, the boasts of the Little Guys. The illustrations tell the larger story.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Knopf-Random, 2004.

I bought this book for a graduate class in 2007, and then found out that there is a collection of folktales edited by Virginia Hamilton and bearing the same name and that that was the book we were going to need for class. (The collection was published in 1985; this story is taken from that larger work.) I kept the picture book though. This story is a retelling by Virginia Hamilton of an old tale and beautifully, movingly illustrated by the Dillons. Told in a conversational vernacular style, it’s the story of a people from Africa whose beautiful, black wings shed under the cruelty of slavery and the Atlantic crossing, but whose power of flight is unearthed again with the help of an old man in the fields who comes to the hurting people and whispers the magic words to help them remember.  He can’t help all the people fly; not all of them can fly. In the note in the back, Hamilton explains that the power was often associated with the Gullah (Angolan) people. This is a tale of magic, of reawakening.  It’s a tale of the indomitable desire for freedom.  It’s a celebration of African American resilience and strength.

*****

 Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, sample, reviews, activity, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Bad Seed by John Jory and illustrated by Pete Oswald. HarperCollins, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

John Jory takes on the nature v nurture debate in this picture book. The Bad Seed had a rough life. He ended up in a bag of sunflower seeds, chewed upon by a human, and spit out, crash landing beneath the bleachers, and living for a while in these grubby surrounds. He becomes depressed, never smiling, without purpose. He breaks all the social mores and the rules. He hears the other seeds call him a “bad seed.” But he makes a decision to turn his life around. He decides that he is going to begin apologizing and saying please and thank you and holding doors, trying to be more pleasant in his interactions with others. He is going to try to change his mindset and his actions too. He’s not perfect, but he’s trying, and the other seeds are beginning to acknowledge that “he’s not so bad anymore.” It’s definitely an oversimplification of recovery from trauma and depression. It’s not that simple to turn a life around, I don’t think, and I hope no one takes it as a formula for healthy recovery. But it is nice that Jory acknowledges that the Bad Seed doesn’t need to be perfect to improve, that he is not bad if he fails, that his situation is improved by trying.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, sample, reviews, activity, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Good Egg by John Jory and illustrated by Pete Oswald. HarperCollins, 2019.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book seemed to be written almost more for adults in the room—but then I was the kid who would have benefited from this lesson at a younger age too. This Good Egg does all the right things for the sake of being good, though he does not always excel at helping as when he paints the house with abstract stokes of multiple colors. But under the pressure of being good when all of his carton-mates are bad (when his carton-mates constantly misbehave) is causing the shell around his crown to crack from the pressure. He leaves his carton to find some peace, and to allow himself to heal, to escape the pressure caused by being at odds with his problematic friends, but he finds himself missing his carton-mates. He has to learn that he doesn’t always have to be good, doesn’t always have to follow every rule and all social mores, and that he doesn’t have to hold everyone to his own standard of excellence. He learns to relax a little bit, and that being good, doesn’t have to mean being perfect. He learns that breaking the rules doesn’t necessarily make you bad.  Now, there is some danger in this message too.  Not only that of caving to peer pressure, but returning to a toxic environment is not necessarily healthy even when one misses those familiar faces, and ignoring others’ toxic behaviors in order to be able to maintain one’s own peace is not always ethical or healthy.  This like the message of The Bad Seed I think needs to be taken with caution. John Jory’s text here follows the same formula that he used in The Bad Seed.

***

Click to visit The Works page for links to order and sample pages.

Pirate Adventure by Karen King and illustrated Ben Mantle. Top That!, 2017.

I was actually truly delighted by this little tale. The pirate captain’s nephew Pete is coming aboard whether or not the crew likes it—and they don’t like it.  They see Pete as small and weak, the ship as no place for a boy. Pete does all the things that a ship’s boy is supposed to do, all the manual labor that is often glossed over in children’s picture books about pirates, which are often all about adventure and feature smiling pirates or ones who are grumpy and growly but in an endearing way to a rough-and-tumble child. When Captain Jim falls ill, Pete is put in charge of the crew and finishes the Jolly Roger’s treasure hunt. The pirates forget their dislike of Pete when they find the treasure chest. Here in the US, the book is available in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section. I did not (yet) buy the book to try to build the pop-out pirate ship.  It seems to have had multiple titles including Treasure Island and Pirate Pete’s Treasure.

*****

Sesame Street

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and sample.

We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 1992.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book highlights different body parts in illustrations meant to look like a collection of instant photos. This page talks about the differences between the features in each of these photos: old noses, baby noses, round noses, big noses, small noses. The next page reveals a busy tableau of diverse characters, human and Muppet, and talks about how each of these features that appear different perform the same functions (“our noses are the same. They breathe and sniff and sneeze and whiff”). Beyond that, the book confronts ableism. Some may need to wear helmets to protect their heads. Some need to take more time to form words with their mouths. Some won’t talk much. Some won’t talk at all. Some need glasses. Some are blind. One character is in a wheelchair but playing basketball with friends. It advocates asking for a break from a teacher if it’s needed.

The 90s fashion styles in these illustrations! I had to Google their names, but I recognize the old comedy sketch duo Laurel and Hardy in the illustrations. I don’t know why the pair appear in the pages of a book from the early 90s.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

Elmo’s Super-Duper Birthday Party by Naomi Kleinberg and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This book, though a little long, was wonderful. Elmo and his mother prepare for Elmo’s birthday celebration, shopping, making cupcakes, filling the piñata, and setting up games. The text is simple, perhaps at times a little too detailed, but that also serves to spark ideas for the would-be-party-planner/reader (I got some ideas for stuffing my next piñata). Elmo and his friends enjoy the party, but Elmo’s wish when he blows out the candles takes this book to the next level. Elmo wishes to share his birthday joy with others, so they move the party to the nursing home, and continue celebrating, including the seniors there in the festivities. It’s enough to melt my cold heart. Elmo is too good for this world, and I hope young readers learn from his example; the world would be a kinder, better place. The paperback includes stickers, a crown for the birthday child, and a game to play at a party. It’s a party in a book! Just add cake and friends.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

Who’s Hiding? by Naomi Kleinberg. Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Play along as Elmo and other Sesame Street characters lead the reader through Sesame Street. Some of their friends are hiding, and the characters give you clues as to whom you’ll find (“His best friend is a worm.” “He’s green and grouchy.”), but to find out who is on each page, you’ll have to lift the flaps. The illustrations are photographs of the Muppets and actors on the Sesame Street set.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

Kindness Makes the World Go Round by Craig Manning and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018. 

Elmo’s mother gives him the gift of a camera on World Kindness Day (November 13 if anyone wants to celebrate) and a quest to go and capture examples of kindness on Sesame Street. Elmo spends the day photographing his friends performing little kindnesses, and then turns around and performs a kindness for his mother. This story is wonderfully sweet, in much the way that is Naomi Kleinberg’s Elmo’s Super-Duper Birthday. This though is told in an enchanting rhyme.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews,

Another Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone. SFI Readerlink Dist, 2018. First published in 1996.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-K.

Adding lift the flap elements to this story is an improvement on the first Monster at the End of This Book, but otherwise this book falls rather flat in comparison to the first. I would rather have The Monster at the End of This Book done in this format. In this, Grover and Elmo argue over whether or not to turn the page and come closer and closer to the promised monster at the end, and of course the monsters are just themselves as Grover was the monster in the first book.

***

Song Lyrics

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All You Need is Love by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is not the intended medium for this text. The repetition of the chorus, which itself is the word “love” repeated, just doesn’t read well. For a story time reading, I pulled out a tablet, and let YouTube provide the “reading” by finding a recording of the song by the Beatles. The book illustrates a bear who, woken by the singing of a bird, leaves his forest home, enters the city, and picking up a crowd along the way, interacts with the diverse people there, creating elaborate chalk drawings in the park. Some of the illustrations are bright and colorful certainly, but they would have just as much power I think separate from the book as overwritten with the song’s lyrics.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and illustrator's bio.

What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and illustrated by Tim Hopgood. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

For this one, I also let Louis Armstrong via YouTube do the work of “reading.” This at least has more concrete images to illustrate. The cast is again diverse, with no real narrative this time to the illustrations beyond the text’s wonder of the world. This text at least works better as a narrative, as read aloud.

***

Click to visit Barnes & Noble's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.,

Puff the Magic Dragon by Paul Yarrow and Lenny Lipton and illustrated by Éric Puybaret. Sterling, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Peter, Paul & Mary did the “reading” for this book via a YouTube video of the song recording. I can’t remember ever having heard the full song before; I’m sure I did do in my childhood, but I doubt then that its story really sank in for me. The text itself tells of a lonely dragon who meets and befriends a boy, who as time passes, stops coming (dies the song implies, though the illustrations suggest he just became a busy adult and parent), leaving the dragon lonely again. The illustrations portray a young girl (presumably Jackie’s daughter), unmentioned in the text, coming to the dragon on the final pages, giving the story at least some hope, though she too will die and the dragon’s loneliness return. I like that Puybaret added to the story, took that extra step beyond the text.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Camaraderie Evades All the Crooked Saints

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order and summary.

I’ve begun rereading Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about Maggie Stiefvater’s latest, All the Crooked Saints, which I finished back in early December.

If you’ve been with me a while, you’ll know that I fell and fell hard for The Raven Cycle, that I adored The Scorpio Races. I can’t say the same for All the Crooked Saints—the only other of Stiefvater’s novels that I’ve read, and as a later novel, one that I thought would build on the best elements of the other books that I’d read.

This was a different novel for Stiefvater. This was one of those deeply personal novels that she needed to write. (She has written a lovely, insightful piece on her Tumblr about this novel).

Stiefvater’s unique command and beautiful use of language was still on full display here as was her grasp of magical realism, that sense that, yes, this is real, but there is fantasy too, and the two don’t make either one any less true. This is the first of her novels that I’ve read (that she’s written?) with a predominantly non-white (in this case Mexican-American) cast. This is the first that I’ve read (that she’s written?) that can qualify as historical fiction, set in 1962 Colorado with talk of German POWs who work the farms during the previous generation’s childhood, and the music and pop icons of the day. There was lots that I thought that I would love—and I did love—but it lacked one crucial thing:

What I think kept me on the outskirts of All the Crooked Saints was the characters themselves. I fell for the “blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening” friendship of the boys and Blue, and like Blue “now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.” The protagonist of All the Crooked Saints, Beatriz, claims to be a girl without feelings. She has a difficult time relating to anyone and is forbidden to even talk to the people in her community who are not family. That kind of easy, “all-encompassing” friendship cannot exist for Beatriz (BLLB 103).

Beatriz is a lonesome in the way the Stiefvater defines lonesome herself in Blue Lily, Lily Blue: “a state of being apart. Of being other,” a philosopher, a genius thinker, a rationalist, scientist (28). In her case, this lonesomeness seems mostly self-imposed, a prison built of her belief in others’ cruel words about her having no feelings. I enjoyed her insights, but I missed others. She learns. The whole book is about achieving the miracle of overcoming one’s own worst faults, and Beatriz learns that she does have a heart and that faults can only be overcome in an accepting relationship, with love. But she learns slowly, and it’s not till near the end of the book that she has learnt this truth.

Beatriz’s otherness and lonesomeness were sort of the point, but it also kept me from feeling close to this novel and the characters in it—even Beatriz herself.

As an exploration of overcoming, of exploring and confronting the deepest, ugliest parts of ourselves, this book is important, this book means a lot to me. But I just didn’t enjoy it in the way that I wanted to enjoy it. I’m so glad that there are others who did. A second reading later may alter my perception of it some.

I did enjoy the languages. I enjoyed the scant scenes of the camaraderie—especially between the petitioners stuck with one miracle but not the second.

***1/2

Steifvater, Maggie. All the Crooked Saints. New York: Scholastic, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

 

Book Reviews: July 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Was It Orange?

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I have to issue another apology to the authors whose books I read in July.  July is when I broke my arm.  July is when my head was fuzziest from pain and painkillers.  I may not be able to provide the detailed reviews that these books deserve, but I am reviewing them all nonetheless, and I hope my reviews will pique others’ interest in these books.

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.

Barnaby Never Forgets by Pierre Collet-Derby. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades PreK-3.

Barnaby thinks he remembers the important things—and he does, though his follow-through needs a little work. While in his monologue Barnaby tells the reader all of the things that he remembers, the illustrations betray all the things that he forgets. He always feeds his grasshoppers, but he forgets to close the cage so there are now grasshoppers everywhere. He always remembers ice cream night, but he forgets to close the freezer door. Barnaby admits that he’s not perfect. He has overdue library books, and once he forgot to put the trash into the can, but overall, this bunny thinks that he’s responsible. The action of the book primarily takes place while Barnaby readies himself for school. When he arrives, no one is there. Why? (Highlight to reveal spoilers.)It’s Saturday! And Barnaby forgot his trousers. I really enjoyed the illustrations. I really enjoyed Barnaby as a character, his buoyant personality and his voice. Barnaby’s plight is relatable, though the ending is a little trite, even though it’s sure to get a laugh from the book’s intended audience.

****

Click to visit the illustrator's page for summary, reviews, and sample pages.

Dog on a Frog? by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field. Scholastic, 2017.

This British trio originally named the book Oi, Dog! but here in the U.S., “Oi!” isn’t vernacular you expect children to know—not yet. Usually cats sit on mats, and frogs sit on logs, and dogs sit on frogs. That’s the rule. But Frog doesn’t like that rule at all, so he’s changing all the rules. His rhymes get more and more ridiculous. The humor of the book comes from that and the corresponding illustrations. The laughs come easily.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Paired with Jeffers’ ever-delightful illustrations, in this book, the penguin wants to learn to fly. The boy tries to help, but nothing is working. As they are seeking expert advice, the penguin believes he has found his answer, and rushes off without his friend, without a word to him. The two become separated and worry about each other. As the penguin begins to worry about flying—and more importantly about landing—the two reunite, just in time for the boy to catch the penguin. This book is gentler than most. There’s no dialogue. I think that takes away some of the immediacy of friendship books like Mo Willems’. This one probably makes a better bedtime story for that though.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order and sample illustrations.

Cheer Up, Ben Franklin! by Misti Kenison. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

While certainly marketed for toddlers, this book could be appealing and helpful to readers of all ages. In one sentence each, Kenison highlights some of the major players in the American Revolution, the ones that kids will hear more about later in school textbooks. Much if not all of the context is removed, but context is not the point, and for those who want to delve deeper, there’s a paragraph for each character in the back as well as a timeline showing the characters’ parts in the American Revolution. Instead of making this a story about a war, this is a story about Ben looking for a playmate. He wants to fly his kite, but everyone is busy. Betsy Ross is sewing a flag. Alexander Hamilton is counting money. Paul Revere is riding his horse. In the final pages, everyone meets back up, John Hancock signs his name, and they all celebrate with fireworks. I’ve fallen in love with these simple, bright illustrations and these simple illustrations of important figures. I like that women and people of color are included too.  Where’s Your Hat, Abe Lincoln? is the next in this series.  Watch for a review of that here.

*****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order and summary.

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Watch Me Throw the Ball! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I’m sure I’ve read this one before, but I somehow never reviewed it. Gerald believes that throwing a ball takes skill and practice. But Piggie believes that the key to throwing a ball is having fun. Who’s right? Told with a lot of repetition and no contractions, the books in this series make great early readers, and they have plenty of humor in the illustrations and story to make the short story a good and fun one.

Click to visit the author's page for links to order and summary.

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Broke My Trunk! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I broke my arm. And this seemed like the perfect book to read when I did my first story time after coming back to work. Because I love Elephant and Piggie books, and I could relate to Gerald’s story. Gerald’s story gets crazier and sillier as each page goes on. This book sort of downplays the seriousness and the pain and the fear of breaking a bone. It makes it seem almost a silly thing.  For some kids that might be helpful, but this may not be the book you need when trying to reassure a child who has broken a bone of her own.

(I’ve honestly gotten to the point where I can’t rate Elephant and Piggie books subjectively).

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Pacing Keeps A Darker Shade of Magic Shy of Five Stars

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Click to visit a really cool website by the publisher with links to order, reviews, an excerpt, trailer, quiz, playlist, information about the Londons, and more.

V. E. (Victoria) Schwab is an author recommended to me by several friends in several groups, someone who has come across my radar independently as well with her intriguing blurbs, and someone whom Rick Riordan has reviewed well. Entering her worlds was nearly inevitable, but this was my first foray into her stories. In the Shades of Magic series, four parallel worlds meet in London, and Kell, one of the last Antari, can travel across the parallel worlds via blood magic. Magic in these worlds is an entity of itself, one Kell sees as a friend and partner and one that Holland, another of the last Antari and a citizen of hungry White London, sees as an entity to be subjugated.

Some spoilers. Proceed with caution.

Having unwittingly smuggled a dangerous artifact out of White London, Kell plunges out of an attack in Red London to Grey London, where he crashes into Lila, who does what she does best. I was annoyed that our two protagonists, Kell and Lila Bard, a wanted, masked thief from Grey London—our London—don’t meet until the 130th page. Each is enjoyable company individually, and I happily would have spent a full novel with either one, but I was sure (and correct) that the plot would pick up pace when the thief and the smuggler met.

There’s much to love in A Darker Shade of Magic: a unique and intriguing and well-explained magic and worlds, political strife, and several enjoyable characters—not only Kell, powerfully magical but caught between being an adopted prince and a slave to the royal family; but also Lila, who wants to be a pirate captain, who plays at being selfish but who hides a good heart that sometimes gets the better of her and gets her in trouble; Rhy, the trusting, charming, and flirtatious prince; and Holland, whose story is tragic but who is callous enough to almost erase the pity that I want to feel for him—really, in White London almost everyone is tragic and callous both.

What drags off of the five-star pedestal for me is the pacing. I’ve already said that I thought the plot was off to a slow start. While I enjoyed the world-building, and I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists individually, on the whole it reads as if Schwab was more interested in the world-building than the plot, that the plot was more of an afterthought. And when the plot came, it seemed hurried. I thought we might spend a book in each London, a trilogy transporting the artifact from Grey to Red to White to Black London. We did not. The whole of the plot that I thought was coming happened in this one book; the artifact was taken safely out of play and those who had sought to use it and sought to sew chaos with it were defeated. Because I didn’t have the buildup that I expected for it, the whole of the final battle and arguably the whole last third or so of the book where the protagonists were discovering why they had come into contact with this artifact at all seemed more anticlimactic than I expect it was meant to be; it seemed rushed and I wasn’t allowed to savor its twists and turns as I might have wanted to do.

For all that, the plot seems to have been wrapped up well. I see a few ghosts that might come back to haunt the protagonists, but I wouldn’t have given them much thought, save that I know that there are three books. I have very little idea what might be in store for the next two books, no real idea of what other big bads there might be to fight.

I am willing to give Schwab I think at least a second book. There’s enough to like, and enough I’d still like to learn about the worlds and their magic and their histories. And I want to see Lila become the pirate queen that she deserves to be—and I think that she will be.

****

Schwab, V. E. Shades of Magic, Book 1: A Darker Shade of Magic. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-MacMillan, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by V. E. Schwab, Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, or MacMillan.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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.