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1.

So this is a bit of a serious but necessary post.

I had a death in the family -- someone who is older (67), and wasn't feeling well, but in no way was death expected.

Or planned for.

I know there is often talk of wills and the need for one. And this was a case of no will, but to be honest, the lawyer agreed that it's simple enough that the lack of a will isn't going to be a problem. So yes, the "but I don't have much to leave" or "I don't have children" or "I don't have young children" can make sense.


But it's not just that.

It's the everything else.

And I'm not just talking the funeral and services and memorial. Which can be pricey. And decisions are being made about this when, perhaps, the amount left by the person, and owed by the person, are still unknown. Or unavailable.

It's finding out the things you need to know, especially nowadays when so much is online. How easy, or difficult, is it going to be for people to find out about accounts (banks, credit cards, any other bills) and where things are?

How easy, or difficult, will it be for people to to access usernames and IDs and passwords so that they can access account information? Once, that is, they find out about the account to know they need to find out when a bill is about to paid, or a check deposited, or how much is owed on that credit card?

I mentioned when things are unavailable. Funerals and related costs can be expensive, and if the person's money is not available until after probate -- well, that delay can be a challenge, also.

My final bit is about why it's good to be aware of finances. As much as the death was a surprise, and there's a lot to do -- what doesn't have to be done is an education on family finances and bills. I know that can happen to some, when one person takes care of everything and the other is left surprised at just how much has to be done.

So, anyone, that's my serious bit of advice for today. Yes, keep your passwords secure -- but also have them be somewhere they can be found.












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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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2. Contributing to Digital Footprints

Today, I'm wondering about how librarians talk about teens and kids in the library and when it's potentially harmful. Or, rather, what are the consequences, intended and unintended.



As I was reading Twitter this past weekend, there was a lot of talk about a recent convention where a panel went bad, things were said, then it was discovered that teens organized the panel and the talk changed to both "golly, glad social media wasn't around when I was a teen to capture all that" with a side of "what was the organization thinking, to basically approve the panel and offer no guidance or resources to make sure that the panel didn't go as wrong as it did."

I'm not linking to it, or adding to specifics, in part because a, the particulars don't matter, and b, I don't want to add to the digital footprint surrounding the teens involved.

It did make me think of a topic I've mused about, how much of the talk around teens and social media is around what the teens do and so and how they need to be taught about digital footprints and consequences and all that. Those are all good conversations to have, and YALSA has done a great job with things like its Social Media Guide for Teens. And ALA's Choose Privacy Week. As ALA says, "Through programming, online education, and special events, libraries will offer individuals opportunities to learn, think critically and make more informed choices about their privacy."

Informed choices about their privacy.

But, what about when when there is no choice? When it's someone else, writing and posting and sharing?

And a few things as I go further. The internet is a big place, with lots on it, and people use it in many ways. So I'm not talking about places that are private or closed. And I'm not talking about personal sharing, about family and friends where they are well aware of what's being shared.

I'm talking within the context of librarians, either sharing professionally or work-related, or with enough details that it may as well be work related.

I'm talking about librarians talking about their patrons and customers.

I'm talking about places that are public and meant to be public -- not places that are closed, or need to be joined to be seen.

And I'm talking about the types of posts where the library, and thus the patrons, can be easily identified.

In short, I'm thinking of posts that talk about children and teens that, if read by those minors, or their family members, brings about a "uh oh, I know that library, that librarian" and the details are such to then say "and I know that kid."

And has "that kid" been written about so that now all the world sees, now and as long as it's part of a Google search, particulars that, given the choice, that kid would have chosen to keep private?

Maybe it's about things the minor patron did at the library. Maybe it's not even something the librarian thought was bad. But if the story is, here is this great turnaround and shows the positive impact my library had on this teen . . .  well, when did the minor teen consent to their life being shared? And, as I note, being shared so specifically that they can be identified?

Or maybe the story is about challenges the minor and the family is facing. Those can be anything -- as an example, financial. And your point may be about the positive impact of the library, and the resources the library can provide, and how the library matters in the lives of people who are struggling. Does that sharing contain types of details that if read by that teen and their family and their friends, those reading know exactly who is being talked about? Whose father lost a job, whose mother faces foreclosure?

I'm not saying not to share great, powerful, meaningful stories that involve teens. But I am asking . . . if we talk about teens, and privacy, let's also be mindful of the role we play in creating a minor's social footprint.








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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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3. Review: Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Simon & Schuster. 2015. Library copy.

 
The Plot:Ani FaNelli has the perfect life: a great job at a magazine, a wonderful apartment in New York, just the right wardrobe, and a handsome, rich, old-money fiance. And she's 28 so it's all right on target.

Perfect. If you saw her, with the ring and the clothes and the haircut and her figure you'd see her and think.... perfect.

Maybe you'd be jealous. Maybe you'd hate her. Maybe you'd want to be her.

Anyone else may want to hide her past and where she came from, and so, OK, yes, her name used to be TifAni. And TifAni was suburban middle class but private school and just the right college have helped her become Ani. And Ani wants to show everyone just how perfect her life is, so she's agreed to appear in a documentary about what happened at her school when she was 14. Her fiance doesn't want her to do it, doesn't want her revisiting such terrible times, but she's going to show them all.

Show them with her perfection.

And if Ani can't sleep, so what? Who can tell? And if she's tired of pretending to be the perfect girl to show she's worthy of the perfect fiance, well. Everyone pretends, right? Everyone gets angry, right? No one wears their true face.

The Good: Ani's seething anger is revealed in the first pages. She is shopping for her wedding registry with Luke Harrison, her fiance (and wow, she cannot wait to ditch FaNelli and become a Harrison), and as they look at knives she fantasizes stabbing him.

Ani name drops right and left, to show she knows. She knows. And you don't. She knows the right shoes, the right slacks, the right bag, the right diet, the right way to pass the salt and pepper. She's dedicated her life to being the person who fits in with a certain class of people, Luke's class, and at first I was as annoyed as I get at 7th graders in middle grade fiction who only care about being popular. Why -- why does it matter so much?

Why is it so important, what other people think? Why can Ani only see value in herself based on how others see her? And it's not in an ingratiating way, because Ani also has an edge to her. An anger to her. So she uses her knowing the right thing to do as weapon against those who don't know. And Ani, of course, can figure out those who think they know -- until she shatters that belief by how she dresses and what she eats and what she does for fun.

And the chapters take us back to when Ani was 14, when she was one of those kids who wanted to be popular and liked. To have friends and a boyfriend. And Ani was at a new school, a private school with rich privileged kids who came from the right type of money. And if you haven't guessed, someone named TifAni FaNelli doesn't come from the right type of money.

Something happened, at that perfect school with those perfect kids. And it's terrible. And the aftermath is terrible. And you can see how that shapes the grown up Ani, why she became who she is.

And then, something even worse happens to teen TifAni. And that's the mystery, of course -- what happened to that teenager, and what she did. And how that made her who she is.

But as the reader realizes how the past shaped Ani, down to her anger, the question arises -- when will Ani figure it out? Just as she made herself perfect with her clothes and her hair, she figured out what Luke wanted and became that perfect girl. (And I don't feel sorry for Luke, because whenever Ani slips and shows her true self, Luke is horrified and tries to put her back into the box of perfect girlfriend.) And while the "big reveal" may have been those terrible things from her high school years, and part of the mystery is how that shaped the adult Ani, what I read for, eagerly, was for adult Ani to realize that what she had done to recover and heal was now damaging.

Basically, I waited for her to realize that "winning" isn't being married at 28 to Mr Wonderful -- especially when Mr Wonderful isn't.

Anyway. I LOVED this book, and definitely teen appeal. I'll put it down as a Favorite Read in 2016. And yes, it's a 2015 book so I'm sure many of you have already discovered it -- but I'm getting read for the Edgars Award later this month and this is a nominee so that explains why I didn't read it until now.






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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4. Review: A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.


The Plot: Long version: Grace Mae is trapped in an insane asylum. As terrible as it is, with the cruel staff, harsh living conditions, and fellow inmates, it is still safer. Safer for her, for the baby that grows insider her, safer for her than....

But those are the thoughts and the words buried deep within her. Thoughts and words kept so tight inside her, that no sound comes from her. Not anymore.

When Grace reacts with violence to the straying hand of a drunk doctor, she finds herself in the damp, dark basement of the asylum. The worst place to be, where the most dangerous are sent.

Yet in the bleakest place she finds kindness. And escape. A purpose. And, possibly, justice.

Short version: Grace Mae is trapped in an insane asylum, because it's the best place for her rich family to hide her and her pregnancy. A brilliant doctor sees her, sees who she is -- not as an inmate, but as someone with a talent of observation that can help him with his own study of criminal minds. Chasing crimes is no easy business, especially when one has their own past


The Good: This is one of those books that is so good, and I so enjoyed the twists and turns of Grace's journey (both physically and emotionally), that I don't want to say anything.

I don't want to say why or how Grace ended up in an asylum.

I don't want to say who befriends Grace, and why.

I don't want to say how Grace manages to escape.

I will say that Grace ends up at another asylum; one so much better than the madhouse she had been before that it's like the difference between heaven and hell. And that difference is mainly in how the staff treats those in their care: with kindness and respect? Or with fear and disgust? With soft beds and decent food, or with rags and stale bread?

The doctor who Grace helps with criminal investigations appears a cold fish at first, one no better than the other staff at her first asylum. But things are never that black and white, and see, I don't want to say how he brings her to that new asylum, but the why is he has realized her matters of observation and memory and deduction can help him in his investigations. Even more so when others look at her and see not just a woman, but someone who is insane so can be dismissed and ignored.

I will say that then there are the crimes that Grace investigates and OK. I have to stop now because oh, wow. What happens. And then what happens next. And then what happens after that. I'm a mystery reader and I didn't see half of it coming.

Some final words: this is an Edgars Award Nominee, and I'm going to the Banquet in April so am reading all the Young Adult Nominees. Hopefully I get all five read before then so can do a post on all of them.

The setting is late nineteenth century America. Do you ever see those lists of reason that people used to be committed -- ranging from alcoholism to reads too many books? It's a bit funny and a bit sad. Reading A Madness So Discreet, it is only sad, whether it's the woman whose husband wanted a new wife; or the young girl infected with the pox; or someone who hears voices. The horrible place in Boston makes it sad; but it's also sad in the better, cleaner, safer, place, because even then, these women are there because there are so few options for them, so little medical knowledge, so few ways for them to control their lives.

And that is, at the end, why I adored A Madness So Discreet: because ultimately, it is about how Grace regains control of her life. How she manages to do it against terrible odds. And while this book stands on it's own, I'm very intrigued by Grace and her journey and hope to read about her again. So yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2016.

 






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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5. Review: In Defense of the Princess

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women by Jerramy Fine. Running Press. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

It's About: Do you worry about a little girl in pink and glitter who wants a tiara? Or do you know someone who worries about that, and you know that the worry itself is the problem but you're not quite sure how to answer the concern?

Jerramy Fine writes about the princess dreams of girl and women of all ages, whether it's playing dress up or knowing the names of current eligible princes. And she does so with respect and humor, digging down to look at the motives of princess-wishing.

The Good: In Defense of The Princess is a fun read, and a quick read, and it packs a lot in less that two hundred and fifty pages. Fine's credentials to write about princesses? Well, I'll point to her memoir, Someday My Prince Will Come: The Adventures of a Wannabe Princess. Which no, I haven't read yet, but right now, I really really want to. Because the parts of the story that Fine tells in In Defense of the Princess made me laugh and smile and I want more of that story. Her writing feels like you're sitting down talking to her, and you just wish there was tea and biscuits and scones to go along with the conversation.

Fine covers a lot -- the chapters range from In Defense of Disney Princesses to In Defense of Beauty to In Defense of Feminine Power (Your Inner Princess). There are quotes from many people, as well as Fine's own analysis and insight. And seriously, I just want to hand this to everyone. Because it's about how wearing pink and dreaming of princes can be powerful, and that there is strength in having dreams. Even if that dream is of castles and princes and fairy tales. And what is that dream, actually? Is a dream of a castle basically a dream of a home that is special and safe, and if that's the dream -- what's so wrong with that? If a dream of a prince is a dream of someone who respects you and loves you and wants the best for you, what's wrong with that? Does either mean that the dreamer cannot be someone with a career? It's not an either/or world or dream

And if it's viewed as either/or, what does it mean to first define those dreams as "girly" and "feminine" and then to say that such dreams are, well, not as good as other dreams. Not as important.

So as you can see, there is a lot here, and I was also reminded very much of conversations about teen literature and what it means to have a "strong female character" and what does "strong" mean when talking about women. Is "strong" only about physical strength? (Kelly Jensen, at Stacked Books and Book Riot, has written about this a lot, and hosted posts about this topic.) While this is a book for adults, there is teen appeal here. Maybe a teen wants to understand why they were obsessed with princesses as a kid; maybe you want them to understand why they are writing letters to Prince Harry and why that is totally OK. Or maybe you want to pair this with any YA book or film that has a princess or a princess-ish cover, to say, hey, glitter and pink and tiaras are cool but let's dig deeper to say why they are cool. (And standard disclaimer: it's also totally cool to not think they are cool.)

Also: I'm quoted! YES. I KNOW. It's from the post I did about two years ago, and still one of the most popular posts on my blog: Princess Shaming.

One last thing: some of the empowerment that Fine talked about reminded me of my vintage photo shoot from last year, at Vavoom in Chicago. Getting the hair, the makeup done -- having the attention and the dress up and the photos. Well, yes. I guess I could say I did feel like a princess. And thanks to people like Jerramy Fine, I understand the positive power in that.





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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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6. Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanSimon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: When Lara Jean has a boy she wants to get out of her system, she writes a letter to him, honest and raw, addresses it, seals it, and .....

C'mon. Of course she doesn't send it. She puts in away, and with that, puts him behind her.

Until the day someone finds the letters. And mails them.

And what had always been safe and sound is now out in the open. Not just the letters, but all her dreams and thoughts and emotions. Everything that had been in her head is now out there.

The Good:Such a great book!  The mailed letters forces Lara Jean out of her comfort zone and out of herself, and it ends up being good for her.

But to get there -- I had such second hand embarrassment for her. The close my eyes while reading type of embarrassment.

What I liked best is the family dynamic. Lara Jean is the middle of three sisters: the oldest, Margot, is in college; the youngest, Kitty, is nine. Their mother died years before. Margot is going to college, in Scotland. Yeah. So the family, that had to shift after the death of their mother, shifts yet again as Margot leaves.

Margot has a boyfriend, Josh, and yes, Josh is one of the five. In that interesting way that friends and family can be, Lara Jean's friendship with Josh, and her being used to "Margot and Josh" as an entity, means that when Margot and Josh break up, Lara Jean doesn't get it. And isn't understanding. And as frustrating it was to read, and as much as my sympathies were with Margot, it was so real. (And I think there will be teen readers who, based on their own life experiences (or lack of them), will be siding with Lara Jean in this.)

Also: there is anxiety about driving in here. Sometimes it seems all teens in books are either eager to be driving, or are just good and confident drivers, and it's refreshing to have Lara Jean be so nervous and reluctant to drive. Also, she isn't a great driver. (Don't worry! No serious accidents!)

When I heard about the letters, I wondered what they would be like. If Lara Jean working these boys out of her system meant that the letters would be mean or angry. And also wondered if they would be to boys who even knew Lara Jean. And what was interesting was how unique each letter, and each boy, was. And how they each handled receiving that letter. And how sweet and kind many of the letters were.

And yes.... there ends up being a romance. And it did, and didn't, do some of the things I expected which is actually perfect for a romance.

(And yes, I read this a few years back! But I am going through my list of books I read that I enjoyed and that I wanted to share, and so here it is!)











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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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7. Review: Saint Maybe

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen. Viking Books for Young Readers. 2015. Library copy and personal copy.

The Plot: Sydney's older brother, Peyton, has just been sent to prison for drunk driving - an accident that left a teenager paralyzed.

This is not a story about Peyton. Sometimes, Sydney's whole life seems to have been about her charismatic older brother. She's been invisible, on the sidelines, as his life and troubles and addictions took center stage.

This is not a story about him.

It is a story about a Sydney, as she discovers who she is, other than "sister of" and "daughter of". As she finds her voice.

The Good: Sarah Dessen is just so good. So, so good. Saint Anything is a look at a family whose eldest son is an addict. As I said, it is not about him or what he does to the family and others. It is not about why he is now in prison.

No: it's about his sister, Sydney, who has lived in his shadow so long. Her family is one that looks good from the outside, looks perfect and privileged from the outside. And, until her brother's problems, it was. Oh, maybe Dad was a little too much about work. And maybe Mom was a helicopter parent, a bit over involved and over organized and over invested. But it was a world of private schools and a summer house, new clothes and new cars.

Sydney is now at the local public school, partly because attorney fees have eaten up her family's money, partly because she wants to hide. Maybe not hide -- but she doesn't want to be at the same school her brother attended, where everyone knows Peyton and knows her as "sister of." When getting a slice of pizza after she school she meets Layla Chatham, sixteen, and makes a friend.

This is the brilliance of Dessen: she recognizes that making friends isn't easy. Sydney at first wonders at it, but allows herself to be open to Layla's friendship and finds herself drawn into Layla's circle of friends. Including Layla's brother, Mac. Sydney finds herself attracted to Mac but Layla is her friend and she doesn't want to jeopardize that friendship.

As Sydney creates a new life for herself, she finds herself trying to balance her new friendships with her old friendships. And she tries to navigate the minefield of home. Where her mother decides that the best thing to do for Peyton is what she's always done: cheer him on, be there for him, support him, intervene when necessary. Wonder why the warden doesn't recover her concerned phone calls. And can't understand why Sydney isn't more supportive. While all Sydney can think is, but what about the real victim, the boy Peyton hit? And why does all this mean that Sydney now has to live with changed curfews, when she has never done anything wrong?

Oh, in reading this I got so deliciously mad at the mother. Much like Sydney herself, I was more accepting of her father's benign neglect, his simply not being there emotionally or physically. As I write this, I castigate myself for allowing that. And like that Dessen left me to find that conclusion. And my being angry at the mother -- it was complicated, but mostly about the mother favoring her son so compulsively while ignoring her daughter in the ways that matter. That I understood the mother, realized where she was coming from, didn't help end that anger. But here's the thing: Saint Anything allowed the mother's story to work itself out, with time. Just as Sydney needs the time to find herself and her friends, her mother needs the time to readjust to the family she has and their needs.

And finally, Ames. Ames is a friend of Peyton's. Like Ames, he's an addict; unlike Ames, he has stayed sober. To Sydney's mother, he is a link to Peyton, a connection to her son, and the hope that Peyton, like Ames, can stay sober and have a life. Ames is always over, a confidant, encouraging, charming.

But not to Sydney: to Sydney, he is creepy. He makes her uncomfortable. He's always -- there. Her friends who meet him see it, also. but her parents do not and cannot understand why she's difficult about him. And this is also something I really like about Dessen's work, how she knows and shows that the lives of teens, while lived in the same spaces and adults, can be different. That they see things differently. In the case of Ames, sometimes more clearly. But -- again in the case of Ames -- that as teens, they cannot always articulate those things to their parents. And when they try, they aren't heard.

There's so much more, of course. There is Mac, the romantic interest. But in a way, the real romantic interest is the Chatham family. Sydney, feeling isolated and alone at home, sees in the close knit and loving Chatham family a warmness and acceptance that she isn't feeling at home. The Chathams aren't perfect, but they give something to Sydney and that includes a way for Sydney to find a way back to her own family, her own parents and brother.

Of course, a Favorite Book Read in 2015.





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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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8. Review: The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. 2014. Library audiobook and publisher review copy. Book 1 of The Winner's Trilogy.

The Plot: Kestrel, the 17 year old daughter of General Trajan, buys a slave on a whim.

Kestrel's father had conquered the Herran peninsula a decade before; it's people where enslaved. Kestrel has grown up in a world of wealth and privilege, because of her father's success.

Still, she feels trapped by Valorian society. Yes, they are the winners, as their repeated conquests and world building proves. But there are strict rules for its citizens, and one is that Kestrel, like other citizens, must give value to the Valorian Empire by either being a soldier or producing future soldiers by marrying. She wants to do neither, but her wants don't matter.

Kestrel loves her father, and he wants her to enter the military. She may not have fighting skills, but she's already a good strategist. He indulges her music, even though everyone knows that music is something to be appreciated -- not made. That is below Valorians.

The slave she buys is named Smith, for the job he has been trained to do. He is a Herrani, about her age. And she wonders about him, about the temper and pride she sees in him, about what he was before his country was defeated.

His name wasn't always Smith. It was Arin. And he wasn't born into service or slavery. But those are his secrets, and he has many. And one of them is that he finds himself falling for, and caring for, the daughter of his enemy.

The Good: Can I do this book justice? I don't know. I'll start with I loved, loved, loved it, and the only reason I'm glad I didn't read it when it first came out two years ago is that now I can rush to read the second book.

I had heard good buzz, yes, but the initial cover, while beautiful, was too "girl in pretty dress." (And I'm still not sure about the current cover.) Plus the "she buys a slave and they fall for each other" didn't appeal to me.

I'm glad that I put both those aside. Because, wow. What a book. And yes Kestrel wears beautiful dresses, as her role in society demands. And yes, she buys a slave. And they fall for each other. But it is so much  more than that; and so much more nuanced than that.

This is the slavery of the conquered; and while I'll avoid spoilers, it's only been about ten years. So memories of the conquest and the brutality are fresh; dreams of independence and autonomy are born not in wishes but in memory.

The Valorian culture struck me as a mix of Roman and Regency (but the Regency may be because I'm in quite a reading binge of Regency Romance). Roman for the military and the conquest; Regency for the dresses and outfits and the way society interacts with each other. The modern twist is that the demand for military service applies to both men and women, and there is a certain level of gender equality.

Much as I liked Kestrel and her friends and even her father, my sympathies were always with Arin and his people. A reader like me will assume or infer rape or sexual assault on those who are conquered, enslaved, and owned, but The Winner's Curse never explicitly addresses this type of violence. Part of me wishes it did; part of me was glad it didn't. Since this is the first in the series, and The Hunger Games didn't explicitly address this type of abuse until the third book, I'm going to wait and see how it plays out and how it is addressed.

My sympathies meant that, much as I liked Kestrel, I kept waiting for Arin and the Herrani to go all Spartacus. I kept wanting that. And how this played out -- was very satisfying, and it kept me to the edge of my seat, and I look forward to how the series addresses the continuing issue of the conquered and the conquering and Empire building. Because that is the Winner's Curse, the curse of being the person who wins the war and takes the territory and the supplies and everything else you want: now you have to manage. To rule. To control. (OK, technically, as explained in the book, it's more an economic theory but this is how I view it, in terms of this book.)

Also, much as I liked Kestrel, at times I wanted more from her than her station could give. I wanted her to realize, truly realize, what it meant for the Valorians to have enslaved the Herrani. I wanted her to realize that her safe at home strategies had flesh and blood consequence. I wanted her to realize that the loss and outrage and anger she felt when her loved ones were in danger, or killed, or hurt, was the same as the Herrani felt a decade before, for the decade since, and in the present. Of course, I had to realize that type of understanding and empathy takes time. And that it becomes a thornier question when atrocities happen on both sides of the war.

The strength of the writing is that despite Kestrel's privilege, despite her family owning others, despite her family being responsible by being the winners -- I liked her. Found her sympathetic. Found her needs, her desires, her dreams, important.

So: bottom line. Loved it. Can't wait to read the next one. So it's a Favorite Book of 2016.








© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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9. ASCLA Member? Please Vote!

The ALA Elections are starting soon.

If you're a member of ASCLA (the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies) please consider voting for me for - I'm running for Secretary.

The full slate of candidates is at the ASCLA blog.

Thank you!



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10. Review: How It Went Down

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon. Henry Holt. 2014. Review copy.


How It Went DownThe Plot: Tariq Johnson, sixteen, dies from two gunshots fired by by Jack Franklin. Tariq is black; Jack is white.

There are many people who know Tariq, who know Jack. Who saw them before the shooting and after. Each has a their own story to tell, about what they know.

The Good: There is an old saying, that for every two people there are three sides to their story. Their versions, and the truth.

The problem, of course, is figuring out what that truth is and is not.

Here, there are those who say that Tariq was just a teen with a chocolate bar. And others who say he had a weapon. And some that say that Jack was justified. And others who say it was murder.

How It Went Down is told in many voices, friends, family, acquaintances. It's the story of Tariq's life and death and the aftermath, but we also find out about the lives of those who in telling Tariq's story tell their own. What I like about these multiple narratives is it doesn't give any answers of what really happened. It's up to the reader to decide who is right -- but the thing is, it's clear that everyone is right. Or, rather, everyone believes that they are right in what they know, what they saw, and what they believed.

And it's not just the shooting of Tariq, and whether or not it's the self defense that Jack claims. It's also whether, as the story unfolds, Jack's claim of self defense is made in part not because of anything that Tariq did or did not do but because Tariq was a black teenager and so Jack assumed and believed things about Tariq. And along with that is how the others react to Jack's claims, including the police who release him. And then the community reaction, because a black teenager is dead and the white shooter is released.

From the start, the reader knows that Tariq is dead. Knowing that doesn't lessen the impact of this death, or feeling the sorrow and grief of his family and friends. It does make one wish "if only, if only." And while this will be a good book discussion book because it allows for the readers to say what they believe happened, it's also a good book discussion book because it allows the reader to take a closer look at their own beliefs. Who do they believe? And why?

How does one's own perspective influence their memory? What they see? And what they believe?








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11. Review: The Lake House

The Lake House: A Novel by Kate Morton. Atria. 2015. Library Copy.


The-lake-house-9781451649321_hr
The Plot: 1933 Cornwall. A eleven month old baby disappears from his crib during a house party at an estate. He's never found.

2003. A police detective is visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She stumbles upon an abandoned house and hears the local story: how decades ago, a child disappeared and the family left and never came back.

A lost child, deep family secrets, the ties between mother and child, the choices made. And a mystery that was waiting to be solved, by the person willing to ask the right questions.

The Good: I loved this book so much. It had everything I love in a book.

Their are three main narrators, and two main time periods.

Alice Edevane was sixteen the summer her brother Theo was taken. The summer on the Cornish estate was as magical as any Alice had ever had at the beloved family estate, Loeanneth, and even more wonderful because its the year she falls in love for the first time and the year she decides to embrace a life as a writer, and writes her first mystery.

In 2003, Sadie Sparrow's visit to her grandfather isn't entirely voluntary. There were problems for a recent case involving a young mother who disappeared, and Sadie refused to believe the woman left her small child behind. When faced with the truth of the woman abandoning her child, Sadie made foolish mistakes and now is waiting in the country for things to get resolved in the city.

When she starts to investigate the mystery of Theo Edevane, she finds out that the home is now owned by Alice Edevane, also known as A. C. Edevane, a famous mystery writer. After the reader encounters the young, brilliant, hopeful Alice on the brink of life, they next encounter her as woman pushing ninety, succesful, but wiser about people than she was as a child.

Then there is Eleanor Edevane, mother of Alice and Theo, and her voice joins the story.

The book jumps from time to time and narrator to narrator, and this flow of story is brilliant. Morton is careful about what and when she tells the reader, but part of the reason is because each person knows only their own story and is limited to their own impressions, their own memories, their own knowledge. As a mystery, Morton deftly guided me so that I was guessing "who" or "what" or "why" just pages ahead of Sadie, so that I felt as clever or more so than Sadie. And then, with Sadie, realized when I was wrong, because I learned something new.

The Lake House is a mystery, but it's also a story of family. Of the brilliant Edevanes who at first seem like something out of a PBS Miniseries. The family had once had a grand house, and Loeanneth, grand as it seems, is the small house that is all that is left of that manor. The house is important to Eleanor and her husband, Anthony; to their children, Deborah and Alice and Clemmie and Theo; and part of the punch in the gut tragedy of the present is how the house was abandoned after Theo's disappearance.

Pull back, and it's more than a handsome couple and their beautiful children and the fairy tale estate. Fairy tale in part because the child Eleanor inspired a beloved children's book.

But no fairy tale is all sun and sunshine. As Sadie delves further into the past, as Alice reexamines her own memories and impressions, and as Eleanor steps forward and shares her story, secrets are uncovered. Because as anyone who does the math can figure, the Great War had ended just 15 years before. And what was the far away past to a sixteen year old Alice was very much part of the lives of her parents.

I don't want to give too much away, because as I said part of the joy of this book is the structure of what is revealed when and why and how. I will say this about those reveals. They aren't "aha" moments of crimes and terrible deeds. Rather, they are about perspective and knowledge. Eleanor's children see her as a certain type of mother, and their father as certain type of man, and yes -- the father is the favorite. As the story unwinds, it becomes clear that part of this is because Eleanor did what was necessary to give her children a safe, happy, childhood, at any cost. And she was so good that Alice, decades later, still didn't quite realize what her mother had done -- how her memory of a wonderful, carefree day was, to her mother, a day fraught with danger.

One of my Favorite Books of 2016. I now want to read all of Morton's books.












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12. Review: Out of Darkness

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. Carolrhoda LAB. 2015. Printz Honor Book. Library copy.

Out of DarknessThe Plot: March 1938. Wash Fuller is working, thinking of his girl, of their plans of a life together. Then the earth shakes and everything changes: the New London school has blown up, and he runs to where she may be.

The book then flashes back to 1937, when Naomi moves with her two half siblings to New London in East Texas to live with her stepfather and to use his last name, Smith, discarding her own name of "Vargas" to pass (or pretend to pass) as white, not Mexican.

And she meets Wash, an African American teenager who offers friendship and love. He's not acceptable to her stepfather, because of his color -- and because her stepfather Henry looks at Naomi and sees her dead mother, Estella. And wants her, like he wanted her mother.

Race, abuse, sex, lust, love, all come crashing together, against the backdrop of the worst school disaster in US history. And that time of tragedy and loss is used by some as justification to inflict even more horror.

The Good: This is an excellent book. Out of Darkness had been on my short list of books I wanted to read, and the Printz Honor nod pushed it to the top of the pile. Which, of course, is the value of awards like the Printz. Well, that, and Bookshelves of Doom's in-person booktalk that began with "school disaster" and had me going "sold!". (Her longer review is at Kirkus.) (Also, I had thought the biggest school disaster was the Our Lady of Angels fire, so I was intrigued to find out more about the New London school explosion.)

Out of Darkness is about Naomi, who is faced with impossible choices. She and her siblings have lived with her grandparents, but they are getting older, they have suffered losses because of the depression, and they also know that their grandchildren will have a better educational future with their white father. Naomi refuses to leave her siblings, wanting to protect them and take care of them, in part because of her own memories of what her stepfather, Henry, did to her. Henry may say he's found religion and God and been baptized and born again, and given up alcohol and women, but Naomi doesn't believe it -- in part because what he did to her remains and is real. Saying "I'm saved!" doesn't change that.

Unlike her younger siblings, who are pale like their father, Naomi is dark like her mother and her own father. Her white classmates realize it; the local store keeper refuses to allow her into the store; and Wash assumes at first that she is African American, like he is. Prejudices and racism run through the book, and that is part of the heartbreak of reading the book. Wash's parents are both college educated, and push their own children to want education, yet at the same time teach their son the safe ways to act and speak to whites. Wash doesn't like it, pushes against it, and the tragedy of the book, the times, of Wash and Naomi is that there is no safe way to act to stop another's hatred and violence. Such "safety" is an illusion, at best.

I'll be honest: the ending of the book gutted me. You think it's the explosion and all those dead children, and the bits of those dead children. And yes, that is terrible. (And not to be flippant, but disasters like this and the Our Lady of Angels fire is just proof that yes, building codes and government regulations are necessary.) But the explosion is the result of lack of regulations because people don't accept that yes, disaster can happen without safety rules. The tragedy at the end of the book -- that is the result of hate, of hate that society encourages, and allows. Safety rules about gas lines and fire escapes may have lessened school disasters; but hatred and prejudice and racism, that is unchecked and even encouraged, are still here.






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13. Review: First Flight Around the World

First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race by Tim Grove. Abrams Books For Young Readers. 2015. Library copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

First Flight Around the World The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the RaceIt's About: In 1924, the race was on -- to see what country would be the first to fly around the world. The United States's entry into the race was a team of eight men and four planes. The subtitle of the book reflects that this is not a book asking who won -- it was the Americans -- but rather, how.

The Good:  First Flight Around the World takes place so early in the era of flight; the Wright Brothers flight was just over twenty years before. While technology had increased in those years, the US was no longer the leader in flight. Public support and funding was needed; what better way to get both than the be the first to fly around the globe?

Planes, pilots, and mechanics were prepared and selected. The route was planned; which direction to fly, based on weather, temperature, location; where and how would the planes land? Were those countries friends? How far could a plane fly? Where should refueling spots be? How much weight could be carried?

Planes were open cockpit; there was no radar. Radios had such limited range that they weren't included in the list of supplies. Stops ranged from small villages to large cities, and sometimes diplomatic relations were as important as repairing planes.

Because one of the items taken along was a camera, there are plenty of original photographs. Maps and photos and documents help bring the flight to life.

Newspapers were full of the news of the flights and the flyers; they were famous in their time. As the book ended with their triumph return to the United States and the final legs of their journey, I couldn't help but think about how unknown they are in the present time. How quickly things can change; none of these names were familiar. (And yes, I did wonder what happened to the pilots after, and wish there had been more about what happened to them after 1924.)

Two of the YALSA Nonfiction finalists done, three more to go!






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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14. Review: This Strange Wilderness

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain. University of Nebraska Press. 2015. Library Copy. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It's About: John James Audubon (1785 - 1851) wrote and illustrated The Birds of America, which contained almost 500 different birds, all shown life size and in full color.

This is the story of who Audubon was and his work.

The Good: While I was generally aware of Audubon, mostly it was because of his appearances in other YA books I've read, notably Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (my review) where some of those illustrations figure significantly into the plot; and The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Philip Hoose, about one bird in particular that was painted by Audubon.

Who knew that Audubon was born in Haiti and raised in France! I had no idea. I am not an animal person, so truth be told the birds itself didn't interest me, but the biography of Audubon fascinated me. He came to America as a teenager, sent by a father hoping to save his son from fighting in Napoleon's army. He fell in love with the new country, and there fully developed his passion for nature and birds and illustration.

The process of how Audubon drew his birds was also interesting; a combination of art and science. And yes, he killed the birds, so that he could then pose them to be lifelike. Which seems so weird to a modern reader, but this was before photographs. This was before any other way to truly study and draw the birds in a way to portray them fully. Audubon didn't just blunder along, shooting; he also studied the birds, learning about them, and wrote about his scientific findings. His writings also included his own journeys and adventures along the way. And, as a hunter, he was also an environmentalist because while he hunted for food, or for art, he also realized the danger of extinction.

If you'd asked me before I read this book about Audubon, I'd have guessed rich. And as the book begins it seems like there was truth to that, from his upbringing to the land in Pennsylvania that his father bought him. But he wasn't; and Audubon pursued his studies (which often meant travel) even when he didn't have much money. He drew portraits and taught drawing and did other things to support his dream of studying and drawing birds.

Audubon did this even though he had a wife and children. And at this point, the biography I want is of Lucy Audubon, who at times followed her husband to log cabins in Kentucky and to England; and at other times, stayed behind, earning the money to support her children while her husband followed his own dreams. Who was forced into independence while married, yet also strongly supported her husband.

And then of course there is the business end, of how Audubon's illustrations were transformed into a book. Again, in a time without computers; when each page had to be hand colored; when Audubon insisted that they remain life-size. "Subscriptions" were sold for the intended publications, and Audubon had to turn into a salesman to convince people to buy something that hadn't been published yet.

I love how this is all told in less than a hundred pages. I'm on a Regency Romance reading kick, and just checked out some thick, dense non-fiction of that period and wow, I wish at least one of them was a tidy hundred pages. (Also, it doesn't escape my notice that This Strange Wilderness occupies the same slice of time as the romances I've been reading.)

One more point, and perhaps the most important: there are many, many of Audubon's illustrations, all in full color. When reading about art, it really helps to be able to see it. And, also, now I'm intrigued to see the actual originals.





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15. Review: Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Balzer + Bray an imprint of HarperCollins 2015. Review copy from publisher. YALSA Morris Award Finalist.



The Plot: Simon, sixteen, is being blackmailed by Martin. See, Simon didn't totally log out of his email account on a school computer so when Martin sat down he saw them. And read them. And made copies.

So, Martin is threatening to tell everyone that Simon is gay. Simon hasn't even told his closest friends. The only person who knows is the person on the other end of Martin's email conversations, someone named Blue. Who Simon knows better than anyone else -- the only thing Simon doesn't know about Blue is what his real name is.

The Good: This is one of those books where I started off not liking Simon that much. No, really. About page thirty I put this down and eye-rolled because I found him just too self absorbed and immature and annoying.

And then I picked it up again, because I'd committed myself to YALSA's Morris challenge to read all the finalists before Midwinter, and something clicked. And instead of having no patience with Simon I instead began laughing with him, and seeing his insecurities, and loving his loyalty, and shaking my head in sympathy at his self-absorption.

Simon is about Simon, of course -- he's the one telling the story, and it's his emails with Blue that are shared. It's not just being blackmailed by Martin - oh, by the way, Martin's purpose of the blackmail? Martin likes Abby, and Simon is friends with Abby, so Martin wants Simon to help things along with Abby. Except that Simon doesn't like being blackmailed by Martin, and Abby is a good friend, and he thinks Abby likes Nick. Nick has been Simon's friend since forever, along with Leah, and Leah and Abby do not get along.

And then there is Blue, and all Simon knows is that Blue goes to his school, but other than that no details to know who Blue is. Blue, like Simon, is gay; and Blue, like Simon, hasn't told anyone. Not yet. As Simon says early on, "maybe it would be different if we lived in New York, but I don't know how to be gay in Georgia. We're right outside Atlanta, so I know it could be worse. But Shady Creek isn't exactly a progressive paradise."

Later, Simon thinks about coming out and how it's this big thing and how he doesn't want to say anything, at least not yet, not because he is afraid or worried about how his family and friends will react, but because it's a thing. "Don't you think everyone should come out? Why is straight the default? Everyone should declare one way or another, and it should be this big awkward thing whether you're straight, gay, bi, or whatever."

Of course, Simon is trying to figure out who Blue really is. And thinking about the cute boys at his school. And dealing with his friends' drama (Nick and Leah and Abby). And then there are his parents, which at first I worried about because of the gay jokes his Dad makes, but what is wonderful about Simon is it shows that all his dad is doing is making dumb Dad jokes and while it bothers Simon it small-b bothers him, not big-B bothers him. His family is supportive and close, and at times too close and overbearing, but at all times loving. It's a great book family.

I'm glad I didn't let my initial irritation with Simon turn this into a do-not-finish; I'm glad that I gave the whole book, and the whole Simon, a chance. Because both Simon and Simon are terrific, and thanks to the Morris committee for selecting this title and the YALSA Hub challenge for making me read it.

Oh, and my favorite scene is the one where Simon gets drunk. That's all I'm saying, but it's so cute and delightful and funny.






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16. Review: X A Novel

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon. Candlewick Press. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

XThe Plot: The boyhood and teen years of Malcolm Little, who would become Malcolm X. Malcolm's family was both close and fractured: his father died when he was young. His mother, left with a large family and little support, was committed. Malcolm went into foster homes and then later moved in with a family member in Boston.

In Boston, as a teen, he saw more appeal in the nightlife of the city than in the respectable choices his half-sister has made. One bad choice leads to another, but to Malcolm, they're never the bad choices. They are his choices.

And as the reader who knows a bit about Malcolm, who knows that it's in prison for theft that an adult Malcolm converts to Islam, it's about seeing how Malcolm becomes that man.

The Good: I'm that reader who knows "a bit" about Malcolm X, which meant that I vaguely knew the bare bones of his story, particularly his life as a child and a teen.

X: A Novel did so many wonderful things, starting with showing why crime appealed to the young Malcolm. (Book talking tip: instead of selling this as a work of historical fiction, talk up the the aspect of why crime can be appealing.)

Actually as I give that tip, I have to add, that is too simplistic -- it's not as if there was a simple, easy choice. It's that Malcolm had been told that as a young black man his choices were limited when it came to education and career, and on the street, hustling or stealing, his choices were not limited. It's that Malcolm had had a close family and then it split apart (in part because the social services at the time were not committed to really helping a family, and in part because Malcolm's mother had a struggle to find work). It's that, well, you could see the immediate results of that life, the fun, the clothes, the parties, that you didn't see in a classroom. It's all tied together.

Or, better, let me share Malcolm's words: "When I first set foot in Harlem, I was a step ahead of everything. I could blend in with the jive cats, swirl the Lindy ladies. let my feet groove, think of nothing but the now. I could close my eyes and in closing them not be seen. Slip into the seams of the streets and let them swallow me. It was a glorious fit, so seemingly warm."

It takes a while for Malcolm to realize that it is not warm, it is seemingly warm. A long time. The book ends with Malcolm embracing Islam and starting to realize where best to direct his energy, his time, his talent.

X: A Novel comes with a great deal of back matter, including an author's note by Shabazz, one of Malcolm X's daughters; information about the characters in the book; a time line of events; and a historical context to the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.



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17. Review: Slightly Sinful

Slightly Sinful (Bedwyn Saga, # 5) by Mary BaloghBedwyn (6 Book Series). Dell. 2004. Library copy.

Slightly SinfulThe Plot: Lord Alleyne Bedwyn was left for dead after the Battle of Waterloo, injured. His head injury has taken his memories.

Rachel York trusted the wrong people, and now she's broke -- but not alone. She's with the only four people in the world she truly trusts, so she is temporarily staying with them.

When Rachel finds Alleyne on the battlefield, he's been stripped of everything of value, even his clothes. She has no clue who he is, but she knows he lives so can be saved. She takes him back to where she is staying -- a brothel.

Broke, injured, no resources -- but themselves and each other.

The Good: I've been binge reading Mary Balogh books, so fast I barely have time to write down the name of the book I've read. No time for reviews!

Balogh has done some wonderful writing around the Peninsular Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, and the impact of those battles on the men and women who fought, and who stayed home. (Or what I sometimes think to myself as "the true story of what happened next to Wickham and Denny.") I particularly liked Web of Love for it's depiction of the lives of the women who "follow the drum" and the roles they have in the aftermath of battles.

Slightly Sinful sounds like it should be serious -- battles! war! destitution! But it wasn't. Yes, all that is there, but it's also so funny and a pure joy to read. While Alleyne is recovering physically, he falls for Rachel but he doesn't even know if he's married. Also, he thinks that because she lives in a house of prostitution she must be one herself. She loves and respects the women who have befriended her, so she doesn't want to insult them by denying that sisterhood. (And there are other books by Balogh where current or past prostitutes, courtesans, and paid mistresses are the main characters and supporting character.)

Here, Gerry, Bridget, Flossy and Phyl are working and saving to retire. Their current lives are presented matter of factly, and there present situation is treated with respect. Rachel has an inheritance she cannot collect for another three years, when she is 25; or when she marries.

Do you see where this is going?

The caper of deciding to fake Rachel's marriage to Alleyne was terrific. It was funny, yet at the same time it wasn't mean or silly. It was a madcap adventure and while this is the fifth / seventh book in the Bedwyn saga it definitely stands alone, maybe more so than the other books, because Alleyne's lack of memories of his family mean they have minimal presence.

The only disappointment I have is that there's only one book left in this series! And that I have to wait for my library copy to become available!

The good news is that Balogh is only new to me; she's been writing for ages so I have a long list of backtitles to keep working my way through. And one more thing: a big thank you to my local public library for having an ebook collection and including a large number of romance books in that collection. It's made my binge reading so easy!

And yes -- a Favorite Book Read in 2015.







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18. Review: Once Upon a Marquess

Once Upon a Marquess (Worth Saga) (Volume 1) by Courtney Milan. 2015. Reviewed from NetGalley.

once upon a marquess coverThe Plot: 1866. Judith Worth was born into wealth and privilege. Her childhood was like something out of a romance novel: family estate, wealthy family, large happy family. She even fell in love with her brother's best friend, Christian Trent, now the Marquess of Ashford.

That was before. Before Christian helped destroy and ruin her father. Before her family was scattered across the globe.

And now Judith is barely hanging on, taking care of her younger sister and brother, making (and sometimes burning) her own tea and scones rather than being waited on.

Judith has managed on her own so far. But her world being what she is, and the time being what it is, she needs help with a business matter and as a poor female she can't do it on her own. She turns to Christian, expecting, at best, that he'll hire someone to help.

Christian has been haunted by Judith and her family. He knows he did the right thing, all those years ago, but he still feels like he owes Judith. Her request is his chance at redemption.

The Good: Readers of this blog (and followers on Twitter!) know I've gone on a historical romance reading binge, concentrating mainly on the Regency era. But when you find an author you like, you follow them through time (which, actually, is how I made the jump from contemporary to Regency) and so now I find myself in 1866.

As I read Regency I fall into a fantasy, a fantasy of wealth and privilege and happy endings, a fantasy where servants don't have names or plots, and money just exists. And I'm fine with that, truly I am. But I like when and how authors go beyond that. Most of the authors I've been reading, in one way or another, go beyond that fantasy.

In Once Upon a Marquess, Judith Worth is actually working (won't say how or what, but what she does is new and refreshing and inventive, but it is "work" so despised by the wealthy). She clings to how she was raised, though, and wants to give her younger sisters and brother the life they would have had before her father lost everything following charges of treason. So she lives in a terrible part of town, with no help but for a part time housekeeper, and saves her money to help give her younger sisters a dowry to help find respectable husbands and her brother an Eton education.

And I LOVED this. This look at those who aren't privileged, who don't have helpful and kindly relatives and unexpected inheritances.

And then it turned out to be even more than that. Judith's father was accused of treason; her older brother was, also. Christian gave testimony that condemned her father and transported her brother. What her family did or didn't do; and why or why not; ends up being an examination of the wealth and lifestyles of the wealthy and powerful in England. I love how Milan is addressing historical facts within the context of romance, and making me think, and at the same time is giving me what I crave in a good romance: spice, humor, romance, warmth.

Judith's youngest sister, Theresa, is viewed as odd (today she'd probably be seen as somewhere on the autism spectrum) and an uncle promised he'd care for Judith and her middle sister and youngest brother if they agreed to put Theresa away somewhere. Judith refused; her middle sister stayed with the uncle.

Christian is also "odd" and "different"; again, today, there would be a diagnosis (OCD, perhaps). But then, no, so how he is treated and what he does to address his compulsion is of that time. And ties into his friendship with Judith's family and guides his actions now.

There is a middle sister, Camilla, who stayed with the uncle who promised a continued life of ease in exchange for no contact with that embarrassment, Theresa. This is a series about the Worths and their friends, so the next full book (After the Wedding) is about Camilla, and her journey as the poorer, powerless, female relative. Before then is a novella (Her Every Wish) about one of Judith's friends, Daisy, a friend from her life "now" so someone who is poor and struggling but still dreaming.

I can't wait for these other books -- so far the good thing about reading a new to me genre is doing so with completed series. So this is one of my first "ugh I have to wait" books.

I have only one small complaint: Christian has a terrible sense of humor. It's so bad that both his mother and cousin fear it will stop a good match from happening; but Judith finds him funny. Alas, I have to agree with his mother and cousin.



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19. Review: An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.


An Ember in the Ashes
The Plot: It's been 500 years since the Martials defeated the Scholars. At various times Rebellion has been threatened, but the Martials always destroy it.

Laia, 17, is a Scholar. The once studious and education people are now banned from anything hinting at learning. Laia lives with her older brother, Darin, and her grandparents, until the night their home is raided by the Martials and their terrible agents, the silver-faced Masks. Her grandparents are killed, Darin is arrested, and Laia flees into the night.

She stumbles upon rebels who agree to help her free her brother, for a price. Go into the heart of the Martial training ground and spy on their Commandment. To do so, she'll have to pretend to be a slave. But for Darin, she'll do it.

Elias, twenty, is a Martial who has been trained to be a Mask since the age of six. Except he has a secret, kept hidden and deep. He hates the death and torture and violence of what he his, of what he is trained to do. He doesn't want his face to be forever silver. He dreams of escape, even though it will dishonor his Grandfather, but anyone caught running away is brutally executed. As each day goes by, he finds himself increasingly bound to the Martials and to his friends and wondering if the only escape is death.

The Good: Read this book. Now. The only down side of reading this book ASAP is that the sequel is out next summer, and you're going to have to wait that long to find out what happens next.

Read this book. It is a wonderfully complex setting, influenced by the Roman Empire and other ancient cultures. Sometimes a cultural setting such as the one in An Ember in the Ashes either downplays or ignores the consequences and reality of its setting. This book does not do that; it is a brutal, violent world and both Laia and Elias have been shaped and formed by that brutality. (For those who wonder about the violence on the page, I'll put it this way. A book can describe a death in a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter -- this book goes for the sentence or two. Does it lessen the horror of that death? No, it doesn't drag it on for pages and pages.)

Laia masquerades as a slave, but, no, that's wrong. While Laia is spying, she is actually a slave and all that implies. She is owned by the Commandment, who can do anything she wants to the slaves she owns. Laia is beaten and whipped; her name is taken from her. Other slaves have been scarred, branded, mutilated. The possibility of sexual assault and rape is real. So she has to survive both the change in status from free to slave but also figuring out how to be a spy for the rebellion.

Elias has been trained since the age of six to become a Mask, like his mother and grandfather before him. (His mother is the Commandment.) He has seen children whipped to death; he has been beaten; he has killed. He has followed orders. He has become one of the top soldiers. And he hates it. One of the things I love about An Ember in the Ashes is that while it's easy to hate the Martial class and all that Elias is and represents, the reader can't help but like Elias and root for him. To like his friends and understand his loyalties.

If you're wondering, because there is a girl and a boy and it's a young adult book, whether there is a romance -- well, yes and no. Again, complexity! While Elias may look at Laia and see a pretty girl, Laia looks at Elias and sees a dangerous soldier. Elias also is the type who sees Laia as a pretty girl who is a slave so is someone who for that reason shouldn't be touched (not a sentiment towards slaves shared by others.) There's a young man who is a rebel who Laia begins to have feelings for, and Elias has feelings towards another soldier, a young woman, and he's trying to deny them. So this is more a rectangle than anything else, and very realistically done given the different positions of power people have.

The Martial Empire is HORRIBLE. I wouldn't want to live there. But, again with reasons I like this -- when Laia learns more about the history of the Scholars, she realizes that her history and society is more complex than good/bad, vanquished/conquered. Elias looks around him and doesn't like how the Empire treats people, and he may be alone in this. It's hard to tell, because to confess such things would to betrayal, punishment, torture, death. His friends, though, are also likable, though part of this may be that we only see them in a context where they aren't arresting and killing and torturing, though we know that is what they have been trained to do. And truth be told while the ways of his training are harsh and I'm running out of words that mean "brutal," it's also realistic in terms of what is needed to create the perfect killing machine -- and that appears to be the sole aim of Elias's training and schooling.

The ending -- the ending!!! Don't worry, it's a great ending for a first book in the series in that it both works well as an ending for this book but there is also a great lead in to what will happen in the next book. I don't feel cheated or frustrated; I just feel MORE MORE MORE.

And the plot is so great that I don't want to say a word about it.

One more thing. The women in this story! Of course, there is Laia, who will do anything to save her brother but has been fairly sheltered up to this point. Poor, sometimes hungry, but always loved and protected by her family. Her strength is in her ability to survive, to love, to do what it takes.

Then there is Helene. Female soldiers are only accepted once in a generation, and so she is not just the sole female in her class, she's the sole female in her school. She has to be twice as good, ignore twice as much, as those around her. The friendship between Elias and Hel is one of equality and respect.

And Elias's mother, the Commandant. She was the female soldier of her generation. And as the head of the school that trains and forms soldiers, she is the one that every student fears. She is the one every slave fears. And with good reason: punishments, torture, and death all take place at her whim.

There is the Lioness, a legendary head of the Rebellion, brilliant but ruthless and willing to sacrifice anything for her cause.

And there are Laia's fellow slaves, Kitchen Girl and Cook, who have survived years in the Commandant's house, watching other slaves come and go. (And by "go" I mean die, whether at their own hand or the result of the Commandant's brutality.) There is more to each of them . . . .

One more thing. With this book there is always one more thing. I recognized the ancient Rome references in names and family structure; Tahir's guest post at the Perpetual Page-Turner goes into that research, as well as the research needed for everything from weaponry to the names of the other nations and groups in the book.

ARGH. I want to revisit this world, even though I was so worried about Laia that at times I could read no more than a few chapters at a time. My heart just couldn't take it.

OF COURSE this is a Favorite Book of 2015.










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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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20. Review: The Boy in the Black Suit

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Boy-in-the-black-suit-9781442459502_hr
The Plot: Everything has been different since Matt's mom died. It's his senior year of high school, but her loss makes him feel like a stranger. His father isn't coping.

Matt's done well in school, so he has half-days. He was supposed to do a work-study program, but, well, with his mom dying he wasn't in school so he lost his place. Still, he needs a job to fill up his time and to earn money to help his dad out.

At first when his neighbor Mr. Ray offers a job in his funeral home, Matt thinks "no way." He finds a strange sort of comfort in seeing the sorrow of others. Then he meets Lovey, who has lost her mother and now her grandmother, and it makes him rethink how he's been living, and how he's been grieving.

The Good: What is so frustrating about The Boy in the Black Suit is it sounds like a dead parent book. And, I guess, it is. Matt's mom has just died, and he that loss, her loss, is shattering, and part of this book is how he lives through that. But it's so much more than that, including funny and romantic.

Matt is an only child, and his parents were very much still in love, and his father takes his wife's loss badly. He starts drinking and ends up in the hospital, leaving Matt alone. Matt isn't really alone: there is his best friend, Chris, who proves to be a good friend by not treating Matt any different. And there is Mr. Ray, who Matt thought of as the old guy neighbor and who now becomes a mentor. And then there is Lovey....

I don't want to say Matt is happy when he sees others cry and break at a loved one's funeral. Instead, it makes him feel less alone in his own loss. It's cathartic. And Mr. Ray understands; he's had his own losses. Matt's dad and Mr. Ray show Matt ways of grieving, and then Lovey shows him another -- a way that mourns while celebrating. Matt falls for Lovey, but also sees another way forward.

Also good: The Boy in the Black Suit is set in Brooklyn, and there's a mix of people, from Matt's family and their brownstone to Chris's family in an apartment building. Matt describes his family as "I went from a not-so-fancy version of the Cosbys to a one-man family." Chris is being raised by a single mother; Lovey, by her grandmother. It's a variety of people and backgrounds, all in one same neighborhood.

Chris's mother is dead before the book begins, but her spirit and love is on every page. One thing his mom had done (even before she knew she had cancer) was to create a notebook of recipes, which she called "The Secret of Getting Girls, for Matty." It's partly a family joke, that girls like guys who cook. And it's partly her love for her son. And it's partly her saying Matty, yes, you need to know how to cook, for you. This notebook is lurking around, and part of the sweetness of this book is how Matt moves from living off fast food and take out, even though he knows how to cook and his this book, to being able to open the notebook without his heart breaking.



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21. Review: Read Between the Lines

Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles. Candlewick Press. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Read Between the LinesThe Plot: Ten chapters takes us to one day in the life of a high school, told through voices of past and present students and one teacher.

In each, a raised middle finger is part of the story. It gives power to the person giving someone the finger; it hurts the person who it's aimed at.

And in each, we see how a person looks at others and judges them; or how they look at themselves.

OK for those who want more of a plot: a group of boys think it's smart and clever to fake car accidents to get people to give them cash instead of calling the police -- until it backfires.

The Good; I love this type of book! I love that each chapter is told by someone different, and it's their own story, and that the thread connecting them is sometimes obvious and strong, and other times takes a bit to figure out.

And I love that there are ten chapters; one for each finger.

I love that a bullied boy becomes empowered by his broken finger that means he is constantly giving the finger; but before we embrace the idea that hey, it's not so bad, a girl is disturbed and upset when an angry man gives her the finger. The finger means rage, anger, hatred, rebellion. It's like a word: context matters.

I love that sometimes someone is viewed as a bully and then it turns out they have their own inner demons or frustrations that others don't see. If there were a moral to this story, it's that everyone is fighting their own internal battles, and be a bit less quick to judge.

Also, if your teenage son has a lot of spending money and his old car keeps getting dinged and battered, you may want to ask a few questions.

A Favorite Book for 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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22. Review: The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. Penguin. 2015. Reviewed from audiobook borrowed from library. Narrated by Ariana Delawari.


The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée AhdiehThe Plot: A retelling of A Thousand and One Nights. Shahrzad is a young woman whose best friend, Shiva, was the latest bride, and victim, of Khalid, Caliph of Khorasan.

Khalid marries a young woman -- and the next day she is killed. And he moves on to marry another. And another dies.

Shahrzad's best friend was one of those brides. Her murder devastated the family. Shahrzad is determined to find out what happened to her friend, and why. So she does the unthinkable: she volunteers as bride.

And begins a desperate plan to survive, telling a story each night, to be continued only if she is allowed to live.

The Good: OK, so you know the general basics of A Thousand and One Nights, both the story of the storyteller and also the stories she tell.

I loved The Wrath and the Dawn, and was also very frustrated with it.

I've been reading a lot of regency romances and many of them are about marriages of convenience. And on one delightful, romantic level, that is what The Wrath and the Dawn is about, a young couple who don't know each other who find themselves falling in love with each other. This part of the story gave me all the feelings. Shahrzad has a childhood sweetheart, Tariq. Khalid has had many, many, wives -- and it turns out that he has also had a pretty terrible childhood with an emotionally abusive father. (More on that later). Yet despite her heart belonging to another, and his emotional walls, they find themselves falling in love with each other.

Before I go further, one of the things I really liked about this romance is that at the start Shahrzad is in love with someone else, a boy she's loved since was a young girl. And he loves her. This is a complex look at emotions, at growing up, at changing, at loving more than one person. It isn't a "love triangle," it's about how love isn't simple.

The Wrath and the Dawn is set in the far past, but it's not exactly clear when. It also is a fantasy, but it's not obvious, not at first. As the book goes on, it seems like some people have some magic; that magic exists; that curses may be real; but even by the end of the book, it's not strong magic, if that makes sense. It's magical potential, still being explored.

It wasn't until I was almost done with The Wrath and the Dawn that I realized it's not a standalone book. There's a sequel coming, next May.

And now to my frustrations -- and it has to do with all those dead wives. So we now entering spoiler town. Stop, now, if you are sensitive about spoilers and prefer to discover a book by yourself.

Those dead wives, all young girls, bothered me a lot. They are the reason Shahrzad has thrown herself into danger, without much of any plan. We see how Shiva's death devastated family and friends; we here of riots because of the endless deaths. But here is the thing: deaths. No, murders. Deliberate killings. The "reason" given is a curse placed about Khalid.

BUT. BUT. As I read, I felt very little sympathy for the dead from Khalid and those around him; I felt as if the soldiers surrounding Khalid who knew about the curse felt that the payment of murdered girls was somehow acceptable. Basically, "kill the girls are something terrible will happen" and the response was "oh, OK, but our biggest worry is how will Khalid bear the burden of those dead girls?"

No, the biggest worry should be those girls, individually and collectively.

About half way through my rage about those girls was such that I wished to know more about them as individuals and thought, oh, if only Khalid and the others saw them as people, as real, then, well. That would change things. And then I found out that Khalid did see them, know them, that way, and yet the killings went on and I didn't feel any better, my disgust wasn't lessened, to know that Khalid mourned them individually and felt really, really, really, really bad about it.

Then, after that, I fantasized about the revenge I wished upon those who supported the killings, who helped the deaths take place. Except then I found out that the curse itself was the revenge for a death, and I saw how revenge killing isn't an answer.

And I liked this about The Wrath and the Dawn, that what I wanted to happen was shown to not be an answer.

But.

What is the answer? These girls are dead, and by the end of this book while I saw forgiveness in Shahrzad, while I saw that revenge and feeling really bad weren't answers, I wasn't given any answers. I loved this book so much it's a Favorite Book Read in 2015, and I'll eagerly read the sequel. But I'll be doing so wanting to know not just what happens next for the characters and the plot, but wondering whether it's possible in world created here for these young women to have any type of justice. I fear this world is so patriarchal that the reality of that world is that of no justice. I fear that class matters so much that the importance of the male ruler over non-royal women means that there can be no justice for them.

I wonder if forgiveness means there can be no justice.





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23. Review: The Kiss of Deception

The Kiss of Deception (The Remnant Chronicles) by Mary E. Pearson. Henry Holt & Co. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Kiss of DeceptionThe Plot: Princess Lia runs away from an arranged political marriage.

She finds a small village to live in, finds a job and a place to live, and embraces her non-royal life.

Two men are following her: one, the jilted prince. The other, an assassin.

The Good: I'm sorry to say that I read this over a year ago, should have blogged it then, but didn't. But I loved it so much I didn't want to just say "oh, too late now."

Lia does something selfish, by running away and abandoning her obligations to family and country. But so what? Seriously. Lia isn't asking for much -- she has no say in her future, her spouse, no choice at all. All her choices have been taken away from her. So she runs. So she needs time to figure out who she is and what she wants. She needs time.

Meanwhile, there are the two following her: one, a prince who is upset about her leaving and who recognizes that the marriage is of political necessity. The other, an assassin loyal to his own and whose job is to make sure that political marriage doesn't happen. Here's the thing: while the reader knows one is a prince, one is an assassin, the reader doesn't know which of the young men we're reading about is which.

Is Lia falling for a prince or her killer? Is the prince or the assassin falling for her? I kept on going back and forth with my guess.

What else does this have? Twists! Adventures! Turns! Questions! Cliffhangers! Romance! Secrets! Betrayals! Death!

And yes..this means it's a Favorite Book of 2015.






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24. Review: The Great Greene Heist

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2014. Review from library copy.

Great Greene Heist, TheThe Plot: Jackson Green has a reputation for cons and schemes, like his brother and grandfather before him. His father has taken the family talent to work on the side of good. But after getting caught in the principal's office, kissing a girl -- well.

That's all behind him. Eighth grade will be different.

Until he finds out that the Gaby de la Cruz, the girl he likes, is running for school president. And that the election may be rigged -- against her. And that the person running against her may be doing it to get rid of most of the school clubs.

What's a guy to do?

Oh, and the girl he was caught kssing? Wasn't Gaby.

The Good: I love a good con! Movies like Ocean's 11 and TV shows like Leverage, and book series like Heist Society.

The Great Greene Heist is set in middle school, and at it's heart the interests of Jackson and his friends (and enemies) are those of other eighth graders: school elections, clubs, friends, family. It's familiar, in the best possible way.

One thing that makes a good con story, for me, at least, is that the people pulling off the con are on the side of good. Or, at least, against the bad. Here, Jackson wants Gaby to win the election and it's pretty clear from page one that a, Gaby is the better person, and b, forces are against her to manipulate her opponent winning.

Also, while Jackson has a well-earned reputation, it's also -- well, things done for the greater good. Things done because they are fun. And it's not about cheating - even though the accusation is made. I say that not as a spoiler, but because to me, it matters whether or not Jackson's cons are things like cheating on tests or engaging in illegal acts. Often, it's just about doing things because they are fun, or because it's a clever puzzle, or because Jackson is the type who thinks a few steps ahead of those around him.

Other things that are good: while this is Jackson's story, it's also about an ensemble. He gathers a group of friends around him to pull of his latest caper, and they're a diverse bunch of kids. It's a reflection of the real-life classrooms of the kids who will be reading, and loving, this book.

And yes, it's a Favorite Book Read in 2015.


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25. Review: Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Delacorte Press, 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

book_cover.jpgThe Plot: Maddy, 18, is a girl who hasn't left home in years. She has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, which is a fancy way of saying she is allergic to everything. Her house has to be kept a sterile, few people are allowed in, and all she knows of the world is what she read or what she watches.

One of the things she watches is the house next door and the new family, including a boy, Olly, her age. A friendship develops, and maybe something more, as Maddy has to decide what her future will be and whether she will always be afraid of the world.

The Good: Maddy's father and brother died while she was still an infant, before her illness was diagnosed. For years, it's only been her mother, a doctor, and a nurse who also her friend and confidant.

Olly. Olly is a fresh breath and their relationship is slow and sweet (though Olly would probably hate that!). It begins with handwritten signs and progresses to texts and emails until Maddy begs her nurse to please, please, please let Olly visit her. He'll follow all the rules, they both promise.

One thing leads to another, and Maddy is tempted to do the unthinkable. To kiss Olly. To leave her home. To venture into a world that may kill her.

This is a terrific story of a girl get wrapped up and safe; it's a story of a mother and daughter who are close and loving, whose past tragedies have made them dependent on each other and close. It's a story of a girl who has to take a chance with life and love. It's about whether what is safe is the best; about when it's OK to take a chance. And it's also a book with a diverse main character (half African American, half Japanese American) in a type of book that is usually all white main characters with, at best, diverse side kicks/best friends.

SPOILERS.

It's also about how tragedy can shape a person, both mother and daughter. And how far a mother will go to protect someone she loves, to protect her child. All I'll say is that, Maddy's life is not what she thinks. That secret, that spoiler, meant that some people really did not like the book (see the Disability in Kidlit review). That spoiler didn't change how I viewed the book, it simply shifted it for me -- that the book was not about one thing, but was actually about another.

And that other thing, it's disturbing. It shifts how Maddy sees and interacts with the world. And it also makes one think about what causes hurt and what causes harm.









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