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1. R.J. Palacio and Ivan Doig Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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2. SEPTEMBER UPDATE!

It's back to school time!    September promises to be filled with fun theater, exhibitions, and mo'! EXHIBITS! ATLANTA, GA SERIOUSLY SILLY: THE ART & WHIMSY OF MO WILLEMS is on view at the HIGH MUSEUM in Atlanta, GA! The exhibit is based on the 2013 solo show at the Eric Carle Museum, with added original work and cool interactive stuff. Don't miss it! I'm very excited about the

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3. Review of the Day: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

NestThe Nest
By Kenneth Oppel
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4814-3232-0
On shelves October 6th

Oh, how I love middle grade horror. It’s a very specific breed of book, you know. Most people on the street might think of the Goosebumps books or similar ilk when they think of horror stories for the 10-year-old set, but that’s just a small portion of what turns out to be a much greater, grander set of stories. Children’s book horror takes on so many different forms. You have your post-apocalyptic, claustrophobic horrors, like Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. You have your everyday-playthings-turned-evil tales like Doll Bones by Holly Black. You have your close family members turned evil stories ala Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. And then there are the horror stories that shoot for the moon. The ones that aren’t afraid (no pun intended) to push the envelope a little. To lure you into a false sense of security before they unleash some true psychological scares. And the best ones are the ones that tie that horror into something larger than themselves. In Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, the author approaches us with a very simple idea. What if your desire to make everything better, everyone happier, released an unimaginable horror? What do you do?

New babies are often cause for true celebration, but once in a while there are problems. Problems that render parents exhausted and helpless. Problems with the baby that go deep below the surface and touch every part of your life. For Steve, it feels like it’s been a long time since his family was happy. So when the angels appear in his dream offering to help with the baby, he welcomes them. True, they don’t say much specifically about what they can do. Not at the beginning, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? Anyway, there are other problems in Steve’s life as well. He may have to go back into therapy, and then there are these wasps building a nest on his house when he’s severely allergic to them. A fixed baby could be the answer to his prayers. Only, the creatures visiting him don’t appear to be angels anymore. And when it comes to “fixing” the baby . . . well, they may have other ideas entirely . . .

First and foremost, I don’t think I can actually talk about this book without dusting off the old “spoiler alert” sign. For me, the very fact that Oppel’s book is so beautifully succinct and restrained, renders it impossible not to talk about its various (and variegated) twists and turns. So I’m going to give pretty much everything away in this review. It’s a no holds barred approach, when you get right down to it. Starting with the angels of course. They’re wasps. And it only gets better from there.

It comes to this. I’ve no evidence to support this theory of mine as to one of the inspirations for the book. I’ve read no interviews with Oppel about where he gets his ideas. No articles on his thought processes. But part of the reason I like the man so much probably has to do with the fact that at some point in his life he must have been walking down the street, or the path, or the trail, and saw a wasp’s nest. And this man must have looked up at it, in all its paper-thin malice, and found himself with the following inescapable thought: “I bet you could fit a baby in there.” And I say unto you, it takes a mind like that to write a book like this.

Wasps are perhaps nature’s most impressive bullies. They seem to have been given such horrid advantages. Not only do they have terrible tempers and nasty dispositions, not only do they swarm, but unlike the comparatively sweet honeybee they can sting you multiple times and never die. It’s little wonder that they’re magnificent baddies in The Nest. The only question I have is why no one has until now realized how fabulous a foe they can be. Klassen’s queen is particularly perfect. It would have been all too easy for him to imbue her with a kind of White Witch austerity. Queens come built-in with sneers, after all. This queen, however, derives her power by being the ultimate confident. She’s sympathetic. She’s patient. She’s a mother who hears your concerns and allays them. Trouble is, you can’t trust her an inch and underneath that friendliness is a cold cruel agenda. She is, in short, my favorite baddie of the year. I didn’t like wasps to begin with. Now I abhor them with a deep inner dread usually reserved for childhood fears.

I mentioned earlier that the horror in this book comes from the idea that Steve’s attempts to make everything better, and his parents happier, instead cause him to consider committing an atrocity. In a moment of stress Steve gives his approval to the unthinkable and when he tries to rescind it he’s told that the matter is out of his hands. Kids screw up all the time and if they’re unlucky they screw up in such a way that their actions have consequences too big for their small lives. The guilt and horror they sometimes swallow can mark them for life. The queen of this story offers something we all can understand. A chance to “fix” everything and make the world perfect. Never mind that perfect doesn’t really exist. Never mind that the price she exacts is too high. If she came calling on you, offering to fix that one truly terrible thing in your life, wouldn’t you say yes? On the surface, child readers will probably react most strongly to the more obvious horror elements to this story. The toy telephone with the scratchy voice that sounds like “a piece of metal being held against a grindstone.” The perfect baby ready to be “born” The attic . . . *shudder* Oh, the attic. But it’s the deeper themes that will make their mark on them. And on anyone reading to them as well.

There are books where the child protagonist’s physical or mental challenges are named and identified and there are books where it’s left up to the reader to determine the degree to which the child is or is not on such a spectrum. A book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper will name the disability. A book like Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis or Counting by 7s by Holly Sloan won’t. There’s no right or wrong way to write such books, and in The Nest Klassen finds himself far more in the latter rather than former camp. Steve has had therapy in the past, and exhibits what could be construed to be obsessive compulsive behavior. What’s remarkable is that Klassen then weaves Steve’s actions into the book’s greater narrative. It becomes our hero’s driving force, this fight against impotence. All kids strive to have more control over their own lives, after all. Steve’s O.C.D. (though it is never defined in that way) is part of his helpless attempt to make things better, even if it’s just through the recitation of lists and names. At one point he repeats the word “congenital” and feels better, “As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

When I was a young adult (not a teen) I was quite enamored of A.S. Byatt’s book Angels and Insects. It still remains one of my favorites and though I seem to have transferred my love of Byatt’s prose to the works of Laura Amy Schlitz (her juvenile contemporary and, I would argue, equivalent) there are elements of Byatt’s book in what Klassen has done here. His inclusion of religion isn’t a real touchstone of the novel, but it’s just a bit too prevalent to ignore. There is, for example, the opening line: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.” Followed not too long after by a section where Steve reads off every night the list of people he wants to keep safe. “I didn’t really know who I was asking. Maybe it was God, but I didn’t really believe in God, so this wasn’t praying exactly.” He doesn’t question the angels of his dreams or their desire to help (at least initially). And God makes no personal appearance in the novel, directly or otherwise. Really, when all was said and done, my overall impression was that the book reminded me of David Almond’s Skellig with its angel/not angel, sick baby, and boy looking for answers where there are few to find. The difference being, of course, the fact that in Skellig the baby gets better and here the baby is saved but it is clear as crystal to even the most optimistic reader that it will never ever been the perfect baby every parent wishes for.

It’s funny that I can say so much without mentioning the language, but there you go. Oppel’s been wowing folks with his prose for years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a cunning turn of phrase when you encounter it. Consider some of his lines. The knife guy is described like “He looked like his bones were meant for an even bigger body.” A description of a liquid trap for wasps is said to be akin to a, “soggy mass grave, the few survivors clambering over the dead bodies, trying in vain to climb out. It was like a vision of hell from that old painting I’d seen in the art gallery and never forgotten.” Or what may well be my favorite in the book, “… and they were regurgitating matter from their mouths and sculpting it into baby flesh.” And then there are the little elements the drive the story. We don’t learn the baby’s name until page 112. Or the very title itself. When Vanessa, Steve’s babysitter, is discussing nests she points out that humans make them as well. “Our houses are just big nests, really. A place where you can sleep and be safe – and grow.”

The choice of Jon Klassen as illustrator is fascinating to me. When I think of horror illustrations for kids the usual suspects are your Stephen Gammells or Gris Grimleys or Dave McKeans. Klassen’s different. When you hire him, you’re not asking him to ratchet up the fear factor, but rather to echo it and then take it down a notch to a place where a child reader can be safe. Take, for example, his work on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark A book where the very shadows speak, it wasn’t that Klassen was denying the creepier elements of the tale. But he tamed them somehow. And now that same taming sense is at work here. His pictures are rife with shadows and faceless adults, turned away or hidden from the viewer (and the viewer is clearly Steve/you). And his pictures do convey the tone of the book well. A curved knife on a porch is still a curved knife on a porch. Spend a little time flipping between the front and back endpapers, while you’re at it. Klassen so subtle with these. The moon moves. A single light is out in a house. But there’s a feeling of peace to the last picture, and a feeling of foreboding in the first. They’re practically identical so I don’t know how he managed that, but there it is. Honestly, you couldn’t have picked a better illustrator.

Suffice to say, this book would probably be the greatest class readaloud for fourth, fifth, or sixth graders the world has ever seen. When I was in fourth grade my teacher read us The Wicked Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden by Mary Chase and I was never quite the same again. Thus do I bless some poor beleaguered child with the magnificent nightmares that will come with this book. Added Bonus for Teachers: You’ll never have to worry about school attendance ever again. There’s not a chapter here a kid would want to miss.

If I have a bone to pick with the author it is this: He’s Canadian. Normally, this is a good thing. Canadians are awesome. They give us a big old chunk of great literature every year. But Oppel as a Canadian is terribly awkward because if he were not and lived in, say, Savannah or something, then he could win some major American children’s literary awards with this book. And now he can’t. There are remarkably few awards the U.S. can grant this tale of flying creepy crawlies. Certainly he should (if there is any justice in the universe) be a shoo-in for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in the youth category and I’m pulling for him in the E.B. White Readaloud Award category as well, but otherwise I’m out to sea. Would that he had a home in Pasadena. Alas.

Children’s books come with lessons pre-installed for their young readers. Since we’re dealing with people who are coming up in the world and need some guidance, the messages tend towards the innocuous. Be yourself. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Friendship is important. Etc. The message behind The Nest could be debated ad nauseam for quite some time, but I think the thing to truly remember here is something Steve says near the end. “And there’s no such thing as normal anyways.” The belief in normality and perfection may be the truest villain in The Nest when you come right down to it. And Klassen has Steve try to figure out why it’s good to try to be normal if there is no true normal in the end. It’s a lesson adults have yet to master ourselves. Little wonder that The Nest ends up being what may be the most fascinating horror story written for kids you’ve yet to encounter. Smart as a whip with an edge to the terror you’re bound to appreciate, this is a truly great, truly scary, truly wonderful novel.

On shelves October 6th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus,

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4. Review of Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

sheinkin_most dangerousstar2Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret 
History of the Vietnam War
by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School, High School   Roaring Brook   361 pp.
9/15   978-1-59643-952-8   $19.99   g

Without a wasted word or scene, and with the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story—and makes it comprehensible to teen readers: how Daniel Ellsberg evolved from a committed “cold warrior” to an antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers—“seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years”—which led to the Watergate Scandal, the fall of the Nixon administration, and, finally, the end of the Vietnam War. From the very beginning of his account, Sheinkin demonstrates the human drama unfolding behind the scenes; the secrecy surrounding White House and Pentagon decisions; the disconnect between the public and private statements of our nation’s leaders. Throughout, readers will find themselves confronted by large, timely questions, all of which emerge organically from the book’s events: Can we trust our government? How do we know? How much secrecy is too much? The enormous amount of incorporated primary-source documentation (from interviews with Daniel Ellsberg himself to White House recordings) means not only that readers know much more than ordinary U.S. citizens did at the time but that every conversation and re-enacted scene feels immediate and compelling. Sheinkin (Bomb, rev. 11/12; The Port Chicago 50, rev. 3/14) has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life; here, he’s outdone even himself. Meticulous scholarship includes a full thirty-
six pages of bibliography and source notes; judiciously placed archival photographs add to the sense of time and place.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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5. Review of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Flash Point/Roaring Brook)
While comprehensive in his synthesis of the political, historical, and scientific aspects of the creation of the first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin focuses his account with an extremely alluring angle: the spies. The book opens in 1950 with the confession of Harry Gold — but to what? And thus we flash back to Robert Oppenheimer in the dark 1930s, as he and readers are handed another question by the author: “But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?” Oppenheimer’s realization that an atomic bomb could be created to use against Nazi Germany is coupled with the knowledge that the Germans must be working from the same premise, and the Soviets are close behind. We periodically return to Gold’s ever-deepening betrayals as well as other acts of espionage, most excitingly the two stealth attacks on occupied Norway’s Vemork power plant, where the Germans were manufacturing heavy water to use in their own nuclear program. As he did in the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner The Notorious Benedict Arnold (rev. 1/11), Sheinkin here maintains the pace of a thriller without betraying history (source notes and an annotated bibliography are exemplary) or skipping over the science; photo galleries introducing each section help readers organize the events and players. Writing with journalistic immediacy, the author eschews editorializing up through the chilling last lines: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.” Index.

From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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6. Review of The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the 
Fight for Civil Rights

Port ChicagoThe Port Chicago 50:
Disaster, Mutiny, and the
Fight for Civil Rights

by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School    Roaring Brook    190 pp.
1/14    978-1-59643-796-8    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-983-2    $9.99

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. “All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small’s experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Fight for Civil Rights appeared first on The Horn Book.

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Fight for Civil Rights as of 1/1/1900
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7. Recommended Narrative Nonfiction: Young Adult

bausum_stonewallBausum, Ann Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights
120 pp. Viking 2015. ISBN 978-0-670-01679-2
Bausum begins with a detailed, nuanced exposition of the June 1969 Stonewall riots as a galvanizing moment for the gay rights movement, then traces the movement’s evolution (in a somewhat more cursory way) for the second half of the book. Bausum’s narrative integrity makes her conclusions about the persecution and resilience of the LGBTQ community all the more powerful. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Homosexuality; Activism

Superman Versus the Klu Klux KlanBowers, Rick Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate
160 pp. National Geographic 2012. ISBN 978-1-4263-0915-1
LE ISBN 978-1-4263-0916-8
In 1946, the producers of the Superman radio show deployed their character’s popularity in a campaign against bigotry. Bowers explains how he dug through myths, examined original archives, and reached tentative conclusions about what most likely happened and why. A complex history of organizations guided by both ideology and profit, people both well-meaning and flawed, and shifts in popular sentiment. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Visual Arts; Cartoons and comics; Ku Klux Klan; History, American; Heroes; Race relations; Prejudices; Radio

fleischman_eyes wide openFleischman, Paul Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines
204 pp. Candlewick 2014. ISBN 978-0-7636-7102-0
PE ISBN 978-0-7636-7545-5 Ebook ISBN 978-0-7636-7407-6
A wake-up call about the environmental crisis, the book homes in on five “key fronts” — population, consumption, energy, food, and climate — and explores historical and sociological contexts. Fleischman writes urgently, conversationally, and inspirationally, in a flow of ideas that can be dizzying. Yet none of the concepts is dumbed-down. A refreshingly opinionated approach to informed action. Reading list, websites. Bib., glos., ind.
Subjects: Pollution and Conservation; Global warming

fleming_family-romanovFleming, Candace The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
287 pp. Random/Schwartz & Wade 2014. ISBN 978-0-375-86782-8
LE ISBN 978-0-375-96782-5 Ebook ISBN 978-0-375-89864-8
Fleming has outdone herself with this riveting work of narrative nonfiction. Her focus here is not just the Romanovs, but the Revolutionary leaders and common people as well. The epic, sweeping narrative seamlessly incorporates scholarly authority, primary sources, appropriate historical speculation, and a keen eye for the most telling details. Two sixteen-page inserts contain numerous captioned photographs. Map, genealogy, and source notes included. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Europe; Romanov, House of; Nicholas II; Soviet Union; Biographies; Russia; Kings, queens, and rulers; Russian Revolution

The Boys Who Challenged HitlerHoose, Phillip The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club
   198 pp. Farrar 2015. ISBN 978-0-374-30022-7
When Hitler invaded Denmark, teenaged Knud Pedersen (with his brother and some mates) used civil disobedience to pester the Nazis, inspiring a larger-scale Danish revolt. Hoose brilliantly weaves Pedersen’s own words into the larger narrative of wartime Denmark, showing how the astonishing bravery of ordinary Danish teens started something extraordinary. An outstanding addition to the WWII canon. Bib., ind. Websites.
Subjects: World War II; Denmark; Righteous Gentiles; Activism; Nazism

mcclafferty_fourth down and inchesMcClafferty, Carla Killough Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment
96 pp. Carolrhoda 2013. ISBN 978-1-4677-1067-1
McClafferty’s informative and useful book focuses on football to discuss the serious but historically trivialized condition of concussion. Starting with football’s beginnings, McClafferty details the game’s early casualties; the controversy over its growing presence as a college sport; and how it became entrenched in American culture. She then goes on to cover the neuroscience behind head trauma and the increased awareness of the dangers. Reading list. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Sports; Sports—Football; Human body—Brain

mitchell_freedom summer murders_170x227Mitchell, Don The Freedom Summer Murders
256 pp. Scholastic 2014. ISBN 978-0-545-47725-3
Ebook ISBN 978-0-545-63393-2
The murders of three young civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — are the focus of Mitchell’s absorbing book. He conducted interviews with friends and family members of the men, and provides a fascinating biographical sketch of each, along with a thorough account of the police investigation. This compelling book will grab you from its opening paragraphs and won’t let go. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Government, Economics, and Education; African Americans; Race relations; Civil rights; Murder; History, American; Activism

pinkney_rhythm ridePinkney, Andrea Davis Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
166 pp. Roaring Brook 2015. ISBN 978-1-59643-973-3
As related by an irrepressible narrator called “the Groove,” this history of Motown smartly places the company and its hit records in the context of (mostly) 1960s America — and has a great time doing so. While the tone is generally peppy, the book gives due attention to the racism the company and its artists faced. An excellent discography and many photographs are included. Reading list, timeline. Ind.
Subjects: Music; African Americans; History—American

sheinkin_most dangerousSheinkin, Steve Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
361 pp. Roaring Brook 2015. ISBN 978-1-59643-952-8
With the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story — Daniel Ellsberg’s evolution from “cold warrior” to antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers — and makes it comprehensible for teens. Sheinkin has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life. Judiciously placed archival photographs appear throughout.
Subjects: History, Modern—Vietnam War; Crime; Government; Biographies; Ellsberg, Daniel

Courage Has No ColorStone, Tanya Lee Courage Has No Color, the True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers
148 pp. Candlewick 2013. ISBN 978-0-7636-5117-6
The World War II–era 555th Parachute Infantry Company, nicknamed the Triple Nickles, didn’t actually fight anywhere, as white soldiers didn’t want to fight alongside black soldiers. The book’s focus is wide: there are sections on segregation and stereotypes, Japanese American internment camps, Japanese balloon bombs, the Battle of the Bulge, and Operation Firefly, brought to life with archival photographs and Stone’s always clear prose. Timeline. Bib., ind.
Subjects: North America; Race relations; African Americans; Armed forces; Flight; Soldiers; History, Modern—World War II

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?

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8. Recommended Narrative Nonfiction: Intermediate

bartoletti_terrible typhoid maryBartoletti, Susan Campbell Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
   230 pp. Houghton 2015. ISBN 978-0-544-31367-5
What was it like to be a servant, an immigrant, a woman in the early twentieth century? Bartoletti weaves the answers into the beginning of “Typhoid Mary” Mallon’s story — using Mary as a lens to view a wider swath of American society — then covers epidemiologist George Soper’s cat-and-mouse game of tracking Mary down. Excellent nonfiction with a novelistic trim size and narrative. Timeline. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Medicine, Human Body, and Diseases; New York (State); Diseases—Typhoid fever

Skull in the RockBerger, Lee R., and Aronson, Marc The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins
   64 pp. National Geographic 2012. ISBN 978-1-4263-1010-2
LE ISBN 978-1-4263-1053-9
Paleontologist Berger and son Matthew’s recent find gave scientists a nearly intact skeleton from a new species, Australopithecus sediba. Detailed accounts of advances in the field and the supporting technology are intertwined with the story of Berger’s not-always-straightforward career path. The book is enhanced by illustrative material, including photographs and striking facial reconstructions of these ancient ancestors. Reading list, websites. Glos., ind.
Subjects: Science—Prehistoric Life; Paleontology; Archaeology; Evolution; South Africa; Fossils; Anthropology

brown_drowned cityBrown, Don Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans
   96 pp. Houghton 2015. ISBN 978-0-544-15777-4
A comic-book format delivers the full force of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans. When the storm hits the city, Brown hits readers with the consequences: flooding, fear, desperation, death, and frustration. Meticulously documented facts and quotes from victims caption the commanding art. If a book’s power were measured like a hurricane’s, this would be a category five. Bib.
Subjects: Natural disasters—Hurricanes; Disasters; New Orleans (LA); Graphic novels

freedman_angel islandFreedman, Russell Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain
81 pp. Clarion 2014. ISBN 978-0-547-90378-1
Chinese poems translated by Evans Chan. Freedman’s slender volume on the history and importance of California’s Angel Island Immigration Station — the portal for Asian immigration to the U.S. — covers a lot of ground. He weaves a clear and straightforward narrative history with abundant quotations, excerpts from diaries and wall poems, and archival photographs. This is a clearly written account of a lesser-known side of American immigration history. Bib., ind.
Subjects: North America; Asian Americans; Angel Island (CA); Immigration; San Francisco (CA); Chinese Americans

Invincible MicrobesMurphy, Jim and Blank, Alison  Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure
149 pp. Clarion 2012. ISBN 978-0-618-53574-3
Tuberculosis has been a medical scourge through much of human history, and new drug-resistant strains keep the threat of a pandemic always on the horizon. This book brings young readers up to speed with a scientific explanation of the microbe as well as medical and social histories of the disease. Despite disparate elements, the information comes together cohesively for an engaging read. Illustrations and photographs are included. Bib., ind.
Subjects: Medicine, Human Body, and Disease; Diseases—Tuberculosis; Microbiology; Epidemics

Heart and SoulNelson, Kadir Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
   108 pp. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray 2011. ISBN 978-0-06-173074-0
The unnamed narrator of this graceful and personalized overview of African American history provides a sweeping account that covers history from the Colonial era to the present day. Each page of text is accompanied by a magnificent oil painting, forty-seven in all, including six dramatic double-page spreads. The illustrations, combined with the narrative, give a sense of intimacy. A tour de force. Timeline. Bib., ind.
Subjects: History—North America; African Americans; Slavery; History, American

silvey_untamedSilvey, Anita Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall
   96 pp. National Geographic 2015. ISBN 978-1-4263-1518-3
Foreword by Jane Goodall. This accessible account of Goodall’s life explores her nontraditional entry to scientific fieldwork; the attention from the National Geographic Society that made her famous; her work ethic and innovative scientific methods; her efforts to reform the use of chimpanzees in research laboratories; and current technological advances in primate research. Silvey accompanies her main narrative with informative text boxes and vivid photographs. Map, timeline. Bib., ind.
Goodall, Jane; Animals—Chimpanzees; Scientists; Women—Scientists; Women—Biographies; Animal behavior

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?

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9. Recommended Narrative Nonfiction: Picture Books

applegate_ivanApplegate, Katherine Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
40 pp. Clarion 2014. ISBN 978-0-544-25230-1
Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Applegate introduces picture-book readers to the true story that inspired her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan. In poetic prose she describes gorilla Ivan’s early life in Africa; his dramatic capture; his time on display in a shopping mall; and his transition to the Atlanta Zoo. Karas’s mixed-media illustrations — in his warm and unaffected style — are at once straightforward and provocative.
Subjects: Mammals; Animals—Gorillas; Zoos; Shopping malls

bang_buried-sunlight_170x209Bang, Molly and Chisholm, Penny Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth
48 pp. Scholastic/Blue Sky 2014. ISBN 978-0-545-57785-4
Illustrated by Molly Bang. Bang and Chisholm explain the production and consumption of fossil fuels, along with the consequences of all that energy use: climate change. The sun serves as narrator describing the relationship between photosynthesis (plants) and respiration (animals) and energy; a slight imbalance produces fossil fuels. Bang’s illustrations brilliantly represent the chemistry: bright yellow dots of energy against a deep-blue background hover over their producers.
Subjects: Earth Science; Energy; Astronomy—Sun; Global warming; Fossil fuels

bryant_right-word_170x231Bryant, Jen The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
48 pp. Eerdmans 2014. ISBN 978-0-8028-5385-1
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Apt language and ingenious imagery combine to tell the life story of Peter Mark Roget, creator of the thesaurus. Bryant’s linear telling follows Peter closely, expressing his curiosity, sensitivity, and populist spirit in language both decorous and warm. Clever book design and visionary illustration add layers of meaning. Sweet embellishes her own gentle watercolors with all manner of clippings and realia. Reading list, timeline. Bib.
Subjects: Individual Biographies; Language—Vocabulary; Great Britain; Roget, Peter Mark; Books and reading

george_ galápagos georgeGeorge, Jean Craighead Galápagos George
40 pp. HarperCollins/Harper 2014. ISBN 978-0-06-028793-1
Illustrated by Wendell Minor. The author asks readers to extrapolate from the life cycle of a single female Galápagos tortoise, Giantess George, to the development of the species as a whole. She and other tortoises are swept away to different islands in a storm; over thousands of years, they evolve into different subspecies. Minor’s painterly illustrations showcase the changing setting and the magnificence of the tortoises. Reading list, timeline, websites. Glos.
Subjects: Reptiles and Amphibians; Galápagos Islands; Animals—Tortoises; Evolution

heos_iflyHeos, Bridget. I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are
   40 pp. Holt 2015. ISBN 978-0-8050-9469-5
A fly argues why he should be the science-class representative for insect life cycles instead of the overexposed butterfly. A skeptical class grills him about unsavory habits (garbage-eating, disease-spreading). Eventually convinced that “Flies rule!,” they capture the fly for study, and he changes his tune. Cleverly skewering elements of the typical animal book, this take on insects is refreshing, amusing, and scientifically accurate. Bib., glos.
Subjects: Animals—Flies; Life cycles; Science—Insects and Invertebrates

mattick_finding winnieMattick, Lindsay Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear
   56 pp. Little, Brown 2015. ISBN 978-0-316-32490-8
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. A boy’s mother tells him the story of his great-great-grandfather, owner of a baby bear named Winnie, and the circumstances that led to another boy, Christopher Robin Milne, befriending Winnie — inspiring that boy’s father to write some children’s tales. Mattick, the storytelling mother in this book, embellishes her family’s history with evocative, playful language, matched by the period warmth of Blackall’s carefully composed images.
Subjects: Animals—Bears; Milne, A. A.; Family—Mother and son; Toys; Authors; Biographies

petricic_my family tree and mePetričić, Dušan My Family Tree and Me
   24 pp. Kids Can 2015. ISBN 978-1-77138-049-2
Reading from front to middle, we meet the narrator’s paternal line through five generations. From back to middle are portraits of the maternal line. And in a glorious middle double-page spread we see the whole extended family and can trace and invent individual stories. Petričić’s gift for caricature is used joyfully in this celebration of ancestry, showing one family’s variations and particular beauty.
Subjects: Social Sciences—Families, Children, and Sexuality; Genealogy

Separate Is Never EqualTonatiuh, Duncan Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
40 pp. Abrams 2014. ISBN 978-1-4197-1054-4
In 1947 the Mendez family fought for — and won — the desegregation of schools in California. Tonatiuh uses a child’s viewpoint to succinctly capture the segregated reality of Mexican Americans. The straightforward narrative is well matched with illustrations in Tonatiuh’s signature style, their two-dimensional perspective reminiscent of the Mixtec codex but collaged with paper, wood, etc. to provide textural variation. An author’s note with photos is appended. Bib., glos., ind.
Subjects: Government, Economics, and Education; Schools; Hispanic Americans; Civil rights; Mendez, Sylvia

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?

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10. On Elizabeth Bishop

She began with the idea that little is known and that much is puzzling.

coverSo begins Colm Tóibín”s wonderful little book, On Elizabeth Bishop. The book is one of those pocket-sized books, has generous margins, and is only 199 pages long. That probably doesn’t sound short, but believe me, it is. Because Tóibín has such a beautiful, smooth, creamy voice. He is thoughtful and meditative. And while he makes thought-provoking observations, they are delivered so softly that you find yourself wrapped up in them like a cozy blanket and mulling them over before you even realize how interesting it all is.

On Elizabeth Bishop is criticism but not of the academic sort. It is a book written by someone who loves Bishop’s poetry and wants you to love it too. He delves deeply into a number of poems but even if you haven’t read them he does not leave you lost. Because while he delves Tóibín also brings up patterns and images and techniques that range across Bishop’s work. He’ll say things like how what Bishop does not say in a poem is oftentimes as important as what she does say. And then we are looking at “The Moose” and Tóibín is picking it apart, pointing out the gaps, providing us with biographical information and context, and suddenly you understand why “The Moose” is one of Bishop’s most famous poems.

Tóibín also uses other poets and other forms of art as a way to see the poetry in a richer light. He writes of Marianne Moore, poet and mentor to Bishop, and the friction that would arise between them because Moore wanted Bishop to write like her but Bishop continued to develop her own style and voice. Tóibín compares the two writing of Moore’s poems:

They were close to certain pieces by Stravinsky, all brass and disturbed tones, unashamed of their own noise, or indeed paintings by Kandinsky, unashamed of their own swirling colors, whereas Bishop’s poems had the sad gaiety and inwardness and sparseness of Weborn or Mondrian or Klee.

And without reading either Moore or Bishop you get an idea of what their poetry is like and understand that Moore was never going to succeed in making Bishop into her very own Mini-Me.

The book has an overall effect of a long, intimate conversation, one you don’t want to end but reluctantly have to conclude. If you want to know more about Elizabeth Bishop, do read this book. Heck, if you are a fan of Tóibín’s you will probably like the book too and finish it wanting to read Elizabeth Bishop. And if you think he could never convince you to read poetry, allow me to say, Tóibín is very persuasive.


Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Colm Tóibín, Elizabeth Bishop

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11. Monday Review: THE CHESS QUEEN ENIGMA by Colleen Gleason

Summary: This steampunk-paranormal mystery series is just plain fun. Three books into the Stoker and Holmes adventures and I'm still enjoying them immensely—prickly, socially awkward Mina Holmes; quick-tempered, impulsive, but brave Evaline... Read the rest of this post

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12. Review of Boom Snot Twitty: This Way That Way

cronin_boom snot twittyBoom Snot Twitty: This Way That Way
by Doreen Cronin; 
illus. by Renata Liwska
Preschool   Viking   40 pp.
6/15   978-0-670-78577-3   $16.99   g

On the opening endpapers of this gentle story, the unfortunately named Snot (a snail) is happily gathering blueberries and putting them in a basket. The title page shows Boom (a bear) and Twitty (a robin) each preparing for…something; Boom is packing a beach bag while Twitty readies her hiking boots. By the first page they are all set to go, but Boom wants to go one way, and Twitty the opposite direction. “‘Hmmm,’ said Snot.” Boom had his heart set on the beach, and Liwska softens the edges of her delicate-colored illustrations to show that Boom is imagining the sand and sun, just as on the next pages Twitty is imagining hiking up a hill. Each is determined to get his or her own way; Snot, meanwhile, sets off to find someplace that will satisfy all of them. Liwska’s drawings give each creature and object a fuzzy quality that adds to the feeling of coziness. Cronin’s usual rollicking humor is less in evidence here than is her way with spare, child-friendly text. This story of friends disagreeing but finding compromise, through the zen-like wisdom of Snot, will satisfy and perhaps enlighten readers, too.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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13. Review of the Day: Moletown by Torben Kuhlmann

Moletown1Moletown
By Torben Kuhlmann
North/South Books, Inc.
$17.95
ISBN: 978-0-7358-4208-3
Ages 4-6
On shelves October 1st

Cautionary tales for kids who can’t do a darn thing about the original problem. It’s sort of a subgenre of its very own. As I hold this lovely little book, Moletown, in my hands I am transported back in time to the moment I first encountered The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A child of the 80s, my youth was a time when scaring kids straight was an accepted educational technique utilized in everything from environmental protection to saying no to drugs. The film version of The Lorax bore this out and gave me some nice little bite-sized psychological scars for years to come. These days we don’t usually go in for the whole learning-through-fear technique. Even picture books that sport a message are more prone to be mildly sad than anything else. What makes Moletown so very interesting then is its inclination to tap into popular tropes in our own history, then turn them ever so gently on their heads. The end result is a book where you might easily lose sight of the bigger picture, until that final moment when everything becomes horribly clear.

“The story of Moletown began many years ago.” A single solitary mole moves beneath a meadow to live. Not long thereafter he’s joined by other moles “And over time, life underground changed…” Before our eyes we see it. We see the vast construction projects taking place to make Moletown a livable community. We see the population explosion, the increased technological advances, and different transportation models. Life becomes busier for the moles, while outside in the meadow nature is taking a severe hit. The green is close to disappearing altogether, but turn to the last pages in the book and there we see evidence not just of change, but of the moles as a whole taking on the responsibility of their newly green again meadowlands.

Moletown3Kuhlmann initially burst upon the American picture book scene with the highly detailed Lindbergh, a story of a mouse with a yen for flight. A little bit The Arrival, a little bit An American Tale and a little bit steampunk via Beatrix Potter, it was his hyper realistic animals placed in extraordinary circumstances that stayed with young readers. In Moletown that level of detail and attention is there, but the moles have a far more cartoonish feel to them. This is not to say that they don’t look like moles, every inch of them. Yet Kuhlmann has simplified his hyper-realistic renderings of animals and traded that attention in for set designs and landscapes. Here he plays with perspective, plunging us down into the heart of the moles’ mining operation, the scaffolding twisting around and around, down and down. Sharp eyed spotters will note other spreads where the stop signs are shaped like mole claws and the trains go vertically as well as horizontally. The details are there to an elegant degree, but the feel is different from Lindbergh certainly (as is the length of the piece).

Moletown6One of the most amazing aspects of the book is the sense of time passing. In the early days of Moletown you see the immigrants arriving, looking very much like the European immigrants of the late 19th century. As time passes you see moles in Wright Brothers era caps, trench coats and fedoras of the 40s, a possible homage to the MTV image of the 80s (complete with Nintendo video game remotes), and finally the iPods and wind farms of the current age.

Many European artists find it difficult to break into the American market due to the fact that their art contains a distinctly “foreign” feel. Kuhlmann’s advantage here is that while it is easy enough to believe that the images in this story originated in Germany, there is nothing distinctly “other” about the book . . . at first. It’s only with multiple readings that you begin to notice the elements that probably could not have begun here in the States. For example, in more than one instance you’ll see a mole smoking. This is by no means the focus of the book, and you would have to look somewhat hard to find such moments, but I have seen American parents go ballistic over far lesser crimes in picture book illustration, so I’ve no doubt the occasional library patron will become incensed over what they believe to be the promotion of cigarettes. Other hints that the book is German? Well, I could be wrong but this may well be the only picture book you’ll find on the market today containing a two-page spread dedicated to accountancy.

Moletown4One interesting thing about the book is the fact that the ending that we so deeply desire is embedded not in the book itself but in its endpapers. The final text in the book reads, “Many generations later, the moles’ green meadow had completely disappeared. Almost.” Turn the page and rather than provide a verbal explanation, the book gives us a glimpse of a series of photographs alongside an article from The Moletown Times which reads, “Agreement on Green”. The pictures show steps taken to preserve the environment and restore the meadow. I didn’t mind this method of summing up the steps taken to correct the past. Yet more interesting to me, by far, was how the book lets the reader reach their own slow realization that the seemingly inevitable trudge of technological advances and population increases are, in fact, detrimental. That picture at the beginning of the book of the immigrants arriving in Moletown, to an American reader, strikes you as a symbol of freedom from oppression and hardship. And because Kuhlmann keeps the book almost entirely wordless from start to finish, the glimpses of the meadow in its downward slide towards decay are shown without commentary. It’s up to the reader to realize that something has gone very wrong. How many will actually make that leap will be interesting to see.

Finding books to compare this one to can be difficult. The overall feeling I got was like the one in The Rabbits by John Marsden. But where that was a story of a culture being systematically destroyed, this has a sweeter if no less destructive feel. The Lorax hits the same environmental notes, but Moletown is the subtler of the two since it makes the reader implicit in the enjoyment one derives from Moletown’s culture (and from the fact that it’s a world that feels very much like our own). The best way to describe the story is to say that it’s a combination of the two, with a hopeful endnote all its own. Like all imports, it runs its greatest risk in becomes a forgotten piece since it can’t win many of our American children’s book awards. That said, I have faith that teachers, parents, and students will find in it a new approach to tackling the tricky subject of mass consumption vs. environmental action. Explicit in its message. Subtle in its presentation. In short, a beaut.

On shelves October 1st.

Like This? Then Try:
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan
The Promise by Nicola Davies

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14. Jennifer Weiner and Gregory Maguire Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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15. Review of Daylight Starlight Wildlife

minor_daylight starlight wildlifeDaylight Starlight Wildlife
by Wendell Minor; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Paulsen/Penguin   32 pp.
5/15   978-0-399-24662-3   $17.99

In his signature representational artistic style — detailed, luminous, and pristine — Minor compares and contrasts diurnal and nocturnal animals. The opening double-page spread establishes the pattern. The creatures introduced are shown in a meadow, with half of them appearing in the daytime on the verso and the others bathed in soft moonlight on the recto. On the following pages, Minor depicts an animal (a butterfly, for example) or group of animals (such as woodchucks) active during the daytime hours; a corresponding illustration, most often on the facing page, shows a related animal or animals (such as a lunar moth or skunks) active at night. Minimal text echoes the movements in each of the gouache illustrations: “Chubby mother woodchuck and her cubs waddle out to munch in the meadow,” while in the nighttime counterpart, “Fearless mother skunk leads her litter through the field to find a midnight snack.” Diurnal animals are depicted first, then their nocturnal counterparts, except on the final double-page spread. Here, a horizontal illustration of nocturnal raccoons faces right to close the book, while below, daytime turkeys travel in the opposite direction. Readers have two options: either follow the raccoons and cut off the lights for bedtime, or follow the turkeys back to the beginning of the book and read it again. A list of “Fun Facts” about the featured creatures is appended.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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16. Review: We Are Eltingville

Evan Dorkin brings the tale of four mean-spirited, socially-incapable, pop-culture-obsessives to an end.

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17. The Tenderness of Thieves by Donna Freitas

The Tenderness of Thieves by Donna Freitas is the tale of Jane and her seventeenth summer - and of the tragic crime which happened just months before, in February, when Jane was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though pelted with summer sun and surrounded by a supportive mother, three close friends, and one very interesting boy, Jane cannot escape the shadow of that night, with details revealed in short bursts throughout the novel, shared between chapters.

It is difficult for me to review this book without spoiling it, because what I most want to discuss is the big reveal, something I predicted immediately upon reading the summary on the book jacket. What complicates this story for me and what accounts for my reaction to the ending isn't only because I could see the ending coming, but also because I have a strong reaction to those who actively withhold the truth from others. Please note that I am not referring to the narrator here; Jane is not an unreliable narrator in any way. She tells her story in first person past tense throughout the book, and she's very honest.

What I will tell you openly is this: I liked the book overall because of how it was written. The narration relates the protagonist's emotions and thoughts very well, ensuring that important moments and decisions are deeply felt. The title is perfect, the pacing is good, and the characters are clear. I will not be surprised if and when this book is made into a movie, because the story will translate easily to film. (If you're looking for a screenwriter, I'm available!)

I also want to give kudos to cover designer Danielle Calotta for giving the title text angles and energy that I think Saul Bass would appreciate, layered over an image which well-captures both the beach setting and the lonely, haunted girl. (Image attributed to Shutterstock; name of artist or piece unknown.) Those who like the sand between their toes will enjoy the many scenes that take place at the beach, and how Jane and her mother welcome the sand into their home.

Put The Tenderness of Thieves in the hands of those who like books by Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti, and especially those who like Tara Altebrando (The Pursuit of Happiness, What Happens Here).

My favorite passages in this book include:

I was holding things together the best I could, leaning into my new visibility like it might prop me up. But it's dangerous when we let boys fix the broken parts within us. It makes us vulnerable. It scars us for life. - Page 5

A camera catching the split second when a girl suddenly becomes someone worth seeing. - Page 67

The beach, swimming, everything around me was magic. It could heal all things. Protect me from danger. - Page 100

"It's not your job to save anyone," she said. "Not even if you fall in love with them." - Page 185

"...because little girls should start out life with auspicious names so they could one day grow up to be young women who would make their own marks on the world." - Page 253

"...I imagined the possibility...a chameleon of a girl who morphed and shifted with each new significant experience, one of them tragic, certainly, but others surprising, even thrilling. I liked this thought, that I didn't have to be defined by tragedy, that though sadness and loss might be written onto my skin, there were other things that could be written over it..." - Page 280

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Review: This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas
Review: Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas
Interview: Donna Freitas (2012)
Interview: Donna Freitas (2010)

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18. Miss Emily

When the publisher offered me a review copy of Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor I hesitated. It featured Emily Dickinson. I generally don’t accept books like this but Emily Dickinson is a favorite of mine and O’Connor is not a newbie author nor is she a nobody, so I thought I’d take a chance especially since the publisher offered a second book to give away.

I’ve been finished with the book for over a week and debating about what to say. You see, I didn’t care for it all that much. I wanted to be excited about the book, I really did. I spent time trying to convince myself to be excited about it, thinking about what I did like instead of what I didn’t. But I just couldn’t do it. So please forgive me if this review lacks enthusiasm. Miss Emily is not a bad book at all. It is well written and has some good things in it. I am just not the ideal reader for it. Maybe you are though so allow me to tell you a bit about it.

Miss Emily is one of those two narrator books with the story told in alternating chapters from the limited perspective of the two characters. The characters here are Emily Dickinson herself and the Dickinson family’s new maid-of-all-work. Fresh off the boat from Ireland, seventeen-year-old Ada Concannon is smart, skilled and spirited. It is her spiritedness that has gotten her sent to America to begin with. She lost a couple jobs in Dublin and word was getting out which would make it harder for her to get a good placement in another house. Her mother’s sister and brother-in-law are already in America, Amherst to be exact, and well established with good reputations. So off Ada goes on the boat. Just as she gets settled in at her aunt and uncle’s, word arrives that the Dickinson’s are looking for a new maid for cooking, cleaning and all the other household work that maids do.

Ada fits in well with the Dickinson household. She takes her work seriously, likes the family, and Emily takes a shine to her. The two become friends of a sort since Emily spends so much time in the kitchen baking bread and cakes. Ada starts seeing Daniel Byrne, local horse whisperer and it seems like life can’t get any better. Into paradise comes Patrick Crohan, lazy, mean and a drinker. He takes a shine to Ada who continually refuses his advances. So Crohan sneaks into the Dickinson’s house one night and rapes her. On this point turns the entire second part of the book.

Up until Ada’s rape I was mostly enjoying the book even though there was really nothing going on in terms of plot or anything particularly interesting at all. So when Ada is raped it serves solely as a plot point and a tired one at that. This frustrated me to no end because, while Ada does not get pregnant she does get gonorrhea. She tries to keep everything a secret because she is ashamed. Of course it doesn’t stay secret and we get the usual spectrum of it was Ada’s fault to Ada was the victim. And when Daniel finally finds out he decides to take justice into his own hands.

Emily herself portrayed so that at times she seems like she is a child and other times a grown woman. There is tension between her and her sister-in-law, Sue. It is a curious relationship with Sue married with children and treating Emily like a dear, intimate friend and Emily treating Sue at times like a lover. At one point Sue and Emily are in a close embrace and Ada walks in on them. Ada doesn’t find it odd even though she realizes she interrupted a private moment. Sue isn’t disturbed by it either. But Emily is. Emily gets a little angry and behaves as though she had been caught doing something she should not have.

There are some nice moments in the book with Emily thinking about her writing and what it means to her. It is these moments that kept me from completely disliking the book. In her solitude Emily thinks things like this:

Oh, chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console. I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn. And when I feel as if a tomahwak has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.

This echoes a real letter Dickinson wrote, and probably never sent, “I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont [sic] hurt me much.” In fact much of Dickinson’s portion of the narrative echoes of her words and poetry. That is probably why I liked her part better than Ada’s.

Nonetheless, I am not quite certain what the aim of the novel is. The events in the book are not based on any real events. Ada is entirely made up. I don’t feel like I have any better insight into Emily Dickinson the person. And Ada’s story feels terribly cliche to me. While I didn’t care for the story, as I said before, the writing itself is good. In fact, I think the writing is the only thing that kept me reading the book to the end.

If you think you may like the book more than I did and want your name tossed into a hat for a chance to win a copy from the publisher, do say so in the comments. Unfortunately, only folks with U.S. addresses are eligible. Sorry about that. I will draw a name Friday afternoon (August 21st).


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Emily Dickinson

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19. Rat Queens, Volume Two

cover artA friend of mine and I always laugh because on Tuesdays she generally has a time slip and thinks it’s Wednesday and of course ends up disappointed when she realizes that, no, it’s Tuesday. On Wednesdays I generally do the same thing expect I think it’s Thursday. So she’s decided what we need to do is just have Monday #1, Monday #2, Monday #3, Monday #4, and Friday. This, she believes, will solve the whole problem since nearly every day will be Monday. However, since they are numbered, I know I will think it is Monday #4 when really it’s Monday #3 but I’ll feel worse than I do now because it will be Monday. One Monday a week is enough for me, thanks, and today happens to be this week’s Monday.

So let’s stand clear of deep thinking this evening and have a brief moment over Rat Queens, Volume Two: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth by Kurtis Wiebe, art by Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic. I read the first Rat Queens volume way back in January and as I began volume two I felt a bit wobbly on where the story was. I remembered the big outline but not so much the little details and the book assumed I remembered the details. So we got off to a slightly bumpy start.

No matter though because I was soon swept up in the new story which turned out to be all kinds of fun. The Rat Queens have to defeat a badass dude who has a grudge against their town of Palisade and unleashes some nasty memory and dream-sucking monsters to kill everyone. It’s a nice narrative trick that lets the back stories of a couple of the Rat Queens be told. So we get to find out why Violet the dwarf has shaved off her beard and left home. We discover what is beneath mage Hannah’s odd hairdo. We meet former priestess of N’rygoth Dee’s husband and she gets to work through her religious doubts. Sadly we don’t get much of Betty in this story, though there is a hilarious moment when she has some mushrooms that are a little more than culinary, if you know what I mean.

There is also a tiny moment where we get a glimmer of why these four call themselves the Rat Queens. Rats are harbingers of impending destruction. The Rat Queens are very good at destruction of various kinds.

It’s kind of a relief that the second volume continues the great fun of the first. I expect volume three will do the same. Hopefully the wait for it won’t be terribly long. If you need a little light fun to get you through a week of Mondays, the Rat Queens just might be what you are looking for.


Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews

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20. The Argonauts

cover artLocal independent publisher Graywolf Press is on a winning streak. Over the past several years they have been publishing some really fantastic stuff. They make me feel both proud and lucky to live in Minneapolis! One of their 2015 publications, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is another winner. Nonfiction to be sure but not one of those books that fits into a neat category.

The volume is slim, only 143 pages. The book is written in thought chunks. I have no idea what else to call them, these paragraphs of varying lengths separated by a band of white space much wider than a regular paragraph break. Each chunk is complete but the chunks flow together too to develop an idea or make an argument or tell a story. Then there are slightly wider bands of white space that indicate a change in direction or the beginning of a new story. It makes for a meditative mood and works like thinking or conversation where you circle around things, go off on a tangent and then come back then leap to something that seems completely unrelated but turns out to be associated in some way or another. I very much liked this style and it suits the subjects Nelson writes about as well her exploratory approach.

The Argonauts themselves, you may remember them from mythology, were those who sailed with Jason on his ship the Argo to get the Golden Fleece. They had other adventures too, of course, but that is the one they are chiefly known for. So before even knowing what the book is about, we are given the signal that it is an adventure, and exploration of some kind. Within a few pages of the book we are provided further explanation:

I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as the ‘very task of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’

The “you” Nelson is addressing is her spouse, artist Harry Dodge, who is gender fluid and does not fully identify as either male or female. Though over the course of the book Dodge begins taking testosterone and has a mastectomy. That information alone might give you an idea about how “Argonauts” applies in an even broader sense than Barthes’ original intention.

Nelson also writes about her pregnancy and motherhood and all of the cultural complications it entails as well as the physical and mental changes it brings. She writes about giving birth and how it felt like she was falling to pieces and sometimes like she was melting. She writes about her postpartum body and how she is supposed to immediately get to work according to all the magazines, and lose the baby weight, get back to her career, get back to a sex life and being sexy, pretty much as if nothing happened at all and there was no pregnancy and no baby. And she writes of her need and desire to define a boundary between her and baby:

I’ll let my baby know where the me and the not me begin and end, and withstand whatever rage ensues. I’ll give as much as I’ve got to give without losing sight of my own me. I’ll let him know that I’m a person with my own needs and desires , and over time he’ll come to respect me for elucidating such boundaries, for feeling real as he comes to know me as real.

The Argonauts is beautifully intimate without being confessional. Nelson balances out the personal with the scholarly, quoting Barthes and Derrida, Judith Butler, Jaques Lacan, Lucille Clifton, even Ralph Waldo Emerson gets a quote. She explores the broader social landscape and the effects it has on her and her family as well as the effects her “genderqueer” family has on society.

Nelson comes to no firm conclusions about anything. She accepts being in a state of constant change, living with ambiguity and having no real closure. Any time she gets near to being able to create some kind of closure, she refuses to do so. This seems to be a theme in a number of nonfiction books I have read in the past year or so and I must say I like it very much. Nelson acknowledges that ambiguity and refusing closure is uncomfortable for a good many people, but being willing to live with uncertainty creates a space for discovery and transformation. One could say it is the demesne of the Argonauts.


Filed under: Books, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Graywolf Press

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21. Haruki Murakami and Rebecca Stead Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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22. Unexpected Jolts of Children’s Literature in Rather Adult Places

LittleManReading through the most recent issue of The New Yorker, you may encounter the short story “Little Man” by Michael Cunningham.  It’s a rather cunning retelling of Rumplestiltskin that veers oddly close to the original tale.  Granted Cunningham has no idea how spinning wheels work (see: Paul. O. Zelinsky who actually put in the research with his version) but otherwise I loved what he did with it.

Reading the piece got me to thinking about my current job.  These days I’m not really purchasing all that many children’s books.  I still keep up, but as the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system I’m now deeply submerged in the world of adult literature and nonfiction.  One thing I’ve found with my new job purchasing such titles is that my eyes are now being opened up to a wide and wonderful world I’d never really experienced in full before: Adult books on kidlit topics.  Sure I’d seen a lot of the academic titles and books by folks like Leonard Marcus, Phil Nel, etc. but consider the following books.  Each one contains something interesting to our business.

Here are some of the titles I’ve encountered in the course of a single week:

HobbitWardrobe

The description from the publisher reads:

“The First World War laid waste to a continent and permanently altered the political and religious landscape of the West. For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence and the end of faith. Yet for J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, the Great War deepened their spiritual quest. Both men served as soldiers on the Western Front, survived the trenches, and used the experience of that conflict to ignite their Christian imagination. Had there been no Great War, there would have been no Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Narnia, and perhaps no conversion to Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Unlike a generation of young writers who lost faith in the God of the Bible, Tolkien and Lewis produced epic stories infused with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation. Giving an unabashedly Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment, the two writers created works that changed the course of literature and shaped the faith of millions. This is the first book to explore their work in light of the spiritual crisis sparked by the conflict.”

And while we’re on the topic of Tolkien:

ArtLanguageInvention

The publisher writes of it:

“From superstar linguist David J. Peterson comes a creative guide to language construction for sci-fi and fantasy fans, writers, game creators, and language lovers. Peterson begins with a brief history of constructed languages, from Tolkien’s creations to Klingon to today’s thriving global conlang community. Then, using examples from his own languages alongside helpful comparisons to real ones, Peterson offers a captivating and lucid overview of language creation, providing a basic foundation of essential linguistic tools for inventing and evolving one’s own lexicon. Along the way, behind-the-scenes stories lift the curtain on how he built the languages for television series and movies such as SyFy’s Dominion and Thor: The Dark World, and an included phrase book will start fans speaking Peterson’s constructed languages. An inside look at a fascinating culture and a perfect entry point into an art form as old as civilization,The Art of Language Invention is a wild linguistic adventure that will have readers ready to rub shoulders with horse lords and dark elves.”

For a second I misread that last sentence to read “house elves”.  If only.

UncollectedDavidRakoff

This one I would never have suspected, had I not read the Kirkus review.  As they say, “Perhaps the best of these stand-alone selections is ‘The Love that Dare Not Squeak Its Name,’ originally from Salon, in which Rakoff’s interpretation of E.B. White’s Stuart Little as a seminal gay icon will make it difficult for readers to see the mouse-child in any other light.”  You can read the piece in question here if you’re curious.

101OutstandingGraphic

All you need to do is to look at the cover.  Nuff said.

DeathPrairie

I find this particular description a bit of the baffling side (what precisely does “violently anti-Wilder” mean?).  Still, it falls under the same umbrella. Fingers crossed that there’s a Bloody Benders reference in the book somewhere.  From the publisher:

“Two sisters take a road trip that will change their lives. Chloe Ellefson, a collections curator at Old World Wisconsin, is a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, so she’s thrilled when her elderly neighbor Miss Lila brings her a quilt that may have been owned or even made by Wilder. Miss Lila wants Chloe to decide which of the many museums devoted to Wilder should get the quilt, but then she’s killed in a break-in before Chloe can gather much information from her. Although Chloe’s not very close to her sister, Kari, who’s married to a dairy farmer and has two children, they both have happy childhood memories of the Little House books and the times they pretended to be Laura and her sister Mary. So she asks Kari to go with her to visit all the museum candidates. At their first stop, they’re unable to prevent a young man from dying of anaphylaxis. Then Chloe finds herself interfering in a fight between a Wilder-obsessed wife and her controlling husband. The woman leaves her husband behind and joins the group on Alta Allerbee’s Laura Land Tours bus. Chloe’s dream trip keeps getting worse as she realizes Kari’s hiding a secret and at least two of the people tagging along on the tour are violently anti-Wilder. Her struggles to uncover several secrets reveal some surprising things about her heroine. This sixth adventure for Chloe (Tradition of Deceit, 2014, etc.) is a real treat for Little House fans, a fine mystery supplemented by fascinating information on the life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

DownRabbitHole

From the publisher:

Some of your favorite New York Times bestselling authors present five all-new stories told through the looking glass including a new Eve Dallas novella!
You’re late for a very important date…Enter a wonderland of mesmerizing tales. It’s a place that’s neither here nor there, where things are never quite as they seem. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s whimsical masterpiece, ranging from the impossible to the mad to the curiouser, these stories will have you absolutely off your head.
Don’t be afraid to follow them DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

On the flip side there are also authors that I’ve only ever encountered through their children’s books without any knowledge of their adult literature.  Hannah McKinnon, Mal Peet (which I pretty much knew, but still…), etc.  These are folks that are giving me a new appreciation for the variety they are capable of producing.  In the meantime, I’m enjoying these other books and their references.  Fascinating how childhood memories affect our literature on every level.

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23. Review: The Girl on a Train


The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin RandomHouse. 2015. Library copy.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - USThe Plot: Rachel takes the same commuter train to work and home, day in, day out. She watches outside her window, watches the buildings and houses. There is one couple in particular she watches, who she names Jess and Jason. Wondering about them and their lives, making up a story about who and what they are.

Until one day, something happens. Something that forces her from observer to participant, off the train and into the lives of those she watches.

The Good: I confess, that I'm not sure what put The Girl on the Train on my must-read list. Once it went there (and it was a long hold list from the library!) I avoided any reviews or mentions of the book, because I didn't want spoilers. Since it was being talked about in the same breadth as Gone Girl (my review here), I knew that I didn't want spoilers. I wanted to discover the book, and any twists and turns, on my own. (For another day is my perhaps contradictory stance on both not minding spoilers and also getting really annoyed when something I don't want spoiled is spoiled.)

To begin with, The Girl on the Train is nothing like Gone Girl: well, both have "girl" in the title. Are both are best-sellers with twists best discovered on one's own. But the unreliable narrator is different: Amy of Gone Girl is a deliberate manipulator of her own story, depending on her audience, and always believes she is the smartest person in the room. Rachel, the primary narrator of The Girl on the Train, is unreliable for different reasons. She doesn't know herself well enough to lie or manipulate the reader, even if at times she tells the story in a way to make herself look better. She also has problems with memory, and so she's unreliable because at times she just doesn't know.

There are three narrators, and I'll leave it to book clubs and others to discuss why these are "girls" and not women. There is Rachel, in her mid-thirties, the girl on the train looking out at life. There is Anna, a young mother, blissfully happy with her husband, her baby, her life. There is Megan, a wife and the crossroads, unsure of whether to pursue a new career or motherhood.

I picture you as a reader like myself; so here's the deal. I'll do nothing spoilery in this post, but if you want to talk spoilers, or things beyond what I do in this review, we'll do that in the comments. So reader, it's your choice, much like it was my choice to avoid reviews and news articles about the book.

The Girl on a Train is a mystery: a woman is missing. What happened to her? And why? It is also a a character study in Rachel, a woman whose life has come undone. She's of an age when she should be in a house, with a family, perhaps a career. She wants these things; she doesn't have these things; she's having more than a tough time reconciling herself to her life now. One of her few distractions, beyond drinking and wallowing in memories, is watching life outside the train window.

Anna's life of happiness is built on someone's else unhappiness, and you know what? Honestly? She doesn't care. That's right. Judge her as you want, the how of her romance and happiness started. Her daughter, her husband, isn't it what anyone wants? And she'll do what she can to keep anything from creeping into that unhappiness.

Megan doesn't quite know what she wants: she's drifting, anchored by a husband and a home but not much else. Motherhood, the next logical step for a wife in her twenties, isn't for her. She keeps her secrets and her past close and unshared with anyone, not even her husband.

These are the three who tell the story: and because it's just these three, with both limited perspectives and particular ways in which they see things, and because they are telling their stories at different times, it's a bit hard to figure things out. But the dots do connect, eventually, between the women and what they know and what they don't.

In some ways, I found this more satisfying than Gone Girl; I liked it more. At it's heart, The Girl on a Train is a mystery and I love a good mystery. It also has one of the more interesting, unapologetic alcoholics in literature; in some ways, I was reminded of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor. And, because of their complexities and their integrity (each is true to themselves), I liked spending time with Rachel, Anna, and Megan. And while Amy amused me and kept me on her toes, I wouldn't say spending time with her was something I liked.

And yes...A Favorite Book Read in 2015. Because Rachel.

Links: NPR review; publishers' Reader's Guide; New York Time review.




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

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24. Review of First Grade Dropout

vernick_first grade dropoutFirst Grade Dropout
by Audrey Vernick; 
illus. by Matthew Cordell
Primary   Clarion   32 pp.
7/15   978-0-544-12985-6   $16.99

“I can’t stop thinking about it. How everyone laughed and slapped their desks and stomped their feet. And pointed. At me.” The narrator’s social infraction? “I. Called. My. Teacher. MOMMY!!!” It’s a typical-enough blunder among kids new to school (“Don’t worry. It happens every year,” tosses off the boy’s teacher), but what kid in any new situation feels typical? Having suffered what he perceives as landmark mortification, the narrator concludes that dropping out of school is his only option. At soccer practice, where he assumes a calculatedly laid-back persona (“I put my hand on my hip, like someone who doesn’t care if other people laugh”), he tests the waters, telling his best friend, Tyler, that he’s quitting school. Tyler has no idea why — so minor was the narrator’s transgression in everyone else’s eyes. An even more teachable moment comes later, when Tyler laughs at his own derision-worthy slipup. Tyler’s grace is a revelation for the narrator, who leaves the story finally capable of the same. The book is a riot as well as an analgesic: Vernick’s tightly wound, age-appropriately self-absorbed narrator is hugely relatable, but young readers will also get that he’s overdoing it. Cordell’s frugally tinted pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings have a Jules Feiffer–like looseness that captures the narrator’s downward thought-spiral, epitomized by a spread of an imagined all-classmate marching band chanting “Ha! Ha!” and wearing hats that read “Mommy.”

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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25. Book Trailer Premier: Big Bear, Little Chair by Lizi Boyd

Once in a while an artist comes along who does work so beautifully that you cannot help but gawp. Particularly gawpable (a word? Tis now) is Lizi Boyd.  And today, I’m pleased as punch to premiere the book trailer for her latest.  It’s a simple concept book . . . at first.  Probe a little deeper, however, and you’ll find it’s so much more.

Enjoy!

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