Nonfiction Roundup, Spring 2017

There are a ton of wonderful books of all kinds in this quarter's nonfiction roundup! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Get ready for an enormous nonfiction roundup post! I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately–everything from history to parenting to religion to memoirs–and I haven’t had time to review them. Until today! Take a look at these short reviews if you’re looking to add to your nonfiction list. I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Interrupted

What happens when Jesus interrupts the average life? Interrupted encourages believers to ask if their lives bring integrity to the gospel. Follow the faith journey of author and fellow disciplemaker Jen Hatmaker and rediscover Jesus among the least of us.

This was my first Jen Hatmaker book, and I immediately fell in love. Interrupted is an amazingly powerful look at what Christianity can and should be like–giving to and serving the people in our communities and around the world. It will break your heart as you look at how privileged we are in the U.S., but it will also give you hope. Jen’s journey pairs statistics with stories in a way that made me feel slightly optimistic for the future of American Christianity.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

7

7 is the true story of how Jen (along with her husband and her children to varying degrees) took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.

Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. They would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.” So, what’s the payoff from living a deeply reduced life? It’s the discovery of a greatly increased God—a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends social experiment to become a radically better existence.

I quickly followed up Interrupted with 7, an earlier Jen Hatmaker book. This one is a little less sweeping, as it focuses mainly on Jen and her family as they attempt to simplify and streamline their lives. The idea of living sustainably and simply as a way of following God is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and this book offers a lot of great ideas on how to simplify different categories of life.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Gift of Failure

This groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.

You know I love books about learning well and parenting well, and whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or both, this book has some wonderful advice. The Gift of Failure looks at how failure and hard work is the best way for kids to learn how to succeed (in education jargon, it focuses on autonomy-supportive parenting and fostering a growth mindset). As someone who has seen the huge difference a fixed mindset or a growth mindset can make in my students, I loved this book. It made me even more confident in my decision to always praise hard work instead of talent, and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it when I have kids of my own.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.

Apparently I’m not a huge Brene Brown fan. Like the last book of hers I read, I found Daring Greatly well written but not super revelatory. (To be totally honest, I got bored about halfway through and remember very little about the book.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Choose Your Own Autobiography

Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened? Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed.

Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song.

Apparently I’m not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan either… The idea is awesome: You can live NPH’s life as if it were a choose your own adventure book, but I just didn’t care enough about his life to be completely sucked in. Of course, NPH is a funny guy, and his reflections on life in Hollywood and the paths his life could have taken are fun to read, but I was expecting something more than just a few laughs.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stones into Schools

In this dramatic first-person narrative, Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women-all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.

Stones into Schools is filled with fascinating stories of how the author and his team face danger (and bureaucracy) in order to build schools so girls in Afghanistan can learn. This book is packed with adventure, danger, humor, and tears. It offers a bit of history about the region in which Greg works, but this history is tied closely to the modern-day stories of the people who live there, so it never gets boring. If you’re interested in girls’ education in the Middle East, this book is for you (and no, you don’t have to have read Three Cups of Tea first).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hidden Figures

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives – and their country’s future.

You’ve probably heard of this book, as it’s the basis for the recent blockbuster film of the same name. Hidden Figures offers a view on an interesting, little-known part of history–the African-American women who put Americans on the moon. Some of the book was a bit dry for me, unfortunately.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Anne Frank Remembered

The reminiscences of Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Frank family in Amsterdam during the Second World War, presents a vivid story of life under Nazi occupation.

This is a powerful look at Anne Frank by the woman who hid her family. I learned a lot about the events of WWII in the Netherlands; I hadn’t realized how much they suffered during the war. Miep describes her relationship with the Frank family and her struggles to stay alive and resist the Nazis even after Anne and her family were taken. It’s a tragic story, of course, but also fascinating. I love that we get to hear a piece of history from someone who witnessed it all first hand.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Year of Living Prayerfully

Jared Brock sensed that something was missing in his prayer life, so he embarked on a yearlong journey to rediscover the power of prayer (and eat some delicious falafel).

FOLLOW JARED ON A 37,000-MILE TRIP AROUND THE WORLD AS HE…
* Dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
* Discovers the 330-year-old home of Brother Lawrence
* Burns his clothes at the end of the world
* Attends the world’s largest church
* Attempts fire walking (with only minor burns)

When I first picked up this book, I thought it might be gimmicky, but I was surprised at the depth the author sometimes reached. It gives an interesting look at prayer traditions from everyone from the Hasidic Jews to the Holy Land to Greek Orthodox to the Quakers to “outer fringe” people. As Jared meets Christians from around the world and from different faith traditions, he tries each of their prayer traditions in order to grow closer to God. Just be aware that this book is more of a memoir than a “how-to” book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything is a wonderfully wry account of how Karen Le Billon was able to alter her children’s deep-rooted, decidedly unhealthy North American eating habits while they were all living in France.

At once a memoir, a cookbook, a how-to handbook, and a delightful exploration of how the French manage to feed children without endless battles and struggles with pickiness, French Kids Eat Everything features recipes, practical tips, and ten easy-to-follow rules for raising happy and healthy young eaters.

The information this book offers on how French children are taught to enjoy foods of all kinds (and never snack or eat without an adult’s permission) was very interesting. I have a fascination with French parenting and plan on trying out some of their ideas with my own kids someday. However, I found the author whiny and inflexible and her kids spoiled. Despite her insistence on moving to France to be near her husband’s family, she refuses to help her kids assimilate to French food culture, and she herself is a very picky eater. I wish this book had been more how-to and less memoir, because I couldn’t stand the author.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Symphony for the City of the Dead

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.

This book is about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work during Stalin’s rise to power and the Stalingrad siege. As a music major, I already knew a fair bit about Shostakovich’s music, so I found it fascinating to learn more about his life in Soviet Russia. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I loved that it interjects bits of Shostakovich’s music as they discuss it. Some parts are gruesome and horrifying, so although Symphony for the City of the Dead is geared toward a YA audience, be forewarned in case you (or your child) is not prepared to read about cannibalism.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

This book talks about the women soldiers and spies who were active during the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. Their stories are interesting, especially considering that during this time, women were not expected (or allowed) to do many of the things these women did. If you’re interested in the Civil War, this book will give you a new perspective.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classic Book Reviews: Uncle Tom’s Cabin + The Beautiful and Damned

I continue my adventures in reading the classics with Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my journey of reading the classics that have somehow escaped me (you can read previous posts here and here). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned were next on my list, simply because I happened to have audio book versions of each. (I admit to listening to each of them on 2x speed and using my 30 minute commute to force myself to listen to them when they got dry and boring.) Still, it’s easy to see how each of these books became classics, and I’m glad I read them.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

First published in 1852, this book follows the story of several slaves and the white people who surround them. When Mr. Shelby, the slave owner, finds himself in debt, he has to sell two of his favorite slaves–kind, patient Tom and the young child of Eliza. Eliza decides to run away with her child, while Tom agrees to be sold downriver. We follow both characters, along with the masters and fellow slaves they encounter on their travels.

I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. It is powerful and surprisingly modern for the time it was written. It’s easy to see why Abraham Lincoln reportedly cited it as the cause of the Civil War. Of course, there is a fair amount of racism still present (it was written in the 1850s, after all), and there is a strong case of White Savior Complex and a large group of simple, pure-hearted slaves, but I was amazed at what a case Stowe built for ending slavery. She focused on how deeply these mothers felt the loss of their children, husbands the loss of their wives, and often directs her narrative voice at the audience, urging them to think about how they would feel in similar circumstances. Stowe clearly had a deep Christian faith, as did many of her readers at the time, and she gathers evidence for how unchristian it is to own slaves. She even attacks those who justify slavery by describing how kind they are to their own slaves and how lost these people would be without guidance–Stowe rightly points out that everyone desires freedom above practically all else and how harmful it is to be even a kindly master.

If you can get past the historical racism inherent to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the length which at times feels dry, you should read this book. I’m glad I did, even though I doubt I’ll pick it up again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Beautiful and Damned

Embellished with the author’s lyrical prose, here is the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects of wild ambition, The Beautiful and the Damned achieved stature as one of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished novels.

Fitzgerald is great at presenting a depressing, dark view of human nature, and that’s exactly what he does in The Beautiful and Damned. Anthony and Gloria selfishly mistreat each other and fall into straits as they can’t control their spending/drinking/vanity. It’s painful to see them do so much harm to themselves and each other, although it is of course very well written. If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, you’ll know what to expect from this book.

Rating: Meh

Funny Memoir Roundup

In which I review Furiously Happy, Modern Romance, and The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In today’s funny memoir roundup, there’s only one real standout book. Unfortunately, I’ve read a lot of meh memoirs recently that haven’t made much of an impact on me. (Spoiler alert–Furiously Happy is the best one on this list. It’s hilarious!)

Please note as you proceed that each of these books has a fair amount of sexual content and/or salty language. If that’s something that you want to avoid, skip this post and come back on Friday for a roundup of my latest children’s and YA reads!

Furiously Happy

In her new book, FURIOUSLY HAPPY, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

According to Jenny: “Some people might think that being ‘furiously happy’ is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he’s never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Jenny Lawson is so funny (if you laughed at the snippet above, just know that the rest of the book is pretty much like that). I laughed out loud at several parts of this book, but I also appreciated her honesty about her struggles with mental and physical illness. My absolute favorite entry was about her sleep study (I read it, laughing hysterically, and then immediately read it again over my husband’s shoulder as I forced him to read it), but there are great chapters containing her late night iPhone notes, various adventures involving taxidermied animals, and the bright spots in the darkness of depression.

(As with Lawson’s last book, and anything Bloggess-related, be aware that this book contains a fair amount of salty language.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Modern Romance

For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided he needed to take things to another level. He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages. They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer. The result is unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.

In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I don’t really like stand up comedy, so I’m not super familiar with Aziz Ansari’s work outside of Parks & Rec. Still, when I started listening to this on audio book, I expected a silly look at dating in the era of Tinder and Match.com. There is a fair amount of humor (especially in the audio book, read by Ansari himself!), but I was surprised to find a serious, well-researched book about finding love in the digital age.

Ansari and his research team do a great job of exploring the different experiences of various age groups and cultures in dating, love, sex, and marriage, and they are honest about the limitations of their studies. I found this book interesting, but ultimately forgettable. Check it out if you’re really curious about how romance has changed with the advent of the internet.

(As will probably surprise no one, there is a large amount of sexual content and swearing that may make readers uncomfortable. Be forewarned.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl

Being an introvert in a world that glorifies cool isn’t easy. But when Issa Rae, the creator of the Shorty Award–winning hit series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” is that introvert—whether she’s navigating love, work, friendships, or “rapping”—it sure is entertaining. Now, in this debut collection of essays written in her witty and self-deprecating voice, Rae covers everything from navigating the perils of eating out alone and public displays of affection to learning to accept yourself—natural hair and all.

A reflection on her own unique experiences as a cyber pioneer yet universally appealing, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girlis a book no one—awkward or cool, black, white, or other—will want to miss. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I don’t know much at all about Issa Rae, but I picked up this book over the Thanksgiving holiday on a whim. It contains funny, interesting stories about Jo-Issa’s childhood, life in Senegal and America, and understanding who she is and how her race affects her life. Mixed in with these stories are what the author calls “ABG [awkward black girl] guides.”

This book is interesting, and I definitely learned more about Senegal than I (sadly) knew before, but it didn’t make much of an impact on me. (As with the previous two books, there is a fair amount of sexual content/swearing that you may or may not enjoy.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Words in the Dust

Words in the Dust is a powerful middle grades novel about a girl coming of age in Afghanistan. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Zulaikha hopes. She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven from Afghanistan; a good relationship with her hard stepmother; and one day even to go to school, or to have her cleft palate fixed. Zulaikha knows all will be provided for her–“Inshallah,” God willing.

Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the Afghan poetry she taught her late mother. And the Americans come to her village, promising not just new opportunities and dangers, but surgery to fix her face. These changes could mean a whole new life for Zulaikha–but can she dare to hope they’ll come true? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I listened to this audio book because I was hoping to get a glimpse at the life of an average girl in modern-day Afghanistan. I was fascinated by my last look at the Arab world, and I wanted to have another perspective.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exactly focus on the average Afghani girl. Zulaikha has a cleft palate that causes others to tease or pity her, but when the Americans come to town, they might be able to help. I found Words in the Dust a bit dramatic and overwrought at times, as Zulaikha despairs over her looks and the people around her do nothing to help. I kept wondering how close the events of this novel were to actual Afghani girls’ experiences.

It’s not a bad story, but I think I’ll keep looking for a more subtle look into the experiences of teenage girls in the Middle East.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classic Book Reviews: Lord of the Flies and The Little Prince

In which I review my latest classic reads: Lord of the Flies and The Little Prince. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my journey of reading all the classics I never got around to in today’s post. These two books are very different from each other, and while I understood why they’re considered modern classics, I didn’t particularly enjoy either one.

Lord of the Flies

When a plane crashes on a remote island, a small group of schoolboys are the sole survivors. From the prophetic Simon and virtuous Ralph to the lovable Piggy and brutish Jack, each of the boys attempts to establish control as the reality – and brutal savagery – of their situation sets in.

The boys’ struggle to find a way of existing in a community with no fixed boundaries invites readers to evaluate the concepts involved in social and political constructs and moral frameworks. Ideas of community, leadership, and the rule of law are called into question as the reader has to consider who has a right to power, why, and what the consequences of the acquisition of power may be. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Lord of the Flies is a thought provoking, well written book, if a bit racist and sexist. I absolutely understand why they teach it in high schools–it introduces some controversial ideas about social contracts and the behavior of humans, but it’s not overly complex. Really, that’s the main reason I disliked this book. I found the behavior of the boys on the island pretty unrealistic and over the top. I get that kids are mean, and any humans are more likely to resort to violence when they are afraid and outside their normal social structures, but I don’t think things would have gone so far downhill so fast.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Little Prince

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is one of those books that makes me feel like I missed the “point.” What is this “moral allegory” you speak of, Goodreads? Still, it’s a sweet story about a little boy who travels the universe and discovers a great many adults acting in ways that make no sense to his innocent mind. Plus, there are great illustrations.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Audio Books Roundup

I'm not a big audio book fan, but I've been listening to more and more on my commute. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m not a big fan of audio books, but my commute to work has nearly doubled since our recent move. Because my favorite podcasts only update once a week, that still leaves me with a lot of driving time to fill. So on the days that I don’t feel like listening to music, I’ve started turning to audio books. I have a huge collection from the SYNC summer audio book program, and I’ve listened to a few of those.

The Perfect Storm

It was the storm of the century – a tempest created by so rare a combination of factors that meteorologists deemed it “the perfect storm.”

When it struck in October 1991, there was virtually no warning. “She’s comin’ on, boys, and she’s comin’ on strong,” radioed Captain Billy Tyne of the Andrea Gail from off the coast of Nova Scotia. Soon afterward, the boat and its crew of six disappeared without a trace. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This nonfiction book offers an interesting look at commercial fishing, how hurricanes work, drowning, and true life deaths and rescues from the storm of the century. If you’ve seen the movie The Perfect Storm, you know the central characters from the book, but you’ll be surprised at how much more information is contained here. Although the crew of the Andrea Gail did not survive, there were many other boats in need of rescue, and the stories of these rescue attempts are both harrowing and heartwarming.

“Meteorologist see perfect in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm.”

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Here in Harlem

These fifty-four poems, all in different voices but written by one hand, do sing. They make a joyful noise as the author honors the people-the nurses, students, soldiers, and ministers-of his beloved hometown, Harlem. Worship with Deacon Allen, who loves “a shouting church,” and study with Lois Smith, who wants “a school named after me.” Don’t get taken by Sweet Sam DuPree, who “conned a shark right outta his fin.” And never turn your back on Delia Pierce, who claims she “ain’t the kind to talk behind nobody’s back” while doing precisely that-with panache. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The audio version of this book of poetry is amazing–there is a different narrator for each character, and there is jazz/blues music and sound effects in the background. The poetry itself is great, too. The collection of poems talks about life in Harlem from the viewpoint of people of all ages and occupations, and Walter Dean Myers’ writing makes each character come alive.

If you decide to read this book, I strongly suggest the audio version. It is just wonderful.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Courage Has No Color

World War II is raging, and thousands of American soldiers are fighting overseas against the injustices brought on by Hitler. Back on the home front, the injustice of discrimination against African Americans plays out as much on Main Street as in the military. Enlisted black men are segregated from white soldiers and regularly relegated to service duties. At Fort Benning, Georgia, First Sergeant Walter Morris’s men serve as guards at The Parachute School, while the white soldiers prepare to be paratroopers. Morris knows that for his men to be treated like soldiers, they have to train and act like them, but would the military elite and politicians recognize the potential of these men as well as their passion for serving their country?

Tanya Lee Stone examines the role of African Americans in the military through the history of the Triple Nickles, America’s first black paratroopers, who fought in a little-known attack on the American West by the Japanese. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, in the words of Morris, “proved that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.” (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I was really interested by this book, as the Triple Nickles are not a group I ever learned much about in school. The stories of racism in America, even as our troops battled one of the most evil regimes in history, are horrible. In particular, I’ll never forget one African American soldier’s description of how much better the German POWs were treated than the black soldiers.

Still, if you can face up to these awful moments (and I think we have the responsibility to do so), you’ll find a lot of good here. Although the writing itself is nothing special, the story is important and interesting.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series, Lovely Words. You can see all the posts in this series here.

Dodger

Dodger is a fun story from Terry Pratchett about a street urchin in Dickens' London. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he’s…Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London’s sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He’s not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl–not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

From Dodger’s encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

So I’ve never read a Terry Pratchett book (except for Good Omens, which he co-wrote with the amazing Neil Gaiman). I know, I know! How can this be? Well, fantasy isn’t usually my thing, and all I know about Terry Pratchett is his massive Discworld series. One day I’ll tackle that, but when I came across this standalone novel in audio form, I thought I’d give it a try.

But Dodger wasn’t anything like what I thought it would be. For one thing, there are no sci fi/fantasy elements in it at all! Dodger is a young man growing up on the dirty streets of Victorian London, but when he is caught standing up for a young woman, his life takes a sudden turn. He meets Charlie Dickens, Sweeney Todd, and Benjamin Disraeli, mixing actual historic figures with those from fiction.

Dodger is a great character, and his scrapes on (and below) the streets of London were fun to read about, and the audio version I listened to had a great narrator, but on the whole I found this book forgettable. Here’s hoping that the next Terry Pratchett book I pick up will wow me like I was expecting this one to do.

Of course, in keeping with my Write 31 Days series called Lovely Words, here are a few of my favorite quotes from Dodger. (Terry Pratchett has such a clever way with words.)

“Money makes people rich; it is a fallacy to think it makes them better, or even that it makes them worse. People are what they do, and what they leave behind.”

“There were two ways of looking at the world, but only one when you are starving.”

“The man gave Dodger a cursory glance that had quite a lot of curse in it.”

Rating: Good but Forgettable

This post is part of the Write 31 Days series Lovely Words. You can read the rest of the series here.

Adult Fiction Mini Reviews

Mini reviews of some of the adult fiction I've been reading lately--everything from Neil Gaiman to Agatha Christie. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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A quick note before we get started on today’s mini reviews. You may have noticed that I’ve recently revamped the blog, including a new logo and everything! I’ve moved all the information about my editing services to this blog, and I’ve updated almost every page. Take a look around and let me know what you think!

M is for Magic

The best part about listening to this as an audio book like I did is that it is narrated by the author, who is a fantastic narrator. This collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman is so representative of his style. It’s classic Gaiman creepiness without really being scary. Each story stands alone (something I generally dislike, but it worked here), and they run the gamut from fascinating (the months of the year personified hang out and tell stories) to ridiculous (a hard boiled detective story set in the land of nursery rhymes). The collection also includes a long excerpt from The Graveyard Book, Gaiman’s wonderful Newbery book.

The one bad thing I have to say about this book is that I’ve forgotten pretty much all the stories in the book, other than the ones I’ve mentioned here.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Secret Adversary

You already know how I feel about this book, since it made my best of 2016 (so far) list. I enjoy Agatha Christie in general, and Tommy and Tuppence are my absolute favorites. This story, written about the couple’s very first adventure, is more action-packed than most of Christie’s murder mysteries, but it is still suspenseful, well-written, and filled with awesome characters. I was slightly disappointed for a moment when I thought I had figured out the solution, but never fear, Agatha Christie subverted my expectations like the master mystery writer she is. If you’re a Christie fan, this book is not to be missed.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed

“I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed “is the story of Kyria Abrahams’s coming-of-age as a Jehovah’s Witness — a doorbell-ringing “Pioneer of the Lord.” Her childhood was haunted by the knowledge that her neighbors and schoolmates were doomed to die in an imminent fiery apocalypse; that Smurfs were evil; that just about anything you could buy at a yard sale was infested by demons; and that Ouija boards — even if they were manufactured by Parker Brothers — were portals to hell. Never mind how popular you are when you hand out the Watchtower instead of candy at Halloween. When Abrahams turned eighteen, things got even stranger. That’s when she found herself married to a man she didn’t love, with adultery her only way out. “Disfellowshipped” and exiled from the only world she’d ever known, Abrahams realized that the only people who could save her were the very sinners she had prayed would be smitten by God’s wrath. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book, a humorous memoir about growing up in the Jehovah’s Witness church, sounded like it was going to be amazing. And parts of it were–there are some truly funny stories about the strange beliefs and activities Kyria had when she was a kid. But there’s an awful lot of sex and drugs and abusive relationships in here; it’s a little darker than I had hoped it would be. Proceed with caution if you decide to check out this book.

Rating: Meh

Washed Hands

Breaking up can be one of the hardest things a person can do, something that the dedicated team at Washed Hands, Inc. thoroughly understands. Whether one’s soon-to-be-ex is manipulative, violent, or anything else that makes a clean break difficult, the company’s rejection counselors ensure that the split is established and maintained in no uncertain terms. And in the toughest cases, no one’s better at this than Monica Deimos.

Brought in on what appeared to be a relatively straight-forward domestic nightmare, Monica realizes all-too-late that she has been set up to take the fall for the murder of a wealthy socialite. As the police close in, Monica needs to discover who she can trust, who wants her out of the way, and why she was framed. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Did I pick up this free Kindle book just because the MC’s name is the same as mine? Maybe. I honestly don’t know, because this has been languishing on my Kindle for at least a year. Monica is a jaded agent for Washed Hands who isn’t really interested in making friends. But when she is set up to be framed for murder, she has to quickly figure out who she can trust and why she was set up.

This was a surprisingly good mystery (filled with a lot of swearing, just FYI). Monica’s prickly nature makes it difficult for her to find someone to help her solve the mystery before the cops find her, but her skills–akin to those of a detective or secret agent, despite the fact that her job is ending bad relationships–help her as she tries to uncover who set her up. I enjoyed the characters and was surprised by the solution. What more can you ask for in a mystery?

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARCs: If I Speak True and Pity Isn’t an Option

These two very different books by Jessica L. Brooks struck me in very different ways. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received an audio copy of these books from the author in exchange for an honest review.

If I Speak True

Dahlia Kennedy’s sixteenth birthday marks a decade of mysterious dahlias arriving and strange, lonely dreams of being in a forest. The only difference this birthday, however, is that for the first time, someone is there with her. And he’s practically from a whole other era.

The more often Dahlia visits Rowan in his land of Ambrosia, the stronger their connection grows. But… is Ambrosia real? Is he real? What is going on between the two of them, exactly, and why does he insist that she keep it to herself?

As secrets usually go, however, it’s only a matter of time before everything comes out. And when Dahlia finds out the truth of who Rowan is, who she is, and how he really feels — it’s beyond anything she could have ever imagined. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I had a few problems with this book. First of all, I hated the narrator’s voice, which made it difficult for me to judge the book fairly on its content. I found the plot interesting–Dahlia finds herself crossing over into another world and becoming involved in its affairs–but the romance was just not my thing. My aversion to fantasy is well documented, but it wasn’t too bothersome to me in this book. Still, it just wasn’t my kind of story.

If you like YA fantasy romance, you’ll most likely enjoy this one. Just maybe don’t listen to the audio version.

Rating: Not My Cup of Tea

Pity Isn’t an Option

Seventeen year-old Jonas Norton is trying to come to terms with what his blood disorder has robbed from him, including his two most favorite things: basketball, and competing in Hatchet Racket, Wanless’ annual hatchet-throwing contest. The facts that his father works constantly to pay for his blood tests and Jonas can actually see the disappointment in his eyes for being such a failure only make matters worse. And even worse than all of that? Jonas’ own twin brother, Micah, is perfectly healthy and becoming quite the basketball player himself. Also, Hattie, the girl Jonas has loved for forever? She has no idea how he feels. Sixteen year-old Hattie Akerman lives down the hill from Jonas. Though her father, Heath, tries to hide his lack of mental clarity behind the bottle and she’s pretty much given up on having any kind of relationship with him, she would still rather her younger sister, Lucy, not have to deal with the consequences of his behavior. Hattie helps her mother by baking food to sell at Market and looking out for Lucy. No matter what the rest of the town says about her crazy father, Jonas sticks up for them. He is, by far, her very best friend. As if things aren’t complicated enough already, Heath and Micah are unexpectedly drafted into President Kendrick’s army (an army from which no one ever returns) just days before Thanksgiving. When Heath disappears instead of arriving at the Meeting Place to check in, Hattie and Jonas decide they’ve had enough, and take matters into their own hands. And though nothing could have prepared them for what happens next, Hattie and Jonas learn that hope can be seen in every situation. You just have to know where to look. (Summary via Amazon.com)

This book, on the other hand, I really enjoyed! Dystopian YA is much more my cup of tea, and I found the alternating sections between Jonas and Hattie to be wonderful. They were both well-rounded characters, and I felt sympathy toward both of them. Jonas is struggling to keep healthy while his parents work overtime to try to pay for his blood disease care. Hattie’s father is starting to lose his mind, and her mother is left to care for her two children on her own. Both characters work well together, and their families, though not perfect, are also interesting to read about.

My one regret from this book is that there wasn’t more description of the dystopian world in which they live. I think this is the first of a series, however, so there may be more in the books to come! I’m looking forward to reading the next book in this series. (And I wouldn’t mind if this audio book narrator continued narrating the series.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

31 Days of All Things Books by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Audio Review: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

Book Review: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder | Newbery and Beyond
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I don’t usually listen to audio books.  I have a hard time keeping my mind from wandering, and I usually feel as if I could read it faster myself.  Still, every once in a while, I’ll sign up for a free trial and give audio books another try.  Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder is the first in a series of cozy mysteries with a baking theme–there are currently fifteen mysteries in the Hannah Swensen series.

In this story, Hannah Swensen is the owner of The Cookie Jar, a small cookies-and-coffee shop in Minnesota.  She knows almost everyone in the small town of Lake Eden, and their world is shaken up when a murder takes place right behind Hannah’s shop.  Since Hannah has a curious mind and a knack for being disarmingly brash and tactless, her brother-in-law (the policeman in charge of investigating the murder) asks her to help–off the record, of course.  Hannah delves into the lives of her neighbors and friends, attempting to discover the murderer, and her efforts must increase when another murder takes place.  Through all this, Hannah balances her cookie business as well as a possible romantic interest.

For the most part, I enjoyed listening to this book.  It wasn’t anything too serious or in-depth, so I could listen to it while folding laundry, putting away dishes, or working out.  However, I wasn’t a big fan of Suzanne Toren, the narrator.  Her voice somehow reminded me of Lauren Bacall (I think that’s who I mean)–a little too posh for this story set in small town Minnesota.  All of her character voices also seemed to fit into the categories of male or female, without much variation within those categories.  Another odd thing about this audio version is that, since it is unabridged, it includes the cookie recipes that follow several of the chapters.  It was a little jarring to go from the mystery into a voice reading, “One tablespoon of lemon zest (optional).”  On the whole, this book is nothing special–it’s simple and straightforward, the voicing isn’t great, and the characters walk the edge of becoming stereotypes.  Still, if I get the chance, I’ll probably take a look at the next one.  There’s just something about a cozy mystery that brings a relaxing end to my day.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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