Newbery Roundup, June 2018

I’m continuing my journey through the oldest Newbery books (slowly but surely, as I’m having to request the out of print books through our interlibrary loan). It’s feeling more like a slog because of the content and writing style of the books I’ve read lately… (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Fairy Circus

The fairies, enchanted by a human circus which visits their meadow, put on a circus of their own with the woodland creatures.

I found this book about how the fairies used woodland creatures and flowers to create their own circus kind of boring with boring art. “Meh” basically covers it for me.

Rating: Meh

Children of the Soil

An early Newbery Honor Book, telling the story of two Swedish children and their folk beliefs.

This was better than I expected. The book is about two young, poor children growing up in Sweden and being creative to improve their lot in life. The children work toward their main goal–buying a cow–by selling things that they make or find, and the sections about this are interspersed with folk tales and stories about the culture’s traditions.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Railroad to Freedom

Tells the story of Harriet Tubman who escaped from slavery herself and then brought more than 300 people to the North and freedom by way of the Underground Railway.

I appreciate that the early Newbery books include a story about Harriet Tubman, but the language and art are so outdated that they are offensive. There are a lot of better, more recent children’s biographies of this important historical figure. There’s no reason to read this one anymore.

Rating: Skip This One

Comics Roundup, June 2018

I’ve been exploring comics again, and the more I read, the more surprised I am at how many comics I have enjoyed. This eclectic roundup offers short reviews of the volumes of comics I’ve been reading lately, along with a couple of books that are more focused on art than on words.

Black Panther and Hawkeye

Let’s start with the bad news: I still don’t like superhero comics. I loved the movie Black Panther, and Hawkeye is always a favorite character in the Avengers, but I just couldn’t get into either of these volumes of comics. I wanted to like them, but I just got bored. I’m not a big fan of fight scenes; maybe that’s my issue with superhero comics.

Rating: Meh

Misfit City

This series is just fun–it involves a group of girl friends who find a treasure map in the midst of their boring lives in what they see as a dead end town. This series is strongly influenced by The Goonies, complete with adventures in underground caves. I hope in future issues the girls will be further fleshed out (currently they each only have a couple of stereotypical characteristics to make each character distinct), but even here at the beginning of the series, I am enjoying the adventure.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Not-So-Secret Society

This comic was okay. It’s a little young for me–the story revolves around a group of 12-year-old friends who create science projects that sometimes get out of hand–but it’s really cute. If your child is into STEM, they will probably enjoy this comic.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Backstagers

This series tells the story of an all-boys school in which the stage crew has a magical, fantastical, and dangerous series of tunnels backstage. I have been captivated by the magical world of the backstage tunnels, and I can’t wait for future issues to explore them further. If you liked Bee and Puppycat, you will probably enjoy this series as well.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Herding Cats

This may be my favorite of Sarah’s three books. As always, she produces great comics about being female, being a Millennial, fighting anxiety, and making art. They are super relatable and hilarious if you fit any of those groups.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Arrival

This book is not a traditional comic, but rather a picture book with no words. It’s filled with gorgeous, strange sepia toned art. The wordless story is evocative of an immigrant’s experience, even though the land to which the character immigrates is not any place in our world. Give yourself plenty of time with this short book to pour over the art.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fables

This comic has been completed (no spoilers please!), and I have been ripping through the many volumes. Fables is the story of fairy tale characters who are forced to live in the “mundane” world because they’ve been exiled from their own world by the Adversary. The series contains a certain amount of sexual and violent content, so be forewarned, but so far it hasn’t been enough to make me squeamish. I’m finding the characters to be interesting and complex, and the story keeps me coming back for more. I’m sure I’ll read several more volumes of this comic before the summer is over.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: March 2018

I’m continuing to request all the oldest Newbery books through our amazing interlibrary loan, but since it takes time to get each book shipped to my library system, it has been slow going. These three books are the latest (oldest) Newbery honors I’ve been reading.

Jane’s Island

I enjoyed Jane’s Island a lot more than I anticipated. Ellen is hired to care for Jane, a free spirited girl spending the summer with her family in a scientific community on the water. Their summer is full of adventure, swimming, fishing, exploration, picnics, and science experiments. If you like old-fashioned children’s adventures like The Penderwicks and Swallows and Amazons, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Out of the Flame

This historical fiction novel was all right, but I must say it took me a while to get into the story. In fact, I thought it started out really boring. The book follows Pierre, a page in the French court, who goes on adventures and tries to befriend Prince Henri. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I knew more of the actual history behind Pierre, the young princes, and the royal family in general.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Boy of the South Seas

This one was… okay. This book covers the adventures and travels of a Polynesian boy, but these are not very exciting. After accidentally stowing away on a boat, the boy is dropped off on an island near Tahiti, where he makes his home and learns more about the ways of both the island’s colonizers and his own people. The book is short, and not much happens. I can’t see many of today’s children becoming engrossed in the story.

Rating: Meh

Classics Roundup: December 2017

In today's classics roundup, I'm sharing the rest of the classics that I read in 2017! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve finally finished reading all the classic books for my 2017 book challenge! It came down to the wire a bit (I struggled my way through a few of these), but I made it! Below are quick reviews of all the classics I’ve been reading lately. Before the end of the year, I’ll have a post up summarizing both of the book challenges I participated in this year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Awakening

When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.

This was an interesting classic in which Mrs. Pontellier has an “awakening” of her self and refuses to fall in line with societal expectations. She does this by having an affair and moving into her own home, so I can see how this would have been shocking to contemporary readers.

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Kate Chopin’s writing, but I had no idea what to expect from this book. I was pleasantly surprised by it, but it isn’t one of the classics that I’ll be mulling over for years to come.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Dracula

Jonathan Harker is travelling to Castle Dracula to see the Transylvanian noble, Count Dracula. He is begged by locals not to go there, because on the eve of St George’s Day, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will come full sway. But business must be done, so Jonathan makes his way to the Castle – and then his nightmare begins. His beloved wife Mina and other lost souls have fallen under the Count’s horrifying spell. Dracula must be destroyed . . .

Several years ago, I attempted to read Dracula and utterly failed. I got freaked out by the castle scenes and never made it into the rest of the book. So I was excited to read this one for real this time. I found that it was well written and not too scary, but oh, there was a lot of sexism. I get that the time period in which this book was written was sexist, but it made it difficult to sympathize with the male main characters. Still, I’m really glad I read this one all the way through this time.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Swallows and Amazons

The first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series, originally published in 1930: for children, for grownups, for anyone captivated by the world of adventure and imagination. Swallows and Amazons introduces the lovable Walker family, the camp on Wild Cat island, the able-bodied catboat Swallow, and the two intrepid Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett.

What a fun children’s book! It’s slow to get started, but I found the siblings’ adventures on Wild Cat Island really fun and quaint–it’s reminiscent of the Penderwicks series. I definitely recommend this book for adults who like old-fashioned adventures or children with the patience for the slower-paced action of a classic book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Raisin in the Sun

“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, has so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” observed James Baldwin shortly before A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959.

Indeed Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning drama about the hopes and aspirations of a struggling, working-class family living on the South Side of Chicago connected profoundly with the psyche of black America–and changed American theater forever.  The play’s title comes from a line in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which warns that a dream deferred might “dry up/like a raisin in the sun.”

This play offers a powerful and painful look at a black family in the 1950s who receive a large insurance payment and each have different ideas of what to do with it (pay for the daughter to go through medical school, buy a house in a white neighborhood, get involved in a questionable investment). It hurts to watch the characters struggle because of racism as well as their own poor choices, but I’m glad I read it. I don’t generally enjoy reading plays, so I’m not likely to re-read this one, but I might go see it someday.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Outsiders

According to Ponyboy, there are two kinds of people in the world: greasers and socs. A soc (short for “social”) has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. Ponyboy is a greaser, and he’s always been proud of it, even willing to rumble against a gang of socs for the sake of his fellow greasers–until one terrible night when his friend Johnny kills a soc. The murder gets under Ponyboy’s skin, causing his bifurcated world to crumble and teaching him that pain feels the same whether a soc or a greaser.

Wow. I can see why this book is a classic that is still taught in high schools today. It’s hard to believe that the author was only 16 when she wrote The Outsiders–it is powerful, heart wrenching, and realistic. I loved the relationships between Ponyboy and his brothers, Soda and Darry, as well as their friendships with their group of greasers and their rivalry with the well-to-do Socs. Despite the fact that this book was written 50 years ago, it is still relatable for teenagers trying to fit in and find their group. The group names may have changed, but the teenage struggle has not.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The War of the Worlds

Even long before man had learned to fly, H.G. Wells wrote this story of the Martian attack on England. These unearthly creatures arrive in huge cylinders, from which they escape as soon as the metal is cool. The first falls near Woking and is regarded as a curiosity rather than a danger until the Martians climb out of it and kill many of the gaping crowd with a Heat-Ray. These unearthly creatures have heads four feet in diameter and colossal round bodies, and by manipulating two terrifying machines – the Handling Machine and the Fighting Machine – they are as versatile as humans and at the same time insuperable. They cause boundless destruction. The inhabitants of the Earth are powerless against them, and it looks as if the end of the World has come. But there is one factor which the Martians, in spite of their superior intelligence, have not reckoned on.

I was surprised at how enjoyable and interesting this book was. It offers a fairly short account of how London–and the world–was almost destroyed by Martians. This is the grandfather of alien invasion stories, and I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s worth a read.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

1984

Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life–the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language–and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell.

This was intense. It was slow to start, and I was worried that nothing would ever happen, plot-wise. But I was so wrong. I listened to the audio book, and I could barely listen to the descriptions of torture. The beginning was dark, the ending was dark, and I barely made it through because of the lack of hope that anything would ever get better (and I usually don’t mind dystopian fiction!). I won’t be re-reading this one.

Rating: Meh

Crime and Punishment

The poverty-stricken Raskolnikov, a talented student, devises a theory about extraordinary men being above the law, since in their brilliance they think “new thoughts” and so contribute to society. He then sets out to prove his theory by murdering a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. The act brings Raskolnikov into contact with his own buried conscience and with two characters — the deeply religious Sonia, who has endured great suffering, and Porfiry, the intelligent and discerning official who is charged with investigating the murder — both of whom compel Raskolnikov to feel the split in his nature. Dostoevsky provides readers with a suspenseful, penetrating psychological analysis that goes beyond the crime — which in the course of the novel demands drastic punishment — to reveal something about the human condition: The more we intellectualize, the more imprisoned we become.

As I was reading the Goodreads summary of this book (above), I felt a little guilty that as I read through this book, I wasn’t thinking about any of these deep themes. What I was mostly thinking about was, “Why is Raskolnikov so whiny?” Very few of the characters are truly sympathetic, least of all Raskolnikov, the murderer and main character. I was hoping to enjoy this book more, as the last great Russian novel I read (Anna Karenina) really captured my imagination, but I felt kind of bored with a lot of Crime and Punishment. The end, however, is surprisingly hopeful, which I actually enjoyed (perhaps a reaction against 1984 above!).

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Roundup: December 2017

I've almost finished this year's Newbery book challenge! This post includes Newbery reads--and a Caldecott, too. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m getting so close to finishing my Newbery book challenge–just in time, too! Thus, this Newbery roundup actually includes a Caldecott book, too. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Truce of the Wolf

This book is full of cute Italian stories and fables, mostly about animals interacting with humans. I enjoyed most of them, except the one which had a moral of “women can’t keep secrets.” Sigh.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Paperboy

An 11-year-old boy living in Memphis in 1959 throws the meanest fastball in town, but talking is a whole different ball game. He can barely say a word without stuttering, not even his own name. So when he takes over his best friend’s paper route for the month of July, he knows he’ll be forced to communicate with the different customers, including a housewife who drinks too much and a retired merchant marine who seems to know just about everything.

The paper route poses challenges, but it’s a run-in with the neighborhood junkman, a bully and thief, that stirs up real trouble–and puts the boy’s life, as well as that of his family’s devoted housekeeper, in danger.

This Newbery book about a boy with a stutter is sometimes hard to read. It’s filled with discussions about bullies, racism, violence, and more. Still, Victor is a great character who faces up to his disability with courage. I loved that the author says this is basically a fictionalized memoir of his own childhood–you can tell that he understands the struggles and triumphs of growing up with a stutter.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Heavenly Tenants

This supernatural tale was originally published in 1946. In the story, the Marvell family goes away on vacation, leaving their farm, pets, and livestock home alone, to be taken care of by August, the hired man. But August fails to come. That night, the neighborhood is roused by an unusual glow. When August goes to the farm to investigate, he finds that it is under the care of mysterious beings-the twelve signs of the zodiac. This story sparkles with fantasy and humorous realism that both adults and children will appreciate.

This is a very short, illustrated book about how the stars of the zodiac come to visit a family’s home when they go out of town. I don’t have too much to say about it. It’s a bit outdated, and I’m not exactly sure why someone thought it was worthy of the Newbery honor award.

Rating: Meh

Thistle and Thyme

Thistle and Thyme is a short story collection I can actually get behind! It’s filled with entertaining myths, fairy tales, and legends from the Gaelic storytelling tradition. Most of them are amusing; a couple are more serious. I really enjoyed this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Leave Me Alone!

One day, a grandmother shouts, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” and leaves her tiny home and her very big family to journey to the moon and beyond to find peace and quiet to finish her knitting. Along the way, she encounters ravenous bears, obnoxious goats, and even hordes of aliens! But nothing stops grandma from accomplishing her goal–knitting sweaters for her many grandchildren to keep them warm and toasty for the coming winter.

Here’s the Caldecott book I read for the book challenge! In it, a grandmother looks for some peace and quiet in which to do her knitting. It’s short and sweet with great illustrations. Super cute.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: November 2017

In which I review the Newbery books I've read in November 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m still trudging my way through the older Newbery books. *sigh* I have to admit that most of the early Newbery books just don’t hold up very well, whether because writing styles have changed or acceptable treatment of different groups of people has. Still, I’m getting there–only about 75 books left to read. I’m getting close! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Floating Island

When the doll house they inhabit is shipped overseas as a gift, a terrible storm results in shipwreck on an uninhabited tropical island for the Doll family. This includes Mr. and Mrs. Doll, their children William and Annabelle, and Dinah the cook. The story follows their adventures with affection and humor.

I loved the feel of this book–the dolls’ adventures on a tropical island, the illustrations, the narrator who talks directly to the reader–but the casual racism made it so I can’t recommend this book to modern readers. I would love to have a modernized version of this book; I think that children who like an old-fashioned adventure story would really like it.

Rating: Good but Problematic

Chucaro

Pink certainly is an unusual color for a pony, and when Pedro spies Chúcaro grazing on the Pampa he can hardly believe his eyes. He just has to have that pony for himself. Unfortunately, the estancerio’s spoiled son is equally determined to own the pony. But the wisest gauchos know that ponies as special as Chúcaro can never truly be owned. Chúcaro alone will decide for himself which gaucho will have the privilege of riding him.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Although I don’t usually like books about horses, this short and sweet book with its great illustrations kept my interest. I also appreciated that the author, although Hungarian, seems to have a fair amount of knowledge about the Pampa and its residents, and the book never seems patronizing toward its own characters. (And yes, it’s sad that that was such a surprise!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Shiloh

When Marty Preston comes across a young beagle in the hills behind his home, it’s love at first sight–and also big trouble. It turns out the dog, which Marty names Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, who drinks too much and has a gun and abuses his dogs. So when Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty just has to hide him and protect him from Judd. But Marty’s secret becomes too big for him to keep to himself, and it exposes his entire family to Judd’s anger. How far will Marty have to go to make Shiloh his?

I was also surprised at how much I liked this book (again, I’m not a huge fan of animal stories). The West Virginian Southern dialect is great, and Marty’s family is wonderful. Their love and support for each other and others in their community, despite the poverty of their region, makes the story sweet even during the painful parts.

(*spoiler alert* that I think you all will be happy to have: The dog doesn’t die in this book!)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Horsecatcher

Praised for swift action and beauty of language, The Horsecatcheris Mari Sandoz’s first novel about the Indians she knew so well. Without ever leaving the world of a Cheyenne tribe in the 1830s, she creates a youthful protagonist many readers will recognize in themselves. Young Elk is expected to be a warrior, but killing even an enemy sickens him. He would rather catch and tame the mustangs that run in herds. Sandoz makes it clear that his determination to be a horsecatcher will require a moral and physical courage equal to that of any warrior. And if he must earn the right to live as he wishes, he must also draw closer to family and community.

I was really bored by this book. 1) I don’t like books about horses (see above). 2) I’m about tired of books about Native Americans not written by Native Americans. And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this book. Unless you’re obsessed with horses, it’s probably not worth your time.

Rating: Meh

Classics Roundup, October 2017

Mini reviews of the classics I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As you might remember, one of my reading goals this year is to read some of the classics I’ve missed out on along the way. Some of these I’m genuinely excited to read; others are just ones I feel like I should read. Unfortunately, most of the books in this roundup fall into the latter category. (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Candide

Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world.

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them – earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder – sorely testing the young hero’s optimism.

I didn’t enjoy this novella. I understand it’s a satire on optimism vs. pessimism, but I just don’t like satire. Sorry, Candide fans. On the bright side, Candide is very short, so at least I didn’t give up a lot of time to finish it.

Rating: Meh

Bartleby the Scrivener

Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”?

This Melville novella is certainly more interesting than Moby Dick, a book I attempted and DNF’ed about halfway through. The main character says, “I would prefer not to” about everything in his life, and *spoiler* eventually dies in poverty because he has given up on life. It’s interesting to think about, but this is not a book that you’ll feel invested in.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lady Susan

Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

Now this (no surprise) I loved! If you’ve seen and enjoyed the recent movie based on this book, I’m happy to report that the book is very similar to the movie. This is Jane Austen’s lovely writing in a small package. Highly recommended if you like Jane Austen or epistolary novels in general.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …

I read this book as a teenager, and the only thing I remembered from it was greatly disliking the written dialect (something I still generally dislike). So I decided I should read it again as an adult. I definitely got more out of it this time–Janie’s inner journey, through the three husbands she had, to becoming her own woman who doesn’t allow others to stifle her is the real focus of the book–but it’s still not one of my favorites. (As a side note, I’m very glad I finished reading this book after Hurricane Irma hit. A devastating hurricane produces the climax of this book, and it was crazy reading about the destruction of all the small Florida towns that are near where we live!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Othello

In Othello, Shakespeare creates a powerful drama of a marriage that begins with fascination (between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona), with elopement, and with intense mutual devotion and that ends precipitately with jealous rage and violent deaths.

Ugh. (Sorry, Shakespeare fans.) I don’t like tragedies much, and as someone who hasn’t really studied Shakespeare, I found a lot of this hard to understand. I’d much rather watch a Shakespeare play than read one, as I always seem to get a lot more out of it when I have more context. I’m glad I read Othello, but I’m also glad I’m done reading it.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Roundup, October 2017

The latest roundup of Newbery books I've read, both new and old. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Not only have I been working through the classic Newbery books lately, but I’ve also found a few more recent Newbery books in the archives that I read months (or years) ago and never reviewed (oops!). So in today’s Newbery roundup, you’ll find mini reviews of books from recent years and also some of the oldest honor books. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I love Jacqueline Woodson’s writing style, and this book, which shares Woodson’s own childhood in free verse form, is no exception. It’s a lovely, quick read that will stay with you even if you don’t generally like poetry.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Daughter of the Seine

This is a fictionalized biography of the French Revolutionary patriot and writer Jeanne Manon Roland de la Platiere (1754-1793), who became known simply by Madame Roland. She was the daughter of a Paris engraver who encouraged his daughter’s interest in music, painting, and literature. As a young girl, she told to her grand-mother: “I’ll call myself daughter of the Seine,” and as an adult she often said that the river was part of her soul. As a young woman she became interested in the radical ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the movement for equality. She shared these enthusiasms with her husband, whom she married in 1780. After the outbreak of the Revolution, she formed a salon of followers, who late became known as the Girondists. Under the constitutional monarchy, her husband became minister of the interior, a post he held after the monarchy was overthrown. Madame Roland both directed her husband’s career and influenced the important politicians of the period.

As with most of the historical fiction from this era of Newbery books, it’s hard to believe that kids would ever have enjoyed reading A Daughter of the Seine. This book is not as dry as others I’ve read, but it’s still pretty forgettable (and surprisingly long). I did learn some new things about this interesting historical figure, and I appreciated that the focus of this book is a woman, but I still wouldn’t really recommend it for modern-day readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Three Times Lucky

Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone’s business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she’s been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her “upstream mother,” she’s found a home with the Colonel–a café owner with a forgotten past of his own–and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.

This book is wonderful! If you like small-town, Southern characters in the style of Lucky Strikes or even A Year Down Yonder, you’ll enjoy this book. There is a sequel which I still haven’t read, but I definitely plan to.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Dark Star of Itza

The story of a Mayan princess who lived at the time the ancient city of Chichen Itza fell under Toltec rule.

Why is this book so obsessed with adult themes (war, jealous love, and human sacrifices among them)? It’s a bit jarring in a children’s book. Despite that, I did like the character of Nicte, a princess and the daughter of the high priest in the ancient Mayan civilization. Like A Daughter of the Seine, this is one of the less offensive and dry historical fiction books from this period in Newbery history.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Heart of a Samurai

In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.

Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

This is an interesting fictionalized account of Manjiro, a Japanese boy who helped unite the US and Japan, ending Japan’s 250 years of isolation. Although I was slightly familiar with the story of Manjiro before reading this book, I still found myself feeling like these events couldn’t possibly have occurred–but they did! The author does a great job of fleshing out the actual historical events (including some of Manjiro’s own words from his letters and writings) with the thoughts and feelings a young man might have had. This book is a well-written, fascinating account of historical events that I actually would recommend for modern-day readers, whether children or adults.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Queer Person

Relates the experiences of an outcast deaf-mute Indian boy as he grows to adulthood and eventually becomes a great leader.

Here we go again… I find it very questionable that this white man (who, granted, seems to have spent a fair amount of time working with Native American tribes) has taken it upon himself to write about being a deaf Native American. In addition, the story (young deaf boy struggles to find his place in his tribe, finds out he has royal blood, magically becomes able to hear, wins the heart of the princess) is trite. I can’t really recommend this one.

Rating: Meh

The Great Fire

The Great Fire of 1871 was one of most colossal disasters in American history. Overnight, the flourshing city of Chicago was transformed into a smoldering wasteland. The damage was so profound that few people believed the city could ever rise again.

By weaving personal accounts of actual survivors together with the carefully researched history of Chicago and the disaster, Jim Murphy constructs a riveting narrative that recreates the event with drama and immediacy. And finally, he reveals how, even in a time of deepest dispair, the human spirit triumphed, as the people of Chicago found the courage and strength to build their city once again.

I love this kind of historical book, filled with photos and first-hand accounts. Murphy offers a historical view of the great fire in Chicago, including its causes, the destruction it caused, and the fallout. He also takes it upon himself to remind readers that the blame which fell on the poor, the immigrants, and the women who lived in the city was a product of its time and not an accurate reflection of what happened. This is fascinating reading, whether you’re a kid or an adult. (And if you like this book, you might also enjoy Jim Murphy’s other Newbery book, An American Plague.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Adult Nonfiction Roundup: August 2017

In which I review the latest adult nonfiction books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s adult nonfiction roundup covers a lot of ground. There are fun how-to books, a biography (?), and some more serious fare as well. Whether you want to learn more about social issues or Jane Austen, there’s something here for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

$2.00 a Day

After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.

Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones) with her procurement of rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.

$2.00 a Day was fascinating and frustrating. The authors show how families across America are surviving on less than $2 per person per day. They explore welfare and other governmental assistance, attempts at getting and holding subpar jobs, and the role of abusive families in these people’s lives. If you don’t know much about these poorest of the poor in the U.S., this book will open your eyes. I found myself talking about the stories in this book for days, and I still think about the issues presented here whenever the discussion turns to poverty.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Jane Austen Education

Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same.

A pretentious English major learns to love Jane Austen as he grows and applies her lessons to his life. I love Jane Austen, but I really disliked the author’s take on her works. He’s “too good” for Austen, and it takes a lot of work for him to appreciate the lessons she teaches in her novels. Sure, there are a couple of interesting points about Austen’s works which I enjoyed, but I’m never a fan of pretentious authors, and that really impeded my enjoyment of this book.

Rating: Meh

The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.

In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims, separated from their names, are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths. It’s DIY CSI.

The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.

The Skeleton Crew provides an interesting look at the “web sleuths” who are helping solve cold cases involving missing persons and unidentified bodies. There’s a surprising amount of drama surrounding the web sleuth community, but the real draw for me was the solving of cases the police have given up on. The author weaves several real-life cold cases that were solved by amateur sleuths into her book, and I found myself racing to the end so I could discover who the unidentified bodies turned out to be.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

We Should All Be Feminists

With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

This succinct, insightful essay should be mandatory reading for all of us (cliche but true). If you or someone you know isn’t convinced that they are or should be a feminist, this essay is for you. It’s short enough that everyone can make time to read it. I’m certainly glad I did.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Little Book of Hygge

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

I like the ideas of hygge, but this book just rehashes a lot of things that are already familiar to many readers who have spent time on Pinterest. I feel the book would have worked better as a series of blog posts.

Rating: Meh

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

This book tells the interesting, upsetting, fascinating story of the woman whose cancer cells were stolen to create HeLa. HeLa became a line of cells that helped create polio vaccines, went into space, got blown up by nuclear bombs, and were experimented on in countless ways that advanced science and medical care by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Lacks’s family was never compensated for or even told of the HeLa cell line, and her descendants struggle to pay for their own medical bills.

The author goes on a journey to discover who Henrietta Lacks was, and along the way, she spends time with the Lacks family, medical researchers, and anyone else who has been affected by Henrietta’s cells. The book offers an exploration of ethics, racism, and law as they relate to medical research, and it made me think very differently about the research we do with human subjects. Although the book is part biography, part scientific exploration, it reads like a novel, even for those of us without a strong medical background.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla

A child’s concept of race is quite different from that of an adult. Young children perceive skin color as magical–even changeable–and unlike adults, are incapable of understanding adult predjudices surrounding race and racism. Just as children learn to walk and talk, they likewise come to understand race in a series of predictable stages.

Based on Marguerite A. Wright’s research and clinical experience, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla teaches us that the color-blindness of early childhood can, and must, be taken advantage of in order to guide the positive development of a child’s self-esteem.

This book was recommended to me as a useful book for people considering adopting a child of a different race, and although I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla was not written primarily with that focus in mind, I did find it very interesting for parents or teachers of any race who work with children of color. It offers Dr. Wright’s thoughts on how to raise healthy black and biracial children in our race-focused world, supported by dozens of stories and interviews from her own research on the topic. This book brought up a lot of points I wouldn’t have thought of, like the fact that children don’t see race/color the same way adults do, and that adults need to be careful not to impose our own racially tinted viewpoints on children.

I do wish there was an updated version–this book was published in the late 1990s, and I feel like there is more to say on this topic given the events that have taken place between then and now. Still, the book provides a lot of food for thought, and I’ll definitely reference it in the future.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

YA Reads: Summer 2017

I'm sharing my latest YA reads: the good, the bad, and the popular. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Summers are made for YA reads, and that’s exactly what I’ve been reading all summer. Some have been really fun; others have been disappointing. I’m sure you’ll find at least one book on this list for your summer YA reading needs! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Ana of California

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California.

When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, and Emmett Garber is skeptical that this slight city girl can be any help on his farm. His sister Abbie, however, thinks Ana might be just what they need. Ana comes to love Garber Farm, and even Emmett has to admit that her hard work is an asset. But when she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.

This book was not as good as I had hoped. Ana, a foster kid running from her past, has to try to prove herself by working on a farm–it’s her last chance before being sent to a group home. I love the idea of having more MG and YA books focused on the foster care experience, but this book is filled with way more drama than necessary. I also wish Ana hadn’t spoken so poetically–no teenager talks like that, guys. I was hoping for a more realistic depiction of teenage life and foster families, and this book left me cold on both areas.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lucky Strikes

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

I loved Melia’s voice in this book. Her 1930s Southern accent comes across well without making the text unreadable, as written accents sometimes do. (There is a fair amount of swearing in this book, so be forewarned.) In Lucky Strikes, a motley family made of three children and a homeless man pretending to be their father attempt to keep Brenda’s Oasis from falling prey to the local petroleum baron after their mother’s death. The three children, especially Melia, are scrappy and resourceful, and even when they make mistakes (I don’t know any adult who would think Melia’s decision to force a stranger to become the father of the family was a good one) they are relatable and understandable. Unique and fresh, with a good balance between heavy moments and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris–until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all…including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

Cute teen romances aren’t for me, apparently. Anna and the French Kiss was a fun, quick read, but I got annoyed at the characters for being so immature. (I know, I know, they’re teenagers in love… I was still annoyed.) I can see how I probably would have loved this book as a teenager myself, but reading it as an adult wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stars Above

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories—and secrets—that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies?

Stars Above is so much fun! If you haven’t already read through the Lunar Chronicles, I highly recommend it, both on its own merits and because this book won’t make any sense without it. As someone who greatly enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles series, I loved seeing the characters I grew to love having new adventures (both before and after the events of the series). These short stories are a great continuation of the world Marissa Meyer has created.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I feel I should warn you right away: This book is not for the fainthearted. It shows the very different paths of two Muslim sisters living in France. One becomes more religious and gets expelled for wearing the hijab (illegal in French schools); the other becomes more secular, wearing tight clothing, smoking, and drinking. One of these sisters has something horrific happen to her, and the other sister is left to consider where it all went wrong. This is a powerful book and I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to read it again.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Chasing Eveline

*Note: I received this book as a gift from the author. She did not request a review. All opinions are my own.

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Higgins is the only student at Carmel Heights High School who listens to cassettes. And her binder is the only one decorated with album artwork by 80s band Chasing Eveline. Despite being broken-up since 1989, this rock band out of Ireland means everything to Ivy. They’re a reminder of her mom, who abandoned Ivy and her dad two years ago. Now the music of her mom’s favorite band is the only connection she has left.

Even though Ivy wavers between anger and a yearning to reconnect, she’s one-hundred percent certain she’s not ready to lose her mom forever. But the only surefire way to locate her would be at a Chasing Eveline concert. So with help from her lone friend Matt—an equally abandoned soul and indie music enthusiast—Ivy hatches a plan to reunite the band.

I really wanted to like this book. A teenage girl tries to remember her mom by getting her favorite band back together–what’s not to like? Well, to start off with, Ivy is super irritating and immature. Her and her friend’s attempts at raising money to travel to Ireland and reunite the band include being a scam charity and making fun of homeless people during their attempts to be street performers, and I found this kind of gross. The book should have been more about Ivy dealing with her mom’s disappearance, but it was more about her achieving her ridiculous goal (and *spoiler alert* being disappointed in the results anyway). I’d give this one a pass, unless you have a much higher tolerance for irritating characters than I do.

Rating: Meh

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