Tuesday, September 12, 2017

September 2.0

Dear Fahrenheit 451A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Oh how I loved this sassy, sarcastic, heartfelt ode to libraries, librarians, and the world of books! Think Nancy Pearl, but with humor and some salty language, which suits me waaaay better. Annie Spence, a librarian in Michigan, gives us some wildly honest 'responses' to an eclectic collection of books as she writes letters to them that explain her love, frustration, bitterness, adoration, and yes, the need to break up sometimes. I laughed myself silly over her description of library patrons and Fifty Shades of Grey, experienced the exact same frustration with Russian 'classics' that I am sure I should read but just cannot get through, and realized that yes, Forever by Judy Blume was a girlhood cult book of mine that did not age well as I became the parent of a daughter. Spence divides her book logically and artfully, sticking to common threads so that even though the olio of books was varied, I didn't feel like I was getting yanked all over the place.  I particularly loved her 'pairings' of books (yes, just like wine and food, but books are more my style).  And the many excuses to use for social occasions when I would rather be reading?  Oh, those were money:)  For anyone who loves books and enjoys a fresh literary voice, do not miss this book; you will laugh out loud and feel so satisfied in the end, only wishing Spence would hurry up and write another one.

Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land
My, oh my, this is one deep, dark, twisty, brilliant, mess-with-your-mind, kind of book.  Once I picked it up, it was impossible to put it down and it literally kept me guessing until the last three pages. Milly's mom is a serial killer.  And I don't mean the garden-variety, "I randomly shoot people" type of killer; I mean the "torture small children and bring sorrow and tragedy into families" type of murderer.  So the question is, how does that impact Milly? Can she live a normal life after turning her mother into the London police? Can the psychologist with whose family she now currently lives assuage her painful memories? Can her new 'sister' destroy her with the bullying, or make her stronger? Can her friendship with a younger girl be healing or destructive? And the ultimate question...how far from the tree does this apple fall? Author Ali Land spent years as a mental health nurse in the UK and her deep knowledge shows.  She is a master of character development, creating rich and complex humans that a reader can cheer for, or empathize with, or root against as the story progresses.  This is one humdinger of a book for a debut; I will be first in line for Land's second book!

The Scarred Woman (Dept. Q #7) by Jussi Adler-Olsen
If you like the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, you will like this detective series by Danish writer Adler-Olsen. Do you have to read them in order? Nope. However, if you are into character development, you might want to as both the main and the peripheral recurring characters are complex and dynamic, showing tremendous growth throughout the series. In his latest mystery, a variety of threads become strung together under the stewardship of Department Q, where lost causes and old cases are solved: a grandfather with a disturbing Nazi past, a police assistant whose struggles with mental health overtakes Dept. Q, an angry social worker, some selfish young women with questionable values, and a police commission that wants to break up the department. Per usual, Head Detective Carl Morck is his usual curmudgeonly self as he teases and berates everyone around him. Syrian sidekick Assad provides levity with his constant misuse of language, while Gordon desperately tries to save Rose, the department secretary, from the demons of her childhood. It is definitely a page-turner, but give it about forty pages for all the threads to start to weave some sense together. This series is also a great listen for those long road trips as the narrator is money.

Invictus by Ryan Graudin
One of my very favorite YA authors (Walled City, Wolf by Wolf, Blood for Blood), Gaudin's latest is once again mind-blowing!  This time she takes us on a sci-fi, time travel, adventure through history.  Hundreds of years into Earth's future, time travel has become a 'thing,' with specially trained people who go back through time to get video and information for historical purposes only.  Warned not to ever disrupt time by being noticed, this of course creates ripe opportunity for literary license, as does the idea that wherever 'legal' is a must, a black market must of course exist.  Thus, the main character, a young man called Faraday McCarthy, fails his final exam to be a time traveler and goes to work for a shady character who pays him big bucks to steal antiquities across time.  Far puts together a ragtag group of compelling characters:  Priya, the med tech and love of his life, who is brave, smart, and compassionate; Imogene, his crazy-ass cousin who dyes her hair a different color every day and is a whip-smart historian; Gram, his best school chum and whiz kid at everything with numbers; and the new kid on the team, Eliot, a girl from another world who has no hair, writes messages in her eyebrows, and is a boss!  I could not put this book down - fabulous page turner, exciting until the very end, and truly appropriate for ages 14-100.

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton
Another excellent book by the author of Daisy in Chains, this one will keep you up late at night, reading until the very last page. Set in northern England, the story begins with a hot-air balloon ride filled with tourists, families, and two sisters, one a nun and the other a cop. When a crime is seen and disaster strikes the balloon, one sister is left behind to pick up all the pieces. Bolton does a fabulous job of keeping all the balls in the air, as she goes back and forth through time, developing not only the sisters' history, but some other extremely despicable crimes perpetrated by a Romany family involving Syrian refugees as well as the police. The rabbit holes are numerous and complex, as the mystery slowly unfolds, and the ending is a serious 'ah-ha' moment. Thrillers seem to be a dime a dozen these days, with numerous authors throwing thin stories into the publishing world, hoping something hits. I appreciate Sharon Bolton's ability to thoroughly develop her characters, and create a unique and complex plot line. If you need a great mystery for that beach vacation this winter or a gift for a person who loves English thrillers, you will not go wrong with this book - it's a winner.

Mr. 60% by Clete Smith
Let me preface this review with the fact that I taught English in our small PNW town with the author. To this day, he remains one of the funniest men I know, my daughter's favorite literature teacher, and a man with a great heart for kids. I could not wait to get my hands on his first YA book - he writes the middle reader series Aliens on Vacation, etc., which for the record are pee-your-pants funny.  His first venture into the world of teens is a winner for a few reasons.  One, as a former classroom teacher, I recognize his main protagonist, Matt, the kid who comes to school reluctantly, is perpetually absent or late, who is always yawning in class, and who does just enough to get by. Every teacher ever has had many "Matts" in their room. You see, Matt is caring for his dying Uncle Jack, with no financial help from the state or his family; this kid is just trying to survive but teachers and administrators expect him to care about completing worksheets. Second, this makes Mr. 60% a book that both teachers AND students should read.  It is a powerful reminder that none of us knows how life is impacting another human until we ask, until we take the time to sit down, until we care.  In Matt's life, that is a young woman named Amanda, an overweight, lonely girl who insinuates herself into Matt's life, whether he wants her there or not.  And last, this book speaks directly to kids just like Matt.  Clete Smith doesn't muck up the story with flowery description or $100 words; he writes a story that kids like Matt can read and understand, and can recognize themselves in the pages. So, to all my former teaching pals - put this book in a kid's hands and take a copy home for yourself - you'll be glad you did.

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille
Nelson DeMille really never disappoints.  In the style of a Clive Cussler or Robert Ludlum, he always creates a great hero (okay, rather stereotypical but easy to root for), a complicated plot in an intriguing setting, and a solid page turner. This time around he has "Mac" MacCormick, a war veteran with a chest full of medals, quick-witted and humorous, and never afraid to take a few risks. This mystery involves a cargo coming out of Cuba to America, deeds to land taken during the revolution, and skulls and bones of Vietnam veterans, all things the Cuban government does not want seen by the rest of the world.  As the mystery unfolds, one sees the lack of trust within government, with everyone on the take; it definitely does not make one want to vacation in Cuba yet.  If you're looking for a strong thriller for the person in your life who loves this kind of book (it's one way to get my husband to pick up a novel), you won't go wrong with The Cuban Affair.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
The author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is back and you will not want to miss his latest endeavor. Once again based in Seattle, Ford travels between the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition in 1909 and the World's Fair of 1962, as three delightful characters take us on the journey of their lives. Yung, soon to become Ernest,  escapes starvation and death in China, only to be shuffled between foster homes and state schools, leading to the ultimate humiliation - being a raffle prize at the fair. As the madame of the hottest house of 'ill repute' wins Ernest, he finds his first true home in the red-light district. Here he meets Maisie, the daughter of the madam, an inveterate tomboy and free spirit, and Fahn, a young Japanese housemaid with a sass and vulnerability that will break your heart. Jamie Ford is the master of literary children who are wise without being false, who see the world in deep and meaningful ways, and who show adults the true definition of loyalty and love .  Life in the Tenderloin is not for the faint of heart, and the consequences of their choices last for a lifetime.  Read this book - your heart will be glad you did:)

Lightening Men (Darktown #2) by Thomas Mullen
Take a historical fiction setting, mix in a few young cops, and then sprinkle some social injustice over everything, and a humdinger of a story is created. It is 1950 Atlanta, Georgia and the small unit of black policemen have been patrolling Darktown for two years now.  They are still not allowed to carry guns, drive patrol cars, or earn any respect from white officers.  Lucias Boggs and Tommy Smith, WWII war veterans and partners, are dragged into a complex organization of illegal moonshine and reefer (yep, the old term for marijuana:), leading to crime, death, and a systematic manner of housing segregation that mucks up their community and their ability to act as policemen.  Author Thomas Mullen is a truly brilliant writer, who creates rich and complex characters, as these two young cops battle their inner demons, as well as society's expectations, sometimes act heroically, and sometimes not, making them all the more human. Certain books have the ability to crawl deep inside of a reader, to force one to live in that place amongst the author's vibrant characters, and occasionally to even inhabit one's dreams.  Lightening Men is one of those novels - do not miss reading this book, trust me.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Irish writer John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, as well as other adult books) has written his masterpiece. He tells the story of Cyril Avery from birth to the end of his life, as we see the world change from 1945 through 2015; and my oh  my, how the world changes when one is an Irish-Catholic gay man. Boyne shows us his native land with all its faults and favors: schools and villages run by cruel priests, the sexual repression of an entire nation, and the family ties that are torn apart by religious law. Yet, within these very difficult themes and historical perspective, Boyne also creates some farcical happenings; at times, I felt as if I was reading an Irish-Catholic version of Catch 22, and found myself laughing aloud at the most outrageous conversations.  Cyril is not a perfect hero in the least; he can be cowardly, selfish, and all-around mediocre at times.  However, he has moments of clarity as well as bravery that show the authentic maturing of a boy into a fully developed human being.  We travel with Cyril to Amsterdam and the idea of an open life as a gay man, as well as to NYC as we see the AIDS epidemic explode and the subsequent bigotry towards gay men as thousands die and fear instills itself in the population.  This is a long book - think Donna Tartt and The Goldfinch (yep, the one that won the Pulitzer - this book is equally as good) and A Little Life (more laughter in Heart, but also a few tears).  Brilliant writing, clever use of farce and humor, and a story that tugs deeply at the very essence of what makes us human.  This is a seriously brilliant book.

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise
Considering the last month in America, I felt compelled to gain some further knowledge about race issues in our country; this time around, I chose a memoir written by one of the most reknowned activists on racial awareness. I did not fully realize all the instances of privilege in my own life, but this book opens one's eyes wide. Tim Wise does a masterful job of teaching, but not preaching, using his own life as a palette to display America's issues with race, and the privileges that come with a white skin. As a son of the South, growing up in Nashville and attending college in New Orleans, yet raised by a socially aware and open-minded family, Wise brings a special awareness to the subject.  Moving from his youth, to his college days, to his beginning of an activist life, to raising two young daughters, this writer covers some serious ground. He looks at the rise of white supremacy in the 1990's as he fights against the election of David Duke, the overt racism surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the impact of media on our ingrained beliefs of race, and even touches briefly on the election of America's first black president.  This book, as well as Wise's other writings, are used extensively in colleges across our country and he has some profound and enlightening things to say. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, for people of all color, but yes, particularly people who have lived the life of white privilege.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Having reading multiple award-winning Jesmyn Ward's other books, I was anxious to read her latest novel, due out this September. This is a stunning tale, showing both the beauty and the pain in the Mississippi Delta of today and the decades past. Told through the eyes of multiple narrators, this is a powerful exploration of southern history: Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his grandparents and baby sister, while his drug-addicted mother passes through his life; Leonie, the mother who sees her murdered brother only when she is high; and Richie, a ghost of a young boy whose complicated friendship with the grandfather provides context for the past. As Leonie goes on an odyssey to retrieve her white boyfriend from prison, we see shades of Greek heroes as obstacles must be overcome and oracles show the path that lies ahead. Surrealism, akin to Toni Morrison's writing, are sprinkled throughout as Jojo, his grandmother, and even his baby sister see the ghosts of times long ago who listen for the songs to be sung. Imbued with truly stunning writing, the tangled tragedies of the past affect all the character's present, highlighting issues with racism, drugs, and parenting choices not only in prison, in our schools and in families.  This is a powerful book; it would be an excellent choice for a book club or a classroom, providing some provocative discussion points.

When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
Known in the author's family as the 'dead cheerleader book,' it is a pretty apt description. In the small Georgia town of Worthy, football is king and the cheerleaders are the queens. However, after the big game on a fall evening, a terrible car crash occurs, where three girls are killed and the boy who was driving the other car survives. As in all close-knit communities, connections are everywhere and the deaths hit all the members. Told through a variety of viewpoints, we see the aftermath unfold: the mother of a senior cheerleader, trying to find the right way through the tragedy; a young teacher accused of a relationship with a student; a sophomore cheerleader who is left behind and has a terrible secret she keeps; and the mother of the survivor, whose son's life will also be changed forever, yet who has a life to live. Quite often, I wanted some of the characters to be stronger, to be less shallow, to smash the gender stereotypes that they embodied. Yet, some characters did grow, did change, did stand up in the end which satisfied me. I do think, however, that in today's world some of the themes are a bit dated (girls seem valued for their beauty and popularity, sit around and wait to be saved by the men instead of getting oneself out of a dangerous situation, social status reflecting a woman's place in the world). I think, or maybe I just really hope, that society has moved past these stereotypes and gender expectations and I would hope that literature could show the march of time, instead of perpetuating these myths.

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan
I was a bit torn by this latest book on my search for the 'next great thriller.' On one hand, I found the writing to be rather 'meh,' occasionally causing me to roll my eyes or laugh aloud. Yet, it is also quite a unique story line that definitely fulfills the definition of a page-turner. Once again inhabited by wealthy white folks (what is it with the stereotypes?!), Cate Holahan has created a dual plot structure, switching back and forth between the story of an author who is fighting to write another bestseller after some clunkers and the draft of the new book itself. We see the author, Liza, struggle with infertility treatments, a distant husband, and the mysterious disappearance of his best friend, as well as her attraction to her editor. At the same time, Liza's fictional character, Beth, struggling with the newly discovered affair of her husband while she fights the attraction to her therapist for postpartum depression.  Real life begins to merge with the fictional life, as the author begins to wonder what is real and what is make-believe.  This is a solid vacation, beach-read that will definitely keep you guessing.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Race in America - Books That Will Make You Smarter

A Colony in a Nation by Christopher L. Hayes
Thanks to Net Galley, I was able to read this fascinating new book by MSNBC anchor, Chris Hayes. Hayes writes a scholarly yet engrossing new book looking at the various nuances of law and the explication of so-called 'order' in today's America.  Borrowing the quote from Richard Nixon for his title, he explores the great divide in our country between the disenfranchised of our nation who still live as if in a separate colony, while the privileged 'nation' attempts to maintain the status quo. While he focuses on people of color, poverty and the inequities of the educational system also play a role.  It begins in Ferguson, where Hayes was on the ground reporting the aftermath of the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown.  His insight into the past history not only of Ferguson, but also the surrounding areas, highlights information that is pivotal to the understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.  American history is used to inform the reader of past practices in law enforcement: the fall out of tariffs all the way to revolutionary times, the statistics of stop-and-frisk, the community policing movement, the 'broken windows' policy, and many more.  Hayes also fully embraces his own white privilege and his Ivy-league background, honestly and provocatively displaying his own prejudices and forcing the reader to look in his or her own mirror.  This is not a book for the reader who wants a fast, thrilling mystery, but it is a book for our time, a book we should all read, a book that will not only make you smarter, but will force you to ask questions of yourself and the rules of society.  Do we want order or do we want to be safe?

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 7, 2016)
Stunning.  Jaw-dropping. Brilliant. Those are the first words that come to mind with this debut novel of twenty-six year old Yaa Gyasi.  Homegoing has been the talk of the publishing world for months, and should garner all the awards in 2016, and yes, the praise is well-deserved.  The unique subject, plot-line, and writing style contribute to a novel that I will not soon forget.  It begins in the late 1700's, in Ghana, when two sisters who do not know the other exists, have life choices thrust upon them.  Effia marries a white British man who runs the Castle, the coastal prison where the Fante tribe members bring the slaves they purchased from the Asante tribe.  In the dungeon below, bodies piled upon bodies, lies Esi, soon to be shipped to America and a life far different than her sister's. Each chapter follows the bloodline of the two sisters, changing each generation.  We see the wars in Ghana, the colonization by the British, the tribal fighting, and the steps towards modernization.  In America, we see the utter degradation of slavery, the effects of the Fugitive Act, the outcome of the Great Migration, the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and the struggles of the new century.  In each descendant's story, Gyasi creates complex characters, heart-wrenching situations, and deep love for family.  This book is truly a masterpiece.   

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
As a teacher of English literature, I would delve superficially into the story of Emmett Till when we read Toni Morrison novels; the emotional beginning of the civil rights movement still had interest to my students of the 21st century.  However, I 'did not know what I did not know.'  Having read Tyson's previous book, Blood Done Sign My Name (it is also excellent),  I knew this author was a perceptive researcher and a powerful, honest writer.  The first page of Emmett Till and I was hooked.  This is an in-depth look at the story of 14 year-old Chicago boy, visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, whose body is found beaten, shot, and drowned in a river.  His mother's decision to hold an open casket, to show the world what was 'done to my boy,' mobilized the nascent movement for civil rights in the south.  WWII had opened up the power of resistance, but the laws of the South, as well as the purposeful blindness of the North, demanded a passionate call to action.  Emmett Till's murder was it.  Tyson does a masterful job of detailing the life of Mamie Till and Emmett's other relatives, the background on the many heroic NAACP workers at the time, the arrest and trial of the two perpetrators, and the life behind the woman who accused the young boy of verbally and physically assaulting her.  At times the long lists of organizations and occasional repetition, particularly in the epilogue, slowed the book down.  However, the historical significance of this event, the tie-in to today and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the powerful story-telling of Timothy Tyson makes this a book that I believe deserves, and needs, to be read.  It would be a powerful tool in a classroom, as well as a worthy book club choice to provoke conversation and connections.

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Back in 2006, Mullen wrote a fabulous book called The Last Town on Earth; it won some big awards, including debut book of the year.  I still remember it (story of an Everett, WA logging town during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1916).  His next two novels received solid reviews, but never quite 'caught on.'  Darktown could be a sleeper hit this fall, juxtaposing the reading world's love of a taut mystery along with the racial tension still prevalent today.  The story takes place in Atlanta, Georgia whose police chief has just commissioned the city's first black police officers, eight in total.  Jim Crow is alive and well, even as these ex-soldiers return from fighting in Europe.  The main character, Lucius Bogg, is a Morehouse graduate and son of a prominent preacher, raised in the segregated well-to-do black neighborhood.  His partner has a more realistic view of the issues of race, having been raised in a poor black neighborhood of Atlanta, as well as being part of General Patton's black tank battalion.  As these two new police officers try to maneuver their way through racist white policemen, the unwritten rules of headquarters, the lynch-happy country crowd, and the heroic expectations of their black community, they team up with a decent white officer to try and solve the murder of a young black woman.  This book is a heck of a ride, and I highly recommend it.

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Round two in unforgettable books, this was one of the more disheartening books I have read in quite some time. Brilliantly written and deeply researched, Matthew Desmond spends years with eight families in the heart of Milwaukee's poverty stricken neighborhoods, as they struggle with eviction, shady landlords, literal slum lords, drug addiction, job searches, and the type of devastating poverty that most people like to pretend does not exist in America.  Desmond, with brutal honestly, shows us a side of Milwaukee and humanity that is often difficult to understand, but he does so with compassion and truth.  He was able to tape many conversations and be a part of a world often denied to researchers; it is an impressive thesis on the state of housing in America for the disenfranchised.  Desmond pulls no punches and chooses to show his subjects in all their fallibility, not romanticizing their life choices (which at times are beyond questionable), yet also not condemning them.  It is admirable.  Desmond shows us the toll eviction takes, the unbearably high cost of housing in the slums, and the vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to break, generation after generation.  Not an uplifting book, to be sure, but one that will provide you with an education that is well worth the depression.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (September 2016)
A brilliant new historical fiction, touched with surrealism, Whitehead has written what many of us booksellers feel is an award-winner.  He takes the context of the underground railroad, a system of houses and other hideaways, manned by abolitionists, and imbues it with magical fantasy, creating a 'real' locomotive that speeds runaway slaves away on their journey to freedom.  Cora, a young woman who lives a hellish life on a Georgian cotton plantation, ostracized by the other slaves, motherless and alone, is chosen by Caesar, a fellow slave, to catch the train to freedom.  Thus begins Cora's adventures, with allusions to Gulliver's travels as well as the travails of Odysseus.  The strangers who both assist and impede the slaves are complex, showing great violence at times, as well as great compassion.  It is a tale well told, that will leave thought provoking ideas behind in its wake.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
This is another book that is timely, politically charged, and I believe, a book that should have a wider audience.  Written by a professor, who grew up in a small Mississippi town on the border of Louisiana, Ward tells of the five deaths in this black township that changed her life and the lives of many of its citizens.  It seems so simple and straight forward, but it is not; this is Ward's view into a world that exists only for poor black people, a world that does not really exist here in the Pacific Northwest or even on the West Coast.  This small town lives, breathes, and dies together; the children grow up with their cousins, pop in and out of each others' homes depending on the happenings in their families, and as readers, we slowly see the insidious effect poverty has on the young men in particular.  Most of the dead boys dropped out of school after being seen as stupid, lazy, or incapable of learning.  As a former teacher, I know the power expectations, high or low, has on a student and as a reader, we see the powerful effect this lack of education has on their future, or lack thereof.  Ward escapes, but with each death, she is sucked back in by the dominant pull of the South and of family.  She finishes her autobiographical tale with the story of her brother's death, and it is a poignant, heartbreaking sign of what is happening still today in poor townships down South.  This could be an intriguing book club choice that would garner some provocative discussions; it is also a strong companion book to Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy.  

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Okay, so I'm a little late to the dance on this book; literally everyone was reading it last year, but heck, I hate following the crowd. Plus to be honest, I did try it, but was uninterested by page 40 and tossed it. Thankfully, my millennial-generation daughter said it was required reading, so once again I dove into the printed page of Americanah. I practiced patience, and was well rewarded by page 75 as I could not put this book down until I had read every page of this 588-page book. It is profound, provocative, thoughtful, and exceptionally well-written, required reading indeed. It follows the lives of two young Nigerian teens, in love but separated over the years. Ifemelu goes to America, where she experiences the life of an immigrant, attends university, and blogs about race and 'discovering' that she is black in America. Her blogs on race are courageous and sometimes uncomfortable, providing me with much to think about in my own life. Obinze, on the other hand, stays in Nigeria, eventually emigrating to London as he tries to find his way to success. Eventually, life leads both back to Nigeria. The premise sounds simple, and Adichie rolls out the narrative in a straightforward manner, yet so much depth exists in this book that one continues to think about certain conversations between characters long after the book has been put down. When you are in the mood for some legit literature, please pick up this book and be patient; you will not be disappointed.

Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo
This memoir drew me in slowly and insidiously; Ms. Kuo finishes her degree at Harvard University, is accepted into the Teach for America program, and heads to Arkansas to change the world. As I grew to know Ms. Kuo and her middle school students at Star, the 'alternative' school in the Mississippi delta, I became enmeshed in their lives, both teacher and students. As a former English teacher myself, I wondered if this book would be too saccharine, or too heartfelt, or too tragic? It was none of the above.  It is a gripping and engaging memoir of a young woman who tries whole-heartedly to make a difference, to change a child's life.  When she meets Patrick, a sixteen year old stuck in eighth grade, Ms. Kuo sees a glimmer of hope in this young man.  As life buffets both Patrick and Michelle Kuo to unexpected places, his teacher never gives up on him.  And I mean never - who can say that? For any teacher who always wanted to be 'the one,' the teacher who changes a child's life, read this book.  For a new teacher, just starting out, read this book and be inspired by what it means to truly teach, and the incredible time and effort it takes to be amazing.  To anyone who believes in the power of literature to change the world, read this book.  I will never forget Ms. Kuo, Patrick, or the strength of character shown by them both. (July 11 Pub date)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Wow, just wow.  This book contains a powerful punch - DO NOT MISS it, trust me.  Taking a page from the news, this debut novel deals with a police shooting of a young black man, followed by both the community and law enforcement reaction.  Told by Starr, a young black teenager who was in the car with Khalil when he was pulled over and shot, this young woman opens up the world of the inner city, of being a black student in an all-white suburban high school, of the anger in a community, of the frustration over injustice, of trying to straddle both worlds.  Starr is a rockstar, plain and simple.  Is she perfect? Nope.  She is sassy, combative, and angry; she is also fiercely independent, brave in the face of death threats and social exclusion, and knows when to shut up and when to step up. The supporting cast are stars in their own right as well: Maverick, Starr's ex-con, ex-gang, grocery-store owning father who loves his family fiercely and is not afraid to show it; Maya and Hayley, Starr's teenage girlfriends who provide two opposing pictures of racial knowledge and ignorance; Starr's siblings - Seven who shows what it means to be a big bother, the step-siblings who provide a look into a family in turmoil, and the baby of the family who quite honestly just made me laugh out loud.  This book will provide many "ah-ha" moments, as well as a deeper appreciation of the bubble where we all reside. I highly recommend this to all ages, all colors, all income levels - the more we learn, the more we can come together, stand together, progress together.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The latest in the Hogwarth Shakespeare series, Chevalier (Girl with A Pearl Earring) takes on the story of Othello, the tragic tale of friendship, love, and the ultimate betrayal.  Chevalier, however, takes the plot line and places it into...wait for it...a fifth grade playground, with each of the five acts a recess, lunchtime, and after school.  As a former elementary teacher, it is quite a brilliant move, as recess is the ultimate social experiment, with friendships lost over not being picked by a kickball team, a love affair that blooms at lunch time and is killed by the end of the day, and schoolyard bullies who rule the school.  In this case, Osei is the new boy from Africa, in a 1972 white school outside Washington, D.C. Immediately, Osei and Dee (ie Desdemona, the hot popular girl, ) become an item, causing Ian (ie. Iago, resident schoolyard bully) to become jealous, Casper (ie. Cassio, the hot popular boy) to become entangled in their web, and even Mimi (ie. Emilia, Dee's best friend) gets her loyalties pulled in opposite directions.  At times, I wanted more complex thinking and writing from this story, yet the voice truly fit those of elementary age children; they were fleeting in their emotions, impulsive in their behavior, and short-sighted over their relationships.  Would you enjoy this book more if you knew the story of Othello?  Absolutely.  Would it be an entertaining companion to the teaching of Othello in your classroom? For sure.  However, it is also another excellent example of how Shakespeare continues to be relevant hundreds of years after his death; he spoke of the most basic human emotions (love, revenge, betrayal, loyalty) that are still wrestled with in today's world.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
After reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, this book was listed consistently that other people had purchased it as well.  The plot line sounded intriguing: bright young black boy in Newark, New Jersey goes to Yale.  However, the title rather gives it away and his potential heroic tale of making it out of the 'hood' goes awry.  I was drawn into the story quickly and was intrigued by Robert's young childhood - raised by a single mother with a father in prison for first-degree murder, the rotating family members in his home, the struggle to send him to private schools, the numerous adults in the educational system who gave him a helping hand, the water-polo team who gave him a family - all of these things helped to explain how Robert Peace became the poster boy for someone who made it out.  However, Jeff Hobbs, his Yale roommate, is rather too wordy for my taste; an editor who slashed and burned a bit more could have been helpful.  As we start to see Robert's life go wrong in the class-conscious, snobby world of the Ivy League, the story begins to drag.  I found myself frustrated not only with the writing style, but with Robert himself, which I think is the actual point of this book. While I was not a fan of Hobbs' writing, I do think this book has great potential as a book club book, with many different themes to discuss and probably quite a bit of contentious and intriguing possibilities for disagreement, which in my experience, can make for the best club discussions.

The Leavers byLisa Ko
I am in a bit of a quandary over this book.  On one hand, the plot premise is engaging and topical.  A young Chinese-American boy, Deming, is abandoned by his Chinese mother and adopted by an American couple who re-name him Daniel.  While loving and well-intentioned, these new parents construct a completely unfamiliar new path towards adulthood for Daniel, with unwieldy expectations, a lack of knowledge for his past, and yet a willingness to hang in there during difficult times.  The story flips back and forth in time and character, with both Deming and his mother telling the story of past and present.  The quandary comes in when I think about the characters, both leading and peripheral. None are particularly heroic or likable, yet perhaps that is the author's point? This is a story of immigrants who are poor, who are buffeted by laws, by racism, by economic deprivation, who are merely trying to survive.  The questions I am left with therefore...is it possible to be heroic in these circumstances?  Do we ask too much of our children and of ourselves? Are laws supposed to be retaliatory and punishing, or should laws contain compassion?  This book provokes thought, and that is the point of literature.  I do think this would be a provocative book club choice, as it is a book that does not choose to give answers, but requires us to look at our own selves and our beliefs.  Solid debut outing by Lisa Ko, as is shown by the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Do you like a good mystery?  How about history?  How about heroic FBI agents, twisted nasty bad guys, and an honorable tribal culture cheated out of both money and their lives?  The latest book by the best-selling author of The Lost City of Z will not let you down. This was an intriguing time in American history, one of which I had never heard about in either school or the media.  At the inception of a national department of investigation, soon to be known as the FBI, a new young director by the name of J. Edgar Hoover had a pile of crap laid in his lap:  in 1925, down in the Oklahoma area called the Osage hill country, Osage natives were being murdered.  The local and state law enforcement was too enmeshed with the suspects, thus a federal investigative team was needed.  Enter ex-Texas Ranger Tom White to save the day, and what an investigation it was.  The murder of Mollie Burkhart, and subsequently her sister and mother begins this tale of a dark time in our history, of a native tribe whose reservation sat on the richest oilfields in the world, of money stolen from the Osage, of family members, neighbors, friends, and lawyers willing to literally do anything to get their hands on the head rights of these fields, of lawmen who risked and lost their lives to uncover the insidious dark crime against these natives, and even the author, who uncovers hidden truths about new culprits decades after the trials.  I read voraciously, finishing in less than 24 hours, completely engrossed in this true-life crime of passion, prejudice, and broken family trust.  Even when you think it is all solved and what is left to be uncovered, you will find your mouth hanging open at the latest revelations.  This is what I call a 'humdinger' of a book!

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
Ironically, I read this book right before diving into Go Set a Watchman.  This is a deeply historical account of the beginning of the civil rights movement, but not the protests, the church involvement, or the boycotts.  This book tells the true account of the attack on the legal system, to bring equality to the land through the courts, in particular the U.S. Supreme Court.  While the book focuses very much on Thurgood Marshall (a fascinating, brilliant, complicated man), it also delves into other vital players who not only defended innocent clients, but pushed the argument for equal rights into the forefront of the American public.  The case of the Groveland boys, accused of raping a white woman in Florida, was the story of the decade...and I had never heard of it.  It is a painful look into our past, and causes one to question how SCOTUS could do away with the Voting Rights Act after being reminded of how far we have come.  For any history buff, this is a fascinating read - however, it is dense and very factual, so it is not a quick read.

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Her first book in eight years, Sekaran has written a humdinger of a story that is getting tons of buzz out there in the publishing world.  Charged with provocative themes of race, class, illegal immigration, and familial rights, this is a winner.  You'll need to get past the first 40-50 pages for the characters to gel, but be patient; it is worth it.  In this modern day re-telling of King Solomon and the mothers who both claim one child, Sekaran gives us two different mothers:  one, a young Mexican girl who has come to America, through the help of coyotes and generous parents, and who experiences horrific tragedy to give herself and her family a better life; the other woman, well educated at Berkeley, with a steady job, Silicon Valley husband, who desperately wants a child but is denied by her biology.  Throughout the book, we see the story of Solimar, an illegal immigrant, the fear that forces her to run through sidewalks in case ICE is around, who takes far less pay for her work as a nanny due to fears of IRS issues, and who is imprisoned for a nonsensical reason, in danger of losing the child she bore.  However, we also see Kavya, a woman who so longs for a child she can think of nothing else, who is a sincerely loving woman, who bonds deeply with the child in her care.  I found myself having to starkly and honestly confront my own embedded of class and race,  about what a child needs, or deserves - this is a powerful story that will provoke great conversation. 

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Yep, I know...Jodi Picoult, the writer of great pop culture, page-turners, but is it literature? Yep, it sure is, and her latest brings the reader smack into the face of a hot, divisive, charged topic of today - racial bias and the divide that has roiled this country for centuries. The premise is charged with emotion:  a labor and delivery nurse is helping a pair of young parents with their newborn baby, and the father demands she not be allowed around his child due to her race.  When tragedy occurs with the newborn, legal action is set into motion.  Simple, right?  Yet Picoult attacks the idea not just of the insidious racial discrimination against blacks in our country, but the white nationalist movement, being a black teenage boy in America, discrimination in the workplace, and the reality of white privilege.  This is an explosive book that truly attempts to see all sides, as it is told through the eyes of not only the black nurse, but the Neo-Nazi father and the Ivy league-educated white lawyer. I highly recommend, particularly to book clubs who like provocative, meaty discussions.

Blood at the Root:  A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
Did you know that Forsyth county in the state of Georgie remained all-white for almost 100 years? Yeah...me neither.  It is always amazing to me to read about our county's history that I never knew existed, especially in today's world of wikipedia and instant sources.  Back at the turn of the century, Forsyth county was similar to many other post-Civil War southern areas...an agrarian society, dependent upon the black farmers and house servants who kept the white economy rolling, and tied to the KKK and other white supremacist beliefs.  Both races lived in an uncertain wariness of the 'Other,' willing to divide towns and villages to live in relative peace with one another.  That is until a cry of rape and murder tore them apart.  As told by a man who was raised in Forsyth county from the 1980's on, this is the tale of how the blacks were not only expelled from this region, but kept out for decades.  It was as if time stood still in Forsyth for race relations, until dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and knowledge of the civil rights movement smacked the residents in the face.  It is a provocative tale that reminds us of our not-so-distant past.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
I had such high hopes for this book - written by a woman of color, it had great potential as a teachable novel in high school, or at the least, good entertainment.  I am, however, torn in my opinions of it.  First, the plot line:  a Mexican family moves to Delaware, seeking a better education for their daughter who has a traumatic brain injury.  Along the way, they meet a Panamanian-American family with two sons, one of whom falls in love with the daughter, Maribel.  The story is interspersed with stories of other Latino immigrants, weaving a rich tapestry of the story of new Americans, their struggles, their victories, their frustrations.  My problem had more to do with the teenage love story.  The boy, Major, falls for Maribel due to her physical beauty, and while he is kind to her, I did not find his treatment of her brain-damaged behavior to be of the best intentions.  That bothered me, yet it would provide a book club with some rich discussion fodder.  Henriquez does a great job of showcasing the struggles of immigrant Latino families, which is commendable and much-needed in our literature today, particularly in our schools.  Some gratuitous sex/language may make it difficult to get it by some school boards though.

Evening of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
Sticking with the non-fiction trend, this tale of the end of the Plains native tribes, most specifically the Comanche, was a shockingly fascinating read.  Perhaps because when I grew up in the Northwest, kids studied Native Americans pretty much all the way through school, especially Sacajawea with the Lewis-and-Clark expedition.  After elementary school, I became obsessed with the Sioux and the destruction of Custer at the Little Big Horn.  (I know - I was a weird kid).  Then, as an adult I read a book on the massacre at Wounded Knee, and eventually the book Lies My Teacher Taught Me, which really detailed the destruction of the native people in North America.  With all this background, I was intrigued by this Dallas reporter's book on the dying days of the Comanche tribe, the greatest horseback warriors this world has probably ever seen.  They were lead in their dying days by a man whose mother was a white woman, kidnapped as a child and adopted into the tribe.  Add in some noble soldier and natives, as well as some pretty despicable ones, as well as the dishonesty and lies of both sides, and you've got a great tale.  With that said, do not expect a novel-based book; this is definitely an historical text.  When first looking at the pages, realizing little to no dialogue existed, I was a bit nervous about the author's ability to pull me into the story, but the story itself is just so fascinating I read the book in just three days...and it is dense.  Gwyne has done his research and shows in great detail what happens in the space of just one hundred years, of what occurs when a stone age people such as the Plains tribes, who were still in the hunter-gatherer part of evolution, meets the agricultural people of another millennium.  Tough to digest in some places but an altogether great learning experiences. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

August 2.0

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan
This is one of those books that I want to shove a copy into everyone's hands that I know...parents, students, athletes, anyone who works with teens, anyone who watches sports, anyone and everyone, period. Yes, it is that powerful, that life-changing, that important. Kate Fagan, journalist and ESPN contributor as well as former college athlete, has given us the most meaningful 'sports' story, that is not just about sports, for this generation of young athletes. Fagan investigates the suicide, and the life that led to it, of Madison Holleran who was bright, beautiful, and a super-stud athlete attending an Ivy League college. She had it all, right? The question remains then, why?  As Fagan explores the impact of social media on today's permanently-connected youth, she also looks at the expectations and pressures placed on student athletes, the support or lack thereof at college for issues of mental illness, and the hidden lives of so many young people who feel like their only exit off the road they are on is suicide. This is a gripping, heart-wrenching story that I constantly wanted not to be true, to have a different ending. Yes, you will cry; yes, you will be frustrated, and yes, you will wish you could reach inside Maddy and convince her that the next day will be better. But you will also be glad that you read this book as it will force you to stop and question the messages our society sends kids of today, to spend just one more minute checking in with people you love and even those you don't, and to support programs that will help young people battle their demons in a healthy way.

Dreamland:  The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
This book should be required reading for every citizen...seriously. Drug overdose is the leading cause of death for people under the age of fifty, it has ravaged many small cities, towns, and rural areas, and has stymied economic recovery and destroyed millions of families. In other words, we've got a problem, America. This book does an outstanding job of investigating the beginnings of the epidemic, moving seamlessly between the area in Mexico where the black tar networks grew into thriving business here in the states, and the prescription drugs that aided the heroin addiction. Sam Quinones is a brilliant investigative reporter who keeps an objective voice throughout the book, while also showing his readers the devastation of these drugs. Few people in America today do not know of someone who has been touched by this epidemic; this is a powerful read that will give you much needed information because without knowledge, we cannot stop millions more from dying. Trust me, read this book.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
You know how I'm always on the look-out for that next 'great' thriller, yet I seem to be persistently disappointed?  Well...BINGO, found it! The second book by Irish author Liz Nugent is a winner. The story begins with the beating of Alice, with her husband Oliver as the culprit, and then works backwards to yep, 'unravel' Oliver. Solid plot construction is typical for a thriller, but the grand surprise is the incredibly deep character development. The story unwinds through the eyes of many of the main, as well as peripheral, characters as these witnesses lay out the story of Oliver, slowing building the puzzle pieces together to form a composite picture of how this fifty-something year old man could have beaten his wife into a coma. Each voice is distinct and quite complex, bringing out their own flaws as well as the traits and behaviors that make up Oliver.  It is a twisty tale, dark and shocking in spots, that will keep you up reading late into the night. Highly recommend this one if a psychological thriller is your thing.

Wonder Woman War Bringer by Leigh Bardugo
Do NOT turn up your nose at the title, and think "Really...Wonder Woman?!" I am betting many of you religiously watched Lynda Carter as the title character back in the 70's, admiring that special plane and magic lasso! And quite honestly, if you like fantasy/mythology, and you are as big a fan of Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows, Shadow and Bone, etc.) as I am, hold on to your seat because this is another raucous ride.  The story begins on the island of the Amazons (of course), with teenaged Diana trying to prove herself to her mother, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons and star of her own Greek myth.  Enter Alia, a girl from the real world who has some seriously bad blood...as in the blood of Helen of Troy, the war bringer. Anyone who inherits this blood line brings bickering, fights, chaos, and war to the world around them. As we watch Diana and Alia try to get to the springs in Greece that will wash away this doomed inheritance, the bad guys constantly surprise them with plot to murder Alia. I loved the bad-ass-ery of these women, the mental and physical toughness that bests the 'heroic' men of the day, the humor that Bardugo always is able to bring to her exciting tales, and the feeling of being on that roller coaster that you never want to end.  And if your teenager enjoyed the latest Wonder Woman movie, this is a great way to get a book under their nose:)

The Salt House by Lisa Duffy
Let me preface this review with the fact that this is not my preferred genre - family drama tinged with romance, but I have many friends who enjoy this genre and will definitely enjoy this book. The premise surrounds a married couple left with two daughters, age eight and sixteen, after suffering the tragic death of their baby the previous summer. The story uses different narrators that do a decent job of showing the experience of the loss through different perspectives: the husband, who focuses on his job as a Maine fisherman, working himself to death to ignore the pain; the mother, previously a writer who can no longer write a word and is paralyzed by the death of her daughter, unable to move on; the teenage daughter who is finding her first teenage love amidst the worry over her family; and the youngest daughter, who brings an immature voice yet sees through honest eyes.  At times, I wanted the author to grapple more deeply with real issues, such as the financial devastation, the pain of the two daughters and survivor guilt, the impact on the marriage. While Duffy touches on all of these things, I wanted her to go deeper and grittier, yet I think perhaps that's not the genre? At times it felt a bit saccharine for me, yet I was also intrigued by the story as I kept turning pages. The characters are well-developed, just a bit stereotypical for me at times. As this is Lisa Duffy's debut, I look forward to what she does the second time around, perhaps pushing the envelope a bit more.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

August Books

The One-In-A-Million Boy by Monica Wood
If you liked Ove and the hilarious grandma in Frederik Backman's books, you will adore 104-year-old Ms. Ona Vitkus in Monica Wood's latest novel. I would highly recommend listening to the audio version; this spunky, sassy, smart old lady is a hoot! Wrapped in a sad beginning as the boy scout who is doing Ona's summer yard work tragically dies of an undetected heart issue, his father Quinn comes in to finish the assignment. Pulled into Ona's life story through old tapes of the boy interviewing Ona, as well as their mutual goal to get her into the Guinness Book of World records, the friendship between Quinn and Ona is priceless. We see the boy's mother, Belle, as she shares the stories of her quirky, awkward little boy. We watch as Quinn, an itinerant musician who never really understood or valued his son's uniqueness, learns who the boy really was. And we experience Ona Vitkus' life as she marches through the twentieth century, unraveling her tale to the small boy as she also helps him with his own life problem's. If you've got a road trip upcoming or just like to listen to books on long walks as I do, this is one of my all-time best 'listens' - heartwarming, hilarious, and ultimately quite profound, with some charming characters along the way:)

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
Rowling, trying to write under a pseudonym that has obviously been discovered, began with The Cuckoo's Calling, followed by The Silkworm.  She has created a fabulous due in the cranky, egocentric, retired military investigator Cormoran Strike and his sidekick Robin, a gritty, tougher-than-she-seems detective. Seeing that the new HBO series called Strike comes out this fall, it would be a good time to hop on this train:)  And seriously, these mystery books are just really good, each one better than the last, culminating in Career of Evil, which is by far the best of the lot.  Having received a human leg in the post (yes, seriously), Strike and Robin set up their own investigation into what turns into a modern-day Jack the Ripper series of murders in London.  With Robin at the eye of the storm, stalked and followed by the killer, Strike delves deep into his past to uncover some nasty individuals who have a beef against him.  This book reveals more of these two main characters, developing Robin's reasons for detective work, as well as Strike's past with his mother and her ex.  Gritty humor as well as tense, hand-wringing moments abound as I read voraciously to see who dunnit, and would Robin actually marry the complete arse she's been dating for nine freaking years.  It is not necessary to read the first two as this one stands completely on its own, yet why not read the whole series?  It's summer, they're fabulous, and then you'll be set for the show this fall:)

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker
Perhaps I am getting jaded by the search for the next 'great' thriller; they all seem to be devolving into the same formulaic plot line.  Thus, while I find Walker writes a solid mystery, it is nothing new. Two teenage sisters disappeared three years ago, and now the younger one, Cass, returns and insists they must find Emma, her older sister.  As Cass strings out the story of her three years of captivity, the FBI behavioral analyst and the FBI agent in charge listen to her tale and ultimately try and lead Cass to where they want her to go. The analyst has a familial past which leads to some perspective issues as well. At times I wondered how realistic the family was: Were the sadistic wars within a step family that brilliant and dark? Could the girl really be that clever? Is mom a legit monster? Would FBI agents really be able to pull off this scheme? Ultimately, what I decided about this book was that yes, it is a solid, page-turning thriller that will grip you as you try and figure out the puzzle; yet, if you've read a lot of thrillers, it quite frankly is just a re-do of what has already been done.  My suggestion?  How about throwing in some characters who are not white, wealthy, and privileged, but instead have some complexity in social class, race, religion, geography, life choices and motivations, etc.?  Just my two cents:)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Ah, the sheer beauty of sparse and spare prose that tells a beautiful story of love and companionship in just 179 pages. This book had been on my TBR list for the last year and I am eternally grateful to have spent an afternoon with Kent Haruf's final novel. This talented, award-winning author set all his books in the small town of Holt, Colorado, where everyone knows each other's business. In the very first chapter, we see seventy-year-old Addie go to Louis, the widower down the street, and ask him if he would consider spending nights with her.  Not for sex, mind you, but to assuage the loneliness of old age and widowhood.  Thus begins the story of their months together: the slow friendship that builds, the relationship with both a grandson and a dog, the busy-body-ness of their small town.  This is just a stunning book that provokes contemplation of what is necessary to not only sustain life, but to live it.

The Other Girl by Erica Spindler
It is a problem when the title gives info away, and I can figure out who-dunnit in the first twenty minutes...phooey. It is a decent page turner, with a police investigation into the killing of the university president's son, combined with the sketchy past of the lead investigator.  However, it is so full of stereotypes and one-dimensional characters, as well as fairly pedestrian writing, that I found it to be a waste of a few good hours. I am sure this book has an audience; it is just not me.