The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf (Children’s Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

This is a British story about the Syrian refugee crisis — focused on one small boy and given a fairy tale ending. 9-year old Alexa gets excited from the first moment she sees the new boy — Ahmet — sitting quietly at the back of the room. She and her three friends befriend him and are introduced to his plight just as the UK is moving to stop the flow of refugees completely by “closing the gates.” Alexa conceives the “MOST AMAZING PLAN” (backed up with an “Emergency Plan”) to help keep the gates open, help Ahmet find his family, and deal with the “haters” of the world (with clearly marked names such as “Mrs. Grimsby” in case you are in doubt as to who they are).

The book is sweet and does an excellent job of portraying the refugee crisis in real human terms by describing one boy’s very sad situation. I do feel that the story was oversimplified and did not like the way everyone was depicted (literally) as “good guys” and “bad guys.” While I support trying to find a real solution to refugee problems, this book was written as a very heavy handed propaganda piece. Anyone who doesn’t absolutely support unlimited refugee immigration is labeled (literally) a “bully,” a “hater,” “heartless,” “selfish,” and by implication stupid, and irrational. I don’t think that was necessary — it would have been just as effective a book if she had focussed on one young refugee’s experience, the way the kids had helped bring attention to his plight, and some positive messages about how refugees can be helped and integrated into society, without including all the nasty labels and overly simplified and often inaccurate portrayals of those with other opinions.

A child in the class — “Brendan the Bully” — is portrayed as a terrible boy with no possibility of education or redemption. And when explaining what is happening in Syria, Alexa’s mother explains: “The bad people are just much stronger than they are and like to feel big and powerful by bullying them. You see, some people think that by taking things away from other people and hurting them, it gives them more power, and the more power they have, the more they want and the greedier they get. So they go on hurting more and more people until everyone wants to run away.” Is that really an accurate description of the Syrian civil war? I don’t think so — and I think that oversimplifying problems for children by blaming and labeling whole groups of people as simply irredeemably bad is a very dangerous proposition.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6th, 2019.

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (Children’s Fiction)

One day, shortly after she buries her beloved dog, 14-year old Beverly Tapinski simply leaves home. She catches a ride up the highway to Tamaray Beach with nothing but the clothes on her back and the flip-flops on her feet. She finds a job bussing dishes at the local fish restaurant (even though she hates fish). She finds a place to stay in a trailer park with a lonely old lady. And for a while, she manages to carve out a small place for herself in a world she has learned is largely composed of sadness and meanness.

I love the way DiCamillo doesn’t soft-soap anything — she doesn’t pretend that bad parents and bad situations don’t exist. Beverly’s mother really doesn’t care that her daughter is gone — she is far more interested in her next drink. This sweet, but never sappy, book follows Beverly as she finds her own moral strength and some spots of beauty in the world including some people who do look out for each other and care, even about strangers. I found it to be moving and heartfelt.

For those of you familiar with other DiCamillo books, Beverly was first featured as a side character in Raymie Nightingale.

Thank you to Candlewick Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 24th, 2019.

 

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (Middle Grade)

I’ve been reading a lot of depressing (but very good – stay tuned) books lately and decided I needed a happy break — enter To Night Owl from Dogfish. An impressive, fully epistolary (email style) novel, following the grudging friendship developing between two 12-year old girls who have been sent to summer camp by their romantically involved, single, gay dads in order to get to know each other. What follows is a touching and simultaneously funny (and convoluted) story reminiscent of The Parent Trap.

Californian Bett Devlin is afraid of nothing, loves animals, sports, and a lack of rules. New Yorker Avery Bloom is afraid of everything, likes the indoors, and loves for things to be under control and absolutely safe. As their dads head off for a motorcycle trip across China, they communicate via iPad having already decided that they will under no circumstances be friends or even speak to each other at camp! Things head off in unexpected directions (I really didn’t see *any* of the plot developments coming) and include Avery’s previously unknown biological mother and Bett’s (somewhat loony) grandmother from Texas.

A fun read!

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Age 10+)

A perfect kids book! Had it been around when I was young I would have read it a hundred times by now (like my other favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, and Charlotte’s Web). It’s an adventure story complete with rambling houses, hidden treasures, eccentric characters, ghosts, and Mystery with a capital M.

12-year old Milo Pine lives with his adoptive parents in Greenglass House — a rambling old Inn whose “regulars” are the smugglers who need a little “shore time.” Greenglass House is perched above a deep gorge — accessible only via a creaky cable car named the Whilforber Whirlwind or a 310 step stairway.

As Christmas vacation commences, and Milo prepares to snuggle in for some serious R&R in the empty Inn, the cable car bell keeps ringing and the number of guests (and emergency helpers) grow until Milo finds himself amidst a sea of eccentric characters who all seem to be on delightfully connected personal quests that center on the house itself.

Weaving together folk tales and local legend with a little paranormal thrown in, Milo uncovers the mysteries of Greenglass House and the odd set of characters who are so fixated on it. Milo — prone to anxiety and panic attacks — also develops delightfully through the twin instruments of literature and role playing games.

Good writing — the story is complex enough to engage adults and yet completely accessible to the target kid audience.

2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Lerner Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.

(My last YA review for a while…)

Cute and whimsical, this early YA book explores the world of stereotypes using fictional characters who long to be more than their boilerplate dictates. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who works hard and is true to type, but chafes a bit under perceived Author mismanagement. He is sent to Group Therapy with a set of Manic Pixie Dream Girls — just one step away from termination — in order to learn to “remember his place” and “The Author is always right.” However, when the Trope Town Council decides that perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream trope is more trouble than it’s worth, Riley and his therapy cohort have to come up with something big to show how truly important their trope is.

On the surface this is fun and a little silly and will appeal to the younger part of the YA demographic. However, there is some depth to the discussion of literature, the use of stock characters (stereotypes) and the impact that can have on readers. In the Trope Museum the characters bear witness to old stereotypes that have been “retired” due to being offensively racist, sexist, etc. The Uncle Tomfoolery trope is a prime example. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is on the chopping block for being sexist. But Riley, as an experimental “Boy” version, shows how it may be the association of a particular race, gender, sexual preference with a particular trope that is the issue, not the trope itself. I liked that a lot — there are various personality stereotypes that exist in the world — the damage (I feel) is associating them with whole groups of people based solely on physical characteristics.

*** Spoiler alert *** One more small thing I appreciated. Riley finds himself at the center of a love triangle between Zelda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and Ada, a “Developed” girl in the novel he is working on. At the end of the book, all three step off into the sunset on the Termination Train to Reader World without having to resolve the triangle. They are happy to pursue their own lives and see where it takes them without necessarily “winning” the boy. When I was growing up, just about every movie I saw and book I read focussed on the girl falling in love with the right boy. Regardless of her other pursuits, if she didn’t get the boy at the end, she felt like a failure. Since I was never taught this explicitly, it was difficult to question to the premise. Fiction has a powerful ability to teach us norms of expectations and behavior under the covers as it were. I like the not-so-subtle messages in this book.

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

The last of the three!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Pushkin Press through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 12, 2019

An utterly delightful re-publication of a classic children’s series from the 1940s. I’m both embarrassed that I never knew this series existed and happy that I get to discover it now. Originally published in 1941, the author began work on it in 1938 when she was 14 years old — helping to explain why the children all feel so authentic. Maggie Smith says, “I wanted to act before I read this book, and afterwards there was no stopping me.”

This story follows seven children from three families in the town of Fenchester (based on Colchester in the UK) as they found the Blue Door Theater company and forge a future in the dramatic arts. Nigel (15) wants to be a commercial artist and designs and builds all the sets; Vicky (13) is a dancer; Bulldog (13) is a comic and a builder (he does the electric work himself and designs a mechanism to make the curtains “swish”); Jeremy (14) composes music and plays the violin; Lynette (13) is the consummate actress of the group; Sandra (14) sings beautifully and designs and makes all the costumes; and Madeleine (9) acts and works as the group promoter!

What I love about the story is the detail about every aspect of the theater — from converting an abandoned church into an actual theater to writing the pieces to performing them. The children do everything themselves — they create the costumes, they build the sets from abandoned materials, they write the plays and the music and act in them. They learn new skills and use them to create something where nothing had been before. They even make use of one of their mother’s “hair” — the ringlets she cut off and saved ages ago. They also make mistakes and while the story in the book does not revolve around these mistakes, they do lend an air of credibility to the story. Not everything goes perfectly all of the time! I also learned a lot about life in Britain in the 40s: an introduction provides currency translations (12 pence to the shilling; 20 shillings to the pound; 21 shillings to a guinea) and distinct art forms like the English pantomime are introduced. Each performance they give is described in great detail as well — the music, the drama, and the comedy.

This is the first volume of five and I’m happy to find that the publisher intends to release them all. Great for fans of Noel Streitfeld.