Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Writing: 5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another middle school age book snuck into my (overwhelmingly large) pending reading pile yesterday by means of the “bookseller recommends” shelf at the local Indie bookstore. Inspiring, heart warming, and laugh-out-loud funny, it features a 12 year-old, highly gifted misfit as its heroine. Willow Chance is a happily adopted, probable genius, with obsessions for medical conditions and plants. She prefers “large talk” to small talk.

As a warning, what starts as a funny book takes a nosedive on page four when Willow comes home to police cars and finds out that her parents have both been killed in a car accident. That felt like a smack in the face. Keep reading — the book gets better and better after that inauspicious start. Mai Nguyen, who only recently met Willow at the counselor’s office where her brother was also “seen,” manages to get her mother to temporarily take Willow in — to their subpar dwellings in the garage behind her mother’s nail salon. Dell Duke is the fairly unlikable, total loser of a guidance counselor, but he too has a pretty interesting (and unexpected) role to play in the proceedings. The action takes off from there.

Though race is not emphasized, most of the characters are clearly of mixed race — Willow is adopted and states that she is “a person of color”; Mai’s mother is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a black GI, and her children have a Mexican father (who left years ago). Did I mention that the action takes place in Bakersfield, California? Not sure I’ve ever come across Bakersfield as a novel venue before.

I could not put this book down — started it around 3pm and finished before I went to bed. Willow is a character you will love — reminiscent of Harriet the Spy or Eleanor Oliphant, middle school style. You will also love the impact she has on those around her. What emerges is a story about family, communities knitting together on the fly, and determination. Fantastic read for adults and middle schoolers alike.

Some favorite lines:

“The instructor, Mrs. King, had just plowed her way through a popular picture book. It featured the hallmarks of most pre-school literature: repetition, some kind of annoying rhyming, and bold-faced scientific lies.” (about her pre-school experience)

“The teenage boy and the man are as close to wild animal observation as anything I’ve seen.”

“When the soil is too alkaline, which can be thought of as being too sweet, you need to add sulfur. I explain this, but I can tell that it’s not a spellbinding discussion for the people I live with.”

“What is more temporary than nail polish? No wonder she has such an attachment to the concept.”

 

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
Children’s fiction — middle grade

New (to me) word: hibernaculum — a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.

I loved this book — a perfect middle school read!

Gusta Newbronner “loses” her father on the bus ride from NYC to Northern Maine. She will be staying with the grandmother she has never met and living in Grandma Hoopes’ orphan home. The time is 1941 and there is general tension around foreigners. The tension is even higher around Gusta’s father who is not only a foreigner, but a union organizer as well. While Gusta sees her father as brave, courageous, principled, and fighting injustice, others see him simply as a foreign fugitive.

The story is full of real and (to me) lovable characters — her grandmother and aunt, the various children staying in the orphan home, new found cousins, and even the two children who represent opposing sides in “the Dairy Wars” in her classroom. Originally shy and unassuming, Gusta comes into her own as she learns to stand up for what she believes in and to fight injustice in whatever way she can. In the meantime she is making friends, getting to know her family and joining the Honorary Orphan Band (playing the French Horn — she appears to be a bit of a prodigy).

The writing is excellent. In addition to delightful language (see examples below), we are treated to intriguing descriptions of the process of egg cleaning (far more unpleasant than I would have ever guessed), the thrill of playing the French Horn, oculism in the 40s, pigeon photography (as in they are trained to take the photos), and magical stories from Gusta’s great-grandfather, the sea captain. I absolutely loved the description of what it was like for Gusta to see clearly for the first time when she was able to get glasses. Masterfully done.

The novel has that genuine feel of a true story — unsurprising as it is a fictionalized account of the author’s mother’s life, supported with extensive research using the local paper archives. I would add this to any middle grade reading list.

Some of my favorite lines…

“The winter must have been picking at the scabs of that road for months.”

“Gusta’s mother was omnivorous when it came to words”

“For a moment, Gusta stood there, just saving the feeling of having someone in the world who was already glad today about seeing her tomorrow.”

“And the heaviness inside Gusta, where all the secrets festered, thickened and increased.”

“She knew from stories that wishes wriggle and cheat — if they even exist at all.”

“It was like she coated all her meanness with a hard-sugar layer of wholehearted sincerity.”

“Georges made the happy sound of someone who has just become a part of the great unfolding history of pigeon photography.”

The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, which will publish November 6, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War. When Najin and Calvin leave Korea for America, they bring with them the older sister — Miran — but leave baby Inja behind with her uncle and grandparents. What was originally meant to be a 1-2 year absence becomes a 16 year separation as first war and then U.S. immigration policies serve as barriers to reunion. When Inja is finally reunited with her “real” family, she is understandably bereft at being torn from her “real” home and family in Korea.
Well-written and full of fascinating, well-researched details of life in both locations as seen through the eyes of a young girl growing up. The time frame spans 1950 through 1973. Inja’s life in Korea goes through the terribly difficult war years, the armistice, and reconstruction before she leaves for America. Ten years later she returns and sees yet another Korea – one that is modernizing under the leadership of Park Chung-hee. The focus on individuality and independence in America is contrasted with a more communal priority in Korea. For Inja, “The comfort of being home, her Korean home, came from fulfilling the drive to belong. But this drive also heightened the pain of division when a single small thing marked one as different, such as Inja having a mother but not having a mother; for Uncle, having her as a daughter who was not his daughter; for Miran being Korean yet not being Korean.”
The role of secrets and the truth in love and family cohesion is a theme throughout the book. A number of painful secrets are kept in order to avoid bringing others pain. Inja has learned and internalized this behavior and reflects on its value: Secrecy is “a way to live in the accumulation of a difficult family history, a way that was a profound expression of love.” When Inja thinks of the many secrets she keeps, she thinks: “These were all precedents that venerated keeping secrets from her mother as being rituals of love.”
This book is genuine and full of insights. It’s a great opportunity to learn history through the eyes of people who have lived it and culture through the eyes of people who embody it. The story appears to be loosely based on aspects of the author’s family which is probably responsible for the natural and honest feel of the prose. While full of feeling, the book is not overly dramatic which I appreciate. For those who enjoyed Pachinko, I found this to be a complementary narrative that further fleshes out Korean culture and history. A great read.

Irontown Blues by John Varley

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Irontown Blues by John Varley, which will publish August 28, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4 World Building: 4.5

A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery, in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley.

Chris Bach is a PI wannabe offering his services on Luna many years after the alien invasion of Earth (which basically depopulated the planet — see previous books in the Eight Worlds Universe for more details on this, but it’s not important for this story). He sets off to solve the case of a woman who has been given leprosy against her will (hard to believe anyone would willingly contract leprosy but in this world of acceptable and reversible extreme body modifications, disfiguring diseases can be a source of amusement for some — hmmm). “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown” — trust me when I tell you that the case does not go where you think it will.

Chris is aided by his sidekick, Sherlock. Sherlock is a CEC — a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine. The tale is told through their alternating voices — Sherlock’s via the aid of a canine interpreter named Penelope Cornflower (β-Penny in Sherlock parlance). The book is worth reading for Sherlock’s story alone — if you’re at all a dog person you’ll enjoy (and crack up at) his interpretation of the world and events. Other cool characters include Chris’ not-very-maternal mother (retired police chief and now prehistoric-reptile rancher), and some pretty nasty soldiers from Charon, a once prison-planet turned … not-so-nice but now fully acceptable part of the Eight Worlds.

Great world building and descriptions of future life, both technologically and culturally enhanced. Surprising plot and interesting characters. Plenty of fun references to our favorite detectives both current and past (Elvis Cole and Marlowe are mentioned a lot as is Hildy Johnson. Heinlein gets a whole subculture.) Threads on libertarian ideals, body modification, creative habitats, and slightly insane AIs, run liberally through the story.

Hugo-and-Nebula-Award-Winner John Varley has been writing since shortly after I began reading, and I’ve read most of his work. His short story collection, The Persistence of Vision, is possibly my number one favorite SF short story collection (which is saying quite a lot). I confess I had lost track of him for the past few years and haven’t read his last couple of novels — but I’ll remedy that shortly.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

new words (to me):
orotund – full round and imposing
obloquy – strong public criticism or verbal abuse

Another strong biography from Walter Isaacson, written in his trademark lucid style and ordered linearly from birth to death. A bonus chapter provides a survey of commentary about Franklin over the last 200 years as his popularity waxed and waned.

Franklin is best known for his discovery that lightning was of the same stuff as electricity (aka kite flying), the surfeit of quotable quotes from his Poor Richard’s Almanack(sic), and being one of the (by far oldest) Founding Fathers of the United States. What was new for me was how many elements of the American stereotype came directly from him. He was driven by practicality and curiosity, had “an inbred resistance to establishment authority,” and was a champion of middle class values. In the 200 years since his death, his legacy has been bandied about both by those who admire these values and those who label them bourgeois and scorn them. In any case, he was the first and they have largely stuck!

He led through seduction, rather than argument; he “embodied a spirit of Enlightenment tolerance and pragmatic compromise”; and he was an inventor and purveyor of scientific curiosity until the day he died. His inventions were legion and he was writing long treatises on scientific subjects to the very end. One of the things I liked best about him was that at 48, once he had built up a large, franchised, printing business that brought him enough money, he simply retired and devoted his time to science and politics. He also refused to patent his inventions from that point forward, wanting to freely share what he had discovered as he did not need more money.

Pragmatism was a core value for Franklin, even when it came to religion. When he was near death, he was asked whether he believed in Jesus. After expressing surprise that nobody had ever asked him this directly before, he replied that “The system of morals that Jesus provided was the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.” But on the issue of whether Jesus was divine: “I have some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

As a Founding Father, Franklin was by far the best travelled, having spent several years in England and France as well as having travelled throughout the colonies as Postmaster General. He was also far more comfortable with real democracy than many of the delegates as he actually trusted “the people.” Yale scholar Barbara Oberg summed up both his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Congress and his life in general saying the speech was “the culmination of Franklin’s life as a propagandist, persuader and cajoler of people.”

It’s a long, comprehensive, book full of details that I didn’t personally always find interesting, but it was easy enough to skim to those that were. However, I found the overarching themes, conclusions, and some of the stories fascinating.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

Thank you to Candlewick Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Excellent middle grade level story about racial tensions in Red Hook, Alabama, on the eve of the gubernatorial election of 1970 (hint: George Wallace wins). Lu Olivera is a fabulous character — she is the quiet and unassuming daughter of Argentinian immigrants who finds her own voice and moral compass as racial tensions manifest in her town and her school.
Lu is one of the few kids who “sits in the middle” in the classroom, with the black kids on one side and the white kids on the other. She finds a talent and passion for running and a new best friend — who happens to be black — to go along with it. As events transpire, and things occur which she knows are wrong, she wants to speak up, but running through her head is always her parent’s refrain: “We’re foreigners. We’re not supposed to get involved.” It’s both a history lesson and a lesson on the perils of conformity, being delivered to just the right age audience.
The characters are real and absorbing, and the plot keeps you on your toes and is appropriate for the middle school audience. The characters are portrayed skillfully as kids who would rather focus on family and friends (and in Lu’s case – boys) than politics but who are reluctantly drawn into these issues nonetheless.
Great book!

 

The Reckless Club by Beth Vrabel

Thank you to Running Press Kids and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Reckless Club by Beth Vrabel, which will publish October 2, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

#middle school readers

A sweet retelling of John Hughes’ iconic “The Breakfast Club” with a cast of middle schoolers and an old-age home twist. The “Rebel”, the “Flirt”, the “Drama Queen”, the “Nobody”, and the “Athlete,” are serving detention by spending the last day of summer vacation helping out in an old folk’s home. Needless to say, they aren’t thrilled. Through a pretty convoluted and fast paced plot, they come to terms with who they are, who they want to be, how to prevent bullying, and how better to understand and have compassion for the aging process. It’s heartwarming, interesting, and even tearful at times. While the bulk of the teachers, counselors, and therapists are good people with good messages, there are also some candid depictions of some not-so-great teachers and quite a few absent and / or deficient parents.

The Reckless Club is reasonably well written with attention given to shifting gender stereotypes (for example, the “Athlete” and the “Rebel” are both girls and the female residents of the old-age home are anything but dull). A number of background situations for each student emerge including divorces, absent or nasty parents, bullying, and unpleasant teachers and school situations. Overall a lot of positive messages about aging as well as getting along with other people in general — the students learn compassion, understanding, and the meaning of friendship as applied both to each other and the old folks they have reluctantly come to help.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters:4

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Women’s prize for fiction short list

New words (to me):
– Amphibrach – a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables or (in Greek and Latin) a long syllable between two short syllables.
– Stomatologist – One who practices oral medicine (at the interface between medicine and dentistry).

Simultaneously poetic and cerebral, this is an extended and (perhaps unintentionally) comic coming-of-age story that follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her first year as a Harvard student. Her thoughts and experiences are meticulously analyzed and comically documented as she takes classes, meets new people, tutors locals, and goes to Hungary to teach English in a small village over the summer. The text considers the perspectives of several foreign students — for example, her best friend Svetlana is from Belgrade and Selin has a book-long infatuation with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. While she takes Russian, we are exposed to Russian culture as perceived via primer texts, and part two of the book is a hilarious travelog of her summer experiences in Paris, Turkey, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside. Selin’s take on things is fascinating — her observations are honest and get to the root of the experience.

The novel is full of intellectual quirkiness: a class visit to a display of E.O. Wilson’s “favorite” million ants; a discussion of aesthetic vs ethical principles; lots of comparative linguistics such as the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian (both agglutinative, have vowel harmony, no grammatical gender) and the use of the miş suffix in Turkish (something that states the degree of subjectivity in what was said). That is just the tip of the iceberg — I loved her commentary on what she was learning and how it was taught — a far cry from the party oriented “college fiction” I was expecting!

This book documents Selin’s development through the year. She is excessively self-aware and says of herself, “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted.” While one reviewer called her “young and stupid,” I think he missed the point completely. She is a social innocent for whom interactions are difficult. She tries to use her intellect to make sense of the irrational word of social discourse and the observations and commentary are hysterical.

The writing is wonderful. Although I wouldn’t bill this as a comedy, I kept laughing out loud. Batuman has this ability to swerve the sentence or phrase half way such that the ending is a jolt that makes you laugh in surprise. This pattern was writ large with the ending (which I will not give away) — similarly abrupt and surprising.

Some favorite lines:

“I said I was easy to entertain. Bojana said it was clear I had never spent five weeks in an Eastern European village.”

“The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.”

“Is there any way to escape the triviality dungeon of conversations?”

A great read if you’re in the mood for a long ponder (my usual state).

 

Head On by John Scalzi

Writing: 5 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 4.5

Classic Scalzi — a cool, well-explored, futuristic world with non-stop and non-predictable action and funny banter. This is the second book in his “Lock In” series. It can be read on its own, but “Lock In” was great, too, so why not read it first?

Both books are mysteries in a sci-fi setting. In this world, 1% of the global population has Haden’s syndrome — a condition where the person is “locked in” to his/her own body. A number of technologies have been developed to support this population — implantable neural networks that link their brains directly to the outside world to humanoid personal transport units (called “threeps” after C-3PO) and an online universe called “The Agora.”

In this installment, FBI Agents Chris Shane (himself a Haden) and Leslie Vann (a female version of the crotchety senior detective persona) tackle a difficult case: the physical death of a Hilketa player during a game in which the play is all via threeps and should be no danger whatsoever to the human player. Hilketa is a (very weird to me) game played by decapitating a targeted player and carrying his / her head across the goal line.

I’m happy to say that Scalzi is back in top form. This is only the second book published after he signed a huge multi-million dollar, multi-year, multi-book deal with Tor. The first book published after the contract was Collapsing Empire — the only Scalzi book I have ever disliked (and I’ve read them all) — so I’m quite relieved that he is back on track.

Great writing and pacing, plenty of plot twists, and generally difficult to put down. I started in the morning and finished as I went to bed (only put it down briefly when I was grudgingly dragged outside to help shovel dirt into the new tomato planter). This is accessible to all readers — similar to Andy Weir’s books (The Martian; Artemis) but funnier, more inventive, and offers more exploration of the cultural and political impact of the technologies in addition to the scientific-technical angles.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Thank you to Crown Publishing Hogarth and NetGalley for an early review copy of Small Country by Gaël Faye, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A powerful coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s. Gabriel (Gaby) is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother living in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. He is 10 years old when the country — filled with hope and expectation — holds its first multi-party election in 1993. This is a personal and humanistic version of the ensuing events in both Burundi and nearby Rwanda. Told from a the perspective of a child, it blends observations of surroundings, tensions, and shifts in the interactions between people who used to simply be “part of the neighborhood.”

Told through the memories of an adult Gaby who is visiting Burundi after living in France for 15 years, the novel is imbued with nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the beauty of the home he remembers, while simultaneously mournful at the irreparable damage done. Beautiful descriptions of the landscape, childhood diversions, and familial relationships. The story is necessarily sad, but not depressing or hopeless.

I hadn’t heard of the author before, but apparently he is a well-known French rapper and hip hop star. Originally published as Petit Pays in France in 2016, the book is the winner of five French literary prizes. You may enjoy listening to his song of the same name – I found it absolutely beautiful: