When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Manon

When Dimple Met RishiDimple couldn’t believe that her Indian parents had allowed her to attend the summer Insomnia Con at San Francisco State University. Perhaps all her years of arguing with them had finally convinced them that girls could attend college in order to pursue a career, not just to seek a husband. Whatever the reason, here she was, basking in the sunshine at SFSU, ready to build her dream app and win the competition. Suddenly, her daydream was interrupted by a male voice saying, “Hello, future wife. I can’t wait to get started on the rest of our lives!” She threw her cup of Starbucks at him.

While Dimple had been rebelling against her parents’ expectations all her life, Rishi had been dedicated to more than fulfilling his. As the oldest son, he felt that it was his obligation to carry on his culture’s traditions, the old ways that he loved and honored. Although he was an artist and had no interest in computer science, he planned to go to MIT and succeed in business. And although he also had no interest in coding or creating websites, he agreed to go to Insomnia Con to meet his chosen bride, the daughter of his parents’ old friends.

As Dimple worked to recover from her parents’ deception, Rishi struggled to understand that Dimple had never heard of him. While they are still reeling, they are both forced to move forward in the competition and to cooperate with the other students who have traveled from all over the country, hoping to win the prestigious award and the chance to market their invention. These two children of immigrants find their worldviews challenged by this six-week stint away from their families and their comfortable communities. Fortunately, they are both super cute.

This fast-paced, romantic, coming-of-age story is as delightful as its cover. Even the secondary characters go through life changes as adolescents try their wings in this pre-college experience. There is a bit of off-page sex. Menon explores the values and challenges of cultural traditions, class distinctions, parent-child relationships, and being true to oneself while acknowledging that parents are sometimes unexpectedly wise. If you’re looking for a teen novel with, as they say, “all the feels,” this is it. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The World Jesus Knew, by Marc Olson

World Jesus KnewHow could they light lamps in the Bible if there was no electricity? Why were there Roman soldiers when they were in Israel? Did Jesus read the Bible, too?

Christian parents want to read scripture to their children, but we live in such different times that the New Testament is often hard to understand. If we want to reap the greatest benefits from our reading, a broad understanding of Middle Eastern culture in the first century is a big boost. This large-format volume, subtitled A Curious Kid’s Guide to Life in the First Century, is thoroughly illustrated and directed to upper elementary and middle school kids, although adults may find new nuggets of information here, too. Each chapter is a two-page spread explaining one topic, such as first-century clothing, the Jewish calendar, the Temple, crucifixion, the role of women, occupations, and much more. An introduction with a timeline and map sets the stage, and the small font throughout packs in a lot of text. Despite the serious subject matter, Marc Olson writes in everyday language with even a hint of humor at times. This book has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Bear and the NightingaleVasilisa’s mother died when she was born, but Marina had known that she was carrying a daughter who would have the Sight like her grandmother. Pyotr, Vasya’s father, was heartbroken to lose his beloved wife, and he didn’t remarry until his daughter was old enough for the villagers to start whispering that she was a witch. She was a strange girl, talking to the domovoi in the fireplace and the spirits in the barn and forest. They took care of the family, crops, and animals as long as people left offerings to them and treated them with respect.

Pyotr’s new wife, Anna, arrived with a priest in tow. Anna was a royal bride whose marriage conveniently removed her from court where the Moscovites were beginning to catch on that the Grand Prince’s daughter was mad. As a matter of fact, Anna could see the same supernatural creatures as Vasya, but she did not welcome them. Rather, her sanity was being destroyed by fear. At the same time, although Konstantin Nikonovich had planned a powerful future for himself among the clergy of Moscow,  it suited his leader more to banish him to Pyotr’s small village up north, where he could paint his icons and force the villagers to pray to them instead of leaving offerings for Baba Yaga.

Before leaving Moscow with his bride, Pyotr met a terrifying, blue-eyed man in the market who gave him a beautiful jewel the same color as his eyes, telling him to give it to his daughter. When Pyotr showed it to Vasya’s nurse, she promised to give it to her soon, when she was a bit older and could appreciate it more. And yet the years went by, and Vasya did not even know about her jewel the day she wandered too far into the forest on a freezing cold night. Lost and confused, she turned toward approaching hoofbeats and looked into the blue eyes of Morozko, the Frost Demon.

Based on Russian fairy tales and folklore, this dark, enthralling story keeps the pages turning with beauty, terror, and a hint of romance. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a strong, courageous heroine who tries to be obedient to her father while remaining true to herself. She does not want to marry or to go to a convent, the only two paths open to women at that time, but she is willing to marry if she must. She also tries to be open to the faith of Konstantin and Anna, but she will not forsake the “old ways.” As in many classic tales, and certainly today, Vasya is portrayed as admirable because she eschews the traditional feminine role of quietness and submission for a more physically active and outspokenly nonconformist life. As a “wise woman,” she understands the ways of nature and cares for the needs of people and animals. These traits gain her the love and admiration of some, yet the fear and distrust of others.

As a believer, the straw man Christianity and the stock character of the evil clergyman were stumbling blocks in what was otherwise a fantastic reading experience. If you revel in traditional, pre-Disney fairy stories, ancient and magical tales passed down in front of centuries of crackling fireplaces, you will rush home to this book each evening. As you finish, you can have the joy of knowing that the sequel to what is now the “Winternight Trilogy,” The Girl in the Tower, was just published. Happy reading!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman

Theo and VincentTheo Van Gogh was four years younger than his brother, Vincent, and yet he supported him, both financially and emotionally, all of his life. Born in the Netherlands, Vincent moved around Belgium, England, and France in an effort to figure out where he belonged. He did not grow up wishing to be an artist, so when he made the late decision to start painting, he spent years just learning his craft. Theo worked as an agent in an art gallery, and he sent Vincent money for rent, paint, and the little bit of food that he ate. Vincent went for incredibly long walks, worrying his family with his gaunt, disheveled appearance. His worldview was so different from anyone else’s that when he asked Theo to send him more money each month so that he could rent a larger apartment for the prostitute and her children whom he had taken in, he could not understand why Theo refused. He sent sketches and paintings to Theo for critiques, since he knew that his brother was acquainted with all of the latest trends. Once he saw the use of light and color in the works of the Impressionists while on a visit to Theo in Paris, Vincent was inspired and worked feverishly to turn out an amazing amount of art in his short and tragic life.

Known as a post-Impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s artistic understanding is unique. Although he learned from the Impressionists, his thick brush strokes and symbolic elements move him past their more representational style. Perhaps as a result, he did not become financially successful in his lifetime, and his most famous works were created in his last few years. Heiligman demonstrates that it was his sister-in-law, Theo’s widow, who was largely responsible for introducing the world to Van Gogh’s genius.

Vincent Van Gogh portrait

Self-Portrait

Since these two brothers kept up a steady correspondence throughout their lives, sometimes with more than one letter each day, Heiligman was able to obtain plenty of primary source matter for this double biography. Many others have written about Vincent Van Gogh, but never springing from this relationship that was central to his life. The author follows the brothers from their childhood through their deaths— so close together— and she never shies away from the mental health issues that plagued them increasingly as adults. Their sister, as well, ended her life in a mental institution. Vincent did have some sort of medication, which he seemed to take sporadically, and today he would probably have begun taking medication for bipolar disorder in adolescence, which begs the question of his genius. Would Vincent Van Gogh—and so many other artists and creators—have given their gifts to the world if they had been “normal”? And what is “normal”? Is longer life more important? And who gets to decide?

The best books are the ones that make one think, and I’m still thinking about this one. My only wish is that the author had included more photos of Van Gogh’s artwork, and had referenced the included ones in the text. I looked up a lot of things on Google Images, only to discover a few of them later in the book. This thorough biography was written for teens, but includes details that make it unsuitable for younger readers. It’s on the short list for the Youth Media Awards in February, both in teen literature and nonfiction categories, and it is a worthy candidate, indeed.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Mythology and Poetry

I have been reading right along this past month or so, but I have not taken the time to tell you all about it. Here are two brilliant offerings for those looking for a break from novels.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology

Neil GaimanWhat could be better in the deep midwinter than to read tales of the frigid North country? Here are many of the ancient songs, retold by a master storyteller. Sure, you could go see Thor in 3-D, but Gaiman shows him in all his pre-Spandex strength and bluster. Loki is despicably charming, whether he is truly helping the other gods or just saving his own unworthy hide, and all the characters speak in conversational, contemporary English. Although this is a friendly introduction to the Scandinavian tales, it is not for children. The gods, after all, were grown-ups, and they were not always—in fact, they were rarely—virtuous.

Devotions, by Mary Oliver

Devotions

mary-oliver-c-mariana-cook-2012-1-I had come upon Mary Oliver’s poetry in other collections, including Kwame Alexander’s Out of Wonder, reviewed here, but I had never read an entire volume by her before. I couldn’t decide among her many books, and so I was glad to start with this collection of poems from her entire body of works (so far) called Devotions. Most of Oliver’s poems are meditations on nature, and here they are collected from newest to oldest. They are simple and evocative, sometimes drawing upon her Christian faith, and the words flow from a long lifetime of living outdoors. The ocean figures largely here, but lest you picture a Caribbean island, Ms. Oliver and her partner live in chilly New England, with its hardy wildlife and pebbly beaches. Her poetry spoke to me so deeply that I asked for and received a copy of her latest volume, Felicity, for Christmas.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Norse Mythology, and I read a library copy of Devotions before I received my own copy of Felicity. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

Hazel WoodWhile Alice was growing up, her mother, Ella, moved them around every six months or so, trying to outrun the bad luck. Friends around them would get hurt, or strange people would approach Alice, and Ella would know that it was time to move on. In all those years, Alice never met her grandmother, a famous author, nor had she read her book, even though she loved to read. As a matter of fact, she had never even seen a copy. It was not for lack of trying. Alice had haunted used book stores, scoured online, and followed up every possible trail to obtain a copy of The Hinterlands, but they were always gone before she got there. Although she couldn’t read her grandmother’s dark fairy tales, their effects still seemed to follow them everywhere.

When she found out that her new school project partner, Ellery Finch, was a fan of her grandmother, Alice was disgusted. The internet was filled with Hinterland fan fiction, chat rooms, and entire blogs devoted to speculation on her grandmother’s dark world, all of which Alice thought was nuts. Besides which, Finch was crazy rich, with all the privileged blindness that entailed. Thing is, as she got to know him, he was just so darned nice that it was hard to push him away. The day that she came home to find her mother gone, the apartment filled with a green and rotting smell, and a chilling clue left on her pillow, Alice ran to Finch, knowing that he could somehow guide her to her grandmother’s home, the Hazel Wood, and from there into the heart of the Hinterlands.

Ripping back the Disney façade that fairy tales have assumed for the past few decades, debut author Melissa Albert weaves a creepy tale that teams the Grimm brothers with the Unseelie Court, together punching a hole in the twenty-first century space-time continuum. There are a few meta-fictive elements, giving the reader a complicit chuckle without distracting from the immersive experience. Dreams turn to nightmares, no one can be trusted, and reality is illusion.

Garnering six starred journal reviews, The Hazel Wood is poised to hit it big when it is released in January, 2018. Written for older teens and adults, there is some strong language throughout. This is one of the most engrossing and compelling books I’ve read in a long time, and if you like fantasy or fairy tales—as I surely do— you will not want to miss it. Read it with the fire going and the lights on.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

Almost SistersThat little flutter in Leia’s belly makes her face the reality that Batman will be with her forever. Single and in her late thirties, she has decided to embrace her last chance at motherhood. Perhaps she had a bit too much fun at the Con where her famous graphic novel, Violence in Violet, was lauded before adoring fans, since she was several tequilas in when the Dark Knight ended up in her room. Now she can’t remember his name, and time is running out for her to find a way to tell her family before they can see the evidence for themselves.

Leia didn’t see the text that her step-sister sent, canceling the family’s weekly brunch, so she witnessed the messy break-up for herself. Standing in the collapse of Rachel’s marriage, Leia’s phone exploded with texts and calls from Birchville, Alabama, where her grandmother, the last reigning Birch, had just given scandalous evidence of her advanced dementia by revealing every dirty secret of her beloved First Baptist Church, and even her dear friend Wattie had been helpless to stop her. With her crushed thirteen-year-old niece in tow, Leia is rushing down to the small-town South to save the day, and as she drives, she realizes that one thing about Batman may suddenly become important. She does remember that he was black.

What is a graphic novel artist doing in a Southern chick-lit novel? How did this light read that I chose for fun end up so full of important issues? This is the first novel that I have read by Joshilyn Jackson, although a friend who is an expert reader’s advisor recommended her Gods in Alabama to me a couple of years ago. Always trust librarians, especially when they know you well.

In this novel, Jackson explores the phenomenon of two realities, two truths, existing at the same time and in the same place. This theme is woven throughout the story, and always through the lens of personal experience. She writes from the inside. When she describes the warm and loving Southern small town, where everyone knows and cares for everyone else, we feel the truth in our hearts. When she describes the cold and vicious Southern small town, where race and class divide everyone into rigid groups and hatred simmers just below the surface, we also feel the truth in our hearts. It is not a choice between two options; both are real, and it is just as appropriate to rejoice in one as it is to mourn the other. Similarly, her wide-ranging criticisms of the church are obviously made by a believer. Invective from an outside observer was never so insightful. Institutions that have forgotten the love of the gospel message can never be mended by emergency casseroles.

Beloved characters and a many-layered plot come together with Jackson’s friendly style to create a story that is more than meets the eye. Not just a glass of sweet tea—maybe with a bit of bourbon. I have a trip to the beach coming up, and Gods in Alabama is definitely coming with me.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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