Monthly Archives: July 2013

Reality Boy, by A.S. King

ImageI despise reality television. Always have. Now, I’m not talking about American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, which are innocuous enough, but rather the shows that put an assortment of poor or wealthy degraded types into a dwelling together and encourage them to act as if they’ve never had a parent. Perhaps it would have been better if they never had. In any case, they are mean and hateful toward one another, cursing, fighting, caring about material things more than people, wearing insufficient clothing, and having injudicious sexual encounters. I despise them because I fear that some less-educated, morally deprived Americans (i.e., about 80% of the population) may wish to emulate them because they think that they’re cool. They’re not cool. They are vermin and should be exterminated.

The very worst of reality TV people put their own children on television. If you don’t think that this is a good enough reason to remove these children from their parents, you will after you read Reality Boy. Gerald’s family was part of a reality TV show beginning when he was five years old and continuing for a couple of years. There was a fake nanny with a fake British accent who tried to rearrange their fake lives and improve his behay-vyah. She refused to believe him and his sister, Lisi, when they told her that their oldest sister, Tasha, was trying to kill them. Tasha was able to perform all of her evil deeds off-camera, so that America’s viewers only saw Gerald fighting back. So, Gerald grew up being labeled as a terror with learning disabilities, when he was really just a normal boy who wanted to live. Needless to say, when we meet Gerald just before his seventeenth birthday, he has years of really ineffective anger management classes under his belt. He goes to special ed. classes, even though he can do linear equations without thinking. His mother and his therapist have convinced him that he’ll never do anything with his life, and his highest goal is to avoid jail time. They’ve also convinced him that he should never have a girlfriend, since he would probably beat her or kill her. So when he works his job as cashier #7 at the hockey rink refreshment stand, he only stares in longing at The Girl at Register #1 and slips off into Gersday, an imaginary world he’s created where everything is perfect and there’s an endless supply of strawberry ice cream. Lisi, in the meantime, has moved to Scotland.

Now is a good time to let you know that Reality Boy is not for anyone who is sensitive to foul language or some of the more deviant of human behaviors. Tasha is truly a piece of work, and part of her problems manifest as sexual addiction when she’s not trying to murder someone. Their parents are completely dysfunctional and hopeless. I doubt that I would have read this book if I did not already love A.S. King, and if I had not become so angry at everyone in Gerald’s life that I had to see if he would ever be able to unwrap the plastic coating he had mentally wrapped himself in. Jail was looking really likely there for a while. I found myself identifying with the hockey mom who comes up to the refreshment stand one night, recognizes him, and gives him a big, sympathetic hug.

If you have the constitution, it is a riveting story with great characters, and it will make you furious. For older teens and adults in October, 2013.

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

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

ImageA middle-aged man goes back to his rural English home for his father’s funeral and decides to take a walk down the lane for some quiet time. When he reaches the spot where a miner had committed suicide in the family car when the man was eight years old, he is suddenly plunged back into memories of those events that began his friendship with Lettie Hempstock, an eleven-year-old girl who lived on an old farm with her mother and grandmother.

After the miner’s death, odd things begin to happen. The boy finds money all over the place, but it is old-fashioned money that is no longer in use. Once, he finds a silver shilling lodged in his windpipe as he wakes from a dream. When Lettie hears about these happenings, she decides to take things in hand before someone is hurt, and she knows just where to find the creature who is causing the trouble. Lettie, who is probably not really an eleven-year-old girl, tells the boy not to let go of her hand, but he accidentally lets go—just for a split second—and in that instant, his heart is pierced by an icy shard.

No one writes horror more beautifully than Neil Gaiman. The book’s small size and child narrator may tempt you to believe that this is a children’s book. It is most assuredly not. It is an exquisite nightmare, punctuated by solid, English hominess. After being forced to go into his bathroom to perform stomach-churning surgery on himself, the boy goes on to read a whole series of what appear to be Enid Blyton novels, full of ordinary boarding school stories. Although he has witnessed otherworldly terrors, he is comforted by a hearty English dinner in the farmhouse with Lettie’s mother and grandmother. This is so quintessentially British. I read Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Patricia St. John as a child, and part of their message seems to be that if you give children good, plain, English food and send them out into the fresh air, everything will come ‘round in the end. Unless, of course, the creatures outside want to kill you. And what is Daddy doing in the drawing room with the nanny? And what is the nanny, exactly?

ImageGaiman’s children’s novels, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, are deservedly decorated, but even his adult novels often have a childlike quality to them, a deceptively innocent air. This novel certainly does, as does Stardust. They are rather like fairy tales with even more of an edge than the Brothers Grimm. Gaiman seems never to have lost his memories of what it is really like to be a child. He has great sympathy for children, and does not consider childhood to be a carefree time. In the 2012 Zena Sutherland Lecture, he stated:

Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them. (Find this in his journal here.)

Many of the worst situations that children in his novels face come as a result of the negligence or bad choices of the adults who were supposed to protect them. On the other hand, he also portrays wonderful, caring adults, such as Lettie’s mother and grandmother. Lettie is an ageless character, in many ways, and when the boy opines that grown-ups are not afraid of anything, Lettie says:

I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world. (P. 112)

I can highly recommend this enchanting and frightening tale to older teens and adults. If there is an audiobook in the works, do plan to listen. Neil Gaiman has a wonderful voice, and he reads most of his own audiobooks. In the meantime, you can go to YouTube and watch his commencement address called “Make Good Art” which was also made into a book that I recently gave as a graduation present. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go listen to that speech again right now!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My gushing opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

ImageCather and Wren’s mother was not eager to have a baby at all, and when it turned out to be twins, she couldn’t even bother to come up with a second name; she just divided the one she’d chosen in half. When the girls were eight years old, she threw in the towel for good. They found out about her decision on September 11, 2001, so while the rest of the country mourned, Cath and Wren cried for a different reason. Bonded together more than ever, the twins spent their time taking care of their sweet but unstable father and writing fan fiction about the incredibly popular Simon Snow series. Cath did most of the writing, and Wren was her beta reader. By the time they went to college, Magicath had thousands of regular readers.

Cather imagined that life would continue as usual, fitting in her schoolwork around her fanfiction writing, but Wren wanted the full-on college experience. She arranged to have a different room from her sister, made all new friends, and did not fit her schoolwork in around drinking and partying. Cather’s roommate was aggressive and hostile, and her boyfriend was nosy. Furthermore, the boy who was assigned to be her writing partner in one of her classes was riding on Cather’s writing skills, and even stealing her ideas and words. After one assignment, Cath was shocked to find out that her professor did not consider fanfiction to be original writing! She protested the failing grade that she’d received, and her prof gave her the opportunity to make it up, but Cath held out on principle. While Cath dithered on raising her grade in her most important class and Wren continued to implode, Cath’s romantic life became very complicated and their father chose that moment to have a breakdown.

Rainbow Rowell has written a complex and delightful coming-of-age novel in which every character needs to come of age: the main characters, the roommates, the boyfriends, and the parents.  Furthermore, Rowell has created her own metafiction! The very Potteresque Simon Snow is the creation of another fictional author, and there are excerpts from that series scattered between chapters. In a second layer, there are bits of Cather’s Simon Snow fanfiction between chapters, and long segments reprinted within the narrative of the top layer, which is Cather’s real-life story, in which she writes the fanfiction. It seems complicated, but the reader will sail through without a single hiccup.

I am a huge Rainbow Rowell fan, and I’ve read all three of her extant novels, all of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. While many of my friends loved Fangirl the best because they identify with Cather’s emotions and experiences during college, Eleanor and Park is still my favorite. This may be because (shocking children’s librarian confession) I liked, but did not love, Harry Potter. I mean, I liked Harry personally, and wanted to take him home and feed him, but I did not love the books. Plus, I was an adult with a young child when Harry was first published, so he had nothing to do with my college days. Tolkien, yes. Harry, no.  Be that as it may, Fangirl can be loved all for its own sake, and I do love it. I just love Eleanor and Park more.

Rainbow RowellA friend of mine met Rainbow Rowell at Book Expo America in May and called me at work immediately, squealing because she knew I was a big fan. I asked her if Ms. Rowell was as nice in real life as she seemed on the back flap of her books, and she said she was even nicer. I’m always glad to know that a person I’ve spent so much time with lives up to my mental image!

I can highly recommend Fangirl to pretty much everyone, but particularly teens and college students—especially nerdy ones and readers—as well as adults who are Harry Potter fans, too. If you don’t fit into any of those categories, read it anyway, plus Rainbow Rowell’s other great novels. Fangirl will hit the shelves on September 10th.

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

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The Boy on the Wooden Box, by Leon Leyson

“He who saves a life saves the world entire.”- The Talmud

The Boy on the Wooden BoxLeib Leyson was eight years old when his family moved from his parents’ ancestral village of Narewka, Poland, to the then-capital city of Krakow, where his father had taken a job that would help his family to live more prosperously than they could in a small town. His mother missed her family, but Leib was entranced by the beauty of a city he had only seen in pictures and heard about in stories. He went to school, played with friends, and lived securely with his loving, Jewish family. Jews made up about a quarter of Krakow’s residents, and everyone lived and worked together amiably.

Toward the end of the 1930s, the Polish people began to hear rumors that Germany’s Führer, Adolph Hitler, wanted to amass more land for Germany, and that he had begun blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong with the country since their humiliating defeat after World War I. Like most people throughout history, they found the news disturbing, but putting food on the table and other daily routines crowded out any time they might have had to worry about whether these far-off events would ever affect them personally. Gradually, though, Leib’s friends began to shun him, and his teachers called him names. In 1939, his brother, Herschel, joined a group of Jews running east to escape the German soldiers. They never saw him again. The Nazis arrived in Krakow, closed Jewish businesses, and broke into Jewish homes. Orthodox Jewish men were beaten on the streets. Nazis took over the formerly Jewish companies, and Leib’s father was allowed to keep his job only because he spoke German. One night, the Nazis broke into Leib’s family’s apartment, beat his father and dragged him to prison on trumped-up charges. He was released several weeks later just as randomly.  Soon after, Jewish children were forbidden to attend school, and Leib’s formal education ended at the age of ten.

One day, Leib’s father was asked to perform a menial task for a Nazi-owned business. When he was done, the owner offered him a job. Since his family needed food, he accepted, however distasteful his decision may have been. Little did he know that that moment saved his family’s lives, since the owner of the business was Oskar Schindler. Although the Leyson family suffered cruelly in ghettos and work camps throughout the duration of the war, Schindler put all of their names on his list of expert machinists and metalworkers, ensuring that they would not be sent to Auschwitz or any of the other Nazi death camps. Even Leib, who was tiny for his age because of extreme malnutrition, worked at a machinist’s post in Schindler’s factory, standing on a wooden box in order to reach the controls.

The author of this moving memoir, who now goes by the name of Leon Leyson, was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, and he did not reveal his past to anyone in his new American home until after Stephen Spielberg’s famous movie. If you have seen the movie, you will know about the personal sacrifices that Oskar Schindler made for his group of 1,200 Jewish people, posing as one of the Nazi party faithful while shielding helpless people from the horrors he had witnessed at the hands of his own countrymen. There are so many fictional accounts of Holocaust survivors and other true stories of Jewish people’s rescue by righteous Gentiles in Europe, but a memoir of a Jewish boy’s rescue from the Nazis by a Nazi brings up all new questions and explorations of the human spirit. Most shocking to me in all of these tales is the ease with which long-time neighbors and friends will turn away from those who are “officially” marginalized, turning a blind eye to the suffering of those they should protect, often looking to their own safety. Sometimes those same friends will quickly become their tormentors, allying themselves with the stronger enemy, hoping to profit from the new rulers. Yet even in the darkest times, tiny acts of resistance keep the soul alive. In the Polish ghetto, Jewish rabbis would hold worship services in secret. Groups of Jewish actors would perform skits and theater productions in private, defiantly holding on to art and creativity while being held captive. Leon relates that even if he was too young to understand the comedies, he would laugh anyway, just to show that the Nazis did not own his very thoughts. In much the same way, Oskar Schindler performed little acts of resistance. After one of his renowned parties, he would walk into the factory where the Jewish machinists were working and speak to each of them, calling them by name— which was illegal. Sometimes he would “accidentally” leave a pack of cigarettes beside Leon’s father’s workstation so that he could sell them for food. He called Leon up to his office, ostensibly to reprimand him, but after chatting for a few minutes, he would slip him some bread.

leon-leysonAnd thus, in small and unseen ways, Oskar Schindler brought over 1,000 Jewish people through the years of World War II, spending all of his fortune on bribes to Nazi guards and food for all of his workers. There were so many opportunities for all of it to collapse, including once when Leon, his father, and his brother were in line to board a train to Auschwitz. The family was separated, reunited, and separated again.  At the end of it all, Leon decided to leave Europe entirely and emigrate to the United States, where he continued his education, taught high school, married and had children and grandchildren. He died this past January at the age of 83.

I was honored when Baker & Taylor’s Jill Faherty emailed to tell me that she had given Simon & Schuster my name to receive one of the five manuscripts of this book that they had allotted to B&T. I had heard of the title and was very interested in it, since the movie Schindler’s List was so powerful. Once I received it, I read the 207-page manuscript the very next day. Regretfully, I cannot quote from the book, since the manuscript is not the final product, but there were many moving and thought-provoking passages that made me stop reading to consider my own heart and our own times. The Boy on the Wooden Box will be released on August 27th, and I highly recommend it for older children, teens, and adults. The opportunities for discussion are limitless.

Disclaimer: I read a manuscript copy of this book, provided by the publisher. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. My thanks to Jill Faherty of Baker & Taylor and Victor Iannone of Simon & Schuster.

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Three New Paleo Cookbooks

I am always on the lookout for new recipes, and one of the popular diets that often intersects with low-carb cooking is the Paleo Diet. There are new resources for this way of life hitting the market all the time, and our library just received a slew of them. One that we have not yet seen is Paleo Cooking from Elana’s Pantry, Elana being a longtime gluten-free blogger that a friend of mine has enjoyed for years. While we wait, here are three of the latest.

Paleo cookbooks today are more sophisticated than the early attempts, and as such, they are more apt to roam far afield in their use of ingredients, as if avoiding the Deadly Whites (flour, sugar, rice, etc.) is the biggest qualification for the prehistoric digestive system. The Mason & Staley cookbook Gather, for example, is heavy in the use of arrowroot, which boasts 113 grams of carbohydrate per cup. I must ask the question: Did prehistoric man have copious groves of arrowroot growing around the cave? Does arrowroot even grow in groves? Maple syrup, also, seems to have been in abundant supply, so I’m thinking that Paleolithic man must have lived in New England or Canada. Throw in all of the coconut aminos, endive, and macadamia nut oil, and one might conclude that some of these recipes are aimed at your metrosexual-type caveman.

Be that as it may, these are three very different Paleo cookbooks, all useful and one even very elegant. Very nice if you’re bored with roasting your mastodon the same old way every night.

ImageThe Paleo Slow Cooker: Healthy, Gluten-Free Meals the Easy Way, by Arsy Vartanian. This is a lovely, big cookbook with a picture on almost every two-page spread. The recipes are mostly meat-related, of course, with flavors from around the world: Chinese, Indian, Bulgarian, French, Italian, and so on. By and large, the ingredients are items you work with daily, along with typical Paleo ingredients, such as coconut milk. So many people are lactose-intolerant these days that coconut milk is easily available. I did spot some kaffir lime leaves, though, and I have no idea what those are. Happy hunting. It is a little disconcerting to have the live animal in an adorable picture before each new meat section, particularly the “Aww!”-inspiring lamb, but I guess that keeps us carnivores honest. I really think you crock pot enthusiasts will like this one.

ImageThe 30 Day Guide to Paleo Cooking, by Hayley Mason and Bill Staley. More than just a cookbook, this is a guide for those who are considering the Paleo Diet and need a primer with 75 recipes attached. A large paperback that begins with inspirational success stories and an explanation of the diet that cover the first 50 pages, this title is a very useful manual with tips, meal plans, and shopping guides. The recipes are laid out on two-page spreads with a picture on each recipe. Can you tell that pictures are important to me? I’ll rarely make a recipe if I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like. Very nice recipes with mostly everyday ingredients, although I did spot some Himalayan sea salt on one list. The degree of exotic runs from the simple Smoky Country Ribs to Fajita Lettuce Wraps with Chipotle Aioli. New Paleos will be off to a solid start, and veterans can pick up some great new ideas.

ImageGather: The Art of Paleo Entertaining, by Hayley Mason and Bill Staley (again). This gorgeous, glossy cookbook fills a real gap in the whole Paleo lifestyle: how to entertain and celebrate occasions with non-Paleo types, all with style and beauty. If The 30 Day Guide is beginner Paleo, this is advanced. Filled with photographs of elegant table settings and jubilant family members, Gather is arranged as a year of occasions: tea parties in spring, a tropical getaway in summer, a spooky supper in the fall, and a hunter-gatherer feast in the winter, just to name a few. After a thoughtful introductory section about planning gatherings in general, each event begins with a description, a menu, and a page of “shopping and preparation,” with instructions for make-ahead details. For example, the “Takeout Fake-Out” has activities for three days ahead, one day ahead, and one hour before dinner. The recipes follow. No problem with a lack of photos of the food here. While most of the recipes contain fairly common ingredients, some do have either seriously Paleo or seriously foodie items. Low carbers beware, too. Lots of arrowroot flour and maple syrup. They do offer substitutions sometimes, though, such as “if you don’t have wahoo,…” or “if you don’t have chocolate raspberry balsamic vinegar,….” I don’t, actually, although the vinegar sounds good. This is a fabulous cookbook for those who plan to make the Paleo diet a permanent feature of their lives, but who want to continue to feast with friends and family without feeling limited or deprived. Beautiful.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these cookbooks. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All the Truth That’s in Me, by Julie Berry

ImageWhen eighteen-year-old Judith returns to her Puritan village two years after she disappeared, even her mother considers her a ruined young woman. After hearing Judith struggle unsuccessfully to tell her tale with the half a tongue that her captor left to her, her mother is so repulsed that she forbids her to try to talk. Judith knows that Lucas— the boy she has loved since they were both children— is lost to her forever, even though she can never tell him why. Her captor was his father.

One day, three ships show up in the harbor, and the village is under attack from the “Homelanders.” They have almost no ammunition, but every able-bodied man and boy prepares to defend the women and children who are sent to hide in the woods for at least temporary safety. Judith watches Lucas and her younger brother, Darrel, gather weapons, and when she sees the crates of gunpowder, she has a sudden memory of such boxes in the cabin where she was kept as a prisoner for so long. It becomes clear to her that Lucas’ father—who has been presumed dead for years— is the person responsible for stealing the town’s arsenal. Since she has no way to communicate her knowledge to others, she realizes with dread that she will have to risk her freedom and return to him to beg him to save the village, at least for the sake of his son.

Thus begins a terrifying and anguishing story of guilt and innocence, love and hatred, and above all, sad misunderstandings. Told in second person, Judith relates this tale directly to Lucas in her mind, hoping desperately that he will see beyond the conclusions that the town aldermen draw about her. Each time events seem to lead to a just conclusion, something else happens to bring the innocent into danger again.

One doesn’t usually think of a Puritan village as the setting of a thriller, but Julie Berry crafts this story brilliantly, slowly peeling back the truth and showing us that we, too, have made assumptions about Judith, her captor, and several other characters that turn out to be false. I came to care so deeply for Judith that at times I held my breath to see what would happen to her.

My friend, Valerie, has been leading the Printz Club at her library for years, and I will occasionally ask her what the club is loving at the moment. It was early in the publishing year that Val told me that her own current favorite was All the Truth That’s in Me and sent me an advance reader copy. I’m so glad she did! I can highly recommend this one to both teens and adults when it is available in September. You won’t be able to put it down.

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

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Blood & Beauty, by Sarah Dunant

ImageRodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, knew a thing or two about marrying off one’s children strategically in order to gain power. But wait, you say, a pope with children? Indeed, in the Middle Ages, popes held tremendous secular power, and rising through the ranks in the church was a very effective way to further one’s wealth and political standing. In her new novel about the Borgias, Blood & Beauty, Sarah Dunant portrays Alexander as a man who would argue that the rule was that priests were not allowed to marry, and he didn’t marry! However, he did have at least two long-term mistresses, one of whom he married off to a cousin and then kept for himself.

Rodrigo’s eldest son, Cesare, is the “prince” about whom Machiavelli wrote, and his only daughter, Lucrezia, has been portrayed as the quintessential evil woman for centuries, having been suspected of poisoning her husbands. (My brother used to call his ex-wife Lucrezia Borgia.) However, Dunant does not subscribe to the “wicked Lucrezia” line of thinking, but rather considers her an innocent girl who was manipulated by her father and older brother—at least in this first novel. There is a sequel to come! After all, there are far too many murders, intrigues, marriages, liaisons, and wars to fit into one novel.

Sarah Dunant is famous for her romantic and steamy historical fiction, but this one leans much closer to biography than her earlier work. Thankfully, she includes a complex family tree at the beginning with solid lines for legitimate children, dashed lines for illegitimate children, and sometimes lines that seem to cross. There is also a map of the city-states of Italy in the fifteenth century, which is helpful in keeping up with wars and marriages. This is an absolutely absorbing read filled with fascinating characters, and although I’m sure the author took some fictional liberties, the fact that these people really lived and the events chronicled really happened makes the pages turn that much faster.

I enjoy diving into a juicy historical fiction novel or biography, and lately I have been frustrated that I just can’t watch any of the historical series on TV, including The Borgias. We started to watch The Tudors, but I was shocked at how much sex and nudity there was in the series! I really don’t consider myself to be a prude, but I am floored at how casually Americans watch other people having sex these days. I am Tudored out anyway, much as I love Henry and Elizabeth. I’ve been watching and reading Tudor stories since middle school (not that they had middle schools when I was that age), and now the only other story about them that I plan to follow is the third in Hilary Mantel’s excellent series that started with Wolf Hall. By the way, I am a Catherine of Aragon sympathizer—can’t stand Ann Boleyn. But that’s another post.

If you’re ready to travel back in time with an engrossing family story full of romance, treachery, and devious characters that just happens to be true, I can recommend Blood & Beauty. I refuse to peek at the rest of the story on Wikipedia before the sequel comes out. Can’t wait!

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, and it will be available to the public on July 16th. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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