Monthly Archives: June 2022

Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta

Principal Jack Weede is finally going to retire from Green Meadow High School, and he assures Tracy, his loyal vice-principal, that she is a shoo-in for the spot. Tracy begins schmoozing all the right people, even though it goes against her introverted nature. She begins with the school board president, who throws out the idea of a GMHS Hall of Fame, to which Tracy, eager to seem positive, says, um, sure. The whole town is eager to fete the former football hero, while Tracy had thought that there were so many more important achievements to celebrate. When she lets out the slightest hint of her thoughts on the award, the whole promotion process begins to unravel.

Nothing comes easily to Tracy Flick. As Perrotta says at one point, everyone respects Tracy, but no one really likes her. In his 1998 novel, Election, she had been raped by a GMHS teacher at the age of fifteen and has been living under a cloud of suspicion ever since. Surely it had to be her fault. Now, decades later, she is a well-educated, middle-aged woman who has been carrying the load for the aging principal while raising her daughter mostly on her own. She is due.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, and the protagonist has a very familiar voice for this Elementary fan: Lucy Liu. Most of the other chapters are read by various male voices, and each of Perrotta’s characters is well-rounded and believable. The author views his people and the world they inhabit with a jaundiced eye, sometimes sympathetic, but often with a bite of sarcasm. Tracy herself is a very flawed character, and yet the reader still roots for her, cheering when she battles forward, then cringing when she trips again. The fact that Tracy still works in the same place where her most traumatic days took place is both troubling and revealing.

The author takes on the patriarchy and the #MeToo Movement so convincingly that I looked him up to make sure that Tom wasn’t short for Thomasina or something. (It’s not.) Beyond the skillfully entwined themes, though, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a great read, just the kind of engaging novel to pack in your beach bag.

Disclaimer: I listened to an “advance listening copy” audiobook of this novel, provided by and Simon and Schuster Audio. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Dead Sea Squirrels, by Mike Nawrocki

Michael and Justin didn’t set out to disobey Dr. Gomez. Justin was well aware that he was fortunate when Michael’s archeologist dad had invited him along on this middle-Eastern dig during summer vacation, so he was diligent and punctual at all times. When Michael wandered into a cave beside the Dead Sea, though, didn’t he have to pull him out? Later that night, he slept on while Michael slipped out of their tent.

Merle and Pearl Squirrel were on holiday at the Dead Sea, where Merle was fascinated with his own buoyancy, when the noonday sun became oppressively hot. They slipped into a nearby cave, just to cool off for a bit. Their little respite lasted several thousand years.

I had to laugh when I saw the name of this series, but it all made sense when I saw that the author was the co-creator of Veggie Tales. The first title is Squirreled Away, an early elementary chapter book that delivers a wee bit of education with a dollop of humor in a very boy-centric adventure story. Spoiler alert: Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel make it through customs, and the whole story ends on a creepy cliffhanger.

Christian parents hoping to slip some Bible history in with a spoonful of cinnamon sugar will enjoy this fun series by Tyndale House.

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 Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak

Fredegund was born a slave, but her shrewd mind and political ruthlessness made her indispensable to Chilperic, the king of Neustria. Once he had disposed of his first and second wives, he married Fredegund for life. She was extremely capable of producing sons, but not so blessed with keeping them alive.

Brunhild was an educated Visigothic princess from Spain who traveled to Francia to become the wife of King Sigibert of Austrasia. As a royal daughter, she knew how kingdoms were run, and immediately began to make allies among the dukes and bishops. She also provided the son and heir, as well as a couple of daughters. As a matter of fact, life was pretty pleasant until Fredegund had her sister, Galswintha, assassinated so that she could become queen of Neustria in her place.

This was the heyday of the Merovingian Dynasty in what is modern-day France, spilling over into most of western Europe. King Clovis conquered the land from the Romans, and his son Clothar divided the kingdom among his four sons: Charibert, Sigibert, Chilperic, and Guntram. He also had an illegitimate son named Gundovald. The more familiar practice of having the eldest inherit everything may seem unfair, but dividing up property in this way kept royal brothers at one another’s throats their whole lives. Women inherited nothing, and inconvenient females were killed off or packed off to a convent. Queens were no exception.

Author Shelley Puhak delves deeply into original sources to unearth the influence that these two queens had over a large portion of Europe in the latter decades of the sixth century. Both of the women were trusted advisors to their husbands, but when they outlived the kings, they continued as regents for their very young sons for many years. They waged war, forged alliances, and wielded power brilliantly and often ruthlessly. Fredegund rode out with the troops and was feared as an expert assassin. She has been called the inspiration behind the Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. Brunhild built roads and abbeys, wrote copious letters, and enlarged her kingdom. She was friends with both Bishop Gregory of Tours and Pope Gregory. Both men respected her, although Gregory of Tours, in particular, generally despised women. Brunhild is the inspiration for Brunhilda of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the Valkyrie of mythology draw from the legends of these two fearless rulers.

Puhak became aware that the record of the women of this era had been deliberately erased, since the men who wrote the history deplored the idea of women having power. Although she had written essays and poetry in the past, she dug into the surviving manuscripts and the scholarly research to assemble this revealing portrait of the Merovingian era. Sprinkled with paintings and artifacts throughout, the narrative is followed by an almost 20-page bibliography, fifty pages of notes, and an index. In the front, Puhak placed a map of the western world in the sixth century, as well as a much-needed Dramatis Personae. I consulted this list frequently, since there was more than one Clothar and two Gregorys, not to mention a Charibert, Chilperic, and a Childebert. This Childebert thought it would be fun to name his children Theudebert, Theuderic, and Theudelia.

This volume of history is eye-opening not only for the lives that are brought to our attention, but also for exposing the systematic cover-up that kept this knowledge from us for centuries. Let us hope that continued scholarship will bring us even more fascinating stories of influential women from our past.

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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Answers in the Pages, by David Levithan

Donovan read a couple of chapters in the new book Mr. Howe had assigned, then left it in the kitchen while he went to watch tv. Before he realized what had happened, his mom came home from work and read some of it. She told him that she felt that it was inappropriate, took it away from him, and started calling up the other mothers in Mr. Howe’s language arts class. Donovan was filled with confusion. What in the world could be wrong with The Adventurers? He knew that his mom read the ending pages of a book before she started it. If only he could see those ending pages now!

Gideon loved turtles. He had 84 of them, but only Samson was a real, live turtle. The others were wood, stone, stuffed, or blown glass. When his teacher assigned Harriet the Spy to the class and had everyone partner with another student for a project, Gideon was secretly pleased to be paired with the new boy, Roberto of the dimpled smile. Roberto enjoyed writing in their project notebook and thought Gideon’s game of finding all the words he could within longer words was cool. He even thought turtles were cool.

In between chapters about Donovan or Gideon, the author, David Levithan, has inserted chapters of the fictitious challenged book, The Adventurers, which is an over-the-top, 1950s-style story in which Oliver, Rick, and Melody have fantastical capers involving escapes from cages hanging over boiling geysers, outsmarting bears, and motorcycle rescues wearing handcuffs. In the audiobook, these pages are read by an older man with a melodramatic voice whom you expect to say “lads” or “chums” any second.

Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Gideon’s story happened in the past, while Donovan’s story is building up to the climax at the school board meeting. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Howe, is a gay man with a husband, and it is difficult to find any glaring problems with the book he assigned. Donovan suspects that his mother is concerned with the violence, but his classmates point out that the last page hints at an attraction between Rick and Oliver. On the other hand, Gideon and Roberto’s story does blossom into a very young romance, which is completely accepted by Roberto’s parents. Levithan, a gay man who is a prize-winning author, brings these three storylines together unexpectedly at the end of the book.

David Levithan

In this era of book banning that sets parents against teachers and librarians, with school boards often capitulating to the loudest voices in order to secure reelection, the ones who get lost are often the children. Levithan explores the experiences and emotions of two vulnerable pawns in the censorship game: the child whose mother is leading the charge and the child who identifies with the character in the book being challenged.

Levithan has written this middle grade novel for fourth to sixth graders, and parents can also read it to consider how they would have approached the situation differently, if at all. Levithan’s books, particularly his teen novels, have been among the most challenged books for years, so he has had time to consider the process and its effects on kids. If the reader gets only one conclusion from Answers in the Pages, it would be that it is so important to talk to—and listen to— your own children before speaking in public.

Appealing and thought-provoking, this is one of the first children’s books on this topic. I look forward to reading A.S. King’s book on censorship coming out in September.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook 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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