Category Archives: Book Reviews

Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram

Darius the GreatDarius has never met his Iranian grandparents face to face, although he dutifully participates in the incredibly awkward weekly online phone call. Now, however, his babou is seriously ill, and the whole family is boarding a plane in just a few days.

Not that he will be sorry to take a break from the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy at school, but the trip will throw him into very close quarters with his dad, whose German ancestry and Aryan appearance have earned him the name The Übermensch—but only in Darius’ mind. Darius inherited his mom’s Persian looks, along with his dad’s tendency to clinical depression. The two of them bond each evening over an episode of Star Trek. Otherwise, Darius is convinced that his father thinks of him only with disappointment.

In Iran, where he is called Darioush, his whole family visits the ruins of his namesake’s palace. They stay in Iran long enough to celebrate several Zoroastrian holidays, and Darioush learns to love his grandmother, Mamou, and to be wary of Babou. He makes his first real friend, Sohrab, who is a soccer fanatic and convinces him to play almost every day. Darioush finds out that he is not a bad player; he might even be talented. The depression never leaves, though, and as family dynamics are rearranged, Darius is confused about where he fits in, or if he does at all.

Darius is one of the most lovable characters ever written. I had purchased this book for the library, of course, but had not read it until it won awards in January’s ALA Youth Media Awards. I started this teen-boy novel dubiously, but was drawn in when it opened in the tea shop where Darius works. I thought I was a dedicated tea drinker, but this guy is a serious tea connoisseur. His passion for tea is woven throughout the entire book. Once he got to the part about watching Star Trek every day, I was in. Throw in Zoroastrianism, which I find fascinating, and the fact that Darius reads The Lord of the Rings whenever he has a moment of quiet, and I was ready to adopt this kid. He is also a tender and loving older brother, although his sister’s precocity does cause some realistic sibling tension.

A complete change in environment sometimes allows us to have a new perspective on things that are so familiar that we can’t see them anymore, and tragedies force us all to grow and change. Perhaps saying goodbye to Sohrab revealed deeper feelings than Darius expected. Perhaps confronting his dad revealed the struggling man beneath the Übermensch. Perhaps going home will never be the same.

Family, culture, love, and the desire to belong fill this coming-of-age novel that is very 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.

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Pay Attention, Carter Jones, by Gary Schmidt

Pay Attention Carter JonesIt was pouring outside and screaming inside the day the butler showed up on the Jones’s doorstep. Well, not a butler per se, but a gentleman’s gentleman. Not that there were any gentlemen for Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick to serve in Carter’s house—not yet, anyway—but only Carter, his mom, and a bunch of younger sisters. And the reason why Carter is the only male in his house is the unfolding and sorrowful mystery of his story.

Like Jeeves stepping into Wooster’s dissolute life, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick stepped into the Jones household and imposed calm and order. He made everyone tea and forced them to like it. He knew how to fix little girls’ hair, and, since Mom’s Jeep had broken down, he drove them all to school in a huge purple car that Carter called The Eggplant. As each child left the car, he brought his vast umbrella around, leaned down, and said, “Make good decisions and remember who you are.”

Carter is having a hard time remembering who he is since his dad has not come home from his military deployment for some time, and he seems to have stopped answering Carter’s emails. The sense of dread the reader feels as this situation develops creeps higher as the pages turn. Someone else is also missing from Carter’s life, but he works hard to avoid thinking about that.

Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick seems to know far more than is possible, but he plans to cure all of life’s ills with cricket. The game. He takes over Carter’s school’s front lawn, and somehow the coach is swept along with the butler’s unstoppable will. He plans practices on Saturdays, even though they take place at the same time as Ace Robotroid and the Robotroid Rangers. Soon the diverse student body seems to reside in the English countryside.

Gary Schmidt is a professor at Calvin College and one of the finest children’s authors around, and he always writes with a light and humorous hand that only highlights the heartbreak beneath. Children’s lives are filled with challenges every day: schoolwork, making friends, pleasing teachers and parents, and trying to figure out life as they go. When tragedies occur or the adults in their lives have major problems, the children carry these burdens inside themselves, too, even when they are expected to continue with their regular routine. Everyone needs a Jeeves to step in and straighten it all out.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones is fun, sweet, and deeply moving. It’s perfect for readers ten and up and anyone who wants to learn the intricacies of that marker of all that is good and noble in society: cricket.

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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American Princess, by Stephanie Marie Thornton

American PrincessAll she wanted was her father’s approval, but when Theodore Roosevelt looked at his daughter, Alice, all he saw was his beloved wife who had died giving her birth. Alice loved her stepmother, but Edith had a brood of younger children taking up her time, so Alice lived her life finding ways to get attention.

Of course, she had had a good education, especially for a woman, so her father endeavored to use her popularity with the press to his advantage. He sent her on photogenic foreign trips and made sure that she repeated all the approved party lines to the press. She was charming and witty, but journalists are always sniffing for a whiff of scandal. Alice’s friends were not the most virtuous ingénues in Washington, unlike her boring cousin Eleanor, and she loved living on the edge. Her parents read the society pages each morning with trepidation. Alice carried on so scandalously with Nick Longworth that it is a wonder that she didn’t find herself with child before they finally married. After many years of marriage, however, she decided that she was unable to conceive a child, only to find out during her affair with Senator Borah at age 40 that, surprisingly, that was not the case.

The first part of Thornton’s novel reads like a historical romance, and I admit that I was disappointed. As Alice grows older, however, the story becomes more serious, as well. Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was born in tragedy, and her long life was punctuated with sorrow. She was witness to— and often in the center of— great historical events, including the turn of the 20th century, two world wars, and the first moon landing. She held salons filled with the movers and shakers of government, and she traveled all over the world. She outlived almost everyone she knew, and she knew almost everyone. Her later years found her meeting Queen Elizabeth when she was just a sweet young thing of 50 and Jacqueline Kennedy just after she became Jacqueline Onassis. She never lost her wit or her spunk before she died at the age of ninety-six.

This enjoyable novel is perfect for students of twentieth-century history, admirers of the heroic lives of great women, and anyone who enjoys a ripping story filled with far too much action to fit into one life—except that it did.

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.

** This is the cover of the galley that I read; however, the cover will be updated before publication on March 12th.

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An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

american marriageCelestial and Roy had been married for a year now, and they were just beginning to talk about babies when they went to visit his parents for the holidays. While they were fast asleep in the middle of the night, police broke into their hotel room and dragged Roy away. An old woman he had been kind to earlier in the evening had been raped, and although she couldn’t see her attacker in the dark, she pinned it on Roy. He went to prison for being a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their families were in shock, and a well-connected uncle immediately went to work to get Roy released. Celestial visited him regularly, and at home she toiled harder than ever to succeed in her doll-making business, along with the help of her childhood friend, André. Roy got a new cellmate, an older man who became a mentor. The years went by, and they each made a life for themselves. Nothing happened as they had planned, but they had to keep on living and making the best choices they could.

Tayari Jones’ novel, an Oprah pick and on many “Best of 2018” lists, deals with a myriad of issues that tie into and flow out of one another. Certainly, racism in our criminal justice system is front and center, but while news stories concentrate on the injustice to the individual, Jones takes us inside a relationship, a young marriage that is imperfect and just trying to find its footing, but filled with hopes and dreams waiting to come to fruition. When the husband is incarcerated, it is not just a crime against him, but it also tears a rift across his wife’s life, the lives of his parents, her parents, their friends, and even the children they might have had. It creates a ripple effect spreading out from their little circle of two.

Jones also examines marriage itself. All couples bring baggage into a relationship, and who can say what would have happened if Roy had never gone to jail? Perhaps he would have been successful in business, or perhaps his uneasiness about the difference in their families’ finances would have overcome him. Perhaps he would have been supportive of Celestial’s business, or perhaps jealousy may have made him petty and broken their marriage apart. Perhaps children would have healed all of their problems, or perhaps they would have thrown them into sharper relief. Celestial and Roy will never know what their marriage was meant to be, because their involuntary separation has become the defining issue of their lives, and while that may not be the true cause of every problem they face, it will certainly bear the blame.

This compelling story reveals the complexities of all American families, generations filled with secrets and bound by blood, love, betrayal, and compromise. The chapters are told in turn by the main characters, giving the reader a sympathetic understanding of everyone’s perspective. All of the characters are realistically flawed, and I remember telling a colleague one morning, “At this point, I’m just furious with all of them,” but I couldn’t wait to get back home to see what happened to them. Celestial and Roy will get under the readers’ skin and stay with them long after the novel is closed.

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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Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

louisiana's way home“The day of reckoning has arrived,” said Louisiana Elefante’s granny before she packed her in the car at 3 AM and headed away from their home in Florida. Somewhere near the Georgia state line, Granny started moaning and moved into the back seat, leaving twelve-year-old Louisiana to drive off the interstate and find a dentist in a strange town.

The problems all go back to the curse of sundering that Louisiana’s family has carried ever since her magician great-grandfather sawed her great-grandmother in half on stage and neglected to put her back together. Her trapeze-artist parents, the Flying Elefantes, died long ago in a tragic accident, and she and Granny have only one another to lean on. However, as Granny often tells her, she is wily and resourceful, and besides, she can sing.

Louisiana will need all of her resourcefulness, as well as that of her new friend, Burke Allen— son of Burke Allen, son of Burke Allen—to help her with the unexpected catastrophes that befall her in this delightful and tragic story. Readers may remember Louisiana from DiCamillo’s earlier novel, Raymie Nightingale (reviewed here), in which we learn that she is the winner of the Little Miss Central Florida Tire beauty pageant. Two years later, she is still taking her grandmother’s practical and somewhat devious advice, such as:

“It is best to smile. That is what Granny has told me my whole life. If you have to choose between smiling and not smiling, choose smiling. It fools people for a short time. It gives you an advantage.” (p. 11)

Kate DiCamillo is one of the most consistently excellent children’s authors living today. She turns out book after book for younger and older children, and all are instant classics. Her distinctive characters– from porcine wonders to heroic mice to diminutive beauty queens– are stalwart and brave, even when their circumstances are tragic. The dialogue is precocious, hilarious, and poignant. DiCamillo understands that children are rarely in control of their lives, but that there is enough love in the world to rescue all of us, if we can just find it—or give it.

Although Louisiana is twelve, this is a middle-grade novel, like its companion. It is not necessary to read Raymie Nightingale in order to enjoy Louisiana’s Way Home, but why would you deprive your child of the chance to read two Kate DiCamillo books?

Very 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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A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike and Trina Schart Hyman

Child's CalendarOur library system runs a report to find titles that are getting low on copies, and we selectors review it to find the gems that need to be re-ordered. Some titles and series are deservedly going out of print, but others are beloved classics that every library should keep forever. I was intrigued to find A Child’s Calendar— which I had never read— on that report, so not only did I order more copies, I also checked out a copy for myself.

I knew John Updike as the celebrated author of adult books like Rabbit, Run or The Witches of Eastwick, and many others, and was unaware that he had written this collection of poems for children. Originally published in 1965, Updike made many changes and reprinted the volume in 1999. There is a poem for each month of the year, sweet and nostalgic, with traditional families and realistic humor. Here is the last stanza of the March poem:

The mud smells happy
On our shoes.
We still wear mittens,
Which we lose.

Child's Calendar interiorPerhaps the best part of this discovery was that Updike chose one of my favorite illustrators for the updated edition. Trina Schart Hyman uses rich colors and black outlines to create busy, charming family scenes. Her diverse children and adults live in mostly rural and small-town settings, displaying both the labor and laughter of everyday life. There is usually at least one hilarious detail in each tableau, and despite the beauty of the illustrations, they are miles away from treacle.

Snow WhiteHyman illustrated more than 150 books in her lifetime, many award winners. She won a Caldecott Medal for her version of Snow White, a more traditional and serious rendition than the Disney story, with heartbreakingly beautiful pictures. A Child’s Calendar won a Caldecott Honor. My first introduction to her work was as a homeschooling mom when we read Margaret Hodges’ St. George and the Dragon, a selection from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, in which England’s patron saint rescues Una, the one true faith, from the evil dragon of heresy. St George and the DragonBut your child doesn’t need to know all that. It’s just a great adventure story, with a handsome knight, a beautiful maiden, and a scary dragon. Besides the full-page paintings, Hyman decorates the text in the fashion of a medieval manuscript. Poring over the details is a delight.

 

Surprisingly, Updike and Hyman were both born in Pennsylvania and later moved to New England. As a result, there is much more snow in their calendar than we will ever see in North Carolina, but our warm children can experience sledding and icicles in these pages. Other scenes of planting, raking leaves, and going to the beach may be more familiar. This is a book to treasure for generations.

A lovely way to feed little souls.

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 Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Faithful SpyIn every age, during times of greatest crisis, there are unlikely heroes quietly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such man, a theologian and pastor who died trying to assassinate Hitler before he could slaughter more innocent people.

There are many excellent biographies of Bonhoeffer, and he was a prolific writer himself, but John Hendrix has created an entirely new type of work by producing a graphic novel biography for teens. In just green, red, black, and white, the pages convey danger and tension, with emotive drawings and hand lettering that tell the story of Dietrich’s childhood and young adulthood, his travels to Rome and the United States, and his evolution of thought and faith that brought him to his resolution to join a plot against Der Führer. At the same time, Hendrix spins a brief but enlightening backstory of Germany’s history from World War I to the rise of Hitler: how the German people were demoralized and struggling, and the ease with which a dictator can gain power when the people are looking for a savior.

Hendrix succeeds at my top criterion for Bonhoeffer biographies: he is open and honest about Dietrich’s active participation in a political plot without denying, twisting, or trivializing his faith. There are no easy answers here. Bonhoeffer was a pastor of the underground, “confessing” church, a man whose Christianity was the center of his life, but also a man who was determined to kill another man. How he reconciled those two realities is the subject of endless speculation and rivers of ink, but some writers deal more honestly than others.

My only problem with The Faithful Spy is that the printing is sometimes less clear than it should be. Particularly for some passages of very fine print, the coloring makes it nearly illegible. Perhaps teenagers’ eyes will handle this more easily than mine.

In a time that cries out for heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the best. He was brave, intellectual, kind, willing to learn, and yes, faithful. Teens and adults will also enjoy Eric Metaxas’ more comprehensive biography, reviewed here. As noted, there are many books and collections of writings by Bonhoeffer himself. His most famous is probably The Cost of Discipleship, but for an introduction to his thought, the two slender volumes Life Together and Letters from Prison are quite accessible.

John Hendrix is also the author and illustrator of the dazzling picture book biography, Miracle Man, reviewed here.

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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