Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

Dutch HouseMaeve and Danny Conroy sit in her car across the street from their childhood home. They smoke endless cigarettes as they reminisce, keeping their resentment of their stepmother alive and smoldering. Their father had bought the huge, glass-fronted house out of foreclosure after the original Dutch owners were gone. He had hoped that their mother would be thrilled with this surprise. She was not. She was so sickened by the idea of wealth and privilege that she left her two children with the servants, and a few years later Andrea showed up with her two daughters. Cyril Conroy was so busy with what had become his real estate empire that, in his kids’ opinion, he married her because it was easier than making her go away. Whether or not Andrea loved Cyril is debatable, but she certainly loved the Dutch House.

Patchett tells this tale in Danny’s voice. When their mother leaves, Maeve is eleven and Danny is four, so Maeve becomes all things in Danny’s world: mother, sister, friend. Maeve’s sudden sickness is diagnosed as juvenile diabetes in a day when syringes were boiled and insulin dosages were sketchy. Although their servants were kind, they could easily be dismissed, and so Danny stood on a brittle foundation every day of his young life: all of his caretakers could disappear in a blink. Central to his existence was their absurdly glorious home. The Dutch House was their shelter, their joy, and then later, their idol.

The Dutch House is the story of a brother and sister’s love that survives the betrayal of their parents, their divergent paths as adults, and the complications of other relationships. It is a story of revenge and a wisdom that takes a lifetime to arrive. Maeve and Danny are so different, and they often disagree with one another’s choices, but they allow one another to stretch the bonds to follow separate destinies. They are pulled back together by the house and their anger toward the woman inside.

Ann Patchett’s writing is superb, as always, and since I listened to the audiobook, Danny will always have Tom Hanks’ friendly voice. As a matter of fact, if you are able to listen to the book, it is a worthwhile experience. I am a character-driven reader, so living with the injustice of Danny’s life was emotional and engrossing. Maeve was a more difficult character, but the reader comes to realize that her chosen solitude allows her to nurse a gaping wound. The ending, in my opinion, is perfect, and I so, so want to live in the Dutch House.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to a downloadable audiobook of this novel. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Join the No-Plastic Challenge!, by Scot Ritchie

Join the No Plastic ChallengeNick and his friends live by the seashore, and today they are going to have a picnic for Nick’s birthday. Unfortunately, they have seen the devastation that single-use plastics are causing for the land and animals around them, so they are attempting to have an outing without using any plastic. This diverse group of kids spends time in a home, a store, a fast-food restaurant, and the outdoors, offering elementary-school level information and suggestions for alternatives.

Although most people are unaware of how terribly severe this problem is, the positive tone of this title will motivate readers from knowledge into action. Plastic bags, disposable water bottles, and other single-use plastics are ending up in the stomachs of birds and fish, as well as other animals, and when we eat them, we ingest microplastics, too. As noted in the book, “every piece of plastic ever made is still around today!” (p. 22) However, the book’s goal is not to induce guilt, but rather to change habits. After describing the manufacturing process to produce plastic, the author notes the many excellent uses of plastic, particularly in medical needs. He even points out that some people with disabilities depend on plastic straws for drinking, removing some of the hysteria over plastic straws.

Ritchie gives many child-sized recommendations for alternatives to single-use plastics, and as an adult, I continued with online research, as well. We have been recyclers for decades, but I am concerned with the amount of plastic packaging we receive that cannot be recycled. After reading this book, I ordered a set of mesh bags for buying produce at the grocery store. Along with our canvas shopping bags, it’s one small step that we can take to reduce the growing demand for single-use plastics. Reading this book will help your kids to start thinking about conservation, but it will also cause the adults in the room to become much more aware of the ubiquity of plastic in our lives, and awareness is the first step to solutions.

Remember the Jeopardy champion who said that his secret to success was reading children’s books? As someone who selects children’s nonfiction for a large library system, I couldn’t agree more. We are all seriously fascinated by a few subjects, but we have a lively interest in hundreds more! Life is too fun and too short to be a world-renowned sage on all things. Well-written children’s nonfiction fills this gap perfectly. In addition to this book, also check out You Are Eating Plastic Every Day: What’s in Our Food?, by Danielle Smith-Llera.

If it can cause each reader to make one small change for the better, Join the No-Plastic Challenge 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 or anyone else.

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The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

downstairs girlJo Kuan makes hats that the ladies of Atlanta adore, but she was fired because Mrs. English worried that employing a Chinese girl might hurt her reputation. Besides, she says, Jo is a saucebox. Old Gin arranged for Jo to get her former job back as a lady’s maid for spoiled, short-tempered Caroline Payne, but what Jo really wants is to write for the Bell family’s local newspaper. She knows a lot about the newspaper business, since she and Old Gin secretly live in the Bell’s basement, and she eavesdrops through an old abolitionist’s listening tube right under the print shop. Jo overhears young Nathan Bell worrying about declining subscriptions, so she forms a plan that will benefit them both. When she anonymously submits an “agony aunt” advice column to the paper, subscriptions begin to climb, and Jo takes on the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.”

Chinese immigrants were brought into the South for a brief span of years to take on the manual labor formerly filled by African slaves. In the post-reconstruction, segregated region, they occupied a social position just slightly above blacks, but certainly outside of the realm of wealthy whites. In this novel, many Atlantans reacted to their existence with surprise and confusion. Since Jo was wittily articulate and had a flair for fashion, her presence seemed an affront to the wealthy, simpering debutantes.

Young Jo lives in a world of secrets. No one knows that a Chinese girl is the true identity of the controversial, pro-suffragist Miss Sweetie, nor does anyone ever ask where she lives. On the other hand, Jo does not even know her own parents, and she is similarly in the dark about her exact relationship to Old Gin, the only guardian she has ever known. Old Gin is filled with secrets of his own, both about the past and about his dealings with the shady characters that flit through the stables at the Payne’s estate, where he works. While Jo schemes to uncover the frail old man’s situation without his knowledge, she has learned that information can be powerful. Jo holds several secrets in her pocket that gain her a bit of privilege, but she is well aware that her hard-earned life could easily collapse like a house of cards.

Stacey Lee has created an immensely likeable and intelligent protagonist in Jo Kuan. This diligent and hardworking young woman is so focused on straining upward for herself and Old Gin that she pushes her own feelings away. Ever practical, she ignores her heart, since she knows that romantic relationships across ethnic boundaries are illegal in any case. In her carefully regulated society, crossing boundaries leads only to punishment and shame. Lee skillfully weaves the political issues of Jim Crow laws and women’s suffrage into a coming-of-age tale filled with family entanglements and the fierce struggle for individual freedom.

Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

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 That We Knew, by Alice Hoffman

World that We KnewHanni knew that the Nazis would soon find them. Her mother was too sick to move, so she had to stay in Berlin to care for her, but she would find some way to get her fourteen-year-old Lea out of the country. Hanni pled to the rabbi’s wife, but she refused to help them. However, her daughter, Ettie, overheard the plea and offered to use forbidden kabala magic to help Hanni if she would pay for her and her sister to escape, as well. The women gathered to create a golem that they named Ava, an inhuman creature who looked like a young woman and was tasked to protect Lea at all costs. Before Ava could be discovered, the four young women boarded a train bound for the closest safe place: Paris.

As the reader knows, Paris was anything but safe during World War II, and the four fugitives struggle to stay alive and save their loved ones over the remaining years of the Nazi regime. Not all are successful, but those who survive evolve into beings fit for the new world being born.

With her gift for magical realism, Hoffman moves the plot into interwoven stories, crossing and knotting many strands. Danger, courage, love, and sacrifice define the choices that they make. Alice Hoffman has been an author I have appreciated many times over the years, and in this novel, she is finally writing out the true-life story that a fan related to her decades ago. In The World That We Knew, Hoffman combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and a hint of fantasy. 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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Two New Ones for Kids

Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds

Look Both WaysThey go to school together, but these kids have different challenges and joys. Jason Reynolds writes ten interwoven short stories that reveal the lives of a diverse group of young people as they navigate the ten blocks from school to home. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, sometimes funny and sometimes gross (an entire story is based on booger jokes), these kids will give you hope for the future of our cities that you may not find on the evening news. Reynolds is a master storyteller, so this middle grade book is an accessible, sneaky introduction to short stories for your kids. Be prepared: the lightly written emotional undercurrents will knock you flat.

 

I Am Walt Disney, by Brad Meltzer; illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

i am walt disneyBrad Meltzer was a successful adult thriller writer who hit a gold mine when he decided to write some biographies of worthy role models for his kids. The series is called “Ordinary People Change the World,” easily recognized by the big-headed caricatures on these small picture books. One of the latest is I Am Walt Disney, which gives a child-oriented overview of the man whose youthful scribbles evolved into spectacular animated movies that changed the world. He called his childhood home in Marceline, Missouri, “the happiest place on earth,” and then grew up to create fantasy parks with the same motto, vacation destinations that have families saving their pennies for a week in paradise. Eliopoulos draws four-year-old Disney with the same mustache and suit that he sports in later life, moving through his precocious teen and young adult years, his marriage, and his mature awards and achievements. On a recent talk show, Meltzer revealed that the Disney company was so appreciative of the “Ordinary People” series and its values that they opened up archives for this slim bio that had never been public before. All of the volumes in this series are highly recommended for your four- to eight-year-olds.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Look Both Ways and a library copy of I Am Walt Disney. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingHer mother walked down the dirt road out of the marsh to escape her violent, drunken husband in 1952, when Kya was only six years old. Without her protection, Kya’s older brothers and sisters slipped away, as well. Kya was the youngest. For the most part, her father seemed to forget that she existed and spent days at a time in the bars in town, leaving his little daughter to fend for herself in the marsh. Every once in a while, he left a little money on the table, and Kya learned to start the boat motor and buy grits at the store. She ate the edible weeds in the yard, and during a short stint of sobriety, her father taught her to fish. The truancy officer got her to school for one day, but it didn’t stick. The kids were so mean to the “Marsh Girl” that Kya hid whenever the official lady came back, so eventually she gave up.

Kya’s life changed when Tate, a boy from the town, started to leave her gifts of rare feathers. She remembered that her mother had been an artist, and she learned to draw and paint the feathers and then all of the tiny creatures in the marsh. She organized her specimens, and when Tate taught her to read, her collections grew into full-fledged scientific pursuits. Although she did not mix with the townspeople, she did spy on the group of popular kids her own age throughout the years, especially the high school quarterback, Chase Andrews.

Interspersed with the chronological narrative of Kya’s growing up are chapters set in 1969, when a couple of little boys discover the dead body of Chase Andrews under the fire tower. The sheriff and the town doctor cannot figure out how he died. There were no footprints leading up to the tower— not even Chase’s own. No tire tracks, no fingerprints. On the surface, there seemed to be no motive to kill the most popular young man in town, but in fact, there was no end of jilted lovers and jealous husbands on the suspect list.

The first unforgettable character in this novel is the marsh itself. Owens describes the plants, the animals, the soil, even the very air of lowcountry North Carolina so intimately that the reader feels the heat, the grit, the crawling life of the place in every pore. Kya feeds the gulls every day, and she knows them each as individuals. She scratches a garden together and forages for whatever grows wild. Her collections are labeled with not just the bird’s species, but the placement of the feather and the bird’s gender. She navigates the lagoons by tide and current, watching the weather and the waves. This watery landscape is as much a part of Kya’s desperate story as the plot and the other characters.

What can I say about Where the Crawdads Sing that hasn’t already been said? I am late to this party, but I’m so glad I came. The holds on this book continue to climb in our library catalog, and it’s been out for over a year now. The novel takes place about two hours east of where I live in North Carolina, and yet it’s a world away.

Where the Crawdads Sing is somehow slow and compelling at once, with the sort of ambiguous ending that makes it a favorite for book groups. Kya’s story is unforgettable: a strong young woman, a female-American Émile who struggles to survive outside of the bonds of community, whose essence is formed not by human culture, but from the marsh itself.

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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Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the SeaLittle Margaret has never known another home besides the island, and she has never known another mother than the nuns in the convent. A great ship visits them every spring and fall with provisions from the mainland of Albion; otherwise, they work to provide for themselves between times of prayer. Such is the peaceful rhythm of their days.

One day, a ship arrives at the island off schedule. William, a boy about her own age, becomes her friend and playmate. Margaret realizes that William is unhappy and wants to go back to Albion, but he can’t, because his father is in trouble. It is William who lets Margaret know about the political upheaval on the mainland, and it seems that his family is on the wrong side of power at the time. Years later, William has been taken back to Albion, and another ship has come with an imperious young woman, Eleanor, who is in the keeping of the Reverend Mother, who has authority over all of the obedient sisters of the Elysian order on the island. When she overhears a conversation with the Reverend Mother, Margaret learns who her parents are and what grave danger she is in.

Dylan Meconis explores themes of freedom, knowledge, and power in this luminous graphic novel based on the exile of Elizabeth I under the reign of her sister, Mary. Margaret is happy on the island until William is taken to prison in Albion, and she is content to live out her future in the convent until she finds out her true identity, and then she is conflicted over whether or not it is her duty to use her power for good.

This is a large volume with ivory-colored pages recalling medieval parchments. Most of the illustrations are done in rich colors and realistic style, but the style changes with the content. When someone is telling Margaret a story, the illustrations look like a child’s drawings, and when a character is reading from a document, the font becomes Gothic calligraphy and resembles a manuscript. Margaret loves needlework, and the illustrations of her embroidery may be photographs. This graphic novel contains more text than most, and the reader will learn a great deal about the ordinary work of the late middle ages, as well as the inner workings of a religious order. The story is beautiful and compelling, but taken as a complete package, Queen of the Sea offers an experience beyond simple prose.

Graphic novels are not usually my first choice of format, but as a lover of art and history, I can highly recommend Queen of the Sea.

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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