Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Half-Drowned King, by Linnea Hartsuyker

Half-Drowned KingRagnvald looked up to Solvi the Sea King. The band of warriors was almost home to Norway after viking in Ireland, and Ragnvald foresaw himself spending a lifetime as one of Solvi’s captains, reclaiming his family land, and starting a family of many sons along with his betrothed, Hilda. When Solvi threw Ragnvald overboard and cut his face with a dagger, the shock of betrayal almost outweighed the pain of the knife and the deathly cold of the fjord.

Svanhild waited at home for the return of her dearest brother. Soon Ragnvald would find her a good husband and release her from the bondage of living with her brutish stepfather, Olaf, and his new, favored wife, Vigdis. When the news came of Ragnvald’s death, she had no one to protect her from Olaf’s plan for her marriage to a man who had been the death of many wives.

Filled with frigid landscapes and fierce battles, this fictionalized account of the life of Harald the Fairhaired, the first king of all Norway, rivals ancient sagas in its sweeping scope, and yet, perhaps because of the equal treatment of women’s lives, it opens the chamber doors of small, intimate relationships and domestic dramas. It is all here: family feuds, debts of honor, courage in battle, naked ambition, hidden shame, unexpected romance, and the struggle to transcend the conventions of the past.

Epic sagas have been some of the most memorable works of literature in my life. My medieval literature professor suggested that I learn ancient Icelandic so that I could read the sagas in the original. Even when I was 19 years old, I knew that life was too short for that. Besides, The Lord of the Rings was in English already, so I knew it was possible to have good stories in modern languages. The contemporary appetite for sagas seems enormous, if the spectacular success of The Game of Thrones is any measure. The Half-Drowned King is not as choked with gore as The Last Kingdom, the recent Netflix adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series The Saxon Stories— which I cannot possibly watch— but it does not stint on battle scenes: on land, on sea, and at the dinner table.

Happily, this novel for adults is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to find out what happens to several of the main characters in the future. As Ms. Hartsuyker warns, if you don’t want to know what happens in the end, don’t research King Harald on Wikipedia. But I couldn’t help myself.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of The Half-Drowned King, which is now available for sale. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Long Way DownWill’s brother, Shawn, was shot in front of him. Dead, lying in the street. While Will’s mother tried to drown her sorrow, Will went to the jammed drawer in Shawn’s dresser and got out his pistol. He knew the Rules, the Rules that Shawn lived by, and that their father had lived by before him. Because he loved Shawn, Will had to find his murderer and shoot him dead. He was pretty sure it was Carlson Riggs.

Will had never even touched a gun before, but he tucked the pistol in the back of his pants and got on the elevator. He hit the “L” button for the lobby, but it stopped on the very next floor, the 7th floor, where his Uncle Buck got on. His Uncle Buck, who was… dead.

The ride down to the lobby took one minute and seven seconds, but not a second was wasted. Each floor brought years of wisdom and memories, and the Will that lands in the lobby is seven stories older than the one who stepped into the elevator.

Written in crackling verse, this 304-page novel flies by. Jason Reynolds’ first YA novel packs a whirl of emotions—anger and sorrow, hatred and regret— into a tight economy of words. Here’s the problem for his readers to ponder: There are places where murder is so common that there are established rules for generations of boys to follow when it happens. How can they break out of that cycle of violence?

Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be available on October 24th. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Landscape AndersonAfter the Vuvv landed, they took over the Earth, running all of its government and business, employing the inhabitants as actors for the Vuvv’s entertainment. The Vuvvs found traditional Earth tastes charming, and they would pay by the minute to observe 1950s-style romances. They were mad for doo-wop music and still life paintings. Wealthy people worked in Vuvv enterprises, living in artificial cities hovering over the earth. In the meantime, the vast majority of earthlings were unemployed, and adults with master’s degrees were standing in line for the opportunity to work a food cart, even intimidating and beating other applicants into going away.

Adam’s father couldn’t take the strain, so he left his family in desperate straits, which forced his mother to take in boarders. Adam and Chloe quickly fell in love, selling broadcasts of their faux-fifties dates to Vuvv viewers, romantic scenes of necking in convertibles and whispering, “Gee whiz!” to one another. It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off, and now that the lovers can’t stand the sight of one another, their families may starve for lack of income.

Anderson gave an interview about his book at the School Library Journal’s Virtual Teen Conference last month, saying that the idea for this new work came from his realization that we are all busy curating our lives online for the viewing pleasure of our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. We reveal things that would have been incredibly private just a few years ago, receiving validation of our lives by the number of “likes” we garner. By doing so, we relinquish control of our souls to virtual strangers who insist that we behave in socially-approved ways. There are other political messages here, to be sure, but Anderson is posing a question that others have also been asking, and he is aiming it at a generation who has never known another way of living: How do we get off this racetrack, and who are we when we leave?

The deep philosophical questions raised in this title are conveyed in a fast-moving and thoroughly entertaining story for teens and adults. Some strong language.

Recommended.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahIfemelu sits in a shop in Trenton, having her hair braided before she returns to her native Nigeria. She half-listens to the African hair dressers around her as she thinks back over her life—her childhood in Nigeria and her thirteen-year sojourn in the United States—wondering whether she is making the right decision.

The dream of so many of her friends and relatives was to get a visa to live in America and to make it big, sharing the wealth with all of the family they left back home. Reality was jarringly different. No one wanted to hire an African woman. There were financial struggles and struggles of the soul. After a time, she started a blog, explaining black American culture to non-American blacks. Later, she said that she had never felt black until she came to the U.S. “I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” (p. 499)

The story of Ifemelu’s awakening is a journey of awareness for the reader, as well. Her hopeful and frustrating romances: the experiment, the one who seemed so perfect, the one who got away. Ifemelu desires happiness with another, but the only man who understands her is the Nigerian she grew up with, whom she repeatedly and thoroughly rejected years ago.

Just as a traveler never returns to exactly the same place, so also does a reader never remain the same person after a novel this immersive and wise. We read in order to see the world through the eyes of someone unlike ourselves, and in this absorbing story, we journey with a woman who seeks her fortune in another nation, where there are people who look like her, but do not think like her, and others who look very different. This is a fascinating gaze at our own country through an intimate observer.

Do not miss this bestselling novel by an important author. Adichie’s brilliant and moving Ted Talk on feminism will also allow you to hear her beautiful voice. That accent will follow you all the way through Americanah. In this tumultuous time in our nation, let’s hear from all the reasoned voices, and let’s listen.

Highly recommended.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

The Vanishing American Adult, by Ben Sasse

Vanishing American AdultIt is not your imagination. Although we’ve been saying “What’s wrong with kids these days?” since Socrates, the “kids” we’re talking about now are in their twenties or even thirties. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has been paying attention, and he has some very insightful things to say about Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

When so many adults are living with their parents into their thirties, glued to a screen and not contributing to the household, we know that we’re seeing a failure to launch on a massive scale. We can’t blame the economy any longer, but it may have something to do with anti-free speech riots on campuses. Our young people have come to believe that their lives should be completely comfortable, never demanding sacrifice on their parts, and not requiring them to think too much. With social media, they can communicate only with people who agree with them on all issues, so when real human beings around them have different ideas, they feel justified in shutting them down by any means. In other words, today’s Millenials and Generation Z members are not equipped to take part in the life of a nation that came about as a result of an idea. Our founders expected the citizens of the country to be a moral group of people who read books and discussed issues, and today’s young adults cannot rise to the challenge. Our identity as a nation, and, indeed, our national security, is therefore at risk.

Ben Sasse lays out a program for Americans to follow in order to raise up a generation of adults who are thoughtful, industrious, and courageous. I was surprised at how much I agreed with him until I realized that he is a homeschooling parent, as I was years ago. The first point of his remedial program is to “flee age segregation,” which is astonishing in today’s America. However, shutting children into a room all day with 30 other people their own age and only one or two adults is such a new and bewildering concept. Humans are born into families, with at least two adults and a few kids of various ages, plus perhaps elderly adults. Until recently—historically speaking— people worked and socialized as families, and even the first schools had students of various ages all together.  The stringent age segregation in school, which takes up more and more of a child’s life, is truly a modern aberration in human history. When children spend their days observing only the behavior of other children, they will act like children. When they observe adults, they will act like adults.

Sasse familyThe senator goes on to prescribe hard work and less consumption in order to build character and create productive citizens. He gives statistics that show that many Millenials are perfectly comfortable with materialism as a goal of life. Sasse is raising his children to do serious manual labor and to take satisfaction in their accomplishments. In fact, he advises his readers to take pride in their work because of the contribution it makes to society, rather than continually grasping for more money and possessions. He also recommends that young people travel to broaden their understanding of the world, but not as a tourist would travel. Rather, he advises “roughing it,” or spending time as a student abroad, in order to dig into the real life of the citizens in other countries.

Finally, to my delight, Sasse builds a reading list by imagining that our young adult could only have one bookshelf that holds sixty books. Beginning with an inspiring account of how the Founding Fathers’ passionate ideas were a result of the wave of education that came from Gutenberg’s print revolution, he asserts that the United States can only continue to exist if the population reads the right books and understands the philosophy behind its founding. He divides his list of sixty books into twelve categories with only five books per category, creating what he believes is the canon essential for building a thinking society. He actually leaves a couple of categories blank so that the reader can fill in with the topics that are most important in her own life. If you are a historian or have been educating your children at home for any length of time, you probably already own many of these titles.

Sasse plainly states that this is not a policy book. It is a somewhat political book, and certainly a philosophy book, a parenting book, a self-help book, and a current events book. It is filled with both book learning and common sense. While the author deplores the ignorance and apathy of the rising generation, he presents a positive, forward-thinking plan for the future. Nebraskans can be proud.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Family

All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater

All the Crooked SaintsThe Soria family was driven from their home in Mexico because the people there were afraid of their magical powers, so they settled in the Colorado desert in a place they call Bicho Raro. Pilgrims come from all over the world to ask for a miracle. The first half of the miracle is that the saint will make your darkness visible in concrete form. The second half of the miracle is distressingly difficult and sometimes endless: the pilgrim has to find a way to deal with his own darkness before he is healed, with no help at all from the saint, the saint’s family, or anyone who loves a Soria. If the saint tries to help the pilgrim, his own darkness will come out, and a Soria’s darkness is much, much worse than any pilgrim’s.

Joaquin Soria and his cousin Beatriz run an AM radio station from the back of a box truck that has been abandoned in the desert. Their cousin, Daniel, is the current saint of Bicho Raro. Pete Wyatt is on his way to Bicho Raro, because he has been promised that he can work for the Sorias in exchange for a certain box truck. Unfortunately, Pete is bringing disaster along with him.

True confession: I have been a Maggie Stiefvater fan for years. If she writes it, I will read it. I had no idea how she could follow the spectacular success of her “Raven Cycle” series, but I can tell you now that she did it by changing gears completely. All the Crooked Saints is a love letter to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and all of the other South American writers for whom the veil between the rational world and the world of infinite possibilities is gossamer-thin. Stiefvater’s new work is soaked in magical realism, which means that I am all in from page one. However, the old-world feel of this 1960s story is also shot through with Maggie’s own sly, winking humor. Brilliantly conceived characters and a complex, desperate plot are told through a filter woven of Latino culture and the intricacies of a singular family legacy.

This novel will be available in October, 2017. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a signed advance reader copy of this book, which I obtained at SLJ’s Day of Dialog. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Hate U GiveStarr and Khalil grew up together in Garden Heights, but they’d grown apart these last few years. When they met again at a party and some trouble started up, Khalil offered to drive Starr home before the police arrived. It wasn’t long before Khalil was pulled over for no apparent reason, and Starr found herself crying over his dead body while the cop held his gun on her until reinforcements arrived.

This was the second friend who had been shot in front of Starr, and she was only sixteen years old. In spite of the danger from one of the gang lords, she decided to give evidence in the case, but she hid the truth from her private school friends and even her white boyfriend. Starr’s life had already been complicated. Her father was a store owner and her mom was a nurse, but her father had served time in prison for drug dealing. In the meantime, her uncle was a cop and his wife was a surgeon. They lived in a big house in the suburbs. While Starr and her half-brother played basketball in the neighborhood under the watchful eye of one of the rival gangs, she traveled every day to a school where she was the only black girl in a very white world. Witnessing Khalil’s murder forced her to reexamine her everyday realities, her hopes and dreams, and her loves and loyalties.

It has been said that the Civil War was sparked by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All of the elements were there for years before, but slavery was an intellectual question for most people in the north, and it didn’t touch their lives. Fiction has a magically insidious way of bypassing academic arguments and touching the soul. If you are a middle-class white person, as I am, we can read about racism in America, and we may even see Black Lives Matter protests on television, but then we can say, “Oh, dear! How terrible!” and turn off the TV. We don’t know what to think, and it happens far away (usually), and we just want them to stop so that we can all live peacefully. In a novel, we get a chance to live someone else’s life and to see through their eyes, and all of their experiences happen to us. We feel their sorrows and frustrations because we become them for a time.

I have had the advance reader copy of The Hate U Give for some months, but I knew it would be a gritty, emotional read, so I just kept it in the pile on my nighttable. It’s a debut novel, so when I bought it for our library system, I ordered the standard amount. Then people started to read it, and I’ve reordered twice. The holds continue to climb because everyone is talking about this amazing young writer and her complex, harrowing, yet triumphant story of personal growth and social justice. Fair warning that the language is realistically profane all the way through, so it may only be appropriate for older teens and adults.

Become Starr for a while. She has no easy answers, but she’s holding fast to the truth.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel, which was published in February. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews