Category Archives: Book Reviews

Notre Dame, by Ken Follett

Ken Follett Notre DameKen Follett is the author of the bestselling, massive novel Pillars of the Earth and its sequels, so he knows a thing or two about cathedrals. His novels revolve around an imagined medieval town in the process of building a cathedral, a project that spans generations. In preparation for writing his books, Follett did years of research on real cathedrals, not least of which was Notre Dame.

Follett and his wife were at home in England when a friend from Paris called to tell him that the symbol of Paris was burning. He turned on the television and they watched, stunned and tearful. In this little book, subtitled A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals, he relates to us his personal connections with Notre Dame, and then goes on to help the reader understand the importance of this church– and cathedrals in general– to our history, literature, and our shared culture. Without the builders’ desire for these houses of worship to reach closer to heaven and to be filled with more light, our knowledge of architecture would not have taken the leaps of understanding required to move from the heavy, squat Romanesque buildings to the graceful, lacy Gothic spires.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Follett’s own personal favorite literary work dealing with the cathedral, and he writes of it lovingly. He moves through the centuries to talk about the symbolic importance of the edifice during World War II, and then the birth of his own book in the 1980s. Not including the color plates in the center, this book is only 62 pages long and the proceeds from its sale will be donated to rebuild the cathedral. It is less than $14 on Amazon and so worth it.

I prayed in the cathedral of Notre Dame for the first time in my life about five hours before it burned, so I have a lot more to say about that experience. Please go to www.TheReaderWrites.com for a fuller accounting, with photos.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book and then bought a copy to support the rebuilding of the cathedral. My son bought a copy. The library bought 15 copies. You should buy a copy. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

Tristan StrongTristan met Eddie a few years ago in the school library, where Eddie showed him the notebook full of traditional stories that he was collecting. Eddie didn’t make it through the bus crash, so now all Tristan has left of his best friend is the notebook, and it seems only he can see the green glow peeking out of its pages.

Tristan hasn’t handled life very well since the accident, so his grandparents have come to take him down to their farm in Alabama. He’s just lost a boxing match at school, and his father and grandfather have let him know that Strong men do not lose boxing matches. At this point, Tristan is as low as he’s ever been, so when a little doll made of sap shows up in his room one night trying to steal Eddie’s journal, Tristan ignores his better judgment and takes off after her, smashing into his grandparent’s bottle tree that keeps the evil spirits at bay. Unknowingly, he has ripped a hole in the veil between his home and the world of African folktales, setting that world on fire.

In this thick, action-packed adventure story, Mbalia introduces western readers to a panoply of African gods and goddesses, both good and evil, along with a wealth of African-American folklore. Tristan turns out to be an excellent storyteller, like the spider god Anansi, spinning webs of tales. It is up to Tristan and John Henry to repair the hole in the sky and save his new friends, including Brer Rabbit and his brilliant bunny student, Chesnutt. In order to do so, he has to retrieve the Story Box, which has been stolen from MidPass and taken to a rival kingdom. Tristan’s own mission is to recover Eddie’s journal before he can go home. His friend’s handwritten notebook is mysteriously valuable, and the war to possess it has already caused the death of several beloved characters.

This new novel is part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint. The bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase series is lending a hand to new writers whose works feature non-western mythologies. For those of us at Wake County Libraries, it is a special treat to know that Mbalia is a Raleigh resident who wrote Tristan Strong in our North Regional Library! I also listened to portions of the audiobook, read by Amir Abdullah, and especially enjoyed the sassy voice he gave to the exasperating Gum Baby.

Since Tristan will no doubt return to MidPass in future installments, parents will be happy to know that– for all the superhero action– Tristan is a great kid who is overcoming his heartbreak and self-doubt, and his strongest epithet is “Sweet peaches!” Highly recommended for fantasy lovers 10 and up, especially those looking for more Percy Jackson readalikes.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book—one of the dozens that I bought! Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges

Craftsman's LegacyMy husband actually read this one, but he read so much of it aloud to me and we discussed it so thoroughly that I feel as though I read it myself. Based on the PBS television show of the same name, the book’s subtitle, Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning, was the catalyst for me to bring it home from the library for David.

Gorges worked in the corporate world before opening his motorcycle shop, Voodoo Choppers, and becoming a master metal shaper. After considering the changes in his life because of his creative work, he decided to visit craftsmen in other disciplines to examine the influence their handwork wrought on their minds and souls. Deep stuff for a biker.

David and I have been diving into the spiritual aspects of handwork lately, as well, and this book really helped to drive some of our conversations. David has been continuing his generations-long family tradition of woodworking with small and large projects, and perhaps a future of entrepreneurship. A year and a half ago, I checked off a box on my bucket list by learning to knit. Since then, I have become an avid fan of this needlecraft, my favorite in a long list of needlework throughout my life. Each project has taught me a new skill, along with knowledge of the fibers and the history of the stitches. The tactile pleasures of working with wool, silk, and cashmere while crafting warm garments with Celtic-knot cables or open lacework are soothing and satisfying. I liked it so much that I committed myself to knitting five Christmas presents this year, which I will never do again.

Working with one’s hands does absorb the same time that could be used for reading and writing, and I am only so fond of audiobooks, so I will have to take that into consideration in the future. However, David and I both found that handcrafts moved us away from technology and slowed our thinking in ways that were healthy for us. We both believe that God created people in his own image, and part of that image is our innate desire to be sub-creators, as Tolkien expressed it. The growing joy that one feels as a project begins to take shape under our hands, gradually assuming the image that we had in our minds, is a delight that makes us return to our craft again and again. Each time, we also have grown and learned new skills and are able to bring more complex and beautiful works into being. A bit of ourselves is woven into each product, and inanimate objects take on meaning that survives beyond our human lives.

As Gorges visits each artisan, he tries his hand at their craft. Pottery turns out to be much more difficult to throw than he expected, and he marvels at the bulging muscle on the engraver’s carving hand. Glassblowers, woodworkers, and sculptors all have skills developed over years of labor. I was especially interested in the chapter on calligraphy, since that is next on my list of artistic endeavors. I made a stab at it years ago, but my Christmas list this year included split-nib pens, ink, alphabet books, and a light table. We are fixing up a craft room right now, and I hope to have ink-stained fingers in no time. But first, I owe David a scarf.

If you have an itch to create, Eric Gorges will show you how your soul will be enriched by the work of your fingers. Oh, and download an audiobook from your local library while you work.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and my husband’s and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. This column is reprinted at www.TheReaderWrites.com, with additional photographs.

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Beverly, Right Here, by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly Right HereNow that Buddy was dead, no one would care if Beverly Tapinski ran away from home. She hitched a ride to Tamaray Beach in her cousin Joe Travis Joy’s red Camaro and landed a job at Mr. C’s seafood restaurant, busing tables under the watchful eye of Freddie, who was only waitressing until her modeling career really took off. Beverly missed her dog so much that she was determined not to become attached to anyone ever again, but when elderly Iola Jenkins discovered that Beverly had no kin, she invited her into her pink trailer for a tuna melt in exchange for Beverly’s promise to drive Iola wherever she needed to go in her ancient Pontiac. Beverly was only fourteen, but she agreed. What else could she do? When she’d called her mother from the phone booth to tell her that she was okay, her mother had taken a long drag on her cigarette and said, “Whoop-de-do.”

Here, Kate DiCamillo completes the series of companion novels that she began in Raymie Nightingale and continued in Louisiana’s Way Home. These three Floridian girls may have heartbreaking circumstances in their lives, but the love and courage in their hearts propel them forward to create a new life wherever they can. Although Beverly strives to keep all the walls up around her fragile soul, she can’t help but fall for that acne-scourged boy at the checkout counter, the one who is poring over massive volumes of Renaissance art.

DiCamillo’s books explore the tenacity of the human spirit, especially in young people whose caregivers have failed them. We crave connection, and our scarred and vulnerable hearts still reach out in hope, even when our reason warns us to choose stoicism. As a children’s librarian, I have read almost all of DiCamillo’s works, and her delicate sense of humor in the midst of heartbreak glows through all of them. When I recall her many characters, from Despereaux to Flora to Beverly Tapinski, I can’t help but smile.

Highly recommended for 10 and up. All children should grow up with Kate DiCamillo.

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 Pilgrimage to Eternity, by Timothy Egan

Pilgrimage to EternityThrough persecution and famine, the Roman Catholic church has spread her children all over the globe. Timothy Egan is an American of Irish heritage, and like so many of his brethren, his faith has faded, knocked back even further by the recent scandals in the church. At age 62, however, he is restless. His wife’s beloved sister is struggling with cancer, and Timothy yearns to do anything to stop its progress. Perhaps praying in consecrated places along the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, will cause God to work a miracle, or at least cause him to reveal himself to Timothy.

As Chaucer told us so many centuries ago, spring brings crowds of pilgrims to Canterbury. Egan shares some observations on the current inhabitant of the seat of the Anglican church, then goes through the history of this place that once played an important role in the Roman church. Here he picks up his official pilgrim documents and sets sail from the white cliffs of Dover for the ancient port of Calais. All along his route through France, Switzerland, and Italy, Egan works this layer cake of a narrative: part history, part travelogue, and part spiritual journey. The reader visits tombs with a smorgasbord of saintly body parts, eats dinner at both monastery refectories and gourmet restaurants, ruminates on deep meanings and great wines, meets Egan’s family members one at a time, and empathizes when his feet are mangled hiking down from the mountain heights. Egan travels with a copy of the atheist Christopher Hitchen’s book and engages in conversations with fellow pilgrims who cover the spectrum from faith to nihilism. Some are unquestioning believers in every church teaching, and others are merely accompanying a loved one for the fitness opportunity. Most are in between, on the road to inner discoveries, like Egan himself.

Being of a similar age to Egan, many of his thoughts resonated with me. While he railed against the abuses of the church, both past and present, he recognized the places and events to be foundational to western civilization. Although there were institutional failures, there were also stories of inspiring individual sacrifice, and working through these struggles nourished his understanding of the meaning of suffering. When he met with his grown son and daughter at different points along the way, he worried that bringing them up with faith in reason alone had robbed them of an awareness of deeper, spiritual truths. They showed no interest in the holy sites that fascinated him, but it was handy in the evenings that they knew all the best watering holes.

Without revealing his conclusions at the end, the journey itself was a revelation. Peeling back the centuries at a walker’s pace gives us time to consider human history and whether our suffering holds spiritual significance, whether corrupt institutions expose the emptiness of faith or cover up the beauty of true faith. So, step on the road, pilgrim. This is a journey well worth taking.

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. Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales ran through my head many times while reading this book. 😉

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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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