Sweety, by Andrea Zuill

SweetySweety is a young naked mole rat with large glasses and orthodontic headgear. Naked mole rats are not a pulchritudinous bunch in general, but even Sweety’s grandmother called her “Grandma’s little square peg.”

Sweety did not understand why her classmates did not share her scientific interest in mushrooms or why she was the only student who presented her book reports through interpretive dance, but when she tried to be like the others, it just didn’t feel right. Usually, Sweety was very content with herself, but sometimes she wished she could find a friend who was a true soulmate. Aunt Ruth was happily different, as well, and she assured Sweety “that if you stayed true to yourself, you’d find your people.” Sweety hoped that her people would have a secret handshake.

Author and illustrator Andrea Zuill depicts Sweety’s hilarious and touching attempts to find her people through softly colored pen and ink drawings with both traditional narrative and speech bubbles. Her pages are populated with smiling, homely, anthropomorphic naked mole rats of all shapes and sizes living in cozy underground dens and rodent-perspective outdoor scenes. Sweety is completely over-the-top in everything she does, but she is very good at many things. Odd things, but still.

This is not a story about a depressed child or a bullied child, nor is it about an overbearing or conceited child. Sweety is confident and happy with herself; she just wants to expand her little tribe of one. Sweety is one of the most meaningful and—well, darn it—sweetest new picture books I’ve seen, and there are so many kids who need encouragement to keep on being true to themselves.

Very highly recommended for your little sweetie.

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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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant lives alone in her flat except for an impressive parrot plant named Polly. Eleanor has a steady job, two black skirts, five white blouses, and a pair of slacks for weekends. She wears sensible shoes, and she talks to her mummy every Wednesday evening for fifteen minutes.

Eleanor has an uncomfortable relationship with her co-workers, not least because she responds to their casual banter with deadpan, multi-syllabic pronouncements revealing her total incomprehension of pop culture. Vocabulary is her strong suit. She avoids social interaction until the day that she and Raymond, the IT guy, are both witnesses of an elderly gentleman’s collapse on the street. They stay with him until the ambulance arrives, and then begin a tentative friendship aided by the gentleman’s family, who insist that the two office workers saved their father’s life.

Raymond is ordinary in the way that Eleanor means to be, but misses. He wears frumpy clothes, smokes, and plays video games with his flatmates. He has a sweet mum who still lives in his childhood home and invites Eleanor to tea. Raymond does the washing up. He invites Eleanor to lunch at his favorite café in spite of her co-workers’ bullying, and Eleanor does her best to ignore the sound of his chewing. Her friendship with Raymond seems promising except for the fact that his mouth falls open every time he sees the old gentleman’s daughter, Laura, the spectacularly sexy hairdresser. No matter. Eleanor is currently pursuing a broodingly handsome local musician who is unaware of her existence.

Nothing is as simple as it seems, however. The reader has a growing awareness that Eleanor spends all of her energy plastering over the cracks in her façade. Every so often, a memory is triggered, and darkness creeps in through the white walls she has built all around her. Eleanor keeps to a rigid schedule that includes the daily crossword and three bottles of vodka every weekend. She never speaks to anyone outside of her workplace except for Mummy, and Eleanor’s mother is nothing like the sweet woman who raised Raymond. Oh, no. Mummy is vicious.

This engrossing novel presents as a contemporary slice-of-life story with perhaps a budding romance, but once the hints of darkness begin, the reader is eager to discover the next piece of the puzzle so that Eleanor’s life can be made whole. This stiff, standoffish woman is oddly endearing and vulnerable, and while we cheer on her efforts to find freedom, we are aware that the scar on her face is just a tiny reflection of the deep scars in her soul.

Set in Scotland, Gail Honeyman’s story places cozy teas, cats, and hearths disjointedly beside death metal, alcohol poisoning, and hatred. Her characters range from sweetly flawed to tragically damaged, and the reader grows to love them all. Honeyman exposes the dark secrets that are hidden every day in the most ordinary neighborhoods, as well as the inner cuts and wounds that everyone carefully bandages over, so that when we are asked, “How are you?” we can respond, “Fine. Completely fine.”

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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Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl

Save Me the PlumsWhen Ruth was a little girl, she accompanied her father to a used bookstore where she came across some tattered copies of Gourmet magazine. Immediately, she wanted to learn to cook, and since her parents treated her as a pint-sized adult, she was put in charge of meals. A lifetime of foodie adventures was launched.

In her earlier works, Reichl chronicled her rise through the kingdoms of food writing, from restaurant critic to celebrated memoirs, and in this latest volume, she regales us with the history of her years as editor-in-chief at Gourmet. Rather than dry journal entries, each chapter reads like juicy gossip from a lunch with the girls. Ms. Reichl sprinkles recipes occasionally and drops names like a flower girl throws petals. She knew everyone, so whether your taste runs to famous chefs or literary stars, you will be fascinated.

We all know the sad fate of Gourmet: like so many magazines, it went under during the recession years. In the beginning of her tenure, though, there were palatial offices, generous clothing and limo allowances, test kitchens filled with competing chefs, trips to far-flung locations to revel in the local cuisine, decadent parties in penthouses, and famous authors queued up for an opportunity to get their articles into the next issue. When Reichl took the helm, she hired a couple of great talents who could channel the rivers of creativity that were already flowing among the staff and added her own vast knowledge of the food world and its burgeoning trends. She knew how to put gifted people into just the right spots. The quality of the magazine bloomed, and sales flew upward.

When the first whiff of economic troubles came along, Condé Nast hired lots of bean counters. Creativity was out, the bottom line was everything, and the publisher ignored Reichl’s repeated requests for a web presence. By the time Gourmet had a unique website, they had lost the rights to their own recipes. Corners were cut on photography and kitchen staff, and the quality of the magazine began to erode. Despite issues touting frugality, such as “Paris on a shoestring,” and a booktour announcing their latest cookbook, it was too late.

Throughout the book, Reichl deals with life issues that touch every woman: work-life balance, guilt in child-raising, and her own changing self-concept. Her story is filled with many powerful men and women who played a role in teaching her that gifted people are all gifted differently and that wielding power may not look the same from one person to the next. For some, money and position do not change them, they only allow them to fulfill dreams that lift up those around them. For others, though, power freezes their souls and destroys those within their reach. When the crash comes, Ms. Reichl reflects on whether her time at Gourmet may have altered the course of her life so completely as to make it impossible to be that free-spirited Berkeley girl again.

This delicious memoir is perfect anyone who loves a fast-paced Cinderella story, tales about the Big Apple, fascinating personalities, a soupçon of haute couture, and, most of all, the foodie universe. All of Reichl’s books are captivating. I have also read Garlic and Sapphires, which relates her early adventures as a restaurant critic, when she began dressing in wild disguises to avoid being recognized when she walked into her latest venue. Save Me the Plums is great fun with a side of introspection that gives her unique experiences universal significance.

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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Thanks, Keto

When you work in a library, all of the latest trends in bookcovers parade past your eyes each day. Keto is definitely a trend, but I resisted reading about it for a long time. Shades of 1970s Dr. Atkins’ induction diet ran through my head. Steak and iceberg lettuce: so unhealthy. However, I recalled hearing once on Abel James’ Fat Burning Man podcast about the massive number of low-carb dieters like me who stop losing weight because, according to his guest, they are eating too much protein. Such a radical departure from earlier low-carb guidelines! Once I finally picked up a keto book, I saw that they were saying the same thing: You’re eating too much protein!

So— although my downward trend was interrupted by a week in France that may have included a baguette or two— I have lost 20 pounds and dropped my A1c into the “at risk” category, and of course, I have a few favorite books to share.

Keto AxeThere is an avalanche of books about the ketogenic diet. I have read or skimmed a bunch of them, and I still use the Quick Keto cookbook that I reviewed here. My new favorite beginner book that explains the science behind keto, though, is Dr. Josh Axe’s Keto Diet. First of all, Josh Axe is a doctor, so even though he does include recipes, most of the book is a scientific explanation of your body’s metabolism. It is shocking how many diabetics have no idea how insulin works in their bodies. How can you get well if you don’t know what’s making you sick? Secondly, Dr. Axe recommends what many experts are calling “clean keto,” a happy subculture in the ketogenic world. We’ve come a long way since Dr. Atkins, and low-carb eaters now spend a lot of time with what was once an unknown food group: vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables, to be exact. A little bacon may be alright, but come on, you know you can’t consider bacon to be a major food group.

One of the downfalls of the keto movement is that the need for fats in the diet can lead to all kinds of unhealthy choices. Yes, a large proportion of your calories should consist of fat, but one tablespoon of olive oil has 100 calories. Do you know how much kale you can eat before you reach 100 calories? I’m not sure of the exact amount, but I think it’s around a bale. So, keep it in perspective. Clean keto assumes that you’re not just trying to lose weight, but also to be a healthy person by the time you get to your goal. The careless choices you make are having a daily effect on your body.

Clean KetoOne cookbook that I bought is called The Clean Keto Lifestyle, by Karissa Long. It is filled with healthful, fat-burning recipes that are not difficult. I’ve made the Pork Fried Rice twice already. Of course, the “rice” is cauliflower. One unique feature of this cookbook is that the recipes, whenever possible, are portioned for one person. I’ve had to double them for us, but even if a dieter is single, I can’t imagine going through the trouble of cooking a meal without making enough for leftovers or freezing. Still, lots of nutritious veggies and delicious recipes.

Simply KetoSimply Keto, by Suzanne Ryan, is a beautiful, large cookbook. Suzanne has a great story and is the owner of the website Keto Karma. This is a comprehensive cookbook that contains basic recipes as well as wonderfully creative dishes. I am enjoying one of her Broccoli, Bacon, and Egg Muffins as I type. I made a big batch and put them into the freezer two by two. Ryan has everything from appetizers to desserts, and she uses Swerve, which is my favorite natural, low-carb sweetener. Since she is a mom, many of her recipes are kid-friendly. Definitely a keeper.

My latest blood tests are keeping me keto, and you may have similar results. If you’re already watching your carbs, keto is not a huge change, but you will see a big difference in your metabolism. On the other hand, if your average day contains soda, bread, and sweets, you need to at least read Dr. Axe’s book to see why cutting those carbs will make a world of difference to your health!

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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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