Review of A Shadow Bright and Burning, by Jessica Cluess, read by Fiona Hardingham

October 15th, 2018

A Shadow Bright and Burning

by Jessica Cluess

read by Fiona Hardingham

Listening Library, 2016. 12 hours, 49 minutes on 10 compact discs.

This is alternate history Victorian England, read with impeccable English accents, reflecting class differences in the accents (even though I wouldn’t know the difference if I hadn’t heard it.)

Henrietta Howel has always hidden her ability to set things on fire and burst into flame without burning. So when a sorcerer comes to the school where she grew up and now teaches, she works hard to keep from flaming out. It turns out the sorcerer is looking for a girl with power over flame not to execute her as a witch, but to fulfill a prophecy about a woman from sorcerer stock who will save the country.

When the Ancients attack that night — seven great horrific spirits from another dimension who have been attacking England for years — Henrietta’s powers are revealed. But she is brought back to London to train as a sorcerer. She discovers a different world than the one where she grew up.

Henrietta’s one requirement is that she must bring Rook with her — a boy who is “Unclean,” marked by scars from an attack by one of the Ancients, Korazoth. Rook and Henrietta have always looked after each other. The sorcerer is willing to take him on as a stable boy — anything to get Henrietta to train with the sorcerers.

She’s up against a lot in London. She’s out of her depth with society. And she’s training in a house full of boys. She must master her powers in order to be commended by Queen Victoria and become an official sorcerer. And then she meets someone who says he knew her father. And she has grave doubts as to whether she really is the prophesied one. But if she isn’t, she’ll lose everything.

There are layers within layers in this book, but it never gets too complex to follow. I am delighted that there is more to come — the back of the book says it’s Book One of The Kingdom on Fire. The author develops a complicated world here with sorcerers, magicians, and witches — and powerful beings besieging England who destroy humankind and take people as their familiars. And in the middle of all that, you’ve got Victorian England trying to keep women in their place and a girl trying to figure out what that place is for her.

This book is imaginative, suspenseful, and gripping. The narrator’s voice and delightful British accent ensured that my commute was enchanting as long as I was listening to this book.

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Review of Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, by Deborah Hopkinson

October 14th, 2018

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

By Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated by Charlotte Voake

Schwartz & Wade Books, New York, 2016. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This charming picture book tells a slightly fictionalized account of what happened when Beatrix Potter borrowed a neighbor’s prized guinea pig in order to paint it. The main fictionalization is that the author changed Beatrix Potter’s age to be a child when this incident happened, rather than the 26-year-old she actually was.

But the story is based on truth – Beatrix Potter kept many different animals as pets – and sad fates befell many of them. And when Beatrix borrowed a guinea pig named Queen Elizabeth from her neighbor, it did feast on blotting paper and string, writing paper and paste – and died.

Deborah Hopkinson shows Beatrix giving her neighbor a painting of the guinea pig as compensation. She says she hopes she kept it because in 2011, a painting Beatrix Potter made of a guinea pig – probably painted the same year as the unfortunate borrowing – sold for more than $85,000.

The book is styled as a letter to the reader, which is appropriate since Beatrix Potter’s first stories appeared in letters. The words and watercolors are charming.

“I would love to draw Queen Elizabeth,” declared Beatrix. “She is truly magnificent.”

Her friend beamed. “Her family is indeed impeccable. Queen Elizabeth comes from a long line of distinguished guinea pigs. She is the daughter of Titwillow the Second, and a descendant of the Sultan of Zanzibar and the Light of Asia.”

You might well think the young ladies were discussing royalty, not rodents. In the end, Miss Paget was so flattered by Miss Potter’s appreciation of the merits of Queen Elizabeth that she eagerly fetched the squealing creature.

“Thank you,” said Beatrix. “I will return her – unharmed – in the morning.”

Alas, it was an empty promise.

I’m not quite sure how Deborah Hopkinson has made a story about animals dying so utterly delightful, but she has managed it!

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Review of The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, by Jan Thornhill

October 13th, 2018

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

by Jan Thornhill

Groundwood Books, 2016. 42 pages.
Starred Review

This picture book, by focusing on one extinct species, is an accessible and understandable introduction to the need for conservation.

The book begins:

Behold the Great Auk! The Gejrfugl! The northern penguin!

Less than four centuries ago, hundreds of thousands of these magnificent birds lived in the frigid seas between Europe and North America.

Now there are none.

So what happened?

It’s a complicated story. Although humans – as you may suspect – did indeed have a heavy hand in the Great Auk’s extinction, there were other factors that contributed to its demise, not the least of which was the bird’s own anatomy and behavior.

The story is told beginning from when the Great Auk thrived. They couldn’t fly, and could barely walk, but could swim swiftly. They live mostly on and in the water, but they had to lay their eggs on land. So they protected their young by nesting in inaccessible places.

I thought this tidbit was fascinating:

During the last Ice Age, when much of northern Europe and most of Canada lay frozen beneath a half mile of ice, the oceans were colder, so the Great Auk was found further south. Five thousand years before the glaciers retreated, a group of Stone Age humans entered a cave not far from the Mediterranean. They mixed charcoal and red-ochre pigment into paint, then used crude brushes and their fingertips to make images of the animals they hunted.

They painted ibex and bison. They painted wild horses and big-antlered deer.

And they painted Great Auks.

Paleontologists have found other signs that early humans enjoyed eating fire-roasted Great Auk just as much as we enjoy eating barbecued chicken today. Numerous tool-marked remains of the bird’s big bones have been unearthed from ancient fire pits and trash heaps on both sides of the Atlantic, up and down the coasts. Some charred bones are almost ninety thousand years old.

As humans developed better and better seafaring abilities, the places where Great Auks could nest safely dwindled.

Though the final last straw, sadly, happened in 1830 when a volcanic eruption caused one of their last nesting grounds to disappear under the sea.

The book explains the whole story with colorful pictures, including the danger that came from collectors as well as those who wanted to eat the birds. In many of the pictures, the Great Auk is only present in a ghostly outline form, where they were once numerous, but now are nowhere to be found.

The book finishes with the birth of the conservation movement. Here’s hoping the tragic tale of the Great Auk will not be lived out by many other species.

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Review of The Gallery, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

October 12th, 2018

The Gallery

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016. 321 pages.

Here’s a historical novel set in 1928 during election time. Martha O’Doyle is going to work as a maid in the home of a newspaper tycoon where her Ma is the housekeeper. Ma once worked for the tycoon’s wife, who was known then as “Wild Rose.” But now she’s gone mad and is kept locked up in the attic, with bland food sent to her by dumbwaiter, kept from any excitement.

But is Wild Rose really mad? She’s got a collection of paintings up in her attic room, and periodically she sends certain paintings down to the main gallery of the house. Martha thinks Rose may be trying to send a message.

This book holds a mystery, with clues found in paintings referring to mythology. (Martha researches the stories in the library, of course.) But as well as that, it pictures life in a wealthy home just before the stock market crash, a period I hadn’t read much historical fiction about.

The plot seemed slightly wild and far-fetched – but the author developed the story from old newspaper headlines, so that was probably appropriate. And it does give you a feeling for the time. And the fun of solving a mystery. An Author’s Note at the back tells more about the many historical details and the paintings she worked into the story.

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Review of Transforming, by Austen Hartke

October 11th, 2018

Transforming

The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians

by Austen Hartke

Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. 198 pages.
Starred Review

I picked this book up from the library, and the very next day was glad I did, having a reason to defend transgender people to some well-meaning Christian friends. My own oldest child is a transgender woman. I’ve seen for myself this isn’t some kind of delusional temporary whim. I’m also in a Facebook group for mothers of transgender children. I’ve heard many sad stories of what happens when a church family rejects a transgender person and the harm it causes their entire families. At the same time, I’ve read happy stories of what happens when people transition with love and acceptance from their faith communities.

This book is written by a transgender pastor. He brings in the voices of many other transgender people. He talks about the good it does transgender people when their churches accept them – but also the good it brings to churches when they embrace their transgender members.

There’s background at the front. There are personal stories. I’m not going to repeat every argument why it is not biblical to reject transgender people or to require that gender dysphoria is the one medical condition that should not receive medical treatment of any kind.

I knew that the Bible does not speak against being transgender. But I hadn’t realized how much there is specifically for those who don’t fit gender norms.

I was especially touched by the author’s description of how he found life in the passage Isaiah 56:3-8. I’ll copy a little bit of that here:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast to my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off….
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.”

I was floored. I could swear I had never heard these verses before in my life, despite having read through the book of Isaiah for a class only the year before. I felt an immediate connection to the eunuch and the foreigner. Their fear of separation, fear of being forgotten, fear of being kept out of God’s family – all based on identities as unchosen as the place of their birth and as intrinsic as the shape of their body. Their fears were my fears too. Yet here was God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, quieting those fears and promising an unequivocal welcome.

He goes on to explain why eunuchs, especially after the Babylonian exile, were in a place similar to transgender people today. And yet God gives them in this passage a name, legacy, family, acceptance, and blessing.

And of course there is more about eunuchs in the Bible. Jesus talked about them, and the evangelist Philip was sent by the Holy Spirit specifically to the Ethiopian eunuch. I like this paragraph:

Whether you believe Jesus was advocating for castration, for celibacy, or for something else entirely in Matthew 19, the fact that he uses eunuchs as a positive example is huge. It means that Jesus knew about people who fell outside the boundaries of sex and gender, and that he did not see them as broken or as morally corrupt. He saw them as people with a variety of experiences and as people with something important to teach the world about God’s kingdom.

There’s lots more “apologetics” – defending that transgender people belong in the church and should not be excluded. But he moves on to explain why this is important:

This is when trans Christians experience life in abundance – when they are welcomed into community; when they are loved for all of who they are; when their differences are respected; when they know they can count on their community to help with their daily human needs; and when they feel safe enough to drop their defenses in order to take on Jesus’ gentle yoke of discipleship. That may sound like a lot to ask of a church, but in reality these are commitments we try to make to the cisgender members of our communities. So why not include trans folks? After all, if the life Jesus promises is abundant, surely there’s enough to go around!

In the concluding chapter, he looks at the parable of the lost sheep.

But what if we imagined this story a different way? What if the lost sheep didn’t wander away from the safety and goodness of the shepherd? What if it was just trying to escape the cruelty of the flock? Sheep will occasionally pick out a flock member who doesn’t fit in – maybe because of an injury or a strange marking – and they’ll chase that individual away. There are times when I think Christians need to see ourselves more in the ninety-nine sheep who stayed put, and ask ourselves if we may have been part of the reason that the lost sheep got lost in the first place.

And his appeal reminds us that we as a church have much to gain by being more welcoming:

But what’s at stake for Jesus in this situation isn’t just that one single lost sheep, and it’s not just the ninety-nine back home. It’s the integrity of the flock as a whole. Saving just the main group or just the individual wouldn’t do any good, because the flock is more than just the sum of its parts. When Jesus goes after that lost sheep, what he’s telling the flock – what he’s telling us – is that we’re not complete without each other.

In this book, transgender Christians have shared their stories and the ways that Scripture, faith, and gender identity interact in their lives. I hope you’ve been able to read these stories and come to the same conclusion the shepherd did: that our faith communities and churches aren’t complete without trans folks and their experiences.

At the messy, lovable, chaotic potluck that is life in the church, transgender Christians have a lot to bring to the table. We can help the church see Scripture through different lenses; we can help other Christians understand their own gender identities; we can help to break down barriers created by sexism and misogyny; we can remind people of the diversity of God’s creation, and of God’s unlimited nature; we can stand in the gaps and bridge middle spaces where others may be uncomfortable or uninformed; we can help make connections between the sacred and the secular, making the church more relevant for the world, and we can provoke people into asking questions about themselves and about God that they may never have thought to ask before. And that’s all while most churches still don’t affirm our existence as Christians! Imagine what we could do if we worked together!

There’s a lot more in this book. I hope that reading it will open many hearts. Let’s follow the teaching of Scripture and welcome all into our churches, including those who were once outcasts.

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Review of Sam Sorts, by Marthe Jocelyn

October 10th, 2018

Sam Sorts

(One Hundred Favorite Things)

by Marthe Jocelyn

Tundra Books, 2017. 32 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a wonderful picture book full of early math concepts that can be used in many different ways. It’s also good as a story (Well, a little bit – a story about a boy tidying up), and for those children who enjoy super-detailed illustrations (like I Spy and Where’s Waldo).

Mainly, it’s about Sam’s quirky collection of one hundred favorite things and the many different ways they can be sorted and counted.

After a page declaring that his things are in a heap and need to be tidied up, Sam starts in:

First he finds Obo the robot, one of a kind. Then two snarling dinosaurs, three little boxes, and four fake foods. How many things is that?

Sam gathers many things in various groupings. I like the page that shows a Venn diagram with three circles made of string.

Spider Rock joins the other rocks. Sam’s favorite rock is the round one. He looks for more round things. Two of the buttons are exactly the same. What else comes in twos?

The Venn diagram shows rocks in the first set, then round things, then things that come in twos. There are things in both intersections. There are things that don’t fit any of those categories on the outsides.

Things continue to be sorted in various ways.

Another way Sam makes a pair is by finding a rhyme.

Some things match because they have stripes. A few have dots or holes. Only one has checks. The snake is striped AND green . . .

On another page, the things are sorted onto a rainbow by color. Then many other categories are shown. (“Soft,” “Noisy,” “Pointy,” . . .)

Sam gets overly exuberant after putting out all his “guys.” “Look out, guys . . . The animals are coming!”

Once things are in a heap again, Sam decides to tidy up again. The next page has all the things laid out, separated by a striped background. The text asks, “How many categories? How many things?” There are ten categories with ten things each, so here is a great exercise in counting to one hundred. (One little problem with that page is that for at least a couple categories, it’s hard to figure out what the category might be.)

But if nothing else, this introduces the concept of sorting and sets and looking at things in different ways. This is a wonderful early math activity, and I love the playful approach.

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Review of Assassin’s Heart, by Sarah Ahiers

October 9th, 2018

Assassin’s Heart

by Sarah Ahiers

HarperTeen, 2016. 420 pages.
Starred Review

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Come on, it’s about a girl assassin, from a family of assassins. The plot of the book is about finding vengeance.

Not long after the book opens, Lea’s entire family is murdered, burned to death in their sleep, because of a betrayal. I read the start of the book before going to sleep — and woke up the next morning to some pretty depressing thoughts!

But I wasn’t ever tempted to stop reading the book. Despite its dark subject matter, this is good writing and compelling characters.

The world of the book is innovative and unexpected. The nine Families of clippers (assassins) in Lovero serve the goddess Safraella by accepting contracts to kill people. That is also how they keep order in Lovero. If someone pays for someone else to be killed without a good reason, they can be sure their own death will be next. The kingdom accepts this service and doesn’t interfere in matters between the Families.

As part of the service, clippers place a gold coin in the mouth of those they kill.

The coin would act as a balm and prevent the man from becoming an angry ghost, because it signaled that the person deserved a quick rebirth. Instead of wandering the dead plains, Safraella, goddess of death, murder, and resurrection, patron of Lovero, would see the offering and grant him a faster return to a new life. A better life.

Ever since the king of Lovero devoted himself and the kingdom to Safraella, angry ghosts stay out on the plains outside the kingdom. Now Loverans can go out of their homes at night without fearing their souls will be pulled out of their bodies.

But because the Families are outside the law, Lea Saldana has nowhere to turn when her whole family is killed in the fire. She knows the Family that did this will try to hunt her down once they learn she survived. She needs to find her one living relative, an uncle who was banished from the Family years ago. Of course, that will mean crossing the dead plains, filled with angry ghosts. And then somehow finding her uncle, who has gone deep into hiding.

Besides being a compelling story (even if it did had a lot of death and gore), this book also had some twists and turns I didn’t see coming. There’s also romance — and I always have a soft spot for a romance that shows true character in the beloved, someone who’s more than a handsome face.

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Review of Balderdash! by Michelle Markel

October 5th, 2018

Balderdash!

John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books

by Michelle Markel
illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Chronicle Books, 2017. 44 pages.

Here’s a picture book biography of John Newbery (yes, that’s with ONE R), the publisher who began publishing books for children.

The book is written with simple text and entertaining illustrations, in the style of the books John Newbery published.

It talks about books for children before Newbery:

Children had to read
preachy poems and fables,
religious tests that made them fear that death was near,
and manuals that told them where to stand,
how to sit,
not to laugh,
and scores of other rules.

When John Newbery started publishing books for children, he began with A Little Pretty Pocket-Book and was the first bookseller to sell a book with an accompanying toy.

He went on to publish more books, a magazine, and even a novel for children – the first one being The History of Goody Two-Shoes. Now, readers today will notice a strong moral. “Goody went from rags to riches without a fairy godmother. She did it through study, hard work, and kindness.” But the whole idea that children could learn from a story, rather than a sermon – that was revolutionary. The idea that reading might be fun? Thank John Newbery!

Of course, John One-R Newbery is who the Newbery Medal was named after when the American Library Association decided to give an award “for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” It’s because of John Newbery that the world got the idea there could be literature for children. This is mentioned in the note at the back. The main text is kept light and fun and geared for children.

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Review of My Pet Human Takes Center Stage, by Yasmine Surovec

October 4th, 2018

My Pet Human Takes Center Stage

by Yasmine Surovec

Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 100 pages.

Oliver’s back! He’s the cat with the pet human, Freckles.

In this book, Freckles goes to school and Oliver decides to tag along. This gets Freckles to join the Fur-Ever Friends Club, where she decides to foster a kitten.

Oliver is not excited about sharing his human with a kitten! To make matters worse, Freckles has plans for Oliver and the kitten to participate in a pet talent show put on by the club.

This book has five chapters with pictures on every page. The dialog is all done with speech bubbles, but there is some narration from Oliver’s perspective as well, so it’s not quite a graphic novel.

But it is a delightful and funny chapter book for beginning readers. They will enjoy how the world looks from the perspective of a cat.

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Review of The Hour of Land, by Terry Tempest Williams

October 2nd, 2018

The Hour of Land

A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

by Terry Tempest Williams

Sarah Crichton Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2016. 389 pages.
Starred Review

I got to hear Terry Tempest Williams speak about this book at an ALA conference before it was published and got a chapbook of the first chapter, so I was watching eagerly for it to come out. However, it still took me a long time to get it read. I tend to read nonfiction slowly, a chapter at a time, and this one continued to be on hold at the library, so I couldn’t just renew it and keep going. I finally buckled down to finish and was even more impressed than I expected to be.

I expected a lot of meditations on the beauty of our National Parks, but what I found is a lot more than that. There is much information about their history, and yes, about the wildlife and landscape, but there’s also a great deal about current concerns, such as oil companies taking over the land all around a national park and creating environmental devastation inside the park. Or the devastation wrought by an oil spill on a national park on the coast. Since this was written before the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, it was hard to read about the challenges and be pretty certain that things aren’t getting better.

Here are some things Terry Tempest Williams has to say in the introductory chapter.

In my wanderings among these dozen national parks, my intention was to create portraits of unexpected beauty and complexity. I thought it would be a straightforward and exuberant project, focusing on the protection of public lands, as I have done through most of my life. But, in truth, it has been among the most rigorous assignments I have ever given myself because I was writing out of my limitations. I am not a historian or a scientist or an employee of a federal land agency privy to public land policy and law. My authority is simply that of a storyteller who lives in the American West in love with this country called home.

I have been inspired by the photographs and people included in this book. I have learned that there is no such thing as one portrait or one story, only the knowledge of our own experience shared. I no longer see America’s parks as “our best idea,” but our evolving idea; I see our national parks as our ongoing struggle as a diverse people to create circles of reverence in a time of collective cynicism where we are wary of being moved by anything but our own clever perspective.

“The purpose of life is to see,” the writer Jack Turner said to me on a late summer walk at the base of the Tetons. I understand this to be a matter of paying attention. The nature of our national parks is bound to the nature of our own humility, our capacity to stay open and curious in a world that instead beckons closure through fear. For me, humility begins as a deep recognition of all I do not know. This understanding doesn’t stop me, it inspires me to ask questions, to look more closely, feel more fully the character of the place where I am. And so with this particular book, I have sought to listen to both the inner and the outer landscapes that spoke to me, to not hide behind metaphor or lyricism as I have in the past, but to simply share the stories that emerged in each park encountered.

At a time when it feels like we are a nation divided, I am interested in how a sense of place can evolve toward an ethic of place, especially within our national parks….

This is the Hour of Land, when our mistakes and shortcomings must be placed in the perspective of time. The Hour of Land is where we remember what we have forgotten: We are not the only species who lives and dreams on the planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

The national parks she explores in this book are Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Acadia National Park in Maine, Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, Alcatraz Island and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, Glacier National Park in Montana, and César E. Chavez National Monument in California.

What she discovered in these parks is fascinating and surprising and thought-provoking. This book is a treasure and a challenge.

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