Review of All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, by Leslie Connor

August 16th, 2017

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books, 2016. 382 pages.
Starred Review

Perry Cook has grown up in prison at Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska. His mother is a resident, and Perry was born shortly after she came to the minimum security prison twelve years ago. Warden Daugherty is officially Perry’s foster parent, and Perry has his own room next to the warden’s office.

Perry goes to school in Butler County, and as the book starts, he’s getting ready to start middle school. He met his best friend, Zoey Samuels, when she moved there in the middle of fourth grade. Zoey moved to the area because of her stepdad’s job. The description of the stepdad rang true – always trying too hard with her and coming across like a big fake.

But then Zoey’s stepdad Tom VanLeer finds out about Perry. And Tom is the new district attorney. A boy living at a prison? He’s outraged. Without telling Zoey, he decides to Do the Right Thing and take Perry into his own home. What’s more, Warden Daugherty gets suspended, and Perry’s mother’s parole hearing gets postponed.

Tom also tries too hard with Perry. Tom thinks he’s saving him from a horrible life growing up in prison. Perry only knows that he’s been forced to leave his mom and his home.

Then their English teacher assigns the students a project to find out why their family came to Butler County. Perry decides to learn the stories of his Blue River family, including his mother’s full story.

I didn’t expect to even like this book much, but I loved it. Maybe it stretches plausibility just a tad, and things do tie up pretty neatly in the end – but the characters are so well-drawn, they’re a delight to spend time with, especially including Perry’s family at Blue River.

And while the overall situation of a boy growing up in prison may be a little hard to believe – if you accept the premise, it’s easy to believe this is how things would work out, including the residents and their quirky personalities, the comments Perry gets from kids at school, and the reaction of the self-righteous district attorney.

Most of the book is told from Perry’s perspective, with chapters here and there from his mother’s perspective. Personally, I think the book could do without his mother’s chapters – but they don’t harm the book. I just don’t think they’re necessarily needed. You can figure out how she feels about all of this.

Perry’s a great person to spend time with. As he learns the stories of the residents, the reader gets a chance to feel some empathy as well and see how easily lives can go off-course. But the big question: Can Perry do anything to help his mother get parole?

This story is filled with hope, compassion, love, and understanding. We see Perry get understandably angry with district attorney VanLeer – and figure out a way to rise above his anger. We see the power of learning people’s stories, even someone like VanLeer.

leslieconnor.com

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Review of Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli

August 12th, 2017

Tell Me How It Ends

An Essay in Forty Questions

by Valeria Luiselli

Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2017. 119 pages.
Starred Review

This little book is not pretentious, calling itself an “essay” rather than a “book” – but it packs a punch.

I was expecting forty short chapters. Instead there are four chapters of varying lengths. The questions of the title refer to the forty questions on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants used in the federal immigration court in New York City where the author began working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015.

Here’s how she describes this work:

My task there is a simple one: I interview children in court, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.

But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

I find I don’t have the heart to quote excerpts from the stories in this book from the children the author met. I’m left speechless. This book is eye-opening.

One of the stories is that of a teenage boy who found the same gang he was fleeing in Tegucigalpa was active in Hempstead, New York. Members of the gang beat him up in Hempstead, and another gang offers him protection if he’ll join them. He’s resisting.

She reflects on this story and on media reports about the child migrants coming from Central America:

Between Hempstead and Tegucigalpa there is a long chain of causes and effects. Both cities can be drawn on the same map: the map of violence related to drug trafficking. This fact is ignored, however, by almost all of the official reports. The media wouldn’t put Hempstead, a city in New York, on the same plane as one in Honduras. What a scandal! Official accounts in the United States – what circulates in the newspaper or on the radio, the message from Washington, and public opinion in general – almost always locate the dividing line between “civilization” and “barbarity” just below the Rio Grande….

The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative, but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance. Debate around the matter has persistently and cynically overlooked the causes of the exodus. When causes are discussed, the general consensus and underlying assumption seem to be that the origins are circumscribed to “sending” countries and their many local problems. No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.

The belief that the migration of all of those children is “their” (the southern barbarians’) problem is often so deeply ingrained that “we” (the northern civilization) feel exempt from offering any solution. The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is often thought of as a Central American “gang violence” problem that must be kept on the far side of the border. There is little said, for example, of arms being trafficked from the United States into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the United States is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent.

Here’s where she explains where the book got its title:

The children who cross Mexico and arrive at the U.S. border are not “immigrants,” not “illegals,” not merely “undocumented minors.” Those children are refugees of a war, and, as such, they should all have the right to asylum. But not all of them have it.

Tell me how it ends, Mamma, my daughter asks me.

I don’t know.

Tell me what happens next.

Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say:

I don’t know how it ends yet.

It is very possible that our policies in the United States and our actions as citizens will determine how these stories end. Which is a sobering thought.

Highly recommended reading. It’s not pleasant reading, but it is eye-opening and thought-provoking.

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Review of Little Wolf’s First Howling, by Laura McGee Kvasnosky and Kate Harvey McGee

August 11th, 2017

Little Wolf’s First Howling

by Laura McGee Kvasnosky
and Kate Harvey McGee

Candlewick Press, 2017. 28 pages.

I just read this book in a storytime, along with three other picture books I personally like better – and this book was far and away the kids’ favorite. I decided to review it after all!

Little Wolf is going with his father Big Wolf up to the top of the hill to howl the full moon up to the top of the sky.

Big Wolf demonstrates how it should be done.

Little Wolf responds with things like:

aaaaaaaaaaaaoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
dibbity dobbity skibbity skobbity
skooo-wooooo-wooooooooooo

Big Wolf explains that Little Wolf was off to a good start, but his finish was not proper howling form. He demonstrates again.

After Little Wolf’s third attempt, Big Wolf can’t resist – and jumps in with his own jazzy howling.

The children at storytime simply loved demonstrating the proper way to howl with Big Wolf. I think it would be a whole lot of fun to take this book home. It wouldn’t be long before a child would learn all of Little Wolf’s jazzy variations.

The lovely pictures make it look like a serious book about wolves. Kids are delighted with the surprise twist.

This book reminds me of Froodle, but with wolves instead of birds, and some nice father-child interaction. I like that Big Wolf eventually is willing to be jazzy, too.

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Review of When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandhya Menon

August 10th, 2017

When Dimple Met Rishi

by Sandhya Menon

Simon Pulse, 2017. 380 pages.

When Dimple Met Rishi is an adorable teen romance. Dimple Shah has a passion for coding and web development. She has gotten accepted to Stanford and is super excited about attending – even though she’s sure about her parents that “the only reason they had agreed was because they were secretly hoping she’d meet the I.I.H. [Ideal Indian Husband] of her – no their — dreams at the prestigious school.”

For the summer, Dimple wants nothing more than to go to Insomnia Con, where participants “come up with a concept for the most groundbreaking app they could conceive during their month and a half at the SFSU campus.” It costs a thousand dollars, so she’s a little suspicious when her parents readily agree.

Meanwhile, Rishi Patel is looking at a picture of Dimple, a girl his parents have picked out for him to get to know. She is the daughter of their long-time friends who are from the same part of Mumbai as they are. And to get to know her, he can attend a summer program in San Francisco….

Rishi is very traditional and appreciates his parent’s loving concern for him. Naturally, he assumes Dimple’s parents have filled her in, too, and that she’s amenable to these plans.

So when Rishi sees Dimple at Starbucks as soon as he gets on campus, he tries to joke about their meeting:

“Hello, future wife,” he said, his voice bubbling with glee. “I can’t wait to get started on the rest of our lives!”

Dimple stared at him for the longest minute. The only word her brain was capable of producing, in various tonal permutations, was: What? What?

Dimple didn’t know what to think. Serial killer? Loony bin escapee? Strangely congenial mugger? Nothing made sense. So she did the only thing she could think to do in the moment – she flung her iced coffee at him and ran the other way.

Well, despite that inauspicious beginning, what follows is a sweet romance. I would have liked Dimple to resist a little longer, but the way things unfold is quite plausible and a lot of fun.

Now, I do have some skepticism regarding Insomnia Con. But I haven’t done any research – perhaps there does exist a web development program like that where a lot rides on a talent show (really?) in the middle of the program. Perhaps working in pairs never runs into trouble of two people both passionate about their app idea. Some of the subplots worked out a little too neatly as well.

Now, in case my readers need a warning, yes, they have sex – that’s pretty standard in teen romance any more, even when both participants are from families where they know their parents don’t want that for them. The book doesn’t dwell on it – or on any consequences of how it affects their relationship. (They give lip service to thinking about it before they do. And they think about it maybe a day.)

But make no mistake about it – I thoroughly enjoyed this book – enough that it kept me reading all through the night.

This is a sweet story about a girl with a passion and what happens when she finds herself falling in love, against all her plans. Combined with a story about a boy whose well-laid plans get shaken up when confronted with an actual person. Very fun.

sandhyamenon.com
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Review of Moto and Me, by Suzi Eszterhas

August 9th, 2017

Moto and Me

My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom

by Suzi Eszterhas

Owlkids Books, 2017. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This simple nonfiction book for kids was a big hit when I booktalked it to early elementary school grades.

The story is this: Author Suzi Eszterhas was living in Africa as a wildlife photographer. A baby serval was separated from his mother by some tourists who thought he was in distress during a fire. They took him to a ranger station. The baby needed a foster mother to take care of him and teach him how to live in the wild. Suzi stepped up for the job.

The story is illustrated with abundant photographs – and Moto is adorably cute! The author explains clearly how she fed and tended him. He learned on his own to hunt, practicing with the stuffed toy she gave him, Mr. Ducky. The pictures of him learning to hunt, climb trees, and puff himself up in defense (to look bigger) are also adorable.

The book isn’t long, but it’s packed with information and photos. I was fascinated by Moto’s story, and kids will be, too. And now I know much, much more about servals (African wildcats) than I ever did before.

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Review of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

August 8th, 2017

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

by Patrick Rothfuss
illustrated by Nate Taylor

DAW Books, 2014. 159 pages.

This book is set in the world of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, a short tale of Auri, a mysterious girl who lives deep under the University in dark passages.

In the Author’s Foreword he tells you right up front this isn’t the best introduction to his worlds, and includes other reasons you might not want to read it.

I think it’s only fair to warn you that this is a bit of a strange story. I don’t go in for spoilers, but suffice to say that this one is . . . different. It doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do. And if you’re looking for a continuation of Kvothe’s storyline, you’re not going to find it here.

On the other hand, if you’d like to learn more about Auri, this story has a lot to offer. If you love words and mysteries and secrets. If you’re curious about the Underthing and alchemy. If you want to know more about the hidden turnings of my world. . . .

Well, then this book might be for you.

He said it! Patrick Rothfuss’s astonishing ability to write beautiful language is still evident in this book — but this isn’t where you’ll see his ability to craft a plot.

But if you already love his world, here’s an opportunity to spend some time there, and to get inside the mind of the mysterious and broken Auri as she goes about her interesting hidden world, putting things in their proper places.

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Review of Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst

August 7th, 2017

Journey Across the Hidden Islands

by Sarah Beth Durst

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), April 4, 2017. 338 pages.

Sarah Beth Durst is so imaginative! I have to say that as a rule, the creatures her characters befriend and ride on are generally exceptionally cuddly. I’m thinking of the bear in Ice and the tiger in Enchanted Ivy, but now also the winged lion in Journey Across the Hidden Islands.

This one’s a middle grade adventure about twelve-year-old twin princesses. Seika is the heir to the emperor of the Hidden Islands. And Ji-Lin will be her sister’s imperial guard, along with her winged lion companion, Alejan.

Ji-Lin and Seika are still in training, but somewhat to their surprise, on their twelfth birthday, they are told they are ready to go on the Emperor’s Journey.

Every generation, the emperor’s heir journeys across the hundred islands and renews our bargain with the dragon, ensuring the continuation of the barrier for another generation. The heir travels only with her or his brother or sister and one winged lion, as Himitsu himself did long ago.

The barrier that the dragon maintains keeps the islands safe from the koji (monsters) on the outside.

But as Ji-Lin, Seika, and Alejan travel, they encounter koji where they shouldn’t be. They find the journey much more difficult than it should be, and other unexpected surprises in what’s supposed to be carefully planned. Is the barrier already falling? What if they fail in their quest? What will happen to their people?

Along the way during this adventure, there are wonderful details of this magical world, including mer-minnows, waterhorses, and unicorns. I like the interaction between the sisters, and the character of Alejan – obviously a young winged lion, and one who’s always hungry.

This is an excellent adventure for middle grade readers. And who wouldn’t want to fly on the back of a lion?

sarahbethdurst.com
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Review of Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

August 5th, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Al Franken

Twelve (Hachette), 2017. 404 pages.

Okay, I’m going to stop being embarrassed for liking Al Franken’s books so much. Years ago, I read Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and enjoyed it, but I didn’t post a review because I wasn’t ready to admit how much I enjoyed it. (Though to be fair, he included more “jokes” in that one, and I thought went a little too far in spots.)

This book has a lot more restraint – and he talks about how difficult it was to learn that restraint! Yes, I also liked that he left out foul language. There’s a note right at the beginning of the book:

Throughought this volume, whenever you see a very mild oath like “Fiddlesticks!” (or some gentle name-calling like “numbskull” or “dimwit,” or some old-timey synonym for “bull—-” like “poppycock” or “flim-flummery”), followed by the letters “USS” in superscript, that means I’ve replaced something far more plainspoken with a less offensive phrase or expression. The “USS” stands for “United States Senate,” the body in which I now serve. I feel I have a duty to both my colleagues and my constituents to make at least a token effort to preserve its dignity and decorum. I wish I could say the same for that dunderhead [USS] Ted Cruz.

Call me a prude, but I found the result much more pleasant reading – and more creative language – than his earlier books where he didn’t show that restraint. (Though I did think the note was really funny!)

This book tells the story of how Al Franken got into politics and what he’s trying to do in the Senate (represent the people of Minnesota).

He’s a Progressive, and so am I, so that’s partly why I enjoyed his book so much. But it’s also an entertaining story (He does know how to write and how to entertain.) of politics in America today.

It’s funny, though – He does tell a lot of stories about jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell! Way to get back at them! And most of them are quite funny. And the context tells the reader that they are, in fact, jokes. In almost all cases, you can see that his staff was right and he shouldn’t have told the jokes when he was initially tempted to.

The chapter on Health Care was enlightening – and timely. I also like the chapters where he shows that it is still possible to do good work on things both parties can agree on. And I like the chapters with stories of Minnesotans. These show why Al Franken is doing the work he does.

But I think my favorite chapter was the one on “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” He explains at the beginning that maybe it’s a little weird, but dishonesty has always gotten under his skin. I guess that rang true because I’ve always felt the same way. I feel like catching someone in a lie should be their utter disgrace.

But he goes on to say:

Back in the good old days, fact-checking politicians was a different ball game. Looking back now, it seems almost adorable that I made a decent living writing books about catching right-wing Republicans in their lies. What I did was effective, I realize now, mainly because a lot of their lies had the veneer of plausibility, and because at least some of the liars liked to pretend that they were telling the truth – which was of course a lie, but which was also part of the fun.

But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the “Trump Effect” yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them. Like a movie that is loosely based on a true story, Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy.

He goes on to explain why this is important.

I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything….

I’ve always believed that it’s possible to discern true statements from false statements, and that it’s critically important to do so, and that we put our entire democratic experiment in peril when we don’t. It’s a lesson I fear our nation is about to learn the hard way.

That’s why my Global Jihad on Factual Inaccuracy will continue. I cling to the hope that national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon, and that in a few short years we may find ourselves in an era of Neo-Sticklerism. And a glorious era it shall be.

One can only hope!

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Review of The Pearl Thief, by Elizabeth Wein

August 4th, 2017

The Pearl Thief

by Elizabeth Wein

Hyperion, 2017. 326 pages.
Starred Review

The Pearl Thief is a prequel to the brilliant Code Name Verity. You can read the books in any order. They don’t overlap at all. You’ll learn more about the character of Julia Beaufort-Stuart, who took the code name Verity during World War II.

In this book, Julie comes home to Scotland from boarding school during the summer she is to turn sixteen. Her grandfather the Earl of Strathfearn has recently died, and her grandmother had to sell the estate to pay bills. So workmen are all over the grounds, preparing to turn it into a school, and the family is packing up their things and spending one last summer at Strathfearn.

Julie arrived home a few days early, when no one was expecting her. The house is empty, so she put on some old clothes and went down to the river – and there she got whacked on the head and left unconscious.

When Julie wakes up in the hospital, the nurses think she’s a Scottish Traveler, a Tinker. Some Travelers found her and brought her in, and no one knew that she was coming home so early.

The man who was in charge of cataloging the Murray collection went missing the same day Julie got hit on the head. As Julie’s memory comes back, she remembers seeing him in the river. Did he commit suicide? Or was he murdered? And who hit Julie?

Meanwhile, Julie makes friends with the Traveler family and sees how everyone in the neighborhood would like to pin the crimes on them.

In this book, it’s fun to again enjoy carefree and bold Julia Beaufort-Stuart. But there’s also plenty of mystery. Also missing from the Murray collection are some Scottish river pearls. And there’s an ancient log boat in the river that the workers carelessly start dredging up – then revealing parts of a body.

We’ve got a story dealing with assault, murder, theft, ancient treasures, and prejudice. And the mystery wraps up with some thrillingly dangerous moments as well. It’s also a coming-of-age story, as Julie experiments with kissing, learns to drive, and wants to be seen as an adult.

I like everything Elizabeth Wein writes, so I have some bias by now. I thought the mystery was a little bit rambling, but mostly it was great to again be in the company of the delightful Julia Beaufort-Stuart.

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Review of Lesser Spotted Animals, by Martin Brown

August 3rd, 2017

Lesser Spotted Animals

The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard of

by Martin Brown

Scholastic, 2017. First published in the United Kingdom in 2016. 53 pages.
Starred Review

Martin Brown is the illustrator of the Horrible Histories books that my son loved when he was younger. And this book has the same wit and wisecracks.

The Introduction explains the philosophy of the book:

Fed up with the same old animals? Had enough of hippos? Bored with bears? Tired of tigers? Do you want animals that are fresh, new, and exciting? Try Lesser Spotted Animals, a book about the wonderfully wow wildlife we never get to see. There are thousands of different animals in the world – big and small, common and rare – but most books show you just a slender selection of those thousands. And it’s the same slender selection over and over again. It’s time for a book that’s different – without the same ho-hum, run-of-the-mill creatures we’re served day in, day out. No pandas, elephants, or zebras here – this is a book about the world’s other animals.

Everyone’s heard of the koala – so cute and gray and fluffy – a nature superstar. And if it ever became extinct we would cry and weep and wail. But what about the pika? Hmm? It’s cute and gray and fluffy, too. Would we cry and weep and wail if it vanished forever? How could we? No one’s ever heard of it. Why? Because all the books are full of koalas – and lions and tigers and all the other usual, regular celebrity creatures we always see….

Discover all the amazing beasts you never knew you needed to know about, because it’s good-bye to the gnu and cheerio to the cheetah, say hi to the hirola and nice to meet you to the numbat . . .

After that, there are descriptions of twenty-three animals you probably never heard of, including a box with information about their size, what they eat, where they live, and their endangered status, plus some bonus facts.

Most of the illustrations have humorous speech bubbles somewhere, and the whole tone is light-hearted. I think my favorite page was the “Crabeater Seal: The world’s not-rarest seal,” coming as it did after the “Hirola: The world’s rarest antelope.”

In the first paragraph, we’re told that crabeater seals don’t eat crabs, because there are none in the Antarctic where they live. (They eat krill.) Then we’re told this:

However, the really important thing about crabeater seals is that they are probably the most numerous large animal you’ve never heard of. There are something like 200,000 brown bears in the world, 600,000 bottle-nosed dolphins, and roughly 700,000 common zebras. But sitting on the ice and swimming in the cold southern sea there’s somewhere between ten and fifteen million crabeater seals. So why don’t we know about them? Because bears go RAAAH and zebras look dashing and dolphins do backflips. The poor crabeater is a dull, pale browny-gray color. It can’t jump and it doesn’t chase its prey in thrilling, TV-friendly fashion. It doesn’t even eat crabs! But there are, by far, more crabeater seals on Earth than any other large wild mammal. SO THERE.

You get the idea! If you have children who enjoy knowing obscure facts, this book is sure to win them over. Learn about such creatures as the Cuban Solenodon, the Zorilla, Speke’s Pectinator (“Little Gray Ratty Thing Is: THE PECTINATOR”), the Gaur, and the Onager.

Lots of fun, and informative, too.

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