Archive for the ‘Starred Review’ Category

Review of With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

With the Fire on High

by Elizabeth Acevedo
read by the author

HarperAudio, 2019. 7.5 hours on 6 discs.
Starred Review

Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of The Poet X, which won the 2019 Printz Award, Pura Belpré Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and National Book Award. This new book (also a stand-alone) is every bit as fiery and wonderful.

Emoni Santiago is a senior in high school with a two-year-old daughter to look after. Ever since she got pregnant her freshman year, her life has revolved around her Baby Girl. Emoni herself is looked after by her Abuela, since Emoni’s mother died giving birth to her and her father went back to his island, Puerto Rico. He visits every summer, but he has never stayed.

Now Emoni is a senior, and her high school is beginning a Culinary Arts elective with a real chef. Since she was very small, Emoni has loved to cook. She doesn’t necessarily follow recipes, but makes them her own. And when people eat her food, they are reminded of powerful memories. She has a magic touch.

But can Emoni handle the work of such an elective while she’s trying to work on the weekends and juggle her other classwork while taking care of Baby Girl? And the class is going to take a trip to learn about the food of southern Spain – but how can Emoni possibly pay for that? And why is the new boy in their grade paying attention to her? She doesn’t have time for boys.

Those are a few of the things Emoni has to deal with in this book that takes us through the start of her senior year through graduation. It’s refreshing to hear the story of a single teen mother who kept her baby and is trying to take good care of her and also follow her own dreams.

When I heard Elizabeth Acevedo give her acceptance speech for the Printz Award, I loved listening to the soft accent of her musical voice. Listening to her narrate this book, I got to hear more. Emoni, given a voice by Elizabeth Acevedo, is a heroine you will enjoy spending time with and whom you won’t forget any time soon.

acevedowrites.com
harperaudio.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Magic Ramen, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz

Monday, August 19th, 2019

Magic Ramen

The Story of Momofuku Ando

by Andrea Wang
illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz

Little Bee Books, 2019. 36 pages.
Starred Review

Okay, the existence of inexpensive ramen noodles that cook in hot water in a couple of minutes is something I’ve always taken for granted. Cup of soup! No big deal, right?

This picture book tells the story of an invention that is so widely used, people don’t realize it had to be invented – instant ramen.

We learn that the motivation for the inventor was seeing people lined up for ramen soup in postwar Japan.

Ando went home, but he couldn’t forget the hungry people. The world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat, he realized. Ando decided that food would be his life’s work.

But it wasn’t easy to come up with noodles that could cook quickly in hot water. This book does a great job of showing the trial and error process of inventing. Even when he makes noodles that work, then he needs to work on the flavor. And production. And publicity.

At the end, it says:

Soon, everyone was eating Ando’s ramen. Poor people. Children. Busy workers. Even royalty!

My coworker and I agree that the author forgot to mention college students!

This is a well-presented story about something readers will not take for granted ever again. The note at the back tells about Ando’s continued inventions, even at the age of 91.

andreaywang.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

Pie in the Sky

by Remy Lai

Henry Holt, 2019. 380 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 5, 2019, from a library book

I only read this book because someone nominated it to Capitol Choices (a group of DC-area librarians who select what we think are the 100 best children’s book of the year), but I thought the cartoony cover and comic panels woven through the text meant it would be too much like the Wimpy Kid books for me. I ended up wholeheartedly loving it.

Now, there are lots of comic panels included, which I think makes the book all the more accessible. But the story goes a lot deeper than you might think.

Jingwen and his annoying younger brother Yanghao are moving with their mother to Australia. The book never tells which country they’re moving from, though the author was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore, and now lives in Australia. (So alas! It’s not eligible to win the Newbery.)

I like the way the comic panels show people talking with words Jingwen doesn’t understand as speech bubbles with strange squiggles. At first, he feels like he’s on an alien planet, and draws them as space aliens. But after awhile, he feels like he is the alien, and draws himself with six eyes and tentacles.

But this isn’t only about Jingwen and Yanghao adjusting to a new country with a new language while their mother works hard and leaves Jingwen to tend Yanghao much of the time. The book is also about Jingwen working through how much he misses his Papa, who died two years earlier.

Papa had talked about moving to Australia. He was going to open a fancy cake shop there and call it Pie in the Sky.

Papa’s English was only slightly less terrible than mine, but he knew a pie is not a cake. It’s just that he had a friend who spoke fluent English who told him the meaning of the idiom pie in the sky — an impossible dream.

Back home, Jingwen’s parents worked in his grandparents’ bake shop. But on Sundays, Jingwen’s Papa used to bake fancy cakes with Jingwen, cakes they planned to sell in their future Pie in the Sky cake shop.

Jingwen decides that what he needs to do to make life go better in Australia and to properly honor his Papa is bake all twelve of the Pie in the Sky cakes. Never mind that their mother doesn’t want them to touch the oven while she is not home.

They buy ingredients and he makes a list of rules for Yanghao to follow so he doesn’t cause trouble and give everything away.

But the plan isn’t simple to carry out. And meantime, he’s trying to adjust to a new country and a new language, which his annoying little brother picks up much more quickly.

This book with comic panel illustrations has an amazing amount of depth and poignancy.

“When someone is feeling sad, they can’t help but smile at the sight of a cake.”

remylai.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Truman, by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Truman

written by Jean Reidy
illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2019. 48 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 9, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a sweet story of a tortoise and his Sarah.

Truman loves his Sarah. They are well-suited; both are peaceful and pensive. Truman’s tank is by the window where he can look down on the street with honking taxis, growling trash trucks, shrieking cars, and the number 11 bus, which traveled south.

But one day, Sarah does some new things. She has an extra big breakfast, wears new clothes, and straps on a big backpack.

Sarah placed seven green beans in Truman’s dish –
two more than usual!

She kissed her finger and touched it to his shell and whispered,
“Be brave.”
Then she left.

Not to worry.
She’d left before.
And she’d always returned.

But this time
that backpack was particularly big.
And Sarah looked particularly pensive.
And that banana,
and that bow, and –
let’s not forget about those extra beans!

That’s when Truman saw something
he’d never seen before:

Sarah boarding the number 11 bus going south.

The bus roared away.

Truman tries to be patient. But eventually, Truman knows he must go after his Sarah!

What follows is brave and bold and adventurous and extraordinary – for a tortoise.

Don’t worry – the book has a happy ending. Meanwhile, children get the position of knowing what’s going on while someone smaller waits and wonders and learns to trust.

The pictures turn this story into something utterly charming. I don’t think anyone could read this book without falling in love with small, pensive Truman the tortoise.

jeanreidy.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

A Curse So Dark and Lonely

by Brigid Kemmerer

Bloomsbury, 2019. 484 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 29, 2019, from a library book

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” but it’s an expansive retelling, only borrowing the barest outline of the fairy tale.

The book begins with a scene in the fantasy world of Emberfall, then a scene on the streets of Washington, DC. In Emberfall, we meet Rhen, a cursed prince. The only member of his guard left is the captain, Grey. His family, servants, and all the rest of his guard are dead, killed by the beast he becomes at the end of each season. The girl who was this season’s prospect for breaking the curse has fled, as all the rest before her. A new season is beginning, in a perpetual time loop.

In DC, Harper is a lookout for her brother Jake. He’s been coerced into doing bill collection work, to make up for what their father had owed and to try to afford medicine for their mother, who is dying of cancer. Jake is taking too long, but while Harper waits, she sees a man abducting a young woman. Even though she doesn’t want to attract attention, and even though she has a limp from her cerebral palsy, she can’t just let him do this right in front of her, so she attacks him with a rusty tire iron.

But he’s surprisingly good at defending himself. When Harper thinks he’s about to attack her in return, she ends up suddenly transported into a fantasy world. She’s not kindly disposed to the prince she meets, either. And she’s worried about her mother and brother. But when she tries to escape, it doesn’t take long to figure out that something magical is happening, since the world outside the castle grounds is covered in snow.

I wasn’t too impressed with the story as it began, but became more and more so as it continued. All the characters have lots of depth. Rhen isn’t just a shallow prince who’s won over by this girl. He’s actually learned much from his initial mistake and from the horror of knowing he’s killed his family. He’s taken steps to protect his people. Too bad the enchantress continues to return to torment him. In fact, she’s decided that Harper is his last chance.

Harper, too, is a character with depth. She has cerebral palsy, but doesn’t let that stop her. She does some learning during the course of the book. For one thing, she learns that impulsive promises she makes to the people of Emberfall will have consequences. I do like the way the author has thought of repercussions of the curse that aren’t in the original fairy tale. For example, a neighboring monarch is going to want to get a piece of the kingdom whose rulers seem to have disappeared.

There are some twists thrown into the ending – twists that are not resolved at all. I wish there’d been some evidence somewhere on the book jacket that this is only Book One. But the basic story of the fairy tale is indeed resolved in a satisfying way. I do want to know what happens next, though, so I’ll be watching for the sequel.

brigidkemmerer.com
bloomsbury.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of O Captain, My Captain! by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Sterling Hundley

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

O Captain, My Captain

Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

by Robert Burleigh
illustrations by Sterling Hundley

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019. 64 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 20, 2019, from a library book

I was going to pass over this book. I thought it was a simple picture book biography. As much as I loved the first ones I saw, I’ve gotten somewhat jaded about their simple approach to a person’s life.

This goes into much more depth, and I was quickly pulled in. Although the format is the same size as a picture book, the book has twice as many pages, and there’s much more text on each spread. This would be appropriate for upper elementary school, though even as an adult, I learned much about Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and the beautiful paintings enhanced the text.

Walt Whitman lived and worked the same time as Abraham Lincoln, and he ended up writing two tribute poems to Lincoln (included in the book). Most interesting was that even though he was already a famous poet, he lived in Washington during the Civil War and visited soldiers in the hospital there every day, helping and encouraging them. So he regularly saw President Lincoln passing by.

Each section of this book (usually one or two spreads) has a heading that is a quotation from Walt Whitman. There are twelve pages of back matter – you can see the author has done his research.

Simply to see this president, to catch a glimpse of his face, increasingly etched with suffering – “so awful ugly it becomes beautiful” – yet with a wry smile on occasion, was uplifting. Just to watch as the stiff figure, sitting motionless in the shadow of the carriage, passed by, gave Walt new energy. He felt Lincoln was giving his all, and beyond. How could Walt do less?

This book pulled me into the emotions of living out the Civil War in Washington in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

robertburleigh.com
sterlinghundley.com
abramsyoungreaders.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Golden Road, by L. M. Montgomery

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

The Golden Road

by L. M. Montgomery

Bantam Books, 1989. First published in 1913. 213 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 17, 2019, from my own copy

The Golden Road is a continuation of The Story Girl, so they should be read in order. It’s more antics and adventures of several children living in a village on Prince Edward Island more than one hundred years ago. Put that way, it’s maybe surprising how enjoyable the stories still are today.

The tone is nostalgic. Beverley King is an old man telling about a beautiful season of his childhood, when they were on “the Golden Road.” Like the first book, it’s an episodic tale, though this one doesn’t have quite as many stories told by the Story Girl. But we get more encounters with the local “witch,” Peg Bowen, and Felicity finally makes a mistake in cooking, and we find out about the mystery of the Awkward Man.

Summarized, there’s not a lot that stands out, but this is one of those books with characters who are delightful to spend time with. And the setting of Prince Edward Island pervades the book, making me all the more eager to see it for myself later this year.

This is a book that had me reading with a smile on my face.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr

Monday, August 12th, 2019

The Universal Christ

How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe

by Richard Rohr

Convergent Books (Penguin Random House), 2019. 260 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 9, 2019, from my own copy, ordered via Amazon.com

This book hit the spot for me, and came my way exactly when I needed to read it. I had recently switched churches because my former church had adopted a policy that declares transgender people are wrong to change their gender and that opposes same sex marriage. As a universalist, I already had some disagreements with their theology, so I’ve been thinking about theology and inclusiveness, and was very ready for this book.

I will freely admit that some of the ideas went over my head. There’s a lot of mysticism here, a lot of talk about insubstantial things. But I marked fifty passages to put in Sonderquotes, and I’ll be going over these ideas again. Maybe after a few times through, more will sink in. And I’m sure of this: These are uplifting and beautiful ideas. They’re based in Scripture and I believe they honor God. I’d like to put these concepts into my life.

This book is about trying to grasp – with experience and with our spirits, not necessarily our minds – the concept of Christ, who has been present much longer than the human Jesus.

Here are some questions from the beginning of the book:

Across the thirty thousand or so varieties of Christianity, believers love Jesus and (at least in theory) seem to have no trouble accepting his full humanity and his full divinity. Many express a personal relationship with Jesus – perhaps a flash of inspiration of his intimate presence in their lives, perhaps a fear of his judgment or wrath. Others trust in his compassion, and often see him as a justification for their worldviews and politics. But how might the notion of Christ change the whole equation? Is Christ simply Jesus’s last name? Or is it a revealing title that deserves our full attention? How is Christ’s function or role different from Jesus’s? What does Scripture mean when Peter says in his very first address to the crowds after Pentecost that “God has made this Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36)? Weren’t they always one and the same, starting at Jesus’s birth?

Here’s another paragraph from that first chapter:

A merely personal God becomes tribal and sentimental, and a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles. But when we learn to put them together, Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal. The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. (We should not be surprised that the word we translate from the Greek as Christ comes from the Hebrew word mesach, meaning “the anointed” one, or Messiah. He reveals that all is anointed!) Many are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus, “so that we could hear him, see him with our eyes, watch him, and touch him with our hands, the Word who is life” (1 John 1-2); and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the Body of Christ), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18ff). We are still in the Flow.

As I said, I read this book at exactly the right time. Many of the ideas resonated beautifully with other books I’ve been reading, indeed, some of those books were quoted. But they were all brought together in a new way, taking things I’d been thinking about and going further.

An especially lovely resonance happened on Monday this past week. I was looking up a George MacDonald quote to insert in my blog series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, and when I found it, discovered that my favorite George MacDonald Unspoken Sermon, “Justice” is available online, and I had a lovely time rereading it. This sermon explains why George MacDonald does not believe God’s justice and God’s mercy are opposed to one another and why he finds the idea that Jesus had to save us from God’s wrath utterly abhorrent.

Well, I read that sermon in the afternoon. Later that same day, I picked up this book to read the next chapter – and the chapter was called “Why Did Jesus Die?” and also explains the problems with the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

At best, the theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At worst, it led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure, who demands acts of violence before God can love his own creation. Now, there is no doubt that both Testaments are filled with metaphors of atonement, sacrifice, expiation, ransom, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. But these are common temple metaphors that would’ve made sense to a Jewish audience. Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if you just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for you in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.

There are so many inspiring tidbits in this book. They are big ideas, and I’m going to need to go over it all again to try to grasp it better.

Overwhelmingly, this book is about the love of Christ, all around us and within us. And changing our lives and our vision.

Mostly, we must remember that Christianity in its maturity is supremely love-centered, not information- or knowledge-centered, which is called “Gnosticism.” The primacy of love allows our knowing to be much humbler and more patient, and helps us to recognize that other traditions – and other people – have much to teach us, and there is also much we can share with them. This stance of honest self-knowledge and deeper interiority, the head (Bible), heart (Experience), and body (Tradition) operating as one, is helping many to be more integrated and truthful about their own actual experience of God.

This book is not about doing or achieving, and I’m finding words like these freeing and inspiring:

Once the real inner journey begins – once you come to know that in Christ, God is forever overcoming the gap between human and divine – the Christian path becomes less about climbing and performance, and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is largely about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending spiritually or thinking we can remain unwounded. (The ego does not like this fundamental switch at all, so we keep returning to some kind of performance principle, trying to climb out of this messy incarnation instead of learning from it. This is most early-stage religion.)

His idea of the Universal Christ is fundamentally BIG:

To be loved by Jesus enlarges our heart capacity. To be loved by the Christ enlarges our mental capacity. We need both a Jesus and a Christ, in my opinion, to get the full picture. A truly transformative God – for both the individual and history – needs to be experienced as both personal and universal. Nothing less will fully work. If the overly personal (even sentimental) Jesus has shown itself to have severe limitations and problems, it is because this Jesus was not also universal. He became cozy and we lost the cosmic. History has clearly shown that worship of Jesus without worship of Christ invariably becomes a time-and culture-bound religion, often ethnic or even implicitly racist, which excludes much of humanity from God’s embrace….

For you who have loved Jesus – perhaps with great passion and protectiveness – do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer, and enjoy? You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class. Why oh why, do Christians allow these temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” to pass for the substantial self, which is always “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)? It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel.

It’s tempting to keep finding bits to quote, but stay tuned to Sonderquotes, and you’ll see many more inspiring words from this book.

Try it out – perhaps the timing will be as lovely for you to hear these inspiring words as it was for me.

universalchrist.cac.org
cac.org/sign-up
convergentbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

Friday, August 9th, 2019

The Raven Tower

by Ann Leckie

Orbit Books, 2019. 416 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 9, 2019, from a library book

Oh, this book is amazing! I can’t expect anything traditional or stereotypical from Ann Leckie, but she still surprised me. I can tell you about the set-up, but not how everything comes together. Let me tell you that it does, and this book is well worth reading. This one’s fantasy, rather than the science fiction she’s written previously, but it breaks up expectations of the genre, just as her other books did with science fiction.

Here’s the first sentence:

I first saw you when you rode out of the forest, past the cluster of tall, bulge-eyed offering stakes that mark the edges of the forest, your horse at a walk.

At first, I thought this would be like The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin, and take the entire book to let you know who is speaking to whom. But we do find out fairly quickly that the person being addressed is Eolo, the aide to Lord Mowat, who is the heir to the Raven’s Lease. Eolo and Mowat have arrived from the southern defenses on an urgent summons because the Instrument had died. Eolo is a wonderful and resourceful character who is also a transgender man (which barely comes into the story, but I did enjoy the representation).

Then the one speaking begins telling his story and we learn he is a god, a god who lives in a large stone that began under the sea. The god’s story takes a long time to intersect with the Raven god. (There’s a nice touch that this god has a friend who is a god that inhabits mosquitoes, called Myriad. I can believe in that god!)

But all is not well at the Raven Tower. The Instrument (a physical raven) is dead, and the previous Lease, Mowat’s father, should have sacrificed himself to the Raven god while the next Instrument is in an egg. But the former Raven’s Lease was nowhere to be found. His brother Hibal, Mowat’s uncle, has taken the Lease’s bench, because it could not remain empty. Mowat is still the Heir to the Raven’s Lease.

But Mowat does not believe this story. His father would never have fled. His father was committed to make the sacrifice. There are many complications, complications with other nations, complications with expectations of the way the Raven god works that don’t seem to be met, and complications with schemers and plotters.

Behind it all, we also get the epic and centuries-long story of the life of the Strength and Patience of the Hill. What is this god’s place in all this?

And yes, we grow fond of both Eolo and the Strength and Patience of the Hill as the story unfolds.

I don’t dare say much more at all, but the story is woven wonderfully. Here is a fantasy tale with nothing typical about it.

annleckie.com
orbitbooks.net

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Just Mercy

A Story of Justice and Redemption

by Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau (Random House), 2014. 336 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 6, 2019, from a library book

A big thank you to the Racial Reconciliation Group at Floris United Methodist Church for choosing this book for a book discussion. I confess, I did not read this book in time to participate in the discussion, but their choice brought it to my attention, and the book blew me away.

This book is the story of a young lawyer who in 1983 did an intensive course on race and poverty litigation, met some prisoners on death row, saw their humanity, and began working for people who didn’t have a voice and were not receiving either justice or mercy.

After talking about his first experience visiting a prisoner on death row, here is how Bryan Stevenson introduces this powerful book:

This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. . . .

After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, I’ve gotten close to people who have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillan. In this book you will learn the story of Walter’s case, which taught me about our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walter’s experience taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsibly – not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of crime. But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light within this darkness.

Walter’s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. I’ve represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whose illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violent crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass imprisonment – prison staff – have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less just and merciful.

I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity – seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.

This was a difficult book for me to read. As a white woman who’s never had a personal encounter with the justice system, I’d like to believe that our justice system in America is fair and above board, and if you do no wrong, you won’t have any trouble with it.

Bryan Stevenson does highlight the story of Walter McMillan, telling about his case in alternate chapters. Walter was an African American on death row for a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed – since it happened the same time as a barbecue he attended, and multiple witnesses saw him there. The story of how the murder was pinned on Walter is complicated, involving plenty of racism, sentiment against him because he had an affair with a white woman, a strong desire to pin the crime on someone, pressure on the unreliable witness who testified against him, and a public defender who didn’t make much of an effort, among many other factors.

Even working hard on Walter’s case, there were still numerous obstacles to vindicating Walter, and he ended up spending six years of his life on death row, causing layers of pain to his entire community, since their testimony hadn’t been heeded.

The chapters in between the ones about Walter’s story tell about so many other people who needed justice. Some wrongfully accused and convicted, some harshly punished out of proportion to the crime. I learned that death by electrocution can be horribly painful. I’d had no idea. In view of recent law changes, especially heart-wrenching were stories of women who miscarried when alone – and then were convicted of murdering their newborn infant. This happened despite how much the women wanted to have a baby, and even to a woman who miscarried so early, there’s no way a baby could have survived.

So this book filled my heart with sadness and disillusionment – yet the focus is hope. And the book is written by a man who’s fighting for justice and making good progress at changing laws and helping folks wrongly imprisoned be set free.

In the Epilogue, Bryan Stevenson tells us some things he learned from Walter:

Walter had made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.

This was an amazing and powerful book that shook up my worldview. I hope many more people will read it, and it’s consistently on hold, which is a good sign. It was because I was reading this book that my heart sank when I read the news that federal executions are going to begin again. This book will change your perspective. Highly recommended.

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