Archive for the ‘Starred Review’ Category

Review of A Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz

Friday, April 19th, 2019

A Bigger Table

Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

by John Palovitz

Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 192 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 11, 2019, from a book purchased via

A Bigger Table is all about Christians reflecting our God, who pours out his great love on everyone. John Pavlovitz talks about a bigger table that includes radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community.

He begins by telling his story, about his upbringing in the Catholic church and how he eventually became an evangelical pastor. But he had made some LGBTQ friends and his brother came out as gay, and when he started to question the church’s attitude toward them, he got fired. Now he talks about that as the best thing that ever happened to him.

A lot of churches are not welcoming. He talks about that in the beginning section, “Big God, Small Table”:

There are many reasons the local church is so vulnerable to such all-or-nothing extremism; not least among them is the way so much of our Christianity has been immersed in relentless us-vs.-them culture-war rhetoric. Scaring people into the kingdom by enlisting them for combat has been the evangelical church in America’s bread and butter for the past fifty years, and it’s worked out pretty well. It’s been a reliable way to generate urgency among the faithful and to get people worked up, but ultimately it’s also been costly. Frame the spiritual journey as a stark good-vs.-evil battle of warring sides long enough and you’ll eventually see the Church and those around you in the same way, too. You’ll begin to filter the world through the lens of conflict. Everything becomes a threat to the family; everyone becomes a potential enemy. Fear becomes the engine that drives the whole thing. When this happens, your default response to people who are different or who challenge you can turn from compassion to contempt. You become less like God and more like the Godfather. In those times, instead of being a tool to fit your heart for invitation, faith can become a weapon to defend yourself against the encroaching sinners threatening God’s people – whom we conveniently always consider ourselves among. Religion becomes a cold, cruel distance maker, pushing from the table people who aren’t part of the brotherhood and don’t march in lockstep with the others.

Here’s a paragraph from the chapter where he talks about getting fired:

It’s easy for religious people to be intimidated by those seeking a bigger table. This was always the Pharisees’ struggle. It wasn’t a lack of faith or lack of love for God, but a resistance to the idea that God could speak in new ways, could come packaged differently than they expected, and could exist outside the box they built for God. When we dare to step outside that box, when we ask the most difficult questions, and when we unearth our own spiritual junk, others are reminded of the unattended longing in their own hears. Christian people rarely get angry at theological claims I make in my blog posts or when I’m speaking somewhere, but almost always at the questions I ask, because they are forced to entertain those questions themselves whether they care to or not. Those questions press against the tender spots where their doubt sits buried just below the surface.

Then he talks about building a bigger table. And it’s all based on the ministry Jesus had.

One of the most powerful examples of Jesus’ table ministry is recorded by all four of the Gospel biographies. Jesus has been teaching in a remote spot and the place is packed. It’s getting late and those gathered, miles away from the nearest Chick-fil-A, are getting hungry. Jesus, drawn to the need by his disciples, responds by feeding the whole lot of them with the small bit of food present. As the story goes, thousands have their bellies filled and some get to-go boxes. As so often happens when reading these stories, we can easily be tripped up by the miraculous aspect of the moment, preoccupied by the mechanism rather than the meaning of it all. If we see this meal as merely a how story, we will be forever burdened with intellectually explaining the exponential multiplication of the bread and fish, trying to wrap our minds around the physics and food science involved – and we will be doomed to miss the point gloriously. But if we view this as a who story and a why story, we will find the clear invitation for we who seek the ways of Jesus. We can see the heart of God for hungry people. We can see the tremendous challenge of expanding the table. This is where the miracle takes place.

I can’t fathom the transformation of a basket of food to accommodate a multitude (heck, I’m not even sure how our toaster works), but I can see the boundless compassion of the open table and endeavor to re-create that on whatever spot I stand at any given moment and with the people in my midst. Jesus feeds people. That’s what he does. And as striking as what he does is, equally revelatory is what he doesn’t do here. There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table. Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us.

I like his metaphors. One is about showing people the ocean:

For me, going to the beach is always like meeting God. There’s that moment when you make your way down the path that cuts through the dunes. As you walk farther, the quiet noise in the distance gradually becomes a welcome roar. You crane your neck as if unsure it’s all still there. Your pace quickens as the sound rises and the wind grows, and suddenly you’re emptied out into the full, vivid majesty of it all. And you breathe. It never fails to level me. It is never commonplace. It is always holy ground. If you’ve been to the beach, you understand exactly what I mean. If you haven’t – well, you just won’t. That’s the thing about the ocean: until you experience it, no one can explain it to you, and once you have experienced it, no one needs to. The love of God is this way. For far too long, Christians have been content with telling people about the ocean and believing that is enough.

We’ve spoken endlessly of a God whose lavish, scandalous love is beyond measure, whose forgiveness reaches from the furthest places and into our deepest personal darkness. We’ve spun gorgeous, fanciful tales of a redeeming grace that is greater than the worst thing we’ve done and available to anyone who desires it. We’ve talked about a Church that welcomes the entire hurting world openly with the very arms of Jesus. We’ve talked and talked and talked – and much of the time we’ve been a clanging gong, our lives and shared testimony making a largely loveless noise in their ears. They receive our condemnation. They know our protests. They experience our exclusion. They endure our judgment. They encounter our bigotry. And all of our flowery words ring hollow. It’s little wonder they eventually choose to walk away from the shore, the idea as delivered through our daily encounters with them not compelling enough to pursue for themselves. Our commitments to hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and community can be empty words, too, if we don’t put them into practice.

Church, the world doesn’t need more talking from us. It doesn’t need our sweet platitudes or our eloquent speeches or our passionate preaching or our brilliant exegesis. These are all just words about the ocean, and ultimately they fail to adequately describe it. The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God. As they meet us, they need to come face-to-face with radical welcome, with unconditional love, with counterintuitive forgiveness. They need to experience all of this in our individual lives and in the Church, or they will decide that it is all no more than a beautiful but ultimately greatly exaggerated story about sand and waves and colors that cannot be described.

He also talks about gaining new eyes:

I want you to think about your eyes for a moment. I want you to think about the way you see the world, especially if you’re a person of faith. When you encounter war, poverty, violence, addiction, human trafficking, and all the other things that horrify you, what story do you tell yourself? Usually we fall into one of two camps. Some Christians look at the dysfunction, injustice, and discord around them as sure signs of a fallen creation: proof of a sinful, rebellious culture rejecting God and paying the price. They see suffering as the by-product of wickedness, the unpleasantness they rub shoulders with every day clear symptoms of the moral decay of everything. These followers of Jesus primarily see sin, and the lens through which they view the world around them and the people in their path. With this as their primary filter, they tend to respond with a burden to save souls. The answer to everything becomes conversion, salvation as eternal rescue from the cancer that afflicts us all. It is next-life focused. Or they see Jesus as an instant, magic cure-all for the behavior in others that they find objectionable or uncomfortable. They imagine that simply “coming to Jesus” will eliminate all the immorality that may or may not bother Jesus – but that certainly bothers them. Apparently they’ve come across more fully perfected Christians than I have.

Other followers of Jesus see something different when they look at the mess in front of them. They see pain. They see need. They see longing. They see an opportunity to bring restoration here and now. They are focused as much on this world as they are on the next. These, I’ll contend, are the eyes of Christ, and these are the eyes of those who would build the bigger table. We are learning to see differently than we once did.

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus looks upon the crowd gathered before him and is deeply burdened by what he sees, not because of what they are doing or not doing, but because of what is being done to them and what it is creating in them (9:35-38). He is moved in that moment, not by some moral defect but by their internal turmoil. Just as when he feeds the multitudes, Jesus is not concerned with behavior modification, as we so often imagine; he is most concerned with meeting the needs that prevent people from knowing their belovedness, and he offers an expression of God’s provision. Matthew records that Jesus, seeing those in front of him, notes not their conduct, but their condition, observing that they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This realization prompts a passionate, public appeal for those who would do the work of restoration and healing in the name of God. The distinction between seeing sin and seeing suffering is revelatory if we really let it seep into the deepest hollows of our hearts. Jesus’ default response to the fragile humanity before him is not contempt but compassion.

That gives you a taste of what’s in this book – an effort to follow Jesus and be like Jesus in making our churches more welcoming to more people, of sitting down together and listening to more opinions and caring about more people.

I especially like the chapter where he talks about the Mama Bears – because that’s a Facebook group I’m part of, a private group for Christian mothers of LGBTQ kids. The group is wonderfully supportive, and they are where I first heard of John Pavlovitz, since the group reached out to him after he wrote a blog post, “If I Have Gay Children,” talking about how what is important is loving those children. So, yes, the bigger table involves welcoming LGBTQ folks, too.

The expanding of the table isn’t an effort to abandon our Christianity or to reject the Church. It’s an attempt to jettison everything else but that which is essential to reflecting Jesus in the world and to sharing in redemptive community with people in a way that is so loving, so embracing, and so open, that it seems queer to the rest of the world. And that will be what brings revolution.

Of course, as a universalist, I especially like the chapter called “Fear Less.” He doesn’t call himself a universalist, but he does say things like this:

One of the great comforts in my travels to build a bigger table and to right-size God has been a simple reality that I’ve embraced, one that I hope seeps deep into your heart whatever your theological leanings are: God is not out to squash you. This is an incredibly difficult truth to claim if you’ve experienced religion through the lens of fear that told you otherwise. . . .

For much of my life, this guilt, pressure, and fear of exposure had left me fairly exhausted. But I am slowly but surely walking into a new story, gradually but most definitely jettisoning those things that don’t ring true anymore and traveling much lighter. My reverence for God has never been greater, my wonder never more full, my desire to know my Maker never stronger. The difference is, I now see God through the lens of one who is beloved, not one who is beloved with conditions. Life now is not a test to try and reach God, but an opportunity to notice God. I am seeking Jesus more deeply than ever – not to escape punishment, but to discover life as it is best lived. My faith is not about fleeing something horrible, but running toward something beautiful. I am daily responding in gratitude for the beauty of the gift of this world, not in the hope I can eventually escape it. I come to the Scriptures now not as divine dictation, but as the journal entries of those who came before me and who have walked this road of asking, seeking, and knocking. . . .

I return again and again to this place, to the belief that God is fully aware of the road you and I are on, that God is far more merciful and forgiving than we would ever be with one another or with ourselves. My prayers are different now because of it.

After all, this is God we’re talking about. If God is everything we’ve been led to believe God is, God has such patience with us that, were we to embrace it, it would make us rightly fearless. And once the fear of “getting it wrong” departs we can be completely ourselves, sharing the full contents of our hearts – hopefully with God’s people, but at the very least with God.

This book contains a lovely vision of reaching more people by demonstrating the amazing love of God for all people. Encouraging and inspiring.

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Review of Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

Saturday, April 13th, 2019


by Jennifer Donnelly

Scholastic Press, May 14, 2019. 342 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 13, 2019, from an advance reader copy I got at ALA Midwinter Meeting.

Stepsister was my airplane reading on my way back from ALA Midwinter Meeting and made the long flight a delight. It tells about Isabelle, one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

The story begins when Isabelle is ready to cut off her toes so they will fit into the glass slipper the prince has brought, after her sister Octavia was discovered to have cut off her heel.

“We should’ve heated the blade for Tavi,” Maman fretted now. “Why didn’t I think of it? Heat sears the vessels. It stops the bleeding. Ah, well. It will go better for you, Isabelle.”

It’s not easy, but Isabelle cuts off this part of herself, as she has cut off metaphorical parts of herself all during her life at Maman’s bidding.

And yet, when Maman demanded that she get up, Isabelle did. She opened her eyes, took a deep breath to steady herself, and stood.

Isabelle could do this impossible thing because she had a gift – a gift far more valuable than a pretty face or dainty feet.

Isabelle had a strong will.

She did not know that this was a good thing for a girl to have, because everyone had always told her it was a terrible thing. Everyone said a girl with a strong will would come to a bad end. Everyone said a girl’s will must be bent to the wishes of those who know what’s best for her.

Isabelle was young, only sixteen; she had not yet learned that Everyone is a fool.

Anyone who knows the fairy tale “Cinderella” knows that this didn’t go well for Isabelle. However, that’s only the beginning of this book.

There’s a Prologue that came before this, and we learn that the three Fates have a wager going wiith Chance, who appears as a bold and handsome young man.

He was dressed in a sky-blue frockcoat, leather britches, and tall boots. A gold ring dangled from one ear; a cutlass hung from his hip. His face was as beautiful as daybreak, his smile as bewitching as midnight. His eyes promised the world, and everything in it.

Isabelle is the very mortal whose life map (showing her fate) Chance has stolen. The Fates are not happy about it.

“All this trouble for a mere girl?” asked the crone, regarding Chance closely. “She’s nothing, a nobody. She possesses neither beauty nor wit. She’s selfish. Mean. Why her?”

“Because I can’t resist a challenge,” Chance replied. He rerolled the map with one hand, steadying it against his chest, then tucked it back inside his coat. “And what girl wouldn’t choose what I offer?” He gestured at himself, as if even he couldn’t believe how irresistible he was. “I’ll give her the chance to change the path she is on. The chance to make her own path.”

“Fool,” said the crone. “You understand nothing of mortals. We Fates map out their lives because they wish it. Mortals do not like uncertainty. They do not like change. Change is frightening. Change is painful.”

“Change is a kiss in the dark. A rose in the snow. A wild road on a windy night,” Chance countered.

“Monsters live in the dark. Roses die in the snow. Girls get lost on wild roads,” the crone shot back.

So there’s something at stake as Isabelle’s life plays out. The stepsisters’ story becomes known to the people around them, giving them contempt from the other villagers. Then war comes close to the region. Isabelle hears from a fairy queen a way to change her fate, but will she dare seize that? And meanwhile, neither Chance nor the crone of the Fates is shy about inserting themselves into Isabelle’s story to make sure they win the wager.

Yes, some may say you need to cut off pieces of yourself to make your way in the world. But this book suggests that it’s possible to recover those pieces again and take your fate in your own hands. A wonderful story about what happens after the fairy tale.

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Review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, lyrics by Fred Rogers, illustrations by Luke Flowers

Friday, April 12th, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The Poetry of Mister Rogers

lyrics by Fred Rogers
illustrations by Luke Flowers

Quirk Books, 2019. 143 pages.
Review written April 9, 2019, from a library book
Starred Review

They’re all here! The songs that make you think of Mister Rogers, beginning with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” including songs like “You Can Never Go Down the Drain,” “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” “Everything Grows Together,” “It’s You I Like,” “Sometimes People Are Good,” “You Are Special,” and finishing with “It’s Such a Good Feeling.”

The only thing wrong with this book? Music is not included. All of this poetry was meant to be sung. And the only tunes I can partially remember are pretty much the songs I listed in the last paragraph. So I wish they had figured out a way to include the tunes. If not in the book, then maybe an accompanying CD?

In fact, not all of the poems here were written by Fred Rogers. Several are listed with the tagline, “Lyrics by Josie Carey, Music by Fred Rogers.” These poems are very much in the same style and are from the show, but unfortunately, we don’t get to see Mr. Rogers’ contribution.

It did dawn on me that “Everything Grows Together” would make a great song to sing at storytimes. It’s one of the few that I can remember the entire tune. So that will be my new little tribute to Mr. Rogers in my storytimes.

The book is packaged with bright pictures for children. But the truth is that the songs are all so affirming and joyful that I read a few songs every day for a nice boost to my spirits as I set out on that day. Sure, some songs like “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” speak to worries I’ve long put behind me. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, young or old, to be reminded that “You Are Special.”

Mr. Rogers packed a whole lot of wisdom into his simple songs. Reading them is a cheering thing to do. I love that they have been collected!

Won’t you be my neighbor?

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Review of Pay Attention, Carter Jones, by Gary D. Schmidt

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

Pay Attention, Carter Jones

by Gary D. Schmidt

Review written March 25, 2019, from a library book
Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 217 pages.
Starred Review

This book was delightful. I shouldn’t have chosen it to read during Silent Book Club, because I kept coming to spots that made me chuckle. My friend was reading Game of Thrones, and she said it was a little incongruous. Oops!

And yet some serious topics are covered in this book. There’s a little brother who died and an absent father. So that my primary response was chuckling shows that the serious topics were handled with a light touch and my overall response is delight.

Here’s how the book begins:

If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm – and I’ve been in one, so I know what it’s like – and if the very last quart of one percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.

As it was, it was a crazy morning, and Carter Jones was the one who answered the door when the Butler rang their bell.

There’s some confusion, but the Butler, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, takes things in hand. It turns out that Carter’s grandfather has died, and in his will, he provided a generous endowment for Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick to now serve his son’s family.

That son is Carter’s father, who is now serving with the military in Germany. But the family can definitely use his services, though Carter’s not so sure he wants someone calling him “Young Master Jones” and requiring him to behave with good manners.

And then the Butler dresses Carter up in white, along with his friend Billy, and takes him to the school football field to learn to play cricket.

It seems like disaster when the eighth grade cross country team sees them – two sixth graders dressed strangely being taught to play cricket by an Englishman. But one thing leads to another, and soon the entire eighth grade cross country team is learning the fine points of playing cricket.

There are tidbits about the game of cricket at the start of each chapter – and I’m still completely confused by the rules. Though I do have a much better idea of how it works than before I picked up this book.

The whole idea of a proper English gentleman’s gentleman dealing with an American sixth-grade boy is what gives this book layers upon layers of humor. Carter Jones, though, is dealing with some big issues – and Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick also has compassion, in his proper English way.

I finished this book with a smile on my face. Completely delightful!

PS: Something else I loved about the book was that the principal was Principal Swietek! And the town is Marysville! Why is that so exciting? We find out who Doug Swietek married from Okay for Now, which was set in Marysville in the sixties. (The principal is female and her first name is given at one point.) Very fun for Gary Schmidt fans. In fact, I reread my review of Okay for Now, and yes I was right that it was the same town. Now I want to reread the book.

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Review of Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Thursday, April 4th, 2019


The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness

by Ingrid Fetell Lee
read by the author

Hachette Audio, 2018. 9.5 hours on 8 CDs.
Starred Review

I listened to this in audio form, then put the print book on hold so I could pull out the main points for this review. I’m finding I want to read it again.

I’ve read other books on finding joy, most notably Champagne for the Soul, by Mike Mason. This one is very different, not looking at joy from a spiritual or emotional perspective, but from a design perspective. It turns out that certain objects and certain sights can actually spark joy. In this book the author categorizes the types of things that bring joy and tells about visiting places that embody this. It’s a fascinating book and will give you plenty of ideas to try in order to bring joy into your everyday life.

This is a perspective on joy that I never thought of before, and I love it. In the introduction, she talks about finding joy in physical things.

I noticed many moments when people seemed to find real joy in the material world. Gazing at a favorite painting in an art museum or making a sandcastle at the beach, people smiled and laughed, lost in the moment. They smiled, too, at the peachy light of the sunset and at the shaggy dog with the yellow galoshes. And not only did people seem to find joy in the world around them, but many also put a lot of effort into making their immediate environment more delightful. They tended rose gardens, put candles on birthday cakes, and hung lights for the holidays. Why would people do these things if they had no real effect on their happiness?

A body of research is emerging that demonstrates a clear link between our surroundings and our mental health. For example, studies show that people with sunny workspaces sleep better and laugh more than their peers in dimly lit offices, and that flowers improve not only people’s moods but their memory as well. As I delved deeper into these findings, joy started to become less amorphous and abstract to me and more tangible and real. It no longer seemed difficult to attain, the result of years of introspection or disciplined practice. Instead, I began to see the world as a reservoir of positivity that I could turn to at any time. I found that certain places have a kind of buoyancy – a bright corner café, a local yarn shop, a block of brownstones whose window boxes overflow with blooms – and I started changing my routines to visit them more often. On bad days, rather than feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I discovered small things that could reliably lift my spirits. I started incorporating what I learned into my home and began to feel a sense of excitement as I put my key into the lock each evening. Over time, it became clear to me that the conventional wisdom about joy was wrong.

Joy isn’t hard to find at all. In fact, it’s all around us.

The liberating awareness of this simple truth changed my life. As I started to share it with others, I found that many people felt the impulse to seek joy in their surroundings but had been made to feel as if their efforts were misguided. One woman told me that buying cut flowers lifted her spirits for days, but she felt like it was a frivolous indulgence, so she only did it on special occasions. It had never occurred to her that for the price of one of her weekly therapy sessions, she could buy a bunch of flowers every other week for a year. Another described how she had walked into her living room after repainting it and felt an “ahhh” feeling – a sense of relief and lightness that made her wonder why she had waited so long to do it. I realized that we all have an inclination to seek joy in our surroundings, yet we have been taught to ignore it. What might happen if we were to reawaken this instinct for finding joy?

As she studied joy and sought out the aesthetics of joy, she was able to make connections and put them into ten categories.

In all, I identified ten aesthetics of joy, each of which reveals a distinct connection between the feeling of joy and the tangible qualities of the world around us:

Energy: vibrant color and light
Abundance: lushness, multiplicity, and variety
Freedom: nature, wildness, and open space
Harmony: balance, symmetry, and flow
Play: circles, spheres, and bubbly forms
Surprise: contrast and whimsy
Transcendence: elevation and lightness
Magic: invisible forces and illusions
Celebration: synchrony, sparkle, and bursting shapes
Renewal: blossoming, expansion, and curves

The ten chapters of the book delve into these ten aesthetics in lovely rambling detail. They give ideas for how you can build them into your own life, but in many cases tell about someone who has indulged in this particular aesthetic in a big way – with striking results.

The final chapter in the print book wasn’t included in the audiobook (unless there were extra files I didn’t notice) – a Joy Toolkit with worksheets to fill out to help you fill your own life with joy.

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Review of Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor

Thursday, March 28th, 2019

Muse of Nightmares

by Laini Taylor
read by Steve West

Hachette Audio, 2018. 16 hours on 13 CDs.
Starred Review
Review written December 10, 2018, from a library audiobook
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Teen Speculative Fiction

Wow. This book is wonderful. I confess, I listened to this book even though it’s technically eligible for the Newbery Medal. Our committee had agreed not to listen to audiobooks of eligible books so as not to be swayed in either direction. But the book this follows, Strange the Dreamer, was the book that gave me a crush on narrator Steve West (what a gorgeous voice!), and it’s very long – way too long to indulge in reading the book – and that first book struck me as much more appropriate for young adults than for children.

That continues to be my opinion. Yes, there are some teens in this book – but they are dealing with life as adults, deciding careers and where to live and yes, having sex. There are no parents telling them what to do.

This second book is even sexier than the first. I would hesitate to give it to a 14-year-old. In fact, it would almost be a shame to give this to anyone who hasn’t already had sex themselves – might give them the wrong idea. Our two protagonists have some special powers. Sarai is a ghost with a body – but she can do things like make her body light up when Lazlo kisses her. And they can go to fantasy locations in dreams – and it’s all very amazing. And I wouldn’t want to give anyone a misleading impression about what normal sex is like!

Even setting aside that part, this book is amazing. We’re set up at the end of the first book with what seems to be an impossible situation. Minya is keeping Sarai “alive” as a ghost. But Minya also wants to destroy the people of the city of Weep. Lazlo is caught in the middle. If he doesn’t let Minya get her vengeance, then she’s going to let Sorai completely die.

Can Laini Taylor pull off a satisfying and believable ending from that set-up? It turns out that yes, she can.

To pull off that satisfying ending involves telling another story and giving us a bigger picture of worlds parallel to the one where our story is set. It’s all intricate and well-worked-out and I am again marveling at Laini Taylor’s imagination.

It’s also long. Yes, there’s some repetition. Yes, there are some places where we get more descriptions of people’s emotions than we necessarily need. But again, listening to Steve West’s narration on my commute, I didn’t mind the experience being prolonged.

In the first book we found out about generations of abuse that happened to the people of the city of Weep. In the second book, we find out what was behind that abuse – and see realistic beginnings of healing from it.

And the whole story is intricate and imaginative and beautifully told.

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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 Sweep, by Jonathan Auxier

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019


The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

by Jonathan Auxier

Amulet Books, 2018. 358 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 23, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Children’s Fiction – Fantasy
2019 Sydney Taylor Gold Medal

The way this book begins gives you a feeling of the magic to come:

There are all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning. You might see your parents sleeping. You might see an unclaimed penny on the sidewalk or the first rays of dawn. And if you are very, very lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the girl and her Sweep.

Look! Here they are now, approaching through the early fog: a thin man with a long broom over one shoulder, the end bobbing up and down with every step. And trailing behind him, pail in hand, a little girl, who loves that man more than anything in the world.

The girl, Nan, is the assistant to the Sweep and life is beautiful by his side.

But one night, the Sweep doesn’t come back. He leaves her his hat and coat, with a charred clump of soot in its pocket. She calls it her “char,” and it’s oddly comforting and unnaturally warm, as she lives the difficult and dangerous life of a “climber” – working for a sweep who is not kind or loving with a bunch of other stray kids who have no other home.

But one day, when Nan’s life is in danger in a tight chimney, she calls out for help – and the char in her pocket comes to life and breaks through the chimney. She ends up escaping from the cruel master and hiding out with her char, who quickly grows into a creature bigger than she is herself. He’s oddly innocent and very protective of her – and eventually Nan figures out that the Sweep made her a golem to protect her. She names him Charlie

This lovely book tells about Nan and Charlie’s adventures in the city, trying to make a home for themselves and escape her cruel master, who is looking for her since she escaped the chimney and was thought to be dead. Meanwhile, we learn about the horrible plight of all the climber children in Victorian London. Can Nan and Charlie make things better for them as well?

But the main trouble with loving a golem? He only lasts until his job is done.

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Review of Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Monday, March 25th, 2019


by Michelle Obama
read by the author

Review written March 22, 2019, from a library audiobook plus my own print copy preordered via
Random House Audio, 2018. 19 hours on 16 CDs.
Starred Review

I got to hear Michelle Obama speak about this book last June at ALA Annual Conference and got excited enough to preorder the book from But since it came when my Newbery reading was heating up, I decided to listen to the audiobook from the library. However, I had to stop in the middle before my trip to Seattle to choose the Newbery winner, and there was a long wait to get the audiobook again. I ended up reading part of the book in print, then listening to that part again. She is a slow and deliberate reader, so the book is extra long in audio format. But I like her so much, I was happy to hear her voice, and it was worth taking the time to listen.

As for the book – I loved every bit of it. This will be no surprise, since I already love the Obamas. Listening to the book now, with such a contrast between them and the current occupant of the White House – it makes you sad. Yet it’s good to remember that past presidents were there to serve the country. I believe it can happen again.

Part of what I loved about this book was that Michelle Obama was born the same year I was. And both of us skipped a year of school, so she graduated from high school the same year I did, too. Our lives were not terribly similar, but there are some little details about life in the 60s and 70s that felt so familiar to me. I also think that our personalities are quite similar – detail-oriented and trying to control things and achieving in school for starters. So I enjoyed reading about her growing-up years almost the most of all. Felt like I had a sister in spirit. I already knew a lot about her political years – but hearing about her childhood was extra charming to me.

And she’s a good writer. The story of her romance is told as effectively as a good romance novel. I had to turn in the audiobook when I’d gotten to where they’d just had their first kiss and was super frustrated to have to wait to hear more. Of course, it helps that I already have a crush on her husband!

Yes, this book paints her husband’s politics in a good light, so those who already despise the Obamas probably won’t like it. But if you can tolerate that, this book presents a window on American life. Michelle Obama presents herself as an ordinary person who was blessed with some fantastic opportunities, and she wants to pass on some of that good fortune to others and help young people from modest backgrounds aspire to much more.

I liked hearing about all the young people the Obamas brought to the White House with several different programs, to encourage them and give them a boost. Truly they were there to serve.

In her Epilogue, Michelle shows that she’s still living with optimism, one of her most important values. Even though this book made me discouraged for how things have gone since the Obamas left office, her optimism is contagious. America will continue to make progress. After reading this book, I can believe it again.

Here are her final thoughts in this book:

I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey. In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. I’ve been lucky enough to get to walk into stone castles, urban classrooms, and Iowa kitchens, just trying to be myself, just trying to connect. For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.

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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 What the Night Sings, by Vesper Stamper

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

What the Night Sings

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 266 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 27, 2018.

Wow. This is a Holocaust novel. They tend to be powerful. But not all of them have me closing the book saying, “Wow” – stunned by hope.

To be fair, the book begins as World War II is finishing. Gerta Rausch is in Bergen-Belsen as the British are liberating the camp, holding her bunkmate, sick with typhus, in her arms:

The soldiers begin removing the dead. There are so many. How could I not have noticed them lying right next to me?

And suddenly – Rivkah, too, is gone.

I feel her final breath wisp across my lips. They pull her from me, but I can’t let her go. She is my last connection to the living world. I clutch her arm, her hand, her fingers. I sing the lullaby after her, my foster mother. I know no one else in all of Bergen-Belsen, either from Auschwitz or Theresienstadt. Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.

This book is about living – and trying to figure out how to make a life – after the war. Gerta is sixteen years old and in a displaced persons camp on the site of the old concentration camp. Her only family – her Papa – died during the war in the furnaces.

Gerta had trained to be an opera singer like her stepmother, her stepmother who watched while she and her papa were taken to the cattle cars. Gerta did manage to bring her papa’s viola with her – and got assignments to play in the camp orchestras. They played while people were sorted, for life or for death.

Part of the power of this book is that it includes illustrations. The book size is larger format than most novels, and many of the illustrations take up entire double-page spreads, though some are next to the text. The picture that hit me the hardest was a picture of a smokestack on the side with smoke going all the way across the top of the two pages. Those pages conclude with these words:

“Come with me,” the woman says softly, pragmatically. “You’ve been sent to the orchestra, yes? Well. Join your very lucky sisters. Music has saved your life today.”

“Where’s my papa?” I plead with her. “I want my papa!”

She signs and points ahead. “See that chimney?” she says, still softly, but so that I will clearly understand. “See that smoke? There’s your papa.”

But I said that it’s a book that left me with hope. Though the book does explain the dark setting, Gerta must make the hard choice to keep living. And to love. And it’s not easy.

I especially appreciated the Author’s Note at the back, because it put a bow on why the book felt so applicable to my life – I, who had never experienced anything remotely like the Holocaust. She explained that in high school she developed a deep identity as a musician.

There’s a problem with that, however. When you decide early on who you “truly are,” it can trick you into thinking that you were destined to live by a certain script. And when you’re out on your own and you realize that there is no script, you might panic.

Several years ago, I was rear-ended by a texting driver, which resulted in my arm being partially paralyzed. I completely lost the ability to play guitar – I had been a touring musician – and it took me a full year of rehab before I could reliably draw again. I had to relearn everything, even how to lift a fork to my mouth. This wasn’t in the script. A huge element of my deeply ingrained identity had been smashed. Like Gerta, I had hinged my future on a set of expectations, which depended on life’s machine running with no glitches. Being disabled cast a pall over every area of my life: my ability to drive, hold a baby, cook, hug or shake hands, let alone create art and music. How could I live my life? Without my script, who was I?

Perhaps that puts all the more power into Gerta’s story – and the art Vesper Stamper created to go with that story.

A stunning book about starting over when everything and everyone is gone. About finding joy again, about choosing life and choosing love.

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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 book sent from the publisher.

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 Planting Stories, by Anika Aldamuy Denise

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Planting Stories

The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

by Anika Aldamuy Denise
illustrations by Paola Escobar

Harper, 2019. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 13, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a picture book biography of Pura Belpré, who has a children’s book award named after her for outstanding works of literature by Latinx authors and illustrators.

In 1921, Pura Belpré was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. She was hired to find books and create programs at the Harlem branch that would appeal to the neighborhood’s growing Spanish-speaking community.

Since Pura didn’t find any stories from Puerto Rico on the library shelves, she told the stories herself. She ended up creating puppets to go with them and authoring several books based on those stories.

This book, with particularly beautiful illustrations, celebrates the difference a librarian made to an entire community, while telling more of the background of her life.

I was glad to discover the story of the person honored by the award. Yes, she was someone who got stories into the minds and hearts of Latinx children.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

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.

What did you think of this book?