Review of Da Vinci’s Cat, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Da Vinci’s Cat

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
decorations by Paul O. Zelinsky

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), May 2021. 278 pages.
Review written March 6, 2021, from an advance reader copy sent by the author
Starred Review

I’ll admit it – time-slip novels aren’t really my thing. My logical mind gets caught up in the contradictions inherent in changing the past, so that I can’t properly enjoy them. However, because this one was written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, who won Newbery Honor the year I was on the committee with The Book of Boy, I was able to squelch my logical objections and enjoy this book. I suspect most kids will enjoy it, too.

In this book, we meet Federico II Gonzaga, eleven years old in 1511, in Rome as a hostage of Pope Julius II for his family’s good behavior. But he was treated well in Rome, became friends with his Holiness, and got to pose for the painter Raphael, as well as maybe see some of what Michelangelo was doing while painting the Sistine Chapel.

Then one day, there’s a strange large box, a sort of closet, in a deserted hallway, made by Leonardo da Vinci. A kitten comes out of it.

Federico has fun with the kitten, but it dashes back into the box – and disappears. The next night, it comes out of the box again – but now it is a fully grown cat.

Federico’s adventures really begin after the cat disappears again – and comes back with a stranger, wearing strange clothes. This man is terribly interested in Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s sketches, as well as seeing the paintings in the Vatican Palace “when they are new,” whatever that means. The man promises Federico a wonderful sweet called “chocolate” in exchange for more sketches.

But after a couple of adventures with this man, Part II of the book begins in the present day with a girl named Bee, who is house-sitting with her moms at a place in Brooklyn. When Bee finds a cat outside killing birds, she takes the cat to the house next door. The old lady there stares at her in wonder – and shows Bee a drawing of herself – drawn by Raphael. So later, when Bee sees a large box in that house in a hidden study, the reader is not surprised when she follows the cat into the box that looks like a wardrobe and finds herself in Federico’s time. And she’s got a quest – some things to set right.

Like I said, if you don’t let your mind get hung up on how this would actually work, but just accept that of course Leonardo da Vinci could have invented a time machine, the story is a whole lot of fun. I love the details of life in Rome in 1511 and what Federico thinks is normal, and how Bee can slip into that and pass for a page. Did you know that Michelangelo smelled terrible because he didn’t bathe? And that he and Raphael had a rivalry going? And that they hadn’t tasted chocolate in Rome in 1511?

A fun story of a cat moving through time and bringing two kids together across centuries.

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Review of A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, by Vesper Stamper

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 307 pages.
Review written October 12, 2020, from a library book

Vesper Stamper’s illustrated young adult novels are amazingly evocative. Let me say that again: They’re illustrated young adult novels. The illustrations add a dreamlike quality to the book, as they did in What the Night Sings.

This one was set in medieval England about an orphaned girl who recently lost everything and was sent to a priory – just in time for the plague.

This book had lots of death and dying, so despite the dreamlike quality, it wasn’t exactly pleasant reading. I also have a prejudice against fanatically evil religious characters, and this book had a couple of those. So by the end, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I thought I would at the beginning. I didn’t quite follow all the plot choices either.

But as a book talking about how a large group of women lived together in the middle ages, with information about illuminating manuscripts, the book was lovely. Especially before they started dying.

Our orphaned main character was a synesthete who saw colors when she heard sounds. That sort of thing was thought to be demonic visions at the time, so she’d learned to keep silent about it. But it also gave her extra love for art and illuminated manuscripts.

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Review of Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Without a Summer

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tom Doherty Associates (TOR), 2013. 381 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

My sister Becky gave me this book years ago (Thank you, Becky!), but alas, like so many non-library books that don’t have a due date, I didn’t get to it right away. But the time was finally right when I signed up for the 2021 Jane Austen Summer Program, a four-day virtual symposium on Jane Austen, and Mary Robinette Kowal was one of the speakers, giving two wonderful talks about putting fantasy into your Jane Austen adaptation.

At the conference, I also learned that the year 1816 really was a year without a summer. The note at the back says that after a volcano erupted in the West Indies, the ash disrupted weather everywhere, and there was snow in Washington DC in July. In fact, Mary Robinette was able to determine the weather in London for the days covered in this book. I had assumed when I started reading that it must have been a side effect of magic – so I was quick to believe that people would have looked for magic users to blame for the strange weather, which turns out to be a key point in the book.

This book is another Austen-like story, with magic. The author does write each book as a stand alone. In this third volume of the Glamourist Histories, Jane’s sister Melody needs to find a husband and is running out of options in the country, so Jane and her husband take Melody to London while they work on a glamural for Lord Stratton.

The author worked in ideas from Jane Austen’s Emma as Jane tries and fails to be a good matchmaker for her sister. But there’s a lot more going on as well. Sir David’s despicable father wants to renew their relationship and meet his wife – but there are some plots afoot. And the coldmongers are getting blamed for the wintry weather in summer – even though that is not how glamour works. It all builds to a big climax that puts Jane and her husband in danger, with Melody’s happiness also at stake.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Mary Robinette’s sessions at the Jane Austen symposium tremendously, and gained a new appreciation of her craft in writing these books. She wanted to write a fantasy novel similar to the books Jane Austen wrote – where the fate of the world is not at stake, but instead the happiness of a few people. She wanted magic, but in order for it to be one of the womanly arts, it had to be magic that didn’t do much. The “glamour” in these books is all about illusion. And it’s typically done by women – except for professionals glamourists, who of course are men. So Sir David working with his wife is breaking ground and defying convention.

Another thing I found out when I looked in the back of the book is that my sister-in-law Laura (then Plett) is acknowledged! She does calling for English Country Dances, and gave the author some tips about how the dances were done in Regency England. So it was fun to come across her name in the back of my book.

This series is lovely and highly recommended. I hope this will give me the motivation to set aside the recently published books I need to read for Capitol Choices and read a couple more Austen-with-fantasy books purely for my own enjoyment. There are two more in the series, and it’s high time I caught up.

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Review of We Are Not Free, by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free

by Traci Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 384 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 National Book Award Finalist

We Are Not Free is a novel about Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II. An interesting and effective choice made for this novel is to present the story from multiple perspectives. Every chapter has a different perspective.

We start with a 14-year-old kid in a community of Japanese Americans living in “Japantown” in San Francisco. We hear about the older teens he looks up to who will end up being viewpoint characters as the book goes on.

The book starts three months after Pearl Harbor when people of Japanese descent are getting targeted by racists. It continues as they have to sell off their possessions, because they’re only allowed a little bit of luggage in the slightly-refurbished racetrack where they’re taken next. It goes on through the war as the people in the camps have to decide if they will declare their loyalty to a government that removed their rights and volunteer to fight in the war.

By using so many perspectives, we get a broad view of what happened to different groups of people, including those who went on to fight in the war and those who refused. We learn about various levels of inhumane treatment, from the horrific conditions for those who were deemed a threat to the smaller indignities such as happened to those set loose with $25 and having to find a new place to live.

The teens have widely different attitudes. Many are angry. Some just want to make the best of things and move on with their lives. All of them encounter grave injustices, and seeing the situation from so many different eyes helps the reader understand the whole thing better.

And, yes, there are a lot of painful things that happen. This isn’t a feel-good book, but it is a book that shows you many sides of a terrible historical injustice perpetrated by our own government. I wish this book weren’t as timely as it is.

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hmhbooks.com

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Review of The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

The Hidden Palace

by Helene Wecker

Harper (HarperCollins), 2021. 472 pages.
Review written July 14, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I loved The Golem and the Jinni so much, I preordered this book as soon as I heard that there was a sequel. I think you’ll enjoy this more if you’ve read the first book (and you definitely want to read it!), but even though it had been eight years since I read the first book, the important parts came back to me as I read.

Like the first book, I’m tempted to call this Historical rather than Fantasy, because the historical details of life in New York, both the Syrian neighborhoods and the Jewish neighborhoods, ring true. This comes after the crisis of the first book, and talks about what’s next for the golem and the jinni, now they’ve found each other. How do you build a life when your lifespan goes far beyond your human neighbors?

Meanwhile, we find out about two other creatures like our heroes: There’s a golem whose master is the young orphaned daughter of a rabbi, hiding in an orphanage. And across the sea, there’s a jinniyeh, outcast from her own kind because she can tolerate touching iron, but who hears about the iron-bound jinni who lives across the sea.

Chaya the golem still hears the thoughts of all around her, so she discovers when they notice that she’s not ageing. She’s going to need to make a new life for herself. Ahmad the jinni is much less deliberate. When his partner dies, he becomes obsessed with making a palace out of metal inside their warehouse. And when someone who doesn’t need to eat or sleep becomes obsessed, he can truly withdraw from the world.

This is another rich tapestry of a book, dealing with two people who aren’t actually human, but who are full of nuance. Can they stay in each other’s lives, or are they too different? This book feels completely realistic as it explores this question. We also see how each one has become part of a community, and lives all around them are touched by their existence. And we’ve got further thoughts about what it means to be human from the perspective of those who, technically, are not human at all.

This is a wonderful follow-up to an amazing story.

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Review of Sticks and Stones, by Patricia Polacco

Sticks and Stones

by Patricia Polacco

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written January 27, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Patricia Polacco’s books are long for picture books. Lots of pages, and lots of words on each page. These are not for the preschool storytime crowd, but they are for young elementary school proficient readers or for elementary school classrooms, people who appreciate pictures to go with the thoughtful text.

It’s a story of bullying. But also a story of friendship. As in many of her books, Patricia tells a story from her childhood in first person. One year, she spent the school year with her father in Michigan instead of with her mother in California. But her summer friends abandoned her, and the boy who was nice to the new girl was called Sissy Boy by the bully. The bully called Patricia, Cootie, and their other friend, Her Ugliness.

But the book shows the beauty of their friendship. Continued bullying, but fast friends. It turns out that Sissy Boy secretly takes ballet classes and loves ballet, and Her Ugliness makes beautiful kites and costumes from hand-painted silk.

The book tells the story of their friendship and culminates in a stunning ballet performance by Patricia’s friend Thom. But what really packed a punch for me was the author’s note at the back saying that now, more than fifty years later, Thom has retired as the artistic director of the American School of Ballet, and Ravanne (“Her Ugliness”) lives in Paris and has retired after an incredible career as a fashion designer.

I love the message this gives to kids that so often, bullies are just plain wrong.

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Review of Clues to the Universe, by Christina Li

Clues to the Universe

by Christina Li

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 292 pages.
Review written April 28, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Set in the 1980s, after they watched the space shuttle launch together, Ro and her dad were going to build a rocket of their own. But then her dad died in a car accident, but she’s determined to launch a rocket anyway. But she also has to start at a new school, because she knows the private school she used to attend is an expense they can no longer afford.

Meanwhile, Benji, whose father walked out on their family years ago, is missing his own best friend, who moved away in the summer. Benji gets assigned to be Ro’s science partner, and they need to do a science fair project together. He has to do well in Science, or his mother will make him drop Art in favor of Study Hall.

But because of a folder mix-up, Ro learns that Benji is a fan of the comic Spacebound, and Benji wants to find his dad, who is the author of Spacebound. They make a pact. Benji will help Ro build and launch her rocket for the science fair, and Ro will help Benji find his father.

What follows is a book about life and family and friends and failure and fathers. It’s a heart-warming story, with some surprises along the way. This book has the usual challenges of middle school with a little extra heart.

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Review of The Kingdom of Back, by Marie Lu

The Kingdom of Back

by Marie Lu

Putnam, 2020. 313 pages.
Review written December 26, 2020, from a library book

The Kingdom of Back is a story of Nannerl Mozart, the big sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, based on things we know about her life.

We know that she was a child prodigy before her little brother came along, and she performed with him before the royalty of Europe. We also know that she composed music – but we don’t know about any of that music existing. We don’t know if some of her music got published in the name of her brother.

We’re also told that she and her brother invented a country, the Kingdom of Back, and had their family’s servant draw a map for them of this country. In this novel, it’s an actual magical kingdom they got to visit, and it’s tied to young Nannerl getting her heart’s desire – to be remembered in her own right.

Nannerl meets a princeling of the magical kingdom who tells her he can grant her desire, but first she needs to complete three tasks for him. Those tasks get more and more sinister, and Nannerl isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing. But she loves her music and wants to be able to compose.

Here’s a magical look at the young Mozarts that will leave you thinking about what it was like to be a creative young woman in a time when making art was the province of men. This isn’t a typical fantasy novel, but it is a beautifully woven tale.

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PenguinTeen.com

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Review of The Farmer and the Monkey, by Marla Frazee

The Farmer and the Monkey

by Marla Frazee

Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), 2020. 32 pages.
Review written February 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

The Farmer and the Monkey is the sequel to The Farmer and the Clown, both wordless books picturing an old and plainly dressed farmer with an unusual visitor who has fallen off the circus train.

When it’s a monkey, the farmer initially wants nothing to do with him. But even the farmer doesn’t want to leave the monkey out in deep snow.

And then we get to see the farmer loosen up and gain affection for the monkey, despite some chaos that follows after him.

The ending is similar, when they see the circus train coming back.

But the flap copy tells us this is going to be a trilogy! I’ll be watching for The Farmer and the Circus.

What makes these books so much fun is how much is told through pictures alone. I look forward to the day I can use this in a storytime, because it would be so much fun to hear what kids see in these wonderful pictures.

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Review of The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn

The Jane Austen Project

by Kathleen A. Flynn
performed by Saskia Maarleveld

HarperAudio, 2017. 11 hours on 9 CDs.
Review written May 3, 2021, from a library audiobook.
Starred Review

Here’s another book featuring time travel to Jane Austen’s time. My time listening to this audiobook in the car happened to overlap with listening to the eaudiobook Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. But this one meticulously explained how the purposeful and planned time travel happened – much more satisfying to the science fiction reader in me.

You see, in the future, after the “die-off,” time travel has been developed. Rachel Katzman, a doctor who has done work with disaster relief and happens to love Jane Austen novels, applied and was accepted to the Jane Austen Project, an undertaking of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics.

Her mission, together with Liam Finuca, an Austen scholar, is to go back in time to 1815, not long before Jane Austen’s death. They are posing as a brother and sister, Dr. William Ravenswood and his sister Mary. They arrive in 1815 with counterfeit money strapped to their bodies. They plan to ingratiate their way into the society of Jane’s brother Henry, and from there make the acquaintance of Jane. And they want to be good enough acquaintances to somehow get a copy of the complete version of The Watsons as well as find the missing letters, before those letters get burned by Jane’s sister Cassandra, and maybe diagnose the disease that killed Jane.

Can they do all this? They’ve got a letter of introduction from an Austen relative in Jamaica, so it would be difficult to check. But can they win Henry over, and then Jane? It helps when Henry gets sick and Liam becomes an attentive doctor friend checking on him. Henry doesn’t know that it’s “Mary” who’s the real doctor, telling her “brother” what questions to ask.

There begin to be signs that they’ve disturbed the “probability field,” so they have worries about what they’re changing by all their actions in their own past.

This book was delightful. I loved the way they had to know all about Jane Austen’s life and about customs of the time, so that gets conveyed to the reader (unlike the poor clueless heroine in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict). The book pulls you in and helps the reader see all the difficulties one would face if you tried to be accepted into the society of 1815 without detection.

This book is like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict in that part of the difficulty – and some of the humor – is a woman with more modern attitudes regarding sex trying to fit in during that time, when attitudes are very different. Fair warning to Jane Austen fans: This book has more sex scenes and sexual situations than Jane Austen’s books do.

I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, when it’s revealed, that yes, their time travel changed some things. (I think it’s not a spoiler if I don’t say what was changed, parts of which made me happy.) But then, I always have trouble with time travel paradoxes. I did appreciate that they attempted to explain the repercussions.

And the book is so much fun! You forget it’s fiction and feel like you’ve been immersed in Jane Austen’s time and Jane Austen’s society. A real treat for Jane Austen fans.

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