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.

catherinemurdock.com
greenwillowbooks.com

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Review of The Girls I’ve Been, by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I’ve Been

by Tess Sharpe
read by the author

Listening Library, 2021. 9 hours, 48 minutes.
Review written August 12, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow! This thriller for teens doesn’t let up the tension for a second.

The book begins as Norah goes into a bank with her girlfriend and her best friend, Wes. We learn that Norah’s worried about Wes, who’s mad because he hadn’t known Norah and Iris were a couple and this is one more time Norah has lied to him.

Then the guy in the line behind them pulls out a gun.

The bank robbery clearly doesn’t go according to plan – the bank manager is not in his office – so the two would-be robbers take hostages. They have no idea who they’re dealing with in Norah. They’re going to be sorry they thought they could use her to their own advantage.

The story is told beautifully, with little bits of Norah’s background slipping out as the tense situation in the bank keeps developing. We learn she’s escaped her mother, who is a con-artist. Her mother used to find a mark and play a con – and then get out, completely changing their identities. So Norah has been many different girls.

But can she use what she learned from those other girls to get herself and her friends out of the hostage situation alive? It’s for sure not going to be easy.

I wish I could say more – but it’s all revealed in perfectly small, tantalizing doses, and I don’t want to detract from that. Let me simply say that this is one of the best suspense novels I’ve ever read.

And it’s a big mistake for bad men to mess with Norah!

Besides the gratifying triumphs and clever, surprising escapes (I’m talking about the past, not necessarily the bank, because I don’t want to give that away), this book also shows the beautiful friendships Norah has during the present time of the story, after escaping the abusive childhood with her mother. So this book also gives the hope that people can recover and heal. They may still have scars, but they can rise above.

The author reads the audiobook, and it’s just as well I listened to it, because this is a book I don’t think I could have stopped reading if I didn’t have to turn off the sound.

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Review of The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune, read by Daniel Henning

The House in the Cerulean Sea

by T. J. Klune
read by Daniel Henning

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written June 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I listened to this book based on several recommendations from my Silent Book Club Facebook group as a feel-good read. I was delighted with the story. It felt like a familiar children’s fantasy book opening, but then I realized the twist is that the main character is a man in his forties.

Linus Baker has worked for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth for seventeen years. His reports are meticulous and he cares about the children in the orphanages that he inspects. No matter what their alarming magical capabilities, children deserve to be well-cared for.

However, when Linus is not in the field inspecting orphanages, his life at the office and at home is gray and dreary. Besides the constant rain and the rows of desks a little too close together for someone of Linus’s girth, there’s a supervisor always looking for reasons to give demerits. So one day when she calls out Linus and tells him to report to Extremely Upper Management, he thinks he’s in big trouble.

But because of those meticulous reports, Linus has been asked to inspect an orphanage that is Classified Level Four because of some very unusual magical powers in the children. He’ll spend a month there, and he’s expected to keep an objective demeanor.

And that’s where if the story were a film, it turns from black-and-white to technicolor. The orphanage is a house on an island in the Cerulean Sea. And this is where the book turns to one of those stories where the adult’s life is transformed because of the love of children – but again, the twist is that this time we’re seeing it from the adult’s point of view. Oh, and also because the children are extremely unusual.

The master of the orphanage, Arthur Parnassas, is also unusual. As Linus gets to know the children and Arthur, he sees someone training some rather alarming children with wisdom and grace. He needs to stay objective, but he also wants to do what’s best for the children.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell the reader that one of the children’s files says he is the antichrist, and his father is the devil. If you know anything about what the Bible has to say about the antichrist, as I do, you’ll know that they get every detail about that wrong. However, if you can shake that aside and think of Lucy as a fantasy creature and a little boy who is presumed to be evil because of his parentage, and who plays on all the stereotypes of that parentage – but who Arthur teaches Linus to see as a child with as much potential for good as any other – then you will still thoroughly enjoy this book.

I didn’t like the narrator at first, because I think he puts pauses in odd places, but he grew on me and seemed right for Linus Baker, a bureaucrat who lives his life by the book – the book of Rules and Regulations that he carries around with him.

This is a lovely warm story of transformation and the wonder of children – even wildly diverse children. And there’s even a nice bit of romance.

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Review of Simon at the Art Museum, by Christina Soontornvat, art by Christine Davenier

Simon at the Art Museum

by Christina Soontornvat
art by Christine Davenier

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020. 36 pages.
Review written July 2, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I was happily disposed to Simon at the Art Museum as soon as I opened the cover and saw the Musée d’Orsay in Paris filling the end papers. (I’ve spent some happy hours there.) It isn’t named, and there’s an “Art Show” sign in English, but it’s enough for me. As the book begins, Simon and his parents enter the museum, and Simon shouts his greetings.

“Shhh,” whispered Simon’s mom.
“Sweetie, remember what we agreed about inside voices?”

Simon is still enjoying the big building with its slippery floors. This part had me won over:

Simon and his parents looked at the art together.
They looked at more art.
And then more.

So. Much. Art.

What IS it with this place? thought Simon,
before remembering that it was, in fact, an art museum.

“Is that a swimming pool?” asked Simon.

“It’s a reflecting pool,” whispered his dad.
“It’s a work of art too, just like the paintings.”

Simon casually suggested they could make the art even better if they chased the pigeons along its edge.

After that, his parents decided they wanted to hold his hands.

Of course, the pictures accompanying those words make them all the more delightful. Simon’s noticing things – maybe not the same things as his parents.

In another gallery, Simon sits while his parents look at the art, and I love the things he sees as he watches the people looking at the art.

Just when I wondered why they made the choice to portray Simon and his parents as white when the author (who won TWO Newbery Honor awards last year) is a person of color, I came across the probable reason why – when they found a child in a painting very like Simon. (I assume it’s a real painting and wish they had a note. Though I suppose even if it’s a generic Impressionist painting, it makes more sense having a white child in the picture.)

If I had small children and I was planning to visit a museum, I’d read this book together first. It’s a great jumping-off point for talking about what museums are like – but it also reminds parents to see things from their children’s eyes. And for older folks like me who don’t have young kids – this picture book simply makes me smile.

soontornvat.com

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Two Trains Leave Paris, by Taylor Marie Frey and Mike Wesolowski

Two Trains Leave Paris

Number Problems for Word People

by Taylor Marie Frey
and Mike Wesolowski
illustrations by Patrick Torres

Abrams Image, 2019. 176 pages.
Review written August 5, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I think this book is hilarious and utterly delightful.

What we have here is a review of high school and early college mathematics – with stories told about the elusive characters who show up in the word problems.

The first problem in the book, after a review of Algebra, tells about two trains leaving Paris, heading in different directions, and where the two trains are at their first stop. Then we’re asked:

How much distance is between Natalya and Andy when they simultaneously look back toward the city of love, thinking, Every end is a new beginning, and breaking up was for the best. No turning back now, this train only goes one way.?

This gives you an idea of the tone of this wonderfully silly book. Some problems are solved on the following page (like that first one), while the rest have answers in the back.

Here’s the second problem:

When asked his age, your math teacher, Mr. Newman, responds, “If you multiply my age by 4, then subtract 2, the answer is 110.”

A) How old is he?
B) Why does Mr. Newman talk this way?

So this book brings you snappy and funny summaries of math concepts, and then opportunities to try out what you’ve learned, while finding out about the adventures of a cast of characters you’ll come to recognize and maybe even sympathize with. The final chapter, after a review of calculus and probability and statistics, brings you to a wedding where all the characters gather.

Here’s part of the explanation at the start of the Trigonometry chapter:

You see, dear friend, Trig offers you a powerful gift: the chance to gain information about things without directly engaging with them. The people who determine which ads you see on social media know lots of Trigonometry.

And okay, if you don’t think this all sounds hilarious, this may not be the right book for you. As someone who once taught college math, I adored this book. The authors are far more interesting teachers than I ever was.

abramsbooks.com

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Review of Flight of the Puffin, by Ann Braden

Flight of the Puffin

by Ann Braden

Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House), 2021. 229 pages.
Review written July 8, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Flight of the Puffin follows four different kids, each of them a bit of a misfit. We’re only given the locations of two of the four, and they’re on opposite sides of the country, so we’re interested in finding out how the stories will connect.

I love the beginning. Libby is painting the best sunrise ever. And as she works on it, making it colorful and beautiful, the principal steps around the corner, and we discover she’s painting on a wall of the school.

Then there’s Jack, who goes to a small two-room school in Vermont. He’s good with the younger kids, and misses his brother, who was six when he died. Next we meet T. T has a shorter chapter, sleeping on a sidewalk with their dog. The fourth person we meet is Vincent, who’s decided he wants to be like a puffin. Instead of the t-shirts his mother buys for him, he finds an old button-down white shirt with a small puffin, and that represents him. But it doesn’t make him fit in at school.

The kids are all seventh graders. They’re on opposite ends of the country. Libby’s up against her parents not appreciating her need to make art and spread joy with it. Jack is up against the school board that wants to close their school. Vincent is up against bullies. And T is up against survival.

And Flora’s art – and puffins – end up connecting them. It’s a lovely book with some threads about trans kids without that taking up the whole book. Mostly, these four kids are deeply nuanced characters it’s a delight to spend time with.

annbradenbooks.com
penguin.com/kids

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Review of Boardwalk Babies, by Marissa Moss and April Chu

Boardwalk Babies

written by Marissa Moss
illustrated by April Chu

Creston Books, 2021. 36 pages.
Review written July 20, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Boardwalk Babies surprised me so much, I started telling all my coworkers about it as soon as I finished reading it. I am planning to booktalk this book in the schools if we get the chance to do this again after the pandemic.

Did you know that when incubators for preemies were developed, they weren’t used in hospitals – but in a side show? This book tells that story.

The cover of the book is perhaps a little misleading, since the tiny babies didn’t pose with strongmen, but were in incubators. They were, however, part of a sideshow. The endpapers show exhibits from circus freak shows of long ago, and the book begins with people going past other carnival entertainment to see tiny babies in incubators mounted on walls, watched over by nurses. Then the book begins telling the background:

Boardwalk babies? Incubator side shows? What was Dr. Couney thinking?

He was thinking of saving lives.

In the late 19th century, hospitals considered premature babies doomed to die. They had no idea how to care for them, so they didn’t. Then Dr. Budin in Paris noticed the heat lamp that kept chicks warm. That gave him the idea to develop an incubator. It was a radical idea, one hospitals didn’t trust. Dr. Budin needed a way to sell the medical world on caring for these tiny babies instead of giving up on them.

The Berlin Exposition of 1896 could be his chance. The show organizers were calling for exhibitors, especially those in science and mechanics. Dr. Budin sent a young doctor who was studying with him to set up an exhibit of incubators, a demonstration of how the warming boxes could save these babies. That young doctor was Martin Couney.

They set up the incubators with diagrams explaining how they could save lives, but they didn’t get much attention. Dr. Couney decided what they needed was actual tiny babies. That would get attention!

He went to Berlin’s Charity Hospital and asked for premature babies to show how well the incubators worked. Empress Augusta Victoria was in charge of the hospital, and she gave him permission to take as many tiny babies as he wished, because they were going to die in the hospital anyway.

After that, the exhibit took off. One problem was that although they’d asked to be placed in the scientific section, their exhibit was in the amusement area. So he turned the babies into an attraction! He dressed them in bigger clothes to make them look even smaller and played up their tiny size. All the babies survived.

Dr. Couney took the incubators to more exhibits in the U.S. Then in 1903, the Baby Incubators became a permanent part of Coney Island. He made sure the babies got the best care, hiring nurses to feed them and watch over them around the clock. Since they charged admission to view the babies, they were able to accept any premature infant free of charge, and took on babies of all ethnicities, religions, and skin colors. One day, Dr. Couney’s own baby girl was born prematurely, and the incubators saved her life.

The point of the exhibition was to convince hospitals to use this life-saving technology, but it took nearly forty years for that to happen. The Baby Incubator exhibit on Coney Island didn’t close until 1943, when incubators were now regularly found in hospitals and preemie survival chances had improved across the country.

This book blew me away that such a life-saving medical innovation started out in a sideshow. It’s also rather astonishing that newborn babies were entrusted to that sideshow – because hospitals had given up.

I’ve given the highlights, but you and your kids will want to read this amazing picture book for yourselves.

crestonbooks.co

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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.

maryrobinettekowal.com
tor-forge.com

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Review of My First Day, by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên

My First Day

by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên

Make Me a World (Penguin Random House), 2021. Originally published in Vietnam in 2017. 40 pages.
Review written May 19, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a mind-expanding book with lush paintings. This picture book doesn’t tell you what it’s the first day of until the end.

As the book opens, you see a boy come out of his house on stilts and get into a small boat on the big river. Every spread is entirely filled with one grand picture, and most of the pictures are mostly filled with the river, with the small boy in a boat somewhere in the spread. Here’s how the text begins:

Where the great river, mother Mekong, tumbles into the endless sea . . . that is where I live.

I wake up with the sun creeping into the sky and wait for tide and time to bring to me my little open boat.
Today is the first day.

This is the first time I’ve made this trip on my own, weaving through floodwaters and forests.
Mama said I’m big enough now to go by myself. Papa said to be careful because that’s what papas do.

The paintings make this trip into an epic journey. The boy goes through waves dwarfing his boat, rain and a dark forest all around, a crocodile and other creatures lurking in the water – and comes out to a bright sky with storks flying ahead of him, all manner of fish beneath him, and even a herd of water buffalo looking at him kindly.

Before he gets to his destination, we see many other kids in boats, traveling the same direction. “Hello, friends!”

And then with the final page of the story, we learn where this adventurous journey has taken him – to his first day of school.

Notes at the back set the story in the Mekong Delta and tell how the river is used as a roadway and in many other ways.

It’s a lovely starting-to-school story that shows children in another part of the world are the same – excited about starting school – but different in the way they get to school. Along with the stunningly beautiful pictures, this is a book you won’t forget. Because the book was originally published in Vietnam, it won’t be eligible for the Caldecott Medal, but the illustrations are so amazing, it would surely be in the running if that weren’t the case.

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Review of Love Is the Way, by Bishop Michael Curry

Love Is the Way

Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times

by Bishop Michael Curry
with Sara Grace

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2020. 259 pages.
Review written May 24, 2021, from my own copy.
Starred Review

My church small group has been going through this book, at the rate of a chapter per week (with a 6-week break in the middle for a Lent study), and we’re finishing up this week. It’s been a wonderful book for discussion.

The tone is devotional, with personal stories from the bishop in every chapter. It starts out a little bit general about loving others, but does continue to specifics like loving LGBTQ people and loving people of different races and different political views.

He frames the book with each chapter having a subtitle that’s a question about love, a question he’s actually been asked. He begins with “What is love?” and “How do I find God’s love?” and continues through things like “Do I have to love even my enemy?” “How can love overcome what divides us and move us forward together?” and “Does love mean avoiding politics?”

I expected something with less depth than what I got. His willingness to delve into practical issues means the book challenges the reader, because we can all get better at loving.

And he’s also inspirational. I enjoyed the chapter “It’s Not Easy,” which had the question “I’m just a regular person – can my love have an impact?” No surprise, the answer is Yes, and that answer is proved by stories in the chapter. Here’s how that chapter ends:

It is impossible to know, in the moment, how a small act of goodness will reverberate through time. The notion is empowering and it is frightening – because it means that we’re all capable of changing the world, and responsible for finding those opportunities to protect, feed, grow, and guide love. We can all plant seeds, though only some of us may be so lucky as to sit in their shade. Since we can’t start twenty years ago, the best time to start is today.

And here’s how the book ends. (It’s not a Spoiler with Nonfiction! Here’s where this book will take you.)

When God, who is love, becomes our spiritual center of gravity, and love our moral compass, we live differently, regardless of what the world around us does. The world changes for the better, one life at a time.

So don’t give up on love.
Listen to it.
Trust it.
Give into it.
Obey it.

Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate when nothing else will. May God love you and bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.

You can think of this book as a compelling call to love.

penguinrandomhouse.com

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