Review of Longbourn, by Jo Baker

April 10th, 2021

Longbourn

by Jo Baker
read by Emma Fielding

Random House Audio, 2013. 13.5 hours.
Review written April 9, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

A big thank you to my coworker Pam who told me about this book after I posted my new Austenalia page. Longbourn focuses on the home of Elizabeth Bennet during the events of Pride and Prejudice and tells us about the lives of the servants.

This isn’t the same flavor at all as Jane Austen’s books, dealing with ladies and gentlemen and polite society and appearances and sweetly and innocently finding husbands. Details are a little more sordid, and there are some unpleasant scenes and situations. The book begins on a wash day, and Sarah, a housemaid, has these thoughts about her employers:

The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were. Perhaps that was why they spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels, and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.

Longbourn is a small household, with the butler married to the housekeeper. Sarah is the older of the two housemaids, and she’s only a teen herself. At the start of the book, a stranger comes into town, and he quickly becomes their new footman. There are some questions as to why a young man would be available during a time of war.

Something fun about this book is that yes, the events of Pride and Prejudice play out among the young ladies, but those things aren’t nearly as interesting to the servants as what is going on in their own lives. The author has given them intriguing back stories.

So don’t think of this as a Jane Austen read-alike. It’s not. But it is a fascinating and absorbing account of what life was like for ordinary people in England during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s about making do and surviving, but also about finding love and finding opportunities. What would a servant dream of making of themselves during that era?

I will add that in revealing the back stories of the servants, Jo Baker gives us some surprising back stories of the main characters. Bingley’s family made their fortune in sugar, and there are some implications about one of his servants – but that’s only the beginning of the back story revelations.

I wasn’t too sure I’d enjoy it as the book began, since I’m used to thinking of only the pleasant side of Austen heroines. But the more I listened, the more caught up I was in the lives and situations of these people who began to feel like they knew a lot more about how the world really works than the fine ladies I was used to reading about.

jobakerwriter.com
aaknopf.com

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Review of Nesting, by Henry Cole

April 9th, 2021

Nesting

by Henry Cole

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2020. 36 pages.
Review written April 21, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

We’ve got this in picture books in our library, and the story is slightly fictionalized, but you can also think of this book as a child’s very first nonfiction book about robins.

The story is simple – a robin couple meets, builds a nest, lays eggs, and cares for them. The story is accompanied by Henry Cole’s lovely and detailed illustrations, mostly black and white, but with accents of robin’s egg blue.

There’s a bit of gentle drama in the middle:

Down below, a snake sees the robins’ nest. The snake is hungry, too, and climbs the apple tree.

The robins fight back! They dive and swoop!

They don’t give up until they drive the snake away.

We see the baby robins leave the nest and get ready to start their own home.

It’s simple science for young kids – and it’s soothing and peaceful to see a robin’s life cycle all laid out for you. Henry Cole’s wonderful art makes this book something special.

henrycole.net

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Review of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

April 7th, 2021

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy

by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 256 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 11, 2019, from a library book

This graphic novel is a modern retelling of the children’s classic Little Women, and it’s wonderfully done. It takes only the first book of the two parts of the original book – up to the point where the girls make some life-changing choices. Let’s just say that the modern versions of the girls choose differently, and I like the update.

This time the March family is a blended family. Meg’s father married Jo’s mother and then they had Beth and Amy together. Instead of the Civil War, their father is off fighting in the Middle East. And the book opens with the girls facing that they won’t be able to expect presents for Christmas and they want to give their mother a surprise. Instead of going out to help the poor, they go work at a soup kitchen on Christmas and a kindly rich neighbor across the street invites them over for Christmas dinner, where they meet Laurie, his grandson who has just moved in.

I’ve read the original novel Little Women many, many times since I was in about sixth grade. I loved the way the scenes in this graphic novel parallel the scenes in the original book.

Jo still loves to read and wants to be an author. Beth loves music – but it’s a guitar that she gains from their neighbor rather than a piano. Amy still loves art – she wants to draw comics. Meg still wants to marry a rich man – but that’s one of the choices that end up getting changed. We do get to enjoy familiar-but-new scenes of Meg feeling out of place at a party with girls who have much more money than their family does.

I don’t want to give away the changes at the end. If they write a second book, matching the second half of Little Women, it won’t be able to parallel the scenes as closely. But I do appreciate the changes for these modern times.

Like the original, this is a story of four sisters navigating life, each dealing with their own burdens, but ultimately facing it together.

LBYR.com

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Review of Furia, by Yamile Saied Méndez

April 7th, 2021

Furia

by Yamile Saied Méndez

Algonquin Young Readers, 2020. 357 pages.
Review written October 17, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Cybils Award Winner
2021 Pura Belpré Young Adult Author Medal Winner

Furia is set in Argentina, telling the story of 17-year-old Camila, who dreams of being a soccer star. Her father played soccer until an injury stopped his career, and her older brother has recently gone professional. But her family doesn’t think that girls should play soccer, so she has to keep her play secret. However, when they win their league championship, she’s going to need her parents’ permission to play in the South American tournament.

Meanwhile, her childhood friend Diego has come back to town. Her family doesn’t know that things got romantic between them before he joined an Italian professional soccer team. That spark is still there. Diego, and apparently everyone else, thinks that she should give up her own dreams and go back with him to Italy. But even though Camila cares about him, she’s got a fire inside and wants to follow her own path.

Along with that story, there are undercurrents about women’s rights in Argentina, domestic violence, and expectations for women. Camila has to navigate all of this while trying to get attention for her skills. She dreams of going to America, where women can play professional soccer.

But meanwhile, how does she navigate all the secrets she’s keeping?

I love the way the book starts, setting up the framework of the setting and Camila’s people:

Lies have short legs. I learned this proverb before I could speak. I never knew exactly where it came from. Maybe the saying followed my family across the Atlantic, all the way to Rosario, the second-largest city in Argentina, at the end of the world.

My Russian great-grandmother, Isabel, embroidered it on a pillow after her first love broke her heart and married her sister. My Palestinian grandfather, Ahmed, whispered it to me every time my mom found his hidden stash of wine bottles. My Andalusian grandmother, Elena, repeated it like a mantra until her memories and regrets called her to the next life. Maybe it came from Matilde, the woman who chased freedom to Las Pampas all the way from Brazil, but of her, this Black woman whose blood roared in my veins, we hardly ever spoke. Her last name got lost, but my grandma’s grandma still showed up so many generations later in the way my brown hair curled, the shape of my nose, and my stubbornness – ay, Dios mío, my stubbornness. Like her, if family folklore was to be trusted, I had never learned to shut up or do as I was told.

yamilesmendez.com
AlgonquinYoungReaders.com

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Review of Courage, by Tom Berlin

April 4th, 2021

Courage

Jesus and the Call to Brave Faith

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2021. 144 pages.
Review written March 29, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

This book is written by the pastor of my church. They gave a copy to all church members and regular attenders as part of a bag of goodies to help us observe Lent. All the small groups in the church have been working through this book during the six weeks of Lent. The pastor’s sermons have kept pace with the chapters of the book. And as an additional resource, he recorded a video for each chapter at a significant site in Washington, DC, and we watch those short videos during our small group discussion each week.

Honestly? I’d never thought much about courage. Is that a guy thing? I mean, I never wanted to be in the military or be a policeman or firefighter and never gave much thought to the need for courage.

But this book has made me think of courage in new ways. He covers six aspects of courage – clarity, conviction, candor, hope, fortitude, and love – and looks at six incidents in the life of Jesus that demonstrate these things. It makes me think about the ways I need to display courage to do the things God calls me to.

I think my favorite chapter is the final one. It talks about how it’s easier to be courageous when we know we are loved – and we are loved indeed.

When we believe that God loves us, we enter a place of courage. The knowledge of such love creates a foundation of confidence on which courage stands. It enables us to know that we can be vulnerable with others because their acceptance or rejection will neither increase nor diminish the love we offer others.

Although I wasn’t curious about courage before our church started studying the topic, it’s been an interesting and fruitful topic. The sermons and the small group discussions have been inspirational and encouraging.

AbingdonPress.com

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Review of The Pig War, by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Alison Jay

April 1st, 2021

The Pig War

How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share

by Emma Bland Smith
illustrated by Alison Jay

Calkins Creek (Boyds Mills & Kane), 2020. 28 pages.
Review written February 26, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

The Pig War is a delightful picture book about an actual skirmish between England and America over the fate of San Juan Island in 1859.

San Juan Island is an island off the coast of the Pacific northwest, whose ownership was not made clear in the Oregon Treaty between America and Britain. Both countries laid claim to it, and both countries had settlers.

One day in 1859, an American settler saw a pig rooting in his potato patch and shot it. The owner of the pig was British. He demanded an outrageous sum for the pig, and a dispute began. Soldiers and ships were called in, and the United States and England were on the brink of war.

This book turns the dispute into a folksy tale. It humorously shows how these things escalate, but also boasts the achievement of the two countries agreeing to share. In the Pig War, no one died except the pig.

I like this section where the book explains how things escalated:

Now, the two bosses, Harney and Douglas, may or may not have been cranky. We don’t know. But we do know that they were both – it must be said – on the hotheaded side. Harney promptly dispatched a company of sixty-four men, under the command of Captain George Pickett. The Americans must have sighed a breath of relief. Such a fearsome display of power would surely make the Brits back off.

Simple, right?
Not quite.

Because just two days later, a British ship, highly armed, commanded by Captain Geoffrey Hornby and loaded with several hundred men, steamed into the bay.

Oh, dear.
What started as a Pig Incident and turned into a Pig Argument was fast escalating into a Pig Situation.

There are detailed notes at the back, and you learn that you can visit the sites of the American Camp and the English Camp today.

These creators turn an unfortunate incident into a delightful story of cooperation and cool heads.

emmabsmith.com
calkinscreekbooks.com

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Review of This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel

March 31st, 2021

This Is How It Always Is

by Laurie Frankel
read by Gabra Zackman

Macmillan Audio, 2017. 11 hours.
Review written March 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I heard about this book from my Facebook group of mothers of transgender kids. I have a transgender daughter, though she came out at 27 years old, when she had grown up and moved out long before. This is a book about a family with a young child who doesn’t follow gender norms, and how the whole family navigates that.

I tend to not like “issue” novels, because they can make things work out for their protagonists in ways the real world wouldn’t. But I loved this. In the featured family’s quirky particularity, we don’t feel like they’re trying to speak for every transgender child. But the author is telling us about this particular family, and how they in particular dealt with things when their youngest son told them he wanted to be a girl scientist when he grew up.

Rosie and Penn have an unusual family. She’s an ER doctor. He’s a writer who’s been working on his novel for a long time. They have five children, all boys – or so they thought. As the book begins, we’re told how much Rosie wanted that last child to be a girl. (I like that touch. A mom does wonder if there’s something about their pregnancy that “caused” their child to be transgender.) When she birthed a boy, they thought that at least they knew how to handle boys by now.

But Claude is not like the others.

Back when they were dating, writer Penn won Rosie over with a fairy tale. And as their boys grow, he continues the fairy tale in bedtime stories to them, stories of Grumwald, a prince. But their youngest, Claude, is tired of Grumwald and wants to hear about Princess Stephanie. The stories begin to change, and so does Claude.

After Claude is so clearly happier wearing dresses and growing his hair long and being called Poppy, the family lets it happen. But after some negative encounters, they decide to move somewhere more accepting – and then why bother telling anyone what is in Poppy’s pants? Why not simply present her as a girl?

But that decision, and that deception, gets bigger than the family can handle and leads to things blowing up. I won’t say more about how the big crisis is handled except to say that it’s believable and gracious, while hitting your emotions hard.

I love the perspectives. I love the way fairy tales shine light on their situation. I love the flawed humans in this tale. I love the way the older brothers love their youngest sibling but still have to deal with wanting their own needs met. I love the way this family loves each other, but doesn’t always know how best to show that.

True stories of bringing up a transgender child are valuable and have their own insights. I appreciated that in a novel, the author can let us know what all the different people in the family are thinking and feeling, rather than only what the writer of the memoir knows first hand. This book showed how the youngest child being gender nonconforming affected all the members of the big and quirky family.

This book doesn’t claim to have easy answers, and it does show the parents’ struggle to do what’s best for their child – and how even that brings some problems. This is a compassionate and nuanced look at a quirky and loving family trying to support their child and help that child be the person they were born to be.

lauriefrankel.net

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Review of Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum, by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Violet Kim

March 29th, 2021

Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum

by Natasha Yim
illustrated by Violet Kim

Charlesbridge, 2020. 32 pages.
Review written March 23, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s another wonderful book for exploring math with young children in the “Storytelling Math” series from Charlesbridge. It’s perfect, in fact, for my new Sondermath page.

In Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum, Ma Ma and Ba Ba are taking Luna and her two brothers to a dim sum restaurant for a special birthday lunch. They order two baskets of three pork buns each, and plan to eat two each.

Then Luna accidentally drops one on the floor. So they have five pork buns. How will they divide them up? Or should someone get more than everyone else? After all, Luna is the birthday girl.

This kind of problem – dividing up food – is near to kids’ hearts. And it’s told in a story form, so their attention won’t lag.

There are notes in the back about Dim Sum and the Chinese Zodiac, with ideas for exploring the math.

I’m enjoying this series, where kids engage with math concepts in real-life ways.

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terc.edu
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Review of Every Penguin in the World, by Charles Bergman

March 28th, 2021

Every Penguin in the World

A Quest to See Them All

by Charles Bergman

Sasquatch Books, 2020. 193 pages.
Review written September 30, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I wouldn’t have called myself a penguin lover before reading this book, though I certainly don’t dislike them. Who could? But reading this book has me fully converted.

The author is an English professor. He and his wife decided to take trips to see every current penguin species in the world. And he took wonderful photographs on these journeys.

The photographs do steal the show. Penguin chicks are adorably cute, and adults are sometimes comical, sometimes beautiful, and always striking. Their location in remote southern locations adds to the beauty of these photographs.

And it’s difficult to get to the remote locations where penguins live, so the story of this quest is a story of adventure. The author does a great job of communicating the dangers and difficulties of their travels while also conveying the way the penguins changed his life spiritually and called him to this pilgrimage.

Of course, there’s also information about how so many penguin species are endangered and what we can do to help. If a universally beloved creature is in danger, how can we expect to save creatures that aren’t so adorable? So this book is also a wake-up call.

I found myself looking at the photos here over and over again, but the words drew me in as well. This is a wonderful little book that you can be sure you’ll want to come back to. I think I’m going to order my own copy to be able to look at pictures of penguins whenever I want to be uplifted.

sasquatchbooks.com

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Review of Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt

March 27th, 2021

Just Like That

by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books, 2021. 387 pages.
Review written March 19, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is set in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and after the events in The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. In this book, we’re following Meryl Lee Kowalski, and the first thing we learn is that one of the characters from the other books, one who had become very important to Meryl Lee, has died suddenly in a freak accident. Oh, and there’s even a nod to Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, including a character from the Buckminster family (though this is years later).

You do not have to have read the earlier books (although this book makes me want to go back and reread them), and my own memory was hazy, but anyone will understand the painful good memories and the Blank left when thinking of someone you love who is no longer there.

Meryl Lee’s parents decide she needs a complete change. They send her to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls in Maine. So all the rest of the cast of characters in this book are new.

And Meryl Lee is the only new girl in eighth grade at St. Elene’s. Her roommate is from such an important family that she shares her last name with her hometown. She makes it very clear how much she misses the roommate she’d been paired with for years who is now living in Budapest with her diplomat family for the year. We can tell Meryl Lee’s going to have a challenge fitting in at her new school.

Alongside Meryl Lee’s story, there’s a parallel story of Matt Coffin, a boy who’s been living by himself in a fisherman’s shack by the water. People haven’t been able to get him to stay at school.

Things might have gone on this way for a very long time, except one early spring evening, when the orange sun was low and the shadows of the pines long, Mrs. Nora MacKnockater came down the steep ridge to the shore beneath her house and settled her substantial rump on a smooth rock large enough to hold it. She watched a flat stone skip in the trough between the low waves – the tide was heading out – turned, and saw Matt Coffin brush back his hair, pull his arm to toss the next stone, see her, and stop.

“Five skips,” she said, “is a creditable throw.”

Mrs. MacKnockater builds a friendship with Matt, starting with skipping stones, then sharing food, then finally giving him a place to stay. But Mrs. MacKnockater is also the headmistress at St. Elene’s Preparatory School for Girls, so Matt and Meryl Lee’s stories are going to converge. Matt has a tragic past and always worries that it will catch up with him. He doesn’t dare put down roots, because if he does, those people will get hurt.

As in so many of his other books, Gary Schmidt pulls you into the emotions of his characters. This book portrays grief in ways that will rend your heart. But it also shows new starts and new friendships. It shows Meryl Lee making new connections with some people you thought were too odious to ever be relatable and others that are surprisingly kind and others who just make you cheer that such good people found each other.

Once again, I’ll spend the year hoping for a Newbery nod for a Gary Schmidt book. Now that I’ve been on the committee, I understand that I can’t predict at all what the committee will decide, but I am at least absolutely sure this book will get consideration. It’s a beautiful and memorable book that explores grief but leaves you with hope.

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