Review of Talking to Strangers, by Marianne Boucher

May 6th, 2021

Talking to Strangers

A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

by Marianne Boucher

Doubleday Canada, 2020. 176 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book

This is a short and sweet graphic novel memoir about when the author was 18 years old and got sucked into the Moonies.

She was all about ice skating and got an audition in California for the Ice Follies. But while she was there, she met some strangers on the beach. They showered her with love and attention and talked with her about not conforming to expectations.

One thing led to another. First, she was just going to go to a weekend retreat. They added teaching and community and before long she was fully involved.

Her mother back in Canada couldn’t get the California police to intervene, since Marianne was 18 years old. So she found people who specialized in extracting people from cults. They laid plans and got help from a former cult member. Since Marianne didn’t want to leave, they had to get her away from the group in order to convince her, and none of that was easy.

The graphic novel format makes this a quick read, but it’s still a powerful story and a frightening one. At the end, the book does touch on her difficult healing process, and it provides a resource list at the back. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were some similarities with our current political climate. But may we all find healing with Beauty and Truth.

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Review of Three Keys, by Kelly Yang, read by Sunny Lu

May 5th, 2021

Three Keys

by Kelly Yang
read by Sunny Lu

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2020. 6 hours, 11 minutes, on 5 discs.
Review written April 6, 2021, from a library audiobook
Starred review

Three Keys is a sequel to the wonderful Front Desk, continuing the story of Mia Tang, who immigrated with her parents to California in the 1990s and ended up becoming owners of the motel they were managing.

In this segment of the story, now although they don’t have a harsh owner to work for, they still need to manage the motel in ways that will make a profit. The investors give them a hard time if profits are down. Mia learns that her parents have dreams of their own, since her mother was an engineer and her father a medical researcher in China. But now they’re busy cleaning rooms.

Meanwhile, the author takes on social issues again, setting the story in 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson was running for reelection and pushing the passage of Prop 187, which would crack down on undocumented immigrants and not allow their children to go to school or for them to receive any services.

I no longer lived in California in 1994, but my family did, so I had a sinking knowledge as I read the book of who would win the election. The book showed some of the hate crimes and strong anti-immigrant sentiment that came out at that time. Meanwhile, Mia’s best friend Lupe’s parents are undocumented, and her father gets arrested with looming deportation. But Mia is determined to fight it.

Even knowing what would happen with the proposition, this book still managed to be hopeful and show a human face to immigration and make you care about these kids, trying to spread concern for others. They encounter obstacles, but make a difference with many of those obstacles.

Oh, in the author’s note at the back, the author does connect the dots between Pete Wilson’s campaign in 1994 and Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, and how both stirred up hatred and fear against immigrants. She mentions that Prop 187 was struck down by the courts, but her characters would have been worse off in 2020 than they were in the book world in 1994. She does point out this is a timely topic.

Mia’s a character you can’t help but love. I hope there will be more books about her and her struggle to make the world a better place, even if it’s in small ways.

frontdeskthebook.com
scholastic.com

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Review of The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, read by Maite Járegui

May 4th, 2021

The Fountains of Silence

by Ruta Sepetys
read by Maite Járegui

Listening Library, 2019. 12.5 hours on 10 CDs.
Review written April 23, 2020, from a library audiobook
Starred Review

This is a richly detailed historical novel set in Franco’s Spain after World War II. The Spanish people have learned to be silent about injustices.

The book features a cross-cultural attraction. Daniel’s family is visiting Madrid. His father is a rich oil executive from Texas who wants Daniel to take over the family business, but Daniel wants to be a photojournalist. He’s hoping to get photographs in Spain to win a contest and get a scholarship to journalism school.

Anna is a maid at the hotel, assigned to facilitate things for their family. Her family was on the wrong side of Franco, but her sister has always looked after her. Anna is tempted to tell Daniel what things are really like in Spain, and he wants to get photos that look deeper.

Anna’s brother is helping a friend who plans to be a matador, though he has to train in secret. And several family members are on the edge of something going on with dead babies and the orphanage and adoptions.

There’s a slow pace to this book that gives you portraits of many people. I like the slow build of the feelings between Anna and Daniel. I have some quibbles with some big coincidences that happened, but I still enjoyed the story and learned much about life in Spain under Franco.

This was the audiobook I’d been listening to in the car before the library closed for Covid-19. So I brought it into the house, and now I think I’m hooked on listening to an audiobook while making dinner. New times, new habits. This was a good way to begin that new habit.

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

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Review of Eclipse Chaser, by Ilima Loomis

May 3rd, 2021

Eclipse Chaser

Science in the Moon’s Shadow

by Ilima Loomis
with photographs by Amanda Cowan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. 80 pages.
Review written April 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Eclipse Chaser is part of the wonderful Scientists in the Field series, which uses the tagline, Where Science Meets Adventure. These books show actual scientists on actual expeditions. They explain what the scientists are trying to figure out, the importance of their endeavors, and the obstacles, challenges, and successes they meet with.

This book features the scientist Shadia Habbal and her expedition to get vital scientific information during the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017. This makes the book especially pertinent, since many of the readers, like me, will have experienced that eclipse themselves.

It tells about the many other total solar eclipses Shadia has seen, how that gives her an exceptional look at the sun’s corona, and about some of the breakthroughs she has discovered in her previous work. Shaddia is studying solar winds, and to do that, she uses special filtered cameras that show the location of certain elements in the sun’s corona, as well as photos of certain iron ions that give the temperature in the corona where they’re present.

The book is full of photographs. There’s plenty of drama about setting up all the expensive equipment to take photographs in a short period of time. Since I was present for a solar eclipse in Germany in 1999 where clouds covered the sun in the last minute before totality, I was extra appreciative of those worries. We were told about past expeditions where weather wiped out all their plans.

It’s all fascinating information that helped me understand better why solar eclipses are so important for scientists. There are several photos of the sun’s corona taken during eclipses to help you grasp what they can find out and understand what they’re talking about with the term “solar wind.”

A map in the back of paths, dates, and durations of solar eclipses between 2011 and 2060 says there’s going to be another total solar eclipse in America in April 2024. We’ll want to prominently display this book on our library shelves when that event approaches.

ilimaloomis.com
amandacowanphotography.com
hmhbooks.com

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

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Review of How Big Is Zagnodd? by Sandra Boynton

May 2nd, 2021

How Big Is Zagnodd?

by Sandra Boynton

Little Simon, 2020. 16 pages.
Review written December 4, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This is the very first time I’m reviewing a board book. But it’s a new Sandra Boynton board book!

Honestly? I don’t often even notice the board books that come into the library because you can’t put them on hold so I can’t look them over as they come in. But today I was pulling a bag of board books for a customer (we’ve had them on an ask-for-a-bag basis during the pandemic so they don’t collect drool), and saw this one, read it and was utterly charmed.

Spoiler alert: Zagnodd is SO big!

And then we’re asked more questions about other aliens. “How long is Boknuk?”, “How fuzzy are Fleeb, Fleeeb, & Fleeeeb?”, and “How bright is Igwak?”

But the place where I laugh out loud is, “How dancey are the nimble Klorggix of Planet 9?” And after that, we see one earthling named Steve who is SO lost.

If you delight in reading nonsense words, obviously this is the board book for your family.

Sandra Boynton’s genius is in making books that are short and sweet but delight little ones and adults alike. My own 32-year-old daughter had a set of Boynton board books and I swear her first word was “Fffff!” when reading the book called Doggies that had a WOOF! on each page. How Big Is Zagnodd? is a worthy addition to her offerings.

sandraboynton.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Review of Stranger Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

April 30th, 2021

Stranger Planet

by Nathan W. Pyle

Morrow Gift (HarperCollins), 2020. 144 pages.
Review written September 21, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a second volume of cartoons from Nathan Pyle’s webcomic about alien beings who do the things that earthlings do – but talk about them in a straightforward manner that’s hilarious.

I follow Nathan Pyle on Facebook, so I already had many favorite cartoons from this book. For example, there are a few rewritten songs that fit perfectly in the tune of the original. I’m thinking about trying “The Small Eight-Legged Creature” during Storytime at the library.

The author’s insights are devastating. The purpose of board games is: “For the group: Entertainment. But individually: Domination.” And there’s even a Library cartoon!

This structure is full of texts.
For us to purchase.
No, we simply take.
This is incredible, by which I mean difficult to believe.
Observe this: I briefly possessed this though I did not read it.
There is no shame.
There are no expectations.
They expect you to return them.
It is the core concept.

One thing I love about these beings is that gender is not obvious or indicated by their words. So the transgender friends I have wouldn’t have to worry about what their kids should call them. In fact, I’m thinking of asking my own offspring to call me “Lifegiver.”

This book delightfully points out the amusing aspects of everyday existence by showing us how they’d look if aliens did them.

nathanwpyle.art
harpercollins.com

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Review of Efrén Divided, by Ernesto Cisneros, read by Anthony Rey Perez

April 30th, 2021

Efrén Divided

by Ernesto Cisneros
read by Anthony Rey Perez

Harper Audio, 2020. 4 hours, 33 minutes.
Review written March 30, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
2021 Pura Belpré Author Winner
2020 Capitol Choices Selection

Efrén Divided is the story of a kid born in America whose parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He’s in middle school, and has normal middle school concerns, such as his best friend deciding to run for A.S.B. President in order to attract girls. His family lives in a small studio apartment – his parents and his younger siblings, who are twins in Kindergarten – and they aren’t wealthy but have lots of love and an Amá who takes good care of them.

Then Efrén’s Amá applies for a better job – and gets picked up in a raid and deported to Mexico. Efrén’s troubles begin. His Apá takes overtime hours to try to raise the money for Amá to hire a coyote and get home. But even getting the money to her is fraught with difficulty.

And meanwhile, Efrén needs to care for the twins and keep things going at home, never mind getting his homework done and supporting his friend David running for President. Efrén can’t even bring himself to tell David about Amá’s deportation, he’s so torn up inside.

When it comes time to get money to Amá to get home, Efrén is the one who needs to go into Tijuana to take it to her, since Apá is undocumented.

This book is gripping and powerful and makes the reader burn with the injustice of it all.

I wasn’t completely on board with how luck was handled, especially the good luck. Efrén has a lucky encounter in Tijuana, which completely saves the day, and he and Apá have other luck, too – which Amá does not have. That’s probably a lot of the point of the book – even that Efrén is lucky to have been born in the United States – but it put me off a tiny bit. I very much wanted Amá to have better luck, for sure – which is definitely a big part of the point of the book, to get the reader where we don’t think it’s right what happens to her.

So it’s a hard read, but a good one. It will get readers wanting to see things changed.

ernestocisneros.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Kent State, by Deborah Wiles

April 30th, 2021

Kent State

by Deborah Wiles

Scholastic Press, 2020. 132 pages.
Review written October 22, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This short novel in verse could almost be listed as nonfiction, because the author strives to accurately present a picture of what happened fifty years ago, on May 4, 1970, when the National Guard opened fire on college students, and four were killed and nine wounded.

The story isn’t told in one neat, tidy package. Instead, we get multiple voices. It’s not defined who’s speaking, but the voices are delineated by font and size and position on the page. We can eventually figure out who’s speaking. Some, in fact, have to work to be heard.

The effect is a well-rounded picture. I liked the way it reminded me of the conversation today around the protests in Portland. Some say they’re peaceful protestors. Others that they’re terrorists. Some say they were exercising their first amendment rights, and others that they were thugs destroying property. Some say there were outside agitators. That’s the kind of thing we find here, as Deborah Wiles lets many voices speak – fellow students, townspeople, National Guard members, faculty, members of Black United Students, students who did not agree with the protests, and more.

But the big point of the book is about the four children who died. We do get to hear a lot about them. One wasn’t even involved in the protests, but was simply walking to class. The National Guard troops who fired were barely older than the ones who were killed.

Some of the voices say that the white students didn’t really believe the National Guard would use real bullets. The black students did, so most of them heeded a warning to stay away. We get all the circumstances leading up to the deaths and then the tragic order to fire.

The opening chapter addresses the reader as a new friend who needs to hear the story. The different voices are going to tell this new friend what happened. Here’s how that chapter ends:

Let me make room for our new friend.
We don’t want to scare you away, friend.
Take the most comfortable chair.
Sit. Listen.
Make up your own mind.
Open your heart.
Here is what is most important:

They did not have to die.

Pull up a chair, take an hour, and read this book. It will open your eyes. With the author, I hope that this knowledge will help avoid future tragedies.

***

After the audiobook version won the 2021 Odyssey Award for the audio production, I decided to listen as well and add a review of that.

I can easily see why it won. The production features a full cast, and they included sound effects, especially the sound of bullets, plus original music in the transitions, music that sounded appropriate for the time of the story.

The book was narrated by a full cast, which is sometimes hard to follow, but in this case it was easier to instantly tell who was speaking and remember things they’d said before. For example, a voice representing students repeats the same line several times, and when I was hearing her voice speaking the line, I easily remembered that I’d heard that person say the same thing before. The producers did a good job of using voices that sounded different from each other — voices for students, for townspeople, for the National Guard, for the black students — and it was easier to have an idea of who was speaking from the voice than it had been from simply a change in font.

The audio production is short — only two hours — and even though I’d already read the book, I was riveted by the audio version, making the words come to life. Since the book was written in the form of unrhymed poetry spoken by different people affected, and since they did a great job with the sound effects, the audio version is the perfect way to experience this book.

deborahwiles.com
scholastic.com

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Review of The Oldest Student, by Rita Lorraine Hubbard & Oge Mora

April 30th, 2021

The Oldest Student

How Mary Walker Learned to Read

by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
illustrated by Oge Mora

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 23, 2020, from a library book

I know a book is worth reviewing when I can’t resist telling my coworkers about it. This is an amazing true story, beautifully told in a picture book.

Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848. Of course slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read. She was freed when she was fifteen years old, but there was still hard work in her life. Now she was too busy to learn to read. She was given a Bible and planned to learn to read some day, but at the time she had work to do.

This picture book shows her busy life bringing up children, working in people’s homes, and raising money for her church. She’d bring her Bible to church, but she still couldn’t read it.

Mary had her three sons to read to her. But they died before she did. Her eldest son died when he was ninety-four, and Mary was alone at 114 years old.

So Mary learned to read.

She went to a class in her building, and at 116 years old received a certificate that she could read. The US Department of Education heard about her and declared her the nation’s oldest student.

Mary felt complete. She still missed her sons, but whenever she was lonely, she read from her Bible or looked out her window and read the words in the street below.

From then on, Chattanoogans honored Mary’s achievement with yearly birthday parties. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent well wishes on Mary’s 118th birthday, and in 1969, President Richard Nixon did the same. Mary was now 121 years old.

I love the way the book finishes, with an illustration of a friendly crowd clustered around Mary:

Each year, before her birthday celebration came to an end, someone would whisper, “Let’s listen to Miss Mary.”

The shuffling and movement would fade away until not a sound was heard.

Then Mary would stand on her old, old legs, clear her old, old throat, and read from her Bible or her schoolbook in a voice that was clear and strong.

When she finished, she would gently close her book and say,

“You’re never too old to learn.”

The endpapers show photos of Mary after she’d learned to read. The whole book is full of the wonderful Oge Mora’s joyful cut-paper illustrations. I’m amazed at how she conveys so much personality with simple shapes.

This book is a delight. There’s even a picture of Mary’s first airplane ride. A whole lot changed during her lifetime! And the message is clear: You’re never too old to learn.

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ogemora.com

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Review of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laurie Viera Rigler

April 29th, 2021

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

by Laurie Viera Rigler
read by Orlagh Cassidy

Penguin Audio, 2007. 7 hours.
Review written April 25, 2021, from a library eaudiobook

I’m on a roll of reading Jane Austen take-offs, and this is one of the silliest, or I should probably say most light-hearted.

Courtney, a modern young woman who lives in Los Angeles, recently caught her fiancé cheating on her. As part of her healing process, she did her usual Jane Austen binge. But one morning she wakes up to find herself in the home of a young lady who lives in the English countryside during Jane Austen’s time, in the body of that young lady.

The young lady is named Jane Mansfield, and she has recently had a terrible fall from a horse. When Courtney tries to tell people that she is not, actually, Jane, they try to help by bleeding her (with dirty equipment!) and threaten to put her in an asylum. She has to go along with it. Surely it’s temporary, and she can just humor them, but it seems awfully realistic and she doesn’t want to live it out in an asylum.

The book never does adequately explain why this body-switching happened. There’s talk about the fluidity of time and a wish and trauma and… well, whatever it was, it’s fun that it happened. (I also wasn’t completely satisfied about what her “destiny” was that would take her back, but I won’t give that away.) For a fantasy fan like me, that aspect was awfully murky.

This book is also a lot more raunchy than most Jane Austen take-offs. Courtney had been sexually active with her fiancé and other people before him, and she appraises the men she meets with that in mind – which does not really fit with Jane Austen’s England. But now Jane’s mother very much wants her to marry Mr. Edgeworth – and Courtney can’t remember why Jane was opposed to that plan. But she gets flashes of Jane’s memories, and she’s afraid that even in a different body, she’s attracted to an unsuitable man.

Along the way, there’s lots of humor as Courtney’s modern sensibilities clash with life in Jane Austen’s England. And though some things appall her – such as having to use a chamber pot – she begins to make the best of the situation – and the reader (or listener) gets to enjoy it with her.

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