Review of A Place to Belong, by Cynthia Kadohata

A Place to Belong

by Cynthia Kadohata
read by Jennifer Ikeda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2019. 9 hours on 7 discs.
Review written January 31, 2020, from a library audiobook

A Place to Belong opens at the end of World War II, with Hanako, her little brother Akira, and her parents on a ship going to Japan. Her family was imprisoned in camps during the war because of their Japanese heritage, and after the war, her parents were pressured to give up their American citizenship. Now they are headed to a village outside of Hiroshima, where Papa’s parents still live. On the way there, Hanako sees people and places devastated beyond her wildest imaginings.

Adjusting to Japan is difficult. And she is torn by the people – even children – begging for food. If she gives them rice, what if there’s not enough to feed her own brother? In school, she’s different from the other girls. Can she ever get them to accept her? Woven throughout the stories are memories from their family’s time in the camps and her resultant mixed feelings about America.

This was a part of the story of Japanese Americans that I hadn’t heard before, so I was fascinated by the details. I have to admit that the book felt long and didn’t have a driving plot – they were simply trying to survive, taking each day as it came. The love coming from Hanako’s grandparents toward the grandchildren they just met was a continuing warm bright spot, and did make me glad I stuck it out and listened to the entire book.

cynthiakadohata.com

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Review of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

by James McBride
read by Dominic Hoffman

Books on Tape, 2023. 12 hours, 22 minutes.
Review written April 13, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a sweeping historical novel about the 1930s Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, outside Philadelphia, where immigrant Jews from all over Europe and African Americans from the South were trying to live a good life — despite the annual parade where prominent white members of the town council marched in their KKK regalia.

The main focus of the book is Chona Ludlow, who lives above the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store with her husband Moshe, who runs a theater, and found business got better when he brought in Black performers. Chona grew up in Pottstown, with a limp from polio, and Moshe fell for her when he began working in her father’s store.

There are lots more characters, and each one is introduced with a rambling tale of their back story and how they relate to the other characters we’ve met. I didn’t approach this literary novel the right way — taking an unplanned break from it for three days when I went with a group of friends to see the total solar eclipse. It was already hard to keep the various characters straight, and that about did me in.

But as I was thinking about quitting in the middle, I read the audiobook description and was reminded that the book began with a dead body found forty years later in an old well. And it sounded like things were heating up about the deaf Black boy that Chona was helping keep hidden from the authorities, who wanted to put him in an institution.

So I was glad I finished. The various plot lines and various characters all came together at the end of the book, forming a kind of heist novel — trying to rescue the deaf Black boy.

Read or listen to this when you’re in the mood for a literary novel, and don’t pause for three days in the middle — and I’m sure you’ll find it’s well-crafted. I did listen to the beginning all over again when I was done to more fully appreciate how the author brought things full circle and explained everything they’d found with the body in the well.

jamesmcbride.com

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Review of Max in the House of Spies, by Adam Gidwitz

Max in the House of Spies

A Tale of World War II

by Adam Gidwitz

Dutton Children’s Books, 2024. 320 pages.
Review written April 26, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review

Here’s a World War II book that’s a whole lot of fun – not sure if I’ve ever said that before.

Max Bretzfeld is a Jewish boy born in Berlin, and in 1939, he got sent to England for his own safety from the Nazis. He is taken in by a rich Jewish family headed by Lord Montagu. But Max wants to get back to Berlin to protect his parents. In England, Max encounters more antisemitism and bullying at the snobbish private school where Lord Montagu’s children attend.

But what keeps this from being a sad story about an oppressed kid is that Max is a genius. He is clever with radios, he knows how to plan a serious prank, and he knows how to get the attention of Lord Montagu’s brother, who works for British Intelligence. Max wants to go back to Berlin to protect his parents – why not go as a spy?

Oh, and did I mention? Max has two immortal creatures sitting on his shoulders. A dybbuk and a kobold joined Max when he left Germany. Only Max can see them and talk with them. They are less than thrilled about him going back to Germany.

The majority of this book is about Max’s training to be a spy. It’s unorthodox training for an unorthodox spy. And yes, all along the way, the adults question their choice about sending a Jewish child back to Nazi Germany.

So what we end up with is a cross between a spy novel and The Great Brain. Like I said, a whole lot of fun. And the Author’s Note at the back reveals that he took great pains to get historical details right, and inserted many actual historical people into the tale.

The first page of this book is a wonderful introduction to Max, so I’m going to copy out the whole thing here:

Once there was a boy who had two immortal creatures living on his shoulders.

This was the fourth most interesting thing about him.

The first most interesting thing about Max – that was his name – was that he was a genius. He could make a working radio from the junk at the bottom of a trash can, and he could usually predict what someone was going to say ten minutes before they said it.

The second most interesting thing about Max was that, when he was eleven years old, his parents sent him away from Germany, where he was born and grew up, to England. All by himself. Even though he’d never been there, didn’t know anyone there, and barely spoke any English.

The third most interesting thing about Max was that, when he got to England, he fell in with spies. Real, honest-to-goodness spies. A lot of them.

And the fourth most interesting thing about him was that he had two immortal creatures living on his shoulders.

The story does not end with this volume, even though it comes to a good stopping place. I’m definitely hooked and want to find out what will happen to this resourceful kid next.

adamgidwitz.com
Penguin.com/kids

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Review of Leaving Lymon, by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Leaving Lymon

by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Holiday House, 2020. 199 pages.
Review written April 1, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Leaving Lymon is a “companion novel” to Finding Langston, but there’s no need to read one or the other first. In fact, for me having read Finding Langston long enough ago that I remembered it without the exact details ended up confusing me. Since the names “Langston” and “Lymon” are so similar, I wrongly thought for quite awhile that this was telling the backstory of our hero in the earlier book. I was wrong – it’s telling the backstory of the bully in the earlier book.

But aside from my confusion about where I’d seen this kid before, this is a wonderful and emotionally gripping novel about a black kid with a tough family situation growing up in the 1940s.

It starts in 1938 when little Lymon visited his father at Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Lymon didn’t know it at the time, but that farm was really a state penitentiary where the prisoners were rented out to do hard labor.

Lymon’s being raised by Grandpops and Ma (his grandma), and Grandpops encourages his love of music. But when Lymon starts to school, the letters all get mixed up in his head, and Grandpops starts getting sick.

After Grandpops dies in 1942, Lymon and Ma have to move to Milwaukee with Aunt Vera.

School never did get much better after the first day. Nice as Miss Arthur was, she wasn’t Little Leonard or Fuller or even Miss Stokes. Out on the playground, sometimes I joined in with the other boys playing tag or kickball, but when it came time to walk home, seemed like everybody went to one part of town and I went to another. Even though I was never ‘shamed about having a daddy at Parchman, I was ‘shamed now ‘bout Ma and her swolled legs and not having any people in Milwaukee ‘sides her and Aunt Vera’s family. In Vicksburg, it felt like just ‘bout everybody was family. And if they weren’t, they knew the type of people I was from.

In class, I worked on my letters, nice and slow, like Miss Arthur told me, but they didn’t look nothing like the other boys’ letters. Most times, when we finished lessons, I turned over my paper, hoping no one would see I was still writing like a baby. Seemed like I was playing a game of Mother May I? where I took one baby step while everybody else in class took five.

Lymon’s Daddy does get out of Parchman and starts coming around. But he’s a musician chasing gigs and never stays long. So when Ma gets hospitalized with her diabetes, Lymon’s Momma comes from Chicago and takes him back with her. The situation with his stepfather is never good – and that’s how Lymon ends up being a bully to Langston in Chicago.

But this story goes beyond that and what happens to Lymon after he leaves that class. We cheer for Lymon as he discovers more music and gets to a day when he stops being left.

By the time I finished, then I remembered Lymon in the other book – a character I never would have guessed anyone could get me to care about. But Lesa Cline-Ransome pulls it off and gives us a powerful story where we understand all Lymon is up against and become convinced that he’s going to manage to triumph in the end.

HolidayHouse.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 A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting, by Sophie Irwin

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

by Sophie Irwin
read by Eleanor Tomlinson

Penguin Audio, 2022. 9 hours, 40 minutes.
Review written April 4, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

As A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting opens, Kitty Talbot is getting jilted by the man she’s been engaged to for two years. She should have never put it off after her mother died, because now her father is dead, too, and his debts will come due in a few months, and Kitty has four younger sisters to care for. How can a young woman in Regency England pay off exorbitant debts and pay for expenses of four younger sisters? Becoming a governess or a lady’s maid would never pay enough. No, Kitty must find a man in possession of a large fortune to marry. Her former fiance was the only local prospect, so to London she must go.

Now, in Jane Austen’s novels, the fortune-hunting girls were more the villains, with a sympathetic exception of pity for Charlotte Lucas. So it took me about an hour into this audiobook to have sympathy for Kitty. But when she makes a spirited defense of her plans, saying that men could go off to war to find their fortune, is husband hunting any worse? — then she started to win me over. It didn’t take much longer of seeing her resourcefulness and determination to be fully on her side. Though I was pretty sure things wouldn’t turn out quite as she expected at the start.

Kitty goes to London with one of her younger sisters, and tries to get introductions to the men who will have enough money to meet those debts. Although Kitty’s father was a gentleman, her mother was, well, a courtesan. They find a chaperone and a place to stay with one of her mother’s former coworkers, who is posing as a widow and person of quality. Now Kitty must meet young gentlemen of sufficient income and not only win them over, but also win their mothers over.

And her plans go so well at first! Not only does she win the affections of a wealthy second son, she even endears herself to his mother. But when his older brother, Lord Radcliffe, comes to investigate, this brother does a little research and quickly warns her off, if she doesn’t want the entire London social scene to know about her background.

Well, that might have been the end for any other girl. Here’s where Kitty thoroughly won me over, because she doesn’t roll over and go away. She negotiates. Sure, she’ll leave his brother alone, but at the price of some help with her fortune-hunting.

It wasn’t hard to guess where this story was going, but how it got there was absolutely delightful.

The characters in this book are what make it so wonderful. Sure, Kitty’s mercenary, but we soon see it’s all for the sake of her sisters. And her cleverness and determination shine through. It’s a fun new perspective on Jane Austen’s world, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Review of Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry

by Bonnie Garmus
read by Miranda Raison

Random House Audio, 2022. 11 hours, 56 minutes.
Review written April 1, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I’m way behind the trend in finally reading this wildly popular book. The library has so many ecopies, we had to put a cap on it, so occasionally they’ll buy some special two-week-only copies to put a dent in the holds list, and I got in on one of those. I expected a rom-com, but that’s not what I got. This book begins with Madeleine Zott, a precocious 5-year-old girl, saying good-by to her mother, who is going to work to host a cooking show.

The book is about her mother, Elizabeth Zott, and it’s good they warned us she’s going to become a single mother — because right away they go back in time ten years to tell how she got there, and it involves such a beautiful romance that without the foreshadowing, I would have thrown my phone across the room when she became single.

I said in my review of Check and Mate that I’m a sucker for romance where two brilliant people are attracted to each other and come together in part because they appreciate each other’s minds. The romantic part of this book was all about that.

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. Her soulmate Calvin Evans is also a chemist, but in 1950s California, he gets much more recognition for his work than Elizabeth ever does. They both come from difficult childhoods, but Elizabeth also had to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault – and not being quiet about it got her kicked out of a PhD program. She goes on to struggle to get credit – and funding – for her work as a research chemist. And is finally driven to quit. So when she gets an opportunity to host a cooking show, she takes it, because she has to support her daughter.

But in the TV studio, she’s got new biases to fight. She’s in afternoon television making a cooking show for a female audience — but Elizabeth Zott approaches it as lessons in chemistry. She tells the listeners about the chemical bonds being formed and all the chemistry of food and life itself — and ends up becoming wildly popular. Because women like having their intelligence respected. Who knew?

The story is delightful (except I could have done without the sad part) and wonderfully empowering and inspiring. Calvin’s back story that comes out is maybe a little overly convoluted, but it’s all in good fun. Oh, and their dog, Six-Thirty, has much to contribute as well. But the book is a winner because of the dynamic character of Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant woman who stands up for herself and never backs down, even when the odds seem to be impossible. She is constantly underestimated, and that’s always a mistake.

I highly recommend reading this book and meeting the unforgettable Elizabeth Zott.

bonniegarmus.com

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Review of On the Trapline, by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett

On the Trapline

by David A. Robertson
illustrated by Julie Flett

Tundra Books, 2021. 40 pages.
Review written June 30, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s how this picture book, On the Trapline, begins:

I’m on my way up north because Moshom, my grandpa, is taking me to his trapline. I’ve never been there before, and Moshom says he hasn’t been since he was a kid like me. When I look out the window, all I can see are trees and water. The lakes look like blue clouds in a green sky.

“What’s a trapline?” I ask.

“Traplines are where people hunt animals and live off the land,” he says.

When we touch down in the community, Moshom’s old friend is waiting for us.

“Tansi,” he says to Moshom.

“Tansi,” Moshom says to him. Moshom speaks Swampy Cree when he’s around friends.

“Hi,” I say. That’s what tansi means in English.

The story continues from there, with Moshom showing his granddaughter where he lived growing up. They begin with the community where they landed, which is where Moshom’s family lived after they left the trapline. He tells what it was like to attend school there, when they were not allowed to speak Cree, but snuck into the bush to do so.

To get to the trapline, they have to take a boat across a river to a beautiful shore. Moshom tells what it was like living there, too.

Each spread is gentle and beautiful. The pictures have soft, muted tones. The text is simple and lovely. I enjoy lines such as, “The river is wide, but Moshom’s smile is even wider.”

Each spread ends with a word or two in Cree that relates to that page, such as:

K?w?w means “he goes home.”
Natinamak?win means “sharing.”
Ekosani means “thank you.”

This is the story of an elder sharing his story with a new generation, and it’s done with dignity, love, and great respect. I had to read this one a second time and sit with it for a moment before I could go on to other picture books.

penguinrandomhouse.ca

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Review of All the Days Past, All the Days To Come, by Mildred D. Taylor

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come

by Mildred D. Taylor

Viking, 2020. 483 pages.
Review written November 12, 2020, from a library book

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come continues the story of Cassie Logan and her family that Mildred Taylor wrote about in her previous books, including the Newbery winner Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It’s been awhile since I read that one, and that’s the only one of her books I’d read, but she gives enough information so I didn’t feel lost.

This book covers Cassie’s start into adulthood. In fact, I think the only real reason this book is in the YA section is because the earlier books were for kids and teens, and this is the same family. The book has a Prologue in March 1944, and then covers 1945 through 1963. Many members of the family, including Cassie, move to Toledo, Ohio. From there, she spends some years in Los Angeles (I enjoyed that I knew the area that part described much better.) and also in Boston. Throughout the book, they go back to Mississippi where their family has land.

And everywhere they go, throughout the book, they encounter discrimination and segregation. Relentlessly and repeatedly, even in the north. By writing this as a sweeping family story over years, I felt the pain of that more than when it’s simply described to me. They never were able to escape it. The fifties and sixties brought some particular fights, with some victories but also some losses.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and was pulled into the story. At the same time, it was depressing and discouraging. Regarding the incidences of racial discrimination, I think that discouragement shows that the book pulled me into the story. However, I was also disappointed that the author didn’t give Cassie a happier life! She had some terrible losses that seemingly happened at random. And the book doesn’t really come to a place of resolution at the end, simply stopping at a place where their struggle continues.

They’d been fighting voter suppression and do end with an Epilogue about going to the inauguration of Barack Obama. For me as a reader knowing who got elected eight years later, that’s not quite as triumphant as I would wish.

This is a powerful story, and it does stir the reader up about injustices based on skin color. So it’s probably appropriate if it feels a little depressing. I’m also sure that readers who have read the earlier books will be excited to find out how Cassie’s adult life starts out.

penguinrandomhouse.com

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Review of The Weaver and the Witch Queen, by Genevieve Gornachec

The Weaver and the Witch Queen

by Genevieve Gornachec
read by Nina Yndis

Books on Tape, 2023. 16 hours, 26 minutes.
Review written March 9, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

The Weaver and the Witch Queen is a story set in 10th century Norway. The word “Viking” isn’t used, but most of the men make their livelihood going on raids. This story focuses on Gunnhild, an actual historical figure who became one of the most powerful women in Norway. An Author’s Note at the end tells about what the author knew from historical documents (often conflicting) and what she imagined.

The book begins when Gunnhild is a child, the youngest in her family and subject to constant abuse from her mother. But she has two dear friends who are sisters, Oddny and Signy. They swear an oath to always be there for one another. But when a seeress comes through and declares that their fates are tied together in a bad way, Gunnhild sneaks away to be an apprentice of the seeress — with the goal of becoming a powerful woman like she is.

However, twelve years later, Gunnhild is traveling in the “way witches do” in the form of a swallow, and she witnesses a raiding party attacking and destroying the home and family of Oddny and Signy. Oddny escapes, with the help of the swallow that is Gunnhild, but Signy is carried off to be enslaved.

The rest of the book is mostly about Oddny and Gunnhild in their determination to rescue Signy. The first big obstacle is that it’s winter. So they both spend time in the camp of the king’s son and heir Aeric in order to leave as soon as the weather allows them to travel again. Gunnhild hopes to travel to the underworld and learn where Signy has been taken. Oddny hopes to get silver from a man captured from those who raided her family and be able to afford to go after her.

But much happens that winter. Gunnhild is presented with another option for gaining power. Aeric is set to inherit the throne of Norway, but he has gotten that position through violence, murdering his brother at the request of his father because his brother was influenced by witchcraft. But his remaining brother is seeking to destroy Aeric through witchcraft — and the witches in his employ are seeking to destroy Gunnhild and were behind the destruction of Oddny’s home.

Sound complicated? The plot moves along at a gentle pace and it all makes sense, but there’s plenty of drama underneath it all to keep you interested. The method of witchcraft seemed completely plausible, though the author invented it. And Gunnhild’s insecurities about her apprenticeship being interrupted and all the other emotional undercurrents seemed authentic. The narrator Nina Yndis does a wonderful job with the Norwegian names. I also appreciated that there was what we would call a transgender Viking, and his existence and motivations were all handled well. The word “transgender” was never used, but we learn that his father gave him a girl’s name at birth.

In all, this book gives a richly detailed, obviously well-researched world and a wonderful story of a woman claiming power in that world.

genevievegornichec.com

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Review of The Night War, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Night War

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Dial Books for Young Readers, on shelves April 2024. 288 pages.
Review written 2/4/24 from an Advance Readers’ Copy.
Starred Review

A new book from Kimberly Brubaker Bradley! This was one of the first books I read after I finished my Mathical Book Prize committee reading.

This book is set in France during World War II. The Nazis are in Paris, and Miri’s family and entire neighborhood are being rounded up. But her neighbor, Madame Rosenbaum, entrusts Miri with her baby, little Nora, and helps Miri escape. Couriers get her to a convent school in Chenonceaux, by the river that bordered the section of France not occupied by the Nazis.

The castle in town has stories of Catherine de Medici and Diane Poitiers, the women who established the gardens. The castle itself has a ballroom that is a bridge over the river with no other way to free France for miles around. After one of the nuns gets injured, Miri, who now goes by Marie, goes at night to the castle and helps people cross the river. She wants to go herself but she won’t leave without Nora, who has been given to a childless Christian family.

And while this is going on, Marie interacts with the other girls at the school, and she gets to explore the castle. A strange and imperious lady from the castle takes an interest in her and wants her to do the work of the old gardener, who died. As payment, she can bring food from the kitchen garden to the school.

I have always wanted to see the castles of the Loire Valley, so I especially enjoyed this book’s setting. (And a note at the end tells us which parts are true and which parts invented.) Miri is forced to have courage in a terrible situation, and she comes through with flying colors.

kimberlybrubakerbradleycom.wordpress.com
penguin.com/kids

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