Review of A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

A Promised Land

by Barack Obama
read by the Author

Random House Audio, 2020. 29 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written January 20, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Okay, when I heard about this book, I preordered my own copy — and then, with one thing and another, I never did get the big fat book read. So finally, after finishing my Morris Award reading, I placed a hold on the eaudiobook version. I enjoy listening to Barack Obama speak anyway — the president who spoke in full, articulate sentences.

There isn’t anyone out there who doesn’t have an opinion of Barack Obama. If you already hate him, you won’t want to read this book anyway. If you’re a fan, let me encourage you that it’s well worth reading. Let me tell you about what you’ll find here.

Yes, it’s long. It covers from his start in Illinois politics to the point in his first term as president when the Seal Team killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, he goes into great detail — but a lot of that is to give attention to the many people who helped along the way. He gives the stories of probably hundreds of other people he met along the way who influenced his thinking or whose stories touched his heart, as well as the stories and qualifications of many people who worked with him — from the butler at the White House to his chief of staff. He appreciates the people around him and gives them credit for all the ways they helped.

Some ways I appreciate Barack Obama anew after reading this book:

He doesn’t blame others for his mistakes. That was an attitude he tried to build into his White House from the start. He gives others credit for good things, but doesn’t blame others for bad things. Yes, he talks about many situations where he had to give up some things he wanted in order to get bills passed. But he took responsibility for the decisions he made.

He genuinely wants to help people have better lives. I got the same impression from reading Elizabeth Warren’s book and Katie Porter’s book. It’s not something you can fake when you write a whole book. That was exactly why it hurt him to have to compromise to get some bills passed, but ultimately, he wanted to bring some people some help instead of bringing nobody perfect help. It struck me that Ronald Reagan did the whole country a disservice when he mocked the line “I’m from the government; I’m here to help.” Because if government isn’t here to help people, then what is government for? Obama talks about how as a community organizer, he talked with people who were struggling after a factory shut down, or people who weren’t able to pay for the healthcare that would save their lives. And he went into politics because he wanted to be able to do something about the systemic problems that caused that.

He doesn’t take human life lightly. He regularly attended soldiers’ remains being returned. He visited soldiers in the hospital. He agonized over choices as president of whether to send more troops and what steps to take — all because of the price of human lives.

He listened to people. He had his office send him a selection of letters every week. He’d answer them. Some he’d visit. And he can still tell some of those stories today.

I was also reminded just how bad the recession was that Geroge W. Bush left him with. And all the work he did to mitigate its effects. And the worry about H1N1 and how he believes working to protect the nation from that helped them when ebola threatened.
Also, how Obamacare almost didn’t get passed and how glad I am that pre-existing conditions are now covered. He knew the bill as it ended up wasn’t perfect – may we continue to improve it! – but it is so much better than what was in place before.

Okay, there’s lots in this book — 29 hours of it! If the things I like about Obama sound like criticism of his successor — well, yes, the contrast is big and I’m still sad about some of the things that got reversed, but glad for another person of integrity in the White House now. May we elect people who seek to make lives better for the many, and not just to get power for themselves. This book is an eye-opening look at the astonishing amount of work that goes into being president of the United States.

barackobama.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi

by Shannon Chakraborty
read by Lameece Issaq and Amin El Gamal

HarperAudio, 2023. 17 hours.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Oh, I enjoyed this book so much! First, I have to say that it was refreshing to read a book written for adults where the protagonist is fully an adult. Amina Al-Sirafi is a retired pirate captain, but now she lives in a remote location with her mother and her 10-year-old daughter.

But then a rich old lady tracks Amina down and blackmails her into finding the lady’s granddaughter who was kidnapped by a Frank (the Muslim world’s name for Christians in medieval times). Amina suspects it wasn’t exactly a kidnapping, but when she learns the teenage girl is the daughter of her former crewman who died in bad circumstances, Amina feels she should take the job for his sake.

This means rounding up her ship and her crew. And that alone requires swashbuckling adventure, as the man she left her ship with has gotten into a bit of trouble. When Amina realizes magical forces are involved, she tries to back out of the deal, but her daughter’s very life is at stake from the blackmailing schemer.

The rest of the book includes dramatic adventures on the Indian Ocean, with both natural and supernatural dangers. You can see from the cover this includes a sea monster. There are dark magical forces at work, and it turns out that Amina needs to save not only the girl but the world as well. On her team, she has a wonderfully varied crew, each with prodigious skills, and her latest husband even shows up with his own set of magical talents.

Recently a couple of my friends started reading Fourth Wing, and both told me it felt like a Young Adult novel. Both times I answered that they must not have gotten to the sex part yet. With that book, the sexy parts felt like the main reason it was marketed as a book for adults. So I appreciated that in this book, the adventurer herself is a middle-aged (well, maybe 40s) mom. Yes, there’s some mind-blowing sex, but she respects her faith and only has married sex — and she closes the door on the reader when it happens, leaving the details to our imaginations.

The book is steeped in history I’d known nothing about, told from the perspective of a faithful Muslim with a checkered past. The adventures get bigger and more magical as the story goes on. Great fun.

sachakraborty.com

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Review of Ruthless Vows, by Rebecca Ross

Ruthless Vows

by Rebecca Ross
read by Alex Wingfield and Rebecca Norfolk

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2023. 14 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written January 9, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Ruthless Vows is the second half of the duology begun with Divine Rivals, and finishes up the story. If you’ve read Divine Rivals, you’re absolutely going to want to read the next book, so I don’t have to say a whole lot, and don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that Rebecca Ross pulls off a satisfying ending, with the second book bringing us to an even deeper understanding of that world and the two gods who are fighting the war that’s decimating this world.

The biggest thing I loved about the first book was the romance begun in letters between the two main characters with one of them not knowing the other’s identity. I thought unfortunately that couldn’t continue now they’re fully in love. But ha! One of the characters suffers memory loss, so their letter-writing can begin again, still a beautiful romantic connection.

In fact, I was uncomfortable for most of this book because that character with memory loss is being held by the god Dacre. As their memory returns, aided by the letters, I was terrified that they would be caught. So yes, the author keeps the tension strong.

And the war gets close to “home” in this book, with soldiers and bombs closing in on Oath, the city where the story began. As the story progresses, all the characters we’ve come to love begin to figure out what they can do to help innocents and save the city and the people from destruction.

Is that vague enough? I highly recommend this wonderful duology, full of suspense, romance, and heroism. I also recommend listening, because the wonderful British accents of the narrators transport you to this wartime world. Yes, at the library I keep having to order more copies to help our Holds ratio, but I can’t begrudge them because this book is simply that good.

rebeccarossauthor.com

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Review of The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Daré

The Girl with the Louding Voice

by Abi Daré
read by Adjoa Andoh

Penguin Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written January 10, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Oh my goodness, this book was a treat to listen to. In this case, I highly recommend reading the book with the audiobook version, because the story is told by Adunni, a Nigerian girl with a thick accent and some quirky ways of using English. I think it might have been a little hard to follow in print, but Adjoa Andoh read it for me delightfully. She was easy to understand via listening, and I quickly got used to those quirks. For example, a “louding” voice is a voice getting louder and more influential so that other people can hear her.

Adunni has always wanted to be a teacher. She wants to help girls and women find their voices and get a louding voice herself.

But life is not kind to Adunni. As the book opens, at fourteen years old she has had to stop going to school, because her family can’t afford it after the death of her mother. And then her father finds a way to pay the rent — by selling Adunni to be the third wife of a rich old man.

Adunni had heard her father promise her mother that Adunni could stay in school, but he’s breaking that promise. And that’s only the beginning of the troubles Adunni goes through. Something terrible happens in her new household, and she knows she will be blamed, so she has to flee her village. And that doesn’t end her troubles, either.

There were times when the book was almost too sad, but the resilient character of Adunni kept me going, as she kept going. I think it’s fair to tell you as readers not to give up, that it does have a happy ending. (And it would just be unbearable if it didn’t. As it is: Hooray for Adunni!)

Some of the parts I love are when Adunni discovers a dictionary and starts reading the “Collins.” Also, after she finds a book of facts about Nigeria, each chapter opens with one of those facts. It’s that way that Adunni learns about human trafficking and that much of what has been done to her is against the law.

I haven’t been reading many adult books lately because I was on the Morris committee last year, and I’m not sure where I got the recommendation to read this one, but what a delight it is!

abidareauthor.com

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Review of Rough Sleepers, by Tracy Kidder

Rough Sleepers

Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People

by Tracy Kidder
read by the Author

Books on Tape, 2023. 8 hours, 42 minutes.
Review written January 3, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 More Nonfiction

I’ve read a few of Tracy Kidder’s in-depth biographies now: Among Schoolchildren, Strength in What Remains, and Mountains Beyond Mountains. Like those amazing books, this one takes a deep dive into a man who has given his life to helping people who need it.

In this case, we’re looking at Dr. Jim O’Connell, who got drafted into a program of providing medical care for the homeless in Boston after he’d finished his internship. His plan was to simply help out for a year, but the people there and the need pulled him in, and his work has gone on for decades.

Tracy Kidder traveled along with Dr. O’Connell and gives a picture of the day-to-day and night-to-night work he and his organization do. They’ve got a van that goes out to rough sleepers, bringing blankets and cocoa. They’ve got a home where people can go when they’re discharged from the hospital but not yet able to care for themselves. Most of all, the homeless people of Boston have doctors looking out for them, caring for them. I’m honestly a little envious – but at the same time glad that this vulnerable population has people in their corner.

And the portrayal of Jim O’Connell makes him shine like Mr. Rogers — someone who sees people, who cares about his patients. He sees them as wonderful people, looking far beyond their difficult circumstances.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. Many of their patients die, and sleeping rough is still associated with shorter lives. Even efforts to get them housing doesn’t always work because the patients don’t necessarily know how to conduct themselves in that situation. We also get stories of some of the striking characters, with all their complexity, whose lives have been touched by Dr. O’Connell’s work and whose lives in turn touched others.

This doctor shines because he sees the beauty and wonder in vulnerable people and cares for them. This book shines because it helps the reader see that, too.

tracykidder.com

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Review of She Is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran

She Is a Haunting

by Trang Thanh Tran
read by Emi Ray

Bloomsbury, 2023. 9 hours, 41 minutes.
Review written March 30, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Teen Speculative Fiction

Okay, let’s start with some honesty: I did not enjoy listening to this audiobook.

But the reason I listened to the whole thing is that I’m on the Morris Award committee. And the reason I didn’t enjoy it was that I don’t enjoy reading horror, and this book creeped me out. Once I’m done, I have to admit that this book was really well-written. So I’m writing up my thoughts *before* any discussion with the committee to see if I can articulate what was good about it. (I am pretty sure that others in the committee, who actually like horror, will probably find even more things than I do, but I want to be clear that I’m writing this before any discussion, so these are my initial impressions only.) I’ll also say that I listened to this one for the sake of time, but if it is a contender, I’ll be reading it in print form as well. But all this is to say that if you read Sonderbooks because your reading preferences match mine, think twice about this one. It is really well-written, though.

And also to be honest, by the time I was done with it, I’m glad to have read it.

[Note: Yes, this was one of our Finalists, and I read it again in print form. I enjoyed it more the second time, knowing what to expect. And wow, the way she gradually builds the creepiness and dread and works in themes of colonialism… It’s just so good.]

Okay, here’s the set up: Jade Nguyen is in Vietnam for five weeks in a deal to get her long-estranged father to pay for her first year of college.

He left them years ago, and Jade didn’t want anything to do with him. But her mother is working too hard already, and she turned to Ba for tuition money. He used that as leverage to get her to spend time with him in the decrepit French colonial house he’s renovating to be a bed and breakfast. He also requires her to work on the website for the house, along with Florence, the niece of his business partner. Ba wants Jade to be friends with Florence, and she resists, but then when she finds herself attracted thinks that’s one more thing her parents could hold against her. Jade’s sister Lily is there with them, too. Lily is actually happy to be with their father. And their father reveals that his grandmother was once a servant in this very house. Their ancestors planted the hydrangeas that abundantly bloom to this day.

The horror builds gradually. First there are piles of dead bugs in her bedroom and some kind of insect leg in her mouth when she awakes. Then she begins having dreams – and waking up paralyzed, still seeing awful things, unable to move.

Jade meets a white couple who are investing in the house, thrilled about the Frenchwoman who once lived here while her husband was in the army.

That gives Jade a name to the red-haired ghost she’s been seeing. But there’s another ghost, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, who begins sharing her memories with Jade. The Frenchwoman called all Vietnamese people parasites – and parasites are a theme in the house. The Vietnamese ghost warns Jade not to eat anything in the house, but can she really keep the parasites at bay?

I liked that Jade had a reason to stay – she needs the money for college. And when that motivation is not enough, she needs to try to protect her sister. The horror builds gradually and the house becomes harder and harder to escape.

I also liked that themes were naturally built into the story rather than spelled out. For example, once when out doing things with Florence, Jade gets upset with herself that she doesn’t speak fluent Vietnamese. It’s a natural way to show us how she feels torn between the two cultures. This author is good at subtleties like that.

So if you like well-written books and can handle some horror, this book is one you shouldn’t miss. I’m not sure if this book will end up getting honored by our committee, but it’s a strong debut. [Added later: This was one of the earliest books I’d read. At the end of the year, it still stood out.]

Trangthanhtran.com
Bloomsbury.com

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Review of Counting the Cost, by Jill Duggar

Counting the Cost

by Jill Duggar
with Derick Dillard
and Craig Borlase
read by Jill Duggar

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 7 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written December 15, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I have never watched one episode of the shows about the Duggar family. I am the third child from a family of thirteen children, and I knew it would be painful to me to watch a big family’s lifestyle glorified like that. I knew that what cameras saw would not be the same as what day-to-day life is really like.

But when I heard about Amazon Prime’s “Shiny Happy People” documentary series, I dropped everything and watched the series. It took me five blog posts on my Sonderjourneys blog in my “Shiny Happy Childhood” series to process what I saw in that series.

Based on what I saw in the documentaries (which included interviews with Jill), I put this audiobook on hold as soon as I heard about it. This is the story of Jill Duggar, growing up in her filming family and highly involved in the cult that IBLP ended up being. IBLP stands for Institute in Basic Life Principles, and was founded by Bill Gothard, who began by going around the country doing seminars — seminars I attended as a child several times.

This book is Jill’s personal story. I admire the woman she’s grown to be, learning to set boundaries, make her own decisions, protect her own privacy, and stand up for herself in healthy ways.

My reaction to this book will be more about me than it is about her. It’s not often – not often at all – that I get to read a “mirror” book, a book I see myself in. Jill was the fourth child in a big family, taking care of younger siblings from a young age. I was the third child in my big family, and yes, I was changing diapers and tending babies from eight years old on. She was in a conservative Christian family, heavily influenced by Bill Gothard’s teachings. I was in a conservative Christian family, heavily influenced by Bill Gothard’s teachings, but before he got quite so extreme.

First, after listening to this book, I’m so thankful that my parents didn’t ever get to the “Advanced Training Institute” level of following Bill Gothard. Girls were allowed to wear pants in my house, we listened to Christian rock music, attended a private Christian school, and went to a Christian university. I think there was some hope I’d find a nice Christian guy to marry at that Christian college, like my mother had done, and my older sister did, too, and — oh, wait a second, I did meet my ex-husband at that Christian college, though I was much slower than they were, and we didn’t get married until after I finished grad school, which it sounds like wouldn’t have met Bill Gothard’s approval.

My parents did homeschool for a number of years — but they started after I was already in college. I liked the idea of homeschooling in theory — but in practice, I knew that school had been my lifeline. Making friends and learning how “normal people” lived was vital to my growing up years. And when I had kids of my own, we sent them to public school.

I heard of Bill Gothard’s “umbrella of authority” and probably believed it was true, but it wasn’t hammered into me the way it was for Jill. I wasn’t afraid I was opening myself up to Satanic destruction if I displeased my father. (And I was a rule-follower anyway, so how would I have displeased him?) But one part of the teaching as she related it surprised me. I was taught that a girl goes from under her father’s authority to under her husband’s authority. Marriage is all about “Leave and Cleave,” or so I was taught. I thought it was part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, but Jill reported that she was told she was under her father’s authority as long as he lives, and her husband is under his authority, too. So she had an especially difficult time establishing her own home as an adult, with boundaries from television cameras, making decisions against her father’s wishes.

It was interesting to me, though, that my areas of pain from my upbringing were completely different from hers. Now, it sounds like doing the show gave their family more resources to meet the needs of that many children. However, for me, besides having to do without some physical things at times, I felt starved for attention, easily invisible, not really known by my parents. The focus and attention in our family always went most to the newest baby, and the older kids got easily overlooked. I didn’t get the impression Jill felt a lack there.

I do agree with the Duggars that children are a blessing. But I also believe they are people who need to be nurtured. And if you have so many children you don’t have the physical or emotional resources to nurture them all, I think you’re being irresponsible with precious lives.

Now this is a discussion every couple should have on their own. I try not to judge big families, because children are indeed a blessing, after all. But neither should they judge me for having two kids, six and a half years apart, so I had the joy of showering individual attention on each child. Bill Gothard claims to know what’s best for every family — and I believe that’s presumptuous and wrong.

But the topic that hit the hardest when I watched the “Shiny Happy People” documentary (pun intended) was spanking. One whole blog post in my processing was about it. As an adult, I am very much opposed to using violence to control your children. Jill didn’t even mention spanking as an issue, though I know it’s a big part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, and I think there was a clip of her mother describing “blanket training” in the documentary. (Shudder.)

So Jill didn’t include the things I think of as issues from this background. But a lot of her issues sprang from having her growing-up years always on camera. And then being manipulated as an adult to continue to let the filming control her life, without getting paid for it.

I appreciated that Jill finished her book with the things she loves and admires about her parents. She points out that loving someone does not mean you have to be blind to their faults.

I wish Jill and Dereck continued success as they grow and heal and establish boundaries and nurture their own family, following Jesus in the ways he leads them, rather than in the strict set of rules someone else makes up for them. This book made my heart go out to a sister.

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Review of Divine Rivals, by Rebecca Ross

Divine Rivals

by Rebecca Ross
read by Rebecca Norfolk and Alex Wingfield

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2023. 10 hours, 50 minutes.
Review written December 28, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Teen Speculative Fiction
2023 CYBILS Award Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Okay, before I start talking about this awesome book, I need to digress because I was reminded of how much I love stories where a couple falls in love via letters.

The example most people know about is the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” but one of my favorite Young Adult Fantasy novels, Crown Duel, has a similar set-up in a fantasy kingdom. I like this kind of romance so much, I have an unfinished novel fragment where I attempted to retell “You’ve Got Mail”/Pride and Prejudice with the letters happening in a fantasy kingdom by way of a magical diary.

Well, Rebecca Ross pulls off this plot much more effectively, expertly connecting our main characters through letters typed on magical typewriters. Like the other books, we start with an enemies-to-lovers trope. Like the others, the guy knows before the girl whom he’s corresponding with and tries to change that “enemy” perspective, because he’s figured out he’s falling in love with the friend he’s writing to.

And yes, the slow-burn romance is exquisite! I’m convinced that a part of why I love this scenario is that as an INFJ, I dislike small talk, love the written word, and love how with letters you can really get to know people. Iris, our main character in Divine Rivals, mentions that we all clothe ourselves in armor, but with letters, we can take off small pieces of that armor and share our hearts.

Iris has been working in a newspaper office, competing with her rival, Roman Kitt, to win the position of columnist and be able to put away the obituaries for good. But when her mother dies, she misses a deadline and loses the columnist job. Iris decides there’s nothing more for her in the city, and she signs up to become a war correspondent – hoping to find her brother Forrest, who went off to fight for the goddess Enva and promised to write, but never did. Iris had begun her magical correspondence with Roman by typing letters to Forrest and putting them in her wardrobe.

This fantasy world is expertly drawn. Without a slog of back story, we listen to the two characters writing to each other about the god and goddess who woke up after hundreds of years and plunged the human world into war. The war is carried out with the technology of World War I from our world — think trenches and poison gas. Refreshingly, some social factors are not like our world, with Iris encountering two women married to each other and soldiers who are women, and she finds that unremarkable.

A lot of the action takes place at the front. It reads like a historical novel of World War I with our heroes falling in love during wartime.

And, oh, the romance! There’s a meeting of minds before the meeting of hearts and bodies, and that always wins me over. In fact, I’ve had to come to terms with realizing that’s my own private fantasy – to some day fall in love via letters (possibly in electronic form). I’m sure it was being influenced by this book that motivated me the day after I’d finished it to *not* shut down a stranger who slid into my direct messages on Twitter, asking me three times in two days how I was doing. Well, I very quickly saw that was a major mistake. But the fact remains that I have many dear friends in my life, both men and women, whom I have gotten close to through the written word, from letter-writing to my friend who moved away as a kid to emailing now. In this book’s case, it was lovely to enjoy an example where the close friendship built in letters went hand-in-hand with romantic compatibility. I’m well aware that doesn’t always happen, but so much fun to read a story where it does.

Now, a word of caution. The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cliffhanger ending. But there’s where I lucked out! And if you haven’t read this book yet, you too can luck out! You see, the sequel, Ruthless Vows was published two days after I finished reading the book. (And it’s said to be a duology, so the sequel should not have a cliffhanger ending.) Even better, I order books for our public library system. The audio version of the sequel had 49 Notify Me tags in Libby (the ebook had 81), and so of course I ordered it. But my big score was as soon as it got ordered, I went to my own Libby account and checked out a copy! I don’t often take advantage of this insider knowledge, but this time it made me very happy.

And yes, the audiobook version is wonderful, so I’m happy to get to listen to the next book, too. They have British accents and are a delight to the ear. I’m not sure if I will get the sequel finished before 2023 ends, but either way I have no doubt it will be a Sonderbooks Stand-out — either for 2023 or 2024.

I picked up this book because every week since it’s been published, we needed more ecopies at the library because of all the holds. Once I finished reading for the Morris awards, I decided to find out what the fuss was all about. I’m so glad I did!

rebeccarossauthor.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of An Echo in the City, by K. X. Song

An Echo in the City

by K. X. Song
read by Christina Ho and Ewan Chung

Hachette Audio, 2023. 9 hours, 13 minutes.
Review written September 13, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

An Echo in the City surprised me with how powerful it was. We begin in Hong Kong in 2019 with Phoenix, a junior in high school, whose mother is pressuring her to study to retake the SAT so she can get into Yale and leave Hong Kong. Phoenix lived in North Carolina when she was little, but her wealthy family took her back to Hong Kong for the opportunities. With her parents’ recent divorce, she feels like they hardly notice her except to complain about her grades.

But then she starts talking with her goof-off older brother’s new girlfriend Suki, who is involved in the student protest movement. The government had introduced a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, and they feel this would allow anyone to be arrested who did anything China didn’t like – such as protest. Suki’s uncle has run a bookstore for years that sells books banned in China, and he is now on the blacklist.

As Phoenix gets more and more involved in the movement, she meets Kai, a handsome seventeen-year-old who has recently moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai after his mother’s death. What Phoenix doesn’t know is that Kai’s father is a police officer, and Kai has enrolled in the police academy to please him. So Phoenix doesn’t realize that Kai is on the opposite side of what turns out to be more and more like a war.

I appreciated the conflict in this book – it didn’t feel contrived. Each teen has a back story such that their reactions make sense. Their romance is lovely – while you know that there’s going to be conflicting emotions, and are just waiting for Kai to get found out.

I also had known nothing about the student protests in Hong Kong, and hearing about them from both the perspective of a student and the perspective of police was eye-opening.

Both characters grow in this book, with both of them realizing that they need to think about how they want their own lives to go and not just what their parents want for them. A story of star-crossed lovers that also teaches you about recent history.

kxsong.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Labors of Hercules Beal, by Gary D. Schmidt, read by Fred Berman

The Labors of Hercules Beal

by Gary D. Schmidt
read by Fred Berman

Clarion Books, 2023. 8 hours, 17 minutes.
Review written December 13, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I already knew I love Gary Schmidt’s writing. Even knowing that, this one blew me away, touching me to the point of tears in several spots.

This story is told in the voice of a 12-year-old boy. He’s the smallest kid in his class, but insists he’s begun with the “Beal growth spurt.” His name is Hercules Beal. And yes, he’s heard all the jokes about a small kid being named Hercules. He lives in Truro, Maine, which he is convinced is the most beautiful place in the world.

Herc’s parents died in a car accident earlier this year, and his big brother Achilles has come back from his adventuring to care for Herc — and run the Beal Brothers Nursery, which has been in their family since Herc’s great-grandfather and his brother started it. But the school bus route has changed, and they’re not on it, and Achilles isn’t interested in driving Herc to Truro Middle School every day. So Herc will now be walking 22 minutes each day to attend Truro Academy for the Environmental Sciences.

His new home room teacher is a retired marine who insists on being addressed as Lieutenant-Colonel Hupfer. In studying Greek mythology, he has individualized project assignments for the class that are going to take the whole year, with regular progress reports. Herc’s project is to study the Labors of Hercules, figure out how they apply to his life — and find a way to perform them himself.

So this book is about Hercules Beal performing the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Like Lieutenant-Colonel Hupfer says, when you really look for parallels, you’ll find them. It starts out simple — instead of catching the Nemean Lion, Herc clears an abandoned house of feral cats. Many of the feats feel truly Herculean — and Herc learns along the way that he can ask for help.

My only complaint about the book is that the assignment was too big and the labors fit too well — how could the teacher ever have predicted that some of these labors would come to him? And a lot of them seemed like way too big a thing to put on a 12-year-old kid. Though Herc did learn that he was not alone — and some of the touching things about the book were his reflections on what he learned from each labor.

This book is deeply sad, because of Herc’s missing parents. But it’s also funny, quirky, inspiring, and beautiful. Gary Schmidt is great at writing characters who are so distinctive and unique, you don’t doubt for a second they’re fully alive. This book is one to treasure up in your heart.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/labors_of_hercules_beal.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?