Review of The Murder of Mr. Wickham, by Claudia Gray

The Murder of Mr. Wickham

by Claudia Gray

Vintage Books (Penguin Random House), 2022. 386 pages.
Review written June 30, 2022, from my own copy.
Starred Review

A huge thank you to my sister Becky, who sent me this book for my birthday — such a perfect gift!

The Murder of Mr. Wickham is about a house party that brings together characters from all of Jane Austen’s novels. Emma and George Knightley are hosting the party, and they’ve invited Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy, along with their oldest son Jonathan. From Sense and Sensibility, we’ve got newly married Marianne and Colonel Brandon, who it turns out is Emma’s cousin. Much to my delight, it turns out that Catherine Tilney has become a novelist, and her daughter Juliet has been invited to provide another young person. And Hartfield was being rented to tenants Captain Frederick and Anne Wentworth — but a staircase collapsed, so they’ve been invited to join the party. On top of everything, Knightley’s clerical relative Edward Bertram is coming with his wife Fanny.

So we see all these characters we know and love, a varying number of years after their marriages. But then on a dark and stormy night, Mr. Wickham turns up, and it turns out that all the characters gathered there have reasons to hate him, mostly because he’s been investing other people’s money, but for some other dark reasons as well.

So when young Juliet Tilney finds the dead body of Mr. Wickham, it turns out that one of the other guests is probably responsible. Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney are the only ones without a strong motive, and they begin doing a little investigating together. The magistrate, Frank Churchill, seems to be overlooking some evidence, after all.

I found this book completely delightful, and the author even managed to pull off an ending that satisfied me. I loved the look at all these beloved characters as married couples. All of the marriages were having some strain when thrust into this difficult situation — and the specific tension in each marriage was consistent with the characters of the people involved. Claudia Gray really made me believe this is how the futures of these couples might turn out. And it was tremendous fun to read about their interactions.

This is a must-read for all Janeites.

claudiagray.com
vintagebooks.com

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Review of I Am an American, by Martha Brockenbrough with Grace Lin, illustrated by Julia Kuo

I Am an American

The Wong Kim Ark Story

written by Martha Brockenbrough
with Grace Lin
illustrated by Julia Kuo

Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 36 pages.
Review written January 14, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This nonfiction picture book simply and clearly explains an important case in the history of American immigration and citizenship.

I like the way it begins, showing a loving mother holding her son:

Long ago, a boy was born in an apartment above a shop in San Francisco.

His name was Wong Kim Ark — and he believed something that would change this country.

I am an American.

The book tells about the neighborhood in Chinatown where he lived and shows the boy growing up. It shows the community prospering. But then when hard times hit, many blamed the Chinese and laws were passed that Chinese people could not become citizens.

But Kim Ark was born in America and considered himself an American. His parents moved back to China, but the first time Kim Ark had ever been to China was when he visited them. Only seventeen, he went back to California and lived with his aunt and uncle, working as a cook.

Laws got stricter. He wanted to visit his parents again. To follow the law, he found three white witnesses to sign a document swearing he was born in California and was an American. But when he returned, authorities locked him up on a ship for more than four months. Friends had to file a lawsuit to win his freedom — and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The book makes this decision interesting and talks about both sides of the argument — with a happy result. The last page of the main text shows children of many different skin tones running toward the viewer with the Golden Gate Bridge behind them.

But Kim Ark’s victory means that today, every child born in the United States and its territories is an American, too…
no matter what language your parents speak,
what you look like,
or what you believe about God.

If you’re born in the United States or its territories, you belong here, and it’s your right to call yourself American.
It’s your right to call this home.
Always.

This is a lovely presentation of a complicated topic, presented in an engaging way for children.

marthabrockenbrough.com
gracelin.com
juliakuo.com

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Review of A Thousand Sisters, by Elizabeth Wein

A Thousand Sisters

The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

by Elizabeth Wein

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2019. 388 pages.
Review written March 18, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Did you know – I certainly didn’t – that during World War II (called “The Great Patriotic War” there), the Soviet Union had three entire Air Force regiments of women? This book tells their story.

Here’s part of the Prologue that tells what you’ll find here:

It’s the story of three regiments of aviators, only three out of a thousand aviation units fighting for a common cause. Along with a scattering of individual women who served in the Soviet Air Force alongside men, the young aviators in these three regiments were the only women of any nation who flew combat missions during World War II.

Some of these soldiers flew as many as eighteen combat missions in a single night.

Some of them perished in flames.

Some of them worked in the dark, feeling their way blindly, in cold so fierce their hands froze to the metal tools they held as they made sure their companions were able to fly.

Almost all of them were in their teens when they went to war.

This is the story of a generation of girls who were raised in the belief that they were as good as men, and who were raised to believe that it was their destiny to defend their nation in battle.

It’s the story of a thousand young women who grew up inspired by Marina Raskova and who were ready to follow her into the air.

It’s the story of a generation of young people who learned to work with the wind – those who soared and those who came back to earth.

This is the story of a thousand sisters fighting and flying.

This is an exciting story, though it was also a little bit bewildering. In the first place, I had a hard time keeping straight the various Russian names. The author did a good job helping by often using nicknames, but there were a lot of people to keep track of. There were many exciting and dangerous situations during the course of the war, and many of the most prominent characters died before the end of the book.

I even had trouble keeping track of the difference between the three regiments and which women were in which regiment. One regiment flew Pe-2s and another flew Po-2s, which kind of melded in my mind. It was good to give the overall picture of how the war was going, and I think the author actually did a good job explaining the differences, but the scope was so grand, I’d start to lose track.

Still, I was very surprised by how much Soviet women did during World War II – and saddened that they stopped getting chances to fly afterward. This book is full of death-defying situations and incredible hardships that these women overcame. I’ve read a lot about World War II, but I never had any idea about these stories.

The scope is grand and it is hard to grasp it all, but I still think the author did a wonderful job making the information accessible. Maybe a list of characters at the front would have helped, or more pictures of individuals. (Spoiler: The three on the cover all die before the end!) My problem may actually have been that I read it too quickly, during a day on Sick Leave during the Covid-19 crisis. I may not have been paying enough attention, because she did explain well at the beginning the differences between the three regiments and did keep mentioning which regiment she was talking about.

An epic war story – about women who fought for their country, and fought well.

elizabethwein.com

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Review of This Is a School, by John Schu, illustrations by Veronica Miller Jamison

This Is a School

words by John Schu
illustrations by Veronica Miller Jamison

Candlewick Press, 2022. 36 pages.
Review written April 20, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

A disclaimer here is that I know the author from his work with ALSC, the Association for Library Services to Children, when we were on a committee together. He’s been working with children and children’s books for a long time, and this book reflects that.

This picture book is simple and lovely and reassuring. Here’s how it begins:

This is a kid.

This is a kid in a class. This is a class in a hall.

This is a hall in a school —

WELCOME!

It goes on with many things that happen in a school, with pictures of all kinds of kids interacting with others. There’s diversity in both ethnicity and abilities.

I love this page:

This is a community, growing.

The pages show kids celebrating, playing, learning, reading, performing, and more.

There’s a spread with a little girl putting a fishbowl on top of library shelves. It slips and the fishbowl breaks, so they need to clean up and find a new home for the fish. That’s portrayed in pictures, and the text says:

Some days we do the right thing . . . and some days we definitely don’t.

We fail.
We try.
We learn.
We trust.

The entire book would be wonderful to read to a new elementary school classroom as the year begins, picturing a group of people in community together.

I do love the way the school library is featured. And in the summing up at the end, librarians are listed first.

This is our class. This is our school:
librarians and coaches, helpers and staff,
principals and teachers, kids and friends.

And we are all important.

It’s not a flashy book, but it conveys a truly important message.

JohnSchu.com
veronicajamisonart.com
candlewick.com

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Review of Conversations with People Who Hate Me, by Dylan Marron

Conversations with People Who Hate Me

12 Things I Learned from Talking to Internet Strangers

by Dylan Marron

Atria Books, 2022. 257 pages.
Review written June 15, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I am so impressed with this book and so inspired by it.

As it happens, the morning before I picked this up, my pastor had preached about empathy. He said that when we interact with people we disagree with on the internet, we tend to look at them at a distance, through binoculars, focusing on our broad differences. But empathy comes close and sees people as individuals, in all their humanity and particularities.

The amazing thing Dylan Marron has done is achieved empathy even on the internet.

I was excited about this book because I enjoyed Dylan’s videos for Seriously.TV a few years ago. He’s a gay person of color, and made wonderful points from a progressive perspective, and I was onboard and cheering for his side of the debate.

But he, amazingly, brought things beyond debate to empathy. As you may guess, the videos that I liked so much had plenty of people who felt the opposite and told him so in no uncertain terms. But Dylan explains in this book that since the videos were posted on Facebook, he was able to look at the commenters’ Facebook pages and find out these were humans saying harsh things, not monsters.

And that started a project that became a podcast, “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” He found detractors who said harsh things (though ruled out the death threats) and engaged them in conversation. Found out about who they were as people. It wasn’t about debate, but was about empathy, about seeing people with different opinions as humans worthy of respect.

Dylan tells that story in his book, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. I’m not sure I could do it. Dylan does point out that he’s coming from a place of privilege, and some people are so abused, it’s too much emotional work to try to have empathy for their abusers. But I’m coming from a place of privilege, too, and I simply have a hard time looking past opinions I think are despicable. I easily forget that they are humans who hold those opinions for reasons. And Dylan Marron inspired me to try, showed me that it’s not impossible, and has given me an amazing example of human kindness.

He didn’t necessarily change minds with these conversations. And that wasn’t the point. But he did achieve the goal of the participants in the conversations seeing each other as fellow humans, and not as enemies.

The book does outline lessons he learned and things he noticed along the way. There are many obstacles to finding empathy, and he didn’t always make it past those obstacles. But there’s so much beauty in the attempt.

It all goes back to what my pastor talked about — empathy. One of the lessons that Dylan learned is that empathy is not endorsement. He still disagrees with many of the people he interacted with. But he sees them and knows human details about them and thinks of them as friends. And that’s amazing to me — and I want to learn to do it myself.

In his last chapter, he discusses how “snowflakes” make a good metaphor for his guests, in all their unique individuality.

And just as snowflakes are breathtakingly beautiful up close, my guests are breathtakingly beautiful up close, too. From the moment they first say “Hello” I am able to appreciate them as individuals and it is at this close range — voice to voice — that it becomes clear that they aren’t my enemies at all, no matter how vehemently we may disagree. Hearing Josh’s laugh, or Frank’s accent, or learning the tiny detail that E was applying for jobs around the time of our call, allowed me to see them as human, and this opened the door for empathy. And as I walked through that door, my fear dissipated.

I highly recommend this book, partly for the reasons Dylan Marron writes in the final paragraph:

One conversation will not heal the world. Empathy alone will not cure what ails us. Inspiring words will not protect us from harm. But in an era when we feel increasingly isolated, when we speak to each other on platforms that divide us by rewarding competition over connection, conversation is a tiny, enormous, mundane, epic, boring, thrilling, simple, complex act of rebellion that builds a bridge where there wasn’t one before.

simonandschuster.com

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Review of Different Kinds of Fruit, by Kyle Lukoff

Different Kinds of Fruit

by Kyle Lukoff

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2022. 313 pages.
Review written June 10, 2022, from my own copy, sent by the publisher
Starred Review

Kyle Lukoff won the Stonewall Award and Newbery Honor with his last book, Too Bright to See. Different Kinds of Fruit is another book exploring issues about gender in the lives of kids, and it does it with a happy and engaging story.

Annabelle has gone to school at the Lab all her life, so when they get a new teacher and a new student on the first day of sixth grade, she knows it’s going to be a different year than what she expected.

The new kid is named Bailey and explains that they are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. But when Annabelle tells her parents, she’s surprised by her father’s reaction. Making friends with Bailey opens up discussion in her family and she learns family secrets that had been hidden from her.

Meanwhile, the new teacher gets the class excited about the topics they can explore — until one parent reports them and the principal squelches their plans. Can the kids find a way to stand up for what they want to learn?

The story doesn’t feel like an issue book, even though issues, very timely ones, do come up. I like the portrayal of Annabelle’s growing friendship with Bailey and Annabelle’s questions about herself when she realizes she’s got a crush on Bailey.

The characters in this book are interesting people, with lots more depth than the way they might be categorized by gender or whom they’re attracted to.

For example, when Annabelle goes over to Bailey’s house, she’s interested in some posters on her walls.

I was curious about the plant poster, and walked over to examine it more closely. “What is this?” I asked. “A flowchart or something?”

“Oh! There’s a whole series of these. Each poster is about a different taxonomy. Taxonomy is, like, groups of things, and how they’re organized. This one is about different kinds of fruit.”

I peered at it. Cucumbers and pumpkins and eggplants and avocados, all connected by lines and arrows. “Uh, no it’s not?” I said. “I mean, yeah, those are fruit up there” — I pointed to the top, where there were apples and oranges and bananas — “but the rest of these are vegetables! And those helicopter seeds aren’t fruits either.”

Bailey grinned wickedly. “I have news for you, my binary friend!” They dropped teir voice like they were about to utter a revealing truth of the universe. “There is no. Such. Thing. As a vegetable.”

I squinted at the chart, and then at them, and then back at the chart. “Yes there is! What are carrots, then? I don’t see those here.”

“Carrots are roots.”

“Okay, kale?”

“Leaves.”

“Artichokes? I mean, they’re gross, but those are definitely vegetables.”

“Wrong on both counts! Artichokes are delicious and flowers.”

“Flowers??”

“Yup. Broccoli and cauliflower and figs are all flowers too. ‘Vegetable’ is a made-up category.”

That didn’t make any sense. “If vegetables are made up, then why aren’t fruits?”

“Because they’re not!” Bailey looked triumphant, like this was a hill they would gladly die on. “‘Fruit’ is a job. It describes the part of the plant that distributes the seeds. Apples and oranges are fruits because they have seeds. So are pumpkins and cucumbers! And tomatoes. And those helicopter seeds. And berries. As a matter of fact, everything I named is a type of berry.”

“But ‘vegetable’ isn’t a job?” I wracked my brain to come up with something that all vegetables had in common, but I couldn’t. Except that they’re good for you.

“Nope! Leaves are a job and roots are a job and flowers are a job. ‘Vegetable’ is something people made up to sell salad mix.'”

This story has so much heart and is so much fun. On top of that, it gets you thinking about different kinds of people and what they all have in common. A joyful story that explores gender roles and the fakeness of vegetables.

penguin.com/kids

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Review of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 7 hours and 29 minutes.
Review written February 12, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2013 Pura Belpré Author Award Winner
2013 Stonewall Book Award Winner
2013 Lambda Literary Award Winner
2013 Printz Honor Book

I got to hear Benjamin Alire Sáenz give his Printz Honor acceptance speech in 2013, and that speech made me very much want to read this book. I finally got around to it after a sequel came out in 2021 – and the same day I finished listening to this, I began listening to the sequel. I am so glad to finally read this marvelous book.

It’s a friendship story about two Mexican American boys. They meet at the start of summer before their sophomore year of high school at different high schools in El Paso, Texas, and have a laugh over their similar names. Ari is the narrator of the book, a boy who spends a lot of time in his own head – which makes him a good narrator. Dante is an open-hearted boy full of philosophical questions and free with his emotions – the sort of boy who’d try to rescue a bird with a broken wing in the middle of the street.

But when Dante does that on a rainy day and a car comes around the bend, without thinking, Ari runs and pushes Dante out of the way – at the risk of his own life. There are some other crises in the book, and lots of thinking about life and what things mean. Ari has a brother twelve years older who is in prison, and his family never talks about that brother.

I knew from the Printz acceptance speech that this is also a book about coming out as gay and figuring out who you are. But that takes up most of the book, so I won’t say a lot about that – except it is heart-wrenching and feels true. The book is set in the late 1980s, and they’re up against harsh attitudes in the world around them, many of which are internalized.

Something I love about this book are the two sets of parents, both of whom are wonderfully drawn and love their sons with all their hearts. It’s refreshing to read a book about teens with loving and supportive parents. Ari’s dad is dealing with post-traumatic stress from his time in Viet Nam, but that makes him human and real, not irreparably scarred.

In fact, that’s what’s so wonderful about this book – all the characters feel true. Nobody’s perfect, and they’ve got flaws consistent with their strengths. I found myself wanting to hug these two boys.

And it’s narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda! He didn’t do a tremendous job distinguishing between the voices of the different characters, though I find I’m picking up on subtle differences a little more by the time I’ve started the second book. But in spite of that tiny quibble, I could listen to Lin Manuel Miranda read anything. When it’s a wonderful book he’s reading, it simply added to my love. Of the book!

benjaminsaenz.com/

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Review of Blips on a Screen, by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Blips on a Screen

How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession

written by Kate Hannigan
illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 44 pages.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library book.
Starred Review

Here’s a picture book biography of the guy who invented the first video game. I think of creating video games as something for people who are good with computers, but Ralph Baer came at it from the perspective of someone skilled in electronics and understanding how televisions work. And of course that makes sense, because video games came along before home computers.

Rolf Baer was born in Germany, but his family fled from Hitler and the Nazis in 1938 a few weeks before the border closed. In America, he changed his name to Ralph.

Ralph was always interested in inventing. He worked in radio repair and used his radio skills during World War II. From there, it was a natural next step to work on televisions. He worked for military electronics, but couldn’t get over the idea of figuring out how to play games on a TV.

The book tells about the process he went through, which included getting a patent, so his company was able to license his new invention when the boom took off. But before that happened, he got plenty of rejection for his idea. But after the Odyssey finally came out in 1972, it began a new obsession with video games.

The book makes the process understandable and accessible to kids. I always love Zachariah OHora’s illustrations, and his cartoons give a simplified picture of the essentials of this story.

This book tells about an inventor who created something important to kids and it also talks about the process of getting an invention produced — in a fascinating and informative picture book.

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Review of The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List

by Sara Nisha Adams
read by Tara Divina, Sagar Arya, and Paul Panting

HarperAudio, 2021. 12 hours, 47 minutes.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This book is about a handwritten reading list that several people find in different surprising places in Wembley, a suburb of London. And then how reading those books changes people’s lives.

The two central characters who get most of the book’s time are Aleisha, a 17-year-old who’s working at the library as a summer job, and Mukesh, an elderly Indian gentleman who lost his wife two years before. Aleisha has her own pressures as she and her older brother are trying to care for their mother, who keeps the house dark and rarely leaves her bed. Aleisha’s planning to head to university and study to be a lawyer when the summer is over.

The first time Mukesh comes to the library, he encounters Aleisha, who has no recommendations for him and is quite rude. But Aleisha feels guilty, so when she finds the Reading List, she decides to read the books and then pass them on to Mukesh. Both their lives are profoundly touched.

I love the way this book highlights how a good book can affect you so deeply. Books can give you insights into your own life and even help build relationships. Besides Mukesh and Aleisha, Mukesh also gains new ground with his granddaughter through books.

I’ve read and loved all but three of the books on the list. Here are the books:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
The Kite Runner, by Kaled Hosseini
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

The book The Time Traveler’s Wife is also featured.

The three I haven’t read are The Kite Runner, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. Now I want to go out and read those three if they’re anything as good as the others.

I did laugh that my favorite on the list – Pride and Prejudice – was the least favorite of the characters in the book. Oh well! At least it got included.

So it was all a wonderful story. I particularly loved the narrator who read Mukesh’s chapters. I felt like the character was talking with me and this kind elderly widower won my heart.

I did have some things that bothered me a lot about their portrayal of a library. Maybe things are different in the U.K., but I’m not really convinced they are.

First, a student working in the library for the summer is not called a librarian. A librarian is someone with a master’s degree in library science. Although a customer might mistakenly call such a person a librarian, the workers would not perpetuate that mistake.

Next, this poor hardly-occupied library needed library outsiders – Mukesh and Aleisha – to come up with an idea to “save” it – by having a program! A program where the community gets together. That’s all well and good and they had a very nice reason for it. But come on, is the author aware that most libraries have a full schedule of programs to engage their communities? It’s not actually a novel idea.

I did think it was interesting that while they talked about a few regulars, that particular library didn’t have any patrons experiencing homelessness. Maybe that’s not a problem in England? Of course, the library in the book was much, much less frequented than the one where I work. We get more than 800 customers on a typical day. I know there are libraries that don’t get so many, but the portrayal – in a book reminding us how reading can change lives – made me wince a little bit.

I also really wondered how the books on the list were chosen. It was interesting that there was only one children’s book – Little Women – and it’s a very old children’s book, set in 1860s America. But that of course got me thinking: If I were to make a list of my favorite books, books that had power to move people deeply and affect their lives and relationships, which books would I choose?

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Review of Mina, by Matthew Forsythe

Mina

by Matthew Forsythe

Paula Wiseman Books (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), 2022. 64 pages.
Review written May 20, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This picture book made me laugh out loud in several places.

Mina is a little mouse who loves to read. She’s always pictured with her head in a book or using art supplies. She lives with her father in a piece of wood in the forest.

On the first page, we’re introduced to her this way:

Mina lived in her own little world where nothing ever bothered her.

Except one thing.

We’re told that one thing is not her father, even though you’d think his ambitious projects would disturb her concentration. But no, we always see Mina lost in her book, doing her own thing.

However, Mina started to worry when her father brought home a big surprise. He says it’s a squirrel, since squirrels are bigger than mice and have long, bushy tails. But the reader can see what the mice don’t understand — the animal her father brought home is a cat.

Mina’s father keeps telling her not to worry. He knits a sweater for the squirrel. When the squirrel doesn’t eat and he thinks it might be lonely, he finds it two more friends.

How does this situation resolve? I’m not going to give it away, because it’s way too much fun to read yourself. I can confidently promise that you’re going to be surprised.

This is one I’ll be urging my coworkers to take a few minutes and read. Please do that yourself! I guarantee it will bring a smile.

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