Review of Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

throne_of_jadeThrone of Jade

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, 2007. 10 CDs, 11 hours, 44 minutes.
Starred Review

Throne of Jade is the second book about Temeraire, the dragon who fought with England against Napoleon’s forces in this delightful alternate history. In the earlier book, His Majesty’s Dragon, navy Captain Will Laurence captured a dragon’s egg from a French ship, and became that dragon’s companion in the Aerial Corps.

After the events of the first book, the world learns that Temeraire’s egg was meant for Napoleon, for he is of a lineage that the Chinese only allow in the company of emperors or an emperor’s family. At the outset of Throne of Jade, a Chinese envoy has come, indignant that Temeraire is treated as the pet of a common sea captain, intending to persuade England to send Temeraire back to China.

Negotiations are difficult, and England desperately wants trade to China kept free. Temeraire will not leave Laurence, and Laurence is willing to face hanging rather than trick him into leaving. So Temeraire and Laurence face a long sea voyage to China, encountering dangers and intrigue along the way. When they arrive in China, they see a country where dragons live almost as equals with humans, studying and learning as much as fighting. Will Temeraire be won over and decide to stay?

These books are intriguing as they reveal “facts” about the lives of dragons, which seem so realistic, you quickly forget that they didn’t actually have dragons in those days. The characters are compelling, and you find yourself indignant with Laurence at the slight to his honour of even suggesting that he would lie to Temeraire. As before, the book reminded me of a Patrick O’Brien book, only with dragons — which I somehow find much more exciting.

My plan was to listen to a different audiobook before I go on to the next book in Naomi Novik’s series. (There are five.) However, I find I can’t stand the wait! When I learned that our library had a copy of the next audiobook, Black Powder War on the shelves, I immediately checked it out and will start listening the next time I enter my car. I first chose to listen to this book because I couldn’t quite get around to reading it, but now I can’t bring myself to “read” it any other way. I have grown fond of the characters as portrayed by the voice of Simon Vance, and don’t want to miss out on that variety by reading it to myself and hearing only the voices my own mind can conjure up.

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Review of Grandfather’s Dance, by Patricia MacLachlan

grandfathers_danceGrandfather’s Dance

by Patricia MacLachlan

Joanna Cotler Books (HarperCollins), 2006. 84 pages.
Starred Review

I love Patricia MacLachlan’s gentle stories of the Witting family. With simple language, easy for a child first starting chapter books to read, she conveys worlds of emotion and describes the complex bonds of a family.

Anna, who was once the child narrator telling the story of Sarah, Plain and Tall, is now grown up and getting married. Her young half-sister Cassie tells the story of the family coming together to celebrate.

Her little brother Jack is full of toddler quirks and funny expressions and has a special relationship with Grandfather, who is feeling old these days. Cassie wonders about weddings and watches the family come together, with the Aunts arriving from Maine. Papa buys a car, which delights them.

Hmm. When I describe the simple events that happen, it doesn’t begin to convey the worlds of emotion that Patricia MacLachlan pours into them.

This is another beautiful installment in a delightful series of historical chapter books. If you haven’t read them yet, begin with Sarah, Plain and Tall, and go on to Skylark, Caleb’s Story, and More Perfect Than the Moon. If you have read any of the earlier books, you won’t need me to persuade you to pick up this newest installment. Although they are simple enough for children beginning to read chapter books on their own, they are profound enough for adults.

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Review of Left to Tell, by Immaculee Ilibagiza

left_to_tellLeft to Tell

Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

by Immaculee Ilibagiza
with Steve Erwin

Hay House, Carlsbad, California, 2006. 215 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Nonfiction: True Stories

Left to Tell is an incredible book and tells an amazing story. Immaculee Ilibagiza survived the Rwandan holocaust by hiding in a tiny bathroom with seven other women. What’s more, they had to be absolutely quiet, and were often able to hear killers describing what they had done in exterminating “cockroaches,” even someone describing with glee how her own brother had died horribly.

You would think that a book that even mentions such horrors would be tremendously depressing. Instead, reading this book uplifted and inspired me.

You see, Immaculee, with God’s help, has been able to forgive the people who killed her family and devastated her country. The fiery trial has made her truly beautiful, and even her book radiates this beautiful, loving, and forgiving spirit.

I do appreciate that she never pretends the forgiveness came easily. She describes when they first went into hiding, how there seemed to be a constant negative voice saying they’d be found, they’d be killed. Later on, after she thought she was done forgiving, all the waves of anger and hatred came back when she saw her destroyed family home and her brother’s mutilated remains.

But Immaculee learned the power of prayer in combating those feelings and those voices of discouragement and hatred. Since she couldn’t speak to the other women, Immaculee spent most of the three months in the bathroom praying. Is it any wonder she grew to feel close to God?

And there were miracles of protection and comfort. A time when killers were specifically looking for her, on the other side of the door, she was given a vision of protection and saw a glowing cross standing in front of that door. And the killers never found her.

I’ve read many books on forgiveness since my husband left me. But books about the theories of forgiveness, although helpful, can’t begin to hold the power of this book showing practical forgiveness in action. The horrors perpetuated against Immaculee’s family and nation were astronomically beyond any wrongs I have ever suffered. After reading this book, those wrongs seem utterly inconsequential. If Immaculee can, by God’s power, forgive such horrors, and by doing so become a radiantly beautiful person, then surely I can forgive such tiny wrongs as have been done against me. And I do believe that such forgiveness will make me a tiny bit more beautiful.

The message I got from this book is how forgiveness is always worth it, no matter how difficult. I am so glad I read this radiant and inspiring story.

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Review of Read It, Don’t Eat It, by Ian Schoenherr

read_it_dont_eat_itRead It, Don’t Eat It!

by Ian Schoenherr

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2009. 32 pages.

Ah, at last! With this simple book, I’ve found a delightful and fun way to talk with preschool kids on library tours how to treat books in the library. This book will be perfect! It gives the message in a quick and entertaining way.

The message is simple: Treat books nicely. For example:

“Don’t overdue it,
just renew it.
(Really, now, there’s nothing to it.)
Leave no trace
(or at least erase).
Don’t censor, delete, or deface.
It’s not a platter, or a stool.
Be careful with it at the pool.”

Of course, with the words alone, it wouldn’t be such a gem. The pictures make the book, with fuzzy round big-eyed animals doing outrageous things to library books, and one bear in particular trying to help them stop.

Kids seeing the book will definitely want to side with the nice bear and, like him, take to heart the message at the end:

“Share with a friend, a sister, a brother.
Now go out and get another.”

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Review of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves, by M. T. Anderson

kingdom_on_the_wavesThe Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Traitor to the Nation
Volume II
The Kingdom on the Waves

by M. T. Anderson
Read by Peter Francis James

Books on Tape, 2008. 11 CDs, 13 hours, 25 minutes.
Starred Review

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a two-volume work. You shouldn’t read the first volume without reading the second, and you definitely shouldn’t read the second volume without reading the first.

The first volume was set just before the start of the American Revolution. Octavian is a slave in Boston who is brought up in an experiment to see if someone of the Negro race can benefit from a scholarly education.

Octavian does benefit, and his scholarly voice is heard throughout the books.

In The Kingdom on the Waves, Octavian goes to fight for the British, since they have offered freedom to all slaves who fight on their side. This gripping tale has him in battles, facing the Yankee enemy, but also small pox and the danger of being captured and put back into slavery.

Octavian makes new friends in the company of freed slaves, and tells their stories, too. The story of how his old friend Bono escaped and got his exquisite revenge had me laughing out loud. I wanted to share the story with someone, it was so excellent — but it had been set up with the entire earlier volume, so I had to be content with chuckling over it myself.

This book is definitely NOT cheery reading. At one point, I had to look at the print copy and check the last page to make sure Octavian and his friends don’t all die at the end or go back into slavery. Come on, I knew they were on the losing side of the war, and it seemed like every terrible event that could happen was hitting them along the way. I had to know the ending was happy, or I just couldn’t handle it!

All the same, this book is a masterpiece. M. T. Anderson opened my eyes to a part of our country’s history as I never imagined it. He clearly did exhaustive research to make the writing authentic, and with Octavian’s cultured, well-educated voice, wrenches your emotions to care about these people and helps you understand what things must have been like.

The characters are distinct and are portrayed with appropriate voices by Peter Francis James, making the audiobook easy to follow even when the story is on such an epic scale. I admit I’m not sure I would have gotten through the book in print form, as I’ve gotten too much in the habit of quickly reading lighter fare. Almost anything I read is lighter than this, but I felt like I was learning much about history as I listened, and I definitely wanted to know what would happen to the characters. And the beauty of a longer commute is that I don’t begrudge a longer book when I’m listening in the car anyway.

A magnificent and eye-opening conclusion to a compelling story.

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Review of The Lincolns, by Candace Fleming

lincolnsThe Lincolns

A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary

by Candace Fleming

Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House), New York, 2008. 181 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Children’s Nonfiction

Candace Fleming’s scrapbook biographies are truly amazing. I reviewed her similar book Ben Franklin’s Almanac back in 2004. This newer book, The Lincolns is equally complete and enlightening.

Instead of just telling us about Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Candace Fleming has brought together photographs, letters, news articles, and things written about them by their contemporaries. It does take time and attention to get through this book, but it is never boring, and you will feel like you have special insight into the great man and his volatile but much-loved wife by the time you are done.

Clearly Candace Fleming put in tremendous amounts of time and research to produce this exceptional book. She has produced a wonderful resource, not merely for children doing reports, but for anyone wanting to know more about the Lincolns and the Civil War.

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Review of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama

marriage_bureauThe Marriage Bureau for Rich People

by Farahad Zama

Amy Einhorn Books (Putnam’s), 2009. 293 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #7 Fiction

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is one I will be recommending to many, many library patrons as a pleasant, light-hearted read that will lift your spirits. It also gives you a taste of life in India.

Mr. Ali needs something to do after retirement. His wife tells him,

“After retiring, you’ve been like an unemployed barber who shaves his cat for want of anything better to do. Let’s hope that from today you will be a bit busier and I get some peace.”

Mr. Ali has decided to open a Marriage Bureau for Rich People. And in fact, he gets so much business he can’t handle it all himself. He deals with Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, and people of different castes. Sometimes parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles seek his services for their relatives, and sometimes the prospective matches come themselves. He learns much about human nature and has many insights on what leads to happiness.

Mrs. Ali finds her husband an assistant, Aruna, to help with the work load. Aruna has her own sad story, since her father’s recent illness strapped the family finances and destroyed her marriage prospects.

The book tells stories of some of the people they successfully match up, and some with whom they are not so lucky. Through it all, we hear about the Alis’ conflicts with their own son, who is involved in political protests, as well as Aruna’s difficulties. Fortunately, events take a happy turn.

This book introduces you to delightful people, tells interesting stories about them, and gives you a taste of India. Thinking about it still makes me smile. In some ways, this reminded me of The Number One Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith — the same pleasant tone, and the same basic idea: friendly main characters interacting with a wide variety of people, with insights on human nature given along the way. Both give a taste of the country where they are set, with The Marriage Bureau for Rich People in India, instead of Botswana.

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Review of Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, by SARK

juicy_pensJuicy Pens, Thirsty Paper

Gifting the World with Your Words and Stories and Creating the Time and Energy to Actually Do It


Three Rivers Press, New York, 2008. 187 pages.
Starred review.

Here’s a lovely, inspiring, exuberant book of encouragement for writers. Handwritten in a rainbow of colors, SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) knows exactly what to say to encourage writers to actually put pen to paper.

Here are some examples, which you must imagine in her bright and beautiful handwriting:

“Most of all, I write because of the joy it creates. Writing creates connections and magic and certain kinds of permanent bliss. I can write myself in and out of moods and experiences, and create new places to live in my mind. It’s kind of like pole vaulting with a pen.”

“Last night I ate a lot of ice cream after dinner and then didn’t get much sleep from the caffeine in the chocolate. I could blame not writing on that too.

“Who can I blame for blaming?”

“I’ve learned that literally anything can be used as a reason ‘not to write’ and that these choices are mostly habitual and fear-based and can be changed.”

“We forget that writing is fun and rewarding, or become convinced that it isn’t and load it up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t or don’t do it. We actually think so much about why we aren’t writing, that we forget how to use our energy to actually write.

“This book will remind you.”

“I think of being human as a kind of writing incubator. You are your own hatching station.”

“Reading is most often a source of great joy, which fills wells, cells and provides fuel for our imagination.”

“There is no right or good time to write. There are always days that will be easier or more perplexing than others, but really it’s all just hilarious practicing. I call it hilarious because it’s subject to what life gives and brings us, and that is just so funny and variable.

“If you take time to write every day, it will move like a river or the ocean. I appreciate but do not depend on the moments of days or even days where writing flows smoothly. Sometimes it is stagnant, then rushing, perhaps dripping for long stretches of time.”

“Now I hilariously practice writing daily, and generally like how it feels. I’ve surrendered to being a writer (one who writes) and living that way. Now it’s your turn too! Get yourself a big juicy pen and some thirsty paper.”

The book isn’t only inspiring quotations, but includes plenty of exercises and ideas to jumpstart your own writing. It would be better to purchase a copy and write in it than to do as I did and check it out from the library. Then you can add your own creativity and dip into it again and again.

Just reviewing this book changes my attitude enormously! I love SARK’s joyful and joyous spirit. It’s contagious. If your own encouragement to yourself isn’t enough to get you to write, I strongly recommend SARK’s encouragement.

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Review of Summer on Blossom Street, by Debbie Macomber

summer_on_blossom_streetSummer on Blossom Street

by Debbie Macomber

Mira, 2009. 361 pages.
Starred Review

Debbie Macomber’s Blossom Street books are like a refreshing break with friends. The books revolve around Lydia Goetz’s yarn shop in Seattle, A Good Yarn. As in the other books, in Summer on Blossom Street, we hear the stories of a small group of people who have come together for a knitting class — and then find their lives knitting together.

In this fifth book of the series, Lydia is starting a class called “Knit to Quit.” Alix, a friend who’s been with us since the first book, and now a newlywed, is trying to, once again, quit smoking. A new customer signs up — to help herself quit loving her ex-fiance, who was arrested, for the second time, for solicitation. He still wants her back, and is very persuasive. What’s more, her own mother is trying to get her to forgive him and take him back. Also in the class, to make things more interesting, a man signs up, told by his doctor to do activities to lower his blood pressure.

Meanwhile further threads and storylines follow Lydia, who would like to adopt, and Anne Marie Roche, bookstore owner, who recently has adopted. The alternating chapters, telling different people’s storylines, keep you interested. I admit, I found myself most interested in Phoebe’s story, and I got a tiny bit impatient when there were too many other chapters breaking that part up. But mostly all the stories were intriguing enough to hook me.

These books are wholesome, uplifting, and encouraging, with enough problems hitting the characters that we don’t just think they’ve got it too easy — but definitely still stories that end up happy. I have decided I want to go back and read the installment I missed, Twenty Wishes, which is the fourth book. I read the third book, Back on Blossom Street, at a time when I wasn’t getting many books reviewed. You can get away with reading these books out of order, but it’s more fun to read along with the series and watch some of our old friends return, still growing and enjoying life.

Another nice thing about the Blossom Street books is that they each include a knitting pattern, the one the characters knit in the class. I haven’t tried any of them out yet, but it adds to the feeling that reading these books is like being in a knitting circle with friends.

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Review of Happiness Now! by Robert Holden, PhD

happiness_nowHappiness Now!

Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST

by Robert Holden, PhD

Hay House, Carlsbad, California, revised 2007. 255 pages.
Starred Review

I truly believe that happiness is a choice, and I like reading books that help me remember to make that choice.

You can tell that this book struck a chord with me by how many times I quoted it in Sonderquotes.

To be honest, many of his illustrations were ones I had heard a zillion times in one sermon or another. But I very much liked his overall concepts.

I was especially struck by his discussions about healing the Work Ethic, the Suffering Ethic, and the Martyr Ethic. The Work Ethic says happiness has to be deserved, worked for, earned, or paid for. The Suffering Ethic says that you have to know suffering in order to be happy. The Martyr Ethic teaches that happiness is selfish.

In contrast with those, Robert Holden says:

“One of the greatest single steps you can take to happiness now is to let go of the belief that happiness has to be deserved. You do not deserve happiness, you choose happiness. Happiness is natural. It is freely available to all. It is unconditional. And when you’re unconditional about happiness, then happiness merely happens! Happiness happens, if you let it.

“Suffering does happen, and it’s regrettable that it does. All of us have suffered disappointment, loss, pain, failure, rejection, bereavement, and so on. In no way am I trying to belittle this suffering, but what I’m saying is that no amount of suffering adds to your greatness. Your Self-worth was established in the heavens the moment you were created. Your worth comes, therefore, from who you are, not what you’ve suffered.”

“The fear that happiness is selfish is not only untrue, it actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Psychology researchers find time and time again that it is the depressed people, and not the happy ones, who are intensely self-focused and self-absorbed. Happy people, by contrast, tend to be outgoing, sociable, generous, loving, and kind. They’re also more tolerant, forgiving, and less judgmental than people who are depressed.”

I found this book to be full of reasons to give up excuses not to be happy. Inspiring and delightful. I’ll conclude the same way the author does:

“The ‘real key’ to happiness, then, is that there is no key! This might seem like bad news, but fear not! The good news is that there is no prison, no door, and no lock. Happiness is open all hours, and if you’re willing to be open to happiness, then you can enjoy happiness now!

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