Review of Over the Moon, by Natalie Lloyd

Over the Moon

by Natalie Lloyd

Scholastic Press, 2019. 291 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 5, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a delightful fantasy tale of a girl named Mallie Ramble who lives in a village on the mountain with her parents and her little brother. Her father has gone blind and mute from working in the mines, and so Mallie needs to go down the mountain and work as a maid in the valley. Even so, she can’t earn enough to keep the family out of debt. The Guardians say that her little brother Denver is going to have to work in the mines even though he’s only seven.

Older people in her village tell of a time before the Dust came when people of the village rode winged horses, Starbirds, and gathered starlight to weave into beautiful garments. But that was before Mallie was born. Now the Dust is thick over the village, bringing with it despair and anger and sadness.

When Mallie sees a brochure for brave and wiry young boys to volunteer for a dangerous task that will bring them riches – she thinks she’s found a way to pay her family’s debts and save Denver from having to work in the mines. Will it matter that she’s a girl and that one of her arms is shorter than the other?

This, in fact, leads to adventures beyond Mallie’s wildest dreams – but also requires great bravery.

This uplifting tale will help anyone rise above despair. The world-building is imaginative, the obstacles are big, and the triumphant finish is earned.

scholastic.com

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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 The Size of the Truth, by Andrew Smith

The Size of the Truth

by Andrew Smith

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. 266 pages.
Review written November 6, 2019, from a library book

When he was four years old, Sam Abernathy was trapped in a well for three days. He was playing Spud with his friend Karim, and an older boy, James Jenkins, threw the ball so high, Karim couldn’t catch it, and Sam stepped in the hole and fell. The whole town of Blue Sky, Texas, rallied to save him, and some people still wear their “Pray for Sam” t-shirts.

Now Sam is eleven years old, and his parents just had him skip two grades from sixth grade to eighth grade. As if it weren’t enough to be known in town as “Well Boy,” now he stands out for being the smallest kid in eighth grade. James Jenkins was held back and is also in eighth grade and his locker is next to Sam’s. Sam is convinced he looks like a murderer.

Sam’s father has big plans for Sam. He wants him to go to a magnet high school and get a scholarship to study physics. What Sam wants to do is become a chef. He experiments with dishes at Karim’s house.

The story is told with flashbacks from Sam’s three days in the well interspersed with what’s happening in eighth grade. Sam couldn’t remember what happened for a long time, and now his memories involve a talking armadillo named Bartleby who is very annoying, but shows Sam some interesting things down side tunnels. And at least Sam wasn’t alone!

The story is about truth and perception. And about parental expectations and learning to speak up. You can’t help but liking Sam, but also feeling sorry for him. I’m happy to report that Sam does learn ways to make things better for himself before the book is done. Here’s a bit from early in the book to give you a feel for Sam’s voice:

I have an idea for a reality television show.

The show follows an eleven-year-old boy named Sam Abernathy, who’s been jumped ahead during the first week of the school year, catapulted directly from sixth into eighth grade.

The show is called Figure It Out, Kid!

We are entirely uncertain whether or not the kid makes it out alive.

simonandschuster.com/kids

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Review of Hippos Remain Calm, by Sandra Boynton

Hippos Remain Calm

by Sandra Boynton

Boynton Bookworks (Simon & Schuster), 2023. 36 pages.
Review written January 3, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review

I am so happy this book exists! Hippos Remain Calm is a sequel to Hippos Go Berserk, which was published in 1977, the very first book Sandra Boynton ever published!

I did not have a copy of Hippos Go Berserk, but a set of Sandra Boynton books were the first books I got for my first baby, born in 1988. To this day, I swear that her first word was “Ffffff!”, spoken when the Sandra Boynton book Doggies was pulled out. (A dog says “WOOF!” on every page.) Thus, my baby could read before she could even talk.

Anyway, Sandra Boynton’s concise genius is what makes her boardbooks great. Hippos Go Berserk is a counting book, featuring one hippo who invites two hippo friends over. More hippos join, and things get progressively more and more wild.

Hippos Remain Calm shows us the day of the peaceful hippo couple first invited to the party. A lot of eventful things happen in that day, but these hippos remain calm.

Here’s how the book begins:

Two fine hippos,
cozy at home,

take turns reciting
a morning-time poem.

“O, flare thy wild nostrils,
and welcome the day!”

“Onward! And upward!
Come what will, come what may.”

Then they wander outside
in the cool April weather.
“Hippo Morning to All!”
they call out together.

Things happen to the hippos – a sudden surprise snowstorm, persistently quacking ducks, and a ringing phone. The hippos remain calm. They practice slow breathing.

After they accept the invitation of their friend who doesn’t want to be alone, they have a lovely time together.

But wait. Is that a doorbell ring?
Are other hippos coming, too?

Uh-oh.

The Uh-oh spread has the scene of partying hippos — which I recently had the joy of completing in jigsaw puzzle form. This time, we can find our friends, the calm hippos who started the party.

We see them happily head home and then snooze all morning long.

Okay, this book doesn’t have quite the punch of the original. It’s not a counting book, so it won’t ever make the Mathical Book Prize Hall of Fame like the original.

But if you hear about wild hippos, why not read about calm ones? Families who have the first book will be delighted to find more to the story and look for the way the books are tied together. (There’s a helicopter flying off in the distance seen through the window on the final page, for example.)

Okay, and I enjoyed all that, and was already completely delighted with this book — and I just read the front flap and simply must repeat it here:

Hippos have somewhat of a reputation for wild parties that go on till dawn. People have even gone so far as to say that partying hippos “go berserk.” Nobody knows how these rumors got started.

But even if it’s true (it is), it’s not the whole story. Given the deep appreciation that hippos have for water, it’s no wonder that your average hippopotamus seeks, finds, and offers a state of flow, no matter the situation.

We have much to learn from their example. Accordingly, this helpful book follows two typical hippos as they calmly and mindfully go about their ordinary hippo day.

There you have it! Learn how to remain calm even when folks go berserk around you.

sandraboynton.com

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Review of A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, by Kelley Armstrong

A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying

by Kelley Armstrong

Puffin Canada (Penguin Random House), 2019. 280 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 31, 2019, from a library book

At the beginning of this fantasy adventure, thirteen-year-old Rowan is complaining because she wishes she were destined to be the Royal Monster Hunter instead of the Queen. But because she was born two minutes before her twin brother Rhydd, she gets the throne and he gets the job of monster hunter – even though their aptitude is the opposite.

But when a battle with a gryphon – the same type of monster that killed their father – badly injures Rhydd so he’ll always walk with a limp, they can get the council to agree to a switch. However, if Rowan is to step into the Royal Monster Hunter position, she’s going to need to train quickly, because an uncle has his own children in mind for both positions.

This begins a quest to get training to fight monsters – and ends up being a story of being set upon by one monster after another.

I love the imaginative monsters the author has besetting this kingdom. There are things you’ve heard of like gryphons and firebirds and pegasi, but also warakins, manticores, and a jba-fofi (giant spider). Rowan even stumbles on a baby jackalope who decides to adopt her and thinks he is more ferocious than he is.

There’s also plenty of tension in this story. The gryphon battle at the beginning makes us understand how truly fearsome it is, and further creatures that come after Rowan or her companions have us wondering how she’ll manage to escape in one piece. More than once, the minute she escapes one disaster, a new peril attacks.

I do like the way the Royal Monster Hunters consider it a failure when they have to kill a monster. Their goal is to drive them back into the mountains. If they get a taste for livestock or endanger people, the monsters do need to be killed. But I like the way Rowan and her family consider every other option first.

This is a suspenseful tale about a girl fighting – literally – to prove herself and help her kingdom. And you’ll enjoy the characters and critters you’ll meet along the way.

kelleyarmstrong.com
penguinrandomhouse.ca

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Review of Impossible Escape, by Steve Sheinkin

Version 1.0.0
Impossible Escape

A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Rob Shapiro

Listening Library, 2023. 5 hours, 45 minutes.
Review written March 25, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 CYBILS Award Winner, High School Nonfiction
2024 Sidney Taylor Book Award Silver Medal, Young Adult

Impossible Escape tells the story of Slovakian teen Rudi Vrba, who in 1942 tried to escape Slovakia in order to avoid being “resettled” by the Nazis. That escape started out fine, but ultimately did not succeed, and he got pulled into the Nazi Concentration Camp network.

When reading this book, I knew he was going to escape because of the title, but the tension kept building as I wondered when it would happen. The odds against him mount as he gets sent to more and more secure camps, but the escape happens with two hours left in the audiobook. And yes, it’s certainly legitimate to call the escape impossible.

His story is so full of human details, I thought the author must have interviewed him. But realistically, we’re getting past the time when that is possible, and the Author’s Note revealed that the author instead researched in a library of Rudi’s papers. (Rudi ended up becoming a professor.) The story is gripping, and even though I have read many books about the Holocaust, the horrible barbarity he endured and witnessed is something my heart doesn’t want to believe is even possible.

Why was his story important? Because he was the first eyewitness to escape Auschwitz and testify to the systematic mass murder taking place there. At the time of his escape, Hitler was beginning to convince the Hungarian government to deport the Jews of Hungary — and Rudi’s testimony helped sway world opinion so that the remaining Jews of Hungary were saved — including his childhood friend, whose story we get alongside Rudi’s, as she did manage to leave Slovakia and escape capture.

This audiobook had me riveted — the kind of story it’s hard to stop listening until the book is done. I also wish it weren’t necessary to keep reminding the world how much evil can come from dehumanizing your enemies. May this never be repeated, and if and when it is, may heroes like Rudolph Vrba arise and escape with the truth.

stevesheinkin.com

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Review of Lalani of the Distant Sea, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Lalani of the Distant Sea

by Erin Entrada Kelly

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2019. 386 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 18, 2019, from a library book

Lalani of the Distant Sea is an original fantasy tale with an island theme.

Lalani lives in a small island community tightly ruled by the menyoro. Everybody has their roles. They pray to the Mountain that it will not get angry with them.

Now there is a drought. Plants are drying up and everyone is thirsty.

Years ago, Lalani’s father and her best friend’s father both sailed away, trying to cross the Veiled Sea to reach the mythical island of Isa where good things grow. But their fathers never returned, and now Lalani and her mother live with her brutish Uncle Drum and his son Kul. They tell Lalani over and over that she is useless.

Lalani starts the trouble when she chases a Shek that goes to the mountain looking for grass. She meets a man with horns on his head and no eyes. He says he came from the island of Isa. He gives Lalani a wish.

But things go wrong with her wish, and more troubles come. Eventually, Lalani must decide if she is brave enough to try to go to Isa herself, even though no one has ever done so and returned.

This fantasy world is populated with magical creatures and nonmagical creatures that add to the exotic flavor of the world. I didn’t like how beaten down Lalani was during this story – but that made her adventure and triumph all the greater.

I do like the way some of the creatures are introduced in short second-person well-illustrated chapters. Here’s the beginning of one of those called “You Are a Weeping Loset.”

Imagine you are a weeping loset. You are tall and beautiful, but sorrowful. Your curved branches look like the shoulders of a crying woman, and your moss is gray and coarse. You are unhappy but can’t remember why. Perhaps you suffered a great loss hundreds of years ago, and only a lingering heartache remains.

You see all who pass. You’re a curious tree, because there is so little to do but stand and wait for something to happen. And now, something has! There is a girl. You’ve never seen her before. She smells hot and dry, like dust. She steps lightly, but purposefully, and she is afraid. You know this because your roots plunge into the earth, and everything that touches the ground settles onto them.

erinentradakelly.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of You Are Here: Connecting Flights, edited by Ellen Oh

You Are Here

Connecting Flights

edited by Ellen Oh
read by David Lee Huynh, Dana Wing Lau, Ramon de Ocampo, and Jeanne Syquia

Allida, 2023. 5 hours, 40 minutes.
Review written March 11, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

You Are Here: Connecting Flights is a collection of well-connected short stories written by various authors: Christina Soontornvat, Linda Sue Park, Meredith Ireland, Mike Chen, Susan Tan, Randy Ribay, Traci Chee, Mike Jung, Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin, Minh Le, and Ellen Oh. All the stories feature an Asian American kid temporarily stranded at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport during a ferocious thunderstorm, some with parents and family, and a few traveling unaccompanied.

The stories are nicely intertwined, with each kid having at least a little interaction with some of the other kids. The book begins with a boy mortified when his grandmother takes his grandfather’s remains through security. Everything works out, but they have to stop the line for a bit, which bothers people in a hurry.

Some of the kids are heading to Asian countries of their forebears, and some of them don’t feel great about that. Pretty much all the kids deal with some negative attitudes toward Asian Americans, and most of them come up with a good way of responding.

The kids, characters, and situations have lots of variety, because the authors have lots of variety. The variety included very different countries in their backgrounds, different appearances, different religions, and different traveling situations. For all the kids, the stories came together to give a sense of belonging, a feeling that they can deal with what life throws at them, and peace with where they’re going and where they’ll come home to.

I wish the audiobook and the book itself had put the author’s name under each chapter title, which instead was the name of the fictional kid featured. But perhaps they wanted to put the emphasis on the kids themselves. And I have to admit that the many authors did a fantastic job of telling a seamless story about many great characters. And it gave readers who are not Asian American a window into the microaggressions that our fellow Americans have to deal with. So besides reading an entertaining story with great characters, I learned a lot about empathy.

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Review of Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee

Dragon Pearl

by Yoon Ha Lee

Rick Riordan Presents (Disney Hyperion), 2019. 310 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 2, 2019, from a library book

I’m finding that I especially like the Rick Riordan Presents books that don’t just fit another culture’s mythology into the formula of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, but instead does something new. Dragon Pearl achieves that beautifully – taking Korean supernatural beings and putting them in space.

Our main character, Min, is a fox spirit, like the other members of her family. Fox spirits are generally not trusted, because they are shape shifters who can Charm the thoughts and emotions of people around them.

When an inspector comes to their planet claiming that her brother Jun was a deserter from the Space Forces and tried to steal the powerful Dragon Pearl, Min knows that couldn’t possibly be true. And she decides to set off looking for him and bring Jun home.

Along the way, Min gets into a lot of danger, makes a bargain with a ghost, and impersonates a cadet from the same ship Jun supposedly deserted from.

I like the way in this book, supernatural beings are taken for granted, not some sort of big secret that only Min knows about. Two of the friends she makes are a goblin and a dragon – both of whom spend most of their time in human form, as she does. I like that the goblin is nonbinary, and Min naturally addresses them with they/them pronouns. Of course, as a shapeshifter, Min thinks nothing of taking either female or male forms at different times.

This adventure combines Korean mythology with outer space and futuristic high-tech gadgetry in a delightful way.

RickRiordan.com
DisneyBooks.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 Holy Hell, by Derek Ryan Kubilus

Holy Hell

A Case Against Eternal Damnation

by Derek Ryan Kubilus

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024. 189 pages.
Review written March 27, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

For many years now, I’ve been collecting and reading books about Universalism. It started from reading the sermons of George MacDonald, not realizing he was a Universalist. Then I checked what he was saying against Scripture, especially noting the “all” verses, and became convinced that yes, the Bible teaches God will save everyone. And then I started reading modern writers on the same topic. It is not possible to overstate the amount of joy this change in views has given me. Every time I read another book showing why universal salvation is biblical, I give myself renewed permission to believe this wonderful, joyful teaching.

Holy Hell is the first time I found one of these books so close to publication date, though. I was actually researching Christian publishers when trying to find a home for my own book, Praying with the Psalmists, when this then-upcoming book caught my eye.

And this book, like so many others on Universalism, made my heart happy. Derek Kubilus’s approach is not horribly academic, but he does base his arguments on what the Bible says, including the information about misleading ways we translate the Greek text of the New Testament into English. I’d heard that in other books, but I do like the way he puts it, taking a pastoral tone. He’s a United Methodist pastor, which also made me happy, because since 2019, I’ve been a member of a United Methodist church.

This book has all the basics for a universalist book, explained in a way a layperson can understand. I think my favorite part was his treatment of the parable of the sheep and the goats, because that was still a niggling point I wondered about. He points out that a God who praises people for visiting other people in human prisons is not the same God who would put people into an unending prison. Here’s how he puts it:

Notice that the King does not say, “I was innocent and you came to prison to visit me.” He does not seem to care about the particular guilt or the innocence of the one who is incarcerated. He simply identifies himself with whoever might be in prison, saying, “I was in prison and you visited me.” As the last detail mentioned in a series, the fact that sheep go to visit prisoners carries the most emphasis in the text. Caring for those who are imprisoned actually epitomizes what it means to be a sheep. Yet, some will argue that we are to understand this passage to be saying that God imprisons souls in a torture dungeon and withdraws God’s presence from them for all eternity! Are we to believe that God is praising the sheep for their enduring presence with those who are in prison, and at the same time, God withdraws God’s own eternal presence from those whom God sends to prison? If that were true, then Christianity would simply be a terrible religion worthy of our rejection, because the Christian God would be the biggest hypocrite of all.

Another thing I liked about this book was his chapter about expanding our circles. Becoming a universalist has challenged me to be more loving and more inclusive to those I’d like to dismiss. Here’s a bit from that chapter:

Exclusion is easy. Walking around thinking that we are the special ones, that we are justified simply by virtue of who we are or what we believe, some identity or another, is comforting. Cutting more and more people out of that circle isn’t a problem as long as we stay nestled safely inside of it.

Expanding the circle, however, is a “hard teaching.” Expand it too far and we start to wonder if there’s anything special about us at all.

By that measure, universalism might just be the hardest teaching because it expands the circle all the way.

I marked many quotations in this book, so it’s going to be showing up on my Sonderquotes blog. Check out those to get more of an idea.

But if you’re wondering at all, if you think universalism might possibly be true, I highly recommend this book along with all the others on my Exploring Universalism page. This one is a great place to start!

bionicwolfpriest.com
eerdmans.com

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