Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Pop Goes the Library

In 2008, Sophie Brookover and I wrote a book.

And it's still available for purchase: Pop Goes the Library.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Review: Genesis Begins Again

Genesis Begins Again Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genesis, thirteen, seems to always be beginning again. Beginning again after her family has been evicted. And it's tough, making new friends, never knowing when they may be out on the street, staying in a friend's basement, moving into her grandmother's for a night or two.

The book starts with the most traumatic eviction yet. Genesis has finally, finally, made friends, and they are coming over to her house after school. They may not always be the nicest. And when they get to her house, that not nicest comes out in full -- because all of their belongings are on the yard, with the doors locked against them. To make it worse, the furniture was set up as it was in their rooms.

So, yeah, that is pretty terrible.

But then the next house her father rents is wonderful: a great neighborhood, a great school, and Genesis begins to make friends and to find her voice. I mean that literally, as she starts singing in the chorus at school.

All this, while Genesis is full of dislike for herself. In particular, her dark skin. She yearns to be lighter, like her mother, like her grandmother. She wishes she was not as dark as her father. Part of this is society, part is her family, part is her friends, and all have been internalized. She goes to extremes to try to lighten her skin. This is a nuanced, heartbreaking look at colorism.

This also has one of the best portraits of an alcoholic parent I've seen in a while. All too often, an abusive parent in a book is so full on awful that you spend half the book frustrated at the other parent, for staying with them, and at the child, for loving the abuser.

Here, the father is an alcoholic and a gambler. The reason for the evictions is he keeps gambling or spending the money away. And when he drinks he can be a mean drink: it's things he said, while drunk, that is part of the reason Genesis wishes she were lighter, like her mother, even half-thinking that if she were lighter, her father wouldn't drink and wouldn't be a mean drunk.

Her father can be mean. But he's not physically abusive. And what I like about this book is that her father is portrayed as a whole person. When sober, he's loving and does things like cook Genesis's favorite foods. He's charming enough that even with their history of evictions, he sweet talks a landlord into renting to them. And we also learn his own background, and that in many ways he's just doing what was done to him.

Let me be clear: this is not an excuse, it's not saying it's OK. But in making the father whole like this, it's understandable why Genesis's mother fell in love with him. It's understandable why she stays with him. It's understandable why Genesis loves him. The reader wishes, like they do, that he will stop drinking.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Review: Some Places More Than Others

Some Places More Than Others Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amara lives in Beaverton, Oregon and is about to turn 12 and honestly, she is living a great life. Her mom owns a boutique and designs clothes, including ones for Amara. Her father works for Nike and she has early access and employee discounts for sneakers. Her parents are expecting a much wanted baby. She has a great best friend.

What Amara wants more than anything: to go to New York City to meet her father's family. Her mother is an only child, and both her parents died before Amara was born. In New York City are her paternal grandfather; her aunt; two cousins. People she knows mainly from phone calls. FAMILY. Amara craves family; when her father makes the recipes his mother made, Amara thinks how great it would be to be making those recipes, eating that food, in the kitchen where her grandmother cooked, where she taught her son.

After much (much) pleading and begging, Amara gets her birthday wish. When her father next goes to NYC on business, she's going to go with him.

I LOVED this story. I love how Amara doesn't realize, until her mother points it out, that her father and grandfather don't speak to each other. (Before you think she's clueless, think: if all your contact is by phone and the phone getting passed around, you're not going to notice that.)

So, there's a family mystery: why doesn't her father and grandfather speak? But there is also the mystery of family, of discovering these people who look like her; of learning more about her father as a boy, a teen, a young man, realizing that before he was a business man he was a kid.

I love how sometimes things don't work out as you think; at first, her older cousin sees Amara as more of a nuisance than anything else. I love that the rich cultural history of New York City is shown, and how excited Amara gets about exploring the African American history of the city.

I love even the side things that are there, for a reader to pick up on, or not - -things aren't overly explained. For example, Amara discovers that her father had a passion for poetry as a child. Now, he's a businessman. But, and this is important: he loves what he does. I think it's great that a book shows that. Another is how Amara isn't sure about the new baby sister because her mother has had three miscarriages. There's a lot to unpack there, but this is Amara's story so it's about her, her feelings, her fears, not her parents' story.

My only quibble: part of what drives Amara's look into her family history is a school assignment. It's actually pretty well handled in the book, and I enjoy it, but the adult part of me always cringes at assignments about family because that is such a source of potential anguish and loss and exclusion for kids.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: Other Words for Home

Other Words for Home Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Verse novel about a young girl who has to move from her home to a new place, and how, and when, and if, that new place can ever be "home."

Read because it was a Notables and Newbery Honor.

Jude, twelve, lives in a beach side town, popular with tourists, with her older brother and parents. Her best friend lives just across the way. The first part of the book is about home, and friendships, and food, and movies, and dreams -- dreams of acting, like the people in her favorite movies. Her older brother, Issa, is getting involved in politics, loudly protesting the current president, and wanting to live in his own apartment.

Jude lives in Syria. The politics are against the Syrian president. The civil war means that well off tourists may no longer be coming to their town. Every day, the violence is growing closer, the danger getting closer, so, the family makes the heart breaking decision to send Jude and her mother to the states, to visit with her mother's brother, until things calm down at home.

The next part is that move: how Jude goes from thinking her English is good to realizing it is not. She misses her family and her best friend. Her uncle and aunt make an effort to be welcoming, but her uncle married an American and neither his wife nor his daughter speak the Arabic. His daughter, Sarah, comes across as almost indifferent to her aunt and cousin.

Jude adjusts to her new life, and starts at a new school, where there aren't many people who look like her, but there are people from all over the world. Her ESL class has students from Somalia, Korea, and China. She sees only one other girl who wears a headscarf.

And yet, there is happiness, as Jude makes friends and discovers that her school has a play, and that maybe her dream of acting is something that can be made real.

This book was so good! I felt for Jude, and for her mother, their loss and confusion and both wanting this new place to be home but also not wanting to give up on their home. And I loved how this didn't give any unrealistic endings. There is sadness but not tragedy, if that makes sense.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

So, folks, I have some amazing news!

I am a member of the 2021 Newbery Award Selection Committee.


I am excited and scared and over the moon.

What this means for this blog:

I will not be writing about any 2021 titles that are eligible for the Newbery, due to the rules, regulations, and policies of ALSC.

I will have very little time to read anything that is not being read for the committee, or time to write about what I am reading that is non committee related, so there won't be much happening here.

Some things I will be posting:

Brief mentions of adult books I am reading.

Short reviews of books from the 2020 Notables List from ALSC.  If you're a librarian in New Jersey, you know that am part of panels that do presentations on the Notables List; and I use this blog to record my reviews, and use those reviews when I am part of such presentations. Do not assume anything from the books I review here. First, they are 2020 titles, not 2021. Second, they will be recaps with what I liked about it, not critiques and serious evaluation. Third, the reasons for what I read from that list are simple: I need to have read at least 15 to 18 for the presentations, and I read what is easily available to me to read.

So, nothing about the current books I'm reading for Newbery.

Anyway, off to start reading! If you do have questions about the Newbery, take a look at the manual. Yes, it really is that long.

A not quite realistic photo of me reading:

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review: The Turn of the Key

The Turn of the Key The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The short version: Loved it

The slight longer version: A young woman gets a dream nanny job. The pay check is unbelievable. Well, yes, the family has gone through several nannies in the past years, but Rowan is sure it's not because of ghosts but because of the remote location: in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. But once she gets there, she begins to believe something odd is going on . . . .

And the reader knows that something terrible happened. Because Rowan is in jail, desperately writing to a lawyer, hoping to clear her name, insistent that she did not kill that child.


So Rowan is telling the story, and you know she isn't the most reliable narrator, and there are hints and clues that she's not been entirely honest or straightforward. For example, she was desperate for the job and so instead of being herself, became who she thought the family wanted to hire, so no messy hair and jeans, but, rather, nice hair and smart clothes.

And you also know the family and the house has something odd going on. Rowan only meets the wife when she interviews, and some of the daughters; the husband is away on business. This one interview gets her hired -- she never even meets the father! And then, when she starts, both parents have to go away on business so almost from day one, she is alone with these small children who she has barely met.

What parent does that, leaves their children with an almost stranger?

And the house: the house is amazing and wonderful and scary. The parents are architects and the house is old manor in the front, modern glass in the back, and all of it is "smart technology". So smart that it's next to impossible to figure out how any of it works.

There is also a poison garden.

So: which child died? Who killed them? Was it Rowan? What are Rowan's secrets? What are the secrets of the house?

So so good. But the ending.... I'm still not sure what I think. And it comes down a bit to "glass half full" in terms of what one believes happens next.

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Monday, December 30, 2019

Review: The Moving Finger

The Moving Finger The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1945, so just a few years after the previous book.

What I liked about The Moving Finger: it's set in a different town, so that already, Christie is recognizing that having a bunch of murders in Miss Marple's village is ridiculous, so go other places.

What's also great: Miss Marple herself doesn't show up until the end. These books are not about Miss Marple, rather, about Miss Marple solving crimes.

So the start: a brother and sister are renting a home in a small village. He was in a plane crash, and they are now in this village while he recuperates. So they are the outsiders, observers. And one thing they are observing: anonymous poison pen letters being sent to random people. And the deaths: people driven to suicide? Or something more?

I loved how literally anyone could have been the writer and the murderer.

Things I did not love and why I wouldn't recommend this for folks looking for a mystery. One of the folks in the area is clearly a gay man, and the one he is talked about isn't great.

One thing I did like: there is a young woman who today would be said to be on the autism spectrum. Instead, she's portrayed as odd and different and not a typical girl. But, and this is important, the main character likes her and respects her for being who she is and doesn't want to change her. (OK, there is a shopping trip for better clothes, but that is more about her parents being so-so than the man trying to change her.)

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Review: The Body in the Library

The Body in the Library The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My reading of Miss Marple continues!

Miss Marple, little old lady, whose observations of those around her, and memory of all the local gossip, and ability to apply what happens in one situation to other situations, makes her the perfect mystery solver.

Here the mystery: a body is found in the library of a house and no one recognizes the dead woman! Who is she, why is she there, and who killed her?

This one takes place in Miss Marple's home town. One thing I found interesting with this series is the publication dates: such huge gaps! I want to reread Christie's biography, to get a better grasp of why there is such a time difference. That said, this is set in 1942, and yet Miss Marple is basically "the same age," but I guess old is old. What does change is the world around her, what is shown, what is thought.

The belief system of the people in the Marple books are unchanged: the characters' belief in class and the class system is so clear. As the books go further into the twentieth century, there is a sense of how the good old days where better because folks knew and appreciated their place in society.

Anyway! Here!

There is a reference to a main couple from the first book; very slight, and it's clear that in the Marple world this book isn't ten years but only two or so years after the first, because the baby announced in that book is now at the crawling stage.

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Monday, December 23, 2019

Review: The Cottages on Silver Beach

The Cottages on Silver Beach The Cottages on Silver Beach by RaeAnne Thayne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The stories surrounding Haven Point continues; the hero her, Elliot, is the older brother of characters who have starred elsewhere.

Some interesting backstory here: the heroine, Megan, was seeing Elliot's younger brother Wyatt, who was killed years ago. Megan always saw Elliot as a bit standoffish, not recognizing the reasons behind that. Plus, if that wasn't enough, Megan has a bit of a convoluted family background (abusive stepfather, missing sister in law, family property she's in charge of but not in love with, sacrificed dreams for family.) I found Megan's backstory a bit tricky, actually, in that I always have a bit of hard time with the combo of "wonderful grandmother" and "but nothing was done about the godawful stepfather." Thayne sold it.

Now, the missing sister in law: Elliot is both in the FBI and the author of true crime books. Everyone thinks that the wife is dead and Megan's brother got away with murder. But is she?

(OK, one quibble, in the way that the missing woman's postpartum depression was talked about by other characters, as if some people wouldn't experience it because of their personality? It was a bit WTF to me how it was talked about, especially when it was light of how they remembered a person was in their teens.)

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Kate Morton books! But, given the way they unfold -- over time, skipping back and forth, with secrets -- there's no way I could read one right after the other.

So! This was described as perfect for fans of Downton Abbey, and that is so true.

Then: a grand house, and a dramatic suicide during a house party.

Now: an old woman who was a maid then, contacted by people making a film about the tragedy and the family.

I LOVED this, the dual stories of the dying grand family while a young girl rises up.

I don't want to get to much into Grace's story, the teenage daughter of a single mother sent to the grand house to be a maid, a good position at the turn of the last century. How her life changes, how she views herself changes, how her loves change, how her opportunities change as time goes by, is, well, wonderful. With a touch of fear, because one cannot help but wonder about her involvement in that long ago murder.

Meanwhile the story of the grand family is told primarily in the 1920s and earlier, and in many ways its about how those families and that lifestyle is dying, changing, being left behind.

And also a happy ending! No, really, the surprises here are happy ones that left me, well, so content and satisfied.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Review: Pieces of Her

Pieces of Her Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sadly a DNF.

I liked the idea of it: a young woman finds out about her mother's past! And clearly based on cases like Kathleen Soliah / Sarah Jane Olson, with a timeline shift for the revolutionary acts occurring in the 1980s.

And it's really great at first: the twenty-something daughter finding out her normal mother has secrets, discovering them in drastic and nerve wracking ways.

But: but when it flashes back to the 1980s a character comes in, who is supposed to be charismatic and a leader and loved and from the start I just found him creepy and disturbing and so it made me think that those who followed him and believed in him were, well, stupid. Perhaps if he had been introduced in a different way -- but the way he was just made me go "ick."

That said, I was invested enough to skip to the end, read the last few chapters, and loved how those last chapters played out.

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President by Jeffrey Toobin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for two reasons: first, because of the planned season for American Crime Story based in part on this book. Second, having been alive during this time period, I was interested in how it was written.

This is about the Clinton impeachment. And as I read, I remember how it unfolded in the media; I remembered what I thought at the time. I learned things I didn't know, had a better grasp of what was and was not going on.

I'd read that Monica Lewinsky is a producer for the planned season, and I'll say this: this book is not always kind to her. So that she is involved in this makes me respect her all the more: and I do respect the hell out of her, for what she's gone through, and what she's done since.

Back to the book: I'm impressed with how much research was done, and how many people the author talked to, to get so much information, and then to put it together in a narrative that makes sense. If, like me, you're old enough to remember this, it's worth the read to discover what you didn't know. Or, also, to see if as time has passed, any of your judgments have changed.

And if this is "history" to you, it's worth it to read, because what happened then didn't end then. It's helped shape today's political landscape.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen Problems The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My commitment to reading Miss Marple in order continues!

Except I read not this version, but the ones in the book of the complete Miss Marple stories.

I like the short stories very much, and I especially liked how these stories were told. A bunch of folks sitting around sharing mysteries they've encountered; Miss Marple manages to figure out each one. And she figures out each story from what is in the story itself; I was reminded of Encyclopedia Brown, actually. Now, some things a modern reader or non British reader may not get; but it was still all there, in the text, to figure out on one's own.

So far, the worst I'm seeing in the books is strong classism -- people knowing their place, as it were, and liking it that way. And of course the British looking down at everyone who isn't them, usually presented in how they view "foreigners."

This is the book I read; and for reasons I'll go into later, I think a Miss Marple read is best for adult and only for those interested in how Christie crafts stories.

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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Review: The Murder at the Vicarage

The Murder at the Vicarage The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As promised, I've begun my read of the Miss Marple mysteries. I almost wrote "reread" but I honestly am not sure which ones I've read and not read.

So: this was written in 1930 and is set in a small English village and I do wonder if that English country life depicted was true then or not.

What I found interesting:

Miss Marple is not the main character, or the person telling the story. The narrator is the vicar, and it's at the vicarage where the dead body is found. Miss Marple is one of the old ladies of the village, and she pops in and out of the narrative. Ultimately, she does solve the mystery, largely because she knows human nature, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And her knowledge comes from a life lived in a small village, and how living in that small area, living in place where you truly know your neighbors -- you learn that people are capable of terrible things. She's not naive.

I also found it interesting that, based on the publication date, Miss Marple mustn't have been intended as someone who anchors a long series because it was published in 1930. And as you'll soon see, the next Miss Marple novel was written in the 1940s.

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