Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review: A Big Mooncake for Little Star

A Big Mooncake for Little Star A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another beautifully illustrated book. I want to frame each page.

Mama makes a mooncake and hangs it in the sky; she tells Little Star not to touch it until Mama says.

That night, Little Star can't help herself. She gets up and nibbles just a little -- so little hardly anyone will notice.

And the next night she nibbles a little more.... and then a little more...

And so we see the reason behind the phases of the moon. It's Little Star nibbling away each night!

And when Mama sees what she has done and the mooncake is no more.... they create a new one.

Now, of course, I want to eat a mooncake.

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Thursday, June 06, 2019

Review: Alma and How She Got Her Name

Alma and How She Got Her Name Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alma thinks her name is entirely too long! When she writes it out on paper, she needs to tape two pieces together. Her name? Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela. A mouthful, right?

But then her father explains to her the story of why each name was chosen: who is Sofia, and what she meant to him, and why he included it in her daughter's name, and Alma embraces that name.

And who is Esperanza.... and Jose....and so on.

The illustrations are beautiful; the story is sweet; and it is all about learning more about yourself, about your heritage, and being proud of it.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Review: Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish

Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eighth grader Marcus Vega looks like a grown up. He's tall, he's big, and at first glance some may think he's an adult... or that he's a bully.

He's not an adult, but he does have a lot of responsibility. His mom works a lot, leaving Marcus to take care of his younger brother, Charlie. Charlie is only one year younger than Marcus; Charlie is also a kid with Down syndrome, so part of the role Marcus takes on is being his brother's protector from school bullies.

Folks may think Marcus is a bully, because he's so big. Instead, though, he's turned that into in a plus: he's the kid who protects others from bullies. And, since his mom is struggling financially, he charges for the service.

When the real school bully picks on Charlie, using the R word, Marcus can't help himself -- he punches the kid. And earns a suspension. And his mom, not sure what else to do, and decides they all need a change of scenery so takes the boys to Puerto Rico to visit her ex-husband's relatives.

Here's what you need to know about her ex: he left ten years ago. He hasn't been in touch since. And Marcus believes in him. Believes that if he just sends the right email, says the right things, his dad will show up and somehow fix things. Fix it so his mom doesn't struggle, so they don't have to worry about how Charlie is treated at school, fix it so that Marcus can be a kid again. This last one is something Marcus doesn't realize, doesn't say, but it's clear to the reader that Marcus is tired of being the responsible grown up.

Marcus was born in Puerto Rico, but he's been raised outside of Philadelphia, he doesn't speak Spanish. The five day trip to Puerto Rico is fantastic -- they reconnect with family, his mother relaxes and also gets a clearer view of her life and what has been happening with her sons, and Marcus tries to track down his father. It's clear to everyone but Marcus that Marcus has created a fantasy about his father -- but Marcus has to learn the hard way.

A great book about how family both supports you, but also lets you down. And about somehow you have to take a little vacation from your life to get a clearer picture of who you are and what you want.

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I like about historical true crime is the combination of true crime and an examination of the lives people lived in the past - a snapshot into the daily lives of regular people. Regular, that is, until someone is murdered and they are held up to critical examination and it's revealed that things are not so regular. Or, one could argue that any "regular" life will, upon examination, show lives of secret; private lives that don't match to public lives; and that the myths of the past are just that, myths.

So on one level: the brutal murder of a three year old child in 1860, and the investigation into it.

On another: the start of police work, and detectives, and how different things were, and in some ways the same.

On another: a look at the life of an upper middle class family of 1860 and the "truth."

I'm still not sure what the full "truth" of the Kent family was. But this was a fascinating look at the murder and the people around the murder investigation.

One thing, though -- I wasn't sold on why the suspect became the suspect, even when the confession was revealed. Admittedly, even the investigators thought the confession was incomplete. And maybe they are just smarter than me. And maybe it's not being of the time - I'm not able to completely understand what they saw that was off, that led to their suspicions.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Review: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

A combination of my non-fiction interests: true crime, Victorian history, murder, child murderers, the life of working people, mental health, punishment, rehabilitation.

So! The mystery is not what happened. The mystery is why. In 1895, Robert Coombes, age 13, murdered his mother; left her rotting body in her bedroom; and he and his younger brother, age 12, did what two boys on their own would do. Go watch some sports events, play, pawn a few things to get more money. Family members and neighbors were suspicious, and when they came and smelled something and found the body, Robert pretty much confessed right away.

The mystery is why: and in looking at why, Summerscale looks at both Robert's family but also the times he lived in. His trial, and what happened after.

It was both surprising and actually a bit hopeful. The primary documents answer some questions and leave others unpursued, so it's to the reader and the author to connect the dots and make some guesses. Part of my surprise was, well, how sympathetic some people were; and how rehabilitation mattered as much as punishment.

Definitely recommended.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Review: The Season of Styx Malone

The Season of Styx Malone The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summer is the season that Caleb, 10, and his older brother, Bobby Gene, 11, meet Styx Malone. Styx is 16 and to Caleb, Styx is everything: cool and worldly and smart, clever and smooth and independent.

Summer at age 10 and 11: when life is both simple and oh-so-complicated. Caleb and Bobby Gene get into enough trouble on their own, and not necessarily on purpose. They didn't mean to trade their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, but somehow it happened, and who can say no to fireworks?

Styx introduces them to the concept of the escalator trade: a series of trades that slowly escalates the value that you hold, so that you start with a paper clip and end with a house. Or, for Caleb, Bobby Gene, and Styx, you start with fireworks and end with -- well, I'll let you find out.

Styx's bravado results in the boys having a magical summer of adventure, but there are some serious things going on. Things that the reader may realize before Caleb does.

Styx, like Caleb and Bobby Gene, is a black kid in Indiana. Caleb and Bobby Gene's father is protective of his sons -- worrying about what will happen in the world outside their small town -- to the point where he doesn't even want his sons to leave for a school trip. He wants them safe and the boys -- well, at least Caleb -- longs for the world outside his small town. Styx represents that world, and Caleb doesn't realize that Styx, a foster child, is not so much independent as a child alone. Caleb doesn't see what he has that Styx does not.

This is a great story -- a story of a summer full of swimming holes and fishing and bike rides. A story of friendship and family and trust. A story of a boy taking the steps to being a man. (In some ways -- and to me this is a great compliment -- this reminded of Stephen King, and how he writes about that time in childhood, a time of innocence and knowledge and darkness and light. But, of course, there are no monsters here.)

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America

Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America by Gail Jarrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spooked! is about the 1938 radio teleplay broadcast by Orson Welles, which updated H.G. Wells' The War of the World by making it contemporary to the time (1938) and location (the US), using a mix of real places and fake names. For various reasons, some listeners did not realize that it was a play and thought that the Martians were invading.

Spooked!, a middle grade nonfiction book, takes an in-depth look at the creation of the play, how listeners responded, why, and the aftermath. It's the type of book that shows why I like middle grade and young adult fiction, and recommend it to others: it's in-depth but at the same time a quick read, and sometimes you want to read on a specific topic but don't want to do it in a 500 page book with small print.

Being from New Jersey, I always enjoy books that are "my" local history. For various reasons, the teleplay set the initial invasion landing in Grover's Mill, NJ. So it's a topic I'm familiar with; and still learned so much from this book.

Other good parts: links to the actual production for folks to listen to, an examination of why people believe something like this in the context of "fake news," and lots of primary documents.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: Front Desk

Front Desk Front Desk by Kelly Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ten year old Mia and her parents immigrated from China two years ago. Her parents moved for the freedoms the US offered. They have freedom, yes; but it's been hard. Very hard. If they are lucky, the jobs barely pay the rent; if they aren't lucky, they are living in a car.

Their luck changed when they saw the job posting to manage a hotel -- with an apartment included! They jumped at the chance, but the reality is a bit different from what they hoped.

Yes, there is an apartment: a tiny one bedroom, with Mia's parents sleeping in the living room so they can be on call 24/7. They are responsible for everything, including cleaning the rooms, and in order to get all the work done, they both can't be staffing the front desk. And that is how a ten year old ends up running the front desk.

Mia's parents face other challenges, including a hotel owner who relishes underpaying them and not spending any money -- including when the washing machine broke.

Meanwhile, Mia is happy to be at school -- except she likes English but everyone (even her mother) thinks that being Chinese means she should be good at math, not English. The richer kids make fun of her clothes. The worst is the boy who is the son of the hotel owner. She makes a friend -- and isn't one friend enough?

Especially when she has other friends: the "weeklies," the handful of folks who live full time at the hotel. And the other Chinese immigrants who visit her parents, with stories of their own struggles, who find comfort in friendly, familiar faces and the free, empty hotel room her parents offer.

Mia has ups and downs as she works the Front Desk. And along the way, she tries to figure out a way to make her family the success they hoped for when they got on the plane from China to the US.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Can I give this six stars? I want to give it all the stars and then double it.

Stop what you're doing and read this book.

Of course I "know" Jack the Ripper, thanks to movies, TV shows, and documentaries about the 1888 murders in Whitechapel. The poor prostitutes of Victorian London.

Mind blown by this book. Rubenhold has researched the lives of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper and it turns out, poor, yes. Prostitutes? Their individual lives were complex and two did engage in sex work. But no, not all. And that realization could alter how one thinks about who Jack killed and why -- but no. This is not a book about Jack. It's for another to use this to look at Jack the Ripper; this book is about the women.

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, Mary Jane. One by one, their stories are told, starting with their births. Their deaths are not described; the mourning, the impact on family and friends, is.

Put aside the murders; this is of interest to look at lives that history normally ignores. Women who are poor. Or, rather, whose lives end in a place of poverty.

This book is heartbreaking, not just because each of these women are murdered. But because for each of them, it was a tragic slide into poverty, a life of bad luck, few choices, no opportunities. It wasn't that there was "one thing", but so many things.

Unhappy marriages with no ability to divorce and no real spousal support and no opportunity to make money to earn a living. Deaths of parents that shift a family from close and loving and struggling, to one divided between family members at best or in the work house at worst. Alcoholism, and the impact across generations. Single women getting pregnant and the punishing consequences.

So many, many things --but some universal commonalities. The lack of a social services. The work it takes to survive while poor. The lack of work opportunities. A world view that sees women as either saints or whores, so that those that fall out of one role of course have to be in the other.

Also, the original research! The primary documents! The checking of workhouse records to see where people stayed, even if just for two nights, in the days and months and years before they died.

This is not a book about a murderer; it is not a book about murders; it is not a book about depth.

It's about five women who were alive, and loved, and did the best they could. And it gives back the dignity they lost.

Read this; you won't regret it.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: Hurricane Child

Hurricane Child Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve year old Caroline, living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was born during a hurricane. Her mother told her the story of her birth to celebrate Caroline; but Caroline later learns from others that a "Hurricane Child" is a curse, "I won't have an inch of luck" and "sadness will follow me wherever I go."

Caroline may seem unlucky: at school, she has no friends, and is even treated poorly by the teachers at school. Her mother left, and after sending postcards, doesn't even do that any longer.

Caroline rejects the label of "unlucky" and decides to take charge of her own life -- and to find her mother. Oh, and she also wants to do something about the ghosts she sees.

In no particular order, what I loved about this book: the depiction of everyday life in the Virgin Islands. The prejudices Caroline faces. How lonely Caroline is. The wonder of her friendship with a new girl in school, Kalinda. How Caroline realizes that she has feelings for Kalinda. The mystery of what happened to Caroline's mother, and that adults are shown with complexity.

I enjoyed this being shown from Caroline's point of view, and as the book went along, how the adults in her life changed -- or rather, how her view of them changed.

And I liked the resolution: about Caroline creating friendships and families.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: The Wall in the Middle of the Book

The Wall in the Middle of the Book The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, there is a wall in the middle of the book.

I read this as an ebook; I assume that in the print book, the wall is in the middle/gutter of the book.

The person telling the story is on the right; and the reader can see on both sides of the wall, while those in the story cannot. This is a book where the images add to the story, so that the reader sees things the knight doesn't, reaches their own conclusions.

On the left, a knight, repairing the wall and talking about how the wall protects him. On the other side, animals. As the knight talks about the danger on the other side of the wall, and as we see animals and then an ogre, on the knight's side there is water slowly rising -- and the knight doesn't realize at first the danger -- and then some scary, dangerous things in the water.

It's clear that protection the wall provides is an illusion; that the knight sees danger on the other side, ignoring the danger on his own side. It's a children's book -- eventually (spoilers) the knight realizes the danger he is in, is forced to go to the other side, and realizes things are pretty good over there.

One weird observation, though. In making the point that we fear the other; that we don't see the danger in what we are familiar with; that danger can creep up on you; there is also the point that those we fear may be the ones we go to for safety. That we may become the refugees. And... at the end... while the knight was wrong that "the other side" was dangerous, by the end of the story, there is one side of the wall that contains danger (the rising waters and dangerous sea creatures). It's not about two sides wrongly fearing each other; it's about being mistaken about which side to fear.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first few chapters were terrifying.

It's late at night and Ivy, 12, is drawing in her journal. Minutes later, her father is there, rushing her out of her attic room. There's a tornado warning. At first I thought his fear was Ivy is in the attic, and he has to get his family -- his wife, 16 year old daughter, and twin infant sons - to the basement.

Except the basement is a storm cellar, and it's across the yard. And the tornado is right. there.

The family makes it to the storm cellar, and all six are safe. But the house, all they own? Is gone.

This is about Ivy and her family, living through the loss of everything. But Ivy had had loss before this: the addition of her baby brothers changed the family dynamic, and her relationship with her parents have changed. And then there is Layla, her sister, who she trusted and looked up to, until Ivy overheard Layla and her best friend argue -- because the best friend is dating a girl. And now Ivy can't trust her sister, can't talk to her, because Ivy is realizing she doesn't like boys the same way her friends do. It's girls that make her feel that way.

This is a wonderful book: about Ivy finding herself, and finding her friends, and who she can trust. It's Ivy feeling that she is lost and abandoned, because she's lost the family she had before her brothers were born, and she's lost her home, and she thinks she's alone in her feelings and emotions.

This is a beautiful LGBT story for younger readers.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review: Riverbend Road

Riverbend Road Riverbend Road by RaeAnne Thayne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Things I like about this series and the author: it may sound like I'm making fun, and I kind of am, but honestly, that the backstory is there but not over done is refreshing. It means, also, the reader can bring their own interpretations and depth to it. And, as I think I mentioned, with the books focusing on the "start" of romances, there can be heat but since it doesn't go beyond kissing/making out, this satisfies those who want romances without sex, but don't want Amish or religious romances; they want romances in the real world with real people.

With this book, I realize that every couple so far has had at least one dead parent.

So! She's Wyn (short for Wynona and man suddenly I like this name) and he's Cade, and I also realized her that there was such a lost opportunity because the men in the first 3 books were Aidan, Ben, and Cole.... why wasn't this Dade?

She's a police officer, he's the chief of police, so that means he's her boss, and I really liked how the author handled this, to establish the feelings were consensual and that both were aware of the problems with the power dynamic.

OK! Backstory, which of course also includes some medical stuff because I think that's been almost every book.

Wyn is a police officer, daughter of the former Chief of Police, and it's basically the family business. Her twin brother (police officer) was killed in the line of duty (hit by a car), her father recently passed away. He was shot in the head a couple of years ago, and for two years was in a nursing home because of the traumatic brain injury he suffered.

And Wyn is also a rape survivor. Years ago, in college, she was date raped; she's never told her family, but she did press charges and help the police catch the guy and it's one of the reasons she became a police officer. And what I liked about this is that it's both a big deal and not a big deal. It's part of Wyn but she is still Wyn. She's not broken. Cade is not there to heal her or fix her. She's already fixed herself.

Cade is the only good son from a family that is bad -- his mom died years ago, the rest of the family are basically criminals, including his father, and Wyn's father became a father figure to Cade. One of her brothers is Cade's best friend. Cade is trying to help his own younger brother out, but that brother (while married with kids) also has a drinking problem.

So Cade is attracted to Wyn, and has known her since they were both kids (he's just a handful of years older), so there is a relationship independent from the boss/employee dynamic. Plus, he also feels undeserving, both because he still views himself as "the bad kid from the bad family," and he has SECRETS from the night her father was shot.

Also, I liked the ending here in part because the HEA involves Wyn pursuing her career dreams.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review: Evergreen Springs

Evergreen Springs Evergreen Springs by RaeAnne Thayne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Devin is the town doctor, sister of McKenzie from the last book. Her backstory is she's a cancer survivor whose treatment included a total hysterectomy. As you may remember, McKenzie is her half sister from her dead father's affair. Don't worry, that part of the backstory really doesn't matter because she and her sister are best friends and cold mom is off on a cruise.

Cole is a former rodeo kinda star, whose a recovering alcoholic who served time for beating someone up pretty badly. His ex-wife just died, and now he has custody of his two kids with her, plus he's running the family ranch, plus his estranged dad shows up wanting a relationship, plus his sister has left her husband because he doesn't want kids and she's having twins. Oh, and she sprained her ankle. Which means she's in the hospital on bed rest.

Oh, and it also turns out that one of the kids may not be his, but don't worry, that part of the backstory doesn't really matter and never really gets mentioned.

He doesn't think he's good enough for her! She's afraid of making connections! Will these two crazy kids make it work?

Weird part of the story that I wonder about: he loves his house in the mountains, she loves hers on the lake, what will happen? Who will move? One fun thing about these books is that the HEA is the couple is together. Yes, the couples in books 1 and 2 show up as engaged and married in these later ones, but books are about the beginnings of relationships and don't rush to marriage & babies just to give the HEA. For example, couple number 2 live in two different states and as of this book, they're a long distance couple. And that's also why it's mainly kissing.

I cannot wait for the next one.

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