Category Archives: Young Reader

Towers Falling

24846343There’s no good way to write about 9/11.  There just isn’t.  And that’s something that we need to understand, that, at least for now, it will be associated with something truly terrible happening on American soil.

That being said, how can you explain the event to the children born after it?

That is the question tackled by Jewell Parker Rhodes in her young adult novel Towers Falling.  Focusing on life 15 years later, the novel’s narrator, Dèja, is a ten year old who lives in New York and learns about what happened.  Dèja and her family are homeless and dealing with the complications from that – they’ve just moved to a new housing center, her mom works as much as she can, Dèja helps take care of her two younger siblings, and her father stays in, trying to overcome mysterious health conditions that Dèja does not understand.

When she starts at her new school, Dèja tries not to like it, but of course becomes friends with Ben, the new boy from Arizona whose parents are separated, and Sabeen, who is Muslim.  School lesson plans are attempting to lead the students toward 9/11, but Dèja and her classmates, being born after the event, sometimes struggle to understand how the world changed.  Along the way, Dèja learns about recent history, her father, and herself.

This might have been one of the hardest books to read this year, simply because I still remember the day it happened.  I can picture the exact moment I heard – my parents had seen the news reports, but we went to school as though nothing had happened, but I knew something was wrong.  And then my classmate Trevor walked across the playground and we heard that the towers had fallen.  He was carrying cupcakes – it was his birthday.

I was about Dèja’s age on 9/11, and I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on.  But having grown up after that, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  And on our New York/D.C. trip several years later, we saw the holes in the skyline.  It’s haunting.

But that’s why I think this book was worth reading.  It’s hard to imagine children growing up not knowing about it, but how can any parent explain it?  How can you describe the fear and the hate, the love and the strength?  How can you describe how Americans can pull together in times of tragedy?  How can your child even begin to fathom what it was like?

The simplicity of the language makes a frightening topic easy to read, but the subject matter doesn’t change.  Dèja watches video of the day, she tries to research to understand what happened.  But Dèja also contemplates terrorism in, if a simple way, a child’s honest way, wondering why Sabeen’s family should be afraid if they are good people and also Muslims.  Ben’s father signed up for the military because of 9/11, and Dèja’s father is equally haunted by the day.

It’s how easy the vocabulary is, and how true Dèja is, that makes Towers Falling so worthwhile for young adults looking for answers, or adults trying to explain what happened.  I repeat: there’s no good way to write about 9/11.  But if there is, it’s how Jewell Parker Rhodes has done it.

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In order of reading, but also the first one is the least whelming.

1292826TULIP FEVER — Deborah Moggach

Ugh, period piece drama that needs to have a little more oomph to convince me it’s good literature.  Okay, sorry, it is a fun premise (Amsterdam during the tulip craze of the 1600s, unhappily married woman starts affair with the artist painting her portrait), but the way the novel is structured is underwhelming.  Each chapter changes POV, which is fine, but some of the characters didn’t need to get voiced as often as they were.  I was much more intrigued by the sections that weren’t focused on a character, but on the painting itself.  That was fun.

I read this one because it’s going to be a movie with Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz and let me tell you, I think the movie is going to be 200% better than the book.  It’s the kind of story that needs to be told visually because so much of the drama is based on painting.  Overall, it’s a quick read, and relatively harmless, but nothing that makes me scream “YES READ THIS PLEASE.”  It’s more like, “Oh, that’s nice.  The trailer looks good.”

(No, seriously.  The trailer looks GOOD.  Check it out.)

30688435EXIT WEST — Mohsin Hamid

Really quickly on this one, a rep brought an ARC and suggested it to a coworker, who then said I had to read it.  If this book doesn’t get nominated for some award this year, I’ll eat a bowl full of Brussel sprouts.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a gorgeous (and brief) novel about a man and a woman who fall in love in a dangerous country, then try to escape the dangers of their home by venturing through doors.  It’s politically poignant, and simultaneously magical in the fairy-tale-like structure.  This is the kind of book you read in an afternoon but think about long after.  And seriously, it’s going to be up for an award, I’m sure, and deservedly so.

616nyvwmpl-sx316THE APPRENTICE WITCH — James Nicol

So after A Conjuring of Light and the astonishingly magical world of Kell and Lila, it’s hard for me to start up another fantasy, but we received an ARC for a new young adult novel that was getting great reviews, so I tried it.  The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol was originally published in the UK in July 2016 and is coming to the US this July.

Arianwyn is a young witch who has failed her final examination.  While her school nemesis is assigned to a special position, Arianwyn is sent to Lull, a town with doubting villagers and magical creatures.  Arianwyn makes some friends and discovers that the magic inside of her might be more than anyone believed possible, but there might also be a darker magic lurking in Lull…

Overall, this was a sweet book.  Arianwyn is a fun young witch and the friends she makes in Lull are charming.  I think my main problem with this was just that there is so much to develop but, as a young adult novel, the length is limited.  If this does become a series, I can see how it could develop and I’d be interested enough to give book two a shot.

To be fair, I also have to say that another thing that influenced by reading of it was a conversation with my manager.  I had looked up reviews online and told her that it was doing very well and that we should order at least one copy for the store; when she spoke with our rep, she ended up ordering a display of the book because it was getting great reviews and the man who got this one also signed J.K. Rowling at Bloomsbury.

Talk about high expectations.

It’s not even that anyone compared the book to Harry Potter, but the simple fact that I was told that the person who saw the awesomeness of HP picked this one taints my way of reading.  The plain truth is that it’s a delightful book and has a lot of potential, and I would give it 4.5/5 stars.

Recommended for 8-12 reading levels (but I’d lean toward 9-10ish because it’s that same kind of interest as HP — young magicians with something to prove to the world and all that), and worth a read.  I think it’s especially good that it’s due out in July because it’s a great summer-y kind of book.

And that concludes the brief wondrous blog entry of the Honest Reader.  I’m currently working on Ron Chernow’s Washington, so updates might be infrequent due to me being crushed by 900+ pages of delightfully researched and written history.  Wish me luck.

Happy reading!

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Another Update

I feel like I’ve been making some serious progress on this Reading Challenge deal – although my thesis is still relatively un-done, but that’s okay… I still have two weeks to get a full draft of at least 80 pages completed… and I already have about 15… so that’s fine…

So, the update.  I’ve read:

  • something aloud to someone else (The Somethingosaur by Tony Mitton to my nephew, and then niece)
  • a middle grade novel (Pax by Sara Pennypacker)
  • a National Book Award Winner (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me)
  • a book about religion (C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters)
  • a 20th century classic (The Color Purple, which was also Emma Watson’s bookclub pick for February)
  • a book set in my home state (The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mackenzie)
  • a book translated into English (Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue)

And it’s about these last two that I just want to take a moment.

See, on Goodreads, you can only give full stars.  Which is great on one hand and terrible on another.  Because these two books deserved (in my opinion) 3.5 stars.  So I rounded down and gave them both 3.  Giving a book 4 stars means I can confidently recommend it to everyone I know (that would be interested).  Giving a book 3 stars means I enjoyed it all right, but wouldn’t go out of my way to convince someone it’s the best book in the world.

The Portable Veblen is a strange book that takes place mostly in Paolo Alto and follows Veblen and her boyfriend-turned-fiance as they try to navigate crazy families and workplaces and what makes them what they are.  And it’s… fine…?  I think I enjoyed it.  But that’s the trouble.  After 100 pages, I thought I liked it.  At 200, I didn’t think I did.  At 300, I was pretty sure I didn’t like it, but I only had a little over 100 to go, so I finished.  And I think I liked it at the end.  The best part of the whole novel is the squirrel that Veblen talks(?) to that eventually gets a chapter of his own.  I told you it was strange.

It’s just a tough book to find a way to sell to someone.  Like, I’m really grateful I borrowed it instead of buying it because I don’t like it enough to pay $$$ for it.  But I’m glad I read it.  I think.  It’s just a little too off-center for me.  (There’s a reason I like my writers old and dead.)

Enrigue’s Sudden Death is, like Veblen, tough to sell, but I think I enjoyed it more.  It’s completely bizarre.  Like, seriously, try to read any reviews of it and people say it’s riveting, it’s great, it’s intellectual, it’s brilliant.  I found it strange and kind of great.  But it’s for a special type of person that I don’t think would appreciate the completely different nature of the work.  Basically, Caravaggio (yes, that Caravaggio) is playing a tennis match against a Spaniard and they’re going to “sudden death.”  But in between points, you get transported around time and continents, hearing a story about Hernán Cortés and then about Anne Boleyn’s beheading and the creation of tennis balls from her hair and then about the writer and his attempts to write this book and then some stuff about Caravaggio and you basically get wrapped up in a million short essays that are all united by this tennis match that Enrigue has constructed and it’s boggling.  There’s a chapter in there that I really liked that focused on translation and how it changes the meanings of works.  And, knowing that I’m reading a book translated into English made me read it differently.

So again, it’s a tough book to sell to just anyone because it’s pretty much a limited audience.  It’s good, and worth a read if this is your thing, but it’s weird.  And you might not understand what you just read when you finish it.

In non-challenge news, I also read Dear Pope Francis, which is wonderful because the Pope does not shy away from the tough questions children from around the world ask him, and The Warden by Anthony Trollope (which was for class, not pleasure).  I’m also working on Barchester Towers, another Trollope, and am going to have to finish it within the next two weeks because, well, it’s required reading.  It’s better than The Warden, though, so I’m finding it less troublesome than before.

In any case, I’ve lost count of my RC2016 success (I think I’m at 15/63?), but it doesn’t matter because I’m ahead of schedule and that means I have a chance to sit myself down and really get some schoolwork done.  Whoo.

As always, find a new book at your local indie – and see if they read Veblen or Sudden Death and listen to what they think.  I’m curious how anyone else has taken either, or both.

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Quick Pics

I’m currently in the middle of about a million different books, but I thought to myself, “Self, why don’t you review a couple of children’s books?  Like, picture books?”

And then I said to myself, “Self, that’s a good idea.”

Now, there is a catch.  Namely that it’s very difficult to review a picture book without giving up vital plot points and potentially ruining the experience.  So I’m going to do my best to keep it a little vague.  Unless there’s something just so wonderful I have to share it…

In any case, here are three of my favorite children’s picture storybooks.

The Dark; by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jo...

3. The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen (book trailer here)

Let me first say that I was never all that impressed by A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I respect any author who is able to maintain a high readership with fairly formulaic books.  And let me follow that up by saying I just adored this picture book.  At the very beginning, I was reading and wondering how this could possibly be a good children’s book.  After all, it’s about the scary dark.  But as the story develops, The Dark (because it certainly does deserve to be a proper noun) is much more than just a lack of light, and the ending is simply delightful.

The story itself is worth the read, but the illustrations are the best.  They’re simple, but so hauntingly beautiful and charming.  And that’s really the best way to describe them: charming.  You’ve got to read it.

2. The Duchess of Whimsy, written by Randall de Seve and illustrated by Peter de SeveDuchessofWhimsy-jackt

The Duchess of Whimsy is known for being rather unconventional and over-the-top, but everyone who comes to her parties shares her love of the whimsical.  Except for the Earl of Norm.  Who happens to be tragically (and almost boringly) normal.  But when crisis strikes the party, it’s the Earl who helps save the day and when the Duchess and the Earl finally start to understand each other, they realize that it’s really all about moderation.  Because it’s okay to sometimes be so normal and sometimes to be wildly whimsical.

While the story is a little long, I love the illustrations and the sweetness of the story so much that I’m willing to spend a little more time reading.  My niece, maybe not, but I’m older and more worldly and more patient.  I particularly love the quiet romance between the Duchess and the Earl (which is so obviously going to happen that for most of the first time I read it I was just waiting for that moment when they realize they’re great together) because they balance each other so well.

If The Dark is haunting and beautiful and charming, The Duchess of Whimsy is delightful, sweet, charming, and just so much fun.

blueberry_excerpt1. Blueberry Girl, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess

Without a doubt, this is my favorite non-classic children’s picture book.  I loved it first because it was Gaiman, and who doesn’t love anything he does?  But I loved it second (and mostly) because it is the most beautiful book for girls in the world.  And I mean girls of all ages.

The entire poem is an inspirational prayer for “unconventional” girls.  And I cry every time I read it.  I’m not kidding.

Words can be worrisome, people complex;

Motives and manners unclear.

Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,

Free from unkindness and fear.


Let her tell stories, and dance in the rain,

Somersaults, tumble and run;

Her joys must be high as her sorrows are deep,

Let her grow like a weed in the sun.

And maybe it’s unfair to say this is the one you absolutely must read.  But if you’re a woman, or if you have a daughter or niece or granddaughter or wife or any significant female in your life, you should read it.

And as if the words aren’t enough to make you weep, the illustrations are beautiful and magical and just perfection.  I’m tearing up just thinking about this book.

If you have any doubts, try this: the most beautiful thing you’ll ever hear.

I promise I’ll review another “grown up” book soon, but I think it’s only fair to give some time to all kinds of books, even picture books.  Because even (and sometimes especially) picture books can teach adults a thing or two.

For more on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark click here

For more on Randall and Peter de Seve’s The Duchess of Whimsy, tap your magic wand here.

And for Neil Gaiman’s young reader books, click here.

As always, be sure to check out your local independent bookstores for these and other recommendations!

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