I think I got onto the hold list early for Julie Andrews's Home Work, because I got it surprisingly quickly. I just love being able to read "it" books while they're still hot. Years ago I read Andrews's first memoir, Home, and I found it quite depressing. Her childhood was a bit Dickensian, and the book ended before she'd made it to her Hollywood years. I assumed for years there had to be a second book coming in which she'd talk about Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and her later work. Home Work, out these eleven years later, is that book. By now, however, I'd forgotten the details of her first book, but she gave a nice, lengthy recap for those who've forgotten or not read the first memoir. For this reason, I'd advise to skip the first book (it really was so depressing), and dive into this one. In this book, Andrews talks about her Hollywood movies and musicals and the joy she found in working with Walt Disney, Dick Van Dyke, James Garner, and others. She also talks about her two marriages, both to men in the entertainment business; her daughter, Emma; her stepchildren; and her adopted Vietnamese daughters, Amelia and Joanna. She talks about living in several areas of the world and moving around for filming. She is very generous to those involved in her story, being truthful but never disparaging, but she never goes very deeply, preferring to stay mostly on the surface of events and relationships. I'm not familiar with most of the movies she discusses in the book, though, so some of that was a little ho-hum to me, not being invested in those films the same way I am with The Sound of Music, for example. It was an enjoyable read, especially for a celebrity memoir, though I wouldn't call it stellar. Perhaps I prefer a more introspective memoir. Still, if you're an Andrews fan, and you're familiar with her work, give it a try. My rating: 3 stars.
I'm late to Just Mercy, as I'm not generally drawn to social justice books, but having read Anthony Ray Hinton's memoir, The Sun Does Shine (read my review here), of being wrongfully incarcerated, spending 30 years on death row, and being released due to Bryan Stevenson's work, I knew I had to read Stevenson's book. In it, he talks about the work he's done for mostly poor and black inmates who are incarcerated after sham southern trials. Since the poor cannot pay for legal counsel, they must rely on overworked, overwhelmed, and, often, unengaged, court-appointed attorneys. Add to that the discrimination that still exists in some southern court systems, and some blacks end up serving time for crimes they did not commit. Stevenson has also worked hard to change the laws about not only death sentencing but also youth being tried as adults and sentenced to die. Though the stories and instances are horrific, it's still a hopeful book. I kept thanking God for people like Stevenson who are tirelessly committing their lives to making things right for the wrongfully accused. The book has been made into a movie set to open on Christmas day. If you, like me, missed this one when it came out five years ago, pick it up now. It's honest, respectful, thought-provoking, heartening, and it never gets hateful. My rating: 5 stars.
The next two reviews are for books read for Cybils award judging and represent my opinions. My reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other panelists.
I had planned to read Ashley Bryan's Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace only until I'd read enough to fairly judge it for Cybils. I'm a bit burned out on World War II stories, and I'm burned out this year on children's books about racism and otherizing and social justice. But once I started this book, I could not stop reading. It's part narrative, part war letters home, and part artist portfolio, and I enjoyed the multimedia approach. The copious artwork is mostly sketch work, though there are a few paintings, too. In the book, Bryan discusses his time as a black soldier in a segregated army. As a northerner, he was unfamiliar with racial segregation and the feelings it invokes. He was part of the group of men who swept the beaches of Normandy and removed mines in preparation for the D-Day invasion. Since the soldiers had to return home in segregated ships, they had to leave a few at a time, wherever there was room. Bryan stayed back until all of his men were on their way home. Throughout his three years at war, Bryan drew constantly. It was how he dealt with the horrific things he was seeing and experiencing. Periodically he'd send his artwork home for safekeeping. But when he returned home, he did not look at his artwork from this period for 40 years. Only his family and closest friends even knew he'd been to war. In recent years, though, he's finally been able to talk about his experiences and work up some of his sketches into full-color paintings. It's a great story, and a lovely book. I recommend it to anyone looking to learn about the black soldier's WWII experience. My rating: 4 stars.
Her Own Two Feet is the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze, a Rwandan girl born with clubfeet. Poor and unable to have Rebeka's feet fixed, though several charitable attempts were made while she was a toddler, she is kept from school and participating in a normal life. Eventually, she teaches herself to walk on the tops of her feet, and she becomes able to walk the three miles to school. By chance, though, her family comes to the attention of a family who report to Rebeka's American host family, that she is in need of surgery. Rebeka is brought to America for about a year to go through surgeries and numerous casts to correct her feet. Then, she must learn to walk on her "turned-flat" feet, before returning home. During her stay in America, she lives with a wonderful family (the mother is the author of the book) who love and care for her like she's one of their own. Rebeka quickly learns English, has a tutor who homeschools her, makes many friends, and gets to experience life in America--including Disneyland. Upon returning home, though, he finds that she is unable to speak her native language, until it comes back to her, bit by bit, over several weeks. Where the book leaves off, she is sent away to a boarding school in order to receive a good education, another act of charity. I often hear people decrying well-meaning Americans, like the ones in Rebeka's life, who swoop in and change their lives and then leave them to muddle through the more primitive parts of their African lives (no plumbing, no sanitation, poor schooling, little means of making a supportable income). I have a feeling this will not happen in Rebeka's case, and she has quite the fan club in America who will likely help her get into college when she reaches that point. That being said, though, it was very difficult to see Rebeka going from the luxury of middle-class America back to Rwanda, and having temporarily lost her language to boot. It's a good story for our American children who may have no idea of the hardships in many African countries. And no doubt you'll fall in love with feisty Rebeka. I sure did. My rating: 4 stars.
This week I'll be reading:
Having finished my Cybils reading list, I'm now free to read adult books again! I'm not sure what I'll settle on.
This week's audiobooks:
My hold came in for the new Brian Kilmeade history book, and I'm excited. I don't know much about the Alamo (have I forgotten?), so I'm looking forward to this. And Backman, well, I'll read anything he writes. Period.
You don't know how tired I am of writing four to seven thoughtful reviews each week! But I have made it to mid-November, and I'm planning to finish the year out. Perhaps I'll change my "review every book I read" policy in the new year. In the meantime, I think I'll do some speed reviewing this week. Forgive my tired brain.
Last week I finished:
If you're looking for a good, positive reading experience with a bit of drama and a bit of romance, Things You Save in a Fire will be your sweet spot. I'd seen a bit of buzz about this book, and the hold list at the public library was short, so I gave the audio version a try. The story is this: Cassie moves from Texas to Boston to help her near-estranged mother after surgery. This means transferring from one firehouse to another. As you can imagine, she's the only female, and things don't always go smoothly. She's also grappling with two incidents in her past that have soured her to love and made her unwilling to trust. Still, she finds herself falling for a fellow firefighter. This is a redeeming story, and although I found some of the drama a bit high for my liking, things wrapped up well, and I felt good after finishing it. It's a positive story. Give it a try. My rating: 3 stars.
The next five reviews are for books read for Cybils award judging and represent my opinions. My reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other panelists.
By now you know who Katherine Johnson is--the star of the book Hidden Figures and the movie based upon it. In her new book for children, Reaching for the Moon, she finally tells her story herself. I'd say this book is for younger readers, maybe third- or fourth-graders, but Amazon says fifth or sixth grade. I saw in the news lately that the 101-year-old Ms. Johnson is being honored by NASA for her esteemed work in putting a man to the moon. I found this book interesting (I listened to the audio, and it was well done), but I did find it rather too focused on the racial and gender discrimination she experienced. In her experience, every white person was prejudiced and mean, and every black person was honest, hard-working, and just trying to get educated. As soon as folks talking about discrimination in "always" and "never" terms, a red flag goes up for me. No doubt Ms. Johnson, her family, and her black female colleagues at NASA faced discrimination, but to make that the heart of the story was disheartening. The movie took this a step further, though: Ms. Johnson did not have to leave the building to use the restroom as depicted in the movie. Shameful. My rating: 3.5 stars.
I was looking forward to reading George Washington Carver for Kids, as I know Carver was a man of many talents and much knowledge. In addition to discovering and teaching ways to use the humble peanut, he also held deep knowledge of agriculture, the importance of crop rotation (and not planting cotton crop after cotton crop as it leeches southern soil of life), and all manner of natural things. He was also a teacher, lecturer, researcher, and painter. I learned a lot from this book. I did find the constant returning to race throughout the story a distraction. It's certainly a part of the story, but the author seemed to want to make it the whole story. This was a man who strived for education so he could learn and do more for his country, and he changed many lives. My rating: 3 stars.
Another book for younger readers, Too Young to Escape, by Van Ho, is the memoir of a little girl whose family escapes Vietnam for Canada after the Vietnam War. She is left in Vietnam with her grandmother until the family can send for her several years later. The story is told simply, and the narrator is the young Van Ho, so it's easily relatable to the audience. Unfortunately, important context is lost in this narrative style, because young Van doesn't understand why the war was fought, what South Vietnam's losing the war meant, why her family fled without her, and the peril she is in because of it. She cannot inform her audience, who are likely too young to know the history of Vietnam, of the important details. It was a sweet story, but I'm concerned that the lack of context will remove much of the impact of the story for her young readers. My rating: 4 stars.
I just love reading about authors before they were authors. In Before They Were Authors, Elizabeth Haidle tells us about the young versions of our favorite authors, in graphic novel form. She talks about Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Dr. Seuss, Sandra Cisneros, Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling, Gene Yuen Yang, Beatrix Potter, C. S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle. I do question some of the esoteric (at least to a young audience) choices on this list. What little kid is familiar with Maya Angelou's, Sandra Cisneros's, and Gene Yuen Yang's work? I fear they were added just to diversify the book, as all of the other writers were white. Amazon lists this as a teen/YA book, which really surprises me. I'd say third to sixth grade. I liked the book. It gave just enough pertinent information to be very interesting. I wished it was longer. My rating: 4 stars.
I know next to nothing about the constellations. When I look into the night sky, I can usually find the Big Dipper and Orion's Belt, but I can't do much more than that. I've always wanted to be able to look up and see pictures instead of lots of stars, but I don't have the skill yet. Therefore, I was very excited to read Seeing Stars: A Complete Guide to the 88 Constellations. This is a comprehensive guide showing each constellation (as well as many asterisms, such as the Big Dipper, which is not a constellation but a group of stars within one), giving a bit of its background, where and when it's best seen, and superimposing the constellation onto a picture of what it's meant to represent. I have to tell you, there are some farfetched constellations out there. Even when placed on a picture of what it reflects, it's hard to see how many of them are likenesses of the things they're meant to depict. Perhaps that's why I have trouble making pictures in the night sky. This is a good guide for a budding astronomer, I think, but reading it cover to cover got a touch tedious. My rating: 3.5 stars.
This week I'll be reading:
Cybils reading is winding down. There are about my last two books.
The four children's book reviews below are for books read for Cybils award judging and represent my opinions. My reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other panelists.
A couple of years ago, I enjoyed reading Trevor Noah's Born a Crime (see my review here). As part of Cybils judging, I just read his young reader's edition called It's Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. I was interested to see how the book for children differed, but given the over two years that has elapsed since reading the adult version, I guess I can't accurately judge that. I found the books remarkably similar, and I couldn't spot any differences such as stories or chapters in one and not the other or additional information in one or the other. In fact, I don't think the language in the children's version was any simpler, and certainly the portions that discussed apartheid were not. I would think this book is more high school YA level than middle-grade, but I'm no expert. I certainly wouldn't give it to a fourth-grader, but perhaps a mature eighth-grader. In the book, Noah tells about growing up as apartheid in South Africa was ending. It was a confusing time, and the transition was not necessarily smooth. Growing up mixed-raced in a country where the races were separated by law, he was "born a crime." Just going outside with his black mother was a challenge, and it could be dangerous. It's an important story for children to hear lest they never learn about the destruction that extreme racism brings. Noah is good about breaking down apartheid and racism to its building blocks, and when you break it down that far, you realize just how nonsensical it is. I recommend both books for stimulating thought and conversation. Do note, though, there is much talk of illegal hustling (piracy, petty theft, etc.) on Noah's part that might be inappropriate for children. I was hoping it would have been better dealt with when he know his audience was younger, but it was presented much the same way as in the adult version. It's presented matter-of-factly, but he doesn't seem to have much remorse, given that it's "what he had to do" to get by. My rating: 4 stars.
Last year I enjoyed listening to Jessica Fellowes The Mitford Murders, (see my review here) and I tried to get to the second book in the series, Bright Young Dead, all year, finally giving in to the audio version for it too. This is a series (the third is due out in January) of books loosely based on real events using fictionalized versions of the Mitford sisters as characters. The six Mitford sisters (they had a brother as well) were children in an aristocratic English family in the early part of the 20th-century. One of the sisters (I forget which) was close friends with Kick Kennedy, JFK's sister. I'm still unsure why the author used the Mitford girls as her characters when a made-up family would be just as interesting, but there you have it. In this installment, the older girls are having a party involving a scavenger hunt when one of the male attendees, Adrian Curtis, turns up dead. The main character, Louisa, the Mitfords' nursery maid, is convinced that the Curtis's maid, Dulcie, didn't do it, though all evidence points in her direction and she's taken into custody. These are fun books, a little fluffy, with some moments of high drama as well as high society snootiness. I don't love the audios as I found the female narrator's male character voices annoying, but the audio is still okay. I look forward to the next one, and hopefully I get to it before I've forgotten all the characters again. My rating: 3 stars.
I love puzzles and trivia, and I was inordinately excited to read Can You Crack the Code by Ella Schwartz. I hope the right kids find this book, because I can imagine it really appealing to a certain type of kid. The book discusses various codes, codebreaking, ciphers, cryptography, encryption, and gives you tons of historical information about the topic. Young codebreakers can try their hand at solving ciphers throughout the book. I found it engaging and fascinating. It's something I've always been kind of interested in, but not interested enough to pick up an adult book about it. This is the perfect book for learning about the topic without becoming overloaded or bored. I had a lot of fun with it. My rating: 4 stars.
There are certain historical figures that I know by name and reputation only, folks I'd like to know more about, but I'm not interested enough to seek out a whole biography of them. Caught! by Georgia Bragg was a great resource for learning more about the notorious ones. Each chapter plucks another scoundrel from the pages of history and gives you the interested facts about their life, their crimes, and their eventual capture. Here's a list of a few of the folks discussed: Al Capone, Joan of Arc, Jesse James, John Wilkes Booth, Blackbeard, Rasputin, and Typhoid Mary. The best part about the book is that it is often hilarious. The chapters are very conversational, and there are witty quips throughout that actually made me laugh. I enjoyed reading this book very much, and I learned a lot, too. My rating: 4 stars.
A part of the She Dared series, the biography Bethany Hamilton gives a look at the teenaged surfer who lost her left arm to a tiger shark attack, but taught herself how to surf competitively again. She's a remarkable woman with a remarkable story, but this book wasn't the best at presenting that. I've never been one to read a biography of a person when an autobiography exists, and I think I'd enjoy Hamilton's book Soul Surfer more. The book was lackluster and bland. There's a fine art to taking an adult story and presenting it to children in a satisfying, engaging, and inspiring way. This book just didn't hit the mark, though it inspired me to seek out other books, which isn't all bad. My rating: 3 stars.
This week I'll finish:
I'm having fun learning about the constellations.
And I'll begin:
I'm very much looking forward to both of these.
My current audiobook:
I don't know what attracted me to this book about a woman firefighter, but I'm enjoying it so far.
I danced around reading The Gown for many months until I finally decided to take the plunge in audio. I wasn't sure it was going to be quite my style, and I've read so many mediocre novels this year. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't spectacular. The story is this: In post-World War II England, Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin are embroiders at a dress shop that often creates dresses for the Queen. Consequently, the shop is charged with creating Princess Elizabeth's (soon to become Queen Elizabeth II) wedding gown. Ann is betrayed by a man and flees to Canada never to speak of it. French ex-pat Miriam is trying to heal from her experiences in a concentration camp during the war. In the present day, Ann's granddaughter, Heather, is trying to piece together Ann's past, which she and her mother know nothing about. One of my least favorite fiction tropes is the present-day young woman (usually a journalist--she is in this case, too) who finds herself jobless and without purpose delving into the past to solve a family mystery. This likely doesn't bother most folks, but I find it tedious. That and a rape scene somewhat soured me to the book. But, I did like most of the characters who seemed to get along well, and the whole woman-as-victim trope wasn't as heavy as in other historical fiction being written today. So far as I know, this was not based on a true story, which I had hoped to find. Overall, it was what I expected, and the audio was a good listen. If you like historical fiction, don't mind some improbability nor moments of high drama, I think you'll like it. My rating: 3.5 stars.
Another book that I'd been dancing around for awhile is Janet Benton's Lilli de Jong. This is the story of an unmarried mother in about 1880s America. With little means to support herself and her baby, she must work as a wet nurse for a society family. She makes hard decisions in order to best meet her baby's needs and has no support from family and very little from society. The reader can easily see the parallels between unmarried mothers in 1880 and today; though the situations have changed some, the stigma is nearly gone, and society provides help for today's struggling single mothers, the strains are the same. The book keeps neutral as to what conclusions you are to be drawing until the author's note at the end, which I could have done without. I was more impressed by being left to my own conclusions. I found the book well-written and thought-provoking, though there were an inordinate amount of descriptions of nursing infants. Each page had a nursing scene, and that got tiresome for me. I recommend this one for students of history who want to think about how far we've come, and yet, how very little changes after all. My rating: 4 stars.
The next five reviews are for books read for Cybils award judging and represent my opinions. My reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other panelists.
I have run onto so many books through Cybils reading that I never would have known about otherwise. And many of them have been terrific. One of the best I've read so far has been This Promise of Change, the autobiography of Jo Ann Allen Boyce, who was one of twelve black students who integrated Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956. When the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional to have segregated schools, Clinton officials knew it was time to integrate. They did not want to, but they did it because that was the Supreme Court's decision, and they did not want to be lawless. This makes the Clinton 12 and interesting case. We're used to reading about the Little Rock 9 (1957) and little Ruby Bridges in New Orleans (1960), where officials opposed having black children in their schools and took extraordinary measures to prevent it. The Clinton 12 experienced little initial opposition, but as the fall term went on, more and more demonstrations and instances of mobs, violence, and KKK activity happened. The military was called in at one point to restore order. Eventually, things settled down and the begrudging attitude of "we don't want to, but we will" prevailed. Many of the twelve did not graduate from Clinton. Several moved away to seek integrated schools and better opportunities. The book is written in verse, a few of the chapters rhyming, but most not. I enjoyed this style for this particular book because the verse brought an immediacy to the story that straight prose could not have. It was expertly done, and I feel that the author provided a balanced perspective. It is perhaps one of the books this year that moved me most. Any child or adult would get something from it. My rating: 4.5 stars.
Another very powerful book for middle grade readers is Rex Ogle's Free Lunch. Similar in tone and subject matter to Sherman Alexie's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (see my review here), this is Ogle's autobiography of a Hispanic-white middle-schooler who is poor, dealing with a chaotic home situation, and desperately in need the love of parents who are simply unable, due to their own issues, to give it. There is abuse, both verbal and physical, hunger, and poverty. The book is heartrending, and yet, you get the feeling that young Rex is going to make it to a better way of living. Though he has very little power over his situation as a child, he seems to be making choices that will give him a chance of escaping this kind of life in the future. His message to young students who are dealing with similar situations is to hang in there, endure until you can escape and make your own life. He does not acknowledge his family in the afterword (though he talks about a sister who is not in the story), leading one to think he has perhaps severed his relationship with his mother, father, and stepfather. Ogle did an exemplary job of putting you in young Rex's shoes, his likes (comic books and Chinese food), his anger issues, his concerns that he is not a good person, his loneliness and frustration and hopelessness. It's heavy material, and there are difficult parts, but overall, I felt hopeful for Rex. Ogle wisely ended the story with a reprieve from the family's poverty and dysfunctional family life, which helped. I cannot recommend this one enough for someone wanting a glimpse into the lives of those living in poverty and the issues they face beyond simply not having enough. I know people who live in this situation, and the book brought it to life with very clear eyes. My rating: 4.5 stars.
I told someone at work I was really looking forward to reading a children's book about moles, and she thought I was a little nuts, but Moles (The Superpower Field Guide) is one of my favorite Cybils nonfiction reads so far. Go figure. I am a sucker for nonfiction books in which the author is obviously excited about what they're teaching you as well as books that have a good sense of humor. It's especially helpful in children's nonfiction. Let's be real, there aren't a lot of folks who see a book about moles on the shelf at the bookstore or library and say, "YES! This is exactly what I've been looking for." So the author has to be creative in her approach. I have no particular fondness for moles, in fact, before this book, I had no idea what made a mole different from a gopher or other underground-living creature. But this book made moles so interesting to me I was hooked. The author, Rachel Poliquin, has a previous book about beavers, and an upcoming book about ostriches (alluded to in this book) is due out November 19. I'll be reading them both. If your young reader loves to learn about little-known animals, get a copy of this book. Good heavens did I like this goofball book. My rating: 4.5 stars.
One of the joys of this children's nonfiction reading project is learning more about historical figures I'm sure I studied years ago in elementary school or high school but remember very little about now. I frankly don't remember learning anything about Charles Darwin's several-year-long journey aboard the H.R.S. Beagle, beginning in 1831, in which he gathers samples and other information that leads him to his theory of evolution. His theory puts him in the company of other scientists throughout history who were considered heretics by the Church for trying to prove something contrary to Bible teaching. This is a graphic novel, and although I don't have a lot of experience reading graphic novels, I enjoyed this one. My one issue is that it seemed there were occasional skips in the story, unexplained situations, and poor transitions from one place to the next. Perhaps my lack of experience with graphic nonfiction is partially to blame, but I don't think it's fully to blame. Once again, I would have been better off skipping the author's note at the end which got too woke for me. Overall, for a book I did not look forward to reading, I enjoyed this one quite a lot. My rating: 4 stars.
Another graphic nonfiction book from last week was Don Brown's Rocket to the Moon!, the story of man's centuries-long quest to conquer space, and specifically, the 1950s and 1960s space race between the USSR and America and Apollo 11's moon landing on July 20, 1969. We all know the story, and I've read several (adult) books about this topic (see a recent review here), but this book was helpful in filling in the missing pieces. For instance, I didn't understand the design of the Saturn rocket or, frankly, what the "Eagle" was, until this book. So bravo to you, Don Brown! I really liked this book, and your little space cowboys will too, I think. My rating: 4 stars.
This week I'll finish:
I'm enjoying both of these--and learning so much.
It will be interesting to see how this YA version differs from the adult version.
My current audiobook:
Finally, finally, finally. I had been meaning to read this all year but never got around to it in print. So, audio it is!
This month's reading shattered all records as far as numbers go, but more than half of it was children's nonfiction. I learned so much this month. My one-word reviews are linked to full reviews, but the last six won't be reviewed until next week. I'm tired.