Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Frangipani by Celestine Vaite

 genre: contemporary fiction

Tahiti is home to Materena Mahi and she wouldn't have it any other way.  Sure, the father of her children spends too much time with his friends.  Sure, her relatives are always in her business but also sure, she loves her family, her island and their traditions.  Now, when her daughter is old enough to talk, though, she asks SO MANY QUESTIONS!  What does a mamie do with such a child? This is a story of the love and turmoil between mothers and daughters in a world that is figuring out how to meld traditional ways with more modern ones.  It's a classic story but with a Tahitian style and vibe that made it so much fun to read!

I really love how this story immersed me a culture that was completely unfamiliar to me - how did I NOT KNOW that Tahiti was a French colony?  I mean, that's embarrassing, right?  But now I know!  And it is interesting how France, its language and ways, are a part of Tahitian life.  For me, though, this was a story about Materena's heart, about her adoration of and exasperation with her children and spouse, about finding her own way to manage all the parts of her life that truly matter to her.   It made me chuckle, it made me teary, I felt connected to this vast village of people who love each other and drive each other crazy.  Really fun read.

The Haunting of Brynn Wilder by Wendy Webb

 genre: paranormal contemporary fiction

When Brynn arrives in Wharton, on the shores of Lake Superior, she's been gutted by loss and is feeling unmoored.  What she needs is a summer without responsibility and a chance for her brain and heart to breathe.  Instead of taking a house for the summer, she rents a room at a boarding house that doubles as a restaurant and the cast of characters that she meets there will turn this summer into her most memorable.  What she doesn't expect, of course, is the strange things she keeps seeing and the voices she hears in her room - and they aren't the only mystery.  

So, I got this for free on Kindle First Reads and my expectations were just something sorta spooky for October.  There were spooky moments, yes, but it was also a romance that I had a hard time completely falling for because Brynn just didn't seem like much of a person, if that makes sense. I didn't understand why everyone was loving her and her company when she seemed sorta flat.  I do like the setting and some of the dialogue was witty and entertaining, so there's that.  But there are a lot of plotholes (especially near the end) and I really hate when authors feel like they need to tell me everything the main character wears and does.  I don't need details about mascara and the type of pajamas people are wearing every night.  I want depth and plot development and while this was interesting enough for me to want to read the whole thing, the ending was startling and then it was wrapped it up a little too loosely for me to finish feeling satisfied.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

 genre: young adult historical fiction

Sally Lockhart has just lost her father and instead of being able to grieve, she must begin to solve the mystery of both his death and the bizarre note she receives in the post right afterwards.  In Victorian England, Sally stands out as a young girl with a unique skill set and an against-the-grain attitude.  When it is clear that there is more to her father's story than what she has been told, when the story involves Far East trade, opium dens,  shipping agents and creepy old ladies with no teeth, instead of falling into despair, Sally plans.  She watches and finds allies wherever she can.  Sally Lockhart does not mess around.

The copy of this book I read is the same one that I read and LOVED as a teen.  I didn't remember how important opium is to the plot of the story but I find that really interesting.  The mystery is actually pretty nuanced and convoluted and I appreciated the family-you-choose aspect of it.  It felt like there were several anachronisms, especially in the dialogue, which wouldn't have bothered me as a kid but does now.  I probably didn't enjoy it as much this time around but I can see why I liked it.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Heidi by Johanna Spyri (audiobook)

 genre:  children's literature

When Heidi is only five, she is taken to a small Swiss Mountain town to live with her grandfather in his bachelor hut.  This delightfully affectionate and loving child makes friends with the dear blind Granny, with Peter, the goatherd, and with the goats themselves.  Her small adventures on the mountain endear her to her gruff grandfather and as she grows older, her circle of admirers grows as well as Heidi proves to be the kind of person that others love to be around.

This orphan story is a tender and familiar one to me as my mother adored the movie so I watched several different versions (mainly the Shirley Temple one but others as well) throughout my childhood.  I loved to see how closely the movies stuck to the book and even though I haven't seen a Heidi movie in truly probably 30 years, it was exactly what I'd remembered.  Heidi is spunky and so without guile, she's a great little character - her shuffling around at the whim's of others is a sad thing that she handles the best she can.  I particularly like how immediately and absolutely in love she falls with the mountains of her grandfather's home, such a contrast from the busy city.

While there were a few little things that bothered me only because they pulled my train of thought out of the narrative with questions, this story is a classic for a reason.  The setting, the characters, the feel-good nature of the overall story, the little-orphan-creating-a-family vibe, it's all just cozy and comforting.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Spellbreaker by Charlie N. Holmberg

 genre: historical fantasy

As a child, Elsie lost everything familiar and familial and was saved by an organization, the Cowls, that needed what she could do: undo the spells that spellcasters performed.  Not just anyone has this skill, of course, and she knows she should be registered, but in order for Elise to perform the sort of work the Cowls require, stealth and covertness really is necessary.  She's proud of the efforts she's made to protect those that need protecting and bringing the uppity down a peg, even if she never gets the glory for it.  Soon, however, random acts of violence and stolen spellbooks start to look more like a pattern than random acts and one small slip means that Elsie's cover might be blown in a huge way, putting at risk everything she's trying to do to help the cause she believes in.  

Set in a fantastical Victorian England with some incredible world building, this read super fast and fun.  I love Elsie's unique skill set.  There is a great romance built up and a lot of different plotlines that all intrigued me.  I could tell about 75% of the way through that there was no way all those plotlines would be sorted out in this book and that was a bit of a bummer but by the end, I was so into it that instead of annoyed, I just wanted more!  I went to go get it and realized it doesn't come out until next year.  CURSES!

Yes, there were a couple plot holes but for pure entertainment value, I'm rounding up from 4.5 to 5 stars.  

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Black Friend: on Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph

 genre: young adult nonfiction 

In this book, Frederick Joseph chooses to speak directly to young people (although those of us no longer *young* absolutely can find as much value in it) and explain ways in which white people, in particular, can stop doing harm and start doing better.  It's a large subject to tackle but one that is so necessary and the author does so with humor and the right amount of justified saltiness for his intended audience.  He is blunt and vulnerable about his own experiences and envisions how things could've gone differently had various people been less ignorant and racist.  The personal stories do a good job of helping the reader feel comfortable and ready to learn (while obviously, though, the stories themselves are upsetting, it's that vulnerability and informality in sharing them that helps).  He explains critical terms and ideas relating to the topic and there are many interviews, as well, that provide other perspectives and round out the conversation.  

For me the humor worked nearly all the time, sometimes it was a little too condescending or repetitive, but my fifteen year old son who read it didn't complain about that at all - he really liked it (he found my copy on the table before I'd even read it and he finished before I started!). The cover itself is truly inviting.  The introductory letter starts the book off in a different, more (rightly) somber tone than the rest of the book, which might be off-putting for some readers who may not want to push through. Not that he isn't allowed to have whatever tone he wants, I just noticed it and want to encourage readers to continue reading.  As a white person, there is a lot to ponder and process here and ideas worth revisiting, although I'd imagine that there is much here for Black readers or other readers of color as well, even if just for validation.   I appreciate the lists at the back of the book and that by the end, I really did feel like Frederick Joseph believes that the world (and America in particular) can be a place where we all are truly respectful and appreciative of each other. It's just going to take *individuals* willing to do the work to get there.

**A complimentary copy was given to me by Candlewick Press for the purpose of a review.  All thoughts are my own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

 genre: fiction

An Anglo-Irish family lives in a large country house, Danielstown in County Cork.  In 1920, Lois sees her long life stretching before her with nothing much pleasing to look forward to, her malaise is palpable, as those on the cusp of womanhood can sometimes feel.  While she longs for freedom, the British way of living in Ireland around Lois is under attack and while the military in the area enlivens the social scene, a deeper fear still underlines even the details of daily life.  Danielstown, towering over all, is a character itself, as visitors come and stay and go again, bringing new drama to the scene.  The Last September is a portrait of a time and place and group of people whose heyday was slowly coming to a close, despite the backyard tennis parties and dances with the militia making it seem as though such a thing was impossible.

So, this isn't a fast moving book.  It took me way longer to read than it's 300 pages should have.  Part of that is that it is SO BEAUTIFULLY written, Bowen's language is precise and so intentional, descriptive with a lovely turn of phrase.  It begs to be read slowly.  But also, the plot, such as it is, is just plodding because in these large country houses, there just isn't much happening.  People eat meals and discuss the weather.  They talk about neighbors and visitors, they gossip about sweater patterns, who is engaged to whom and the languages one might learn in one's spare time.  In between, though, there is real loss and pain, acknowledgement about how little is in one's control as well as so much disgruntlement with a life that is pretty dang swell, all things considered.  Lois is a frustrating character, she's so melancholy and unsure of what will make her happy, it's hard to feel compassionate towards her.  I'm really glad I stuck to this one, though, because it gave me a sense of Anglo-Irish life during this time period and because there really is a lot to appreciate in the writing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (audiobook)

 genre: middle grade paranormal survival story

Lanesha lives with her beloved Mama Ya-Ya in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.  She's creative and bright, loves to learn and is comfortable with the somewhat sparseness of her life, dreaming big.  For the first twelve years of her life, Lanesha has known exactly where she'd spend each day: school, her close-knit neighborhood or her home with Mama Ya-Ya and the ghosts that only she can see and Mama Ya-Ya can feel.  But when Mama Ya-Ya can feel a storm coming, life suddenly and frighteningly becomes more complicated but when Lanesha faces Hurricane Katrina, she knows she won't face it all alone.

I appreciate what this novel is - strong female child protagonist facing a huge trial that her own spunk and fortitude is able to overcome.  That's important for kids to read (and adults too!)  It did make me feel for her, and while it's hard to imagine Lanesha's life being as rosy and care-free as she makes it out to be, it does make for a pleasant reading experience.  I will say two things: the disaster part of the novel did feel harrowing enough for me to be worried for her.  Also, though, I had a hard time believing some of the details because of plot holes, because of things that felt off enough that it took me out of the story and because the paranormal ghost aspect just never really set well within the rest of the story to me.  I'm glad I read it though, and I would still hand it to an interested young person.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop

 genre: children's fiction

In a hillside home in France, twenty children are waiting out WWII along with their nun guardian.  When she is told that there are ten Jewish children who have escaped and need a safe place to stay, Sister Gabriel makes the choice to hide them from the Nazis.  Can the other children not just be kind and friendly to the newcomer but can they keep what might be a deadly secret?  

When I saw this book it reminded me of a movie I loved as a child - Miracle at Moreaux - and it turns out Twenty and Ten is totally the inspiration for the movie!  This short novel is just the right amount of scary and offers some interesting ideas for conversation with children.  There are religious themes (mostly Christian but with the understanding that Jesus was a Jew) but it is very child-centered and empowering, when it truly is the children themselves who save the day when danger arrives.  It didn't blow me away but it was was a nice quick read aloud.

Lovely War by Julie Berry

genre: historical fiction

When James first sees Hazel, she is playing piano at a dance, just as he is preparing to head off to the war that will be called World War I.  While their meeting may be by chance, we soon learn that the Gods are aware of both Hazel and James and that if the horror of a war is to bring them together, perhaps a true kind of love might result.  Theirs is not the only love story born in war, however, and as we view the last year of the War to End All Wars along with James and Hazel, we meet other players in the Gods' symphony, handsome musicians and heartbroken friends and while there is no one the war does not touch in Britain and France in 1917-18, no way to avoid the suffering of such a conflict, good seeds are still planted - and no one knows that better than the Gods.

I know my summary up there isn't doing this book justice, it is SO GOOD.  It feels solidly grounded in the time and place but with the Greek Gods plot device, we do move around a bit in a way that is so intriguing and seamless.  The love stories are delightful and believable.  There is a race relations and racism storyline that I really appreciated and while it's not perfectly done, I learned about and thought about Black soldiers and their families fighting a war for a country that treated them like trash - and we NEED to think about that.  This story just whizzed by for me and I appreciated that while it tells, in some ways, a tale as old as time, it wasn't predictable and the characters made me care about them.  So glad I finally read this.

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