Thursday, May 31, 2018

from whimsy to the deep

The Garden Party by Grace Dane Mazur
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This book has a whimsical feel right from the beginning.  From before the beginning, actually: from the seating chart at the front.  That whimsy quickly gets deep, though, as we meet the people around the table.  The bride and groom, their parents, siblings, grandparents, and other assorted friends and relations who have gathered to celebrate the nuptials scheduled for the following day, all have their own dramas going on.  In that way, this reads more like a series of intersecting short stories, as each individual or small group of characters is really pursuing their own storyline.  Infidelities are revealed, mortality is contemplated, and both love and passion flower.  So, no, this is not a whimsical story, but it is a good one, and full of feeling.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Friday, May 25, 2018

sometimes it takes a while to find yourself

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Willa is a very bland, sort of get-along-with-everyone character.  She goes from being dominated by her mother, who has some kind of anger management issue, or is possibly bipolar, or something, to being dominated by her both her first and second husbands, both of whom definitely have anger management issues.  She's got skills (I was shocked about 2/3 of the way through the book when she mentions that she speaks 5 languages) but recently gave her job teaching ESL to follow her second husband into retirement in Arizona, where she identifies most with the lone saguaro cactus in front of her house.

When she gets a call that her son's ex-girlfriend (who she never met) has been shot and needs help, she gets on a plane and heads to Baltimore to take care of her and her 9-year-old daughter.  Some may think it odd to fly 2000 miles across the country to care for a woman you've never met (and her daughter), but Willa has always been open to suggestion, not to mention that she's totally bored.  But in Baltimore, she finally finds a purpose, people who need her, and a community.  The only question is whether she also finds the strength to break from her former go-along-to-get-along life and stay in the place and with the people who actually make her happy.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

crisis of faith

Southernmost by Silas House
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: In an editorial in today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne writes that "[m]any young people [have come] to regard religion as 'judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical and too political.'"  Asher Sharp couldn't agree more.  He's a Holy Roller pastor who's having a crisis of faith.  He's been harboring some long-standing guilt about how he and his mother treated his brother when he came out as gay, and when he's forced to turn away a gay couple seeking shelter in a flood, his crisis comes to a head.  In trying to accept the two men into his church, he loses his pulpit, and in trying to bring his more liberal thinking into his own home, he loses his wife and son.

Faced with a protracted custody battle, Asher kidnaps his son, Justin, and spirits him away to Key West to find Asher's long-estranged brother, Luke.  What follows is... not much.  Justin and Asher find a home at a small resort hotel on the island, and Asher works as a general handyman.  But neither of them do much, except think deep thoughts about God, and faith, and the church, and judgment, and holiness.  This is a very introspective, slow-moving, but beautifully written book.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

one-two punch

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA, fiction
Review:  Noah's last name isn't Hypnotik (it's Oakman), but he does have strange fascinations.  That's his own name for them, taken unashamedly from David Bowie's book.  They are: a YouTube video featuring a woman aging day by day; the man with an enormous goiter Noah passes every day on his way to school; a picture dropped by a singer; and uncovering the hidden messages in his favorite author's works.  When Noah is hypnotized (or something - he's not actually sure what happened), and he starts to notice subtle changes in the world around him, his strange fascinations remain constant.  Convinced that the answers lie in uncovering the secrets behind his fascinations, he begins a somewhat obsessive quest to get to the bottom of things.

But then, well, let's just say that I did not see that coming.  Or the other thing.  It was quite the double-whammy, and very well done.  But what really pulled me through the book was wondering whether Noah would ever figure out how to go back to being a good friend.  His two best friends, twins Alan and Val, are fantastic supporting characters and add a lot of depth to Noah's story.

FTC Disclaimer: A received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

taking a stand

Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, middle grade
Review: I really wanted to be able to give this book 5 stars, based on its portrayal of a courageous 4th grader who takes a stand against books being banned from her school library, and its top-notch discussions of the First Amendment and censorship.  When Amy Anne's favorite book (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler) is banned, along with several others, normally shy and reserved Amy Anne starts to stand up for what she believes in.  She and her friends start gathering copies of the banned books to share with their fellow students from the "Banned Books Locker Library".  Their efforts get more ingenious the more books are banned, and the conversations that are engendered because of the controversy are spectacular.  This is a great book to teach about civil liberties, without having students feel like the lessons are being shoved down their throats.

Unfortunately, as good as it is in those areas, it is equally bad in others.  Amy Anne's parents are completely oblivious to her feelings of frustration at home (her two little sisters are always right and she is always in the wrong), and whereas the First Amendment is very strong, due process seems not to exist at all.  The portrayal of the motivations of the parent behind the book banning was weak, and those of the school board non-existent.  These flaws really brought down an otherwise excellent book.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

leave the past in the past

My Name is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: All is not well in the Miller/Black household.  Mr. Miller is dead, for one thing, at the hands of his thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Venus, who doesn't deny that she killed him, but blames her mother for not taking action to stop... something.  A few days after Venus is arrested for doing... whatever she did that resulted in her stepfather's death... her little brother Leo, who is intellectually handicapped, goes missing, but Venus, being in juvenile detention, can't do anything to help find him, which seems to be the hardest part about being in jail, as far as she's concerned.

Skip forward 6 years to when Venus is released and sets out to try to restart her life in something resembling a normal fashion.  Possibly the reader is supposed to still care about what actually happened on that fateful night in 1980 (and the events leading up to it), and I did, but I found myself much more interested in Venus as a character than as a sensationalized news story.  Rest assured, we do find out what happened and why Venus is so mad at her mother, but her current story is much more interesting, and that's what kept me turning the pages.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

the nature of grief

We Own the Sky by Luke Allnut
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Luke Allnut practically wrote my review for me in his letter to Readers at the beginning of the galley: "I have tried to be honest about how people respond to tragedy.  our thoughts are often dark; our actions unsavory.  But I also wanted to show just how resilient people are.  And that kindness sometimes comes from surprising places.  Hope and love and compassion, above all.  I hope that's what you'll get from the novel, as well."  He's done exactly what he set out to do, with grace and imagination.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.