Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Mulligans of Mt. Jefferson is a novel of friendships

The Mulligans of Mt. Jefferson is a novel of friendships that span decades, the secrets that can be hidden even from the best of friends, and doing what is right.  Written by Don Reid, one of the original Statler Bros., Mulligans is a sequel to his earlier novel O Little Town, but it can clearly be read as a stand alone book.  Buddy, Cal, and Harlan grew up together, went off to war together, and settled back into adulthood with wives and families.  Never did anyone expect that their routines would be interrupted by Harlan being shot in his own home.  Buddy, a police officer, finds himself trying to find his friend’s attacker, all the while feeling he is not receiving truthful information from Harlan or his wife.  Cal, who has just returned to the community as the Methodist pastor, sees an unidentified pain in one friend’s eyes and a rightful determination in the other’s ; at the same time he continues to hide his own raw pain as he starts life without his wife and children.
Reid alternates present day action (set in the late 1950s) with flashbacks to “the three Mulligans” mischievous boyhood days.  There are some intriguing, secretive characters in this book  who are never completely revealed.  One is “Uncle Vic,” the restaurant owner who took the boys under his wing back when they were preteens and would pilfer his empty soda bottles from his back lot to turn around and sell them back to him for deposit.  Perhaps his character as a professional golfer and his secretive past with the wife/mother of the town’s powerful Greek family is better explained in the first novel, or maybe he will be a continuing cornerstone in future books.  Most intriguing to me was Fritz, an older gentleman who worked in the back room of Harlan’s jewelry store.  Obviously, an immigrant, Fritz had a loyal bond with Harlan’s family that transcends death and yet, he and Harlan barely speak.
Most male Christian fiction authors I have read write in either the fantasy or suspense genres   Reid’s style was a pleasant change of pace.  The book has a fast pace,  “Present day” action occurs over three or four days, while the flashback sections cover three decades of key insight.  Essential bonds between readers and characters come from those flashback elements.  You care about Cal’s failed marriage because you’ve seen him grow up into an honorable man.  You don’t want to believe anything mad about Harlan because you watched his father mold him into a “good boy.” 
I received a copy of this title as an e-galley for review purposes.  I was not compensated in any way for this review, which reflects my opinions.

The Mulligans of Mt. Jefferson

Monday, February 27, 2012

Revisiting Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire

Shortly after posting yesterday's review of Polly Horvath's Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire, I realized that I had completely neglected to mention Sophie Blackall's delightful illustrations that accompany the text.  Children's chapter books can be "made or not" by the presence or lack of quality illustrations.

Unlike picture books, chapter books don't NEED the artwork, but it adds a dimension of enjoyment and wonderment.  I found myself hoping that the next screen (I read this on my NOOKcolor) would be another black line drawing by Blackall.  At one point in the story, Mr. Bunny needs to drive a car for the first time, but he cannot reach the pedals.  Mrs. Bunny supplies him with a pair of purple platform shoes, a remnant from one of her long ago shopping sprees.  Blackall's drawing of Mr. Bunny towering above his wife delivers just the right amount of humor and absurdity.  Readers clearly recognize the pride on his face, resulting from his new "elevated status," but we also recognize the silliness of such pride, since Mr. Bunny's height is nothing when compared to that of the human child Madeline who almost fills the whole page with her bigness.

If Horvath decides to spin another Bunny detective tale, I hope it involves a partnership with Blackall because Sophie's vision of the characters will always be mine.

Delight a child - read a book with him or her!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath

 Mr and Mrs Bunny Detectives Extradinaire  Polly Horvath is a talented author, winner of both a Newbery and a Newbery Honor for two previous novels  Everything on a Waffle, remains one of my favorites, named for the menu at Miss Bowzer's restaurant where young Primrose spends much of her time after both her parents disappear at sea.  Primrose's quirkly observations about life on their Nova Scotian island and her dogged optimism that her parents have survived the storm made her a heroine that I loved  introducing to young readers.

I hoped that I would like Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire as much, but I didn't.  I
was drawn into the mystery and found both Horvath's typical wry commentary on human foibles and her unique humor evident throughout the book.  But I wonder how much of that humor young readers would understand?  And I doubt that readers older than fourth grade would even consider picking up the book.  Yet I know that parents and children reading the book together would have a good time.  Parts even remind me of Kate DiCamillo's stories. 

Many successful children's stories have absent parents and this story is no exception.  Young Madeline's parents are hippy hold-overs and really do not understand their well mannered daughter who has chosen to attend regular school.  When she is slated to receive several honors at the fifth level graduation ceremony, they are unimpressed and certainly do not want to attend the event, especially after they find out that THE Prince Charles is making a special appearance.  Madeline's disappointment is quickly forgotten when she finds her parents have disappeared.  A small business card with some unusual writing, possibly in fox langauge, is the only clue she can find.  Could they have been possibly kidnapped by foxes?  Why?  Could her great uncle, a famous decoder, help her solve the mystery?  And when he slips into a coma after reading the card, to whom will the young girl turn for help?  How about Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who have just moved to their lovely bungalow and just decided that they'd like to buy fedoras and become detectives?  Car driving foxes and rabbits, a conniving marmot, possible exploding bonnets, and kidnapped parents who will only eat vegan treats make this a far fetched but entertaining story.  Unfortunately, I couldn't let myself be a youngster enthralled in the story.  I kept finding myself thinking, "Well, I get this reference or commentary on society, but I doubt that a seven -nine year old would know this.  And few kids older would be captivated by detective rabbits.  Who really is the intended audience?

Final opinion is that Horvath remains a talented author and this book has potential for future bunny detective stories.  After all, the book ends with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny building a hutch for their pet (friend) Madeline, and with parents like hers, Madeline is definitely going to need a place to escape to.  Still I think, I will stick with recommending Everything on a Waffle.

I received an Advanced Readers Copy of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire to review.  The opinions I expressed are totally mine.  I was not compensated for my review in any way.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Bridge by Lisa Tawn Bergren

  While viewing some literary websites and e-letters last week, I ran across promotions for Lisa T. Bergren's children's books (God Gave Us You) and her teen supernatural series (Waterfall), and for the first time I connected the dots that she was the author of both.  That took me on one of my wandering searches to see what else she had written and where I could obtain those books.
Imagine my delight when one of the most interesting sounding titles was available at the local library.

Published in 2000, The Bridge still reads like a fresh, contemporary novel set in Montana.  The story actually begins in 1961 as an elderly fly fisherman embarks on an early morning attempt to catch fresh trout for his wife of 60 years.  His thoughtful musings are interrupted by a loud crack and he looks up to see the old wooden bridge give way, hurdling a stranger's car into the fast moving river.  Quickly Ernie, with no thought to his own safety, makes his way through the cold water to the open window of the screaming driver.  With only seconds to react, he takes the baby she thrusts to the window, both knowing he will only have time to save one of them.  Ernie collapses on the bank, smelling the sweet grass and river reeds, to hear a powerful voice kindly say, "The child is well . . . And you will be too.  I am proud of you, Ernie.  Now come. Come with me."

From there the book jumps forward to 2000 and the life of Jared Conway, successful New York commodities trader, divorcee, and absentee father.  Readers will quickly figure out that he is the rescued infant, now an adult. When his careful plan to reunite his family
fails, Jared takes his son on a road trip to Montana, hoping the fews days necessary to clean out a cabin he has inherited, but never seen, will give father and son needed time to repair a damaged relationship.
The peaceful Montana setting does it magic and the duo end up spending the whole summer there. soon connecting with a ceramist/sculptor who lives nearby. While Eden has a strong faith, she carries scars which keep her both emotionally and physically sheltered in her remote cabin.  Yet from the start she is intrigued by the father and son.  Bergren has done more than write a simple love story.  This book is about bridges or transformations.  Conversations about God and faith are genuine to the characters and necessary to the story. 

This story is not dotted with minor characters, places, or events just to fill pages -- everything in the narrative advances either Jared's or Eden's story.  There areno contrived misunderstandings to
"thicken" the romantic plot.  I don't know if Bergren's writing is this strong in her historical novels, but I intend to give one a try.  Some of her books are in the fantasy (supernatural, time travel/historical) genre, which I am not usually drawn to, but after reading this book I suspect that she could weave a suspenseful, meaningful story.

Reading The Bridge was an uplifting way to spend an afternoon, and I was delighted that I chose this book as my next read, especially since last night I finally finished a book I had struggled with all week.
This book will remain nameless, but it was a "popular" contemporary fiction by a national best selling author that was on several recommended lists.  My reaction when I finished last book - "Glad I'm done with that book.  Why did I ever read it?  Do people actually act like that?" Seldom do I finish a book that I don't like even one of the character!! What a difference my reaction was for The Bridge, when I immediately decided to write my blog review.  Even now, I have the characters in my mind, wishing they were real people about to start more meaningful lives together.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer, now living in Baltimore, went to the colored ward of Johns Hopkins hospital and told the gynecologist on staff that she had a knot in her womb.  The medical diagnosis was cervical cancer with a tumor that appeared to be growing at an alarming rate. Henrietta had only recently given birth to her fifth child and her medical charts did not indicate any abnormalities at that time.  Friends remember that Henrietta told them that she knew something was wrong before the birth.  Henrietta received the treatment of the day - radium that burned right through to her skin, but the cancer was not abated and she died shortly after her diagnosis.  However, when her tumor was biopsied, cells of both her cancer and her unaffected cervix were taken for research purposes.  George Gey, a Johns Hopkins researcher, cultured those cells hoping they would divide and keep dividing.  Theoretically, scientists believed it was possible to keep a line of cells alive forever outside the body, providing them with a line of identical cells that could be manipulated in endless ways for research.  However, cell research was young; even the right culture medium wasn't known, and cells always died. 

But Henrietta's cells, named HeLa did not die, or at least the cancer cells did not.  They thrived, divided, divided again, and have kept multiplying ever since.  Suddenly science had a never ending supply of cells for research.  Henrietta's normal cells did not live, and medical research would later find that normal cells quit dividing when the little end of the chromosome shortens which is after about 50 divisions.  The next twenty years bring many advances in genetics and cell research, but also many set backs.  Some of the set backs will actually be because of the HeLa cells.  Meanwhile, Henrietta's family, four children and her husband, know nothing about the famous cells which are the foundation of almost all medical research labs and experiments.  HeLa cells even travel into space and are transported to nearly every corner of the globe. 

Rebecca Skloot first learned about Henrietta Lacks in a college biology class and when she learned that the donor's name was often mistakenly listed as Helen Lane or some other variation, she was compelled to find the human story behind the science.  By the time she is able to start her quest, the Lacks family has already learned of the HeLa cells existence, have been swindled by a quack lawyer, and have decided to never talk to the press again.  Skloot perseveres and finally becomes a bridge between the family and the medical world.  Readers should expect a book on the history of genetic research and medical ethics to be tedious and boring, but Skloot instead delivers a moving work that fuses Deborah Lacks' heart wrenching quest to understand what happened to her mother with a fascinating peek into the sterile labs of the top hospitals and universities. 

I began this book late on Friday and was compelled to finish the book as soon as possible.  I sat down on Saturday afternoon hoping to read at least 100 pages.  By late Saturday afternoon, I had finished the book, not because it was a simple read, but because Henrietta's story would not leave me alone.   
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidents' Day Reading

It isn't even noon and I've had to remind two people already that there would be no mail today because it is Presidents' Day.  I guess for adults it is an easy "holiday" to overlook.  Most of us still go to work and our day changes little except there is no mail delivery.  I don't know about most schools, but our teachers would usually read some biographies of Lincoln and Washington sometime during the late February timespan.  I always liked to find something a little different to read to my elementary library students, preferably adding to their background knowledge of other presidents.  Several of my favorites were by Judith St. George

So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George  So You Want to Be President won a Caldecott in 2001 for the wonderful presidential carciatures by David Small. Posing the proposition that if you want to be president you might need to ______________,the large format picture book then reveals many trivia facts about Presidents Washington through Clinton.  Young readers get a broad view of the different types of men who have been president, their backgrounds (including how many really were born in log cabins), interests cares, and families.  Everyone laughs about the president who skinny dipped and the illustration of Taft being lowered into a giantic bath tub.  I would love to see this book updated or added onto to include the last two presidents, but even with its 2000 publication date it is a wonderful read. 
You're on Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt

You're On Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt is also by St. George with illustrations by Mark Faulkner and is part of a wonderful historical series called Turning Point books, with each book focuses on the turning point or life problem that helped form that historical figures's determination and drive. 
I find President Roosevelt a complex man whose ideas and actions did help shape the "new" twentieth
century, yet young people don't know too much about him.  The "turning point" that author St. George has selected for the focus on this book is young Teddy's frail health and all that his wealthy family does to try to build his strength.  Teddy is taken to the deserts of Egypt, provided with his own gym and trainer, and more in attempts to cure his asthma.  Some attempts, such as exposing the lad to cigar smoke to strengthen his lungs will make modern readers wince.  Throughout the book, readers can see his growing interests in nature and science as he collects a menagerie of creatures and artifacts, then spends weeks and months away from unhealthy New York city.  Faulkner's illustrates Teddy with a large head with dominating glasses atop a tiny body clearly emphasizing the young man's health issues, but the eyes and smile show a vibrance that I'm sure he actually possessed.  Readers will cheer as Teddy gains strength, finally winning events at a Roosevelt track competition.  A short, but well written endpage details accomplishments in Roosevelt's adult life.

Wearing my "preachy" hat, I'd like to add that we need more authors like St. George who are willing to ferret out interesting facts about historical people and parley them into intriguing books for children.  Much nonfiction, especially biographical nonfiction, written for young audiences is low quality.  Either the books are on the same dozen or two dozen people with nothing but bare bones facts, or the biographees are today's celebrities whose fame quickly withers or whose reputations have little of substance to hold up as role models.  With limited offerings, it is difficult for librarians and teachers to interest students in reading biographies.  St. George's books don't look like the typical nonfiction or biography (that's a plus) and I've never had trouble enticing a reader into giving one a try!

Happy President's Day.  Learn something knew about a president! 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Homecoming by Cathy Kelly

Homecoming    Eleanor left Ireland with almost nothing seventy years ago as a young child.
Now a widow, she returns for a final look at the village of her birth.  First she stops in Golden Square neighborhood of Dublin to gather enough courage for that final trip, one she and her husband had dreamed about, but delayed throughout her successful career as a psychoanalyst. At first Eleanor stays completely to herself, wrapped up in sorrow and remembrances, but slowly she begins to notice the comings and goings of Golden Square, especially those of three neighbors.  The local cafe and tearoom run by Rae is a natural place for the four women to connect.  On the outside, Rae appears to have it all.  Her husband of over thirty years still adores her, her presence makes the tearoom warm and welcoming, and her charity work helps make her complete.  But then one day she receives a letter in the mail and she must decide whether to share the secret that she has kept from everyone since she was sixteen.  Will she lose all she holds dear?

Connie lives in one of the Golden Square flats with her younger sister Nicky.  A secondary school teacher, Connie is fastly approaching 4-0 and she believes her time for dating and such nonsense have ended.  When a fellow teacher marries, followed by her sister's own wedding announcement, Connie is sure she is destined to be the neighborhood spinster and considers getting a cat to complete the stereotyped scenario.  Megan has fled to Golden Square and her aunt's home amidst a full-fledged scandal that may have permanently derailed her acting career.  With her hair dyed black and cut in a pixie sytle, she looks more like a fairy than the husband stealing, blond bombshell that is on the front page of every tabloid.  When Eleanor sees Megan's downturned face and sad eyes one day in the park, the elderly woman feels compelled to move beyond her own pain and approach the waif of a girl.  From there, the neighborhood women's stories converge into a rich patchwork of friendship, truth, and growth.

About five years ago, I came across a list of books on a library website called, "Gentle Reads."  I don't know if that is a true genre description, but I like it.  These books are usually about relationships and self-discovery. Some of the first "girl friend" books were probably on that list.  I've found that recent girl friend books are too flippant or just lack strong character development.  Not the gentle reads.  These books usually have a depth that keeps you reading despite the fact that action often moves very slowly.  In some titles, there may be no physical actions beyond the human relationships.  There may be love (and even a little romance) but these are not steaming romance novels.  The books may cover just a few days or decades, the backdrop could be a midwestern town or as far away as Europe, but know you'll feel comfortable in the surroundings

 Homecoming by Cathy Kelly was not on the original GENTLE READ list but I would certainly add it.
I wanted to visit the tea shop, sip a cup of Irish Breakfast tea, and meet with each of these ladies.  Having stayed in a London B&B that was in a residential neighborhood, I envisioned Golden Square to have similar older houses divided into multiple flats with gardens in back and a cul de sac-like front street. I felt I was in a neighborhood that I knew.  Each new chapter began with a passage from Eleanor's mother's recipe book.  These passages did include some basic instructions about making a traditional food, but they were laced with reminiences from Eleanor's childhood in Ireland and her family's move to America.  They added a depth to the modern day stories and prepared the way for Eleanor's trip to the Irish countryside of her youth.

I am always jotting down the names of books I would like to read.  I visit bookclub sites, read reviews, notice book covers in stores, get recommendations from friends magazines and more.  I honestly don't know where I got this title, but it was on one of my handwritten lists and I ordered it through interlibrary loan.  The first pages move slowly which is often true in gentle reads.  There is no fast action to pull you in and compell you to read the next page, but once you know all the characters, you will care enough to finish the book.
When I looked on the internet for a book cover to download for the blog, I found several other covers for this title, each showing a vivacious young woman running with a scarf.  Obviously, that design is a marketing decision meant to draw in young readers.  The cover on the book I read is the same that I've shown here, the open garden gate.  This cover focuses not on one character, but on the concept of open doors and returning to the true you, something all four women will do.  If you visit, Cathy Kelly's website, you will see her other popular Irish fiction and can also learn about her international charity work.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Calling This Place Home by Joan Jensen

  Callling This Place Home: Women on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1850-1925 is a detailed historical account of Wiscomsin women in several specific areas of Wisconsin.  From the credits I read about Joan Jensen, she is a historian who has taken on the often missed stories of our past, even earning a Pulitzer nomination for her book Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750–1850. The starting point for Calling This Place Home was her own grandmother, Matilda Schoop, whose past Joan did not really know or understand until she researched this book. 

Recently I have gotten the "Downton Abbey" bug and have been following the ups and downs of the servents and upper class of this WWI British drama.  That led me to watch a PBS documentary about the true relationship between working class and wealthy in WWI England.  Much of that show focused on the great shift in social structure, mores, and such that the Twentieth Century and most specifically WWI brought to England.  My mental meanderings after watching that documentary took me back to this book, which I had read over a year ago.

Why the connection?  For one, many of the women documented in this book worked as servents for wealthier Wisconsin families.  In fact, in many immigrant families, it was expected that girls in their teens and early twenties would find domestic work outside their farm or small town families.  This did not surprise me, as much as learning that their meager earnings were what often made it possible for their parents to buy or hold onto homes and farms.  Even the garden produce grown by industrious wives was often enough to buy a needed piece of machinery or a cow, the difference between success and failure.  The other connection that resonates between the British history I've been viewing and Wisconsn's American version of the early twenthieth century is the rapid change in social structure and mores.  Jensen does an excellent job in exploring different nationalities that populated Wisconsin in the late 1800's and early 1900's and the religious, cultural differences that they brought with them.  Then she explains how those differences blurred and a more modern Wisconsin (American) culture emerged.  Although I really enjoyed this book, I did find that parts of it were repetitive. Despite being very academic, it was not difficult to read and I learned so much about Wisconsin history that does not make typical history books. 

I obtained this book from the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium as an e-book.  In fact, it was one of the first books I borrowed on my Nook.  When I saw it was 448 pages, I never thought I would get done in the seven days that I had for electronic check-out, but I did.  (I now choose a longer check out for lengthy books).  Right away, I knew that I would make time to finish it.  Within the first pages, Jensen informed readers that she would focus on a couple select geographic areas of Wisconsin, letting them represent the state as a whole.  Included in her chosen areas and groups were the Objiwe Native American women, specifically the women of Lac du Flambeau.  We happen to have some land at Lac du Flambeau, so that peaked my interest. The Native American sections may have been my favorite parts of the whole book. Jensen details not only how the efforts of the tribal women made such a significant contribution to a family's survival, but also documents both successful government interactions and dismal failures.

I don't know why we consider history to be only about wars and politics.  I find these stories of hardship, effort, failure mixing with success, and change so much more interesting.  Although Jensen did not cover the area of the state where I grew up or my particular ethnic heritage, I still felt she told stories that my great grandparents would have understood.  A little time spent understanding these women and their family struggles, might just help us cope with 2012 and beyond.

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveria

My Name is Mary Sutter book image

I have been busy reading, but a couple recent books just have not panned out as suitable for this blog and I've just completed a pre-pub which I can't review until it is released, so I had to dig back into past reads to find a title to write about.  I'd consider that lucky for anyone who pays attention to this blog because --- My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveria is a strong read.

Set in the Civil War, this historical novel looks at the Civil War through the unusual vantage point of army hospitals in Washington D.C. and battlefield medical tents.  Young Mary had dreams of becoming a doctor in a time when females were considered too weak and demure to do more than roll bandages.   Following a broken romance, Mary leaves for Washington
 D. C., hoping her experience as a midwife will gain her entrance to the world of medical training.

Too often, the action, characters, and scenes of a book, even a well-written one, escape my memory within weeks, but not this book.  I keep a list of all the books I read each year, and when I saw this title on my 2010 list, I was transported back to the makeshift hospitals of D.C. where Mary goes for days without sleep, endangering her own health as she tries to nurse the wounded while battling bureaucracy and ignorance.  Laced with historical figures and accurate information about the ill-prepared medical professionals, this book stands out.  Oliveira's character development is rich, deep, and compelling.  The story offers romance, but like real life it is complex, not simplistic attraction. 

A quick internet check shows that Robin Oliveria has a website on which she shares some insights on her journey to write this novel.  Although I often stop at just reading a book and never seek any informtion on the author, recently I've found that finding out the "how and why" of writing complex stories such as this one, adds another dimension of understanding.  I strongly recommend this read and also the website
http://www.robinoliveira.com/  My only disappointment was that Robin did not have listed any new books.
I certainly hope one is in the works, as she is talented!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Corduroy's Lost Buttons - a board book

A board book review?  Am I nuts? 

Don't worry, I am not going to review a board book, although I could because there are vast, vast differences among them.  Some intrigue toddlers and I believe really open the doors to a future love of reading.  Others are just pictures and a few words on cardboard.

I just wanted to post that I will need some time (a day or so) before I post again.  We spent today and late yesterday at our daughter and son-in-laws.  They live almost two hours away, so we don't see them or their sweet little daughter as often as we see our sons' families who live just minutes from our door.  The wee one, as my husband call this youngest grandchild, is now almost 16 months old and changes so much between visits.  She is always a little apprehensive about us oldees, but she warms up to us by the time we leave.
We babysat for a while this afternoon while mom had an appt.  When E woke up from her nap, mom was not there and she was not happy, but a few toys, her favorite crackers, and Grandma reading some board books (including Corduroy) soothed her.  By the time mom came back, she was showing me how her dolly could dance. 

Tonight I need to catch up at home bedore I read. So needless to say, I have no reading done.  The book I read yesterday I enjoyed, but I've decided it doesn't fit my blog, so I must finish my new read before I blog.
Still as I remember E's soft hair and precious smell as we shared a story,  I wanted to take a few minutes to remind all you parents and grandparents, that sometimes -- in fact many times, the best book for you may just be that tattered board book or a special picture book from the library because reading is so much more than just words!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

  "historical fiction" age 10-13 
Jack Gantos is known for his wacky series fiction (Joey Pigza) - the type that boys (and girls) will willingly read and chuckle while reading.  The Newbery panel must have thought that Dead End in Norvelt outshone all other American children's publications in 2011 as it selected Dead End for the 2012 Newbery Medal.  Dubbed semi-autobiographical and outrageously fictional at the same time, the author weaves an outlandish tale of summer 1962 in small town Norvelt as young Jack endures a grounding that just might become lifelong if he doesn't heed his mother's wishes.  Jack maintains his grounding his unfair because he didn't know the Japanese WWII gun was loaded when he shot it, and he was only following his dad's orders when he dug up his mother's sweet corn patch. 

Jack's only reprise from the confines of his room are his daily efforts to help his father dig a bomb shelter and his frequents visits to help an elderly neighbor Miss Volker write her obituary columns for the paper.  This neighborly help will require a few trips to the local funeral parlor.  Obit columns, dead bodies, you ask?  What kind of chidren's books includes these, you ask?  Jack Gantos' books of course, and I may add other popular books for this age group, but I digress.  Add in an old airplane, a motorcycle gang, a deer poacher, some poison, and a few Girl Scout cookies and you are guaranteed a successful tale.
Some of the absurd actions of this story make it difficult to give it the label historical fiction, but we do have the setting of a real historical town, one established in the 1930's by Eleanor Roosevelt as a New Deal experiment in providing decent housing to the poor.  In return for their homes, residents were supposed to watch out for each other and barter services whenever possible.  By 1962, the modest homes have aged and some younger residents, including Jack's dad, see the town as a dead end.  And the original residents, especially the widows, seem to be dying a little too quickly.  By August, the newspaper owner and police are suspecting foul play.  Could it be Miss Volker, former village nurse, and resident obituatary writer/historian?  Or are the deaths connected to the Hells Angels gang who are infiltrating the community?  Just thinking about it is enough to give Jack another one of his anxiety-induced bloody noses.

I am always amazed at the vastly different stories that children's authors create and the unique places they take us.  In those respects, this story is a success.  And I am sure juvenile readers will like the dead mice scenes, Jack's blood dripping nose, and the suspense of the book.  They might even find interesting the little "On this day in history" entries that accompany the obituary stories.  But I wonder if they are going to like, or even grasp, some of Miss Volker's lengthy monologues about her historical/social views.  What may be seen as quality writing to literary experts (adults, with adult experiences, remember) often doesn't connect with the average kid reader, unless that reader is directed or led to have that same background knowledge or interest.  Translation to me,  there are probably parts of this book which kid readers will find not interesting or won't completely understand unless they are reading it with a class or with an adult.  Does that make this an unsuccessful book?  No way.  We want readers to stretch themselves and to ask questions.  Reading books that are never different would be boring.  And I truly wish that kids and adults would read together much more often than they do.  Both would benefit. Despite my personal feelings that nothing in this book and its setting of Norvelt resembled the real summer of 1962 that I experienced as a child, I congratulate Jack Gantos on his win and his writing career.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Smitten - 4 romance novellas by Colleen Coble, Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, and Denise Hunter

Contemporary Christian Fiction

The fictional town of Smitten, Vermont serves as the backdrop for four youthful romances, each one written by a different Christian author.  Colleen Coble, Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, and Denise Hunter are each successful Christian writers in her own right.  They are also friends, who enjoy each other's company, respect the others' writing successes, and share a desire to spread their love of God.  An opportunity to collaborate on a book was a challenge they could not ignore, and so the idea for Smitten was born, along with the struggling Vermont town.

Smitten was named after the Smitten family, early settlers and owners of the lumber mill which was the backbone of the town for decades.  As the book opens, the closing of the mill has just been announced and the townspeople anxiously contemplate what will happen to the town.  With only a few small businesses and some seasonal tourism from fishing, the outlook is bleak.  Even Carson Smitten, nephew of the mill owner, is unsure whether his hardware store and fishing cabins will be enough to keep him in the town named after his family. 

But friends Natalie, Julie, Shelby, and Reese have other ideas.  Despite all being single and fiercely independent, they see romance as "Smitten's" path to vitality and new life.  As they share their vision of a romance destination complete with quaint coffee and bake shops, a high end spa, charming horse and carriage rides, but coupled with great outdoor adventures, most towns people buy into the dream.
The hold outs - Carson and his friends --- who cling to the man's view of the Vermont woods.

The book is divided into four intertwined stories, each named for one of the girl friends.  Each story concentrates on the development of one girl's business idea and her personal life.  Complications within her personal life or business dreams will pit her directly against one of the town's male holdouts.  Personality differences will light sparks of friction but Smitten will live up to its romantic name, at least for these four couples.

I liked the interview at the end of the book among the four author friends.  They share how their own personalities and habits were written into the girls' characters.  However, I found the stories themselves very predictable, but since each story is short I felt it was not a waste of time.  Reading one story was like watching one television episode - could have been doing something better, but a relaxing way to spend part of an evening.  Of course, the age demographic for this type of romantic fiction is way, way below my age and I do believe that younger readers will not be disappointed in the tale of these four ladies and their new loves.  Any small town would be blessed to have residents with such strong faith, determination, and caring.

Note -- Coble, Billerbeck, Hunt, and Hunter will be releasing a second Smitten book later this year.

Smitten  -     
        By: Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, Kristen Billerbeck, Denise Hunter

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

AUDIO BOOKKilling Lincoln - Audio CD
This title kept popping up on my reading radar this fall, so when I saw an audio copy was available through the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium, I checked it out. It made for some interesting listening while quilting, driving, and doing household chores over the past few days.  Like many of you, I've read many books about this illustrious president, beginning with those simple biographies written for elementary aged readers.  When I taught American Literature, our text included several Lincoln letters, Robert E. Lee letters, as well as a memoir written by Mary Todd Lincoln's personal maid.  I've been to Ford's theatre, Lincoln's Springfield home, and his final resting place.  So I approached this book with some knowledge and a desire to find out any new information.

Now that I have finished listening to the book, I am not sure how to rate it.  First, I had issues with Bill O'Reilly narrating the book, simply because I am used to his voice - its cadence and pace  being connected to his high strung Fox News Commentary.  Those same voice patterns at times did not match what I felt should be the tone of the text.  But on the other hand, I did like the time spent of Lincoln, Grant, and Lee's actions as Lee surrenders.  I probably learned more about Grant from this book as any one else.  It was the filling in the blanks on historical figures like Grant, Custer, and Seward that kept me interested. This book has been promoted as a historical thriller, and the narration tries to build that suspense for a historical event which we already know much about.  At times, the narration is compelling, but other times it is overbearing in its attempt to build some kind of dark foreboding behind every action by everyone in Washington.
After having finished the book, I checked other written reviews which now leave me very perplexed.  Several reviews point to historical inaccuracies (some of them very basic mistatements such as referring to a meeting in the Oval Office, when there was no Oval Office at that time).  Part of my job as a school librarian was teaching information literacy skills such as checking the accuracy and credibility of sources.  While I found much fascinating in this work, the negative reviews by historians make me hesitant to recommend this title to anyone unless they are willing to read other works on the assassination also. For myself, I accept it as another attempt to shed some light on John Wilkes Booth's actions and motivation. And like the Kennedy assassination, Lincoln's death will remain an event which changed history but that continues to evade complete knowledge and documentation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

River's Call by Melody Carlson

Book One, River's Song,  in Melody Carlson’s Inn at the Shining Waters series ended as Anna juggled not only a new business as innkeeper, but a new marriage.  The only unsettled area of her life was her relationship with teenager daughter Lauren.  Book two, River’s Call starts months later as Anna settles into her life on the river and Lauren begins her first semester at college.  Battling an unknown, recurring illness, Lauren  reaches out to her mother and comes to the inn for a few days R&R.  It will surprise no reader that Lauren is not really sick, but is pregnant.  Anna’s domineering, former-mother-in-law will re-enter the story as she swoops into “solve” the problem.   The three women (and soon to be four) representing different beliefs and different generations will struggle across the 1960s and the 1970s.  The title River’s Call hints at the peace that life on the river can provide, and for the most part Anna is able to achieve that.  She re-embraces her Native American heritage and grows in her Christian faith.  Her marriage is solid and loving, but you will need to read the novel to see how she copes with her adult daughter and new granddaughter.    
The book covers over fifteen years and yet it is not a lengthy novel, therefore there were gaps in time within the story that I felt would be unrealistic for a family living just a few hours apart.  I guess that is part of fiction, especially series fiction, that I find lacking.  I did feel that Lauren’s grandmother (Anna’s ex-mother-in-law) was the most interesting character within this novel, and I accepted her changes as the story progressed.  I would recommend reading both books in close succession since the stories are so closely tied and the books are not long.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of this title for review purposes.  All opinions are my own.

River's Call