Avi Brings War Close With His New Novel

buttonwarcoverNOTE: I received an early reader’s copy of this book via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Twelve-year-old Patryk lives with his family and friends in a small Polish village when The Button War, a new novel by Avi, opens in August 1914. Russian soldiers occupy their village but mostly leave the villagers alone as they go about their lives. Suddenly, planes appear overhead and a bomb destroys the school, killing a child and the school master. Germans are coming and their peaceful life is disrupted in harsh ways described in stark prose through the eyes of Patryk. Even as their world falls apart, the group of boys, led by the bully Jurek, start their own war: a “button war” that challenges the boys to steal buttons from the various soldiers. The boy with the best button will be king. It seems innocent at first but like the real war around them, it escalates and Patryk finds himself unable to control events as Jurek becomes increasingly brutish.

Avi does not spare the reader from the callousness of violence and death at the beginning of World War I. The lives of the Polish villagers mean nothing to either side of the conflict. Patryk’s father warns him that they are stuck between the two sides and life has become very dangerous. Avi masterfully weaves the two wars together in sometimes brutal ways. The prose moves quickly. The tension mounts from the moment that first bomb falls with little time for the reader to breathe; it is as though the reading experience mirrors the experience of the characters whose world is shattered. They face life and death decisions that must be made within moments.

I read it through in one sitting, unable to pull myself from the story. While it is appropriate for young adult readers, I would suggest that, at least for the pre-teens, parents read along and talk about some of the more violent images. The relationship between Patryk and Jurek also provide valuable opportunities for discussions about how we are influenced in positive and negative ways by other people and what we can do to avoid being bullied into making decisions.

A Tribute to Libraries and Librarians Through the Story of a Fire

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, is, superficially, the fascinating story of the 1986 fire that essentially destroyed Central Library in Los Angeles. Orlean discusses the fire itself and the damage it caused to collections, first from smoke and flame, and then from water hoses. Paid staff and volunteers made heroic efforts to save as many books, maps and other materials as they could both from the immediate fire and then later, as the wet books, which had been frozen, were brought back to life.

Orlean also pursues the mystery of who started the fire. A suspect was arrested but there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict Harry Peake, a sometime actor whose story of that April day changed often and in startling ways but Peake admitted to setting the fire in at least one or two versions.

But, the heart of the book is the story of the libraries in general and the Los Angeles County Public Library, in particular. She traces the history of the Central Library up to the fire, through to the present day and then imagines a bit of the future. Overdrive might change the nature of libraries, making it easier to access digital resources, but the story of the library throughout its history was and is one of service that goes beyond caretaking and dispensing materials. Orlean visits various departments including those who answer the phone and answer questions that, as one of them points out, could often be easily answered using Google. Not everyone goes online and some people just want to talk with a human being.

The Los Angeles library system, along with many urban libraries, is on the front line of the homeless crisis. Beyond being a shelter during the day, the library connects homeless people to information and resources in both informal and formal ways as Orleans describes a program in which the librarians invited service providers to an organized fair where homeless patrons could be directed to the services they needed. Librarians carry a strong sense of social justice, deeply embedded concern for the “whole” person.

Orlean begins each chapter with four book titles related to the coming text, including their Dewey Decimal number. And, throughout, her own love of books and libraries shine through. We sense a fellow traveler who wrote this book out of love and gratitude. The most touching parts of the book, I think, are the interviews with those who were at the library the day of the fire, whether librarians, patrons or firemen, and those who lived through the years of restoration of both the building and the books.

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Crossing Cultures in Lancaster County

For a Lancaster County native like me, Amish Guys Don’t Call was a nostalgic look at my home town with lots of local references to restaurants, clubs and other locations. The author attended Lancaster Country Day School and clearly loves her native soil as well.

Her story of an “English”* girl who falls for a former Amish boy is tender and kind with a solid dose of mean girls mixed in. Samantha has arrived in Lancaster County after being caught shoplifting in Philadelphia, a compulsion she continues to fight throughout the book. Her mother seems to care little for her daughter and spends most of her time in the city, and her father is out of the picture. Swept up into the cool girls’ group, Samantha struggles to find her place as she starts dating an unusual young man and make sense of her “friends.”

My biggest criticism of the book was that it never occurred to Samantha that her boyfriend was Amish. Dodds addresses this in the notes at the end, recognizing that most readers would have guessed (after all, as she points out, the title is a dead give away). She suggests that Samantha had not lived in Lancaster County long enough to make the connection and that the cultures are divided in ways that would make cross connections uncommon.

This book would be an excellent read for young adults, helping them understand a different culture and better navigate their own.

*Amish refer to non-Amish as English.

Educated: Tara Westover Finds Her Place in the World

Tara Westover‘s memoir of growing up in a survivalist, anti-government family in Idaho is a riveting read. In Educated, she gives us a glimpse of life in an isolated world where she never learned about the Holocaust and only heard one version of the Ruby Ridge siege, the one where the government kills innocent citizens because of their beliefs and nontraditional life styles.

Westover writes about being part of a fundamentalist family: possessing a questionable birth date with a certificate issued nine years after she was born; working long and dangerous hours in her father’s scrap yard where horrific injuries were treated with herbs and tinctures created by her mother, who herself suffered from brain damage and migraines after a car accident; and, in the most difficult passages of the book, being physically and mentally abused by an older brother who claimed he was keeping her from becoming a whore.

It is these incidents plus her parents’ unwillingness to admit that they are even happening that lead Westover to finally escape for college. Her brother Tyler who also left encourages her and she miraculously passes the ACT and receives the scholarship she needs. Later, a mentor supports her work at Cambridge, and she eventually earns a PhD in history.

Westover struggles with her identity throughout the book: early family lessons are hard to shake as they live in our deepest consciousness. For Westover, these lessons focused on the work of the devil even amongst religious people. Her father judged everyone in their congregation: Mormons who believed but did not practice those beliefs. He spent money on weapons and fuel that were hidden on their property, ready for the end of days that he was sure was coming. And yet, he did not keep her from leaving and following her own dreams. Even as she came to explore the wider world that challenged her father’s narrow-minded lessons at every turn, Westover also saw that world through his eyes at some points.

Eventually, it is the denial of her brother’s abuse and her parents’ attempts to paint her as delusional that led to Westover’s estrangement from her family. She keeps in touch with a few of her brothers–two of them also went on to earn PhDs. An <a href=”https://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/educated-should-be-read-with-grain-of-salt-says-family/article_0583f217-6fd2-51de-a891-9ca32adb589c.html”>article from a South Logan, Utah, newspaper</a> leads with the headline that the Westover family suggests the book should be read with a “grain of salt.” The family lawyer who was interviewed for the article, comments that, considering three of seven children earned advanced degrees, that the home schooling seems to have worked just fine.

A fascinating memoir made even more “fun” because the Westovers are all over the internet and Facebook. I was able to easily locate at least two of Tara’s brothers, including the one who abused her. They continue the mountain life that Tara both loved and hated and, if you hadn’t read the book, they would seem like every other family with conservative politics.

A Loving Tribute to the Bible

I received a complimentary review copy of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again from the publisher through a Twitter post. I am working on reading the Bible this year, and the book seemed a good fit.

Author Rachel Held Evans frames the book with her own story of growing up with the Bible as a magic book with wonderful stories. As she got older, the Bible became more of a weapon, not to be questioned. But, eventually, she saw beneath the magic to the gritty realism: Abraham willingly tying his son to the pyre, Joshua’s army slaughtering men, women and children when the walls of Jericho fall, and God sending flood waters to destroy humanity. Yet, even as she began to turn away from the Bible, its stories continued to surround her. It is a foundational book for Western culture, influencing Shakespeare and Civil Rights activists alike.

Each chapter of the book opens with a story that reflects the theme in the coming chapter. The chapters focus on various types of stories found in the Bible including origin, deliverance, and resistance stories as well as others. She embraces the complexities and contradictions in the Bible, pointing out that it can be used to support almost any point of view:

This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does this say? but what am I looking for? I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

Evans does not check her criticism of the United States and its treatment of the poor and oppressed. She extends that criticism to the white American church, which she believes has “chosen the promise of power over prophetic voice.” She describes modern day prophets who are pushing the church to live a more Christ like existence, resisting the organizational structure that has been built around the simple message of love and peace. She believes modern day resistance is needed in order to reclaim the magic of the Bible.

Yet, she also celebrates the God the Bible reveals in the details of the Parables: “I love these details because they reveal to me a God who is immersed in creation, deeply embedded within the lives of God’s beloved. Ours is a God who know how to mend clothes and bake bread, a God familiar with the planting and harvesting season, the traditions of bridesmaids, and the tickle of wool on the back of the neck.”

I am looking forward to heading back to the Bible with Evans’ prose in my mind: looking for my own magic in this book that has been part of my life.

Lives Transformed: Paris By the Book

Losing, searching, finding and, ultimately, transforming: these themes twine together in Paris By the Book as Leah and her daughters, Ellie and Daphne, move from Milwaukee to Paris to look for their missing husband and father, Robert. At the beginning, they share a belief that they are following clues he has left for them. But as they settle into life without him in Paris as bookshop owners, Leah discovers that the girls are still actively looking for him even as she begins to learn to live without him as the first anniversary of his disappearance looms.

The novel takes advantage of coincidence that seems to border on magical, a concern addressed in the early page of the book. Robert, an author, uses coincidence in his writing while Leah suggests “it was barely plausible in his novels for kids and wholly out of place in his adult work.” The author, Liam Callanan, is being coy, as at that moment, on their last day in Paris, coincidence drives the story, perhaps part of the magic of Paris?

Because Paris is more than simply a setting for the story; it plays an essential role as it was home to Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of Madeline, and Albert Lamorisse, creator of The Red Balloon. Both Ellie and Daphne absorbed the love of these works from Leah and Robert and their Paris experiences are shaped by that love and technical knowledge. And, it is the setting of Robert’s next book, although Leah does not know that until after she has begun her new life.

Beyond the fantasy and “vertigo” of Paris, as Leah calls it, this is the story of a family, one that, as Leah is reminded at one point, had memories and dreams. Robert takes to the role of father in creative and supportive ways…when he is home. But his more frequent absences for “writeaways” have begun to fray the edges of the marriage and even the fabric of the family itself.

And at its core, this is Leah’s story. She is an honest narrator, willing to share her contradictions and failures, one who, as her therapist points out, uses humor to deal with life. Her fierce love for and pride in her daughters as they deal with their loss and their new found lives is a recurring theme, and no matter what happens with Robert, we know the three of them will be okay. They have allowed tragedy to transform them rather than defeat them.

Gods of Howl Mountain: Raw Realism in 1950s Appalachia

I received an advance reader’s copy of Gods of Howl Mountain through NetGalley. Set in the 1950s in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, the novel focuses on Granny May and her grandson Rory as they struggle to come to terms with a traumatic past that has left Rory’s mother and her daughter locked up in an insane asylum.

The opening scenes of the novel offer a view of what might seem a stereotypical mountain grandmother, rocking and smoking on the porch of her cabin. But while she does seem to be everyone’s granny, offering mountain remedies for ailments and tending to her grandson and his friend, she also wields a shotgun with ease and has her own past to contend with. Plus, she isn’t above a bit of malicious fun when it comes to those who judge her.

Rory, her grandson, home from the Korean War minus a leg, works in the moonshine trade, dodging the revenuers and locals in his big Ford. He is a somewhat reluctant participant but it is the work available to him. One night, he stumbles upon a group of frenzied Pentecostals worshipping in an old garage, speaking in tongues and handling snakes. The scenes of the church have a surreal quality as we move into the crowd with Rory, mesmerized by the chanting and dancing.

The novel itself seems to pulse with the life of the mountains and Taylor Brown uses rich prose to describe people and places. It threatens every so often to spill over into excess but Brown manages to keep control, much like his main characters controls the big Ford. His world is one of raw life: violence, sex, love, grief all rolled into complex characters.

Tracking Down the Templars

James Becker takes on one of history’s greatest mysteries: what happened to the treasures of the Knights of Templar after their demise at the hands of a Pope and a King? In the third book in his The Hounds of God trilogy, we continue on the trail of the treasure with antiquarian book seller Robin Jessop and encryption expert David Mallory as they work to decipher the clues left over 700 years before while dodging both Medieval bobby traps and contemporary bad guys who want the treasure for themselves.

Becker has mastered the art of the page turner: a plot driven story with interesting characters. Even the bad guys get some back story. I did fine myself laughing a bit at them as they can be a bit dull and seem to be easily outwitted by amateurs. As with most bad guys, they are bad shots, too.

Some parts of the book related to cyphers got a little long as Brecker tried to explain somewhat detailed processes. I felt like I wanted a few more illustrations of what Robin and David were doing. The ones that were included really helped a novice to deciphering understand what they were doing.

I’ve just ordered the first two books in the series. I was able to read and understand The Templar Brotherhood without having read the other two books but I am looking forward to filling in some of the gaps.

Having finished all the Steve Berry “Cotton Malone” books, I am excited to find James Becker on my list!

NOTE: I was provided a preview copy of this book through NetGalley. It will be published October 3, 2017.

Reading, Reading, Reading

I am on a bit of a staycation: home with only a little work on the plate. A bit of baking, some cleaning, and lots of reading, almost a book a day.

Here are a few quick reviews of some of the most recent reads:

Nora Webster tells the story of a newly widowed woman left with four children in 1970s Ireland. She struggles against impending poverty even as she finds her new place in her community, a small town where every change is noted and commented upon, from getting a new hairstyle to joining a club. There is a rawness to the book that reflects the rawness of Nora’s feelings. She can be sharp at times. But, Nora grows into her own throughout the novel, learning to not care about what other think about her actions, not being afraid to speak up when her needs are not being met and rediscovering a love for music that promises to enrich her life.

Bellman & Black tells the story of a man who spends his life paying the price for a childhood mistake. To the amazement of his friends, William Bellman kills a rook with an impossible shot. The boys celebrate and then move on with their lives. Bellman works hard to create a successful life and family until tragedy strikes. The second half of the novel tells a more mysterious, chilling tale as Bellman makes a deal that saves at least some semblance of his previous life without understanding completely the deal he struck.  I’m still thinking about the story and the way Setterfield winds in short bits about the lives of rooks.

Rules of Civility focuses on New York life in the late 1930s. The Depression is mostly over and World War II has not begun. Young women flock to the city where jobs are available along with eligible men, some of them scions of wealthy families. The story is told through the eyes of Katey Kontent, an independent woman who finds herself thrown into the midst of this world, hovering on the edge of the glamorous lives of the rich and famous even as she follows her own dreams. Towles uses the slang and soundtrack of the day as he follows Katey through 1938. I found myself queuing up Autumn in New York as I read the final chapters.

And, for the record, here is the list of books read so far in 2017. I am shooting, as always, for 75 books but if I can really move along this summer, 100 is not out of the realm of the possible:

January: 9
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
We Never Asked for Wings
March, Book One
March, Book Two
March, Book Three
Essays After Eighty
The Care and Management of Lies
Inequality in the Promised Land

February: 6
The Underground Railroad
Hidden Figures Review
Dark Corners
Escape on the Pearl
Bud, Not Buddy
The Good Lord Bird

March 6
The Mighty Miss Malone
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Four Queens
Queen Dolley
Small Great Things
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

April 6
Wonder Boys
The Flame Bearer
Spell or High Water
The Lost Book of the Grail
The Buried Giant
The Earth is Weeping

May 6
The Lost Order
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent (Audio)
A Company of Liars
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
Buried In a Bog (Text & Audio)

June 10
Scandal in Skibbereen
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
13, Rue Therese
Grand Canyon
Thursdays in the Park
Death on Demand
The Hog’s Back Mystery

Nora Webster
Bellman & Black
Killers of the Flower Moon
Rules of Civility
An Unwelcome Quest

Correcting The Flight Path: Review of We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings is a compelling story of a mother and son who were willing to break the rules to make life better for someone else. Letty Esposito was just 16 when her son Alex was born; Wes, the father, was already gone away to school, and Letty never told him. Instead, she turned over much of the responsibility for Alex and his younger sister over to her mother as Letty tried to eek out a living at service jobs. She is currently a bartender at an airport bar near her definitely wrong side of the tracks home. When her parents return to Mexico, Letty finds herself struggling to take care of her children even as Alex seems to be moving away from her into his teenage love and life. She must also navigate her own emotional landscape as she connects with a new and old friend.

We experience the novel mostly through Letty and Alex: their paths have strong parallels as they act out of love, impulsive, without fully considering the consequences of their actions. They are fighting for justice so it seems as though their mantra is by any means necessary. Their “crimes” seem minor as they are committed to break down barriers keeping them from realizing their potential.

One powerful lesson in the importance of your address. In this story, as in real life, it determines your access to not just a good education but also a safe one. The students in those challenging schools did nothing except be born in a certain zip code and, unless their parents are able to better their lot, they are trapped. Their poverty exacerbates the isolation as transportation is often an issue. Cars are expensive to maintain and public transportation enforces limits of time and space. As Wes drives Alex to Stanford, Alex muses on the fact that he had never been on the campus that was not far from his home in East Palo Alto.

Birds, feathers and wings were a recurring theme in the book. Alex’s grandfather created feather art, a Mexican tradition, and gifts Alex with his lifetime collections. Alex loves birds himself and often names them when he is nervous. But it is this one insight into bird migration that speaks to the human beings in the book who seem to be heading in the wrong direction. They are discovering ways to adjust these seemingly unwavering paths:

Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight,
just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction
correct their flight paths all at once.

I enjoyed the book and can recommend for its story and its concern for justice. There were times when it felt like a young adult novel. I don’t think it’s considered as such but Alex’s voice was so strong and it was as much his story as his mother’s.