Current Book Review

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (YA Fantasy)

A Monster Calls  

Patrick Ness (YA Fantasy)

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

At thirteen, Conor was too old for monsters. Monsters were for babies and bedwetters and Conor was neither; however, here he was—night after night reliving the same images that made him wake up screaming into the darkness. But one night, another monster came to visit. Not the one from his nightmare, but a different one. One that would tell him three stories and would then require Conor to tell him the fourth. But the fourth wouldn’t be a story. The fourth would be the truth…Conor’s truth. A truth that he’s been avoiding for a very, very long time.

Do NOT judge this book by either its cover or its title! A Monster Calls is not a horror story, but rather an intensely moving and intellectually provocative read that examines death, bullying, and growing isolation. Patrick Ness’s story (inspired by an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd) and Jim Kay’s beautiful and macabre illustrations allow A Monster Calls to leap off the page, reach inside your chest, and put a death grip on your heart. The action and emotions intensify as the story unfolds and reaches the ultimate crescendo when the reader realizes the truth behind the monster and the meaning of Conor’s nightmare. It’s a painful and agonizing revelation and you can’t help but cry out as our young protagonist finally comes to terms with the grim reality he’s been desperately avoiding and denying. It’s a master class in storytelling and a final work that Siobhan Dowd surely would have been immensely proud of.

On one of their encounters, the monster told Conor about the importance of stories: “They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” There are countless stories about how children deal with trauma—especially when it involves a loved one—but Ness’s approach cuts to the very heart of the loneliness, fear, and helplessness they feel and how these feelings manifest themselves into monsters and darkness and voids that suck the very air from your lungs. It’s a dark and empty feeling that’s scary and cold, but Ness reminds us that truth can cut through the darkest of places; that acceptance can be a way out of the deepest abyss; and that forgiveness can open the way to healing and peace.      

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (J Fiction)

The Pushcart War  

Jean Merrill (J Fiction)

Imagine if Morris the Florist hadn’t been blocking the curb and if Mack hadn’t been in such a hurry to deliver his load of piano stools and if Marvin Seely hadn’t taken a picture with a camera that he had just gotten for his birthday and if Emily Wisser hadn’t cut out that same picture from the newspaper for her scrapbook and if Emily Wisser hadn’t shown that same clipping to her husband, Buddy Wisser, a newspaper editor…well, we might not ever have had the Pushcart War. Now, imagine THAT!

I read The Pushcart War in elementary school, so it had been out for a little over ten years by the time I laid my grubby little hands on it. I’m not sure what drew me to this particular book. Most likely it was the funny little drawing on the cover of a man in a black overcoat wearing a ridiculous flower hat who was right in the middle of shooting a pin at a big truck that caught my eye and imagination (ten-year-olds were much easier to amuse back then!). That book quickly became a long-lost memory until I came across it sitting innocently enough on a library shelf. I pulled it out and there he was! That same funny little man with his ridiculous hat STILL waging war against that massive truck some 40+ years later. After reading it with fresh eyes and a greater understanding of the world, I’m unclear why this book made such an impression on my ten-year-old self, but my much older self is chuckling while shaking my head after realizing that nothing much has changed since its publication.

The Pushcart War is packed with humor, hijinks, and heart. It is the quintessential David-versus-Goliath story of a pack of pushcart vendors who wage war against mighty mammoth trucks in hopes of maintaining their little slice of the free enterprise capitalist pie. Written in 1964, set in 2036, and taking place in 2026 (you got that?), Merrill’s story resonates just as true today as it did in the 60s: demonstrating the virtues and vices of speaking out for what is right; displaying the corruption of those in power who abuse their platform for personal gain by bowing to the desires of special interest groups; illustrating how the media can be a driving force behind shaping public opinion; and proving the unfortunate influence that money ultimately has on morality. Sound familiar? You might think that such weighty topics would never be able to hold the attention of a young reader, but Merrill’s Rube-Goldbergesque approach to storytelling—where one act sets off a series of complex events—keeps readers engaged and enthralled. I mean, who could have imagined that a simple tax on tacks could touch off a possible war with England? Jean Merrill, that’s who. It’s this kind of utterly improbable and highly outrageous scenario that keeps us entertained and cheering for the little guys…no matter how hopeless or hapless their situation may be.

Author Karen Traviss wrote, “I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. But I do know what the enemy is. It’s the compromise of principles. You lose the war when you lose your principles. And the first principle is to look out for your comrades.” Aside from their dried peas and little pea shooters, the people who sold hot dogs or flowers or knick-knacks from their little carts all shared a common purpose: a desire to be seen and to be counted and to be respected. They wanted a place in the world—free from bullying and intimidation and eradication. More than that, they didn’t want someone else to assign them value or worth. The pushcarts knew talking was better than fighting and believed in their cause so much that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They knew that their cause was bigger than just one or two carts and together, they were a force to be reckoned with. Together, they could elicit change. I imagine that the world might be a better place if we just had a few more pushcarts.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (Biography)

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

Ruth Reichl (Adult Biography)

I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story.

Ruth Reichl knows how to tell a good story and her storytelling skills are likely the product of having parents who could transform the most mundane event into an exotic adventure. Her cooking skills however, were born from sheer survival judging from the title of her first chapter: “The Queen of Mold”. Most mothers teach their daughters to be wary of strangers or always carry enough money to cover a taxi ride home. In Miriam Reichl’s case, she taught her daughter that food could be dangerous.

Tender at the Bone delights readers with Ruth Reichl’s memories of growing up in a New York City apartment, spending summers in Connecticut, going to college, working in a collectively-owned restaurant, and living in a commune. She talks about interracial friendships during the 60s, marriage, trying to please an impossible-to-please mother, and her journey to becoming a food critic. Most of all, Reichl teases us with stories about food, food, and more food. The only (small) complaint I had with her book was that she failed to provide any details about her wedding whereas she is very open about other details in her life. Although she included three photos of her nuptials at the end of her book, I was left with many questions: where and how did Doug propose, who cooked on her special day, what was served, and—most importantly—did her mother poison anyone? Although this omission was disappointing, Reichl more than made up for it by sharing such recipes as Claritha’s Fried Chicken, Coconut Bread, Oléro Berry Tart, and Artpark Brownies. I forgive you, Ruth.

Near the end of her book, Reichl wrote about meeting renowned chef, author, and TV host James Beard. Their brief encounter was far from memorable (at least for Beard) and even Reichl admitted that she was clearly out of her depth, but little did she know that she and Beard were more alike than she realized. Beard once wrote, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Food is remarkable in that it can manage to overcome religious, cultural, or political differences while forming a bridge that connects us through aroma, flavor, and texture. Food welcomes and comforts and unites us. Our memories are often formed around food and it is food that we seek in times of mourning, celebration, friendship, and love. With that, I’ll end this review with the Reichl customary toast as I raise an imaginary glass to Ernst, Miriam, and Ruth and say, “Cheerio and have a nice day.”

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Borrowers by Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

The Borrowers

Mary Norton (J Fantasy)

It is said that there are people who were so frightened, that each generation grew smaller and smaller and became more and more hidden. They’re often found in quiet, old houses that are deep in the country. They became known as the “little people” and one nine-year-old boy actually met some of these people who he came to know as the Clocks: Pod, Homily, and Arrietty. They were real. Absolutely real. He swears by it, but he is just a little boy and quite prone to fantasy and make believe. Or is he?
Buckle up because Mary Norton gives readers plenty of action, adventure, and danger along with some rather devious villains (isn’t Crampfurl just the perfect name for a baddy?) and one unassuming and unsuspecting hero. For underneath the kitchen floor is a world that captures the imagination and delights the senses. A world where matchboxes are dressers, postage stamps are works of art, and blotting paper makes for a rather smart rug. It’s the world of the Borrowers and it’s been captivating readers since its publication in 1952.

It’s easy to see how The Borrowers has become a classic and why Norton followed this book with four successors. Although I liked its themes of family, friendship, and trust, I truly appreciated that Norton didn’t shy away from making her main characters flawed and, at times, unlikeable. Afterall, it was not their discovery by the “human beans” that led to their ultimate downfall, but rather it was their own pride and greed. Albert Einstein once said, “Three great forces rule the world: stupidity, fear, and greed.” Perhaps Homily Clock could have benefitted from these words.

The Borrowers has everything that a young reader would enjoy…except for the ambiguous ending. Just when you think Norton has everything buttoned up, she throws in one final sentence—just four little words—that turns the entire story on its ear. Now, if I had been a reader in 1952 and had just read the last page of this wonderful story, I might be a little miffed at our Mrs. Mary Norton for leaving me high and dry. Thankfully, this isn’t 1952 and I know that not one but FOUR sequels await me, which means that the dear Clocks were not only real, but that they did in fact survive their hopeless fate. But perhaps Norton predicted what her readers’ reaction would be and tried to offer them some bit of solace and hope when she had Mrs. Kay say to young Kate, “…stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.” Thankfully, the Clocks’ story does go on and it will continue to go on as long as there are readers who keep telling and sharing it.  

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright (J Newbery Medal)

Thimble Summer

Elizabeth Enright (J Newbery Award)

It was the hottest day in the entire history of the world. At least it felt like it to Garnet Linden as she looked out over her family’s dying crops. Where was the rain? If it didn’t come soon, they would have to harvest their oats for hay and wouldn’t have enough money to pay their mounting bills. On top of all that, her father needed a new barn. Her family not only needed rain, they needed a miracle, but all Garnet had was a small silver thimble that she’d found in the damp, sandy flats of the river. What possible good could that ever do?

Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer received the Newbery Medal in 1939. Her book is a culmination of her grandmother’s childhood stories, her mother’s school days, her own experiences, and various memories of her friends and relatives. All told, Enright gives us a nine-year-old’s memorable summer filled with a high-speed bus ride, runaway chickens, a blue ribbon, a new sibling, and an unexpected sleepover in the town library. Thimble Summer is charming, engaging, and the ideal read for a young reader looking for adventure and suspense without any of the tragedy. It highlights the kindness of strangers and reminds us that family is so much more than blood. Although this story wouldn’t translate well today (as a nine-year old hitchhiking to another town would elicit a call from both local law enforcement and child protective services), readers still have to admire Garnet’s hutzpah when it comes to showing her older brother that she isn’t a total failure while looking good doing it!

In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Enright noted the joy she gleaned from writing about children for children since “a child sees everything sharp and radiant; each object with its shadow beside it. Happiness is more truly happiness than it will ever be again, and is caused by such little things.” I think through Garnet Linden, Elizabeth Enright is encouraging all of us to hold onto the magic of delighting in the little things that life has to offer so that we too can experience our very own thimble summer.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans by Janet & Geoff Benge

George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

Janet & Geoff Benge (Adult Christian)

Later that day, as George sat in the stagecoach rumbling back towards Halle, he felt strangely relieved. The sense of looming confrontation he’d felt on the journey home had been replaced with a sense of expectation. He had been given no choice but to cut ties with his earthly father. Now all he had was his heavenly Father to provide for him. As the villages and fields slipped by, George wondered how it would all work out.

George Müller was caught stealing at the age of ten. By twelve, he was sneaking away from boarding school at night and attending parties filled with beer and card games. His father wanted him to be a Lutheran pastor and earn a steady income, but drinking and gambling proved to be the stronger lure for the young man from Kroppenstaedt, Prussia. But one November afternoon in 1825 changed George Müller’s course forever. On that day, he attended his first Bible meeting and his world—along with his world view—would never be the same.

Janet and Geoff Benge give readers a remarkable story of faith, hope, and complete surrender. George Müller was miraculously transformed from an arrogant and self-indulgent college student to a man who relied solely on the grace and generosity of God to provide for him, his family, and the thousands of orphans he clothed, fed, housed, and educated. George died at the ripe old age of 92 and during his expansive lifetime, he had traveled over 200,000 miles, visited 42 countries, and met with British royalty, countless dignitaries, an American president, and the author Charles Dickens. Despite being the steward of over £1 million, he meticulously kept track of every pound and shilling and ensured that every donation was used solely for its intended purpose. He was as dutiful in his bookkeeping as he was in his prayers and George, despite countless obstacles, hardships, and impossible odds, remained steadfast in his faith and trust in God.

There was one moment in George’s life where he was staring at an empty table and looking into the eyes of dozens of hungry orphans who were anxiously awaiting their breakfast. George—never one to despair or doubt—simply told those around him to wait for the miracle to happen for even though the pantry was bare and the milk jugs empty, he knew that a higher power was in charge and that He would be faithful in fulfilling His promises.

George Müller left this world far richer and wiser than he was when he lived with his wealthy father or attended his prestigious schools. Through his daily actions, he became the father to 10,000 orphans and epitomized the words in Luke 1:37 that says, “For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson (J Historical Fiction)

The Day of the Pelican

Katherine Paterson (J Historical Fiction)

Terrible things should never happen in springtime, and it was almost spring.

Meli Lleshi and her family lived a comfortable life in Dukagjin. Her father came from a farm village so although her classmates didn’t look down on her like the Gypsies or hated her like the Serbs, she was still treated differently. She didn’t understand why the Serbs hated the Albanians so much…although most Albanians hated the Serbs equally. Baba, Meli’s father, had always taught his family to respect and not to hate, and so Meli did as she was told until the day her brother, Mehmet, disappeared. Now, with her country no longer safe, Meli will need to hold on tight to her family as they fight to survive and look for a way to escape their beloved Kosovo.

The Day of the Pelican is based on an actual Kosovar refugee family who was sponsored by Katherine Paterson’s own church in 1999. This is a harrowing, gritty, and brutal account of the war in Kosovo, which was the direct result of Slobodan Milošević’s decade-long oppression of the ethnic Albanian people. The book is recommended for ages 12 and above and its subject matter of ethnic cleansing and racial prejudice is worthy of in-depth discussions, making it an ideal book for a middle or high school social studies class. As far as it being an independent read, I—as an adult—found it to be a bit dry and often struggled to maintain interest in the story, so a younger reader with far less tenacity may give up on this book entirely. I think the primary reason for my detachment is that it’s written in the third person. Had Paterson chosen to use alternating, first-person points of view between Meli and Mehmet, I would have felt Meli’s fear for her brother, as well as better understand the reason behind Mehmet’s slow and painful separation from his father and family. As it is, the story lies just above the surface and never fully allows the reader to connect with this amazing family.

I appreciate any book that teaches history to young readers and especially love a book that shows the strength of the human spirit and the power of hope. The Day of the Pelican accomplishes both, while being deeply rooted in faith, courage, and family.

Throughout the book, Baba was always counting heads to make sure everyone in his family was accounted for. He kept repeating to Meli the importance of staying together: We must hold onto each other. Even in the chaos of fleeing their burning homeland, Meli kept reminding herself that they were all together and that was the important thing. Throughout his family’s struggles, Baba knew that villages may crumble, governments may fall, and possessions may be lost forever, but if you have family, you have everything you’ll ever need: Inshallah. God willing.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop (A Fiction)

Letter to My Daughter

George Bishop (Adult Fiction)

Arguments. Mothers and daughters have them often, but this argument was different. This one ended with a mother’s slap and a daughter’s angry exodus into the night. As worry and regret floods her brain, Laura sits down in her quiet kitchen and begins writing a letter to her daughter, Elizabeth. A letter that she hopes will give Elizabeth some insight into her upbringing and past in order to help bridge the divide that has grown between the two of them. Simple and honest words on paper that might heal both of their souls and perhaps lead to understanding and forgiveness.
Anyone who automatically dismisses this book because the author is a man will be depriving themselves of a thoughtful, reflective, and meaningful read. I quickly became lost in this story and often found myself thinking it a memoir rather than a work of fiction as the emotional details are strikingly vivid and the writing is genuine and immersive. Although it’s a quick read, it instantly draws you in and will either make you wish that you had received a letter like this from your own parent or that you had taken the time to write a letter like this to your own child.  
Through Letter to My Daughter, George Bishop reminds those of us fortunate enough to be a parent, that our children really don’t realize that we had an actual life before their grand entrance into the world. That whenever they utter, “You don’t get it” and “You just don’t understand” that we truly do get it because we also dreamed big dreams and had our heart broken and were disappointed by those people that we thought we could trust. We also laughed and cried and had horrible (and sometimes humorous) lapses in judgement and so yes, we really do understand because at one time, we were just like them—young, overly confident, woefully unprepared, and ready to take on the world…whatever that meant. And while we beat our heads against the wall trying to impart our hard-earned wisdom into their beautifully thick skulls, we find ourselves saying, “You don’t get it” and “You just don’t understand” and then we realize that just like that, the circle is now complete.  

Throughout the book, I kept being drawn to the character of Sister Mary Margaret, a kind and compassionate nun who taught at Sacred Heart Academy where Laura was sent. Laura quoted several of her sayings in her letter and every one of them is a gem in its own right: Never be afraid of the truth; Begin at the beginning; Avoid sentimentality at all costs; and my personal favorite, Be good, and if you can’t be good, at least be sensible. With advice like this, maybe Sister Mary Margaret should consider writing a letter, too?

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Gypsy Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (J Fiction)

The Gypsy Game

Zilpha Keatley Snyder (J Fiction)

Melanie didn’t know much about Gypsies, but if her best friend April could make Egypt into a fun and exciting game, she knew that The Gypsy Game was sure to be a hit as well…even though Marshall might be harder to convince. But soon after the Professor’s backyard began transforming into The Gypsy Camp, things began taking an unexpected turn. Between a found bear, a missing friend, hit men, detectives, and kidnappers, maybe a game about Gypsies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Thirty years after her Newbery Honor-winning novel The Egypt Game was published, Zilpha Keatley Snyder brings April, Melanie, Marshall, Elizabeth, Toby, and Ken back into a new game filled with adventure, suspense, and danger. Don’t expect Snyder to waste her opening pages rehashing events from her last book. Instead, she picks up right where she left off and instantly plunges readers into the action (so if you’re a little fuzzy about the Casa Rosada, who Security is, or why parents don’t want their kids wandering around outside alone, be sure to re-read The Egypt Game first). It’s clear that time has not weakened the strong and unique bond that her main characters have formed with one another and although they may occasionally bicker and disagree, theirs is a camaraderie that might be stretched thin, but will never be broken.  

Unlike her first book which presented the reader with plenty of interesting facts about Egyptian history, culture, and traditions, The Gypsy Game gives us just the scantest peek into Gypsy life while unintentionally giving readers the impression that Gypsies can boiled down to nothing more than headscarves, jewelry, and bright clothing. It seems a grave disservice, but Snyder eventually does delve into the more gritty and dark aspects of Gypsy life when she exposes their persecutions throughout history. Although I would have liked for Snyder to dig a little deeper into Gypsy culture, her sequel has enough twists and intrigue to keep fans of her first book engaged and satisfied.

Like her first book, Snyder’s sequel reminds us of the downsides of judging a book by its cover and how much we stand to lose when we jump to false conclusions. Just as the Gypsies were outcasts, Toby himself meets three outcasts and discovers just how far a simple act of kindness and generosity can go. American financier Bernard Baruch put it best when he said, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Although April, Melanie and the others didn’t realize it at the time, perhaps The Gypsy Game wasn’t about the clothes or the jewelry or the brightly painted caravan, but rather it was about watching out for your friends, staying true to your word, and offering a little bit of humanity and dignity to the most vulnerable around you.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping

Marilynne Robinson (Adult Fiction)

Marilynne Robinson’s book about two orphaned sisters (Ruth and Lucille) raised by their eccentric Aunt Sylvie in the dank and judgmental town of Fingerbone is a reminder that verbosity and detail are not the same thing and that more is not always better. Robinson clearly is on the “more” side as every character, mood, and setting in Housekeeping is described ad nauseum. She goes so far into the weeds in noting and detailing every memory, smell, glance, gasp, twitch, rustle, and shiver that when she finally finishes her thought, we’ve totally forgotten the point she was trying to make or where she was taking us. Worse…we no longer care.

I’ve read and reviewed hundreds of books and Housekeeping is the only book—the ONLY one—that I knew right from the very first page that I wasn’t going like it. Here is the fifth sentence where Ruth (our narrator) is describing her grandfather’s upbringing: He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more. This level of detail and imagery succeeds in allowing the reader to better understand why Ruth’s grandfather was so motivated to travel, but there are so many layers that you have to dig through that by the time you’ve reached the pearl, you’re so exhausted that you’re unable to enjoy its luster and beauty. Further along in the book, Robinson dedicates seven pages (I counted) describing the sisters’ fishing trip and their having to spend the night alone in the woods. Seven. Pages. It doesn’t take long before you realize that Housekeeping isn’t a cohesive story, but rather a series of lengthy paragraphs that you might find in the Reading section of the SAT: “In line 64, the word simulacra most likely means…”

The story is at its strongest and most interesting when it centers on Ruth and Lucille and their complicated relationship, but these moments are few before we are left with just Sylvie and Ruth and wondering who we should rally behind while we venture down yet another word rabbit hole and pray for daylight. Housekeeping does present several important themes—the illusion of permanence, the cost that comes with conforming to expectations, and how family doesn’t shield you from feeling alone and isolated—but after enduring so many mental gymnastics, we’ve neither the energy nor the interest to fully appreciate these revelations.  

I wish I had enjoyed this book more because slogging through a two-hundred-plus-page book only because you’re hoping that everything will come together in the end is a miserable relationship to have with an author and their story. Reading should be a joy, not a chore. However, I am glad that I did finish it for no other reason than to provide an honest review. Besides, I did manage to increase my vocabulary with a few interesting words so not all bad.

If I had to sum up my final thoughts, it would be that more isn’t necessarily a good thing or, as Leonardo da Vinci said so eloquently in just five little words, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com