Current Book Review

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (J)

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Elizabeth Coatsworth (Juvenile Fiction)

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  But on this particular day, dinner was not coming.  Instead, inside the housekeeper’s little bamboo basket was a small white cat with yellow and black spots on her sides.  But the artist could barely provide for the two of them let alone a third!  Fortunately, a tri-colored cat is a very lucky thing to have and so she was kept and named Good Fortune.  True to her name, good fortune followed her and soon the head priest from the temple arrived and commissioned the artist to paint the death of the lord Buddha.  It seemed that the luck of everyone…and everything…in the household was about to change.

Written in 1930 and awarded the Newberry Medal in 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a short book (just 63 pages) brimming with lessons of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Elizabeth Coatsworth’s book has been reprinted twenty-four times, but I suggest selecting the version containing Lynd Ward’s exquisite illustrations.  His drawings bring an added depth and richness to Coatsworth’s beautiful words and will allow readers to fully immerse themselves within this exotic and mystical world.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is recommended for ages 10 and up, but younger audiences may enjoy it as a bedtime story.  The short chapters followed by a summarizing poem make it an ideal nighttime read.  Most of the book centers around the artist painting various animals which Buddha embodied throughout his life.  Each animal has its own story, and each story has its own moral including honesty, kindness, fidelity, and bravery.  The story is charming and flows like silk, but the ending is abrupt (it even took me a bit by surprise) and may not sit well with more sensitive readers.  Not to spoil the story, but the title IS an indicator as to how this story ends so forewarned is forearmed.

“Forgiveness” is the centerpiece of this book and it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and human rights activist, who once said, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”  Coatsworth wrote her book a year before Archbishop Tutu was born, but she too must have realized the sentiment behind these words because through forgiveness, she has given Good Fortune a very happy beginning, which in turn gives her readers a truly happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org

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Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr Timothy

Mr. Timothy

Louis Bayard (Adult Fiction)

Tiny Tim is tiny no longer.  The iron brace and crutch have long been replaced by an achy knee and slight limp…a mere lilt, really.  It is December 1860 and although Mr. Timothy Cratchit, now a man of twenty-three, lives off the monetary magnanimity of his “Uncle” Ebenezer Scrooge, he dredges the River Thames for treasure-yielding corpses and lives in a brothel where he tutors the Madam in reading.  It’s a satisfactory life, one in which Tim has grown used to until he comes upon one and then two dead girls, each with the letter “G” branded on her upper arm.  When Tim meets Philomela, a ten-year-old street orphan, he realizes that he must do everything he can in order to protect her for she, like the other two girls, bears the same “G” on her arm.

I must admit that it took me a while to connect with (and eventually enjoy) this book.  Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories and so it was distressing to see the iconic and beloved character of Tiny Tim reduced to desecrating corpses and spending his days living off charity.  I don’t fault Louis Bayard for building a story off an already-established fictional character.  Many authors have done the same in the past and will continue to do so in the future as long as there is a willing and interested audience; however, Bayard’s choice of using a character as cherished, wholesome, and pure as Tiny Tim and then casting him into London’s dark and dreary underbelly seems almost sacrosanct and readers of this story, who adore Tim, may feel a little duped in the process.  Luckily, patience proves to be a virtue and readers can rest assured that Bayard eventually gives us the loyal, spirited, and resilient lad that we’ve come to know and love.

Billed as a “literary thriller”, Mr. Timothy does not disappoint in delivering danger, intrigue, and fast-paced drama.  The story is a bit slow out of the starting gate and seems to drift as multiple characters are introduced and a number of storylines play out.  At about the midway point, things seem to get their bearing and the action moves at a steady and satisfying pace until the end.  Although Dickens wouldn’t have imagined his young hero delving into police corruption, child trafficking, and prostitution, he would be gratified to know that his Tim is armed with a strong moral center, a kindly heart, and nerves of steel…not to mention a leg that makes for a quite dependable barometer.

In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim was known for saying, “God bless us, every one!”  This phrase was repeated at the end of the book to signify Scrooge’s change of heart.  Like Scrooge, I experienced my own change of heart and am grateful I decided to give this book a second chance.  At times, this wasn’t an easy thing to do for Bayard really puts poor Tim through the wringer, but I’m glad I stayed with Mr. Timothy and accompanied him to the very end of his adventure.  So in honor of second chances—which are indeed a rare and precious thing—I’ll end by simply saying, “God bless us, everyone one!”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire by Polly Horvath (J Mystery)

Mr and Mrs Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire 

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Mystery)

The summer solstice has arrived and the residents of Hornby Island are preparing for the festival of Luminara.  While Madeline’s parents are busy making luminaries, she is getting ready for her school’s awards ceremony where Prince Charles himself will be handing out the awards (Madeline is getting three!).  All is pretty much as it should be until Madeline returns home that night to find a mysterious note on her door stating that her parents have been taken in for questioning.  It was signed by “The Enemy” and even included a “mwa-haha”, which is NEVER a good sign.  With her decoder uncle in a sudden and rather inconvenient coma, Madeline is alone and truly in over her head.  She seeks help from Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire and although these two don’t seem to know what they’re doing, they DO have rather smart-looking fedoras and that has to count for something.  So, with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny on the case, this mystery is officially afoot!

Although Polly Horvath merely translated this story from Mrs. Bunny’s personal account, she still delivers a funny, quirky, and lighthearted romp that will delight and entertain young readers who enjoy a good mystery.  Filled with fiendish foxes, garlic-bread-eating marmots, exploding chapeaus, and high-speed chases, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire is an action-packed thrill ride where faith is blind, reason is deaf, and hope springs eternal.

Despite its whimsy and charm, Horvath does give readers a few poignant lessons that hopefully won’t get lost amongst all the fur, fluff, and fun.  Through Madeline, we see a girl caught between two worlds: the happy hippies of Hornby and the more mainstream children at her school on Vancouver Island.  Her classmates have already formed an opinion of her based solely on where she lives and nothing Madeline does can alter that prejudice: “[Madeline] didn’t know how to make the other children like her, and she felt she constantly had to defend herself from unspoken accusations about a way of life she hadn’t chosen to begin with.”  Pretty weighty stuff, but this is why Polly Horvath is one of my favorite children’s authors.  She never writes down to her audience and presents real-life problems in a way that young readers can easily relate to and connect with.  She also shows us that family is what you make it for the Bunnys, not all that familiar with humans or children, manage to see and appreciate something in Madeline that her own parents have chosen to either overlook or ignore and end up loving her as their own.  Lastly, she shows us the absolute wonder of simply being noticed and appreciated (see previous comment about Madeline’s parents).  Madeline has the unique gift to understand and communicate with animals.  When she mentions this to Prince Charles, he replies, “I’ve often heard animals speak.  Plants too.  It’s all a matter of noticing, isn’t it?  The richness of our lives depends on what we are willing to notice and what we are willing to believe.”  In this world of clatter and clutter and non-stop input, it’s hard to just stop and notice the beauty that surrounds us every day.  It’s quiet and subtle and often goes unnoticed.  But lucky for us, we have a ten-year-old girl, two clever bunnies (with rather smart-looking fedoras), and the heir apparent to the British throne to remind us that it’s there and it’s well worth the effort.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba (J Biography)

The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind 

William Kamkwamba (Juvenile Biography)

The machine was ready.  After so many months of preparation, the work was finally complete: The motor and blades were bolted and secured, the chain was taut and heavy with grease, and the tower stood steady on its legs.  The muscles in my back and arms had grown as hard as green fruit from all the pulling and lifting.  And although I’d barely slept the night before, I’d never felt so awake.  My invention was complete.  It appeared exactly as I’d seen it in my dreams.

William Kamkwamba lives in Malawi, a tiny nation in southeastern Africa that is often called “The Warm Heart of Africa.”  He is the only son of Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba and brother to six sisters.  His family are farmers—like most of the families in the village of Masitala—and grow maize.  It is a hard life, but one filled with love, family, and friends.  But William is naturally curious and innovative and he begins to build things in his spare time.  When famine strikes his village and he is forced to drop out of school for lack of money, he begins to visit the local library where he discovers an amazing thing that would forever change his world and the people around him.  William discovers science.

The story of William Kamkwamba’s determination to bring electricity to his village is a lesson in perseverance, resourcefulness, and faith.  Whether you call it moxie, pluck, spirit, or spunk, William has it and he truly epitomizes the saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Poverty, hunger, and futility are no match for a young boy with a dream of making electricity.  For William knew what building a windmill would mean for himself and his family: “With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger.  A windmill meant more than just power.  It was freedom.”

After reading William Kamkwamba’s amazing and inspiring story, two things in particular stuck out.  The first was that after attending and graduating college in the United States and completing an internship with a San Francisco design firm, William chose to return home.  He could have easily found a job and made a respectable amount of money in Silicon Valley or New York, but William followed his heart back to Africa and began using his knowledge and experience to make his community a better place.  Second, even from a young age, William Kamkwamba realized that he was just a small piece in a rather large puzzle.  He knew that we, as humans, were connected and he found comfort and security in that connectedness: “Even though we lived in a small village in Africa, we did many of the same things kids do all over the world; we just used different materials.  After talking with friends I met in America, I know this is true.  Children everywhere have similar ways of playing with one another.  And if you look at it this way, the world isn’t such a big place.”  No, it’s really not such a big place at all, William and thanks to you, it got just a little bit closer.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey (Biography)

The Lost German Slave Girl

The Lost German Slave Girl 

John Bailey (Biography)

How could Sally Miller possibly imagine how much her life and future would change on a chance encounter in the spring of 1843.  That is what happened when Madame Carl Rouff left her home in Lafayette on that bright morning and travelled across New Orleans to visit her friend in Fauborg Marigny.  On her way, she noticed a woman—a slave—who bore a striking resemblance to her beloved friend, Dorothea Müller.  But no, it couldn’t be for her friend died on board a ship heading to America. No, it wasn’t Dorothea, but perhaps her lost daughter, Salomé?  Could it really be her after twenty-five years without a trace?  Was Salomé Müller, the lost daughter of Daniel and Dorothea, finally found?  And how could a woman of pure German ancestry be a slave?  One chance meeting was about to set off a series of events that would eventually lead Sally Miller all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana in one woman’s historic fight for freedom.

In his Author’s Note, John Bailey said that he stumbled upon Sally Miller’s remarkable story while doing research on the laws of American slavery.  The breadth of his research is thorough and extensive and he seems to have included everything he gleaned—the rights of slaves and their descendants, the founding of New Orleans, the plight of redemptioners—in his biography of Sally Miller (waste not, want not).  On the cover of The Lost German Slave Girl is a quote from The Washington Post declaring, “Reads like a legal thriller.”  Not quite.  I would say this book comes closer to an immersive (and at times exhaustive) history of slavery in Old New Orleans in the early 19th century.  The story does pick up at about 100 pages in (the book is 257 pages not counting the Endnotes) and has enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention; however, to get to this point in the story requires a healthy amount of tenacity and grit.  Lovers of history and the law will find the abundance of information interesting, but unless you are deeply passionate about either topic, you’ll find the sheer amount of facts and details presented to be a bit to slog through.

Bailey does give readers plenty to think when sharing Sally’s story of freedom, perseverance, and faith.  At this biography’s heart is a seemingly simple question: “What is it that binds one person to another?”  Love?  The law?  A sense of duty?  For Sally Miller, it was perhaps a little of each depending on her current stage of life.  Her story is remarkable, extraordinary, and indeed deserves to be shared if for no other reason than to remind us to never stop fighting for what your heart desires most.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson (J Historical Fiction)

The Friendship Doll

The Friendship Doll

Kirby Lawson (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Miss Kanagawa was the last doll that master dollmaker Tatsuhiko would ever make.  She was a doll like no other and was to be Master Tatsuhiko’s masterpiece.  Miss Kanagawa, along with her fifty-seven sisters, were being sent to the children of the United States by the children of Japan as a gesture of friendship.  These fifty-eight ambassadors of peace and goodwill carried with them the assurance that Japan was indeed a friend of America.  But Master Tatsuhiko wanted his prized creation to be more than just a messenger and wished that she would discover her true purpose as a doll: “to be awakened by the heart of a child”.  Sadly, Miss Kanagawa was as callous as she was beautiful and she was very certain that a doll with a samurai spirit such as hers would never have a need for a child.

The Friendship Doll is based on the actual arrival of fifty-eight dolls from Japan to the United States in November 1927.  In her book, Kirby Larson takes us from 1927 to the present day and introduces readers to such events as the Great Depression, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Through Miss Kanagawa, we meet a hopeful orator, an aspiring pilot, a voracious reader, and a devoted writer—each with her own remarkable story and each changed by a chance encounter with a unique and proud doll.

While reading The Friendship Doll, I couldn’t help but notice several similarities between it and Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (one of my favorite books).  Both stories revolve around an exquisite doll with an overly-high opinion of itself who imparts something of value with those it meets while simultaneously discovering the joy that comes from being wanted and loved.  While Edward is a silent presence, Miss Kanagawa somehow speaks directly to her visitor’s subconscious.  Young readers won’t be bothered by this, but those of us old enough to remember The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Living Doll” featuring Talking Tina might be overly susceptible to the heebie-jeebies.  Still, if you liked Edward, you’re sure to enjoy Miss Kanagawa as well.

Although this book does touch upon the sensitive subjects of death and dementia, its historical insights offer readers a valuable glimpse at a few events from our nation’s past.  It also serves as a reminder that it is often the smallest of things that can bring about the greatest change within ourselves and there is nothing heebie or jeebie about that.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Tangerine by Edward Bloor (YA)

Tangerine

Tangerine

Edward Bloor (Young Adult Fiction)

The Fisher family—Dad, Mom, and sons Erik and Paul—are moving from Texas to Florida.  Their new home is in the prestigious Lake Windsor Downs subdivision located in Tangerine County.  Despite their new location, the family continues to move forward with the Erik Fisher Football Dream…dad’s favorite topic.  However, no such dream exists for Paul whose IEP lists him as legally blind.  But you don’t have to be blind to see all the strange things happening in Tangerine: the never-ending muck fires, disappearing koi, a giant school-swallowing sink hole, and lightning that strikes at the same time every day.  Things are definitely different in Tangerine and they’re about to get even more strange as Paul begins to piece together memories about a dark, family secret as fuzzy as his own eyesight.

I’m having a difficult time writing this review as the adult in me desperately wants to rip the title of “parent” from both Mr. and Mrs. Fisher.  In 1670, John Ray cited as a proverb, “Hell is paved with good intentions” and the Fisher parents embody this beautifully.  They have failed both of their sons dismally, and I can only hope that the audience this book was written for (young adults) realize this and understand the difference between parenting and passivity.  With that said, I shall cast aside my adultness and say that Tangerine does provide teens with some spot-on insights into the messy, harsh, and unforgiving world of middle and high school.  Edward Bloor gives us a story about the Haves and the Have Nots, where opportunity seems to favor those with money over those with moxie.  He shows us how a bunch of ragtag soccer players can be more of a family than your own kin.  And, he warns us of the danger of placing glory above goodness and confusing apathy with care.

Despite the flagrant shortcomings of some of the adults in this book, Bloor does give readers a modern-day hero in the likes of Paul Fisher—an underdog who pursues his dreams with relentless courage and moral conviction.  Never one to fall victim to his impairment, Paul proves himself to be a loyal, fearless, and worthy friend and shows everyone in Tangerine—including his own family—that he is more than just the sum of his parts.  From an early age, Paul realizes that life is often unfair and cruel, but by living in Tangerine where lightning does in fact strike twice, he understands that anything is possible and that even a kid labeled as legally blind can still see the good in people.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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