A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo (J Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy   

Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters.  Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts:  Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop.  It is 1940s London and right after the war.  Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry.  But Michael doesn’t mind much.  In fact, he likes being different, being special.  Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him:  his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war.  But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.

A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army.  Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave.  Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin.  Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages.  He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.

In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.”  Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord (J)

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson   

Bette Bao Lord (Juvenile Fiction)

Bandit is confused.  What would make Mother smirk, Grandmother cry, and Grandfather angry?  The House of Wong is certainly unsettled, but why?  Bandit quickly learns that her father will not be returning to Chungking.  Instead, she and her mother will be going to him…to America.  But Bandit isn’t worried because no bad luck will come her way.  This is the year of the Boar and travel, adventure, and double happiness await her.  Soon, Bandit will begin her journey from China to San Francisco to her eventual home in Brooklyn, New York.  She will travel thousands of miles with a new name and new dreams.  But will America be all that Bandit hopes it will be?

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is a charming and humorous story largely based on Bette Bao Lord’s own experiences as a newcomer to America.  Bandit (who adopts an American name of Shirley Temple Wong) endures teasing, bullying, and rejection that often comes with simply being different.  Despite her difficulties with fitting in, she is constantly reminded by her mother of the importance of maintaining your self-respect despite struggling through ridicule: “Always be worthy, my daughter, of your good fortune.  Born to an illustrious clan from an ancient civilization of China, you now live in the land of plenty and opportunity.  By your conduct show that you deserve to enjoy the best of both worlds.”  Her mother’s words serve as a valuable reassurance to Bandit that her past life in China need not be forgotten or sacrificed for her present life in America.  She is much richer for having both.

Despite her trials and torments, Bandit makes friends through America’s favorite pastime—baseball—and its formidable hero, Jackie Robinson and realizes that things are not always what they appear to be.  On the day Bandit gains the unlikeliest of allies, she recalls something that her grandfather had told her many times: “Things are not what they seem.  Good can be bad.  Bad can be good.  Sadness can be happiness.  Joy, sorrow.”  In the year of the Boar, Bandit discovers the pride in being yourself and the value of friends who accept you just the way you are.  Double happiness.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.harpercollins.com

 

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie (Adult Fiction)

It was in early 1971 when two “city youths”—ages 17 and 18—were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky.  Boyhood friends, they were to be re-educated as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.  If they were fortunate, they would be reunited with their families after two years.  But they were not the offspring of average parents.  Instead, their parents—professional, respected, educated—were classed as enemies of the people, and their chances of release currently stood at three in a thousand.  So, the two spent their days laboring in the paddy fields, working in the mines, or carrying human and animal waste on their backs.  But one fateful day, their village headman sent them to the district of Yong Jing.  That journey would culminate with the princess of Phoenix Mountain, a miller, and an author named Honoré de Balzac.

Dai Sijie himself was re-educated and spent between 1971 to 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province.  His experiences undoubtedly gave this novel its authenticity, depth, and richness.  I knew very little of Mao Zedong’s 10-year movement to preserve Chinese Communism through the cultural eradication of capitalism and tradition.  Needless to say, the results were disastrous: economically, politically, and societally.  Sijie gives us a glimpse of the isolation, fear, and hysteria suffered by those who were sent away through the eyes of our 17-year old narrator (unnamed) and his 18-year friend, Luo.  When the two come across a hidden collection of translated Western classics, their worlds expand as they are introduced to the foreign feelings of lust, jealousy, revenge, and honor.  Matters are further complicated when they share these novels with the local tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.

I truly enjoyed this book and found it as light and airy as a basting stitch.  It read like a well-crafted fable and the scenes were sewn together seamlessly.  It was a delightful read that reinforces the idea that the written word is often just as powerful suppressed as it is unleashed.  Albert Einstein said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  So is a lot.”  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reminds us that once a book is opened, so is the mind and when the mind is opened, the heart takes flight.  Perhaps for this reason alone, there are still those in the world who wish books to remain closed.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath (Adult Fiction)

Esther Greenwood knew something was wrong with her that summer, and it wasn’t just the electrocution of the Rosenbergs or all the non-stop talk surrounding it.  She was supposed to be having the time of her life.  She was in New York and living the high life—a far cry from her 19 years living in a small New England town.  It was the summer of 1953 and what Esther knew for certain was that one of her troubles was Doreen.

Published in 1963, The Bell Jar was poet Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel.  Weeks after her book’s publication, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30.  Given that Plath’s personal struggles with money and depression parallels those of her main character, it is understandable why many view The Bell Jar as being semi-autobiographical.  Although this book deals with grave and bleak issues, Plath’s poetic prowess shines through giving readers a story that is poignant yet subtly lighthearted.  Although Plath’s future as a novelist would never be fully realized, she managed to give us a heroine that epitomized the women of her day.  The feminist movement saw its beginnings in 1963 and Plath put Esther right on the front lines—questioning societal views on conformity, conservatism, femininity, marriage, and family.

Much has changed since the release of The Bell Jar, but the increasing number of individuals diagnosed with depression or anxiety, as well as the rise in suicides, continue to make this novel timely and relevant.  Throughout the story, told in first-person narrative, Esther often describes herself as existing inside a bell jar: continually experiencing isolation and detachment from the outside world, always feeling that she is on display and expected to be more than she is or ever will be, and constantly struggling to be “perfect”.  When Esther learned that the famous novelist, Philomena Guinea, would be willing to pay for her treatment and education, Esther could conjure up neither gratitude nor any amount of relief: “I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing.  If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Esther Greenwood is a young woman trapped in a life that she is tired of living, yet afraid of leaving.  During her story, I often found myself silently cheering those times when the seal of her bell jar was lifted just enough to allow a bit a fresh air to seep through.  It was during these times that I hoped Esther, and others who suffer under their own bell jar, would be able to momentarily experience a feeling of joy, worth, and hope.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

Top 10 Picks for 2018

The Dusty Jacket’s Top 10 Picks for 2018*

Adult Fiction/Biography

  1. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (reviewed March 2018)
  2. Little Bee by Chris Cleave (reviewed May 2018)
  3. Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall (reviewed June 2018)
  4. The Invisible Wall (Biography) by Harry Bernstein (reviewed June 2018)
  5. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Biography) by Ishmael Beah (reviewed July 2018)
  6. The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott (reviewed July 2018)
  7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (reviewed August 2018)
  8. The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Biography) by Joel ben Izzy (reviewed September 2018)
  9. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall (reviewed November 2018)
  10. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (reviewed November 2018)

Juvenile/Young Adult

  1. My Side of the Mountain (J) by Jean Craighead George (reviewed March 2018)
  2. The Devil’s Arithmetic (YA) by Jane Yolen (reviewed April 2018)
  3. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (J Biography) by Eleanor Coerr (reviewed April 2018)
  4. Island of the Blue Dolphins (J) by Scott O’Dell (reviewed April 2018)
  5. Homeless Bird (YA) by Gloria Whelan (reviewed May 2018)
  6. Fever 1793 (YA) by Laurie Halse Anderson (reviewed June 2018)
  7. The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (J) by Betty G. Birney (reviewed August 2018)
  8. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (J) by Kate DiCamillo (reviewed August 2018)
  9. The Incredible Journey (J) by Sheila Burnford (reviewed November 2018)
  10. The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket (J) by John Boyne (reviewed November 2018)

 

*List contains selections reviewed in 2018

 

 

Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote (J)

A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory     

Truman Capote (Juvenile Fiction)

There was something special about that late November morning: the air lacked the songs of birds; the courthouse bell sounded cold and clear; and the once-empty hearth boasted a blazing fire.  All of these meant only one thing—it was fruitcake weather!

A Christmas Memory is Truman Capote’s earliest memories of his life in a small rural Alabama town.  Up until the age of ten, he lived there with a family of distant and elderly cousins.  One cousin, in particular, he was especially fond of and considered her to be his best friend.  She called him “Buddy”, after her former best friend who died in the 1880’s, and he referred to her as simply “my friend”.  Capote’s book is filled with his personal heartwarming memories of Christmas—beginning with the inaugural baking of the fruitcakes (which includes a charming visit to one Mr. Haha Jones) and followed by searching for the perfect tree, hanging wreaths on all the front windows, and making gifts for the family.  Capote’s vivid descriptions and eloquent prose allow us to smell the fruitcakes baking in the oven and luxuriate in the warmth emanating from the home’s stone fireplace.

On Christmas Eve night, “my friend” confesses to Buddy her desperate desire to give him a bicycle for Christmas, but her inability to do so for lack of money.  “It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want,” she laments, “but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”  During this time of year, we seem to be inundated with an endless barrage of commercials, movies, and television shows that all seek to remind us about the true meaning of Christmas through animated animals, complicated romantic triangles, or splashy musicals.  I’m grateful for Mr. Capote for sharing his personal Christmas memory and for showing us in a loving, compassionate, and quiet way that we should be thankful not for the gifts that lie under our tree, but rather for those who gather around it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com