Book Reviews

 
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RENE DENFIELD: THE CHILD FINDER

Reviewed by Judy Cummings, Between the Covers bookstore

The Enchanted, also written by Denfeld, was original in theme and voice and I loved it! The Child Finder is a variation on a theme but original in its presentation. Grief-stricken parents turn to Naomi. She is a child finder. She is their last hope. Their daughter Madison has been missing for three years and there is little hope that she will be found–and found alive. Naomi is fierce and relentless, but has her own demons to confront. A page-turner, perfect for late summer reading.

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Janet Fitch, The Revolution of Marina M

Reviewed by Izabela Babinska, Festival Volunteer

This was my first time reading Janet Fitch (I know, I know… White Oleander) and the experience was captivating. The Revolution of Marina M.  takes the reader from the bourgeois dinner tables of Tsarist Russia, to the proletariat factories and washrooms of revolutionary Petrograd, and the seedy underground of the counter-revolution. Marina, who is 16 at the start of the novel, comes up in the chaos, her allegiances and priorities torn between family and nostalgia, the opportunist soldier and visionary poet whom she both loves, and the promise of the future. The Revolution of Marina M.  is a story of passion and survival, as much about the transformation of a nation as the evolution of a soul swept up in the current of change.

Janet Fitch spent 11 years researching and writing this 700+ page tome, weaving the threads of history and detail into a rich and complex narrative. Although Marina and many of her peers are poets and artist, the novel’s poetry comes from Fitch’s intimate, exquisite and often frightening snapshots of Petrograd and the Red Terror. Passages like, “It would have been one thing if my departure had been voluntary, but it was another to have my best friend rip my skin off of me and hand it back to me as if it were a cape,” stayed with me for weeks. And the fate of the resilient, perceptive Marina will continue to haunt me.

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JESSICA SHATTUCK, THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE

Reviewed by Maggie Kane, Between the Covers bookstore

I read the store's advanced copy of this title last year (one of the many benefits of working at Between the Covers), and I'm positive that readers of historical fiction, and readers who don't shy away from conflicted characters, will want this book in their  "To Read" stack.  

The Women in the Castle explores the guilt and the delusion of German civilians in the aftermath of WWII. Shattuck's characters are actively resistant to passively complicit; for every person that spoke out against the Third Reich, hundreds remained silent, out of fear, indifference, or support of the regime. As seen at a lavish dinner party in the first chapter, Marianne von Lingenfels knows Adolf Hitler will bring devastation to Germany. Under his explosive and enticing rhetoric, he is a bully, with an increasingly powerful arsenal of weapons and deluded followers at his disposal. Marianne's personal loathing of the Fuhrer intensifies when her resister husband is executed for a failed assassination attempt. It becomes Marianne's mission to traverse her devastated  country to rescue fellow resistance widows. But the women she encounters, Benita and Ania, are not at all the Nazi-hating compatriots she expected. Among the three women, there are plenty of skeletons in the closet.  

After the war ends, and the monstrosities of the Holocaust are made known, the international community demanded answers from Germany. How could this sophisticated country so dutifully follow a madman? How could they not know what was happening to the Jewish people of Europe, or Hitler's outspoken opponents? If they did know (and how could they not?) shouldn't they be punished too? There are rarely easy answers in The Women in the Castle, and that grey area makes for a unique and discussion-worthy read.

 
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KAREN DIONNE, THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER

Reviewed by Karen Ford, Between the Covers bookstore

Brilliant storytelling, this is the story of Helena, raised in captivity with her mother, on the wild marsh land in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The story skillfully alternates between Helena's past and present, interweaving the complicated tale between father and daughter, hunter and prey. Each chapter begins with a selection from Hans Christian Anderson's The Marsh King, setting the scene for the coming tale.

 Helena, as an adult, is happily married to Stephen, with two young daughters. Her past remains her past—until the notorious child abductor, known as the Marsh King, escapes from a maximum security prison. Helena knows what she must do to protect the lives closest to her. The story is chilling and suspenseful, and guaranteed to keep you reading long into the wee hours of the night.

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EWA HRYNIEWICZ-YARBROUGH, Objects of Affection

Reviewed by Izabela Babinska, Festival Volunteer

In 2018, immigration is an almost universal experience; however, that doesn’t make it any less lonely or uncomplicated. In her pragmatic collection of essays, Objects of Affection, Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough shares an intimate and introspective view of her move from Poland to the United States during the 1980’s, and traces how it has shaped her dual-perspective. She discusses home and history, nationality versus identity, and cultural displacement in frank and thoughtful conversation with writers from Zbigniew Herbert to Paul Valery and Gertrude Stein. Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s reflections on identity, our relationships with our native and adopted tongues, and the misadventures of having a difficult-to-pronounce name provide an affecting, personal account of her experience and challenge us to think about how our place of origin shapes our identity. Although a collection of impactful, topical essays, the book follows an interconnected thread through the writer’s mind.

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Abby Hanlon, Dory Fantasmagory, Head in the Clouds

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member

“If your head is in the clouds,

it means your thoughts are far away

and you are in your own world,

daydreaming or living in a fantasy”

The opening lines of this fourth Dory adventure captures the essence of her imaginative world as Dory discovers her first loose tooth.  Dory, aka Rascal, is a master of creative play and problem solving, though her choices often get her into trouble. A fun book to read aloud then slip into the hands of eager early chapter book readers.  The Dory series is a great springboard for primary readers to try out their own creative storytelling.

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Gary D. Schmidt , So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk toward Freedom

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member

Looking at the cover art and title of this book, I knew I was in for something special.  Schmidt and Minter have dovetailed their talents to create an exceptional and fresh look at a woman who lived a difficult yet purposeful life. Each new thread of the narrative begins with a poetic line accompanied by a stunningly beautiful contemporary painting that, in it’s beauty, also depicts the harsh realities of legal slavery.

 “In Slavery Time, when Hope was a seed waiting to be planted.”

I reread the book many times, once just for the progression of these poetic segments.  Beyond the initial line of each thread, Schmidt’s lyrical text and Minter’s expressive paintings show the challenges and determination that were Sojourner Truth’s life. This is a picture book approachable for young children but also not to be missed by older youth and adults. I came away from the reading with a clearer picture of Sojourner Truth’s struggles and appreciation for her dedication to human rights.

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Lindsay Eagar, Race to the Bottom of the Sea

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member

Race to the Bottom of the Sea is a page-turning mystery infused with science fiction, a hint of the past, an inventive spirit, and characters so well-developed we can see into their hearts and minds. Fall in love with eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail, a strong-minded inventor and young oceanographer who must find her way after her world is turned upside down by the tragic accidental death of her marine scientist parents. Fidelia is guilt-ridden by thoughts that she could have prevented the accident and by her lack of appreciation for her aunt’s efforts to give her a new life. To add to her troubles, Fidelia is kidnapped by pirates!  The side mystery in the book has enough predictability to let middle grade readers feel like proper sleuths.  But to learn the full details of how all of the characters fit together and what becomes of Fidelia, the author keeps her readers glued to the pages until the very end. Younger middle grade readers may need some help with attention to the time period flashbacks, but the 400+ page length won’t be an issue in this captivating story.

Ilyasah Shabazz, Betty Before X

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member
 
An engaging and inspiring book for our middle grade readers and those adults who enjoy well-written middle grade literature!

What experiences in a young person’s life impress and inspire how she will choose to live her adult years? Betty Shabazz was the wife of Malcolm X, an educator, dedicated mother, and civil rights activist.    This historical fiction account written by Betty’s youngest daughter with Renee Watson shows the family, friend, and community influences and experiences that shaped Betty’s self-confidence and independent thinking.  You might expect the book to focus on racism given Betty’s later prominent activism.  While that is an undertone of the book, the bigger story is of a young girl searching for a sense of belonging and acceptance from others and herself.  Parents and teachers will find this novel a great springboard to discuss those themes as well as the civil rights movement.  As a teaching tool, Betty Before X also helps our younger readers recognize the differences of telling a life story as historical fiction or biography and speculating why the author may have chosen this format.

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Kat Yeh, The Way to Bea

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member

After the best summer of her life, Beatrix Lee returns from Tiawan to find everything and everyone in her life seems to have changed. Her best friend doesn’t talk to her and her artsy parents are too busy to notice her troubles.  Being herself leads to embarrassment at every turn.  Meanwhile, a mystery friend has found Bea’s secret spot and answers the poems she hides there.  Kat Yeh has created a cast of mostly loveable and often quirky characters to help Beatrix Lee in her quest to find a way to fit in.

If I act
the way
I wish I were
am I still acting
-or becoming?

The suspense builds and the action moves quickly.  Abandon your bookmark and plan to stay glued to this beautifully written book while seventh grader Bea finds her way through the labyrinth of life (or, Extra Credit Curveball, is it a perfect maze?)

 
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Colby Sharp, The Creativity Project

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member

Teachers have used pictorial and written prompts to inspire creative response for decades.  But what happens when successful children’s book creators become a key component in the process? Colby Sharp enlists the help of 44 authors and illustrators to explore this question. Colby explains, “First, I asked each contributor to send me two creative prompts – seeds that could get the wheels of their fellow creative friends’ minds turning…Then, I mailed off a mysterious package to everyone containing the two prompts that I picked for that person.  They were asked to choose one and use it to inspire an awesome creation.” And they did!

I don’t recommend simply reading this book from cover to cover.  Savor each prompt, each response.  Flip through the book to find your favorite author’s and illustrator’s contributions. But in the end, don’t miss a word.  Many contributors include glimpses into their own creative process and the challenge of this particular task.  Mariko Tamaki shows her thinking process by crossing through instead of deleting ideas she rejects. Kate Messner includes an author note longer than her poem response, demonstrating what ideas and knowledge inspire her words. Jarret J. Kroscoczka validates comics as literature.  At the end of Linda Urban’s creative story, she shares a note on the particular pressure and vulnerability she felt in contributing her writing to this project.  But the project is far from over at this point.  Plan for this book to inspire your creativity! The reader is encouraged to respond to any or all of the remaining contributor prompts. This book belongs in the hands of every teacher, student, and creative thinker.  Join the project!


L.L. McKinney  , A Blade So Black

Reviewed by Michelle Boyer, School Visit Committee Member

Alice’s world is turned upside down when her father dies and she is visited by a nightmare – a monstrous creature from the dark side of Wonderland.  Her other worldly savior, Addison Hatta, becomes her mentor as she learns to use the magic weapons and fighting skills that she needs to battle the hideous creatures and save those she loves in both worlds.  McKinney has created a strong character in Alice, our nightmare-slaying teenage warrior.  Think Alice in Wonderland meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the vulnerability, self-doubt, and parental constraints of a teenager.  A Blade So Black brings Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland to today’s young adult readers with captivating contemporary experiences and language. McKinney balances the real world of Atlanta and the fantasy world of Wonderland in crafting a fresh story.   I enjoyed this debut novel from McKinney and suspect she may find a place for Alice in a novel yet to come!

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LEAH THOMAS: WHEN LIGHT LEFT US

Reviewed by Katie Boeckl, Between the Covers bookstore

What most of us know of stories of alien encounters are when people share what the aliens stole from their--months of their lives, their insides, their brains. It's the stuff of science fiction legend. But what if an alien visited and first, he gave things to you. Friendship, hope, comfort. How much worse would it be when he left? For the three Vasquez siblings, it seems that nothing can replace their father's absence. Their extraterrestrial friend, Luz, comes pretty darn close, but then he leaves. And now they have even greater holes in their lives. Everything feels different and there is no going back. Only onward. And only with each other.