Tim has a long history with the bookstore. As a loving Schwartz Books customer and a complete author event geek, Tim has met many authors and had them sign his books. His first ever author event was with Mickey Mantle, back when Schwartz had a store on the corner of Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue. That event had a line all the way around an entire city block--and Mickey stayed until he met every last customer! Tim retired from the School District of Waukesha after teaching elementary school children for 30 years, and now he gets to work at those author events. His interests include all types of children's literature, nature, art, sports, and lots of favorite authors for adults such as Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, Nevada Barr, David Mitchell, and Sherman Alexie.
How did these writers make a science fiction thriller with a military bent so much fun? I think it’s the freaky X-Files-style mystery that immediately jumps into play, combined with super-smart, snarky dialogue between convincing, entertaining characters. One operative is British (by way of India), and the other is American. They’re reminiscent of Odd Couple roommates with a complicated past who both love and hate each other in equal measure. They have very unusual, essential skills, and the top dogs need their contrasting personalities side by side again. This time they’re confronting a powerful network of forces while looking for answers to what seems out of this world. Indeed! What in the world is Prophet? The authors say they hope we’ll “have a blast” with their book. Done deal! It’s a blast, and it’s also a deep relationship study with beautiful, tender humanity. After reading a bit of Helen Macdonald’s earlier writing, I’m surprised that she’s doing something so different. What doesn’t surprise me is the high level of intelligence. I’ve seen that before from her, and this bright collaboration with Blaché is every bit as impressive!
I don’t like to repeat myself with recommendations, but Whitehead makes it tough to avoid. I said in an earlier review for Harlem Shuffle that I met Colson Whitehead at a Boswell Book Company event once and saw the genius in his eyes, the sly humor, and the sincerity. I added that he's the new King of American Historical Fiction, the new voice as powerful as E. L. Doctorow’s. Is he still a genius? You bet. Still King? Absolutely! (Two Pulitzer Prizes do say a lot.) So, what’s left to say? Just that this is the sequel to Harlem Shuffle (with a third book in the works), and Ray Carney is doing his best to be straight. He was once only “slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” fencing stolen goods from his furniture store. Then his cousin Freddie drew him into a heavy heist. Now, a decade later, he’s just a smart business owner and loving family man with a little sentiment for his past crooked days, but 1971 Harlem is churning with upheaval and “bent hates straight.” Ray’s not one of the city’s many villains, but the churn has him back in the game, a game that inflicts real pain on the losers. I’ll go ahead and repeat that past review one last time. This is greatness! I took my sweet time, savoring every literary morsel.
Lindsey Hill and her three children have just arrived at Honolulu’s Daniel K Inouye International Airport, the first step to a completely new life. The death of her husband, the kids' father Paul, led to a radical plan. Buy a six-acre oceanfront property and take over an old, fading motel business from the eighty-something Hawaiian owners. Lindsey had her reasons for the unlikely leap, but the world-class sunsets come with a large dose of culture shock. The Hills are also clueless about running and maintaining a motel. It’s eight cottages and an office full of figure-it-out. While I’m no expert on perfect summer reads, I think this endearing novel surely qualifies. The characters are lovely and nicely unpredictable. I hoped and cheered for them each and every uncertain step of the way. It’s also a convincing, heartwarming, smile-inducing look at their grief and their renewal, with a slowly dawning and very mysterious turn. It drew me in and never let me go.
Just as delightful and touching as the first two books in this series, The One and Only Ruby is such a welcome continuation of the stories about Ivan and Bob. Applegate gives human voices to animals in a way that makes us laugh and cry, warms our hearts, and reveals a sense of truth about their lives. She teaches us, through them, about love and family and loss and hope and courage. The young elephant Ruby was born in Africa but lived with the gorilla Ivan and the small dog Bob at an American shopping mall zoo that degraded them for customer entertainment. Now they all have some dignity and safety in a park sanctuary, where Ruby is the littlest elephant, just getting her tusks as she navigates the responsibilities of growing up among her herd. Illustrator Patricia Castelao treats us to charming pictures that emphasize the body language of these beautiful creatures. The stories are based on true events, and Applegate offers us ways to help real elephants. This series is as unique and entertaining as children’s literature can be.
Johannes is a free dog, refusing to let himself be kept as a pet the way other dogs do, and he’s a keen observer. He has to be, with his senses trained on everything needed to survive in a huge urban park. He’s the Eyes, and other animals act as his Assistant Eyes. Together they watch for any changes that upset their park Equilibrium, and they report directly to the bison who have long lived as kept animals. Some of the people in the park are a stable and likable part of the Equilibrium. Others pose a threat, and human threats become harrowing in a flash. Young readers will be drawn to the original thinking, wisdom, and sly humor of the animals, as they comment on the strange behaviors of people without seeming human themselves. We get a marvelous look inside a world easily overlooked in our daily lives. We get a spine-tingling, profound conclusion, and we’re treated to a uniquely beautiful book. The artwork, the paper quality, the gilded edges, and the carved wooden cover all make this a book lovers dream!
Dan Egan is a great storyteller, and this is the full story of phosphorus, an essential ingredient to all life on Earth. From the opening page when a Florida man almost dies of the effects of too much phosphorus, to the contrasting crisis over the depletion of this limited natural resource, Egan describes the broken natural cycle of what many people know simply as fertilizer. Personally, I’m deeply committed to the topic, having spent years teaching children about the environment, and yet I confess that I was not expecting Egan to captivate me with phosphorus. He did. The plain-spoken and dramatic way he conveys information is what works the magic. Well, that and amazing tales of alchemy, battlefield scavenging, the human population explosion, soap bubbles, algae blooms, and so much more. Ok, so here’s my second confession in a row. I haven’t read Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. That mistake will soon be corrected!
It's a literary gift to suddenly find profound inspiration. Finding that it comes from a local author makes it rare. Margaret Noodin is a professor of English and American Indian studies at UW-Milwaukee. She earned two degrees from Minnesota schools, and it’s where she learned the language of the poems in What the Chickadee Knows. They’re conceived and written in Anishinaabemowin, side by side with her English translations. It’s “the language of the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe people centered in the Great Lakes region.” I don’t know the language, but the words are visually thrilling. I can begin to imagine their lovely sounds, and I love seeing the continuation of First Nations languages. Their descriptions of the land and life, time and loss, sorrow and celebration have the feel of a natural world we all long for. They're simply stated, and beautifully complex. They speak of love, while also confronting the tragedy of our history. This is one of the most precious book discoveries I've had, and it's very exciting to know that Noodin teaches up the street from Boswell!
When I really like a book, it's usually more about the writing and less about the topic or the themes. In Darlington’s case, the writing is both exciting and graceful, with a very personal touch, as she explains the mythology and symbolism attached to owls while celebrating their natural world. And I love the topic as well. I've been sharing the experience of seeing Great Horned Owls with a six-year-old child, as they nest in our neighborhood and hunt from our trees. His fascination exceeds even mine. Darlington’s fascination began when she and her son were suddenly face to face with a Great Grey Owl as it gripped its owner’s leather glove. That launched a need to write about owls, both wild and in remarkable domestic places. Then her son got very ill, but she decided to carry on and show us glimpses of her own inner world while writing about theirs. By setting out to find all the wild European owl species as she faced her greatest fear, she’s given us a loving tribute to the beauty and struggle of living, in owls and in the people dedicated to their well-being.
Nothing else in children’s literature is quite like Brian Selznick's ability to weave words and pictures into tales of mystery and suspense. The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the books that followed were revolutionary for my fourth and fifth grade students. With Big Tree, Selznick takes a step beyond, giving us an elegant look at the depth, persistence, and beauty of nature, all guided by the wisdom of the universe. Mother Sycamore’s protected seeds, Merwin and Louise, will find themselves prepared to fly on the wind when the time suddenly comes that they must. Their heroic search for a place to start their own lives shows how the Earth has developed, from the beginning of time all the way to our dreams for the future, and the book’s Afterword tells us about the science behind the story. Selznick consulted the best scientific sources to help him, and I was immediately inspired to learn more. Big Tree implores us all to listen as one, a community of the living, and it’s a gift to us all, at a time when hope and courage are what we need most.
After her parents' divorce, everything's changing for eleven-year-old Mia, including her home. Dad has a new wife and baby. Now mom and her boyfriend want a new house for a new start. It's a relief that she can spend a month in a place where change never seems to arrive. Grandma’s familiar, quiet seaside Maine house will be the perfect spot to talk about fears and uncertainties while Mom and Scott finish selling the only place she's ever lived. If only change will stay away from her one safe home away from home. Lord does skilled work with characters and a grand natural setting to show how the old and the troubling new can inspire wisdom and growth. The life lessons are beautifully drawn, and the storyline is suspenseful, with ethical issues about birding, animals keeping their natural homes, and social media. It’s a warm and uniquely satisfying novel. I’ve been learning to cry (with little progress) my whole life. For this book, I shed wonderful tears.
Ziggy is a sweet 6th grade kid. He's also sad and confused. He knows he’s complicated. He gets help with intense anxiety from a therapist and from friends, but nothing much helps with distraction because his mom is always on his mind. She disappeared when he was a baby and never came back. Ziggy knows that many indigenous women disappear, but he can't give up, as it seems his father and older sister Moon have. He imagines them all living together in the past, before Andrew Jackson forced his Cherokee people to face a trail of tears. He imagines a secret New Mexico desert cave holding clues to finding her. He’ll be guided on a nighttime journey that he simply calls “weird,” full of spirits and animal messengers, pretenders and protectors, villains and visionaries, full of powerful stories, all moving him toward a new understanding of living. It’s a new understanding of Mom. She loved birds, and so much more. It’s exhilarating!
Oh, man! By that I mean oh, how does a man review a book like this!? Let's start (and end) with the fact that I loved every minute. I loved the characters, and the plot twists, and the very verbal crow. Most of all, I loved the sense that Marais was having as much fun writing as I was reading about a sisterhood of glorious old witches with a long history in a town that’s been mostly ok with them, until something changes. Now their manor and their popular distillery are being attacked by a mob of irrational townsmen (go figure), and reliving their own tragic past could offer them either salvation or destruction. They’re not sure which. Enter the Mayor’s spiky-haired teenage daughter and her dog named Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ve got the setup for a lovely riot. So take a break from our very strange real world and pour yourself into this spellbound concoction of laughter and full-blown feminist power, mixed with suspense and dashes of potent wisdom likely to fly into my thoughts forevermore.
Blackhawk adds to a series of highly praised recent books on indigenous history by going beyond cultural perspectives to offer an objective and encompassing new look at America. He’s focused on how original communities have both shaped and been shaped by the newcomers to this land throughout U.S. development. Past portrayals of European arrivals leading glorified national progress have been incomplete at best and a continuation of indigenous elimination at worst. Here we have a new foundation for history, showing how all aspects of America have been influenced by its complex Native-newcomer interface. Beginning with the Spanish arrival in the southwest and ending with late 20th century activism to renew self-determination, Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) shows us the work he’s doing as a Yale history professor and faculty coordinator of the Yale Group for the Study of Native America. Meanwhile, I’m the grateful retired teacher who’s forever waking up to the ways our past defines our present. Blackhawk’s advanced scholarship and interpretation are enormous contributions to my quest. His elaborately documented accuracy satisfies beyond anything I’ve read in a career of teaching young children about American history.
Stanley was a quiet boy who spoke softly and kept to himself, all the while tapping his feet. His love for tap dance was known only by Squeaker and Nibbles, his pet mice, and perhaps the janitor he helped while dancing through empty rooms. When his principal caught him, she was shocked by his skill and insisted he sign up for the talent show. Can Stanley find the strength to reveal himself and prove Principal Reynolds right, that talent should be shared? I just love the storytelling and the vibrant pastel illustrations by Zach Manbeck, which seem at once relatively simple and so magically detailed. They have an irresistible energy. "Shuffle. Heel. Flap. Stomp. Riff!"
What we see at first to be a gorgeous, romantic, clever look at a classic American farm family also becomes a breathtaking personal experience for two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall. I absolutely love her work, and this latest picture book is stunning! Blackall imagines the life of 12 children, their parents, and a very patient cat, living and working on the land. The depth of the artistic perspectives and details absorbed me and immediately grabbed my six-year-old buddy Landon's attention, too. The poetry of her storytelling rolls off the tongue, revealing Blackall's skill as both author and illustrator extraordinaire. Then the story turns, as the dozen children grow older, and we finally learn that Blackall herself bought an abandoned farmhouse that was being reclaimed by nature, with relics still inside of the family's lives. This is her story of how she honored the Swantak's farmhouse by using their past to reinvent their world. A brilliant, bold, beautiful, and essential celebration of America's bygone days by one of today's children's book masters!
Through a series of emails, passed notes, posts, recordings, texts and traditional narrative, Swinarski tells the story of a new girl at East Middle School who’s trying to solve a mystery. Her teacher gave the class a semester-long un-essay project on any social issue of their choice. Forget recycling. Anna Hunt has a more important social question. How did a girl who was thoughtful enough to help a lost new kid on the first school day go from being super popular to being completely shut out? Nobody will talk about it, and people keep asking why Anna cares. After all, her questions are limiting any hope that she'll find new friends for herself. So, why care? Well, she just does. A nice person like Rachel Riley shouldn’t face dead silence when the principal reads her name on the day's list of Birthdays. I enjoyed this story very much. It has the feel of a good mystery, as Swinarski rolls out a compelling, nuanced plot. Best of all, the beautifully developed characters confront issues and have messages that matter to me. A lot! Oh, and the book is set in Madison. Swinarski is a lifelong Wisconsinite.
I just don't know how Nic Stone does it. She writes with style and tenderness about the most painful aspects of being human. Now mix in snort-out-loud humor, sweet romance and high-powered intelligence! She's got me again. (And I don't read romance.) Her teen novels Dear Martin and Dear Justyce are among the most important and beautifully written children’s books I’ve ever read, and here she delivers a teen love story about two people with very serious personal problems. I can relate. Grief, depression, and more. Check, check, and check. This is a charming (more like adorable, really) story about two people who badly need a friend but have a hard time with friendships and with life. If I could, I'd jump right in and befriend them both because, as usual, when I finish a Nic Stone novel the characters feel like a part of me. Stone does warn us that self-harm and suicide are discussed. She also tells us that she has her own brain-based diagnosis. It’s all the more reason I will follow her writing absolutely anywhere!
A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till (Hardcover)
This book is stunning, frightening, essential, and exceptionally well written. More than anything else, it has urgency. I felt a constant need to see what came next. Would there ever be some degree of justice for Emmett Till and his family? If so, what would justice look like almost seven decades after “Bobo” Till was brutally executed? The naive fourteen-year-old Chicago kid who didn't understand the Jim Crow American South had a cousin who saw it all begin. Reverend Parker was there that day in 1955 Mississippi, at the store where the young woman worked, the one whose lies caused Emmett’s death. Parker was also in the house, several nights later, where the killers came first to his bedroom before finding and taking Emmett at gunpoint. Parker thought he’d die that night, and he tells us about the lifelong survivor’s guilt. As they marched him to his death, wasn’t Bobo asking himself why his family couldn’t stop them? Wasn’t he pleading for help? Yes. He was. Can Parker ever forgive himself for getting away from Mississippi and going back home without Bobo? This is the story of the endless, twisted struggle to make some justice happen, long after the killers who got away with it have themselves died. And it tells so much more, about the nation, then and now. I feel like it’s my turn to preach, in honor of Reverend Parker. Black people know all about how the Emmett Tills of the world fall, and this country might be better if everybody understood his family’s story.
Crash Robertson spent five years studying political science at Georgetown, and she's figured out how to put it to work. She was the Sanders intern hopeful carrying the best bottle of maple syrup to her interview. She's also whip smart and a Vermont native. Now she's Bernie's only assistant at a harvest festival in her very own hometown. It's a weird set of circumstances because she hasn't been home in years and showed no sign of wanting to go back. Then things get really interesting. A floating body shows up in Lake Champlain, and so does a billionaire who's buying out struggling maple syrup businesses and making a cheap imitation with… that’s right, high fructose corn syrup. Can you say MINO!? (Maple In Name Only). Bernie will never stand for this, but really, how much drama can a cute little town like Eagle Creek stand? Oh, you’d be surprised. I enjoyed this every bit as much as Schaffer’s Obama-Biden mysteries, and… there are recipes involved. So Happy Holidays! Take a break. Read the book. Feel the Bern!
Joy Harjo offers us this lifetime of poetry, 50 years of listening to her own voice and sharing it with the world. It’s a unique book of poems because she tells us, in detailed notes, her thoughts about each one and how it came to be. It also opens with a loving and revealing forward from Sandra Cisneros, beginning with their early time together at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and moving through a lifelong friendship. I don’t have the knowledge or the desire to analyze these poems. I just listen. And what I hear is exceptionally beautiful and telling, as important as words can be. I give my wholehearted thanks for this gift, for being allowed to hear Joy Harjo, our three-term United States Poet Laureate, open herself to us fully.
Milman gives us a vision of Earth devastated by insect loss, and perhaps we're already on the verge. Many recent studies show dramatic declines in insect species and in the populations of those remaining. Land development, pesticides, and climate change seem to be the key culprits. It may be tempting to say, "Great! Less ants and flies in the kitchen. Less mosquito bites and bee stings. Maybe less disease." Tempting, but insects aren't 75% of all animal life for nothing. They're essential to everything. They pollinate much of our food, they decompose dead plants and animals into soil and soil nutrients for new life, and they feed birds, frogs and endless other creatures we love. Life as we know it collapses without insect biodiversity. It's not a pretty picture, but this is an exceptional book, Milman kept me fascinated with mind boggling numbers and descriptions of extraordinary habitats and insect attributes. He's a compelling, bold writer with a vital wake-up call to change our behavior and adjust our attitudes about what makes life beautiful. Right now.
With raw humor, keen awareness, and foresight, Saunders delivers stories ranging from absurd vignettes of everyday life to stunning and sinister near-future twists on losing humanity, including a horrifying modern-day Allegory of the Cave. In different ways, he left me awed: always with creativity, sometimes with tragedy, once with a tender, soft landing at the end, and often with characters’ bold (even strange and harsh) thoughts or actions that stopped my eyes in their tracks. The themes are universal - love and control make people do just about anything; crisis intensifies our appreciation for what we already have; ends justify ridiculous means - but Saunders makes the universal exceptional. And he makes intense, unfiltered thoughts of fictional people funny as hell! He’s so different, crossing into yikes! territory. I haven’t read anything as edgy, disconcerting, and also moving since Vonnegut.
This is a smart and savvy teen mystery. Beatrice Fletcher is the great-grandniece of Jessica Fletcher, the ageless TV murder-solving hero of Cabot Cove, Maine’s Murder, She Wrote. Bea has serious anxiety issues, but she’s intense and curious enough to face a risk-filled world. Her psychiatrist helps her manage the anxiety, she has a few good high school friends, and her interest in macabre true crime gives her the intensity. Now she’s writing for a start-up web site about the cold-case murder of a Cabot Cove teenage girl. It all comes together in a dangerous way when she posts that her closest friend is missing and that several other Cabot Cove teens have recently disappeared. Both the digital world and her cozy little seaside town soon know that she’s the first one to report him gone. Is she a suspect? Bea is the creation of an author who’s the mother of teens and also a clinical psychologist. It shows. She sounds true to teen reality, and also true to people who keep going despite their fear. This is the first of a series. I’m hooked! Just like I was hooked on the TV show.
Cash Blackbear is only 19, but she’s already experienced a hell of a lot, including abuse from a white foster family that called her a heathen. Just before foster care, a county sheriff pulled her impaired mother’s car out of a ditch. He watches out for her and got her into college classes, and Cash has been helping him with his cases. In dreams she sometimes sees things before they happen and finds out things she shouldn’t know. She’s just beginning to learn about it and just starting to live her own life. Now spring floods around Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation have carried an Indian woman’s body into a nearby town, and Sheriff Wheaton asks Cash if she sees anything that can help. She definitely sees something. There’s a darkness following this death. Cash has lived through crazy things in foster homes, but she’s about to see a whole new level of crazy. I like Cash Blackbear a lot, and I feel validated because Louise Erdrich likes Cash Blackbear a lot, too. This is the third book in the series but the first that I’ve read. I just bought myself a copy of number one. I love finding a cool new series.
Swedish King Gustav V apparently told Jim Thorpe, as he handed him a gold medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, that he was “the most wonderful athlete in the world.” Thorpe was certainly admired and sought after worldwide for his unmatched athleticism and talent. Everyone wanted to see him, wherever he went. He was on World Series teams, he was there at the inception of the NFL, and later he had many small Hollywood film roles, befriending the biggest stars of the day. Thorpe was often used as a novelty as well, a drawing card constantly subject to racial stereotypes, and as time passed he became more actively involved with indigenous people’s rights. As a man, Jim Thorpe had serious human flaws and struggled constantly to succeed, but he was personally kind and generous, offering a huge smile to all. He never seemed inclined to pity himself or stop chasing his dreams. The extraordinary details of his life, including many connections to Wisconsin and Milwaukee, are endlessly fascinating, and Maraniss makes them exceptionally smooth reading. He wraps Thorpe's life into the story of America, and he’s blunt about our cruel contradictions in such an intelligent way that my progressive anger feels completely validated. This is a top-flight history lesson that separates the truth from the myth of a legendary and iconic American!
Lawrence is worried. The young fox is the only animal who doesn't have any type of collection to share for show-and-tell at school, but Papa fox has a solution. A beautiful, mysterious, and just a little bit frightening trip through the forest will give Lawrence the perfect collection for a special fox like him, and sharing it will start a new adventure with his classmates. Farina and Salati have created a warm combination of story and pictures about the important theme of growing personally in the face of fear. With details highlighting the love of family, the natural world, exploration, and classroom friends, this picture book is a true delight!
Salati's picture book is an instant summer classic. The baking-hot, crazy-complicated city sidewalk is no place for a little dog who just wants a curious sniff. It's all "too close! too loud! too much!" When the frustrated pup finally refuses to budge, the person at the other end of the leash takes them both on a fabulous journey to the beach. Being a hound lover, my first reaction was that this dog is such a... dog. And there's so much more here to admire. Facial expressions throughout are beautifully telling and fun. The illustrations are unique and dramatic, with details offering sweet surprises big and small. The poetic story is told with subtle strength, and this gift to the heart is wrapped in a perfect ending. Come and get one for the children you love, and perhaps another for your own life-tested soul.
Oh, this picture book is brilliant! What if each emotion was a little creature? What would it do? This compendium of feelings for kids offers an answer that illuminates who we are as people. The clever, wise, sweet, fun book had me thinking and touched my heart. Among my favorite pages: "patience keeps a lovely garden; trust builds bridges; fear pretends it isn't there; hope makes a sandwich for the road." Loving and lovely!
Dani Shapiro has a gift for showing us how the smallest decisions and quirks of fate change everything. Signal Fires opens with a tragic accident. Lies are told and secrets kept to stop the very bad from becoming unlivable, and the effects reverberate through the lives of two families. It’s a story of the hope and fear of being a parent, and being a child, about the fierce love and smoldering regret, the shame of guilt. The story of life. In the hands of a talented writer we look at characters and understand: Yes. That could be me. It’s also the story of a universal energy binding us all and a way forward to living. The past and the future seem alive in the present. Shapiro is a talented writer. She tells truth with uncommon clarity, and this is beautifully written truth.
The Fan Brothers have amazed me again! Several of their picture books are among my favorite combinations of story and illustration. Lizzy is the latest gem, about a girl who walks to the park with her parents and runs straight to the cloud seller. His clouds are in the shapes of many animals, but Lizzy wants an ordinary one. She learns to follow the Caring for Your Cloud instructions exactly, and the result is a lesson in love beyond anything she had imagined. The beautiful pictures enhance the unique and tender-hearted storytelling in a way that must be seen to be understood.
Once again, David Sedaris lovingly, and with full frontal honesty, embraces the strange ironies of being human: the cold pandemic realities, the oddly positive final days of a tough relationship with his father, America demanding that Black Lives Matter, the fortress of love he’s built with his sisters and with Hugh. The shopping! The best thing about reading Happy-Go-Lucky is that it flows so fast. This is a credit to marvelous writing and storytelling. It's like canoeing a river and immediately knowing you won’t need the paddle. The current carries you, and if you don't run full speed into all the worldly snags and boulders put in your way, then you're just not on the right trip. So enjoy the ride and throw the paddle overboard. That endangered turtle you just cruised past will make better use of it.
I'm trying to understand why Mandel's writing casts a spell on me. I don’t have a complete answer, but I’ve decided on this: her style is steady and beautiful, she’s smart without sounding pretentious, and her characters feel true. There's a flesh and blood intimacy about them that makes me feel safe in their world, even as we’re brought to the edge of catastrophe. When tragedy comes, I want to face it with these fictional people. This novel builds on The Glass Hotel (which I loved!) and Station Eleven (which I now must read!). It brings the past and future together as if connections across time are waiting to be discovered. It throws our reality into doubt by questioning how we came to be, and it shows us that technology will never hide our humanity. I’ll forgo the summary and just say that Mandel has created a dazzling story with humble simplicity, then tied it tight with a perfect ending.
Families are held together in such unusual ways, and Johannes Bargaard has a family stretched so thin he hasn’t seen his beloved brother Anton for decades. Ski jumping is the one thread from their glory days that’s unbroken, but time is running out for Jon and Anton to do more than hide the frightening secrets that pushed them apart. Jon’s been told he has younger-onset Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to trust his own mind or if he can finish writing one last successful novel. Their father’s funeral may be the only time left to fully uncover the bitter past. Geye gets the little details right as he brings his characters’ world to life, and his spectacular winter scenes of ski jumpers taking flight, from Chicago and throughout Minnesota to Madison and Lake Placid, surrounded me with a beautiful literary warmth. The Ski Jumpers, just as Northernmost did before it, will surely have me looking for Geye’s next book!
It's 1774 in Massachusetts, the eve of the American Revolution. Thirteen-year-old Noah Cope has just watched his minister father get tarred and feathered because he's loyal to the Church of England and to the King. His father will die from the burns within days. Noah's hatred for the rebel Sons of Liberty and his loyalty to his father's memory are powerful, but events on the horizon will challenge all of that. He'll need to work for his family, and he has a lot to learn. He'll get help from his boss, a young freed Black man who becomes a true friend, and he'll learn about the hypocrisy of both sides as they talk about Liberty while acting like tyrants and keeping slaves. Will he ever find someone worthy of his loyalty? Avi has written about early America and great moral dilemmas many times (The Fighting Ground, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Something Upstairs), but the struggle over what loyalty means to us has never seemed more timely. His ability to show us American crisis so deeply and clearly through the eyes of a boy becoming a man proves once again what I’ve long believed. Avi is among our most gifted writers for kids.
With long strings of memorable words built into dramatic, thought-inspiring illustrations, Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin show us how hard and how wonderful it can be to breathe through these frightening times. Mother's news story that never changes, Father's incessant cough heard from his isolation, Brother's endless video gaming, and Sister's protest preparations. A family suffocating. An oxygen mask must be around here somewhere! It is, but not to be found in a box. It's in all the tiny and monumental signs of love that sometimes get overpowered and overlooked. This is a desperate and gorgeous word-picture of whole life rising in the face of despair. Something to savor again and again. Do this just for you. Come and get the book!
They didn’t call it Bronzeville in the 1920s, 30s or 40s, back when the women and men interviewed for this book were born. They all agree on that. It was just where they lived, a tightly-knit community of hard-working people with a variety of backgrounds and income levels, arrivals from Europe, and African Americans who’d moved north. Children played on the sidewalks and at Lapham Park. They started working very young and knew that any trouble they got into would mean neighbors giving a full report to their parents. Look out then! I’m grateful to Dr. Jones for this warm story of strong people. She tells us about successes of the earliest Black people in Wisconsin and Milwaukee, and she shares detailed stories from a thriving community that’s come to be lovingly known as Bronzeville. She also explains the injustices of housing restrictions and loss from freeways built through the heart of a neighborhood still remembered, then shows us how Milwaukee African Americans continue today to “make a way out of no way.” It’s a story that this life-long Milwaukee area resident did not know and one I needed to know. Thank you, Dr. Jones!
Whitehead starkly defines his characters' world as he unwraps their stories with a direct, graceful style and unique symbolism. I met him once at a Boswell Book Company event. I saw the genius in his eyes; the sincerity, too. And he’s funny! Once again, he drops us into another time. Harlem, 1959, was a much harder place than the one where I was born (that same year). Ray Carney is a loving family man with a small furniture company and modest ambitions for upward movement. He stays at the edges of the hustles all around him, but everything heavy pulls at the edges. He “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked" until his beloved cousin Freddie draws him into a heist. I like Ray, and in Whitehead’s masterful hands he becomes real. I haven’t read a better American novelist, living or dead. He stands with James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and E. L. Doctorow. Back-to-back Pulitzers ain’t bad. By giving us the past, Whitehead leads us toward the future. He's the new King of American historical fiction, the new voice as powerful as Doctorow’s. The torch of greatness has been passed.
National Book Award-winner Louise Erdrich and illustrator Jim LaMarche have given us a great gift, a magical story of family love with words and pictures perfectly orchestrated for suspense and joy. Grandmother is full of surprises, and when she sails away to Greenland on the back of a porpoise, the family thinks she's gone forever. As they finally decide to explore her bedroom, they find the beautiful mysteries are only beginning. Erdrich's dramatic and whimsical storytelling combined with LaMarche's unique perspectives deliver a picture book thrill reminiscent of Chris Van Allsburg's finest work. Just be careful with that stuffed pigeon!
The Sentence is both hilarious and deadly serious, sly and sincere. It's hard-edged and beautifully tender, with biting humor as a balm for life’s wounds. Erdrich is a national treasure, but you probably knew that. What I knew of her was limited to her Birchbark House children's writing. I also knew that her flowing autograph is a signed book nerd’s dream, and her beautiful jacket photos take my breath away. I'm a shameful book collector who’s picky about his crushes. Oh yes, the story. If I tell you very much, I’ll ruin good surprises. So, I’ll just say it’s a ghost story, an exploration of the spirit world inside our own. It happens in Erdrich’s very own book store, Birchbark Books, with Louise as a subtle character. And the ghost is an annoying, complex, recently dead regular customer. Above all, we get to see into the heart of a Minneapolis bookstore during the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. This book is priceless American truth! And it's about people who love books.
Ah, friendship! Norman the porcupine does absolutely everything with his "bestie" Mildred, the tree. From baseball to chess, from reading to bird watching, even playing "tree" together. Just the two of them, until... "who is that?!" What can Norman do to stop Mildred's new connection? It's an elaborate plan, and let's just say, it's not good. This is a tale of jealousy and redemption for the ages. My favorite picture books somehow combine sweet illustrations with clever story lines. Higgins has done just that!
Firekeeper's Daughter is a thriller. We know on the first page, when we’re given a glimpse of what’s to come - a revolver pointed at our narrator's face, but the novel doesn't happen at break-neck speed. It's the very personal story of Daunis Fontaine just after her high school graduation. It's deliberate, like her talent for science, and strong, like her ability to play varsity hockey with the boys. She was born a scandal, but her wealthy, white, sixteen-year-old mother insisted on keeping her Ojibwe father’s family in her life. Daunis balances two worlds, loved by both and never completely fitting with either. Now she’s ready for college, looking to be a doctor in the safe world her money and light skin allow her. It's a life her father's Firekeeper family wouldn't expect to have, and things aren't going as planned. Daunis will fight through traumatic losses and walk straight into danger to protect her people, all while pretending she's not falling in love. She's an impressive character, with a toughness and raw honesty that I wish I had. It’s a powerful teen novel, an eye-opening experience, and I learned so many cultural lessons as I was being drawn into the suspense. This is sure to be one of my top books of 2021!
In some ways it has a classic western feel: the tough towns always primed for violence, death in an instant, or more slowly if water isn't found soon, the clanging of rail spikes as the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific hammer toward their convergence. In other ways it surprises: the "miracles" revealed by the Ringmaster of a traveling magic show, the wisdom of a prophet with no memory who knows what's on the horizon, the truly amazing quality of the writing. Ming Tsu is a Chinese American orphan, raised by the white killer-for-hire who trained him. "For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill." He married a white woman after her father laughed at his proposal and was beaten for it, then convicted of miscegenation and sentenced to work the railroad line. Now he's got scores to settle and a wife to find, even though a judge ruled they were never married. He's wanted, but whites likely wouldn't know he's coming except that he's "bigger than them Chinese normally is." Oh, he's coming, and just pray he’s not coming for you! The novel has a mysterious air about the fleeting aspects of memory, what we try to hang on to and what we try to get back. These characters often frightened me and always filled me with wonder. Remarkable!
This book is easy to read, and not because it's simple. Ishiguro creates tremendous emotional depth with a graceful narrative flow. That must be how you win a Nobel Prize: expertly crafting writing that sounds so natural. Klara observes the world and its people with open curiosity, at first untainted by her limited experience, but she’s always learning. Her ability to analyze human behavior with sincerity, consideration, and objectivity is something I would love to possess, but Klara isn't human. She's a machine, waiting for a future with a human family who would buy her as their child's Artificial Friend. She looks forward to being displayed in the storefront window, where nourishment from the sun will make her stronger, and she can see more of the city's intensity. Then there’s a wider world out there, where her status will be friend, family, and possession. Klara feels the effects. She has her own intentions, and her personal story has an unmistakable living warmth. Can Klara love and be loved? Is she ultimately being used for her owners' needs alone, or do they care for her as they would care for a person? One thing I can say without hesitation is that I wish Klara was my friend!
Jess Walter carries us back to the Pacific Northwest of the early 1900s, using vivid details to show us the raucous, vibrant, fast growing town of Spokane. The heart of the story is two Dolan brothers jumping trains to get work, fighting for workers’ rights with the hard-nosed bosses and cops who routinely use men and then dump them as bums. Workers want decency. They have fearless leaders, but the people with wealth and power aren’t giving anything away. They don’t play nice, and they have ways of controlling it all. The brothers believe in the cause, but they're also looking to settle down in this new whirlwind home. Their stories and the way they turn phrases had me smiling ear to ear, and then shaking my head in amazement at their resilience. I think I’ll remember their hard-earned wisdom forever. It’s a suspenseful novel, a window into early days of labor battles, delivered with a sharp, clever style. It’s entertaining, and also very timely considering the gap between rich and poor has never been greater than it is now. The plot twists and characters are fascinating, many based on real events and people. The ending is satisfying. I stayed tied to each page.
Virgil Wander’s name is ironic because he’s been in one place for a long time, a beautiful but rugged Lake Superior town that’s well past its best days. Then Rune arrives, a magnetic man with a talent for making and flying wonderfully unusual kites, a man closely tied to everyone’s past, and a sign of their future. As he meets Rune, Virgil is recovering from a concussive near-death crash into the lake. It’s changed him; he’s more direct, more openly emotional, a little irreverent. He’s told to “watch out.” Maybe his name is a calling. It’s easy to like Enger’s characters. Their intelligence and sincerity make a winter setting feel warm and open to unlikely renewal. And the story is engaging, expertly crafted for anticipation and suspense. If you want a great holiday read, and a welcome reprieve from negativity, Virgil Wander is perfect!
This is American history at its best, a wealth of details from primary sources, yet written so smoothly and with such style that it becomes a captivating story. Joseph was respected, even admired, by everyone who met him - soldiers and army officers, traders and settlers, a wide public following and U.S. Presidents. Howard, a Civil War general, fought with Sherman and went on to direct the Freedmen's Bureau, becoming responsible for the progress of millions of former slaves during Reconstruction. He founded Howard University with the ideal of educating blacks and whites together, and then led the violent campaign to force Joseph to the reservation. Sharfstein's words draw portraits of fascinating individuals over decades of their lives, as well as the rugged and beautiful Northwest landscapes of Washington, Idaho, a new Yellowstone National Park, Montana, and Alaska. The book's scope of time, from the early 1800's to the mid 1900's, is impressive!
Seventeen-year-old Justyce is a smart, strong, and also very confused young man attending a mostly white, elite high school Academy and working toward the Ivy League. He is disturbed and amazed that he's constantly judged by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character. It invades everything that happens in his world, even when his actions are genuinely heroic; and racial profiling quickly leads to personal trauma. Even the people closest to him, a very wise teacher and his best friends Manny and Sarah Jane, don't fully understand. So he begins writing letters to someone who would. Dr. King, of course, can't answer him, but it's the questions that matter. What would you do in my situation, Martin? How was it possible that you stayed so steady in your beliefs? How can I live the way you did? Justyce is in crisis, and maybe the letters to Martin just aren't enough. This is a very well written, quickly moving novel with dialog that felt so real I thought I was looking out the window at our troubled American life. An exceptionally important and highly recommended teen novel!
God Is A Tornado. With those desperate words, painted on the water tower for all to see, twelve-year-old Odie and three other children run from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota, which trains children to give up their culture. Odie and his older brother are the only white kids there, little Emmy Frost is the daughter of a beloved teacher, and Moses is a Sioux boy who lost both his mother and his tongue to an attacker at a very young age. They've seen cruel school leaders preach about a protective God who’s done nothing but deliver them loss. They all have reasons to flee. This is not a children's book, but rather a classic American novel of the Great Depression (1932) and a riveting story of kids trying to find their place in the world. They escape along the rivers in a canoe, headed for a possible home with an aunt in St. Louis, and along the way they meet a fascinating group of characters: the leader of a Healing Crusade, a kidnapper who forces them to work and sees God in "this beautiful, tender land," an adult Sioux who understands Moses, a stranded family among many without jobs, and Odie's first love. The beauty of this novel is in the deeply developed children characters, who got into my heart and have stayed there. Kent Krueger is the type of writer who reaches for wisdom and truth. In this book, he often finds them.
With Prairie Lotus, Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park has written a gem of American historical fiction for middle grade readers. In her author's note, Park says it's a story she's been writing nearly all her life. "It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings." To reconcile the attitudes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters toward people of color while honoring the books, Park gives us 14-year-old Hanna, the half Asian daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Chinese and Korean. After her mother's tragic illness and death, Hanna and her father leave California in 1880 for the Dakota Territory, where four Little House books were also set. Hanna will need all the loving wisdom Mama gave her in order to be strong in the face of challenges and injustices from people who have never lived around a Chinese person and react very badly. The things Hanna and Mama wanted for her - going to school, designing beautiful dresses, even walking safely in town - can seem impossible, but it's the details of meeting these problems on a frontier that make the book so textured and meaningful. Hanna is a strong, determined girl who will search for ways to treat everyone justly, and to find just treatment for herself. This is richly developed Americana, and I am deeply grateful!
How in the world did this decades-long murderous conspiracy fall from American history's collective memory? The extended ‘Reign of Terror’ carried out in early 1900s Oklahoma has so many spectacular and infamous connections to pieces of our American identity that it doesn't seem possible to have missed hearing about it. When the Osage Nation acquired what seemed to be relatively useless Oklahoma land from the Cherokee, they just wanted a quiet place to live; but when large underground tracks of oil were discovered there, everything about their lives changed forever. The terrifying, sad story is expertly told by David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, whose ability to keep diverse characters fresh and create compelling suspense is truly impressive. Grann weaves together a story that includes very carefully researched history about: the West and U.S. expansion; the Texas Rangers, and how one former Ranger became the heroic lead investigator of these crimes during the earliest days of J Edgar Hoover's five decades in leading the FBI; the nation's first uses of careful evidence gathering and fingerprinting; and the ridiculous willingness of many white Americans to throw away lives considered less important than their own, for the sake of greed. Reading this book was like watching a train wreck - I couldn't have been at once more horrified and also transfixed.