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Search Results for: friday reads
I have an 11-year-old son that is going into middle school this fall, so when I picked up Imaginary by Lee Bacon this spring and saw that it was also about an 11-year-old starting middle school, I suggested we read it together. I mentioned to my son that I was going to write about the book for our Friday Reads series, and he kindly offered to just let me copy the review he wrote for school. It is summer after all, so I should be taking it easy, right?
“This story is about a kid named Zach who is going into middle school. Yeah, I know, like it’s middle school, it’s not that complicated… or is it? This book is in the perspective of his imaginary buddy, and not Zach’s.”
The imaginary buddy is Shovel, whom Zach invented when he was a small child. Shovel is basically a big ball of purple fur with arms and legs. Many kids have imaginary friends, but most outgrow those friends as they age. Zach does not. Shovel remains a constant in his life when so many other things change – his family, his home, his friendships, and his attitude. Shovel is our narrator and he is self-aware enough to know that his existence at this point in Zach’s life is both unusual and also necessary for some yet-unknown reason. He wants to help Zach but he is also afraid that Zach will forget about him, as all children eventually must.
“The setting of this story is the backyard of a kid named Zach.”
The first appearance of Shovel takes place in the backyard of Zach’s first house. The story also takes the duo to Zach’s new home on the other side of town, to the middle school, and deep into Zach’s imagination, where he and Shovel are heroes that fight dragons and trolls.
“In this book the main characters, or the characters you have to know about, are named Zach, Shovel, Anni, Ryan, and Principal Carter.”
Besides Zach and Shovel, we meet Zach’s first best friend, Ryan, who by middle school has joined the cool crowd. Anni is a new student and Zach’s chance to start fresh with someone that doesn’t know his past. Principal Carter, towering over the student body, is an unexpected ally who knows how to gently guide her charges’ emotional development. Zach’s mom also appears frequently in the story, as well as flashbacks to Zach’s dad.
“Overall, I think this book is a funny, good, and amazing book and deserves a five star rating. Most people think it is worth a 1 star (which is reasonable), but I think it is worth much more!”
I am pretty certain no one would give this book only 1 star, because it is truly funny, good, and amazing, and definitely worth 5 stars. It is also about grief, forgiveness, empathy, learning when to hang on and when to let go, and the importance of a good imagination…and good friends.
Lee, Bacon. Imaginary New York, New York : Abrams, 2021.
‘Those averse to magic need not apply‘
Historical fiction isn’t usually something that I read. But, add the supernatural to the mix, and you have my attention.
The Witches of New York is a sequel to Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure. It continues the story of Moth, now called Adelaide, who is running a ‘tea shop’ with another witch, Eleanor. And we can’t forget their raven companion, Perdu.
New York City in 1880 is full of ghosts, witches, demons, and other paranormal beings. Witches of all levels and types perform their own spells and hexes, as they need them. But, for those who do not have the natural ability, there are places you can go to have your fortune told or for magical help for issues such as insomnia, a cheating spouse, or unwanted pregnancies. Adelaide and Eleanor’s Tea and Sympathy is one such place, if you know about it.
After hiring the young witch Beatrice as an assistant shop girl, the trio of witches catches the attention of a demon, who is not happy with how powerful they are becoming. Naturally, a preacher is also sermonizing on the evils of women who think for themselves, and he is encouraging his congregation to rise up against such women. The perfect group for a demon to manipulate to do his dirty work.
The Witches of New York is a well-paced novel, with lots of historical details, which I discovered I really enjoyed. Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice are strong, independent, intelligent women who use their skills and witchcraft to navigate the misogynistic world of Gilded Age New York. I was very easily drawn into the lives of all of the characters and didn’t want their story to end.
Luckily, if you’re interested in reading more tales of these witches, there is a follow-up novella, the much shorter Half Spent Was The Night: A Witches’ Yuletide. Yes, a witchy Christmas story.
Don’t all of us have at least one heartfelt wish? So does a little owl.
Set in medieval times, a young owl’s fondest dream is to become a knight. To his family’s great surprise, he is accepted to Knight School. (A number of knights had been disappearing lately.)
He was smart and dedicated – he just had a little trouble with wielding a sword, or using even the smallest shield available. He also did have some trouble staying awake during the day
After two weeks, they all graduate with honors. The illustration of his graduating class is hilarious. Owl only comes up to the knee of the huge knight standing behind him.
He was assigned the perfect job – Knight Night Watch. It was not a problem for him to stay awake all night. All was well until one night when he heard a strange sound. It turned out to be a dragon who thought the owl looked tasty. He was scared, but knights are brave and clever. He was sure he could find a way out of this predicament.
An entertaining look at someone realizing their dream, facing a challenge, and hoping to succeed. Humorous, with wonderful illustrations, this is a delightful picture book for reading aloud.
Denise, Christopher. Knight Owl. Christy Ottaviano Books, 2022.
In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.
“The Bright Eyes of Eleonora: Poe’s Dream of Recapturing the Impossible,” Upstream, 91.
Mary Oliver is a dear friend of mine.
I do not mean, of course, that I have met her — or that I shall ever meet her (what a strange journey that should be!). But her words — her poems, her essays — sink deep into the blood-marrow of my bones, and I recognize on some thrum of instinct, kin. This is also not to say that ours is a kinship of talent; I shall not match Mary in writing (I think that she would say I would be a very poor writer, to only follow the paths she wandered).
Upstream, published in 2016, three years before her death, is a collection of essays, the central conceit of all being nature and literature. I do not mean nature and literature in the way one, who might need to restock their pantry, might list bread, and then list cheese. It is bread and cheese, meant to be together, and one without the other would render the entire trip moot, for naught. It is the same way that Mary’s essays are about nature and literature. You simply cannot, she says, have one without the other.
And what is the point of all this? — if one dares to ask a question. I set out to say that Upstream is a wonderful book on which to meditate — her collected work of poetry is like a Bible to me — but in re-reading the essay “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” I was struck by Mary’s line that “[Whitman’s methods were] to move the reader toward response rather than reflection” (94). Which is, of course, to say that Mary — a devotee of Whitman; I can think of no better word — has an intent to move us, the reader, to response! The hum through these pages is not to simply read this book, but to do so in public, out of doors, whooping in jubilation!
In Upstream, the reader journeys through Five Parts of the collection; the two opening sections are crafted around nature, as are the two closing sections. Part Three seems to be the odd duckling out — it is about literature, and if one does not find amusement in literary criticism, this Part may cause the reader to drag their heels. (I myself skimmed through the essay on Poe.) But, turning that eye back on Mary, one can view the construction of the book in its entire around Part Three; it is why the conceit is nature and literature. Upstream would have made a very fine collection if it were solely about nature, just as one can eat bread without a companion; likewise, Mary’s intellect, wit, and spirit of play in her literary criticisms would stand very well on its own, as one can enjoy cheese without any vehicle. Putting the two together is fantastic; each whole part amplifies the whole, exquisitely, and entirely filling.
In all of its total, Upstream is a short book and can take only an afternoon to read. It is inspiring, in the way that means that it will put the breath in you. Whether the energy of that breath is to write, to create, to dance — all very well. But more so than that I think that, after you close the final page, you would find yourself taking your hat off of its hook and setting out the door for a very long walk.
“Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here,” Mary tells me at the beginning of the book from where she is, already waiting at the ending. “The sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.”
Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. Penguin Books, 2019.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a high fantasy with a romance (not a typical one), set in an area much like Poland (where there is magic.) No elves. Knights, wizards and witches (female wizards), armies, serfs, noblemen, nations at uneasy peace, and a magical wood. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it? But the magical wood takes people, changes them, and makes them monsters that contaminate others, and kill in gruesome ways both humans and animals. This is the world Agniesszka lives in, near a village, in a valley near the Wood. Keeping the Wood contained is a wizard called the Dragon, who takes a girl from the villages every 10 years, to live with him in his tower. Agniesszka, and her village believe her friend Kasia will be chosen, because she’s beautiful, friendly, and talented. Agnieszka can get dirty just walking to the cart to go to the village. She can also find fruit out of season in the forest; she finds the most nuts gleaning in the forest. But never goes into the Wood. The girls chosen by the dragon return to their villages, but never stay. Often they go to the city and the university. They come away from the 10 years with the Dragon different, even though they protest he never touches them.
So, when the time comes, it is Agniesszka who is chosen. She doesn’t realize it, but she herself has magical abilities, and it is against the law to let the magically talented to go untrained. It takes her some time to understand that it’s her own power, and not the dragon’s, powering the spells he makes her say. The Dragon is a young looking man, who is cold, distant, and irritable. (Living 100 years battling an evil Wood might do that….) That makes the entire learning process harder, of course, but eventually she yells back at him, and they both learn a way of doing magic together. There is the usual, accepted, structured magical practices, and then a sort of organic, one once practiced by a famous witch with a name very similar to Babba Yagga. Agniesszka is attuned to this type of magic. Her skill gleaning, and the way branches reach out to her in the forest are signs of it. Although this tale isn’t heavy on romance, with hearts and flowers and speeches, it is there.
The story highlights the strong female friendship between Kasia and Agniesszka, and the developing relationship with the Dragon. The loss of the younger Prince’s mother to the Wood twenty years ago grows into a conflict with the Wood itself. Which is also about a love story, a loss, and a betrayal. But you’ll have to read it to find out how that happens, and how the Dragon and Agniesszka deal with it all.
A very interesting, unpredictable story, with the characters it is based on, a girl and her wandering yellow cow, (the Polish folk tale that inspires this story) near the end.
I loved this book. It is a stand alone, from Naomi Novik known for her Temeraire series. There is another title that is also set in this world, called Spinning Silver that I’m looking forward to reading.
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, trade paperback.
I found myself talking about all-girls code clubs in an NCompass Live presentation earlier this week. Mid-sentence, I remembered an episode of the Queer Eye where a trans girl was trying to find groups in school that fit her identity. As I recalled her troubled face, I ended the sentence to include people who identify as girls. I tried to limit the verbal word vomit as I struggled to find the right words to describe people who don’t identify as male or female.
That night, I went on Hoopla and checked out the audiobook for Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity by Micah Rajunov, hoping to find the right words. Plus, it’s almost Pride Month, so it might be a good book to help people understand a changing world. The nonbinary narratives in this book give a voice to those who do not fit neatly into the gender categories of male or female. As with any large group of people, one collection of stories can never represent an entire subset of the population. Each individual defines themselves.
Honestly, I find it difficult to neatly define what nonbinary means when the nonbinary population is still trying to define themselves, and struggling for acceptance in the world. Before reading this book, I knew that some nonbinary people used the they/them pronoun instead of she/he. Several years ago, I met them in a writing group and heard their story. Yes, you read that sentence right.
To this day, I still hear my grammar school teacher saying on repeat: ‘They’ are a group of people. She is an individual. He is an individual. We had to practice proper pronoun use around the room. Now, I still have to override the grammar side of my brain to be inclusive to all genders. So, I met them in a writing group. Just one person out of many people I met in that group.
I heard their story in that group, and now I have read the memoirs in this book. I learned from a man who finally gained the courage to transition to a female after fifty years. A trans advocate revealed the struggle of the trans nation. I added new words to my vocabulary: femme, gender rebel, genderqueer, nonbinary. These words are not my own, so I can’t help but pronounce them as though practicing a foreign language. The words are not wrong, just new. My voice tilts up at the end, as though asking if I got it right. Femme? Genderqueer? They’re never there to answer. This book gave them a voice and helped me find better words.
Stories are how we come to understand ourselves and the world. Sometimes we find a piece of ourselves we never knew was missing. New ideas give deep-seated, intangible feelings a name. Naming an enemy gives us power to stand strong in the face of adversity. Like Rumplestiltskin. I read and wondered how many people saw ‘nonbinary’ and found peace after decades of mental anguish. Personally, I would prefer them to be nonbinary rather than depressed or suicidal.
So next time I talk about a Girls Who Code club, I will say that they are welcome. Anyone who wants them to feel safe and included is welcome. Anyone who wants to degrade them and make them feel insecure, unsafe, and less than human can see themselves out. Maybe not forever, just long enough to process. We are all human. Read their story, then we can all learn together.
Rajunov, Micah, and Scott Duane, editors. Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity. Columbia University Press, 2019.
“The first person I met in England was a hallucination.”
When a book starts with a sentence like that, you know it will be interesting, at the very least. First published in 2017, and still going strong today with over a million copies in print and multiple holds on the e-book and audiobook versions in Overdrive. Of course, being chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club helped, but in my opinion, “The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn is worth all the hype and so much more than just interesting.
“The Alice Network” follows people “chasing… (the) legacies left by lost women in past wars”. Told from the alternating perspectives of “Charlie”, a young woman wanting answers about her cousin who went missing during the ravages of World War II, and Eve, now of middle age but who spent World War I as a young spy in German-occupied France.
Based on real lives and events, “The Alice Network” is all at once a romance, thriller, mystery, historical fiction, and a work of social commentary. Engrossing and touching, I highly recommend this book and cannot wait to get my hands on Kate Quinn’s “The Diamond Eye”, a story about a librarian turned sniper in World War II.
Quinn, K. (2022). The Alice network: a novel. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This book was a nice respite. It didn’t tackle a contentious political or social issue, nor did it build a fictional world fraught with challenges and interpersonal drama. Instead, it was a quiet meditation, shared by a purposefully solitary individual. The drama that did make it onto the pages was that of the natural world—ebbing, flowing, occasionally bloody, though not in a “man’s inhumanity to man” kind of way—and of metaphysical ruminations on the relationship between humans and nature, science and intuition.
Author Catherine Raven doesn’t share an in-depth backstory, but offers enough details that we know she’s been on her own for years. She left an unhappy home at fifteen, started college at sixteen, spent years as a backcountry ranger for the National Park Service, and eventually earned a PhD in biology. At the start of Fox & I she is living in a cottage on a small plot of land in Montana, miles from civilization.
Although Raven has some interaction with people—she teaches online classes and the occasional in-person field class—their presence is peripheral. The central characters of her narrative are the living things she shares space with—Gin and Tonic, two nearby juniper trees; Tennis Ball and Torn Tail, the two magpies she can distinguish from the rest; the voles inhabiting her pasture; and, most significantly, a fox (whom she calls Fox) that comes visiting every day at 4:15.
At first Raven, trained as a scientist, feels self-conscious about her relationship with Fox. She worries about anthropomorphizing him, and feels professional pressure to turn him into a research subject capable of yielding data points. As time passes, though, she becomes more comfortable with their companionable coexistence, which she acknowledges as friendship.
One of my favorite things about this book is Raven’s frequent invocation of world-weary Ishmael, narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince (the book she reads aloud to Fox during his visits). By linking her own introspection about the nature of existence to theirs, she connects herself to a literary tradition in which plot is a convenient excuse to wrestle with the bigger, existential questions of life. If this is the sort of narrative you need right now, you’ll appreciate Fox & I.
Raven, Catherine. Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2021.
I have been a huge fan of time travel fiction, historical fiction, and medical fiction for a very long time, and the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, tops my list of all three of these genres. The 9th book in the series, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (2021), is her latest installment in this sweeping saga. I am also a huge fan of the Outlander TV series, currently having just concluded season 6, with each season roughly matching each book. Because it had been 8 years since the previous book, I went back and listened to books 6, 7, and 8–before diving into book 9. As always, it did not disappoint!
For those new to the series, Claire Beauchamp Randall, a WWII British Army nurse, falls through standing stones (similar to Stonehenge) in 1946, and lands in 1743 Scotland, where she meets Jamie Fraser, a twenty-something red-haired Scots warrior and laird. Claire, while trying to figure out how to get back to her own time and husband, is protected by Jamie, and they fall in love. Together they must survive clan wars, British Redcoats, injuries, starvation, and French intrigue as they come ever closer to Culloden–the Jacobite Rising battle that would determine the fate of Highlands culture and possibly the throne of Great Britain. Through all of these circumstances, Claire uses her medical knowledge to help any and all in need. Immediately before Culloden, Jamie sends Claire back through the stones to her own time–back to her husband Frank. For the next twenty years, Claire believes Jamie to be dead at Culloden, and not until Frank dies does she begin to suspect that Jamie might still be alive in the past. Eventually Claire and Jamie are reunited, and their adventures together in 18th century Scotland, the Caribbean, and the American Colonies are a great read. That brings us to Book 9–Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.
It is now 1779, and Claire and Jamie have been settled for awhile on Fraser’s Ridge, North Carolina, along with their daughter Brianna and her family, friends, and other refugees from Scotland. They have built a solid life–Jamie as a land owner, and Claire as a healer. Independence from Great Britain has been declared, but loyalties are split across all of the colonies, even on Fraser’s Ridge. As the Revolutionary War rages from New York to Georgia, Jamie and Claire need to once again stay closely bonded to survive–through war, fire, disease, injuries, death, and someone special from Jamie’s past. As always, a wonderful historical fiction saga with a great set up at the end for book 10. I can’t wait!
Avery Grambs just wants to survive high school, get a scholarship, and travel, leaving her terrible home life behind forever.
One day, she learns that billionaire Tobias Hawthorne has just died, leaving his entire fortune to the orphaned high school student. But Avery has never met or even heard of any member of the Hawthorne family.
In order to receive this unexpected fortune, Avery must live and stay at the Hawthorne mansion for one year. According to the will, Hawthorne’s two (quite angry) daughters and four grandsons, who all received nothing, would also be allowed to continue living at the mansion. Awkward. Avery seemingly has only her sister, Libby, and best friend, Max, on her side.
What is Avery’s connection to Tobias and the family? Is she just a con-woman, as the brothers suspect? Is she just a pawn in Tobias’ final twisted game? What secrets are hidden throughout the enormous mansion and mysterious passageways? Will Avery stay alive long enough to even claim her fortune?
This is the first book in a three-part series. It’s an entertaining read that focuses more on the puzzles and riddles left by Tobias, rather than a more straight-forward detective style story. The plot moves fairly quickly as Avery and the brothers work to make sense of the will, uncover family secrets, and avoid the threats against Avery’s life.
- Book #1: The Inheritance Games
- Book #2: The Hawthorne Legacy
- Book #3: The Final Gambit (August 2022)
Barnes, J. (2020). The Inheritance Games. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Do you ever go outside? Are you going to have to make small talk sometime in the near future? Do you have any curiosity about the natural world? Then Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach, is the book for you.
Of course, the law in question here is human law, and you can be sure that plants, animals and birds don’t really care about breaking these laws. (Which recalls the story Roach tells us, of the person complaining about the placement of a deer crossing sign on a busy stretch of road—wondering why the local authorities were encouraging deer to cross there.) This book is about how humans react and adapt to nature’s lawbreakers—and how we try to get nature to adapt to us. With varying degrees of success.
You’ll read about bears getting really clever about getting to human food (like opening refrigerators and moving egg cartons, without breaking eggs, to get to the good stuff behind them). There’s also the Australian army’s losing battle against farm-foraging emus. Do you have a guess what creature the FAA says is the most dangerous to aircraft? Chances are that you’re wrong, but this book will explain it. You’ll find out why scarecrows don’t work and why macaques will pickpocket your cell phone. (It’s because they know you will bribe them with food to get it back. Roach purposely gets mugged by a monkey to make sure.)
Mary Roach writes popular science texts on a variety of subjects, and she does hands-on, in-person research and interviews with colorful characters and experts in the field of the book topic. In this book, she rides along with scientists who point out eagle nests and hand her badger droppings, among other activities. She relates to and sympathizes with the real people she uses as resources for her books, understanding where they are at in the big picture she is trying to paint for the reader. She handles their human concerns with grace and respect. And she has a healthy respect for every other creature we humans share the natural world with. All of these stories are interjected with many humorous observations–and plenty of anecdotes to amaze your family and friends.
I’m listening to the audiobook on CD in my car as I commute and run errands. There are some things I appreciate about this audiobook and some things I don’t like as much. The author reads the book, and she does a great job. Her vocal delivery is clear, and personable, and a good choice for a book so full of one-liners that another narrator might not realize are supposed to be funny. I didn’t like that the audio tracks were over twenty minutes long. Sometimes I wanted to rewind and hear a part again, which is not unusual for a book I’m listening to while I’m driving, especially in a book so dense with facts and information. While it would be easy to rewind within tracks on a digital audio book, it’s not as easy to rewind within tracks on a CD heard on a car stereo. I do realize most audiobook listening isn’t happening on car stereo CD players these days.
(I also checked the print book out of the library so I could check some facts against my memory of what I heard. Isn’t it great to be able to get both formats from my public library? Yes, yes it is.)
Roach, M. (2021). Fuzz: When nature breaks the law.
Run, Rose, Run and the accompanying music cd with the same name came out just in time for me to give to my sister for her birthday. She is a big Dolly Parton fan and I was interested in reading and listening to the music at the same time. I was also interested in a book/music combination. The audiobook was read with multiple narrators including Dolly Parton whose voice I love. Unfortunately, the songs performed in the book were spoken as poetry, not sung. Inserting musical interludes in the story as they were performed could have offered a unique and brilliant audio experience. A missed opportunity in my opinion.
Even though this is a typical Patterson thriller, it was the music industry part of the novel and the character Dolly narrated (Ruthanna) that made me interested in listening. Ruthanna is a newly retired country music singer who is ready to stop touring and singing even though her fans want more. AnnieLee (aka Rose) is a young, talented, singer songwriter newly arrived in Nashville, eager to launch her career with nothing but talent, tenacity, and something she needs to leave behind.
Ruthanna takes on AnnieLee as her protégé sharing her band, her recording studio, and business saavy. After reading a romance that was low angst, it is exactly the angst of AnnieLee’s past and her secret that fuel the plot and make her run, repeatedly. Hence the title and the earworm of the song Run.
For me, the secret was predictable and fueled the finale in a chase across the country. In a thriller, the story begins like a roller coaster clicking up the incline, tick, tick, tick, tick. Then the drop begins, all hell breaks loose, and you race to the end. I read into the night and was glad to know the conclusion which was about what I predicted, almost. When my sister finished, our reactions were very much the same. As readers of mysteries and thrillers, this one didn’t stand out as something either one of us would recommend but we enjoyed talking about it together. We also enjoyed the music, given more context from the book. Reading books with one person is my new book group so I was grateful to have an opportunity to share with my sister.
Parton, Dolly and James Patterson. Run, Rose, Run. Little, Brown and Company. 2022.
Beautifully written, with poetic prose, this novel is haunting in its storytelling. Set in a world where even the most common animals are on the verge of extinction, the skies are empty of birds, and the seas have been fished to nothing. Franny Stone has been tied to the ocean for as long as she can remember, her wandering spirit has always led her back to its cold embrace. Once again, she’s left everything behind, this time for a research trip. She’ll try and follow the only remaining flock of Arctic terns across the Atlantic, on what might be their last migration. Franny will have to convince a Captain and his eclectic crew to take her on this journey, with the lure of following the terns to herring. A desperate last-ditch effort to find fish in the sea. Told from Franny’s point of view, the story flashes back and forth from the present expedition to her past, explaining how her life has ended up here. Ornithology and natural sciences take a front seat in this story that is at times, both uplifting and heartbreaking. The perfect read for fans of strong and unique female main characters. “Migrations” is Australian author, Charlotte McConaghy’s, first foray into adult fiction. Her second novel “Once There Were Wolves,” published in August 2021, is next on my to-read list.
McConaghy, Charlotte. Migrations: A Novel. Flatiron Books. 2020.
The Four Winds is a historical novel with true to life elements from a period of deep despair. Kristin Hannah’s book is about hard times, America in the 1930s – the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, with millions of people unemployed and struggling to meet day-to-day needs. It is a book about survival, family relationships, courage, and endurance.
The Four Winds reminded me of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a book I read many years ago and among the most disturbing I’ve ever read. In Hannah’s book, it is the Martinelli family. In Steinbeck’s, it is the Joads.
The Four Winds is told mostly through the eyes and voice of Elsa Martinelli. The story begins in the Texas Panhandle, a rural community – a typical small town with surrounding farms. The story moves from the prosperous times preceding the Great Depression to years of poverty and hardship as drought and dust storms transform millions of acres of landscape and turn the economy upside down. Martinelli, married with young children, struggles to overcome life-robbing elements. Family relationships are tested. There is betrayal, and there are strained relationships between Elsa and her headstrong teenage daughter Loreda. Tension grows with the seemingly never-ending drought and the prospects of leaving the farm to join the thousands migrating westward for a perceived better life in California.
Readers describe the book as depressing, but it presents a compelling and difficult to forget story. Libraries and librarians contribute to the story, and in a positive way.
The audiobook (Macmillan Audio) includes an interview with Kristin Hannah and skilled narrator Julia Whelan. The interview offers interesting and helpful historical background – the author’s research and approach to writing the novel, and the narrator’s preparation and narration methods.
Among Kristin Hannah’s books are the notable The Nightingale, The Great Alone, and Winter Garden.
Hannah, Kristin. The Four Winds: A Novel. William Morrow. 2021.
In Nebraska, the comedic figure and dramatic actor Bob Odenkirk exists only in black and white. His two roles that are set in the cornhusker state – Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska and the Omaha vignettes of the popular television series Better Call Saul – are presented on a screen devoid of color. These hardscrabble visuals are in stark contrast to the majority of Odenkirk’s work recounted in his new book, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir. This is a variegated trail of memories, from the earliest days as a comedy student loitering around Chicago’s Second City to an unlikely turn as a bone-crunching action star in last year’s Nobody.
The Comedy Comedy Comedy portion of the memoir establishes Odenkirk as a one-man U.S. history of alternative comedy. Starting out as a writer, Odenkirk penned some of the more innovative sketches that appeared on Saturday Night Live from 1987 – 1995, and he regularly worked for shows too ahead of their time to commercially succeed in mainstream television, such as the meta-sitcom Get a Life and The Ben Stiller Show.
These jobs would lead to roles in The Larry Sanders Show and a project he co-created, wrote, and performed: Mr. Show, a kaleidoscopic sketch comedy series that continues to influence entertainment and uncannily forecast real life. Some of the current spate of dueling campaign commercials for Nebraska governor, for example, would not seem out of place in the absurd Mr. Show universe.
Comedy…Drama also documents Odenkirk’s journey into more “serious” acting roles that mine the pathos always near the heart of even his silliest giggle-getters. The author’s down-to-earth and consistently funny tone does much to convince the reader of something lofty – that Odenkirk is on an artist’s journey full of risk and uncertainty. For those familiar with his comedy career, the book is a great resource for information about lesser known and unknown projects, like the sketch group The Birthday Boys, the 1989 one-man show Half My Face Is a Clown, and a number of failed pilots for series that never happened.
Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir arrives right as Odenkirk’s most well-known role begins its denouement in the last season of Better Call Saul. Saul Goodman, the crooked lawyer from Breaking Bad, is now Gene, disguised and working as a manager at a Cinnabon in Omaha. It will be fascinating to watch Bob Odenkirk inhabit this character one last time. Saul has always seemed compelled beyond his will to make decisions that will inevitably lead to tragedy. Is it an unavoidable fate, or can he re-saturate his world with color?
Odenkirk, Bob. Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2022.
As a long-time fan of the murder mystery genre, I have come to love a certain trope of the genre: closed circle mysteries. In these stories, only a limited number of suspects could possibly have perpetrated the crime, and they often take place in isolated or small settings. Classic examples of this trope include Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile where the murders take place on a train and a steamer boat respectively. Lucy Foley has become a modern master of the closed circle mystery trope and her most recent release, The Paris Apartment, does not disappoint.
At the start of The Paris Apartment, we find our main character, Jess, arriving at an upscale Paris apartment building late at night to visit her half-brother, Ben. When he is not there in his third floor apartment to greet Jess upon her arrival, she embarks on a dangerous investigation to find her missing brother. Each resident of the building knows something and each of them has something to hide. There is an angry alcoholic, the quintessential nice guy next door, a sheltered young woman and her party animal roommate, a steely socialite, and an observant and ever-present building concierge.
Foley’s writing takes you through the mystery at a breakneck pace, expertly exposing twists and revealing secrets. Although on a few occasions the characters are in other locations around Paris, the setting of the apartment building is so eerie and claustrophobic that it feels almost like a character itself playing a major role in the unfolding of the mystery. Fans of Agatha Christie novels or movies like Knives Out will delight in the fast-paced mystery with a cast of questionable characters in Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment.
Foley, Lucy. The Paris Apartment. New York: William Morrow, 2022.
There are very few guys (even the pacifists), if they are really being honest with themselves, who would disagree with the notion that at least sometimes they think or wish they could handle disputes like they do on The Sopranos. Very few. And by stating this reality, I’m not saying that those individuals actually would; I’m just saying they wish they could. Argument with some Putz at the store? Traffic road rage? Disagreement at work? Who doesn’t daydream about handling such disputes in the same fashion that Furio Giunta would? There are also other examples besides the “Furio way” that an average Joe might imagine he could handle conflict resolution, of course. Cliff Booth from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood most certainly comes to mind as such a role model. The point is not the ultra-violent acts, but rather the calmness and confidence that accompanies the action. Now, enough of this tangent, let’s get to the book.
Many of you may have at least heard of Talking Sopranos, a podcast started by actors Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Shirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), and this book (Woke Up This Morning) is basically the condensed highlights version of the podcast. If you don’t want to take the time to wade through each of the podcasts, I’d recommend this book. Easy to read and entertaining. Frequent guests on the podcast include the series actors, writers, set designers, and others that worked on the show’s production. Some quick highlights:
- Steve Shirripa is not nearly as big as Bobby Baccalieri. He wore a fat suit for most episodes, and during the show was actually about the same size as James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano). Around 230 pounds. Ginny Sack (played by Denise Borino-Quinn) also wore such a suit.
- Furio, played by Federico Castelluccio, while born in Napes, Italy, grew up in Patterson, NJ (since he was 3).
- Tony Sirico (Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri) is shockingly similar in real life to the character he played. When an episode was set to take place in Paulie’s apartment, the directors went to Tony’s actual apartment, then re-created it for the show.
- The episode “A Don Doesn’t Wear Shorts” was written after James Gandolfini received a phone call on his cell phone from an unknown number, and the caller said, mysteriously, “A Don never wears shorts”.
- Matthew Weiner wrote for The Sopranos from 2004-2007, before Mad Men.
I intend to watch some of these podcasts at a future date. The book (and likely the podcast) sometimes comes across as highbrow back patting about this and that (actors and their “art”); however, overall there is many interesting things to be learned by this behind the scenes book and corresponding podcasts.
Finally, for the record, I’m disappointed by David Chase using The Sopranos theme song, and actors Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow Soprano) and Robert Iler (AJ Soprano) to peddle on behalf of Chevrolet. Watch the show (or re-watch it), not the commercial. And to David Chase: You don’t need the money, so why would you do it? To summarize this, I must quote Tom Waits (substitute “song” for “show” in the passage below):
“It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.
When I was a kid, if I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.”
Imperioli, Michael and Shirripa, Steve. Woke Up This Morning: The Definitive Oral History of the Sopranos. William Morrow, 2021.
I first read Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake last winter with my kids, who both enjoy humor and talking animals (who doesn’t, right?). A story of an unlikely friendship, Badger and Skunk must learn to co-exist in Aunt Lula’s brownstone. Quiet Badger has lived contentedly alone, doing Important Rock Work, when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of his new roommate, Skunk. An arrival Badger would have foreseen had he checked his mail more often and read Aunt Lula’s letter informing him of her decision to invite Skunk into the house. Alas, he had not and the knock is an unpleasant surprise. Now Badger’s world is chaos: no quiet time for reflection and Important Rock Work, piles of dishes to scrub after Skunk cooks them both delicious meals, an errant potato left in the corner of the kitchen. And the chickens! It’s too much for one Badger to bear. Change is hard, but sometimes even the most stubborn of Badgers will realize that life is better with a good friend.
This book was reread this past week by my 11-year-old to present as a book report, and an Important Brownstone Diorama is in the works on our kitchen table. We both highly recommend this first book in the series, as a read-aloud if you are more like Skunk, or as a quiet read-alone if you are more Badger-like. We are currently awaiting the arrival of the sequel in the mail, which we check about as often as a certain Badger.
Timberlake, Amy. Skunk and Badger. Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Young Readers, 2020.
From the Wizards of the Coast description of Heroes’ Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook, by Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Michael Witwer:
“80 recipes inspired by the magical world of Dungeons & Dragons – perfect for a solo quest or a feast shared with fellow adventurers.”
This cookbook “invites fantasy lovers to learn about their favorite fictional cultures through their unique cuisines and lifestyles. With this book, you can prepare dishes delicate enough to dine like elves and their drow cousins or hearty enough to feast like a dwarven clan or a boisterous orcish horde. All eighty dishes – developed by a professional chef from one of the country’s top test kitchens – are delicious, easy to prepare, and composed of wholesome ingredients readily found in our world.”
Being long-time D&D players, my husband and I just had to have this cookbook. Sometimes you take a risk with these themed books. But, in this case, it was worth it.
The book is divided into six sections. First there are the five Cuisines: Human, Elven, Dwarven, Halfling, and Uncommon, followed by the final chapter, Elixirs & Ales.
Each section begins with a deep dive into that particular culture. At the beginning of each individual recipe, there is a short explanation about it or suggestions on how to use it. The writers are D&D experts, and it shows. They really know how to pull you into the realms and the fare of each of these peoples.
The first recipe my husband tried was the Yawning Portal Buttermilk Biscuits. This was actually his first time ever making buttermilk biscuits. And they were a huge success! Very moist and with a great flavor.
So, the recipes in this cookbook are legitimately good. I can’t wait to try more!
Of course, anyone who has played D&D before will enjoy Heroes’ Feast. But, with all of the lore that’s included, it’s also a good introduction for those who are curious about this world. So, roll your D20, grab a plate, and dig in!
A year after the events in the March 2010 title, Out of My Mind, we join Melody during summer vacation. She wants to go to camp and has researched camps that are designed to provide experiences for children with disabilities. The Green Glades Therapeutic Recreational Camp – here comes Melody! Her experiences are believable, her apprehension as well as eagerness to go and to participate. The reader learns more about Melody and her feelings, hopes, and readiness for adventure.
For the first time in her life, Melody has friends, though it takes just a little while for her campmates to gel into true friends. Her parents, especially her mother, are reassured that each camper will have a camp counselor assigned to them all day (and night) every day. Melody was thinking she didn’t want to be monitored all the time, like her younger sister, she is 12 after all.
But then, during the week she is at camp, Melody faces several new situations. She is scared to get into the pool – what if she sinks? Trinity, her counselor, is there for her. They go for a ride around the lake on a pontoon boat – what if it takes on water? No problem, Trinity is there. But horses, they are huge, and how can Melody ride one? The camp has it all worked out and Trinity rides with her.
Some of the best things about this book are all the wonderful new experiences for Melody, the safety of the camp, and her new friends. Also, there are no mean girls or bullies. It may seem like a week of unbelievable opportunities – but there are camps like this around the country. Readers who wanted to know what happened next for Melody, after the first book, will be surprised and happy for Melody’s first camp experience.
Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Heart. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. ISBN 978-1-6659-0216-8.