Tag Archives: Friday Reads

Friday Reads: War of the Foxes by Richard Siken

“Trust me. I have things to say” (14).

Poetry is a difficult genre to review. Poetry is a personal subject: for each of our bodies, there is a poetry that corresponds, that resonates and echoes with us.

Richard Siken’s Crush is my favorite collection of poetry – and one of my favorite books. I went through a period in my life when I read it once a week (on Sundays). I’ve recorded myself reading poems from Crush and sent the recordings to romantic prospects (with varying degrees of success, but that says nothing of Siken).

War of the Foxes is not Crush. There is a different amplitude about it. It is less concussive than Crush; more a stiletto knife through rib-spaces than a gut-punch (I like my poetry like a back-alley-fight — I like to come away with marks, impacted). And yet, perhaps it is not fair, I think, to talk about Foxes in the shadow of Crush (though how to separate them? there is no yolk from the white. if you do read Siken, you should start with Crush; the climax and catharsis of grief and the understanding of how he frames poetry is, perhaps, clearer in the older anthology).

So let’s talk about War of the Foxes. We begin in an art gallery. And that is what Foxes is, at the end of it, I believe: an art gallery. This may seem inactive. This is especially so if you do not particularly enjoy art galleries, have not been to an art gallery in a long time, or do not realize that while you are looking at the art, the art is also looking back. “All painting is sent downstream, into the future” (26). There’s the impression that the artist remains the active participant, the repetition of the act of creation, even as the viewer is looking (or we are). But what is the art, and who is the artist, and who is the viewer – these are the questions behind the obvious, behind the poems; “We do not walk through a passive landscape. The paint dries eventually” (6). Using something to talk about something else: this is poetry. (This is a good story). This is an exhibit on history, on war, on love. On birds. Ghosts. Paintings. “What is a ghost? What is a painting? Yes and yes, / the same answers” (42). War of the Foxes invites us to look within each frame and to see what we can find — ourselves, and maybe each other. “What’s the difference between me and the world? / Compartmentalization” (40). Connection is the art of it.

When I selected this book to review and began my post, I didn’t know that I would wake up on December 4th to the news of a new poem by Richard Siken. This is wonderful news because, in the Spring of 2019, Siken suffered a stroke and underwent a long recovery, during which he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to write again. Today, he shared “Real Estate.” I am delighted to have him back again.

Siken, Richard. (2015). War of the Foxes. Copper Canyon Press.

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Friday Reads: City of Jade by Fonda Lee

I really enjoyed Jade City by Fonda Lee. While many reviewers drew parallels to the Godfather, I felt more as if I’d been transported into a somewhat different, contemporary Asian city, such as 1990s Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Bangkok. Years ago in this world, Kekon Island, and its people were in a war fought over the control of bioenergetics jade, a stone that gives the wearer super abilities, such as strength, perception, or making the body lighter. The warriors who wear jade, (called Green Bones) use it for added abilities, especially in combat. The war was settled, and foreign soldiers and overlords were defeated. Two of the heroes of that war founded families that helped control the exportation of bioenergetic jade. In the modern capital city, an added source of tension is the introduction of a drug called “Shine”, that can be used to give the ability to use jade to those who don’t have the natural ability. It also has a cost, addicting those that use it.

The characters are complex, and the source of the magic is intriguingly crafted. There is even a world stage, where events in the city and small island, make a difference, as well as influences the action in the story. The book is compared to the Godfather, and mob based movies and books. It’s also been compared to Wuxia (wooSHya) stories, wandering kung fu masters. Science and magic exist side by side, in this 20th century city. There are also family, and interpersonal relationships that helped pull me into the story, along with the awesome world building.

It is also a multiple viewpoint story, with a family with all the quirks of a real one. Kaul Sen, the grandfather, fought in the liberating guerilla war, where his son Kaul Du died. Kaul Lan, 35, the oldest grandson, is the current Pillar, leader of the clan, competent, cautious, and ambassadorial. Kaul Hilo, is the Fist of the clan, an extroverted, impulsive younger man. And their sister Kaul Shia, has come home from college abroad, with a degree in business, and determined to construct a life for herself away from clan business. A large part of clan business is the regulation of crime, especially the ownership of bioenergetic jade, only legally used by “Green Bones” Kekoneese clan members, whether they are warriors or lawyers, or businessmen. This jade, only found and mined on Kekon island, grants those attuned to it to use powers verging on magical, strength, lightness, perception, healing, to those who are trained to use it. It is only a stone, to the Abukei, indigenous to Kekon. The rest of the world, it is used by special armed forces, with the help of a drug called “Shine.”

The family itself has enough conflict for a novel, but the jade being mined is not all reaching the Kaul clan. The Ayt clan is trying to consolidate all the clans in their own. Violently, for the most part. The island is still not free from the foreign interests that they warred in an earlier generation.

Jade War, is the second title in the trilogy, and is already out.

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Friday Reads: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

This review is a two for one special: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves and How Innovation Works, both by Matt Ridley. One book leads into the other, so it’s a good pairing. Both books make the case that the world doesn’t suck quite as bad as we all thought, and discusses how life can get better through innovation. It’s a nice concept, so let’s start with some rational optimism. 

I first encountered The Rational Optimist ten years ago in my college library. I didn’t read it then. The description on the back of the book claimed that “life is getting better at an accelerated rate”. I had to wipe off the back of the book after snorting in disbelief. This was before Covid, otherwise I would have used my ever-present disinfectant wipe. All of my college classes to date would blatantly disagree with the “life is getting better” statement.

It took me ten years and a lot of living before I finally read this book. The book stretches back in time to illustrate what life used to be for people all around the world. If you have ever watched historical movies, taken a history class, read books, or gone to a museum, you probably have an inkling of the comparatively primitive ways people onced lived. Ridley picks out excellent examples across history to demonstrate that quality of life is indeed improving.

At some point I set the book down and considered college. Many of the class discussions centered on why organizations, processes, government, and the interwoven systems of a nation were not working effectively right now. Depending upon the course, there was little discussion about how poorly those same systems worked in the past, if they even existed at all. Over time, there is definitely an improvement. If nothing else, The Rational Optimist made me look at the evolution of prosperity in a different way. Humans can now do more with less using different technology and processes. Consider the way we get around in trains, planes and automobiles. A series of systems were developed to leverage these technologies and diversify access. The system isn’t perfect, but in the grand scheme of things, transportation has come a long way.

Read the book for the deep dive, it’s interesting. But for the sake of time in this review, let’s fast forward to 2020 where Ridley digs into How Innovation Works. This book digs into the process of innovation. Innovation is “the turning of inventions into things of practical and affordable use to people”. Read the Goodreads description for the definition of innovation that got me to read the book. Innovation is necessary for change. It seems obvious, but it’s true.

How Innovation Works tells the individual stories of innovations that have changed the world. Yes, the innovation of coffee did change the world. I heat water for coffee in my microwave. When I’m lazy, microwavable dinners save the day. Robots are making microwaves. I bought my microwave online. I find recipes for microwave meals on my smartphone. I find tutorials for robot STEM activities while my meal is cooking. I run on coffee. The world runs on innovation. 

That is why schools and libraries everywhere are concentrating deeply on innovation. Think about the maker movement, STEM and STEAM activities. I started looking at the wider world and exploring problems that really need solving. Innovation happens when inventions solve a practical problem people face everyday. This book and others changed the way I look at innovation in the library. Look to the world for opportunities of innovation, then funnel innovation towards what matters most to people. It’s a work in progress.

Long story short: read the books. Good things will happen.

Ridley, Matt. How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, 2020. Print.

Ridley, Matt. “Rational Optimist.” New Scientist. 206.2766 (2010): 30-30. Print.

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Friday Reads: The Finishing School Series by Gail Carriger

Imagine yourself in lovely Victorian-era England with grand homes, elegant balls, and a large steam powered dirigible school floating by.


The Finishing School Series by Gail Carriger is an absolutely lovely young adult series that follows one Miss Sophronia Temminnick through her time at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Classes include “Fainting in a crowd to attract attention” and “Buying poison and planning dinner on a limited budget”.

Hold on! What?

As the books progress we’re taken out of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy into the greater world. In Scotland we’re introduced to Sophronias friend Sidhegs pack, her grandfather and uncles, all of whom are werewolves. And to London where the vampires are trying to undermine a plot they just know the Picklemen are trying to run against them.


I absolutely love this series! The fantasy elements are done in such a way as to seem completely plausible and familiar. This is neither a dystopian set of novels, which seem to be so popular these days, or a “princess in need of rescuing” story. These girls can take care of themselves thank you very much! Not a fan of YA? Most of Gail Carrigers other books all take place in this same lovely world but are decidedly not YA.

Oh! I almost forgot my favorite part – the mechanicals! Simple household type tasks are carried out by these steam and gear-powered robots. Sophronia happens upon one, which happens to look like a dachshund, early on in the series whom she eventually carries around like a purse. Isn’t that just the cutest thing?

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Friday Reads: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick

Barbara Demick’s 2009 book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, blew me away with the eye-opening window it provided into everyday life in North Korea. In Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, published this past July, Demick offers similar insight into Tibet by profiling a handful of individuals whose lived experiences paint a representative picture of life in a little-known land.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in my limited knowledge of Tibet. I associate it with the Dalai Lama, living in exile in India; Mount Everest, located on the border between Nepal and Tibet; and conflicts with the Chinese government, which claims sovereignty over it. After reading Demick’s book, I’ve definitely expanded my knowledge of the issues Tibetans have faced, particularly since 1950 when the Chinese army “liberated” them on behalf of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.

Demick’s subjects tell tales of property seizure and struggle sessions. They also suffered from famine–a result of collectivization coordinated by cadres who ignored the delicate balance Tibetans had previously maintained between herding and high-altitude farming. Perhaps the biggest affront, however, was the Chinese government’s effort to suppress Tibetan’s religion, culture, and language through attacks on monks, monasteries, and the Dalai Lama:

Seeing the monks humiliated, statues smashed, and paintings burned shook Tibetans to the core. Buddhism provided the rituals through which the seasons were measured, births celebrated, and deaths grieved. . . . The attacks on religion alienated Tibetans who might otherwise have supported the Communist Party’s efforts to stamp out feudalism and create social equality. (48)

Not surprisingly, monasteries have become primary sites of contemporary Tibetan resistance. Initially demolished or repurposed in the late 1950s, monasteries started reopening in 1980. By 1994, however, the Communist Party had started cracking down on them again to “rein in Tibetan religious life” (144). Since then conflicts have escalated until, in 2009, a young monk set himself on fire, triggering a wave of self-immolations over subsequent years. (The 156th occurred on November 26, 2019.)

Due to the shocking nature of this means of political protest, self-immolations have received international media coverage. If you are like me, this may be the primary reason you have even the slightest inkling of what’s been happening in Tibet. If you’d like to learn more, however, you now have a book recommendation: Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha!

Demick, Barbara. Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town. New York: Random House, 2020.

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Friday Reads: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

I am almost always drawn to books with the words book, bookshop, library or librarian in the title. The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson, caught my attention first with the title, then the unusual plot, then the location. Having lived in the Denver area for 22 years, this book was like walking down familiar streets again. I was hooked from the very first page, and I was 7/8’s of the way through before I figured out the awesome plot twist. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped.

Then the dreams begin.

Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps.

Convinced that these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real Katharyn’s life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost of staying Kitty, or becoming Katharyn?

As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined, and learn to live with the result. (Amazon)

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Friday Reads: Half Baked Harvest by Tieghan Gerard

Book cover with title "Half Baked Harvest Super Simple More than 125 recipes for instant, overnight, meal-prepped, and easy comfort foods" on top. Author Tieghan Gerard on bottom. Image in center of oval serving dish with chicken, lemon slices, and cherry tomatoes.

As we seem to be jumping right into winter weather this week, it’s the best time for soups, comfort foods in general, and so much baking.

Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple is my current favorite cookbook with “more than 125 recipes for instant, overnight, meal-prepped, and easy comfort foods.” Recipes like browned sage-butter chicken pot pie” (p. 172) or broccoli cheddar soup (p. 94) are perfect for cold, rainy/snowy weeknights.

The recipes are divided into: basics, breakfast and brunch, appetizers and sides, salad and soup, pizza and pasta, vegetarian, poultry and pork, beef and lamb, seafood and fish, and dessert. Each recipe fits on a single page with a short personal note from Tieghan (such as growing up in the Ohio and her love of Top ramen which has now become a more “grown-up” version with garlic-butter noodles). She includes different instructions for cooking on a stovetop, pressure cooker, or slow cooker, as well as ingredient alternatives. The recipes are intended to be fairly easy to make without a long list of ingredients. Some recipes include premade or store-bought items, like her Blondie Brownie Bars (p. 274) which includes a boxed brownie mix or the Creamy Chicken Gnocchi Soup (p. 91) which includes a box of mini potato gnocchi. But some days, there’s just not time to make everything from scratch and the recipes make them super delicious. (She also has a five ingredient hazelnut brownie recipe or cinnamon rolls with chai frosting which are both incredibly easy and wonderful.)

Along with the recipes, the photography in this book is gorgeous. The book is well worth checking out just to look at the pretty pictures of delicious food.

Gerard, T. Half baked harvest super simple. Clarkson Potter. 2019.

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Friday Reads: How To Know The Birds by Ted Floyd

Birding, or bird-watching, has grown in popularity as an enjoyable activity that allows for social distancing. Birding also lets us re-center ourselves while connecting with the natural world. Of course, birding was a popular pastime even before 2020, and there are lots of books on the topic. Ted Floyd’s book, How to Know the Birds, takes a refreshing and elegant approach that will intrigue new and seasoned birders alike.

Floyd structures the book in a new way. He takes the stages of interest in birding, and lays them over the natural seasons and how those affect birds and birding, and then explores those themes by discussing one bird at a time, in a personal way. It reads much more easily than that description might lead you to believe! Each section is a bite-sized chunk that can be devoured quickly. A reader could jump around in the book, as one might with a traditional bird field guide, or read it beginning to end. This book is a good resource for the new or the experienced birder, and it would also be a great gift for the seasoned birder that thinks they’ve read all the bird books.

Floyd, Ted, and N J. Schmitt. How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding. , 2019. Print.

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Friday Reads: Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor

More accurately described – Friday listens, this title is available exclusively from Audible.com. Break Shot was recorded by James in his home studio, TheBarn in western Massachusetts and released in conjunction with his 19th studio album, American Standard. At only an hour and a half, I listened twice, enjoying it even more the second time. It begins with the following: “I’m James Taylor and I’m a professional autobiographer. I usually talk about myself with a guitar in my hand and I have one now.” James explains that the title is an analogy for his tight knit family that eventually split apart “like a break shot in the game of pool … when you slam the cue ball into the fifteen other balls and they all go flying off.”  James and his four siblings were raised with great privilege in North Carolina in the ‘60’s but the family fell apart. Three of the four kids ended up in psychiatric hospitals.  Drug and alcohol addiction took their toll.

Despite coming from a family of doctors and lawyers, James wasn’t interested in college. His parents supported his decision to spend tuition money on a flight to London. This trip provided the pivotal moment of his life. Through life-long friend Danny Kortchmar, James met with Peter Asher, the head of A&R (Artist & Repertoire) at Apple Records and played his demo tape.  Peter liked what he heard and recalls calling out,  “is there a Beatle in the house?”  James auditioned for Paul McCartney and George Harrison with the song Something in the Way She Moves. James’ first album James Taylor, was the first recording by a non-British artist released by Apple Records in 1968.

Break Shot didn’t provide a great deal of revelatory information, so much of James’ life is in his lyrics, but the storytelling intertwined with the recorded songs provided an experience you can’t have with a printed book. This audio memoir was for me, a private concert. This recording is part of a new series, Words+Music, Audible’s musical storytelling initiative. With other exclusive music biographies by Tom Morello, Common, St. Vincent, Sheryl Crow, and T Bone Burnett, I hope other audio publishers will begin providing similar recordings.

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Friday Reads: Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story by Bess Kalb

I listened to this audiobook from Lincoln City Libraries through my Libby App. Narrated by the author, it’s a short 4 hours, the perfect listen for a road trip. I looked up Bess Kalb’s book after reading the following statement “Last year at a party a writer I respect called my pregnant stomach a ‘career-ender’ and now I’m the head writer of a show I sold to a major network and yesterday I signed the deal paying me to write a movie based on the book I finished 5 weeks postpartum, so do you like apples?” and I thought… yes, this is a woman whose book I’d like to read.

Some relationships are meant to be memorialized, the voices of our loved ones with us even after they’re gone. Such is the memoir of Bess Kalb and her maternal grandmother “Grandma Bobby.” Kalb recounts three generations of family history, mostly focused on the women, in a succinct and heartwarming account. The author doesn’t gloss over the true-to-life relationships of her family but displays them in all their messy glory. The result is a series of recounted conversations, family tales, and verbatim voicemail messages left by her grandmother. Kalb saved every one her Grandma Bobby ever left her.  I admit, I laughed and cried as these people, flaws and all, came to life. Relationships and family especially can be messy, filled with misunderstanding, pride, and rough edges that rub, but through all of this, the spunky voice of Grandma Bobby is clear, that and her love for her granddaughter.

Kalb, Bess. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story. Penguin Random House Audio. 2020.

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Friday Reads: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto was the first book that I read of this author’s many books. At the time, it was Lincoln City Libraries’ selection for its One Book – One Lincoln community reading project. That book led to reading several other of Patchett’s novels and memoirs. The Dutch House is Patchett’s eighth novel and shares characteristics of her previous books. Common are interesting settings, shifting timelines, well-drawn characters, blended families, and complicated relationships. Notable are Patchett’s skilled writing, wit, and imaginative stories. Dutch House (a mansion near Philadelphia) is both background and central to the story.

Somewhat akin to a fairy tale, Danny and Maeve Conroy, brother and sister, are the central characters (Hansel and Gretel?). There are the experiences of abandonment, banishment, the evil stepmother, and not-at-all evil stepsisters. Danny is the book’s first-person narrator. Danny’s and Maeve’s closeness over five decades evolves from their early childhood loss of mother and father. Interesting to me was the dialogue. Though, dialogue was especially notable because I listened to the audiobook narrated by Tom Hanks, perhaps more accurately described as performed by Hanks.

Patchett, Ann. The Dutch House. HarperCollins. 2019.

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Friday Reads: B is for Beer

This book is described, appropriately, as a children’s book for grown-ups or a grown-up book for children. In addition to reading it myself, my 9 year old and my 13 year old also enjoyed it. The book, obviously, is about beer. It details the history and finer facts about beer, weaved into the story of young Gracie Perkel, a 6 year old living in the Pacific Northwest, namely, Seattle. Gracie becomes interested in the stuff her daddy and uncle Moe (who steals the show) drink, that looks like “pee-pee”. Robbins has a way of describing the mundane in a way that brings hilarity into the room. In this story, that is Gracie’s interactions with Moe (full time beer drinker, part-time philosopher), a visit from the Beer Fairy, and the condescending teetoaler Sunday school teacher (who’s breath transcends bad, having the potency to “paralyze a rattlesnake”). At any rate, the novel is a good mix of the plot story of Gracie’s life, the life of Moe, Gracie’s parents (mostly her mom), and the beer stuff.

Robbins suggests this is a good book for a grandpa to read to his grandkids, whilst cracking a “cold one”. It very well may be. At least it is an entertaining and quick read.

Robbins, T. B is for Beer Ecco, 2009.

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Friday Reads: Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell

Pumpkinheads book cover

Is there anything better than a crisp cool night at the pumpkin patch in the fall? The smell of campfire smoke, kettle corn, and apple cider in the air?

Deja and Josiah have been partners in the Succotash Hut for 4 seasons at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch. It’s their last night, and Deja is on a mission to get Josie to finally talk to his long-time crush at The Fudge Hut…and score some snacks along the way.

This YA graphic novel by Nebraska author Rainbow Rowell and Canadian artist Faith Erin Hicks was the perfect quick read to kick off my autumn. While I may not visit the local pumpkin patch this year (darn you coronavirus!), I am definitely ready for s’mores, fire pits, and pumpkin pie.

Rowell, Rainbow. Pumpkinheads. First Second Books, 2019.

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Friday Reads: Tempest Tossed

September is Library Card Sign-up Month! And ALA has named Wonder Woman as this year’s Library Card Sign-up Month Honorary Chair.

To celebrate, I read the new graphic novel, Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed, written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Leila Del Duca.

Tempest Tossed is a re-imagining of Wonder Woman’s origin story. While it is part of DC’s Graphic Novels for Young Adults imprint, it is definitely a book for all ages.

Some of the story is familiar. Unlike the other Amazons who were created on Themyscira as adults, Princess Diana was molded out of clay as a baby by her mother, Queen of the Amazons. So, she is the only person on the island who actually grew up, through the terrible toddler years and into teenage puberty. Since none of the other Amazons have gone through this, the changes that Diana experiences are very confusing to them. Mood swings, her body developing, acne, growth spurts making her awkward and clumsy. This causes some of the other Amazons to call her the Changeling. Definitely something that anyone reading this book will identify with.

As she reaches her 16th Born Day, rafts full of refugees fleeing their war-torn country break through holes in the barrier protecting Themyscira, and Diana goes against Amazon rules to help save a group from drowning. But, she ends up trapped outside the barrier on the refugee’s raft and cannot return to her home. She becomes a refugee herself.

The raft eventually finds land, and Diana is thrown into a new and foreign world. We follow her personal experience navigating the refugee process, as she learns about the struggles and failures of the immigration system. She also makes new friends and works with them to fight new injustices – homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, child trafficking. Through Diana’s eyes readers are exposed to the harsh realities of being poor in our world.

On a lighter note, I also really enjoyed the version of Steve Trevor in the story. No spoilers! I won’t give anything away, but it’s one of the most unique portrayals I’ve read and perfect for our times.

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Friday Reads: Shine! by J.J. and Chris Grabenstein

Piper (7th grade) considers herself a “blender,” one who would rather blend in with the crowd than stand out.  When her father is hired as the music teacher at the exclusive Chumley Prep, she is thrust into a new school where, it seems, everyone excels.  The quintessential mean girl is there, Ainsley, and she is almost nonstop mean.   Still, Piper finds some good friends and things are looking up. 

Then a new competition is announced: The Excelsior Prize, and everyone is determined to win it, though no one is quite sure what accomplishments it celebrates.  Piper manages to continue being herself, helping others and working hard in her classes.  She also would like to win the new prize, and the Science Fair seems to be the first step.  Piper is feeling good about her entry, and then she is blindsided by Ainsley, who uses a technicality to exclude Piper from the Science Fair, taking first place for herself, hoping it will help ensure that she, Ainsley, wins the new Excelsior Prize. 

This is a positive book about being true to yourself and caring about others. It is for upper elementary and early middle school readers. 

Grabenstein, J.J. and Chris. Shine! Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019.

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Friday Reads: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey


tagline from the cover

When it seems like absolutely everything is going awry, cracking open a work of dystopic fiction doesn’t sound like the wisest idea, but Gailey’s novella Upright Women Wanted is a timely message of hope, community, and resistance – and of Librarianship. 

Yes, this book is about Librarians. Gunslinging, horseback-riding, revolutionary queer librarians. Upright Women Wanted is something of a Western, set in the near-future, and is pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted from a story.   

When Esther flees from home after her (secret) girlfriend Beatriz’s execution at the hands of her father, she stows herself into the back of a Librarian wagon, determined to become a morally upright woman (as all Librarians, who are tasked in this dystopic, what Publisher’s Weekly called “neo-western,” America to distribute Approved Materials, are supposed to be).   

What Esther is soon to discover is that nothing she was told about the world, about Librarians – and about herself – is true. As she makes her way across the Southwest in the company of the Librarians, she’s forced to reckon with the State of things (pun intended), and with who she is and who she can be and love.

I love a Western, and I love a diverse Western, especially, and most of all I love a diverse, science-fiction Western. Throw a band of roving librarians into the mix and I’m sold. One of the events in history that I am most fascinated by is the WPA Pack Horse Library Project, ever since I stumbled across That Book Woman by Heather Henson. The Pack Horse Library Project is such a unique time period, and it captures the imagination and inspiration. Librarians are connected to our communities in a unique way, and the way we strive to maintain those connections – and advocate for those communities – is just as important as the distribution of materials. I couldn’t find any evidence to confirm that Gailey was inspired by this era, but it’s clear that love and a similar spirit went into the novella, regardless. 

Upright Women Wanted is a fast-paced, quick-read of a book, with plenty of well-written action and characters. While my main complaint was that I wanted it to be longer, to have its world and all its circumstances and people fully fleshed out, it truly holds its own for a 170-odd page novella. I would definitely pick up a full novel of this story, or I hope that Gailey at least decides to pen a longer follow-up.

Gailey, Sarah. Upright Women Wanted. Tom Doherty Associates, 2020.

Henson, Heather. That Book Woman. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008.

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Friday Reads, Death on Demand by Carolyn G. Hart

Carolyn G. Hart’s Death on Demand is the first in a series of cozy mysteries located in Broward’s Rock, South Carolina, an island. Annie Laurance moved to Broward Rock to spend the summer with her uncle, he dies in a boat accident, and so she inherits his bookstore, remodels it, and names it Death on Demand. The story begins with a list of items, and an incident and death in a veterinary clinic. Then, with hints already placed, we meet Annie, in her bookstore, putting off a phone call. Instead of making the call, she receives a call from Max Darling, the young man she was attracted to in New York City. She left no forwarding information; he’s had to find her through a series of calls and detective work. In addition, because he tracked her to South Carolina, he’s also driven down from New York, to visit, and find out what took her from her career in the city. And away from him.

I had missed Ms. Hart’s writing as much as these two characters. Annie is a straight shooting girl from Texas with a strong work ethic, and Max “delighted in ambiguities, disdained certainties, and loved above anything to puncture pretensions.”* But he makes her smile and her heart lifts when she finds out he’s in South Carolina. And the tiny island has several mystery writers of some note living there full time, as well as a small town community. What could go wrong? Well, at the usual meeting of the writers, her landlord, a true crime writer, has told her that he’s going to share information in his next book—about his fellow mystery writers’ dirty laundry. And the writers are as varied as possible, thriller, cozy, police procedural, children’s and true crime. At the party, the lights go out, the usual kerfuffle of bumped tables, people shouting, and offering directions. When Annie gets the lights on, her landlord is found on the floor with a dart in his throat, and dead. When the sheriff arrives, he blames Annie, for both the death of her landlord, but also her Uncle, with whom she had a close relationship. It all spurs her to clear her name.

I will admit the series begins in 1987, so sometimes one has to recall the state of technology, not just phones, but computers. So much needs to be seen in the correct timeline. The island also relies on a ferry that crosses to and from the mainland at set times. Although there are private boats, and a marina, the story reads like a closed system. Also, the two main characters, (and the author), throw in references to mystery writers and their books, from the golden age of mystery to the present. Which, if you don’t know them, will have you writing lists of titles of books. And did I mention Ms. Hart’s writing? This is just the book to read, or reread, during stressful times.

Death on Demand, by Carolyn G. Hart, 1987.

*quoted from Death on Demand, Chapter 3, page 7, in omnibus, Death on Demand/Design for Murder, Bantam Book, printed in 2008.

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Friday Reads: Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an African Slum

This past year has slapped us all in the face. Now more than ever, it is apparent that the world has problems. But we can’t stop there. The world has solutions too.

Today I am reviewing Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner. It’s a love story centered around extreme poverty in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa.

Honestly, I read it to get out of my head and see the world from other perspectives. Part of me cringed at the title, expecting to find another sob story, simply trying to make me feel guilty for existing in comparative luxury. But it wasn’t like that. The story was frank and unapologetic.

This is the story of Jessica Posner, a student at Wesleyan University who went on a study abroad trip to Africa. It was here that she insisted upon staying with Kennedy in Kibera. The description of Kibera was too real. I could see and smell the stinking scent of poverty, accented by the behavioral and economic forces perpetuating the cycle.

I felt a pang in my heart as Jessica witnessed new traumas. But she also brought new hope. Kennedy had been doing the long, slow work of economic development in Kibera. He brought people together over things as simple as soccer, then escalated to women’s rights. It was hope that drew Jessica to Kennedy, and visa versa.

Much of this story is about the school for girls that the two built together. It is about Kennedy finding a path towards education, and attempting to bring prosperity back to Kibera. This book shows that the road to change and forward momentum is slow. Achingly slow. But the work is worth doing.

I did get out of my head while reading this book. I held paper differently, and appreciated my ability to read. I thought about Kennedy learning to read from scraps of newspaper in the garbage. There was no other alternative there.

I shopped for groceries differently and considered food waste. Before, I rarely thought about the supply chain and how goods arrived at my doorstep. Many of them in under two days. This book made me reconsider my life and how I live it.

But a large part of that was because of the events of this year. Covid, climate change, black lives matter, massive unemployment, and a bit of gender equality for good measure. Problems are mounting. 

If Jessica and Kennedy can build a school and change the lives of girls who were dealt an unfair hand in life, what am I doing? All I know is that it could be more. Read this book and try new things. Find words and stories that keep you going.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” – Nelson Mandela.

Odede, Kennedy and Jessica Posner. Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum. HarperCollins, 2015.

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Friday Reads: Before and Again by Barbara Delinsky

The Wikipedia entry for Barbara Delinsky states that “she is an American writer of romance novels, including 19 New York Times bestsellers.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Delinsky) While every point of this is true it misses the vast number of her books that I would say fall under “stories of intrigue”, though not mysteries, as within the first chapter or two you are told what has happened and at times even by whom. What Delinsky does masterfully is get into why the event happened and why the people involved act the way they do, spinning a wonderful web of intrigue throughout.

“Before and Again” follows the story of Maggie Reid as she makes a new life for herself in a small town Vermont after her daughter dies. Almost immediately you find out that a 15 year old boy has been picked up by the FBI for hacking. That someone had been hacking grades at the high school had been no secret in the town but everyone is sent reeling when he’s also charged with hacking into some very prominent twitter accounts. Maggie considers the boy’s mother a good friend so she can’t help but get involved but that means dealing with her own past and helping a lot of others deal with theirs as well.

Barbara Delinsky’s books are like curling up with a cup of tea in an oversized comfy chair, even if you happen to be reading on the bus or over your lunch hour in the break room, so easy to get into with beautiful imagery that’s not hard to conjure. While “Before and Again” is probably one of my least favorite of Delinsky’s books that I’ve read sometimes, especially in times like these, it’s more about how the reading experience makes us feel rather than what we’re actually reading.

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Friday Reads: Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, by Phuc Tran

I love memoirs. Not only do they offer readers insight into what it’s like to live lives different from their own, they also remind us of how much we humans have in common. That’s definitely the case with Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, by Vietnamese American teacher, writer, and tattoo artist Phuc Tran.

In 1975, when Tran was one, his family fled the fall of Saigon and wound up resettled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In Sigh Gone, Tran describes what it was like growing up as a member of “the token refugee family” (2) in town. As one can imagine, it included schoolyard taunts and name-calling, and, when out in public with his family, the discomfort of always sticking out.

Tran also describes the resentment he felt toward his parents over what he saw, at the time, as their cultural and English language failings: “I needed to trust in my dad’s ability to navigate the world at large, and I was already doubting him. . . . Five-year-olds were supposed to believe what their parents said. Maybe some kids’ parents still had the golden nimbus of infallibility, but not my parents and not for me” (16).

Going forward, Tran chronicles his relentless efforts to assimilate. By high school, his two-pronged strategy included pursuit of academic excellence and successful integration into the punk/skater subculture. Of the later, he writes, “[b]eing a freak because of my weird clothes and hair was a respite. These were things that I had chosen . . . Fighting rednecks because you were a punk was far better than fighting because you were Asian, and fighting with allies was far better than fighting alone” (6).

So why did this book resonate with me? For one, Tran’s depiction of high school, with its cliques and angst—a “cultural cul-de-sac built with the craftsman blueprint of John Hughes, the Frank Lloyd Wright of teen malaise” (2)—is viscerally familiar. His description of his job as a library page also warmed my librarian’s heart, as did his discovery and adoption of Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan, which he stumbled on while prepping for the library’s used book sale.

Though the Plan, was “unapologetically American, classist, and white” (4), Tran could not have cared less at the time; it served as a catalyst for his burgeoning love of literature–which the English major in me appreciated. He also viewed the Plan as his entrée to the world of big ideas that can connect people across time, geography, and culture—which is what Tran, himself, has accomplished with this memoir. Sigh, Gone concludes right after Tran graduates from high school, just as he’s poised to head off to Bard College, which had described itself to him in its admissions literature as “A Place to Think” (267). So fitting!

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