National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream” by Kristy Dempsey

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While this book is not strictly categorized as “poetry,” the author is a poet, and the text of this book reads like free verse, as with this description of a ballet performance:

When she glides onto the stage,
I don’t know
if I am dreaming,
if I am even breathing,
because she doesn’t seem to touch the floor.
She twirls and
my heart jumps up from where I’m sitting,
soaring, dancing,
opening wide with the swell of the music.”

The story is narrated by a fictional young African American girl in New York in the 1950′s who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. Her mother cleans and sews costumes for a ballet school, and the little girl dances in the wings as she waits for Mama. The Ballet Master lets her join lessons from the back of the room, but she is not allowed to perform on the stage with white girls.

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One day she catches bits of a story in a newspaper about Janet Collins: “first colored prima ballerina… Metropolitan Opera House.”

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Mama uses half the money she saved for a new sewing machine to take her daughter to see Janet Collins perform, and they are both inspired:

Mama and I dance our way home
under the night sky,
and I don’t even try
to catch a glimpse of the first star.
no need to waste my wishes.
I’ve got dreams coming true.”

The award-winning illustrator, Floyd Cooper, known for his use of warm tones and historical accuracy, is the perfect choice for this story. His technique of “subtraction” to erase shapes from a background of paint, softens the pictures and gives them a gauzy quality, adding to the sense that this is a story from the past.

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Discussion: Before you get to the Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book about who Janet Collins was and when she danced, there is no indication this story takes place in the early 1950’s. The Note provides brief background information on Ms. Collins, born in 1917 in Louisiana, who became the first African American to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, initially performing in November, 1951.

Ms. Collins experienced a great deal of resistance in her attempts to perform in professional classical dance troupes. In 1932, for example, she was asked to join the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but she would have been required to paint her face and skin white to appear on stage. She turned down the offer. She was also not allowed to be on tour with the rest of her ballet company in parts of the Deep South. She retired in her forties and joined a Benedictine community.

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Janet Collins

The poetic prose is quite nice, and Cooper’s illustrations are lovely as usual, but I think it would help understanding of the story to know at the outset that it takes place in an earlier time.

Evaluation: Any story is enhanced by the outstanding artwork of Floyd Cooper, and the integration of ballet is a topic not often covered by other books.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2014

Review of “Dog Gone, Back Soon” by Nick Trout

This is an adorable story about Cyrus Mills, a veterinarian in his late thirties who returns to northern Vermont after his father’s death to run his father’s veterinary practice, The Bedside Manor for Sick Animals.

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There’s a subplot about the Evil Corporate Competitor, a national chain called Healthy Paws, and one involving Cyrus’s romantic interest in a local waitress named Amy Carp (presumably a hat tip to the author, Nick Trout). But the real appeal of the book is the wonderful collection of anecdotes about pets.

Evaluation: This is apparently a sequel to The Patron Saint of Lost Dog. I did not read this book, and thought the author did a fair (but not excellent) job of filling in new readers, mostly about how Cyrus got interested in Amy. But it didn’t really matter much. The book has loads of humor, charm, and great pet stories by a guy who knows what he is talking about. The author is a graduate of the veterinary school at the University of Cambridge, a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons , and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. If you love pets, you’ll love this book!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Hyperion, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014

Review of “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

This book, set way, way far in the future, is very complicated and very out-of-the-box. The story, a mystery/thriller, employs some stunning premises. One is that some of the characters, including the main protagonist, are massive entities with hive-minds that reside in multiple bodies at once. The second is that, in this future galaxy, gender is maybe a matter of choice, or maybe of convenience; it’s unclear. All we know is that we don’t know what gender anyone is, but everyone is universally designated as “she.” This creates some eye-opening confusion for the reader, revealing, by that very confusion, just how much we attribute to, and assume by, gender designations in our own world.

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As the story begins, Breq (whose name might well have been Brusque) has occupied a single body for nineteen years. Before that, he/she was the troop carrier Justice of Toren in the Radch Empire, with a number of “ancillaries,” or mobile units on detached duty down on a planet’s surface. (An ancillary is created by adding artificial intelligence to a captured human body.) The individual we meet as “Breq” was formerly the ancillary One Esk, but because Breq occupies only one body now, he/she can pass for “human.”

Breq is on an obsessive and seemingly impossible mission to kill the Lord of the Radch Empire, and we learn why in chapters that alternate between Breq’s existence as Justice of Toren nineteen years ago, and life now as a single individual. As the story unfolds, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes “easier” as well, with the gaining of greater understanding into some of the complex aspects of this universe.

Discussion: A major theme of this book is a problem we have even in our present day, which is what role citizens should assume in the face of immoral laws. If a law violates all that we consider to be worthwhile and just in the human community, must we still obey? Are we culpable if we do? What if the result of disobedience is death? Is it an excuse to say “I didn’t have a choice?” What would “justice” mean under those circumstances?

Secondly, but in a related way, there is the issue of imperialism. Is one nation (or planet) really qualified to determine what constitutes “civilization” for the other, and to enforce its own ideas over those of the natives? Again, these are problems we have grappled with in our own time, and readers will find it thought-provoking to read the opinions bandied about in political wrangling in this future galaxy.

There are some appealing secondary characters (all human) who accompany Breq on the journey past and future, including Captain Seivardan Vendaai, Lieutenant Awn Elming, and Lieutenant Skaaiat Awer. Are they male or female? I have no idea, but it was revelatory to see my own preconceptions unfold as I unconsciously assigned a gender to them based on their behaviors. In any event, they are all incredibly nuanced and interesting.

Evaluation: This story is very demanding; the universe of this far away future is very different than ours, and it takes a bit of mental work not to feel disoriented. Nevertheless, if you like having your conceptual framework taken out for examination from time to time, and if you enjoy suspense and science fiction, this book is worth the effort.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2013

Review of “Windfallen” by Jojo Moyes

Having discovered that I loved the writing of Jojo Moyes, I’ve set about to read through her backlist. Windfallen is her second novel, and was originally published in the UK as Foreign Fruit, which, to my thinking, is a much more appropriate title.

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The novel begins in the 1950’s in the conservative seaside town of Merham a couple of hours from London. The community is appalled when a previously empty 1930’s art deco house known as Arcadia is taken over by a group of bohemians with ambigious domestic relationships. But 18-year-olds Celia Holden and her friend Lottie Swift (who lives with Celia’s family), are bedazzled. They are fit to burst from the constricting binds of Celia’s uptight mother and Merham’s equally uptight fear of change. They begin to visit the newcomers, entranced by the exotic way they live and their lack of inhibitions. Celia’s mother finds out and sends her off to London. Eight weeks later Celia returns with a fiancé, Guy Bancroft. But everything becomes upended, and Lottie is forced to leave town.

Fifty years later, we pick up with the story of Daisy Parsons, an interior designer who has been hired to restore Arcadia as a hotel. Daisy, 28, has just been abandoned by the father of her four-month old daughter, but needs to pull herself together and complete this job in order to turn her life around. As she uncovers the secrets of Arcadia, she not only helps bring change to Merham, but discovers her own destiny in the process.

Evaluation: Jojo Moyes is an excellent and engrossing storyteller, and of course she had me sobbing by three-quarters of the way through the book. If you like sagas about lost love and found love with a well-written historical background, this will definitely appeal to you. I suppose it is properly considered a “romance,” and in fact it won the 2004 Romance Novelist Association (RNA) Book of the Year Award (under its British title, Foreign Fruit). But I would certainly class Jojo Moyes head and shoulders above many writers designated by that genre.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the UK as Foreign Fruit by Hodder & Stoughton, 2003; Published in the U.S. as Windfallen by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, hardcover 2003; paperback 2013.

April 13, 1743 – Birthdate (Sort Of) Of Thomas Jefferson and Review of “Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything” by Maira Kalman

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of America, was born on April 2 according to the old style (Julian) calendar, which was changed in 1752 in the U.S. to the Gregorian calendar, still in use today. The new calendar pushed all dates forward by eleven days, so that Jefferson’s birthdate became April 13. Those born during this period often celebrated their birthdays on both days, if they celebrated at all. (According to scholars at Monticello, Jefferson always insisted the only birthday he observed was July 4, the birthday of his country.)

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Maira Kalman creates gorgeous books, and fortunately, she is an excellent storyteller as well. Her book for children on the life of Lincoln was absolutely wonderful (see my review here) but I was worried about this one: what would she say about Jefferson and his unwillingness to give up his slaves?

Kalman does not make Jefferson’s weaknesses central to the book, but she doesn’t ignore them either. She writes:

‘The man who said of slavery ‘This ABOMINATION MUST END’ was the ownere of about 150 slaves. The MONUMENTAL MAN had MONUMENTAL FLAWS.”

Including a reproduction of the list of Jefferson’s slaves in his farm books, she notes:

OUR hearts are BROKEN.”

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Most of all, however, Kalman focuses on Jefferson’s eclectic range of interests, his love of books – “on history, science, philosophy, government, mathematics, music, art and so much more”), his work on his estate which he called Monticello, and his accomplishments in government.

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She explains about his belief in the separation of church and state, and about his purchase from Napoleon of a large part of the land that became the United States.

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She ends with the advice:

If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello.”

What an amazingly concise and astute way to summarize not just the character of Jefferson, but of the other Founding Fathers as well.

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The Matisse-like whimsical paintings in the book are bursting with vibrant colors, and the typeface varies in size, style, and color, depending on the text.

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In the back, a brief annotated note section adds more details about the people and events described in the book.

Evaluation: This is an outstanding resource about Jefferson for readers of all ages. The text is funny and informative, with lots of kid appeal. The illustrations are stunning.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2014.

National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars” by Douglas Florian

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Douglas Florian is a poet and painter who has created a number of books for children, but this one is my favorite. This charming and humorous collection of poems about space is the perfect way to teach children in the course of entertaining them.

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He takes us through our own solar system, with a double-page spread for each planet:

The Earth
Two-thirds water.
One-third land.
Valleys deep.
Mountains grand.
Sky of blue.
Clouds of gray.
Life here, too -
Think I’ll stay.”

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Pluto is included, but never fear: this book is up-to-date!

Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn’t pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it’s lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet.
Till one day it got fired.”

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The mixed-media illustrations are beautiful: they are done with gouache, collage, and even rubber stamps on primed brown paper bags. There are scraps of star maps and pieces of photographs and die-cut peep holes allowing for a telescopic view from one page to the next. His clever technique creates a result that is evocative and “otherworldly” and will inspire kids to find out more about the symbolism and references in the pictures.

The entry for Venus, for example, shows a statue of Venus along with her names in various cultures: Diane, Aphrodite, Sappho, and so on. Humorously, the author comments:

Scalding-hot surface,
Nine hundred degrees.
Nothing can live there,
No creatures,
No trees.
Poisonous clouds
Of acid above.
Why was it named for
the goddess of love?”

The book ends with another humorous poem about the “space” in the great beyond (about which he would tell you more, he writes, but he has “run out of space.)

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End matter includes a galactic glossary and a selected bibliography for further reading.

Evaluation: Oh how I wish I had a book this beautiful and fun when I was young to learn about the stars and planets!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harcourt, Inc., a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007

Douglas Florian includes a "self-portrait" on the book jacket

Douglas Florian includes a “self-portrait” on the book jacket

Review of “Waiting for Wednesday” by Nicci French

This is book three in the detective/psychological thriller series featuring psychotherapist Dr. Frieda Klein, who is the occasional collaborator of London Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson. There is no romantic involvement between the two, although not for want of enthusiasm among readers for the match-up.

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The inexplicable and brutal murder of a seemingly normal happy woman with 3 kids that begins the story cries out for the services of a criminal psychologist, but Karlsson now has to work without the valuable services of Frieda, who has been replaced by the pompous, incompetent, albeit well-connected Dr. Hal Bradshaw. By a series of coincidences, Frieda gets in a position to help anyway, in spite of the demands of her family, her would-be lover Sandy, a serial killer we met in Book One who is still stalking her, and the unexpected quest for a series of missing young women with which she gets involved.

Discussion: Who Frieda is and what she wants continues to elude us. Frieda resists uncovering herself even to her close friends and to her boyfriend Sandy, a surgeon in America with infinite patience. Sandy does understand that remaining invisible is, for some reason, the most important thing to Frieda; that being “exposed” upsets her even more than threats of professional or bodily harm. Frieda knows that she is a mess:

She had good friends, but she hadn’t turned to them, not even to Sandy. She could listen, but she couldn’t talk give help but not ask for it.”

Ironically, Frieda realizes that the man who seems to know her the best is the killer who is pursuing her.

Karlsson has his own problems. His demanding career resulted in the estrangement from, and ultimately loss of, his wife and two children, and now he is paying the emotional price. He misses them dearly, especially little Bella and Mikey, who are about to move with his ex-wife and her new husband to faraway Spain.

He also has to put up with the frustrating and enervating demands of his Commissioner, who keeps reminding him that the job is not about “solving crimes” but rather:

A police force is about political influence, and it always has been. If I can’t get up the home secretary’s arse and get you the funding that you’re pissing away, you won’t be in a position to solve your crimes, any of you.”

(…a quote that could have come with only a slight change right from “Law and Order.”)

Evaluation: I think this series is getting better, or maybe I have reconciled myself to the fact that Frieda wants to remain a cipher, and the authors (Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing team of husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) have decided to accede to her wishes. There is plenty of suspense balanced with character development, and the pacing is good. Not all the background from previous books is fully explained, but I don’t think it impedes the overall flow of the story for first-time readers of the series.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014

Review of “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty” by Dave Barry

This hilarious monologue by Dave Barry touches on a number of topics including parenting, airplanes, aging, Viagra, Fifty Shades of Gray, a family trip to Israel, how to become a published writer, and the necessary elements for plots in successful books.

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I listened to the audio version of this book, read by the author, and his narration was perfect.

Evaluation: Even when Dave Barry is not being funny (and no one can be funny every single second), he never fails to be interesting and entertaining. And listening to the book gives you the added bonus of having everyone in the cars around you wondering what kind of weirdo laughs out loud to herself while in the car alone.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published unabridged on 3 compact discs (3 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014

Review of “The Red Lily Crown: A Novel of Medici Florence” by Elizabeth Loupas

I was very impressed with this historical fiction novel set in 16th Century Medici-ruled Florence.

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The story begins in 1574 and centers around the violent and cruel ruling Medici family – in particular, Prince Francesco, who was known to be an aficionado of alchemy. The author creates two fictional assistants for Francesco, Chiara Nerini, daughter of a poor bookseller and an aspiring alchemist herself, and the mysterious and handsome Ruan Pencarrow, a metallurgist who supplied the Prince with his raw materials and helped him in his experiments. Together, the three of them work to find the elusive Philosopher’s Stone, or Lapis Philosophorum, a legendary substance that putatively could turn base metals into gold, and perhaps even confer immortality to its discover.

(Some of the world’s greatest geniuses believed in the Philosopher’s Stone, including Sir Isaac Newton and the famed British chemist Robert Boyle.)

Over the next fifteen years, the book follows the stories of Chiara and Ruan and the parallel developments in Francesco’s Court. Each of the main characters is forged by life’s experiences into another being entirely, much as they all sought to do with the metals with which they worked.

Evaluation: This story has romance, danger, intrigue, and excellent “bones” in the twinned themes of the ruling class of late 1500’s Florence and the fascinating quest for the Lapis Philosophorum. The author’s adherence to what is known both about the Medici and alchemy is excellent. I chose this for a five hour plane trip, and was totally absorbed the whole way.

Rating: 4/5

Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, 2014

Review of “The Island of Doves” by Kelly O’Connor McNees

This is an inspiring story about the rebirth of two damaged women that begins in 1835.

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Susannah Fraser, 23, is a woman living in wealthy circumstances in Buffalo, New York with a cruel husband who beats her. After the fingers in her hand are broken, a nun in the area, Sister Mary Genevieve, offers to help her escape. The sister knows of a refuge on Mackinac Island in the Michigan Territory, and arranges for Susannah to sneak out and be transported there.

Once in Mackinac, Susannah, going by the pseudonym “Miss Dove,” is taken in by the widowed Magdelaine Fonteneau, 46, who runs a successful business and lives alone in a large house with her son, Jean-Henri, and Esmee, her talented and resourceful housekeeper.

Adjustment is difficult for Susannah. She loves it on the island, but she has never experienced making her own decisions or taking her own life in her hands: first she was a daughter, directed by her father, and then she was a wife, with a husband who controlled each minute of her day. Independence is terrifying for her.

Magdelaine has her own demons to overcome; she lost most of her family, and steadfastly refuses to get close to anyone again, even her own son. The two women unexpectedly find they have much in common, but each must be willing to let go of her defenses to be become truly free.

Discussion: The author based her story on two historical figures. One was Magdelaine LaFramboise, who, like the fictional Magdelaine, took over her husband’s fur-trading business after his death and became very successful. The second was Benjamin Rathbun who was a notorious and corrupt builder in Buffalo in the same time period.

It is especially interesting to read about what life for the real Magdelaine may have been like from the author’s reconstruction of her circumstances.

Evaluation: The plot elements are fairly predictable and the characters sometimes a bit too caricatured or given to clichéd dialogue, but that doesn’t detract from the basic charm of this warm-hearted story.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014

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