Review of “Invisible” by Marni Bates

Since I enjoyed the first two books in this series featuring “nerdy” high school kids who triumph over the popular kids, I was eager to read this one. Although even more predictable than the first two, and with characters not quite as lovable, this one still ought to please tween audiences.

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Jane Smith is the best friend of MacKenzie Wellesley and Corey O’Neal. They used to form a reliable threesome of “Invisibles” (as opposed to the “Notables”) at high school, but now both MacKenzie and Corey have significant others, and Jane is feeling even more invisible than usual.

Instead of fighting back, she only gets more insecure and withdrawn. She starts keeping a secret journal of stories, usually featuring herself and her friends. She would love to write fiction for the school newspaper, but she is only the “grammar girl.” The nasty editor, Lisa Anne Montgomery, agrees to give her a shot at a front page story, and pairs her with the cute but hostile photographer, Scott Fraser, warning Jane this will be her one and only chance so she better come up with a good story.

Quite predictably, one of Jane’s private stories (revealing a bit too much about her best friends), ends up in Lisa’s hands, and makes the front page of the newspaper. Chaos ensues, and making things right will require Jane to take a huge risk to fight not only for the friends she loves, but for herself.

Discussion: Bates adds a nice mix of humor to this story. For example, when Jane gets detention, she thinks:

Detention is nothing like The Breakfast Club. I sat down in my hard plastic chair hoping there would be some group bonding, maybe a little dancing, a few heart-to-heart moments set to eighties music. John Hughes shouldn’t have given me such high expectations.”

Jane’s boss at her part-time job at the bookstore, Mrs. Blake, also adds comic relief as an endearingly quirky character.

But this book is actually “darker” (if you could call any of them dark) than the other stories. And the mistake Jane made could have had some horrible consequences, although of course, it all worked out. But I think, for that reason, this book would be good to read and discuss along with teens. There are plenty of issues that arise, like peer pressure, pre-judging others, the importance of parental support, and understanding the consequences of your actions, that could be debated.

Evaluation: This is a cute story with a lot of potential for “lessons” and discussion.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2013

Review of “Play Dead” by Anne Frasier

This is Book One in a new detective series featuring homicide detectives Elise Sandburg and David Gould. It is set in Savannah, where an interesting mix of voodoo, magic, and kudzu adds a rich atmosphere to the plot – indeed, Savannah itself can definitely be considered a “character” in this series.

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The story begins in the morgue, where some bodies are discovered of people who are not actually dead; rather, they have been paralyzed by the toxin TTX, or Tetrodotoxin. TTX is a naturally occurring poison in some fish that is sometimes used by people to get high from the proximity to death… It is also occasionally used to induce zombie-like obedience. [You can read about so-called "zombie powder" on this science site.]

Elise, 31, was abandoned in a cemetery as an infant and subsequently adopted. It is widely rumored her real father was Jackson Sweet, a well-known local rootworker, or conjurer. These workers in folk magic use mixtures of roots, herbs and other substances to cast spells. The concoctions, called a mojo, are put together into a “mojo bag.” While Elise had an interest in such things as a young girl because of her rumored ancestry, she gave it up after a particularly bad result occurred that she associated with a mojo she had prepared.

Now, she is the single mom of Audrey, age 13, and getting used to a new partner at work, David, a former FBI agent from Cleveland. David keeps a lot to himself; clearly he is leading a tortured existence, but no one on the Savannah force knows much about him.

But if author Anne Frasier is known for anything, it is her skill at romance novels, and you can bet there is a reluctant attraction between Elise and David.

Evaluation: I only have first-hand knowledge of Frasier’s writing as Theresa Weir, from her excellent memoir, The Orchard. She did not disappoint at all with this mystery. Her character development of the two troubled main protagonists is excellent, and I definitely intend to continue with this series and see what develops between David and Elise.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Thomas & Mercer, 2013

Review of “The Madonna and The Starship by James Morrow

James Morrow writes very entertaining Kurt-Vonnegut-esque type dark comedies employing a lot of satire, especially of the religious variety.

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This latest book takes place in the 1950’s and centers on protagonist Kurt Jastrow, an aspiring dramatist who earns a living as a pulp-fiction science fiction writer. Currently he is head writer for a schlocky tri-weekly science fiction adventure series, “Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers.” He also stars in a ten-minute epilogue at the end of each installment, “Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” in which he guides a young kid through a scientific experiment suggested by that week’s Brock Barton episode.

Jastrow’s mediocre existence is jolted when he gets a message from two blue lobster-like creatures from the planet Qualimosa. They announce they are coming to see him because they love his program, and want to present him with the “Zorningorg Prize”. They also intend to exterminate the pockets of irrationality throughout the universe, which means destroying all viewers of another program on the same network, a weekly religious series “Not By Bread Alone.”

Jastrow, along with the religious program’s writer/producer and babe Connie Osborne, conspire to come up with a satirical script that will convince the Qualimosans that “Not By Bread Alone” is actually exposing the illogic of religion rather than valorizing it. They write a script called “The Madonna and The Starship,” which is very amusing, and they succeed in saving the Earth.

The book has lots of funny bits, such as this one:

Connie: “Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that these crustaceans are exactly what they say they are. Somewhere beyond our solar system lies a planet of logical positivists. … I hope your Qualimosans aren’t typical of alien races. What could be more boring than a galaxy run by Bertrand Russell?”

And then there is the need to placate the sponsors’ during the airing of “The Madonna and The Starship,” resulting in this scene (that results in a sharp uptake in sales for these products):

Jesus: “Eat these measures of Sugar Corn Pops … for they are my body.”

Brock: “You know, Jesus, the great thing about Sugar Corn Pops is that it’s got the sweenenin’ already on it….”

Jesus: ‘Most impressive,’ Jesus replied, methodically distributing eight mugs of warm, chocolate-flavored beverage. ‘Drink this Ovaltine, for it is my blood.’”

There is also a bit of a surprise twist to the ending, so that even non-atheists will be pleased.

Evaluation: If you love satire and aren’t offended by writing that makes gentle fun of religion, this short book has many laugh-out-loud moments. Morrow has won a number of awards for his work, and is worth getting to know. (My two personal favorites are This Is The Way the World Ends, 1985, and Towing Jehovah, 1994.)

Rating: 3/5

Published by Tachyon Publications, 2014

Review of “The Remedy for Love” by Bill Roorbach

This is a deeply moving, powerful story that explores love and intimacy in the face of loneliness, fear and loss. It begins at the onset of a huge blizzard in Maine. Eric, a 34-year old lawyer separated from his wife Alison (at her initiative), helps a young homeless-looking woman get her groceries to her cabin in the woods, and then the two of them get stuck there as the storm worsens.

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The woman, Danielle, 28, is thin, unkempt, and bruised; clearly she is frightened of Eric and keeps telling him her husband Jimmy will be back any moment. Eric has no wish to take advantage of Danielle even as he knows Jimmy couldn’t get home if he tried, no more than Eric can get out. So Eric and Danielle try to make the best of the situation – each in their own way. Over the course of their confinement, a strange and wonderful intimacy develops between them. It turns out they each need rescuing, and they come up with an unusual way to make it happen.

Discussion: There is some beautifully crafted and evocative writing in this book. When Eric looks out from the cabin at the falling snow:

…gazing long, [he] admired the birches bowed in fair arcs on the far bank, balsam firs like court ladies in tiered dresses, green emerging only darkly from the strange humps where whole jungles of alder ought to be.”

And how perfectly illuminating when Eric contemplates what went wrong with his marriage, thinking about how he and Alison started to argue about the minutest factual things:

…these two people who deeply agreed on everything getting as hot over details of their orthodoxy as the old protestant pastors, nuanced positions breaking the church of their romance into splinters and then splinters of splinters, sharp things to be deployed at any time.”

Or this stunning passage, when Eric begins to notice Danielle’s odd appeal:

Something startling in the shapes her clavicles made, not that he was looking. She’d startled him all day with her strange, retractable beauty, like a cat’s claws.”

Evaluation: This is a lovely book. I was reminded a great deal of Tom McNeal’s To Be Sung Underwater. The ending here is much more uplifting, but the adult exploration of the nature of love is similar. I definitely want to read the books he has written previously. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2014

Review of “The Doubt Factory” by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a story that reads for all the world like a horrible dystopia, but is based on facts that are all too real. Bacigalupi credits the 2008 article by Michelle Nijhuis, called “The Doubt Makers” for the inspiration of the story, and for much of the non-fiction content. In essence, Nijhuis exposes how businesses systematically cast doubt on scientific studies that might interfere with their profit-making enterprises, allowing many dangerous commodities to stay on the market long after they should have been banned.

[This process still goes on, of course. As scientist Seth Darling, author of a new book on climate change, writes, in spite of an overwhelming consensus among scientists that our planet is warming and that we are primarily to blame, mainstream news outlets still provide substantial airtime to skeptics. He observes: “Because the mass media have propped up a false debate, the general public is understandably confused.” Many of these so-called skeptics are actually paid for their "testimony," and it is this manipulation that is the focus of Bacigalupi's novel.]

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The author does a good job of making a weaving a compelling plot out of this disturbing practice. He creates a group of talented teenagers, each of whom has experienced a death in his or her family because of unsafe products that should not have been allowed to stay on the market. Calling themselves “2.0” and led by Moses Cruz, they are working together to try to stop further risks to public health. They have targeted the biggest enabling PR firm, Banks Strategy Partners. Simon Banks and his business partner George Saamsi help put together reports, testimony, and controversy for companies with potentially lethal merchandise, in order to delay punitive government action. The 2.0 group wants to convince Alix, Simon’s daughter, to help them get into her father’s records so they can (hopefully) interest the media. It is not an easy job: Alix has no idea what her dad really does, but she loves him, and has a hard time believing he would help companies put so many lives at risk for the sake of greed.

And Alix isn’t the only one needing convincing. “Status quo is easy to sell,” one of the 2.0 group says. “You can’t con someone who doesn’t want to be conned, and you can’t wake up someone who doesn’t want to wake up.”

But Alix is drawn to Moses, and also wants to know what the truth is about her father. What she doesn’t realize is that the power and money behind these corporations could threaten her life, as well as the lives of others in the group.

Bacigalupi previously tackled the nefarious side of corporate greed in his story for middle graders, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, but that book ended on a more upbeat (and unfortunately more unrealistic) note than this book for older readers.

Evaluation: Bacigalupi successfully integrates his info-dumping into an interesting and suspenseful scenario. He is a consistently intelligent and compassionate writer.

In addition, I really like the fact that this is a very diverse group of teens, but the focus is on what unites them rather than their physical or gender-related differences.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2014

Review of “Germania” by Simon Winder

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

I enjoyed Simon Winder’s book Danubia enough to seek out his earlier combination travelogue/history, Germania – a “personal response,” as he calls it, to German history.

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Writing “German” history prior to 1871 presents a daunting task because before that date there was no country known as “Germany.” The land we think of as Germany was composed of numerous principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, and independent city-states that popped in and out of existence owing to the vagaries of hereditary suzerainty and noble marriages. Winder notes that successive historical maps of the country resemble nothing so much as “an explosion in a jigsaw factory.” He does not undertake to present a chronological narrative; rather, he travels around the countryside and regales the reader with stories relevant to the place he is visiting, although the history still manages to be presented in roughly chronological order.

Winder is not one to make heroes of long-gone historical characters. Of Charlemagne he writes:

As usual with such leaders, historians – who are generally rather introverted and mild individuals – tend to wish Charlemagne to be at heart keen on jewels, saints’ relics and spreading literacy, whereas an argument might be made for his core competence being the efficient piling-up of immense numbers of dead Saxons.”

Rather, the “heroes” of Winder’s story are the Free Imperial Cities such as Strasburg , Nuremberg, and the Hanseatic League that endured the middle ages as independent entities fostering trade and cosmopolitan values.

Winder breaks off his history in 1933 with the rise of the Nazis, avoiding not only the nastiest period in German history, but also its remarkable economic recovery after World War II. But he does manage to get in a few jabs at modern Germany, as with his exploration of what it means to “be” German, spoofing the Nazi’s efforts to create a pure Aryan race. After a short summary of the shifts of various unrelated tribes over the territory for about a thousand years, he says, “In practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost-property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood.’” Indeed, he sees German reverence for their deep past as having a corrosive and disastrous effect:

There can be few stronger arguments for the damage that can be done by paying too much attention to history than how Germany has understood and taught its ancient past, however aesthetically pleasurable it can be in operas.”

Winder livens up his sweep of German history with a tourist’s eye for the unique and noteworthy in his travels, describing the Christmas markets, the Ratskellers (with their massive glasses for serving beer), the ubiquitous castles, dense forests, flower-bedecked windows on half-timbered houses, marzipan in a variety of shapes (including, in one Lübeck shop, models of the Brandenburg Gate, the Eiffel Tower, and the Houses of Parliament) and “endless sausages.” He quips, “There is always a pig and a potato just around the next corner…..”

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Half-timbered house in Germany

Evaluation: Germania, like Danubia, is a quirky book that could hardly be classified as serious history, although it contains a lot of factual information on an important topic. (“Germany,” the author writes, “is a place without which European culture makes no sense.”) Perhaps “travelogue with historical background” might be a more apt description. The writing is sprightly and entertaining, and the book presents an often delightful and decidedly unique guide to the region.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in Great Britain by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, Ltd; Published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, and in paperback by Picador, 2011

National Pizza Month Kid Lit Review of “Pizza in Pienza” by Susan Fillion

Earlier this month, we ran a post on October being National Pizza Month for a good reason. Those who know us understand that if we invite you for dinner, we will probably be having pizza. And even if we don’t invite you for dinner, we will probably be having pizza. This is what we have at least two times a week. We have been known to have it every single day in a given week. So naturally I was very excited to find this book, after first hearing about it on Jama’s excellent blog.

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This book is not only about the joy of pizza and the history of pizza, but is bilingual in both English and Italian, something you don’t see often. [This feature will help you memorize appropriate things to say when you travel to Italy to experience the real thing!]

The story is told by a little girl in Pienza, “a small town in Italy where Pope Pius II was born.” The author (who is also the illustrator) takes you through the town via bright, folk-style acrylics under which are simple sentences in English, then Italian. Although the Italian is not shown phonetically, there is a very good guide to pronunciation at the end of the book.

After telling you about her town and about the customs and habits of the people (“Here in Italy, we eat our main meal at midday”), she starts to explain the history of pizza.

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Some of the pictures (the author is also the illustrator) are humorous, such as the one showing Mona Lisa with a slice of pizza. But all of the illustrations are so rich in color and happy in tone, it’s hard to choose a favorite.

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The author doesn’t just keep the action in Italy. She informs us that “The first pizzeria in the United States opened in New York City in 1905.” She notes that “pizza really became popular after the Second World War. Soldiers returning from Italy talked about it when they got home.”

I could go on recapitulating every page for you, but now I can hold back no longer and must go make pizza. This joyous book will inspire you and your children to do the same! Helpfully, the author even includes a recipe at the back of the book, along with some more in depth notes about the history of pizza.

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Evaluation: This charming book filled with delightful pictures and fascinating information will have you watering at the mouth.

Rating: 4/5

Published by David R. Godine, 2013

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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