Kid Lit Review of “Odd Duck” by Cecil Castellucci & Sara Varon

This is a graphic novel for kids that will appeal to readers of all ages.


Theodora is an odd duck, somewhat obsessive-compulsive and most comfortable with routine and lack of change.


But then the very eccentric (in a different way) duck Chad moves in next door. Chad is colorful, noisy, wild, and messy, and Theodora can’t wait till he flies south for the winter. But to her dismay, he has a broken wing and doesn’t leave.


One night, while Theodora is outside admiring the stars, Chad sees her and invites her over to look at them through his telescope. Before they know it, they are talking about everything, and find out they felt the same way about most things in spite of their differences.

Then one day, walking back together through town, they overhear some ducks making fun of “that odd duck.” Each one tries to console the other, thinking it was the other that was the subject of derision. They get into a huge fight about who is actually the odd duck, and stop speaking.


Upon reflection, Theodora, who misses Chad’s friendship, thinks that maybe she could be a bit odd, and goes over to apologize to Chad. Each vows to be “more normal,” although both insist they like the other just the way they are:

“‘It’s not so bad to be odd,’ Theodora thought… not when you have an odd friend.”

The art by Sara Varon is adorable and adds a great deal to the text. Kids will love looking for all the clever and funny details, like the snow angel in the shape of a duck outside the window in winter.

Evaluation: Castellucci, the author of the Tin Star duology, is unrivaled in her embrace of the potential for friendship and love across the boundary lines imposed by convention, countries, races, or even planets. The message conveyed is excellent.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by FirstSecond Books, 2013  


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Review of “Fear of Dying” by Erica Jong

How many of us grew up in some ways with Erica Jong and Fear of Flying? For me, coming back to Erica Jong felt a bit like hearing a song from your college days on the radio; it brings back memories that make you happy, maybe just because you were younger then.

Indeed, it’s hard to feel like you have left the Seventies when you are reading this book. It even includes a trip to India to gain enlightenment.


Fear of Dying is narrated by Vanessa Wonderman, a 60-year-old former actress dealing with some difficult issues: a daughter who is struggling with substance abuse problems and suicidal tendencies; dying parents; and a husband who is 25 years older and no longer much of a sexual partner. Being surrounded by all these signs of aging and death makes Vanessa almost desperate to affirm life. She feels “despondent, deranged, depressed.” She muses about how as you get older, many people who have been a part of your life start dying off:

“It gets harder and harder to deny your own death. Do we hold on to our parents, or are we holding on to our status as children who are immune from death?”

She acknowledges:

“Death is always here in life yet willed invisible because we cannot bear it any more than we can bear news that our sun will someday go out.”

She loves her husband Asher, but has been experimenting with the website “,” trying to find someone with whom to have sex. So far, all the men she has encountered are weirdos and/or perverts.

Eventually, Vanessa finds a way to absorb all the changes in her life in an ending that seemed a bit over the top to me. In any event, it felt to me like the plot was mostly an excuse to riff on letting go of fear of death and learning to focus on living and enjoying the moment.

Evaluation: This book has gotten mixed reviews, and I would agree there are both good and disappointing aspects to it. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it; there is much I could relate to, and moments of insight and humor that made the book worth reading.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, 2015

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National Pizza Month – Why Is Pizza So Good?

As we established in a post last year at around this time, October is accepted in the U.S. as “National Pizza Month” even though there has never been an official declaration to that effect. No one cares.


The fact is, pizza tastes great. The American Chemical Society explains the “profound beauty” of the “chemical symphony” of pizza in this entertaining and informative video. The key to great pizza, you will learn, is the “Maillard Reaction.”

Before you watch this short video, I suggest ordering a pizza so you can conduct your own research on the appeal of pizza as it is explained….

Happy Pizza Month!!


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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Review of “The Ways of the Dead” by Neely Tucker

Author Neely Tucker is a staff writer for “The Washington Post,” and was the paper’s D.C. Superior Court reporter when Darryl Donnell Turner was indicted for murders committed in the 1990’s in a two-block area along Princeton Place in Washington, D.C. The case stayed in his mind, and he decided to write a novel – this one – based on what happened.


The reporter in the novel, Sullivan “Sully” Carter, is, like the author, also a former war correspondent, but one who struggles with PTSD and alcoholism after traumatic experiences in Bosnia that left him scarred both physically and emotionally. Now he works a crime beat that he considers much safer, if discouraging at times:

“You never stopped moving. That was the thing. You just kept pushing, driving, asking, sticking your nose in people’s faces, taking the shit, the insults, fighting back the depression and the sense of hopelessness and then, out of the void, sometimes somebody told you something.”

When a wealthy and connected young white girl, Sarah Reese, gets killed in the blighted area in which she takes dance lessons, other reporters are convinced the murder of fifteen-year-old was related to her having been the daughter of the chief judge of the federal judge and putative next Supreme Court nominee. However, Sully isn’t so sure. It happened in the same small geographical area as recent crimes against some other women, who, however, were residents and thus much lower on the socioeconomic scale. But the police never found the fate of the other women are worth investigating. As one neighborhood denizen explains to Sully:

“‘That Hispanic girl, she got killed last year. [A black girl] went missing? I didn’t read nothing ‘bout that in the newspaper.’ He kept going, white girl gets it, lookit the TV cameras, white girl gets it, lookit the papers…”

To help him figure out what happened to the girls of Princeton Place, Sully joins forces with Sly Hastings, the informal “boss” or warlord of the street’s Park View neighborhood. Sly doesn’t like anything going on in his turf about which he doesn’t know or control, so he seems interested in helping Sully figure out who committed the crime(s), and is in any event the best source for intel on the street. Sully doesn’t fear guys like Sly – he “didn’t even have a machete.” In Sully’s experience, there is much worse in the world, or so he thinks.

Discussion: Tucker’s writing draws obvious comparisons to his fellow D.C. crime writer George Pelacanos. Tucker provides enough detail to make you appreciate his familiarity with the area, but the location details don’t dominate the story like they do in the Pelacanos books. The work of Pelacanos is also be a bit more situated in the underside of D.C. life, whereas Tucker’s focus is on newspeople who cover that underside. Nevertheless, this book (dedicated to Elmore Leonard) has its share of noir elements and the dialogue is a good mix of insider jargon, cynical shorthand, and gritty realism.

Tucker has an interest in exposing the very interesting and stark contrast between the class and race divides in D.C., evident even in his telling description of the blatant differences between the federal courthouse and the local bench. Most tourists are unfamiliar with the large part of D.C. that is not in the immediate area of the gleaming white monuments, pink cherry blossoms, and chichi offices of law firms and lobbyists of the downtown area. The city makes a concerted effort to keep hidden the reality of the gangs, poverty and crack houses of certain areas like the 4th, 7th, and 8th Districts. (An anonymous American official in Kenya was quoted in “The New York Times” as “The Washington Post” claiming that some towns in Kenya are safer than some neighborhoods in Anacostia in D.C.).

In any event, the power, money, and press attention in the city tends to concentrate on the federal – rather than local areas, and many crimes – especially when the victims are poor and black, just get ignored. (Tucker reported that at the time of the Princeton Place crimes – from 1984 to 1994, at least 1,800 people ages 15 to 44 died in the city under circumstances that “were not established” . . .) Thus the situation encourages corruption, cynicism, prejudice, and despair.

He also has plenty to say, through his characters, about the way the D.C. police force is run. Neely goes into detail, explaining just why and how bad decision-making and poor administration have resulted in “two out of three killers in the city . . . literally getting away with murder….”

Evaluation: Good dialogue, pacing, and an interesting plot with unexpected twists allow astute socioeconomic commentary to slip seemlessly into the narrative. Fans of hard-boiled crime fiction, especially those who like D.C. settings, will welcome the turn of this talented reporter to the genre. In spite of some of the depressing themes of the book, you come away feeling like you had a good read.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group, 2014

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Review of “Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation” by Tim Hamilton

Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury in 1953 during the height of the Cold War, cannot be fully understood outside of its historical context. America was clouded by an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and the fearful sense of a world rushing toward a nuclear holocaust. It was the heyday of “McCarthyism,” named after Senator Joe McCarthy, who went on a crusade to root out alleged Communists and homosexuals both inside and outside government. His witch-hunts destroyed a great many careers, and even resulted in suicides by some of his victims. As PBS reports:

“… the paranoid hunt for infiltrators was notoriously difficult on writers and entertainers, many of whom were labeled communist sympathizers and were unable to continue working. Some had their passports taken away, while others were jailed for refusing to give the names of other communists. The trials, which were well publicized, could often destroy a career with a single unsubstantiated accusation. Among those well-known artists accused of communist sympathies or called before the committee were Dashiell Hammett, Waldo Salt, Lillian Hellman, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin and Group Theatre members Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, and Stella Adler. In all, three hundred and twenty artists were blacklisted, and for many of them this meant the end of exceptional and promising careers.”


“Fahrenheit 451,” Bradbury tells us at the start of his original novel, is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. In his imagined future dystopia, Guy Montag is a “fireman” who starts fires rather than stopping them. The firemen respond to calls of those who accuse someone of harboring books: they burn the books along with the house, and the owners are arrested (unless they choose to commit suicide). Books are forbidden because they can allow people to think, to be unhappy, to question the government, and to question war.

Montag, married to a drugged-up, tuned-out wife he can’t even remember how he met, believes he is happy, until he encounters his new neighbor Clarisse. A seventeen-year-old girl, she has been identified as “crazy” and “dangerous” because she is not enslaved to the media and its hypnotic messages; she takes walks, examines her surroundings and the people in it, talks with her family and others about matters of substance, and most importantly, is not afraid to ask questions.

The honesty and openness of Clarisse unhinges Montag, and he soon becomes one of those who hides from the fires, rather than one of those who sets them.


This graphic retelling, approved by Bradbury, is a shorter version of the original, and in a way, does a lot of the “thinking” for you, since it provides visual images to replace ideas, and dialogue to sit in for narration. The truncated speeches by characters fit with the format as well as the (sometimes, at least) shorter attention span of readers.


Tim Hamilton does a good job with the illustrations, using a muted color palette to provide a bleak dystopian feel, with periodic leaps to the bright yellow, red, and orange of the fire scenes. Thankfully, the people he draws are not as unattractive as are so many graphic novel protagonists (for reasons unknown to me).


Discussion: Many classics are now being issued as graphic novels. I tend to have an “old-fashioned” outlook, preferring books. But I know that all the young people in my family, at least, tend to reject anything that doesn’t have a lot of visual content and a video-game type appeal. So a graphic version is therefore, to my mind, preferable to no version at all. Furthermore, in this case I am entertained by the fact that a graphic novel version of Fahrenheit 451 is in the postmodern sense a meta-commentary on the fate of books, taking the plot of the original one step further.


Evaluation: Tim Hamilton does an excellent job on this graphic version of the book, if you prefer this particular format.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009

Note: There is an amazingly excellent teaching guide here. In addition, John Green, in his always-entertaining teaching videos, analyzes the original book in two parts, the first of which is shown below.

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Kid Lit Review of “To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt” by Doreen Rappaport


This biography of Teddy Roosevelt uses many of his own words to tell his story. Teddy Roosevelt, a sickly child, worked hard to overcome his physical limitations, and to make a difference in public life. He was certainly brave, and dedicated to reform. He was fervidly committed to conservation of natural resources. His evangelical-like crusade against big business and reputation as a “trust-buster” has stuck with him to this day. Rappaport quotes Roosevelt as maintaining, “I acted for the well-being of all our people.” TR did not, however, act for the well-being of non-white people. Rappaport totally omits this aspect of TR in this hagiography for kids.


In fact, TR bought into (and himself espoused) the eugenics theories of the time that inspired the rise of the Nazi Party a generation later. He saw life as a violent struggle between the strong and the weak, with whites being “the forward race” and blacks and others “intellectually inferior.”

While TR is known for inviting Booker T. Washington, a black man, to the White House, as PBS points out, “Roosevelt invited Washington not to improve the situation of blacks, but because they agreed that blacks should not strive for political and social equality.” Roosevelt’s Administration actually decreased the number of federal appointments to blacks, with Roosevelt promising Southerners that he would appoint local federal officials that would not disrupt the accord between north and south.


Roosevelt advocated that whites should breed as much as possible – otherwise they risked “race suicide”.

His racist attitudes extended to all non-whites. Of Native Americans, he said in an 1886 speech:

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”

He defended the Government’s treatment of Indians by observing:

“This continent had to be won. We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”

The book extols TR for setting up many national parks, but makes no mention of the Natives who were displaced by them.

TR also endeavored to stem Japanese immigration, writing:

“To permit the Japanese to come in large numbers into this country would be to cause a race problem and invite and insure a race contest. It is necessary to keep them out.”

Unfortunately, the list could go on. But this book, like so many others, firmly sweeps American racism under the rug.

The illustrations by C.F. Payne, however, are marvelous.


End notes include a list of important events in the life of Theodore Roosevelt, and a list of both books and websites for more information.

Evaluation: This is a good overview of the positive qualities of Theodore Roosevelt, with gorgeous illustrations.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Disney Hyperion Books, an imprint of the Disney Book Group, 2013

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Review of “Pretty Girls” by Karin Slaughter

This latest standalone thriller from Slaughter is one of the scariest books I have read in a long time, and one of the most disturbing, as well as being up to Slaughter’s high standards of excellent writing.


Young pretty teenage girls have been going missing in the Atlanta area. When a new girl is taken, it hits two women particularly hard, because their older sister, Julia Carroll, disappeared 24 years earlier and they have been traumatized ever since; it basically destroyed their entire family. One of the sisters, Claire Scott, went on to marry a very rich man and had what should have been an ideal existence, but she now endures more heartache when she and her husband Paul are robbed and Paul is knifed to death. Moreover, while she is at the funeral, her home is burglarized.

Claire’s older sister Lydia, who was closer to Julia, has had a much harder life. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol for a long time, and struggled with poverty and single parenting. She was cut off by her family and hasn’t seen them in eighteen years. She currently has a business and a kind and supportive boyfriend, Rick, but nothing comes easily for her.

Their stories are told in chapters that alternate with passages from a diary kept by one of the fathers whose daughter was taken.

As the plot unfolds, perhaps the scariest element is that the sisters (and you the reader) don’t know who is telling the truth, who is lying, who to trust, and who represents mortal danger.

This book gave me nightmares even after I finished it!

Discussion: Slaughter likes to bring readers’ attention to awful things done to girls and women, but in the process, she brings our attention to awful things done to girls and women! It’s pretty hard to take. And yet, as she might say, she’s not making this stuff up! … except of course, for the specific characters who do her dirty work.

Ordinarily, I try very hard to avoid books that describe very bad things happening to women, but I always make an exception with Slaughter. Her compassion as well as her anger over what can happen to women is clearly expressed and always a part of her stories.

Evaluation: Slaughter is one of the best crime writers around. The subject matter of this book is quite grisly, but it will keep you on the edge of the seat, and perhaps even educate you about a matter that is usually kept behind closed doors, considered unsuitable for newspapers.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

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