Kid Lit Review of “Emma: An Emotions Primer” and “Treasure Island: A Shapes Primer” by Jennifer Adams

So often, reading books to babies can be, well, pretty boring. The “BabyLit” series, on the other hand, offers something to the adults who are doing the reading, to help keep them entertained as well.

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Emma, a story purportedly by “Little Miss Austen” is an emotions primer. In bright primary colors and simple words, we learn, for example, that Emma is excited, Miss Taylor is happy, Mr. Woodhouse is bored, Jane Fairfax is tired, and so on. Babies have no need to know who these characters are; they can identify the emotion with the picture and the color representing it (for example, the angry character is depicted in red, and the sad character in blue).

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Treasure Island, seemingly by “Little Master Louis Stevenson,” similarly introduces babies to shapes.

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In this primer, babies will need to locate the shape in the accompanying picture. For instance, one side of the spread shows a diamond, and on the other, the diamond is inside a parrot. The cross shown on one side is inside a map on the other. The heart is hidden in two places on the picture of Jim Hawkins (the main narrator of Treasure Island).

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The artwork by Alison Oliver is bright and colorful, and the pictures are simply but clearly drawn.

Evaluation: The BabyLit series makes reading to babies much more fun than it might otherwise be!

Published by Gibbs Smith, 2015

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Review of “Another Brooklyn” by Jacqueline Woodson

This moving, lyrical novel tells the story of August, who moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee in 1973 at age 8 with her 4-year-old brother and their father. Woodson employs dream-like free verse to conjure up an era punctuated by conflicts in class, race, and gender, PTSD from the Vietnam War, depression, suicide, and black empowerment. Yet at no time does one get the impression that the author is packing her book with “issues” to be relevant. Rather, it seems like a strikingly real portrait, albeit filtered through the gauzy veil of poetic language. The beauty of the words softens the harshness of their meaning, and the brevity of the stanzas lends a snapshot effect to the prose. It is as if we are looking at a picture album of times gone by.

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In the story, August, now in her thirties, has returned to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral, and is thinking back on her coming of age in Brooklyn, when she made a group of close friends and confronted the truths about her life and theirs she had been reluctant to face.

She tells us how she made friends with Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi:

“. . . as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.”

They grew up, reached puberty, and for a while they straddled the two worlds of girlhood and being adults:

“When we weren’t practicing walking in Gigi’s mother’s shoes, we were little girls in Mary Janes and lace-up sneakers.”

But when they turned thirteen, August recalled:

“It seemed wherever we were, there were hands and tongues. There were sloe-eyes and licked lips. Wherever our new breasts and lengthening thighs moved.”

When the girls were alone, they folded their arms across their breasts, “praying for invisibility.”

The changes in the girls unfolded against a backdrop of changes in Brooklyn, with more and more white people leaving, and mistrust between the races increasing.

How well Woodson captures the general mood of the times, recalling that “[t]hat year, every song was telling some part of our story.” This was of course a sentiment shared by all the races, one that still persists and helps makes each generation so attached to the music of its own time. And it suggests one of the themes running through the story: “At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”

Evaluation: No one familiar with the work of Jacqueline Woodson will be surprised at the virtuosity of her writing and her storytelling technique. For anyone who wants to know what it was like in the 1970’s, and how much has both changed and not changed in tensions between races and genders, this short book is an excellent introduction. As a poignant story of the families we have and the families we create, it is just lovely. And as a reconciliation of the past, and remembrance, it offers insight and understanding. As August muses, “I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

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Review of “The Kept Woman” by Karin Slaughter

The Kept Woman is the 8th book in the Will Trent series by the never-disappointing Karin Slaughter. [True bit of personal information: one of my sisters is a non-reader – of ANYthing – EXCEPT Karin Slaughter. It helps that my sister is a lieutenant in a police force, and thinks Karin Slaughter gets everything absolutely right.]

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As this book begins, Will Trent, Special Agent of the Georgia FBI, has been dating Sara Linton, a doctor and widow of a police officer, for eighteen months. But he is still technically married to Angie Polaski, who has been “flitting in and out of Will’s life like a mosquito since he was eleven years old.” To Will, Angie has been like an older sister, a twisted lover, and a hateful wife. As for Angie, she both loves Will and hates him, and doesn’t want to let him go. At the very least, she wants to be the one who decides. And above all, she does not want him to feel what he does for Sara Linton. As Angie reflects on Will’s role in her life and the threat to it that Sara posed:

“Angie would go away. She would have a little fun, then a little more fun, then a little too much fun, which would necessitate her going back to Will so that she could recharge. Or hide out. Or whatever she needed to do in order to reset herself. That was what Will was for. He was her safe harbor. She had never anticipated that a fucking red-headed dinghy would drop anchor in her calm waters.”

In this book, Sara, the “red-headed dinghy,” officially joined the GBI as a medical examiner two weeks before. She is now Will’s colleague as well as his lover. Will, Sara, and Will’s partner Faith all report to Deputy Director Amanda Wagner, who has ties to each of them that transcend the job.

When the story begins, they are called to a crime scene in an abandoned Atlanta nightclub owned by a prominent sports figure, Marcus Rippy. Will had just spent the last seven months trying to get Rippy convicted of rape, to no avail. Faith asks Will, “What’s a dead ex-cop doing inside Marcus Rippy’s club less than two weeks after he walks on a rape charge?” None of them believe in coincidences.

Discussion: As in her other books, Slaughter seamlessly integrates into her story commentary on sexual abuse, child abuse, battered women, gender relationships, and the outlook for the impoverished, with a fierce compassion that insists you don’t look away from what happens outside of the perhaps sheltered lives of the readers of her books.

In this story, Slaughter also tackles the phenomenon of highly paid, very powerful sports figures who can get away with a great deal of misbehavior (including toward women) because of their financial “value” to a team and the city in which the team plays. With their very expensive lawyers and cadre of paid-off politicians and enforcement officers, sports figures don’t have much to worry about from accusations of misconduct by young women of little resources, especially if the woman was anything less than a saint.

Slaughter also turns a sympathetic eye to the team wives, with a perceptive assessment of their situations:

“She was thin. Too thin, but maybe that came with the territory. The other wives on the team were always cleansing or dieting or going to spinning classes or plastic surgeons to get things sucked and filled and pinned back up so they could compete with the groupies who swarmed their husbands. They need not have bothered. Their husbands were not attracted to the groupies because they were hotter than their wives. They were attracted the them because they were groupies.

It was a hell of a lot more fun to be with somebody who thought you were perfect than it was to be with a woman who wouldn’t put up with your shit.”

Sometimes, being the wife of a sports player also coincided with being battered, and there wasn’t much hope of escape:

“The most life-threatening time for a battered woman was when she tried to leave her abuser. The only thing that shifted the odds was having another man around to protect her.”

Either way, the woman was not her own person; she was a kept woman, hence the title of this book.

One passage is worth quoting to show the layered ways Slaughter portrays the abuse of women and children, and her outrage and sadness over the continued existence of these problems. Will and his partner Faith are discussing how Angie “took care of” kids when Angie was in the police force:

“Will said, ‘Angie worked vice. The young ones – she kind of took them under her wing.’

Faith: ‘And gave them pills to sell?’

Will rubbed his jaw. ‘Angie knows what it’s like to be stuck in that kind of situation with no one looking out for you.’

‘You’ve lost me,’ Faith said. ‘I don’t see the compassionate side of turning a ten-year-old into a drug mule.’

‘Which is worse: selling Oxy or selling sex?’

‘Those are the only two choices?’

‘For kids like that, stuck in the system, changing schools and foster homes five times a year, never knowing where they’re gonna sleep from one night to the next?’ He sounded emphatic. ‘Yeah, those are the choices.’”

Will should know; he had been in that system himself, as had Angie, which is one reason why he has stuck by her so steadfastly. Sara loves him for it, but is terrified at the same time; when Angie is in trouble, will he stick with Sara? Or can he not resist the pull Angie has exerted over him their whole lives?

Evaluation: Slaughter is not only an ardent and tireless advocate for the underclasses, but an excellent writer of thrillers. Her stories are consistently engaging and often gripping. Her characters are multi-faceted and her knowledge of the justice system is exceptional.

Can this be read as a standalone? Probably, but it would be more rewarding to read her books in sequence so you can pick up all the nuances of the evolving relationships.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

The Will Trent Series in Order:

Triptych – 2006
Fractured – 2008
Undone – 2009
Broken – 2010
Fallen – 2011
Snatched – 2012
Criminal – 2012
Unseen – 2013
The Kept Woman – 2016

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Review of “We Are All Made of Stars” by Rowan Coleman

This lovely story is centered around a nurse, Stella, working in a London area hospice for mostly terminal patients, and the emotional ups and downs in her own life as well as the lives of her patients and their families. Interspersed throughout the book are letters that hospice patients have asked Stella to write for them and deliver to their loved ones after they die. The letters are touching and funny and help illustrate the theme that “[y]ou fight till your last breath for the people that you love, and your dreams, the future that you want. And you can fight for your past too, because it’s not too late to know how much it mattered . . . ”

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In addition to the focus on Stella and her husband Vincent, who is suffering from severe PTSD after having served in Afghanistan, we also get to know two other couples: Hope, who has Cystic Fibrosis, and her upbeat, loyal BFF Ben; and Hugh, a historian who curates a Victorian collection of mementos mori (artistic or symbolic reminders of the dead), and his new next-door neighbor, single-mom Sarah and her very funny and endearing ten-year-old son.

Through the letters and the characters, we hear different takes on mortality and on making sense of your life. All of these people have been through both good and bad times, but as Sarah says to Hugh:

“I’ve been through crap too, you know. I’ve cried my guts up, more than once. It’s not easy, being in this world. Picking yourself up, getting yourself together, time after time, only for some bastard to whack you back down. But what else can you do, right? If you keep getting up, sooner or later something or someone is going to show the reason why it’s worth keeping on trying.”

The story keeps coming back to the importance of relationships in keeping people going. “We are all made of stars,” one patient writes:

“You and I and all of life, we were all born out of the death of a star, millions of billions of years ago. A star that lived long and then, before its death, burnt at its brightest, its fiercest, an enflaming supernova. But when it died, it did not cease to exist. Instead, everything it is made of becomes part of the universe once again, and everything that is part of the universe becomes us.

So do not miss me, because I do not die. I transform into the wind in the tops of the trees, the wave on the ocean, the pebbles under your foot, the dust on your bookshelves, the midnight sky.

Wherever you look, I will be there.”

The thoughts of these characters, and their struggles for meaning and love will stay in your thoughts and your hearts.

Evaluation: This is not a depressing novel, in spite of the themes and setting. On the contrary, it is quite uplifting and inspirational. Coleman is often compared to Jojo Moyes and I think it is a valid comparison, although Moyes moves me to tears much more than Coleman. This story is well worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Tudors” by Rupert Matthews

Like the analogously named books about World War I and World War II, this small book on the Tudors is replete with excellent pictures, entertaining fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics.

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I was eager to read this book. I didn’t make it through Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed book Wolf Hall because I couldn’t tell all the Thomas’ apart. Or the Catherines, Elizabeths, Henrys, or Richards. Who can keep them straight? So I was excited for any new enlightenment I could get from this new entry in the “50 Things You Should Know” series.

The era of Tudor monarchs in England lasted from 1485 to 1603. This book provides nice background on the wars between branches of the royal family: the Lancasters (which included the Tudors) and the Yorks.

I would have liked to see more on the 1485 Battle of Bosworth, one of the most interesting battles in British history, in my opinion. This is where Richard III was betrayed and hacked up by supporters of Henry Tudor. Richard, as you may know, is the one who (allegedly) arranged for the murder of his two nephews (aged 9 and 12) in the Tower of London. Richard was supposed to be their “protector.” [Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as a monster, albeit one with great lines (“Now is the winter of our discontent
made glorious summer by this sun of York…”), and his fingering of Richard for the crime had a great influence on the historical record.]

Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery)

Portrait of Richard III by an unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery)

How Henry Tudor managed this battlefield victory is a riveting story of greed for power and land, insecurity, fear, paranoia and bribery, and goes far to illustrate the nature of political life in this period. (Historian Desmond Seward goes into great detail on these issues in a number of books on the Tudors. Another good resource is Richard III: The Maligned King by Annette Carson.)

Henry VIII gets a lot of play in this book. There is, for example, a spread entitled “Marriage Troubles.” [One of those troubles probably would not have been getting the names wrong of his wives, since there were two Annes and three Catherines (albeit spelled differently). One additional wife, Jane Seymour, might have worked out since she actually produced an heir for Henry, but she died soon after childbirth.]

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1540

Henry’s attitude toward marriage was never without repercussions. He declared war on Scotland to force agreement to a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. (Since Edward himself was only nine when he became king, there wasn’t much of an age difference…)

There were also a number of religious wars, initiated after Parliament – at Henry VIII’s instigation – made him head of the Church of England, so he could carry on with his annulments and remarriages.

And religious turmoil was not only related to Henry VIII’s interest in serial marriages. This was also the era of the Reformation and Martin Luther, as well as a considerable ruckus over a new Book of Common Prayer. Then there was the religious see-sawing. When the Catholic Mary I came into power in 1553, she decided to bring back Catholicism, and ordered hundreds of executions, earning the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Her successor, Elizabeth I, was a Protestant. Now Catholic services were outlawed, and this time it was the Catholics’ turn to be drawn and quartered.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

When Elizabeth died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland came to London to rule as King James I and the Tudor period was said to be at an end. Even though James VI was the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, he was thus a Tudor by virtue of his female descendants, which didn’t seem to count. He was descended in the male line from the House of Stuart. The author does not explain, however, how consideration of this fact made James a “Stuart” rather than a “Tudor.” But the book makes up for brevity by all the fascinating trivia and factoids it includes.

For what it’s worth, after reading this book, I still couldn’t tell you which Henry or Edward was which, in spite of the inclusion of a “Who’s Who Family Tree.” But that is my own failing, or perhaps that of all these historical parents: couldn’t they come up with different names? Thank heavens for the 20th and 21st centuries, when we have more distinctive names for kids like Apple and North and so on. [It’s too bad no one we know of before 2015 (Lil’ Kim, we’re looking at you), came up with the potentially great Tudor name for a baby, “Royal Reign.”]

Evaluation:  There is good reason for the continuing popularity of books and television series and movies about the Tudors – between the political machinations, religious turmoil, sex, violence, assassinations, plotting, jealousies and betrayals, there is really never a dull moment. The author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject. I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII's closest friend, in BBC's The Tudors

Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII’s closest friend, in BBC’s The Tudors

The real Charles Brandon at the time of his marriage to Princess Mary Tudor - give me the BBC Brandon any time!

The real Charles Brandon at the time of his marriage to Princess Mary Tudor – give me the BBC Brandon any time!

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016

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