Kid Lit Review of “Wild Ideas” by Elin Kelsey

The author of this book has a PhD in environmental science education, and works magic in this overview of the ways in which animals employ problem-solving strategies to navigate through the world.

She explains in her note:

“Problems are a problem. It’s frustrating when things don’t work out the way we’d hoped. And problems often leave us feeling scared, angry, worried or alone. Yet they are a normal part of life. Not just for you and me, but for every living creature on the planet. I wrote this book because I marvel at the creative ways in which animals tackle problems in their everyday lives. I want to encourage you to let nature spark your imagination when you’re caught in a jam.”

So what do animals do? For surely, as the author explains, they have problems to solve too, with respect to finding food, shelter, staying out of danger, and so on:

“When . . . animals want to make something happen…they try.
They get frustrated.
They try again.
They invent tools.

Chimpanzees fold leaves to spoon cool drinks of water.

Sea otters balance rocks on their bellies, perfect for cracking crabs.”

Some ways in which other beings solve problems are startling:

“And when they’re seeking direction,
Dung beetles look to the heavens
And steer by the Milky Way.”

Of course, it’s not only ideas that help solve problems, but assistance from others:

“You turn to friends and family
For support, and so do other animals.

Ravens use gestures to offer ideas.
Hyenas cooperate to help the hunt.”

She concludes:

“Untame your imagination.
A world of wild ideas awaits.”

Three-dimensional dioramas in vivid hues by the artist Soyeon Kim add a sense of wonder to the brief but cogent, understandable, and lyrical text. Some of the collages include real photos alongside the drawings for added texture and interest.

Evaluation: This is an excellent presentation for kids of a complex subject in a way that will not lose their interest, but rather will amaze and delight them, and hopefully entice them to investigate further on their own.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Owlkids Books, Inc., 2015

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Review of “Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

This is the fourth book in the very entertaining detective series by J.K. Rowling using the pen-name of Robert Galbraith. It begins immediately after the previous book, Career of Evil, ended, i.e., at the wedding of Robin Ellacott. Robin is the assistant to, and business partner of, Cormoran Strike in a private detective firm.

In this installment, the personal problems of Strike and Robin are deftly woven into the development of their newest cases. They are hired by Jasper Chiswell, a minister in the House of Commons, who says he is being blackmailed, although he doesn’t feel the need to disclose the reason for it. He does know who is behind it though, and hires Strike to find out “dirt” on his would-be blackmailers so he can turn the tables on them.

Strike is also unable to resist taking on the case of a mentally unbalanced and impoverished man, Billy Knight, who claims he has witnessed a murder. As in the past, Strike’s willingness to address Billy’s concerns places into relief his character as a champion of the downtrodden, as well as his disgust and impatience with his usual client pool of “the mistrustful, endlessly betrayed rich”:

“Strike, who had met countless rootless and neglected children during his rackety, unstable childhood, recognized in Billy’s imploring expression a last plea to the adult world, to do what grown-ups were meant to do, and impose order on chaos, substitute sanity for brutality. Face to face, he felt a strange kinship with the emaciated, shaven-headed psychiatric patient, because he recognized the same craving for order in himself. In his case, it had led him to the official side of the desk, but perhaps the only difference between the two of them was that Strike’s mother had lived long enough, and loved him well enough, to stop him breaking when life threw terrible things at him.”

Strike, a 38-year-old ex-military policeman who lost a foot in Afghanistan, perseveres with the necessary surveillance for his business in spite of the pain he often endures from putting continual pressure on his prosthesis. He is sloppy, eats too much, is “a bit beaten-up-looking,” and has a broken nose. Yet, he is never at a loss for attractive women who clamor for his attention. We are given to understand it is his authenticity and his caring nature that are the basis for his appeal, rather than movie star looks.

As for Robin, now 27, although she is married, she realized even before the ceremony she didn’t want to be with Matthew anymore. She wondered “how she, Robin, had ended up with the pompous, self-involved man beside her, who reminded her of a handsome boy she had once loved.” But although she is miserable, she keeps waiting for “something definitive to happen, something that would release them both with honor, without more filthy rows, with reasonableness.”

Much of her fighting with Matthew centers around the topic of her risky work for Strike, as well as over the very presence of Strike, since it is assumed no one can resist him for whatever reason. Indeed, Robin is constantly battling her own feelings toward Strike, just as Strike avoids facing his feelings about Robin.

Robin is also dealing with PTSD after her deadly encounter with a killer in the previous book. She hides her panic attacks from everyone, not wanting to seem like “a flake,” as Matthew accuses her of being.

Nevertheless, Robin performs her undercover work admirably as usual; she is persistent, creative, and intelligent. Along with Strike’s obsessive analyzing over the clues, they manage to solve all the cases on their docket, but not without considerable danger.

Evaluation: Those who are following the BBC television series “Strike” based on the Cormoran Strike novels, will be delighted that this book focuses so much on the personal relationships of Robin and Cormoran. The unraveling of the mystery and crimes committed was almost secondary, but well constructed; the solutions caught me completely by surprise, as usual. I can’t wait for the next installment!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2018

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Review of “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: A Novel” by Hank Green

The talented brothers John and Hank Green are smart, insightful, and funny. John has already proven he is also an excellent novelist. Hank might have a way to go yet, although he shows promise with this book. I thought passages were very good, but in some sections, I wanted to shout, “Okay already! Let’s have some editing!”

This novel is about 23-year-old April May, who seems to be part Hank Green himself, and part a really obnoxious, conceited young woman who needs to grow up – and, I can’t resist adding – shut up…

April, coming home from work late one night in New York City, encounters a gigantic metal sculpture on the sidewalk, which she describes as “a 10-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor.” Since she is interested in art, she decides to ask her BFF Andy to help her record a video about appreciation for the sculpture she names Carl. The video goes viral, in part because these “Carls” have also appeared all over the world in other cities, but that fact had gone unregistered until April brought it to everyone’s attention.

Pretty soon April is an internet celebrity, and it goes to her head. She loves getting more followers, loves feeling like she now has a “voice,” and reports candidly (and repeatedly) about how fame changes her for the worse.

Meanwhile, now that the Carls have been noticed, and moreover, after their “alien” nature has been exposed, other voices compete with April’s for control of the message about what the arrival of the Carls means for the Earth. An alt-right group calling themselves “The Defenders” (i.e., of Earth), are whipping up fear and hatred, and April is responding in kind (i.e., when they go low, she goes low too). Before she knows it, she is a mirror image of them, engaging them on their level: is she any better? At least she is aware she is now addicted to fame, even if she can’t resist its lure.

And what about the Carls? The book expends a great deal of verbiage on trying to solve the mystery of them, but it seems, in this book anyway (there is to be a sequel), that the Carls are beside the point.

Discussion: Some of Hank’s insights into current culture, poisonous partisanship, and the exploitation of that conflict for profit, are right on, even if hammered at a little too incessantly. I loved the moments in which I could hear the voice of Hank underneath April’s. For example, while he tried to have April deliver discourses on social justice, April herself was a little too self-centered and oblivious for me to believe it. I didn’t mind much; I knew it was Hank….

If it were anyone else but Hank, I would probably skip the sequel. But I’m a big fan of the Green brothers and the change for good they are trying to make in the world, so I plan to pursue the saga of April May.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published in hardcover by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The main narrator, Kristen Sieh (with Hank Green contributing the last chapter), does a great job “channeling” April May. Kristen is a stage, television, and voice-over performer, and it shows. I felt every emotion expressed by April. Sieh was also good at “becoming” the other characters, even the males.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (approximately 9 and 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “Isle of You” by David LaRochelle

This book for very young children is sort of a kinder, gentler analogue to Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

The little girl who is the protagonist has gone to bed, but can’t sleep:

“Was today a hard day?
Are you feeling sad?
Maybe a little angry?”

This author proposes that the little girl take a trip through her imagination to “The Isle of You.” In this place, all of her dreams can come true. There’s a welcoming committee to help her accomplish whatever she wants to do:

She can dress up and have her favorite desserts. She can even go for a balloon ride!

At the end of a long day, she is feeling better:

“It’s time to say your goodbyes. But don’t worry – you can come back whenever you’d like. And the next time you’re feeling sad, remember:
Isle of You.”

Jaime Kim uses gouache and acrylics to create the dreamlike landscapes in the Isle of You.

Evaluation: I thought the story rather insipid – personally, I’d rather go to where the wild things are. . . . However, children may find comfort in the message. But are escapism and sugary desserts the best way to handle negative emotions? Certainly this book may fill the need of calming a child, but I would have liked to see, in addition, encouragement to express feelings constructively and to look for solutions to a problem. Parental guidance can supplement the text with ideas for ways to handle frustration, anger, or sadness.

Published by Candlewick Press, 2018

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Review of “If You Leave Me” by Crystal Hana Kim

This novel begins in 1951 in a refugee village during the Korean War. Haemi is 16 and helps her mother take care of her little brother Hyunki, who struggles with breathing. Her father died laboring in the mines for Japan when Korea was under Japanese rule.

Haemi regularly sneaks out at night to get drunk with her best friend Kyunghwan. She and Kyunghwan have feelings for one another, but neither has the nerve to admit it to the other.

Kyunghwan has a rich cousin, Jisoo, 18, who is determined to marry Haemi and then enlist. Jisoo is contemptuous of Kyunghwan for not wanting to enlist, but Kyunghwan doesn’t see the point:

“I wanted to tell him that I remembered our years under Japanese rule. How we were perpetually hungry, how we weren’t even allowed to speak our own tongue. We had no power in this fight, either. We were pawns, tossed around by Japan, then the Soviets and the United States. I didn’t want to join their cause. And above all, I was too weak, untrained. I would be killed.”

Analogously, Kyunghwan, although he loves Haemi, feels he has nothing to offer her either, unlike Jisoo, who could support her.

The story moves forward in time and also alternates among a group of narrators. Haemi does marry Jisoo, although she loves Kyunghwan. She tries to love Jisoo instead, but can’t forget Kyunghwan. It becomes even worse for them when Jisoo starts to seek comfort elsewhere. Nevertheless, they have several children.

Haemi sees Kyunghwan again after eleven years, and in some ways nothing has changed. Both feel the same, yet constrained by the roles not only determined by convention but by their gender and social class.

Tragedy strikes often in the lives of all of these people, but instead of strengthening them, it seems only to make them more despondent, and apt to go looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. There is no redemption, but only anger and frustration. Perhaps, this is a more realistic turn of events than more upbeat stories.

Evaluation: This is one unhappy group of people, and I didn’t come to like any of them. But the portrayal of Korean culture is excellent.

Rating: 3/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

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