Review of “What To Say Next” by Julie Buxbaum

Kit Lowell, 16, lost her father in a car accident a month before the beginning of this very good novel for young adults. Suddenly she finds it hard to be “normal” around her friends, or anyone else. As she explains:

“They were all chatty, sipping their matching Starbucks lattes, talking about what guy they were hoping was going to ask them to junior prom, assuming I just had a bad case of the Mondays. I was expected to chime in. I am somehow supposed to have bounced back.”

She just can’t. She feels so much pain, she finds it hard to get from one moment to the next: “Time has turned interminable and impenetrable, something to be endured and passed through, however possible.” It’s very hard for someone not going through a loss of someone close to know just how hard it is.

Kit’s dad was big on having provisions stocked in the house in case of emergencies, but after his accident, she realized:

“. . . we all walk around pretending we have some control over our fate, because to recognize the truth – that no matter what we do, the bottom will fall out when we least expect it – is just too unbearable to live with.”

Because Kit couldn’t abide even trying to be “normal” at her usual lunch table at school, she started sitting with David Drucker, a boy in her class with a borderline case of Asperger’s (as he himself describes it). Kit said “I chose David’s table for his silence and for his refuge.” But David feels he should say something even though he has no skill at “chit chat.” He begins to talk to Kit about things that matter, rather than the usual teen banter. He also doesn’t mouth platitudes about what happened to her dad; he allows it wasn’t fair, and talks to her about death and heaven and science versus religion.

His conversation helps Kit, and hers helps him. As it happens, not only has David always had a crush on Kit, but he savors having a friend:

“Here’s the thing about making a friend I didn’t understand before I started talking to Kit: They grow your world. Allow for previously inconceivable possibilities. Before Kit, I never used the word lonely, though that’s exactly what I was. My mind felt too tight, too populated by a single voice. . . . my consciousness . . . still longs for personal connection. Just like everyone else’s.”

But the other kids, especially the bullies, hate that pretty and popular Kit is hanging out with such a “loser” instead of them, and they take their revenge. Both Kit and David are at risk of floundering now. Fortunately, David’s family is strong and supportive toward him, as is Kit’s mom toward her. Kit’s mom tells her: “The thing is, sometimes people grow from breaking.”

Kit has a lot to think about with respect to her group of friends and with David: “We are left to choose whether to grow or to wither. To forgive or fester.” Kit’s mother advises her: “One of the few perks of the shit so monumentally hitting the fan is you discover who your real tribe is. It’s the only way through. So make sure you find yours, Kit.”

Evaluation: This is a lovely story, full of humor as well as heartbreak. Like Rainbow Rowell, Buxbaum has a way of making an unlikely and unexpected adolescent relationship seem convincing and authentic. The two main characters have a number of problems to overcome, but are so charming and smart and funny that each of them becomes irresistible to the other (and to the readers). You will find yourself rooting for both of them. This moving story was a delight to read.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “The Tree of Life” by Peter Sís

This book, subtitled “A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin” presents the life of iconoclast and scientist Charles Darwin and his contributions to our understanding of the process of natural selection and of the evolution of living things.

Darwin is of course best known for his theory of the science of evolution. Darwin published his ideas with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, overcoming scientific rejection of earlier concepts of transmutation of species.

Portrait photograph of Darwin, probably taken in 1854 when he was 45 years old

Portrait photograph of Darwin, probably taken in 1854 when he was 45 years old

Sís begins with Darwin’s childhood, moving on to his time as a medical student, and the voyage around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle that provided Darwin with the materials to form the basis of his discoveries.

As usual, the drawings by Sís are outstanding, and include excerpts from Darwin’s journals about the voyage and what he found on it, such as descriptions of many unique species, and a collection of fossil bones. As Darwin wrote:

“The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career . . . I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind. I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observations were improved, though they were already fairly developed.”

Much of the text is divided into three sections: “Public Life,” “Private Life,” and “Secret Life.” Why secret life? Because his theory of evolution constituted a revolution in thinking, one that was extremely polarizing and controversial. He was afraid to publish, and only did so when he feared that a rival, Alfred Russel Wallace, might beat him to it.

Darwin’s theories were fiercely attacked by the religious establishment, and in particular the Bishop of Oxford, who was appalled at the proposition that man could be descended from an ape.

But Darwin persisted, and eventually of course, his ideas were vindicated.

Peter Sís, children’s book author/illustrator, is known for his picture books that aren’t really just for children. In this tribute to Darwin, once again as in other books he celebrates the power of ideas – particularly when they are resisted by the authorities – and the courage of those who promulgated those ideas.

The illustrations by Sís are standouts; made from fine pen and ink and watercolors, they are detailed evocations of historical documents from Darwin’s time and and truly wonder-inspiring. He also incorporates excerpts of handwritten passages from Darwin’s notebooks, diaries, correspondence, and published writings. In addition, there are charts, maps, and a gatefold spread highlighting the ideas presented in The Origin of Species.

Evaluation: This book with its mesmerizing pictures teaches some important lessons about truth, courage, and persistence even when it may result in social censure and widespread calumny.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003

Awards:

2003 New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year
Notable Children’s Book of the Year
2004 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year
2003 Society of Illustrators Original Art Gold Medal Award Winner

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Review of “The Advocate’s Daughter” by Anthony Franze

This is the second legal thriller by Appellate and Supreme Court lawyer Anthony Franze. He puts his professional insights into, and experience with, the Supreme Court into his thrillers, of which there have been three so far. I read the third one, The Outsider, first, and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to go back to his other books.

In this story, Sean Serrat, formerly of the Office of Solicitor General, is on the shortlist to be the next Supreme Court nominee. But Sean’s life is upended when his daughter Abby, a law school student, is found dead in the Supreme Court library, having been brutally murdered. Her boyfriend, Malik Montgomery, is arrested. Malik is a clerk at the Supreme Court and happens to be black (Abby is white), adding racial complications to the case. Although a number of circumstances point to Malik’s guilt, there are just as many that imply Malik was set up. But by whom, and why Abby? Sean can’t escape the feeling that somehow, it has to do with him.

Meanwhile, Sean’s teenaged son Ryan thinks he caused Abby’s death, since Abby was trying to help him get out of a sticky and dangerous situation he wanted to keep his parents from knowing about.

Sean tries to investigate what happened on his own, inadvertently putting the whole family at risk.

Discussion: Franze contributes some of the history of the Supreme Court and of famous cases into his narrative, adding a lot of interest. He also explains a lot about the vetting process for selecting new justices, which is quite fascinating. But some of the villains seem cardboard-ish. The family dynamics, on the other hand, showing how Sean, his wife, and his remaining two children cope with the death of Abby, are quite well done, and there is a good build-up of suspense in the story.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2016

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Review of “Tower of Dawn” by Sarah J. Maas

Note: Slight spoilers for previous books in this series.

This is a “parallel novel” in the excellent “Throne of Glass” fantasy series. This book focuses on a mission to Antica, capital of the Southern Continent, undertaken by Chaol Westfall and Nesryn Faliq. Their main goal is to gain military assistance for the struggle in the North. Their pursuit takes on increasing urgency when they discover evidence that the forces of evil – the Valg, led by Erawan – have already infiltrated Antica.

Chaol, 23, has a second goal besides that of convincing the Khagan and his heirs to lend their armies to help fight Erawan. Chaol is now paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. He would like to get the services of one of the renowned healers of Antica – home of the finest mortal doctors in the world, who possess magic and who, he hoped, could help him walk again.

Yrene Towers, 21, is the healer assigned to Chaol; she is one of the best, and in fact is the Heir Apparent to be named Healer on High. At first Yrene resents Chaol, because it was soldiers from his country of Adarlan who burned her mother alive. But she discovers that Chaol, in spite of his government position, is not at all the same as the men she hates.

Moreover, when Yrene puts her hands on Chaol’s back, she encounters an “echo in the bone” – magic not from this world. Chaol won’t talk about what happened to him though, and it stymies Yrene’s attempts to heal him:

“I need to get past that echo. Or beat it into submission enough to have space to work on you. …. This shadow, this thing that haunts you – your body. It will fight me every step of the way, fight to convince you to tell me to stop. Through pain. Do you understand what I am telling you?”

“That if you are to succeed, I will have to endure that sort of pain. Repeatedly. Do what you have to do.”

“‘And you,’ she said quietly. ‘You will have to fight it as well. It must be feeding upon something within you.’”

Indeed, darkness within Chaol does feed the parasite, giving it control. Yrene insists that Chaol has to acknowledge it and face it. He has to decide whether he wants to fight back. And therein lies the problem: Chaol isn’t so sure.

But Yrene works on Chaol nevertheless, and they literally go through hell together, which brings them closer.

Meanwhile, Nesryn has gone off on a reconnaissance trip with one of the Khagan’s heirs, Sartaq, commander of his father’s ruk riders. The sensation of flying over her country of origin on a ruk enchants her, as does Sartaq. And he, clearly, is attracted to Nesryn.

These developments are complicated by the fact that Chaol and Nesryn had an informal commitment to one another.

The four main characters discover much about each other, including the important realization of what they want in life and where they consider to be “home.” They also find out dark truths about the Valg, and the struggle for dominion over their world.

Evaluation: I think this is my favorite so far of the books in this series. The depiction of the developing relationships among the four protagonists is lovely, and the information that comes out during their quests explains much about what has happened in the previous books. Maas is a master of fantasy, or what one hopes and wishes is fantasy: her descriptions of the intentions of the evil Valg to change the world for the worse seem all too real at times.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017

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Review of “Artemis” by Andy Weir

This is a heist caper with a heavy dose of science added to define the parameters of the job, because it takes place on the moon.

Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is 26, and a “porter” on Artemis, the only city on the moon. For her job, she has clearance to pick up packages at the port and deliver them, allowing her to run a lucrative smuggling business on the side. She is trying to accumulate a great deal of money – in fact, a very specific amount of “slugs” as the moon currency is called: 416,922, to be exact, though we don’t learn why until near the end of the book.

But even aside from this mysterious debt, Jazz wants most of all to be rich, though she is very smart and everyone keeps telling her she is wasting her potential by her obsessive pursuit of wealth. When she is offered the job of a big heist by Trond Landvik, “one of the richest richfucks in town,” for example, and she asks him why he wants her to do it, he says:

“‘Jazz, I’m a businessman,’ he said. ‘My whole job is exploiting underutilized resources. And you are a massively underutilized resource. I’m not judging,’ he said. ‘Just analyzing. You’re really smart and you want money. I need someone who’s really smart and I have money. Are you interested?’”

At first she is not, but when he offers her a million slugs for the job, she jumps on it.

The heist will require sabotaging the robotic harvesters at the Sanchez Aluminum plant, after which Trond will be in a position to take over the operation. The aluminum market is currently not such a big deal now that the city’s pods are finished, but the plant’s smelter outside town also produces oxygen from processing ore. They not only make rocket fuel on the side, they supply the city with all of their breathable air. They also sell the CO2 to the food farms. Yet there is something more going on that has made Trond interested in this plant; Jazz can’t figure out (yet) what it is.

Jazz has a number of friends she calls on for help with the heist (most not knowing what they are helping her with), even including her email pen pal from Earth, Kelvin Otieno. On the moon she gets help from, inter alia, the best electrical engineer in town; a specialist in space walking; her father – an expert welder; and even a robot. There will be many obstacles, not even counting the very hostile lunar environment outside the protection of the city’s aluminum walls.

What could go wrong? Well, just about everything.

Discussion: Weir said in an interview he did “tons and tons of research” for this book, and it certainly shows. He wanted to make it accurate, even though the details of the heist are only secondary to the plot. He said:

“My strength is scientific knowledge — that’s what I’m good at. So that is the avenue by which I tell plausible stories. There are a million ways to make a good story, and this is just the one I’ve chosen.”

What this means however, is that, to me, while the parts about the science behind the caper clearly show his enthusiasm and excitement, I found the character-driven sections less convincing.

I appreciated his efforts to make the population of the moon diverse, and even to tackle the challenge of making his protagonist a female. But I didn’t find Jazz’s “wise-ass” persona all that convincing. She seemed more like a cigar-chomping, hard-drinking mobster than a girl who loves and respects her father, is interested in a long-term love relationship, and even seems sort of lonely – or would, if Weir delved into any of her feelings to a greater extent.

Evaluation: In spite of my quibbles with characterization, there is a lot to like about this new book from the talented author of The Martian. It’s entertaining, and undoubtedly will end up on the big screen.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in the U.S. by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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