Review of “The Stars Beneath Our Feet” by David Barclay Moore

12-year-old Wallace (“Lolly”) Rachpaul lives in St. Nicholas Houses, a public housing project in Central Harlem, New York City. He lives alone with his mother; she and Lolly’s dad split up after his mother decided she preferred women. His mother has been in a happy relationship with her girlfriend Yvonne for a long time. But Lolly and his mother both still hurt from the loss of Lolly’s brother Jermaine; Jermaine got caught up in gangs and drugs and was shot and killed the previous Halloween. Lolly has still not dealt with the pain and guilt over Jermaine’s death.

Lolly loves legos, so in an effort to help Lolly cope, Yvonne starts bringing him great big bags full of legos she said that Tuttle’s, the toy store where she worked, was throwing out. She brings more and more, and Lolly starts to build a castle. It gets too big for their apartment, so he begins it again in a storeroom at the community center where he spends after-school.

Every day Lolly adds on to his castle he names “The House of Moneekrom.” He dreams up a whole fantasy world around it, eventually even developing it into a game his after-school mates can play. The storeroom is a refuge for Lolly – not only from his pent-up feelings, but from the predatory world outside on the streets, where he and his friend Vega must constantly dodging rival gangs, bullies, and attempts to recruit them to “crews.” They sympathize with a local wild coyote they see on the streets: “Our coyote was part of a species in danger. Hunted down and shot up. We knew how it felt.”

After a time the social worker, Mr. Ali, lets another classmate, Rose, into the storeroom to use the legos also, much to Lolly’s dismay. Rose is on the autism spectrum, and is suffering from a loss in her own family. At first Lolly is loathe to share with her, but he slowly becomes impressed with Rose and her skills. They come to an understanding and eventually even to a collaboration and friendship.

When a new fitness program decides to move into the center and use the storeroom, Rose and Lolly are told they have to tear down their cities. They are upset, but when Lolly displays parts of his construction at a community fair, pictures of it go viral on social media along with ecstatic commentary. Lolly gets lots of compliments on his art, which helps him feel better about himself. But then the police come to Lolly’s apartment, and once again they are facing a catastrophic threat to their family.

Lolly finally opens up about what has kept him feeling so awful about Jermaine, and what he has learned from all that happened since Jermaine’s death, especially the long-lasting import of decisions you make. He decides he is not Lolly anymore; he is Wallace.

Evaluation: This is an affecting coming-of-age story about how a young boy and his family learn to cope with the pain of losing a family member to gang violence. The outcome isn’t always certain as Lolly struggles with outlets for his anger. Lolly isn’t perfect, but it’s hard not to love him anyway. Rose makes the perfect foil. There are a number of issues to ponder about the moral choices of the characters, which would make this a good option for book clubs.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, 2017

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Review of “Hunted” by Meagan Spooner

Note: Some spoilers if you do not know the story of “Beauty and the Beast.”

This is a retelling of the archetypical story of “girl meets bad boy with heart of gold,” i.e., “Beauty and the Beast.”

Yeva is the youngest of three daughters, and has always been called Beauty by her father. Her father, an excellent hunter, became a merchant to make a better living, and then lost his fortune. He was forced to return to a life of hunting, but seemed to go mad, claiming a mythical beast was tracking him and driving away all the game. And then one day he didn’t return.

Yeva was taught to hunt by her father when she was young, and had always felt drawn to the forest. Now living in the city, she harbors a dissatisfaction with her life the origins of which she cannot herself articulate. She is restless and doesn’t feel she belongs somehow. When her father disappeared and she returned to the forest to look for him, she felt herself getting renewed. But then her joy turned to dismay when she came upon his body, and nearby, a fearsome beast. She tried to kill it, but instead, it captured her.

Besides the narration of Yeva, there are also intermittent segments by The Beast, who is looking for a good hunter to help break the curse on him. Since he can no longer count on the father, he focuses his attention on the daughter. He finds he is fascinated by her: “She moves like an animal in a woman’s body. She moves like beauty.”

Beauty can’t see in the pitch-dark place she is being held, but thinks the man who communicates with her behind the door and who leaves her food is a sympathetic rescuer. She feels like she is going crazy from the isolation, and begins speaking through the door of anything and everything that came to her mind, “to fill the hungry silence.”

First she talks to her mysterious rescuer about her family, and then begins to relate to him the Russian fairy tales her father used to tell her.

The man behind the door agrees to let her out of the dark dungeon but only if she promises to keep on her blindfold; he threatens to kill her if she removes it.

The retelling of Beauty and the Beast most of us grew up with

With Beauty now outside the dungeon and in a warmer place, The Beast asks her to keep telling more stories. He seems particularly interested in the tale of Ivan, the young prince who tried to capture the Firebird. At one point though, Beauty manages to get the blindfold off, and realizes her “ally” is also her captor: he is The Beast. Since she believes The Beast killed her father, her feelings about him turn to hate, and to a desire for revenge.

The Beast observes that now:

“There is no animal in her. The way she speaks to us now, so full of fury, is more human than anything we have experienced in many long years. Animals don’t hate. That is the rightful domain of humanity.. . . . It is better this way, that she see us for what we are. We are pleased. She is strong still, despite her illness, and skilled. She will do what we require of her, and it will be done. We will be free.”

She agrees to stay with him as he insists (threatening to harm her family if she does not), but does not agree she won’t try to kill him again. He glowers, “If you try to kill us again, make certain you succeed.”

He does need her to kill someone, but he can’t say who it is, because that is part of the spell he is under. As Beauty observes, “In every fairy tale there were rules. Even monsters could not break them. And where, except in fairy tales, did there exist talking beasts?” She muses that “[s]he had never imagined the things her father told her might be reality.”

Broadway retelling

The Beast wants to satisfy her curiosity, but resolves:

“We will not break the terms of our sentence. We cannot explain, or we risk remaining trapped together for the rest of eternity.”

He makes her practice hunting every day. Then he trains her to see the magic in his forest and hear its music. She can hear the music that The Beast emits too.

He lets her see the castle where he lives as well, and to see more glimpses of his life there. She began to be less afraid of him, and at moments, to see his human side coming through.

Still, she is determined to avenge the death of her father. One night she creeps up on him when he is sleeping and is sure she has delivered a death blow. But as she discovers, he cannot be killed. And she also learns he wasn’t the one who killed her father. “Tell me,’ The Beast said softly. ‘If you had known, from the start, that I could not be killed, that you would never have your vengeance . . . would you have stayed?” And indeed, now that she has nothing more to keep her there with The Beast, she feels she must leave to go back to her family.

Recent adaptation of this very popular fairy tale

After she returns to them though, she apprehends – through her dreams – that the part of The Beast that is human is beginning to recede. Yeva decides she must go to The Beast again, and rescue him. She now realizes that “Her Beast was Prince Ivan,” and that, as per the fairy tale about the prince, she needs to find the Firebird to save him. But when she finds it, she learns another truth: the Firebird is the manifestation of an idea: it is the goal; the reward at the end of the quest; what everyone is looking for. As the Firebird explains, “I am the conclusion of your journey. All you’ve ever wanted. Magic. The music of the forest.”

Yeva is trapped by the Firebird, with little hope of escape. Then The Beast arrives, but not necessarily to save her. He is more wolf than man now, and somehow Yeva must bring him back to humanity before he kills her. In the process, they both discover what the curse really is, and what it would actually take to break it.

Evaluation: This retelling is well done, and quite romantic. I loved the slow simmering of the feelings for one another between Beauty and The Beast, and the self-awareness in each of them that these feelings induced. And of course like any fairy tale, this one is replete with thought-provoking metaphors – from the dual nature of humans, to the source of worth in a person, to the difficulties in identifying what you really want in life.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Stand Up and Sing” Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice” by Susanna Reich

This biography of the activist and folk singer Pete Seeger is for older readers (suggested age is 7 and up), although it is a picture book. The author tells readers the story of how Seeger came to become both a musician and an advocate of civil rights, inspiring generations, most recently during the turbulent years of the 1960’s. (A review of a similar biography but for younger readers, Listen: how Pete Seeger Got America Singing by Leda Schubert is reviewed here.)

Over his long life (he lived to be 94), Seeger never stopped playing to crowds gathered to protest injustice of any kind. His was a unique kind of “nonviolent” protesting; he used his words and music on his five-string banjo to convey workers’ rights issues, the need for civil rights for blacks, objections to the Vietnam War, and respect for the environment, inter alia.

Seeger was investigated, censored, and blacklisted, but still he persisted. “We Shall Overcome,” an old gospel song, became one of the key songs of the Civil Rights Movement thanks to Seeger.

The author, in a note at the end of this book, relates that she grew up in a situation much like that of Pete Seeger: among other similarities, their families had traditions of political activism, and one parent was a professional musicologist. She heard Seeger perform many times, and was greatly influenced by him.

She writes:

“As I researched this book, I came to understand why Pete saw himself as a link in a chain. It’s a chain in which music and social responsibility are intertwined, one that began long before he was born and will continue now that he’s gone. This book is meant to be a link in that chain.”

I loved the illustrations by award-winning illustrator Adam Gustavson, who uses digitized gouache, watercolor, pencil, and oil paintings to portray scenes from Seeger’s life.

Evaluation: This is an excellent introduction to the life of someone today’s kids may not know, but should. His songs continue to permeate popular culture, and to encourage a new generation of performers to become politically engaged.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2017

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Review of “The Thirst” by Jo Nesbø

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Harry Hole returns for an eleventh book in The Thirst, the latest of Norwegian Jo Nesbø’s crime thrillers set in Oslo, Norway. Hole has retired from the murder detective business and is teaching in Oslo’s police academy when a series of grisly murders rocks Oslo. The killer appears to be a “vampirist,” someone who drinks the blood of his victims – presumably, it is thought, to get some kind of kinky sexual thrill.

The early chapters of the book deal with a lot of intramural infighting in the Oslo police department. From a plot perspective, this is necessary to get Harry back into the thick of the investigation as opposed to being merely a lecturer in the academy.

Nesbø is at his grizzly, creepy best as he describes the killer’s stalking and disposing of victims. My wife found this aspect of the book to be either too scary or too disgusting to finish and quit early on after “encountering” the killer’s pointed steel dentures. Nonetheless, there’s a lot more to engage the reader intellectually if one perseveres.

Harry assembles a team made up of some characters from previous books as well as a few new additions. His detective instincts come back into full flower as the danger to him increases.

Clever and surprising twists keep the reader on edge, leading up to an exciting coda in the final third of the book. As with previous books by this author, when the twists come, you realize they had been set up all along from the beginning, if only you had been able to recognize them. It’s the kind of plotting device that makes you feel like reading each book a second time!

Discussion: Jo Nesbø is not only an imaginative writer of crime thrillers; he is also a rock musician. Further, he is an opinionated critic of the current and recent pop music scene. He can’t resist asserting (through his characters) his personal evaluations of various real life popular and not so popular musicians and groups. But this also serves as a break for the readers, providing a way to cope with all the suspense.

Evaluation: The book is more than a thrilling who-done-it that will hold your attention. It is also a multi-layered psychological study of not only Harry, but of several of the other principle characters, and of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover in the U.S. by Penguin Random House, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to a recording of the book, read competently by John Lee.

Published unabridged on 14 compact discs (17 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Radio Publishing Group, 2007

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Review of “Pretty Fierce” by Kieran Scott

Kaia Thompson, 17, is the daughter of a husband and wife high-end hitman team in this fast-paced young adult thriller. Formerly working for the CIA, the parents now work for themselves, and the family lives in a rather abnormal way, traveling all over the world for very risky jobs. Kaia has received lessons in “the family business” as well, as part of the desire of her parents to protect her. But 18 months prior to the start of this story, something goes terribly wrong, and her parents have disappeared.

Kaia goes to a couple in South Carolina she has been told would be her back-up family, and who pose as her grandparents. But suddenly other bad guys have come after her there, demanding to know where her mother is (Kaia presumed her dead) and threatening to kidnap her. Kaia’s boyfriend Oliver walks in just as this is happening, and in a short time, he, a bit in shock, joins her on the run.

Oliver never knew this side of Kaia, but he has secrets of his own. In alternating chapters narrated by Kaia and Oliver, all of the secrets invariably come out as the two flee across the country in wild chase episodes pursued by various bad actors.

Will they make it alive? Will they find out what really happened to Kaia’s parents? And how do the bad guys keep finding them?

Evaluation: If you don’t apply too much scrutiny to the many unrealistic aspects of this story, it’s an entertaining way to spend some reading time. The author shows great insight into teen thinking and dialogue.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Sourcebooks, 2017

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