Review of “Redemption Road” by John Hart

John Hart is an excellent writer. This book, about crimes possibly committed by a bad cop, had me pacing the room out of tension and suspense, and the ending was everything I could wish for.

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Set in North Carolina, this isn’t just a when-will-they-catch-the-serial-killer book. The story explores larger themes, such as when revenge is justified and when it is counter-productive; if “justice” ever matters more than law; at what price would even the best of us compromise our values; and the fluid ways in which family can be defined. When is the path to forgiveness just too strewn with obstacles? What will it take, after the worst of circumstances, to start down the road to redemption?

I have to say that I had a pretty good idea of who the killer was in this book, but that didn’t matter at all; there was never any assurance of who would actually prevail in the end.

Evaluation: A superb thriller, at once both heart-wrenching and a testament to love and compassion.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2016

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Review of “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

The author combines poetry, science, and memoir in this award-winning book chronicling her attempt to deal with her father’s sudden death. In luminous prose, she describes her efforts to distract herself from the pain of her loss by training a young goshawk she names Mabel. In alternate passages she recounts how the author T.H. White worked through his own psychological challenges while raising a goshawk.

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She recalls her reaction to her first site of her hawk:

“My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

Macdonald tells of trying to rebuild herself from the ruins of her loss, with Mabel as her model: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

Macdonald and Mabel

Macdonald and Mabel

She observes:

“For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be mastered and tamed.”

So it was with the author’s grief.

She finds:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

Evaluation: Macdonald’s path to healing runs parallel to her growing relationship with her goshawk. And as her bird learns to replace fear with joy, so to does the author. It is a lovely story, although for me, maybe a bit too writerly. I did not feel too much connection with the author, and none at all with T.H. White. His prominent role in the book, in my opinion, added to the distancing between the reader and the author’s personal struggles. But the author’s ability to write beautiful sentences cannot be gainsaid.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, 2014

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National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Science Verse” by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

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This book teaches science while at the same time is full of fun, providing lots of laughs. Many of the rhymes are take-offs of common songs and poems kids may recognize, such as “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost or “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. Some are short but still so clever, as this one on the dual form of light:

“Hey diddle diddle, what kind of riddle
Is this nature of light?
Sometimes it’s a wave,
Other times particle . . .
But which answer will be marked right?”

Similarly, the complexity of natural phenomena is elucidated in “What’s the Matter?” in which the authors begin by explaining:

“Miss Lucy had some matter.
She didn’t know its state.
She only had three choices,
So tried to get it straight. . . .”

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My favorite is this riff on “The Night Before Christmas”:

“‘Twas the night before Any Thing, and all through deep space,
Nothing existed — time, matter, or place.
No stockings, no chimneys. It was hotter than hot.
Everything was compressed in one very dense dot.

When out of the nothing there appeared with a clatter
A fat guy with reindeer and something the matter.
His nose was all runny. He gave a sick hack.
“Oh, Dasher! Oh, Dancer! I can’t hold it back!”

He huffled and snuffled and sneezed one AH-CHOO!
Then like ten jillion volcanoes, the universe blew.
That dense dot exploded, spewing out stars,
Earth, Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Mars,

Helium, hydrogen, the mountains and seas,
The chicken, the egg, the birds and the bees,
Yesterday’s newspaper, tomorrow’s burnt toast,
Protons and neutrons, your grandma’s pork roast.

The universe expanded. The guy said with a wheeze,
‘Who will ever believe the world started by sneeze?
So let’s call it something much grander, all right?
Merry BIG BANG to all! And to all — Gesundheit!’”

Whimsical illustrations by Lane Smith complement each poem, and a CD of Scieszka (“rhymes with Fresca”) reciting the poems is also included.

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Evaluation: This utterly delightful book of science rhymes will delight readers of all ages.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2004

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Be sure to stop by Serena’s blog every day this month to see more profiles of poets and poetry by participants from around the blogisphere! In addition, there is a huge roundup of poetry posts at the blog Jama’s Alphabet Soup, here. There is a great list of “25 Must-Share Poems for Elementary School” at the We Are Teachers blog. In addition, the fantastic website poets.org has a sign up to receive an email of a “Poem-a-Day,” featuring over 200 new, previously unpublished poems by today’s talented poets each year. I also like the subscription service for “Teach This Poem” that accompanies poems with resources and activities to help understand them (which I often need, teacher or not!)

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Review of “Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie

Note: There will necessarily be spoilers for Book One and Book Two in this series, but none for this book.

This is Book Three of a series which began with Ancillary Justice, a book that won just about every big award for science fiction and fantasy in 2013, including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award (presented by the British Science Fiction Association), the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award.

In this future galaxy, gender is maybe a matter of choice, or maybe of convenience; it’s unclear. We don’t know what gender anyone is, but everyone is universally designated as “she.” At the very least, this practice challenges our ideas about gender identity and roles, forcing us to rethink our assumptions and prejudices.

In addition, in this universe there are a number of beings who are massive entities with hive-minds that reside in multiple bodies at once. This is true of the Lord of the Radch Empire, a being who goes by the name of Anaander Mianaai. It was also once true of the main protagonist Breq, who used to be an “ancillary” or segment of the Justice of Toren, a massive starship that had served for some two thousand years. The Justice of Toren was destroyed by Anaander Mianaai, with only Breq escaping. Because Breq occupies just one body now, Breq can pass for human. In all the years that have passed, it is clear that Breq became much wiser, even as Anaander, alive for at least a thousand years more, had become more insane.

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In Book One, we learned that the Lord of the Radch is at war with “herself” over the destruction of an entire solar system some thousand years previously. The Lord has now divided into two factions, one good and one evil. [What a wonderful metaphor as well as a clever complication for a hive-minded creature.] It is of course pretty difficult to figure out which self is which, and to support either one is treason, as far as the other is concerned. This puts citizens of the Radch in a very difficult position. Occasionally it is possible for them to infer which is which from the relative justice of the act being ordered by the Lord. When Breq was still part of the Justice of Toren, Anaander Mianaai ordered Breq to shoot her beloved superior – Lieutenant Awn – in the head. Awn had discovered the split in Anaander Mianaai, and refused to obey the orders of this Anaander because she concluded she was the evil one. Breq had no choice; Awn would die in any event, and Breq thought she would die as well. Indeed, the Lord then destroyed the Justice of Toren; it was an accident that Breq escaped. Breq loved Awn, and never recovered from what she had to do.

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In Ancillary Sword, Breq was sent to Athoek Station as Captain of the starship Mercy of Kalr. This assignment dovetailed with Breq’s own needs, because she wanted to find the sister of the late Lieutenant Awn, and offer her support. But the sister, Basnaaid, wanted nothing to do with Breq. While at the station, however, there was plenty to keep Breq busy: she becomes involved with the station’s management and with the vicious undercurrent of race and class conflict that officially don’t exist [just like in the U.S.].

Breq – no doubt because of her own past as a former ancillary – was outraged at the way the underclass was treated by those who thought they are better; once again, the notion of “justice” becomes a critical point for Breq.

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In Ancillary Mercy, Breq is still trying to juggle political currents on Athoek Station with her entirely human – not ancillary – crew, including Seivarden – a former addict who was rescued and rehabilitated by Breq, and is now one of Breq’s most trusted lieutenants. But there is more to worry about on Athoek than local politics and Seivarden’s continuing adjustment.

First, there is the fact that the Station AI, inspired by Breq’s assumption of self-agency, also starts acting on her own. In addition, two mysterious persons show up who upset the balance of the station if not the universe. One identifies herself right away – she is a new Translator from the Presger race, a mysterious and technologically superior race that can pretty much wipe out everyone else if it so chooses. The other arrival is a mystery at first, but definitely has something to do with universal politics and the conflicts within and among the being who is Anaander Mianaai. At least one iteration of Anaander is apparently outraged that Breq survived, and, that this mere ancillary has been so successful both at governing and at winning the loyalty of those who serve her.

As for how it all works out, without spoiling at all, I think it’s useful to quote from the end of the book. The author has her main protagonist observe:

“Entertainments nearly always end with triumph or disaster – happiness achieved, or total, tragic defeat precluding any hope of it. But there is always more after the ending – always the next morning and the next, always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other. Until the one true ending that none of us can escape. But even that ending is only a small one, large as it looms for us. There is still the next morning for everyone else. For the vast majority of the rest of the universe, that ending might as well not ever have happened. Every ending is an arbitrary one. Every ending is, from another angle, not really an ending.”

What a brilliant way to end a story that transpires over millennia!

Discussion: I appreciated the first book for its distinctive innovativeness, but I struggled with all of the “alien concepts.” In the subsequent books, the “heavy lifting” of the world building has already been done, and the author can just get on with the story; the second and third books are easier to read. Nevertheless, I was still often confused over the identities and factions of the players, and even over the role of tea and tea sets. I believe this was my own failing, however, and did not detract from my appreciation of the remarkable creativity and ground-breaking nature of these books.

Evaluation: Science fiction is by its very nature a subversive genre, but Leckie carries it further than most, in my opinion, with some notable exceptions, like the work of China Miéville. First she eliminates our preconceived notions about gender by totally taking it off the table. Second, she challenges our assumptions about what qualifies someone as a “person.” Obviously history is full of examples – especially in warfare – of identifying enemies as “less than human” in order to facilitate killing those “others.” But Leckie hammers this home with her emphasis on choice of words alone that designate if someone should be treated as a “person” or not. In so doing, she further highlights the importance of language in structuring perceptions. Further, she doesn’t do this through narration, but through the “real-time” action as it unfolds. Readers must work to sift through the implications and insinuations.

This third book is definitely not a standalone, and was for me a bit slower than the other books, at least in the beginning. Moreover, these are not “light” books to read. But the ideas presented in the books – about universal justice, mercy and the worth of all beings, and about how we can make a difference even in a universe that is vast and timeless, are very much worth contemplating. For fans of science fiction, I think this series is a must-read!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2015

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Review of “Hide and Seek” by Jane Casey

It’s so fun for me to read this YA series by Jane Casey, because it really does seem like these books are written by a totally different author than that of her adult series about Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan.

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This is the third in a succession of books about sixteen-year-old Jess Tennant, a girl who moves with her single mom from London to the small wealthy seaside town of Port Sentinel, where her mom grew up. The two are living with Jess’s mom’s twin Tilly and Tilly’s big, likable family. Jess is naturally curious and a bit of a Veronica Mars. In the first book in the series, How To Fall, Jess solved the mystery of the apparent suicide of her cousin Freya the year before. In the second, Bet Your Life, Jess helped solve another mystery involving her peers. Now, a classmate, Gilly Poynter, goes missing, and Jess once again gets involved and aids the police in finding out what happened to Gilly. This time though, she no longer is protesting that she is not “Port Sentinel’s answer to Nancy Drew.” On the contrary, she is beginning to realize that becoming a detective is what she is meant to do with her life.

As with the previous books, the relationships among Jess and her friends, as well as with her family, continue to develop in interesting ways.

Evaluation: I wouldn’t classify this one as among Casey’s best. Jess’s nosiness seems a bit annoying (although it turned out to serve a useful purpose); there is not as much humor as in previous books; and the development with Jess’s boyfriend Will’s mom struck me as a little unrealistic, or at least, I want to believe it was. I also think Casey still hasn’t decided on what sort of character Will’s dad is. Nevertheless, Jane Casey writes very likable books, with interesting and appealing characters.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Griffin, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2015

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