Review of “Once and For All” by Sarah Dessen

Popular young adult novel writer Sarah Dessen employs common romance plot themes with the addition of a darker aspect taken from today’s headlines. 17-year-old Louna (named for her parents, Natalie and Lou), helps her mother in her very successful business as a wedding planner. Natalie is also assisted by her business partner William. William is gay, so there is nothing between them, but they are best friends and William acts as a godfather to Louna. Both Natalie and William have been single for many years, in part because the wedding business makes them very cynical about long-term prospects for romance.

As for Louna, she used to believe in true love, but after a heartbreaking event the year before, now she too joins Natalie and William in their cynical approach to happy endings, or the idea of meeting a true love “once and for all.” And she is not only cynical; she is afraid; love can mean loss.

Much of the story recounts the ups and downs of the wedding planning business, and it is fun to read about all the outrageous requests made by customers, mostly pertaining to decor, themes, and attendee management. But for one upcoming big event, Natalie is asked to go beyond the call of duty and employ Ambrose, the handsome but annoying son of the mother of the bride, in order to keep him out of the clients’ hair during the wedding planing. Natalie and William agree, and set Ambrose to work with Louna.

As it happens, Ambrose too has a cynical approach to relationships. Long-term means complicated; he just wants “a bunch of magical first nights and days.” Ambrose tells Louna: “Doesn’t sound bad, does it? All the upsides of dating, none of the down.”

What happens over the summer they work together is of course predictable. But the story has enough entertaining moments and appealing characters to make up for it.

Evaluation: This is a diverting story that has humor, romance, and enough “real life” to add some dimension to the plot.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Isaac Newton and Physics for Kids: His Life and Ideas With 21 Activities” by Kerrie Logan Hollihan

In debates about “who was the greatest scientist who ever lived,” the outcome does not always favor Albert Einstein; rather, opinion is generally split between him and Isaac Newton.

Newton was born in England on Christmas Day in 1642, the same year that Galileo Galilei died in Italy. This book tells us about Newton’s childhood and years of study, but most of the focus is on his later intellectual achievements. His seminal book, The Principia Mathematica, outlined his theories of calculus, the three laws of motion, and universal gravitation. He also revolutionized the design of the telescope and the study of optics. He took over Britain’s Royal Mint and stabilized its currency. He even served in Parliament for a time.

Behind the scenes, he devoted years to the secret study of alchemy, an art forbidden by the Church. The goal of alchemy was to figure out how to turn base metals into precious ones, as well as to find a magical product called “the philosopher’s stone” which would allegedly provide the key to eternal life.

As for what Newton was like as a man, he was known for being moody, jealous, and egotistical, and for having a fierce, unforgiving temper. He was probably paranoid and possibly gay.

But mostly, this book eschews the gossip about Newton’s personal life in favor of highlighting his eye-popping intellectual achievements. Newton not only asked himself questions, such as “why do things always fall down?” but he made it his life’s work to find answers to them.

Sir Isaac Newton

Discussion: I love so many aspects of this series of books for kids from the Chicago Review Press. Most of all, they don’t shy away from giving a complete picture of the life of the person being profiled, warts and all. They demonstrate it is possible to applaud the accomplishments of acclaimed figures in history while at the same time admitting to more regrettable aspects of their lives. They understand that to eschew deification is not to question the achievements of a person, but rather suggests that even “mortals” may effect great changes in history.

The series also contains fascinating information about the contemporaries of the person being profiled.

A third great feature of this series is the inclusion of activities that not only relate to the subject, but tie together different aspects of learning, from language arts to science to architecture, etc.

Some of the 21 activities in this book include instructions for the following:

charting phases of the moon
making a pendulum
how to make a water clock and a candle clock and compare their accuracy
making a prism
demonstrating the principle of the inverse square law
how to grow a crystal garden
experiments that demonstrate each of Newton’s three laws of motion
baking an apple pie in the style of Newton’s time

The book also features a time line, glossary, annotated list of internet resources, bibliography, and index.

Evaluation: This series of books from the Chicago Review Press for kids (but also older readers) is outstanding. Each provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of the subject matter, adds fun and informative activities, and treats history as it should be treated: without misleading filters that glamorize and/or obfuscate the truth.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Chicago Review Press, 2009

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Review of “The Scribe of Siena” by Melodie Winawer

This historical fiction/paranormal novel in the style of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book combines art, history, romance and time travel. The main protagonist is Beatrice Trovato, a modern-day brain surgeon who has a unique gift of extra-sensory perception that occasionally allows her to enter the mind of others. This “extreme empathy” also leads her to identify with a 14th Century artist, Gabriele Accorsi, whose journal she discovers while investigating her late brother Ben’s research into 1300’s Siena. Ben was trying to discover why Siena was hit by the Black Death so much harder than other cities in Italy, so much so that Florence was able to eclipse Siena in its economic, cultural, and political prominence. [In real life, Siena did in fact fare worse with the Plague than other Tuscan cities.]

Beatrice ends up time-traveling back to the period in question, and there she meets her fate and unravels the mysteries that occupied her brother. She also figures out a way to ensure that historians across the centuries into the future might be able to solve the previously unanswered questions as well.

Evaluation: While this author didn’t quite engage me as much as do Gabaldon and Willis, this well-researched book provides a diverting way to pass the time and to learn something about the historical period in question. In addition to the overall history of the period, the author also describes a number of dishes consumed in medieval Siena, cultural practices, and medical procedures.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Review of “Out of the Easy” by Ruta Sepetys

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This novel begins in 1950. Josie Moraine is the 17-year-old daughter of a selfish, shallow, and greedy mother who works as a prostitute in the New Orleans brothel run by the madam Willy Woodley. Willy acts as a sort of surrogate mother to Josie, who at age 12 had to find a place to stay away from her abusive mother and her customers. Ever since then, Josie cleans in the brothel in the mornings, but at night she sleeps in a room over the local bookstore where she works in the afternoon. What Josie wants most of all is to get out of New Orleans and to be considered “normal,” rather than “the daughter of a whore.” She reads, studies, and saves money, so she can go to college. When she hears about Smith College from a patron, Charlotte, who becomes her friend, she aspires to go there.

In spite of the drawbacks of Josie’s life, she has a very strong support system. Charlie Marlowe, the owner of the bookstore, gave her the room and has treated her like a daughter. Patrick, his son, is a good friend to Josie, and helps her learn the book trade. Cokie, Sadie, and others who work for Willy all are rooting for Josie to achieve her dreams. A local boy who clearly likes Josie, Jesse Thierry, also comes to her aid whenever he can.

New Orleans during the 1950s

New Orleans during the 1950s

But there are complications for Josie. She finds it hard, through no fault of her own, to get away from the disaster that is her mother. Her mother’s abusive boyfriend, called “Cincinnati,” has vowed to get revenge on Josie for pouring hot coffee on him (while she was defending her mother). Various “tricks” at the brothel keep pressuring Josie to join the profession. The local gang holds Josie responsible for her mother’s thefts, and Josie even suspects her mother of murder, the repercussions for which also threaten to spread to Josie’s life.

Whether she can get “out of the easy” with her burdens is not an assured thing.

Evaluation: This book has an intriguing storyline, very likable characters, and a great setting. I found it consistently interesting.

Rating: 4/5

Awards include:

Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award Nominee for Young Adults (2015)
Michigan Library Association Thumbs Up! Award for Honor book (2014)
Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2015)
Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Fiction (2013)
Carnegie Medal Nominee (2014)
Missouri Gateway Readers Award Nominee (2016)

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2013

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Review of “Hell & High Water” by Tanya Landman

This historical fiction novel for young adults set in 1752 is surprisingly gripping; I got caught up immediately in the mysteries surrounding 15-year-old Caleb Chappell.

Caleb is mixed-race, and frequently misidentified as a slave while he accompanies his white father Joseph around the English countryside putting on Punch and Judy puppet shows. But as the book begins, his father is falsely accused of a crime and taken away, condemned to transportation to the colonies. Before they are separated, his father tells Caleb how to find his aunt, about whose existence he had been unaware.

Caleb finally locates Anne Avery, who faints dead away when she sees him; why? Just one more of the unexplained puzzles you will encounter in this appealing story. Caleb also gets to know Anne’s stepdaughter Letty, who eventually joins forces with Caleb in trying to figure out what is going on.

Racism prevents Caleb from finding work to help out Anne and her little family (she also has a baby named Dorcas) but he is able to assist Anne in mending clothes on contract. (Letty is stronger than Caleb and so the traditional gender roles get reversed with these two.) Meanwhile, Caleb finds a dead body, runs up against baffling barriers to finding out what happened to his father, and learns first-hand about the cruel injustices of not only race but class. The odds are so stacked against them, you will be hanging on your seat to see if they come out this tale with any success, or even survive at all, as Caleb and Letty face an accusation of murder.

Evaluation: There are many twists in this riveting story about the corruption of power and money, and the impotence of those without them. The pacing is excellent, and Caleb and Letty are strong characters, using their wits and courage to fight a system against seemingly insuperable odds.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in the U.S. by Candlewick, 2017

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