Review of “Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery” by Jenny Colgan

If you’d like your Hallmark Channel Christmas movie in a readable format, this particular novel would be perfect.

This book is apparently the third in a set of three, but I had not read the first two. It was not a problem, however, as the author begins with a note providing a quick overview of what happened in the previous books, which proved to be not only welcome, but entirely sufficient.

The story is set in Cornwall, right before Christmas, with those two aspects of the plot adding enormous appeal to the story. But the characters are endearing as well. Polly Waterford, 33, is warm and generous and a wonderful baker. She runs the Little Beach Street Bakery and lives close by in an old, drafty lighthouse with her boyfriend Huckle, who is a beekeeper, and their pet puffin Neil.

All is not perfect in their world however. Huckle wants to get married and start a family, but Polly is afraid. In addition, Polly’s BFF Kerensa and her husband Reuben (Huckle’s BFF) are expecting a baby, but Kerensa is fearful it is not Reuben’s child. Kerensa has sworn Polly to secrecy, but it’s hard for Polly to keep anything from Huck. And while Reuben is quite wealthy, not only are Polly and Huck struggling financially, but the puffin sanctuary is failing from lack of funds, a situation that pains Polly. On top of everything else, Polly is facing a new crisis with her own family.

In spite of all the serious issues, this is, after all, basically a Hallmark movie in book form, and as you can imagine, it will all get resolved nicely. As Polly assured Kerensa, “Things end up fine. That’s the promise of Christmas. Believe it.” All this and no commercials!

The book includes some of Polly’s recipes at the end.

Evaluation: I thought the author overdid negative stereotyping of Reuben and his Jewish family, and Polly, Huck, and Neil were far too perfect. But the story is appealing and foodies will especially enjoy it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

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Review of “Landscape With Invisible Hand” by M.T. Anderson

This science fiction story takes a dark satirical look at a future in which an ostensibly benevolent alien race, the vuvv, has come to earth to colonize it, literally living up in the sky above the rest of the people. They arrived with promises of advanced technology and lives free of work. There are a small percentage of those on Earth who, investing in vuvv technology, manage to become rich, but most humans are now in a permanent state of poverty and despair; the human economy could not stand up against what was provided by the vuvv.

Plausibly a biting look at communism, or colonialism, or even capitalism (there is a lot of discussion of “the invisible hand” of the market determining worth and value), or at a world divided between the 1% of the vastly wealthy and the rest of us, there is much to contemplate in this book. The colonizers see only what they want to see, and ignore the suffering in their wake. They impose the culture they prefer (amusingly, that of the U.S. in the 1950’s) on the populace, and aren’t willing to accept anything else or to examine the effects of their colonization. The 1% of humans who benefitted think only of their own pleasure and superiority. The rest of the world becomes so desperate people will contemplate just about anything to rise above the sinkhole of their lives.

We learn about all of this through the main character, Adam, a high school student who is an aspiring artist. Each chapter is headed by the title of a painting he is doing to portray the action he describes.

Adam is quite sick from a gastrointestinal disease resulting from untreated tap water; as part of the vuvv’s austerity measures, municipal water is no longer purified. Possibly this is a metaphor for the way everyones lives have turned to shit. Adam, in spite of growing increasingly septic, summons the strength to enter a vuvv-sponsored art contest in a last-ditch attempt to make money for his family.

The outcome of the contest suggests to Adam the real way to survive in vuvv society, taking yet another jab at our current social, political, and cultural milieu.

Evaluation: Generally I love the work of this author and I appreciate the points he was trying to make. But ultimately this story fell flat for me. While it raises a lot of interesting issues, the overtly allegorical quality of the story kept it too “unreal” and prevented me from engaging much with the characters.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2017

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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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