Review of “Shelter Me” by Juliette Fay

Janie LaMarche is suddenly widowed at age 38 after seven wonderful years of marriage. Her husband Robby, out riding his bike, was hit by an older driver. She has two children, Dylan, 4, and Carly, who is only 8 months old. Janie is sad, angry, and fearful. Into this house of emotional land mines comes Tug Malinowski, a 45 year old contractor hired by Robby to build Janie a screened-in porch. Tug doesn’t know the man who hired him is dead; he offers to tear up the contract, but Janie decides that if Robby wanted it, she should go through with it.

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But this isn’t a straight-forward predictable romance. There are a lot of other issues added to the story. Janie feels abandoned by her mother, who took off for Italy rather than helping Janie through this period of mourning. Janie has a twin brother Mike, but he has Asperger’s, and is not someone from whom she can get emotional sustenance. Her best friend and neighbor now has a boyfriend, and is moving away to be closer to him. Janie turns to the young parish priest, Jake, who insists on visiting her weekly, and with whom Janie gets dangerously close. Through it all, including numerous angry outbursts from Janie, Tug hangs in there, helping quietly in the background. Eventually Janie thinks there might be a path to happiness for herself, but like many people in her position, she is afraid to be happy; afraid to betray the memory of her husband, and afraid of risking more loss.

Evaluation: This is a good “women’s lit” book, with perhaps too many issues thrown in (some problems of contemporary Catholicism also come into play, such as pedophilia, celibacy, and holiday Catholics; as well as conflicts with relatives and urban crime), but then again, life is complex in just that way. The author does a good job of keeping the reader’s sympathies with Janie, despite Janie’s petulance and emotional volatility.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Avon Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2009

National Poetry Month – The Poetry of Song Lyrics (Redux)

April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate this year, Serena from Savvy Verse and Wit has called upon fellow bloggers to participate by highlighting something about poets or poetry.

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In the past, I have turned the spotlight on some song lyricists, because I’ve always thought that some of the best poets were lyricists. They can pack so much meaning and beauty into simple and clever rhymes. Obviously adding a tuneful melody helps, but there are plenty of songs that lack “poetic” lyrics. We tend to remember best, however, the work of such tunesmiths as Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, as well as more recent writers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, because the substance of what they write resonates with us and forms the background music of our lives.

George and Ira Gershwin, making music for the ages

George and Ira Gershwin, making music for the ages

This year I’d like to take a closer look at a few other lyricists, starting with Billy Joel. He shows a great ability to evoke entire eras with his lyrics, such as Allentown:

Allentown

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line

Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow

And we’re living here in Allentown
But the restlessness was handed down
And it’s getting very hard to stay
Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel
And we’re waiting here in Allentown…..”

And of course, who else has limned the Vietnam years so succinctly?….

Goodnight Saigon

We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives
We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses . . .

We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might
We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write . . .”

(The official video includes a number of poignant photos from Vietnam.)

One mustn’t doubt Joel is also making a political statement. And how much more effective are his poetic metaphors than, say, the antiwar song “Eve of Destruction” which has good music but includes lines like “Yeah my blood’s so mad feels like coagulating, I’m sitting here just contemplatin’…” (Well, it rhymes, at any rate.)

Joel is good at depicting love too, but even better at exposing the hurdles love must overcome:

A Matter of Trust

Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start . . .

I’m sure you’re aware love
We’ve both had our share of
Believing too long
When the whole situation was wrong

Some love is just a lie of the soul
A constant battle for the ultimate state of control . . .

Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start
But that can’t happen to us
Because it’s always been a matter of trust. . .”

Billy Joel performing this last song also happens to be one of my favorite music videos (I especially love the woman who appears at 1:40):

Billy Joel’s lyrics are very explicit and easy to understand. Some poetry is like that too, whereas other poetry establishes a feeling more through innuendo or tone… Compare, for example, these two excerpts from songs about summertime. Notice how each one describes a similar setting but very different moods. Yet they are still fairly forthright, and you can picture a story from the lines.

Summertime by George and Ira Gershwin

Summertime,
And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high

Oh, Your daddy’s rich

And your mamma’s good lookin’

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry . . .”

Black Velvet sung by Alannah Myles

Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell
Jimmy Rogers on the Victrola up high
Mama’s dancin’ with baby on her shoulder
The sun is settin’ like molasses in the sky
The boy could sing, knew how to move, everything
Always wanting more, he’d leave you longing for

Black velvet and that little boy’s smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that’ll bring ya to your knees
Black velvet if you please . . .”

Finally, I’d like to highlight some lyrics that don’t necessarily make sense if you parse the words, and yet, you still know exactly what is being expressed:

I’ll Melt With You sung by Modern English

Moving forward using all my breath
Making love to you was never second best
I saw the world thrashing all around your face
Never really knowing it was always mesh and lace

I’ll stop the world and melt with you
You’ve seen the difference and it’s getting better all the time
There’s nothing you and I won’t do
I’ll stop the world and melt with you
 . . .”

It’s a great song, but what does it mean? I couldn’t really say, yet in spite of the abstruse language used, somehow, to me at any rate, the essence of the feeling of the soaring optimism and idealism of a first great love is conveyed. To me, that ability to encapsulate or inspire a world of emotion in a few succinct phrases, even if you can’t exactly identify how it happens, is what the designation of “poetry” is all about. Like paintings and prose, poems ask us to add our own perceptions to what may be suggested, so that together – the artist and the observer, create something greater than its parts.

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!

National Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Rutherford B. Who Was He? Poems About Our Presidents” by Marilyn Singer

These poems are immensely clever. In just a few rhyming and often very funny lines the author manages to convey the essence of each president’s time in office.

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For example, this is the poem from whence the title comes:

Rutherford B., who was he?
Honest and upstanding, or His Fraudulency?
He won a harsh election with disputes and appeals,
(and also quite possibly backroom deals).
He believed in suffrage, thought the South would comply,
that all would get to vote (which proved to be a lie).
He had faith in education and desire for reform,
but he chose to steer a middle path
and not stir up a storm.
He had radical thoughts and conservative ways.
He said so himself, did President Hayes.”

The poem about Theodore Roosevelt is succinctly informative, with the accompanying picture giving a perfect representation of his personality.

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How compactly the author tells what happened to James A. Garfield:

He won a close election, was eager to begin.
Got shot by a crazed office seeker.
Doctors likely did him in.”

The poem about Abraham Lincoln is serious, and is paired with one about Andrew Johnson that is very funny.

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As with many of the poems, the artwork accompanying the verse about Grant adds much to the composite portrait crafted by the combination of author and illustrator.

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Singer writes humorously of Truman:

No one was brasher
than that former haberdasher,
more prone to fury
than that man from Missouri….”

The poems begin with George Washington and continue through and including the administration of Barak Obama.

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The ingenious mixed media illustrations by John Hendrix add wonderful details to the history of each president’s administration. His pictures are totally unpredictable and his inspired visual interpretations will have you shaking your head in appreciation.

The back matter includes short biographies of each president including a significant quote by each of them.

Evaluation: This is a fantastic way for kids to learn about the U.S. Presidents. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Disney/Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2013

Be sure to stop by Jama’s blog to check out her roundup of other poetry-for-kids-posts in honor of National Poetry Month. In addition, Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit also has a collection of posts about poets and poetry by participants from around the blogisphere.

Review of “The Precious One” by Marisa de los Santos

Wilson Clearly, 71, left his first family seventeen years before, and now has a sixteen-year-old daughter named Willow with his second wife Caro. He has never expressed anything but contempt for his original set of children, twins Taisy (Eustacia) and Marcus, who are presently aged 35. In fact, at Wilson’s request, they have not even visited him in fifteen years. But while Taisy describes her father a “breathtaking jerk,” she has always hungered for his love and approval.

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Wilson recently had heart surgery, and apparently, something about this brush with mortality caused him to call Taisy and ask that she and Marcus come to his house for a visit. Marcus immediately refuses, but Taisy, always harboring a twinge of hope about her father, agrees to go back to her old hometown for a visit. While there, she also plans to look up her former “true love” Ben, with whom her relationship ended for reasons unclear as the story begins.

The narration by Taisy alternates with Willow’s story. Willow is devoted to her father, and another daughter with a possible claim on his affections represents a huge threat to her. In addition, she has other new things to worry her. Since her father’s illness, she has been attending a private high school, which is a huge leap from the home schooling she had all her life previous to this.

To say Willow is naive in the ways of adolescent life is an understatement, and when her English teacher detects her distress and takes her under his wing, it seems like a godsend to her. She has no clue why a boy in her English class whom she also befriends seems so hostile to her developing relationship with her teacher.

All of these plot threads unfold and interweave in a compelling way, with good pacing, tension, and romance in the parallel generations.

Discussion: The central male characters are oddly only one way or the other: wonderful or terrible, and we never really do learn why Wilson is such a jerk. But the female protagonists are more nicely drawn and quite likable, and the ending is just as one would want.

Evaluation: I liked this much better than the author’s previous book (Falling Together), although not as much as Belong to Me, the book which made many readers fall in love with Marisa de los Santos. Nevertheless, she is a talented writer, and this is an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

Review of “This Shattered World” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

This book is more of a companion book than a sequel to These Broken Stars, the first very appealing book by this writing duo. This story has many parallels to “Romeo and Juliet,” although thankfully it is not a complete retelling of of that tragic story.

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Jubilee Chase, 18, is the Captain of a military unit on the planet Avon, where forces have been sent to quell a rebellion. The rebels call themselves the Fianna, after the warrior bands of Irish mythology. They consider themselves the descendants of the Irish from the abandoned planet Earth, and honor Ireland’ language and traditions in Avon.

Avon is supposedly being terra-formed but something has gone wrong, and the planet’s denizens are without food, education, or health care. They believe someone is deliberately slowing down Avon’s progress. They would rather farm than fight, but instead their planet is a swampland covered in clouds; the residents have never even seen stars.

Flynn Cormac is the leader of the peace party of Fianna, and he kidnaps Jubilee to use her to find out answers from the military. If the Fianna don’t get satisfaction soon, the militant wing will win over the hearts and minds of the people. Flynn, so handsome that Jubilee refers to him as “Romeo” before she knows his name, finds he cannot bring himself to harm Jubilee, and ends up protecting her from the rest of his warrior band. But the odds are against this star-crossed couple; their affinity for one another puts both of them in danger, which only intensifies when they discover the big secret about what is really happening on Avon.

Evaluation: These authors do a great job with taking old romantic plot lines and reformulating them in other times on other planets. They also create outstanding female protagonists, who are not females you would take lightly. You can read this book as a standalone, but I would rate the previous book as having a slight edge over this one (my review is here) so it would be worth starting with that one.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2014

Review of “Wicked Plants” by Amy Stewart

Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities takes readers on a tour of the serial killers of the botanical kingdom.

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Her preface sets the tone, and gives a sense of the interesting and exciting information contained in the book:

Some of the plants in this book have quite a scandalous history. A weed killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. A shrub nearly blinded Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s most famous landscape architect. A flowering bulb sickened members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Poison hemlock killed Socrates, and the most wicked weed of all tobacco – has claimed ninety million lives.”

For each plant (characterized variously as “deadly,” “illegal,” “intoxicating,” “dangerous,” “destructive,” “offensive,” and “painful,” the author provides an explanation of what the plant does and anecdotes about its use or misuse. Scientific information (biological family, native habitat, and common names appear in sidebars).

Mandrake Root by Briony Morrow-Cribbs

Mandrake Root by Briony Morrow-Cribbs

I learned so many fun things in this book (well, fun from a distance). For example, I knew kudzu was invasive, but had no idea that a single tap root can weigh up to four hundred pounds! The U.S. production of illegal cannabis has been estimated at $35 billion, while the value of the nation’s corn crop is only $22.6 billion, and even tobacco weighs in at only $1 billion. In 1898 Bayer started marketing heroin. It sold it as a cough syrup for children and adults, but took it off the market after ten years. (For fellow fans of the series “The Knick,” which is set in New York City in 1900, you may remember seeing Bayer’s heroin in the last, cliff-hanging scene of Season One.) The author provides evidence of why the bizarre behavior exhibited by young girls in Salem in 1691 was probably a result of Ergot, a toxic fungus that infects rye and contaminates bread. And she includes the latest research on what makes absinthe, the liquor made from wormwood, so lethal: it’s not, as previously thought, the chemical thujone in the wormwood. Apparently mass spectrometer analysis shows the level of thujone in absinthe is minimal; its deleterious effects are more likely due to the fact that it is a 130-proof spirit…..

Castor Bean by Briony Morrow-Cribbs

Castor Bean by Briony Morrow-Cribbs

Many of the dangerous plants described are common in the American Southwest. I went to the emergency room at least twice when we lived there because of plant “attacks.” But after reading this book, I consider myself lucky!

The author notes that some 68,000 people are poisoned annually by plants. She admonishes us to use reliable sources (not necessarily including those to be found on the internet) to identify poisonous, medicinal, and edible plants. She repeatedly stresses the importance of calling a poison control center if affected.

There are beautiful etchings of all the plants discussed, created by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, and also occasional illustrations by Jonathan Rosen. At the end of the book, there is a brief list of some well-known poison gardens, a bibliography, and the address of the book’s website for more information. There is no index, however, which is a bit shocking, and unfortunately diminishes some of the usefulness of the book.

Poison Garden at Blarney Castle in Ireland

Poison Garden at Blarney Castle in Ireland

Evaluation: This is such a fun, entertaining book. It would make a great tool for all the mothers who try, sometimes in vain, to convince their kids not to put everything in their mouths.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2009

Review of “Sway” by Kat Spears

Jesse Alderman, 17, is called “Sway” because he has a talent for getting people what they want, and then extracting favors or money in return. As one of Jesse’s friends explains:

Sway ain’t somethin’ you can define. A brother who’s got sway is the man – don’t have to try to be cool, just…is. … He’s so slick, he could convince you that I’m white, have you believin’ it like it’s gospel.”

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Jesse doesn’t seem to have any scruples about fulfilling requests, nor any emotional involvement in their consequences. His mother committed suicide, and his father is an alcoholic. Life seems simpler to him if he avoids feelings, or any closeness with anyone, and pushes people away, except those he needs for his “business.”

All this changes, however, when he is asked by a Neanderthal-like football player, Ken Foster, to make Bridget Smalley want to go out with him. Jesse succeeds as always, but finds, in the process of investigating what Bridget is like and what might impress her (to tell Ken), he actually gets to like Bridget a lot himself.

Bridget is called (deprecatingly by some) a “saint” – she volunteers at a center for the disabled, she visits her grandmother weekly at a nursing home, and in general, is a good person in addition to (or in spite of) looking like “an angel.”

Inadvertently, Jesse is changed by her. He gets to know Bridget’s brother Pete, who has cerebral palsy, and treats him just like he treats everyone else, which is to say, like a jerk. But Pete loves him for that, and Jesse actually gets to appreciate Pete’s company. Jesse also “adopts” a “grandfather” at the nursing home, so he can impress Bridget in that way also, but finds he comes to be quite attached to Mr. Dunkelman. Jesse also finds himself helping out people who have nothing to trade, just because Bridget likes them.

In short, Jesse’s soul of ice is starting to thaw. But now Bridget is dating Ken, and Ken has threatened to rip Jesse apart if he ever comes near Bridget. Worse yet, when confronted by Ken, Jesse denies he likes either Bridget or Pete, and Pete overhears this as well as the nature of the scheme that hooked up Ken with Bridget in the first place. It looks like Jesse’s “dynasty” is going to come apart, and he is about to lose everything: not only his “sway,” but what has come to be even more important to him: friendship, goodness, and redemption.

Evaluation: I didn’t expect to like this; Jesse is someone who seems very unappealing in the beginning of the book. But as the story unfolds, you get to know why he acts like he does, and what kind of person he really is inside. The dénouement was a little too Hollywood-ish, but it will probably please most readers.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers, 2014

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