Kid Lit Review of “How Come” by Kathy Wollard

This book has some of the best explanations of natural phenomena I’ve ever encountered. Take the simple question, “why is the sky blue?” I have googled this and come up with many many hits, but none really made sense to me. This book, however, explains it in a way that gives you an “aha” moment. Even the questions she poses are great: Why, for example, does a mirror reverse images from side to side but not top to bottom? What do you really hear when you put a seashell to your ear? How do fish breathe underwater? Why do songs get stuck in your head? How does arm hair know to stop growing? Why does scratching make an itch feel better? Why can’t we tickle ourselves?


All of the questions in the book were submitted by real kids all over the world to Newsday’s “How Come” newspaper column.

Kids and parents alike will love the fun and plentiful cartoon-like color illustrations by Debra Solomon.

Evaluation: This is a terrific resource both for curious kids and for the parents who get posed all the questions from curious kids. Additionally, it will be a great help for kids who don’t get full answers in school. Originally published in 1993, this is an updated version with more precise answers and twenty new questions.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Workman Publishing Company, 2014

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Review of “A Banquet of Consequences” by Elizabeth George

This 19th book in the series featuring British Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley again focuses on Lynley’s partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.


The boss of Lynley and Havers, Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, now is holding a “sword of Damocles” over the head of Barbara Havers. Ostensibly, Havers is too unconventional for Ardery and too apt to flaunt the rules to get a result. It seems more likely, however (to me, anyway) – given Ardery’s unprofessional and vindictive ardor – that Ardery is projecting her own self-hatred and resentment of restrictions onto Havers. In any event, Ardery insisted Havers sign a transfer request to an out-of-the-way post in northern England, which Ardery will effectuate the moment she sees Ardery getting out of line. Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, even more patient and saintly than in the past, asks Ardery to give Havers a chance solving a new case, and Ardery agrees only if Havers is accompanied every moment by Detective Sergeant Winston Nkata, and if Lynley files a report on their activities and progress every single day.

Havers appreciates Lynley’s faith in her; her recent experience in the force has been enervating:

“Jaw clenching, lip biting, teeth grinding, fingernails digging, and tongue holding were all taking their toll, and Barbara wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold on to this new twist in her personality without the top of her head erupting.”

The case is a poisoning in Cambridge, and involves a group of very unsavory characters, whose pathological neediness has been murdering each other’s spirits; now one of them has engaged in bodily murder as well. The fact that all of them are so awful keeps the reader from figuring out which one actually committed the crime.

In investigating the case, both Havers and Lynley are struck by all the misery they uncover:

“Bloody Christ [Barbara thinks], there was so much sodding pain in the world. How did anyone manage to live to old age?”

Lynley too is reminded of the awful burden of losing someone to violence and feeling “the weight of responsibility and the equal weight of guilt to be left among the living.” Unlike Barbara though, he is desperate to have a new relationship that will blot out the pain of what he lost. Barbara hasn’t taken that road, but Ardery’s secretary, Dee Harriman, is determined to help Barbara find happiness as well.

Discussion: Although George’s books are not for those who like edge-of-their-seat page turners, they have a certain British charm and a lot of atmosphere-building. But it is generally a major commitment of time to read one of her books, and this one, like her others, could well have used some editing.

The ongoing series characters seem to be getting more rigid in their roles. Ardery is increasingly off the rails, and Lynley more saintly than seems reasonable. Only Barbara is still, thankfully, more or less normal. On the other hand, none of the temporary characters germane to the plot are anywhere close to normal, or at least, one hopes that is the case.

Evaluation: I think fans of the Inspector Lynley series will be pleased with this latest installment, although there is a considerable “ick” factor, at least with the people involved in the criminal aspects of the story. Then again, it’s hard to avoid that in a murder story I suppose, except maybe with “cozy” mysteries.

Rating: 3.5/5

Hardback published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Note:  I both read the book in hard copy and and listened to it on CD, because I was eager to hear how one narrator would manage all the different voices and accents in the book.  John Lee definitely has good intonation and pacing, and the listener is usually able to tell when one character stops speaking and another starts. The narrator does female voices okay, although I personally did not like the voice he gave to Isabel Ardery. On the other hand, I thought his Barbara Havers was excellent.

My only other quibble was that I find it hard to believe a man of Lynley’s background and education would mispronounce “forte” as the narrator does.

Audio version published unabridged on 18 CDs (21 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015

Series Listing from the first to most current “Inspector Lynley” books as of 2015:

A Great Deliverance (1988)
Payment In Blood (1989)
Well-Schooled In Murder (1990)
A Suitable Vengeance (1991)
For the Sake of Elena (1992)
Missing Joseph (1992)
Playing for the Ashes (1993)
In the Presence of the Enemy (1996)
Deception on His Mind (1997)
In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner (1999)
A Traitor to Memory (2001)
A Place of Hiding (2003)
With No One As Witness (2005)
What Came Before He Shot Her (2006)
Careless In Red (2008)
This Body of Death (2010)
Believing the Lie (2012)
Just One Evil Act (2013)
A Banquet of Consequences (2015)

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Review of “All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Holy cow, this book packs an emotional wallop! Had I known the subject matter in advance, I probably would have passed it up, being basically cowardly when it comes to emotional challenges. But I’m ever so glad I did not know, and so got to read it.

This is not a light book; it is full of pain as well as beauty. Nor does the author provide easy answers to the problems of mental anguish and bullying so well limned in the story. (She does, however, provide a quite extensive list of online resources in an Appendix.)


Mild Spoilers Ahead – To Avoid Any Spoilers, Proceed to Evaluation and Rating, Below

Narration alternates between two high school seniors, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. Both are very bright, but very troubled – Theodore more so than Violet. Violet still has not recovered from the death of her older sister Eleanor, who died nine months earlier in a car accident in which Violet survived. Violet won’t get into a car for any reason, can no longer write (she and Eleanor had a very popular blog they worked on together) and she now wears Eleanor’s glasses, even though they are not right for her vision. But doesn’t Eleanor still deserve to see the world now? It was Violet, after all, who suggested taking the icy bridge on their way driving home from a party, but it is Eleanor who ended up dead. “Every big or small moment I’ve lived since last April,” Violet thinks, “feels like cheating in some way.”

Theodore’s problems are even more serious than Violet’s. Theo, called Finch by his friends and Freak by everyone else, is brilliant, creative, and funny, but he is severely manic depressive. His single mom works two jobs, and pays no attention whatsoever to her three children, not even noticing Theo’s occasional long descents into darkness. She insists that the kids go see their father every Sunday, even though her ex beat her severely enough to land her in the hospital, and beat Theo regularly as well. But she doesn’t care because she wants the time to herself. Theo is a boy who has to adjust to the fact that even his own parents don’t care about him. He feels broken, and impossible to love. Theo is constantly thinking of different methods to commit suicide.

Finch and Violet meet on the top of the school bell tower, where both of them are checking out the possibility of a suicide jump. Finch saves Violet, but lets the school think she in fact was up there to save him. Finch doesn’t care; everyone already thinks he is a freak. He is entranced with Violet, and in geography class, where they have to pair up for a project on “The Wonders of Indiana,” Finch calls out that he wants Violet as his partner.

As they go see the local “wonders” (highest point, the quarry from which stone came to build the Empire State Building, a giant sycamore that grew from a seed taken to the moon and back, etc.), they become close, and eventually fall in love. Finch helps Violet heal, but she can’t help Theo. And in the end, when she once again has to cope with loss, she finds out how much Finch actually gave to her.

Discussion: There are so many poignant passages in this book, evincing Finch’s poetic soul as well as his pain and longing. It’s difficult to pick just one to showcase:

I walk through the black Indiana night, under a ceiling of stars, and think about the phrase ‘elegance and euphoria,’ and how it describes exactly what I feel with Violet.

For once, I don’t want to be anyone but Theodore Finch, the boy she sees. He understands what it is to be elegant and euphoric and a hundred different people, most of them flawed and stupid, part asshole, part screwup, part freak, a boy who wants to be easy for the folks around him so that he doesn’t worry them and, most of all, easy for himself. A boy who belongs – here in the world, here in his own skin. He is exactly who I want to be and what I want my epitaph to say: The Boy Violet Markey Loves.

Later, Finch will recreate that night for Violet, in “the single loveliest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

Evaluation: This book, which I found on a list of “Best YA Books of All Time” is thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, and definitely lives up to the standard suggested by Franz Kafka, that “A literary work must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015

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Review of “Steelheart” by Brandon Sanderson

I wanted to read this book because it has garnered many awards, especially in the categories of “favorite teen books.” I was surprised (but perhaps should not have been) to find that this book seemed more like a computer game or Marvel Comic Book in prose – sort of like a reverse graphic novel.


The narrator is David Charleston, 18, who is living in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, now called Newcago. Twelve years earlier, “Calamity” appeared in the sky, and the next year, ordinary men started changing into “Epics” – people who had some sort of superpower (which varied among Epics). No one knows what Calamity is or how the Epics came into being, but there are plenty of theories, including a popular one of a government project gone wrong.

The second year after Calamity, David had an unfortunate encounter of his own with a couple of Epics, and he was the lone survivor. Ever since, he vowed somehow to get revenge on Steelheart, the “super” Epic who had killed his father and everyone else around him that day.

David has lived his life underground, like most of the other denizens of Newcago, studying the Epics to find out each one’s power and each one’s weakness (classically known as the Achilles Heel but now referred to as the“Kryptonite Factor”).


At the same time, David also has been searching for the “Reckoners,” a shadowy group who occasionally assassinated powerful Epics; he wants to join this group, and manages both to find them and to prove his worth. But can anyone really combat superpowers? And David is impulsive, impetuous, and reckless, qualities that can sometimes work out, but more often, put the group into very big danger.

The Reckoners manage to come up with some super skills of their own, thanks to the prowess of their leader, “Prof.” These enhanced capabilities prove to be very fun for David, who, in any event, doesn’t really act much more mature than a young boy who reads comics all the time. David also falls into Insta-Love with one of the Reckoners, one who is nasty and volatile but happens to be beautiful, which is enough for David.

The author lightens up the action by two humorous themes running through the story: the attempt by one of the Reckoners to speak and act Scottish, and David’s ineptness at making metaphors. I thought each of these threads peurile or corny rather than funny, but I’m probably older than most of the target reading group.

Finally, the “depth” of the book also seemed to me similar to a comic book; i.e., there didn’t seem to be much.

Although there is a sequel, I didn’t really care enough about the characters or their world to want to keep going.

Evaluation: If you like stories about superheroes (with all the standard tropes); the sort of worlds they inhabit; and the kind of action sequences found in comic books and online gaming, this book will have much appeal. It is hugely popular with its intended audience.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Dragonsteel Entertainment, 2013

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Kid Lit Review of “I’m Right Here” by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen


This unusual story is about a little boy named William who, while taking a walk with his grandma, asks her if she is ever afraid. They then compare their fears. The little boy is afraid of typical things that scare kids, like angry dogs, stinging wasps, dangerous fires, sharks, wars, thunder and lightning.


The grandmother, amazing honest for a kid’s book, points out the things she is afraid of, such as never again seeing flowers in bloom, or hearing the birds sing in the springtime. The boy doesn’t get it.


Grandma explains that when she was young, she had fears more like those of the little boy. Now that she is old, “I’m just afraid of losing everything I love.” She explains:

“‘When we get old, we die,’ says Grandma, ‘and then I won’t be able to see you anymore.’”

He asks, couldn’t she see him from wherever she goes? And couldn’t she then still see the flowers and birds, and “everything”?

“‘You are absolutely right,’” says Grandma.

So, the boy concludes, Grandma needn’t be afraid anymore:

“‘No, I don’t need to be,’ she smiles, ‘when I can see everything I love.’ She ruffles Willima’s hair a bit. ‘Maybe you’ll see me too?’ ‘I guess I will,’ William says, and smiles back.”

Illustratrator Akin Duzakin uses a soft focus and an alternating palette to contrast the fears of the boy and the grandmother. The overall tone is of warmth and comfort, especially in the pictures that close the story.

Evaluation: This books provides a very nice way to teach small children about the different perspectives of children and adults, and to open discussions about fears in general and about death in particular.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2015

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Review of “I’ve Got Your Number” by Sophie Kinsella

Poppy Wyatt, 29, is about to be married to Magnus Tavish. Poppy is dazzled by the fact that she, a physiotherapist, has snagged Magnus, who is a Fellow at King’s College London, and is from a family of intellectual over-achievers. She feels intimidated by them, but resolves to “better” herself to win their respect.


As the story begins, she is at a pre-wedding girls event at a hotel, and through a series of unfortunate events, manages to lose her heirloom engagement ring. Then her cell phone gets stolen. She sees an abandoned phone in the hotel lobby trash, and in desperation, decides to use it until her phone is recovered.

The phone turns out to belong to the former Personal Assistant of a businessman, Sam Roxton, and she is soon inundated with messages for Sam. Then Sam himself calls. He tries to get his phone back, but she begs to keep it for a couple more days, since she has now given this number out as a contact number in case her ring is found. She promises Sam to forward all his messages until he arranges to have his data switched to a new number.

But of course Poppy reads through Sam’s messages, and soon thinks she should start answering them, because Sam seems to be ignoring them. Catastrophes ensue, and before long, Poppy is involved in the thick of Sam’s business, and he in the thick of her relationship with Magnus.

Evaluation: This story is absolutely predictable, yet totally charming and and a joy to read. The dialogue is full of funny repartee and the characters are endearing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, 2012

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Review of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” by David Lagercrantz

Note: No spoilers are contained in this review.

After the 2004 death of the author Stieg Larsson, fans of “The Millennium Series” were hoping someone new would come along to continue the franchise past the original three books. (Originally, there were to be ten books in this series.) A widely-publicized dispute ensued between Larsson’s family and his girlfriend, who had custody of his laptop allegedly containing outlines of additional books. David Lagercrantz did not have access to any of this material, but took it upon himself to soldier on without it. I think he did an excellent job.


We continue with the same characters as in previous books including Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist obsessed with social justice; Erika Berger, his (married) co-worker and occasional lover; and Lisbeth Salander, “the girl with the dragon tattoo”.

Lisbeth, the undoubted star of the series, is in her late twenties, small, slight, and goth-looking, and comes from a horrific past in which she was systematically abused and used as a scapegoat. She has grown up to be justifiably distrustful, brilliant, resourceful, way tougher than she looks, and admittedly not the sort of person you would want to cross. As Blomkvist mused about Lisbeth: “Salander was not one to forget an injustice. She retaliated and she righted wrongs.” This doesn’t work out well for some, since she has a special hatred for men prone to violence against women and children.

Like the previous books, the beginning of this one is very complex; the author takes on the very timely topic of computer hacking, specifically relating to the stealing of corporate secrets and confidential business information. Because so much modern-day commerce is global in scope, and because the internet serves to increase international connectivity, more than one nation is involved in this case. Moreover, the national intelligence services of both the U.S. and Sweden are also involved because there are no more discreet lines (indeed, if there ever have been), between industrial and political espionage, especially since governments now contract out so much military research and development.

Edward Snowden revealed NSA has spent nearly $80 million on a quantum supercomputer, one of the subjects of this book

Edward Snowden revealed NSA has spent nearly $80 million on a quantum supercomputer, one of the subjects of this book

Even with all the background we have to absorb in the beginning, the suspense and excitement begin right away. The internal computers of NSA have been hacked; a top specialist at a firm working on artificial intelligence has suddenly quit his job in the U.S. and left for Sweden; and the Russian mobsters associated with Lisbeth’s late father are still plying their trade, i.e., running a criminal network that sells drugs and arms, and profits from the exploitation of women. All of these elements turn out to be related, and all are right up the metaphorical alleys of both Lisbeth and Blomkvist.

Tension escalates as the connections unfold. And as both Mikael and Lisbeth get more deeply involved, there are plenty of heart-racing escapes and non-escapes.

Discussion: Lagercrantz, who previously wrote a book on the computer genius Alan Turing, knows his way around computers, but does not make the subject more complex than it needs to be, or more complicated than will be comfortable for readers.

He brings in some new characters, including a wonderful child named August who has a central part to play, as well as giving characters from previous books – like Inspector Jan Bublanski, more prominent roles. But I thought the author overly relied on use of the third person. I did not feel like I got to know the characters as well as in the previous books, or feel as invested in them, since they were kept at more of a distance. In addition, the author’s decision to have a female gay character continually refer to another female professional in her field as “honey” or “sweetheart” didn’t sit well with me.

Jim, who also read this book as well as the previous books in the series, thought that in this book, Lisbeth was too cartoonish in a comic book superhero kind of way. I disagreed; I felt the author dealt with this very issue by taking pains to have Lisbeth’s mentor explain to Blomkvist how engrossed Lisbeth had been as a child with Marvel comics and with the universe of superheroes who fought supervillains. In particular Lisbeth was inspired by the heroine Janet van Dyne, or “Wasp,” and she made it a goal to be as much like her as possible.

Marvel Comics Janet Van Dyne, also known as “The Wasp”

Marvel Comics Janet Van Dyne, also known as “The Wasp”

Jim also thought the tension level was less than the previous books, and he believes that the amazing success of the hackers was far-fetched (perhaps because he doesn’t even know where the power button is on his computer). Again, I disagreed on both counts. He enjoyed it a lot though, and like me, is looking forward to reading further books in the series.

Evaluation: This is an intelligent, heart-racing series of books, with the latest installment by a new author by no means a disappointment.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015

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