Review of “The Odds of You and Me” by Cecilia Galante

Bernadette (“Bird”) Connolly, 25, only has 13 days left until the end of her probation for having written some bad checks at the grocery store when she was desperate to provide for herself and her new toddler Angus. She already paid off the restitution fees, and is looking forward to moving with Angus to a nice new place, instead of living with her mother, with whom she argues constantly. Bird’s mother is deeply religious, and doesn’t approve of her daughter. The mom also repeatedly harps on Bird to go to the Catholic Church, but Bird doesn’t believe in God. Explaining about the difference between herself and her mother, she thinks:

“She took things on faith, simply because, long ago, she had decided to believe. That wasn’t enough for me. If I was going to believe in something, if I was going to stand in awe of a fact, I wanted to know that I was doing so for a logical, defined reason. That it deserved to be believed in; because it was not only worthy of, but merited, my awe.”

There was another reason she eschewed faith. Ever since Bird’s beloved father died in an auto accident and the priest told her it was okay because Jesus was there with him (as he died), Bird turned away from religion.

Before Angus was born, when Bird worked at a burger restaurant, she became friends with a kitchen worker, James Rittenhouse. She was dating the manager, Charlie, but that was mostly sex. Her relationship with James was something different. Unlike Charlie, James was shy and kind, and seemed to “get” Bird in a way no one else did. He saw her for what she was and it didn’t change how he felt toward her, and that meant everything to Bird.

The story goes back and forth in time, and it takes a while to find out what happened with Bird, Charlie, and James, and how it is that now, five years later, Bird is a single mom and James is on the run from police. But unfortunately what happened in the past suddenly becomes central to Bird’s life again, and could jeopardize the future for which she had worked so hard.

The ending is realistic, if not what readers may want. And Bird finally comes to understand that she could show the same compassion to, and forgiveness for, herself that she extends to others.

Evaluation: This story moved a little slowly for my tastes, but it’s good, and quite poignant and thought-provoking. It would make an excellent choice for book clubs.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “I Like, I Don’t Like” by Anna Baccelliere

This book teaches a lesson about poverty and child labor. Children from more affluent circumstances are shown on one side of the double-page spreads, claiming they “like” objects that are fun and/or luxurious, while on the other side, the children who have to make and/or labor over those objects say they don’t like them.

Some examples include a kid playing with lego bricks on one side, and a kid having to cart piles of bricks on his head on the other. There are happy kids eating rice juxtaposed with kids having to plant and pick the rice. A kid on one side claims “I like playing” while on the other, a kid asks, “What is playing?”

The illustrators Alessandro Lecis and Alessandra Panzeri, who work together as “Ale + Ale,” carry the weight of the story with mixed-media illustrations.

Evaluation: This book will encourage children to look at the world from someone else’s point of view – perhaps more important now than ever, and to feel gratitude for what they have. I think it definitely would benefit to have an adult reading along with the child to explain how kids who live in impoverished countries and even in poverty in wealthier countries have limited choices and opportunities.

The author explains in her Afterword:

“More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all U.S. children – live below the poverty line, and many children throughout the world must work to help their families.”

Lastly, she also provides information on “How Can I Help” regarding opportunities to fight poverty both at home and abroad.

Published in English by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017

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Review of “By Your Side” by Kasie West

This young adult book is like a retelling of “The Breakfast Club” but with a sequel added.

Autumn Collins is the popular girl from a well-off family in Utah who gets stuck in the library over the weekend with Dax Miller, a “bad boy” – who, it turns out, is not bad at all, but in fact, almost perfect. He is not well known and is misunderstood by the kids in school, who have judged him on erroneous rumors.

At first the two are hostile toward one another, but predictably become allies and perhaps even more than that. When in school, Autumn had convinced herself she wanted the attention of Jeff, a fun boy in her crowd. But Dax makes Autumn feel relaxed, something she hasn’t experienced with anyone else.

Distinguishing the plot a bit is the fact that Autumn has anxiety attacks, for which she takes medication (but doesn’t have any with her in the library) and is a condition that even her closest friends don’t know about. She is hyper-sensitive to what her friends think of what she does and who she is, and guides her life by that. With Dax, she learns there can be another way of living. But needless to say, it takes her almost to the end of the book to have this epiphany.

Evaluation: The writing isn’t all that sophisticated, but the plot line is an enduringly appealing one, especially for teens nowadays, who might not even aware (how can that be?!) of “The Breakfast Club”, the 1985 coming-of-age comedy-drama film written, produced, and directed by John Hughes, with the parts analogous to Autumn and Dax played by Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson. Or if you are one of the many fans frustrated by no sequel and are always imagining what would come next, this book might appeal to you.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

From the movie "The Breakfast Club"

From the movie “The Breakfast Club”

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Review of “A Needle in the Right Hand of God : The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry by R. Howard Bloch

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a remarkable historical artifact.  It is the source of much of what is known about 11th century England and the Norman Conquest of 1066.  The cloth itself is 210 feet long and 24 inches high. 

Small segment of the tapestry

Small segment of the tapestry

Technically, it is not a tapestry at all but rather an embroidery, which is a cloth featuring decorative needlework done usually on loosely woven cloth or canvas, often being a picture or pattern.  This particular work of art provides a series of 50 panels depicting scenes of the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England and the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066, “one of the determining days in the making of the West.”

normans_bayeux

No one knows for certain who commissioned it, and there are arguments to be made for a number of different sources in different countries; above all, the tapestry does not seem to favor the victors or vanquished consistently. 

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The book by R. Howard Bloch is very learned, but not always interesting.  The author spends a lot of time describing the process by which the embroidery was created, intermixed with a narrative of the historical events portrayed. The organization of the book was difficult to understand from the audio version.  It skipped from a history of the events commemorated in the tapestry to technicalities of producing the object.  Even the history jumps about without a coherent sequential narrative. 

Detail of stitching

Detail of stitching

I strongly recommend reading as opposed to listening to the book because it deals with a work of visual art.  The author frequently refers to aspects of the scenes portrayed and to the techniques of representation used by the artists who created the work, often referring to particular panels by number, which of course a listener cannot see.  That kind of writing would be much more interesting if reinforced by a picture of the subject, apparently available in the published version of the book.  

Rating: The audio book is worth only 2.5 stars, but a printed version might be worth 3 or 3.5 stars.

Published in hardback by Random House, 2006

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Stephen Hoye did a fine job.  He is the winner of a number of AudioFile Earphones Awards.  But I did not think the book was necessarily a good choice for audio.

Published unabridged on 6 CDs (7 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2007

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Review of “The Horse Dancer” by Jojo Moyes

This is from Jojo Moyes’ backlist, only recently published in the U.S. I am always glad for another book to read by this author!

The Horse Dancer tells the story of Sarah Lachapelle, who has just turned 14 when we first meet her. She lives alone with her grandfather, called Papa, since the death of her grandmother four years previously. After Nana died, Papa got a horse for Sarah to take their minds off of the loss. The horse, nicknamed Boo, is a Selle Français, a breed of sport horse from France renowned primarily for its success in show jumping. He has a “sweet, almost doglike nature,” and is unfazed by the heaviest traffic. This is helpful since Boo is housed in an urban stable yard in London. The yard is run by Cowboy John, one of the original members of the Philadelphia Black Cowboys.

Ron Tarver, “A Ride by North Philly Rows, 1993”
The Studio Museum in Harlem

[There is a century-long tradition of black urban cowboys and horsemanship in Philadelphia. Local horsemen maintain and care for horses, and teach neighborhood youth to do so as well. The horses are ridden throughout the city’s streets and parks, and regular races are held on an open strip of Fairmount Park called the Speedway. You can read more about the Philadephia Black Cowboys here. There is also an excellent middle grade book about them by G. Neri called Ghetto Cowboy. My review is here.)]

Denizen of Fletcher Street Stables in Philadelphia

Sarah’s Papa, Henri, used to be with the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. This 250-year-old group of elite equestrian riders has been in existence since the 1700’s, and it was (and still is) an honor to be chosen for its academy. It’s mission (as stated on its website) is “to develop horse training, to teach riding for sport, and to teach the equestrian professions.”

Henri has been trying to train Sarah in the basics of dressage, an equestrian sport defined by the International Equestrian Federation as “the highest expression of horse training” in which “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.” The horse learns to respond to minimal cues from the rider. As Sarah explains:

“It’s about trying to achieve the perfect communication. And a little movement of your finger on a rein or a tiny adjustment of weight might do that. . . . It’s not just technical – it’s about two minds, two hearts . . . trying to find a balance. It’s about what passes between you. . . . when Boo gets it… when we get it right together, there’s just no feeling like it.”

Sarah also studies the book used by Papa, On Horsemanship, a treatise on horsemanship by the Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BC). This book is still considered to be the vade mecum for modern dressage, and a quote from the book precedes each chapter in The Horse Dancer.

Henri surprises Sarah with tickets to go to France and see the Cadre Noir, but then he is suddenly hospitalized by a debilitating stroke. Now Sarah is alone in their apartment, without money even for food, and without money to pay for the stabling of Boo. Cowboy John, who has been a friend of Henri’s for years, would cover Sarah, but he has decided to retire and go back to the States, selling the stables to a less than savory character named Maltese Sal. Maltese Sal offers to pay for Boo’s food and stabling, but for a price Sarah is loathe to pay.

Juxtaposed to Sarah’s story is that of Natasha, a 35-year-old Solicitor Advocate specializing in children’s cases at a high-pressure law firm. “Tash” is separated from her husband Mac, and is seeing another member of the firm, Conor.

Tash has her own consuming problems. Her marriage with Mac had disintegrated “slowly, from neglect.” But mainly it died because of misunderstandings that grew out of Natasha’s insecurities. Mac was a photographer and worked with many young beautiful models, all of whom found Mac charming and attractive. How could Natasha compete? Plus she had had three miscarriages in four years; why wouldn’t Mac prefer some young fertile beauty to her?

“…with each miscarriage, her confidence in her own femininity had shrunk. . . .She had begun to feel old, dried up inside. And there he stood, charming them, perhaps already planning some new relationship with a younger, more beautiful partner. One who would give him children. How could he be expected to hang around now?”

Tash also had a devasting situation at work, in which a child for whom she had advocated may have turned out to be a criminal. Now she has “lost faith in her ability to see whether I’m being taken for a ride.”

With each perceived “failure,” Natasha judges herself harshly, and projects that judgment onto others, letting those negative perceptions color her relationships.

Sarah and Tash, each drowning in her own way, improbably meet, and are metaphorically challenged with the life equivalent of the capriole – a gravity-defying leap in dressage. It is considered to be the most difficult of all the airs above the ground, or higher-level, Haute ecole, classical dressage movements in which the horse leaves the ground. Whether they can each manage to rise up from the low level their lives have pushed them is up in the air, so to speak.

The capriole

Evaluation: Can Jojo Moyes write a bad book? I haven’t seen any evidence of it so far. This story is wonderful, and the ending is just lovely.

Rating: 4/5

Published in Great Britain in 2009; published in the U.S. by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

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