Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Hate You Give

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Harper Collins, 2017, Young Adult Fiction, 444 p.
Starr Carter lives in the slums of large city, but attends an upscale private school where she and her brothers are the only black students.  One night she is in a car when one of her black friends, Khalil, is unjustly shot by a white police officer.  Starr gives her testimony to the police detectives, but that is not the end of her story.  Activists seize Khalil's death as an opportunity to spotlight racial profiling and protests break out across the country.  Starr is torn between her desire to live a normal life, and a growing sense that in order for Khalil to receive justice, she will have to abandon here safe anonymity and speak out.

I read this book for two reasons.  It received starred reviews in every major review journal the year it came out, and it was the most often banned book the year it came out (and it was national Banned Book Week.)  It is no surprise that it was frequently banned. The density of swear words is approaching 10% -20 %.  I must admit, it was hard for me to read.

I am glad I persisted. I kept telling myself that to truly understand someone you need to "walk a mile in their shoes".  That is what reading the book does, it allows you not only to see but to feel a little of what it is like to have grown up as a racial minority in an underprivileged community.  It helped me understand why some groups are so full of rage after decades of maltreatment.  It also showed me that in the "slums" people, despite their troubles, can grow close and make great sacrifices to try to support each other.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Bushnell's Submarine: The Best Kept Secret of the American Revolution
Bushnell's Submarine: The Best Kept Secret of the American Revolution
By Arthur S. Lefkowitz
Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006, Nonfiction, 125pg.

David Bushnell is a little known American inventor. At the age of 31 he entered Yale College in 1771 and graduated just as the American Revolution began. His invention is considered one of the earliest submarines, and was one of the first to be used in combat. Designed with the intention of helping the rebel American's fight off the British Navy (the most powerful Navy in the world at that time), Bushnell's submarine was a example not only of advanced scientific engineering, but of American patriotism. Though his submarine never succeeded in blowing up a British ship, it's tale is one of heroism and the fascinating question of "What if it had worked?"

This really is a interesting story of history and Lefkowitz does an excellent job of telling it. Though his writing is steeped in research, it does not take on the erudite tone that can make a nonfiction history books terribly boring. It is told in a simple easy to read language. It is also not incredibly long. However, readers are able to walk away feeling like they have learned a great deal about the war, the people, science, and what the early patriots were will up against in their battle against Britain. This is a great book for history fans in general, but especially early American history buffs. This would also be a great title for anyone who want's to read a nonfiction book, but doesn't want to get bogged down in a large tome filled with unfamiliar terminology.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
Bantam Books, 2010, Fiction, 385 p.
Flavia is an 11-year-old girl who lives in a venerable old house in England. Her mother has died, and she lives with two sisters, her father, and some domestics.  Flavia is obsessed with chemistry and is never happier than when she is distilling poisons in her great uncle's laboratory.  One day she hears an argument in her father's study, and then finds a man dead in the house's culinary garden. Could her father be a murder?  The police think so and it is up to Flavia to prove them wrong, if she can.

The charm of this book is Flavia's complex personality.  She is at once intrepid and vulnerable, cold blooded and compassionate.  Bradley has caught the essence of per-pubescent exuberance, still unfettered by hormones or social consciousness.  On top of that, Bradley has created a host of other interesting characters, a charming setting, and a well crafted plot.  This is an older book, but definitely worth trying if you haven't already.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confident
Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confident
By Shrabani Basu
Penguin Random House, 2017, Nonfiction. 334 p.
During Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, she arranged for some men from India to be hired to work as servants in her household.  One of the men was Abdul Karim, a 25-year-old office clerk from Agra. Something clicked between Karim and the Queen, and soon she asked him to give her Urdu lessons.  Karim didn't know much English, but as they learned each other's languages, they became dear friends.  The other members of court were worried about the closeness of the Queen and this dark Indian man of low birth and did everything they could to discredit him in the Queen's eyes, but she stayed faithful to him to the end.  He, in turn, helped her understand India, the land that she ruled but that she would never be able to see. 
If you are a history buff, this is the book for you. Basu's account is based entirely on historical documents including letters, journals and newspaper articles that give a 360 degree look at the inside of Queen Victoria's life and household.  Basu is very careful not to add to much from her own imagination. and lets the reader make their own judgement on the most fascinating questions, such as what was Karim really like? Was he a opportunist, playing on the sympathies of an old and lonely woman as the court thought, or was he an enlightened and wise companion that helped Victoria understand the people over whom she ruled as the Queen herself thought? This is an intriguing story and a glimpse into real life history on a very human level.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Serpent's Secret
The Serpent's Secret
(Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond, Book 1)
Scholastic Press, 2018, Intermediate Fiction, 368 p.
Kiran has always been a little embarrassed by her parents.  While she just wants to fit in, they persist in emphasizing her Bengali Indian heritage. They cook weird food, have a weird yard, and, worst of all, make her dress up like an Indian princess every Halloween, which is also her birthday.  The year she turns 12 she decides to put her foot down. She is just about to tell her parents she will be a vampire for Halloween, thank you very much, when instead of finding her parents at home, she finds a raging demon tearing up her kitchen.  She is "rescued" from the demon, called a rokkhosh, by two young men who claim to be princes, and starts on a crazy adventure in the world where Indian mythology is real.

This is another great choice for those who like Rick Riordan's earlier Percy Jackson series.  Kiran is a gutsy heroine who gradually comes to appreciate who, and what, she really is. The two princes are also appealing characters, and the reader wonders how the relationship between them and Kiran will develop in later books in the series.  Das Gupta's settings are fantastic and capture the dream-like world of very ancient mythology while incorporating elements of modern science. She ends the book with a note about which stories were based on which Indian Bengali folk tales, and gives their sources.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


by Gordon Korman
Scholastic Press, 2016. Intermediate Fiction, 320 p
Cameron Boxer is not only a slacker, he is the Michelangelo, the Mozart, the Einstein of slackers. He has absolutely no interests except playing computer games. He gets so engrossed playing online one day that he almost allows his home to burn down.  In response, his parents challenge him to join some kind of extracurricular group unrelated to gaming.  Cameron and his friends decide to create a fake service club at their school with themselves as its only members.  Their plan backfires when other people in the school, including the school counselor, get involved.

Here is another funny school story by the guy that brought us Ungifted and Restart.  As always, Korman is right on target with his depiction of junior high interactions and social quirks. The obsessed crusaders, the hopeful administrator, the brainy side kick, the skeptical sister, they are all here, but Korman lifts them above stereotypes.  Instead they are funny, likable people feel like you have known all your life.  This is the great choice for Korman fans, or for anyone who likes a light, funny, fast, read with a little heart.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Pay Attention, Carter Jones
Pay Attention, Carter Jones
by Gary Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2019. I FIC. 217 p.
Carter's father is serving in Afghanistan, and his mother is struggling to make ends meet.  Carter helps out with his little sisters when he can but he can tell life is hard for his mom. Then one day, Mr. Bowls-Fitzpatrick, a butler from England who drives a eggplant colored Bentley, shows up on the doorstep. The butler quickly takes the family in hand and with courtesy, decorum, and a bit of self importance, starts to sort things out.  He is determined to make Carter into a gentleman, and one way to do that, in his opinion, is to teach Carter and his friends to play cricket.  Carter resists at first, but little does he know that the game, and the butler, is just what he needs to get through the challenges headed for his life. 

I love Gary Schmidt (Wednesday Wars, and Okay for Now) and, as bizarre as the premise for this book is, I loved it, too. When it comes to tender adult/child relationships, Schmidt just has the velvet touch.  It is all about good people helping other good people get through tough times.  I also liked Schmidt's emphasis on what is means to be a gentleman, and how dignity and decorum can make life run more smoothly. It is a lesson any of us would do well to remember.