Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Girl in the Glass

by Susan Meissner
Colorado Springs, CO : WaterBrook Press, 2012.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

Margaret has always dreamed of going to Florence, and her dad promised her nonna that he would bring her there someday. At the age of thirty, Meg is still waiting for her father to take that trip, though her parents are long divorced and he isn't known for following through on her promises. While working for a travel publisher, one of the writers in Florence sends Meg some chapters of a book that his neighbor, Sofia, has written. Meg is entranced by the book, in which the woman claims that she is a Medici, and one of her ancestors speaks to her through the art in Florence.

I've liked the two novels I've read by Susan Meissner - The Shape of Mercy and The Girl in the Glass. They're technically Christian fiction, but there's no real "message" and the Christianity isn't heavy-handed, so I would easily recommend her books to people who enjoyed gentle reads and didn't mind a brief mention of God and/or prayer. This story was full of peaks and valleys for me. I enjoyed the writing and descriptions, especially of Florence and its art. I enjoyed the memories of Nora Orsini, the Medici ancestor that Sofia hears, interspersed between chapters purposefully. I had a harder time with some of the plot points that were revealed later in the story, mainly because some revelations stretched my credulity and I personally had a hard time reconciling explanations from the beginning of the book with those revelations at the end. Still, it was a captivating enough story that I want to go visit Florence and read more about Renaissance history and the Medicis.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Minneapolis, MN : Carolrhoda Lab, 2012.

Lewis Michaux grew up in Newport News, Virginia, the son of a black man who worked hard to own his own business and a mother who birthed sixteen children - twelve living - and struggled with depression. He got in some trouble as a youngster, but was inspired to start a bookstore in Harlem in the 1930s that sold books by and about black people and became a cultural center known for visitors such as Malcolm X and others.

The subtitle bills this book as "a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux." The story is told in snippets, sections of it told by various people - Lewis, his parents, his brothers, his wife, bookstore visitors both historical and imaginary - and includes photographs of historic people and quotes from FBI files. It's a unique format for a compelling story. Being separated into small segments like it is, and covering several years, did mean that I got only glimpses of who the characters/people were like, and I sometimes wasn't clear on when things were happening.

I hadn't heard of Michaux before, but I loved his drive to provide books and education to his people. He seems like a really dynamic guy, and reading this, I was kind of sad that he was long gone before I was borne. The title comes from the Langston Hughes poem that begins, "Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. / It's had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor -- / Bare." This certainly seems to suit Michaux's life, as he went from barely making ends meet to becoming one of the truly respected men in his neighborhood. I really loved the quoted poetry and mentions of the books in his inventory; it added a lot to the story and made me want to read more. The bibliography at the back and notes on the text gave me some great sources to start with, and was really impressive for a fictional book.

This book was the winner of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books, and while I'm still a little sad that it beat Code Name Verity, which was one of my favorite reads last year, I am glad that this prompted me to read it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


by Rachel Hartman
New York : Random House, 2012.

The forty year celebration of the treaty between humans and dragons is approaching. When Prince Rufus is found killed dragon-style (he was decapitated), the tentative peace is on shakier ground than ever before. Seraphina, working as the assistant to Viridius, the head of music and composing at the castle, has a secret of her own that may shatter her life and the peace of the realm if it ever gets out.

I found this book tough to put down. The world-building is fabulous. The situation with the dragons is really inventive, and I loved how the dragons think so very logically, as well as the details about how they take human form within the city. I really liked how important music was. Seraphina was a sympathetic and complex character, and I enjoyed being in her head through the first-person narration, as well as her interactions with other characters, particularly Princess Glisselda and Prince Lucian.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor
New York : Scholastic (not sure what year my copy was published - the original is 1976).

Cassie Logan and her brothers Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man are growing up in Mississippi. The Logans are a strong family, working hard to make ends meet and pay for the land, which they're fortunate to own since most of their neighbors and friends are sharecroppers. This year will be a trying one for her as she deals with night riders and her father being gone to work on the railroad during the Depression.

I'm having a hard time summarizing this book because it's so much more than the plot. It's about a loving family, and a girl's growing up as she deals with racism and injustice. Cassie's a feisty heroine that you can't help but root for, and the other characters - her mother Mary, her grandmother Big Ma, her father, and more - are vividly portrayed. Though I was often upset by what happened, this is such a rich book that I didn't want it to end.

The audio is masterfully read by Lynne Thigpen, and included comments by the author on the final CD that explain a little about the story's origins.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lost in Shangri-La

by Mitchell Zuckoff
New York : HarperCollins, 2011.

A plane crash in New Guinea during World War 2 leaves a few survivors in a remote valley nicknamed "Shangri-La." The natives, rumored to be cannibals, have been isolated from the modern world and may have never seen a white person before. Meanwhile, back on the base in Hollandia, military personnel have a hard task before them in figuring out how to rescue the injured survivors.

Journalist Mitchell Zuckoff brings together interviews, one of the survivor's shorthand diary, military documents, photographs, and more to tell the story of the survivors and the native people involved in this fascinating tale of survival and rescue. He incorporates detail without sacrificing the pace of the narrative, and clearly made the effort to include the natives' perspectives of the events: he isn't writing from an anthropological perspective, but he strikes me as presenting a balanced view.

This was my second time reading it, and it was just as interesting to read as it was the first time.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

by Jean Lee Latham
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1983 (originally published 1955).

Growing up in Salem in the young United States, Nathaniel Bowditch is fantastic at figures but indentured at a young age. Instead of fulfilling his dream to go to Harvard, he must "sail by ash breeze" and teach himself everything he wants to learn.

I first read this Newbery award-winning book for school, and I loved it enough to read it multiple times afterwards. I haven't read it since childhood, however, so it was interesting to reread with an adult's eyes. I loved Nat and his notebooks as he learned new things, and I can relate to his desire to have the answers be right. On this reread, I found that as an adult I understood the conversations between characters - especially what's left unsaid - much more fully, and I'm not just talking about the vague references to salty language! I also had not picked up on how the author takes pains to use short sentences and, if not explaining something outright in the narrative, has characters explain some things about sailing or navigation so that children readers would be able to follow along. This last fact is the main reason I wouldn't bother to reread this book again (except, perhaps, as a read-aloud to young children), but I will be looking for another biography to read on Nathaniel Bowditch.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare
(originally published in 1600)

In this Shakespeare comedy, we have two pairs to keep track of: Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Bernadick. Hero and Claudio seem well on their way to matrimony until Don John, the bastard brother of the prince Don Pedro, decides to make trouble and break them up. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Bernadick seem more interested in trading barbs than anything else, but their friends decide to set them up and make them fall in love.

While this play doesn't have many recognizable one liners that are constantly quoted even once we've forgotten they're Shakespeare, I found myself wondering why Much Ado wasn't one of the plays I studied in high school or college. Because for just pure fun, and funny moments, and witticisms galore, this has suddenly become one of my favorite plays. Plus, it's fairly accessible - I truly barely needed the notes, and it's been a few years since I've read Shakespeare. It's worth reading just for the (very minor) characters of Verges and Dogberry, the witless malapropists. Why haven't I read this before now?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

by Lois Leveen
New York : William Morrow, c2012.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

As a child, Mary lives with her mother as slaves to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. When Bet, the daughter of her mistress, buys all the slaves and frees them, Mary's parents have to make difficult decisions about their future. Her father is still a slave for another master working as a blacksmith, and her mother doesn't want to leave him. Mary has an opportunity to go to school in Philadelphia, but that may mean leaving her parents behind forever.

I received this as an Early Reviewer book far too long ago, and I'm really unsure why I put it off so long. This book reads almost like a memoir of Mary, from the time she was a child through the end of the Civil War. It's really well done historical fiction, including a lot of period details without too many extraneous research details thrown in. Mary and Bet Van Lew were real people, and I was really interested in a lot of the extras included at the end, with photographs from Richmond and references to some of the books Leveen used in her research (I could have used a bibliography instead of footnotes to the historical note, but I'll take what I got to read further). Mary is a great character, and I enjoyed the way in which the varying beliefs about what was necessary to end slavery or to win the war was explored through the characters' motivations.