Thursday, April 3, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

The blurb:
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes for beauty--the opposite of the life she's left behind in New York.  She marries a local widower and becomes a stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.  

A wicked stepmother us a creature Bit never imagined she'd become, but elements of the familiar aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy's daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned expose the Whitmans as light-skinned African-Americans passing for white.  Among them Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

In Boy, Snow, Bird  we read a subversive reversal of sorts of the story of Snow White.  Told from the point of view of Snow's stepmother, we learn of her marginalized status growing up, the humiliation and exclusion that came with her poverty.  Oyeyemi describes with sympathy and humor what Boy went through as she nervously faced the socially superior and wealthy family of her suitor.  It is easy to sympathize with her sense of isolation and social discomfort and somehow Boy becomes very different from the Disney stepmother that we'd grown up with.

In small ways, through stories of Boy's friends and acquaintances, Oyeyemi gently discusses beauty, how quickly it passes, and how we allow or don't allow ourselves to be defined by our beauty.   Also woven into the story are anecdotes and reminders of what it was like to be African American during that time - the physical violence, the subtle prejudices, and sympathy for the struggle to be seen beyond one's color or race.  

Snow in Boy, Snow Bird is very different from the Disney sweet princess.  She's very aware of her beauty, of how her lightness/whiteness makes her desirable and valued in her family and of how she subtly dismisses and hurts the darker members of her family.   As we see Snow from Boy's point of view, it's harder to like this version of the girl.  Her dark half-sister, Bird, is a much more sympathetic character and there is considerable tension from not knowing what sort of mischief Snow might play on her younger sister.  

  • ISBN-10: 1594631395 - Hardcover $27.95
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (March 6, 2014), 320 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Reviewer Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently, White is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, and Mr. Fox, which won a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.  In 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Two Boys Kissing by David Leviathan

The blurb:
The two boys kissing are Craig and Harry.  They're hoping to set the world's record for the longest kiss. They're not a couple, but they used to be.

Peter and Neil are a couple.  Their kisses are different.

Avery and Ryan have only just met and are trying to figure out what happens next.  Both of them worry that something will go wrong.

Cooper is alone.  It's getting to the point where he doesn't really feel things anymore.

These boys along with their friends and families, form a tapestry that will reveal love of all kinds: open and eager, tentative and cautious, pained and scared.  New York Times bestselling author David Leviathan has sewn together their lives into a redemptive whole that will captivate, illuminate, and move readers.

I'd received a copy of Two Boys Kissing during BEA last year.  It's a book that I expected to find interesting but had delayed reading.  When I did start the book, I was drawn in and couldn't put it down.  Though a straight woman, I'd grown up quite close to my gay uncle and his friends, so I found myself reading the book in part for myself and in part to share it with my uncle and friends.  Two Boys Kissing was my first exposure to gay literature and it was a wonderful introduction. 

The narrative voice of Two Boys Kissing is a chorus of older gay men, those close to my uncle's ages - men in their mid to late 60s.    It was this voice that drew me to the book and caught my sympathy.  Leviathan acknowledges what it was like to grow up in the time of this older generation and what these "pioneers" might think and say to the young gay men of today.   There is great sympathy, celebration of youth, identity and love.  

The young boys are interesting in their own right.  We read about Korean American Neil and his young boyfriend and best friend Peter.  Peter is out to his family and has an amazing support system.  Neil is not out for most of the book but when he does declare his sexuality, it isn't a surprise to his parents or his sister.  Neil and Peter live near each other in a small town and are comfortable walking to each other's houses, spending much of their waking time together, both in and out of school.  It's a love story that seems comfortable and sweet - and the absence of fear and censure is wonderful. 

Craig and Harry have a much more complicated relationship.  Their breakup was very civil and they'd continued as friends although Craig had a much harder time recovering.  Their mutual determination not to lose touch or to move apart gives their relationship a special tie as well.  It's easy to sympathize with both Harry and Craig and to appreciate how they can continue as close friends throughout their lives - though the chorus and the book doesn't presume to predict that far in advance.  Both Harry and Craig are solid characters, well developed and very sympathetic.    Harry's family is very supportive of his sexuality.  Craig's family learns his secret unexpectedly and it the process of acceptance is painful and difficult - which makes Craig a convincing character.    The book makes you wonder just how supportive people's families are in these situations and how hard it must have been 20 or 30 years ago.

There are the singles in the book that have their own complicated stories.  Two Boys Kissing doesn't shirk from touching on violence, intimidation, what it's like to be the target of hate.   I found the book engrossing, sympathetic and a window into what it might be like to be a young gay man.  I'm sure that there are grittier, sadder accounts but Two Boys Kissing is the sort of book that you could share with both a young man exploring his identity and those who love him and are trying to understand what he might face.

  • ISBN-10: 1405264438 - Paperback $9.95
  • Publisher: Electric Monkey (March 27, 2014), 256 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Hundred Horses by Sarah Lean

The blurb:
Nell is not happy about spending her school vacation on a boring farm with relatives she does not know.  But when a half-wild and mysterious girl named Angel steals the suitcase containing Nell's most precious procession, the two girls are united in an adventure of Angel's devising.  Nighttime  meetings and a horse that might just be magical pique Nell's curiosity, and soon she may find a way to put together the mystery of who Angel really is, understand the legends about the herd of a hundred horses, and also discover something special about herself.

Eleven-year-old Nell has a very busy schedule during the school year with all her after school activities.  There's drama club, math tutor, and swimming club to start.  When she gets home, it seems like her mother is always working or on the phone or focused on something else.   Nell was looking forward to spending her two weeks of Spring Break with her Nana just playing cards, talking, watching videos and tv.  But a medical emergency causes a change of plan and Nell readies herself to spend her weeks with relatives she's never met: Aunt Liv and her two young children on a farm.  

When Nell packs her bags, she comes across the carousel of metal horses that her father had made. It's the only thing that she has left of him.  Her mother had removed all traces of him after he abandoned them.  Nell wants to put the carousel together again and worries that her mother might discover this last trace of her father. She hides the carousel with her bag and brings it to Aunt Liv's.

Nell's not excited to spend the next weeks with chickens, geese, pigs, horses, cats, five-year-old Gem and seven-year-old Alfie.  But Gem and Alfie are so happy to have her with them, introducing her to the animals, baking her cupcakes, showing her all their favorite places.  She's the Big Sister-Cousin to them and she loves them back.

Nell encounters eleven-year-old Angel and is warned against her.  Regarded as a troublemaker and living in the woods, Angel is associated with all sorts of disappearing animals and property.  Angel seems surly, hostile, but there's something about her that reminds Nell of herself.   Nell learns about Angel and where she stays from her young cousins.  Nell searches for Angel and when she does find her, she follows her clues, and slowly makes friends.  

Angel forces Nell to take risks and keep secrets.  But their friendship brings the girls unexpected gifts and an adventure that changes their lives. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Nell and her adventures with her young cousins and Angel.  A Hundred Horses is a story of hope, adventure and finding one's way. It drew me in from the start and I'm very much looking forward to sharing the story with my six-year-old niece.

  • Age Range: 8 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 3 - 7
  • ISBN-10: 0062122290 - Hardcover $16.99
  • Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (January 7, 2014), 224 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

About the Author:
Sarah Lean won the Schneider Family Book Award for her first novel for young readers, A Dog Called Homeless.  She lives in England with her husband, son, and dog.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Golden Egg: a Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery by Donna Leon

The blurb:
In The Golden Egg, as the first leaves of autumn begin to fall, Vice Questore Patta asks Brunetti to look into a minor shop-keeping violation committed by the mayor’s future daughter-in-law. Brunetti has no interest in helping his boss amass political favors, but he has little choice but to comply. Then Brunetti’s wife, Paola, comes to him with a request of her own. The mentally handicapped man who worked at their dry cleaner has just died of a sleeping pill overdose, and Paola loathes the idea that he lived and died without anyone noticing him, or helping him.

Brunetti begins to investigate the death and is surprised when he finds nothing on the man: no birth certificate, no passport, no driver’s license, no credit cards. As far as the Italian government is concerned, he never existed. Stranger still, the dead man’s mother refuses to speak to the police, and assures Brunetti that her son’s identification papers were stolen in a burglary. As secrets unravel, Brunetti suspects that the Lembos, an aristocratic family, might be somehow connected to the death. But why would anyone want this sweet, simple-minded man dead?

I always enjoy Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries but The Golden Egg is a particular favorite of mine.  Leon gives us her characteristic image of Venice - the attitudes, the combination of a glamorous and casual way of living of the Brunetti family, but in Golden Egg we also see another aspect of the Venetian upper classes and just how much Venice is a village of sorts.

As Brunetti looks into the death of the mentally handicapped man, he discovers a life hidden from view.  But in a world of paperwork and pensions, it takes a lot to live completely off the grid.  So, while the dead man's life is hidden, his identity comes to light.  Well done, carefully crafted, The Golden Egg is another wonderful escape by Donna Leon.

ISBN-10: 0802121012 - Hardcover $26
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (March 26, 2013), 256 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

About the Author:

A New Yorker of Irish/Spanish descent, Donna Leon first went to Italy in 1965, returning regularly over the next decade or so while pursuing a career as an academic in the States and then later in Iran, China and finally Saudi Arabia. Leon has received both the CWA Macallon Silver Dagger for Fiction and the German Corrine Prize for her novels featuring Commisario Guido Brunetti. She lives in Venice.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dinner Party Disasters: True Stories of Culinary Catastrophe by Annaliese Soros and Abigail Stokes

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The blurb:
What do you do when the lobsters in your lobster bake pull a crustacean Houdini and escape into the ocean?  When your attempt at cantina cuisine ends with the arrival of the fire department at your door?  When one of your guests drops dead in the doorway?

In Dinner Party Disasters, Annaliese Soros (the ex-wife of financier George Soros and a highly regarded hostess in her own right), collects the funniest, most horrific disaster stories ever to befall people gathered for the seemingly simple purpose of breaking bread together.  In some cases, crisis is converted into triumph; in others, disaster prevails.  In all cases, however, guests and hosts experience an evening they will never forget.

Sidebars offer exceedingly practical solutions to the problems, ranging from the ordinary -- how to create the right ambiance using light and candles, or how to manage a drunken guest - to the somewhat unusual --- how to clean and gut a game bird should you have to shoot your own.

Analiese Soros' Dinner Party Disasters is a small carefully edited volume with 90 short pages of teaching anecdotes.  Soros collected 18 believable stories from hosts and hostesses.  Told with self-depricating humor, we get practical advice on how to keep one's guests at ease even during the most difficult and embarrassing moments.   Grace and humor help to keep disaster, if not at bay, from ruining an evening.  It's a tiny gem of a book with lovely illustrations and an interesting parting gift of a list for an "Anti-Catastrophe Pantry".  

  • ISBN-10: 0810993368 - Hardcover $14.95
  • Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (May 1, 2007), 96 pages. 
  • Review copy courtesy of the authors.

About the Authors:
Analiese Soros moved to New York City from Germany in 1955. Not long after, she became interested in entertaining upon attending a dinner party given by a Brazilian friend who somehow produced an incredible eight course meal from a kitchen the size of a broom closet.  The competitive Analiese immediately hit the cookbooks, and has been entertaining ever since.  Her skills as a hostess have been utilized frequently for evens in support of her musical interests; she is a longterm supporter of Young Concert Artists, the New York City Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera, among others.  She was married to the financier George Soros for eighteen years.

Abigail Stokes is a writer, teacher, and serial entertainer who lives in New York City.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Blackout by Robison Wells

Blackout opens with three teenagers executing an attack on the Grand Canyon.   Laura, Alec and Dan are not the usual teenagers - they each have different and superhuman powers.  From the ability to manipulate the minds of others, the power to destroy natural elements to superhuman strength, the three terrorists prove their abilities.  While the reasons behind their attacks are not known, the impact of their actions are clear.  The Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam are flooded with water, homes are pulled down, people drowned, and lives are irrevocably changed.

The government calls on military powers to combat the threat posed by the growing number of teens with superhuman powers.  Scientists attribute these powers to a virus that only affects people in their teen years.  The military and government scientists work together as they isolate teenagers, test them for the virus, and quarantine those who may have mutations.  

Government separations are immediate - and would be unconstitutional in civil society.   Children and teens are removed from their homes and families are torn apart without explanation or warning.    Those with the mutation are subjected to all sorts of physical tests, almost to the point of torture.  

We see the events firsthand from several teenagers.  Laura, Alec and Dan are the young terrorists well aware of their powers that I'd described earlier.  Aubrey and Jack are old friends from the poor part of town.   Though they've grown apart with Aubrey's sudden popularity, they find each other the night that the military troops pick up their classmates and friends during the senior prom.  Aubrey is able to hide in plain sight. Jack seems to be unaffected by the virus.   When Jack is quarantined with the infected teens, Aubrey attempts to free him.   The military authorities call on Jack, Aubrey, and some of their fellow prisoners to help counter the teenage terrorists.  

Jack and Aubrey are the more interesting characters in Blackout.  Unpopular because of their families' poverty, they're both personable and good looking. They're loyal, decent, and willing to risk themselves for each other and to forgo money and power.  Aubrey and Jack aren't particularly suspicious or worldly wise though, so I spent much time wondering when and how they'd suffer betrayal.  Blackout is a fun read but ends with much unresolved - we have to wait for the next installment.

0062026127 - Hardcover 
Publisher: HarperTeen (October 1, 2013), 432 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Amazon Vine Reviewer Program.

About the Author:
Robison Wells lives in Holladay, UT.  He is also the author of Variant and Feedback.  Visit him online at and follow him on Twitter @robisonwells

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ms. Wiz Spells Trouble by Terence Blacker

The blurb:
Ms Wiz Spells Trouble is the first book in a best-selling series that was originally published in the United Kingdom.  

Describing herself as a paranormal operative, the quirky and delightful Ms. Wiz uses her magic to rescue the students at St. Barnabas School from one disaster after another-often with outrageous results!

I ordered Ms. Wiz Spells Trouble because I do enjoy fun middle school books and because I'm always looking out for a good book for my 5 year old niece Sofie.  

The books comes in large, easy to read font and with fun illustrations every few pages.   It's the sort of book that's fun to read to a child and that I imagine Sofie would be able to read on her own.  The voice is fun, reads well, and is easy to understand.  I can see how the book became a best-seller in the UK.  

"Most teachers are strange and the teachers at St. Barnabas School were no exception.  
Yet it's almost certain that none of them - not Mr. Gilbert, the head teacher who liked to pick his nose during Assembly, not Mrs. Hicks who talked to her teddies in class, not Miss Gomez who smoked cigarettes in the lavatory -- none of them was quite as odd as Class Three's new teacher. "
Tall with long black hair and bright green eyes, a purple shirt and jeans, black nail polish and large rings, Ms. Wiz looked like she was heading to a disco not about to teach at a school.  She faced Class Three, known throughout the school for their disruptive element and with a history of making teachers cry.  

Ms. Wiz has magical powers and friends that reminded me of P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins and of Betty MacDonald's Miss Piggle-Wiggle.   Strange soccer plays, a magical cat called Hecate and a mathematical owl named Archimedes turn things around for the difficult Class Three.  I'm excited about Ms. Wiz Spells Trouble and Terence Blacker's new series.  Looking forward to reading the next books in the series.  Am certain that Sofie will enjoy them!

  • Age Range: 6 - 8 years
  • Grade Level: 1st - 3rd
  • Series: Ms. Wiz (Book 1)
  • ISBN-10: 0761455485 Hardcover $12.99
  • Publisher: Two Lions (September 1, 2008), 60 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Amazon Vine Reviewers Program.

About the Author:
Terence Blacker, a British citizen, started writing full-time in 1983, and has since had a distinguished career authoring both adult and children’s books. His Ms. Wiz series includes more than 20 titles, and it has received many glowing reviews championing its zany humor and irresistibly witty characters. Mr. Blacker lives in Suffolk, England, and has two children.
Tony Ross was born in London and trained at the Liverpool School of Art. He has worked as a cartoonist, graphic designer, and art director of an advertising agency. He has illustrated hundreds of books that are adored by children, including the Horrid Harry series by Francesca Simon and the Amber Brown series by Paula Danziger. He has also written some of the books he has illustrated, such as the popular title, I Want Two Birthdays.