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Though holiday happenings will most likely will look very different this year (presents spaced six feet apart under the tree?, face masks as stocking stuffers?), the gift giving season is nevertheless upon us. This means that it’s time once more for our annual gift giving guide, another Book Jam tradition that is full of meaning and excitement for us (and we hope you). 2020’s list includes many, many titles. Think of it as an “idea stocking” that we filled for you; one that’s overflowing with great book ideas for all the fabulous people in your life.
Why is our list so long this year? Mostly because bookstores have lots of compelling titles on their shelves which are hard for all of you to discover in person - so think of this as an opportunity for an on-line browse. The other reason is because we understand that, given the circumstances, many of us have NO idea what we might be in the mood to read - or what we might want to gift to someone else to read - until somehow we find it placed in our (virtual) hands. One final note: as you curate your gift lists, it’s important to be aware that publishers currently have differing availability with certain titles, so our offering of many options means that you will hopefully find a book or two for everyone on your list - and that they will arrive in time for your celebrations.
Sending much light, good health, and satisfying reading to all of our Book Jam readers.
MYSTERIES & THRILLERS FOR ANYONE NEEDING TO ESCAPE THE NEWS WITH FICTIONAL THRILLS
The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor (2020). A terrific atmospheric thriller set in Ireland and Long Island. You will love the main detective Maggie D'Arcy, an absolutely fabulous protagonist who uses common sense, intellect, and her own basic decency to solve (with some significant help from Irish Gardai) disappearances of women from the Irish countryside. Ms. Taylor lovingly portrays the complications inherent in family and work relations while creating a "who done it" that cleverly leads you down false trails and suspects. The descriptions in The Mountains Wild of Ireland and Long Island provide a unique travel guide. We can envision D'Arcy tours popping up once we can all travel again. Meantime, bring this page-turner to your favorite chair in front of your wood stove or fireplace and you will not be sorry. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (2020). In this amazing debut, Virgil Wounded Horse is a Lakota ‘enforcer’ – or someone who enacts what one could call “off the books” punishment to fill the gaps in the legal system on reservations – in this case a reservation in South Dakota. Then, heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, who is also his ward after Virgil's sister’s tragic death. And well, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists help of his former girlfriend and tracks drug cartels that are invading the reservations to Denver and beyond. While, I loved the book for its characters and its plot, I also greatly appreciated its insight into aspects of life on Native American reservations. As the author wrote in his notes, “I hope it both entertains and inspires discussions about some of the issues faced by the Sicanga Lakota Nation... and is dedicated to them”. Don’t just believe me, the LA Times review summed this thriller up well - "Winter Counts is a once-in-a-generation thriller, an unforgettable debut set in and around South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation that brims with complex characters, believable conflicts and an urgent message about Native culture, inequities and criminal justice. . .” This is a fabulous gift for anyone in the mood for a good mystery/thriller or looking for a great Native American author. ~ Lisa Christie
House of Beauty by Melba Escobar (2015 in Spanish, 2018 in English). This recommendation provides a murder mystery among Bogota's elites and the people who serve them. Perfect for a rainy Sunday Covid isolation day. Great insight into the lives of different classes in Colombia and a well plotted twisty tale -- even though due to the novel's structure, you know from page one who died. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2020). If you’re looking for a great vacation read, look no further. Instead, step gingerly onto a rickety skiff and ferry out to a creepy island off the coast of Ireland where a glamorous destination wedding party has run amok. Despite the meticulous planning, the delectable menu, the engraved silver napkin rings for every guest, a howling storm kicks up and, you guessed it, there’s a murder. This mystery is told from multiple points of view In the days leading up to the ceremony including that of the bride, the best man, the wedding planner, the “plus one,” and the sister-of-the-bride. They’re all, in their own ways “unreliable narrators” - some carrying old secrets, some simmering resentments - so the reader is left wondering up until the last minute whodunnit. The Guest List is a good old fashioned page turner that’s well-crafted, and well-written. It’s also atmospheric with richly developed characters. If you happen to listen to the audio version, that’s also a win: it’s excellent with multiple narrators reading with accents to match the characters who hail from different British Isles. ~ Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (2020). Mr. Galbraith continues to entertain. The length is impressive and yet you keep turning pages, not with fatigue but with genuine curiosity about what happens next to the two main characters -- detective agency partners Cormoran Strike, a war veteran and Robin Ellacott -- a woman recovering from bad marriage and the ongoing affects of a rape when she was a college student. IF you have not read the previous books in the series start with #1, the Cuckoo's Calling, and know that hours of reading pleasure await. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Killing With Confetti By Peter Lovesey (2019). This may be just what we need right now - a police procedural series centered around a decent human. In this latest outing, a mobster's daughter is marrying into a police family and chaos and danger ensue. Spending time in Bath, England is a delightful aspect of this lengthy mystery series (19 books so far). And as a bonus, Peter Diamond of Bath's police Department, the main character in this series seems like a good person to spend a winter with. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
A Stranger on the Beach by Michele Campbell (2020). Confession as anyone who has ever lived with me and trust me that is quite a high number as the only way I could ever afford rent was to find multiple roommates, I do not watch movies or tv shows whose plots revolve around good people making really bad choices. I just can’t watch the trainwreck I know is coming. For example, I have never watched Breaking Bad – I know. I know. It’s spectacular. But I just can’t do it. Ms. Campbell's latest book would be in this category of "I just can’t watch it" because from the beginning sentence you know people are just all going to be making really, really, really bad choices. But I read on because honestly I have enjoyed Ms. Campbell's previous books as she is an intelligent writer of compelling plots. The back and forth narrative between the two main characters means you are never quite sure who is telling the truth. That uncertainty kept me reading about Caroline, her new young mistake of a lover, her wealthy but seemingly stressed and indifferent husband, and her slightly estranged daughter. The townie versus wealthy vacation home-owner aspect, the beach vibe, and questions about "are past mistakes predictors of future lives?" had me vigilantly watching all the train wrecks in this book (and there are many), and rapidly turning the pages. Pick it up and you will be hooked – I think especially Breaking Bad fans, although as you all now know I can’t say that from personal experience, but I may try to change that. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
August Snow and Lives Laid Away by Stephen Mack Jones (2019). I am a HUGE fan of Mr. Jones's debut August Snow. So I was excited to see that Lives Laid Away brings August Snow, a superbly wrought ex-police officer turned “fixer” - of neighborhoods, of people and of mysteries, back. His own background as a biracial individual adds nuance to the unraveling of various mysteries. I was also thrilled that I liked this second in what I hope is a long series. (Book #3 Dead of Winter arrives in the Spring of 2021.) NOTE - Detroit itself is a character in both books, with its gentrification and the tensions that causes front and center. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Mysteries that Take You Places.)
NONFICTION FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO READ TRUE TALES WHILE SITTING BY WOODSTOVES
Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal (2019). Lord knows, emotions - even very heightened emotions - are one of the many challenges that mothers deal with on a daily basis. That makes this particular title perfect for any mother. Reading it provides a window of understanding into not only their origins but also into their importance for an organism’s survival. One of the most moving parts of this affecting book comes towards its end. Whether I perceived it differently given the radical disruption and social isolation we have experienced this past spring as a result of the corona virus, it is nonetheless a meaningful illustration of emotions surfacing in other species. In the final pages of Mama’s Last Hug, author de Waals tells the story of the creation of a new outdoor climbing structure for the chimpanzees living at the Yerkes primate sanctuary in Georgia. The human caretakers there had been busy building it for weeks, which meant that during that time the entire colony had needed to stay inside and be separated from one other. When it was finally ready, the humans released the chimps out of doors so that they could see their exciting new apparatus - one full of ropes and nests and and spaces to play high above the ground. They expected that in their excitement the chimps would immediately run up to the structure to explore it. But they didn’t. Instead, the first thing they did was to hug each other. They engaged in a full-fledged emotional reunion that involved long embraces, kissing, and the touching of their long-lost friends. This story from the Yerkes sanctuary shows how connected primates are to each other (and also makes me wonder how humans will react when our long quarantine is over). This book is full of many rich illustrations such as this one. For professor and researcher de Waal’s, “the question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long.” He explores the essential role that emotions play in informing the behavior of living organisms from primates to fish and even crustaceans. Reading it will leave humans with new insights into the living creatures with whom we share the planet as well as respect for the nimbleness and adaptivity of our own emotional guidance systems. ~Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in Oops Mother's Day Gifts.)
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luisselli (2017). Once writer Valeria Luiselli started volunteering in 2014 as a translator for Latin American children facing deportation, she never looked back. Not only has she now published the compelling narrative that we review in this post but also an excellent novel on the same topic entitled Lost Children Archive. (Lisa Christie is in the beginning of the novel and liking it.) In her non-fiction manifesto or “essay”, she weaves together the stories of numerous migrant children caught in the snare of the legal system with her own quest to obtain a green card, with the forty questions she must ask each young person she interviews, and the concern echoed by her own children upon hearing about these youth when they ask “Tell me how it ends?” Of course there is no end, only harrowing tales: tales of coyotes (the people who transport refugees), “la bestia” (the lethal Mexican freight train ridden by those seeking to escape), survival, bravery, risk, separation (and sometimes reunions), politics, and violent gangs that make the reader think deeply about the topic of human migration and the meaning of borders. This, a book that should be shared with people of all ages, is, as Lusielli explains, ultimately “about the nature of childhood and community, and above all, about national identity and belonging.” Yes, this is an essay. But don’t let that word fool you into thinking that these one hundred pages are humdrum, lifeless, or stale. Luiselli’s words vibrate and jump off the page and into the heart and mind of the reader. If you are looking for a book that helps you to better understand what is happening on the American/Mexican border, in our neighborhoods, and in our court system, look no further. It is an excellent beginning. ~Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in our Immigration, Refugees and Storytelling.)
FICTION FOR ANYONE AND EVERYONE ON YOUR HOLIDAY LIST
Memorial by Bryan Washington (2020). I honestly do not know how to describe this book other than intriguing. There is something unique about the prose, but I just can't name it. There is definitely something unique about each of the three main characters and their friends and family, but that is also hard to name. So what I will say is read this and enjoy your plunge into the lives of Mike and Benson (who are lovers and roommates) and Mike's mother Mitsuko. Benefit from how their time together helps them each realize what they want from life. Short plot summary - Mike cooks, Ben takes care of young children, Mitsuko is visiting from Japan while Mike is in Japan taking care of his estranged father. The unusual situation of Ben living with Mike's mother while Mike is away provides adventure, learning, and possibly clarity. ~ Lisa Christie
The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell-Antonia (2020). Lately we have all been given a chance to see up close and personal how dysfunctional and/or functional our families actually are. On the off chance you see some dysfunction where you are, The Chicken Sisters will help you feel better about your plight and it will help you see love can exist in rage, sadness, jealousy and misunderstandings. In this book – Ms. Dell'Antonia’s first novel of what we hope will be many - reality TV, fried chicken, sibling rivalry, family feuds, and rural Kansas combine in a deceptively simple story of what happens when social media and small town life collide. Mae, Amanda, Barbara, Nancy, and their unique neighbors are all portrayed with love and exposed quirks. The plot revolves around who will win a reality show's designation of best fried chicken in town and the messes those cameras can uncover. Mess being both literal and figurative as extreme hoarding plays a part. What this novel really revolves around is how where we grow up and who we grow up with shape us, how family is definitely complicated, and how we are all doing the best we can in this life. Ms. Dell'Antonia seems to have taken her years as a NYTimes columnist and best selling author examining how good and bad parenting occurs and turned it into a terrific, fun, and insightful debut novel about how families are formed and changed by the distinctive people in them. Trust us, you will learn a thing or two about yourself while being entertained. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers AND FINALLY available for purchase as of December 1, 2020.)
A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (2020). I loved this novel of a girl growing up in Uganda during Idi Amin's regime and its aftermath. Kirabo has been raised by many women—her grandmother, her best friend, and her many aunts—in the small Ugandan village of Nattettabut. Throughout, her mother is missing and at 13, Kirabo is ready to discover who she is. So, she begins sneaking away to spend time with Nsuuta, the local witch, to learn about the woman who birthed her. She also learns she has a streak of the “first woman” — an independent, original state that, according to Ugandan tales, has been all but lost to women . Kirabo’s journey is both rich in the folklore of Uganda and also an exploration of what it means to be a modern girl. Enjoy this saga and some time spent in Uganda. ~ Lisa Christie
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (2020). At the end of this dramatic yet strangely quiet summer, it is the novel Migrations, that has continues to travel with me. It resonates as the literary soundtrack to this season of forest fires and of virus, of orange sunsets and the sense that our natural world is changing. But don’t anticipate this review to be pessimistic or depressing and put down this latest edition of the Book Jam out of despair. Migrations is actually a book that ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of wonder and hope. Set in a not too distant apocalyptic future in which animals and birds are rapidly disappearing from the landscape, the story of Franny Stone primary takes us on a journey from Newfoundland on a fishing vessel to the Antarctica following what is possibly the last migration of the Arctic Tern. But this suspenseful and page turning novel also takes us to prisons, remote cottages, and aviaries in Ireland as well as to the outback in Australia. These snapshots of memory help us explore pieces of Franny’s enigmatic past and ultimately to understand what drives this character who breaks the mold on literary heroines. This is a book about our mysterious connections with other humans and with the natural world. Coming up for air after finishing this brilliant first novel, I was struck by the sense that McConaghy writes eco-fiction with a similar passion, conviction, and intimacy that Terry Tempest Williams writes her essays and memoirs about the American West. Her book also called to mind certain bits and pieces of Peter Hoeg’s masterful and complex psychological mystery from 1992 Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Even with the echos of these other writers in the pages of Migrations, McConaghy creates a story and a character that is totally and uniquely her own. It is a rare bird. Highly, highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in our Two Superb Books from Our "Gone Reading" Break.)
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David Macdonald (2020). I am so hoping everyone I know reads this novel. To sum, this book lovingly, and with great prose and plot, reminds us that we are all legends of our own making. The heroine, Zelda, has some significant health difficulties, and she knows they stem from fetal alcohol syndrome (even if she isn't exactly certain what that means). She also has a fierce determination to live her life boldly and an obsession with Vikings (the historical ones, not the football team) helps her in this quest. This book starts with her 21st birthday party and slowly unfolds to show how she and her brother Gert navigate, as young adults, the honestly crappy hand life has dealt them: dead mother, absent father, abusive uncle, and poverty - just to name a few obstacles. When Gert, who is trying to both take care of the two of them and keep his college scholarship, makes some pretty poor choices, Zelda rises to the occasion with help from a superb librarian (love a book with a helpful librarian), a great social worker, and Gert's strong-minded on-again/off-again girlfriend - AK47. You will cheer for Zelda every step of the way and be a bit sad when you leave her orbit at the end. I find it hard to believe this is Mr. Macdonald's debut novel; both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly agree. Would also be a great gift for the teens in your life. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Hot Pick Or Two.)
All Adults Here by Straub (2020). A light but deceptively deep look at parenting in the 21st century, and the fact that often the best we can do is make mistakes, but not the same ones twice. In this novel, Astrid Strick, widow, mother, and small-town stalwart, is jolted by a series of events into truly reassessing her life. As suspected, her relationships with her three grown children fall under greatest scrutiny. Honestly months after finishing this, I can not remember much about the plot. But, I strongly remember that it just left me feeling happy. ~ Lisa Christie
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2020). While this novel posed a slow start for me, I ended up reading and loving it in one four hour swoop during a night of insomnia. The plot revolves around Casey, a woman in her late 20s, struggling to complete her first novel while waiting tables at a prestigious Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant and juggling a complicated personal life. I would guess the character is somewhat based upon Ms. King, but I have no way of knowing. I enjoyed time spent in Cambridge and in 1997 as well. As IndieNext wrote in their review - "I don’t think there’s a single unnecessary word in the whole thing. Writers & Lovers is a joy to read, a gift from a writer at the top of her game.” ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in Oops Mother's Day Gifts.)
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (2020). Julia Alverez, best selling author of such classics as In the Time of Butterflies, has penned a concise and precise look at ageing, rural life, and immigration. The novel centers around events in the life of Antonia. Over a few days, she retires from the college where she taught English, her beloved husband suddenly dies, her sister disappears, and she discovers a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. And then, she discovers there is more life left in her than she knew. Highly, highly recommend this novel. ~ Lisa Christie
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld (2020). This gifted author reimagines Hilary Rodham Clinton's life as one in which she does not marry Bill Clinton. Mostly it has me thinking about both my assumptions about Mrs. Clinton and how the choices in my life determine who I am. Ms. Sittenfeld's earlier novel - American Wife - based upon Mrs Bush, had me rethinking all my thoughts about who Mrs. Bush is. (I liked American Wife better, but am grateful I read Rodham.) A perfect gift for anyone who wishes Mrs. Clinton had become the USA's first woman President or likes to think about how some choices determine lives. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019). In this compact and powerful novel, National Book Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson deftly explores issues of race, class, identity, and sexuality. In just under 200 pages she manages to convey generations of information about Iris and Aubrey, two Black teenagers in New York whose families are brought together by an unexpected pregnancy and the birth of their daughter Melody. It is narrated in alternating chapters by Melody, Iris, and Aubrey, as well as their parents who have among them survived race riots in Tulsa, rebuilt lives, struggled with poverty, attended college, and landed in very different economic locations. What results is a moving portrait of two families whose members both young and old have disparate voices, varied dreams, and whose identities have been shaped by very different influences. This complicated past converges in the no less fraught present at the beginning of the novel on the eve of Melody’s fifteenth birthday in a brownstone in Brooklyn. These beautifully drawn characters are sure to stay with readers long after they have turned the last page. When interviewed by Trevor Noah in October 2019 on “The Daily Show,” Woodson offered that she hoped for readers of her book to “fall in love with the characters and [that] it makes them want to create some kind of change.” I share her hope. Highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in Our Annual Diversity Audit.)
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (2020). On the off chance you have not yet discovered this novel about two sisters who chose very different paths in life, buy it for everyone you know and then get one for yourself to enjoy after the holidays. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
HISTORICAL FICTION FOR THOSE HOPING TO UNDERSTAND THE PAST AND THUS OUR PRESENT (HINT: THE PLAGUE FEATURES IN BOTH SELECTIONS)
Hamnet by Maggie OFarrell (2020). This novel reminded me of how much I loved Ms. OFarrell's Instructions for a Heatwave. And also how much I love good historical fiction. This novel explores the events leading up to and then the effects of death of Shakespeare's son from the plague. It reminds you of how behind every genius is a family with needs. It reminds you loss is everywhere and how we react is unique and personal. And I must admit in the midst of covid-19, I read the plague aspects with greater interest than I would have a year ago. For lovers of Shakespeare and of good stories, well-told. One of the best books I read this year. ~ Lisa Christie
The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (2020). The final novel in Ms. Mantel's Trilogy did not disappoint. I love this series. Time spent in Henry VIII England was nice mental travel from Covid-19 Vermont, although the references to the plague definitely meant something different in this final book than when I read books one and two from this trilogy years ago. Thomas Cromwell proves to be a fascinating character and well worth three large, intriguingly-written tomes. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS TO PONDER & ENJOY BETWEEN ZOOM CLASSES
Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse (2020). This graphic novel follows Effie, a newly orphaned, and dropped on the Brooklyn doorstep of her previously unknown aunts (Selimene, and Carlota) in the dark hours of the night. Things don't start well as one of her aunts spends their initial time arguing with the person dropping Effie off that she could not possibly take care of a teenaged girl, nothing like feeling unwanted to make you feel at home. And yet, as the days unfold, there is something about the aunts weirdness that forms a bond between the three. The bond is helped by two very kind new friends at school and a small crush on an actual rock star. If nothing else, Effie's life has certainly gotten more interesting. A truly great book for probably 4th grade and above. Full of thoughtfulness, laughs, magic, witches and superb illustrations, I am hoping this is only book one in a long line of graphic novels for kids (and adults). ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Witches, Thrillers, and Voting.)
Loretta Little Looks Back (2020). A collection of stories about life in the United States as a Black person that unfold over tales about multiple generations of the same family. Based in the author's own family lore, this collection is a great way for younger readers to understand US history and the ability of people to survive and thrive despite circumstances beyond their control. ~ Lisa Christie
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (2020). My short hand for this book is - “Little House” from a Chinese-American perspective. A more expanded review is Hanna, a biracial teen of an Asian mom and white dad who is living in the 1880s, has three dreams: getting an education, becoming a dressmaker in her father’s shop, and making at least one friend. As she travels with her father from Los Angeles to the American prairie after the death of her mother, her hopes all three things will happen soar. Unfortunately, America is full of prejudices and animosity towards Asians. Fortunately, she is a heroine of resolve, bravery, and nuance. Ms. Park states she wrote this in response to her own love hate relationship with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. She loved the tales and HATED the racism of Ma towards Native Americans and Pa’s black face entertainments. Prairie Lotus is her attempt to reconcile her childhood love of the little house books with her adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings. As Kirkus Reviews said in a starred review -- "Fans of the Little House books will find many of the small satisfactions of Laura's stories...here in abundance. Park brings new depth to these well-trodden tales, though, as she renders visible both the xenophobia of the town's white residents, which ranges in expression from micro-aggressions to full-out assault, and Hanna's fight to overcome it with empathy and dignity.... Remarkable." I am ashamed I didn’t object more to the racism in Little House when I, like Ms. Park, read them over and over again as a kid. This book is a great step in righting that wrong. ~ Lisa Christie
Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim (2020). Yumi would love to not smell like BBQed meat from her family’s Korean Restaurant. She would love to not to have to take extensive and exhausting test prep tutoring to earn a scholarship to a private school. She would love for her perfect and adored older sister to be around more. She’d really like for her family’s restaurant to be fiscally sound. But mostly she would love to be a standup comedian, an interesting dream as she acutely suffers from shy girl problems - as she calls them in social media hashtags. Enter a summer camp for aspiring kid comedians, a case of mistaken identity and a bit of courage, and what results is a funny book showing learning to be yourself is all you can really do. Recommended for any kids whose dreams don’t match their families’ expectations, or, those who need to laugh. ~ Lisa Christie
Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga (2019). I love books by Jason Reynolds. Thus, the fact he blurbed this novel was the reason I picked it up. In this novel for kids, the main character, Jude, is introduced to us while living in Syria with her family - dad, mom, and an older brother. A few pages in, with her mother pregnant again, Jude and her mom move to the USA so the baby can be born in a safer place. They land in the home of Jude's uncle, aunt, and a cousin around Jude's age. The story follows Jude as she navigates her new school, being Muslim in America, and worrying about the family she left behind. The story is full of moments of sadness and warmth, told with great heart. Bonus -- the book is written in free-verse poetry meaning fewer words per page - helpful with reluctant readers. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (2020). ZJ has a fabulous life in Maplewood - three tight friends, a fun mom, and a dad who is famous for scoring touchdowns and is in tune with ZJ's desire to be a musician, not a wide receiver like him. Then his dad starts to change, he becomes angry, he forgets ZJ's friends, and his head hurts all the time. This novel, so well crafted by Ms. Woodson (a favorite author of mine), closely examines how we all react when change comes roaring into our lives, and how the future can be so different from the past and still be ok. ~ Lisa Christie
The Next Great Jane by KL Going (2020). A lovely tale about the coast of Maine and following your heart, with a bit of Jane Austen thrown in. When Jane's parents divorced, her mom moved to LA to find fame in Hollywood, leaving Jane with her oceanographer father in their small Maine town. As this book begins, her mom and her fiance arrive to visit Maine and take Jane back to LA. A fate Jane refuses to give into. A visiting writer and her family just might provide all the answers Jane needs. ~ Lisa Christie
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay (2020). A blended family in need of a home moves into a house and strange things begin to happen for each kid. Abi, the now middle child of this new family, reads and reads and reads and finds that the books leave behind traces of each scene (e.g., the scent of salt air, damp books when reading about the ocean) as she finishes each chapter. Her new older brother Max loses his best friend and survives his first crush. Her younger brother Louis has a visitor that is all too real. Read it, escape for a bit, and enjoy rooting for this family. ~ Lisa Christie
One Time by Sharon Creech (2020). Ms. Creech captured my heart with Love that Dog and other books. It has been awhile since I have read her work and I am so glad I rediscovered her with One Time. This book explores the magic a terrific English teacher can create for her students. The main student, Gina, has a vivid imagination and colorful, "not Gap" clothes. She also has a new neighbor, great parents, and a new teacher. All combine to illustrate how fantastic life can be when we pay attention, are generous in our assumptions, and experiment to find our passions. Enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie
The Apollo Series by Rick Riordan (assorted years). Mr. Riordan wrapped up this series in 2020 with this fifth book - The Tower of Nero. In this series, Apollo has been banished from Olympia for his latest transgression and has landed in New York in the body of a pimply faced, not very muscular teen named Lester. Add the fact he is the servant of a demigod with a penchant for growing things, and you have adventures waiting for you. For Percy Jackson fans who are looking for more adventures. Or anyone who wants to escape to a place where demigods are here to help us mortals. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (2019). Ms. Marks's debut novel combines social justice issues - the number of black men who are incarcerated - and the more mundane concerns of being a pre-teen girl in this story of 12-year-old Zoe, and her quest to get to know the father she has never met. He is incarcerated and insists he is innocent of all charges; her mom however forbids all contact. And yet, with the help of a kids' baking contest, a new job in a bakery, and some friends Zoe figures it all out. I am really looking forward to more novels from this author. ~ Lisa Christie
Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker (2020). This book starts so gently that I wasn't sure what to make of it. Honestly, I wasn't sure I even liked it. (I think I was in the mood for ACTION.) And then it grows. It grows into a book for every kid who feels like they just don't quite fit in. It grows into a book for every adult who loves their kid, but perhaps unknowingly giving them subtle messages we wish they would be just a little bit different, a little bit more like us/less like us, a little bit more understandable, or as someone says in this rich book "more normal". Luckily in this book, some key and wise adults (and a teen who defies the two young protagonists' expectations of what a rich kid will be in life) know that normal is overrated and that those who stay true to themselves are "going places" as another wise adult says. I didn't cry until page 282 and then I kept crying until it ended. I really hope the real world is as spectacular as the one Ms. Pennypacker's novel provides. Now, a quick plot summary for those of you who need one: Ware spends most of his days and nights "off in his own world" of knights and castles and other thoughts such as how ceilings look. The last thing he needs is to spend his summer at Rec camp. His parents wish he could focus a bit more, or like sports, or have "meaningful social interactions". Most importantly, they need him to be safely in Rec camp while they each work double shifts to create enough money to finally purchase their home. So off to Rec camp Ware goes. Luckily for him, he meets Jolene, a tough-to-read girl who is creating a secret garden in the abandoned lot next to the Rec. They spend the rest of the summer together. Ware ditches Rec camp; Jolene accuses Ware of not living in the "Real World" and slowly reveals why the garden is essential. When their sanctuary is threatened, Ware's awareness of the Knight's code of chivalry - "Though shalt do battle against unfairness whenever faced with it. Thou shalt always be the champion of Right and Good..." - comes into play (with some key assists from a camera and those already mentioned wise adults). Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Look Both Ways: A tale told in ten blocks by Jason Reynolds (2020). As we mentioned Jason Reynolds in the review above, I should note that he was one of my now high school son's favorite authors from elementary school. His latest book for kids - Look Both Ways explores ordinary walks home, their humor, and how if you pay attention, they can be pretty spectacular - even the inevitable unsuccessful and often painful detours. (We have reviewed books by Mr. Reynolds on multiple posts - most recently this very book two weeks ago; you might want to also look at this 2019 post for additional kids titles.) Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in Our Annual Diversity Audit.)
Tyrannosaurus Wrecks by Stuart Gibbs (2020). My sons aged out of this reading category awhile ago. Thus, I have not kept up with Mr. Gibbs's work. After reading his latest novel, I regret that fact. And, I am choosing to see this as an excellent opportunity to catch up on some fun reading. In this outing of Mr. Gibbs's FunJungle series, sixth graders Teddy, Summer, Sage, and Xavier once again brush off their sleuthing skills to discover both who stole a T-Rex fossil from Sage's family ranch and who is smuggling reptiles into Texas to be sold as illegal pets. There is a a lot going on and Mr. Gibbs handles it all with fast paced plotting and loads of humor. ~ Lisa Christie
YOUNG ADULTS: SOME NOT-REQUIRED READING FOR TEENS
Clap When You Land by Elisabeth Acevedo (2020). Another great book by someone who is apparently one of my favorite YA authors as I keep recommending her books - first the National Book Award winning novel The Poet X and then The Fire on High. In her latest novel, after a plane travelling between NYC and the Dominican Republic crashes leaving no survivors, two girls -- one in the DR and one in NYC -- discover that they have the same father, a father who has been an active aspect of both their teenaged lives uncovering the fact he was leading a double life. In this process, they discover family. Told in poetic and sparse prose, the books moves rapidly and sticks with you as you learn about what happens when the person you love more than anything was keeping a really big secret. As with most of Ms. Acevedo’s books, place is a strong character – in this case NY and the DR. Just a great book for teens. ~ Lisa Christie
The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (2020). Somehow this book manages to squeeze in abortion rights, voting rights, police brutality, gun violence, budding musicians, and the trials and tribulations of teen age romance all without being preachy or condescending. The romance will bring in the readers looking for a little insight into dating life, the political activism will hopefully attract many others, and the fact all the action unfolds on voting day highlights the importance of that one simple and profound act. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden (2020). A story of emotional abuse, the costs of poverty, the importance of friends, school and learning to stand up for yourself and those you love, and that that learning requires help to be successful - you can not go it alone especially if you are a 7th grader. Zoey and her three siblings from different fathers live with their mom and her boyfriend in a trailer, a significant upgrade from their last apartment on their own. As the cost of this upgrade becomes too unbearable, Zoey, with the help of a teacher, debate club, and some friends learns the ability to help resides in herself. An excellent book for kids about the cost of emotional abuse and how its ability to take away who you are and replace it with doubt about your worth can be as deadly as physical abuses. As we will say in a review of another book about tough topics below, this novel may not talk about topics typically seen in a holiday gift, but the topics are important to address and frankly many teens do not shy away from tough topics or actually need assistance navigating some of these issues for themselves or their friends. ~ Lisa Christie
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (2020) . The YA version of Mr. Kendi's National Book Award Winning and bestselling book - Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America - is all you wish it to be. Very clearly and pointedly, Mr. Reynolds retells Mr. Kendi's work and in doing so tells story of racism in the world, them many forms it take, and offers ideas of how to deal with them. A great book for any kid trying to gain some understanding into racism and a great resource for any adult trying to help kids. As Publisher's Weekly stated in their review, "Reynolds (Look Both Ways) lends his signature flair to remixing Kendi's award-winning Stamped from the Beginning...Told impressively economically, loaded with historical details that connect clearly to current experiences, and bolstered with suggested reading and listening selected specifically for young readers, Kendi and Reynolds's volume is essential, meaningfully accessible reading." ~ Lisa Christie
If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley (2020). This debut novel unflinchingly illustrates terrifying aspects of domestic violence and the bonds of sisters, and the refuge school provides many kids (something covid-19 is also showing us). Leighton and her sisters are the only people in Auburn, Pennsylvania unbothered by the thousands of crows that have invaded their town. She's a senior and dreaming of the scholarship that will take her away, and dreading the scholarship that will take her away from protecting her sisters from the chaos of life with their abusive father. A special look at hardship, resilience, and the importance of people who believe in you. And yes, perhaps this is not exactly holiday fare, but the topics this novel addresses are important and many many teens don't shy away from tough topics. ~ Lisa Christie
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2020). While you could anticipate a lot of the plot, this novel was a lovely escape to a world where the President of the USA is a divorced white woman, her kids are bi-racial (white and Mexican-American), her chief of staff is a Black woman, the main family friend is the first openly gay US Senator, and their son is bi-sexual. What an alternative universe. Just read it and enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie
MEMOIRS: THE PERFECT GIFT FOR EVERYONE AND ANYONE THIS YEAR
Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld (2020). OK I laughed out loud, pretty much without stopping, after the meter of first four or so pages of jokes sunk into my psyche. I think this speaks to Mr. Seinfeld's sense of humor; it's not that every joke is hilarious; it is just that he gets you into a rhythm of seeing the absurdity of how humans interact and act. Once you are there, everything he says is funny, very funny. The book is divided into decades. Mr. Seinfeld gives an intro about where he was in his life to start each decade's setion and then provides what feels like every joke he wrote that decade. Then the next decade begins and repeats this process. It honestly was the perfect thing to get me out of my covid/election/climate change/politics of hatred depression for awhile. I recommend reading it over the course of a few days/few weeks to spread the laughter. And I can't imagine that this wouldn't be the perfect gift for everyone you know. ~ Lisa Christie
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020). For those of you who have managed to miss the news this month, former President Obama has a new memoir out. It is fabulous. It provides insight into how Washington, DC works and how having a fabulous family helps (even when all is not perfect). ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Surrender White People by D.L. Hughley (2020). The humor in this book effectively drives important points home. I think any discomfort white people feel as we read Mr. Hughley's pointed critiques will just be fodder to absorb important things about life as a Black person in the USA. As Kirkus Reviews stated, "readers will frequently laugh out loud, but there’s far more to this couldn’t-be-timelier book than just jokes." ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in our Books for Summer Campers.)
Good Husbandry: Growing Food, Love, and Family on Essex Farm by Kristin Kimball (2019). If you’re in the (farmer’s) market for a mid-winter read that inspires you to start thinking about the greener days ahead and picking up your farm share come summer, then this is the book for you. Kristin Kimball’s second memoir (which is as good if not even better than her first The Dirty Life - see a Book Jam review here from the days when we had a podcast) is a compulsively readable and an incredibly beautifully written account of her time growing a marriage, a family, and a CSA farm that feeds 250 people in New York State. When we initially met the author in 2011 with the publication of her first book, Kimball, then a city dweller and travel writer in her thirties, had unexpectedly embraced the rural life after meeting and falling in love with both farming and with Mark. Now almost a decade has passed and both she and the story have matured. She doesn’t shy away from sharing the challenges faced raising two young girls while trying to manage the increasing debt and the risky odds that come with farming. Nor does she ignore the building tension in her marriage as she and her husband adjust to parenthood and the never ending work of a diversified farm that leaves little time for their relationship. Instead, Kimball thoroughly explores these difficult topics with grace and wisdom, growing a story -and a life - full of awareness and insight. At certain points, Kimball’s prose and perspective on the natural world reminded me of the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her stewardship and environmental ethic called to mind Rachel Carson or Terry Tempest Williams. And at others, her food sense and the descriptions of heavenly meals around her farm table made me think of a rustic Ruth Reichl. But she is a brilliant voice in her own right. Don’t miss this book. Read it and Eat (local). ~Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in our Hot Pick Or Two.)
PICTURE BOOKS FAMILIES OF YOUNG CHILDREN TO READ TOGETHER BY THE FIRE
Be You by Peter Reynolds (2020). Another inspiring and lovingly illustrated book by the delightful author and illustrator Peter Reynolds. This one directly inspires us all to, well, just be ourselves. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Little Legends: Exceptional men in Black history (2019) & Little Legends: Bold women in Black history both by Vashti Harrison (2017). We heard about these books on NPR earlier this year and had to check them out. The author, with fun illustrations and concise prose, provides a great introduction to people we should all know. We are glad these books mean our youngest readers (and the adults who read with them) will. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in Our Annual Diversity Audit.)
Kind: A book about kindness by assorted authors (2020). An eclectic collection of illustrations and words about the importance of kindness. And perhaps most importantly, how kids can use kindness to make a difference in the world. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
I Promise by LeBron James (2020). Yes, it is written by that Lebron James - the one from the basketball court and the one who is a philanthropist, and founder of a school for children in Akron, Ohio. Beyond who authored it, this book is a great gift for big dreamers and any kid in need of a reminder that joy and confidence are possible for everyone. ~ Lisa Christie
Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari (2020). This collection of a classic series of tales from Italy, is gorgeous and fun and provides hours of entertainment. Quick note, you may have to explain to the children you give this to what a pay phone was as the stories all begin with a father using a pay phone every night to tell his children stories when he was away. This book then collects them all; it was also reviewed in the NYTimes best gifts for children. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Babar by Jean de Brunhoff (assorted years) and Paddington Bear by Michael Bond (assorted years). These two collections of stories, one about a bear and the other featuring an elephant provide hours of reading pleasure. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Last Thursday evening marked a turning point for our annual live holiday fundraising event "Pages in the Pub”. As is always the case in chilly November, we gathered, we talked, we laughed, and a panel of book lovers reviewed a varied collection of fascinating titles all to benefit our beloved Norwich Public Library. But this year, even though our plans to come together in the wine cellar of the historic Norwich Inn were waylaid, book lovers were still miraculously able to participate “virtually” from the comfort of their own homes. Despite the many challenges presented to readers in 2020, the tradition of “Pages” carried on. As has been the case with so many events this year, Pages in the Pub: Holiday 2020 happened on ZOOM.
Yes, there were technical hiccups (but very few), internet issues (very Vermont), even some questions beforehand about lighting and wardrobes (Flannel? Candlelight? Neon light? Purple? Guess you had to be there!). And it was all wonderful just the same. Audience members took away ideas for holiday gifts and the energy and enthusiasm of presenters for their picks burst through computer screens.
And the audience loved it! Comments included:
With today's post, all will now have access to the great books our presenters recommended. Throughout this post, we link each book individually to the Norwich Bookstore and we also link to the entire list in one place (just click right here) to make ordering even easier. From bird books to Barack Obama’s new memoir to some much-needed humor from Jerry Seinfeld, there’s something for everyone (even for younger, burgeoning book worms with our picture and chapter book ideas). We hope they all help you complete your holiday shopping with ease and joy.
Short bios of each of the presenters, Lucinda Walker, Chris Rimmer, Penny McConnel, Tom Candon, and Lisa Christie, as well as our superb emcee Danielle Cohen appear at the end of this post to help you with your selections. We thank them all for their time and reviews. We also thank Natasha Leskiw, our zoom chat room guru, and our partners, the Norwich Bookstore (thank you for always generously donating a portion of "Pages" proceeds to the library) and the Norwich Public Library for ensuring this virtual version succeeded.
So now, happy shopping and happy reading!
NON-FICTION/REFERENCE BOOKS: FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO PONDER LARGE TOMES WHILE WATCHING MASKED NEIGHBORS STROLL BY
The Splendid and the Vile by Eric Larsen (2020). Churchill, Blitz, Roosevelt, Informative, Family, History. ~ Selected by Penny.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020). Long Awaited, Personal, History, Family, Memoir. ~ Selected by Penny. (Audiobook too.)
The 99% Invisible City: A field guide to the hidden world of everyday design by Roman Mars (2020). An entertaining & educational look at design. ~ Selected by Lucinda.
What It’s Like to Be A Bird by David Sibley (2020). Engaging, enlightening insights into avian lives. ~ Selected by Chris.
Say We Won and Get Out: George D. Aiken and the Vietnam War by Stephen Terry (2020). Politicians with conscience? Bipartisanship? Dream world?. ~ Selected by Tom.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (2019). Signature Gladwell; apropos of the time. ~ Selected by Tom.
COOKBOOKS: GIFTS FOR ANYONE LOOKING FOR COVID
See You on Sunday by Sam Sifton (2020). Family, Friends, Adaptable, Informative, Sharing, Love. ~ Selected by Penny.
Sustainable Kitchen by Heather Wolfe and Jaynie McCloskey (2020). Delicious recipes create environmentally-friendly eats. ~ Selected by Lucinda.
ADULT FICTION: FOR ANYONE WHO ONLY HAS TIME FOR THE BEST FICTION
The Searcher by Tana French (2020). Ireland, Mystery, Secrets, Compassion, Well Written. ~ Selected by Penny.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (2020). Futuristic, dark human and ecological odyssey. ~ Selected by Chris.
American Spy: A Novel by Lauren Wilkinson (2020). Not your traditional spy story – good. ~ Selected by Tom.
ADULT FICTION: FOR A WOMAN WHO ONLY HAS TIME FOR THE BEST FICTION AFTER REMAINING SOCIALLY DISTANCED ALL DAY
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (2020). When first love & Shakespeare’s words collide. ~ Selected by Lucinda.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (2020). Unraveling the mystery of personal identity. ~ Selected by Lucinda.
THRILLERS TO HELP EVERYONE FORGET THE NEWS
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (2020). Lakota enforcer seeks justice. Amazing debut. ~ Selected by Lisa.
FOR HARD TO SHOP FOR FRIENDS: BOOKS FROM A GENRE YOU
DON'T USUALLY READ
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin (2020). NYC boroughs personified - speculative fiction bonanza! ~ Selected by Lucinda.
BOOKS FOR YOUR FAVORITE HIGH SCHOOLER: “NOT REQUIRED” READING FOR TEENS TO PONDER
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (2019). Coming-of-age adventure; haunting, uplifting, gripping, poignant. ~ Selected by Chris.
Clap When You Land by Elisabeth Acevedo (2020). Two girls, same father, expand family. ~ Selected by Lisa.
PICTURE BOOKS FOR FAMILIES TO READ TOGETHER DURING SNOWSTORMS
Escape Goat by Ann Patchett (2020). Fun. Family. Farm. Goat. Humorous. Colorful. ~ Selected by Penny.
Tiny Bird: A hummingbird’s amazing journey by Robert Burleigh (2020). Inspiring tale of wondrous hummingbird migration. ~ Selected by Chris.
BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS: THOSE BEYOND TONKA TRUCKS & TEA PARTIES BUT NOT YET READY FOR TEEN TOPICS
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (2020). “Little House” from a Chinese-American perspective. ~ Selected by Lisa.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim (2020). Teen’s mistaken identity defies & saves family. ~ Selected by Lisa.
CLASSICS FOR ANYONE: BOOKS THAT REMAIN ON YOUR SHELVES NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES YOU CLEAN AS PART OF COVID-19 PROJECTS
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean (1976). Family, friendships, love, loss, American West. ~ Selected by Tom.
FOR YOUR FAVORITE CO-WORKERS, NEIGHBORS, AND COVID HEROES: THESE ARE JUST PERFECT GIFTS
Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld (2020). Because we ALL need to laugh. ~ Selected by Lisa. (Audiobook too)
To help you know a bit more about our presenters, to give them some recognition, and possibly help you pick the perfect books from this Pages in the Pub list for your holiday shopping needs, here are short bios for everyone.
Lucinda Walker loves her job as the Director of the Norwich Public Library. Her new favorite word is "pivot" and she is grateful for the dedication and expertise of her NPL colleagues. Some of her favorite things include the podcasts "99% Invisible" and "Smartless", popcorn, and playing music with her husband Peter and their two kids, Hartley & Lily.
Chris Rimmer is a longtime Norwich resident, an ornithologist and avid (his wife would say obsessive) birder, and founding executive director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. He'd rather watch than read about birds any day, but happily does both. When not chasing birds around the Upper Valley or on mountaintops in the Northeast and Caribbean, he enjoys fly fishing, paddling, hiking, and gardening.
Penny McConnel has been selling books for 41 years. She and Liza Bernard opened the Norwich Bookstore in August of 1994 and Penny although not working anyway near as many hours she did in the past, still can often be found behind the counter at the store or selling books at the many offsite events where the store travels. She lives in Norwich with husband Jim and spends her off time reading, knitting, gardening, cooking & dreaming of her next beach walk.
Tom Candon is Associate Managing Director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth. In this role, he helps oversee the Center's day-to-day operations. From 2014-2018, he also served as the Administrative Director for Dartmouth's Mandela Washington Fellowship Program of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative. For the past eight years, he has served on the Norwich School Board. He thought he would have been more productive with house projects during the pandemic, but he was able to help build a fence for his wife's dog and binge watch some excellent series that even his two teenage daughters would watch.
Lisa Christie, co-founder of the Book Jam, was in previous times the Founder/Executive Director of Everybody Wins! Vermont and USA, literacy programs that help children love books. She currently works as a part-time non-profit consultant, school board member, and all-the-time believer in the power of books. She lives in Norwich with her musician husband, two superb teenage sons, and a very large dog. She often dreams of travel.
Danielle Cohen is an audiobook narrator and actor, living in Norwich, Vermont. She grew up in Manchester, England, reading anything and everything aloud, and at the age of eight dreamed of being a news reader, or later, a stand-up comedian! Neither of those ever happened, but she did pursue an acting career for many years and has performed in many productions at Northern Stage in White River Junction, VT. She loves telling a good story and being an audiobook narrator has been a natural progression. When she is not narrating audiobooks, she can be found walking or running with friends, playing board games with her husband and teenage daughters, or baking and eating cake!
THE OTHER BOOK JAM LISA
Lisa Cadow is the co-founder of the Book Jam. When not reading or experimenting in her kitchen, she is a full-time student of counseling at the University of Vermont. She fervently believes that health outcomes would improve if doctors could prescribe books to patients as well as medicine. Lisa lives in Norwich with her husband, three cats, and a fun border collie and loves it when her three adult children visit.