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As we continue to settle into the "new normal," one pre-pandemic, during-pandemic and (ideally) post-pandemic tradition continues: the Book Jam's annual review of perfect summer reads. Today’s is the first of two such lists for “summer campers“ and features books for the younger literary set, specifically elementary school through young adults. We sincerely hope these recommendations help you to find the right fit for your favorite children and teens to curl up with in their tents, on the beach, by the lake, or under the branches of their favorite tree. After all, the temperatures are still warm, the days are still long and we can still camp (and read)!
Please don’t forget to look to us in two weeks for our annual adult version of Books for Summer Campers.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (2013 and assorted years). A great graphic novel series for kids. Beautifully drawn, this graphic novel (and the subsequent books in the series) follows a friendship and adventures between a somewhat awkward girl and a magic unicorn. Both learn how special they really are; something I hope they pass along to every reader to feel as well. ~ Lisa Christie
The Sea In Winter by Christine Day (2021). At this point in her life, Maisie is supposed to be auditioning for amazing ballet programs across the USA. It's been her dream, since her very first toe shoes, to be a prima ballerina. She's also supposed to be able to talk to her father. Instead a torn ACL has derailed, perhaps permanently, her ballet career, and a war took her father years before - so long ago she worries she can't really remember him anymore. Told with love and spirit and hope, and superb shout outs to the power of good therapy (both physical and mental), this tale is an excellent one for any young reader - perhaps especially those for whom "right now" is not looking very dreamlike or who is struggling to find their joy. I also greatly appreciated the glimpses of lives for some members of Native tribes on the west and east coasts, as well as descriptions of the gorgeous natural life of the Pacific Northwest. ~ Lisa Christie
The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga (2021). I picked this novel up because I LOVED Ms. Warga's Other Words for Home (previously reviewed here). I did not read the description; I just bought it while browsing one of my new favorite Indie stores - Still North Books & Bar in Hanover, NH. So when I settled in to read, I was slightly surprised I had purchased a novel based on a school shooting - not typical summer reading fare. The chapters alternate perspectives between Cora and Quinn, lifelong best friends who haven't spoken to each other since Quinn's brother killed Cora's sister, another student, a teacher, and himself in a school shooting nine months prior to the start of this novel. The plot involves time travel and overwhelming desires to make things right. It also emphasizes that everyone involved in tragedies needs help - in the form of time and people to speak with. While difficult, this novel highlights that love is possible even in the most horrific circumstances. Note: Ms. Warga finishes the novel with a list of resources to prevent gun violence and a call for adults to do better regarding guns. ~ Lisa Christie
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac (2021). This, the first children's book I've read that directly addresses the Covid-19 pandemic, is spectacular. Told in poetic verse, this story follows Malian, a young Wabanaki girl, throughout her quarantine on her grandparents' reservation while her parents remain behind in the city to work. And, she knows how to take care of things -- she stays inside to protect her grandparents rather than play with friends, she tries, despite not so great internet connections, to ZOOM with her schoolwork, and she listens carefully as her grandparents share tales of the Wabanaki past and present. When a stray dog decides he is Mailian's for her stay, it's a perfect bonus. ~ Lisa Christie
A Few Classics for Adults Who Missed Them & for ALL the New 6-12 year olds
The Boggart by Susan Cooper (1993). When Emily’s and Jess’s family inherits a Scottish castle, they travel to explore. Unbeknownst to them they also inherit a Boggart — an invisible, mischievous spirit who’s been playing tricks on residents of their castle for generations. When they accidentally trap the boggart in their belongings and take him back to Toronto, nothing will ever be the same. (we also recommend her Dark Is Rising Series and King of Shadows.) ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Frindle or Trouble-Maker or other titles by Andrew Clements (assorted years). Mr. Clements is a former school principal and his love of kids – especially the ones who end up in the principal’s office – comes through in each of his books. He treats his kid protagonists with humor and compassion and presents many real world dilemmas in each of his books for young readers. Pick one up and enjoy. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Stella By Starlight by Sharon Draper (2015). My family discovered this book on a 2015 trip to DC during a visit to Busboys and Poets on 14th Street, showing that exploring an indie bookstore can lead to amazing things. (The audiobook version was our soundtrack for the car trip back home to Vermont.) We have since recommended it to every kid we know. Stella lives in segregated North Carolina. There are stores she can enter and stores she can not; people are kind or they are not. But the Klan hasn't been around for awhile. Then late one night she and her brother see something they are not supposed to see and her world is forever changed. I also recommend Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming for a look at being a kid with brown skin in the 1960s and 1970s. The New York Times also curated a great list of other books to help you speak with kids about race. ~ Lisa Christie
Pay Attention Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (2019). Mr. Schmidt's novel is a superb look at what happens when tough things occur in life. In this case, the tough things include the unexpected death of a younger brother and a father who has found another family to love and has decided to never come back. But as Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a butler who shows up on the family doorstep one day, continually reminds Carter, the young narrator of this gem of a book, life is difficult and one has two choices -- to be a gentleman or a bore. Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick is hanging around to ensure Carter chooses to be a gentleman. Told with humor (e.g., fabulous scenes of learning how to drink a proper tea and play cricket) and love, this tale eloquently describes how the lives of Carter, his three sisters, and his mom are forever changed when a butler arrives on their doorstep. Think of Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick as a portly male Mary Poppins who makes you walk the dog and clean the dishes and ultimately reminds all readers of the importance of how we all choose to embrace our life. I also recommend Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now and many other tales by Gary Schmidt (assorted years) ~ Lisa Christie
Look Both Ways: A tale told in ten blocks by Jason Reynolds (2020). One of my now high school son's favorite authors from elementary school was/is Jason Reynolds. This book - 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; you will find him in our 2019 post of YA titles and in our diversity audits.) Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Anything – and we mean ANYTHING – by E.L. Konigsburg (assorted years) – Ms. Konigsburg was truly a superb gift to young readers everywhere. Her books are fun, well-written, humorous, and help kids work through the issues they face every day. Our favorites – The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and The View from Saturday. But please have fun discovering your own. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (2021). I loved Ms. McQuiston's Red, White and Royal Blue (reviewed by the Book Jam here and here). So when I heard she had a second YA novel, I went searching for it at Still North while running errands in Hanover, NH. I had to ask for help as it was not in YA - it was placed in Romance. I say this so that you know the book gets the required happy ending of Romance novels, because at times during the tale, you can't quite see how. Let me start with words from a NPR review of this novel, "queer relationships of every form are normalized and healthy, and the characters are fully-realized people who are beautifully diverse, but also much more than their identities"; I LOVED that aspect of this complicated page turner. So, quick plot summary -- August, mere moments after arriving in Brooklyn, meets Jane on the Q line, sparks fly and the characters - August and her incredible housemates (Niko - a physic bartender, Myla, Niko's girlfriend and engineer turned sculptor, Isiah, a trust-fund kid disinherited for loving what his parents see as the "wrong" people. Note - these descriptions do a disservice to the complicated fully realized characters they are in Ms. McQuiston's hands). This book is more than a "meet-cute" on a smelly NYC subway car; it turns out that leather jacket-wearing, kissable Jane is actually a punk rocker from the 1970s who's stuck on the Q train for all of eternity. It takes all of August's formidable perseverance and her friend's skills to figure this one out. Again it's a romance - she does. Final note - this book was better than "Friends" at showing how the families you create from your friends in your 20s are incredible. ~ Lisa Christie
Frankly In Love by David Yoon (2019). This novel is one of the best YA books I have read. And, it has been gratefully received by at least four high school boys I know. I was surprised how this apparently simple (and honestly familiar) story of first love that does not meet with parental approval (hello Romeo and Juliet), as well as of navigating the final year of high school made me smile and tear-up a bit. Some plot points: Frank Li and Joy Song have been friends since childhood, attending regularly scheduled dinners with a larger group of Korean-American families in Los Angeles for as long as they have a memory of any event. As they navigate senior year, they are both in love with the wrong ("not-Korean") person. They decide to fake that they are dating each other to keep their parents happy, while still seeing their true loves. Their elaborate scheming provides the plot for this novel's terrific cast of characters. (I truly loved Frank's superb best friend.) And while Buzzfeed aptly stated, “Yoon's stellar debut expertly and authentically tackles racism, privilege, and characters who are trying to navigate their Korean-American identity”, I would argue you should read it for the fun. Give it to your favorite teen or your favorite adult in need of a smile or two (and distraction from the news). ~ Lisa Christie
Here to Stay by Sara Farizhan (2018). A great book about high school life. The main character, Bijan Miajidi, is pulled from the obscurity of JV basketball to the varsity limelight, which he hopes will help make it easier to talk to his crush Elle. Instead, he is targeted by an internet photo doctored to make him appear as a terrorist. As he tells the story of what happens next, his narrator voice is joined by his internal narrators - ESPN commentators Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan - providing color commentary and comic relief to the often difficult events of the novel. (I really loved these ESPN flavored internal monologues.) In short, Ms. Farizhan compassionately and effectively covers coming out stories, cyberbullying, pressure to get into the right colleges, sports, and racism, without preaching, in a true page-turner. ~ Lisa Christie
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani Larocca (2021). Reha is caught between the India of her parents youth and the Americaness of her own life. Further complicating her life decisions, she wants to be a doctor and faints at the sight of blood. Then she's faced with a very sick mother who is the moon to her stars. Luckily middle school brings new friends and strength she didn't know she had. ~ Lisa Christie
We Can't Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2021). Quinn Berkowitz's future is planned out for her She will attend the University of Washington (her only acceptance), She will take business courses. These courses will prepare her to join her family wedding planning firm full-time. The problem, she's pretty much certain (as much as one can be as they leave high school), that she does not want to be part of the family firm. A long standing relationship with Tarek of the Mansour family catering business further complicates her attempts to decide what she wants and when as she navigates the summer between high school and college. The novel frankly addresses sexuality in teens and what the transition to college does and does not do to high school friendships. Would be a great pre-teen/teen - parent book club pick. Also great for anyone looking for a Rom-Com in a book (this one has plenty of references to Sleepless in Seattle). ~ Lisa Christie
Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson (2021). Ms. Watson wrote one of my favorite books for kids in 2019 (Some Places More Than Others, reviewed here), so I was excited to see she had penned a YA novel. Nala Robertson is facing the summer between her junior and senior year of high school with a cousin/sister/friend who is motivated, popular, pretty, in love and her bestest friend Imani. Nala knows she needs to do more than visit her grandmother in her assisted living center to have activities worthy of her looming college applications. Part of the deal when she moved in with her Aunt Uncle and Imani was she would get good grades and go to college - unlike her own estranged mother. And yet, she is not sure about college. And then Tye walks into her life. He is part of Imani's activist activities. He wants the world to be a better place and acts accordingly with every aspect of his life. Nala knows she shouldn't let Tye think she is Imani-like, but she does, because Tye is fine and Tye loves the Nala who is like Imani. The problem is this Nala is a lie and the real Nala doesn't like her too much. A superb novel about becoming you, the pressures high schoolers feel as they face college, and the enhanced pressures on brown and Black teens. ~ Lisa Christie
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi (2018). This novel was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for its look at post 9/11 America through the eyes of an American High School Student, who also happens to be a Muslim. The novel begins a year after 9/11, as Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped has switched schools yet again. She's used to stares and rude comments and stereotypes. She figured out long ago how to combat them -- she's built a huge wall of defenses that no one can see behind. Then random lab partner assignments lead to Ocean James - the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know her. ~ Lisa Christie
Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (2021). A lovely coming of age story for all the readers out there who feel outside the norm due to body size and for all their friends who love them. Charlie is a self described fat, brown girl whose dad passed away not so long ago, whose best friend is gorgeous thin and beloved by all, whose mother was fat like her until she discovered weight loss shakes and keeps sharing the love of these shakes to an uncooperative Charlie. Complicating matters even further, Charlie is in love with the star football player, Cal - who has firmly planted her in friend land, and even that probably only for an in with Charlie's gorgeous best friend. Charlie is self-aware and completely recognizes this cliche of the fat friend in love with the star athlete who uses her for her class notes and access to beautiful friends; and, she knows things with Cal will be different when he finally sees her. Luckily Charlie has her notebook and her stories and her desire to be the best writer possible. Even more luckily Charlie has an after school job in a workspace shared by a very nice boy from her art class. Enjoy this ride through junior year of high school and enjoy Charlie and her true friends; they will give you hope for humanity. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph (2020). To begin -- this YA book is also great for adults and we think would be excellent for Book Clubs and classroom discussions for anyone interested in racial justice and becoming better anti-racists/up-standers. Written by Mr. Joseph as if he is a new friend of the reader, he walks his new friends through how comments such as "I don't see color" and other micro-aggressions and more outright racism of many, are wrong and need to end. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a conversation between Mr. Joseph and other experts on that theme ending each chapter. Full of practical advice and lists of "people and things to know" bith throughout the chapters and helpfully compiled at the end, this book is a great place to start one's own work on being a better person and actively anti-racist. It also feels important to highlight Mr. Joseph's reminder that "that this book is a gift not an obligation" (p. 195), because "while this book is meant to be a guide for white people to understand and be better, it's important that white people also understand that it isn't the duty of Black people or people of color to explain things" (p. 194). ~ Lisa Christie
The Sky Blues by Robbie Couch (2021). This novel surprised me -- not necessarily for how it tells a tale, but for how much it packs in to a YA novel, without being too preachy. There is SO much in here -- lived experiences of Black boys, trans teens, Arab teens, gay teens, cis-gendered teens, as well as the issues of the senior year of high school, difficult parents, and great teachers. It all unfolds as you follow the story of Sky, a gay boy in upstate Michigan who is trying to survive senior year - a feat made more difficult by the fact his homophobic mother threw him out of the house when he came out to her on Christmas Day. Luckily a superb teacher, the lovely parents of his best friend Bree, and the overbearing dad of his other best friend Marshall help. And help is needed as cyber bullying stunt ensnares Sky through his unrequited his crush on a very very popular kid. As an adult, I hope you leave this novel waning to be an adult that helps LHBTQ+ kids more. As a teen reader, I hope you leave wanting to become better friends to all your friends from marginalized groups -- the teens in this novel certainly provide a road map for what that might look like. And it is all done without feeling preachy. Please read and enjoy this tale of Sky and his life in rural Michigan. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (2020). Ashley Bennett and her friends are enjoying their senior year spring in Los Angeles in 1992. They are worried about which college will accept them (Stanford? UC Berkeley?) and how often they can successfully cut classes to lay on the beach or swim in the pool of a neighboring mansion. As you may guess from the year and the location, everything changes one night when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King to death. Suddenly even though Ashley has been questioning her choices of friends for awhile and hasn't been able to cut them loose because they've been friends since kindergarten, the fact that Ashley is Black and her friends are not means Ashley is also one of "the Black kids". Her world suddenly and methodically starts to crumble: her estranged older sister is involved in the riots, her family's success as a "model Black family" is no longer enough, her so called friends spread a rumor that endangers the future of one of the other "Black kids" at her prep school, and Los Angeles is literally burning around her. The historical setting unearths questions and highlights racism with us today, perhaps providing a better way. ~ Lisa Christie
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2020). A powerful look at life from the eyes of an incarcerated Black teen. Amal, whose name translates to hope (an important aspect for his survival), remains in jail after a fight with some white teens landed one white boy in a coma and him in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Did he throw the first punch? Yes. Did he beat a white boy into a coma - NO. And yet he sits in jail because even his character witnesses - in particular a teacher from his school - saw him as an angry Black boy. What feeds his hope? Some sage advice from some of the boys preceding him into incarceration, a poet teaching classes to any boy who "earns" the privilege, and a guest whose exploration of mistakes, misgivings, and systems reminds Amal that speaking his truth is the most important thing he can do -- and the one thing no one can take away. Told in poetry and based on the actual experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, this book will hopefully change how we view our prison system and move us to action. ~ Lisa Christie
So Summer 2021 is off to a great start -- people are getting vaccinated, festive in-person gatherings are back, and for two Book Jam posts, great authors have shared their recommendations for great summer reading. Last month we heard about some great thrillers and mysteries from Sarah Stewart Taylor, author of the Maggie D'arcy series. Today, KJ Dell-Antonia, best-selling author of The Chicken Sisters shares her wisdom, perfect books to read, and adds to our to-be-read pile. THANK YOU KJ. With no further ado ... KJ's reviews.
If there’s one thing I like ALMOST as much as reading books myself, it’s suggesting them to others. I like to think one of my superpowers is finding just the right book for any reading situation. Today I’m focused on the summer book bag, which to me requires a blend of depth and fun that can be a bit of a challenge to get just right. I like some of my summer reading fluffy and some of it to engross me a little more deeply. Here are my picks for a variety of summer reading needs. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2021). Prefer a family saga to a romance, but want to revel in the kind of fun-and-games that a romance provides? I loved, loved, loved Malibu Rising, a complicated, mulit-POV story that takes place in one day in '80s Hollywood but moves around in time to show how everyone got there. So much happens, and yet in a sense the whole thing could easily be summed up in two words, one of which is a spoiler--but that's the best kind of book. Sprawling narrative, tight core. I admit it—I haven't read Daisy Jones yet. (#TBR)—so I can’t offer a comparison. But I can tell you this one’s flat out good stuff. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Life’s Too Short by Abby Jimenez (2021). Love a good romance, but demand some serious plot to move that story along? Get frustated when the only thing in the hero or heroine's way is so very clearly the hero or heroine herself? That's always true, but let's have it be about something real, right? Abby Jiminez's Life’s Too Short is long, long, long on story, so much so that the romance ends up being the most suspense-free part of the book. Facing mortality isn’t usually a summer read topic of choice, but here it’s handled with such deft humor and humanity that you can't help but be there for it. Hard recommend. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Embassy Wife by Katie Crouch (2021). Need one big book for a long weekend and a small bag? Embassy Wife is many things all rolled into one: a satire of diplomacy, in which an Auntie Mame-like genius that is the experienced wife takes the newbie under her wing, a but-what-is-he-up to marriage thriller and a hefty fun dose of the lunacy that results when a kind of Upper East Side parenting style transplants to Namibia and co-opts more than a few Namibians... This one (by Dartmouth professor Katie Crouch) satisfies a lot of itches. The cover art is--well, it suggests to me that they didn't know what to do with it, and I can see that, but don't judge it. This is no Just-So Stories. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia (also recommended by Book Jam)
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar (2021). Wait, what? A lighthearted, summer-worthy read about what? Here’s the deal: You: Digesting much reading about racism and your inescapable part in it OR Finally reading your own history and watching the white people around you finally get a small clue. This Book: a funny intermission that doesn't for one minute let anyone off the hook and might even go further that its more apparently serious counterparts in waking people up OR making people feel heard and seen. My opinion: it's a match made in heaven for just about any reader. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia (Seconded by Lisa Christie in our recent work with the Norman Williams Public Library)
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2021). Stay With Me is the unexpected story of a marriage invaded--by family, by expectations, by culture--and a second wife, intended to provide the offspring wife number one has failed to produce. But no one has the full story (do they ever?), and even the people who claim to be playing by the rules aren't. This book surprised me in many ways--the plot kept me guessing, and the characters were uniquely themselves. Set in an Africa that’s not filtered through Western eyes, this is a consideration of what it means when fertility comes first in a society and an inside look at marriage expectations beyond the Western bubble—and it’s also compulsively readable, unpredictable and hard to put down. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021). True Confessions: I have never read Remains of the Day. Or Never Let Me Go. When you say "major literary prize winner" to me I say "oh way over my head then" with some internal struggles with the chip on my shoulder over all the books that were mandatory reading in high school that I should probably be grateful led to my not majoring in English in college. Those were not books for me. This, however, is very much a book for me--and not only that, but a (deceptively?) easy and inviting read that almost made me wonder if the real secret of popular literary fiction is that it expresses a very simple truth that we almost didn't realize we needed to hear in a way we have never thought about. Or maybe that's not a secret? To sum up: Yes do read this, even if you're not into the AI futuristic heading-for-dystopia narrative, because it's hopeful and thoughtful and also a very entertaining exercise in seeing an unfamiliar world through even more unfamiliar eyes. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
First Comes Like by Alisha Rai (2021). The reason the east Asian re-takes on Jane Austen's stories work so well is that these are cultures in which marriage may be discussed before two individuals have even met, let alone kissed. First Comes Like is NOT an Austen re-telling, but it still has that vibe of characters who need to take their interaction very seriously and, as a result, can't easily run away or imagine they should be taking things lightly. This is a wonderful romance between people who are genuinely trying their hardest to be mature and smart about a situation they've been thrown into--and it's also fun, funny and everything you want in a romcom. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Where the Grass is Green and the Girls Are Pretty by Lauren Weisberger (2021). Lauren Weisberger's take on the college admissions scandal? Yes please. Three POVs--the kid whose too-helpful parents pulled the scam, the wildly successful morning show anchor mother and the mother's very judgmental not-so-successful sister are part of what makes this fun--we see the antics from all sides. There's a touch of white savior that's mildly problematic, so be warned (it's not super germane to the plot but it's there) but the book is overall extremely fun and the ending satisfying. Another great beach pick. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave (2021). Once this thriller gets going, it scoops you up like a waterslide and won’t let you go. If you want to be hooked into a page-turner for a long flight or train ride, or prefer to be fully engrossed on the beach, this one’s for you: in the wake of a corporate scandal, her husband has disappeared, leaving behind the daughter that he adores but who’s never fully connected with her stepmother. Now, the two of them have to figure out who the missing man really is and what he wants them to do next—and how to do it together. It took me a few chapters to get into this one (largely, I think, because the “husband who isn’t who he says he is” genre isn’t usually for me)—but I was glad I stuck with it, because once I was in in was ALL IN. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
THANK YOU KJ! ~ The Book Jam
Book Jam readers - you are in for a treat. Today, author Sarah Stewart Taylor reviews some superb mysteries for our summer reading. She's too modest to do it herself, so we will add her terrific Maggie D'arcy mystery series - the initial novel, The Mountains Wild and book #2, A Distant Grave, which is available for purchase and in public libraries on June 22nd - yes tomorrow, to this list. So without further ado, Sarah's picks. ~ Lisa and Lisa
OK - one more "ado" - Sarah's book launches June 23rd with a Norwich Bookstore virtual event. Just click here for details. And now, with no further ado we present Sarah's recommendations. ~ Lisa and Lisa
I love summer reading and I don’t think there’s a better genre for the long reading days of summer than mystery fiction. It’s so satisfying to become completely absorbed in a puzzle and suspicious cast of characters and so many crime narratives take place in locations I’ve always wanted to visit.
So, Book Jam readers, here I’m sharing with you some of the crime novels I’m looking forward to diving into this summer. Find a hammock or a perfect chair and dive in. All of these can be found at your favorite independent bookstore! ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
Transient Desires by Donna Leon (2021) — I love Donna Leon’s Venice-set Guido Brunetti mysteries and I am so excited to read Brunetti’s latest adventure, in which the seemingly accidental deaths of two American women leads him down a dangerous and twisted path. I am looking forward to revisiting these beloved characters and also Brunetti’s wife Paola’s inspirational cooking. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
The Killing Kind by Jane Casey (2021) — I love Irish crime writer Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan mysteries and I am so excited to read this standalone thriller about a young London barrister whose stalker may be the only one who can save her from another threat . . . ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor (Note from the Book Jam: this mystery is available to be read September 21st, but can be preordered now.)
City of Saviors: A Detective Elouise Norton novel by Rachel Howzell Hall (2017) — I love Hall’s series featuring Los Angeles homicide detective Elouise Norton, but I just realized I haven’t yet read this fourth installment. Hall is getting a lot of attention for her standalone novels (These Toxic Things will be out September 1) and I can’t wait to get caught up on the most recent “Lou” Norton novel. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor (Book Jam Note: City of Saviors is Book #4 in this series, the first three are also available from your local indie bookstore.)
The Lost Village by Camilla Sten (2021) — Despite the fact that I write murder mysteries, I’m a bit of a wimp about spooky stories that contain elements of horror or the supernatural. But I’ve heard great things about this one, featuring a documentary filmmaker who travels to an abandoned mining village to try to figure out where the village’s residents went and what happened to them. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
Red Widow by Alma Katsu (2021) — I love espionage fiction and I’ve heard great things about this novel by former CIA intelligence officer Katsu, featuring two women whose careers and lives intersect over exposed Russian intelligence assets and a possible mole in the CIA. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
These Women by Ivy Pochoda (2021) — Ivy Pochoda will be visiting the Upper Valley later this summer (see the Norwich Bookstore website for details). And, I am so excited to finally read her award-winning novel, about a cast of women from different corners of L.A. whose voices combine to create what I’ve heard is a stunning portrait of a city and a dangerous man. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby (2021) — S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was one of my — and many other readers’ — favorite reads of 2020. His new standalone novel is getting big pre-publication buzz. Two very different fathers set out on a journey to avenge the deaths of their sons, a murdered gay couple. Everyone I know who has read this novel has raved and says you should have a tissue box ready. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
What about you? What are you looking forward to reading this summer?
Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Maggie D’arcy novels, about an American homicide detective in Ireland, and the Sweeney St. George novels, about an art historian who specializes in funerary art. The first Maggie D’arcy mystery, The Mountains Wild, was on numerous best of 2020 lists and was called “perfect summer reading” by BookPage. It’s out now in paperback.
The second Maggie D’arcy novel, A Distant Grave, will be out June 22. Library Journal calls it “as intricately plotted at The Mountains Wild . . . a tense thriller” and Kirkus says that, “Taylor pulls out all the stops―subplots, threats, red herrings, warning bells―to keep the pot boiling till the end". You can find her on the web at www.SarahStewartTaylor.com.
Summer is here -- at least if today's heat in Vermont (93 degrees!) is any indicator. Summer means reading and paperbacks so you don't mind as much if they get wet after those refreshing swims. Luckily two notable hardcovers we recently read are out soon in paperback. Enjoy our recommendations as well as a few dips in a cool lake or pond. And, a delicious Maple Cremee (visit Vermont soon if you are unfamiliar with this treat) wouldn't be a bad idea either...
Want by Lynn Steger Strong (published July 2020, coming out in paperback July 2021). This is an excruciatingly modern, thoroughly unsettling, but often surprisingly funny novel told in a bold, minimalist voice. We are taken on a journey through one woman's version of motherhood/womanhood/career-hood where Elizabeth - though we don't learn her name until nearly the last page of the book, which I think gives us the sense that she could be any or every woman - is living psychologically on the edge in a one-bedroom in Brooklyn as she and her husband decide whether or not to declare bankruptcy. In her thirties with two young girls, Elizabeth is an overqualified and underemployed teacher with a PhD and a love of literature, working two jobs to help make up for her unemployed husband's lack of income (he lost his banking job in the 2008 financial crisis and hasn't landed back on his feet). It's a very quick read at 224 pages, but it has the reader thinking from page one about capitalism, downward mobility, modern friendship, and marriage. We start out early in the book on an early morning run with Elizabeth and the feeling of constant movement and just trying to keep up never dissipates. Despite the looming challenges faced by the characters and the ever-present sense of breathlessness, this story left me with a sense of hope and grace. What an excellent, relevant and important book. ~Lisa Cadow
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (first published in June 2020; coming in paperback on 15 June 2021). This novel was published to great acclaim; it was named one of the best books of 2020 by The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, NPR, The Washington Post, Tordotcom, Marie Claire, Vox, Mashable, Men's Health, Library Journal, Book Riot and LibraryReads. And yet, even knowing all that, I somehow missed reading this last year. Luckily, my fantastic neighbor lent me her copy a few weeks ago and it was my perfect Memorial Day Weekend read. Creepy house, interesting family dynamics, and just the right amount of horror for me -- a person who prefers to ignore horror movies and honestly is conveniently popping popcorn for most of the ones I see with my family. The novel begins when Noemí Taboada is sent by her father to visit her cousin at High Place, a house in the Mexican countryside and find out what is wrong after he receives a mysterious letter complaining of secrets, disturbing visions, and her English husband. Once Noemi arrives the question becomes -- will she also need to pen a letter asking for help from this house of horrors? And yet, the house may have met its match -- while Noemi is a glamorous debutante, most knowledgeable about which red lipstick works best with which gown, she's also smart, and she is not afraid. I heard it described as Bronte goes to Latin America; that's not far off. Now that it is out in paperback on June 15, it makes the perfect beach or vacation read. ~ Lisa Christie
Perhaps it's because, like most, I've spent most of the last year in my own home that now in 2021 I find myself gravitating towards books written by authors from other countries. Missing travel has propelled me to journey and imagine through stories instead. There's something that feels particularly authentic - almost even clandestine - about traveling through books, in being able to see a country through the eyes, words, and memories of a native. To me, reading a book in translation feels like having a local share a recommendation of a hidden beach or a favorite dish or like having them sit down and explain what it was like to grow up in their region. At it's best, reading a book from another country is like eavesdropping on a whole cultural conversation while also having the luxury and time to reflect on all of the obscure references. It's been through reading these four books, one of a long walk through Marseille, another of an Italian widow who lives with her favorite chicken, the third of and of an enigmatic French cemetery keeper, and a fourth of a quirky family of Russians who've settled in Germany, that I feel I've journeyed far from home with no passport or quarantine necessary. And I think it's fair to say that nothing was lost in translation. ~ Lisa Cadow
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin (2020). One of my favorite books so far this year. It's not an easy read but it's a beautiful and moving one. The setting is unlikely: a cemetery in the Bourgogne region of France. The main character, Violette Toussaint, is also unusual: she is the cemetery keeper. Throughout the novel we learn what has brought her to this métier as well as how the stories of several resting in the cemetery and those visiting them are connected. Violette is kind and trusted, many stop by her house for tea and conversation but she also keeps much about her own life hidden from the world. The slow unfolding of the story and the series of revelations up until the very last chapter lend this novel the air of a mystery. There are also many references to French music tucked into these pages, some so intriguing that I found myself taking frequent breaks from the book to explore and listen to these songs. Fresh Water for Flowers captivated European readers and was a bestseller in France and Italy during the pandemic. ~ Lisa Cadow
Three O'Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carafiglio (2021). A love letter to 1980's Marseille through an Italian author's eyes. This bulk of this story takes place over the course of two days and follows the footsteps of a father and his teenage son walking through its many neighborhoods while getting to know - and even enjoy - each other's company. The pair are in the city for the son's medical appointment and due to a specific diagnostic test, he must not fall asleep for 48 hours. Told in retrospect through the now adult son's eyes, the duo experiences the sights and sounds of this city by the sea as they visit cafes, witness a crime, meet locals and attend late night parties. A lovely coming of age story. ~ Lisa Cadow
Nives by Sacha Naspini (2021). One night, one very long phone call between a recent widow and the village veterinarian. The conversation between the two is prompted by the widow's concern for her pet chicken, Giacomina, whose presence is the only thing that can help her to sleep since her husband passed away. But suddenly her pet hen has been hypnotized by a television commercial for laundry detergent. She calls the vet for advice but soon more than the chicken is the topic at hand. The reader becomes privy to a whole lifetime lived in a Tuscan village. Secrets are revealed and lives are changed forever. Short but sweet, very funny, surprising, and also extremely serious. The whole time I was reading this I wished I could see this affecting dialogue performed on stage. ~ Lisa Cadow
My Grandmother's Braid by Alina Bronsky (2021). Another gem published by Europa Editions (the press that brought American readers Muriel Barbery's very popular Elegance of the Hedgehog), this tragicomic tale of a Russian family living in a home for refugees in Germany is told by young, endearing, and observant Max. Though his overbearing and eccentric (and anti-semtic) grandmother is convinced that he is developmentally challenged, orphaned Max is actually quite astute and shares with the reader his observations of childhood as well as of the relationship developing between his grandfather and their beautiful neighbor. A meditation on family, what it means to leave behind a life in another country and start from scratch to rebuild it in another, Bronsky offers us a fictionalized account of her own upbringing in this unique novella. ~ Lisa Cadow
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo (2015). Cuba 1963 meant Hurricane Flora, one of the deadliest in history. As Flora bears down on the island, women take refuge at the behest of the government in the former governor's mansion. To pass the time, one of the women begins to tell the story of her family's history in Cuba and reveals more than she realizes. This story within a story discusses love, forgiveness, and Cuba's War of Independence. This novel, also from Europa Editions brings us out of this Europe-centric post for just a moment, and is one I hope all can enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie
Some may have let Mother's Day pass by without getting the mothers in their lives the perfect gift. Don't fret. Some of us mothers would honestly prefer to buy the perfect book for ourselves. This purchase might be part of celebrating and honoring our motherhood or, quite honestly, it might be just because. Just because it's Monday. Just because we don't feel like answering any more emails and would rather be whisked away by a gorgeous story. Just because finding yourself the right book at the right time is simply the best.
We have two books to recommend if one is making such a purchase as well as for anyone simply looking for a good book. Enjoy and Happy Belated Mother's Day to all.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl (2019). Speaking of buying one's self the perfect gift, I did just this very thing this morning with Save Me the Plums. And I couldn't be more satisfied with my choice. Though only twenty pages into this book that tells the tale of Reich's years at the helm of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, I already can't wait to return to it tonight. Reichl's writing is, as always, well...delicious. Whenever I start one of her books, I feel as though I've entered a wise friend's warm and fragrant kitchen to hear another interesting tale of a fascinating life spent pioneering in food and publishing. Not only is the conversation easy, interesting, and though-provoking but this friend always prepares us the perfect dishes to accompany our chat (and shares new recipes with me to take home afterwards such as 'Spicy Chinese Noodles'). Many may be familiar with Reichl's other enjoyable memoirs that have been published over the decades such as Tender at the Bone that tells of her eclectic youth and how she fell in love with cooking in the first place and Comfort Me with Apples that chronicles her early adult years in Berkeley, California as a young food writer, hippie, and restaurant reviewer. Then there's Garlic and Sapphires that describes her busy tenure as the head restaurant reviewer at The New York Times all while also raising her young son Nick. They are all three worth going back to and slowly savoring if you haven't had the chance to already. With Save Me the Plums, Reichl pulls the hungry reader in right away with descriptions of taking food tours of New York City with her father as a young girl. There are scenes from German delis and of her, not yet a teenager, cooking a whole suckling pig with what else? A recipe from an old, loved edition of a Gourmet cookbook. I'm now on the page where she's completely caught off guard at being offered the job of Editor-in Chief at Gourmet while still at The Times. Will she take it? Though I think I already know the answer, I can't wait to find out what happens next. ~ Lisa Cadow
The Searcher by Tana French (2020). Prior to The Searcher I had not yet read Ms. French, which I know is almost sacrilege. Perhaps it's because my Book Jam partner Lisa Cadow loves her so much; thus, I know she will review every Tana French book and I just don't pick them up. But for some unknowing reason I picked up The Searcher and well loved it. The Searcher has a quiet pace, that allows you to enjoy living in a small town in Ireland for awhile. This pace allows you to grow to love Cal, the ex Chicago cop who relocated to this town after his marriage fell apart - for reasons he still does not understand - and his job just got too hard after 25 years to successfully navigate and keep mentally healthy. Ms. French also allows you time to think about domestic abuse, the harm of drugs on those who use and those around the users, and starting over (as well as home repair), all while being entertained. (I emerged more empathetic and sympathetic for people in all those categories.) Well written and lovingly paced, it's just a great escape for anyone. ~ Lisa Christie
In Mid-March, almost exactly on the one year anniversary of the covid-19 stay at home practices and orders here in New England, one of our favorite bookstores did a ZOOM version of one of their favorite nights of every year - Reading Group Recommendation night.
Because they could not yet gather bookclubs and booksellers in one large room as in previous years -- Carin, Penny, and Liza just pretended their audience was in the store. They talked about a few dozen books published in the past year; and they selected fiction and nonfiction, hardcover and paperback for Book Clubs everywhere. As Liza wrote when we asked her if we could post their list on the Book Jam, "the Reading Group Recommendation evening was lots of fun. While we could not see folks in person, it was great to see everyone's name and imagine who might select which titles for their book clubs to discuss."
The upside of ZOOM, anyone could attend and there is video of the evening for those who missed it. We are trying to focus on the up side a lot these days. And yet, we still are looking forward to being able to attend events inside of our favorite bookstores soon.
The brief reviews we lifted for each of their choices from the Indie Bookstore web site can't do their reviews about each book or the evening justice. So, for those of you who wish to see Carin, Liza, and Penny "in person", a video of the event can be found here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wwRU7YmRq4. And, please remember, the reviews all came straight from The Norwich Bookstore website or Indiebound.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929). Nella Larsen's powerful, thrilling, and tragic tale about the fluidity of racial identity that continues to resonate today. Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling. A New York Times Editors’ Choice and now a major motion picture starring Tessa Thompson and Alexander Skarsgård. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (2020). Named a best book of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, People, TIME, Vanity Fair and Glamour. As Jamie Thomas, Women & Children First, Chicago, IL said in IndieBound, “Brit Bennett’s second novel broke my heart. She doesn’t shy away from the sadness inherent in each character’s life, yet she left me feeling better for having met all of them. I read The Vanishing Half with a sense of hope, despite my dread that terrible things might befall the characters. Desiree and Stella’s story unfolds with a deft delicateness in a book that is astonishingly accomplished and sweeping, and yet so very intimate.”~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020). Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher's policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city's notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Douard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton (2020). As The Washington Post said in their review, “Boy Swallows Universe hypnotizes you with wonder, and then hammers you with heartbreak. . . . Eli’s remarkably poetic voice and his astonishingly open heart take the day. They enable him to carve out the best of what’s possible from the worst of what is, which is the miracle that makes this novel marvelous.” Plot recap - Eli Bell’s life is complicated. His father is lost, his mother is in jail, and his stepdad is a heroin dealer. The most steadfast adult in Eli’s life is Slim—a notorious felon and national record-holder for successful prison escapes—who watches over Eli and August, his silent genius of an older brother. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019). Kelly Brown, Magic City Books, Tulsa, OK says, “although you can read Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel over the course of one evening, there is nothing breezy about the richness of its story, nothing short about the depth of its characters, nothing quick about the way this book stays with you after you finish reading. Told through five distinct voices, Red at the Bone tracks an African-American family through time and place as an unexpected pregnancy upends and reshapes family and class expectations as well as individual trajectories. Ultimately, the novel is about legacy in every sense of the word. And since Woodson’s writing packs the emotional punch of an epic in a novella number of pages, the legacy of her book is to be read over and over and over again.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Afterlife by Julia Alverez (2020). Antonia Vegas, recently widowed and a retired English Professor, has always found solace in books and in the written word. When she discovers an illegal pregnant migrant hiding in her barn and then her older sister goes missing, her life is upended. Antonia and her three sisters all born in the Dominican Republic but having lived their lives in the US are professional women and very close. They joke and sing and laugh together always sharing their love for their heritage and each other. Her first adult novel in 15 years, Alverez has written a warm, often funny and always heartfelt tale of how we care for ourselves, our family and our fellow neighbors. — From Penny's Picks
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (2020). "The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led." Texas 1866. All Simon the Fiddler wants to do is get to the Red River, buy some land, track down the Irish governess he fell in love with, and live his life. No cakewalk in a state and country turned upside down by the Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is about devotion and drive, steadfastness and spunk, and the power of music as a salve in a nation gone awry. Paulette Jiles (News of the World) writes her tale lyrically, unsentimentally, with humor and tension both. Just read it. — From Carin's Picks
The Vanishing Sky by L. Annette Binder (2020). A powerfully gut-wrenching and beautifully told war story from the perspective of a German family in the last months of WW2. The writing is dynamic and Binder's tale of a family with two sons; a runaway from Hitler's Youth School and the other fighting on the Eastern front, held me spellbound throughout. We seldom have the opportunity to read about innocent German families and their personal experiences of war. Binder's extraordinary novel has opened my eyes and heart and I will carry this story with me for quite awhile. — From Penny's Picks
The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (2019). There have been numerous books written about World War II over the years focused on the Holocaust and the bravery of people in many countries who risked their lives to save Jews living in their communities. This fast-paced novel centers around the true story of Trus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance in the days before WWII, who was a key player in smuggling over 10,000 Jewish children to safety. We follow several families and their individual stories as they go from living in a free society to Nazi controlled Austria. This is an intriguing good summer read. Appropriate for young adults as well. — From Penny's Picks
House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon (2020). The New York Times Book Review states, “Elon powerfully evokes the obscurity of the past and its hold on the present as we stumble through revelation after revelation with Yoel. As we accompany him on his journey…we share in his loss, surprise, and grief, right up to the novel’s shocking conclusion.” Part family mystery, part wartime drama, House on Endless Waters is “a rewarding meditation on survival” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and a “deeply immersive achievement that brings to life stories that must never be forgotten” (USA TODAY). ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson (2021). So far my favorite of this year (ok, ok, it's early yet). It's many things (including unputdownable) -- an adventure story set in Banff and the Rockies, a coming of age tale, a love story, and a father/son saga. Beautifully written, imbued with the natural world, full of fascinating, well-drawn characters with great back stories, and totally addictive. And set in 1917, so you can escape the present! What more could you want? — From Carin's Picks
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by (2020). Benjamin "Buddy" Bess, Da Shop, Honalulu, HI says, “Sharks in the Time of Saviors is one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. The fact that the book takes place in Hawaii makes it even more special. The author provides the reader with a unique ‘chicken skin’ experience. The book captures contemporary Hawaii’s history over the past 20+ years, including the socioeconomics of race and being Hawaiian, income disparity, housing issues, family issues, and the diaspora that affects so many families in Hawaii who are unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of living. Truly a master work of art.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019). Anderson McKean, Page and Palette, Fairhope, AL says, “Ask Again, Yes is a compelling, heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful novel. Mary Beth Keane is incredibly talented; she does not sugar coat, instead giving readers a compulsively readable family drama. I did not expect to become so completely engrossed in these characters’ stories — two families whose lives become inextricably linked by young love and personal tragedy. Their myriad mistakes and attempts to atone beautifully demonstrate the power and grace found in forgiveness.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (2019). Laura Simcox, Sunrise Books, High Point, NC says, “When a politician’s young wife hires her old school friend as a nanny for her two stepchildren, the main duty will be to keep the twins out of sight and out of trouble. That’s because the kids’ father is a senator and under serious consideration to be the next Secretary of State. But what if the children can’t control themselves? Who is the best person to take care of children who are afflicted with spontaneous combustion? Obviously, a woman with no fear of fire, nothing to lose, and nothing to gain. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, this unique novel explores family dynamics, resentment, and retribution, leaving the reader with a new perspective on motherhood and what it means to be loyal to those you love.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Migrations: A novel by Charlotte McConaghy (2019). It's the near future and entire species are dropping like flies. Frannie Shore has tagged several arctic terns -- the bird with the longest migration of all -- and is following them South. She's never been able to stay in any one place for long. But why? What is she escaping, or running towards? In alternating chapters about her past and her present journey on a fishing vessel, you learn why. This book is about motivation and love and secrets and this whole incredible natural world we take way too much for granted. And it is the debut of an enormously talented writer. Loved it.— From Carin's Picks
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Joauad (2021). In the summer of 2010 Suleika Jaouad had just graduated from Princeton and moved to Paris. After only a few months there and just beginning a new relationship, she was diagnosed with a form of Leukemia that came with a 35% chance of survival.
In the following three and a half years, in addition to chemo, a clinical trial and a bone transplant, she documented her illness and treatment in a column for The New York Times which garnered her both acclaim and a boat load of people who wrote to her in response to the columns.
When Jaouad finished treatment in New York, she took off with her dog on a cross country trip to meet some of the people with whom she had corresponded during her treatments as well as to decide what the next chapter of her life might be.
This is a well written book that is not about cancer, but it is. Not about travel, but it is. Not about our relationships, but it is. What it is is a very good memoir about life. — From Penny's Picks
Send for Me by Lauren Fox (2021). A lovingly told story about how the emigration from Nazi Germany to America affects three successive generations of women. Fox writes of the interconnectedness of family life and the ties that bind us, one generation to another. As I read this, I held in my mind the similar stories that we are hearing now as people are entering the US from our Southern borders. Can we ever leave behind the lives we grew up in? Our families and our stories? This is a tale of heartbreak as well as of hope. Above all it is a tale of love. — From Penny's Picks
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2020). Somehow I missed this when it came out a year ago...it's now in paperback and is terrific. Set on an island off Norway in the late 1600's -- a storm at sea kills most of the men, and the grieving women have to learn how to survive by doing all their men did. But their independence (and power) attract witch-hunters...(mostly men) and the battle is joined. Not an easy book, but wonderfully written and absorbing. One of the NYT 100 best of last year... — From Carin's Picks
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (2020). The Boston Globe says, “of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life… here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you."
In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker). What results is a luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Memorial Drive by Nathalie Trethewey (2020). In this riveting and wrenching memoir -- so slim but so powerful -- former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer prize winner Trethewey tells of her life growing up biracial in the South and of the murder of her mother by Trethewey's manipulative and damaged stepfather. Written in precise, almost crystalline prose, Trethewey's tale packs a whallop. One of the most moving memoirs I've read in a long time.
— From Carin's Picks
The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer (2020). A “well-written, engaging detective story” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) about a rogue who trades in rare birds and their eggs—and the wildlife detective determined to stop him. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2019). Now in paperback—the intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States, featuring a new introduction by Michelle Obama, a letter from the author to her younger self, and a book club guide with 20 discussion questions and a 5-question Q&A. New york Times bestseller, Oparh's Book Club Pick, NAACP Image Award Winner. Essence's 50 most impactful Black Books of the past 50 years. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Becoming Adapted for Young Readers by Michelle Obama (2021). Michelle Obama’s worldwide bestselling memoir, Becoming, is now adapted for young readers. Most importantly, this volume for young people is an honest and fascinating account of Michelle Obama’s life led by example. She shares her views on how all young people can help themselves as well as help others, no matter their status in life. She asks readers to realize that no one is perfect, and that the process of becoming is what matters, as finding yourself is ever evolving. In telling her story with boldness, she asks young readers: Who are you, and what do you want to become? ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith (2020). Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean to submit to a new reality--or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it? ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2019). Curtis Sittenfeld states, "I loved this book not just from the first chapter or the first page but from the first paragraph... The voice is just so honest and riveting and insightful about creativity and life". Writers & Lovers follows Casey--a smart and achingly vulnerable protagonist--in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King's trademark humor, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Sea Wolf by Amity Gaige (2021). Mary Laura Philpott, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN says about Sea Wolf “Wherever you go, your anxieties go with you — even (or especially) if you go live on a boat to sail the world with your spouse and small children. Nothing will ever be the same for Juliet, Michael, and their family after their harrowing year at sea, and no reader will be the same after reading this taut, brilliant novel. I can’t stop thinking about it.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (2020). The Star Tribune reviewed this novel as “revolutionary . . . A visionary addition to American literature.” Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and reimagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it’s about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka (2020). Longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. A wildly original, cross-country novel that subverts a long tradition of family narratives and casts new light on the mythologies—national, individual, and collective—that drive and define us. Moving from Seattle's underground to the docks of the Far North, from the hideaways of the southern swamps to the storied reaches of the Great Offshore Grounds, this novel is a tale with boundless verve, linguistic vitality, and undeniable tenderness. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
Long Bright River by Liz Moore (2020). Hilary Kotecki, The Doylestown & Lahaska Bookshops, Doylestown, PA says, "this story’s power comes not just from its beautiful writing but the reality of its characters and the incisive nature of its setting. Liz Moore has created a masterpiece that exposes the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, highlighting the vulnerability of its victims and the sheer scope of suffering it causes. From the first page, when the murder mystery begins, readers will suffer and rejoice with the novel’s oh-so-human characters. The power of this story is a fire that will linger for a long time.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
Woodstock, VT + A Public Library + Book Clubs + A Book Store Owner + An English Teacher + The Book Jam = FUN and a great list of books to read
On an early April evening last week, the Norman Williams Public Library of Woodstock, Vermont (NWPL) hosted a night for Book Clubs heading into the spring and summer reading season. As with many events this past year, it was held over ZOOM. And though many of us dearly miss in-person events, the upside was that the Zoom platform magically allowed people from as far away as South Carolina to present and for readers from locales as far away as Chicago to attend (even though they couldn't quite hear the vernal chorus of wood frogs and peepers outside). The presenters included Kari Meutsch (owner of Yankee Bookshop), Liana Kish (a high school English teacher), and Lisa Christie (of our very own Book Jam blog). We were ably hosted by Kathy Beaird and Meg Brazill of the NWPL. (Bios appear at the end of the reviews.) What everyone - presenters and readers, both near and far - received was a fun evening of chatter about great books in addition to a rich list of what to read next with their book clubs. We share them now so that all may all benefit from the absolute fabulousness that is public library programming. We do so LOVE and appreciate local libraries and their dedicated librarians - as well as the concert of frogs currently singing us to sleep as we read.
BONUS -- If you order these books by April 31st from Yankee Bookshop, you will receive 15% off your order. Just click here.
Animal Wife by Lara Erlich (2020). Ms. Erlich’s debut collection pulls from the fairy tales we all know, but twists them on their head and investigates what might be the real life feelings of the women in these stories. Feminist reimaginings of fairy tales are not new, but these are different. This collection is definitely more realistic than most that play with this idea (I would place some of these stories in the real world, and some in magical realism). After each story I found myself wanting to turn to someone and discuss. I underlined passages, reread sections aloud that just felt so true - this writing was fantastic and I absolutely loved every story. ~ Selected by Kari
Severance by Ling Ma (2019). A debut novel, this pandemic story was written years before COVID19. What I loved about this book was the hope in such a bleak landscape. Having read a large number of post-apocalyptic novels, the reality that Ling Ma builds was just so believable and fresh. I’m not sure how it would read now that we have actually experienced (and still are in) a pandemic situation, but seeing New York City and the publishing industry through the eyes of a millennial just starting out was enough of a reason for me to want to read this book. Added bonus: readers are treated to an insider’s view of what the printing portion of publishing looks like in China. ~ Selected by Kari
A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet (2021). Absolutely hands-down the best book I read in 2020. Started it right at the beginning of lockdown, not realizing what it was actually about, and was absolutely spellbound from the beginning. It’s dark, but with hope at the end (for some, anyway). The premise is simple enough: a few families rent a summer house together - the reader follows the group of children thrown together by their parents, teen angst & drama etc. Then a storm comes - but not just any storm, it’s the Big One that changes everything. The kids are forced to band together to survive. There is so much to talk about here, especially after living through quarantine and the upheaval of the pandemic this last year - but also religion and belief, human nature, survival, generational differences. It’s simply written (almost like a fable) but amazingly profound - if sometimes difficult to swallow. ~ Selected by Kari
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn (2020). This is a family story - with a twist - of life as a native Hawaiian. The family we follow is down on their luck and about to move to the main island of Hawaii in search of better employment, etc. Before they make the move, an incident happens - a miracle even - to their middle child. What follows is a story told from multiple points of view about growing up, what it means to be part of a family, what it’s like to be Hawaiian - on the islands and the mainland, and also what it’s like to grow up surrounded by a deep mythology - and maybe even be a part of it. Beautifully written, this book draws you in and won’t let you go. ~ Selected by Kari
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2019). In an interview in the Paris Review Nicholson Baker stated that all novels are trying to answer the question: Is life worth living? Nunez said she read the interview after she had finished writing The Friend and thought Baker’s statement was so perfect and true that she included it in the opening pages. The Friend is told by by an unnamed narrator who has just learned that her mentor has died by suicide. She is both a writer and a writing instructor and her therapist suggests that writing about her grief might help. And so the novel becomes her answer to this assignment of sorts. As a dog lover, I loved watching the growing relationship between the narrator and Apollo--the 180lb Great Dane she inherits from her mentor. As an English teacher, I loved the way Nunez weaves in quotations and anecdotes from the works and lives of other writers. She moves smoothly between heartbreaking and comical scenes with Apollo and philosophical musings about life and the act of writing. While this is a story about grief, it’s also one about love, friendship and writing. And of course, how does one make one’s life worth living? ~ Selected by Liana
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (2020). This novella is set in 2019, in a small Vermont town. In the opening chapter we learn that Antonia Vega, a writing professor in Vermont, is on her way to meet her husband Sam at a restaurant. Their special dinner is to celebrate her retirement from the college. However, he dies from a heart attack en route to the restaurant. So just as she is about to embark on this new stage in life that she has imagined with him, she is alone. The title refers to both her need to reimagine
her life after his death as well as her need to keep his memory alive. While this book is about her grief, it is also about her complicated relationship with her sisters and the gifts and obligations of family. It touches upon timely topics such as immigration and raises the question: What is our responsibility to others?
After reading and listening to many interviews with Alvarez, I came across the following which I think gives a great sense of the feeling of this story: In an interview with the LA Times: “Many of my novels have a soundtrack that no one
else ever hears,” says Alvarez. “In this case, it was Leonard Cohen’s song [Anthem]
with the line ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’ … In that
brokenness and fragmentation that happens when the life you had falls apart, you hope that you end up with a larger version of yourself.”~ Selected by Liana
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021) and Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (2017), with Vida (2010) by Ms. Engel as a bonus if you need three choices. Immigration, undocumented workers, borders, border crossings, coyotes, border walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting, all bring up emotions and images. Emotions and images that differ for everyone depending on our own lived experiences, and our exposure to people behind those words. For instance, anyone who has witnessed or participated in a naturalization ceremony is forever marked by the joy expressed there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker is forever marked by the hope and fear guiding that status. The rest of us, well, we have books. And I am recommending two, OK three.
The first, Unaccompanied, is a collection of poetry authored by Javier Zamora, born in El Salvador and educated in the USA that describes in well chosen words the lives of the undocumented in the USA. The second, Infinite Country is the best book I have read this year. Infinite Country highlights what life torn between two countries involves. She shows how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but among thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly shows how all five family members in this book are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statuses in the USA. Along the way, she movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. Vida, Ms. Engel's debut provides a superb collection of linked short stories if neither of the other two picks speak to you. ~ Selected by Lisa
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald (2020). I LOVED THIS novel and no one really talks about it; so I am talking about it now. I read an advance copy in 2019 and was so excited to hand sell it to everyone when it was available for sale at the end of January 2020. Then covid happened and I was unable to convince as many people as I wished that this book should be read. So please read it.
For those who need a few more details --- a summary. 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; 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 her obsession with Vikings (the historical ones, not the football team) helps her in this quest. The plot begins with her 21st birthday party and slowly unfolds to show how she and her brother Gert navigate the honestly crappy hand life has dealt them - dead mother, absent father, abusive uncle, and poverty - just to name a few. 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. ~ Selected by Lisa
Hamnet by Maggie O'farrell (2020) paired with Hamlet by Shakespeare because why not? I’m cheating and pairing books again; but honestly in this case how could I not. In what was one of my very favorite books from 2020, Maggie O'farrell brings to life that elusive woman from Elizabethan England - no, not Queen Elizabeth - Shakespeare’s wife. Based around the fact of their son’s death from the plague (a great entry to discussions around covid 19 if your book club is ready for those), this novel explores what life might have involved for the partner of Shakespeare’s genius. Kathy Beaird reminded me during the Book Club event that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name in this novel; he is the poet or the playwright, or the husband. Debating the significance of Ms. O'farrell's choice to keep him unnamed might be a great way to begin your book club discussion of this novel. And honestly, reading this will make you want to revisit Hamlet so you might as well read them both and discuss. Bonus Hamnet is out in Paperback in May. ~ Selected by Lisa
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2019). Having gone to college in the Boston area during the 80s, it was fun to read this novel set in Boston in 1997 with its references to familiar locations, music and events . Casey Peabody, the narrator of this story, is an aspiring writer in her early 30s, who is also a waitress in Harvard Square. She is smart and witty, and she is also grieving for her mother who passed away the year before. Both her mother’s death and a recently failed relationship have left her untethered and filled with self doubt. She is estranged from her father who does not support her choice to be a writer. King draws you into Casey’s life as she struggles between her desire to follow her passion to be a writer while also struggling to pay her rent. Casey’s story will give groups a lot to talk about in terms of the challenges of pursuing a creative life in a world that is hard on artists... How does one define success in terms of a career? And in terms of love? And what constitutes a family? ~ Selected by Liana
The Dutch House by Anne Patchett (2019). This story spans five decades and moves back and forth in time as the narrator, Danny Conroy tells us about his family. Danny’s father, Cyril Conroy, a poor Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn, creates a real estate empire for himself buying properties all over Philadelphia--his biggest source of pride is the Dutch House--a lavish and ornate home that he buys as a surprise for his family.
While Danny and his older sister Maeve adjust easily to their new lifestyle, their mother does not. The house becomes the very thing that unravels the family; and when Danny and Maeve find themselves banned from the home, they must learn to construct new homes and families for themselves. This is a story that explores tough questions such as, How do we make peace with difficult events from our childhoods? How do past events shape who we become as adults? What are we willing to forgive? ~ Selected by Liana
Think Again by Adam Grant (2021). For book clubs who like books with facts and data and thought provoking arguments and theories. Professor Grant's (Wharton) latest book illustrates we don't have to (and probably shouldn’t) believe everything we think, or internalize everything we feel. He shows how the ability to rethink and unlearn is essential to our success and more importantly our happiness. He challenges us to embrace the discomfort of doubt, to stop listening only to opinions that make us feel good, and to instead seek many, many ideas that make us think hard. He proves knowing what we don't know is true wisdom. Along the way he shares enough stories to stimulate great conversations - such as how do you make a Yankee fan a Red Sox fan too? Even if your club prefers fiction, this book would make a great change of pace. ~ Selected by Lisa
Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man by Emmanuel Acho (2020), You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin (2021), and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard (2019). So many of us are struggling with how to talk about race and perhaps more importantly how to take action around racism and/or to be anti-racist. These four books all provide great ways for starting or continuing conversations about racism and bias. Each enters those conversations differently so I wanted to give Book Clubs that are interested in discussing racism options so you may choose depending on the flavor of your group dynamics or what you feel like devouring in that particular moment.
Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (2021). Jenny Lawson is hilarious. If you haven’t read any of her previous books, that’s okay. This book is filled with essays, some more personal than others, but over the course of the book she delves into her experiences with depression and anxiety (what it’s like to live with, cures she has tried, etc.) - all while making you laugh so much that it can be embarrassing. ~ Selected by Kari
Best We Could Do: An illustrated memoir written and illustrated by Thi Bui (2018). This book is Ms. Bui's look at becoming a mother in the US, when her own parents had navigated an escape from Vietnam (she was only months old at the time). A look at how she wants to be connected to her own children, while investigating the divide that exists between herself and her own parents, and diving into what they went through when escaping with the waves of “boat people” coming after the Vietnam War. There is SO MUCH to talk about with this one - especially when you incorporate the art aspect. If you’re looking to try a new format as a group, this graphic novel is beautiful and easy to follow - unlike more complicated examples of the genre can be. ~ Selected by Kari
Untamed by Glennon Doyle (2020). My daughter who is a sophomore in college recommended this book to me. To be honest, it’s not a book I would have chosen on my own but I was curious because she doesn’t usually recommend books. It’s SO good, she said. I had never even heard of Glennon Doyle, the #1 New York Times bestselling author, or the activist , speaker, thought leader... and so had no idea what to expect. Right away Ms. Doyle pulls you in to her family and situation. She gives you a front seat view as she discovers the many layers of how she has been tamed by societal expectations. Doyle’s previous books are honest about her battles with bulimia, alcoholism, and about her path out of these addictions and her successful marriage and three children. At a writing conference for her book, Love Warrior, her whole life changes when she meets someone who helps her become the person she believes she always was meant to be. Ms. Doyle offers words of wisdom about a range of topics and just when you might find her to be too preachy, she takes you on a humble road detour where she exposes her own shortcomings sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh out loud funny. I found myself pushed and pulled all the way through to the end. It will certainly give a book group a lot to talk about. ~ Selected by Liana
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2019). This memoir by Nicole Chung is about the power of stories. The first type of story Chung explores are the stories we are told when we are young and how they shape our perceptions of ourselves--even when we might not always believe these stories. Ms. Chung grew up in a small white town in Oregon and her white parents have always been open with her about her adoption. They explained to her that her Korean parents could not provide her with a good life, and so out of love they put her up for adoption. This story of her birth parents’ sacrifice out of love, brings her comfort when over the years she wonders how they could have given her up. As an adult and expectant mother, Ms. Chung actively begins her search for her birth parents. Ms. Chung lets us into her experience and takes on her journey as she learns that not all the stories she was told about her childhood are accurate. She gives an unflinching, honest portrayal of what she uncovers and as the title suggests, the limitations of what she simply cannot uncover or ever know. While some of her discoveries are painful, there are others that enrich her life. Ms. Chung also provides insight into some of the issues surrounding adoptions and challenges some of the mainstream ideas or narratives about adoptions. Her story touches upon what it means to belong and the many definitions of family and the many ways one can create a family. ~ Selected by Liana
GENRE: SCIFI, FANTASY, MYSTERY
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (2020). If you could live forever, would you want to? What would you be willing to give up for immortality? This is the story of Adeline LaRue who as a young girl in a small town in France in the 18th century is about to be married to a man she does not love. In fact she does not want to marry or have children at all --even though that is what is expected of her. She runs from her wedding and begs the gods to help her. When one answers she makes a deal, asking for freedom and independence. While her wish is granted, she learns the cost too late. The story spans 300 years and moves to locations all over Europe and a few cities in the United States. While some readers may be disappointed that Addie doesn’t visit more places or tackle societal issues, her experience draws you in and makes you wonder how you might spend your days if they were endless? Her plight raises the questions such as, What does it take to live a life of purpose or a life of value? Do you need to leave a mark on the world? And if you don’t, does that mean your life has no value? How would you imbue them with purpose? What mark do you want to leave on the world? How do you want others to remember you? ~ Selected by Liana
Radiance by Catherynne Valente (2016). I love Catherynne Valente. Every one of her books is drastically different - in subject, in tone, in style, and even sometimes format. This book is a challenge, but so much fun along the way. It’s the 1940s, and centered around the film industry, set in an alternate version of our world (all the planets are inhabited, and Hollywood is located on the Moon). The main character is a documentary filmmaker, railing against the kind of movies that her famous father made (glossy romances & blockbuster films). She disappears while making what ends up being her final film, and the whole book is fitting the pieces together - radio transcripts, letters, screenplays, interviews (and some more narrative sections). It technically falls into a lot of science fiction sub-genres...but is also just a story about family, love, exploration and a love letter to the golden age of cinema - IN SPACE. ~ Selected by Kari
The Mountains Wild (2020) and A Distant Grave (2021) by Sarah Stewart Taylor. I recommend these two books for book clubs for five big reasons. 1) They are superbly crafted mysteries. 2) They will leave you longing to visit Ireland. 3) Ms. Taylor is a local author and I love to promote local authors; and in this case I LOVE that I can tell you to read local because these books are just REALLY good, not just because she is from Vermont. 4) The main characters - Long Island homicide detective Maggie D’Arcy and her detecting partner Dave, her daughter Lilly, her Uncle Danny, and her Irish beau Connor, are all worth investing time in getting to know. 5) Finally, Sarah will come visit ANY Book Club that buys seven or more of her books from Yankee Bookshop. So, with this selection, you can read great books and discuss them with the actual author. Hopefully, you don’t need any more reasons to pick up this series with your book club. And, I am sure I can find some. ~ Selected by Lisa
Night Diary by Veera Hiranandan (2019). A different kind of historical novel, from a very different perspective. This book looks at The Partition of India (1947), the creation of India and Pakistan, through the eyes of a 10 year old girl. Her story: she and her father need to leave their home, because they are in the land about to be Pakistan and their beliefs align more with the people of India. Because of the point of view, this book is absolutely heart-wrenching and eye-opening, all while managing to be completely appropriate for a 10 year old to read. What I love about reading books written for kids as an adult is the emotion - it’s so intense and to the point, because kids don’t have the baggage we all do everything is very straight-forward when you’re reading from their perspective. ~ Selected by Kari
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019). Written as a novel in verse, a teenage girl from the Bronx, Xiomara is struggling with the kinds of things all teenagers deal with: her body has changed without her permission, of course there’s a love interest, and then a mother with a fierce religious streak that clashes with her own view of things. Luckily, she finds poetry (particularly slam poetry) to be a way for her to find her voice and gain a better understanding of the world around her. Have you been inspired by Amanda Gorman? This is what she does that is so entrancing to watch - and Acevedo’s writing is the same kind of work that pulls you in and holds you close. ~ Selected by Kari
Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (2021). A lovely coming of age story for all the readers out there who feel outside the norm due to body size (or other reasons) and for all their friends who love them. Charlie is a self described fat, brown girl whose dad passed away not so long ago, whose best friend is gorgeous, thin, and beloved by all, whose mother was fat like her until she discovered weight loss shakes - shakes that she insists on sharing with an uncooperative Charlie. Complicating matters even further, Charlie is in love with the star football player, Cal, who has firmly planted her in friend land; and probably only in friend land in order to gain an in with Charlie's gorgeous best friend. Charlie recognizes this cliche of the fat friend in love with the star athlete who uses her for her class notes and access to beautiful friends. And she absolutely knows things with Cal will be different when he finally sees her. Luckily, Charlie has her notebook, her stories, and her desire to be the best writer possible. Even more luckily, Charlie has an after school job in a workspace shared by a very nice boy from her art class. Enjoy this ride through he junior year of high school and enjoy Charlie and her true friends; they will give you hope for humanity. ~ Selected by Lisa
Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim (2020). One small lie, Ok not so small, but unintentional, spirals into an adventure about the importance of family, how new friends can change your world, and finding one's true self. In this book, Yumi Chung's dreams of being a stand up comic are not understood by her parents - two hardworking US immigrants from Korea who are fighting to keep their restaurant alive and provide a better life for their two daughters. Yumi's parents send her to SAT boot camp so she can earn a scholarship and somehow she stumbles into a summer camp for comics. The novel then explores can she do both? Which side of her life wins - comic or respectful daughter? Can her parents save their restaurant? This novel is funny, heartfelt, and sad all at once. An especially great book for preteens who are trying to express their true selves without being disrespectful or ungrateful, or anyone looking for a relatable heroine. ~ Selected by Lisa
BONUS -- If you order these books by April 31st from Yankee Bookshop, you will receive 15% off your order. Just click here. So if your Book Club is debating, debate a bit faster and get a lovely and generous discount.
Liana Kish is an English teacher and loves talking about books. She has been on leave this past year and has enjoyed having extra time for gardening, baking and cross-country skiing. She is excited to participate in this event and share some titles she enjoyed during the past few months.
Kari Meutsch has over 16 years of experience helping people find just the right book. After bookselling across the country, she and her husband settled here in Woodstock in early 2017 to take over the town’s historic bookstore, the Yankee Bookshop, which has been running since 1935. Over the years, Kari has curated quite the list of favorite books and authors to share with any reader, but above all she deeply believes that stories shared and received are the seeds for empathy and change. While her current reading obsessions are just about anything to do with fairy tales or angsty teenage witches, she also loves a good nonfiction audiobook or podcast when she needs to be doing something with her hands, like a jigsaw puzzle or knitting project.
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, especially after this year of pandemic precautions, and is grateful to have Vermont to call home.
Immigration. This one word can bring many worlds and images to mind: undocumented workers, border crossings, coyotes, walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting... And these terms can also evoke strong emotions and images, ones that probably differ for everyone depending on lived experience and exposure to people living behind the words. For instance, anyone who has been part of a naturalization ceremony is likely forever affected by the joy experienced there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker may forever be marked by both the hope and the fear guiding their lives. For many others, there are books to lend insight. Luckily two works we've read recently provide gorgeous poetry and prose and a much needed window into the lives of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. We offer these reviews with the hope that they promote understanding and also provide you with two powerful, affecting reads.
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021). I fell in love with Ms. Engel's prose and stories while reading her 2010 debut collection of connected short stories chronicling life in both Colombia and New Jersey, Vida (I can’t recommend it enough). So it was with great excitement I saw she published a novel in March 2021. And it is the best one I have read thus far this year. I was dismayed when it ended as I would never again have the chance to read it for the first time; but, I’m excited that anyone who now sees this review will next have the chance to enjoy Ms. Engel's gorgeous, sparse prose and story telling skills. With this novel, Ms. Engel illuminates the immigrant experience, including what a life torn between two countries involves. In particular, especially in light of the recent coverage of US immigration policies under both Presidents Trump and Biden, she communicates how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but rather that it entails thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly conveys how all five family members in this book each are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statutes in the USA. Along the way, Ms. Engel movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. For those who do not need plot summaries, stop here and simply seek this fabulous novel of family, loss, love, life, and immigration. Your heart will break, mend, break, and mend over and over again as you read this superb story.
For those who do appreciate a plot summary, we share more for you. The story begins with teenaged Talia breaking out of a correctional facility for girls in Colombia. She must return to Bogota in time to use a ticket to the USA - the place of her birth, but not of her childhood - that her mother has sent. The story then shifts to explore the lives of her parents - Mauro and Elena - in Bogota when they first met, in Bogota as they decide to flee Colombia's civil war and unrest, and in the USA before her birth. The novel's already acute sense of loss and musings about what makes a home, accelerates once her father is deported back to Colombia shortly after her birth. Her mother and her two older siblings - Fernando (US born) and Karina (Bogota born) remain the US because even as Elena and Karina are undocumented, Colombia is still not the safer option. Talia is sent back to Bogota to live with her grandmother as Elena can not work and care for an infant. Throughout, the novel cleverly alternates perspectives and shows each of the five family members curating their life as best they can. Mauro's feelings of despair and failure cause him to spiral to the bottom of many bottles of cheap alcohol. Talia feels the loss of her mother and the love of her grandmother. Karina is marked by fear of deportation. Fernando is bullied and worries about his undocumented sister and mom. Elena finds multiple jobs, endures abuse, and ultimately lands with her two children, in a caretaker's cottage, behind a large home, watching the owner's son.
This short novel, compacts a lot of plot and emotion in 191 beautifully written pages. Enjoy every one. (Note: my youngest son is adopted from Bogota, so I am predisposed to books about life there and life in the US for Colombian-Americans; that said, this novel is terrific.) ~ Lisa Christie
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (2017). A moving collection of poetry that illustrates the stresses, hopes, loves, and lives of undocumented immigrants in the USA. Sometimes a few well-chosen words are all that is needed to humanize a concept - in this case immigration - and show the impacts of policy on lives. We offer and example, an excerpt from To Abuelita Neli - "...You understand. Abuelita, I can' go back and return. There's no path to papers. I've got nothing left but dreams..." This collection is beautifully moving, often haunting, and always enlightening. A superb way to think a bit at a time about immigration, immigrants, the undocumented, and the power of sharing stories. ~ Lisa Christie
Periodically, the Book Jam turns over our platform to guest reviewers. We love this tradition as it means we hear about great books and it expands and diversifies the voices of the Book Jam. Today, we are thrilled to have Charlotte Cadow, Colorado College graduate, Educator, outdoor enthusiastic, and daughter of the Book Jam's Lisa Cadow. Thank you Charlotte.
This past fall, I left Wyoming to caretake at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mizpah Hut. Located 2.5 miles and 2000 vertical feet from the nearest trailhead, books, food, clothes, and sleeping bags all have to be hauled in by packboard. So, when my co-caretaker offered to share, Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, I was more than eager. Butler, having broken into a largely white, male dominated genre in the 1970s, brought a refreshing, and critical new lens to science fiction writing, and I’d heard a lot about her work in the preceding year. So, during a lull in the fall hiking traffic, I crinkled open the pages of Parable of the Sower.
Parable of the Sower (1994). Butler derived inspiration for the Parable books by forecasting what would happen if social injustice, climate change, and the inadequacies of governmental support for citizens were to intensify. Set in California, Parable of the Sower unfolds between 2020 and 2024, where everything is burning – the hills, the homes, any sense of harmony. Lauren, the protagonist, is fortunate – her family lives in a walled-in community. This banding together of households, who have strung barbed wire along the top of the fence, posted armed nightly watches, and have monthly target practice in the hills, is the new definition of normal - these protective measures are necessary to avoid the escalating chaos outside the walls. As the story unfolds, the stability of Lauren’s world dissolves. She journeys north towards land, a semblance of safety, and a future, all while navigating the power of religion, hyper-empathy, love, and loss as a young black woman in a dystopian world.
The first time I read Parable of the Sower, I was alone in the mountains, in a rumored-to-be haunted hut, in the middle of a pandemic. One morning, I awoke to a strange man standing on the fire escape outside of my unlocked door. When he twisted the knob and opened the door, I calmly told him that had the wrong entrance. With a pounding heart, I was immensely grateful of this reminder that in 2020, not all of the Parable had become a reality. In this prophetic novel, Butler questions what it means to be fundamentally human, dives into the potential implications of 1994 America, and ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of hope. ~ Charlotte Cadow
Kindred (1979). Dana is a young Black woman living in California in the 1970’s. Throughout the book, she is unexpectedly and involuntarily drawn back in time to antebellum Maryland. As the plot develops, Dana becomes increasingly intertwined in the survival of Rufus, the son of a white plantation owner, and Dana’s many-times-removed great grandfather. Through this narrative, Butler guides the reader through the implications of slavery, particularly the utter lack of autonomy possessed by enslaved people. While Dana possesses a 1970’s awareness and education, she is still subjected to the inescapable realities of slavery. She is helpless to stop Rufus from raping her many-time-removed great grandmother, to prevent beatings, or to decide when she will return to present day.
After fifteen different publishers turned down the novel manuscript, Butler successfully sent Kindred off to the press. 42 years later, I read Kindred from our cozy and comfy couch. Yet, from the moment I cracked the cover, I was transported into an expertly crafted harsh reality. I have never felt so keenly aware of how slavery operated, or the power that white plantation owners had after dehumanizing the Black population. While Butler wasn’t alive in antebellum times, she had a vision and the brilliance to remind us why understanding history is important, and that the impacts of the past perpetuate into the present. ~ Charlotte Cadow
Fledgling (2005). I’d consider this book to be more of an adult fantasy novel than a “science fiction;” perhaps a vampire book for adults. Shori awakes in a forest den after having lost most of her memory to an unknown trauma. With time, Shori’s body and mind begin to recover, and she seeks out solace in human companionship. As her social network broadens, she becomes aware of the impliations of her skin color, gender, and unique genetic identity. Butler builds on elements of the traditional vampire myths and legends, yet supplements with refreshing and provocative new characteristics, and the reader has the joy of discovering these traits are Shori herself rediscovers what it means to be “Ina.” This tantalizing tale explores themes of racism, sexism, polyamory, and fierce power dynamics.
Once again, Butler defied the perceived boundaries of science fiction. I found her prose to be imbued with a thought-provoking light from which to observe the social implications of racial relations. Her mastery of language, plot, and character development was evident as I devoured the 360 pages of text in under 24 hours. If you’re looking for a read to suck you in, tumble you around in a sea of misconceptions, and then spit you out with fresh perspectives, you should try Fledgling. ~ Charlotte Cadow
If you’re looking to learn more about Octavia Butler and her writing, check out the THROUGHLINE podcast from last month!
As February ends, our thoughts turn to Town Meeting Day, an annual event where citizens in towns across New England meet to discuss and vote on important civic matters. In our home state of Vermont, Town Meeting is experienced as a forum where people sit, stand, discuss, and vote completely in public, right next to the person disagreeing with your position. Many of the best town meetings involve sharing food together as part of this process. Some meetings involve an all-town discussion, followed by more private voting via an Australian ballot.
When we began thinking about a Town Meeting post for today, we first thought we might review a bunch of picture books that explore how to develop and use characteristics key for effective democracies (e.g., listening skills). Then, we shifted and thought that instead we might review books about topics that will be debated: climate change, immigration, education, health care. However both those ideas required being able to browse and linger in our local bookstore - the Norwich Bookstore. And, with covid, alas, that is not currently possible.
So we browsed our own home bookshelves, and came up with the idea of exploring the topic of speeches. Why speeches? Because as we enter town meeting season, and as we dream of the post covid pandemic world, we are seeking inspiration. To ensure we end up in a better place post pandemic, we will need to remember to act well and with intention. Now is a good time to reflect on how post pandemic behaviors could change. It is our hope that these speeches provide the needed inspiration. As the title of one of these collections reminds us, we are the change we seek. (Don't worry both these books are still in print and can be found by your favorite indie bookstore.)
Lend Me Your Ears: Great speeches in history edited by William Safire (1992, 1997, 2004). Former US Presidential speech writer turned columnist William Safire compiles great speeches from Demosthenes (we looked him up to confirm our assumption he was a famous Greek orator -- he was -- from the 4th century) to the era of George W. Bush. The preface describes what Mr. Safire believes makes a great speech. The many, many speeches he selected are then divided into sections, including, but not limited to a section on "memorial and patriotic speeches" which highlights Mark Twain's speech, delivered in London in 1899, celebrating the Fourth of July. The section on "inspirational speeches" includes William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech from 1950 during which he charged writers to help traits of compassion, honor, courage and sacrifice prevail in the world. In the speeches collected under "social responsibility", you will see Senator Margaret Chase Smith's "declaration of conscience" against McCarthyism that separates her form of Republicanism from Senator McCarthy's, as well as Malcolm X's call to African Americans to confront white oppression while speaking in Detroit on Valentine's Day 1965. The political speeches offer an international flair with words from Benjamin Disraeli of the UK, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, among others. As Booklist said in their review of this collection, "to teach and to please, some Greek once advised, is the function of great rhetoric, and Safire has put together [a] volume that embod[ies] those functions and their power." This would be a great gift for any upcoming graduates in your life.
We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by EJ Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid (2017). This collection begins where the previous collection ended - with the Candidacy and then Presidency of Barack Obama. In this volume, two American journalists examine the speeches of Barack Obama, describing them as the force that propelled him onto the national stage, and as the way he both spoke to the national mood and changed the course of public discourse in the United States. Mr. Dionne and Ms. Reid begin this book by framing Obama’s oratorical contributions in a historical context. They then introduce each of the 27 speeches they selected to highlight, providing important context for each. Their selections include President Obama's two inaugural addresses. They also chose more poignant speeches such as his 2015 eulogy for the honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, SC - which he concluded by singing Amazing Grace, and his concession speech "Yes We Can" after losing the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. The book is beautifully produced and makes a great gift for graduates and/or others interested in Presidents, US history, or great speeches. As for the rest of us, may we read it and discover our evolving role in the change we seek.
Once again it is time to see how well we honor our promise to represent a diverse array of authors. Why? Well, because we truly believe we are what we read; and also because we truly believe that the best way to expand your horizons (when you can’t actually travel or talk to new people - hello covid restrictions) is to read books written by or about people who are different from you (in our case people of color, or people living outside the USA). It is our hope that we honor diverse authors throughout the year. We also use these audits to expose the voices we are missing in our own personal reading habits, allowing us to fill those gaps during our next year of reviews. So one quick number -- overall in 2020, 47% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 28% in 2019 and 36% in 2018).
So now, some reviews of great books for Black History Month, followed by numbers from this latest audit for those of you who like data.
YA and CHILDREN'S
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2020). A powerful look at life from the eyes of an incarcerated Black teen. Amal, whose name translates to hope - an important aspect required for his survival while incarcerated - remains in jail after a fight with some white teens landed one white boy in a coma and him in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Did he throw the first punch? Yes. Did he beat a white boy into a coma - No. And yet he sits in jail because even his character witnesses - in particular a teacher from his school - see him as an angry Black boy. What feeds his hope? It's some sage advice from some of the boys preceding him into incarceration, a poet teaching classes to any boy who "earns" the privilege, and a guest whose exploration of mistakes, misgivings, and systems reminds Amal that speaking his truth is the most important thing he can do, as well as the one thing no one can take away. Told in poetry and based on the actual experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the "Central Park/Exonerated Five", this book will hopefully change how we view our prison system and move us to action. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph (2020). To begin -- this YA book is also great for adults and I think would be excellent for Book Clubs and classroom discussions for anyone interested in racial justice and becoming better anti-racists/up-standers. Written by Mr. Joseph as if he is a friend of the reader, he walks his new friends through how comments such as "I don't see color" and other micro-aggressions, as well as examples of more overt racism, are just wrong and need to end. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a conversation between Mr. Joseph and other experts on that theme ending each chapter. Full of practical advice and lists of "people and things to know" throughout each chapter and then helpfully compiled at the end (I currently have the songs on rotation on Spotify), this book is a great place to start one's own work on being a better person and actively anti-racist. It also feels important to highlight Mr. Joseph's reminder that "that this book is a gift not an obligation" (p. 195), because "while this book is meant to be a guide for white people to understand and be better, it's important that white people also understand that it isn't the duty of Black people or people of color to explain things" (p. 194). Enjoy his gift of this book. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (2020) and Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. In The Black Kids, Ashley Bennett and her friends are enjoying their senior year spring in Los Angeles in 1992. They are worried about which college will accept them (Stanford? UC Berkeley?) and how often they can successfully cut classes to lay on the beach or sneak a swim in the pool of a neighboring mansion. As you may guess from the year and the location, everything changes one night when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King to death. Suddenly even though Ashley has been questioning her choices of friends yet hasn't been able to cut them loose because they've been friends since kindergarten, the fact that Ashley is Black and her friends are not, means Ashley is now one of "the Black kids". Her world suddenly and methodically starts to crumble: her estranged older sister is involved in the riots, her family's success as a "model Black family" is no longer enough, her so called friends spread a rumor that endangers the future of one of the other "Black kids" at her prep school, and Los Angeles is literally burning around her. The historical setting unearths questions and highlights racism with us today. And if you or your YA fans need more information about the Rodney King murder, the riots, and their aftermath, put Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith in their hands. Using nine months of interviews with more than two hundred people, Twilight explores the impact of Rodney King's murder and the five days of riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved. Anna Deavere Smith truly is a genius and thanks to PBS, you can see her perform Twilight here. ~ Lisa Christie
Who Is? What Was? series (assorted years). We recommend these books often and do so because they offer a superb intro for chapter book readers into many people and places and events. They also keep growing in the subjects they tackle. These books are forever referred to as the bobblehead books due to their distinct illustrations in Lisa Christie's household and their lengthy list of titles provides MANY MANY opportunities to learn about people who are different from you. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
The Color of Water by James McBride (1996). I’ve wanted to read this for a long time - and now wish that I had sooner. Many of you may already be familiar with this American classic as it was first published 25 years ago. If you haven’t yet gotten to it, hopefully this review will alert you that McBride’s memoir of being a Black boy raised in 1960’s America by a white mother remains essential reading. It still resonates today on many levels as it touches on so many complicated themes (social, political, religious, and educational) and yet somehow is simultaneously imminently readable, lyrical, and even poetic. Told in chapters that alternate between his mother’s words and McBride’s own voice, this book is a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, sometimes funny trip throughout seventy years of United States history. He wrote it when working as a journalist in his late thirties, married, and raising a family of his own, driven by the desire to understand his own mother’s complex history. This book is also a loving celebration of her, a rabbi’s daughter born in Poland in 1921 who went on to raise 12 highly accomplished children while living in Harlem and Red Hook New York after being raised in the south and converting to Christianity and starting a church. In case you’re wondering about the title, below is an excerpt of a conversation a young James McBride remembers having with his mother:
“What color is god’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color water. Water does not have a color.”
Highly recommended reading. Especially if you’re curious to know more about this talented author (and musician!) who wrote the National Book Award winning The Good Lord Bird as well as 2020’s Deacon King Kong (now being adapted for TV and also reviewed in this post). ~Lisa Cadow
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (2020). We really honestly can not review this superb book better than the Norwich Bookstore's Carin Pratt did last spring when this novel arrived on the scene. So we will just quote her directly here - Deacon King Kong is many things -- a mystery, a crime novel, a detailed portrait of a (mostly) African American urban community in New York, a love story (or two), and a farce. It is filled with "the humor of survival." (And God knows, we need that now.) McBride clearly had a ball creating the Deacon, who is a sot, a handyman, a widower who still talks to his wife, a baseball umpire and, despite his failings, a moral force in the community. It's almost impossible to paraphrase the plot(s), so I won't. Just know that McBride's formidable strengths as a storyteller and character builder (not to mention master of dialogue) shine in this blast of a book." We will add we think it would be a great Book Club pick. ~ Carin Pratt and seconded and thirded (new word) by Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour (2021). This darkly humorous fictional look at the tech industry was a perfect follow-up to the Book Jam's recent reading of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley Ms. Wiener offers an atmospheric chronicle of her gradual disillusionment with the sector. Mr. Askaripour satarizes all of that and more in this "self-help" book, narrated by Buck, An African-American 20-something picked out from behind a Starbuck counter to become an integral part of a high tech start-up. As far as Buck can tell the purpose of the start up is to sell tools that users help create the best version of themselves; but he isn't entirely sure. While both Ms. Wiener and Mr. Askaripour point out the absurdities of the start-up culture, Mr. Askaripour goes further and pointedly highlights the absurdities and insidious nature of systemic racism in corporate America and well, America. The cringe-worthy incidents Buck endures somehow don't dampen his extremely grounded sense of self and generosity of spirit, leaving you turning pages rapidly to discover what could possibly happen next and how Buck will handle it, and also wondering how you yourself can change your part in systemic racism. ~ Lisa Christie
So now to the results from our audit of books we read between February 2020 and this post. The fine print for this audit: we did not include guest columns, or "Pages in the Pub", "BOOK BUZZ", or the “3 Questions” series, because we don’t control those selections. We also excluded books written by groups such as Lonely Planet or series written by a variety of authors. Although we know some of the authors we highlighted identify as members of the LGBTQ community, we do not know the sexual orientations for all the authors we review, and thus do not audit by sexual orientation. We also do not have access to economic class statistics. Thus, our diversity audit focuses on gender and race/ethnicity.
That said, we will begin with the fact the number of books we reviewed increased to 153 books from 94 books in the 2019 audit. This is down from 202 books reviewed in 2018, and 164 in 2017.
Some significant numbers from this 2020 audit: Women authors were 65% (57% in 2019) of the authors we featured. Staying with stats regarding women, almost a quarter (21%) of all authors we featured were white women from the USA (holding steady from 21% in 2019, down from 32% in 2018), and 14% of all authors we read were white women from outside the USA (down from 20% in 2019 and up from 8% in 2018). We featured more Latina authors 11% this past year, compared to only 2% in 2019 and 4% in 2018. Only 1% were Asian women (down from 4% in 2019 and 6% in 2018). We featured more Black women in 2020 14% up from 10% in 2019 and 12% in 2018).
There was a mixed bag in terms of the ethnic diversity in the men we reviewed this year compared to previous years. White men from the USA were 17% (down from 23% the previous audit) of the authors we featured. Slightly over one in ten (13%) of the authors we featured were white men from outside of the USA (up from 8%). Exactly 5% (down from 7% previous audit) of the authors were Black men from anywhere in the world. Very few authors (1%) we featured were Asian men or Latinos (1%), none were Middle Eastern men (down from 2% last year). We did increase the number of Native American male authors we featured (2%) this year, compared to none last year.
Adding men and women together, 47% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 28% in 2019 and 36% in 2018). Within the white authors there was a decrease in geographic diversity, 21% (down from 33% in 2019) of the white authors we featured were from outside the USA (16% in 2018). The largest group of authors of color were Black (24%), up from 15% in 2019 and 13% in 2018.
To sum, we improved the percentage of authors of color we reviewed: 47% of all authors reviewed in 2020, 28% of authors in 2019, 36% of authors in 2018, 32% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015 were authors of color. We remain curious if our percentages are greater than the percentages of authors of color published in the USA each year. And, once again, we vow to continue to review a great diversity of authors.
Nature. Calm. Quiet. Reflection. Restoration. Resilience. Sleep. Slowing Down. Cozying Up. Letting Go. Embracing Winter. Authenticity. We could all use a little more of all of these things after an intense year of upheavals from every direction. These three books provide just that in very different ways. Enjoy!
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May (2020). This is a delightful book companion with which to cozy up to winter - but don’t forget to first grab a cup of tea, a blanket, and purring kitty for your lap. I devoured this memoir in one weekend, reading and reflecting by the wood stove. Katherine May sets her story between the months of September and March, chronicling a challenging period in her life in which both she and her husband experienced medical difficulties and her young son faced challenges at his new school. We live through this period of upheaval and hibernation alongside her, during which she leaves her job at a university, and settle in to “winter.” She employs the term “wintering” to imply quieting and retreat. She also uses it to allude to mental health challenges and depression - and in so doing helps to normalize the experience of low mood that so many of us experience. On her healing winter journey, she immerses herself in the deep healing and heat of Scandanavian saunas and in cold winter swims off the coast of England. May also travels to Iceland to witness the Northern Lights and to soak in the Blue Lagoon, sharing myths, legends, poetry, and natural curiosities with readers along the way. I appreciate how the book jacket encourages us to understand this book: it “invites us to change how we relate to our own fallow times.” This would make a wonderful gift for a friend who might be in need of encouragement to embrace the concept of resting in our go-go-going modern world. Or perhaps it might be a good gift to yourself, as we enter February, a month of still, cold and quiet promise. ~Lisa Cadow
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan Slaught (2020). Writing this review, I have the sensation of having just emerged from the the dense forests of the remote Russian Primorye region. Just moments ago, I finished Owls of the Eastern Ice and am reluctant to leave Jonathan Slaught’s quiet and snowy world, one full of old growth trees, person-eating tigers, swimming deer, and careering wild boar. This naturalist’s account of studying the endangered Blakiston Fish Owls, of which there are only an estimated 2,000 in the world, is rich with detail about the region’s flora and fauna. While recounting his adventures over a five year period in the Slavic backcountry, this book also subtly and interestingly teaches the reader how a long-term study of an animal and its ecosystem is designed. It also educates about the challenges that can be encountered when conducting one: funding obstacles, lost tracking devices, unexpected floods, frigid living conditions, and relentless logging and poachers. There are also stories upon stories of eccentric forest-dwelling Russians and enough vodka drinking to last a lifetime. Reader beware that this account is stylistically very different from Helen McDonald’s (H is for Hawk) approach to memoir. It leans more heavily on science and study and less on the lyrical, poetic, and emotional aspects of the human experience. But interestingly, Slaught’s keen observations of the natural world, accumulated while patiently waiting for and watching for fish owls over many years, ultimately leave the reader with a sense of zen and calm that lend an equal but different insight into the animal condition. ~Lisa Cadow
The Gifts of Imperfection: 10th Anniversary Edition by Brene Brown (2020). This anniversary edition caught my eye as I wondered if Ms. Brown's research and stories would resonate in my 50s as much as in my 40s. Somehow, while there is nothing new here (OK there is a new introduction and a new reading tool at the end), they do. For those of you who do not know Ms. Brown's earlier work, this New York Times best seller began what is now a phenomenon - Brene Brown. Many aspects are involved in its, and her, popularity; the stories are relatable, the science sound, and her ability to help the reader identify and eliminate (or at least tame) one's sabotaging expectations may be invaluable. As Ms. Brown says herself, “This book is an invitation to join a wholehearted revolution. A small, quiet, grassroots movement that starts with each of us saying, ‘My story matters because I matter.’ Revolution might sound a little dramatic, but in this world, choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance.” If you want a refresher (or an introduction) on how to be a bit more authentic and/or cultivate a bit more resilience in your own life, or merely need a refresher on why there is a difference between shame and guilt, this anniversary edition provides a charming crash course. Her popular podcasts and/or TED talks may help too. ~ Lisa Christie
For the first time in the history of the Book Jam, both Lisas read the same book at the same time without a plan to do so. We thought we'd honor that coincidence - and the current extreme relevance of the book - by devoting today's post to it. The topics examined throughout this memoir set in Silicon Valley between 2014 and 2018 - a high-stakes, often reckless culture of unchecked and unregulated ambition, extreme fortune making, and power - especially resonated after last week's events in the US Capitol and the subsequent loss of social media platforms for President Trump. So here you go, we discuss Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener. Bonus: it is new to paperback as of 05 January 2021.
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener (2020). This is probably one of the most timely books you could pick up right now. It wasn’t even on my list as I’m not a woman in tech and don’t have any particular interest in the wheelings and dealings of Silicone Valley. In fact three years ago I stopped participating in social media platforms altogether. However, one of my younger “pod mates” tore through it over the holidays and described it as “a page turner. She passed it on to me and having now finished it, I can say that I agree. It was was one of the most provocative and affecting reads that I spent time with in 2020. Wiener brings a sharp sociologist’s eye to her memoir of the four years she spent working for start ups in Silicon Valley between 2014 and 2018. Interestingly, she started her career in New York City as a 25-year-old in the low tech, low-paying publishing industry for which she had a passion. Realizing, though, that she couldn’t live off of her family’s generosity indefinitely, she reluctantly left for San Francisco, following the gold rush mentality, the money, and the opportunity offered her generation to take a position in a technology company. The rest is history - and an insightful, literary, and atmospheric chronicle of her gradual disillusionment with the sector. She never mentions the players or the companies by name but nevertheless helps the reader to understand the mentality of this moment in time, the easy money and its effects on a city’s ecosystem, the frightening power of the data being collected, the shaky morals being exercised by decision makers, and the speed at which information is traveling unchecked around the globe. And and she doesn’t let herself off the hook either. If, after the events that unfolded in Washington last week, you are seeking a deeper understanding of how we arrived at this particular civic and technological crossroads, this should be your next read. ~Lisa Cadow
There is not a lot to add to the other Lisa's comprehensive review, other than one random thought. In this time of covid safety protocols, I found myself wondering, as I read Ms. Wiener's memoir, about the large group of twenty-somethings currently missing office camaraderie (even the dysfunctional kind teaches people), and what world changes will emerge from their unique position of holding first jobs during covid times. If their future recollections are anything like Ms. Wiener's remembrances, I look forward to reading their memoirs about their first jobs as well. Bottom line, Ms. Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into Silicon Valley culture, and how it grew to impact everything we do today (including the fact you are reading this review online). As another indie bookstore reviewer stated, "With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment." Pick it up if you want to gain insight into our current world. ~ Lisa Christie
At the end of each year here at The Book Jam, we post reading suggestions for the down-time in between the holiday rush and New Year’s Eve. We traditionally call this list “What To Read After The Relatives Have Left.” But this year, that doesn’t quite work. Those observing strict safety practices would feel oh so grateful to be in need of quiet after a slurry of visitors. And yet, there is still something about this hushed valley of time in December/those initial days of January that allows us to get lost in a great story. So we continue this list today, even if the title is a bit clunky. How about this year we call it “Books for the Hush of Late December/early January?” Whatever the title, we offer these suggestions it in the hopes that you are able to find calm as well as the space to curl up with a wonderful, transformative, and healing book. Happy 2021!
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (2020). At first glance, this story, one about a woman accompanying a friend with a terminal illness through the process of dying, might seem depressing - and yet, it never is. Instead it is witty, insightful, profound, quotidian, and compassionate. The narrator’s voice is conversational and intimate, which makes it easy to spend time with her and what might otherwise be difficult subjects. Nunez has a gift for exploring themes of companionship and meaning (for those who have not yet read her 2018 National Book Award winning The Friend: A Novel should know we also highly recommend this; after finishing it, I wanted to put it in the hands or everyone I knew). Ms. Nunez’s new book also explores the topic of our threatened environment, hope, and healing and moves readers from hospital rooms, college lecture halls, and to an airbnb where the friend wishes to spend her final days. There is even a talking cat who tells us its life story. In a year when it was often challenging to find books that seemed relevant or were able to hold a reader’s attention, this one strikes just the right chord. And the reader feels transformed by the end. ~Lisa Cadow
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020). Wow, can our former President write a well crafted sentence/paragraph/chapter/book. At over 700 pages you need a bit of time to settle in and enjoy; so we include it in this post about what to read during the "hush of late December/early January" even though it has been everywhere for awhile (and many of you may already own it, but have it in a stack, unread). We hope you can take some time, pick this up, settle into your favorite chair, and learn about what life as the United States President actually entails, and then discover how this particular person dealt with all that the Presidency offers. I, for one, was heartened by the pragmatic optimism infused throughout.~ Lisa Christie
More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth (2020). The critics talk about how this book is great for young adults as they begin their careers and lives away from their parents/guardians. I, as a 54 year old woman found it to just be a great book about life, told through the prism of Ms. Welteroth, who among other career accolades was the first Black editor of Teen Vogue. In her stories, you will find help claiming your space and assistance refuting biases; mostly you will be reminded that you are "more than enough". ~ Lisa Christie
So Hanukkah is almost over. Christmas is days away. Kwanza is pending. You need some gift inspiration and maybe you need a good book for yourself. The Book Jam has a few last minute ideas (and many other great choices in our past reviews). We hope they help. Mostly we hope you find peace and joy amidst all of the chaos. Happy Holidays.
Armchair Travel - Because we could ALL use a change of scenery
Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking by Bill Buford (2020). If you know someone who has a) lived in France b) would like to live in France c) would like to live abroad with their family d) has lived abroad with their family e) loves to cook f) all of the above, then this would be a great book for them. What I really appreciate about this memoir is that it doesn’t “sugar coat” the experience of living in another country. It actually does an excellent job - with humor - of describing the challenges, fears, and frustrations of moving out of one’s comfort zone, even if it is to a place as lovely as France. The food facts and history are a bonus! And so is the fact that it’s set in Lyon, a city less know to readers than Paris, which adds grit and makes it more relatable somehow. At the time of this writing, there were three copies on the shelves at the Norwich Bookstore so it may still be possible to secure a copy for gifting this holiday season. P.S. This book is on many reviewers Top Books or 2020 lists. ~ Lisa Cadow
Mysteries -- Because this year, perhaps more than any other, we all need something in our lives that is solved in the end
Conviction by Denise Mina (2019). This thriller winds around a true crime podcast with ties to the main character - Anna. It then follows how her life implodes on one very average day when her husband announces he is leaving her for her best friend and her past comes rolling into that void. With help from an anorexic rock star and a bizarre road trip through the beauty of Scotland and Southern France, Anna tries to find the truth about her past and her present, and in the process save her life and the lives of those she cares about. AJ Finn picked this as a New York Times Best Crime Novel of the Year. I say, give it to the "difficult to buy for" on your list, and then add an extra for yourself to just enjoy. If you like this one, or if your favorite bookseller does not currently have Conviction in stock, do not panic, Ms. Mina has many other novels, usually set in Scotland. Thus, like the first book in this set of reviews, her books also offer some armchair travel (for those of us living outside Scotland). Note: two of our favorite booksellers - Carin Pratt and Liza Bernard recommended this to me when I was in desperate need of a page turner. ~ Lisa Christie
Games - Because we all need to play
The New York Times Crosswords for a Long Weekend: 200 Easy to Hard Crossword Puzzles (2020). Some of us can imagine nothing better than receiving such a gift: an open invitation over the holidays to spend blissful, meditative moments (with a pencil or a pen?- that is the question) curled up next to the wood stove word-smithing and clue solving away. And in the hands of editor and puzzle master Will Shortz, solving these puzzles is bound to be a satisfying experience. If this book happens to be out of stock when you go to do your last minute gifting, don’t (clue: be constantly anxious, stress over) “FRET” there are many other New York Times crossword books (clue: readily available) “ON HAND” at the Norwich Bookstore. Happy Holiday Puzzling! ~ Lisa Cadow
Kids -- Because books are a perfect gift for anyone
Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice by Veronica Chambers (2019). Ms. Chamber has gathered a great collection of short biographies of important people who had the courage to change history. People profiled include Ghandi, Fannie Lou Hamer, Samuel Adams, and Archbishop Oscar Romero. This collection serves as a good reminder to us all that we may only be one person, but we all have power to change unfair and unjust things. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
If you are still at a loss, browse our recent holiday gift guide. Or call your favorite indie bookstore and see what they can recommend. They often carry puzzles and socks and great stationery -- those fit anyone.
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.
We thought long and hard about what direction to take with today’s post. Should we highlight books about politics to remind people that voting is less than two weeks away? Or, even though on most days things feel scary enough, should we review some spooky fiction to recognize that Halloween is also right around the corner?
Drum roll please (witch’s cackle, werewolf howl - insert preferred sound here)... We decided to spook it up. In the end, we figured most of you are keenly aware of the fact that November 3rd is eight days away. So, we found a super fun new graphic novel for kids about witches, which reminded us of a classic piece of historical fiction from our childhood (also related to the witches theme), and that led to another thrilling historical fiction novel for adults - all chosen to help keep you all busy (and maybe even a little scared) in the days leading up to the election. We hope today's reviews help you find your next great read. And, we encourage all of you who have the privilege of voting to exercise your right to do so on or before November 3rd (We even snuck in a BONUS fourth review of a YA novel that takes place entirely on election day just to inspire everyone).
Happy Voting and Happy Halloween!
Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse (2020). This graphic novel follows Effie, a recently orphaned pre-teen, after she is dropped on the Brooklyn doorstep of her mysterious aunts (Selimene and Carlota) in the dark of the night. Things don't start well when one of her aunts spends their initial time together telling the person dropping Effie off that she could not possibly take care of a girl (nothing like feeling unwanted to make you uncomfortable at home). And yet, as their days together unfold, something about the aunts' weirdness forms a bond between the three; a bond assisted by Effie's two very kind new friends from school and an encounter with an actual pop star. If nothing else, Effie's life has certainly gotten more interesting since arriving in Brooklyn. A truly great book filled with thoughtfulness, laughs, magic, witches, and superb illustrations. I hope this is book one in a long line of graphic novels for kids (and adults like me). ~ Lisa Christie
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1959). I haven’t read this book in over 40 years but I remember it being an absolute favorite. Just thinking about it takes me back to Halloweens as a girl growing up in New England, the chill in the air, the memory of raking up piles of rustly leaves, dreaming up a costume for October 31st, and thoughts of cozying up with books like this one over fall weekends to learn more about the interesting history of the region where I grew up. Author Elizabeth George Speare won a Caldecott Medal for this story set in 17th century Connecticut about a young girl who becomes friends with a suspected witch. A book as relevant today as it was when it was written; it explores themes of ostracism as well as what it means to stand up for one’s beliefs. A timeless - and “spooky” - read (and a great read aloud!). ~ Lisa Cadow (Seconded by Lisa Christie)
Perfume: The Story of a Murder by Patrick Suskind (1986). Perfume was an international bestseller nearly twenty-five years ago when it was first published, but it still retains its fresh aroma and power to intrigue. Set in 18th century France, this historical fiction thriller starts out in Paris with the birth of Grenouille to a poor mother working in a decrepit dish stall. It is Grenouille’s perfect sense of smell – his gift is to the nose what perfect pitch is to the ear – that sets him apart but, alas, it is also this boy’s biggest curse. We follow him through his shaky first years as an orphan to his discovery of “the perfect scent” (and the abominable crime that follows), and then through his life as a master perfumer. Whether it is the setting of Paris and its Provinces, the concocting of masterful perfumes, intrigue, history, or a psychological thriller that you seek, you will find them all in this satisfying novel. ~ Lisa Cadow
Bonus Pick, with an election theme, for Young Adults
The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (2020). Somehow this YA novel manages to squeeze in abortion rights, voting rights, police brutality, gun violence, budding musicians, and the trials and tribulations of teenage romance all without being preachy or condescending. The romance will appeal to readers looking for a little insight into dating life, the political activism will attract many others, and the fact all the action unfolds on one voting day highlights the importance of that simple and profound act. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Today in Vermont, we celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day, joining fifteen states and a few cities and towns in this holiday. This provides the perfect opportunity to highlight a recent anthology of poetry and a book about a Native American high school student, as well as mention a few more Native American authors. No matter what your town calls today's holiday, we hope it finds you healthy, employed, and in search of some great books to read.
When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through edited by Jo Harjo (2020). If ever there was a title designed for covid-19, I believe this is it. The light of the world is subdued by the news of late; and, I believe that songs, poetry, and books illuminate. The anthology attached to this title curates centuries of poetry from indigenous peoples of North America for us all to contemplate and enjoy. The collection is divided into five geographically organized sections, each with an introduction from contributing editors who provide historical, tribal, geographical, and artistic contexts for the works in that section. Each poet is also introduced prior to their work. From historical entries such as Chief Seattle's speech in 1854 about the importance of ancestors, while rebuking government land treaties, to a poem about the completely modern task of getting mileage out of a very old car, these poems provide plenty to ponder and offer beams of hope. I initially found this collection through the Norwich Public Library. I liked it enough to purchase it from a local indie store for my high school senior to reference in his poetry class next term (and for all of us to enjoy). If you have a poetry collection, this makes an excellent addition. If you don't yet have a collection, this would be a great place to start. ~ Lisa Christie
Counting Coup by Larry Colton (2001) - We relaize it has been almost 20 years since this exploration of the lives of one group of Montana's Crow Indians, through the lens of a basketball playing teen, captured our attention. And yet, it still springs to mind when we think of books about Native American experiences in the USA, just as much as more recent books by Louise Erdrich or Sherman Alexie. In this book, Mr. Colton follows the struggles of a talented, moody, and charismatic young woman basketball player named Sharon. This book far more than just a sports story however – it exposes how Native Americans have long since been cut out of the American dream. It was also most recently reviewed in our post - A Fiction Book List for Today (and yes, we recognize it's not fiction). ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie