Friday, August 30, 2013

New and Not-So-New Reads

Now that our summer reading program is over, I'm catching up on my blog reviews.  This includes books read June-August.  Lots of good stuff!

Amy and the Missing Puppy (The Critter Club #1)

This is a darling start to a new series.  Amy is the only one of her friends not going somewhere for spring break vacation, so she expects that nothing exciting will happen.  That is, until  a neighbor's dog goes missing, and Amy must use her detective skills (honed by reading Nancy Drew mysteries) to find the lost pup, assisted by her friends when they return from their vacations.  Sweet, funny, but with a subtle message about giving someone a second chance; I'm looking forward to more Critter Club adventures.

The Astronaut Wives Club

The history of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo astronauts has been well documented, but scant attention has been paid to the women who sacrificed much during this time.  Lily Koppel writes with great respect and even affection of the astronaut wives who bonded with each other over the frustrations, fears, grief, and euphoria that only those married to astronauts could understand.  The massive media attention thrust upon the wives, who were expected to be perfect Suzy Homemakers 24/7, was unreal.  Koppel writes movingly of Joan Aldrin's disappointment when Neil Armstrong was chosen to be the first to walk on the moon and the grieving of the Apollo 1 families (especially the despair and depression of Patricia White).  Although the astronauts were ordered to depict the ideal family life at all costs (the first Astro Divorce was quite the shocker) and to never question NASA administration, estrangement, infidelity, depression (by astronauts and astronaut wives) and eventual divorce were common.  Although there was suspicion and some resentment  when the space program grew to include more astronauts (the initial meetings between the Mercury and Gemini wives are quite amusing), the women supported each other during "Death Watch" (the launching of the spacecrafts) and maintained contacts with the women who suffered bereavement or divorce (second wives were emphatically not allowed into the club).  As media sensations, the women were expected to dress and style their hair fashionably (to the consternation of several husbands bewildered by the beehive), never appear without a smile, keep their children immaculate and well-behaved, and to brush all marital discord to the side.  This is a heartfelt salute to these distinct and unique individuals who were thrust into the international spotlight during a formidable era. (Plus, many pictures of these fabulous women in their glorious 60s/70s hairdos and clothes.)

The Golem and the Jinni

I'm a huge fan of historical fiction. But historical fantasy? I've pretty much avoided that (and alternate history)--frankly, fantasy is not my preferred genre.  I picked it up because of the reviews, and also in the interest of trying something new and attempting to read outside of my comfort zone.  I was captivated by this novel.  Although fantastical creatures are not really my thing, I'm drawn to immigrant stories, especially those set in the early 20th century (or just before it).  Two supernatural elements--a golem, from the Jewish tradition (a creature in human form molded from clay), and a jinni, from the Arabic tradition (more popularly known as genie in the English speaking world)--find themselves in turn of the century New York.  Passing themselves off as humans, except to the only people who know their actual origin, works quite well--until they happen to fall in love with humans.  Although from very different cultures, their supernatural existence creates a bond, which must eventually be tragically torn apart.  This is an epic, bizarre, romantic, and emotional story that evokes the Eastern European Jewish and Syrian enclaves of old New York, as well as the other worldliness of upper class New York society.  It's quite unlike anything I've read this year, and will probably be one of my top reads of 2013.  It is a remarkable tale by a debut author.

James Madison

After reading the amazing yet lengthy Washington: A Life, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I wanted a short and succinct biography for the next president, James Madison.  Garry Wills' biography definitely fits that description; this entry in the American Presidents series is a political biography focused on Madison's presidency (his life before and after is briefly discussed).  It's an honest depiction of Madison's triumphs and weaknesses, and ideal for those not wanting to tackle a long biography. However, I found that I missed a more intimate portrayal of Madison, even though I realized that this is not the series's intention (the series also covers the lesser-known presidents who don't garner shelves full of biographies, so I am looking forward to returning to the series in the near future).

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness

I picked up The Last Founding Father out of a sense of obligation; Monroe was next in line, and I knew I wanted a more in-depth biography read. Folks, I was blown away by this biography.  Harlow G. Unger brings our fifth president to life in one of the most moving and compelling biographies I've recently read.  James Monroe was apparently a very sensitive and emotional man; his friends, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were deeply important to him (and he was crushed when their friendships appeared to be irrevocably damaged).  He cherished and respected his wife and daughters.  It's truly a shame that Elizabeth Monroe is all but forgotten; she was a brilliant and courageous woman (she rescued Adrienne Lafayette from prison during the French Revolution), but James Monroe burned all her letters and diaries in a fit of grief after her death.  The United States grew from a fragile new nation into an expanded and powerful nation during Monroe's term, but he was distraught and rendered politically inept at the end of his presidency due to infighting and maneuvering among his staff (once he announced that he would not seek a third term). The highlight of his second term was, of course, the Monroe Doctrine, which astounded the world and announced that the US was a big and bold player in international politics. There's lots of drama and big personalities in this biography.  

The Light in the Ruins

I was eager to read The Light in the Ruins for two reasons: I was bowled over by The Sandcastle Girls, and it's set in Italy during World War II.  As he did in The Sandcastle Girls, Chris Bohjalian alternates between two time periods, which eventually tie the story together, in order to tell his tale.  Nearly ten years after the end of the second world war, a serial killer is intent on murdering the surviving members of the Rosatis family, a noble Florence family who had connections with Nazi soldiers during the war.  Investigating the murders is Serafina Bettini, haunted by her own war time experiences.  Although the circumstances of the murders are quite gruesome, as is Serafina's wartime disfigurement, the descriptions are never exploitative and are quite necessary to the story.   This is a brilliantly told look at Italy during and after World War II; Bohjalian is an amazing storyteller.

Lulu and the Dog From the Sea

After being disappointed with an early chapter book littered with brand names and bratty behavior (until the very end), returning to another Lulu entry was a relief.  Lulu and her family (including her beloved cousin) are off to a seaside vacation.  They expect to have an ordinary but fun-filled vacation until the ornery beach house owner warns them of the mysterious dog romping on the beach. The seemingly ownerless dog is a nuisance to the vacationers, constantly stealing things and annoying their pets.  Lulu is determined to befriend him, but he wants no part of that....until he unexpectedly comes to the aid of Lulu and her cousin.  This is a funny, sweet, and slightly mystical easy chapter book with a realistic and loving family.  Here's hoping Hilary McKay brings us more Lulu stories.

Saving Italy: The Race to Save a Nation's Treasures From the Nazis

Hitler's armies plundered, stole, and defaced artwork during their rampage throughout Europe; although Italy was Germany's ally for the majority of the war, the Nazis were ready to help themselves to the vast treasures of the Vatican Museum and the many treasures located in Florence, Tuscany, and other Italian towns and areas (Hitler fancied himself an art connoisseur and was occasionally presented with stolen artwork as birthday presents and other "just for the occasion" gifts).  Although there was initial resistance to the Allies' plan to preserve Italy's artistic heritage as much as humanely possible, Deane Keller and Fred Hartt, along with other Monuments Men, assisted with the preservation and concealment of masterpieces (and also gave the military lessons on Italy's cultural history).  This is an amazing, thrilling, and heartbreaking (particularly the description of the starving Florentians) read.  Robert M. Edsel writes so vividly that you actually start to fret about the survival of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.  Edsel is also the author of The Monuments Men, which concentrates on the Monuments Men's work throughout Europe (and soon to be a movie starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Cate Blanchett).


The Thing About Luck

What else can go wrong with Summer's life? Her parents have been unexpectedly called to Japan, which means that she must stay with her ailing grandparents; her grandfather harvests wheat, while her grandmother cooks and cleans for the harvest workers.  Her grandparents are getting too frail for the heavy workload, so Summer must step in more than she actually should.  Throw in her first real crush--this young lady has a lot on her plate to deal with.  The Thing About Luck is a tender and eye-opening look at harvest workers in Kansas, as well as a sweet coming-of-age story from Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata.

The Water Castle

The Water Castle has received some Newbery buzz in some corners (not that it means anything; I can name plenty of books that had Newbery buzz on the Internet that ended up with nothing), so I put it on my never-ending list of books to read.  I'm not surprised that it's received so much favorable attention; it's a carefully and beautifully crafted mystery with fantasy elements.  The Appledore-Smith family is hoping for better tomorrows when they move into their ancestral Maine mansion after Dad has a stroke.  Ephraim discovers that the grounds are rumored to hold a Fountain of Youth, which he hopes will cure his father; with his new friends, he explores every nook and cranny of the house, hoping to find the fountain. This is for the patient reader (although it's enjoyed a good check-out run so far), for it is an off-beat and sophisticated read.  But well worth a try.

Moving right along with the 1950s Newbery books.....Amos Fortune, Free Man won the Newbery Medal in 1951.  Elizabeth Yates traces the life of a slave turned freeman, from his capture in Africa to his final days as a businessman and valued community member.  Although an entertaining read, it's definitely written in an outdated style of biography, for it is largely fictionalized and contains invented dialogue.

We have a lot of awesome books coming our way; make sure you're signed up for Wowbrary in order to be among the first to know what's been recently ordered!

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