Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ridiculously Good Reads: December Edition

It's time for another Ridiculously Good Reads--the final one of 2015! I've read some incredible reads since the last RGR post, so let's dive right in: 

Before I started So You Want to be a Jedi? (a retelling of The Empire Strikes Back), I read a book that I had eagerly anticipated by an author I like very much. I was extremely disappointed with that book (to the point that I actually said, "are you KIDDING me?!" out loud at the end). Every year, there seems to be a children's/YA book that gets a ton of stunning reviews that drives me bonkers. The tradition continues.

ANYWAY. I had several books I wanted to get through before the year's end, but I was in no mood to start anything new. I'm reading my way through the new Star Wars books, so I grabbed Adam Gidwitz's new retelling of The Empire Strikes Back. Oh, wow. I really enjoyed Alexandra Bracken's take on A New Hope, which is a fairly straightforward but insanely fun, revealing, and fabulous retelling of the first Star Wars movie. Expecting something similar from Gidwitz, I was blown away by his innovative and moving retelling of the second movie. As Star Wars fans know, TESB is the darkest and most somber movie of the original trilogy. Gidwitz addresses the reader as "you" and puts him/her directly in Luke Skywalker's journey along the Jedi path. There's also tons of humor to balance everything out (there's quite a bit of kissing in TESB compared to A New Hope, which Gidwitz handles hilariously and age-appropriately). Gidwitz's explanation of Jedi values and training is quite touching, especially as he applies it to everyday situations that young readers will understand. I am just absolutely bowled over by what Disney/Lucasfilm Press has assembled via this series. Don't miss Tom Angleberger's equally fun take on Return of the Jedi (with hilarious annotations--especially about Ewoks.)

I am an entertainment/pop culture history junkie, so I immediately grabbed The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy when we received it. Kliph Nesteroff's overview of American comedy (mostly featuring the darker side of the industry) begins with the near lawless days of vaudeville, which met its demise when radio became prominent. Nightclubs and Las Vegas bookings took over, followed by comedy clubs and late night TV. Nesteroff ends his highly entertaining (and occasionally shocking) account with a look at how the Internet has changed the industry. (adult nonfiction)

I've long been a fan of Margarita Engle's novels for children and young adults (I hope the Battle of the Books participants are enjoying Mountain Dog). Engle's novels in verse offer awe-inspiring stories about pre-revolutionary figures in Cuba's history (save for Mountain Dog, which is contemporary); her new memoir for young adults, Enchanted Air, is a moving and unforgettable look at her experiences as a Cuban-American middle school student growing up in Florida during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As relations between Cuba and the United States worsen, Margarita's love for her ancestral home and her native country is complicated. News from her Cuban relatives is censored, her mother becomes stateless, and suspicions about Cuban-Americans are heightened. Engle conveys the dread and uncertainty of the time with her usual sensitivity, as well as the loving warmth of both her Cuban and American families. I would pair this with Deborah Wiles's unforgettable Countdown (part of her amazing Sixties trilogy--can't wait for the conclusion!) for any young student learning about this important time in history.

If you want a light read during your Christmas break, take a look at The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge. It's been twenty years since Scrooge had his entire outlook on life changed, and he's still celebrating the Christmas spirit each and every single day. Which is lovely in theory, but has long passed the point of being charming to his acquaintances, resulting in them being as irritated and crabby as his former self was. Not to mention that Scrooge is actually giving away money to charity that he no longer technically has. Jacob Marley is still a restless spirit and wants to make amends to the people he wronged during his time on earth; Scrooge wants to help, but it involves the assistance of the very people who are aggravated by his insistence on spreading Christmas cheer 24-7. This is a fun and funny short read (barely over 100 pages) for any time of the year (it takes place during the summer).  (Adult fiction)

I'm New Here is an endearing and authentic portrayal of the difficulties young immigrants have when they enroll in school. Through the eyes of three children (from South Korea, Guatemala, and Somalia), we see their struggles to learn a new language, express themselves, and make friends. This is a positive portrayal of both foreign-born children and American-born children learning from each other; children currently experiencing similar situations will definitely connect to this book.

Learning to deal with unexpected situations is a hard lesson for any age, but especially when you are small. It's Tough to Lose Your Balloon is pitch-perfect in acknowledging that it's hard to deal with a new babysitter, having your ice cream melt, and yes, losing your balloon (among other situations), but Jarrett J. Krosoczka offers inventive and actually do-able (!) ways to make the situations better. If you have a toddler or preschooler in your life, you need this book!

I am fascinated by books that take a historical and cultural look at the way certain conditions have been treated over the years. Readers that snap up books like The Emperor of All Maladies, The End of Memory, The Evil Hours, I Can Hear You Whisper, or the incomparable Far From the Tree definitely need to put  Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity on their list. This history of autism is harrowing and heartbreaking to read at times (especially when it turns to Nazi Germany), but it is engrossing and even hopeful at the end. (Adult nonfiction)

Tippi and Grace are pretty much like other teenage girls their age....except for being conjoined twins. Tippi and Grace are barely adjusted to their new school life (after being homeschooled due to their complicated medical needs) when severe heart problems make a dangerous separation surgery necessary. It's funny when appropriate, and crushingly heartbreaking without straying into "romance tragedy" as some YA books about life-threatening health conditions tend to do. Teens with medical needs are often in danger of succumbing to reckless behavior (not taking/"forgetting" to take medication, smoking if they have heart conditions, etc); Sarah Crossan gets this situation perfectly.   The effect on their family (emotionally as well as financially) is quite authentic, although side narratives of characters with anorexia and HIV/AIDS are quite underdeveloped and problematic.However, the careful creation of the challenges that face Tippi and Grace, as well as their unique bond, makes up for any negative issues with the story. One is a shattering read. For mature YA readers.

As Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library is published by an academic press, its audience is not aimed at general readership (we'll have to wait for Susan Orlean's look at the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire for that), but anyone who is deeply interested in the roles public libraries have played in the lives of ordinary American men and women. Although there are indeed moments of proud history, the snobbery of the profession in its early days toward series fiction (Nancy Drew and such for children) and popular novels in general is exasperating (especially since this ignored the reading interests of children, women, the working class, and just about everyone else who read for pleasure and escape rather than "improvement") ; interestingly, the larger urban libraries were more resistant to fulfilling the demand for series fiction and popular novels than were the libraries in much smaller communities. More regrettably is the segregation that existed in public libraries before the Civil Rights era. Happily, the importance of libraries as community partners and centers is ever-present throughout, despite weaknesses and barriers that existed throughout history. (Adult nonfiction)

Jennifer Donnelly is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels, Revolution (and the superb A Northern Light), so I tore through  These Shallow Games like nobody's business. Jo Montfort is a member of New York's 19th century aristocracy, but she longs to be an investigative reporter like her hero, Nellie Bly. When her father mysteriously dies, she enlists the help of an up-and-coming young journalist to discover the truth, which thrusts her into the tragic and seedy underworld of New York's most unfortunate citizens. Young women yearning to break free of 19th century New York society is a trademark of Edith Wharton novels (and Edith Wharton's life), which Donnelly brilliantly pays homage to (she even name drops her at one point). Fans of epic historical fiction (even if YA is something that you normally don't read) should absolutely read this (and Donnelly's other works). Donnelly's depiction of New York's underclass is heartbreakingly portrayed. Mature situations tip this toward the older end of the YA spectrum, but it's an honest look at the brutal life lived by orphaned/homeless/runaway children and young girls during this specific time, as well as the limitations and expectations placed upon the young women of New York's elite society. (It would be a great way to hook readers onto Edith Wharton's novels as well!)

Mitali Perkins is one of my favorite authors; her books are always engaging and eye-opening stories set in unique cultures. Tiger Boy features Neel, an impoverished young boy living in a rural Bengal village. Neel is the carrier of his village's hope and pride, as he is studying for a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. Although Neel is well aware of the opportunities such an education would provide, he longs to remain in his village, which is threatened by the ruthlessness of a real estate developer. When a tiger cub escapes from a nearby nature reserve, Neel knows he must return the cub to the reserve before it is found and claimed by the corrupt developer. Like the very fine The Lion Who Stole My Arm (set in a nameless African village), this carefully balances the desire to protect natural habitats with the desire of the villagers to better their lives (at one point, Neel's father joins the developer's search team in order to earn more money). This imparts wisdom about education, family, and community without being preachy. (Juvenile fiction)

Next week, I'll tell you all about my favorite reads of 2015!

More Ridiculously Good Reads:




Early 2015

Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library 

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