Thursday, December 31, 2015

Super Nutrition - The Best Nonfiction of 2015

This photograph of Maureen Abood's Pistachio-Crusted Whitefish from the Chicago Tribune embodies the wonders of the nonfiction I was privileged to read in 2015. This year some books taught me new skills, several forced me to reassess what I thought I knew, some challenged and strengthened my faith and my understanding of the world, others took me back to places I loved, and a few allowed me to visit places I'd never seen. Abood's fabulous whitefish and her other recipes brought me pleasure and taught me new techniques while making me feel that I was sharing my kitchen with an unseen friend who cared about what my family ate. My "relationship" with the other nonfiction authors I read was similar. I read their words with them invisibly perched on my shoulder feeling that they were imparting their wisdom directly into me. 

The Best Nonfiction of 2015:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 
  • Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014)
  • The Drummond Girls by Mardi Jo Link
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • In a French Kitchen by Susan Herrmann Loomis
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014)
  • Make it Ahead by Ina Garten (2014)
  • Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber (2014)
  • Rose Water & Orange Blossoms by Maureen Abood
  • Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
  • A Walk in the Animal Kingdom by Jerry Dennis, Glenn Wolff, illustrator
  • When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning
The Best Nonfiction Book(s) of 2015 (It's a tie!):

The Best Nonfiction Book of 2015 (a tie):

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Read the complete review here.)
Between the World and Me is essential reading for everyone. It won the National Book Award and will probably capture the Pulitzer too. Coates is a once-in-a-generation prophet. Written as a letter to his son, Coates uses this slender tome to address our racial inequities in gorgeous prose. People may disagree with some of his conclusions, but his passion and writing can’t be disputed. Reading this book is an often painful exercise as the reader has to set it down to ponder, to recover, and to consider what's happening in our country. I predict that this will be taught to our great-grandchildren and I hope that when it's taught it will be used to explain how our country began to heal. Gourmet/Super Nutrition, Book Club

The Best Nonfiction Book of 2015 (a tie):

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H is for Hawk lives up to the critics’ accolades. It won Britain's Costa Prize and the Samuel
Johnson Prize for nonfiction. Its fabulous cover should win a few prizes too. It’s a unique blend of nature writing, memoir, and literary contemplation in a perfect package. During the time after her father’s death, Macdonald adopted and trained a goshawk. She'd had experience with hawks and knew the natural world well and Mabel, the goshawk, entered her life just when she needed something alive and unpredictable. Her use of T.H. White’s (author ofThe Once and Future King) book about training his own hawk to mirror her own tale, is brilliant. If you can, listen to at least part of this to hear Macdonald’s poignant, erudite voice. I'd be content to listen to her read a grocery list after this. Whether you read or listen to it, this book is exquisite. Gourmet/Road Trip/Soul Food/Super Nutrition, Book Club

The Best Memoir of 2015:
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans (Read the complete review here.)
Reading this memoir is like being the honored guest at a banquet where the finest chefs have prepared your favorite foods. Evans’ quest to discover what church means and if there’s a place for her in it will make readers contemplate their own questions. Honest, insightful, humorous, and tender, this book takes you into the heart of a woman who gets that we need to respect and love each other. This year is one in which the "right wing" of the evangelical faith community has been prominent in political discourse. That's led many millenials to leave the church. Others have written on this topic, but none of them offer Evans' magnificent language and thoughtful metaphors for the journey. That she's such a fine writer this early in her career offers hope for us to continue to hear her insights on difficult topics in the future. Grandma's Pot Roast/Soul Food, Book Club

The Best Nonfiction Book You Need to Read that was Published in 2014:
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Read the complete review here.)
Just Mercy is a book EVERYONE must read. I read it after seeing Stevenson's TED Talk then I immediately made a contribution to Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative. Desmond Tutu calls Stevenson "America's young Nelson Mandela" and John Grisham compares him to a living Atticus Finch. Yes, he's a crusader, but he's also a fine storyteller and his tales of the lives those his group defends will touch your heart. Grandma's Pot Roast/Soul Food/Super Nutrition, Book Club

The Best Cookbook of 2015:
Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen by Maureen Abood
Rose Water is sheer visual delight AND the recipes are unique.  If you think this isn't for you because you don't eat "Middle Eastern" food, think again. Abood's Lebanese cooking uses the best ingredients and techniques that make it seem like classic French cuisine you can make at home. Every recipe I’ve tried has been delicious and has taught me new tricks to use with other ingredients. The zatar tomatoes are addictive, the simple baked eggs with spinach will make any weeknight soar, the savory pie dough is easy and fabulous,and the pistachio crusted whitefish is the best fish dish I’ve ever made. I love this book! Look at her website: then buy this book. Dessert/Super Nutrition

The Best Cookbook Runner-Up:
Make it Ahead: a Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten (published in 2014) 

Make it Ahead is worth purchasing for the Leek & Artichoke Bread Pudding and Ham Empanada recipes alone. I made a succulent, perfectly medium-rare standing rib roast last year for Christmas Eve and the bread pudding still stole the show.  It tasted just as wonderful when reheated two days later and we now have a new Christmas tradition that my family also chose for Easter. The tasty, original recipes found in this book allow the cook to enjoy the party without being exhausted or stuck in the kitchen while others socialize. Dessert/Super Nutrition

The Best Memoir, Travel, Cookbook Combination of 2015:
In a French Kitchen by Susan Herrmann Loomis (Read the complete review here.)
In a French Kitchen made me smile, taught me several tricks, and had me feeling as if I were sitting at her table or accompanying her on treks to markets in Normandy. Reading this gem is pure joy. It also added Louviers, France, where she lives and cooks, to my bucket list. Even if you don't care one bit about cooking, food, or France, read this book to enter the pure joy that is Loomis' life. Dessert/Super Nutrition

The Best Nature Book that Will Make You Hug Your Pet and Go Outside:
A Walk in the Animal Kingdom by Jerry Dennis, Glenn Wolff, illustrator (Read the complete review here.
A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is a book you savor. You keep it on an end table and read a chapter at a time. If you’ve wondered why we both adore animals (our pets) and fear them (snakes) this book will answer your questions and renew your childhood curiosity, Both the perfect gift for the inquisitive kid and the learned adult, Dennis’s book packed with keen observations and magical, eloquent words that are complemented by Wolff’s intricate drawings form a package you’ll continually unwrap with delight. Gourmet/Grandma's Pot Roast/Super Nutrition

The Best History Book for Bibliophiles:
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II  (Read the complete review here.)
When Books Went to War tells of the campaign to provide books to American soldiers in combat that led to printing a new kind of paperback book. Not only did this alleviate boredom it also helped prepare a generation of men for higher education under the GI bill as it showed why fighting an enemy that burned books was important. This is a moving and fascinating tale. It will make you want to (re)read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn too. Grandma's Pot Roast/Super Nutrition, Book Club

The Best Theology Book (and yes, it has plenty of profanity):
Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber (published in 2014): 
“God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as shitty as the rest of us.” Try to get your book club to discuss this profane, theologically astute wonder. Anyone pondering faith needs to read it. Buy it NOW! Gourmet/Sushi/Soul Food, Book Club

The Best Hug Your Friends and Enjoy Life Book:
The Drummond Girls by Mardi Jo Link (Read the complete review here.)
The Drummond Girls: A Story of  Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance celebrates the long friendship of a group of strong-minded women. Read it and call a friend. Grandma's Pot Roast/Road Trip/Soul Food, Book Club

The Best Graphic Memoir: 
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014)
This graphic/tragi-comic memoir tells of Chast's parents' refusal to discuss their own decline when they were in their 90s. The term gallows humor could have been coined for her intimate, honest look at her parents and at her own reaction to their downward spiral. It was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. Sushi/Super Nutrition, Book Club

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Mysteries and Thriller - 2015

The best mysteries and thrillers offer surprises that tantalize readers. Sometimes those surprises are cozy, occasionally they're grizzly, often  they're frightening, and the very best of them make you wonder what you yourself might be capable of doing - for good or for evil. Beautiful homes and scenic locales are often the scenes of ugly crimes such as the murder of the DeFeo family in 1974 in Amityville, NY pictured here and in the Amityville Horror movie. Regardless of the type of mystery or thriller you prefer, the best of 2015 promise compelling reading opportunities

The Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2015:

  • A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
  • As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman
  • Descent by Tim Johnston
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke (2014)
  • The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
  • The Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
The Best Mystery/Thriller of 2015:

Descent by Tim Johnston (Read the complete review here.)
Caitlin’s brother Sean crashes his mountain bike on a remote Colorado road. Caitlin accepts a ride to call for help and isn’t heard from again. As Sean recovers from his wounds, their family slowly disintegrates. Then a clue to finding Caitlin leads to one of the most thrilling endings I’ve ever read. Descent mixes poetic words, heart-rending action, courageous exploits, superhuman survival tactics, fear, and hope. Once you start it, you won't be able to do anything else. Grandma's Pot Roast, Book Club

The Best British Detective Mystery:
A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
A Banquet of Consequences brings my favorite characters, Barbara Havers and Inspector Lynley, together again and reintroduces the ingenious Detective Sgt. Nkata. A suicide by the son of an annoying assistant to a prominent feminist author is at the center of a possible murder. Havers is on probation and must prove herself or be posted to the hinterlands. George is back in form in this one. Chinese Carryout

The Best "Disturbed Women" Thrillers:
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh Eileen is eerily dark. Eileen is a strange
character. Would you keep a dead mouse in your glove compartment? Eileen does. Eileen follows the trend of twisted characters that keep us turning pages. This novel is grotesque, haunting, gothic, and thoroughly gripping. Moshfegh’s mastery of character and plot is superb. Sushi/Gourmet
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke (Read the complete review
here.) Mind of Winter, published in 2014, chronicles one Christmas day in a suburban home. Holly and Eric oversleep. Eric gets stuck in a blizzard picking up his parents and their daughter is still in bed. Holly behaves bizarrely and something is off kilter. This searing psychological thriller’s shocking conclusion will have you returning to the first page to figure out the puzzle. This one is capital "D" for disturbing, yet you simply cannot put it down. Chinese Carryout, Book Club

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins  Rachel, an alcoholic who’s
lost her job, continues commuting on the train to “work” so her roommate won’t know she’s unemployed. She fixates on a couple she sees living near her former home and after the wife of the couple disappears, Rachel inserts herself into the case. The novel slowly reveals secrets and clues as the line between love and obsession blurs. This novel is as good, as surprising, and as engaging as everyone says. Chinese Carryout, Sushi

The Best Mystery Series that Just Keeps Getting Better:
The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
The Nature of the Beast is vintage Penny. When a 9-year-old boy is murdered after telling a tale of a monster wielding a massive gun he’s seen in the woods, Inspector Gamache finds his quiet retirement disturbed. Penny ties things together with the Biblical Yeats lines “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Penny’s ingenious plotting and ability to get to what’s inside each character make this exploration of evil a triumph. Gourmet, Book Club

The Best Thriller that Makes the Reader Afraid to Answer the Door:
As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman (Read the complete review here.) 

As Night Falls is a thriller featuring an evil prison escapee and his over-sized fellow inmate who break into a remote hilltop home to seek refuge and get supplies to trek to Canada. But much more lurks under the surface as the homeowners try to save themselves. McLean, the sweet dog in the book, is named in honor of Edie, the wonder dog, who reigns at one of my favorite places, McLean & Eakin Books in Petoskey, MI. It isn't often that a dog is such a well-written character. Grandma's Pot Roast/Chinese Carryout, Book Club

The Best Spy Novel (published in 2013 but I read it this year):
The Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Matthews, a former CIA officer, introduces Dominika Egorova, a Russian intelligence agent and Nash, the US handler of a Russian mole. It’s superb and I refuse to divulge more as it's so inventive. I read it because I'd heard that the sequel, Palace of Treason, was excellent and I wanted background before reading it. Chinese Carryout/Super Nutrition

The Best Mystery to Evoke Hitchcock:
The Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Unbecoming is tough to categorize. Is it a mystery or literary fiction with a crime in it? Grace, a nice Southern girl, plans an art heist from a local historic house. Her co-conspirators go to prison and she’s working in Paris as an art restorer. A touch of Hitchcock makes this an inventive debut. Chinese Carryout

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Diet Coke and Gummi Bears – The Best Books for Teens and Young Adults - 2015

I love to read Young Adult (Teen) books. They almost always grab me on the first page, feature compelling topics that evoke deep emotional responses within me, and share a view of today's world that I rarely encounter. The young adult genre is one of the fastest growing segments of the book market and increasing adult readership is one reason why. 

I am often asked why young adult fiction features so many dysfunctional families or dystopian themes. Why, adult readers ask, can't there be good young adult novels about happy families with happy teenagers?  Yeah, right. Even well-adjusted, relatively happy adolescents don't want to read about Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm so young adult books will always lean toward the big topics that concern teenagers. Encountering a world where depression, violence, injustice, and suicide reside is a part of growing up and young adult literature reflects that reality. 

My choices for the best teen and young adult books of 2015 are all so good; it's almost impossible to choose just one from these fine titles.

The Best Young Adult/Teen Books of 2015:
  • All American Boy by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • I Was Here by Gayle Forman
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold
  • Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt
  • Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
The Best Young Adult/Teen Novel of 2015:

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Read the full review here.)
Violet and Finch meet atop the school’s bell tower where Finch has often contemplated jumping.  Violet is grieving her sister’s death and people misunderstand who helps the other down. A school project allows Finch to lead Violet to new experiences and they fall in love but complications ensue as Finch becomes enamored with all things “ultraviolet.”  This funny, real book made me want to hug my kids, eat carryout from Happy Chinese, go on a picnic, and remember that it isn’t what you take, it’s what you leave that matters.  It also makes for a great discussion in adult book clubs. Ages 15 and up

The Runners Up:

The Best Young Adult Novel of 2015 that might help us understand why some people are afraid, some are angry, and some don't see that there's a problem:

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely (Read the full review here.
All American Boys blew me away. Two authors, one white and one black, tell this tale in alternating chapters from the point of view of two teens. Quinn is white and he sees his best friend’s older brother, a white cop, beat up a black kid outside a convenience store. Rashad is the black kid who was beaten and is hospitalized. He’s always been a model kid and now he’s the subject of protests. This is timely, eloquent, realistic, funny, and profound. The characters don’t fit stereotypes and the writing alone makes it a winner. I want to use this in my book clubs as a springboard to talking about the events of the past few years that may be awakening us all. Ages 12 and up

I Was Here by Gayle Forman 
I Was Here is an exceptional emotional depiction of depression and suicide. The author of If I Stay and Where She Went expertly captures teen voice and truth. After Cody’s best friend Meg methodically kills herself, Cody packs up Meg’s dorm room to help her parents. Cody realizes that Meg hadn’t shared important details about her life in college and wasn’t always the person Cody thought she was. Cody needs an explanation for Meg’s suicide and someone to blame especially after she sees that all Meg’s emails from the last six months are gone. Cody’s search leads her on a troubling journey. Teens looking for answers will find even more questions in this searing novel. Ages 15 and up

Mosquitoland by David Arnold 
Teenager Mim Malone’s world has fallen apart since her father and stepmother took her to Mississippi, which she calls “mosquitoland,” leaving her mother behind in Ohio. Mim is medicated and seeing a strange shrink because her Dad fears she’ll be crazy like her aunt. Hating her new life, Mim hops a Greyhound bus back to Ohio and along the way a group of strangers show her what life and friendship mean. Mim’s quirky personality makes her odyssey challenging, humorous, and perfect for bright, questioning teens. Ages 15 and up

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt (Officially classified as a Peanut Butter and Jelly book; it's too good to limit to any age group. Teens particularly and everyone 10 or older will want to read it.)
Orbiting Jupiter broke my heart. Joseph is a “bad” kid. He’s in eighth grade. He’s been in jail, assaulted a teacher, and fathered a daughter named Jupiter who he’s never seen. When sixth grader Jack’s family takes Joseph in as a foster child, most people think it’s a bad idea. A few teachers and Jack begin to see light in Joseph. Told in Jack’s straight-forward, calm voice, this never gets maudlin. Prepare for a good cry. Ages 10 - 14

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen 
After Sydney’s brother Payton goes to prison for a drunk driving incident, Sydney transfers to a new school where she’s befriended by siblings Layla and Mack whose family struggles include running a pizza carryout business and taking care of their mother’s MS flare-ups. Sydney’s mother’s obsession with Payton leaves “good” Sydney unsupported emotionally. I loved this book. The audio version is spectacular. I highly recommend it for everyone and especially for families with teens on a road trip. Ages 14 and up

Monday, December 28, 2015

Pigeon Pie – The Best Historical Fiction of 2015

This morning I perused one of my grandmother’s well-worn cookbooks. This slim paperback published in 1947 by “The Golden Band Class of the Brown Street Methodist Church” in Lafayette, Indiana, is simply titled Favorite Recipes. In it I found Mrs. W.B. Sanders’ recipe for Persimmon Pudding, Mrs. Kenneth Forbes’ guidelines for preparing “Supreme of Old Hen,” Mrs. John Kalberer’s enticing instructions for Pork Fruit Cake, and Miss Ida Fluck’s for Cream Caramels. I imagine many stories being told around the table as families sat down to eat these treats (two-thirds of the book is devoted to sweets). There was no recipe for pigeon pie as it wasn’t often served after the demise of the passenger pigeon in the late 1800s and these recipes as well as the names of their contributors (listed by husband’s first name if married) reflect their time in history.

Making events of the past evocative of their period isn’t an easy task. That may be one of the reasons why good historical fiction is so popular. Combining history with a captivating narrative and compelling characters appeals to our desire to learn about the past while enjoying a “good read.”  My choices for the best historical fiction novels of 2015 (defined as fiction set at least fifty years ago) are:

·         Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
·         Little Women in Blue by Jeannine Atkins
·         Lum by Libby Ware
·         Miss Hazel and the Rosa Park League by Jonathan Odell
·         The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
·         Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian
·         Some Luck by Jane Smiley
·         White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen

I also recommend two books published previously that I enjoyed this year:
·         Mary Coin by Marisa Silver (2013)
·         The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton (2014)

Historical fiction fans will also relish a hybrid novel set both in the past and today:
·         The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

The Best Historical Fiction (Pigeon Pie) Novel of 2015:
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (Read the full review here.)
Circling the Sun inhabits the early life of aviator Beryl Markham so astutely that it should prompt readers to immediately seek out Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, to learn the rest of her story. McLain, best known for her novel The Paris Wife, captures Markham’s childhood and early adult years honestly and compassionately. Lions, poisonous snakes, planes, love affairs, and fine writing offer a view of a woman who did things 100 years ago that few of us would attempt today.  It’s pure delight.

The Runners-Up:
Little Women in Blue by Jeannine Atkins (Read the full review here.)
Little Women in Blue is an enchanting novel that embeds the reader in the life of Louisa May Alcott’s sister May. May, an accomplished artist and a contemporary of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, comes alive in Technicolor in this delightful tale.
Lum by Libby Ware (Read the full review here.
Lum is a captivating novel about outsiders, race, a little-known part of our history, and the power of self-acceptance and resilience. Lum portrays the people of rural Virginia’s mountains during the Great Depression when the new Blue Ridge Parkway both threatens farmland and offers opportunity. Lum, a 33-year-old woman with an intersex condition, lives with relatives and is treated as a servant, but when the Parkway comes, the life of this engaging woman who seems to have no place of her own, soars. Ron Rash, Lee Smith, and Wiley Cash readers will love this debut Southern voice

Miss Hazel and the Rosa Park League by Jonathan Odell
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League (A new rendering of The View from Delphi), is similar to The Help in its portrayal of 1950s women in a small Mississippi town. Miss Hazel is more realistic and shows the part African-American maids played in the civil rights struggle. Hazel is white, privileged and has “issues.” Vida is black, poor, and ignored since her father is no longer the darling of the elite. Both have lost a child and when Hazel’s husband hires Vida to care for his surviving son and to watch the ailing Hazel, the women end up changing their community. Based on Odell’s life, it rings true

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Read the full review here.)
The Nightingale is a World War II story that goes beyond the usual rehashing of history. “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”  Hannah’s tale of a young woman who led many soldiers out of occupied France along with the stories of women who saved Jewish children and hid downed airmen reveals what people can do to survive. If you don’t shed a tear or two at the end, you might need a new heart.  

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (Read the full review here.)
Orhan inherits a family business in a small Turkish village. He soon learns of its connection to an 87-year-old Armenian woman living in a California retirement home. Orhan’s Inheritance is a powerful novel of love, loss, war, and denial. Ohanesian makes unpalatable subjects captivating by sharing the lives of caring, compassionate people who did what needed to be done in untenable times.  This is a perfect novel for book discussion groups.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Some Luck tells one family’s distinctly American story from 1920 through 1953. It’s the first installment in Smiley’s “hundred years” trilogy. Each short chapter covers one year and those years show the birth of children and grandchildren, the depression’s effect on farm families, losses in war, and the different manifestations of love. The title is stated on Walter and Rosanna’s first child Frank’s birthday when his Granny replies to his father’s remarks about his birth.  “That was a piece of luck Walter,” said Granny. “But what would we do without some luck after all.” And there is some luck involved as family members die or survive incidents that could have ended either way. I love the distinct personalities of the children and enjoy Rosanna’s take on them. I’ve heard readers bemoan the absence of the great “linear” novel, one that tells a fine story without convoluted lapses into other realms. Here it is friends and it’s a winner.

White Collar Girl by Renée Rosen (Read the full review here.)
White Collar Girl captures 1950s Chicago life and politics under the new Daley machine. Jordan Walsh is a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune who yearns to escape the “society” pages for real news especially the graft and corruption of the city. Her boyfriend is jealous of her success, she gets little support from her family, and her inexperience causes her to make some consequential errors.  Chicagoans will devour this as they revisit Riccardo’s, the Berghoff, and other places Rosen evokes perfectly.

The Best Historical Fiction Novel I Read in 2015 that was published in 2013:

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
Mary Coin is a page-turning story based on Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph. Silver bases characters on Lange, another photographer, and an imagining of the mother in the photograph. Silver’s experience and training as a film director and short story writer make this a colorful story in which each person’s story adds to the whole. There’s so much to discuss about ethics, art, women, poverty; it’s a must for book clubs and precipitated one of the best discussions I’ve ever led.

A Fine Historical Novel I read in 2015 that was published in 2014:

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton
Journalist John Easley is trapped behind enemy lines during the Japanese invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands during WWII. His wife Helen joins the USO and heads to Alaska to find him. This is both a beautiful love story and a tale of the horrors of war. Great descriptions and a haunting story will appeal to men and women. As is often the case with historical fiction, it highlights something most Americans didn’t know – that part of Alaska was held by the Japanese during World War II.

A “Hybrid” Novel set today and in the 1800’s:

The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy

Eden, who’s tried to conceive for years, discovers a porcelain doll’s head in the root cellar of her home. This leads to the story of abolitionist John Brown’s daughter Sarah who hid Underground Railroad maps within her paintings. The interweaving of their stories offers new definitions of bravery, family, and love.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Greetings of the Season!

I couldn't resist sharing this book tree from the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. May your holidays be merry and bright and may all your book trees be white.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys is the book for the times. It completely blew me away. Two authors, one white and one black, tell this tale in alternating chapters from the point of view of two teens. Quinn, who is white, sees his best friend’s older brother Paul, a white policeman who has always helped him, beat up a black kid from his high school outside a convenience store. Rashad, the black kid who was beaten, is in the hospital with significant injuries. He’s always been a model kid and now he’s the subject of protests.

This young adult novel defies stereotypes as shown by Rashad’s father, a strict, former cop, whose first comments to Rashad in the hospital were:
“I need to know what the hell you were thinking, shoplifting. Shoplifting? And from Jerry’s of all places?” Dad has that disappointed look on his face – the same face he used to give me before I joined ROTC. . .
“I didn’t steal nothin,’” I said, suddenly feeling too tired to explain, even though I just woke up.
“Well then, why did the cops say you did?” Dad replied . . .
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Dad scoffed. “Really Rashad? You don’t know?”

Reynolds and Kiely show that it isn’t just whites who assume wrongdoing by a black male in today’s culture, it’s everyone. Rashad knows he’s innocent, but he’s tired and conflicted. His brother, though, refuses to “sweep this under the rug, like this is okay.”  Rashad isn’t sure what he wants:
“I gotta admit, there was a part of me that, even though I felt abused, wanted to tell him to let it go. To just let me heal, let me leave the hospital, let me go to court, let me do whatever stupid community service they wanted me to do, and let me go back to normal. I mean, I had seen this happen so many times. Not personally, but on TV. In the news. People getting beaten, and sometimes killed, by the cops, and then there’s this fuss about it, only to build up to a big heartbreak when nothing happens. The cops get off. And everybody cries and waits for the next dead kid, to do it all over again. That’s the way the story goes. A different kind of Lifetime movie. I didn’t want all that.  Didn’t need it.”

Quinn is conflicted as well. He hasn’t decided whether to tell anyone what he saw. Everyone at his school is upset about the beating and Quinn’s black teammates on the basketball team and his best friend's family have him wondering what he should do. Their entire town has watched a video of the beating. Quinn had decided not to watch the video – after all he was there. He understands that he can walk away and not think about Rashad.

“I could be all the way across the country in California and I’d still be white, cops and everyone else would still see me as just a “regular kid,” an “All-American boy, “Regular,” “All-American,” White. F--k.

But then, after dinner. . . I realized something worse: It wasn’t only that I could walk away – I already had walked away. Well, I was sick of it. I was sick of being a d--k. Not watching the d--n video was walking away too, and I needed to watch it.”

After he watches the video and talks to his friend Jill, Quinn decides that he’d been “trying to stare so hard at my own two feet so I wouldn’t have to look up and see what was really going on. And while I’d been doing that, I’d been walking in the wrong direction. I didn’t want to walk away anymore.”

Later in English class, Quinn looks at notes left on the whiteboard from a previous class and begins to ruminate:

“Active versus passive voice.  I remembered the exact same lesson from ninth grade.  I’d thought it was all a pain in the ass, but what had once been a stupid grammar lesson now formed a weird lump in my throat.

Mistakes were made, Mrs. Tracey had scrawled. And beneath it she’d written, Who, Who made the mistakes?

In my mind, I ran through the exercise I remembered from the time, rearranging the phrases, making something passive active, but this time I found myself changing the other words too, because I was clearly becoming obsessed – even if I didn’t want to be.

Mistakes were made.
Rashad was beaten.
Paul beat Rashad.”

This is a novel that shows how hard it is to do the right thing. It makes the reader feel the pressures put on every character. It shows how all American boys need to learn to be good people in a tough world. It also uses humor to make it possible for readers to process what happens. It’s quite simply a winner. That the title doesn’t contain a hyphen making it All-American Boys is a subtle, yet significant, touch.  This isn’t a book about what society considers an “All-American Boy.”  It’s a story about All American boys and how important it is for them to learn to do what’s right. A bonus is that it shows how caring adults, especially teachers, can influence kids.

Summing it Up: All Amercian Boys is timely, eloquent, realistic, funny, and profound.  The characters don’t fit stereotypes and the writing alone would make it a winner. However, it’s the content that makes it required reading for all Americans now.  After seeing the horrific video of Laquan McDonald being shot repeatedly and watching protests throughout Chicago, we need to think, listen, watch, talk, and consider what we can do to change this culture. Buy this for a teen you love, but make sure to read it yourself before you wrap it.

Warning: If X-rated language bothers you, understand that teens use it and that this novel wouldn’t reflect reality without it.

Rating: 5 stars   
Ages 13 and up
Category: Diet Coke & Gummi Bears, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 29, 2015
Authors’ Websites: Brandon Kiely: Jason Reynolds:
Read an Excerpt: (Warning this contains language some may find offensive.)
What Others are Saying:
“At once timely and timeless, funny and wickedly smart, ALL AMERICAN BOYS is a beautifully written narrative about … about so many things — but most importantly - what it means to be a young man in America - across lines of race — and what it means to be a GOOD person in America — across lines of Everything.”
— Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming, winner of the National Book Award