Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amal has a goal: she loves school, and wants to go to college and become a teacher. It seems simple, but for a 12-year-old girl in a Pakistani village, it’s means everything, She sees her future before her, and feels like she can make a difference.

That is, until one day she decides to stand up for herself… with the wrong person. Jawal Sahib is a member of the Khan clan, the people with the most money and influence in the region. And he’s not a person you cross. So, the next thing Amal knows, her father’s debts have been called in (he took out loans to cover his orange groves), and he can’t pay. So Jawal Sahib takes Amal as “payment”. She’s put to work in the household as a personal servant for Jawal Sahib’s mother, Nasreen Baji. It’s not something Amal wants, but she has no choice. And so, she tries to make the best of a (very bad) situation.

There’s more to the story than that; Saeed not only deals with involuntary servitude but also the treatment and education of women, she touches on corruption in politics and commerce in Pakistan; the Khans are so influential because they have bribed so many people. It’s enough that Jawal Sahib feels that he is above the law, and everyone beneath him is resigned: that’s just the way things are.

It’s a very stark picture of what life can be like in Pakistan, and how many people are just scraping by while a few get rich off their backs. But it’s not a depressing one: Amal is an incredible character to spend a book with, one who really does find ways to make life bearable and who tries to make a difference wherever she goes.

And Saeed knows how to tell a story that will keep younger readers engaged as well.

Excellent.

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Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini

by Sid Fleischman
First sentence: “I have been a fiction writer by choice and instinct for a long professional life.”
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Content: There are some risque photos (Houdini did a lot of his tricks in the nude for honesty’s sake) and some intense moments. It would be in the middle reader biography section of the bookstore, if we had it.

I’ll be honest: while I enjoy illusions, I’m not obsessed with it, and while I knew who Houdini was, I really didn’t know much about his life or his magic tricks. So, when my class hit a biography section and this was on the list, I figured why not read a kids’ biography on Houdini.

(First: are kids still interested in Houdini? Hubby saw this on my nightstand and remarked “I adored Houdini as a kid.” Does that still happen?)

I learned that Houdini was a workaholic, a bit of a jerk, and definitely competitive. He’d put himself in pretty much any situation to prove that he could do whatever it was that was put before him (challenges were his favorite thing!) regardless of personal safety. Fleischman, a fellow Jew and magician, is incredibly enthusiastic about Houdini (even though he keeps the actual secrets of how Houdini performed his tricks, well, secret) and that comes through in the biography. I don’t know if it’s something I’d refer kids to in order to do research on Houdini (though maybe: Fleischman does work to debunk some of the myths surrounding Houdini, ones that Houdini himself perpetuated), but it does make for entertaining reading.

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II

by Martin W. Sandler
First sentence: “It was a heroic achievement.”
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Content: There are some difficult moments, especially for younger readers. It would be in the middle grade history section of the bookstore.

I’ve known vaguely about the Japanese internment that happened during World War II for a while now (though it wasn’t something that was taught in school), but I had never read anything that detailed the actual experience of Japanese Americans in America.

My thoughts? White people are awful. (This is not a new realization. Just an additional confirmation.) My reservations about this book? It’s written by a (very nice) white guy. The book — which goes through the experiences of Japanese in America from the turn of the 20th century through World War II and afterward — seems really well-balanced and fair, and Sandler has done his research. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this is a story that would be better told by someone who had gone through the experience, by someone who could first-hand explain the experiences of racism they had while they were trying to make a living here. Sandler doesn’t really hold those in charge accountable (really: what were the politicians thinking?!) and while he is sympathetic to the plight of the Japanese and forthright about the conditions they lived in, it lacks the emotional punch a Japanese writer could most likely give it.

Still, not a horrible book.

State of the TBR Pile: May 2018

Class is over (yay!), so I get to read the books I want to (for now):

The first five are for my middle reader book club this summer, the rest are for fun.

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
Encyclopedia Brown by Donald Sobol
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Way You Make Me Feel by Maureen Goo
The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen
March, Book 3 by John Lewis

What’s on your TBR pile that you are looking forward to?

The Penderwicks at Last

by Jeanne Birdsall
First sentence: “Lydia believed in dancing wherever she could — on sidewalks, in supermarket aisles, libraries, swimming pools, parking lots.”
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Others in the series: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardham Street, The Penderwicks at Point Moutte, The Penderwicks in Spring
Release date: May 15, 2018
Content: There’s some romance (all tasteful, of course), and it has a bit of an old fashioned feel. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we last left the Penderwicks, Batty was in 5th grade and Lydia was two. But since a two year old would make a horrible narrator of a middle grade novel, Birdsall has fast-forwarded time again: Lydia is eleven now, and everyone else is duly older. In fact, Rosalind, the oldest, is about to get married. Which she wants to do at the place where everything started: Arundel. Lydia, Batty (who is 19 now), and the dogs (Sonata and Feldspar, who is the BEST) are the advance guard: heading to the mansion to clean and get ready and hopefully ward off (the awful) Mrs. Tifton. It’s delightful to be back at Arundel, and Birdsall weaves in all the stories from the first Penderwicks book — Lydia has grown up hearing the stories but not seeing the places — which gives the book a sense of nostalgia without just rehashing the same stories. We get to see Cagney again — he’s married with a daughter Lydia’s age — and it’s just absolutely delightful. But then, the Penderwicks usually are. And I loved getting to know Lydia who is simultaneously so very Penderwick but also different because she wasn’t surrounded by sisters the way the others were.

There are, of course, Penderwicks things: an out of control soccer game; lots of music and wandering around outside (no one EVER watches TV!); friendships and family. It’s absolutely delightful and I want to be a Penderwick. I thought it would make me cry to have to say goodbye to this lovely family, but I  didn’t. It was all so perfect, so right, so very comparable to Little Women (but no one dies!), that it just made me happy all over.

This series is such a wonderful modern classic. I’m so glad Birdsall had this story to tell.

Love & Luck

by Jenna Evans Welch
First sentence: “Dear Heartbroken, What do you picture when you imagine traveling through Ireland?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some sexual harassment and mild swearing. It is in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Addie has been looking forward to the end-of-summer trip to her aunt’s wedding in Ireland. Mostly because she’s going to pop over to Italy afterward (to see Lina from Love & Gelato) but also because it will get her away from the boy who dumped her after their secret summer relationship. She is planning on sitting in the sun and eating gelato and forgetting.

Except, her other brother, Ian (who was supposed to go with Addie to Italy) has other plans: he’s hooked up with an internet friend, Rowan, and they’re going to go on a band-themed road trip in Ireland ending up at the last concert of their favorite band. Addie’s WAY against this (since their parents don’t know), but is convinced to let them drop her off at the airport. But… the car breaks down, the traffic is bad, and she misses her flight. And suddenly, she’s on a road trip with a boy she barely knows and a brother she’s barely speaking to.

I expected this to be a light, fluffy romance, but Welch delivered something… different. Sure there was a small bit of romance, but mostly the book was about bad decisions and healing and forgiveness. It’s a bit much to go into here, but I liked Welch’s descriptions of the sibling relationships, and how hard it is to find out who you are in the middle of a big, boisterous (and loving) family. (It was nice that the parents were actually good parents, too!) I liked the cheesy “travel guide” that is quoted throughout the book, as well; even though it was often corny, there were some good thoughts in it, and yes, it did make me want to go see Ireland.

It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I really liked it.

Bob

by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
First sentence: “I feel bad that I can’t remember anything about Gran Nicholas’s house.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s written perfectly for the younger age group. It is in the middle grade  section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Livy hasn’t been to her grandmother’s house in Australia in five years, when she was five years old. She doesn’t remember much from the last time she was there: not the room or the toys or the landscape, and especially not the green creature in the closet. Bob (the green creature in the closet) remembers Livy though. She told him to stay put, which he did. For five years. In the closet. But now that Livy’s here, he’s sure she can help him find his way home again.

Bob (the book not the character) is a charming little story about friendship and growing up, but also home and family. And it’s a delightful twist on fairy tales. In Mass’ and Stead’s hands, it’s not saccharine, but simple and sweet and tender.  Livy was more complex than I expected, pulled between her childhood self and a desire to be “older” and the responsibility of being a big sister. And Bob was charming and delightfully innocent. I liked that the fairy tale had rules: even though they were never spelled out in the book, Mass and Stead were consistent with who could and could not see Bob. It was incredibly well done, and a delightful read. .