Sweet Spot

by Amy Ettinger
First sentence: “Family dinners in my house were a death match.”
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Content: I think there might be some mild swearing, but nothing significant. It is in the Creative Non-fiction section of the bookstore.

I knew I had to read this one as soon as it came in, mostly because it hits all my buttons: it’s good writing, mixing history and contemporary observations, and it’s about FOOD. In this case, ice cream. Bonus.

And it was a delightful read. Ettinger knows how to make one involved in the book (not just with recipes!), finding the words to describe the experience of eating ice cream. She’s become, over the years, an ice cream snob, on a continual search for the perfect cone (and the perfect ice cream eating experience). That leads her all over the place, as she looks into the ice cream industry. And it was fascinating. She discovered that it’s pretty difficult for local artisan shops to make their own ice cream base (and most have it shipped in from somewhere else) because of the pasteurization laws She discovered that the best frozen custard, hands down, is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She looked at ice cream truck turf wars in Brooklyn, at the frozen yogurt industry as well as what it takes to make an ice cream sandwich. She looked at corporate ice cream and artisan ice cream. And it make me, well, want ice cream, and to go searching myself for that perfect cone experience. (That said, my ice cream making has gone up since I started reading this. I recommend the Ample Hills Creamery book.)

It really is a perfect summer read.  Just expect to go looking for a perfect cone when you’re done.

Nine, Ten

ninetenby Nora Raleigh Baskin
First sentence: “Everyone will mention the same thing, and if they don’t, when you ask them, they will remember.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It handles the tragedy of 9/11 on a level that is appropriate for the 3rd-5th grade crowd. It’d also make an excellent read-aloud. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Everyone (well, everyone of a certain age and older) knows the story of what happened on 9/11. But fifteen years on, there isn’t as many of the kids who know about that day. And so, Baskin helps introduce the tragedy through the stories of four eleven-year-old kids for the forty-eight hours before the planes hit. There’s Sergio, an African American kid from Brooklyn who is trying to make a better life for  himself but whose deadbeat dad is getting in the way. There’s Aimee, who has recently relocated from Chicago to L. A. and whose mother has a meeting in New York City that week. And there’s Will from Pennsylvania, whose father died in a freak accident and who is trying to get over that. And there’s Nadira, a Muslim girl from Ohio, who is trying to figure out the whole middle school thing. 9/11 changes each of their lives — though I’ll spoil it: no one has anyone they love die — in ways they could not have expected.

The thing I liked best was not so much the stories, or wondering how it would all play out (and wondering if Baskin would kill anyone). It was that Baskin caught the emotion of the day so very well. I was in Mississippi, having recently moved from DC, and I remember being caught up in the worry and horror and concern during it all. I wasn’t in the middle of it; I couldn’t imagine being in the middle of it. But, I, like many Americans, was affected by it. And Baskin caught that feeling perfectly.

I’m hoping this, along with Towers Falling, will spark a discussion about unity and how, no matter what we look like or believe, we can work to get past anger and mistrust and hate and be better citizens together. I hope, at the very least, that this one gets read and discussed.

Towers Falling

towersfallingby Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “Pop groans.”
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Release date: July 12. 2016
Content: It’s simple enough that the younger set can understand it but complex enough that it won’t bore the older kids. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Deja is starting over at a new school, but not by choice. Her family was evicted from their home in Brooklyn, and they’ve moved into a homeless shelter closer to Manhattan. It’s not a happy situation; her father suffers from headaches and can’t hold down a job, and her mother — an immigrant from Jamaica — can only work so many hours.

So, when Deja’s new school starts studying the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Deja wonders what on earth it has to do with her. But, as the weeks and months go on — and she learns more about the attacks that happened before she was born — she and her friends Ben and Sabeen learn that no one is unaffected by history.

Rhodes is doing a couple of things here: first, she’s telling the story of the towers falling for kids who may not know anything about it. Sure, it’s not super distant history, but there are still kids who aren’t really familiar with it. And I’m not sure how much it’s being taught in schools (C got it a lot, A got a lesson or two in 5th grade, and I’m not sure anyone at school has brought it up for K) anymore. So, there definitely is a need for a reminder. But, Rhodes has gone bigger than just “hey kids, this happened” history. She’s encompassing issues of kids being homeless, of religious tolerance (Sabeen is Muslim, and she and her family face discrimination because of that), of diversity. She strikes a nice balance in the book between teaching the kids and preaching to them, and  manages to be diverse and moral-centric without being didactic and moralistic.

It’s definitely a book worth checking out.


radioactiveby Winifred Conkling
First sentence: “Their moment had finally arrived.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some science terms and such in this, but they’re explained pretty well. It’s a bit on a higher grade level, but I think 5th graders and up could handle it.  It’s in the kids’ biography section at the bookstore.

I’m a sucker for biographies highlighting people or things I don’t know much about. And this one definitely fits the bill. Conkling highlights two physicists doing research in the 1920s and 1930s, ones that I didn’t know anything about.

Irene Curie was the daughter of the more-famous Marie, but was a stellar physicist in her own right. Along with her husband, Frederic Joliot, she discovered artificial radiation. This opened up many avenues in the scientific world. And while she got credit, no one (well, not us non-scientists anyway) remember her for this. The other scientist Conkling highlights — and in some ways, the more interesting story — is Leisl Meitner. She, along with several other scientists, discovered nuclear fission. The rub, though, is that because Leisl was considered a Jew in Nazi Germany (her grandparents were Jewish), she had to flee to Sweden. Then her partner (and friend?!), Otto Hahn, completely wrote her out of the research. He said he did this all on his own, mostly because he was afraid of the Nazis.

It’s a fascinating story, and Conkling does a good job of explaining the science (there’s some helpful tables, etc. throughout the book) as well as making both of these fascinating women come to life. There’s a bit about their history, their relationship with the scientific community (which was incredibly sexist, no surprise), as well as a lot on their contributions to the advancement of physics.

It’s fascinating and well worth the read.

A Dozen Books about the African-American Experience

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day tomorrow, and we’re probably celebrating by going to see Selma. And I know I’m a bit early for Black History Month, but I thought I’d do a list of books that celebrate the depth and breadth of the African-American experience. I don’t think I came up with one that’s really comprehensive, especially since I tend toward the historical fiction, but it’s a start.


Sugar, by Jewell Parker Rhodes: “It’s 1871, and slavery is supposed to be over. However, for ten-year-old Sugar, on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, it doesn’t feel like it. Sure, the former slaves are free to go if they can, but they’re paid so little that it’s almost impossible for them to leave.”

Stella By Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper: “It’s 1932, North Carolina. The whole country is in the throes of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt is running for office. For Stella and her family, this doesn’t really matter. They’re more concerned about making ends meet. And avoiding the local Klu Klux Klan.”

Mare’s War, by Tanita S. Davis: “As they start driving, Mare starts talking about her past: what made her run away from Bay Slough, Alabama and join up in the Women’s Army Corps near the end of World War II. Her experiences in both a segregated south and a 1940s midwest, not to mention in the army. The chapters alternate between then — Mare’s history — and now — the road trip — and as the book unfolds, we learn more about all three of our characters”

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith: “Ida Mae Jones has always wanted to fly. Ever since she was put behind the wheel of her daddy’s plane and taught how, she knew that this was what she was born to do. Except, she’s an African American and lives in the outskirts of New Orleans. Not only can she not get a pilot’s license because she’s a woman; she can’t get one because she’s the wrong color.”
March: Book One, by John Lewis:This is a slim graphic memoir, telling the first part of Congressman John Lewis’s story. This volume starts with his childhood in Alabama, and goes through the Nashville sit-ins that he participated in. My favorite thing about this memoir was the framing: It opens with Lewis waking up the morning of Obama’s first inauguration, and the story unfolds as Lewis is remembering his path to D.C. as he tells it to a couple of constituents who have stopped by his office.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis: “: This was a terrific book — a wonderful portrayal of a black family in early 1960s Flint, MI. It was hilarious (all the way through the end): the narrator called his family the “Wacky Watsons” and they were.”

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson: “Her childhood begins in Ohio, but mostly it’s spent in South Carolina, with her grandparents, and in Brooklyn, where her mother finally settled with Jacqueline and her brothers and sister. I kept trying to figure out the timeline (if she was born in 1963, then it must be…) but eventually, I just gave up and let myself get absorbed in the story.”

No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: “The book follows Lewis and his family — his parents, and a couple of his brothers — through most of the 20th century, beginning in 1906, through his many failed ventures to his inception and success in the bookstore. It’s fascinating to read and think about: Lewis’s big thing was that black people can’t stop being Negros — that is, defined by white people — until they know their history. Which means: they need to read. And read about their people.”


Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper: “Melody is very, very smart. She’s known words and ideas and concepts since she was very little. She loves music, and can see colors when it plays. But, she has no way to tell anyone any of this. Melody has cerebral palsey, and while she can hear and understand, she just can’t communicate. Which is incredibly frustrating to her.”

Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson: “The book is a series of letters from Lonnie — aka Locomotion — to his younger sister Lili. They’ve been put in different foster homes after a fire killed their parents. The loss is still there, at least for Locomotion, and he’s made it his “job” to help Lili not forget his parents.”

Ghetto Cowboy, by G. Neri; “Living in Detroit, twelve-year-old Cole and his mom are scraping by. Sure, he doesn’t go to school that often, but he’s okay. Until the day he gets caught, his mom flips, and drives him to Philadelphia to live with a father Cole has never met. Once he gets to Philly, angry about being abandoned (as he sees it), by his mom, he decides he will have nothing to do with his father, or the stables he runs in North Philly.”

Saving Maddie, by Varian Johnson: Joshua Wynn is a good guy. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t party, he doesn’t have sex. He chooses leading his church’s youth group over playing on the school basketball team. Granted, he’s the preacher’s kid, and there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Joshua to be good. And Joshua’s mostly okay with that.  That is, until Maddie Smith — his best childhood friend who moved away when she was 13 — moves back into town.”

So, I know I left off a lot. What are some of the best ones?


by Resa Aslan
First sentence: “When I was fifiteen years old, I found Jesus.”
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Content: There really isn’t anything objectionable. I think the issue here is content. Again, nothing questionable, but Aslan is a scholarly writer, and so the reading ability will match that. It’s in the thought/religion section at the store, but it’s more history than anything else.

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, since it came out. But it was only on a prompting from a friend that I finally stuck it on my library hold list and picked it up. Having only ever read one other Aslan book (No god But God) and that being years ago, I don’t know what I expected.

Whatever that was, it wasn’t a historical look at the man Jesus of Nazareth and how (historically) he came to be Jesus the Christ. I should say going in that there are other, better reviews of this one out there, as well as criticisms of both Aslan’s interpretation and presentation of what little data there is.

I am not a Biblical scholar (duh), and I’ve not really been interested in Biblical scholarship. (Hubby, on the other hand, is: most of the points I brought up as new to me, he’d already heard of.) I know that those who are have found this one reductive, but I don’t think Aslan was writing for the scholarly audience. Rather, he was writing for people like me: curious individuals who didn’t know much about Biblical history but were interested in what he had to say.

And I found what he had to say to be, well, interesting. Although he uses a mishmash of scholarship  — relying on the gospel of Mark mostly as well as Roman history from the time period — he presents his thesis — that Jesus of Nazareth was someone who wanted to overthrow the Roman rule of Jerusalem — in a way that, while it doesn’t challenge Christianity as a theology, challenges the idea of the Bible as a historical document. Which makes sense, if you think about it; having been translated and passed down and retranslated, it’s probably not a history of Jesus as a person. I’m not sure if Aslan’s book is, either, but it tries to put Jesus in a historical setting. And, with that at least, I think it succeeds.

Did I like it? Well, I was interested in it. And it made me think. And I learned things I didn’t know, though after reading some scholarly reviews of this, I’m not sure how accurate the things I learned are. But, I’m not sure that boils down to “like”. It was an interesting reading experience, which may be the best I can hope for.

March (Book One)

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
First sentence: “John, can you swim?”
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Content: The only objectionable thing in the book is the use of the “n” word (which doesn’t make the white Southerners look good at all). The library has it filed under adult graphic novels, but I think I’d put it with the teen ones. I’m sure even a curious 10- or 11-year-old would get something out of this one as well.

I picked this up because it made the SLJ’s Battle of the (Kids) Books contenders list and I like to (try to) read as many as I can before the competition starts. Like every year, I found a wonderful book I’d have never picked up otherwise.

This is a slim graphic memoir, telling the first part of Congressman John Lewis’s story. (For the record, Hubby knew who Lewis was; I did not.) This volume starts with his childhood in Alabama, and goes through the Nashville sit-ins that he participated in. My favorite thing about this memoir was the framing: It opens with Lewis waking up the morning of Obama’s first inauguration, and the story unfolds as Lewis is remembering his path to D.C. as he tells it to a couple of constituents who have stopped by his office.

It’s your pretty typical Civil Rights story: sharecropper parents save money for their own farm. After an exposure to a different way of doing things (he visited his uncle and aunt in New York City for a summer), child wants an education, rather than be stuck at home doing what his parents do. (I loved the bits about raising chickens, though.) He feels a call to be a preacher, and ends up at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. There is an interesting aside here: Lewis wanted to go to college in Alabama, closer to home, and actually met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his lawyers to talk about segregating Troy State. In the end, though, Lewis’s family didn’t want to chance the backlash, so he stayed in Nashville.

He was very influenced by the school of non-violent protests, and he got involved with a group that organized the sit-ins in Nashville in 1959. I think this was the most moving part of the book; the abuse and hurt that Lewis and his friends endured just so they could have the same services as the white people in Nashville was pretty brutal. This volume ends just after the Nashville mayor decrees that all businesses should be integrated. I’m quite interested to see where Lewis’s story goes from here.

I loved the format as well: there aren’t enough non-fiction graphic novels (at least that I’ve read), and the art — done in stark black and white — adds to the intensity of the story. I’m glad I picked this one up.

Audiobook: One Summer: American 1927

by Bill Bryson
Read by the author
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Content: It’s popular history. And because of that, there is talk of sex and some swearing (maybe 4 or 5 f-bombs). It’s adult-oriented, but I’m sure an inquisitive high schooler could read it.

I adore Bill Bryson. Sure, he’s a former journalist and a popular historian, but he comes at history in such unique ways that I can’t help but love him. Rather than Another Dry Biography of any of the people he talks about in this book — Charles Lindberg, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone, Calvin Coolidge, Ruth Snyder, Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, among others — he realized that talking about a summer, the summer where everything seemed to gel, would be so much more interesting.

And he was right.

He had me enthralled from the prologue when he talked about the failed attempts at flying across the Atlantic in the early 1920s. And he kept me enthralled (for the most part; I did tune out the banking parts) for the whole of the entire book. (Granted, that may be because I listened to it, and I love listening to Bill Bryson read his books. Kind of like Neil Gaiman.) It was chock full of trivia (the one thing I remember is that the summer of 1927, Memphis had the highest murder rate in the country, not Chicago), sure, but also of insightful passages. (I would quote them, but again: audio book.) That’s one of the things I love about Bryson; the way he throws in asides and commentary about his subject, but you never quite feel he’s being didactic. Snarky, yes. But didactic or preachy? No.

One of the things that I kept thinking as listened is just how much history repeats himself. And how much we ARE. Racism and trying to block immigrants? Check. (Except it’s south of the border and Middle East rather than Ireland, Italy, and Jews.) Banking bubble because politicians won’t regulate it? Check. I’m sure there are others, but (audio book, dangit!) I can’t think of them right now. I’d say everyone needs to read this for that reason — so we can grow and change and become better — but really? Read it because it’s Bill Bryson and it’s fascinating and a lot of fun.

You won’t regret it. Promise.