The Book of Boy

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
First sentence: “This story, like another, begins with an apple.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Content: There is some challenging language, because it’s set in medieval times, but with the large print, short(ish) length, and illustrations, a younger kid/reluctant reader could enjoy it. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Things that surprised me about The Book of Boy: How religious it was (though I don’t know why that did; it’s set in 1350 in Italy, and religion was a huge part of everyday life), how much I didn’t mind it’s religious nature, and how charmed I was by Boy and the pilgrim he went on a quest with.

Things I’m unsure about: the speculative(ish) element of it. See, Boy is a humpback child, and was told to keep his hump covered and hidden and never touch it. He’s shunned because of this — this felt “true”, even though I don’t know if people who didn’t look whole were shunned, but that’s what stories have always led me to believe — by everyone except a wayward pilgrim on a quest to collect the relics of St. Peter. But, once on the quest, Boy discovers that his hump is not an ordinary one, which is a blessing and a curse.

Things I really enjoyed: I loved the narrative style of the book. I think Murdock caught the inner voice of this naive character, who was doing what he was supposed to, and unsure about his own future and any changes. I loved that Boy could talk to animals, and that the animals helped him when he needed it. And I really enjoyed the whole quest: there were challenges along the way, and both Boy and the pilgrim needed each other. It was very sweet and charming.

Overall, a good book.

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Does My Head Look Big in This?

by Randa Abdel-Fattah
First sentence: “It hit me when I was power walking on the treadmill at home, watching a Friends rerun for about the ninetieth time.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, if we had it.

Amal is an Australain-Muslim-Palestinian girl attending a prep school for her 11th grade year, and she has just made a big decision: she is a faithful Muslim, and she wants to express that faith by wearing the hijab full time. Except. She’s the only Muslim in her school, it’s right after 9/11, and, well, let’s say that people, even in Melbourne, aren’t that open-minded.

But Amal is determined to make it work. She faces down the disapproval of her headmistress, the questions of her (non-Muslim) friends, the bullying and badmouthing of the close-minded, and she comes out much better for the experience.

It’s a simple plot; no massive twists or turns, no real huge conflict with a tear-jerker reveal. Just a simple, true-to-life story about a religious girl trying to live her life. And I loved it. I loved Amal and the way she made the decision, but the way she kept having to reaffirm the decision to herself. Being religious in a secular world isn’t always easy, and Abdel-Fattah reflected that. I also loved how she wrote about Amal’s faith. It’s hard to put into words, but I felt that she got what it means to be religious. (I’m sure she does.) The book did feel a little dated; it’s set in 2002 and was written in 2005, but I think it’s still necessary. And it’s really a charming story.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

by Elizabeth George Speare
First sentence: “On a morning in mid-April 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor.”
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Content: There’s some violence, but it’s off screen. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

I adored this book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember how I got this book, or why I got it, but I do remember reading and re-reading it endlessly. In fact, my copy, which I still have, is quite battered. I’m knee-deep in a Newbery Medal section of my class, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to see if this story held up to my recollections of it (and if I could remember why I liked it so much).

Kit Tyler is in a precarious position: raised by her grandfather on Barbados after her parents’ deaths, she is left penniless and mostly without family after his death. So, she throws everything on traveling to America, to live with her mother’s sister, whom she’s never met, in a Puritan Connecticut settlement. For most of the book, it’s a fish-out-of-water story: Kit tries and fails to fit into this strict religious community. She’s flashy, she’s never worked (they had slaves; I found some of the dichotomy between the British slave-owners in the Caribbean and the land owners in America to be interesting), she, of course is always in trouble. But Kit’s growth arc in this book is significant: after meeting Hannah, a Quaker who is ostracized from the community because she doesn’t attend Puritan services and branded a “witch”, Kit learns that having friends and helping others really is the best thing. Oh, and then there’s Nat.

Actually, I think, in the end, it was the love story between Kit and Nat that I liked as a teenager. I liked the push and pull of their relationship, how neither of them quite figured out they were Meant To Be until it was almost too late. It was very satisfying, to say the least. The other thing I got out of this was that Puritans were Awful.  At least in historical fiction. They are quick to judge, closed-minded, insular, and set on being against everything that is different or not plain. I don’t think Speare set out to condemn them; they’re not wholly bad as a group and there are some redeemable characters. But as a whole, Purtians are definitely awful.

In the end, I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did when I was younger, but I do see why I liked it so much. And it’s a good book, overall.

American Heart

by Laura Moriarty
First sentence: “One thing someone just meeting me might want to know is why I have two first names.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 30. 2018
Content: There are some disturbing situations, including an almost rape and violence against minorities. It will be in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Sarah-Mary and her younger brother are living with their aunt in Hannibal, Missouri, because their mother is one of those Bad Mothers who can’t take care of her children. Her younger brother is okay with this (except for the missing mom part), but it chafes with Sarah-Mary. She has a limited amount of freedom, which chafes. And then, she and her brother meet an Iranian woman, whom Sarah-Mary ends up calling Chloe, who is  on the run, avoiding the mandatory Muslim registry that has been implemented for “our safety”. Her brother begs Sarah-Mary to help get Chloe to safety in Canada, and of course Sarah-Mary promises. And thus begins the adventure.

It’s not a pleasant one, either. Moriarty attempts to focus on the wrongness of profiling people by race or religion (there’s this scene where Sarah-Mary witnesses a raid on a house where the person was harboring Muslims) and touches on prejudice and discrimination. She also make sure that the dangers of two women hitchhiking are amply described.  Nothing “bad” ever happens, but the novel brushes up against it several times, and it’s only through luck, wit, and technology that Sarah-Mary and Chloe get away.

And along the way Sarah-Mary learns the one great lesson that we all need to learn, especially right now: people are people. They all have hopes, dreams, and stories. And that judging a whole religion or race by one person’s actions not only is not fair, it’s wrong. However, the Muslim registry doesn’t miraculously go away at the end of the book, nor does Sarah-Mary’s actions have a larger Meaning, so maybe Moriarty missed the mark on something big here.

Perhaps, though, that’s also the problem with the book. That Sarah-Mary (read: white people) needed a Muslim woman (read: any diverse person of color) to Show Her the Way. As a concept, it’s clumsy, and I’ve read some responses on the book that lead me to think that it might be harmful, reinforcing White Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and just the White Savior narrative. I did enjoy this while reading it, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it was the best idea for a white woman to tackle something like this.

 

All the Crooked Saints

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “You can hear a miracle a long way after dark.”
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Release date: October 10, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but younger kids might be interested in it.

The problem with this book is that the plot is really hard to describe. There’s a family in the southern Colorado desert, the Sorias, that have basically made a living performing miracles for pilgrims who come to their homestead looking for help. But, it’s much more than about the miracles. There’s a boy who comes looking for help (but not a miracle) and a few pairs of lovers, some who are new and some who have lost their way. In fact, a lot of the plot is about how to find one’s way back from being, well, lost.

It’s historical, set sometime in the 1960s (I had it initially pegged for contemporary, then set in the 1970s… so I was close), but it feels, well, set out of time.

Mostly, though, the best thing about this is, like many Stiefvater novels, the words. She just has a way of telling a story that sucks you in and won’t let you go. And this was no exception. The magic here was less “magic” and more magical realism; it felt like it really could happen, that it was a natural outgrowth of the story, and it made perfect sense.

I’m sure Stiefvater will get some push back for writing a story with Latin@ main characters, but honestly, I don’t think she used stereotypes at all. (Or at least, that’s the way I felt; I’m not a great judge of this.)  I loved all the characters, from the Soria family to the pilgrims, and I loved the way Stiefvater told the story. Everything just seemed to fit.

It’s really a wonderful story.

Small Gods

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.”
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Content: It’s kind of stream of consciousness, without any chapters… but if you’re okay with that, then there’s nothing else to stop you. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Outside of the Tiffany Aching books, I’ve never spent anytime in Discworld. I knew about it, of course, but I’ve never read any of the other ones. And this seemed like, well, a decent enough place to start.

It’s slow to start, and took a very meandering route to a plot. (I’m not entirely sure it really HAD a plot…)  There’s a god, Om, who used to be a Big Deal, and while he has a lot of followers (there’s a whole country and a citadel and a whole religion), he doesn’t have a lot of, well, belief. And so, he’s been relegated to being a turtle for a few years. That is, until he’s accidentally dropped by an eagle into the citadel gardens and meets Brutha. Who is just a simple novice. And who can hear Om talking in his head.

And he goes on an adventure (of sorts) to figure things out.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s all a bit complex and somewhat convoluted. I will say this: it’s not Tiffany Aching, but Pratchett makes a person care about the characters. I loved Om and Brutha, and even some of the other characters. And he gently pokes fun at religion and theocracies and philosophy. It’s not my favorite Pratchett (give me the Nac Mac Feegle any day), but it was an enjoyable one to read.

The Tao of Pooh

taoofpoohby Benjamin Hoff
First sentence: “‘What’s this you’re writing?’ asked Pooh, climbing onto the writing table.”
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Content: It’s a primer on philosophy and the Tao Te Ching. If that sounds interesting, then it’s probably your speed. It’s in the Religion/Philosophy section of the bookstore.

Of COURSE one follows up Winnie-the-Pooh with The Tao of Pooh, right?

Right.

I’d read this once, a long time ago (probably after I was first married because the copy we have is Hubby’s), and honestly didn’t remember it much at all.

It’s an interesting hybrid of imitating the Pooh stories, an analysis of the stories and a comparison to the Tao Te Ching. I enjoyed the comparisons of Pooh to the principles of Tao, because it helped explain these admittedly foreign (at least to me) principles in a way I could understand. It reinforced the idea that meditation — the act of actively doing nothing — and being present in the moment are Good Things. And it reinforced the idea that not getting caught up in Ideas and letting your brain run away with itself is not healthy.

The only downside is that while Pooh (and sometimes Piglet) gets all the Praise, he kind of knocks Eeyore, Rabbit, and Owl, and I do have a soft spot for them. So it was kind of sad to see that, at least in the Way, they’re less valued.

Even so, it was a good reminder of helpful practices and good ideas that I needed.