Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

Wow.  That is the first thing that I thought after finishing Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller.  It is a true account of the author’s life as the child of a hoarder.  My emotions ran the gamut while reading:  disgust, pity, awe, admiration, and astonishment. 

By all accounts, Kim had a “typical” childhood.  She lived in a nice little Long Island suburb with two loving parents.  She was a good student and made friends.  However, she took great pains to hide what was going on at home.  She never invited friends over, she showered at the local gym, and she created a “decoy” house down the street at which her friends’ parents dropped her off.  She kept up an insane schedule of acting classes, dance, and other extracurricular activities to keep her out of the house.  She focused her attention on getting into college so that she could escape and live a normal life.

Kim’s father was a hoarder, and while her mother was not; she was a shopaholic and an enabler, which made the situation worse.  Both parents suffered various medical issues over the years, which also contributed.  Kim endured living conditions that included fleas, rodents, soggy floors, piles of trash, rotten food, and the absence of running water.  After she became an adult, she became obsessed with keeping her home clean and clutter free.  She also began having nightmares about living in a filthy house.

Kim eventually had to come to terms with the damage that her upbringing caused.  Over the years, she began letting her closest friends know the truth, and they helped her immensely.  It was interesting that she found it difficult to place any blame on her parents, but instead, maintained a close relationship with them and accepted them for who they are.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

There are three unlikely heroes in Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers.  Josie, an ex-dentist who is riddled with insecurity; Paul, her wise-beyond-his-years son; and Ana, her headstrong 5-year old daughter.  After Josie’s ex announces that he would like for their children to visit his future in-laws, Josie impulsively decides to pack them up, travel to Alaska, rent an RV, and then figure it out from there.  Josie thinks that she is running away from the possibility of losing her kids, but in reality, she is running away from unresolved demons in her own head.

The story is a fairly long one, and it meanders without a plot.  However, it reads very much like an adventure story, is full of many oddball characters, and contains humor.  One of the main characters is actually not a human at all, but is the RV (fondly named the Chateau) which comes to represent a source of stability and security to Josie and her family.  Each chapter finds them meeting new people, narrowly escaping certain disaster, avoiding rampant forest fires, and becoming closer as a family unit.

Sometimes I did get frustrated with how irresponsible Josie was.  Several times throughout the book, she led her young children into dangerous circumstances and seemed to let them wander off by themselves a lot.  I also wanted her to take control of situations, rather than react passively to events.  However, by the end of the book, I was very fond of this little family and it was hard not to root for their survival.  I think having Josie possess a few undesirable traits allows the reader to recognize her state of mind at the time, and to understand how desperate she felt.

Other books by Dave Eggers are A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and The Circle.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cy Makes a Friend By Ann Marie Stephens, Illustrated by Tracy Subisak

Cy, in this brand-new picture book, is a Cyclops, a small one that you might like to have for a friend. Cy is shy and kind of lonely, but he is a builder.  He can make lots of great things all by himself, but not a friend.  After finding that he can't build a real friend, he decides to practice his manners and his smile.  When he finally realizes that it's nice to share, he makes something that two friends can have fun with together. And the new friend he finds shares something to make it even better.  So that's how Cy Makes a Friend.


As Cy works through the fear and awkwardness of trying to make friends, the underlying treasure in this book is that it also introduces classical mythology to the very young.  In one strand of Greek mythology, the Cyclopes were forgers who made Zeus' thunderbolt and Poseidon's trident (and you can take that to the beach!).  Cy's dog happens to have three heads, just like good old Cerberus (not to mention Hagrid's Fluffy).  The other mythological creatures, who are small and appealing like Cy, are not introduced by name except in "A Note about Mythological Creatures" at the beginning of the book.  So you and your listeners can talk about them as much or as little as you like.

If you do like them, your Virginia Beach Public Library has many books on Norse, Asian, and other cultures' mythology and creatures as well as the classical Roman and Greek.  They include individual stories as well as collections such as The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus and Odin's Family: Myths of the Vikings.  To really dig in and even become a creator like Cy, the new book Explore Greek Myths! with 25 Great Projects has fun, easy-to-make ships, labyrinths, weathervanes, lyres, and more, along with simple blurbs about many of the characters and stories.

On the other hand, if you are more interested in the friend-making aspect of Cy's story, try Trevor Lai's Piggy, who also has to sort out how to and NOT to make a friend. (Piggy was published just last year, and seems to me a prime candidate to star in more wonderful stories, so I'm going to keep an eye out for him.) For a creative parent's solution to siblings who could be better friends to each other, check out Hug It Out! by Louis Thomas.

Review by Lynn

Thursday, April 20, 2017

At the Water’s Edge By Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge visits the time of World War II, as does Lilac Girls, about which I posted yesterday, but Sara Gruen’s novel explores the wartime journey of a young Philadelphia socialite on the home front and then on the edge of Loch Ness in the Scottish highlands, looking for its reputed monster.  Well, that’s what Ellis and Hank are doing—or what they say they are doing, to redeem Ellis in the eyes of the father who has disowned him.  Maddie, Ellis’s wife, has come along for the ride, but the men’s quest and their decidedly upper-crust prejudices begin to wear thin for her as they collide with the values of the people of the Scottish village.  As Maddie, essentially stranded in this backwater by her husband, experiences the effects of the war and forms new friendships, her eyes gradually open to new truths about her life so far and her prospects for the future.  With Maddie as narrator and skillful portrayals of the characters she has grown up with and those she now meets, Gruen makes real the deepening of Maddie’s journey into herself as she gradually discovers that she does have choices she can make—and that she must make.  And the Loch Ness monster is the least of her worries.

I guess I’m on a World War II kick.  I’m currently reading another historical fiction with an otherworldly element, Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird.  If “East China Sea” brings Okinawa to mind, you’ve probably been stationed there or know of the decisive battle of the Pacific war.  One plotline of Above the East China Sea follows a 21st-century “military brat” (her words) whose life has been shattered after holding together tenuously through one military move after another and finally to Okinawa.  The other thread has to do with a schoolgirl living through the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.  I was there for the very moving 50th anniversary commemorations of the horrendous 3-month battle, but this book reveals disparate views of Okinawans that I was not aware of:  some were committed to the unique Okinawan culture—really a combination of cultures due to the island’s location on key Pacific shipping lanes for centuries—but some fully supported the Emperor of Japan, who in the end sacrificed Okinawa and its people to dig in for a last stand against the allies.  The two storylines converge in a way that appears (so far in my reading) to bring hope to two teen girls feeling very lost. 

If you like the kinds of reading we’ve been talking about, this gives me an opportunity to plug a favorite of mine, the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon.  Many people are now familiar with the Outlander TV series on Starz, available on DVD through Virginia Beach Public Library.  Like the show, the book series starts just after World War II when a British army nurse is suddenly transported through a circle of standing stones in Scotland back to 1743 and the lead-up to a Scottish rising against the British.  Gabaldon combines historical fiction with military history, medical mystery, adventure, romance, and a bit of fantasy thrown in to make it all work.  With eight major books so far, along with innumerable shorter side stories, Outlander takes Claire and her Scottish highlander Jamie through history from Scotland to France to the American colonies.  Naturally, there is much more depth to the novels than can be encapsulated in a TV show or movie.  There are even two Outlandish Companion guides to the series, written by Gabaldon herself!

Review by Lynn

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lilac Girls By Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls does not start out with lilacs.  Instead, Martha Hall Kelly introduces three women, not connected to each other initially, and traces their involvement in World War II and their lives after the war.  Herta Oberhauser is an aspiring doctor in Germany facing limitations because of her gender.  She gets her chance to practice medicine—in the service of the Third Reich.  Caroline Ferriday of New York City works with humanitarian relief for French families through the French consulate.  Her previous career as an actress on Broadway and her family’s high-society connections prove helpful to her efforts.  Both of these women are actual historical figures. 

The third woman is a fictional teenager in Poland who is a composite of everyday Europeans who were subject at home to the abuses of the Third Reich due to the cruelty of Nazi occupation forces as well as limitations on rations and activities.  Some of them worked for the Resistance in spite of threats and fears of arrest, concentration camps, and death.  Kasia Kuzmerick’s journey is the one that most drew me in, but the stories of all three women take us deep into increasingly moving and even harrowing experiences of World War II.  Suspense builds as we figure out with the characters the motivations and machinations that move people to acts both despicable and heroic. 

The aftermath of the war is also explored.  Broken lives and broken trust are not easy to fix, and some damage is irreparable.  Herta, Caroline, and Kasia all have to navigate the rebuilding of their lives and the roadblocks to recovery.  With the war reverberating through their lives, as we go from Ravensbrűck concentration camp to Lublin in Poland to a Connecticut estate and back again to Europe, these women and those close to them do move forward, seeking love, justice, and peace.

Another deeply moving book that traces disparate lives during the years leading up to World War II and then converging is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, reviewed here.  The Zion Covenant series by Bodie and Brock Thoene presents a deep dive into World War II with a variety of characters from journalists to pilots; some characters are or become Christian so there is a spiritual element to their stories.  You can find all these historical fiction works and more at your Virginia Beach Public Library.

Review by Lynn

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

This Is a Serious Book By Jodie Parachini, Illustrated by Daniel Rieley

You know it’s a set-up when you see a title like This Is a Serious Book.  But it’s an enticing set-up:  just how is this book going to be un-serious?  If you’ll be reading to one child or a group of children (I’m thinking ages 4 – 7 are prime targets), this will get them seriously involved and laughing.  After all, even the front flap of the book jacket lists the rules in capital letters before you start, including BEHAVE, BE QUIET, NO LAUGHING, and NO CHEWING.  But for some reason, the donkey doesn’t get it.  And it’s sort of contagious.  The zebra is black and white, like a serious book should be, but certainly does not ACT serious.  

Some acting by the person reading books like this aloud seriously helps, as shown in this video of B.J. Novak with his The Book with No Pictures.  A book that talks about the value of words in helping us understand and feel, even without pictures, is This Is Not a Picture Book! by Sergio Ruzzier. 

For another hilarious story session, you can try one of my all-time favorites by Mo Willems—Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!  Here the Pigeon pleads (and pleads) with the reader/listener to back him up because  he wants to drive the bus (who doesn’t??) even though the driver says no, for some unknown reason.  In fact, all the Pigeon books, as well as Willems's Elephant and Piggie series, evoke "serious" responses from readers of all ages with a very few well-chosen words.  

Review by Lynn

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bedtime Is Canceled By Cece Meng, Illustrated by Aurélie Neyret

Maggie has the greatest idea:  to have her brother write a note for their parents, saying, “Bedtime is canceled.”  Unfortunately, the parents don’t buy it.  However, wait till you see what happens when the note is carried by the wind over to the newspaper office . . . 

Talk about unintended consequences!  After a night without sleep, parents and teachers get so tired that they can’t do the simplest things properly—not even putting butter on toast or putting their pants on right.  Before long, Maggie and her brother end up issuing a retraction:  “Bedtime is NOT canceled!”  Everyone is happy to return to normal—but will the power to effect change with words tempt Maggie again?

Though Bedtime Is Canceled was published in 2012, this book could provide a vehicle for discussion if you are wondering how to talk with children about what they might be hearing called “fake news.”  Here’s an example of people saying what they want to be true, and others taking it as fact.  The book shows how such “news” can spread through the news media, word of mouth, and e-mail.  The example is a little far-fetched, of course, but it gets the point across. 

For middle-grade readers, the Adam Canfield series by Michael Winerip explores the ups and downs of journalism, including the saga of the school newspaper, Slash, getting shut down.  Nellie Bly and InvestigativeJournalism for Kids: Mighty Muckrakers from the Golden Age to Today tells the story and features activities related both to the astonishing things Nellie Bly did in her time and to being a journalist.

If you like Cece Meng’s work, she has another, very different, but also thought-provoking picture book called Always Remember.  Here, after Old Turtle passes on, his friends reflect on the ways he made their lives better.  This book, illustrated by Jago, immerses us beautifully in the world of the sea animals.

Review by Lynn