Tag: 4/5- Great Book

by Svetlana Chamakova

Once again sidetracked from the book I’ve been reading, to pick up a few graphic novels off my ten-year-old’s library pile. I really liked Awkward. It’s set in a middle school. Penelope is new there, and on the first day shoves a nice kid away who tries to help her when she drops all her stuff, because some mean kids tease that she’s his boyfriend. They call Jaime “nerder” because he’s quiet and geeky. I thought he was charming! He’s in the science club, and Penelope is in art club. The two organizations have a rivalry going on, heightened by the shortage of tables available for the school science fair- whichever club does the best project to help their school community, will get the table spot. It starts out as a friendly competition, but gets out of hand. Meanwhile Penelope is busy trying to complete assignments for various classes on time, attending some tutoring, draw comics on a deadline for the school newspaper, and help out her friends. Through all this, she’s nagged by guilt for that interaction on the first day of school- really wants to apologize to Jaime but doesn’t know how. Eventually she works things out, and starts to build a friendship with him- but it’s strained because of their clubs’ rivalry. Can Penelope find a way to bring everyone together instead?

This was cute. And relatable (especially the art club scenes, for me). And- odd at times, too. At first I thought the drawing style was exaggerated, and some of the teachers’ characterizations made me roll my eyes- the art teacher is depicted as being totally clueless and disorganized- but then I just shrugged and enjoyed it. I would readily pick up another book by this author. I think she has a series of them set in the same middle school environment. As a little bonus, I discovered by reading the back section by the author, there’s a little raccoon in the background on some pages. I had noticed him only once or twice, wondered what he was doing there, and just moved on. He’s on twenty pages! I thumbed back through just looking for the raccoon, but only found him about ten times- so there’s a fun game trying to spot all his appearances.

Borrowed from the public library.

by Ursula Murray Husted

My ten-year-old and I both liked this one a lot. It is a very touching story about two young cats who live on an island in Malta (the seaside setting made me think of The Cats of Lamu). Betto is content with their lot- sleeping under a fisherman’s boat and eating fish scraps on the docks. But Cilla wants more in life- a comfortable home with humans perhaps. Another cat tells her about the quiet garden, from an old kitten tale, where humans are always kind and food is plentiful. Cilla is determined to find the garden. Betto doesn’t believe it exists but goes along to make sure his friend is safe. Their journey takes them far from home, through many encounters. They navigate the streets, jump on a bus, ride a ferryboat, have a mishap on the sea, and meet several cats who give them directions. One particularly speaks in obscure riddles. When Cilla finally locates what they think is the quiet garden, it isn’t exactly the paradise they were hoping to find. A poodle tells them a story suggesting they shouldn’t be in want of anything at all. Later when the cats are discouraged and confused, hiding from the rain and feeling their quest failed, they comfort themselves by telling their own story to each other- a story of friendship above all.

I won’t tell you the ending- I did find it satisfying whereas others might think the narrative just went nowhere. But this book is philosophical more than anything else. It’s a story within a story, it’s about finding out what’s important in life. It has nods to The Little Prince and delightfully, pictorial homage to many famous works of art. Sometimes these are in the background as the cats journey through their world, on other pages the cats are actually walking through the art- a tropical fantasy painted by Rousseau, the Bayeux tapestry, ancient tiles from Persia, cave paintings from Lascaux etc- many I recognized, some I did not. On certain pages the artwork depicted seemed to fit what was happening in the cats’ story, but other times it appeared to be a random choice, so I just shrugged and went with it. The author explained in the back which artworks she had chosen to depict, which I appreciated reading. Her own style- well, let’s just say sometimes I thought it looked a bit rushed with awkward lines or poses- occasionally the drawings even appeared childish, but it started to grow on me. They’re certainly very expressive and lively, and there’s lots of detail in the surroundings. Mostly I just really liked the story about the cats, their little arguments, observations on humans, and earnestness in their quest to find what ‘home’ means.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
182 pages, 2020

by Terri Libenson

Another book off my kid’s stack. She thought it boring, didn’t read far and put it in our return pile. It has some issues, but for the most part, I really connected with the main character so overlooked some awkward things. It’s obviously a humorous look at how awful middle school can be, but some things just seemed too over the top. (Wet paper towels stuck to the wall and kids that spit on the floor, okay. Dead rats in the hall? what?) It’s kind of a merge between graphic novel and illustrated chapter book. The story is told in alternate viewpoints- Emmie’s has explanatory paragraphs with lots of illustrations, whereas Katie’s pages are pure comic-book style. Emmie is very shy and quiet. She has a lonely home life (both parents work), likes drawing (but doesn’t hang out with the art club kids) and often doesn’t know what to say when other kids are chatting away. She mostly tries to avoid being noticed at school, but then wonders why nobody sees her. Her contrast Katie is popular, pretty and surrounded by gossiping friends- a girl who seems to have it all, but isn’t snobby about it and tries to be nice to others. Through the story each girl is seen in the background of the other’s pages, and then they intersect over a boy Emmie has a crush on. Emmie wrote a love poem to him in jest, but she drops it and another kid picks it up- and of course he shares it around. Emmie is mortified. Then her crush asks Katie out, which complicates things. Will she suffer in silence? or finally speak up for herself?

While it’s got a lot of detail, this story covers only one school day. The ending surprised me. I was glad to see Emmie find ways to stand up for herself, but I was thrown off by the final reveal (Katie’s not real. She’s a character Emmie drew). There was a clue earlier on, I just didn’t pick up on it. For all that, what I really liked about it was Emmie’s character. Because I was like that in middle and high school. I was the super quiet one that preferred drawing to watching television, and couldn’t manage to make small talk. Other kids on the bus even made jokes that I was mute, because they never heard me talking to anyone. And this wasn’t a thing when I was a kid obviously- but I’m the one now who has an ‘ancient’ flip phone! haha.

This book is part of a series, but the others don’t look quite as appealing to me. Probably because it’s the Emmie character I related to most, and some reviewers have said all the books have a similar kind of twist ending. Not sure I’m in the mood for that. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
185 pages, 2017

More opinions: Pages Unbound
anyone else?

by Barbara Kingsolver

This book has literally sat on my shelf for years, even though it’s by one of my favorite authors. I was so intimidated by it. Historical fiction can get heavy, and this one especially has significant events and looming figures- from revolutionary times in 1920’s Mexico to McCarthyism era America. The viewpoint is an ordinary man (but one I slowly came to respect and admire so much). As a young man he was dragged around Mexico by his flamboyant flapper mother who chased after a string of wealthy boyfriends after separating from his father back in America. Petty much ignored, he spends time swimming in the ocean, enthralled by the beautiful fishes and hidden underground caves- and hanging out in the kitchens where he learns culinary skills. Later as a young man on his own, he becomes employed in the house of Rivera- at first mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals, then working as a cook, eventually becoming a secretary and finally, overseeing shipment of paintings for Frida Kahlo. Who strikes up a kind of friendship with him. He is there when Trotsky takes refuge in exile, and witnesses firsthand violence against the man. In fact it is so traumatic the entire household disbands, he ends up back in the States, suffering probably from post-tramuatic stress disorder, often afraid to leave his home, uncomfortable around other people. Builds a new life for himself as a writer- he always was a writer, keeping diaries and sending letters- now he writes historical novels about ancient peoples from Mexico- the Aztecs, the Maya. They sound fantastically thrilling! and reading about how popularity swamped him, how amusing the reviews of these books that don’t really exist- I loved that part.

I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to convey how rich and thoughtful and surprising this story was- even when I had trouble keeping track of what was going on with the politics and history- the strength of Kingsolver’s words kept pulling me onward through the pages, to a startlingly hopeful conclusion, when I thought all had gone to crap.

This book is kind of overwhelming. It’s about humanity, and art, and kindness- even when cruelty and ignorance are rampant. Mostly it’s about a quiet man, who seems hardly present in his own story, seeking to find a place where he belongs. I was not expecting to read (once again!) a novel with a gay character, and I appreciate how subtly that was handled. I was enthralled with the portrayal of culture, art, music, wonderful food in Mexico, and the contrast when the story moved to America. How servants were treated in Mexican households- as people regardless of their employment status- compared to segregation and racism in the States. The clear look at the revolutionaries he lived with in Mexico, in contrast to the political furor in the States, a place full of strangers pointing fingers. I feel like there was a strong message there for me that I’m not quite picking up on. This was a very compelling book, and it’s one I’m definitely going to have to read again someday, I think I’ll get so much more out of it a second or third time around.

It helped that not so long ago I saw the 2002 movie Frida. A lot more would have gone over my head otherwise. I kept visualizing how she was depicted in the film, right down to the voice, and I think it fit well.

Rating: 4/5
507 pages, 2009

by Helen Griffiths

This is the story of two young people in Spain, who fall in love just as unrest broils into civil war. When the first pages unfold, laying down a detailed setting of their lives in neighboring villages, their greatest obstacle is the local conflict. For generations there’s been friction between the two villages, intermarriages seriously frowned upon. I connected with these characters easily, so perceptive and adroit is the author’s description of their thoughts, feelings and intentions. Bernardo, from the smaller village, is a gentle soul, a dreamer who loves books especially poetry, and is content to work with his hands. His brother is the opposite- ambitious, uncaring towards his family, in the end full of fire for one thing- a political ideal. The brothers part ways early, but later their stories intertwine in dismaying fashion. Elvira, daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper in the larger village, is high-spirited and vivacious. She catches Bernardo’s eye at a festival the two villages jointly participate in, and he sets his heart on marrying her. First there is a long, constrained courtship- not only because their families would disapprove, but also because Elvira is held back by her religious upbringing, and harbors doubts (asks herself, does she really love him, or is she just overwhelmed by new emotions?). While Bernardo isn’t as deeply ingrained by tradition, his sole focus is her, and he’s willing to grasp the opportunity presented by a new law: they could have a civil marriage, without their parents’ blessing. A hugely controversial thing back then. As Bernardo grows increasingly impatient waiting for Elvira’s consent, they start planning how to get around the circumstances and be together.

But civil war sweeps over the country. Unlike his older brother, Bernardo has no interest in politics. In attempting to put together a future for himself and Elvira though, his choices go awry and he gets caught up in the turbulence. At first his only thought is to reunite with his love, but then it becomes a matter of just staying alive. Elvira also leaves her village for the city, attempting to find Bernardo, even though she knows it will be risky and dangerous. She has no idea what she’s stepping into. The ending, though so realistic- is tragic. I wish I hadn’t known a crucial piece of it beforehand. The story was gripping enough that I had trouble putting this book down at all over the past two days, but it would have been even more so without a bit of quoted praise in the frontispiece telling me a main characters dies. I guess they had leeway to do so, as the preface written by the author reveals this to the reader. It’s the only criticism I hold about the whole book!

Such a touchingly deep, bitterly heartfelt story. So alive and nuanced. I should have expected it, but I’m amazed at how well this author writes people– the delicate and unspoken connections in relationships. Not only the depth of feeling the two young lovers have for each other, but the disparity between the brothers, the parents’ hopes and fears for their children on both sides, the caution they hold from years of own experience, yet unable to dissuade their grown sons and daughters from forging their own paths, making their own mistakes in the name of love. And the great irony, that those in this story who live in more or less arranged marriages, had some stability, contentment and ease of existence. Whereas Bernardo and Elvira, full of passion for each other, a depth of emotion and loyalty the others don’t understand, could not attain a place to call their own and live together. So sad. Especially how the furious insanity of war rolls over them, catching all these innocent lives up and senselessly destroying them. Some make it through alive, but none are without scars and sorrow. I was reminded so much of a recent read, The Cat I Never Named– different place and circumstance, but the suffering of innocent civilians in warfare so very much the same.

I was very excited to read this book, I can’t tell you how much. Even though historical fiction is not my usual thing, and romance even less so. In the past, I’d always hoped to come across one or the other of this author’s books secondhand- as they were long out of print and hard to find. What was my surprise and delight about a year ago, to be contacted by a publisher who is reprinting all of Helen Griffith’s works. I’m so thrilled at the opportunity to be able to read her books as ARC’s- and very grateful to the publisher who sent this copy to me.

Rating: 4/5
256 pages, 1966

by Raynor Winn

This couple was dealt a double blow in their fifties. After raising their children in a farmhouse they’d renovated themselves, they lost it all due to a bad investment with a so-called friend who turned out to be a bad business partner. House taken away, no livelihood, nowhere to go. All their attempts to find a place they could afford to rent with the little money they had left, failed. Public assistance was not really helpful, and the generosity of friends/family letting them stay wore thin quickly. Then in the same month, the husband was diagnosed with a serious neurological disease. He was told to rest and take it easy, but since they had no home, they decided to just take a long hike, on the South West Coast Path of England, from Somerset to Dorset, all of 630 miles. With two packs, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, not much else. So reminiscent of a few books I’ve read about hikers on the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and I also thought many times of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Though this book is really nothing like those. It’s so individual. It was tough. It was wild and beautiful, and the people they ran into were friendly or aggravating, encouraging or unkind in turns. Some just downright odd. They could barely afford food (often went hungry or picked berries, collected mussels on the shore, etc) and rarely pay for a proper campsite, so very soon were dirty and ragged. Fellow backpackers commiserated, but other people they encountered- usually tourists as many of the villages they passed through had long since lost their original occupations of fishing or mining and were now just surviving as tourist attractions- reacted to their appearance in one of two ways. If they said they’d left it all behind and were just walking the path- letting people assume they’d sold their house- they were admired for doing something inspiring. If they honestly said they’d lost it all and were actually homeless, people were immediately uncomfortable or disparaging. If it was by choice they were brave, whereas if by accident, they were pariahs. Why are people so judgmental. I’m sure their version of being homeless- not due to addiction or mental illness but just plain misfortune- is not all that uncommon.

It was a pleasant surprise that I’m vaguely familiar with some of the places they walked through (geography of foreign countries is not a strength of mine). They went through the village where Doc Martin was filmed, along the cliffsides where Poldark was situated, and also Tintagel- site of many King Arthur legends. Also very strange but in the end amusing, was how many people mistook her husband for a poet (apparently famous, but I’d never heard of him). It got to be a running joke between them.

I liked the author’s voice, and look forward to reading her sequel, The Wild Silence. I enjoyed the bits of humor, the interesting encounters along the way, glimpses of wildlife (birds, deer, seals, occasionally a badger), and thoughtful words. Although they’d anticipated the long hike would be a time to figure things out (facing her husband’s illness, grieving the loss of their home, what to do next) for the most part she said they spoke little, reminisced hardly at all, just were. Just surviving. Experiencing the weather, the difficulty of putting one foot in front of the other when tired, hungry and footsore. Finding to their surprise that her husband’s condition improved with the exercise, in counter to the doctor’s advice- I’d really like an explanation for that! And I’m glad that it had a good ending. Just as suddenly as their world fell apart at the beginning of the book, a few things suddenly came together at the end of their hike to put them back in the functional world again. Though- did they want it, now?

Some quotes:

But on that beach it was as clear as the saltwater running over the Bideford Black that civilization exists only for those who can afford to inhabit it, and remote isolation can be felt anywhere if you have no roof and an empty pocket.

After meeting a man who was going blind from glaucoma:

The light grew, prizing the sky and the sea apart. Had I seen enough things? When I could no longer see them, would I remember them, and would just the memory be enough to fill me up and make me whole? 

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
271 pages, 2018

More opinions:
Book Chase
Read Warbler

A True Story of Love, War and Survival

by Amra Sabic- El-Rayess

Amra was a teenager living in Bihać when the Bosnian war began. She first noticed things were shifting when a close friend refused to speak to her- because Amra’s family was ethnically Muslim. Though they didn’t follow religious practices they were soon persecuted along with all the other Muslims in her city. It was under seige for years- bombs fell regularly, innocent people were shot in the street by snipers, and worse. Just a few pages in you get a sense of what reading this is going to be like- the author doesn’t hesitate to tell you the horrible things soldiers said to a young girl, her fears of being captured, of rape or torture. Her family lived in constant apprehension and suffering, as electricity was cut off, food in short supply, and soon little or no medical care available. She often thought they would simply not survive. Sometimes they had to do difficult things, to stay alive. Other times they stood their ground refusing to give in to inhumanity and maintain some integrity.

But her story is also one of hope, as they pulled together with neighbors and family members to find ways to keep going- growing vegetables in abandoned lots, bartering for goods, tutoring younger children who had no teachers, assisting in the war effort when they could. It was traumatic- there were days she couldn’t get out of bed, and not just from lack of energy because they were starving. She saw terrible things on the streets, and narrowly missed death more than once- attributing a lot of her lucky moments to the presence of a calico cat. It showed up as a stray one day and soon became part of the family (though her parents protested at first). Many times through the war, something happened involving the cat that saved their lives- coincidence or not. And its friendly calm presence definitely helped soothe their nerves and warm their hearts. Sadly, the cat also was a source of trouble later on, and Amra was heartbroken when they faced the possibility of loosing her. The cat proved her loyalty to them again and again, even under great duress.

You know that Amra makes it through all the horrors of war and privation, because this book is based on the author’s own experiences, but it’s harrowing to read of all the losses she witnessed and experienced. She fell in love for the first time during the war, too. There are tender moments, and funny ones, and plenty of teenagers just being regular teenagers, even in such circumstances. Eventually Amra got a remarkable opportunity to leave the country via a scholarship, and was able to start building a new life elsewhere. Her story is told in a plain, straightforward style- which might be dull in other cases, but here I appreciated it, as more detail would have been difficult to read. This line from the book has stuck with me: War does not leave anyone with good choices.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
370 pages, 2020

An African Journey Home

by Boyd Varty

Author tells of growing up in South Africa, on a wildlife reserve his family established. The land was originally bought from farmers that degraded it, and earlier generations had then used it for hunting. Boyd’s parents wanted to restore the land to bring back wildlife and run tourist safaris. At the time this was a new idea and they struggled to make it work. His heartfelt memoir tells what it was like growing up in such a place- surrounded by wildlife, baboons and warthogs on the lawn, going on drives with his crazy uncle to make wildlife films, learning tracking skills from local men and frequently running into lions, leopards, elephants, etc. Many narrow escapes (on rivers, in small aircraft, deadly snakes, crocodiles, you name it) and a healthy respect for the wild animals. Humorous stories about their visitors- lots of ordinary people and occasionally someone famous, once even member of royalty. He met Nelson Mandela as a young boy (and didn’t realize the significance of that until much later). Tells about his family, his stays at boarding school (frustrating as so completely different from life in the bush) and above all, how the lessons he learned from the land stood him well later on: to stay calm in a dangerous situation, to always have an escape route in mind, to study things carefully and make calculated decisions. Later he tells of grief and terror his family went through- especially an incident when they lived in Johannesburg, had their lives threatened and sense of security violated. It took him years to get over the trauma of that night, and he travelled widely across the world seeking out gurus in India, a shaman, various kinds of healers, and finally a Navajo sweat lodge in Arizona (often honestly skeptical about how these things would help). In the end, he returned home to his family’s reserve in Africa, finding his place where he had always belonged, settling the fear and stress out of his mind. The final chapters of the book explore spirituality quite a bit, but never veer far from the solace he felt rooted in nature.

I enjoyed this book so much. Incredible stories, amazing surroundings, riveting wild animals, a quirky family. Above all one young man’s search for meaning and sense of self, when tragedy and violence strain his equilibrium. It was at turns exciting, funny, and very thoughtful. He mentions meeting Peter Beard! and of differences of opinion with a nearby reserve that held elephants (I felt sure I’d read a book about Kruger National Park but couldn’t place it). Near the end he also tells of meeting Martha Beck, which took me completely by surprise. I was reminded of many other books I’ve read about Africa, or wildlife conservation: The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

I do have to note, one part made me feel put off- when he mentions going to Australia and how he’d been reading this book with his teacher and his sister. And how they absorbed the message of “the Aboriginal Australians’ plea to save the planet.” Well, I admired that book’s idea of harmony with nature too, but was upset to discover it was actually fiction. Dismayed to see it praised here. I assume he didn’t know.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
281 pages, 2014

by Raina Telgemeier

Very fun book- even though it also deals with some tough stuff about growing up. Based on the author’s childhood. Most of the story is about a long roadtrip she took with her family, how the sisters constantly annoyed each other. Then there’s bits of the past- showing how eager she was for a baby sister when she was little, and how differently that turned out (babies are no fun, toddlers are frustrating and annoying, they have different interests as they get older, etc). I was really amused by their various efforts to keep small pets- when I was a kid, we went through several goldfish that lived in a bowl, too (but no, they’re not ‘delicate’, it’s an very unsuitable habitat, ugh). I could really relate to all the ups and downs of getting along (or not, more often) with siblings- both from when I was young, and from seeing how my own kids interact. Long road trips trying to stave off boredom and irritating each other unintentionally- yeah, been there too. Even the places they visited on their trip were really familiar to me (Utah, Arizona, Colorado) and the little camping episodes too. In the end, the sisters find a reason to pull together and realize their family has bigger problems than their little squabbles. This is another one I will eagerly hand to my daughter (she recently read and really liked Be Prepared).

Borrowed from the public library. Can’t believe I never read any Raina Telgemeier before- I am immediately off to check what others my library has to offer.

Rating: 4/5
203 pages, 2014

by Jarrett Krosoczka

Another graphic novel memoir. This one very sobering. The author grew up in his grandparents’ home, because his mother was in and out of rehab (and jail) due to a heroin addiction. How different he felt at school, because of his unconventional family structure. His grandparents themselves were rough around the edges, but loved him and did their best to care for him. They had little appreciation for art, but still encouraged his interests, getting him into art classes at a local museum when funding for art programs was cut at his school. With their support, and that of a neighborhood friend, he made it through a tough childhood, not understanding or knowing what was going on with his mother until he was much older (she did encourage him from afar, sending letters asking for his drawings, etc). Never meeting his father until he was seventeen. At the very end of the book finding recognition for his art- getting cartoons published in the local newspaper and the school one. Then meeting half-siblings he hadn’t known he had, and starting his own life. The afterword by the author fills in some details and tells how he found the courage to tell the story of his family’s struggles with addiction, after doing a TED talk about it. It was heartwarming in the end, to see how he built a relationship with his half-siblings, made peace with his father, and a successful career out of his passion- but the novel doesn’t at all shy away from showing the troublesome and difficult things he faced while growing up. So just fair warning that there’s content depicting drug and alcohol use, other illicit activities, violence. I am sure this book is invaluable for teenagers and other family members going through similar things. To know they’re not alone, and that you can make something new and positive for yourself, no matter what your past holds. I won’t easily forget this one.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
320 pages, 2018

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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