‘The Tilted World’ is historical fiction at its best

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Rating: 5 stars

“The Tilted World” by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly is a story filled with beautiful language, great characters, and one of the worst natural disasters ever in America. It’s the story of a bootlegger and a federal revenue agent (during Prohibition) who, against all odds, fall in love.

The natural disaster: During the spring of 1927, the Mississippi flooded. The authors’ note states, “The levee at Mounds Landing, near Greenville, Mississippi, collapsed, and a wall of water one hundred feet high and with twice the force of Niagara Falls scooped out the Delta. It flattened almost a million homes, drowning twenty-seven thousand square miles, sometimes in up to thirty feet of water, and the water remained for four months.”

That’s some flood and this is some story. Dixie Clay tells her story (all written in third person limited narration) of meeting Jesse Holliver when she was twelve. He came once a year to buy furs, and when she was sixteen, they married. He brought her to Hobnob, Mississippi to live.

He didn’t tell her he was a bootlegger, but as his husbandly skills deteriorated, she began exploring and found the still. From that point, they were more business partners than lovers with Dixie doing the moonshining. Dixie did have a baby who died young, but after that she ran the stills. She never got over the loss of her baby.

Jesse spent the money and sold the moonshine. What he never did was care for Dixie in any way. So when Ted Ingersoll showed up at her door with a baby needing a mother, she didn’t think twice about taking the baby boy. And giving him all the love she hadn’t been able to shower on her dead infant.

Ted Ingersoll tells his story in alternating chapters. He was an orphan and grew up in an orphanage. That’s why when he and his partner found a baby whose parents had been killed, he couldn’t leave it at an orphanage. When he left the baby with Dixie Clay, he certainly didn’t know that her husband was the bootlegger they had been searching for.

Franklin and Fennelly create characters with depth and emotion, characters the reader will like — their strengths and their foibles. They are not one-dimensional, but rather real people with real faults that they think about and, at times, regret.

The authors write lovely metaphors that the reader will reread — just to savor the beautiful language and juxtaposition of words:

“He arrived at Hobnob at around seven and though the shops should be closed, the square was clustered with black raincoats, like a murder of crows, flapping and gesturing, exclamations, ejaculations…”

And when the men were watching the levees on the Mississippi in the bitter, damp cold night, “So sharp, the wind. So cold, the foam flicked from the fingertips of waves.”

The book is filled with evocative descriptions of life in rural America during Prohibition, that unsettling time of flooding, poverty, and huge, horrific racial prejudice.

This is a book to think about long after the last page is turned and to reread and to discuss with others. It’s a book to share. I plan to.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.

‘White Fur Flying’ by Patricia MacLachlan: Dogs and kids a perfect combination

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Rating: 5 stars (It’s got a Great Pyrenees in it, that’s worth 5 stars!)

“White Fur Flying” by Patricia MacLachlan is really an ode to those passionate people who rescue dogs. It’s a small book — almost an expanded short story — but a lot happens in that story, and there’s a lot of information to discuss.

The first person narrator is Zoe. Her family rescues dogs, usually Great Pyrenees, who are in danger of being killed. Zoe explains how her mother got their next fosters, Callie and Jack:

“Mama looked tired. I knew that rescuing dogs was hard work. She had driven across the state and back to pick up the dogs from another driver, who had picked up the dogs from another state. The rescue association didn’t always have much money, so drivers from every state volunteered. Callie and Jack had come all the way from Georgia.”

That’s called “transport,” and that’s exactly how dogs get from shelters (where the “unadoptable” ones are killed) to places where rescues take them in, hoping to find the unwanted dogs families that will prove to be “forever homes.”

It’s a story about how dogs can transform lives. In this story, one of the foster dogs from Georgia, Jack, transforms the life of Phillip, the boy who moves in next door. His family is in turmoil and Phillip has stopped talking. But as dogs do, Jack is able to find a way into the heart of even this very troubled child.

And the huge, fluffy white dog, whose fur leaves a fine coating of white on everyone and everything, is the catalyst for Phillip’s virtual rebirth. It’s just a wonderfully told tale.

This book is a wonderful read for second through fourth graders. It’s also a great book for a classroom teacher to use as a read aloud. And it’s filled with eminently discussable themes, like divorce, the plight of homeless animals, community service, and personal responsibility.

It would also be an excellent choice to read before doing a class service project. Perhaps collecting towels for a local shelter? Maybe dedicating a bulletin board in school for a “Dog of the Week,” with the students writing about the dog and including a picture.

Another classroom idea is for the students to research the history of the breed, Great Pyrenees, and to study how the breed’s innate talents have been utilized. Students could also research rescue groups and find the ones which are closest to their own neighborhoods.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Margaret K. McElderry Books, for review purposes.

‘Prisoner B-3087’ by Alan Gratz: Middle grade holocaust story

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Rating: 4 1/2 stars

In “Prisoner B-3087” Alan Gratz takes the true story of Jack Gruener and turns it into a fictional account that is a perfect way for middle grade readers to learn about the Holocaust while reading a book with action and suspense.

Yanek Gruener is only ten when the Nazis change his life forever. Gratz “hooks” the reader from the first sentence: “If I had known what the next six years of my life were going to be like, I would have eaten more.”

Gratz continues to write about Yanek’s life as his family first endures minor indignities and later fatal ones. When the Nazis arrive, the Polish boys decide that the Jews can’t play soccer with them. Poles and Germans won’t buy shoes from his father’s store. And soon, he is told that he can’t attend the public school. Next the synagogue is burned and the wall is built, forcing the Jews to be concentrated in a ghetto.

The story details the horrors of what happened to the Jews during World War II. Yanek ends up going to ten concentration camps. Gratz does not mince words as he describes the cruelties and the terror of those incarcerated behind barbed wire.

There are many who have written books for middle grade readers about the Holocaust. Some are classics like “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This book is one that should be read as a companion to those books because it tells the story of those inside the concentration camps.

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book purchased by the reviewer from the publisher, Scholastic.

‘Dogs of Courage’ by Lisa Rogak: About dogs who work and help all over the world

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Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“Dogs of Courage: The Heroism and Heart of Working Dogs Around the World” by Lisa Rogak (author of “Dogs of War”) is a testament to the fact that dogs are not only beloved pets who give unconditional love but that they also are working companions, and they give selflessly to serve, protect and heal us.

Dogs have lived and worked side by side with us for tens of thousands of years. How long is still a question for historians. Long enough so that there is a breed for every need. Need a nose? Bloodhound, beagle, hound. Need someone to protect your goats or sheep? Try a Great Pyrenees. (They also make good comfort dogs — hugging one feels like hugging a huge stuffed animal.) Need protection? Try a German Shepherd, a Doberman, a mutt.

Although there are many quotable passages in the book, one quote perfectly captures how people feel about their beloved companions. “The dog thinks, feels, and reacts in ways very much like humans, which explains its unique ability to fit into human society.” Bonnie Bergin, the founder of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), an organization formed to train service dogs, goes on to say, “No animal does more for us, none share a more intimate relationship with us, nor can any claim more years of alliance with us than the dog — our partner, our friend, our helpmate.”

This reviewer can personally attest to the power of dogs who work helping people. My own CCI dog is a facility dog. She accompanies me to school daily and works with children who may not get much love at home. Their faces light up when they see her and every child in the school knows her name. They say “hi” to her in the hallways, undeterred by the fact that she never says “hi” back. They love her and they know she loves them. She thrives on their love and attention, and it satisfies the students to be the givers of such love.

Rogak includes chapters on police dogs, fire dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, guide dogs, service dogs, therapy dogs, prison dogs, medical detection dogs and more. Dog lovers from those who adore tiny Yorkshire terriers to lovers of the massive Mastiff will all enjoy reading about the myriad ways that dogs enrich our lives. (Not that it’s news to us!)

Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press Griffin Paperback Original, for review purposes.

‘My Family for the War’ by Anne C. Voorhoeve: Middle grade historical fiction

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Rating: 5 stars

“My Family for the War” by Anne C. Voorhoeve is a story about Jews during World War II, told with a slight twist. The protagonist is Jewish through her ancestry, but is actually a practicing Protestant. Hitler and his minions do not care.

Franziska Mangold leaves Germany on a kindertransport — where thousands of children between the ages of four and sixteen went to stay with families in England. Frances, as she comes to be called, is very lucky and ends up with an Orthodox family who take her as their daughter.

Voorhoeve explores many themes in this hefty book (400 pages). The Shepard family includes Amanda, who was born Amanda O’Leary. She converted to marry into the Jewish family, but even with the conversion, her husband’s family barely speaks to them. Her own Irish family has absolutely nothing to do with them. Gary, their son, enthusiastically makes Frances his adopted sister.

When the bombing of London begins, Frances is sent out of the city with other children. Her new temporary home is much worse than expected. She is basically expected to work and eat table scraps. But Frances’ character is strong, and she manages to shame the family into treating her better.

Will she ever be reunited with her parents? Does she even want to be reunited with her parents? How does a child who was raised to go to church and wear a cross adapt to living with practicing Jews?

While the horrors of the concentration camps are only vaguely alluded to, young readers will learn much about the other Jews who were affected by the war. Voorhoeve’s pacing, characters and dialogue make this a book that is difficult to put down. In spite of the 400 pages, it becomes a fairly quick read. The first person narrative works well as readers gain insight into Frances’ feelings about her mother, her adopted parents and even her relationship with God.

There is humor, also, for Jewish readers. Frances looks at the mezuzah on the doorframe and thinks it’s a tiny mailbox. Her new family explains Jewish customs and tradition to her and it will fascinate non-Jewish readers, also.

This is a book that should be a part of every classroom collection of historical fiction. It rounds out the stories with a realistic, albeit fictional, account of the Jewish children who left Germany to grow up in safety with other families.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Dial, for review purposes.

‘Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library’ by Chris Grabenstein

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Rating: 4 stars

“Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” is author Chris Grabenstein’s paean to children’s literature. Not only does most of the story take place in the most amazing (fictional) library ever imagined, throughout the story Mr. Lemoncello — a very Willie Wonka-type character — peppers his speech with book titles and references to book titles. Mostly children’s books, of course.

The protagonist, Kyle Keeley, is not much of a reader. He’s really more into playing games — all kinds of games. He likes board games and computer games and video games. He plays action games with his brothers. His hero is Luigi Lemoncello, the genius game-maker. Reading and homework? Not so much fun.

But when he finds out that the extra credit homework essay is his chance to win an early entrance into the brand new library (courtesy of Luigi Lemoncello) with an all-night lock-in and lots of games, he’ll do almost anything to get in.

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‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

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Rating: 5 stars

With “An Ember in the Ashes,” debut author Sabaa Tahir brings readers a story with villains so totally evil it’s difficult to imagine them as human. On the other hand, her heroes are not perfect.

Laia, the female protagonist, is filled with fear but determined to do the right thing in spite of her fear. When her grandparents are murdered by the Empire and her brother is kidnapped, she is determined to rescue him. Her parents, resistance fighters, had been killed when she was younger. Her brother is the only family she has left.

The male protagonist, Elias, is one of the dreaded Masks — a trained soldier for the Empire with a silver mask. He hates the Empire and everything it stands for.

Tahir vividly describes the fantasy world of the story from the market place to the grim Blackcliff where the soldiers live and are trained from young childhood through adulthood. Hers is not a pretty world — it’s dark and dry and a difficult place to survive.

Tahir deftly combines a fantastical world with real-life-like characters. She doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many characters, but just enough to get to really know those who are important and those who are supporting characters. The mysteries and how they are revealed are also timed perfectly.

This would be a great recommendation for those who enjoyed “Steelheart” or “Legend.” Be forewarned: it’s a difficult book to put down.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Razorbill, for review purposes.

‘Dogs and Puppies’ by Jinny Johnson is a perfect book for young dog lovers

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Rating: 4 stars

“Dogs and Puppies” by Jinny Johnson and published by Black Rabbit Books is one of a series of nonfiction books perfect for the school library or classroom. The series is “Get To Know Your Pet,” and includes other titles such as “Cats and Kittens” and “Guinea Pigs.”

The book is a fairly slender paperback with a picture of a cute Golden Retriever puppy on the cover. Johnson includes a suitable combination of photographs, graphics and text on each page.

Classroom teachers will love the nonfiction text features that young readers need to learn about. The book includes a table of contents, glossary, index, pictures with captions, and question and answer format information.

Perhaps most importantly, the book includes important information about dog safety and dog health. The book warns against buying a dog from a pet store because of the likelihood that such a dog might come from a puppy mill. (Congratulations, Jinny, on informing young readers about that!)

The book also covers the importance of neutering and spaying to prevent unwanted litters and of microchipping a dog to prevent its getting lost.

The books in this series are books that will be read over and over by young animal lovers. The books can also be used by the astute classroom teacher in showing students how nonfiction text features help good readers locate information, figure out unfamiliar words, and understand captions.

Please note: this review is based on the final paperback book provided by the publisher, Black Rabbit Books, for review purposes.

 

 

‘Paw and Order’ by Spencer Quinn: The 7th in the Chet and Bernie tails

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Rating: 5 stars

“Paw and Order: A Chet and Bernie Mystery” by¬†Spencer Quinn continues the adventures of private detective Bernie Little and his faithful dog and narrator, Chet. Chet makes a great narrator, until he smells a Slim Jim or other savory meats.

Distractions? There are many for Chet including other dogs, guinea pigs (in this story), running toilets, and expensive leather briefcases. Luckily for readers, Chet manages to include plenty of information — enough to help the reader put together the clues. And the lucky readers get the info right from the dog’s mouth, so to speak. The readers, indeed, know more than poor hapless Bernie, whose integrity and high moral standards keep him from striking it big.

He helps those who need it and refuses to take cases from those he doesn’t trust. Not a way to get rich. But Bernie is rich in his association with Chet, a K9 who flunked out of the police academy on the last day.

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‘A Thousand Pieces of You’ by Claudia Gray: YA scifi at its best

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Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Claudia Gray is not just a talented author; she’s also quite versatile, as becomes apparent when reading her newest book, “A Thousand Pieces of You.” This book is the start of a scifi trilogy which also includes corporate raiding, universe jumping, a quirky family and several love interests.

The main character, Marguerite, is an artist growing up in a family of scientists. Scientific geniuses, to be exact. Her mother and father have created technology, called the Firebird, that will allow the wearer to travel to different universes. When it seems that Marguerite’s father is murdered by one of their close friends and colleagues, Marguerite teams up with another colleague, a student named Theo, to travel the universes to catch the killer.

But the alleged killer, Paul, a student who had been like family to Marguerite and her parents, may not be the guilty one. In fact, in one alternate universe where Marguerite finds herself a member of royalty, she begins to have quite different feelings for Paul.

Gray does a fantastic job creating different universes, some of which are totally different from Marguerite’s original universe and some which are just slightly different. She manages to capture Marguerite’s feelings at seeing her father in those alternate universes when she knows that in her universe, he has died.

Gray also manages to drop many clues but still give us a twist at the end that most readers will not be expecting. While some of the mystery is solved, readers will want to know what happens next. Marguerite is truly a wonderful protagonist, and readers will not want to let her go.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, HarperTeen, for review purposes.

‘The Silence of Six’ by E. C. Meyers: YA hacker thriller that feels real

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Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“The Silence of Six” by E. C. Meyers is a young adult (or middle grade) action thriller that takes place in the world of hacking. There are lots and lots of computer references, and to those who are not savvy about the world of hacking, it’s both fascinating and exotic.

It starts when Max’s best friend Evan, whom he hasn’t seen in a while, commits suicide on a video being broadcast during a presidential debate at their high school. Max begins to investigate, partly because of a cryptic text he received from Evan shortly before Evan’s death.

The investigation takes Max to many places, both online and IRL (in real life). In a very mysterious and secret hacker chat room, he connects with the top hackers who knew Evan. Actually, they didn’t really know Evan; they were acquainted with him through his alias. Evan, extremely paranoid, had used many aliases and alter egos both in the real world and online.

Max teams up with Penny and her sister, both of whom are expert hackers and keep a bag packed with emergency items including spare laptops, phones and more. In fact, readers will be astonished to learn what can be done with phones both by and to the users of the phones. Can phones really record things and transmit them remotely? It is real that computers can be accessed remotely and that video can be recorded through the camera.

The plot is that the government is collecting data on everyone through an online program — like either Google or Facebook. Of course, it is a reality that both Google and Facebook collect information on every user. That’s why when someone shops for a rug online, ads for rugs begin appearing on every web page that the user browses. It’s already kind of a scary new world in terms of internet privacy, and this book deals with some very fascinating and potentially dangerous issues.

Also, of course, it’s an entertaining and exciting book with non-stop action and lots of good guys and bad guys. Typical of most action-adventure stories, there’s not a huge amount of character development, but that doesn’t seem to matter in this hard-to-put-down read. Max is clever and creative. It’s a great way to get gamers and video fanatics to perhaps put down the mouse and pick up a book (or kindle).

Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by the publicist, Deb Shapiro. The publisher is Adaptive Books.

‘Dog Tags’ by David Rosenfelt is a first place winner

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(Please note: This is a reprint of an earlier article. The ‘Andy Carpenter’ series is ongoing — thank goodness!)

Rating: 5 stars

If you haven’t read any novels by David Rosenfelt, read Dog Tags, and I guarantee that it won’t be the last of his books you will read. Chances are that you will immediately head to your local library or bookstore (or Amazon.com) and order the whole Andy Carpenter series.

I couldn’t put the book down. Rosenfelt’s writing style is clever and chatty. The story is told from two viewpoints: a third-person omniscient narration and a hilarious first-person narration by the main character, Andy Carpenter. The narration is compelling and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

From the author’s website:

A German Shepherd police dog witnesses a murder and if his owner–an Iraq war vet and former cop-turned-thief–is convicted of the crime, the dog could be put down. Few rival Andy Carpenter’s affection for dogs, and he decides to represent the poor canine. As Andy struggles to convince a judge that this dog should be set free, he discovers that the dog and his owner have become involved unwittingly in a case of much greater proportions than the one they’ve been charged with. Andy will have to call upon the unique abilities of this ex-police dog to help solve the crime and prevent a catastrophic event from taking place.

Murder scenes alternate with doggy-human trust building sessions; courtroom scenes alternate with army base visits. And clues abound. Andy Carpenter, his girlfriend, and a cast of characters (and I do mean characters) get the job done. They solve the murder, save the country, and, of course, save the dog. And on the way, it’s a non-stop ride from Paterson, New Jersey all the way to the Bahamas. But most of the action takes place in Paterson, Rosenfelt’s childhood hometown.

David Rosenfelt’s website reads like one of his novels; his bio is fascinating. He is a true dog lover (like authors Peg Kehret and Dean Koontz), but David takes it one step further and has his own rescue, Tara Foundation. Many of his travels around the country signing books are benefits for various Golden rescue groups. There is a great photo of a bunch of fat, happy Goldens lying around his house.