Hopes, Dreams, Truths, and Real Christianity

Jon Meacham’s “His Truth Is Marching On; John Lewis and the Power of Hope,” is a stunningly powerful account of the life and career of John Lewis. Most often, when we describe events or behaviors as “shocking,” we are almost automatically communicating negativity: “… the shocking duplicity of this man,” or “the shocking cruelty of bigots.” But in the case of Meacham’s work, “shocking” carries many meanings and connotations that take us far beyond those negative implications of the word. It is, of course, an undeniable, all-too-obvious truth that 1960s Civil Rights workers like Lewis were cruelly abused physically and verbally, beaten to within inches of their lives, smashed viciously with clubs and truncheons, kicked mercilessly while lying semi-conscious on the blood-spattered ground, and generally treated like invading monsters from Hell. And to read the disgusting details of these acts of inhumanity is, indeed, shocking, even though we’ve seen and heard evidence of those brutal attacks before. Continue reading

‘Closer to Nowhere’ by Ellen Hopkins is a beautiful story that will break your heart and then fill it with love

Prolific author Ellen Hopkins is known for her young adult books that deal with tough subjects — especially drugs and the horrendous damage they can do to families and the lives of those who are caught in their tantalizing web. With her first middle grade novel, Hopkins hits a home run.

This is a story that, like her other books, is written in verse. It’s written from a dual point of view. We meet and get to know both Hannah and Cal, cousins whose mothers are identical twins, but whose lives couldn’t be more different. When we first meet them, Cal has lived with Hannah and her parents for a little over a year. It’s been a tough year for all. Continue reading

‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman is a brilliant mystery and an insightful view of the human condition

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman is about us. It’s about every person who has ever doubted themselves, worried about not being able to do something, fretted about making a mistake, or looked at others with either awe or disdain. It’s a book in which all readers will be able to find themselves – for better or worse. But it’s also a book that every reader will feel better for having read.

With “Anxious People,” Backman gives us permission to be imperfect. The second paragraph in the story tells us:

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”

He goes on to say that “there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days.” To me, as a teacher back in the classroom teaching via a computer screen to children at home, this book gives me permission to accept the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. All of us teachers are muddling through the best we can, even though we are facing students who turn off their cameras to leave the room, to browse on their computers, to play; shy students who turn off their cameras and won’t talk, so we don’t even know if they are there, on the other side of the screen, listening and learning. We can’t do really enjoyable things like reading picture books to them or giving them a hug or just sitting on a rug and talking. We deal with having to repeat sentences when a child can’t hear us through the computer, or having to show multiple times how to access a web page or assignment. It’s frustrating and we are helpless — and after reading this story about people who try their best against all kinds of odds, I feel better. Really better.

In this story, there are many characters, but there is only one very significant bridge. It’s a bridge that plays an important part in the story because of one person who jumped from it many years ago and one person who did not. There is also an extremely inept bank robber and the bank robber’s hostages. 

We learn a lot about the hostages and two of the police officers who are trying to find the bank robber and solve the mystery of where the robber went after the hostages were released. We learn about the wife of one of the police officers, who also happens to be the mother of the other police officer. The father and son are very different, but alike in perhaps the most important sense. They both loved this woman fiercely, and they miss her every day. And Backman performs his literary magic of combining life and birth and death into a story that’s poignant and bittersweet and melancholy and beautiful — and about life.

The many other characters are all very important, and we get to know — and like — them all because Backman imbues each character, no matter how unlikable he or she might seem at first glance, with human qualities and human frailties. The story weaves around and around, from the characters to the bridge and into parts of the past that made the characters who they are as they are held hostage by the unsuccessful bank robber.

Backman shares what he believes is the most important thing in life (as I see it). We must love and cherish those who are close to us, our families and our friends. He also seems to believe that we must help others whenever possible.  And he also asserts, in no uncertain terms, that most of us go through life not knowing what we are doing, but doing the best we can. He writes, “We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.” We worry about raising our children and do it pretending that we know how to do it. That is how we get through a good part of life — by pretending that we know what we are doing. Surprisingly enough, it often works.

And tomorrow I will go back into my classroom, sign onto my Zoom class meeting, and pretend that I know how to teach 4th grade dual language on a computer to lovely children who deserve the best education but who are only getting the best that I can provide. And I fear it’s not enough, as do most of the other teachers struggling along in this pandemic. As do many, many others who are also struggling along in this strange, anxiety-provoking time. 

And at the end of each and every day, I actually do what Backman suggests at the end of the story. He says,

“But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath.

Because we made it through this day as well. There’ll be another one along tomorrow.”

Buy “Anxious People.” Read it. You will love it, and perhaps more importantly, you will feel better. You are not alone.

Did I mention that the writing is beautiful? Touching? Incredibly thoughtful?

‘Death Rattle’ by Alex Gilly is a mystery that dives into detention centers, murder, and corruption

In “Death Rattle,” Alex Gilly takes us to Southern California. It’s not Hollywood and stars, though. It’s undocumented immigrants and a suspicious murder at a detention center that causes Nick Finn and his wife Mona, a human-rights lawyer, to investigate. When Mona gets threats, she knows she’s on the right track.

People around the investigation begin dying. When Carmen, the young woman whom Finn rescued from a sinking boat, is bitten repeatedly by a snake in a detention center and not given appropriate medical care, she dies. Mona is determined to get justice for Carmen, who was also brutally tortured by someone in the drug cartel before she escaped Mexico.

The main characters, married couple Nick and Mona, are people we like because they are real people with foibles and backstories. Their determination to do the right thing is stirring, especially when many just want to ignore the plight of the undocumented. While there are twists at the end, to many mystery readers, the twist is easy to foresee. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed at times, but the overall plot is thrilling, and readers will want to know exactly how it all ends up.

Although this is the second book in the series, and I didn’t read the first one, that didn’t handicap me at all. It works fine as a stand alone novel, and I would like to read future novels in this series.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Forge, for review purposes. 

‘Brave Like That’ by Lindsey Stoddard is an ultra-significant read for middle grade kids

brave like that

Sometimes a powerful and emotionally rich book like “Brave Like That” by Lindsey Stoddard comes along that I wish everyone would read. A thoughtful book that could change the world – really. And in this book, the lessons Cyrus, the main character, learns are ones that he recognizes could change the world.

“Brave Like That” is a difficult book to review. There’s so much packed into this treasure of a story that it’s difficult to include all the messages and themes. Cyrus is the son of a firefighter, and his Dad was a star football player in their small town. Since he’s been a little kid, everyone thought he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps. Cyrus was adopted by his dad after being left at the fire station when he was an infant. On the night of his eleventh birthday, celebrated at the fire station, a stray dog shows up, and Cyrus is convinced that fate expects him to keep the dog, just as his father kept him. But Cyrus’s father has other ideas.

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“Muzzled”: Another Rosenfelt/Carpenter ‘Killer’ novel

muzzled

“Muzzled” is the twenty-first entry in David Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter Mystery” series, and it seems quite clear that Rosenfelt’s many fans hope it’s the first of at least twenty more. The protagonist in the series, Andy Carpenter, is one of the most charmingly devilish characters in the world of legal mystery novels. And he’s also one of the funniest. Andy might be viewed as the Don Rickles of defense attorneys; he’s a genius of insult humor. But unlike Rickles, Andy’s main target is himself. With his hilarious self-deprecating comments, he willingly exposes himself as a coward, a meanie, and a downright jerk. Yet he’s also a most lovable character. Even as he bravely places himself in dangerous, even life-threatening situations, he admits that he’s scared to death while, for example, shakily clutching a loaded pistol while dealing with a murderous villain, as he does in “Muzzled.”

As usual, the unfolding of the novel’s plot begins with Andy’s big heart and sense of justice forcing him to take on the case of a man wrongly accused of murder. In this case, that man is one Alex Vogel, who has suspiciously escaped unscathed from a boat that has exploded, killing two of his business partners. Their company has been working on the development of a mysterious drug which is soon to be introduced to the world via a stock market IPO. Everybody but Andy believes Vogel, a munitions expert, has blown up the boat with the express intent of murdering his two partners — though nobody knows exactly why this respectable (and dog-loving!) man would commit such a dastardly act. So Andy decides he must defend Alex, thereby getting himself inextricably involved with shady characters, the Russian Mafia, and assorted other villains.

“Muzzled” boasts all the uniquely humorous characters and characteristics of the entire series: the wonderfully wacky and weirdly eccentric members of his investigative team and staff, the frustrated cops, lawyers, and judges who have to cope with Andy’s antics and insults, and villains who are sly, smart, and arrogant but who, in the end, can never quite match the hero’s off-the-wall brilliance.

If you’ve never read one of Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter Mysteries, start with “Muzzled,” and treat yourself to an enjoyable, laugh-inducing — and, by the way, suspenseful — good time. And if you’ve already read earlier entries in the series, rest assured that you’ll find this one every bit as involving, gripping, and entertaining as the first twenty.

This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.

‘Aurora Burning’ is Book 2 in the ‘Aurora Cycle’ series by YA authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

aurora burning

No one writes better YA sci-fi than Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Kaufman wrote the thrilling “The Unearthed” duology with Meagan Spooner and Kristoff wrote the very unique and dystopian “The Lifelike Trilogy.”

They wowed fans with the first book in this trilogy, and in “Aurora Burning,” the sequel to “Aurora Rising,” Kaufman and Kristoff take the story to new heights. They also leave readers on a cliffhanger that’s higher and more deadly than most cliffhanger endings. So if you hate cliffhangers, you might want to wait for the third book to come out and read them one right after another. Although maybe it’s better to be like the characters in this futuristic adventure and jump right in.

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‘The Blues Don’t Care’ but they sure make a good read

blues

Paul D. Marks is a multiple award-winning author whose latest novel, “The Blues Don’t Care,” is a striking illustration of the talent that has brought him those awards. It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series of “Bobby Saxon Novels” — mysteries with not only the requisite twists, turns, surprises, and reveals, but also a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws — greed, corruption, fear of the “other,” and, especially, racism.

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‘ICK! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses’ by Melissa Stewart will astonish kids and adults alike

ick

“ICK! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses” by Melissa Stewart is a book that will astonish adults and delight children who never realized all the myriad synonyms for the word “poop.” This non-fiction magazine-type book published by National Geographic Kids is filled with glorious photos and ample information about animals whose personal habits will make many of us blanch. Really.

The Table of Contents divides the information into three parts: Disgusting Dinners, Disgusting Dwellings, and Disgusting Defenses. There is also an introduction and conclusion, with a glossary and an index. For a classroom teacher, having a book that will intrigue and entertain children and that includes all these important nonfiction text features is priceless.

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‘Of Mutts and Men’ by Spencer Quinn is the newest Chet and Bernie mystery

mutts and men

In “Of Mutts and Men,” the charming man and dog duo of Chet and Bernie are solving crimes together again, courtesy of Spencer Quinn, who writes as fabulous a dog narrative as anyone. Chet is the four-legged narrator who allows us to participate, albeit virtually, in how the two intrepid detectives solve the crime of one Wendell Nero, a hydrologist who was found with his throat cut, while working at the remote Dollhouse Canyon.

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‘The Rider’s Reign: A Rose Legacy Novel’ by Jessica Day George is a fitting ending to a lovely middle grade, horse-filled fantasy

rider's reigh

“The Rider’s Reign: A Rose Legacy Novel” is the final book in the trilogy that began with “The Rose Legacy,” the book that is also the title of the three-book series. In it we learn of a world in which some humans can communicate with horses. And any horse-loving human reading this trilogy would only wish that this was, indeed, a real thing. Talking to horses — how amazing would that be?

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