Grace, Natashia Deon’s debut novel from Counterpoint Press, is an emotional tour de force and an absolute must read. That may seem like a bold statement, but when a book balances the Civil War, racism, abuse, and a ghost story with almost effortless beauty, it is an accurate one. The novel is told from the point of view main character Naomi as she navigates her terrifying life as a child living in slaves quarters, a runaway teenager working in a whore house, and an ever watchful mother. Her daughter Josie is both blessed and cursed because of her parentage, as she too finds herself straddling two different worlds. Despite being separated by Naomi’s death, and the collapse of the South, their two lives intersect in the most unexpected, meaningful ways.
Deon creates a rich and diverse world in the South both before and after the Civil War. There are no stereotypes here: not in the woman who comes to own Josie, not in the madam a who runs the whore house, not in the blacksmith, not in the piano player. Each character is far more than their race, their religion, or the job that they hold. Even the most passing character feels like a flesh and blood person, weighed down with their own past and their own failings. The issues in Grace reach right down to what it means to be good, to be human, and to overcome. Considering the fact that the story spans two lifetimes, two states, and a whole host of tumultuous events, it is quite an achievement to craft the many multidimensional characters that populate this novel.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the bulk of the story is told by Naomi after she has died, and it jumps between her actual life and her spirit life. Allowing readers to see Naomi’s life, her death, and her ability to reflect on both of them is part of what makes this story unique. Everything is convincing; it seems right and logical and necessary to see both Naomi’s life and to watch her watch Josie’s life. This is a tall order to juggle as a reader, and a writer, but once you get into the rhythm of the book, it sweeps you away. The story encompasses many small details — who lives where, who knows whom, who passes who else in the forest — all of which eventually build into a startling climax. I finished Grace in almost one night because toward the end, it was nearly impossible to stop reading.
Hearing the story from Naomi’s perspective allows readers to encounter a lot of period language and slang, which helps you get into the setting and the mindset of the time. She is a self taught woman, having had only life and the Bible to guide her, so her speech and thoughts evolve in an organic way as the story progresses. It may take some readers a few pages to nail that voice in their heads, but I found that it made the book even more immersive. The attention to detail, from the way cellars and floor boards creak, to the minutia of doing laundry and cleaning, help remind readers of the way so many of us used to live. With thoughtful use of historical facts and details, along with vivid descriptions of the landscapes, I was always surprised and engaged.
I was able to get a hold of an advance ebook copy, but I plan on heading out to add the hard cover to my shelves at home. You should probably do the same, since soon enough everyone should be talking about Grace.
In a continuing quest to ruin my eyesight and read a book from every 2016 Candidate I just polished off HillDogs Hard Choices. At 560 pages (1400 on my iPad… seriously) this is a beast of a book that covers a lot of ground, some of it serious and some of it kind of crazy.
Before diving into Hard Choices, it is important to revamp the reading list, given the state of the race. Off the docket is Chris Christie (we should #freechrischristie though, dude looks like he’s in trouble), Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Lindsay Graham, and Martin O’Malley. I am about 75% finished with Carly Fiorina’s book, so even though she is out I plan on finishing it. It is a decent read so I begrudge the time to read about her time at HP.
Still on the blocks I’ve got Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders. If Michael Bloomberg has a become I might try to squeeze him in, even thought we all know he has a snowball’s chance in hell. Today I checked Bernie’s book out of the library. I also have the audio of Rubio’s book, but I keep finding my mind wander when I listen, so I need to commit to the print verison. The Douglas County Library is clean out of Cruz and Trump… which says a lot about the state of the area I live.
But enough of the house keeping. On to Hillary.
The book tries not to read like a resume for the job of President, but that is exactly what it is, let’s all be clear on that point. Having gotten past that, this is a truly interesting collection of stories from her time as Secretary of State, some flashbacks to her time as First Lady, and a few anecdotes in her downtime (if you can call it that). Told region by region, Clinton covers her knowledge of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Europe including their leaders and the US personnel stationed there. She goes to lengths to establish that was was as involved as possible, in as many ways as she could be.
The book is long, not for the faint of heart, and clearly vetted by a team to make sure all the facts add up. If you’ve got a question about Benghazi, she has an answer. Want to picture Hillary as a family person, she’s got details of her daughter’s wedding. Need a little insight into her marriage, she mentions her travels with Bill during his administration. Anyone who questions her experience before reading this book will have a hard time doing so afterwards.
Along with that level of polish does come a bit of phony. Or maybe it is just because her life is one that is so out of touch with the average person. She did work to earn her education, and she did put in her time with the Children’s Defense Fund, but she has also traveled the world three times over, lived in the White House, met some of the most famous people of our time, and is sitting on a vast amount of money that few can relate too. Yeah, sure, many polticians are rich, so we can overlook that for now, but do the other items make her interesting and qualified or woefully out of touch with the rest of us? I guess that is a personal decision that each person needs to make.
In terms of the issues themselves, she has no problem saying she takes responsiblity for the State Department’s failings and mistakes, but at the same time she may say it, but there seem to be few repercussions. I like her ideas on Smart Power, and working to include more women and children’s issues in her agenda. But at many times her stories feel as though she is treading in mud, bogged down by the systems that she has long been a part of. I can’t lie and say that I wasn’t impressed with the easy way she talks to, and about, world leaders. It is pretty cool that she knows everyone — 0r knows someone who knows everyone — but if you want an outsider candidate, someone different, Hillary just isn’t it.
But read the book. Read the book and make your own educated decision. I may jump into her other books when my Election 2016 reading list comes to a close, since she has made some impressive leaps for women and women’s rights about the world. Her memoir Living History, and her first book It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us will probably find their way to the library check out with me one day.
Ridley Pearson’s wildly popular Kingdom Keepers series is the story of five teenagers chosen to be Disney theme park “guides”, who discover that the gig is a lot more dangerous than expected; they soon find themselves battling against Disney’s own villains and witches to save the Magic Kingdom from destruction. The final book in that series saw them triumph against all odds, but every terrific series calls for an encore, does it not? The Kingdom Keepers: The Return series is the offshoot fans have been begging for, and it offers the brilliant twist of sending the original cast of characters back in time — to opening day of Disneyland, circa 1955! Featuring a genius premise and a perfect mixture of science fiction, history, magic, Disney trivia, and adventure, this middle grade romp is as tough to put down as a delicious raspberry Mickey Macaron.
The first book in the spinoff series, Disney Lands, was filled with riddles and puzzles, and ended on a nail-biting cliffhanger; luckily for us the second book, Legacy of Secrets, jumps in at full speed right where we left off. Our original five Kingdom Keepers friends (Finn, Charlene, Willa, Maybeck, and Philby) are continuing to follow clues left behind by their mentor, Wayne, which will hopefully help them protect the future of Disneyland. At the same time, unofficial Kingdom Keepers and Fairlies Jess and Amanda (Fairlies are humans with unusual abilities, but they are still “fairly” human, zing!) have their own dark and dangerous backstory returning to haunt them as they try to help the Keepers solve the mystery from their position within Disney’s School of Imagineering, in current-day 2016. Believing that the Overtakers they (presumably) defeated during the first series are gone, the Keepers try to keep the opening week of Disneyland safe, while hunting out the source of Walt Disney’s magic. Along the way they stumble onto the Legacy of Secrets, as well as a real life, flesh and blood villain who may do more than throw a hitch into Walt’s opening ceremonies.
In a succession of short chapters that keep the action always at the forefront, readers race alongside the characters to solve a series of clues woven into Disney history. As they zip from the fabled Lilly Belle train car, to Walt’s backyard, to deep in the rare books room at the Los Angeles County Library, and across more than 60 years of time and space, fans will find themselves absorbed in the magic and engaged by the mystery. Impressively, throughout all of the talk of technology and time travel, the book stays grounded; rooted as it is by characters that grow and change — people you care about and root for no matter what year it is.
Of course, the second book leaves us with nearly as many questions and cliffhangers as the first. Still, it answers many of the questions from Disney Lands, and reveals surprising facts from the original series, which will delight longtime fans. The real strength of Legacy of Secrets is the suspense that doesn’t let up. Each clue opens more avenues for exploration, and everything that you think you know about Disney is called into question. As a bonus, the Barnes & Noble Exclusive edition comes with a map that helps you navigate Disneyland circa 1955 (it would also look terrific in a frame for any Disneyland fan!), which is surprisingly different from the park we know and love today.
Fans of the series won’t be able to put this installment down, Disney lovers will adore the journey into Disneyland’s origin, and anyone who loves a good mystery will be engrossed.
Legacy of Secrets is in stores March 29.
Originally published at http://www.barnesandnoble.com on March 25, 2016.
Poptropica: Book 1: Mystery of the Map is the first in a new series of graphic novel-style chapter books based on the uber-popular online game of the same name. Author Jack Chabert and illustrator Kory Merritt have taken Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney’s concept of a time-traveling, globetrotting, adventure-gaming world and transformed it into a fun new book series that is quickly going to turn into a must-read. Expect to see Poptropica front and center at the bookstore, as well as in every elementary school kid’s backpack.
Main characters Oliver, Mya, and Jorge begin the story by going on a hot air balloon ride, but soon things go from peaceful to adventurous when they soar out of range and onto an island, where the balloon crashes. The trio quickly realizes that they have been double crossed by the balloon’s pilot, who is on a mysterious quest that involves a magical map. Along the way Oliver, Mya, and Jorge are use their own talents to evade saber tooth tigers, escape Vikings, and explore the ever changing tropical island they are stranded on. With the help of the magical map, which seems to operate like a cell phone, GPS device, and mind reader all in one (who needs Siri anyway?), they work to find the balloon pilot and their only way back home. The story ends on a great cliffhanger, which I won’t spoil, that begs for a sequel — and so will young fans. When kids get done reading (and rereading!) Mystery of the Map, preorders are now open for Poptropica: Book 2: The Lost Expedition
What helps make Poptropica stand out from many other chapter books is its graphic novel style. A mixture of traditional story telling and in-depth comic strip art, graphic novels are the perfect combination of storytelling and visuals. The genre appeals to all ages, from fantastic adult fare like Alan Moore’s superhero thriller Watchmen, to the YA essential Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which presents a vision of childhood during the Islamic Revolution. These types of book are a worthy alternative to traditional novels and should be part of every home library. For kids who love art and pictures as much as they enjoy stories, younger readers who aren’t quite ready to jump into full chapter books, kids who are just too active to sit and read for long periods, or for the kid who devours books and is looking for the next new thing, graphic novels are a fantastic choice.
With smart, funny characters and beautiful art, the first entry in the Poptropica series will be loved by both kids who are fans of the game (who will be excited to see the universe they already love expanding into print), and those who are brand new to the adventures. And yes, parents are going to love these clever and brave kids (Mya especially is a delight), who face impossible challenges with humor and heart. I can’t wait to see where this series goes — but in the meantime, grab the first book, enjoy some fabulous matching stickers (or more books from Jack Chabert and Kory Merritt), and get ready for some great spring break reading.
Are there Poptropica fans in your house?
Originally published at www.barnesandnoble.com on March 1, 2016.
“You are diagnosed as bipolar with rapid cycling and occasional psychotic episodes,” novelist Rob Roberge is told early in his memoir, Liar. Roberge’s fiction, including the novels More than They Could Chew, and The Cost of Living, and the short story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life, have dealt with depression, addiction, and darkness before, but this time readers are given a searing inside look at the life of a complex and talented man. Roberge is a college professor, plays in a successful band, and helps support his wife who suffers from debilitating pain. However, he is also a recovering drug addict who struggles with mental illness, has strained relationships with nearly everyone, and is terrified of being alone. At turns while reading his memoir you will find yourself wondering how he is still alive, whether everything he chronicles actually happened, and what will happen next.
The second-person narration in Liar gives readers little option but to explore up close what it must to be like to live in Roberge’s shoes. Instead of presenting his story in chronological order, as many memoirs do, everything is recounted in correlating snippets, further underscoring the author’s chaotic thought processes and frequent roller coaster of emotions. Add in drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, a stint in jail with Paul Reubens, and AA meetings, and Roberge has created a perfect storm of self destruction meshed with self exploration. Liar isn’t an easy memoir to read, and readers are spared very little, but coping with mental illness or addiction isn’t easy either. Roberge’s fearless look at a life that spirals out of control is all the more compelling because of his unflinching attention to detail.
“Using addicts know how they’re going to feel in five minutes,” Roberge writes. “Mental illness, on the other hand, is the ultimate loss of control.” As he grapples with the prediction that he will lose his memory as a result of the multiple concussions he has suffered, or that his body may not hold up to the years of abuse he has subjected it to, readers will in turn appreciate the dark humor and warped view Roberge brings to things like his hoarder grandmother and his many failed relationships. Along the way there are events that the reader will question (did he really wake up hungover in Canada?), and there are moments that the author himself questions, which raises interesting questions about the art of storytelling and truth. How can we believe memory? Do our pasts dictate our futures? Can we really rise above our mistakes? More than anything, during the thrilling twists and turns (and highs, and lows) of Liar, readers are given the opportunity to take stock of themselves and their own histories.
For a book that deals with so much trauma, Liar is beautifully written and thoughtful. It is a challenging memoir to read, but that is part of its indelible power.
Originally published at www.barnesandnoble.com on February 24, 2016.
If your New Year’s resolution was to forsake sugar in 2016 and you’ve held on this long, then I applaud you. Making a dietary change like that is a challenge, and holding true for over a month is impressive. But even if you’re like me and slip the occasional candy bar into the cart after a long week, there’s still hope! Staying committed to any diet for the long haul can be daunting, especially when you’re passing the bakery aisle. But don’t cave in yet! Here are a few cookbooks to help inspire some sugar-free, healthy meals that just might bring your resolution all the way into 2017.
When explaining her sugar-free lifestyle, Wilson says, “When I quit sugar I found wellness and the kind of energy and sparkle I had as a kid. I don’t believe in diets or in making eating miserable. This plan and the recipes are designed for lasting wellness.” Her cookbook and meal guide will help jumpstart your life sans sugar, and help you cook and plan for the long haul. The program includes 108 recipes that cover every meal, along with contributions from Gwyneth Paltrow, Curtis Stone, Dr. Robert Lustig, Sarma Melngailis, Joe “the Juicer” Cross, and Angela Liddon.
The 21-Day Sugar Detox Cookbook, by Diane Sanfilippo
As the companion to The 21-Day Sugar Detox (which includes meal plans and over 90 recipes), Sanfilippo’s latest is here to help double your sugar-free cooking repertoire. With recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and even desserts, this book will delight cooks in search of a healthier path. Whether you use it on its own or in conjunction with the 21-day detox plan, you’ll find loads of variety, along with additional information for athletes, pregnant or nursing women, and others who follow limited diets. (The sugar-free ketchup and BBQ sauce recipes alone make this a worthy addition to any kitchen library.)
Oftentimes when people think of giving up sugar, they worry about missing dessert. Cakes, pastries, cookies, and even breads can be packed with refined sugars; they can also taste amazing. Reinhart and Wallace have put together 80 recipes that really do let you have your cake and eat it, too, all while skipping out on the pounds of sugar the average American eats. No matter your reason for going sugar-free, the recipes presented here, ranging from banana bread to cheddar cheese and pecan crackers to brownies and blondies, make the transition a lot tastier. Pair the baked goods from this book with the meals found in any of the cookbooks listed here, and you’ll never look back.
Thug Kitchen Party Grub: For Social Motherf*ckers, by Thug Kitchen
This sequel to the tasty, funny, and health-focused Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook focuses on larger dishes, things that can be shared, and all the tasty party foods you want to eat but feel guilty about. The desserts may include sugar, but the queso dip, curry tempeh salad, and “worth-the-mess sloppy joes” (all of which are sugar free) will leave you so full and happy you won’t even know what to do with yourself. Like the first book, this one is full of useful tips to help you make your own broths, sauces, almond milk, and other staples (often omitting sugar and saving money). The racy language and unique photography are just added perks that make cooking a bit more fun.
Like vegan eating, paleo recipes tend to emphasize food that is processed as little as possible, has few additives, and can be found in nature. Not many Paleolithic humans were adding refined sugar to their morning coffee, so this is a great avenue for steak-loving sugar-free dieters to take. With more than 115 recipes, made with zero grains, legumes, soy, sugar, dairy, or alcohol, and an emphasis in planning and preparation, this is a nearly no-fail way to get more sugar-free days under your belt. The author also introduces the idea of “Hot Plates, a mix-and-match approach to combining basic ingredients with spices and seasonings.” If you can master the basics you can eat a huge range of things, with no sugar added.
The Vegan Stoner Cookbook: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes to Munch, by Sarah Conrique, Graham I. Haynes
This falls in the category of “I want to eat healthy, but I don’t have time.” Most recipes have less than a handful of ingredients, few have any added sugar, and all are tasty. The hilarious illustrations and no-nonsense instructions are an added bonus few cookbooks have. The book may look deceptively small, but with 100 recipes there’s enough to change up your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack options for nearly a month, on a budget, and with very few processed additions. The deviled potatoes are a must eat, and would be a great party snack in place of the been there, done that, deviled eggs.
The Everything series really does seem to have a book that covers everything — and they do it well. With a great overview of sugar-free options, from breakfast to dessert, there are plenty of choices to help expand your palate and satisfy some of those cravings. The beauty of this book, and many of the books in this series, is that the recipes are straightforward and cover a wide range of tastes. I frequently turn to The Everything Vegetarian Slow Cooker Cookbook (which also has some sugar-free options) for days when more intensive cooking isn’t in the cards, and each recipe presented is foolproof. If you need to jump start that sugar-free life, or you want more options, start here. You’ll be glad you did.
Bad Baby by Abigail Welhouse
Publisher: Dancing Girl Press & Studio
If a book could be a best friend, I’d want this one to be mine. This succinct chapbook is able to create a fully realized personality, one which is wholly enjoyable. With each page readers are introduced to a multidimensional speaker, who is both relatable and as unfathomable as all human beings are.
The title poem shows up first in the collection and establishes the strong, self-reliant, feminist theme. Stating “That’s not a rattle. It’s my scepter./You will obey me or else/I will make a noise/you will never forget,” the final stanza should really be a rally cry for anyone (and everyone) who is looking to make themselves known. Later in the collection “Dawson Gets A Haircut” is a coming of age ode to all 90s babes, saying “I don’t want to relax./I just want to huff ocean./I skipped church in favor of baptism./This is the new holy water.”
Not all of the poems follow this personal journey, or this call to action. Several seem to mirror the way the mind works, with wandering paths that are both tired to the concrete and surreal. “Cows, Mad” and “Q&A” are two examples where, literary, there are times the reader may be lost, but emotionally every word makes sense. Often times this is how the human mind, and heart work; a flowing mix of memories and imagined scenes that form who we are and who we feel.
Of all the poems I can actually see myself framing “Hell Is” and hanging it over my desk. I don’t want to spoil the poem, since I think quoting any of it would pull the beauty out of context. Let’s just say that hell in Welhouse’s world is a scary, caffeine free place. I also would not be supposed to see the closing poem, “Stable,” show up in an ode to Plath collection, given the lovely similarity to the poem “Ariel.”
Basically, hunt down this collection, grab a cup of coffee, and meet your new best friend.
Dog Eared Pages:
1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 17, 19, 21, 22, 24, 27
Originally published at thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com on January 27, 2016.
The second book in Mike Lupica’s Home Town Series, The Extra Yard, is a fantastic follow up to The Only Game. The first book follows Jack Callahan as he overcomes a family tragedy and leads his Little League team to the World Series. This new book focuses on Teddy Madden, the team’s catcher from the first book, while he tries to make his dream team — the local competitive football squad!
For the first time in his life Teddy is super physically fit, has a great crew of friends, and he is excited to be starting junior high. He has gone from the kid who was constantly picked on at lunch, to the one who stands to be the first player picked for the team. The only hang up to what could be a banner year in Teddy’s life is the return of his dad, who moved away eight years ago. With the help of his friends, Teddy tries to make his football dreams come true and build a relationship with the dad he has never really known. It will be a year fraught with drama, on and off the field.
What makes the Home Team series, especially The Extra Yard, stand out from other sports middle grade novels is the rich, interesting characters and the meaningful family relationships. Not only do you get tons of football facts, games, and play calls, you also get to spend time with characters that you care about. Beyond the main characters Teddy, Jack, and Teddy’s family, you will also find yourself loving Cassie, the softball star who knows more about sports than nearly anyone (and who can probably play them better too), kind-hearted Gus, and Gregg, the owner of a surprising talent. Middle grade readers will surely see themselves in these characters, or at the very least they will find someone they want to be friends with.
For the football fanatic, Lupica does include loads of references to famous games, impossible to forget throws, and modern controversies (Deflatgate, anyone?). Though I’m a football novice, I found myself excited to learn about the art of the slant, the importance of knowing when to hold the ball and when to take a chance, and the family atmosphere that is built within a team. Given Lupica’s career at ESPN, and his many books for readers of all ages, it isn’t surprising that he knows how to craft a detailed sports novel that is also tons of fun to read. You don’t have to be a sports fanatic to love this one.
Readers can come up to the line of scrimmage expecting just a football novel, but Lupica has thrown a welcome audible and presented a fast, fun, meaningful read that everyone can enjoy. Tackle the first two books in this series, and hang on for a long run, since I am sure we will be hearing plenty more from The Home Team.
What sports novels do your middle grade readers sprint through?