Review: Gloom Town

“One melancholy voice rose in the air and he smiled. It was his mum, singing a sad sea ballad, one that she had sung to him when he was a child, and he knew the tune well” page 25

Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2020.
MG fantasy, 274 pages.
Lexile: 650L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Rory’s mother has two jobs, is taking as much extra work as she can, and living cheaply, but they still have simply run out of money. With the landlord taking their last cash and still threatening eviction, it’s clear that the only choice left is for Rory to work – but town rules won’t allow him in a seafaring job for another two years. So when a position at Lord Foxglove’s creepy mansion is advertised, he doesn’t see any option but landing the position, even if it turns out to be not quite what he thinks.

I’ve reviewed just one of Smith’s books before, Hoodoo. That one takes place in the American South in the 1930s, so I was mildly surprised, and impressed, to find that this book takes place in an atmospheric near-Britain seaside town in a vaguely Victorian (but more progressive) time. Most of the women in this novel work in some form or another. Some wear skirts while others choose pants, and women are aboard ships at the harbor. In fact, while Rory is certainly capable himself, his friend rescues him from physical danger multiple times, in a pleasant turn on the normal damsel in distress storyline.

Smith has certainly worked out the bumps in his writing now – this is his fifth novel, and clearly I need to go back and read the other three. His format here is many relatively short chapters, exactly the style my sons most enjoy. While some segments understandably have more action than others, none felt slow or irrelevant.

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Review: Spirit Hunters

“Harper didn’t realize she’d walked into the room to take a closer look until she heard the door slam shut behind her. She whirled around, her heart beating loudly in her ears.” page 73

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh.
Harper, HaperCollins, New York, 2017 (my edition 2018).
MG horror, 280 + excerpt.
Lexile: 680L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Harper Raine is getting some seriously bad vibes from the creepy old house her family just moved into. She’s already upset about moving from NYC to DC, but now their house gets cold or hot in weird spots, has a haunted reputation, and her little brother is acting seriously weird…

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh.

Much better than The Dragon Egg Princess – some parts still didn’t work for me, but overall I enjoyed this much more.

I’ve written before about how important it is to see realistic microaggressions in children’s literature, and here Oh does that well. A mere 20 pages in, an old white lady does the “no, where are you really from?” routine and brings in some Asian stereotyping too. Her mom intervenes in a politely passive-aggressive way that gets the point across.

An unusual thing Oh does though, is that later a neighborhood kid asks “where are you from?” in an innocent, where’d you move from, way – and Harper still braces herself until the meaning is fully clear. While I don’t love that this happens, I very much appreciated seeing it in a children’s novel. Oh makes it clear how that woman’s racism was not only harmful in their encounter, but also impacts Harper’s self esteem and her future meetings with others.

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Review: Singular Woman

“Ann also had a certain Javanese sense of propriety, which Holloway went so far as to describe as prudery. It surprised him, because most of the Americans he knew were the opposite.” page 210

A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott.
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2011, my edition 2012.
Biography, 386 pages.
Not leveled.

A biography of Barack Obama’s mother.

Barack Obama led a unique and fascinating life long before he ever went into politics. A great deal has been made of his father, including his now famous first book, Dreams from My Father, but much less has been said about his mother, a white woman from Kansas. After Barack’s father returned to Kenya, she married a man named Lolo and moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born. Eventually they split up too, and Barack then lived with his grandparents.

There might be other details depending on which book you’re reading, but little insight into who she was or why she made the choices she did, although those choices were so formative for a man so many have opinions about. Janny Scott was different – she saw Stanley Ann Dunham* from the beginning and wanted to know what her life was like.

The result is this fascinating biography which will probably be little read and even less appreciated. Yet the story of Dunham’s life holds merit alone, even though it probably never would have been written without her famous son’s accomplishments drawing intense public scrutiny to their family. She was surprisingly countercultural yet drew from certain deeply conservative attitudes.

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Review: Sauerkraut

“Grace just looked at me and asked what I was waiting for. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’ve learned – being a Black geek is about who you are, and what you’re interested in. Nobody gets to decide that but you.” page 75

Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey.
Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 280 pages.
Lexile: 750L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points) .

A biracial Black/German-American boy clearing his uncle’s basement finds a sauerkraut urn haunted by his great-great-grandmother, who insists he help her make pickled ethnic food to enter into the county fair.  HD has to balance his own summer plans and responsibilities with his new ghostly relative’s goals.

Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey.

Reading this after the Unusual Chickens series might be unfair. We eagerly anticipate the next installment in that favorite series. Sauerkraut is a separate story with familiar modus operandi – biracial MC (white German-American and African American) lives in a mostly white, semi-rural area and has unusual hobbies (caring for goats, making things) runs into some strange magic (ancestor haunting the sauerkraut pot).

HD is established in his community, has a strong connection to both sides of his heritage (identifies more as Black), already has a best friend, and isn’t on a farm despite the goat subplot. And he’s a nerd who loves the library and comics and is very familiar with supernatural fiction, so after the original scare he copes with magic more easily.

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Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place

“Rosa said nothing. She said it loudly. Rosa was not impressed with the basement apartment, or the library above it, or the town of Ingot. She missed their old place in the city.” page 1

A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017, my paperback edition 2018.
MG fantasy, 184 pages plus excerpt.
Lexile: 640L  .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points)  .

Rosa Diaz has been training her whole life to one day be a librarian specializing in ghost appeasement, so she’s disgusted when her mother moves them to the only unhaunted place in the world.  Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot and never seen a ghost, so when one appears his world turns upside down.  Can these unlikely friends solve the mystery of their oddly unhaunted hometown before it turns on them?

A Properly Unhaunted Place cover resized
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.

The mythology and worldbuilding of this is extensive.  Alexander has imagined an entire alternate universe where ghosts are a normal part of everyday life and always have been, outside of Ingot, at least.  The way he uses Ingot to introduce us to this world is clever – Jasper gasps at everything and Rosa is constantly annoyed or saddened by the small differences between Ingot and the properly haunted places that she’s used to living.  This then gives Alexander a reason to constantly be telling us all those little details that build up into a coherent alternate world.

Both kids have unique family situations.  As the only child of two founders, Jasper is the lead of the ren faire kid pack.  Rosa is something that doesn’t quite exist in our world, perhaps a cross of homeschooled and army brat?  She’s comfortable with every kind of ghost, but less familiar with people.  Her knowledge is excellent but scattered, based on the books she’s been reading and had interest in.  As the child of appeasement librarians, she has always lived in libraries and had a much different upbringing than Jasper. Continue reading “Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place”

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

“Moody never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap.” p. 13

Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng.
Penguin, Penguin Random House,  my edition 2019 (originally published in 2017).
Fiction, 338 pages plus Reader’s Guide.
Lexile:  1000L  .
AR Level:  6.8 (worth 18.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not posting it on Fiction Friday.

A tense novel about the unexpected connections between two families, which change all of their lives.

Little Fires Everywhere cover

Well.  Sometimes I hesitate to review a book because it feels like everything there is to be said about that work is already out there.  While I don’t mind reviewing popular works, especially if my opinion differs vastly from the usual, sometimes it simply doesn’t seem like there is much for me to add to the discourse.  That is the case with this novel, which seems to have been generally well-reviewed, and which I generally agree with other reviews I’d seen prior to reading the book. Continue reading “Review: Little Fires Everywhere”

Review: Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken?

“And sometimes people aren’t used to being friends with someone whose life was kind of different than theirs. But Lupe also reminded me that I don’t have to give up being friends with anyone to make someone else happy.” page 130

Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath.
Borzoi, Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Speculative/realistic fiction epistolary novel, 312 pages.
Lexile:  840L  .
AR Level:  not yet leveled.
NOTE:  Sequel to Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer.

Sophie is back! and now using email, receiving chicks and eggs by mail, and facing the Unusual Poultry Committee.  Can she hatch the new chicks, pass her inspection test, and help everybody get along?

Unusual Chickens 2

If you read my review of the previous book, or the post where I wished for a sequel, then you can guess that we preordered this book as soon as I knew of its existence.  We loved the first book, and I’m thrilled that this book, unusual both in concept and format, has now become a series.

This book brings several changes.  Sophie is now corresponding by email, although she still writes long, heartfelt letters to her beloved Abuelita and other physical correspondence and ephemera are still an important part of the novel.  The previous book took place over the summer, but this one involves school.  Which means, of course, a whole new round of microaggressions as Sophie meets new teachers and students.  They are handled just as deftly as in the previous book.

Continue reading “Review: Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken?”

Review: A Crack in the Sea

“Kinchen pursed her lips, thinking. She never told anyone about Pip’s strangeness with people; not wanting anyone to make fun of her brother, she covered up for him.” page 61

A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages + excerpt.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level:  5.1 (worth 11.0 points)  .

A layered fantasy draws together a 1781 slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a Vietnamese refugee boat in the South China Sea in 1978, and two very different groups in a magical place the inhabitants think of as the Second World.

A Crack in the Sea cover resized
A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.

I had seen this book even before writing my diverse fantasy booklist, but hesitated to read it as I was nervous.  A fantasy story that blends African and Vietnamese and English and different worlds and time periods and difficult topics all into a readable middle grade novel?  Many books struggle to do one of those and this was written by a white woman, so I was dubious.

But when I got to the sentence “Old Ren coughed, his unusually pale face even whiter than usual” I breathed a sigh of relief.  So many authors make the error of describing the race of characters of color only, that to see a white person’s skin described is a benchmark for baseline acceptability.

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Review: All the Women…

“All the Women in My Family Sing is a tribute to the many voices of women in a chorus of cultural refrains.  Each essay is a personal story about the victories and challenges women face every day as innovators, artists, CEOs, teachers and adventurers.  All of the essays reveal how glorious it is to live authentically in our identities.”
p. ix-x, Foreword by Deborah Santana

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World – Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom, edited by Deborah Santana.
Nothing But The Truth, San Francisco, CA, 2018.
Adult anthology, 365 pages.
Not leveled.
NOTES: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  Because this book contains 69 pieces, I decided to review it in three parts.

All the Women In My Family Sing
All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World – Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom.

The essays and poems in AtWiMFS are roughly grouped into 8 categories, each containing between 7 and 10 pieces.  Most are quite short, but I do like to comment briefly on each one, so I’ve decided to break this up so it’s not excessively long.

Continue reading “Review: All the Women…”

Review: Anna Hibiscus’ Song

“And oh! Anna’s happiness grows SO big!” page 23

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.
Kane Miller, EDC, Tulsa, OK, 2011.
Picture book, 36 pages.
Lexile:  500L  .
AR Level:  2.1 (worth 0.5 points)  .
NOTE: This picture book follows the same characters as the chapter books.

Anna Hibsicus is so happy she could burst!  So what can she do to let some of her happiness out?  Well it turns out there are all kinds of things she could do.

Anna Hibiscus' Song title page resized circle
Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia. This book was clearly once published by Kane Miller in the USA, so its sudden disappearance is frustrating.

Finally, I got my hands on one of the Anna Hibiscus picture books!  These are out of print in America, and I cannot figure out why.  They were once available through Kane Miller, which in the US is distributed through Usborne.  I tried to order them the same way I ordered the chapter books, but none of the distributors that I contacted were able to get them.  They were clearly once published through Kane Miller in the USA, since the used copy I purchased in the end has that publication information.

Continue reading “Review: Anna Hibiscus’ Song”