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Higher Powers

Higher Powers

posted by:
April 4, 2013 - 7:01am

The Vatican DiariesTiming could not have been better for John Thavis's entertaining and candid new book, The Vatican Diaries: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. While the long-time journalist stirs in lighter, less sacrosanct moments about life in and out of the Apostolic Palace, there is serious discussion of many aspects of this Vatican City-State visited by millions each year. 

 

Nearly three decades of experience covering the Holy See for Catholic News Service has provided the recently retired Rome Bureau Chief with a heap of material on the men in red. In ten highly readable chapters, Thavis traverses more territory in “arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization” than on his motorino throughout this ancient city. Intriguing chapter headings, like “Hemlines and Banana Peels” and “Cat and Mouse,” provide a fascinating peek at the culture behind the headlines.  In a chapter called simply “Bones,” Thavis highlights the difficulty of protecting and conserving the plethora of antiquities that come out of the ground while moving forward with modern development as mundane as a parking garage. Thavis calls it the “politics of the bones.”

 

No subjects are off limits either, as the Minnesota native seems to have witnessed it all firsthand.  He takes on the sexual abuse scandals and other controversies swirling around papal decisions, including provocative observations on the last two popes.  Lighter subjects, too, are explored, including free-speaking priests who get into trouble and the mindset of Vatican protocol where things shouldn't go wrong but often do. Even bell ringing has its own challenges. There is chapter on it. Thavis dispels the myth of "Vatican secrecy" in his introduction. "More than 3,000 people work in the Vatican's administrative machine, and many of them will share information if given the opportunity," he says. It is fortunate for readers that Thavis has opened up his reporter's notebooks.

Cynthia

 
 

Hilarious and Hip: An Immigrant Story

Fresh Off the BoatEddie Huang is co-owner of the hugely successful Baohaus, a Taiwanese bun shop in New York’s East Village. Fresh off the Boat, his provocative new memoir, is a refreshingly current take on the immigrant story and a very funny book. Huang recounts his upbringing in Orlando, Florida. He attended a mostly white school, struggling to stay true to his Taiwanese culture, while also wanting to fit in. For his school lunch, his mother usually prepared a home-cooked Taiwanese meal. He didn’t want food that smelled or looked any different from that of his peers. He talked his mom into allowing him to take the processed pre-packed meals and juice boxes.

 

He describes going into wealthy white homes where the kids had so many toys, he didn’t know what to play with first. He does not shy away from his tough upbringing but maintains a light, irreverent tone, no matter the subject.  In time, he came to embrace his own culture. He is proud of his Asian-American background but refuses to be anything but himself. He criticizes Hollywood’s emasculated version of Asian-American men, loves partying, hip-hop, basketball and football.

 

Throughout Huang’s life, his love of food remains constant and his passion for food culture is infectious. Equally infectious is Huang’s humor, perhaps best captured in the audiobook version. Huang is the narrator and his hip, street-smart humor comes off best in his distinct Brooklyn accent. Besides audiobook listeners, Fresh Off the Boat will also find fans among memoir readers, pop-culture enthusiasts and foodies.

Zeke

 
 

Every Bone's a Funny Bone

What Body Part is That?Where is your liver? What does the larynx do? Are molars made from moles? If we have 12 billion brain cells, how come we still step in puddles so often? Human anatomy and physiology is fast and funny and goofy and gross in What Body Part is That? Nonfiction with lots of humor is not only fun to read, but may cause our brain to absorb facts better. Research has shown “bizarre elaboration” to have a significant positive effect on retention, especially of vocabulary. Let’s let author Andy Griffiths demonstrate bizarre elaboration: “Your esophagus is the tube that food travels through in order to get to your stomach. Other easier-to-pronounce names for the esophagus are food funnel, nutrient hose, provisions pipe, chow spout, hamburger highway, taco tunnel, and sausage chute.”

 

Each two-page spread features a couple of paragraphs of text on a body part, a fun fact sidebar, and a full-page illustration. Special features include “How to Walk in 15 Easy Steps,” “Amazing Things People Can Do with Their Bodies,” and “Body Part and Body Part-Related Superheroes” (including Mucusgirl, Spleenboy, and Bladderwoman – don’t ask!) This book, by the author of such laugh classics as The Cat on the Mat is Flat and The Big Fat Cow that Goes Kapow, claims to be “99.9% fact free,” but even that statement is not entirely accurate – readers will remember lots about the body once they’ve read this profusely illustrated, super-silly fun-fest.

Paula W.

 
 

Get Out the Vote!

Get Out the Vote!

posted by:
April 3, 2013 - 6:55am

What do kids like to read? Here’s a chance to find out as kids are the ones who count in the annual Children's Choice Book Awards. This is the only national book awards program where the winning titles are selected by children and teens of all ages. Finalists have been selected and voting is open now! Teachers, librarians, and booksellers can compile votes from their young readers, but this is one award all about the children.

 

There are five finalists each for author of the year and illustrator of the year, and these nominees cross all age levels. Additionally, there are five finalists in four separate grade levels (K-2, 3-4, 5-6, and teen) for book of the year. Approximately 20,000 children and teens from across the country read numerous titles before selecting these finalists. Many of the nominees were featured on Between the Covers last year, including The Duckling Gets a Cookie, The Fault in Our Stars, and Liar & Spy.

 

The Children’s Choice Book Awards program was created to provide young readers a platform to voice their opinions. Since the generated list is so kid-friendly, it is a place for young readers to find books they will genuinely enjoy and which will help develop a lifelong passion for books. Share this with young readers who want their opinions recognized. Voting ends May 9th and the winners will be announced on May 13th in conjunction with the start of Children’s Book Week.

Maureen

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Comics, Love, and Mix Tapes

Eleanor & ParkRainbow Rowell’s teen debut, Eleanor & Park is a story about first love, not fitting in during high school, punk rock, and comic books. Eleanor is a self-described chubby, curly-haired, redhead, who is teased mercilessly by her schoolmates. She has an even worse home life. Park, a half-Korean teenage punk rock fan, feels like he doesn’t fit into their town. They meet on the first day of school in 1986 when Park takes pity on Eleanor and lets her sit next to him on the bus.

 

For weeks, the two don’t speak a single word to each other as they ride to and from school, until Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his comic books over his shoulder. He begins paying attention to which ones she seems to like, and brings more for her to borrow. They read in silence on the bus, and she devours the borrowed comic books at home. Weeks later, Park breaks the silence, asking about the song lyrics she has written all over her notebooks. Eleanor confesses that she’s never heard any of these bands, and the lyrics are from songs she’d like to hear. So he makes her mix tapes and lends her his Walkman since she can’t afford one, let alone the batteries to keep it running. Once the silence is broken, they never stop talking; talking progresses to hand-holding, and that turns into love that readers see grow throughout the novel.

 

Park becomes Eleanor’s escape from her home life, and she becomes his from small-town America. Rainbow Rowell’s story about two misfits falling in love amidst the music and comic books of the late 1980s is a romantic, yet realistic novel. Older teens, new adults, and those whose adolescence took place in that era are all sure to enjoy it.

Laura

 
 

Lissy and Jenny's High School Reunions

Lissy and Jenny's High School Reunions

posted by:
April 1, 2013 - 6:01am

Here I Go AgainWhy Can't I Be YouMany of us wish that we could have a “do-over” in our lives. That’s exactly the opportunity that the heroines of these two new novels receive with interesting results. Jen Lancaster’s Here I Go Again is a hilarious trip back to the future. In high school, Lissy Ryder was the ultimate mean girl. Now, she is returning to her 20th reunion under less than desirable circumstances. Over the past few months, her husband left her, and she lost her job. Unemployment, combined with astronomical credit card debt required to keep up her lifestyle, has resulted in Lissy being forced to move back home with her parents. She goes to the reunion, and the way she treated people in high school comes back to haunt her. When she gets a chance to go back to 1991 and change her life, Lissy tries to make things right, but she finds that her actions have unexpected results in the present. Fans of Lancaster’s memoirs will recognize her fast-paced, chatty writing style and ubiquitous pop culture references.

 

In Allie Larkin’s Why Can’t I Be You, heroine Jenny Shaw’s life is a mess. Although her boyfriend dumps her at the airport and runs away with her luggage in the trunk of his car, she still gets on a plane for a business trip to Seattle. At her hotel, someone calls her Jessie from across the lobby. On a whim, Jenny answers. Soon she finds herself pretending to be Jessie Morgan, a long-lost classmate in town for her high school reunion. As she gets to know Jessie’s high school friends, Jenny sees the kind of friendship she longs for in her own life. Pretending to be the free-spirited, wild child Jessie, Jenny is able to open up and try things she never would have as herself. Eventually, Jenny realizes that when she’s being Jessie, she’s more true to herself than ever. Why Can’t I Be You is a story of finding yourself in the last place you would have expected. Larkin is an exciting new voice in chick lit, bringing readers strong characters and stories with real heart.

Beth

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To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief

posted by:
March 29, 2013 - 6:01am

The Bughouse AffairTravel to San Francisco, 1894 to meet a pair of delightful detectives in The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. This first in a new historical mystery series by two Grand Master Award winners (who just happen to be married), introduces partners Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon. Sabina is a former Pinkerton operative and John honed his skills in the Secret Service. The two combined forces to establish a successful agency in the quickly developing city of San Francisco. Sabina is widowed and dedicated to her job, and John is a bachelor hoping for a more personal relationship with his lovely partner.

 

The two are working on separate cases while also following press reports of the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, who has miraculously returned to life and picked San Francisco as his new base of operations. Sabina’s case involves the hunt for a slippery lady pickpocket who finds her marks at a large amusement park and other crowded venues. Quincannon is on the trail of a burglar who is targeting the homes of wealthy residents. He finds himself traveling to seedy bars and parlors in the disreputable Barbary Coast while tracking his elusive thief. Eventually, the two realize their cases are connected and the criminals have stepped up their game to include murder. The detecting duo find themselves working feverishly to capture these lawbreakers before additional crimes can be committed, all while dealing with the Sherlock Holmes pretender who has become a surprising rival.

 

Muller and Pronzini have both entertained readers with their memorable characters Sharon McCone and The Nameless Detective respectively. With this series, this talented couple offers two intrepid detectives in an intriguing historical setting. Readers will be anxious to follow the next case these two embark upon and curious about whether the romantic sparks will continue to fly.   

Maureen

 
 

In the Wave's Wake

In the Wave's Wake

posted by:
March 28, 2013 - 6:03am

Facing the WaveCars on top of boats on top of roofs. Mountains of debris in flattened urban landscapes. Sea-salty inland lakes miles away from the Pacific coastline. These were all fairly common scenes after the March 11, 2011 earthquake off of the northern coast of Japan caused a series of massive tsunami waves that decimated the eastern coast of the Tohoku region. Only months after the disaster first struck, Gretel Ehrlich, an American travel writer, came to personally view, experience, and record the wreckage and the perseverance of the people and places impacted most by the quake and tsunami. Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami is the insightful, poetic, personal chronicle of her expedition.

 

After she arrives, Ehrlich makes her way slowly up and down the devastated coastline, stopping by villages, cities, temples, and emergency shelters along the way. She comes to see the depth and variety of responses to the catastrophe in the people she meets and those she travels with, especially her drivers and translators, and their families. Through her conversations, the reader gradually realizes how profoundly Japan’s long acquaintance with the tsunami as a natural phenomenon has permeated its culture and worldview. Impermance, uncertainty, and acceptance of what cannot change are rooted in the Japanese character that Ehrlich’s portrayal reveals. Still, moments of happiness and joy punch through the sorrow and anxiety that the author and those she meets experience. 

 

Wrenching, inspiring, and compelling, Facing the Wave is an emotional reminder that even though we may no longer see it mentioned on the nightly news, the aftermath of a disaster of this scale lingers for those who lived through it and those who care enough to remember.

 

Rachael

 
 

The Thorn in Your Side

With or Without YouJoan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi.They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.

 

Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.

 

Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated.  Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life.  Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.

Lori

 
 

On the Road Again

On the Road Again

posted by:
March 27, 2013 - 7:11am

Will Sparrow's RoadNewbery Award-winning author Karen Cushman has returned to children’s literature with an exceptionally well-crafted tale. In Will Sparrow’s Road, Cushman departs from her characteristically self-sufficient heroines, instead casting a young boy into the role of survivor/protagonist. Will’s is a story of survival, of unlikely friendships and self-discovery and what it means to find one’s place in the world. Runaway Will Sparrow wasn’t always a liar and a thief. There’d been a time when he’d been the village schoolmaster’s son, with a mother who smelled of lavender. That was before his mother abandoned him and his drunken father traded him to an innkeeper for ale. Escaping the innkeeper and his threats, Will finds himself on the road, penniless, hungry and alone. But the road, as life, is not a solitary one and Will soon finds himself in the mixed company of scoundrels and tricksters, the marginally honest and the roughly kind. 

 

When chance brings him to the Oddities and Prodigies tent at a local fair, Will finds himself in a most peculiar company. A disgruntled dwarf, a girl with the face of a cat, a pig named Duchess, and other individuals strange to Will’s experience round out the motley band. Things are not always as they seem however, and soon Will finds himself discerning villains and friends from the most unlikely of quarters. 

 

Devotees of Cushman’s previous historical fiction for children, such as Matilda Bone and The Midwife’s Apprentice, will not be disappointed in this spirited new coming of age story set in Elizabethan England. With her keen eye for detail and meticulous historical research, Cushman paints a realistic depiction of that world, never attempting to sugarcoat the hard-won lot of her characters. Recommended for readers who have enjoyed Avi’s Crispin series, and similar historical tales. 

Meghan