News of the World (review)

News of the World
Paulette Jiles
William Morrow

Blond and blue-eyed, little Johanna is a white girl. But in her heart, she’s Cicada, captured at age six by the Kiowa Indians after her parents were killed in a raid. The tribe was the only family she could remember. Now she’s been rescued by a U.S. Agent, torn from her mother Three Spotted. She doesn’t speak English and she’s skittish as a deer in November. Terrified.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd was a successful printer before the War took his business. With his wife dead and daughters grown, at seventy-one, he’s a man without an anchor. Restless (and penniless) he’s not content to live out his life under his son-in-law’s roof. But words are his news of the worldbusiness. And so he travels the southern U.S. reading newspapers to crowds in small towns. Admission, one dime.

He doesn’t want to transport Johanna to her aunt and uncle in Texas, but the Captain knows girls. And both have lost family–they’re traveling into a future unknown, both of them in mourning. So he buys an old wagon with Curative Waters lettered across its panels, and they start on their way.

The chapters move like cloud-shadows over the Texas plains. Captain Kidd when he was simply Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a seventeen-year-old soldier promoted in the heat of battle. Johanna, Cho-henna, with a fleeting memory of grandfather, mother, a tree near their home. Jefferson who married the beautiful Maria Luisa from an old Spanish family in San Antonio and raised their daughters in her family home on the plaza. Cho-henna, wooden and stiff, as she’s left with her German Tante and Onkle in Texas. And the Captain, Kep-dun, reading wearily by the lamp he sets on the podium of yet another reading in yet another dusty town. Alone.

Paulette Jiles has written what might be the most beautiful novel I’ve read all year. By turns poetic and raw, it’s a story–and an ending–I won’t soon forget. These might be the most memorable lines in the book: “Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says, it may have nothing to do wit us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

Carry your news, my Friend. Carry it well.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: review

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press

thrice the brinded cat hath mew'dLittle Flavia is growing up.

In her previous adventure, The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as well as her new one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia displays more poise and decorum than she ever thought possible. And she’s puzzled by a new-found tendency towards manners and small-talk. Flavia is twelve–and far from the little girl readers met eight books ago.

After only three months at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, Flavia is on her way home again to Buckshaw. Dogger, Father’s Man Friday, meets her at the train station alone, and with sobering news: Colonel De Luce is in hospital. And it’s serious–pneumonia.

Out of sorts that she can’t yet visit her father, Flavia sets out the next morning for St. Tancred, to visit with the vicar and Cynthia. And a simple errand for Cynthia turns up a dead body, a witch, and a famous children’s book author. But of course it does, because Flavia never goes for more than a few pages without turning up some sort of fiendish business. (As if title, a line from the witches’ scene in Macbeth, didn’t already warn us.)

What follows is classic Flavia. She probes. She swabs. She presses the unsuspecting for information. She mixes a few chemicals, and voila! Case solved. Every time I start a Flavia De Luce mystery, I brace myself. Has the charm worn off? After all this time, will the Girl Detective disappoint?

And the answer is always that Flavia is just as charming and delightful as ever. But this novel holds more than one twist of fate. The mystery solved, of course, and one deeply personal to Flavia–a fate that will change her life forever.

Citizen Can

It started with a dispute over taxes. Or, rather, tax ordinance. My husband’s employer didn’t withhold city taxes because the shop was not in NECAA city limits, but we paid the full tax bill every April–never delinquent, paid in full. Bureaucracy being what it is, the city required we file an income estimate every quarter. No taxes collected, just the filing. Hubby let it slide–just paperwork, right?–and we got an official you’d-better-file-or-we’ll-sue-you letter. I kid you not.

We filed. But not before complaining loudly to our then-city commissioner: “This is how you treat your residents? No wonder folks are leaving the city! The taxes aren’t even due and you’ll sue us?! Senseless red tape! We’re outta here!”

His response?

“If you don’t like the status quo, work to change it. We need people like you to stay.”

A year later when a developer threatened apartments in the empty property behind our cul-de-sac, I couldn’t reach our area’s neighborhood association: the website hadn’t been updated in three years and the president’s phone number was disconnected. A neighborhood icon (also known as Mr. Wonderful in Our Fair City) did a little sleuthing. What he turned up? The neighborhood association president had moved to the ‘burbs–and tossed out all the association records from the previous several years.

So we tag-teamed with a few neighbors to fight a proposed development in the field bordering our cul-de-sac. And the commission listened to over 100 neighbors who came out to protest.

Then another neighbor, Liz, and I agreed to meet once a month. Technically, it might have been a coup because we called ourselves the Board right away. But the previous Board members were AWOL and we had dreams, so all’s fair. Any neighbor willing to say “Hey!” while walking the dog was fair game: “Want to serve on the Board?” Anyone willing to distribute newsletters was in: “Our next meeting is Thursday the 15th.” Someone dug up by-laws. We filed for 501c3 status. More folks signed on and after a year we had what the by-laws said was a quorum.

And then the fun started. Liz is a visionary. She saw the possibility in our nine square mile corner of the world and she knocked on just about every city door, it seemed: city planning, city manager, parks department, commissioners, law enforcement, and the board of education. I was the Mutt to her Jeff; the Bert to her Ernie, the Sam to her Frodo. (Actually, I’m a pretty good note-taker and question-asker, if I do say so myself.) When second developer threatened yet another property, she called the a local news. Then she got down to business and bent the ear of nonprofits and private investors.

Board members knocked on doors and asked local businesses to pitch in. We distribute 1500 newsletters twice each year. Put on our big boy pants and bought liability insurance. We throw a heck of a National Night Out with fire trucks and the SWAT team, face-painting and hot-dogs and organized an annual plant exchange. We adopted a fire house. Our annual meeting is well-attended and we even have a professionally designed logo and tag line for marketing. Who knows? There may be tee shirts in our future! And we finally have an active website again.

I finally get it. I understand that there’s no magic wand a government official can wave to make our cities and neighborhoods better–there’s just a lot of knocking on doors, talking to business owners, networking with city officials, and boring meetings. There’s no fairy dust that brings neighbors together like that 70’s Coke commercial–there’s just sweating under a tent and bagging popcorn for National Night Out, talking through a Powerpoint at meetings, handing out lollipops at the Plinko booth at a BBQ. And more boring meetings.

I’m tired of the “What’s-the-point-I-can’t-even-watch-the-news” naysayers. Don’t give me an “I-just-don’t-care-anymore.” The truth? Our elected officials have less impact on our lives than one might imagine. They don’t live next door–they don’t help dig out snow-covered fire hydrants–they can’t find lost dogs–and they certainly don’t care if you’ve got apartments in your backyard. Although I’ve stepped back from the board for a time, I’ll still find a way to contribute to Our Fair City. There will always be envelopes to stuff, doors to knock, and meetings to attend.

So enough with the whining already. Get out there, get busy. Roll up those sleeves. Make the world a better place–street-by-street–one neighborhood at a time. 

The Tea Planter’s Wife: review

The Tea Planter’s Wife (NetGalley)
Dinah Jeffries
Crown Publishing

Sometimes you’re just ready for a book, you know? The past week has been gray and rainy; the temperatures are slowly dropping. In the morning there’s even a bit of fog. So turning to a book set in a place far away and a time long ago felt so right.

tea planter's wifeOnly nineteen, the beautiful Gwen Hooper, travels alone to meet her husband Laurence in Ceylon. Theirs was a whirlwind romance after they met at a party in England, but home will be Laurence’s plantation off the coast of India. He’s the tea planter; she’s the wife. It’s 1925 and their life as colonials is one where races stay separate and each knows their place. The couple’s life is overshadowed by the death of Laurence’s first wife and her young son–and Laurence’s spoiled and meddling sister Verity.

But young love being what it is, Gwen and Laurence manage to find happiness until secrets threaten to destroy the life they’ve built. His secrets and hers. It’s an old story, with whispers of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, if only in mood–and two nights and a Saturday later, I put aside Dinah Jeffries’ The Tea Planter’s Wife with a tear or two.

And here’s what I’ll remember: that suspicions strip away tenderness and jealousy poisons; that secrets destroy love and shame eats away what little is left. I learned that the truth is a restorative and though scars may be very real, time will fade them.

Without a spoiler alert, I’m tongue-tied when it comes to the novel’s plot. Too much unraveling and it’s ruined. But I think it’s a sign of a good story that I was wrong about the Big Secret. Twice! The Tea Planter’s Wife is a satisfying read about a far off world with  people very much like ourselves.

The dirty little secret about school libraries

One day when I was in 2nd grade, the librarian and my teacher Mrs. Zimmerman whispered, heads together, by the counter when it was time for my class to leave. And then–wonder of wonders–I was allowed to stay, gifted a few extra minutes of library time. The rest of the children lined up and it was back down the hall to SRAs and spelling. For a couple weeks I could only choose from the shelves for “our hall” with their picture books and early readers. And then I hit the jackpot. Mrs. Zimmerman worked me quickly through a set of readers (Eight books with captivating plots I like: “Up, up, up. How far is up?” Are ya kiddin’ me?!) and when I had finished them all … I could choose any book from any shelf in that library.

school library
By Jgjournalist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I chose Tom Sawyer. Not a great choice for a seven-year-old, but I read it. I didn’t follow much of the plot, mind you, but my bookish little self just knew Tom Sawyer was an Important Book. The next week I put my pretensions aside and was hooked on Rummer Godden’s Doll’s House stories. Then Lois Lensky. And …

All because I had a teacher and a librarian with a roomful of books who fed the book worm that was me.

School librarians in my state are a dying breed–and many of their libraries are going the way of the dodo. Dwindling resources mean tight budgets and school administrators must find savings in every line item. They privatize the cafeteria. Outsource custodians. Subcontract busing. And many districts do away with their media specialists, or make do with only one librarian for the entire district. One.

It may be penny-wise, but it’s pound-foolish.

school library
Chris Hearn@Flickr

Today’s school librarians are no longer the Marion the Librarians of the past who shush-shushed us and carded books. Good media specialists understand curriculum so well they find teachers books that support math, science, and history instruction, making an abstract concept come alive. Good librarians spend hours pouring over catalogs, checking forums, connecting with local bookstores, and attending reading conferences so that their shelves are stocked with quality books by well-respected writers and illustrators.

So who is left to run the library when all the librarians are gone? Part-time parent volunteers. Maybe a paraprofessional if we’re lucky. Or, in the case of my high school … no one. After twenty years as a librarian, administration added an hour of teaching freshman World History to her day. Then two the next year. Oh, and continue to oversee the libraries of five schools in addition to your teaching load, will you? (Is it any wonder the poor woman retired after two years of this?) We have a grand remodeled media center with modular seating, comfy chairs, and carts full of laptops–but the books?

Oh, they are a sad, sad lot.

We’ve had no  systematic ordering in years. There may be some budgeting for library books at the building level, but if there is, no one has ever told me–or asked what books my students are reading or requesting. Fiction is supplemented with donations. The non-fiction is outdated. Biographies end in the Bush administration. If I take my kids down to choose a Reading For Enjoyment book, there’s not a whole lot of reading available for enjoyment. Let’s face it–kids like the latest, the hot titles, the latest buzz. Some take a Harry Potter or Twilight for the umpteenth time just to have something. (I say “take” because that’s what we do. There’s no check out process, no inventory that I know of–I have kids sign out their titles on a form I created, but, still. When kids return the books, I carry a few crates down to the library and put them on a cart where they sit until a student volunteer shelves them.

I try to excite my students about reading. Sing the praises of a good book. Lend them titles I bring from home or have collected over the years for my classroom. But it’s not the same. A classroom is, well, a classroom. It’s where we work and test, day in and day out.

But magic happens in a library. A distinct hush that whispers pleasure. Displays of Newbery winners, holiday books, mysteries. Posters on the walls. The sun warming a special nook, just perfect for reading. Student art in the windows. And “Do you know any good books?”

Then the special someone whose mission in life is to answer that one question springs into action–with a roomful of books to offer and all the time in the world.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

The Sea Wave: review

The Sea Wave (NetGalley)
Guernica Editions/University of Toronto Press

Although a short 140 pages, Rolli’s The Sea Wave moves in and out, back and forth between two oversized stories: that of a young severely handicapped girl and her kidnapper, an elderly man. The twelve-year-0ld cannot speak and is confined to a wheelchair, yet her understanding of the world around her is keen, her mind, sharp. The elderly man who kidnaps her communicates (if it can be called that) by telling the girl stories the sea waveof his time in a cell by the ocean. Whether it’s real or imagined is anybody’s guess–but since all Story includes some element of Truth, it soon becomes clear that the man’s time in that cell damaged him beyond repair.

So we get the girl’s description of their journey as he pushes her wheelchair through the countryside–a rough ride where she takes a few tumbles, faces the fear of being abandoned, and begins to feels the painful grip of hunger and thirst. But as she endures the ride, she recounts the isolation she felt at home, the shame she sees in her parent’s eyes when they look at her, the disgust on people’s faces when they encounter her. I’m guessing more than a few readers will cringe when the girl uncovers their own discomfort on meeting someone severely handicapped–and the irony is that we come to love this girl’s spunk, even as we understand we’d never get past her handicap to know her should we ever meet.

The Sea Wave is marketed as a flash fiction novel–and perhaps the man’s nightmarish recollections mirror the intense imagery for imagery’s sake of that short short-story form. But the girl’s narrative, while brief, is complete enough to stand as a novella. However you want to categorize it, Rolli’s The Sea Wave is a powerful read.

Mrs. Quilts-a-lot

q3(Oh, don’t worry! It’s not me …)

I have a friend who quilts. A lot. She has a special gift with applique and her creations are one-of-a-kind. Even more impressive is that she’s a hand quilter, meaning she doesn’t use a sewing machine for piecing or quilting. Maybe, she says, she’ll machine stitch a binding. Otherwise, she makes the Real Deal–the kind of handmade love that most of us only know from Little House books. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, her quilts are loved and used, not simply displayed. (She’s even had to re-bind some of her family’s favorites that have started to fray.)

LOVE the blackbird “clothes pins” that added movement to the mural.

Now this friend of mine goes on weekend quilt retreats (which I never even knew were a thing!), she quilts with a local group in a church basement, she stitches with friends (definitely not me), and she organized her parish’s first ever quilt show this summer.

So what does this quilter do with a concrete retaining wall at the top of her driveway? Why she “quilts” it, of course!

The blank yellow quilt will be designed and painted by Denice’s young grand daughters.

Friend Denice (she also writes about her adventures on her blog Denice’s Day) spent the better part of the summer planning, sketching, and painting this mural–and of course you know she did it all by hand. No pattern, no how-to book or video. She just searched for striking quilts on Pinterest, fussed over colors, and pestered the hardware store guys for concrete painting tips.

The result is nothing less than spectacular. While she was working on it I’d see photos on her blog and listened to how the work was going, but nothing prepared me for the smile I felt when I finally drove up her steep–very steep–driveway and was greeted with this little wonder of color and light.

I think it should be in Art Prize, myself, but what do I know? Only what I like, I guess–and Denice’s mural is a work of art, plain and simple.

It was me all along (review)

It Was Me All Along (Blogging for Books)
Andie Mitchell
Clarkson Potter


It’s memories of family–weekday meals of tuna casserole or Sundays at Grandma’s with her special golumpki. It’s theIt was me all along comfort of ice cream after a bad break-up or chocolate chip cookies after an trying day at work. Food is the Saturday night entertainment of a new restaurant, the brats and beer at a baseball game. It’s Christmas and Easter and the dinner you request Mom make for your birthday  every year.

For those of us in the U.S. it’s rarely just a means of sustenance.

Andie Mitchell recounts how the emotional weight food carries played out in her own life. For Andie food was synonymous with family and happiness until her father started drinking heavily when she was seven. After his death food lost its place in her family life … but she still craved the taste of love and comfort and home. She found herself eating compulsively. Boxes of Little Debbies in a sitting. Cartons of ice cream. Super-sized drive-thru snacks. Like so many of us she also found herself on an unpredictable diet mood swing–watching and counting calories one minute, drowning her sorrows in Oreos the next.

Her story of recovery is one we know well, but usually fail to follow: moderation, exercise, portion control. That Andie lost weight after she followed her passion into a satisfying career should surprise no one. She found that when she was truly Herself, relationships, as well as her clothes, no longer fit.

Andie’s story resonated with me. I’ve gained and lost the same twenty pounds for a decade now. I admire anyone like Andie who has the discipline to lose half their body weight. Her relationship with food is more balanced now.

But what will stick with me after reading this weight loss memoir is the title. It is me all along.

Because in the end, a few pounds more or less is not going to be the deciding factor when it comes to happiness or contentment. In the end, all we’ve got is ourselves–and loving the little girl inside might just be more important than whether or not the woman on the outside is a size 4 … or a 14.

Why I’ll remember All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot seeIt won the Pulitzer. Was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Spent 118 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Wiser readers than I have written more eloquently about Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All the Light We Cannot See, so there’s no reason to write what you can read elsewhere, like here and here. But it’s a World War II novel that I’ll long remember, and not just for the beautiful writing. Here’s why.

Doerr showed us characters who are usually vilified–Nazis–as people who loved and sacrificed and suffered. Werner Pfennig wasn’t one-dimensional. He had  dreams, and the Nazis recognized his gifts and provided him with a means to develop them. He had doubts, but time and place carried him into waters he had no power to fight against. Werner used the cards dealt him, but he wasn’t a player.

And so I can come to better understand the ones who have been labeled our enemies today. Most Americans with open hearts already acknowledge that it’s not Muslims we should condemn, but the regimes that promote terrorism and distort Islam. But in coming to know Werner Pfennig, I must acknowledge that there are young Muslim men and women who, even while seeming to accept (who knows, maybe even carry out) violent acts of terrorism, are also just cogs in a wheel over which they have little control.

That’s powerful.

I’ll also remember how Marie-Laure continued on. Whatever her circumstances. While her world shrank for a time after her blindness and again after her escape to Saint-Malo, it eventually opened again for her–even wider. And when she suffered the deprivations of war, when her life was in danger, she persevered. Put one foot in front of the other. In the horrors of war, Marie-Laure found opportunity.

How spineless we twenty-first century Americans can be.

I’m guessing that those of you who have read All the Light also carry it with you long after reading. Those of you who haven’t read it yet, must.

Book clubs: the good, the bad, and the ugly

In a perfect world my book club reads fascinating contemporary works (but never the best sellers) with a few classics thrown in to make sure we’re well-rounded and culturally literate. Leaders rotate–everyone takes a turn–and prepare diligently: a review shared, a YouTube video discovered, an NPR interview served up. We are astute. Serious. Profound, even.

But in real life … not so much. (And this is one of those timea when reality trumps fantasy.)

The only book club I’ve been part of is one I was asked to organize several years ago for some teaching friends I work with. We set some ground rules (if you don’t read, you don’t share; everyone takes a turn leading; we agree on books together) and met once a month, give or take. We called ourselves Chicks on Books, maybe because it sounded snappy?! Here are the books we read over the year-and-a-half we were together:
+ Columbine by David Cullen
+ Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
+ Full Dark No Stars by Steven King
+ Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
+ The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
+ Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Jansen
The Immortal Life of Harriet Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

book clubsHeavy on non-fiction, but that was fine by me–I need encouragement to read something other than fiction. The books sparked wonderful conversation, of course. As you can probably guess, teachers can talk about Columbine for days. Add a book to the mix and we’re set. And we deal almost daily with helicopter moms which are a subcategory of Tiger Mothers, after all. The author of Mennonite is a professor at a private college in our back yard, and so we were able to hear her speak at a local library branch. (Always, always go hear the author speak when you have the chance.) And more than a few of us had families who put the “fun” in dysfunctional (Not!) so between our own childhoods and those of our students, we had more than enough fuel to discuss The Glass Castle.

And like many book clubs, our was not averse to adding a little vino into the mix. Conversation was never an issue–in fact, we had to exercise self-discipline to ensure we talked about the book for at least forty-five minutes so we didn’t talk shop. Our tangents were wonderful, though. Just what I encourage my own students to be open to–reading isn’t about plot lines, conflict, and metaphor; it’s about letting a work touch our souls and inspire us.

So why was our little book club so short-lived? (I’ve heard of some book clubs that go on for decades …) I’m not sure. Some of it was family–half the members had young children. Some of it was plain ol’ time–during the school year we teachers find it difficult to do much more than eat, sleep, grade, repeat. When we first skipped a month, a couple members asked me, “When are we going to meet again?” And my reply would be, “Whenever someone organizes it!” I didn’t want to be the one to run the show and thought if the group was meaningful, someone would keep it going.

But after another missed month, the idea of planning book club again slowly fizzled out–kind of like a book whose pages we stop turning because it’s just not engaging. Or because it’s not what we expected? Or maybe we just got too busy and put it aside. Maybe I should be grateful that we got several chapters in.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll pick up the book club again someday and give it another go.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: