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Beneath a Meth Moon: An Elegy

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Laurel has been through a lot in her 15 years. She, her father and her younger brother lost her mother and grandmother when they wouldn't leave Pass Christian when Hurricane Katrina came. They've moved to a small Midwest town after living with her aunt for two years in Jackson.To say she misses her mother and grandmother, M'Lady, is understatement. Their loss is a deep pain that is with her always. It's not enough that she dearly loves her baby brother, who was three months old when they left Pass Christian, and that he deeply loves her. It's not enough that she adores and respects her father, a good, quiet, God-loving man. It's not enough that she has found a good friend, Kaylee, who is the reader to her writer (and Woodson's recounting of their dialogue in this regard is a gorgeous homage to the joys of reading and writing).It's when the cute boy on the basketball team, the one with a tattoo of gumbo, kisses her and offers her meth, that she thinks she has found something that is enough. Meth dulls the pain of loss, makes her giddy and makes her want more. And more. And more.Woodson tells Laurel's story by weaving back and forth in time without preaching, but by showing what Laurel is thinking and feeling throughout her descent into drug addiction and living on the street, through attempts at rehab and believing she can handle it. Laurel is fortunate that even on the street, she meets a wonderful person. Moses is a teenager who is paid by grieving parents to paint portraits of their meth angels, the teens they lost to meth, on buildings.For both Laurel's story and Woodson's strong, lyrical, heart-deep writing, BENEATH A METH MOON is a very good book for teens to discover. The publisher recommends for ages 12 and up; it's going into my middle school library next to Woodson's other books.
Wandering Falcon

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Most of what I know about the part of the world where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is through Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. So you know I don't know much.But I do know that when Daniel Dravot and Peachy tried to use their guns and wits to conquer the tribes in this mountainous, inhospitable region, the tribal culture initially worked for them, then against them.This view of tribal culture, in which the individual may endure but does not achieve dominance, is but one of the conclusions reached reading another book that takes part in that high corner of the world. Jamil Ahmad, at age 80, published his first work with The Wandering Falcon after spending years in the area.It isn't quite accurate to call The Wandering Falcon a novel. It is part fable, part character study of a way of life rather than one singular character and part a setting down in writing tales that have probably been told there for years.There is a man in the book who is a wandering falcon. His parents are unfortunate lovers; she's the daughter of a tribal leader and he's a nobody. They ran away together, finding refuge for several years near an army fort. When her father's people eventually find them, the outcome is not good. Their child, the falcon of the story, survives. He's passed from mentor to mentor over the years. What he learns and how he became what he did is not told, however. He disappears for pages and pages.But in between those appearances, the various stories provide a few clues as to how the people of the region may view life.In one of the early stories, a tribe comes to grips with the newly enforced border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not sure if everyone will be able to get across as they move their few animals to better grazing. The tribe's leader tries to negotiate safe passage with an army official, unsuccessfully. As he leaves, he adjusts his cloak. As he does so, his son realizes that the cloak is now an "ordinary covering for an old man". The "general" has lost his authority.The general later reminds his son about a time they met another old man, who said the secret to his long life was eating raw onions:What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.As bitter as life is for the menfolk, it's worse for the women. They are property to be kidnapped, sold for a pound of opium, to be treated worse than a bear that does tricks. Malala Yousufzai would know the attitudes here well. In all these stories within the book, the boy who is known as the falcon either does not appear or makes only a brief appearance. He could be likened to a bird that views the actions of these characters from a distance and without passion.One character, a magistrate, in Ahmad's tales is disdainful of anything that is not a cold, hard fact. Telling rationales through fables, for example, serves no purpose in his world view. "Fables have no use here," he says. "Can a fable explain a death?"Of course a fable can explain a death, a way of life and the dying of a way of life. Which is, perhaps, more to the point of The Wandering Falcon than anything else.The Wandering Falcon is a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The winner will be named Jan. 25 in Jaipur. Also on the shortlist are The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette: A Novel

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WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE could have gone in so many directions. Maria Semple's novel, told from various points of view and in emails, letters and journal entries, starts off in full-blown, glorious snark mode. The parents of a snooty Seattle private school's children have their knickers in a twist over the antics of fish-out-of-water Bernadette. She is a reclusive, misanthropic famed architect and mother of talented prodigy Bee. Dad is a Microsoft muckymuck who has one of the most-viewed TED talks ever.Bee wants to see Antarctica as a graduation present. Because Bernadette cannot face people, she hires a virtual assistant in India to make the arrangements. Below their house, which is really a rundown former school, Audrey Griffin wants to hold a fundraising party for Bee's school. (Her son also attends.) The goal is to attract the best Mercedes parents, like one of the Pearl Jam band members. It doesn't have to be Eddie Vedder.Audrey is a gnat to Bernadette. She demands Bernadette remove the rambling blackberry bushes from her yard before the party. The fact that it's winter and the hillside will lose its cover to battle erosion do not occur to Audrey. Then again, she's also the kind of parent who wonders what the principal is doing looking in her son's locker. After all, "don't they have locks on them? Isn't that why they're called lockers?"Bee's dad, Elgin, is up against a tight deadline at work. His new admin assistant, Soo-Lin, is another prep school gnat, um, parent. Soo-Lin is a divorced single mother who attends Victims Against Victimhood meetings. Complications will, of course, ensue as lives become entangled.It all gets to be too much for Bee's mother. So she disappears two days before Christmas. And Bee decides to find her. That's when the novel hits its true stride and the reader discovers its deep heart.As the story begins, the satire and snark are delicious. Semple began the novel after moving to the unknown territory known as Seattle, and to someone who has watched the pretentiousness present in some Emerald City residents from the other side of the Cascades since before Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge rock existed, she is spot on.But like all great novelists who use various forms of humor, Semple knows when to add layers of emotional depth. Bernadette has good reasons to do what she does, and few of the characters turn out to be as cartoonish as they may appear at first. There is a great set piece of sorts when the novel changes tone, a long letter Bernadette writes to a former colleague about her life as a MacArthur grant-winning architect and the birth of Bee. His response to the letter is nearly the same as the one that Semple received as she adapted to a city she now loves, after Bernadette has poured out her heart for pages:"Bernadette,Are you done? You can't honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."To see what Bernadette does next is not revealed until the end, and there is far too much tell rather than show in the revealing, but it is still a resolution that rings true emotionally and fits these characters just right.Best of all, Bee is a delightful creation. A brilliant, intrepid daughter could be too twee a character, but Semple keeps Bee from going too far into that territory. Instead, Bee is a fully realized character who just happens to be the youngest of the main ones in this novel. And, just as Semple handles the various voices who relate the narrative, she also allows more than one main character to have her own journey of discovery.These are characters worth knowing, and their story is one well worth discovering.
As the Crow Flies: A Walt Longmire Mystery

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Walt Longmire has survived desperate situations before, but this could be the most dire. His daughter is getting married, and he and Henry Standing Bear have been assigned some of the preparations. When the pair witness a murder while looking for a wedding site in Montana, Longmire doesn't exactly complain about being drawn into the investigation.The victim is a young Cheyenne woman. She was shielding her baby when she went over a cliff. The child improbably survives with only a few bruises, and the father is the presumed suspect. But in the entangled family relationships, long-held grudges and dealings with drugs, government bureaucracy and war wounds, easy presumptions may well not be enough.Longmire also comes up against the young tribal chief of police, an Iraq war vet named Lolo. Her attempts to run down every miscreant have her placing Longmire under arrest in their initial meeting.The revealing of Lolo's character, which shows more depth than small-town, hot-headed rookie cop, is one of the highlights of the novel. So are the appearances of Longmire's daughter, Cady, and her mother-in-law to be, and, of course, the Cheyenne Nation. For those who still haven't warmed up to Vic, she doesn't play a significant role. A certain FBI agent also shows up, for better or for worse.Johnson also is master of pacing. As with all Longmire novels, they are fast reads but contain a fully realized plot with characters to wonder and care about.But as with all other Longmire novels, there are parts that still don't feel right. There is the obligatory woo-woo. This time, a milky-eyed older Cheyenne medicine woman invites Longmire to a peyote ceremony. The disbelief has a hard time staying suspended for that, since there are opposing philosophies about allowing whites into these ceremonies. Johnson does a good job showing awareness of what modern life is like on reservations with his characters, what they go through, what they face and how they respond to myriad obstacles. He doesn't have to go the route of Native American mysticism through a white man's perspective for a solid series with a grand cast of continuing characters.This is especially true when the plot itself is so solid and the action-filled resolution is high adventure without being too much to believe.
The Girl from Felony Bay

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Life once was very good for young Abby Force. She and her father lived in a beautiful old house that had belonged to the family for generations, back to before the War Between the States. She had the whole of Reward Plantation to roam and horses and a private school in nearby Charlotte. She loved them all.But everything changed a year ago. Abby’s father, once a respected attorney, lies in a coma, accused of stealing from an elderly client. The client is herself the victim of a stroke and cannot speak well. Their house has been sold and Abby is forced to live with her aunt and uncle. Uncle Charlie is nothing like Abby’s father, his brother. He drinks, punishes Abby, puts her down and pretty much treats her like Cinderella.On the last day of school, after a miserable year without her friends, Abby has had enough. When the bully goes after her and a smaller, younger boy, Abby fights back. She’s had enough of Uncle Charlie, too, and is determined to find out why her father was found at the bottom of a ladder in his study with his client’s jewelry.Abby has felt alone, but reinforcements have arrived. The new owner of Reward Plantation also is a Force, but from the former slave side of the family. He’s with one of his companies in India, but his daughter, Bee, who is Abby’s age, and Bee’s grandmother have arrived. After the discovery that part of the plantation on Felony Bay itself has been sold, and holes are being dug on the beach, Abby and Bee go into action.They go through public records, the law, neighbors’ memories and spying on suspicious activities before putting all the pieces together. Both their investigating and episodes of danger are believable and entertaining. They also are informative in a non-lecturing way as to the limits and strengths of various types of law. They weave in historical and contemporary issues, as well as treasure.Abby and Bee are smart, intrepid young teens who face their fears, overcome family tragedies and have fun. Even the secondary characters have more than one-dimensional stories. The bully, for instance, is the hit by his father, a deputy who is awfully friendly with Uncle Charlie. Bee’s grandmother and the people Abby seeks out at her father’s law firm play their roles without taking over from the girls.Highly recommended for grades 5-8
The Nightmare Affair

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Sixteen-year-old Dusty has nearly reconciled herself to needing to attend Arkwell Academy, a private school for creatures closer to her nature than normal people, but as a Nightmare whose talents increase just as murder takes place on campus, she would really rather have been human.Dusty, as a Nightmare, has to feed off the dreams of others. Crawling on top of them while they sleep to enter their dreams, she gets her energy as the daughter of one of the strongest Nightmares around, her estranged mother. But this time, she's entering the dreams of Eli, a very cute normal guy who she went to school with before her powers kicked in. The dream is located at the cemetery, and there's a body. It's another student.And, for the first time, the dreamer knows she's there. Dusty is able to make a getaway, but not before Eli wakes up to find her on top of him.It turns out they're a fated pair, and Dusty and Eli are maneuvered into trying to find out more about the student's murder. The victim was supposed to be part of a protection against a force that threatens the existence of all the creatures at Arkwell Academy.The set-up is a combination of mystery sleuthing as Dusty, Eli and Dusty's best friend and roomie, a siren, hunt for clues, and a romance as Dusty and Eli get tingly around each other. If only Eli wasn't so infuriating and if only another boy wasn't so nice to Dusty all the time. And there's Dusty's issues with her mother, who got away with everything while Dusty cannot sneeze without getting in trouble.But then Arnett's over-use of mythology kicks in. It's not enough to have Nightmares (succubi, basically), sirens, demons, vampires and werewolves. We also get Merlin and Excaliber. But not Arthur. And sudden violence that feels out of place.It's a mindless enough entertainment if fluff is the goal. For older teens and up.
Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand

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Before Madonna, before Lady Gaga, before Nicki Minaj or any other performer of the past 50 years, there was Barbra. Hello Gorgeous is a well-structured look at how a quirky teenager who desperately wanted to become an actress became one, but not before becoming the toast of Broadway and a woman who didn't even realize the power of her gift -- that voice. That glorious voice.William J. Mann, whose previous books include biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and John Schlesinger, as well as novels, has put together bits and pieces of not only the legend, but also stories from people who knew her when. The result is a coherent and cohesive narrative of how Streisand became an overnight sensation after only four years.Mann recounts Streisand's early acting classes and compares the myth to what he can document. He takes the same approach through her tutelage under her first boyfriend, actor Barry Dennen, who encouraged her to sing and who introduced her to music she later incorporated in early nightclub appearances. Two other friends helped Streisand with her distinctive makeup and fashion sense to cultivate the thriftshop look that became an early trademark.Throughout, there is a consistent sense that Streisand wanted to be the best and do her best, although doing the same performance night after night after night soon grew tiresome in her first Broadway show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Streisand made a splash in that show and captured the heart of leading man Elliot Gould in her small role. Mann recounts the lack of warmth and support from her mother without making her a monster.Between the show and her nightclub appearances, comparisons soon began between her and Fanny Brice. The convoluted path that led to her getting the role of a lifetime in Funny Girl is described chronologically and thoroughly. Even knowing the outcome and the bare bones of the myth, Mann's account makes for compelling reading.Mann is careful about noting his sources, but part of his writing style does grate. When he refers to how Streisand or others must be feeling or how if something didn't happen on one night it happened on a night like this, the reader can be forgiven for pausing to question, well, how does he know? Because so much of this comprehensive look at Streisand's path to stardom is documented here with credit to primary sources, these narrative tics take away from the scholarship that was plainly involved.Even so, Hello Gorgeous is an engaging look at a star and the era when she first blossomed.
A Killing in the Hills

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A woman returns to the place where a family tragedy took place years ago. Everyone else is gone. She decides there is nothing here for her, either.That woman is the prosecuting attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia. Bell Elkins has brought her teenage daughter, Carla, back to her hometown when her husband wanted a high-flying career that didn't seem to include them. But home hasn't been a sanctuary. Carla is in full teenage-rebel mode. She also could have been hurt the day a gunman walked into a local restaurant and killed three old men in the middle of their morning coffee meeting.Bell and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, who was a young deputy when the tragedy in Bell's family took place and who took her under his wing, seek to find the killer. They also deal with other cases, the people they work with and the rest of the town where everybody seemingly knows everybody else. As is normal in a small town, not everyone is as they seem.One of the cases appears to be an easy prosecution but shows Bell's determination for precision and doing right. A developmentally disabled young man plays with a much younger boy. One day, the younger boy dies. On its own, this case could have taken center stage in showing Bell's character, the ins and outs of small-town prosecutions and a decent plot.The main story is told from the investigation side as well as the first-person account of the shooter, who is fairly standard-issue small-town nobody who wants to be known for something. The interesting part of the case has to do with Carla as she struggles with growing up and wanting to make her mother proud of her even if she wants Mom to just leave her alone. Keller's first novel is an interesting attempt to showcase the struggles of people who live in beautiful country and high poverty, where drugs can offer an easy way out and a way to make some money. It isn't the strongest novel, as a few Too Stupid to Live moments are employed to raise the stakes in finding the killer. A contractor wanting to stop by a house after 10 p.m. also can easily take a reader out of the story. But the novel is an honest attempt and shows the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's considerable admiration for West Virginia and her people.
Destiny, Rewritten

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Emily Elizabeth Davis has been raised on the inevitability, and the promise, of fate. She was named after Emily Dickinson after her mother experienced an incident involving a book of the poet's work while expecting her, and she is supposed to be a poet. She also hasn't given up hope that one day, some day, her father will return to them.When that book is accidentally lost, Emily and her family and friends go on a quest through San Francisco's used bookstores to try to find it. She finds more than she expected, including whether she is in charge of her own fate and whether she has to be a poet.Fitzmaurice has created quirky, brilliant characters who bear no resemblance to my students. Even the cute boy who isn't a straight A student can speak in spontaneous haikus in class.Although this is a sweet book, it is written primarily for adults to love, especially the ending.The publisher recommends the book is for Grades 4-7 and ages 9-12.
The St. Zita Society: A Novel

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Ruth Rendell is, along with P.D. James, the jewel in the crown of British crime fiction after the first Golden Age. Her Inspector Wexford novels, stand-alones and deliciously creepy tales written as Barbara Vine have garnered fans and favorable critical attention for decades.In recent years, she has enlarged her range to include stand-alone novels taking place on various London streets. THE ST. ZITA SOCIETY takes place among the posh and would-be posh. Set on Hexam Place, it's an "Upstairs, Downstairs"-style novel in which those in service, and those roped into doing for others, gather at the local. June has been lady's maid for more than 60 years to Princess Susan, who came by the title from a long-abandoned Italian prince. June forms the St. Zita Society, which she says is named after the patron saint of domestic servants, as a way for the downstairs group to congregate, discuss issues and perhaps go to a show.Although most of the others don't mind congregating at the local, they're not that interested in any type of society or causing trouble. It's not that they're cowardly. It's that most of them are too wrapped up in themselves or the onus their employers place upon them.Take Henry, for example. Lord Studley's valet is sleeping with both Lord Studley's wife and his daughter. June has to walk the dog but her employer, the princess, is taken with June's nephew, Rad, who acts on a TV soap. Preston Still's wife also is taken with Rad. But it's the Stills' au pair, Montserrat, who has to let him in and out off the house across from where June and the princess live. At least Preston and Lucy Still's children are diligently cared for by Rabia, whose traditional Muslim father wants the young widow to get married again. But Rabia also lost her children and Thomas is such a lovely baby who adores her. Thea isn't in service but her landlords seem to think she works for them without pay.Then there's Dr. Jefferson. His driver, Jimmy, doesn't work too hard but he does put up with Dex the gardener. Dex killed someone once because a voice commanded him to get rid of that evil spirit. Most people don't have faces to Dex, but there is the voice of Peach, sometimes found by dialing random numbers on his mobile, to guide him.Rendell sets up these dominoes and, with one push, sets them all into inevitable motion. The rest of the novel is a delightfully devilish discourse on how some people get away with things, how some people only seem to get away with things and how some people are doomed.Along the way, Rendell is as great as ever with her wicked ability to skewer those who need it, add just the right touches of pathos and the occasional moment of genuine sweetness.If the set-up seems to take a bit, hang on. It's worth it when those dominoes begin to fall.
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