Book reviews are helpful to writers and readers. I've been a lazy reviewer in the past, so in an effort to become a more consistent reviewer, I'm hoping to post one a month.
Today, I'm featuring VINCENT AND THEO, THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS by Deborah Heiligman. It won ALA's Excellence in Fiction and Printz honor awards for 2018 and I can see why. Besides books on writing craft, I don't read a lot of nonfiction. But the artist in me couldn't resist this book.
It's thick (409 pages), but the chapters are short and mesmerizing and their complimented by Van Gogh's sketches and paintings. It's clear from the start, this author immersed herself in the life of these brothers. The biography is based on the enormous volume of letters Theo and Vincent exchanged. It's a tragic story, but also one of hope and endurance. Vincent's mental illness is portrayed with honesty and sensitivity, as is Theo's poor health from syphillis. Vincent's devotion to his art and the brothers' devotion to each other transcended the tragedy in their lives. When you finish this book, you'll want to set it down gently and find a quiet space to let it settle in your soul.
School's out. Two months of freedom from school work. What will you do with all that freed up brain space? Read, of course! You'll want books at the beach, books for lazy afternoons on the porch or under a tree, books on long car rides and late nights in bed. So this month, LikeWise features sites dedicated to readers.
First up is teenreads.com. Teenreads offers the Ultimate Reading List of 400 books, interviews with authors and publishing professionals, polls, contests, a blog and monthly book and screen reviews. What I liked most about this venue was the Teen Board. Thirty teens from around the country are chosen by staff for a year long commitment to provide reviews and blog posts, as well as answer reader questions. The site's recommendations include non fiction and adult books.
Next up is Readingteen.net. It features similar content: book reviews, giveaways and blog. But it's run by two mothers and their young adult children with part time reviews by a handful of teens. While there are adult, motherly opinions being offered on their blog, I thought the content was thoughtful and invited discussion. I especially liked this post urging book banners and the banned books' supporters to stop fighting and start listening:
Child Corruptors vs. Nazi Book Burners
At The Library of Congress, you'll find booklists, poetry and free resources. They feature fantastic author webcasts and a gazillion links that probably lead to a gazillion more links so there's no telling what sort of treasure you'll dig up.
Finally, there's Reading Rants, a blog hosted by Middle school librarian Jennifer Hubert. She reviews books for teens but doesn't stick to the YA section and she accepts book suggestions from readers. I love her listed links, which include book reviews by topic, blogs for teens and out-of-the-ordinary authors.
These are just a sampling of the sites I found. Try them out, start a reading list. If you're the type who likes to share books with friends and those friends are away for the summer, join a book club. You can find them at libraries, Nerdfighters, Goodreads or The Guardian. And if you love a book so much you're eager to share it with the world, create a YouTube review. Who knows, you might gather a following, like Jesse the Reader who offers brief book reviews for summer reading below.
Next up is a 2011 Printz honoree, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A. S. King. After I read this book, I immediately read the other two King books in my library: Ask the Passengers and Everybody Sees the Ants. Needless to say, King is a new favorite author. I love her kind of magic realism where the protagonist's world is normal except for one or two teensy things. In Vera Dietz' life, that thing is the thousand transparent, two-dimensional, expandable Charlies who show up at the worst possible moments.
The book opens with this prologue:
Before I died, I hid my secrets in the Master Oak.
This book is about my best friend, Vera Dietz, who eventually found them.
(the pickle on Vera's Big Mac)
To say my friend died is one thing.
To say my friend screwed me over and then died five months later is another.
(high school senior and pizza deliver technician)
Just before Vera's best friend Charlie dies, someone sets fire to the pet store. Charlie is blamed and his thousand ghosts want Vera to clear his name. But in order to do that, she has to face her true feelings for Charlie and the wreck he made of them.
A. S. King unveils this story through multiple points of view, including Charlie, Vera, her recovered alcoholic father who makes flow charts to help him sort out his daughter and an abandoned pagoda that provides witty commentary about the teens who hang out in its parking lot. King has a unique voice and she tells stories that are hard to forget.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a 2009 Printz honoree by E. Lockhart isn't my typical read. I don't normally relate to girls who have everything and Frankie most definitely does. During her fifteenth summer, she transforms into a girl boys notice. She's barely begun her sophomore year at a prestigious boarding school when she snags the attention of senior, Matthew Livingston, the most popular boy on campus. It launches her into an select circle of boys who belong to a decades old secret society called The Basset Hounds.
Frankie's father was a Basset Hound and he reveals just enough about the society to plant a seed of curiosity in Frankie. Hoping for an invitation to the club, she tries to distract Matthew from her face and body and impress him with her keen mind. But The Basset Hounds has been exclusively male since its founding in 1941 and the members aren't about to change that. When no invitation is offered, Frankie activates Plan B. Taking on the leader's identity via email, she organizes a series of pranks so ingenious the whole school is buzzing. To save face, the real leader takes credit, just as Frankie planned.
Plotting bigger and bigger escapades, Frankie controls the Bassets like a puppet master. For awhile, she's satisfied with the thrill of proving to herself she's brighter than Matthew and his cohorts. But a part of her wants the boys to recognize her efforts. When her pranks push the headmaster to threaten severe punishment, Frankie is faced with a dilemma. How far will she go to get the Bassets' attention and who will get hurt in the meantime?
As a reader who relates to outcasts, it wasn't easy stepping into Frankie's shoes. But while Frankie isn't an outsider, she's also never been special or part of the popular crowd. I did relate to her need to be accepted and even more so, to her desire to be intellectually respected. I enjoyed Lockhart's thought-provoking, imaginative style and I'd like to think if Frankie and I met today, we'd find something to talk about.
We've just passed the mid-year mark and I challenged myself to read five Newberry and Printz awarded books. Each. This year. In March, I reviewed Terry Pratchett's Dodger and you haven't heard a peep out of me since. But honestly, I have been reading and to make up for falling behind, I'll feature one book a week for the next few weeks, starting with The Underneath, Kathi Appelt's Newberry honoree.
First, a word about book covers. I'm very influenced by them. I love animals and I enjoy humor and I saw both in this cover by David Small. Even though the blurb talked about the mean man who owns the dog, the tone of the artwork reassured me this would be a whimsical, light-hearted read.
Which is why I should not be trusted to judge books by their covers. The Underneath is a story of animal cruelty and although it's told beautifully, there's little humor in it. Ranger is the old hound chained underneath the house of Garface, a human with not one drop of compassion. Torturing animals seems to be Garface's one joy in life and Ranger gets the worst of it. When an abandoned mama cat has two kittens under Ranger's porch, he's overjoyed, yet terrified they'll be discovered. Appelt writes:
No father has ever been prouder of his brood. Ranger watched over his cat family like the pharaohs watched over the Nile, like the stars watched over the sleeping Earth, like the beach watched over the sea.
Appelt is no doubt, a gifted poet and she weaves a compelling, page-turning tale. Tension mounts as the kittens grow bolder and more curious. Despite Ranger's and their mama's warnings to never stray from underneath the house, it's only a matter of time before one of them is tempted by the sunlit yard where Garface is sure to see them.
I'll stop there and let you read the book to learn their fate. It's a tough read but worthwhile. Abuse happens and I admire Kathi Appelt for facing it head on.
To make up for this heavy review, next week, we'll look at something distinctly humorous: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Which also features a hound. But this one is idolized.
And now, here's a rough sketch of the cover I might do for The Underneath. Animals hiding from a man with a gun shouts, "This book is apt to contain terrifying moments for animal characters." And it would probably be a marketing disaster! David Small's cover is way more appealing.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor