No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency #18: The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected Sisters

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Detective lit, mystery

Synopsis: When a recently fired employee arrives at Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi’s detective agency, they know they’ve found their next case: why was this woman fired and why do people think she was aggressive towards a customer?  Yet as the details of this case unfold, Mma Ramotswe takes a step down to focus on other aspects of her life, such as–why does somebody she doesn’t know share her last name when she knows everybody that does?  And why is her abusive ex-husband back in town?

Review: This was a story that I unexpectedly really, really enjoyed.  Not that I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t realize that I would enjoy it just this much.  As the eighteenth book in a series, it actually became my first.  And the good news is that it is still completely and totally readable and understandable even if you haven’t read the previous seventeen.  But, as it would turn out, my mom had read the first two when they’d started coming out, so it was great to find another point of connection with my mother.  And the fact that she really liked those two books made me realize just how great these books were (I think my mom has really good taste in mysteries)–especially as enjoyment transcended between two generations.

There was a great deal of nuance and layering in this story, and I was utterly impressed with how everything wove together.  Nothing felt out of place, yet everything felt assuredly important.

I also fell absolutely in love with Mr. Polopetsi, and honestly, who wouldn’t?  He’s such a sweet man who just wants to help…and what could be better than that?

As I mentioned earlier, McCall does a great job with weaving the layers within this story–from the case itself, to the nurse with Mma Ramotswe’s name, and Mma Ramotswe’s abusive ex-husband being back in town, there’s a lot going on, but it’s all so well balanced, especially given the fact that there’s a bit of jumping between perspectives so that all characters get their due time and sleuthing in.

The only bit of concern I had was that this book is set in Bolivia, with two Bolivian women as its main characters, and this book is ultimately written by a white man.  Not knowing anything about Bolivia myself, everything seemed correct, and it all appeared to be written respectfully.  I’m hoping that others feel the same way about this series, because it really is a quaint and lovely series.

 

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My Little Half-Moon by Douglas Todd Jennerich, illustrated by Kate Berube

My Little Half Moon

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Children’s lit, picturebook

Synopsis: The half-moon has been a half-moon for far too long.  A little boy wonders when it’ll be turning into a full moon, and does all he can to help this transition.

Review: SO SWEET.  Just about every child (that I knew) absolutely loved the moon.  And I can definitely attest to the fact that I definitely had a “moon phase” (no pun intended) where I tracked the moon for a couple months.  So this book really brought me back to that headspace, to the space where you’ll do all you can to help nature do what it’s supposed to do.  It was just so lovely and wonderful, and I’m glad to have read this.

Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Scandalous Sisterhood

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: YA lit, detective lit

Synopsis: When the sisterhood’s headmistress and headmistress’s brother keel over at dinner one night, they realize they have two options: go to the police and eventually return home and be sent off to yet another school, or continue learning as if nothing had ever happened.  Clearly, they choose the latter.  But when there are social callers, fairs, and detectives abound, things are going to get messy as the option of them going to the police gets further and further off as they begin to look more and more like the murderers themselves.

Review: Girls?  Check.  Murder?  Check.  Trying to solve it themselves while not letting the police find out?  Check.  So, basically, this book has everything that I’d ever want.  Each girl is different in their own way–and the book has a short biography of them at the beginning!–and each girl has different tactics for solving the murder mystery and evading unwanted callers.  They all band together marvelously, and you know what else I’m about?  Sisterhood solidarity.  And boy, do they have it.

From courting to callers, these girls do their absolute best to help each other evade their troubles–and a potential murderer.

Currently, I’m loving group dynamics, and this job does a great job balancing all the characters and their traits, especially when there’s infighting and apologies.  Berry does a wonderful job at simultaneously highlighting and hiding the clues, which makes for a wonderful and suspenseful romp through this tale.

Emma and the Whale by Julie Case, illustrated by Lee White

Emma and the Whale

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Children’s lit, picturebook, ARC

Synopsis: Emma loves the beach more than anything.  But one day, she happens upon a baby whale who’s stranded.  How can she help him?

Review: I’d been wanting to read this for a long time, so it was like fate when I happened upon the ARC.  Between the beautiful writing and the stunning illustrations, this book is definitely one that I want to purchase for myself, for my friend’s babies, for my baby nieces and nephews…it’s a fantastic tale of animal activism, love, and hope.  I definitely think that this one will be a contender for next year’s Caldecott, and I’ll be interested in seeing how far it goes in my class’s mock version!

Dickinson Family Saga #2: A Reckoning by Linda Spalding

A Reckoning

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: Historical fiction

Synopsis: The Dickinson Farm is owned by two brothers who manage it very well.  That is, until a birdwatcher comes along and provides the slaveworkers with maps, knives, and a route of escape.  Without any slaves to work the farm, one half of the Dickinson family must leave in search of better hopes, a story that entertwines with a runaway slave on his way to Canada.

Review: This was a hugely intriguing book.  This book had so much nuance and so many stories that were interwoven.  The mother, who finally learns to be on her own and assert dominance with her family, the slave, who frantically tries to cross rivers and borders, the boy, who refuses to leave his pet bear, the father, metaphorically cuckolded  and grasping straws at his masculinity.  So much happens.  The family self-destructs after a birdwatcher meets with them and helps set their slaves free (yay!), and what unfolds afterwards is just this incredible, horrifying spiral of a description towards the loss of status and masculinity.

The characters, especially the mother and the son, were just so real and their struggles were so relatable on the aspect of love and independence.  Overall, I found myself very impressed with a book I originally felt cautionary towards due to its topic matter.  But as a story about a family that’s so clearly dysfunctional it’s just overall astonishing.

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Schomburg

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Children’s lit, picturebook, biography

Synopsis: Arturo Schomburg loved history, and he loved books.  As he grew up alongside the Harlem Renaissance, he understood and enjoyed the power of words, knowledge, and stories–specifically, stories about men like him, any and all black men.  He himself was Afro-Puerto Rican, but he finds strength and similarities in all sorts of histories.

Review: I’d never heard of Schomburg before, and I don’t know why because he seems absolutely essential to black history in the United States.  He compiled a huge, fantastic library that was all about black history from the more obvious bits to the things he happened upon in antique book stores.  This book, in showing how Schomburg gained such inspiration from those before him, does an incredible job of showing us just who those people were.  Most were people I’d never heard of myself, but some I’d known, but never knew they were black!  For instance–did you know that Beethoven was a “mulatto”?  I certainly didn’t!  And it really makes you wonder why you didn’t (though I’m sure we all actually know why).

And on top of that, the illustrations are just gorgeous and realistic, and do a fantastic job of portraying so many different characters and histories.  This is overall an incredibly strong book, one that I hope will be recognized in awards to come, by libraries and bookstores, and by readers ourselves.

The Archived #1: The Archived by Victoria Schwab

The Archived

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: YA lit, speculative fiction

Synopsis: Mackenzie Bishop has worked for the Archive for years.  But it’s no ordinary archive–this is an archive for the dead.  It’s where all the histories of all human lives go.  And sometimes, they wake up.  It’s Mackenzie’s job to put them to rest.  As she grapples with death in her personal life, she wonders about those kept away in the Archive, what the difference between them and the real person actually is.  Unfortunately, while she’s struggling to grieve, she’s also being thrust into a new house, a new town, and a new school…and someone keeps waking the histories up.

Review: Okay, Victoria Schwab, I just read this and the second one, and I am just sitting here PATIENTLY WAITING for the third of this trilogy.  I’ve been doing nothing else since May.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a lie.  But it feels like the truth.

This is a series that will absolutely linger with you.  And as a librarian with lots of friends in the archives program, this gives me a lot to constantly think about in terms of ethics and morals…as well as how I’m dealing with death in my own personal life.  If you had the chance to wake up the representation of your loved one, something completely, totally against the rules, just for the chance of hearing their voice again, seeing their eyes again, watching how they moved again, would you?  This is the sort of choice that Mackenzie Bishop goes through each time she convinces an archivist to bend the rules and let her see her brother.  And it’s a difficult choice, at that.

And then there’s the whole conversation where her family is moving on from the death of her brother and her grandfather, learning to live again after being surrounded by death, and then there’s Mackenzie who must struggle with being surrounded by the dead at various hours of the day.

Schwab’s writing is stunning, heartbreaking, beautiful.  Her characters are devastating, hard-willed, convincing.  If you’re looking for a new series to read, this is it.  This is absolutely it.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Picturebook, fiction

Synopsis: A wordless book describes the horrors a man has fled from in order to start a new life for his family in a strange land.

Review: How does Shaun Tan even DO it???  He is an absolute master of telling important stories.  Okay, where to begin…first, let’s talk about the colors.  He uses browns, the kinds of browns that make you think of old photographs–which makes perfect sense given that so many immigrant stories for white folks began decades, a century, centuries ago.  Certainly, the photos which were once glossy and new are now old and brown and fragile.  And now, the lack of words.  Tan allows his characters to speak using icons–so, for instance, instead of the word “cheese,” he draws a speech bubble with a picture of cheese.  This shows the difficulty of going to a new land where the language spoken isn’t yours, and the troubles going along with trying to communicate with others and the absolute joys of finding someone who speaks the same language you do.

And then we have the absolutely, utterly strange land that this book is set in.  Every time you leave and move somewhere new, everything is strange and weird, right?  You don’t know the cool hangout places, you don’t know where to get the best deals on food, and heck, you don’t even know where to begin searching for a job.  Different cultures offer so many different things–foods, clothes, music, and so on.  The fact that Tan draws a world so unlike ours allows us to feel the same way as the character does about this foreign land–this foreign land that is so systematic and usual to other characters, this foreign land that in turn makes us foreign.

And then we have the actual story to top it all off–this man is struggling to create a life for himself and eventually his family in this new land, when his wife and daughter are left behind in their original country that’s filled with unspeakable horrors.  While the man struggles to make ends meet, he finds others like him, other foreigners and immigrants who help him, shelter him, and give him advice.  And once his family meets up with him, they do the exact same.

It’s like the opposite of the cycle of abuse.  The cycle of…helpfulness?

The Arrival does such a fantastic job of showing how strange something new can be, and how less scary it can be with the help of a few nice people.  Tan is a master storyteller, and this book is well worth your time.

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

The Yellow House

Rating: ★★★1/2

Genre: Poetry

Synopsis: Through lyrical stanzas and poignant words, Choi discusses family and culture in his moving book.

Review: I’m getting to this review much later than I would like, but I’m saddened to say that this book ultimately wasn’t incredibly memorable for me.  When reading this, I found that each word, each piece of punctuation appeared extremely purposeful, but I found it hard to really connect with it.  But then again, why must I connect with it to be able to regard it as something worth reading and valuing?  I think that this is a great book of poems…just for somebody who isn’t me.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: YA Lit, LGBTQ lit, humor, satire

Synopsis: On their way to another Beauty Queen pageant, all Miss America contestants end up on a deserted island after their plane crashes.  Determined to survive and continue their beauty routines, these girls must face eating grubs–ew–,practicing their answers, and avoiding harmful sunrays that can cause wrinkles!  But the more time they spend with each other, the more secrets come out…

Review: Beauty Queens is quick-witted, satirical, and aggressive.  From joking about Che Guevara to beauty advertisements, this book leaves absolutely nothing untouched.  Bray satirizes so much about beauty pageantry, from willful participants to those wanting to make a stand, from those obsessed with make-up to those who actively reject its use in the patriarchy, from heterosexual participants to lgbtq participants, from those who only want to be beautiful to those who only want the money prize.  The only downfall of this book may rest in how much it attempts to take on, but I pride Bray on taking as many stances as she does.  This book is humorous and satirical, and certainly takes upon many battles at once.  Which makes sense, given that beauty pageantry and the patriarchy are multifaceted parts of the United States of American society.

Aside from the story, there’s a lot of really fun bits inserted as well–Bray recreates beauty advertisements to show just how ridiculous they are, as well as showing the audience participants’ entry description sheets so that we can not only learn more about the characters, but learn more about what they aren’t quite ready to tell others…speaking of which, this book has fantastic representation–from lesbians to trans women, from Indians to African Americans.  As mentioned before, nothing is left untouched.  There’s plenty of other topics that Bray discusses, such as the Madonna/whore dichotomy as well as what fame can do to a person.

If you’re looking for a fun, feminist summer read, this is definitely it.  It’s a perfect deserted island beach read!