Monday, September 30, 2013


by Mark Goldblatt
Random House, 2013.  274 pgs. Young Adult

When Julian Twerski (aka "Twerp") returns to school after a week-long suspension his English teacher gives him an interesting proposal: write a report about Shakespeare, or, a journal about the incident for which he and his friends were suspended. Twerp is such a likeable young narrator, and he and his friends are so funny in the way of goofball tween boys, that the reader begins to think, like Twerp, that he didn't really mean to do anything wrong, that things just got out of hand, etc. But when the act of bullying is finally revealed, it is devastating. Please, please don't do that, you think.  But the boys don't stop. There is some redemption at the end of this sorrowful, funny story. And what a great cautionary tale for young people who may not yet know how quickly things can go terribly wrong.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder
By Eli Brown
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013. 318 pgs. Historical Fiction

Owen Wedgwood, famed chef, has been kidnapped and is being held aboard the Flying Rose, captive of the notorious captain Mad Hannah Mabbot. Mabbot informs him that he will cook a sumptuous meal for her each Sunday or he will be killed, a dismaying challenge considering the pirate ship's meager, weevil-infested stores. Dreaming up ways to escape, Wedgwood works wonders in the kitchen while the ship hunts for the notorious Brass Fox and flees from a deadly privateer. Wedgwood comes to rely on the gruff crew he once feared and begins to see something softer behind Mabbot's swagger and threatening power.

I loved this book. It's a swashbuckling adventure that doesn't gloss over the grim reality of life on a pirate ship. Told from Wedgwood's perspective, the story is sprinkled with delectable descriptions and metaphors drawn from his culinary experience; food is the dialect by which he speaks. The plot is fast-paced and action packed, and you come to love some and fear other characters through the course of their adventures. The real star is Wedgwood himself, a likable and talented fellow whose expertise and lifetime of experience still hasn't quite prepared him for all that he is about to face. Overall, pretty much enjoyable in every way.


Monday, September 16, 2013

The Tenth Witness

The Tenth Witness
by Leonard Rosen
Permanent Press, 2013.  284 pgs.  Mystery

In this prequel to Rosen's exemplary 2011 title All Cry Chaos, we meet Henri Poincare as a young man, a newly-minted engineer who has helped design and build a diving platform to recover gold from a ship sunk in 1799 off the coast of Holland. While there he meets a beautiful young woman, falls in love--then meets her family.  The Krauses are steelmakers, among other things, and began their rise to great wealth as suppliers to Hitler's Third Reich. The company managed to prosper beyond those dark times because ten of the Jewish workers at the Kraus factory signed an affidavit to the effect that Otto Kraus was a benevolent boss who cared for his workers and saved many lives. Now the survivors among the ten are dying at an alarming rate--some from apparently natural causes, one from a fall from a window. As Henri investigates he finds himself imperiled and then devastated by horrific acts of violence past and present. The Tenth Witness is a thoughtful, literate thriller, characters well established as the suspense begins to build. One of Henri's worst moments is when he finds in his own heart a bit of the terrible darkness he is beginning to see in others. One of his best is when he risks his own life to bring a monster to justice. Rosen's Henri Poincare books are so well-written and memorable, one  earnestly hopes he will write many more volumes filling in the blanks between Henri's younger self in this book, and the older man of All Cry Chaos.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When She Woke

When She Woke
by Hilary Jordan
Algonquin Books, 2012. 344 pgs. Fiction

Jordan (Mudbound, 2009) continues to write socially conscious fiction, this time setting her story in a dystopian future instead of the Deep South.

Hannah Payne awakes to find her skin a bright, garish red. She’s been branded a murderess for the next sixteen years of her life, but before she can even get to that point she must survive thirty days of confinement with no entertainment but her daily shower and a bible. She reflects on her scandalous, seductive affair with Reverend Aiden Dale and the circumstances which necessitated her secretly contacting an abortionist. In Hannah’s society, women’s rights have been stripped away as a result of a sterilizing plague that swept the world, and abortion is no longer viewed as a choice, but punished as infanticide.
After her initial incarceration, Hannah is released into a halfway house for non-violent female Chromes, falling under the power of the sadistic Mr. and Mrs. Henley. The extreme measures this couple goes through to bring their charges back to the path of God helps Hannah begin to question whether she deserves such treatment. Her questioning takes her and her newfound friend, Kayla, to a sect of underground of feminists seeking to assist female chromes accused of abortion. As interesting as they may seem, the intricacies of chroming and the plague become a mere backdrop midway through the book as the story of Hannah’s journey towards empowerment takes hold. Jordan’s willingness to tackle women’s rights issues makes When She Woke an important and relevant work, but the overt way she inserts her pro-choice politics into the storyline can be distracting.

Reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Scarlet Letter, this story treads familiar ground, but Jordan’s modern take and lush prose are well worth reading.


Muck City

Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town
by Bryan Mealer
Crown, 2012.  321 pgs. Nonfiction

Belle Glade is an agriculturally rich but every-other-way poor town in southeastern Florida that has cranked out thirty NFL players since 1985, five of them drafted in the first round. Some of the boys on this team have parents in jail, or dead from gang combat or drug use. Some of the boys on this team have themselves been killed or wounded on the violent streets of Belle Glade, and most would seem not to have a raindrop's chance in Hades of making it anywhere except to the life of a migrant agricultural worker or to an early grave.  And yet . . .   family and extended family, coaches, teachers, educational administrators, the guy who runs the bakery, all do their best to help these kids.  And many of the kids help themselves to heroic degrees.  In any case, Muck City is a beautifully well written story of an often terrible place which is redeemed by the strength and hope of youngsters and their supporters who have no real basis for being strong or hopeful.