Tag Archives: staff review

Morse Pond Review: I Lived on Butterfly Hill

I Lived on Butterfly HillI Lived on Butterfly Hill

Marjorie Agosin

Atheneum Books for Young Readers


Available now

I Lived On Butterfly Hill is a heart-warming story about a girl who finds herself when things get rough. It is a well-written novel starring Celeste Marconi, an 11-year-old girl who lives in Chile. She always daydreamed on the roof and wanted to be a writer. Suddenly, small changes begin- missing classmates, strange boats in the harbor, and more. Her life suddenly changes drastically when she and her parents are forced apart by the dictatorship. Will her family ever be the same again?

Our favorite part is when they eat sopapillas in the rain, and also when Celeste and her friend Cristobal dance together.

~ Emily and Madeline, age 12

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Staff Review: Vatican Waltz

9780307452955Vatican Waltz

Roland Merullo

Crown Publishing Group (NY)


Available Now

I like everything that Roland Merullo has written — Breakfast with Buddha, Lunch with Buddha — and thoroughly enjoyed his new book, Vatican Waltz.

Cynthia Piantedosi is a devout Catholic who has experienced visions, or “spells”, since she was a young girl. When her beloved grandmother dies, Cynthia’s visions take on a greater intensity, pointing her towards becoming the first female Catholic priest. At least this is what she thinks God is telling her. She is so focused on this goal that she pursues it all the way to the Vatican. The backlash that results from this pursuit instead reveals God’s true intentions, which will inevitably lead to just as much upheaval in the church as inviting women into the priesthood.

Vatican Waltz is not thrilling in the manner of The DaVinci Code, but is instead a more thoughtful examination of how the Catholic church might respond to an elemental change in its foundational beliefs.

Merullo writes about religion, faith, and spirituality without trivializing them. He forces us to rethink what we truly believe and what we blindly adhere to. He pushes the boundaries of dogma without denigrating one’s beliefs. I read this novel slowly because I wanted to savor it. Merullo’s books are more about the journey than the destination, and this was a journey best traveled slowly.

 ~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: The Martian

9780804139021The Martian

Andy Weir

Crown Publishing Group


Available February 2014

What would MacGyver do if he was stranded on Mars? Well, astronaut Mark Watney answers this question after he is stranded in a dust storm during a mission to Mars, left by his crewmates who mistakenly believe he is dead. In The Martian, by Andy Weir, Watney wakes up to find himself alone, unable to communicate with his crew or Earth, and with limited food supplies. Even if a rescue mission could be sent, he would starve to death before they ever arrived.

Being a resourceful engineer and botanist has its advantages, however, and Watney manages to find a way to generate oxygen without blowing himself up, make water, fix the solar cells for power, create soil with viable bacteria, and grow potatoes from 12 food potatoes left behind. He even manages to find the abandoned Pathfinder Rover and rigs it up so that he can communicate with NASA. Eventually (a year and a half later) he manages to drive the rover from his mission 3200 kilometers to where there is another base from which he can connect with a flyby mission. It’s one disaster after another, but the MacGyver of Mars always manages to find a solution.

I liked this novel, mostly. I wanted to like it more. I liked it more for various parts, than the sum total. At first I found Watney’s conversational style irritating, but it grew on me, and I often found myself laughing at his humor. I really did want to find out What Happens Next, so the book was hard to put down. I found myself skimming the text when descriptions of chemical reactions and numbers seemed to take over the page; I have a scientific background, but I don’t really want to read a blow-by-blow description of the breakdown of CO2 to make oxygen, and the conversion of the rocket fuel hydrazine to make hydrogen, and the subsequent combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water.  Nor am I particularly interested in reading about why 62 square meters of soil are needed to grow 150 kilograms of potatoes in 400 days.

However, I didn’t know that Mars has no magnetic field! And I really enjoyed the sense of place that I got from the text: the utter sense of being alone, the alien landscape, the silence. I like hard science fiction, but my tastes tend to run to Kim Stanley Robinson or Stephen Baxter. I don’t think I would recommend this novel as a hardcover, but I might recommend it as a paperback. And I do think this would appeal to a reader who likes thrillers, or maybe someone who remembers watching MacGyver back in the day.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: The Free

9780062276742The Free

Willy Vlautin

Harper Perennial

$14.99 (paperback original)

Available February 2014

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People back in 1981, drawing parallels with the trials of Job. Bad things happening to good people is unfortunately part of the human condition, and doesn’t show any signs of going away anytime soon. The Free, by Willy Vlautin (The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean on Pete), is a modern day parable of good people caught up in bad circumstances.

The combination of the poor economy, diminished family support structures, the lack of affordable healthcare, our willingness to wage war without thought for any consequences, and pure bad luck, create a downward spiral for people on the edge. People who are regular middle class people like us, who are being slowly squeezed into poverty. Are we as secure as we think we are?

The three people in The Free are all good, hardworking people, whose lives just seem to slowly spiral out of control. Leroy Kervin has been so severely wounded in the Iraq war that he has lived in a group home for eight years, unable to function. Freddie McCall, a night watchman at Leroy’s group home, also works at a hardware store, in order to support one of his handicapped daughters. After his wife takes the children and leaves him, child support and mounting medical bills force him into a bad decision. Pauline Hawkins is a nurse at Leroy’s home; she is emotionally drained by both her job and from caring for her mentally ill father. She cannot form a meaningful connection with another person.

In such grim circumstances, the only thing people can control is how they deal with their situations. Leroy, in a moment of lucidity, makes a choice to retreat inside himself, and eventually his death sets him free. Freddie gets his children back, and experiences the kindness of strangers. Pauline makes a connection with a drug-addicted runaway. We don’t get the happy ending where everybody lives happily ever after, but we get a sense of acceptance and peace, and sometimes that is all we can expect.  I really liked this novel and found it in step with life in America today.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: Grasshopper Jungle

9780525426035Grasshopper Jungle

Andrew Smith

Penguin Group USA (Dutton Books)


Available February 2014

You just never know what you’re going to get with Andrew Smith’s books (Winger) , and Grasshopper Jungle is no exception.  This novel is pure GMO-run-amok fun. Combining it with teenage boy humor is genius, and I laughed myself silly while reading it. It is FUN, and, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m always looking for something that might appeal to a teenage boy, especially reluctant readers. Teenage boys crack me up, because they are so out there, open, honest, and unapologetic. There are some serious issues in this novel too (besides the bugs): sexual orientation, poverty, missing family members, bullying, prejudice, but Grasshopper Jungle is certainly never preachy.

The takeaway lesson here is to never mix grasshopper semen with corn pollen and human blood, because what you get is “an army of horny, hungry, six-foot tall praying mantises that only want to do two things”, namely, eat people and fornicate. (I do have a slight quibble here: is it praying mantises or grasshoppers? Praying mantises are predatory carnivores and would actually make more sense than grasshoppers, which are herbivores and eat only plants!)

When the local bullies go after high-schoolers Austin Szerba and Robby Brees, they inadvertently set in motion a series of events and mishaps that lead to human annihilation. Robby’s bloody nose dripping onto the pavement would normally just be gross and that would be the end of it, but the bullies then break into a secondhand store that just happens to have secret industrial biohazardous experiments encased in glass globes. Since glass globes containing disgusting bug parts are irresistible to teenage boys, they steal one, and OF COURSE drop it right where Robby has bled. It’s pretty much all downhill from there, but at least the bullies get eaten. Unfortunately, so does everyone else, but in the end, Austin, Robby, and Austin’s girlfriend survive. And, as Andrew Smith would say, “And that was our day. You know what I mean.”

~Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: We Were Liars

9780804168397_246a9We Were Liars

E. Lockhart

Delacorte Press


Available 13 May 2014

I’m supposed to lie. That’s what they’re telling me at least. According to the publisher’s comments, “Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.” Well I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but I’m not going to lie either. We Were Liars is a gut-punching book. You could probably tell that from the cover, the title, and the publisher blurb.

I’m not going to lie, but I will talk about the beginning, the writing, and a few of my favorite references. We Were Liars is about the Sinclair family: “the beautiful Sinclair family”. The family owns houses and a small island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Cadence, the narrator, introduces us:

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.

No one is a criminal.

No one is an addict.

No one is a failure.

The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.

The story is engaging. The narrator empathetic. But it is Lockhart’s writing style that really draws the reader in to this book. Prose frequently gives way to short, poetic lines that convey scattered memories, and an unsettling urgency. Urgency to make the reader comprehend something that Cadence herself doesn’t fully grasp. The urgency for Cadence that she explain — truly explain — her family; a family that she herself is struggling to understand. From the first page Cadence’s voice is fractured, split, ripped apart. Although she strives for coherence, when it comes to her family, Cadence relies on poetry as poetry can convey emotion, even when meaning is elusive.

Local residents and Cape Cod visitors will appreciate Lockhart’s descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard and I was delighted with the brief mentions of Woods Hole  — not the ferry, of course, the Sinclairs use private transportation. We Were Liars is also infused with references to Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Wuthering Heights, and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. These direct references are underscored by a plot that is complicated and demands close reading, much like Jones’s excellent books; character allusions to the outsider within — or the insider from without — that informs the plot of Wuthering Heights; and the narrative style of fairy tales that serve to simultaneously distance the story, as if it takes place once upon a time, while still conveying universal truths about family and love.

We Were Liars is smart, thought provoking, and unforgettable. I would never lie about that.

~ Sara

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Staff Review: A Tale for the Time Being

9780670026630One of the best things about  my first year at college was discovering the university libraries. I quickly settled on a favorite, and it wasn’t the beautiful old main library in the campus center, although I loved all of them (I don’t think I’ve ever met a library I didn’t like). Rather it was the library on the agricultural quad, with its utilitarian looks. The stacks were housed in a nine-story central tower, with study carrels tucked into the corners of each floor. The quietness was almost palpable and I rarely saw another person the higher in the stacks that I climbed. Sometimes I would wander through the stacks, perusing the titles, sometimes pulling one out for a closer look.  Just doing this gave me an almost giddy feeling, as though by random chance I might stumble across some forgotten tome holding the key to everything. At times I felt like a 20th century alchemist searching for a modern day philosopher’s stone — I know how pretentious this sounds, but don’t you remember how being 18 years old felt?

As the years have passed, I have given up searching for the answer to everything in dusty old books, and that feeling of giddiness is a lovely memory, but I have never lost my sense of wonder and curiousity about how the world works.

Every week it seems there are new scientific discoveries, and while they provide new answers, they raise yet more questions. For some time now I have felt that the field of quantum mechanics just might be the modern-day equivalent to the answer to everything, if only I could actually understand it. I am not a physicist, however. So I’ve read a few of those nifty “Very Short Introduction” guides that Oxford publishes; I’ve looked through Mr. Tompkins and Alice in Quantumland; and I’ve even read a graphic guide to quantum theory. And occasionally the fog I seem to wander through lifts briefly: I feel a glimmer of understanding. But when I try to articulate my “aha” moment, it just slips away.

Making analogies makes difficult concepts easier for me to understand, and one of my favorite analogies is to visualize quantum mechanics as a library — within the universe of each book, all the events are occurring simultaneously. It’s only when you pick up a book to read it that time moves in a linear fashion.

And then along comes Ruth Ozeki’s new book, A Tale for the Time Being, just in the nick of time! It may be the closest I ever get to understanding the basic concept of quantum mechanics. This book is a story told within the framework of quantum time. The two main characters, Nao and Ruth, never meet. Although their stories are told simultaneously, they occur at different times. Nevertheless, the two characters communicate with each other. Nao is a schoolgirl who lives in Japan prior to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and Ruth is a writer who lives on an island off the western coast of Canada. Nao puts her journal in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, which Ruth finds when it washes up on her island. Nao says that she is a “time being”, which she takes from a Buddhist poem with the words “for the time being” repeated in every line; we use this common phrase so often, to mean “for the present”, “for right now”, or “until further notice”, but Nao interprets them to mean that we are all time beings living somewhere in time, whether it is in the present, the past, or the future. Nao writes her journal as though she is speaking to whoever is reading it, and Ruth doesn’t want to finish reading it because she is afraid to end it and lose touch with Nao. Nao writes that she will commit suicide soon, and Ruth doesn’t want this to happen, even though it may have already happened. Ruth, who at one point declares that “writing is the opposite of suicide”, is suffering from a bit of writer’s block.

But wait, there is more: Zen Buddhism, Japanese popular culture, bullying, the dark legacy of Japan’s role in WW2, the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, island life, writing and literature, science, and philosophy. There is also sadness and joy and hope and love and humor. This is not a book I wanted to finish quickly.

I like to think of my books as my own personal quantum universe, my library of multiverses happening all the time right in my own house. A Tale for the Time Being is one place I will return to time and time again.

~ Lysbeth

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