The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
(Knopf, 2014, 286 pages)
This is novel by Henríquez has been receiving attention since it initially came out. I picked up the audiobook which was narrated by a full cast – a format well-suited for this title which has chapters told from the perspective of various characters.
The Riveras are the main family the novel revolves around. Alma and Arturo moved to Vermont so they could enroll their teenage daughter, Maribel, in a school that is best suited to her special situation. After a fall from a ladder she suffered brain damage and the schools in Mexico weren’t able to offer her the kind of support that she needed. There are obviously a number of cultural differences when the family moves to America, the language barrier is just one issue they have to deal with. But as the Riveras attempt to adjust to their new lives, they are introduced to other people and families with similar backgrounds. Those who traveled to the United States for various reasons and have stayed and claimed it as their own. Their stories are interspersed between the Rivera plot line and offer a different glimpse at what the immigrant experience in America is like.
Alma and Arturo are doing what they can to give Maribel a better life, but she starts to really show improvement when Mayor, a young man who lives in her apartment building, forms a friendship with her. She appreciates him because when they’re together she doesn’t feel as if he’s treating her differently due to her injury. She feels like he sees her for her and this helps her to improve in a number of ways. Unfortunately her parents seem to be caught up in viewing Maribel as someone to be treated delicately and they don’t want her fraternizing with boys unsupervised, even if they do know the boy in question.
The Book of Unknown Americans was well-written and I appreciated that there was more to the story than simply finding out if the Riveras were going to make it. The interspersed narratives with other immigrants added depth to the book because so many of them echoed a similar sentiment of never really being able to escape the labels of “immigrant” and “different.” Despite obtaining citizenship and proudly supporting the country, they always feel they are viewed with an element of suspicion and as being “less than” other Americans. While I wasn’t necessarily blown away by the story, I did enjoy it.
Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo ; illustrated by K. G. Campbell
(Candlewick Press, 2013, 231 pages)
Flora is a 10 year old self-proclaimed cynic. She spends most of her free time reading comic books, much to her mother’s dismay. One day as she’s looking out the window of her bedroom she sees her neighbor accidentally vacuum up a squirrel. When she heads outside to help she finds that the squirrel has become imbued with superpowers. Flora names him Ulysses after the vacuum cleaner that sucked him up and the two set off together. Ulysses has an enhanced brain capacity and we learn that he has the ability to write poetry and can fly. A squirrel with superpowers has to have a nemesis… but what happens when that nemesis happens to be Flora’s mother?
Flora and Ulysses won the 2014 Newbery Medal and I can see how this would be an engaging read for mid-grade readers. The story obviously has fantastical elements, but there’s a depth to the story as well. The illustrations throughout enhance the story and tie in with Flora’s love of comics. A unique and enjoyable read.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
(Penguin Press, 2014, 297 pages)
Ng’s first novel is a unique read that quickly draws you in. Set in a small town in Ohio in the 1970s we are introduced to the Lee family. The family of 5 resembles the American middle class in every way except for the fact that the Lees (Marilyn and James) are an interracial couple – a reality that was far from the norm for the time. Things become difficult for the family when their middle child, Lydia, is found drowned in the local lake. The police are leaning towards ruling her death as a suicide but Lydia’s parents and brother refuse to accept this. Marilyn is sure her daughter had too much going for her and that her death is the result of foul play. James believes his daughter was too social and well-loved to have thrown her life away. And Nathan, her older brother, is sure that the neighborhood “bad boy,” Jake, had something to do with Lydia’s death.
It is slowly revealed that the Lydia her family thought they knew wasn’t her true self. She put on the face she thought her parents wanted to see… but that doesn’t help to answer how a girl who didn’t know how to swim ended up drowned in the middle of a lake. Now her family is left to try and pick up the pieces of their lives because Lydia’s death has thrown them all off track in one way or another.
This was an engaging novel that keeps the reader going as they try to find answers for what happened to Lydia and how her family will begin to heal from her loss. I’ll be curious to see what Ng comes up with next.
The Madness of July by James Naughtie
(Head of Zeus, 2014, 400 pages)
The Madness of July by James Naughtie takes place over 6 sweltering days in July 1976. It is a political/spy thriller set during the Cold War. The main character, Will Flemyng, is a British Intelligence spy turned Minister in the Foreign Office. The novel revolves around an American that is found dead in the House of Commons. The dead American has Will Flemyng’s phone number in his pocket. Will has no idea why the dead man has his phone number.
There is also a parallel story in this book. Will is one of three brothers. The oldest brother, Mungo, has discovered a secret about their mother which could change the family dynamics. The three brothers meet at the family home to discuss Mungo’s discovery.
With the dead body, the family secret, and several other sub-plots, I thought that I would enjoy this book more than I did. The plot seemed disjointed. I found myself lost on more than one occasion. There are many different characters whose loyalties are either hard to remember or aren’t as they appear. The family secret never gets fully resolved. I am left to wonder if we will be seeing more of Will and his family in future novels. This is James Naughtie’s first novel. Perhaps, his second novel will be more enjoyable.
Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris
(Crown Archetype, 2014, 294 pages)
I was first introduced to Neil Patrick Harris when he was Barney Stinson on the show How I Met Your Mother (I was a little too young for Doogie Howser). I absolutely loved the show, and will defend its ending, so I immediately picked up NPH’s autobiography. But this celebrity autobiography is far different than any other one I’ve read before. NPH styled his autobiography off the Choose Your Own Adventure books where readers got to choose where the story goes. NPH sticks to this theme throughout the read and breaking into a first person narrative only when recounting his HIMYM days. He even included clever back stories on ways his life could have gone if he had made different choices, such as working at a deli or being eaten alive by piranhas.
I was pretty boring and read the book straight through instead of following the Choose Your Own Adventure style. I just didn’t want to miss anything but it would have been pretty fun to jump straight to the parts I was most interested in. Although there were never too many in depth stories, I did appreciate the small peeks we were given into his personal and professional life. I really enjoyed how clever NPH was with his writing and the contributions from other celebrity friends that were sprinkled throughout the read.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, 254 pages)
Doughty has had an interesting obsession with death since she witnessed a small girl fall over an escalator at a mall in Hawaii when she was a small girl herself. She decides to get into the death profession by applying to crematories in the area. She is finally hired by a crematory in Oakland, California and her career begins. Doughty takes you through her first year working at the crematory, whether its picking up corpses, caring for dead bodies, operating the cremation machine, or working with the families. She doesn’t hold anything (or any description) back.
I’ll admit this read probably isn’t for everyone but it peaked my interest. It was actually a pretty well rounded read that Doughty evenly included her own experience at the crematory, going to mortuary school, and life after mortuary school combined with history of death traditions and her own thoughts on where death customs should go in the future. While her own post-death idea might be a bit extreme, at least to me, but she brings up some good points on pondering your own plans before it’s too late.
The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand
(Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 360 pages)
Dabney hasn’t spoken to the father of her child, Clendenin Hughes, since the day he sailed away from Nantucket over 20 years ago. So she is shocked to receive an email from him announcing that he will be arriving on Nantucket the following day. With Clendenin, Dabney has always seen pink. Dabney has a special ability to see if a couple will be a perfect match by the color of their aurora that surrounds them; pink they’re a perfect match and green they should find someone else. Dabney has never seen pink or green with her husband Box but it was always pink with Clendenin. And their daughter, Agnes, who is engaged to be married, is surrounded by green.
This wasn’t my favorite read by Hilderbrand but it was easy to listen to in the car. The read was just a tad too predictable for me. I knew how the story would unfold between Agnes and her fiancé and the new boy she meets over the summer. I knew what choice Dabney would make if it came down to Clendenin and Box. Though Dabney and Clendenin had an interesting relationship, it was just a tad too predictable overall.