Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Book Review The Music Shop by Rachel JoyceRachel Joyce is a master of tender, heartening storytelling. I’ve read two of her three novels, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Music Shop. In both cases, I wanted to curl up and live in her stories for a while. Joyce’s writing epitomizes sweetness.

The Music Shop takes place on Unity Street, where a tiny row of rundown shops exist despite all odds – a bakery, an undertaker, a Christian store, a tattoo parlor, and a vinyl record store. The masonry is falling from the shopfronts, the town council wants to demolish and redevelop Unity Street, and the little community of shop owners and their neighbors are barely scraping by. Yet, they form a scrabbled together family who does not wish to be split apart.

Frank owns the music shop, and has a knack for suggesting the exact right song for each of his customers. A customer is likely to come into the shop asking for one thing, and walk out with something completely different, yet expressly what they needed in the moment:

“Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song”.

In this way, Frank becomes the center of his little community, comprised of people whose lives he has transformed through music. He is well-loved, despite being stubborn and a tiny bit bumbling.

Frank’s life is forever altered when a pretty woman in a pea green coat peers into the music shop one day, and promptly faints. Frank and his fellow shopkeepers revive her, and instantly their curiosity is piqued by the mysterious woman. Gradually, she and Frank get to know each other. She suggests Frank give her music lessons, and they meet at a little cafe each week. No matter that she is engaged to someone else, Frank is besotted and seems quite comfortable with his seemingly unrequited love:

“Real love was a journey with many pitfalls and complications, and sometimes the place you ended up was not the one you hoped for. But there. Better to have held her hand on a summer’s day than to have had nothing at all”.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there. My one criticism is that the story is a tiny bit cheesy. It’s a good sort of cheesiness though. The kind that verges on saccharine without tipping fully over. Music lovers will appreciate Frank’s suggestions and varied stock of vinyl. Readers will fall in love with the charming characters. The Music Shop is a feel-good must-read.

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Review: Islandborn by Junot Díaz

29096441_396841217445551_4141228615222165504_nLast week I took my 6 year old son (past his bedtime, on a school night…) to see Junot Díaz talk about his new children’s book Islandborn. Leading up to the talk, I was a little concerned about keeping my son up late. Exhaustion brings out the worst in him. The minute Junot Díaz stepped on stage, my fear was alleviated. My son was captivated. I was captivated.

Díaz kicked off the event by polling his audience members. How many people were immigrants? Who spoke a language other than English? In that moment, I felt such pride in my country. After all, as Díaz pointed out, “immigrant” is a good word. This is something to be celebrated. Someone should remind the President.

After a brief introduction and a few self-deprecating jokes about being an author, he read a selection from his book. After which, he told all the grown-ups to “go to sleep” while he let the kids ask questions. The majority of his talk was directed towards the kids in the audience. Adorable.

Islandborn is the story of a little girl, Lola, who immigrates to the United States when she is one year old. At school, in a classroom full of immigrant children, her teacher gives an assignment to draw a picture of the place where each of them were born. Lola cannot remember the island on which she was born. She must ask her relatives, and members of her community, what it was like. They tell her about the bats, about the music, the fruit, a hurricane, and a monster that terrorized the island for many years. Lola hears beautiful and scary memories from the island. She comes to understand that though she cannot remember the island, it will always be a part of her.

After the reading, one astute kid asked Díaz how the monster was defeated. Díaz answered that in his experience all monsters have weaknesses. To defeat a monster you must make lots of friends – you must have solidarity – and you must find the monster’s weakness. What a great way to talk about the world and its monsters.

Islandborn is one of those books you’ll want to read over and over again with your child. The book is a celebration of identity. When Lola finally reveals what she drew of the island, colorful pictures sweep across the page. That page makes me happy with every reading.

At the end of the author event, Díaz requested that all the young children jump to the front of the signing line. I was so grateful for his thoughtfulness, for by that point, it was an hour past my son’s bedtime. We stood in line, met the author, and got two signed copies (one for home, one for our Kindergarten teacher). Every day since the event, my son asks to read the book.


In addition to Islandborn, Junot Díaz has written several works of fiction for grown-ups. In 2008, he won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. If you get a chance to hear him speak, I highly recommend going! In the meantime, you can tide yourself over with one of his books.




Review: Islandborn by Junot Díaz

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

IMG_20180119_125026The most complimentary thing I can say about this book is, I finished it. I’m not sure why I picked it up in the first place. Certainly the provocative, high-gloss cover was a selling point. I like the underwear the cover model is wearing? The title? I don’t know. My indifference to this book prevents me from providing reasonable answers to my own questions.

The novel is written in a series of short paragraphs which weave in and out of at least half a dozen different story lines all pertaining to the main character – a prostitute and heroin addict living in New York. The opening paragraph is instantly intriguing:

“I met a man, when I was a whore in Dubai, who shook my hand and then passed it to his other palm and held it there. At the time it was mildly confusing. Now I know what he was doing. He was trying to see if I was wide-open, if he could fill my mind with anything.”

Possibly, this is the best written paragraph in the entire book. Maybe there were others, equally well-crafted, and I was too disenchanted to notice.

It was difficult to settle into the characters, because the book keeps jumping around from story line to story line in short bursts. Doubtless, the fractured framework was intentional. The main character’s personality, like the flow of the narrative, is rather splintered. There will be some readers who are deeply satisfied, and find hidden depths in this literary structure. I would argue that such depths are very well hidden, indeed. Usually, I’m down with a story that ticks back and forth between narrative elements. In the case of this book, however, everything felt supremely underdeveloped. It was as if the author apathetically threw out each paragraph with nary a care for the arc of the story, nor character depth. It read as such:

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with client and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with another client, and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute meets equally broken army vet in bar and begins to date him, but not really date him.

Paragraph: Prostitute partakes, often in large doses, of drugs; usually heroin, sometimes coke.

Paragraph: Prostitute flashes back to memories of a bomb-making Sheikh she dated in Dubai. She loved the Sheikh; it’s not clear why.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute gets her nails painted.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute agrees to be physically harmed for money, and pretends to like it.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute buys some groceries.

I’ll stop before revealing the ending, lest I give away the entire book. I’m sure, by this point, you’re itching to know how it ends.

If you turn to the copyright page, it lists the “Subjects” the book should be filed under – “Prostitutes – Fiction. | Terrorists – Fiction. |GSAFD: Suspense fiction.”. That is a scintillating combination of subjects. Then again, I don’t know that I’d call this book suspenseful. I think it’s mostly dull with a few salacious details thrown in. The suspense part comes in the last five pages of the book – the first time the plot picks up at any noticeable pace. By then, unfortunately, it was too late for me to care.

To be fair, I do think there are people who will really enjoy Ultraluminous. It was compelling, in its own way. There was a clear narrative tone; a bit of a dark, ambivalent ambience that carries through from start to finish. It seemed as though the author knew where she wanted the story to end, but struggled a bit with the getting there. You may find it entertaining. It wasn’t my cup of tea, or rather, coffee.

Happy reading?

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

The Stories We Tell

This time of year (in the Seattle area, at least) I notice a greater representation of multicultural book selections all around me; featured in bookstores, libraries, my child’s scholastic order form from school. This increased diversity in book recommendations is inspired by, and in celebration of, Martin Luther King Day.

When the President of the United States spews racist comments less than a week before the national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is increasingly important to think about the stories pervasive in our culture. What stories were we told growing up? Were they accurate? What stories are we telling our children?

Today, I’m posting a bit of a mash-up. I want to talk about the book that inspired this post, and offer a selection of stories for children appropriate for every single day of the year, not just the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

The Book that Inspired the Post:
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race

IMG_20180115_073318My daughter attends preschool in the basement of a Lutheran church. Next to her classroom is a lovely little library for those in the church community. One side of the library is flanked by windows, typically displaying key book selections. Walking past the library a couple weeks ago, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race caught my eye. Nearly a month prior, a friend of mine had attended an author event at the University of Washington for Dr. Tatum, and she spoke very highly of the event. Do you ever come across the same book over and over again, until it feels like it’s following you? This has happened to me numerous times, and before this book began its inevitable haunting, I checked it out from the library.

The main topic is racial identity development, and it offers many suggestions on how we (parents and educators, in particular) can positively nurture the development process. The book touches upon numerous factors which influence racial identity development, including systemic advantages and disadvantages in the United States, exposure to racial stereotypes, various socioeconomic factors, etc.. It is an extensive topic, and rather than cover every point, I will simply encourage you to read it. It is thought-provoking. It provides a broad context for discussions about race, offers insights into how children developing their racial identities can be supported, and it encourages self-reflection and activism.

Dr. Tatum begins the book with some general discussion about prejudice vs. racism. She explains it succinctly:

“… racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals.”

She makes a particularly good analogy that racism is “like smog in the air” which we are all perpetually breathing whether we realize it or not. Because racism is a system – embedded in our institutions, in what we watch, and in what we read – it is constantly influencing us in obvious and nearly imperceptible ways. Though it is all around us, and though we may not always notice it, Dr. Tatum beautifully writes, “We may not have polluted the air, but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up”.

How do we accomplish cleaning up the smog? Dr. Tatum offers a plethora of clear and concise suggestions to a complex, multi-faceted issue. Her book is not a quick-fix to a large problem; it is merely a good place to start. In fact, she includes an appendix  of continued reading about: racial history, activism, books for educators, books for children and young adults, etc..

The book ends with a call to action. Dr. Tatum acknowledges that speaking up “requires courage”, and that it can be difficult to know where to begin, especially when we are fighting the smog we’ve breathed in all our lives. She writes:

“… we can learn the history we were not taught, we can watch the documentaries we never saw in school, and we can read about the lives of change agents, past and present. We can discover another way. We are surrounded by a ‘cloud of witnesses’ who will give us courage if we let them.”.

She then asks us to consider our “sphere of influence”. What do we have the power to change? As a mom of a preschooler and a kindergartner, my sphere of influence starts with my children. I want to be mindful of the stories I share with them. One way to accomplish that is to ensure that my children have access to multicultural stories. Another is to talk to them about issues as we encounter them. Dr. Tatum recounts reading The Boxcar Children series with her son, and realizing that parts of the series are sexist. Her solution was to talk to her son about it. Dr. Tatum suggests that:

“Children can learn to question whether demeaning or derogatory depictions of other people are stereotypes. When reading books or watching television, they can learn to ask who is doing what in the story line and why, who is in the role of leader and who is taking the orders, who or what is the problem and who is solving it, and who has been left out of the story altogether”.

Dr. Tatum points out that it is a misconception that children are colorblind. Rather, she states that they begin to notice physical differences by age 3. At ages 4 and 5, both of my kids are watching cartoons, reading tons of books, and learning about world history in school. These are the years they begin to breathe the smog. Which got me thinking about the books we read together.

A List of Books to Add to Your Shelf:

Today, the kids and I gathered every book in the house that features a main character who is a person of color. We noticed and talked about the imbalance on our bookshelf; how many more books we have about white characters. We went to the bookstore and bought new books so that over time we can shift the imbalance. We spent the afternoon reading, talking about books, and about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. We sang him happy birthday.

In my free time, I wrote this post. I am going to keep thinking about my sphere of influence. I will keep assessing my children’s bookshelf, as well as my own, and reflecting on the stories we tell in our family.

Here are some of my favorites:

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
This book is both incredibly sweet and empowering. With each turn of the page, readers will be treated to a one page biography accompanied by a full page illustration of black female leaders. In each illustration the women are depicted with their eyes closed and smiling; they look happy and fulfilled. Each page manages to depict something about what they accomplished, often through an object held in their hand. It covers a range of women, both contemporary and historical. It is fairly magnificent.

Love by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Loren Long
This book was just released, and I watched it sell out at my local bookstore today. I nabbed their second-to-last copy. It features a person of color on nearly every page. It shows people and families experiencing love through everyday, mostly ordinary, moments. It is a little sorrowful in parts, but overall joyful. It is the sort of book that might choke you up, and make your voice shake a little as you read it aloud. It is beautiful.

Love Is by Diane Adams, illustrated by Claire Keane
This story is about as sweet as it gets. A little girl finds a duckling and raises it. The little girl’s relationship to her duckling mimics a parent’s relationship to their child, with all the joys and pains of watching someone you love grow up. It will be one of the books you don’t mind reading over, and over, and over again.

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez
This is the story of a Mexican girl who wishes to be a superhero. When some boys try to tell her she can’t be one because she is a girl, her grandmother comes to the rescue letting her in on the secret that she descends from a line of luchadoras. Lucia is bold, strong and brave. She is a wonderful role model.

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Nerstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
A little boy gets eaten by a snake while skipping through some eucalyptus trees. From inside the snake’s belly, the boy bravely outwits the snake, freeing himself and all the animals. It is fun to watch the little boy, unafraid despite being eaten by a snake, able to keep his wits about him and escape.

Ruby’s Chinese New Year by Vickie Lee, illustrated by Joey Chou
A little girl makes a card for her grandmother to celebrate Chinese New Year, and then ventures out to deliver it. Along her way she meets various animals (all from the Chinese zodiac) who help her in her journey. After the story, an explanation of the Chinese zodiac can be found, along with instructions on how to make paper lanterns, fans, and good luck banners to celebrate the holiday.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World by Matt Lamothe
This book shows one child each from seven countries: Italy, Japan, Uganda, Russia, Peru, India, Iran. It gives a brief illustration and explanation of various aspects of their lives such as where they live, the clothes they wear, what their families are like, where they sleep, and so forth. It is a story of what makes us different, as well as what connects us to each other.

Happy reading!

The Stories We Tell

Review: The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy & Art by Carson Ellis

IMG_20180107_090525If the title alone isn’t enough to grab you, perhaps the cover will, with its intricate navy blue illustrations and the bright pops of orange text. There is a sort of offbeat jaunty ambience to this book, both in illustration and narrative style, that would be well-suited to a Wes Anderson movie.

This is the story of Charlie, the neglected and lonely son of an American diplomat, stationed in 1960’s Marseille, France. One day, Charlie meets Amir who is a member of the Whiz Mob, a ragtag team of child pickpockets. Gradually, Charlie insinuates himself into the gang of street urchins, learning the tricks of their criminal trade. As he increasingly embroils himself in the antics of the mob, an undercurrent of uneasiness develops between he and Amir. Charlie’s privileged background collides with the vagabond lifestyle Amir leads. As the story unfolds, Charlie must question his personal values, his abilities, and his association to Amir and the Whiz Mob. It is both a coming-of-age tale and a romping heist.

This book is marketed to 8-12 year olds; and lest you question the appropriateness of this story for young people, please be assured, Colin Meloy deftly addresses moments of questionable suitability and morality with a tongue-in-cheek wit. Such is the case when the children toast each other with glasses of champagne, Charlie empties his without drinking it, and Meloy writes:

“Say what you will about Charlie Fisher and the serial larceny he’d been accomplice to for the last several weeks, he wasn’t about to go so delinquent as to drink alcohol. Besides, if he did, what librarian or bookseller would possibly order this book, let alone recommend it to a bright and studious reader such as yourself?”

These moments, in which the narrator addresses the reader directly, are sprinkled throughout the story. Perhaps my favorite use of the literary device came at the start of Chapter Thirteen:

“Watch closely. You are looking down from the topmost spire of the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde; you are witnessing the passing of time in this ancient port city… From your vantage, you can see it all. Let’s not spend too much time pondering how you got up to where you are, or more pressingly, how you expect to get down; let’s instead marvel at your omniscience, your incredible perspective from that height as the world turns around you”.

Colin Meloy’s writing is both humorous and affecting. So, too, are the illustrations from Carson Ellis. I was a big fan of Meloy and Ellis’ previous foray into the world of children’s literature, the Wildwood Chronicles, which were full of beautifully detailed illustrations. Though I suspect it was a conscious, stylistic choice to keep the illustrations in The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid simple, I missed the slightly more elaborate ones characteristic of their previous books.

Certainly 8-12 year olds will love this book. I think adults will also delight in this story. The street slang used by the Whiz Mob, alone, will tickle readers; with a handy glossary of the gang’s jargon in the back pages. Grown-up readers may predict the ending a bit too easily, but young readers will be delighted by the inevitable, elegant, resolution.

Happy reading!

Review: The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy & Art by Carson Ellis