Biography, Race & Equity, Young Adult

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Adapted from the adult memoir by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Water Dancer and Between the World and Me, this father-son story explores how boys become men, and quite specifically, how Ta-Nehisi Coates became Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As a child, Ta-Nehisi Coates was seen by his father, Paul, as too sensitive and lacking focus. Paul Coates was a Vietnam vet who’d been part of the Black Panthers and was dedicated to reading and publishing the history of African civilization. When it came to his sons, he was committed to raising proud Black men equipped to deal with a racist society, during a turbulent period in the collapsing city of Baltimore where they lived. Coates details with candor the challenges of dealing with his tough-love father, the influence of his mother, and the dynamics of his extended family, including his brother “Big Bill,” who was on a very different path than Ta-Nehisi. Coates also tells of his family struggles at school and with girls, making this a timely story to which many readers will relate.

Coates’ work is quite possibly the most important out there right now. His prose lifts the soul but also lays bare the inequities and injustice experienced every day by people of color. I am so appreciative that Coates and others are releasing their uplifting, brutally honest words in multiple formats that are accessible to all sorts of readers.

This book should be read by every teen out there, and by every person working with, teaching, mentoring, and loving a teen or person of color.

Teen Librarians, BUY THIS BOOK!


Madam C.J. Walker by Erica L. Ball


Madam C. J. Walker—reputed to be America’s first self-made woman millionaire—has long been celebrated for her rags-to-riches story. Born to former enslaved parents in the Louisiana Delta in the aftermath of the Civil War, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty, Walker spent the first decades of her life as a laundress, laboring in conditions that paralleled the lives of countless poor and working-class African American women. By the time of her death in 1919, however, Walker had refashioned herself into one of the most famous African American figures in the nation: the owner and president of a hair-care empire and a philanthropist wealthy enough to own a country estate near the Rockefellers. In this biography, Erica Ball places this remarkable and largely forgotten life story in the context of Walker’s times.

I recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow where a Black stylist brought in a first edition of Madame CJ Walker’s Beauty Book published in 1920 and valued at $7500. The stylist commented that she still uses some of instructions found in the book. I thought that was interesting and reminded me that I have wanted to know more about Madame Walker. This book satisfied my curiosity.

Author Erica L. Ball is a professor of History and Black Studies at Occidental College and she has produced a scholarly and very readable biography of this multi-talented, complicated woman. Part of the Library of African-American Biography series, this offers a deep look into Walker’s life from her beginnings as Sarah Breedlove right through to her becoming the first Black millionaire in the United States.

Ball addresses the good and bad aspects of Walker’s life and ends up presenting a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look at an American icon. Recommended.

Biography, Historical, Non Fiction

Agent Jack by Robert Hutton

cover167989-mediumJune 1940: Europe has fallen to Adolf Hitler’s army, and Britain is his next target. Winston Churchill exhorts the country to resist the Nazis, and the nation seems to rally behind him. But in secret, some British citizens are plotting to hasten an invasion.

Agent Jack tells the incredible true story of Eric Roberts, a seemingly inconsequential bank clerk who, in the guise of “Jack King,” helped uncover and neutralize the invisible threat of fascism on British shores. Gifted with an extraordinary ability to make people trust him, Eric Roberts penetrated the Communist Party and the British Union of Fascists before playing his greatest role for MI5: Hitler’s man in London. Pretending to be an agent of the Gestapo, Roberts single-handedly built a network of hundreds of British Nazi sympathizers—factory workers, office clerks, shopkeepers —who shared their secrets with him. It was work so secret and so sensitive that it was kept out of the reports MI5 sent to Winston Churchill.

In a gripping real-world thriller, Robert Hutton tells the fascinating story of an operation whose existence has only recently come to light with the opening of MI5’s World War II files. Drawing on these newly declassified documents and private family archives, Agent Jack shatters the comforting notion that Britain could never have succumbed to fascism and, consequently, that the world could never have fallen to Hitler. Agent Jack is the story of one man who loved his country so much that he risked everything to stand against a rising tide of hate.

Several years ago, I helped a man research information on the British Union of Fascists and Oswald Mosley. That was the first time I had ever heard of Nazi sympathizers and agitators in England during World War II. At the time, I found it mildly interesting but not enough to do further research of my own, so I was happy to dive into this dry but fascinating book about Agent Jack.

The cloak-and-dagger element of the undercover agent whose work was so secret that no one knew about it for decades is a definite hook to get people to pick up the book. I found the first couple of chapters to be a little dry, with lots of names and strands of stories introduced. However, it all starts to come together and results in a solid historical offering. Recommended.

Publication Date: November 12, 2019
Published By: St. Martin’s Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Biography, Children's, Fairytales, Folktales, Historical, Horror, Micro Reviews, Mystery, Psychological

May Micro-Reviews

28A02E25-07BA-4CBD-B1E0-6AEE24541D0DThe Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser – The Vanderbeeker kids are back in another charming story about generosity, being a good neighbor, and growing up. This is one of those gentle, feel-good stories where nothing much happens, except real life. The kids witness a beloved neighbor having a stroke, they struggle with their own emotions, and they learn that even kids who appear to have it all often don’t. The Vanderbeekers are definitely “free range” kids, and their adventures in their Harlem neighborhood are the stuff of dreams. The kids are all written beautifully and the family dynamics are definitely something to emulate. This is not a particularly special story in that it’s something “new” but it will be enjoyed by early to middle grade readers who just like to read about other kids.

Publication Date: September 25, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

657A0259-7343-412B-A674-DF6D9DD31EA2In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey – Bailey checks all the boxes in this supernatural, psychological thriller of a book: a couple whose marriage is in trouble, a dead child, a mysterious English manor house, a spooky forest, intimidating & creepy manor staff, a past tragedy…and more. Charles, Erin & Lissa are the seemingly perfect family whose life is turned upside down by a truly horrible accident. The psychological strain of that experience coupled with the gothic-horror experience of Hollow House makes for a top-notch, nail-biting, check-under-the-bed thrilling novel. For fans of English folklore, horror, and suspense. Recommended.

Publication Date: October 9, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

994C1041-BFDE-4E07-9D99-917BC0590A95Bluecrowne by Kate Milford – As a diehard Greenglass House fan, I eagerly anticipated this prequel to the series, and I am not disappointed. Kate Milford introduces us to a whole new cast of colorful characters who are every bit as entertaining, clever, and quirky as Milo and company. Lucy Bluecrowne is a character for the ages, and I look forward to following her adventures as she grows up. Liao and Xianming are also so intriguing that they deserve another book as well. Milford is well on her way to creating a world in Nagspeake that is every bit as magical and real as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. Her writing is full of lovely descriptions, clever and thoughtful dialogue, and plenty of mystery, suspense, action, adventure, and magic. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Childrens Books Group; Clarion Books
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

97EB1610-2008-4809-8637-BEB706E2DBEF Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster by Brian Regan – It seems that creating monsters to distract people from real issues is not something unique to 21st century politics. As a longtime but amateur student of cryptozoology, I am always open to reading new accounts of legends and monsters, so I was eager to learn more about the infamous Jersey Devil. The origin story of Mother Leeds giving birth to an evil, horrifying “monster” that flew up the chimney certainly has its roots in European folklore and fairytales. Those tales were often created to make people do things – e.g. Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth were invented to keep children away from rivers and streams, thereby keeping them safe from drowning. In this book, Regal and Esposito take the Jersey Devil out of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and link it to political intrigue and opinion-shaping. What better way to get people to do what you want than to scare the crap out of them? I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to know that such political maneuvering has been going on for hundreds of years without the world ending, which suggests that the current version of the Jersey Devil (immigrants/Muslims) will eventually be replaced with something else. This is not light reading, however, so I will recommend for those who enjoy non-fiction related to politics and history.

Publication Date: March 1, 2018
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

06FD49B1-679B-46B2-80F7-D50D936D72F1Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – Leonardo da Vinci has always fascinated me, so this new biography of possibly one of the greatest humans ever to live was something I had to read.  Isaacson delivers a well-crafted look not only into da Vinci’s life but into the culture of the time which certainly shaped his world view and supported his curiosity. It was da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity about everything that first attracted me to him so many years ago, and Isaacson provides a laser view into the mind that envisioned flight, surgery, and so much more. Highly readable, well written, and meticulously researched, this is very much recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy





Biography, Historical, Young Adult

Choices by J.E. Laufer

IMG_0137The plight of refugees is all over the news these days, so Judit Laufer’s tale of her family’s escape from Communist Hungary is particularly relevant. Laufer, an accomplished author of children’s books, has done a remarkable job of taking the bones of a story she has heard her whole life, a story she lived as a very young child, and layering on flesh to create a suspenseful, emotional story of courage and compassion.

In 1956, Laufer’s mother Kati Krausz Egett was the lever that pried her family loose from the early days of Communist rule in Hungary. Shortly after the failed Hungarian Revolution, when hundreds of thousands fled, or were imprisoned or executed, the Egett family realized their only chance for keeping themselves and their children safe was to flee the country. The decision was particularly poignant because the Egett’s were Jewish. Kati survived Hitler’s concentration camps, while her entire family, and Adolf’s sister, perished in the gas chambers. The unimaginable tension and stress of the Communist takeover happening so soon after the end of WWII is palpable in the whispered conversation between Kati and Adolf early in the book, when Kati asks “What if our parents had left when the rumors started twelve years ago?”

Laufer recounts the family’s secret journey from their home to the Austrian border, where they were met by the Red Cross. They managed to get to Vienna, where they were taken in by the Just family. Eventually, the Egett’s made their way to Canada where they built a prosperous life for themselves and their children.

I get the sense that writing this story was something of a catharsis for Judit Egett Laufer, and she has done a fine job of conveying the fear and emotion that drove her parents’ decision to leave Hungary. The fear and uncertainty were overwhelmed by the need and desire to have a better life – a free life – for their children. Laufer’s story strikes a chord today, given the numbers of refugees fleeing oppressive regimes, and it reminds us that those refugees are people first. They have hopes and dreams, and a fierce desire for a better life.

In telling her own story, Laufer has given us a poignant, powerful reminder that human kindness and compassion is always the way. I’d highly recommend this for a high school social studies class, as well as for general reading.


A Curious Man: the Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley

As a child, I adored Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” publications – comic books, paperbacks, a wax museum in Niagara Falls NY…anything that had the Ripley name on it, I was there. For me, Ripley’s cartoons began a lifelong fascination with and respect for the odd and unusual. When I stumbled upon A Curious Man, I was intrigued as I’d never really given much thought to the man behind the myth. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the man fails to live up to the myth.

Neal Thompson has produced a detailed if unimaginative biography of LeRoy Robert Ripley – cartoonist, world-traveler, athlete, and all around dog who made his fortune and reputation by collecting and drawing oddities from around the world. We first meet Roy Ripley, the awkward child traumatized by a pronounced overbite and a mouth too small for all his teeth. Despite Thompson’s constant reminders about Ripleys’ teeth, an early photo of Ripley depicts a mischievous, impish urchin sporting a wide grin. This picture made me think of Tom Sawyer and the type of mischief-making boys so well-described in Twain’s work. Thompson, however, was working with a real boy rather than a fictional one, and described the young Ripley warts and all.

As Thompson follows Ripley through his life, I began to really dislike the man. What came through was a picture of a selfish, chauvinistic, narcissistic, but extremely insecure, man who held women in very low esteem, and who, despite his love for travel and exploration, was the definition of, if not the inspiration for, the phrase “Ugly American.” His lack of respect for other cultures was startling, as evidenced in this passage:

“He considered it too much work to learn even a few phrases of his host country’s language, unabashedly speaking English at all times. As he’d done in Europe years earlier, when someone didn’t understand him, he spoke louder.”

However, despite my own dislike of Ripley, Thompson has done a decent job of describing the man and his life, including almost too much detail, which adds to the length of the book. At times, the writing was juvenile and nondescript; the author’s use of modern colloquialism was also distracting – for example, describing Ripley’s soon-to-be-divorced wife as “pissed off.”

Despite Ripley’s hound-dog lifestyle, Thompson does manage to convey Ripley’s concern for the people he met during his world travels. The hunger and poverty he witnessed in Asia “haunted” him. In his own way, Ripley used his cartooning as a way to bring awareness of other cultures and countries to Americans. Ripley was a complicated man, and writing about his crazy life was surely a monumental task. I really wanted to like this biography of a man whose work has played such a role in my life as a reader, but I found my attention wandering constantly, and getting through the book was a chore. The author could have easily edited out several chapters and had a better, more compact biography; however, shortening the content probably wouldn’t make me like Ripley any better.


Queen of Vaudeville

Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay by Andrew Erdman

Before Madonna, Katy Perry, and Lady GaGa, there was Eva Tanguay. Never heard of her? Neither had I, but by the time I finished this entertaining biography, I knew more about the First Lady of Vaudeville than I ever needed to know.

Tanguay began performing at the tender age of 8, and went on to become the most celebrated performer of her time, despite regular reports that she could neither sing nor dance. She made up for her lack of talent with her outrageous performances, which she undertook with enthusiasm and joyful abandonment. She became known for songs such as “It’s All Been Done Before, But Not the Way I Do It,” “Go As Far As You Like,” “That’s Why They Call me Tabasco,” and her most famous ditty, “I Don’t Care.”

At one point in her career, she was the highest paid performer in Vaudeville, earning as much as $3500 a week, unheard of at that time, especially for a woman. Erdman does a fine job of recounting Tanguay’s life and rise to stardom. The photos sprinkled throughout the text show a vivacious woman, usually grinning or winking at the camera, who obviously loved what she did for a living.

Anyone with a taste for pop culture should find this biography highly entertaining, just like Eva Tanguay.


Just Kids by Patti Smith

April 17, 1976. The first time I ever saw Patti Smith was during her memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live. I was 13 and just getting turned on to punk rock — The Ramones, Blondie, Boomtown Rats…and Patti Smith. I remember being fascinated by what I saw but also more than a little puzzled. There was something more there than just music. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was art with a capital A.

As I grew older, I also grew fairly tired of the harsh, dissonant sound of punk. It seemed to me it became an affectation rather than a belief, an excuse rather than a stand. But I never grew tired of Patti Smith and her raspy, atonal vocals and raw, poetic lyrics. After awhile though, she disappeared and I forgot about her and her music/art.

Until I read a review of Just Kids, which I knew I had to get my hands on.

Just Kids is the story of Smith and her lover/friend/soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, a trailblazer in his own right. Smith’s elegant, lyrical prose begins with her own childhood and eventually blends into her early life in NYC, where she wandered the streets alone, until she met Mapplethorpe.

She describes their early life together as one full of discovery and expression — both creating art as they felt it and experienced it in their daily lives. Objects held great importance for Smith and Mapplethorpe — how objects are made, used, treasured, seen. Smith used words and music to describe, while Mapplethorpe used the camera and both succeeded in making us see things differently.

Smith opens a window into the NYS art scene of the 70s and 80s, populated by such people as Andy Warhol and his entourage. While she writes about living and interacting with people now considered icons, Smith makes them all seem like regular human beings living out their purpose. None of the woke up one day and said “I’m going to create an icon today.” Instead they simply lived their lives and created as they went.

Art was as natural to them as breathing.

Throughout it all, Smith gives a human voice to Mapplethorpe, who continues to be considered one of the most controversial artists ever. He was just a beautiful boy trying to help people look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary.

Smith handles Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS with gentleness and authentic remorse. She uses a number of his photos of her throughout the book which reveal a stark but elegant beauty. Her account of Mapplethorpe’s last days and the aftermath of his death is heartbreaking.

Just Kids is a beautiful book and well worth the reading.

Mapplethorpe asks Smith at the end, “Did Art get us, Patti?” Maybe it did.