Codes for Reviews

First Initial (Overall Rating):
E = Exceptional
VG = Very Good
G = Good
F = Fair
NR = Not Recommended

Second Initital (Reading Level):
A = Average Reading Level
E = Easy
M = Mature

“The views expressed are of individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective institutions.”

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Beck by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

YA Fiction

The leaves shiver and fall and a gentle wind circulates through the neighborhood. It’s autumn and the perfect season to nestle up under an oak and lose yourself in a good book. And I’ve got just the book to chase away those post-summer blues. Let’s delve right in and get all roused with reverie for leisurely literature again.

Beck by Mal Peet is wholesale heartrending and a host to many narrative highs and lows. A historical novel that follows Beck, a young orphan vagabond traveling across the continent during the Depression, as he struggles with the racial inequalities of the era and the hardships of life on the road. It’s a story propelled by well-wrought emotions, fully-realized characters, and a protagonist that embodies determination in the face of abject desolation.  

The plot will pitch your wellbeing through the emotional wringer. Beck undergoes tremendous trials and tribulations and, willingly or not, finds his resolve and character hardened by it. Hunger and discrimination are a constant companion with him throughout his travels but he manages to find solace by novel’s end. Circumstance and chance batters the boy incessantly but he learns to persevere. He ekes his way from one harrowing situation to the next. Survival becomes a knack despite some gut-wrenching close calls. Beck finds himself testing the very limits of luck with his constant freight-hopping, illicit hardscrabble careers, and irreverent denunciation of authority.

The writer is adept at conjuring vivid paragraphs of description. We’re transported from the gloomy docks of Liverpool to the frigid tundras of Canada to the desolate amber prairies of rural America. It’s a story that spans many lands and locales. Displacement and social decline a strong theme page after page. It’s a Dorothea Lange portrait writ large across the page. Bleak and howling gray. But embedded in the nigh nothingness of descriptive deprivation and famine, we catch sight of lyrical glimmers of poetry. Soothing and sorely sought sustenance for the soul. Scattered are easily-missed, microscopically-mentioned mementos that remind readers of the beauty in disconsolate environs. Though seemingly barren and unforgiving, we must make an earnest effort to dust off the dolorous to find the shoots of green hope dormant underfoot.  

It’s a challenging book. Dark and sublime in its devastating portrayal of chronic indigence. Not your usual Young Adult fare that strikes all the conventional plot points and culminates in a tidy saccharine ending. This tale expects more from readers. It prods and poses difficult questions regarding race, class, and an outsider’s waning place in the world. It’s a book that has the courage to not opt for the easy answers. And presses you to find comfort in a lack of resolution or sense of closure.  

The long and short of it: Beck is fine reading. Stark and powerful in its craft of storytelling. It’s a thick borsch of The Grapes of Wrath, Angela’s Ashes, and Great Expectations. A tale as steadfast, unsettling, and mosaic-like as America itself. So brandish that thumb and hitchhike a ride on this rich and harrowing literary odyssey.

It’s a ride that’s sure to be itinerant and eye-opening.   ​

Tommy Vinh Bui, Inglewood Public Library 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

More Deadly Than War : The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War

YA Nonfiction

VG/A. Davis, Kenneth C. More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War. Henry Holt and Company, 2018. 291p. 978-1-250-14512-3. 19.95.

“We live in a world in which we fear the deadly things we can see. Bombs, guns, and terrorism are the most visible threats to life and peace…But throughout human history, the things we cannot see have actually been the most lethal. Disease have been more deadly than war.” Davis’s fascinating and engrossing account comes on the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu, the most deadly pandemic in the modern era. It has recently been estimated that 100 million people died worldwide, of which 675,000 died in the US.  However, little attention has been paid to the Spanish flu that left victims, otherwise young and healthy, “blue as huckleberries and spitting blood”.  A “collective amnesia”, the censorship of newspapers, magazines and textbooks surrounding the Spanish flu and its effects on WWI, has allowed it to fall into “a black hole of history”.  The history of the Spanish flu is a cautionary tale, in which lessons of the past are still relevant today, especially in a world more interconnected than ever before, where outbreaks of Zika or Ebola or even the flu can lead to another deadly and terrifying pandemic. Includes black and white photographs, appendices, timeline, bibliography, source, notes, and index. Recommended for all general YA collections.

C. Campos, Benjamin Franklin Library, LAPL