Monday, April 26, 2021

How We Got Our Dog


The Marvelous Miss Romie

Crikey, it's so long since I've been here that I've forgotten what the place looks like. Who moved all the furniture? And where's my typewriter? Don't tell me The Don has melted it down or sold it for scrap metal!

It was with shock that I saw I haven't posted since last July! That is unconscionable. What on earth have I been doing. Well...
  • Surviving a global pandemic, for one. Since April of 2019, I've worked as an in-home caregiver (I have several senior gentlemen for clients. My most venerable is 97.) It's my calling, I've discovered. I'm also fully vaccinated. However, my writing has also reasserted itself so...
  • I'm writing a number of novels at once. Go figure. However, I'm happy for the creative swell. Now, if only I can keep each character straight...
  • I sorrowfully haven't done much reading of middle grade fiction and hence no reviews on this blog. Hopefully I will get back to that one day.
  • I have also been writing short pieces or "challenges" on a website called VOCAL. One gets paid for each pair of eyeballs which land on one's piece, so if you have a spare second, I'd be thrilled if you headed for my latest attempt. It's about how our family adopted our dog and how she changed our lives.
I promise I'll be back again soon. After all, Mafioso don't disappear--intentionally, that is. Ciao!

Here's the link to my post on VOCAL: Our Romie

Monday, June 15, 2020

Review of UNPRESIDENTED by Martha Brockenbrough Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump ...

UNPRESIDENTED: A Biography of Donald Trump by Martha Brockenbrough (Feiwel and Friends, 2018)

What It's About: 

A riveting, meticulously researched, and provocative biography of Donald J. Trump from the author of Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary.

Born into a family of privilege and wealth, he was sent to military school at the age of 13. After an unremarkable academic career, he joined the family business in real estate and built his fortune. His personal brand: sex, money and power. From no-holds-barred reality TV star to unlikely candidate, Donald J. Trump rose to the highest political office: President of the United States of America.

Learn fascinating details about his personal history, including:

-Why Trump’s grandfather left Germany and immigrated to America
-Why Woodie Guthrie wrote a song criticizing Trump’s father
-How Trump’s romance with Ivana began―and ended
-When Trump first declared his interest in running for President

Discover the incredible true story of America’s 45th President: his questionable political and personal conduct, and his unprecedented rise to power. '

Opening Lines:
"Donald Trump sat in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower in New York while his team worked to get him ready for his second presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. Trump didn't like preparing for debates. He hadn't practiced much for his first one and lost steam after the first half hour. To avoid another disaster, his team was taking another run at it. In the midst of this, the deputy campaign manager's phone rang."
The Mafioso's Verdict:
We Mafiosi are no strangers to venal behavior or abuse of power. In fact, the Don's respect for  politicians is in proportion for how much he spends to bribe them to do his bidding. A little palm greasing here; a smidge of pot sweetening there and voila! (But don't let him ever hear you call it racketeering. That'll earn you a trip to the harbor. It's called 'bidness.')

In the Don's view, however, Donald J. Trump is an amateur. He got a leg up from his daddy and promptly declared bankruptcy six times. ("He's worse than Fredo even," the Don's been heard to say.) Martha Brockenbrough, who started her writing career as a journalist and has gone on to write some excellent YA novels, such as DEVINE INTERVENTION, reviewed HERE in 2012, has done a tremendous job of excavating the Trump family history and exploring the themes which made Trump into the person he is today.

What comes through loud and clear is that Trump may have many weaknesses, but self-promotion is not one of them. Throughout his business career, he has worked hard to exaggerate his wealth. He works tirelessly to get his name in the headlines, suing the media and then soundly abusing them. Things I didn't know before I read UNPRESIDENTED, are that he's been desperate to make a mark in Russia since the late Eighties (his first trip there was in 1987), and that he's had his eye on the presidency since before 2000, when he ran on the Reform party platform.

Brockenbrough uses primary sources as well as Trump's own words and media appearances to unravel the ways in which Trump was able to use Russian influence to steer the 2016 campaign. In the chapter "Going Nuclear on Norms," the introductory quote is from his ghost-written bestseller, The Art of the Deal. Trump states: "I'll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition."

The deal he made, as those who remember the start of the 2016 campaign can attest, was to make inflammatory comments about Mexicans and Muslims. He mocked his opponents on Twitter and at debates, giving them sophomoric nicknames and commenting on their appearances. In this, he appealed to many Americans' anti-intellectualism and their expressed desire for people who "speak their minds." Trump appeared to be as far from a regular politician as it was possible to be. He thrived when making insults and unambiguous pronouncements. In short order, he emasculated Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and finally Ted Cruz, all three of whom had greater bona fides with the Republican establishment. Looking back from the vantage of nearly four years, it's amazing the way Trump was able to subdue the Republican party and make it the party of Trump.

Brockenbrough's hardback of Unpresidented takes us to the middle of 2018, before the midterm elections which won the House of Representatives for the Democrats, and which helped put the brakes on what was a runaway train--although without the Senate, the Democrats' oversight is severely hampered. A paperback version comes out in September and, as Martha Brockenbrough stated on her Facebook page, "it will have coverage of Trump's life through his response to COVID-19."

There are many books about Trump in the marketplace, and Brockenbrough's is among the best of them. With a clear-sightedness driving a straightforward narrative, UNPRESIDENTED would be a work to share with the whole family.

About The Author (from her website):
Martha Brockenbrough (rhymes with broken toe) is the author of two books for adults and ten books for young readers (with several others on the way).

A faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts and blogger for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, she's also  the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she's written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit.

The former editor of, Martha has interviewed lots of celebrities, including the Jonas Brothers and Slash (his favorite dinosaur is the diplodocus). Her work has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years. 

She lives in Seattle with her family. Her favorite kind of food is Indian, although Thai runs a close second. Besides writing, she likes board games, playing music with the family band, travel to places far and near, drinking lots of coffee, and working out really hard at the gym.  WEBSITE  Facebook  Twitter

(Photo by Emerald England)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CLEAN GETAWAY by Nic Stone

Clean Getaway: Stone, Nic: 9781984892973: Books
Clean Getaway

CLEAN GETAWAY by Nic Stone (Crown, 2020)

What It's About (from Random House web page):
How to Go on an Unplanned Road Trip with Your Grandma:
    Grab a Suitcase: Prepacked from the big spring break trip that got CANCELLED.
    Fasten Your Seatbelt: G’ma’s never conventional, so this trip won’t be either.
    Use the Green Book: G’ma’s most treasured possession. It holds history, memories, and most important, the way home.

What Not to Bring:
    A Cell Phone: Avoid contact with Dad at all costs. Even when G’ma starts acting stranger than usual.

Set against the backdrop of the segregation history of the American South, take a trip with this New York Times bestseller and an eleven-year-old boy who is about to discover that the world hasn’t always been a welcoming place for kids like him, and things aren’t always what they seem–his G’ma included.”

Opening Lines:
"It might sound silly, but to William "Scoob" Lamar, the WELCOME TO ALABAMA THE BEAUTIFUL sign looks... well, beautiful. Not as beautiful as his beat friend Shenice Lockwood in her yellow sundress, but beautiful enough to make Scoob tip his head back, close his eyes, and sigh into the breeze blowing through the open passenger-side window in G'ma's Winnebago."

The Mafioso's Thoughts:
I have to say when you see a blurb from Christopher Paul Curtis that this is "a book that deserves to be eaten by young people!" that one's appetite is whetted. And, as often happens serendipitously, I have just finished JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson (which is a wonderfully written indictment of our criminal justice system, especially its racial bias)--and CLEAN GETAWAY has an inscription by him in its front matter: "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done." The signs were there for all to see: this novel was calling my name!

This is an engrossing tale about family dynamics, and righting past wrongs. G'ma is a hoot, and Scoob is appealing from the get-go. What is revealed as the story progresses is the hurt and hardship the characters have suffered, which doesn't define them, but makes them whole human beings, warts and all. As they make their way across the South is G'ma's new RV, the stories of black history come alive. They visit Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, where four little girls were killed in a bombing. They stop at the house where Medgar Evers was assassinated. (They also hit a Six Flags Amusement Park and go on all the cool rides.) During this trip, a lot of family history is revealed, and Scoob gets a better understanding of why his own father is the person he is.

This was a fast read, and the characters were appealing. I loved the artwork within, and the general design on the page. Nic Stone does a great job of weaving African American history into a boy's understanding of himself and his family. Loved it!

About the Author:
Nic Stone is an Atlanta native and a Spelman College graduate. After working extensively in teen mentoring and living in Israel for several years, she returned to the United States to write full-time. Nic’s debut novel for young adults, Dear Martin, was a New York Times bestseller and a William C. Morris Award finalist. She is also the author of the teen titles Odd One Out, a novel about discovering oneself and who it is okay to love, which was an NPR Best Book of the Year and a Rainbow Book List Top Ten selection, and Jackpot, a love-ish story that takes a searing look at economic inequality.

Clean Getaway, Nic’s first middle-grade novel, deals with coming to grips with the pain of the past and facing the humanity of our heroes. Nic lives in Atlanta with her adorable little family.

Photo of Nic Stone
Photo: © Nigel Livingstone

Monday, April 27, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THINGS SEEN FROM ABOVE by Shelley Pearsall

Things Seen from Above by Shelley Pearsall


by Shelley Pearsall (Knopf, February 4, 2020)

What It's About (from Random House website):April is looking for an escape from the sixth-grade lunch hour, which has become a social-scene nightmare, so she signs up to be a “buddy bench monitor” for the fourth graders’ recess.

Joey Byrd is a boy on the fringes, who wanders the playground alone, dragging his foot through the dirt. But over time, April realizes that Joey isn’t just making random circles. When you look at his designs from above, a story emerges… Joey’s “bird’s eye” drawings reveal what he observes and thinks about every day.

Told in alternating viewpoints–April’s in text and Joey’s mostly in art–the story gives the “whole picture” of what happens as these two outsiders find their rightful places.

Opening Lines:
Joey Byrd looked like he was dead.
I'm not joking.
Pretty much everybody at Marshallville Elementary knew who Joey Byrd was.
You could be walking to lunch or gym class, and suddenly you'd notice this pale-haired boy lying flat on the hallway tiles--arms out, eyes closed--as if he'd just been struck by a bolt of lightning. Usually a teacher would be standing nearby trying to coax him to get up and motioning for everyone else to go around, saying, "Just ignore him. Keep moving."
The Mafioso's Thoughts:
The Don and I have found a new favorite author. Shelley Pearsall hit this dual narrative out of the park. Most of the chapters are in April's first person POV, with interspersed third person chapters from Joey's POV. We get a well-rounded view of both of these central characters.

April is, quite simply, a delight. She's empathetic, intelligent, reflective and also full of that 6th grade worry of "what are others thinking about me?" and "do I fit in?" It is totally believable that she would choose to help out on the "buddy bench" rather than dealing with the stresses and strains of the lunch room. Joey, on the other hand, is a "rare bird," as designated by Mr. Ulysses, the genial janitor. I'm not sure of the type of learning differences he has, but he has an uncanny ability to trace patterns on the ground as if "seen from above." Initially disliked for his differences, he becomes as person of interest as his artwork gains notice from the town, eventually leading to a beautiful scene at the high school homecoming game.

This is a tremendous story about kids who don't quite fit in. I'll quote Mr. Ulysses, who hits the nail on the head:
"...every once in a while, a rare bird shows up. They are kids like Joey with something different, something unique, something unfamiliar about them--kids who land here for a short period of time to see if anybody notices them.... Usually no one does. Anything that is different or unusual makes most people uncomfortable. They stay away as far as they can. And before long, the rare bird gives up and moves on, and nobody knows the possibilities that they just missed." (page 234)
This is made all the more poignant because Shelley Pearsall's nephew, Miles, was the inspiration for the novel. Each one of us, I'm sure, has come across a rare bird in our lives, either as relatives, or friends, or students. When we are young, we often don't know how to proceed ("anything that is different or unusual makes most people uncomfortable"). We are often thoughtless, if not cruel. With maturity, hopefully, we come to appreciate the gifts of the rare birds among us.

The art work, by Xingye Jin, is magnificent. With the Don's blessing, I'm going in search of more Shelley Pearsall!

Remember #StayHomeSaveLives

About the Author (from Random House author page and from Shelley's website):
A former teacher and museum historian, Shelley Pearsall is now a full-time author. Her first novel, Trouble Don’t Last, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Her latest book was The Seventh Most Important Thing, which earned three starred reviews and was named an ALA Notable Book. Shelley lives in Ohio's beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park with her British husband, Mike, and their shelter cat named Charlie.  When Shelley isn’t writing or visiting schools, Shelley and Mike love to travel the world in search of new stories and adventures. To learn more about the author and her work, visit her WEBSITE

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig

The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig

THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig (HarperCollins 1968)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
In June 1941, the Rudomin family is arrested by the Russians. They are accused of being capitalists, “enemies of the people.” Forced from their home and friends in Vilna, Poland, they are herded into crowded cattle cars. Their destination: the endless steppe of Siberia.

For five years, Esther and her family live in exile, weeding potato fields, working in the mines, and struggling to stay alive. But in the middle of hardship and oppression, the strength of their small family sustains them and gives them hope for the future.

The first winner of the Sydney Taylor Awards was Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, and 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of this powerful classic.

Opening Lines:
"The morning it happened--the end of my lovely world--I did not water the lilac bush outside my father's study. 
The time was June 1941 and the place was Vilna, a city in the northeastern corner of Poland. And I was ten years old and took it quite for granted that all over the globe people tended their gardens on such a morning as this. Wars and bombs stopped at the garden gates, happened on the far side of garden walls."
The Mafioso's Thoughts: 

I'm currently writing an adult novel, loosely based on my grandfather's escape from revolutionary Russia, through Siberia and into China. I've therefore been reading a lot for research, since I've never been to Siberia and doubt I'll get there anytime soon. Esther Hautzig's luminous memoir was one of the books recommended on my library's website, and I was jolly glad I read it.

It is quite amazing what the human body and soul can survive. In this age of a viral pandemic, this is uppermost in my mind, but at least my family and I are not being forced onto cattle cars, or being bombed out of our home. Esther, her father, mother, and grandmother, are separated from grandfather in one of the book's opening and highly emotional scenes. The Russians who have invaded Vilna are capricious, and the grandfather is the only one of the family sent elsewhere (we later learn it is to one of Stalin's labor camps, and that he doesn't survive.)

The journey is a tribulation, and they arrive in Siberia half-starved. They are first put to work in a gypsum mine, and then told they can work in the village--on condition they can find housing. Everyday living is a huge chore: they have only the clothes they arrived in, have to scrabble to find food, and have to walk miles to school and to their jobs. But despite this, they make friends with the Siberians, who seem unconcerned that the family is Jewish. Esther proves herself a good student and shows great initiative, knitting clothes for some of the locals in payment for potatoes and milk.

In the end, Esther doesn't want to leave her new home. She has Russian friends, and a boy who is fond of her. As she says, "I was desperately, terribly afraid of change. Perhaps the thought of going back to a world no longer inhabited by the people I loved had something to do with it."

The Endless Steppe would be an excellent classroom read-aloud, and a great addition to any study of family survival in the second world war (or any war, for that matter!) I found it immensely moving.

About the Author:
Esther R. Hautzig (1930-2009) was an American writer, best known for her award-winning book The Endless Steppe. Esther Rudomin was born in Wilno, Poland, now known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Her childhood was gravely interrupted by the beginning of World War II and the conquest in 1941 of eastern Poland by Soviet troops. Her family was uprooted and deported to Rubtsovsk, Siberia, where Esther spent the next five years in harsh exile. Her award-winning novel The Endless Steppe is an autobiographical account of those years in Siberia. After the war, when she was 15, she and her family moved back to Poland, although in her heart, Esther wanted to stay.

Rudomin met Walter Hautzig, a concert pianist, while en route to America on a student visa in 1947. They married in 1950, and had two children, Deborah, a children's author, and David. Hautzig reportedly wrote The Endless Steppe at the prompting of Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, to whom she had written after reading his articles about his visit to Rubtsovsk. She died on November 1, 2009, aged 79, from a combination of congestive heart failure and complications from Alzheimers disease.

Esther Hautzig (Rudomin) (1930 - 2009) - Genealogy

Monday, March 30, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: NESSIE QUEST by Melissa Savage

Nessie Quest by Melissa Savage 

Nessie Quest by Melissa Savage (Penguin Random House, January 14, 2020)

What it’s about:
Ada Ru finally thought her parents were going to agree to a Fitzhugh family vacation in Disney World the summer before sixth grade, until her father announces he’s taking a teaching position in Scotland, and moving the family there for the entire summer.

Ada Ru is anything but happy. She doesn’t like their new home, she hates haggis, and she certainly doesn’t like the idea that she will be away from her best friend all summer. To top it all off, there is said to be a monster in the lake near their house!

That’s when she meets Hamish Bean Tibby, Hammy Bean for short, captain of the Nessie Quest Monster Chaser boat tour. He knows everything there is to know about the fabled Loch Ness Monster and Scotland. But as the two unlikely friends embark on an epic adventure to spot the lake monster, they end up discovering more than they ever could have imagined.

Opening Lines:
“Words may seem innocent enough, but I’m here to tell you that they’re a way bigger deal than most people know.
They are so powerful, in fact, that they can change you in a single, solitary second.”

The Mafioso’s Thoughts:

What a great idea for a middle grade novel! It’s a totally fish-out-of-water (pun intended) caper, set on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, with a delightful  cast of characters.

Adelaide Ru Fitzhugh (nicknames include Ada Ru, Ru, Denver etc.) is the character telling the story. She’s twelve, lives in Denver, and wants to spend the summer at Disney World. Instead, she gets to accompany her parents to her father’s ancestral Scotland, where they are spending the summer at a former monastery. Ada Ru is initially determined not to have a good time at all, but she soon gets herself involved with a couple of other kids, one of whom—Hamish Bean Tibby, aka Hammy Bean—has a mission to be part of the official race to find the whereabouts of the loch’s famous monster, Nessie.

Hammy Bean is eccentric and singularly focused on being taken seriously as a Nessie sleuth. He is also blind, which is a salient part of the story. (In the afterword, we learn that Melissa Savage’s mother is also blind, having developed retinitis pigmentosa as a young woman.) Hammy Bean often thinks himself invisible and feels he is friendless (there is also a subplot about his parents, about whom he feels he has to tell tall tales.) Ada Ru and another friend, a guitar-playing American named Dax (he of the seaweed green eyes and one-lipped smile, who is fast becoming Ada Ru’s crush) become a trio of fast friends, with very believable conflicts and adventures.

I raced through this novel, enjoying the characters and the Scottish setting. In keeping with my usual views of parents in middle grade, I was delighted that Ada Ru’s father and mother were together, and were nurturing without being overbearing. At times, the Scottish phrases were a bit much (does a ten-year-old Scottish boy really say “tatty bye”?) but Hammy Bean’s pluck won me over. I was as sad to see this story end as Ada Ru was to leave for home—and am hoping there may be a sequel. But, even if it is only to be a stand-alone novel, I highly recommend Melissa Savage’s writing. (Once you read this one, go back and read Lemons, which I reviewed in May 2017!) As Ada Ru would say, Melissa Savage's writing has “pop.”

About the Author:


Melissa D. Savage is the author of Lemons, The Truth About Martians, and Nessie Quest. She is currently working on her fourth middle grade book, Karma Moon Ghost Hunter, to be released Spring of 2021.

Melissa is both a writer and a child and family therapist. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissadsavage. WEBSITE

Monday, January 27, 2020

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: PIPPA PARK RAISES HER GAME by Erin Yun

Image result for erin yun 
(Fabled Films Press, February 2020)

What It's About (from Goodreads):

A Contemporary Reimagining of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for Middle Graders

Life is full of great expectations for Korean American Pippa Park. It seems like everyone, from her family to the other kids at school, has a plan for how her life should look. So when Pippa gets a mysterious basketball scholarship to Lakeview Private, she jumps at the chance to reinvent herself by following the “Rules of Cool.”

At Lakeview, Pippa juggles old and new friends, an unrequited crush, and the pressure to perform academically and athletically while keeping her past and her family’s laundromat a secret from her elite new classmates. But when Pippa begins to receive a string of hateful, anonymous messages via social media, her carefully built persona is threatened.

As things begin to spiral out of control, Pippa discovers the real reason she was admitted to Lakeview and wonders if she can keep her old and new lives separate, or if she should even try.

Opening Lines:
"I was the only person in the park. Tucking a damp strand of hair back behind one ear, I surveyed the abandoned slides and empty benches. It was just past six p.m. on a Friday, but it looked like nobody else wanted to be out in the rain."

My Thoughts:
This is the second book I've read in a row with a Korean-American main character, and I am enjoying getting to know a bit more of Korean culture (and food!) Pippa is an endearing and believable 7th-grader, worrying about her status, and making regretful choices. As she says midway through the novel: "I'd wanted a different life, but changing myself into the popular, private school Pippa had left me feeling more alone than ever."

Pippa doesn't disown her ethnicity, but she is embarrassed by her perceived poverty--her small apartment, and the fact that her older sister runs a laundromat. In her posh new private school, she is determined to erase the fact that she transferred from a public school--yet she feels conflicted when she doesn't speak up in support of her friend Buddy, whom she bumps into when she is out with her somewhat catty new social circle, "The Royals." These girls are rich, and they are also the mainstay of the basketball team. I liked the fact that the conflict spilled out into the sports arena, where Pippa has traditionally felt good about herself. There's also the opportunity to reflect on cyberbullying, which is a scourge of the middle school experience.

For an English Literature major (aka geek) like me, I enjoyed the parallels with Dickens' Great Expectations, down to the fact that the Haverford family live in a place called Satis House. As with Dickens, there's a lot going on plot-wise in this novel, but Erin Yun never loses control of the moving pieces. This was a satisfying read with an eye-catching cover. Highly recommended!

About the Author:
Erin Yun grew up in Frisco, Texas. She received her BFA in English from NYU and served as president for its policy debate team. This experience came in handy for her job as the debate consultant for the Tony-nominated Best Play on Broadway: What the Constitution Means to Me. She currently lives in New York City, and yes--she used to play basketball as a middle grader! WEBSITE