Book Review: The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife @ravenmaster1 @fsgbooks

The Ravenmaster
Christopher Skaife
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2018
ISBN 978-0-374-11334-6
Hardcover

Months ago, I read a blurb about The Ravenmaster in The Week magazine and I had been trying to get to it since then. Admittedly, it took a while. Totally worth the wait.

This book amused & delighted me as I read it, and again whenever parts popped into my head. Mr. Skaife seems to be a natural story-teller. I know I hung on to every word, but by the end…I still had not gotten my fill of the seven ravens that call The Tower of London home.

You can easily imagine my enthusiasm when I realized they have their own Instagram!! Turns out: my procrastination was a perk. In the essay collection, Mr. Skaife shares hopes for the future of the ravens at The Tower. I recently saw on the social media site that one of his goals has been met. So cool!

I have a new go-to-gift and it is uniquely excellent in that it is universally appealing. I cannot wait to share it with “my” students and to hand it out to my friends. No need to be into ravens, or even birds at all; the history of The Tower and the evolution of the post that is now The Ravenmaster is incredibly interesting. The bits about Mr. Skaife as a mischievous boy and later, as an eager sponge in the military are equally entertaining.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2019.

Book Reviews: Last Call by Elon Green and Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton @elongreen @CeladonBooks @DaveShelton @DFB_storyhouse

Last Call
A True Story of Love, Lust and Murder in Queer New York
Elon Green
Celadon Books, March 2021
ISBN 978-1-250-22435-4
Hardcover

The world was not warm or welcoming for gay men in the 1980s. Discrimination, bias and inexplicable hate made for an uncomfortable existence, at best. Not only was homosexuality grossly misunderstood; but AIDS was becoming a familiar fear for everyone.

Repercussions could be very real for any openly-gay man. Life turned from unpleasant to terrifying with the discovery of a dismembered male body. And later, another grisly, heart-wrenching find. More would follow.

Law enforcement was not convinced that the scarily-similar manner of disposal connected the crimes. Faint lines leading to New York City piano bars— where gay men felt somewhat safe—seemed more than a stretch.  Prejudices towards the victims’ “life-styles” and the lack of a crime scene, coupled with “dump sites” in different jurisdictions, meant that these crimes were not priorities.

Family members, friends, Lesbian and Gay Advocate Groups would not allow these deaths to be ignored, though. Patrons, pianists, and bartenders all mentioned one man, in particular. The suspect was a nurse at a NYC hospital, but no one knew more than that.

In the same way that stellar wait-staff are inconspicuous when their service is spot-on, Mr. Green simply sets everything up, almost allowing each man to tell his own story.

This review was written by jv poore for Buried Under Books, with a huge “Thank You!” to Celadon Books for the Advance Review Copy, which I will donate to my favorite high-school classroom library.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2021.

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Thirteen Chairs
Dave Shelton
David Fickling Books, September 2015
ISBN 978-1-910-20044-5
Trade Paperback

Inside of a dilapidated, abandoned home— that is most assuredly haunted, per the neighborhood children—one room appears to be in use. A long table is set with flickering candles, casting strange rays on the oddly assembled group gathered around.

Jack had heard the wicked rumors; but standing outside and seeing a soft light within, his curiosity has passed piqued. Compelled, he enters the house and follows the glow. He is welcomed to the table, where there is, uncannily, one empty chair.

Each person has a story to share and every one of the scary shorts could stand alone. Some of the narrators appear to know one another quite well, while others seem less comfortable with the eclectic individuals sharing their space. Jack is clearly the freshest face to the table, and perhaps, he has the most to fear.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2019.

Book Reviews: Cold Cases Solved by Robert Keller and Cemetery Girl by Joseph Cognard @rkeller_author @JosephCognard

Cold Cases Solved: Volume 1
Robert Keller
Robert Keller, February 2021
ISBN 979-8705110858
Trade Paperback

Cold Cases Solved: Volume 1 by Robert Keller is a succinct, true-crime collection of eighteen murder cases. By “succinct” I mean to say that when the book arrived, I was a bit bummed by the size. I thought that “Volume 1” must be only the first case.

Happily, I was wrong.

Mr. Keller really can (and does) aptly convey the circumstances of each situation in fewer than two hundred pages. His writing reminds of Ann Rule’s, in that we know what went down and are affected by the actions, but are spared gratuitous, graphic details. Also, there is little, if any, cursing which can broaden my scope of students that I can share with.

Speaking of sharing this with my students, these chapters are perfect for the self-professed “non-reader”. As previously mentioned, they are short. And contain small sections that seem to eliminate the intimidation of big books with tiny font.

Although I read, listen to and watch enough true-crime to be alarming, I was only familiar with a couple of these felonies.

Many cases seem to go cold due to determined presumptions. This is the first time I’ve heard of someone confessing because of found evidence assumed to seal his fate, only to later realize it had no relation to him or his crime.

I had never heard that taking someone’s life, while committing another crime against said person, equates to murder.

One criminal was able to commit his heinous act because only two days prior, he was acquitted of rape. Found “not guilty by reason of insanity”.

As an aside, I also learned about The Melbourne Cup, an Australian much-more-than-a-horse-race festivity dating back to 1861.

I will certainly be searching for further volumes of Mr. Keller’s Cold Cases Solved, for my own entertainment and edification and to share with “my” students.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2021.

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Cemetery Girl
Joseph Cognard
Joseph Cognard, April 2012
ISBN 978-0615624006
Trade Paperback

A single cemetery evokes a variety of emotions.

Vanessa feels that a graveyard does not serve as the grooviest hang-out spot, even if it is private. Bobby sees the tombstones as mini history lessons, where Keith certainly seems to be searching for some kind of connection. But to Janie, the Cemetery Girl, comes comfort…even if the tombs tend to tickle a sort-of sixth sense.

None of the friends are wrong. Inside of the fence, there are stories to be shared. Sadly, the souls with so much to say cannot communicate with the family and friends that need to hear these messages. Maybe they haven’t found the right medium.

While I’ve devoured and delighted in tons of tales centered around tombstones, The Cemetery Girl by Joseph Cognard presents a premier plot. And one I’m particularly pleased with. Sneaky subtleties slowly show that the puzzle the kids are trying to solve is actually only one part of a much larger portrait.

I really enjoyed the character interactions and the layers that wove the story together, and wrapped it up, leaving just enough left-over to have me hoping for more.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2019.

Book Review: Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson @TheBloggess @HenryHolt

Broken: In the Best Way Possible
Jenny Lawson
Henry Holt and Company, April 2021
ISBN 978-1-250-07703-5
Hardcover

Broken: In the Best Way Possible is the third collection of comical, every-day-life essays by Jenny Lawson (also known as The Bloggess). Ms. Lawson is one of the few people on this planet willing to share self-deprecating stories, not just for a laugh; but to show those who feel alone that they really aren’t.

Most of us have felt the frustration of our own forgetfulness. Ms. Lawson’s recollection issues provide perspective. Her open letter to her health insurance company highlights contradictions in their policies along with procedures that are almost nonsensical. Relatable, if you’ve ever been baffled by insurance.

Some chapters surprised me with anxieties and odd decisions so very similar to mine. Finally, someone else who waffles between answering the door when the mail-carrier requires a signature or just ignoring it and driving to the post office on another day. Hoping to feel up to face-to-face communication in the future.

To me, one of the most challenging aspects of clinical depression is not being to explain how it feels. I cannot emphasize enough how validating and exactly-what-I-needed-right-now this book is. It isn’t written to a specific, clinically-depressed audience, though. Ms. Lawson bravely speaks to absolutely everyone. Even those with brilliantly-balanced chemistry will be amused by these anecdotes.

Oh! And I learned what kintsugi is. When Ms. Lawson’s husband suggested it, he was so spot-on that he must have felt like a rock-star for a moment.

Reading Broken is like receiving a desperately needed hug from the person who knows you best and loves you anyway. And, I absolutely adore the new name she gives to the Acknowledgements section.

This review was written by jv poore for Buried Under Books,
with huge “Thank You!” to Henry Holt & Company
and Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2021.

Book Review: Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs @JennyBoylan @CeladonBooks

Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs
Jennifer Finney Boylan
Celadon Books, April 2020
ISBN 978-1-250-26187-8
Hardcover

Throughout Jimmy’s childhood, he felt torn between loving alone time and aching from emptiness. It’s easy to understand the left-out feeling of one sibling when the rest of the family is off, rallying around the other child. He was genuinely proud of his sister and her mad equestrian skills and obviously his parents had to get her, and her horse, to the shows. He could have joined them; he chose not to. Inevitably, the weekends alone could feel downright lonely. Even with canine company.

But there was another reason. Jimmy didn’t exactly understand it himself, nor did he crave the contemplation needed to attempt to articulate the strong, something-is-not-right gnawing. He more than made up for it by being immensely entertaining, even allowing for a bit of eccentricity. 

Based solely on a shared, whole-hearted adoration for all of the dogs, I expected to enjoy this memoir. I did not anticipate being so enamored with the author. I felt a kinship, in an I-want-to-be-that-true kind of way. I can easily imagine an encounter with Ms. Boylan wherein I would enthusiastically profess my fondness for her latest book and then immediately ask if I could pet her dog. I’m sure she’ll have one with her.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2020.

Book Review: Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani @aarti411 @CeladonBooks

Here We Are
American Dreams, American Nightmares
Aarti Namdev Shahani
Celadon Books, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-20475-2
Hardcover

I want to be Aarti Shahani when I grow up. Not just adult Aarti, author of this exquisite memoir, but the young girl that, after exhausting all other avenues, wrote directly to the judge presiding over her father’s case. So often, in fact, that the judge called her his “pen-pal”. In a way, that sums up her essence. In no way does it encapsulate her whole-hearted determination or accomplishments.

Ms. Shahani shares her story, alongside her father’s, generously and honestly. Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares is a courageous and remarkably thoughtful way to illustrate stunning errors, inconsistencies and absolute apathy within the immigration system of the United States.

Her self-education started in adolescence when her family’s American-Dream-Life was demolished. The successful electronics store that her father and uncle were so proud of, was ensnared in the criminal investigation of so many cash-based-businesses on Broadway. A Columbian cartel was laundering money. No one within the judicial or legislative system mentioned that it would be highly unusual and unlikely for Indians to be Cali foot-soldiers.

At that time, Ms. Shahani did not imagine the volume of mistakes that had been made and ignored throughout her father’s processing. She did know that things were not right. For her family and, to her initial surprise, many of her immigrant neighbors. As she learned, she passed on her knowledge. Her assistance and action created ripples all across the continental U.S.

Ms. Shahani’s tone elevates this already compelling narrative. She does not attempt to hide her feelings or opinions, but they are clearly separated from explanations of policies and procedures. The objective, but not unfeeling, telling also shows that other countries have issues as well. It was not the U.S. that errantly issued a new passport to someone…immediately after London’s highest court had revoked all travel papers.

I finished this book with a new awareness of the intricacies and gaping holes in the immigration and deportation system. Ms. Shahani’s conversational tone, warmed by her obvious affections and admirations, make reading her memoir like catching up with a cherished friend in the comfiest of coffee shops. I am so glad that I get to take this gem to ‘my’ students next week; I don’t think I could wait any longer.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2019.

Book Review: The Blind Side by Michael Lewis @wwnorton

The Blind Side
Michael Lewis
W.W. Norton and Co., September 2007
ISBN 978-0393330472
Trade Paperback

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis was not one of the Biographies on my massive To-Read list. I did not see the movie and I am probably not a true sports fan. Nonetheless, when Boy brought the book home for his Sports Literature class, I had to read it first. He told me it was about football.

It is not about football. Not exactly, and not entirely.

I will admit to being pleasantly surprised by how incredibly interesting the football parts were. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Tom Lemming and it was nifty to understand roles and responsibilities for different player positions.

The story of Michael Oher and the Touhy family is uplifting and inspiring. An example of good people, simply doing what they feel is the right thing. A demonstration of the fierce power invoked when huge hearts and open minds collide.

Michael has a million reasons to be angry, bitter and seriously cynical. He is none of those things. Instead, he’s the go-with-the-flow guy. Crashing on the right floor, at the right time led to Michael attending the elite Briarcrest. A world away from the public schools he had barely bothered with.

To say that Michael stood out would be a gross understatement. He quickly caught the eye of Sean Touhy. Touhy came from very little. He worked hard and became a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court at Ole Miss. He felt a connection to the quiet newcomer.

Sean was not alone. Leigh Ann, and their two children, quickly developed the same kinship. The Touhys welcomed Michael Oher into their family. The four rallied around him to ensure a successful senior year of high-school and to help him transition into college.

I am so happy that I read this. I will absolutely be adding it to a few of my favorite high-school classroom libraries.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2020.