Accidental PresidentSome of the most significant events in world history transpired in April through August of 1945. Germany’s surrender, the creation of the United Nations, the Potsdam Conference, the testing and use of the atomic bomb, and Japan’s surrender to end World War II all happened from April 12 – August 14, 1945 – the first 4 months of the Truman presidency.

A.J.  Blaine has penned a compelling chronicle of this time in The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World. This well-researched work takes the reader day by day through this momentous period but this is not a dry timeline of events. Blaine brings the events and people to life on the page and you feel as if you are in the room.

Blaine starts his narrative on April 12th which began as an ordinary day for Harry Truman. He rose at his normal early hour and took his walk before heading to his office in the Senate building. But this was no ordinary day and by nightfall he was sworn in as president and briefed on the secret weapon being developed, the atomic bomb. Stunned by the death of Franklin Roosevelt, many in the country wondered who Harry Truman is and would he be able to do the job. Truman himself said “I’m not big enough for this job”.

Before continuing with Truman’s presidency Blaine gives us an abbreviated biography. The author uses these pages to show us the qualifications and character Truman brought to the White House. He never went to college but he was well read and loved music. He was devoted to and loved Bess from the time he met her. In the Army during World War I he showed his ability as a leader but was unsuccessful in business. Even though he was elected with the help of Tom Pendergast (who ran Kansas City politics) Truman was honest in all his dealings as presiding judge in Jackson County.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate while Pendergast was still powerful and was dubbed the senator from Pendergast. But he won, to the surprise of many, a second term after Pendergast’s arrest and imprisonment. His committee to investigate waste and corruption in the national defense program saved money and brought him some national recognition.

Even though Truman wasn’t a complete unknown, the Democratic Party was stunned by his nomination as Vice-President for Roosevelt’s historic fourth term. He was a reluctant nominee but once nominated he campaigned tirelessly for the president.

Even though he was Roosevelt’s choice for VP he was not part of the inner circle and was not included in briefings or negotiations. On April 13th, his first full day as president, Truman began to learn the depth of what he did not know.

As Blaine recounts the next 123 days not every decision and meeting is detailed. Instead you get a sense of just how busy each day was and the amount of information Truman has to absorb from meetings and reports. Unlike Roosevelt, Truman’s cabinet meetings were for reporting and information. Following this meeting he would sometimes spend his whole morning in back to back 15 minute meetings.

During the first 2 weeks of the new administration, Roosevelt was buried, Nazi death camps were liberated, the United Nations conference began in San Francisco, Berlin fell, Mussolini was executed, Hitler committed suicide, and on President Truman’s 61st birthday, Germany surrendered.

The next weeks and months were more of the same with a deteriorating relationship with the Soviets, the war with Japan and the fulfilling of his official duties as president. The conference with Stalin and Churchill was to begin in July and the president wanted to be prepared. While determining what he believed was best for the U.S., Truman was aware of his obligation to honor both the agreements Roosevelt had made and the man himself.

The Potsdam Conference, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 14th ends this historic and pivotal 4 months.

The biographical information was an important part of the book but slowed the pace of the narrative. Once the countdown of days began however, this work was hard to put down. This fascinating look at what has to be one of the most difficult periods any president has faced, shows that the man who thought “he wasn’t big enough” greatly underestimated his abilities.

Advertisements

Rebel MechanicsI found today’s title while searching for reading material for an upcoming book club gathering.  Book clubs offer an excuse to read for fun and so much more.  They are a great way to explore new reading territory and to add titles to your “To Be Read” stack.  Lists of suggested titles for book clubs are fantastic resources and easily found online or with the help of a librarian.

Rebel Mechanics: All is Fair in Love and Revolution by Shanna Swendson was a serendipitous find for me.  It has been a fun trip into alternative history, a fiction type which has been around for a long time but hasn’t shown up on my reading list that often.  Collins English Dictionary defines alternative history as “a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome”.  Many times alternative (or alternate) histories use a military history starting point—What if the Axis had won World War II?  What if the British had won the American Revolution?—and build the story around that.  Some alternative histories use pivotal historical events not tied to warfare as their foundations—What if Lincoln had not been assassinated?  What if the dinosaurs had not died out?

In Rebel Mechanics, Swendson imagines a different beginning to the U.S.; the back of the book jacket says it best, “What if British magic kept the American Revolution from ever occurring?”  The story takes place in 1888 New York City, a bustling metropolis where society is divided along class, economic, and magical lines as it is everywhere in the British colonies.  The British landed gentry possess magical powers and use them for economic prosperity and technological advancement which are denied everyone else.  Yet, revolution is afoot!  Masked bandits operate Robin Hood-style, stealing secret information and ill-gotten gains from the government in support of an underground resistance.  The resistance, known as the Rebel Mechanics, develops steam-powered technology to provide an alternative to magical oppression and to highlight the injustices of the gentry (dubbed magisters).

Enter Verity Newton, a seventeen-year-old daughter of a college professor embarking on a new life in the big city.  After an adventure-filled start to her tale (Train robbery!  Wild bus ride!  Police chase!), she is hired as a governess in one of the most powerful magister families in the colonies.  As she navigates the rarified world of the nobility and gets to know her charges, Verity makes friends with a lively group of non-magisters including Lizzie the firebrand and handsome science student Alec.  All is not as it seems, though.  Why do her new-found friends seem to turn up at just the right place and time?  Is her employer, entomologist Lord Henry Lyndon, really tracking beetles when he leaves the house?  Why does he return bruised and bloodied?  What goes on beneath the streets of New York?  Secrets abound!  Intrigue and danger lurk around the corner!

Shanna Swendson packs a lot into her book.  Rebel Mechanics is a treasure chest of action, adventure, espionage, magic, romance, politics, self-discovery, betrayal, science, class commentary, and steampunk atmosphere—and that’s the first half.  It’s a rollicking ride through Verity’s expanding world and the city’s expanding consciousness.  Swendson creates believable, interesting characters and places them in equally interesting situations.  She shows us New York from Verity’s point of view, and it’s easy to get caught up in the character’s feelings and interior monologue.  The author drives the plot with plenty of action yet includes enough reflection to develop her characters.  She sets the steampunk scene with descriptions of 1880s technology, sights, and sounds.  Sometimes I found myself wanting a bit more polish on the story—there’s a lot packed into it and in a handful of places she could have done a little bit more with what she had instead of squeezing in more.  All in all, Rebel Mechanics is a fun, light book—perfect for a study break or holiday binge reading.  Give this one to middle schoolers and high schoolers interested in steampunk settings, adventure stories, or gentle reads with chaste romance.

I can’t wait to chat about Rebel Mechanics at the next Teen Book Club gathering—Thursday, December 7, from 6:00-7:00 pm at the library.  Participants read a title of their choice based on the month’s theme; at the meeting, the group chats about their books then picks a theme for the next month.  Teens are welcome to bring a brown bag supper, if they like; the library supplies beverage and dessert.  This month we’re reading alternative history and serving hot chocolate with holiday treats.  Teen Book Club is free, open to grades 6-12; no registration necessary.  Questions about Teen Book Club or other library services for teens?  Call me at the library’s Teen Department, (417) 623-7953, extension 1027.  Happy reading!

bestdayWhile I was reading BEST DAY EVER by KAIRA ROUDA, I made a Facebook post that said “Only 50 pages in and I want to strangle the narrator.” A friend advised that I was “allowed to put it down” and I realized I couldn’t. Just like when I tackled Flynn’s GONE GIRL, I knew I was going to have to finish this book. I needed to know what happens to the characters. I needed to know that Paul Strom was going to be punished for being truly awful.

Everything about Paul is perfect. He has the perfect life: a high-powered job, a beautiful stay-at-home wife, Mia, and two young sons. And he has planned the perfect weekend getaway with Mia at their second home in an exclusive gated community. He even assembled the perfect playlist as the soundtrack the their weekend. (Paul is prone to repetition; maybe it affected me a little.) But if everything is so wonderful, then why does Mia seem so unhappy? Why are Paul’s thoughts so dark? What are they both hiding?

As the day’s events intensify, Mia seems to know more about Paul’s darker half than he realizes. She asks questions about his work life that make him incredibly nervous. Of course, he thinks he’s too smart to be found out. She’s just a silly housewife, no threat to him whatsoever. But Paul’s overconfidence may end up being his downfall.

Written primarily from Paul’s perspective, this book is very character-driven. He is an intense, brooding, and flawed person. In many ways, he reminded me of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Is Paul a psychopath or just creepy and controlling? Or both? Or is he just an exaggerated character who is created to tell a story?

I think that Paul, while perhaps a bit embellished, is a very realistic character. He’s overly concerned with status and brand (he mentions a least a dozen times that he drives a Ford Flex). Maintaining a picture-perfect life is what he strives for. And maybe that’s what felt over the top about him. If he’s a psychopath, would he care about creating an illusion? Or would he just try not to get discovered? Regardless of these nitpicks, the story is both disturbing and compelling.

Even though I was angry at the narrator, I think that’s the mark of a successful book. Rouda managed to evoke incredibly strong emotions from me. I was filled with disgust for Paul. I rooted for Mia to confront her controlling husband. I wanted answers to all the questions brought up by Paul’s unsettling internal monologue. For the most part, I got those answers. But can you really trust the answers of someone as suspicious as Paul?

Sometimes, it’s fun to explore the scary things in the world. I think I prefer the more impossible side of scary, though. Give me vampires, werewolves, and Ancient Ones any day. Knowing that there are really people like Paul out there made Rouda’s book more unsettling for me. But, if you don’t mind getting inside the head of someone who is, frankly, unlikeable and unreliable, then BEST DAY EVER might be for you.

BMH-Funny-Girl-feat

I have read a lot of serious books lately. With the summer reading program coming to an end and my last semester of graduate school starting, I thought I would take it easy.

“Funny Girl,” librarian BETSY BIRD’s new middle-grade fiction anthology, was the perfect choice. “FUNNY GIRL: FUNNIEST. STORIES. EVER.” promises big things with its subtitle, and it does not disappoint.

The anthology offers something for every type of reader, including comics, epistolary short stories, personal essays and how-tos. The anthology includes stories from an all-female cast of beloved and award-winning authors and illustrators such as Cece Bell (author/illustrator of “El Deafo”), Libba Bray, Kelly DiPucchio, Shannon Hale, Rita Williams-Garcia and the one and only Raina Telgemeier of “Drama” and “Smile” fame. The more well-known authors will be enough to draw readers in, but each story is fun and interesting in its own right.

Some of the highlights include: Alison DeCamp’s “Dear Grandpa: Give Me Money,” in which a young girl named Trixie corresponds with her (very humorous) grandfather in an attempt to get money to compete with a rich neighbor; Cece Bell’s interrupting chicken-style comic starring a familiar Founding Father; and Kelly DiPucchio’s cringe-worthy poems, among others. Many of the stories emphasize, either implicitly or explicitly, the importance of goofy, self-assured humor, as well as the importance of such humor in the face of bullies, friend trouble and the impending doom that is adulthood.

Although I picked up Bird’s book as stress relief, the book does offer some important messages: First, you can find humor in almost anything, including a germ-obsessed mom who burns bathtubs and a rain-ruined perm on your grandma. Second, girls are allowed to be funny.

These are important messages in a world that often tells girls and boys that they have to be one specific thing to be accepted.

This anthology excels on multiple levels. On an individual level, the stories are well-written, laugh-out-loud funny and authentic. As a whole, Bird’s collection is inclusive, well-rounded and well-structured. Adults and young readers alike will find plenty to enjoy and laugh about in “Funny Girl.”

whistlestop-bookcover

A person’s age, a person’s gender, the amount of money one brings home annually, even the political party one most closely aligns with; in the grand scheme of things, none of these demographic descriptors allowed for reprieve come this time last year. In the year 2016 Americans of all shapes and sizes were inundated with one of the most interesting and heated presidential races in campaign history. As political personalities made their way into morning drives to work, lunchtime perusals of current events, or evening viewings of local news channels, not many people in America could escape the theatrical events unfolding in the political landscape of the day. John Dickerson, political director of CBS News and moderator of Face the Nation, knows this reality all too well, and he capitalizes on it in his recent work Whistlestop, which came out during the thick of last year’s political campaigns.  

Whistlestop is a retelling of a political journalist’s favorite stories throughout the history of presidential campaigning. Dickerson takes the historical significance of the Whistlestop method of campaigning, and allows that image to drive home his overarching theme: “If there is a constant to the American campaign story, it is that elites can’t predict the future very well.” That’s right, voters are constantly “undoing [the] certainties” of the political press. This compilation of oral histories captures that truth in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and potentially motivating, as it takes the reader to various points in history, that at times eerily mirror the present, and yet validate their own unique placement in the annals of record keeping. So again, regardless of one’s political inclinations, this book has the potential to engage any reader through the method of good, old-fashioned storytelling. Dickerson makes use of natural language to draw in his reader, and he has a good pace and overall flow throughout these narratives. Whistlestop is not recorded chronologically, but rather topically, so it does have an anachronistic feel to it at times. This is evidenced in how Dickerson places Andrew Jackson’s unexpected surge as a primary candidate in 1824 in the middle of the book, rather than closer to the front, as one might expect. Still the same, Dickerson’s weaving of the stories throughout the overall narration alleviate some of the distraction this method might otherwise induce.  

From Ronald Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green” moment to Grover Cleveland’s opponents taking up the war cry “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” this book is jam packed with entertaining clips of campaign history. Some accounts retell specific incidents, such as Edmund Muskie’s emotional tirade against the Union Leader’s publisher William Loeb, where the famous question “was Muskie crying?” first made its appearance. Like this retelling, Dickerson unearths the backdrop of the story. In doing so he clearly identifies another primary aim of this book, which is to note that throughout campaign history there are very few single moments that shift the course or trajectory of the race, but rather several smaller circumstances that lead to the moments most will often remember. In other sections of the book, Dickerson outlines the major events and themes that impacted an overall campaign, while not necessarily focusing on one single event within. This is demonstrated in his treatment of JFK’s 1960 run for office, which is entitled “The Catholic Candidate.” 

A beautiful component to this book is Dickerson’s ability to transcend political issues and to allow readers to make their own conclusions. There is no party biased agenda here. This is simply a text that allows its readers to surmise their own villains and heroes of each story, even if Dickerson does provide some evidence within the overall narratives. So, if one is interested in political history, or desires to escape the tumultuous political landscape this country dwells in, this book might be just what the doctor (or maybe President?) ordered. One can find this riveting narrative in the nonfiction shelves of the Joplin Public Library.

Gizelle's Bucket ListPerhaps it was too soon, I told myself as I picked up the book from the new non-fiction shelf here at the Joplin Public Library.

A little more than a month earlier, we’d had to put the family Collie, our beloved Molly, to sleep at the estimated age of 12. The house still felt quieter without her sweet presence, and my dog, Buster, seemed to miss her. But the book seemed like it would be a fast read, and the cute photographs were enticing. Determined to be strong, I grabbed it and headed to the library’s self-checkout machines.

“Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog” was a mixed experience for me. I found myself smiling at the familiarity and ugly crying by the time I reached the final page.

From the moment 19-year-old Lauren Watt and her mother meet the female brindle English mastiff puppy, it’s love.

“The puppy felt so right in my lap,” Watt writes. “I looked down at her and couldn’t believe this was real. Years later, I’d recognize this look as the way a few of my friends gazed at their shiny engagement rings, like they are about to start their lives, like their adventures were about to begin. … I felt as though I’d fallen under a spell, enchanted.”

(I felt a similar emotion when I first saw a picture of my current dog. I’d spent nine long months grieving the loss of my first dog, but the moment I saw a picture of Buster, I just knew he was the one. It was time to move on.)

A handful of cash and one check later, Watt and her mother head home, having named the puppy Gizelle, after the innocent princess in the movie “Enchanted.”

Gizelle fit right into the family pack, and she started to grow. And grow. Watt grows up with her, eventually graduating from college and heading to New York City, giant dog in tow. Somehow, she finds an apartment big enough for herself, her canine companion and a human roommate.

Life in the Big Apple is an adventure for Watt and her giant dog. Daily walks turn into encounters with colorful strangers, thanks to Gizelle’s attention-getting presence. The duo go for night-time runs in Central Park, Watt feeling totally safe in the dark with her dog by her side. Gizelle shows off superstar moves in a costume contest at a dog park.

When Gizelle develops a mysterious limp at the age of six, Watt begins to face the fact that her best friend won’t be around forever. The limp eventually leads to a devastating diagnosis: Gizelle has bone cancer. Watt is heartbroken: “Never, ever could I have imagined this news would hurt so badly, that it would take my breath away, that finding out would feel like I could not ever go on. I sat down, and I sobbed.”

Always a list maker, she resolves to write down things she wanted to do with Gizelle, as well as things Gizelle loved to do. She creates Gizelle’s Bucket List.

The pair take road trips. They eat the best lobster rolls and doughnuts. They enjoy ice cream while sitting on a wooden boat dock. They visit the beach. They ride in a canoe. They play in piles of autumn’s colorful leaves.

All too soon, Watt resolves that it’s time to say goodbye and make that final vet visit. The last pages of “Gizelle’s Bucket List” are difficult to read, especially if you’ve ever lost a pet. Watt doesn’t shy away from the realities of putting her dog to sleep.

Ultimately, “Gizelle’s Bucket List” is about learning to live in the moment and love as unconditionally as a dog does, lessons we all could benefit from. Take a journey with Lauren Watt and Gizelle; you won’t regret it.

 

Reviewed by Tammie Benham

The intensifying pace of the first book in National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby’s new series, York.  Book One: The Shadow Cipher, left me anticipating the next installment.  The setting for this middle grade novel (3rd to 7th yorkgrade) is a familiar but altered version of New York City.  Some landmarks are recognizable, some are slightly different, others are invented.  All are captivating.

Twins Theo and Tess Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in one of the five original Morningstarr buildings in New York City, 354 W 73re Street.  Designed by extraordinarily brilliant twins, Theodore and Teresa Morningstarr and left to their best friend and heir when they disappeared in 1855, Theo, Tess, and Jaime, along with a diverse set of characters, now inhabit the building.  They love the temperamental and eccentric electromagnetic elevator that conveys them to their chosen floor via randomly selected horizontal and vertical patterns, taking a different route each trip. They love the Morningstarr seals placed in the windows.  They love their view of the Hudson River.  They also realize if not for this building they couldn’t afford to live in the City and would likely end up in some remote location, like Hoboken, or Idaho.

When nefarious real estate developer Darnell Slant, who is known for gobbling up Morningstarr buildings, sets his sites on their building, Tess and Theo decide the only way to save their home is to solve the Old York Cipher left behind by the Morningstarr twins.  The Cipher promises treasure to anyone who can solve it and has encouraged many to search.  The twin’s Grandfather is himself a member of the Old Cipher Society. Tess and Theo have been solving puzzles their entire lives and now have the motivation of saving their home to help them solve the greatest puzzle of all: the solution to the Old World Cipher.

As with any good adventure, things don’t always go as planned.  Finding what they believe to be an alternate set of clues leads the twins and Jaime, accompanied by Tess’s cat, “Nine,” who is a mix of serval, Siamese, and “who knows what else…a sprinkling of wolf maybe,” on a journey through the magnificent city created by the Morningstarr twins. Dodging the henchmen of Darnell Slant, the threesome travels through a world where trolleys run by a mysterious secret guild wind above, around, and under buildings, and the river.  Giant mechanical insects eat dirt and sometimes humans. Towering skyskrapers have eccentric elevators.  The machines left behind by the Morningstarrs seem to be watching them, and possibly leading them.  At times the threesome wonder why solving the new set of clues is so easy when others have struggled for a century to solve clues.  Are they solving the cipher, or is the cipher solving them?

Driven by believable characters, the reader discovers Tess struggles with anxiety, which her family has dubbed “catastrophizing,” imagining the disastrous consequences that could occur at any time. Nine serves as her therapy animal.  Theo has the makings of a brilliant architect but is overcoming having been bullied regarding his eccentricities.  Jaime has lost his mother, has a father who constantly travels, and lives with this Grandmother, whom he calls Mima.  He is a budding artist and his talents help the trio of would-be sleuths see clues in a different way.  There is some feel-good humor and a few laugh-out-loud situations interspersed in the drama.

The secondary characters are equally endearing, especially the mysterious Aunt Esther who may be helping the twins solve the clues or may hold part of the cipher.  Jaime’s Mima keeps the trio fed, but also is portrayed as someone who will not be left in the dark.  Flashbacks give some hints to the origins of our hero and heroines and everything seems to be hinting at something further.  This very engaging first installment in a planned trilogy will leave you breathless and wanting more.