Friday, February 25, 2011

I Am J

Beam, Cris. I Am J. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Coming out sucks. Whether you're coming out as someone who eats peanut butter out of the jar (and double dips), kind of likes Taylor Swift's new album, or is some permeation of queer, admitting that you fall outside of what everyone around you expects is awkward, emotionally draining, and often terrifying to think about.* Sometimes it just seems easier to go live your life somewhere far away where no one will know you as anything but a queer Taylor Swift loving peanut butter fiend. That's why when J decides that he has to bite the bullet and start living life as the man he knows he is inside, he runs away. His Puerto Rican Catholic mother and his super-macho dad will never understand or accept him. Better to start over on the other side of town.

I was a little scared of this book. I knew that Beam had it in her to realistically portray the transgender experience, so my expectations were super high. I also knew that a book like this has the potential to be filled with well-meaning stereotypes in order to present the most inclusive picture: of trans folk, of Puerto Rican New Yorkers, of the dream of being a "real boy," and more. I loved this book. J really rang true to me as a character and as a transguy, and his experiences, though not universal (thankfully not everyone has to move out or change schools in order to transition, though some undoubtedly do), were realistic. I Am J was everything I hoped it would be.

But I did have a couple of problems. I found it hard to believe that J, who has been looking around on the internet for information and support since he was eleven, hadn't heard about T (testosterone injections) or a (chest) binder until he was seventeen. I'm willing to let that go as it allows the reader to learn about these things at the same time that J does. I don't think it would have been such a problem if the book wasn't so obviously written by someone who, like J's support group leader, "talk[s] about the 'gender binary' and 'those of trans-masculine identification' as easily as reciting the alphabet" (243).** There were so many terms and concepts, including terms that confuse J, that were not defined in the text. A couple of them were even written in abbreviated forms, something that gives me hope that they'll be fleshed out and this won't be an issue in the final copy. Still, Beam is a very very knowledgeable woman, as evidenced by her previous work of non-fiction Transparent. She seemed to have a difficult time balancing her wealth of knowledge with the naiveté of her narrator.

I'm also hoping the list of resources at the back of the book will be more complete in the final copy. I don't think anyone could put together a concise list of resources on any topic, but especially a fairly new (to the public) one like this, that every reader would find complete. That said, I was still dismayed to see only female-to-male resources, especially as the separation between ftms and mtfs is bemoaned by Beam's characters. I was also sad to see TYFA (Trans Youth Family Allies) left off the list. Though their main focus is on kids much younger than J, the ladies at TYFA are rockstars at convincing school administrators of the necessity of single-serve, gender-neutral bathrooms for the safety of all students, not just those that are transitioning. Though bathroom issues are only briefly touched on in I Am J, they are some of the most distressing of day-to-day concerns for many gender-variant people, and organizations or websites that help gender-variant youth deal with these problems belong, in my opinion, on the list of resources in the back of this book.

This may look like more criticisms than praise, but it's really not! I loved I Am J, and I applaud Beam for taking on the issue of transitioning in the context of cultural and familial expectations, and the fallout from not meeting those expectations, in an accessible and authentic way. Not to mention that she wrote a pretty great story of a teen trying to find his direction and place in the world, regardless of all the issues that J has to deal with. I think this is a must buy for libraries serving youth; it's Luna for the guys.

I Am J comes out March 1st!

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher.

* By the way, now you know all my secrets.

**Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Between Shades of Gray

Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Philomel Books - Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2011. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

In this, her debut novel, Sepetys tackles the heart-wrenching topic of Stalin's secret deportation of millions from the Balkan states during and after WWII. We see the atrocious conditions that mostly women and children must endure in their "work camps" through the eyes of Lina Vilkas, who knows, as do we, that the conditions must be worse for her father and the rest of the men in Stalin's prisons.

Clearly, this book is not a pick-me-up, but the spirit of endurance that Lina, her family, and her friends exhibit is inspiring. Between Shades of Gray tracks the slow progress of Lina, her brother Jonas, and their mother Elena from their home in Lithuania to a work camp in Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle. They suffer many indignities (to put it mildly) at the hands of their Soviet captors (so many and so much that I stopped marking them in my copy). The beginning of the book, especially, is very similar to the beginnings of many other stories about this time in Europe. The lists, the beatings, the cattle cars.

I could go on and on about how the Vilkas and their group suffer. I could draw many parallels between their experience and those of Holocaust survivors. I could talk about how, at times, the weight of what they go through is crushing, but I don't want to. I want to talk about the points of light in this book that made the rest of it bearable (and when I say bearable, I mean in terms of the subject matter. The whole book is beautifully and compellingly written). Lina's memories of her father and of her cousin Joanna certainly help her through her trials, as does her art which she continues, and uses to her advantage in many ways, throughout the book. A sweet, little romance doesn't hurt either. But what really makes the work camps tolerable is what the deportees do for each other. Take this example from near the end of the book, when everyone is on the brink of starvation (and please excuse my page-spanning quote):
     "Do you think we should eat him [an owl]?" asked Janina.
     At first I was shocked. Then I imagined the plump body, roasting in our barrel, like a chicken. I poked at it again. I grabbed its wing and pulled. It was heavy, but slid across the snow.
     "No! You can't drag him. The NKVD will see. They'll take him away from us," said Janina. "Hide him in your coat."
     Other deportees looked at me.
     "Our mamas are sick. They need food. Will you help us?" explained Janina.
     People I didn't know formed a circle around me, sheltering me from view. They escorted me safely back to our jurta, undetected. They didn't ask for anything. They were happy to help someone, to succeed at something, even if they weren't to benefit.
pgs. 313-5*

Between Shades of Gray is an important book about a not-often-talked about event in history. For this reason, it will appeal to historical fiction lovers, and WWII aficionados. It's also an emotional read, with dashes of suspense and romance mixed into Lina's experience of oppression and, ultimately, loss. I highly recommend this powerful debut and look forward to whatever Sepetys has in store for us next!

Between Shades of Gray comes out on March 22nd!

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

*Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.

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Friday, February 18, 2011


Teller, Janne. Nothing. Trans. Martin Aitken. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011)
Batchelder Honor (2011)
Printz Honor (2011)

Pierre Anthon has decided that nothing matters. He's also decided to sit in a plum tree and harrass his former classmates until they come to the same conclusion. They have to make him stop. They have to show him that there is something that still holds meaning. In order to do so, they each must sacrifice something that holds a great deal of meaning to them.

Disturbing does not even begin to cover it.

Nothing is a tiny book. It's shorter than most and more narrow. The story takes up slightly more than 200 pages, and those pages contain a lot of white space. Still, it is probably the most disturbing book I've ever read. And almost not even in a good way. Don't get me wrong, Nothing is a wonderfully written book. Not a single word is superfluous and yet the story feels expansive. We see the whole thing from Agnes' point of view, and yet the feelings of others and the crowd mentality of the group are clear. It's got a kind of terrible, terrifying beauty to it. As one LibraryThing reviewer said, "There is no age appropriate for this book."

As Agnes and her classmates try to collect things to counter Pierre Anthon's nothingness, things take a definite turn towards the sinister. If they're going to prove meaning, these things must really mean something to the person who has to give them up. And each time someone has to give something up, they get to choose what the next person has to lose:
When Dennis had first handed over the last four of his Dungeons & Dragons books, it was as if the meaning started to take off. Dennis knew how found Sebastian was of his fishing rod. And Sebastian knew that Richard had a thing about his black soccer ball. And Richard noticed how Laura always wore the same African parrot earrings.
This accumulation of things starts out as mean and a bit vindictive, but it very quickly spirals out of control until it is not just things that are being accumulated. Friendships break up, kids get in trouble, alliances are formed, and people get both emotionally and physically hurt.

Watching what these kids require of their friends and classmates, what they deam worthy sacrifices to the "heap of meaning," was like driving past a multiple car pile-up on the freeway. It's gruesome and terrible, but you can't help but look. I finished this book in a single day, holding my hand over my gaping mouth for the last 50 pages or so (and more than a few times before that as well). I was repulsed and hooked at the same time. This is an engrossing and haunting read.

Book source: Philly Free Library

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

McBride, Lish. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011)
William C. Morris YA Debut Finalist (2011)
     "You even smell a little like him," he said, his voice going throaty.
     Disturbing. Was it good to smell like someone else? I reached out cautiously and put my hands over his, leveraging for a bit of breathing room. "Like who?" I choked out. Buff Guy had a fierce grip [on my neck].
     "Like the grave," he said, not really answering my question. "Like cold death."
     "Thanks," I said. Creepy, creepy, creepy. I didn't add that he smelled like meat. Not that I could. Apparently, choking helped me keep my mouth shut and mind my manners. I wished he'd put me back down. Or that Ramon and Frank would rush him from behind. Then he'd have the opportunity to strangle all of us. I needed to get bigger friends.
     "And blood," he said. "You smell like blood."
Sam has pissed off the wrong guy. A guy who unnerves Sam for reasons he can't explain. A guy who radiates evil and power in equal measures. A guy who employs a very large, slightly unhinged henchman. But Sam is not going to go down without a fight, and he'll be damned if he lets this guy take his family and friends out with him. Unfortunately, it's starting to look like Sam might be damned already.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is a hilarious book, but it's still horror. When I was thinking about this review, I knew I wanted to include a quote that showed both at once. I found this one by opening the book to a random spot near the beginning. That's how much the humor and terror go hand in hand throughout the novel. The hilarity keeps the book from getting too too scary, but the story still never loses it's dark and serious edge. It's awesome.

For me, though, the funny stuff won. I laughed out loud (on a quiet commuter train, no less) while reading this book. Sam's a smart and introspective college drop-out, Brooke's a manipulative smartypants (and I mean that in the most flattering way possible) in a cheerleader's body, Ramon's still in college and living on Sam's couch, and Frank's the new kid that they're all trying to break and/or befriend. What they have in common is their cynicism, irreverence, and fast food employer. They are masters of biting and witty one-liners, exactly my kind of humor. Ramon, Frank and Brooke do their best to make sure that Sam stays firmly grounded in his regular life even though he's being pursued by creatures he's not sure he even believes exist.

And that's where the horror part kicks in. The evil guy, Douglas Montgomery, is a ridiculously powerful necromancer, and he thinks Sam is a necromancer too. The guy in the quote above? Sam isn't quite sure WHAT he is, but he's left huge cuts down Sam's back that could only have come from a knife. Only no one saw a knife. Within the first 50 pages, someone we already care about is dead. Without getting too spoilerly, let me just say that necromancers are not the only magical/paranormal beings to grace these pages. There are werewolves, fae, witches, vampires and more. Oh, and Douglas's house comes complete with a magical cage and basement torture chamber.

This is one that I think is more suited to older teens. Sam is out of high school and has already nixed college, and  his "normal" life problems reflect that. That's not to say that the average high schooler won't love this book. It is darkly humorous, scary, and Sam and co. exhibit the kind of sarcasm and cynicism to which many in high school aspire (myself included, at that age). And Sam is stuck in the stage of life where he is trying to find himself, something that is highly relatable for many teens and twenty-somethings. He's just got the added pressure of "to raise the dead or not to raise the dead" making everything more interesting. I loved it.

I mentioned the internal musical loop this title can inspire, but luckily the chapter titles mix it up a bit. Leah's got a series of posts going to help you place the song lyrics.

Book source: Philly Free Library

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Friday, February 11, 2011


Chayil, Eishes. Hush. New York: Walker and Company, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Sydney Taylor Honor Book (2011)
William C. Morris YA Debut Finalist (2011)

Gittel has always lived in the Chassidic community of Borough Park, and she knows that she is part of a holy community. She knows that unholiness, evil, hate and hurt come from the outside, from the goyim. Her best friend Devory knows that's not always true.

Told in alternating viewpoints, Gittel at age 9 and Gittel as a newlywed, Hush looks at how a small community deals with abuse at the hands of their own, or more importantly, how they fail to deal with it.

Hush was a hard book to read. It was painful and sad and unbelievable, but it was never hopeless, even when Devory and Gittel were. And it was compelling. I always skip to the end of books to read the "About the Author" section, so I knew from the get-go that Chayil (a pseudonym) is really a grown-up Gittel. I needed to know how she went from a childhood that taught her never to say anything that could shame another member of her community to the point of being able to write about the abuse she witnessed as a child in such a public way.

I don't know how much of a spoiler this can be since it's in the description and in probably every synopsis of the plot, but read on with caution.

Devory's brother rapes her with Gittel feigning sleep in the next bed.  Because we, as adults, know what is happening, it's a horrible scene to read. But Gittel has no idea what is going on, coloring the scene with confusion and fear. She knows that Devory's brother is hurting her. It's what happens afterward that is really horrific: Devory's parents tell the girls that they must be wrong; nothing like that could have possibly actually happened. They send Gittel home and leave Devory with her brother.

OF COURSE, while I was reading I was outraged, but I must have braced myself for it too much. I was so prepared for the sexual abuse that I somehow didn't let the real horror of the situation sink in. It wasn't until I went back through the book after reading that it really hit me. I was sitting in Borders checking quotes in my ARC against the published copy. Maybe it was seeing those quotes that I had marked out of the context of the story, but I sat in Borders angry and almost crying. Every single adult in Gittel and Devory's lives covers up the situation so that no one else, including the authorities, can know for certain what happened. They keep this up long after Devory, at the age of nine, hangs herself in her best friend's bathroom.*

Here is one of the quotes I was checking:
I am so sorry, Devory. I am apologizing for all of them, for those who should have know but didn't, for those who knew but ignored, and for those who put their reputations above their children's lives. ... You didn't have to die. But for our ignorance, for our deliberate blindness, for our unforgivable stupidity, you did. I hope this letter will stop others from sharing your fate.
So, yes, this is a hard and painful book to read, but it is also important. And though it has won a couple youth honor nods (and is clearly a YA book), it needs to be read by adults. As Liz B. points out**, this is not a condemnation of the community that Chayil is writing about. Denial is not exclusive to this group, and it is the adults' denial that is the real problem.

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher

*This is the difference between Hush and a book like Hope in Patience. In the latter, Ashley's mom doesn't believe her about the abuse, which allows it to continue, but after the fact, Ashley's dad and step-mom believe and are supportive of her, which allows her to heal and move on. Devory has no one to turn to but Gittel, who has less understanding of and control over the situation than Devory herself. Even the adults that believe Devory and Gittel do nothing to help. Gittel's father (my favorite adult in the book) doesn't find out about the abuse until it is too late to save Devory, but he eventually comes around and helps Gittel to grieve and go public with what she saw.

**Her review is so much less emotional than mine, so I highly suggest that you check it out. She also has links to a few other reviews and an author interview.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing - for Nonfiction Monday

Angel, Ann. Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. New York: Amulet Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults (2011)

Janis Joplin, one of the first female rockstars, was and still to some extent is the face of psychadelic rock and the 60s. Her amazing voice brought her fame, fortune, and the adoration of millions, but none of that could save her from herself.

This well-researched biography of Janis Joplin starts at her high school in Port Arther, Texas and follows her life and career to their untimely end a little over 10 years later. It's full of (awesome) pictures, is not bogged down by the recitation of dates, has a great bibliography for further reading, a chronology, and a brief index. It is a biography that you can give, with confidence, to teens looking for more information on a great artist or someone interesting to write about for an assignment.

But Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing is more than the average biography. Angel brings Joplin to life. She manages to balance personal Janis and rockstar Janis on the page, something real life Janis always struggled with. The result is a history of the era and environment that produced Joplin the icon, as well as the story of how normal kids, like Joplin, dealt with all the changes the 60s brought about. Anecdotes from Joplin's friends and band mates appear throughout the text as do professional pictures of Joplin and her bands. The most quoted person in the book is Laura, Joplin's little sister. Sex, drugs and rock n'roll are definitely present in the book, and the over the top drug use is discussed, but Angel shows that Joplin's drug use was never her biggest problem. It was Joplin's need for love and attention that drove her to perform, and it was her fans' love of her drugged-up persona that drove her to use.

But it was Joplin's voice that made her a success, and somehow that comes through on the page. Maybe it was just that I had "Piece of My Heart" and "Me and Bobby McGee" stuck in my head for most of the time I spent reading this book (until "Mercedes Benz" was mentioned of course), but I thought Angel conveyed the grit and soul of Joplin's voice amazingly. Readers will be clamouring to find copies of Joplin's music with her various bands after reading this, if that music wasn't what prompted them to pick up this biography in the first place. If it was, they'll be singing along.

Book source: ARC picked up at ALA

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Green, John and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson. New York: Dutton - Penguin Group, Inc., 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011)
Stonewall Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature, Honor (2011)

Somewhere far away, in an alternate universe or something, there might be another you who is a lot like you but also a lot different. I mean, he's not really you. But what if that other you was only on the other side of Chicago? And then he started dating your best friend? Welcome to Will Grayson's life. When he meets will grayson in a porn shop, a simple name mix-up is the least of his problems.

will grayson is in a panic when he goes to meet his internet boyfriend in chicago. the only thing worse than realizing that they're supposed to meet at a porn shop is having his name yelled out from the front counter...but not at him. and so he meets owg (other will grayson) and owg's best friend tiny cooper who might just have a thing for sad freaked out guys sitting on the curb outside a porn store.

To echo so many that have come before me, this book is full of awesome and I loved it! I have never not become obsessed with a John Green guy (where were these guys when I was in high school?!?), and his Will Grayson did not disappoint. He was classic nerd/cool/snarky/insecure/intelligent/good guy. This is the first fiction by Levithan that I've read, and it was a great intro into his work. His will grayson was horrifically depressed throughout most of the book, but he was still funny and mean and self-deprecating in a way that insults everyone and, you know, hiding his soft gooey center behind all his built up toughness. The secondary characters in each of their separate lives were relatively well-fleshed out for how important they were to both the story and their respective WG. The fact that will grayson's friends are kind of one-dimensional says more about will than it does about Levithan; the reverse is true for Green and his Will. And the one character they share, Tiny Cooper, is always larger than life.

Tiny Cooper is fabulous. He's a bit self-centered, but he's also all over the place for his friends. It all revolves around him, but he wants them there and involved, not because he wants them to witness his fabulosity but because they mean the world to him. But here is how Tiny is always described:
Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large.
That's fine, but it immediately reduces Tiny to a caricature of himself (or the guy from Mean Girls). And they do it over and over again. Every time someone mentions him, sees him, thinks about him, even apologizes to him, they reference his size, and not just his height, they gotta throw "300 pounds" in there or something. Calling your best friend (or your boyfriend) fat all the time as if that's his only personality trait (or is even a personality trait to begin with) makes people cringe a little. Tiny has the illustrative joy of being both big and gay, something that is used a lot to describe people's personalities without any irony at all, as if that's even a personality trait to begin with. It's not as obvious as, say, the new "That's So Gay" ads (which I love for their obviousness, but it only works because it's 30 seconds and not 300 pages), but the message is there without the feeling that there is a Message or Important Lesson.

And this book, secret lesson and all, is hilarious. It is embarrassing to read on public transportation hilarious. And there's a musical, written by Tiny Cooper about his life. And there's tender first love (complete with Green's trademark awkwardness) and crushing first heartbreak (complete with Levithan's snarky gloom and doom). And there's bad emo poetry that is recognized as being bad emo poetry. And the WGs have some of the best parents in YA I've seen in a while. And if you need more reasons than this to go pick up Will Grayson, Will Grayson, well then, I don't think we can still be friends. :)

Book source: Best Christmas present ever!

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Elton John

I just finished Will Grayson, Will Grayson (it's awesome! review to come!) which features the production "Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story." Now I'm moving on to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.

It's like an Elton John Festival in my head right now, with that one song on repeat. And I just have to share it with you. :)

To Sharon and Emy, who I had the supreme pleasure of working with at the Starbucks by Golden Gate Park during the days leading up to San Francisco Pride (twice!): Elton John festivals, even the ones in my head, aren't nearly as fun/painful without you!

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Heart of a Samurai - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. This week's book is:

Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai: Based on the True Story of Manjiro Nakahama. New York: Amulet Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Newberry Honor Book (2011)

Based on the true story of Manjiro, or John Mung as the Americans called him, Heart of a Samurai tells the story of the son of a lowly fisherman who, in the course of travelling the world, managed to forge US-Japanese relations and change the course of Japan forever.

I don't think Heart of a Samurai was a good fit for me, but I knew that going into it. After being shipwrecked right at the opening of the story, Manjiro and his friends are rescued by the John Howland. The John Howland was a whaling vessel. It hunted whales for their blubber, baleen, and the spermaceti in the heads of the especially lucrative sperm whales. The descriptions of the hunting, killing, and butchering of the whales is not overly graphic, but as someone who grew up with an uncle down the street from Sea World  (back when it was still an educational park rather than the kind of place that has roller coasters) and my own yearly unlimited pass, it was hard for me to read.*

But whaling is an important part of this book. It is Manjiro's quick thinking during a kill, along with his ability to quickly pick up the English language, that earned him his American name, John Mung, and a permanent place among the crew. At the end of the John Howland's time at sea, the captain even adopts Manjiro, now John, and raises him as his own, providing him with the best schooling Massachusetts could offer, an apprenticeship, and even his own pony. John's time in Massachusetts is fraught with prejudice. He's certainly not warmly welcomed by the whole of his new community. He faces taunts and bullying, and the captain and his wife even have to change churches twice before finding one that will accept their adopted son.

John's maturity and nobility when dealing with all of this seems to stem from his desire to live up to all that the captain has given him. While this is wonderful and may even be true, I wish that John had more faults that just the propensity to bounce right off his pony. Throughout the book he has fears and hesitations and the story definitely has conflicts, but John Mung never really does. I didn't feel like he was a realistic character who showed growth as a person rather than a historical figure.

But my biggest problem with Heart of a Samurai isn't a problem with the book at all; it's a problem with how it was described to me (and to everyone else on the front cover of the finished copy). Manjiro's life was clearly an adventurous one, but only because it actually happened. This is not an adventure book, and I think we're doing it and its readers a disservice by describing it that way. For an adventure book, it drags in places, like most of John's time in Massachusetts and the various points in his life when he's sitting around waiting to starve to death. The actual "high seas adventures" don't take up a lot of the text. Instead, it's rich with historical details and based on the life of a real mover and shaker in the international politics of the mid-1800s. Don't give this to your adventure lovers. Give it to your history buffs instead.

Book source: ARC picked up at ALA

* A historical note at the end of the book has an environmental section that talks about the long-term effects of whaling as portrayed in the book. The suggested reading also lists several books about the industry. These balance out the praising of the whaling industry that goes on in the text, but that still didn't make it any easier for me to read.

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