In this month’s Between the Bookends, Sophie and Lisa review nine books covering a mixture of picture books, middle grade, YA, and adult with topics including a wily octopus, the life of Dr. Virginia Apgar, and two very different takes on spirituality.
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The Octopus Escapes by Maile Meloy, Illustrated by Felicity Sala
Sophie loves octopuses (or octopi or octopodes, depending on whose argument you hold with regarding the correct plural noun). She loves watching videos of them scuttling across sea beds or zooming through open water using their unique swimming style, and she especially likes reading about the exploits of internet-famous cephalopods at various aquariums around the world, such as Otto the octopus, who learned how to squirt water at a light fixture and disable all the lighting at his aquarium in Germany. So when Sophie spotted The Octopus Escapes by Maile Meloy in her inbox, she knew this was a must-read.
The protagonist of this picture book is known only as “the octopus.” He lives happily in a cave enjoying the currents and catching crabs for dinner until he is caught by a human and taken to an aquarium. There, humans stare at him and take photos, and his keepers encourage him to learn tricks. He is constantly bored in a tank that is always the same temperature with no currents and no variety at mealtimes. The keepers don’t seem to understand his complaints, so one night, the octopus decides to escape…
This is a beautifully illustrated picture book that manages to be lighthearted and fun whilst also exploring the negative implications of keeping animals—especially animals caught in the wild—in captivity. Even though the octopus is looked after very well, he is still miserable and longs for home, and it is implied that the other creatures in the aquarium are unhappy too.
If you enjoy this one, you could also pick up Inky’s Amazing Escape, which tells the real-life tale of Inky the octopus who made a daring nighttime escape back to the ocean from his aquarium in New Zealand!
Broken (in the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson
Sophie has been a fan of Jenny Lawson (AKA The Bloggess) ever since her famous post about Beyonce the chicken—a post that is somehow turning 10 years old this summer! She has read and loved Lawson’s previous books, and so she knew she would be picking this one up as soon as it was announced.
Broken (in the Best Possible Way) is a supremely powerful book. It is filled with short chapters (honestly, they’re better described as an unlinked collection of blog posts or rants) and each covers a different subject, often with titles that will make you blink and read them again to be sure you weren’t hallucinating: “And Then I Bought Condoms for My Dog,” “That Time I Got Haunted by Lizards with Bike Horns,” or “The First Satanic Ritual I Ever Saw.” Many of these are so funny that Sophie would end up with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks, but others are poignant to the point of it becoming almost painful to read.
Lawson has always been outspoken about her lifelong battles against severe depression and anxiety, and reading this book with its instantaneous switches from hysterically funny highs to deep trenches of darkness will be familiar to anyone who has experienced depression themselves. These dark moments are visceral and threaded through with such emotion that they get under your skin. The chapter that stuck with Sophie the most was “An Open Letter to My Health Insurance Company,” which made her so angry (especially as a Brit who doesn’t have to fight against such institutions) that she was left almost physically shaking by its conclusion.
This is another brilliant book from Jenny Lawson but Sophie advises only picking it up during strong moments, as some of the chapters discussing depression and suicidal ideation may well be triggering to many readers.
It Doesn’t Take a Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
It Doesn’t Take a Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich was a wonderful middle-grade novel about brotherhood and friendship that had Sophie excited that summer is on its way.
Thirteen-year-old Elliott (who would prefer you call him E) is fiercely smart and a debate champion at his school. He also sticks close to his older brother Luke, which is about to become a problem because Luke is leaving to have his senior year at a prestigious art school. E plans to have one last amazing summer together when he learns that Luke has taken a job as a junior counselor at a summer camp focused on Black Excellence.
To Luke’s annoyance, E contrives to attend the camp in the hope of still having summer together, but when he arrives, he quickly realizes that Luke’s busy schedule means he can’t hang out with him. Worse, every kid at camp is a certified genius in their own right, from E’s roommate Charles, who can apparently play every instrument ever invented, to Natasha, who aims to follow in her film director mother’s footsteps. E suddenly feels like a very average fish in a very smart pond. Can he find a way to find his own feet and make new friends by himself?
It Doesn’t Take a Genius is inspired by the 2019 film Boy Genius, but you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this wonderful coming-of-age take on brotherly love, discovering your own self, and the complexity of Black identity. I loved the characters—especially nerdy Charles—and the relationship between Luke and E felt deeply believable. The writing felt skewed toward the younger end of middle grade, but older readers will certainly enjoy it too.
The camp in It Doesn’t Take a Genius definitely has more summer school than summer camp vibes. All the kids have majors, have mandatory classes, and are expected to work on multiple projects and assignments. Everything has a focus on Black history and culture, which made it extra interesting and eye-opening for Sophie who had never heard of many of the names mentioned when campers discussed music, dance, and other areas.
This was a fun and heartwarming read that Sophie would highly recommend to everyone.
She Persisted: Virginia Apgar by Dr. Sayantani DasGupta
She Persisted: Virginia Apgar is the latest from the She Persisted chapter book series inspired by Chelsea Clinton’s picture books of the same name, one of Sophie’s favorite ongoing series at the moment. Each of the books in this series focuses on the life of one remarkable woman from history, and Virginia Apgar’s volume is authored by Dr. Sayantani DasGupta, a fellow doctor.
Apgar is most famous for developing the test that bears her name. An Apgar Score is given to newborn babies in hospitals all over the world at one and five minutes after birth, and these scores are used to determine the baby’s health—allowing for many problems and conditions to be detected early. In developing this technique and helping to popularise it, Virginia Apgar has helped to save countless lives.
The book begins with Apgar’s childhood in New Jersey and follows her through school, her time at the all women’s college Mount Holyoke, and on to her studies at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons around the time of the Great Depression. This was a difficult time for a woman to study medicine, but the book shows how Apgar’s determination and whirlwind personality pushed her to succeed, even while quotes from her diaries show how frustrated she often became toward the status quo. The later chapters explore her time as a respected doctor and her development of the Apgar Test.
She Persisted: Virginia Apgar ends—as in every title in this series—with suggestions about how to honor its subject’s life. For Apgar, these suggestions include investigating your medical papers to find your own Apgar Score, helping a local family with a new baby, learning to play a musical instrument, and starting a stamp collection.
Sophie loved this latest title in the She Persisted series and is already excited for the next book in the series: Nelly Bly.
The First Ten Years by Joseph Fink and Meg Bashwinner
The First Ten Years by Joseph Fink and Meg Bashwinner is a book that’s hard to categorize. Part memoir, part romance, it is both and neither of those things which sort of makes sense once you realize who wrote it.
The book is authored by Joseph Fink (one half of the writing team behind Welcome to Night Vale) and his wife Meg Bashwinner (also part of the Night Vale team and former member of the Neo-Futurists). It looks back at the first ten years of their relationship from their first meeting in 2009 through to 2019. The twist with this book is that both authors wrote a chapter for each of those ten years without consulting with one another. What results is a fascinating look at how the same years and events are seen completely differently through two different perspectives. The same key events happen in both chapters covering a certain year, for example, the death of a close family member is naturally a focal point of one year for both, but everything else is often wildly different.
During the years covered in this book, Joseph and Meg go from young twenty-somethings living in their parents’ homes or dodgy NYC flatshares to a married couple with a home on both coasts. We get to share in their ups and downs—the successes of joining the Neo-Futurists, buying their first home, and the remarkable rise of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast tempered against Joseph’s increasingly paralyzing anxiety, Meg’s drug use, and near-crippling self-doubt from both sides.
While fans of the Night Vale Presents family of shows will no doubt get the most from The First Ten Years, Sophie would still recommend it to anyone interested in the millennial perspective of growing up or the experience of living and working in the creative arts field. It is a powerful book that made Sophie both laugh and cry, and she also felt very seen in the passages where Joseph discusses his severe anxiety in very honest terms.
The Ivies by Alexa Donne
The Ivies by Alexa Donne is a contemporary YA thriller set at a prestigious American high school filled with entitled rich kids. As a fan of Riverdale, Heathers, Mean Girls, and books like One of Us is Lying, it was right up Sophie’s alley.
The book is told from the perspective of Olivia, one of the Ivies. The Ivies are a group of five senior girls at Claflin Academy who have one goal in their minds: admission to an Ivy League college. To secure that all-important goal they will go to any length necessary, working together to disrupt exams in their favor, hack school computer systems to ensure they have the best schedules, and even resorting to the occasional bout of blackmail. Each girl is assigned to one Ivy League school to ensure they don’t take one another’s place.
However, Olivia has secretly applied to Harvard behind the group’s back and is shocked when she receives early acceptance while the Ivies leader (and Harvard legacy student) Avery is rejected. That night, fellow Ivies member Emma publicly reveals her own secret Harvard acceptance to everyone, causing Avery to attack her in a jealous rage. The next morning, Emma is discovered dead on the school grounds, and Olivia begins to wonder just how far her so-called friends would go to guarantee their places at the colleges they have built their dreams upon.
Sophie loved the first three-quarters of this book, which had strong Pretty Little Liars vibes and kept her awake turning the pages long after bedtime for just one more chapter. There were plenty of twists and turns here along with lots of red herrings and fun bits of misdirection. Unfortunately, she felt that the book petered out to an unsatisfying conclusion by continuing on after the point when it should have come to an end. However, despite this, she would still strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves rich teen drama.
Before They Were Artists: Famous Illustrators as Kids by Elizabeth Haidle
Before They Were Artists: Famous Illustrators as Kids by Elizabeth Haidle is a graphic novel-style collection of short biographies that profile six famous illustrators from childhood and throughout the rest of the lives. The book features Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Tove Jansson (creator of the Moomins), Hayao Miyazaki (founder of Studio Ghibli), and several others including Jerry Pinkney and Yuyi Morales.
Each of the illustrators gets a fully illustrated 8-10 page biography that shows the challenges they faced and the achievements they accomplished as young people before diving into their careers as illustrators. Every section begins with a two-page spread that includes a timeline of the illustrator’s life and an image of their most famous book. The illustrations throughout have a simplistic, muted style that allows the story to shine and encourages the reader to seek out the works of the people they are reading about, and the chronological presentation makes this an ideal reference book for school art class projects.
While the stories of many popular authors and fine artists are well-known, illustrators are more often overlooked, so all of these biographies were new stories to Sophie, who found them all thoroughly enjoyable. She was also pleased to note that the book didn’t gloss over difficult periods or hide the fact that several of the featured illustrators were LGBTQ. This is an inspirational book filled with interesting stories that will leave you wanting to pick up a pencil and start drawing too.
The Path of the Witch by Lidia Pradas
Sophie is spending 2021 exploring Paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft, so The Path of the Witch by Lidia Pradas was an immediate must-read when she spotted it.
This helpful book offers introductions to seven popular witchcraft paths: Green, Kitchen, Wicca, Cosmic, Elemental, Sea, and Eclectic. Each path has a dedicated chapter that looks at the core ideas behind that style of witchcraft, with practical ideas for exploring the path further and discovering if it suits you. These change depending on the path, so they cannot be directly contrasted. For example, the Green Witch chapter includes recipes for making meditation incense and herbal cold syrups, guidance for storing herbs, and correspondence tables for trees and flowers; the Cosmic Witch chapter offers guidance on understanding your birth chart, a guide to moon phases, and correspondences for days of the week; and the Sea Witch chapter discusses the uses for different types of seashells, ways to make a sea bath, and rules for taking items from beaches.
The final section of the book covers some other topics that may be relevant to those exploring witchcraft for the first time. There is a look at the pros and cons of solitary vs coven witchcraft, a guide to red flags to watch for when joining a new group, and a reminder that you don’t have to pick one specific path and stick with it for life: witchcraft allows for exploration.
The Path of the Witch is a brilliant book for those looking to get involved in witchcraft for the first time, and Sophie would also recommend following the author’s popular Instagram @wiccantips if this is a subject you find interesting.
Man in White by Johnny Cash
Lisa ran across the novel Man in White by Johnny Cash while looking through a used bookstore well over a year ago. She finally read it during the Lenten season this year, as it was a historic fiction novel based on the life of the Apostle Paul.
When she first purchased the book until the time when she was ready to sit down and read it, her biggest question was, “can Johnny Cash write a decent novel and not just another celebrity bio?” Yes, he can. Not only did he crank out a suspenseful, read where Paul (Saul) is more than just a Biblical figure, but Cash did his homework on the culture, region, and time frame from which the story takes place. There are details to the living quarters, rituals, and even the gory details of what a certain form of corporal punishment will do to the body. Saul is also given a full personality that very rarely comes out in any reading of religious or historic texts. The reader especially gets a glimpse into his bloodlust for punishing those he considered blasphemous. Saul definitely comes across as the villain in the first few chapters.
Whether just wanting to learn more about the region at the time or studying more about Paul’s life and spiritual transformation, Cash did a tremendous job. Lisa also recommends not skipping the introduction, as the quick commentary from Cash on his own journey into writing the book is fascinating. This includes Cash’s relapse into addiction after being attacked by, of all things, an ostrich. The Man in Black has always been one of the most larger-than-life presences in pop culture, and his talents for songwriting and performing are iconic. After reading Man in White, it was clear to Lisa his talent extended into straight prose, and it is a shame he didn’t write more.
GeekMom received a copy of most books included here for review purposes.