Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb

“Twelve year old Nella Sabatini’s life is changing too soon, too fast.” Nella, who lives in an Italian American neighborhood with her very Italian American parents and her four “snot-nosed” little brothers, has one best friend, Clem, and one former best friend, Angela. When Angela’s troubled family brings trouble to the entire neighborhood, what will Nella do about Angela, Clem, Angela’s older brother, Anthony, and her own very mixed-up feelings and allegiances?

I liked this book. Really. The girls talk about important things—war, guns, God, time, change, and friendship—in a very natural and twelve year old way. And Nella’s life and relationships with her family and friends and great-grandmother and her friends’ families were also well-drawn and believable. I was drawn into the story, and I really wanted to know what would happen to these girls and their changing neighborhood.

However, there were two problems that got in the way of my enjoyment of this middle grade novel. First, one of the minor characters uses God’s name in vain (OMG). Why is this necessary in a middle grade novel, especially for a minor character who doesn’t get much character development anyway? It’s offensive to some people, and unnecessary, so leave it out.

Second, there were these little short interlude chapters in which a statue, named Jeptha A. Stone, tells what it would say if it could speak. A bird makes its nest in the statue’s lap. I have no idea how these interludes related to the main story. I’m a bit dense, I suppose, but I think the book would have been better with the statue thoughts edited out completely.

Then, there is the part that wasn’t problematic for me, but might be for others. The main crisis of the novel deals with an accidental shooting of a black man by a white (Italian) man, Angela’s older brother, Anthony. Anthony goes to jail, and everybody is appalled at his shooting of this young black man, implying or stating that the shooting was racially motivated. However, as far as Anthony and his family and Nella are concerned, the shooting was an accident. So, some people might be offended that the shooter is “innocent”, since many, at least some, shootings of young black men are racially motivated. Others might be concerned because Anthony is not totally exonerated, although he is a sympathetic character. Like all the news these days related to police and people of color and guns and shooting, it’s complicated. It makes the book itself timely, but subject to controversy and misunderstanding.

I recommend Every Single Second. Skip the sort of talking statue.

New Children’s Fiction in the Library: September, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw. In 1066 the Normans defeat the Saxons, and eleven year old Juliana, a Saxon miss, becomes a captive and a servant in a Norman castle. However, when she escapes captivity, she even comes to have a part in the creation of the famous Bayeaux Tapestry.

All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd. Sequel to Time at the Top. A young girl is granted three rides in a magic elevator that transports her to the end of the nineteenth century.

Hannah’s Fancy Notions: A Story of Industrial New England by Pat Rose. A short chapter book, historical fiction, about a young girl who helps her impoverished family by making hatboxes, or bandboxes as they were called, to sell to the mill girls of Lowell, Massachusetts in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Winnie’s War by Jennie Moss. I used to have a copy of this book, but it got lost. Now, this World War I novel, set in Coward’s Creek (really Friendswood), Texas is back in my library. Semicolon review here.

The Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. This book, set in the Florida Everglades, alludes to Beowulf. Semicolon review here.

The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin. For readers who enjoy puzzles, games, wordplay, and mathematical dilemmas.

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. In this 1894 adventure novel, Rudolph Rassendyll’s life is interrupted by his unexpected involvement in the affairs of Ruritania whilst travelling through the town of Zenda. He is shortly on the way to Streslau, the capital, where he finds himself engaged in plans to rescue the imprisoned king.

Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen. Francis Alphonse Tucket, who is traveling on the Oregon Trail with his family, gets separated from the wagon train and kidnapped by a Pawnee raiding party. First in a five book series, will Francis ever get to Oregon and find his family?

Saturday Review of Books: September 17, 2016

“A childhood spent among books prepared me for a lifetime as a reader.” ~Carol Jago

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

2016 Middle Grade Fiction: Short Takes

Lizzie and the Lost Baby, by Cheryl Blackford. (realistic fiction)I thought this one was a good little story. The themes of truth-telling and treating others with respect and forbearance were well integrated into the story. A family of gypsies accidentally lose their baby girl, left alone and immediately rescued in a pasture, and the nearby community (in England) treat them with disdain and prejudice. One child, Lizzie, stands up for what is right against all the adults who are perpetuating an injustice.

Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson. (realistic fiction) Topher, Brand and Steve’s favorite teacher, Mrs. Bixby, announces she’s leaving school to go into treatment for cancer; the three boys make a plan to provide Mrs. Bixby with a day she will never forget. I wish Mr. Anderson had kept the language above board, and the boy humor toned down a little (or a lot). As it was, I loved the story but can’t really recommend it. If your tolerance for mild swearing and boogers and such is higher than mine, you should check it out.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. (talking to each other animals) If you love foxes and nature and if you think people are the bad guys, spoiling the foxes’ natural habitat . . .

Ramie Nightingale by Kate diCamillo. (unbelievable supposedly realistic fiction?) If Ramie Clarke can just win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. Maybe it was my mood, but I found this one, by one of my favorite contemporary authors, entirely too “precious”, something I don’t often have a problem with. I’m all for kitsch and cuteness usually, but in this one the girls and the peripheral characters were just not believable.

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. (fantasy) This book about a ten year old girl and her drug-addicted older sister would be great bibliotherapy for middle graders with a family member who is drug abuser, but I’m not sure whether issue-driven fiction is appealing to the general reader or not. On the one hand drug abuse is rampant, and many kids might encounter it in themselves or in family members. On the other hand, well, the whole protecting kids while they are young and not scaring them about horrible stuff is a good thing, too. I’m also not sure what exactly the message is about magic/wishes/prayer. Pray and hope and wish, but don’t expect too much? Prayers and magical wishes are similar ways of coping, but be careful what you ask for?

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg. Eleven year old John Watson moves to New York City, and his first (and only) friend is the great detective Shelby Holmes, who is a bit eccentric and difficult to understand, to say the least. Shelby, a nine year old wonder at solving mysteries, is definitely lacking in the area of people skills. Can she and John become friend and colleagues in spite of Shelby’s off-putting manner? Can they solve the mystery of the missing show dog—together? Good introduction to the Sherlock Holmes genre and to the idea of difficult personalities and grace extended for personal quirks.

Guile by Constance Cooper. (probably YA fantasy) “Sixteen-year-old orphan Yonie Watereye scrapes a living posing as someone who can sense the presence of guile (magic), though in fact she has no such power–it’s her talking cat, LaRue, who secretly performs the work.” (Goodreads) Creepy, but good, with themes that are probably a little too mature for middle grades.

The Worst Night Ever by Dave Barry. I love Dave Barry’s newspaper columns, but I’m not sure he has the best style for middle grade fiction. I meant to read the first book in this series, The Worst Class Trip Ever, but I never got around to it. In this one, which is about a kidnapped ferret and a ring of illegal rare animal importers, there’s a lot of repetition of jokes that aren’t very funny to start with: “My best friend Matt is an idiot”, repeated over and over. “It’s a komodo dragon, not a kimono dragon”, repeated at least three times by three different characters. Stupid dad. Crazy mom. That sort of thing. Maybe some kids would like the humor, but I was bored.

For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton

For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton.

Wow! Best nonfiction book I’ve read this year, maybe the best book I’ve read this year. Everyone knows about Eric Liddell, Olympic gold medalist, Chariots of Fire, missionary to China. At least, everyone thinks they know the story of his life. I even knew the basic outline, up to to and including his death during World War II in a Japanese internment camp in China.

Nevertheless, the legacy of this one man is hard to appreciate without reading something like Hamilton’s 350 page biography in which every single person interviewed or quoted has nothing but good to say of Eric Liddell, a truly selfless follower of Jesus Christ throughout a servant’s life and to a sacrificial and difficult death in Weihsien Internment Camp in February, 1945. I can only wish that I could leave such memories behind with those who knew me best under hard and trying circumstances, but unfortunately, my legacy, like that of most people, will be mixed at best.

I got the impression that Mr. Hamilton, while researching the life and death of Eric Liddell, tried to find something or some few things that would bring the man down to size and make this biography rather than hagiography. But it’s just not there. Did Liddell come across as preachy or arrogant? Never as far as the author can find. Did he stick to his principles in disregard of human need and frailty? No, he came to the decision that it would be best to allow the teenagers to play sports on Sunday afternoons in spite of Sabbath restrictions, and he even refereed the games so that no one would get hurt or get into fights. Did he hate or at least disdain the Japanese soldiers who first harassed him and his fellow missionaries and then imprisoned them under horrendous conditions? No, he submitted to their searches and seizures and injustices and cruelties and then encouraged his companions in camp to pray for the Japanese guards because “when we hate them we are self-centered.”

I am studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 with my Bible study group, and I was pleased and inspired to read that the Sermon on the Mount was Eric Liddell’s favorite part of the Bible, the blueprint for his Christian life. He read and re-read E. Stanley Jones’ book, The Christ of the Mount, and Liddell wrote his own commentary, influenced by his study of the Sermon on the Mount, entitled Discipleship, or The Disciplines of the Christian Life. I am inspired to read both the Jones book and Liddell’s meditations as I study Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew this fall.

In the meantime, I am inspired by the life and death of Eric Liddell. Yes, he stood fast for what he believed was right and refused to run in competitive races on Sunday. Yes, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1924 in Paris in spite of his principled stance. But so much more. He retired from running even though he could very likely have competed and won another gold medal in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam or even in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He felt he was called to China, and he was excited and pleased to be able to serve the Lord and the Chinese people.

When he went to China, he followed the instructions of his missionary sending organization, the London Missionary Society, even when those orders conflicted with his own desires. He spent long periods of time away from his beloved wife and children because the LMS wouldn’t let them go with Eric to his missionary post. In the midst of a war zone and later a Japanese-occupied zone, he continued to preach the gospel, minister to Chinese Christians, and help in any way he could, while submitting to the often capricious and vicious Japanese authorities as well as he was able.

In prison camp, Eric Liddell did his own work, then he helped others with their work. He got up an hour early, before the rest of the camp, to pray and read the Bible. He worked, often at menial tasks, without complaining. He mediated arguments, counseled the perplexed and depressed, and encouraged those who were losing hope under the starvation diet and brutal living conditions of the camp. He made himself available for every request, to every need, with every person who asked.

Eric Liddell’s close friend in camp, Joe Cotterill: “He was always so positive—even when there wasn’t much to be positive about and he carried the weight of others’ worries and burdens without hesitation.”

Another fellow prisoner: “He never let anyone see him downcast. Every day to him was still precious.He threw himself into it to make others feel better about the situation all of us were in.”

Another internee: “He was the man we turned to when personal relationships got just too impossible. He had a gentle, humorous way of . . . bringing to one’s mind some bygone happiness or the prospect of some future interest just round the corner.”

A child in camp: “I once saw him unloading supplies from the back of a cart. I said to myself: Why is he doing it? That’s someone else’s responsibility. Later I realized he did everything. It’s said he was worth ten men. I can believe it.”

Langdon Gilkey: “Liddell didn’t look like a famous athlete—or rather he didn’t look as if he thought of himself as one.” He was “surely the most modest man who ever breathed.” This was “one of the secrets of his amazing life.”

Eric Liddell: “The Christian life should be a life of growth. I believe the secret of growth is to develop the devotional life.”
“Every Christian should live a God-guided life. If you are not guided by God, you will be guided by something else. If in the quiet of your heart, you feel something should be done, stop and consider whether it is in line with the character and teaching of Jesus. If so, obey that impulse to do it, and in doing so you will find it was God guiding you.”

I am amazed and humbled by what God was able to do in and through the life of this one man.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Winston Mawdsley Graham was twentieth century British novelist best known for his series of Poldark novels, set in the late eighteenth century, just after end of the American Revolution or War for Independence. The series takes place in Cornwall, and the protagonist and eponymous hero is a former soldier in the British army in America who comes home to find the girl he left behind, Elizabeth, engaged to be married to his richer cousin, Francis. Ross returns to the land he has inherited from his deceased father and attempts to make a living and a life in the stark and poverty-stricken mines and fields of southern England.

After the first novel, Ross Poldark, published in 1945, there followed eleven more books in the series. The novels have been adapted for television at least twice by the BBC, once in the 1970’s and again (the first two novels with perhaps more to come?) in 2015. I saw the 2015 version which was what got me interested in reading the books. I must say that although I enjoyed the television mini-series, I wish I had read the books first. I think, having read the first book in the series, that the books will be the better stories, less sensationalized and more true-to-life. But now I have the actors, Aidan Turner as Ross and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, in my head, and I can’t help but picture those actors as I read the story. Mr. Turner is certainly handsome in a tall-dark-and way, and I don’t mind picturing him. But I wish I had formed my own mental pictures first and then maybe super-imposed the actors onto my conceptions.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the first book, too, since I didn’t realize at first that the mini-series was based on the first two books. I expected certain events to unfold that didn’t happen. However, I’m now primed and ready for the next book in the series, titled Demelza. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. It’s reminding me, for some reason, of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Perhaps it’s the disadvantaged and maltreated hero, handsome and debonair, but also dark and tormented. Or maybe the emphasis on finding one’s love amid the toils and vicissitudes of business (Poldark) and politics (Lymond) is what binds the two series together. And the historical setting is vivid and well-drawn and researched in both series.

In case you should want to pursue the series of Poldark novels, the titles are:

1945 – Ross Poldark (original U.S. title: The Renegade)
1946 – Demelza
1950 – Jeremy Poldark (original U.S. title: Venture Once More)
1953 – Warleggan (original U.S. title: The Last Gamble)
1973 – The Black Moon
1976 – The Four Swans
1977 – The Angry Tide
1981 – The Stranger from the Sea
1982 – The Miller’s Dance
1984 – The Loving Cup
1990 – The Twisted Sword
2002 – Bella Poldark

I’ll probably be back with more Poldarkian observations soon.

New Easy Readers in the Library: September, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

Biscuit by Alyssa Capucilli. Biscuit the puppy doesn’t want to go to bed. Cute story with very simple vocabulary for beginning readers.

Henry and Mudge Get the Cold Shivers by Cynthia Rylant.
Henry and Mudge and the Bedtime Thumps by Cynthia Rylant. In the first story, Henry and his dog friend Mudge each have a sick day, and Henry takes care of Mudge in the same way Henry’s father takes care of Henry when he is ill. In the Bedtime Thumps, Henry and Mudge visit Henry’s grandmother’s house in the country and hear alarming nighttime noises. I really enjoy Cynthia Rylant’s picture books and easy readers. The stories are simple and relatable, and the characters are the same.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman.
Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Horse in the House by Erica Silverman. The Billy and Blaze books by C.W. Anderson or the Bucky series by Reichert or other cowboy easy readers are good for boys and girls who are interested in reading stories with horses and ranch life featured, but a series with a cowgirl is a nice addition to the easy reader section of the library. Kate and her horse Cocoa count the herd, ride the range, and even explore the idea of a horse in the house in these two books, each with three very short chapters.

Poppleton in Winter by Cynthia Rylant.
Poppleton Everyday by Cynthia Rylant. Ms. Rylant again succeeds in creating a kid-friendly, delightful character in Poppleton the pig, as in these two books he gazes at the stars, chooses a new bed, goes sailing with a friend, measures his icicles, sculpts a bust, and goes for a sleigh ride.

The Golly Sisters Go West by Betsy Byars. May-May and Rose are the singing, dancing Golly sisters who entertain their way across country while traveling west in a covered wagon. In this book, there are six short, funny stories about the Golly sisters and their adventures.

Eric Liddell: Running for a Higher Prize by Renee Taft Meloche. A fairly easy, rhyming biography of the famous runner and missionary of Olympic fame and featured in the movie, Chariots of Fire.

George Muller: Faith to Feed Ten Thousand by Renee Taft Meloche. Another rhyming missionary biography for “young readers.”

The Nutcracker Ballet by Deborah Hautzig. In simple language, children can follow the ballet’s story from the opening Christmas Eve party scene to the closing scene in which Marie and her Nutcracker prince bid farewell to the Land of the Sweets.

Mr. Brown Can Moo: Can You? by Dr. Seuss. All about noises by the master of easy readers.

Good Work, Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish. I always enjoy the mix-ups and wordplay in Amelia Bedelia’s adventures.

Sailor Jack by Selma Wasserman.
Sailor Jack and Bluebell by Selma Wasserman.
Sailor Jack and Homer Pots by Selma Wasserman.
Sailor Jack and Bluebell’s Dive by Selma Wasserman. Sailor Jack is a submariner, and Bluebell is his parrot in this old, classic easy reader series.

If you have a beginning reader, I can recommend any or all of these, mostly series, to usher them into the world reading. Have fun exploring with Cowgirl Kate or Sailor Jack or Amelia Bedelia or any of the other multitude of easy reader characters. Who’s your favorite? (I’ll admit to a special fondness for the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel and the Little Bear books by Else Homeland Minarik.)

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

With recent events across the nation, the deaths of several unarmed black men, the deaths of policemen, Just Mercy is an incredibly timely read. As I read, I came to a new understanding of just how the deck is stacked against poor criminals and poor criminal suspects in particular, even as I questioned the author’s perspective on the crimes he wrote about. Seemingly, according to Bryan Stevenson, there are no heinous crimes deserving of the death penalty, and there are only misunderstood and wrongly convicted persons on death row.

Notwithstanding the author’s preconceptions about the justice system and the death penalty, his book and the stories recounted therein are well worth reading. If you are a critic of the death penalty, you will find your views bolstered and supported. If you are a proponent of the death penalty as a just punishment in certain crimes, you will find your support for it challenged. And that’s a good thing. The imposition of execution in response to crimes of murder and rape should only be undertaken by a society and a justice system under very limited circumstances and after much consideration, if at all.

So, Bryan Stevenson tells in his book the stories of several clients of his Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. The story of one client, Walter McMillan, a black man who is sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit. The book tells the stories of other death row prisoners who were helped, or not, by Stevenson’s EJI, but the thread that runs through the entire book is Mr. McMillan’s story of injustice, eventual freedom, and continued brokenness and struggle even after his release from prison.

Some quotes from the book show Stevenson’s perspective on mercy and justice:

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

“At the church meeting, I spoke mostly about Walter’s case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ The woman’s accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can’t simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stone catchers.”

Author John Grisham wrote about this book on Goodreads: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”

The other scene in the book that impressed me was when the author, who also happens to be a black man, describes his own encounter with the Atlanta (I think) police. Because he was sitting in his own car outside his own apartment for an extended period of time, listening to music, the police stopped, ordered him out of the car, and searched and questioned him. That’s a scary experience, and apparently it’s one that happens repeatedly and disproportionally to people of color, especially black men. One more quote:

“Of course innocent mistakes occur but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden born by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”

This book is a part of that deeper conversation, and it certainly made me think about some of my own presumptions and attitudes.

Saturday Review of Books: September 3, 2016

“Let books be your dining table,
And you shall be full of delights
Let them be your mattress
And you shall sleep restful nights.” ~Saint Ephraem Syrus

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”

The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.

I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.

Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.

I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?