This Strange Wilderness

This Strange Wilderness

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon is a biography of Audubon for YA readers.   I really enjoyed this book!  It is well and concisely written, and while it’s not exciting per se, his life is definitely one that keeps you interested!  Author Nancy Plain manages to weave in the parts of history that overlap with Audubon’s life (such as the French Revolution and the Trail of Tears) in a way that shows their significance and impact on his life, without doing them a disservice.  This is not easy to do!  It’s hard to address enormous topics like that that have books of their own written about them, yet still stay true to the story you are telling.  I thought that Nancy accomplished this well.

Nancy Plain
Author Nancy Plain

I would recommend this book as a great companion book to Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt.  I think that they would be really good to read together, to see how the real book (The Birds of America, by Audubon) is used in Gary Schmidt’s fictional story.  I also think that if you have readers who like nonfiction more than fiction, you could start them on This Strange Wilderness and then suggest Okay for Now (or vice versa, for those who prefer fiction!).

Strange Wilderness Illustration
Northern Mockingbird

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs.  There are 27 reproductions of Audubon’s paintings for The Birds of America, as well as several from his follow-up book, The Viviparous Quadrupeds.  In addition, there are paintings done by other artists, paintings he’s done of his family, various sketches of his, and a photograph of his childhood home.  The bird paintings that were chosen to be included all beautifully illustrate the various parts of John James Audubon’s life that Nancy Plain describes to her readers.


Most Dangerous


I just finished Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.  This book is edge-of-your-seat exciting, and really well done.  Of course, I wasn’t surprised – I’ve read Bomb, also by Steve Sheinkin, and was blown away by that as well.  Steve has really mastered the art of narrative non-fiction.  I used to always think of myself as someone who didn’t like nonfiction – it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that it was because of the types of nonfiction books I had been exposed to, rather than anything inherent in nonfiction.  I was an avid reader as a kid and teen – I gobbled up every book I could get my hands on.  Some of these were nonfiction, such as memoirs.  But I only thought of nonfiction as the boring texts I had to read at school. Steve’s books should be included in any library that serves young adults so that librarians can steer reluctant nonfiction readers their way.

Author photo by Erica Miller

Most Dangerous has more than 40 pages of additional information at the end, including works cited, source notes, photo credits, and an index.  Steve is very thorough with his research, and it really shows in his writing.  He presents the facts, pulled from various sources with different points of view, and lets those facts speak for themselves.

The book is filled with photographs and copies of important papers that support the text and enhance the reader’s experience.  Each one is a reminder that this story is completely real.  (And sometimes I needed that reminder – there are parts of this story that are hard to believe!).  It just goes to show what they say is true – sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction!

The epilogue of the book really got to me, where Steve talked about Edward Snowden, and his actions in light of Daniel Ellsberg’s story.  It is both encouraging to know that there are people in this world who will risk everything to balance out the immense power held by our government – and also scary that in some ways, history is repeating itself, even after all we have learned about the “secret history” of the Vietnam War.

Photo of Daniel Ellsberg from Rolling Stone.

Bellweather Rhapsody

Bellweather Rhapsody

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia is actually an adult book, so you may be wondering why it’s showing up on a blog about young adult books!  That is because this book is what we would call a good ‘crossover’ book.  That is, it is a book written for adults that teens would probably enjoy if they are interested in reading adult books.  Bellweather Rhapsody is a 2015 winner of the Alex Award, which is an annual award given by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) “to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults” (from the YALSA website).

This book weaves together traditional aspects from the murder mystery genre (anniversary of a murder! an old hotel! trapped in a snowstorm!), with both specific references to and imagery of The Shining, as well as high school camp and band geek stories to create an entirely original piece.  Spoiler alert here – although the book is written with the possibility that it is a ghost story, it is completely realistic fiction, which it takes most of the book to discover.  I loved this because the author was able to play on our stereotypes of various genres to set up our expectations, making the end almost more unexpected than anything supernatural could have been.

Author photo by Sage Brousseau.

The characters are realistic and believable (even Viola Fabian, which is saying something!), and Kate does an incredible job of showing her readers the back stories of each character, as well as their wishes and motivations.  She also deftly manages to show the greys that each person is made of – that not everything is black and white, and each person is made of both good and bad parts (although some certainly have more of one than the other!).

There are two main thing that set this book apart as adult rather than young adult – the first is parts of the story being told from the adults’ points of view, and the second is that despite the relatively happy ending (given the circumstances), there is an air of melancholy throughout the book.  Neither of these things are typically found in YA, but both enhance this particular story.



MARTians by Blythe Woolston is sort of your standard dystopian future with a highly original twist.  First of all, it appears to be a stand alone book (a sequel could certainly follow, but it doesn’t seem set up for one).  In addition, (spoiler alert), Zoë doesn’t save the world from a corrupt government.  This story is told on a smaller scale, where our heroine is not “the chosen one,” but rather anyone.  She is struggling to live her life in what her world has become, rather than completely overhauling the world as she knows it.  This is so vastly different from most YA dystopian books!

Another thing about this book – and something that makes it more frightening in some ways than other books of its type – is that this feels like a very, very near future.  The consumerism, what happens with the government and the news, and the trajectory from school straight to a big box store all feel like things that are already happening.  MARTians hits alarmingly close to home, and it’s not hard to imagine that if we continue on the path we (as a country) are headed down, that our future could easily resemble Zoë’s reality.

Author Blythe Woolston

There were a lot of things the book didn’t address in detail – references to things like “Sexual Responsibility,” the relationship between Zoë and AnnaMom, what happened to coworkers that went missing, etc – that normally would have bothered me.  Usually I want both explanations and closure, and yet somehow this just worked with the feel of MARTians as a whole.  It’s almost as though part of the point of this book is non-closure.  It is just a glimpse into part of Zoë’s life; a social commentary on where we are headed, without trying to wrap the whole thing up in a neat bow.  And it really works here.