Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford

songs of willow frost, jamie ford

Historical Fiction: Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford has become one of my favorite writers, and his novel Songs of Willow Frost has only cemented his place in my heart. It is the story of William Eng, a Chinese-American boy being raised in an orphanage in the 1930s. His mother gave him up for adoption when he was seven. Now twelve, he thinks he may have found her. Together with his friend Charlotte they plan to escape the orphanage, find his mother, and…well, he’s not sure. Is the woman he saw in the poster his mother? The woman is a famous actress and singer from Hollywood, Willow Frost. His mother was just his mother, Liu Song Eng, living in Seattle’s Chinatown. And why did she send him to the orphanage to begin with? The answers to these questions form the basis of this winsome and wistful story.


William is a wonderful protagonist. His love for his mother and his affection for Charlotte guide his steps throughout the novel. His experience in the orphanage as the only “Oriental” child is wrenching, though his friends Sunny (a Native American boy) and Charlotte (a blind Caucasian girl) help make things tolerable. When Charlotte suggests they flee the orphanage to find Willow Frost and reunite his family, William is willing to do it with her. But he is aware enough to ask a myriad of questions. What if he is wrong and she is not his mother? What if he is right, but she does not want him? What if she does not remember him at all? How can two twelve-year-olds survive on the streets of Seattle if their plan does not work? Despite his concerns, the two of them embark on their adventure, and William finds that the answers to his questions are very challenging to hear.


In these days when mixed-race relationships are commonplace, when equal rights are a matter of law (if not always a matter of fact), when Chinese-Americans are even running for president, it is hard to remember that only a couple of generations ago things were very different. Chinese could not immigrate to America. Many states banned interracial marriages. If a Chinese-American married a Chinese citizen, he or she lost their American citizenship and would have to move to China. This was the case even for those born in America. These and many other relics of the past are challenges facing the characters in this novel. It is worth remembering that as bad as things sometimes are, we have come such a long way. There is still a long way to go, but seeing how things were during my grandparents’ generation for Chinese-Americans, for single mothers, and for children in orphanages gives me reason to hope that we will continue to improve.


Songs of Willow Frost is an achingly powerful book that pulls heartstrings without pulling any punches. Jamie Ford is an exceptional writer, one who captures the Chinese-American experience in a very different time and culture, yet one that is only a few decades removed from our own. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


Author Jamie Ford will be at Schlow Memorial Library in State College, PA on September 21, 2019. We encourage all of our local readers to come and hear him speak.

songs of willow frost, jamie ford

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford


Reader Roadtrip: 2019 National Book Festival

Reader Roadtrip: The 2019 National Book Festival in Washington DC

2019 National Book Festival

We made a Scintilla Road Trip to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC on August 31, 2019. To cover more authors, we split up and attended as many events as we could. Both of us (plus one of our boys) had a wonderful time, and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the speakers and spending time with thousands of other bookish peeps!

2019 National Book Festival
View of the Parade of States

There were many authors there we have featured on, more than we could possibly have seen. There were also some who have pending reviews, and a few more that we intend to feature when we can. Dave focused on some of the genre writers, while Maria went to presentations by children’s authors.


37868545 0062391925 0062391917 2019 National Book Festival Panel Western Writers

In the genre writers, a presentation by Western writers included Anne Hillerman (we’ve reviewed Cave of Bones and Song of the Lion. Her latest is The Tale Teller, which we will feature sometime this autumn). Although she had to share the stage, her story of how she started writing fiction and how her characters “spoke” to her fascinated the audience. She may not be Navajo but she clearly loves the people and land of the Dine and her work reflects that affection and care.


The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, Ghost Roads Book 2, Seanan McGuire Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant Seanan McGuire book signing at 2019 National Book Festival

Seanan McGuire (who also writes as Mira Grant) has been a frequent presence on our blog. We absolutely love her books. Recently, we’ve reviewed Girl in the Green Silk Gown (McGuire) and Into the Drowning Deep (Grant). She spent the entire time in a Q/A with the audience, which everyone seemed to really enjoy. Many of the questions dealt with her work with Marvel, as she writes the SpiderGwen comics, but she also spoke about her different series and shared a funny story about a swan in Ireland. (Probably should not try this at home, kids.)


The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi 2019 National Book Festival Jon Scalzi

John Scalzi spoke about his book The Consuming Fire, and shared a short story he wrote about a customer service “helpline” that might give me nightmares. Scalzi shared that we readers are part of the creative process of any book. The author has his/her/their thoughts about what is being written, but the reader also brings experiences and opinions and the current world into the books and those are also part of the story.  2019 National Book Festival Peter Brannen

Peter Brannen discussed his book The Ends of the World with an interviewer. Considering we may be in the midst of the sixth great extinction, his comments on the perils of anthropogenic extinctions from pollution, deforestation, climate change, hunting, urbanization, etc. were eye-opening. There are some frightening parallels to the changes we are making in the chemical composition and temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans to things that happened before.

  The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

The final presentation we attended was by Charlie Jane Anders, author of The City in the Middle of the Night. She talked about her childhood with a learning disability and her debt to a teacher who saw past that to the talent and heart that was inside. She was very warm and touching, and her tribute to that one teacher was extended to a tribute to so many teachers who make a difference in the lives of children.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer Circe. Madeline Miller The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

There were so many other Scintilla authors we wanted to see who were there. We just reviewed The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. Madeline Miller, author of Circe. R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries. Sigrid Nunez, The Friend (review pending). Richard Powers, The Overstory (review pending). David Quammen, The Tangled Tree (review pending). And so many others that I’ve probably missed some.

2019 National Book Festival Jon Scieszka & Steven Weinberg astronuts

Jon Scieszka (author & father-in-law) and Steven Weinberg (illustrator & son-in-law) described the creation of their new book AstroNuts Mission One: The Plant Planetthe first in a new series for middle school readers. The focus of their delightful presentation was “How the Book was Made” and how young authors and illustrators could use the same resources they used to make their own artwork.


moonshot 2019 National Book Festival Brian Floca

Brian Floca walked the audience through the process of creating and updating the anniversary edition of Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 with 8 extra pages in order to better express the sublime beauty and frightfulness of space.


nyas long walk 2019 National Book Festival Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park launches her new book Nya’s Long Walk: A Step at a Time which confronts the challenge of dirty water and poverty in a third world county. This book is a companion to A Long Walk to Water based on the true story of the need to supply a Sudanese village with clean water. With sensitivity and passion, Park advocates the reading books to children even if the topics are difficult and emotional.


Three Chears for Kid McGear2019 National Book Festival Sherri Duskey

Sherri Duskey Rinker shared her new book Three Cheers for Kid McGear! the latest in The Goodnight Construction Site series. Rinker shared how the idea for the book developed from the love of her youngest son for trucks of all kinds to the exuberant response of the kids in the bean bag gallery in front of the stage.


2019 National Book Festival Cece Bell Chick and Brain Smell my Foot!, Cece Bell

Cece Bell launched her new book Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot! the first of a new series for early/beginning readers. Inspired by the Dick and Jane books which helped her learn how to read, Bell wanted to create a fun series to encourage new readers with humor and quirky comic illustrations.


hello lighthouse 2019 National Book Festival Sophie Blackall

Sophie Blackall discussed her international book tour for Hello Lighthouse which won the 2019 Caldecott Medal as well as the travel and research necessary to create the book. Blackall described the reactions of her international readers to the book and how readers bring their own perspective to a book.


best friends 2019 National Book Festival Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham launched their new book Best Friends for middle school readers. They described how their own growing up experiences helped shape the book and they encouraged young writers and illustrators to be persistent and pursue the challenges to a career in publishing.


If you haven’t been to a National Book Festival, plan to go to Washington DC for this free event. It is an amazing gathering of authors and readers, and you might even run into a pair of book bloggers playing avid fanboy and fangirl while you’re there. 

2019 NBF scintilla 2019 national book festival


Reader Roadtrip: The 2019 National Book Festival


Book Review: The Lost Words, Robert MacFarlane & Jackie Morris

Book Review: The Lost Words, Robert MacFarlane (author) and Jackie Morris (illustrator)

The Lost Words

Poetry: The Lost Words, Robert MacFarlane & Jackie Morris

A hank of rope in the late hot sun; a curl
of bark; a six, an eight:
For adder is as adder basks.

When a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was released, someone noticed that about forty words from nature had been eliminated, replaced with words from technology. The justification was simple: children are no longer using those words because they are no longer spending time outside. So, words like “adder” and “heather” and “dandelion” no longer matter to children, but words like “blog” and “broadband” and “voicemail” are valuable.

Rather than simply complain, writer Robert MacFarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris decided to try some magic. They wrote a “spell book.” MacFarlane wrote twenty poems using words that were “lost” to the dictionary. Morris then illustrated those poems with lovely paintings that bring the words to life. Their hope is to introduce some of the missing words to a new generation, and hopefully to inspire some of them to go out and enjoy those things for themselves.

The poems are anagrams of the words, so they vary in length. The shortest is “ivy,”
I am ivy, a real high flyer
Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire
You call me ground cover; I say sky-wire.

Kids and adults alike will love the beautiful illustrations, and MacFarlane’s poems do work a spell on the reader. He is a lover of words and the poems show his love and appreciation for language and for the outdoors. Whether the book of spells works its magic on the makers of dictionaries remains to be seen, but it definitely captured this reader’s heart.

This book could be a children’s book, though my library has cataloged it in the adult section. They are also not wrong. Both children and adults will enjoy the whimsical and lyrical poems as well as the lush paintings that accompany them. I am glad that I found The Lost Words.

Also see Book Review: Landmarks, Robert MacFarland

The Lost Words

Book Review: The Lost Words, Robert MacFarland & Jackie Morris

Book Review: Night and Silence, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Night and Silence, October Daye Book 12, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Night and Silence, October Daye Series Book 12, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Night and SilenceOctober Daye Series Book 12, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is a knight of the realm, a fae/human changeling, a hero, a private investigator, betrothed to a king of cats, niece to the sea witch, and daughter of one of the Firstborn. So kidnapping her daughter would seem like a bad idea. Yet someone has done just that. Given that she has just returned from rescuing her real sister after she had been missing for 100 years, given that her fiance is still recovering from the trauma incurred during that time, given that she has not had enough sleep after capturing some flying hedgehogs which were wandering through San Francisco, pissing her off is not a good thing. Someone is going to pay. She just needs to find out who.


Night and Silence is the 12th installment in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series. If you have followed the series, the characters are familiar: October, her fiance Tybalt, her “sister” May, her squire Quentin, and several other recurring characters unite to find her missing daughter, Gillian. Gillian has rejected the fae, choosing to live as a human. But when she needs help that doesn’t matter. Anyone who knows October realizes that she will do anything for her family–in fact, they are counting on that. Nothing will stop her from coming after her daughter. Not even a Baoban Sith: a vampire.


Fairy tale heroes are supposed to stride through their stories larger than life. They are not troubled by bitter exes. They are not rejected by teenage daughters. They are not hurting from damaged fiances. They are not wounded by enemies to the point where rooms are “painted” by their blood. Those heroes live happy, victorious, untroubled lives, far away from the dangers of Seanan McGuire’s imagination. October Daye does not have that luxury. Her heroics occur in a darker, more difficult world, one where people she loves are hurt and die and disappear and fight and sometimes break their hearts.


McGuire’s fiction may be labelled “fantasy,” but there are horror elements to it. Still, her characters are always complete and pitch perfect. In a world too mature to expect heroes to be without flaws, October Daye wears her flaws proudly, as badges that reveal her journey. They are not weaknesses. They are signs of triumph, wounds that show just how far she has come. They do not disfigure. They add depth, character, signs that this fictional half-fae creature is just as human as her readers.

Book Review: Night and Silence, October Daye Series Book 12, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Night and SilenceOctober Daye Series Book 12, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

Book Review: The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

Science Fiction: The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

Sophie has worked hard and overcome a lot to get into the university. Her roommate, Bianca, is a child of privilege and aristocracy. Sophie cannot help but be swept into Bianca’s orbit, but when Bianca makes a foolish choice that Sophie is punished for, a series of events is set in motion that will change both their lives forever. The trauma of that event never leaves either woman.


Mouth is part of a team of scavengers, but she cannot help but remember where she came from. She grew up in a family of nomads, a tribe that did not give you your true name until you earned it. In one terrible night the entire tribe was wiped out, with only the young girl Mouth surviving–and no one left to give her a name. That trauma shapes the rest of Mouth’s life.


In The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders gives us a world of perpetual daylight on one side of the tidally locked planet January and a world of perpetual night on the other side of the planet. Clinging to life in the marginal zone between day and night are a few cities of humans. One city is ruled by a slavish conformity to the clock: sleep times and bath times and work times and all other times are controlled by the government. The other is ruled by families whose primary goal is the pursuit of pleasure. In between is a harsh wasteland with violent weather and more violent predators.


Switching back and forth between Sophie and Mouth, the story reveals how the lives of these women become intertwined. Looming throughout are the creatures of the night, called “crocodiles” by most, who revealed a very different side to Sophie in her hour of greatest need. As the needs of the women–and their very society–increase, their relationships with each other, with their cities, and with their world will be tested and shaped. It’s safe to say that each of them is completely remade by the end of the journey.


One question that arises throughout the novel (though usually unspoken) is, “What would you do for love?” Would you take the blame for something another person did? Would you betray others to retrieve something of value to your people? Throughout the book the choices the characters face constantly revolve around how they answer that question. Sometimes the things they do for love are stupid and self-destructive. Sometimes they are noble and bold. It’s naive to say that choices made for love are never wrong–love can mislead and confuse and one person’s love may be another person’s manipulation. But in the complex webs between the different characters in the book, the question of what one would do for love recurs again and again.


Another theme recurring through the book is the treatment of marginalized persons. Sophie is from a poor family. Mouth is from a different (and extinct) tribe of nomads. Humans, other than Sophie, reject the planet’s natives as being mere animals, not even considering that they may be intelligent and sophisticated. Yet as the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that the least regarded people are the ones who can lead the way to survival for the entire society. Anders writes these characters with the sensitivity and passion that she brings as a member of a marginalized group herself, and her experience informs her writing.


The City in the Middle of the Night is a powerful work. The world is complex and challenging. The characters are more so. Charlie Jane Anders has written a story that gives and gives until the final page and beyond. We highly recommend it.


The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders

Book Review: The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders


Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Nonfiction: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Admit it: the title caught your attention. It caught mine, too. Fortunately, the contents of the book live up to the boldness of the title. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara and his team of librarians and community volunteers who literally risked their lives to save precious manuscripts from destruction.

Centuries ago, Timbuktu stood as a beacon of learning in sub-Saharan Africa. Home to scholars and a university, students flocked to the city and studied from masters and from the manuscripts they produced. Many of these were copied lovingly by hand, ornamented with gold and jewels and illustrated lavishly. These manuscripts often were passed from generation to generation. Although termites and other environmental challenges destroyed many of them, others were preserved in the dry Malian air.

In the 1980s, a young man was hired by a government library to begin collecting manuscripts for them. The goal was to preserve and restore the heritage of scholarship that had been lost over the years. Haidara proved to be an outstanding collector, amassing hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and working with a team to save them from what had been their greatest threats: termites and mold.

But a new threat was forming in the region. Al Qaeda of the Maghreb, an offshoot in Africa owing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, took over much of Mali–including Timbuktu. Any document that challenged their strict interpretation of Islam was in danger, and most of the manuscripts in the collection were either secular works or works from a much less rigid perspective of the religion.

Haidara and his team, especially his nephew and coworker Mohammed Toure, made plans to first hide the manuscripts, then to move them from Timbuktu. People literally risked their lives to save the manuscripts, and Joshua Hammer tells their stories with admiration and respect. Some of them refused to let him use their actual names, as Al Qaeda still has a presence in the area and they did not want to attract their attention even now after the main force was defeated and driven out of the city.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a story of scholarship and love for heritage. It is also a story of heroism in the face of tyranny. A true-life adventure, it is a thriller with a plot that deserves a Hollywood treatment (and a movie is in the works). I highly recommend it.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

Author Spotlight: Joy Harjo

Author Spotlight: Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky  Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo

Poetry: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, Joy Harjo

Poetry: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo


This autumn, Joy Harjo will begin her term as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. She is the first Native American to hold this title. A member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, this Oklahoma poet has been an ambassador for Native Americans and for poetry for more than 40 years.


She is a poet and a musician, and in both of those roles she sees herself as a truth teller. Harjo’s poetry is not bound by form or rhyme. She rather looks to metaphor and analogy to express herself. One example from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is her poem/song Rabbit Is Up to Tricks. Rabbit was lonely, so he created man and taught him to steal. But the man stole everything: grain, gold, wives, animals. So…


Rabbit tried to call the clay man back,

but when the clay man wouldn’t listen

Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears.


Perhaps more overtly political is the title poem from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Using statements on conflict resolution juxtaposed with broken promises and treaties between Native Americans and Washington, she condemns the abuses by the majority population using their own words.


The Woman Who Fell from the Sky has prose poems along with commentary by the author. Most of the poems tell stories of Native Americans struggling to hang on to their identity in a hostile world. They are often blunt, or as another reviewer put it, “stark and unadorned.” 


Joy Harjo’s work is direct, honest, and often painful. There is a beauty in the pain, though, that shines through. The truth that she tells is one we need to hear, and hopefully her role as Poet Laureate will amplify her voice.

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo

Author Spotlight: Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States