Category Archives: poetry

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough


Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Dutton, 2018

Set in 17th century Rome, this harrowing and deeply emotional novel in verse is a fictionalized account of the early life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Her art is sold under her father’s name as no-one accepts that a woman can paint, but since her mother died, her father, resentful of her superior talent, is distant and harsh. So Artemisia is thrilled when Agostino Tassi is hired to tutor her, and it seems there might be a romantic attraction between them. But Tino is really a predator and rapes her.

Artemisia’s narrative verse is tight and focused when she is describing her painting, shatters during her ordeal, and is jagged with her suppressed fury at the inequity of her position.

Woven throughout are her mother’s stories of Susanna and Judith, biblical women who stood up to the oppression of men, and these women become figures of strength for Artemisia during the trial after her assault. She is able to find an outlet for her rage at the patriarchy and through painting them with her unique perspective.

The novel is adapted from the author’s play and an afterword gives some biographical information about Artemisia. Inexplicably it excludes the full story of her later professional and personal success, which I think does a disservice to readers who are likely not aware of the full story. Or maybe Ms McCullough is saving it for a sequel.

Includes resources for victims of sexual assault.

Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes


garveys-choiceGarvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
WordSong, 2016

Middle schooler Garvey feels like a misfit in his family. Though his mother supports and encourages his reading – he loves sci-fi – his father is perpetually trying to get him to play sports and his athletic sister affectionately calls him “chocolate chunk.” He is teased at school for his weight too, but then he is encouraged by a new friend, Manny, who suffers from albinism, to ignore the taunts, and when Garvey discovers Chorus he finds his place in the world.

This brief and poignant verse novel manages to dimensionalize fully a boy’s life in its simple stanzas. The sparse text doesn’t waste a word and an author’s note explains the use of the Japanese tanka form – 5 line verses with a 5 7 5 7 7 syllable scheme.

The novel is written from Garvey’s perspective allowing the reader to feel his hurt and confusion at his father’s expectations, gradually turning to pride and confidence in his achievements. Garvey has used food as a comfort and to fill the hole created by his father’s disappointment but now, as he and his father bond over the music of Luther Vandross, he finds he’s eating less.

The lovely, understated cover reflects the quiet warmth of Garvey’s metamorphosis. Readers will find they can read about Garvey’s choice in less than an hour, but his voice will stay with them for much longer.



The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

USA cover

USA cover

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2015.

Marcus Sedgwick is a prolific and inventive writer. And a bit of a dish, judging by his cover photo. I have really enjoyed his two previous books: Midwinterblood, which won the Printz for 2013, is a collection of unsettling and creepy interlinked stories; and She is Not Invisible, a terrific mystery with a blind girl finding her way in New York, wrapped around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe” and coincidences.

His new collection of stories, The Ghosts of Heaven, has a little of both – connected stories and a fascination with a phenomenon that promises meaning outside ourselves. There are four loosely connected stories, or quarters, set in different time periods. They’re presented in chronological order, though in an introductory note the author suggests that they can be read in any order. Within each quarter, spirals play a significant, though differing role.

In the free verse prehistoric story, Whispers in the Dark, a young woman accompanies an elder to the caves, where paintings are made to bring magic to help the people hunt. In the dark, she sees spirals like the ones she has drawn in the sand with a stick, and she stumbles on the thought of the written word.

The Witch in the Water is set in the 18th century in an isolated English village. A new priest, burning with fervent desire to root out witches, sees a young woman, Anna, dancing in a spiral after the funeral of her mother. Her mother was a “cunning woman” and Anna takes after her – and this, combined with her brother’s epilepsy and some vindictive villagers, leads to an inevitable Thomas Hardy-esque fate.

British cover

British cover

In the Gothic 1920’s tale, The Easiest Room in Hell, a naïve and altruistic doctor keeps a journal when he starts a new job at an insane asylum, which has a massive central spiral staircase. One of the inmates is terrified by this shape, which seems to go into the “darkest depths” at one end and into the “expansive heavens” at the other.

Finally, The Song of Destiny is set on a huge space ship spiraling through time and space as it transports 500 people to a New Earth. Keir Bowman (2001 references!) is a Sentinel who wakes up for 12 hours every 10 years to ensure all is well. On one of his shifts he believes he sees another person, and, on another, he hears a signal from space that suggests there’s another life form out there.

The quarters reference each other and are connected by thematic threads including solitude, both imposed and sought, discovery, connection and death. Though written in different styles, they all share a disquieting atmosphere of dread. I felt that the middle two stories were much more successful than the top and tail – I found the verse rather stiff and uninvolving in the prehistoric story; and the scifi quarter ends up in a swirl of pseudo-meaningful metaphysics.

However, that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure other readers will prefer different stories. But whatever floats your boat, this is a stylish and erudite collection that will appeal to mature teen and adult readers.

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics edited by Chris Duffy


above the dreamless deadAbove the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics edited by Chris Duffy
First Second, 2014.

Perhaps because of my age and upbringing, I have a particular fascination with the First World War. Or perhaps it was because I saw a high school production of ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ in my formative years. Whatever it is, I find myself drawn to the bitter gloominess of novels like A. J. Cronin’s The Stars Look Down, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and, for younger readers, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. So this was a natural for me to pick up from the review table, and I think it does a decent job of portraying the era to a generation (and a nation) that has little interest in it.Geroge Pratt

This collection of powerful WWI poetry, “adapted” (which seems to mean arranged and illustrated – the poems are not edited) by graphic artists, is intended as an introduction to both the Trench poets and, to a lesser extent, to the Great War itself. The selection of poetry is solid but not particularly adventurous – no women, no nationalities outside Britain and Ireland, – and focuses mostly on well-known names such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. Though to be fair, ‘well-known’ in this context is probably overstating the poets’ reputations considerably. The theme of the majority of the poems is spelt out in Patrick MacGill’s prose piece The Great Push: “Why have millions of men come here from all corners of Europe to hack and slay one another?”

simon ganeThe illustrations, from a wide range of European and North American cartoonists, are all black and white, and range in style from straightforward playing back of the words (All the Hills and Vales Along, Repression of War Experience), to more interpretative impressions (all of Wilfred Owen’s four poems), though few stray beyond images of helmeted Tommies in the trenches. Do the illustrations add to the poetry? At best they elucidate the mood and meaning of the words, and, at worst, don’t get in the way. Hunt Emerson’s gonzo cartoons accompanying bawdy soldiers’ songs give some welcome counterpoint to the otherwise bleak and downbeat atmosphere.

Backmatter includes helpful notes from the artists about their interpretations, as well as some explanations of words and particular images, brief bios of the poets and the comics contributors and further reading suggestions.peterkuper

Though this is the centennial of the outbreak of WWI, it is not a war which most Americans, much less teens, feel a connection with, so this illustrated volume of great poetry could provide a way in for some readers.

Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe


death coming up the hillDeath Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

1968 was a momentous year for America – the Vietnam War, civil rights unrest, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Nxion is elected President  – and we see it all through the eyes of 17-year old Ashe Taylor. Reflecting the conflict in Asia, his parents are also fighting – his activist mother and racist father met in college and only married when she became pregnant, and are now heading into the “minefield of divorce.” (There are a lot of battle metaphors).

Over the course of the year, Ashe’s clear, anguished awareness and understanding of his world, both close to home and beyond, grows, through his relationships with his hippie girlfriend, his History teacher and his mother.

Told in 976 haikus, one syllable for each of the 16,592 American soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1968, this is a short, sparse read where we are left “to fill in the gaps.” Though a clever intellectual exercise (or gimmick, if that’s the way you feel), the structure detracts from the flow of the novel making it choppy to read: It is written in whole sentences but arranged in the traditional 5/7/5 haiku format. And while we get to know Ashe, his parents and girlfriend, some significant events are given only a glancing reference.

I enjoyed Death more than I thought I would – Ashe is engaging,the story moves along at a great clip and I was moved by his family’s plight. I think that like Kwame Alexander’s Crossover (HMH, 2014), the brevity of the novel, and its subject matter, could give Death some reluctant reader appeal.