Friday, July 29, 2016

2016-2017 School Books

The Painter kids started their new school year this past Monday. I am now the mother/teacher of a seventh grader and a third grader which is rather hard for me to believe. My philosophy with literature is that my kids should have a lot of choice, but that there are some things that are just required too (particularly if it's connected to their history). I'm highlighting some of those required books for the year here.

Bit's main focus in history this is year is Ancient Civilizations so she'll be reading The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Codes of Hammurabi, a lot of Old Testament, and several non-fiction sources on civilizations around the world. I hope my other literature picks for her highlight my attempt to give her some female voices that reflect Ancient civilizations and also that I occasionally wanted her to have a break from the old stuff.

LM's main history focus this year is Ancient Greece and Rome. (We did other ancient civilizations last year.) Since my kids are four years apart in age, their studies don't often overlap. This year they do, but since one is  a standard third grader and the other is a highly precocious seventh grader, my life isn't made any easier by this. 

I am planning to introduce LM to Harry Potter this year via read aloud too.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Shorter Musings

Here are some shorter musings on recent reads.

The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaez Tash
This novel centers around a boy with a crush on his best friend and his plan to confess his feelings while attending a fan convention in NYC. The characters are quirky and there are some very amusing scenes. I think I probably like this a little less than some of the other books I've recently read centered on fandom because I don't have any experience with conventions of this sort. It was hard to tell how accurate this was, but the main problem is it stressed me out just reading about such a place. However, it's definitely a fun read and I really liked how the author chose to end it. It was refreshing and perfect for the characters.

Rescued by Eliot Schrefer
This is the third in a quartet of books Schrefer is writing about apes and their human counterparts. Endangered and Threatened were both short listed for the National Book Award and I loved both of those book. I was less impressed overall with this one. It is different from the other two in that it mostly takes place in America (there is a trip to Indonesia eventually). This book is about wild animals kept as pets and it does an excellent job of highlighting all of the problematic issues with that. I just couldn't connect with the characters as well. This book felt more mechanic, like Schaefer was going through the motions writing it. It may be that it simply suffers in comparison to how much the other books made me feel for both ape and human. This one is missing the beautiful storytelling the other two had particularly in the character development.

Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace
I wanted to like this more than I did. There is nothing glaringly wrong with it, but I was hoping due to its subject matter and themes to like it better than I typically like paranormal novels. There are some interesting characters here, but the pacing is off and its a bit long in places. I felt rather disappointed with the end. It felt like a whole lot of journeying for very little pay off.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom

For some reason I have lately been out of the loop when it comes to books published by Random House. I think this is because they've been rather noncommittal about putting the children's catalogues up on Edelweiss. As a result, I did not know about this upcoming title until the author, David Neilsen,  contacted me to see if I wanted an ARC. I immediately said yes, because Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom sounded like a creepily fun book. And so it is.

The children of Hardscrabble street have used an old abandoned brick house as an imaginative play area for years. When it finally sells, they mourn the loss. Jerry, Gail, and Nancy inform the mysterious new owner of this when they meet him on his  first day in town. After Dr. Fell moves in, he builds a large intricate playground that is the stuff of childhood dreams. All of the children in the neighborhood immediately begin to play on it. Soon children from other neighborhoods are coming too. The playground is constantly full of children who have the inevitable accidents. When this occurs, Dr. Fell swoops them up and fixes their injuries. The parents are as enamored of him as their children. Before long, the entire town is under his spell. Everyone except for Jerry, Gail, and Nancy who are somehow immune to Dr. Fell's winning ways and the only ones who realize something has gone very very wrong in their ideal little town.

Jerry and Gail are siblings. Nancy is Gail's best friend. Jerry is two years younger than the girls, but his mind is sharp and he is well able to keep up with them. Nancy is outspoken, courageous, and snarky. She puts up with Jerry because he's Gail's brother but rarely misses a chance to insult him. Gail is the quiet one who usually goes with the flow and does not like conflict or causing trouble. Together the three kids are a truly great team. They go to great lengths to protect each other from the spell Dr. Fell weaves. Their determination to save each other and their town strong. I liked how much they needed each other too. This is one of those books you find frequently in MG fantasy where the adults are (mostly) of no use and the children are the ones who get to save the day. These books are popular with kids because the love this concept. They want to be heroes and losing themselves in a story like this allows them to be. I think kids are going to particularly enjoy this one due to the way the danger manifests itself.

Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is a quick read with a fast paced plot. Nielsen does not waste his words and each one is put to good use. There are chapter endings that beg the reader to keep going and the sentence level writing is truly excellent. It has a perfect cadence and rhythm. This is a book that begs to be read aloud. I particularly enjoyed how well the novel balances creepy with humor. It is incredibly Dahl-esque in that way. There are lines that are laugh out loud funny and moments of spine tingling terror. It is the sort of terror most kids love, the kind that makes them feel afraid while knowing they are still safe. The humor helps with this. It is exactly the right sort of book to hand 3rd through 6th graders who enjoy such things.

I highly recommend this one. Teachers should keep it mind for an October read aloud. The cover and length of the book make it an easy sell to kids and it is one they won't be disappointed in. I can not wait to share it with my son because I know he will love it. I don't say that lightly about him. He is incredibly choosy about his books.

I read an ARC I received courtesy of the author.  Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is on sale August 9th from Crown Books for Young Readers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

TTT: Books Set Outside the US

This week's TTT topic: Books Set Outside the US

I decided to limit this to realistic fiction. If I were to allow SFF books on to this list, that would be the only genre represented.

What are some of your favorite books that take place outside the US?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here

Reading Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here by Anna Breslau was an interesting experience for me. I started thinking I didn't really like it yet felt oddly compelled to keep reading. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Scarlett is a teen obsessed with a recently cancelled TV show about teen werewolves at a boarding school. She is a Big Name Fan in the online fandom for the show, writing well loved popular fanfic and live tweeting every episode when it aired. Now that the show is no more, she feels desolate and like things are slipping away from her. It doesn't help that she pretty much hates her real life where her only two real friends are Avery (a math geek girl form her school) and Ruth (an elderly weed smoking neighbor who likes to garden). When Scarlett attempts to embrace life by talking to the boy she's always liked and is foiled by Avery's popular sister Ashley, Scarlett takes her frustrations to the only place that has ever helped. Scarlett begins writing a new story with Original Characters that takes place in the Universe of her beloved show. All the OCs share a resemblance (and names) with the actual people Scarlett goes to school with. Scarlett's story and complicated events of real life. force her to confront some difficult truths about life and herself.

As I began to read, I found myself frustrated by the way the story seemed to jump from relationship to relationship in Scarlett's life giving us a lot of backstory with some character development, but not really shining much light on who Scarlett was. Or so I thought. As I continued reading, I realized I had learned a lot about Scarlett. I do still think there is a pacing problem in the first fourth of the book that may turn some readers off, but there is also good stuff in there about who Scarlett is as a person and it's shown through her interactions with others. Scarlett is one of those characters who is going to get slammed with the label "unlikeable" and possibly "stupid". After all, she does post a story online tangentially about her life and doesn't' change any of the names. Who does that, right?  I can totally see teenage girls who think their online existence is divorced form their real life entirely doing EXACTLY that. And Scarlett is very much a teen, which is part of why I like her so much. She is judgmental and nerdy stuck-up, sometimes in immature ways. She is egocentric and sees everyone in relation to her rather than as individuals themselves. The beautiful thing about her story is that she starts to see this and it causes her to grow as a person. Watching these relationships develop,  made this book shine for me. Scarlett tries to make things better where she can and not everything is fixed and perfect with every other character in the end. I loved the relationship between Scarlett and her mom and how much Scarlett's view of her mother changes as she starts to see her as a person with dreams and not just as "Scarlett's mom". My favorite relationship in the book is Scarlett's friendship with the elderly Ruth. Ruth seems to know exactly what Scarlett needs when she needs it. Scarlett, like most girls her age would be, is selfishly oblivious. But what Breslaw does with their relationship works really well with Scarlett's journey. It is a tad predictable, but what Scarlett takes away is worth that predictability. Scarlett's relationship with her best friend Avery is not developed as well as I would like, but it was endearing. I also liked how things between Scarlett and Ashley went down. It was so realistic.

The one aspect of the book that really did not work for me was the romance. I get what Scarlett saw in Gideon and I LOVED that he wasn't one of those YA knights-in-shining-armor. He is also a confused teen. Immature in exactly the way boys his age are because they are still growing up. I just wasn't invested in their relationship. I was far more interested in Scarlett's friendships and her relationships with her parents.

The plot follows Scarlett as she navigates all of these relationships and her feelings of losing her fandom through her writing. Her fanfic is included in the book. It doesn't constitute much of it, but it is there, and does show Scarlett's growth. I love how Breslaw also included the commentary from other fans and Scarlett's reactions to them. It is not an in depth look at the intricacies of fandom and how teens interact within their online worlds. It is realistic for what it is attempting to do within the plot and story of Scarlett's life. The inevitable happens and Scarlett's fanfic is found, but this is not the dramatic upheaval I was fearing it would be. It has some fallout, but it isn't the most important part of or conflict in the book and I appreciated that.

As an aside, I did rather love that Scarlett's father is a pretentious Franzen wannabe and she totally calls him and all his dudebro fans on their crap in public. Hee!