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!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

WoW: Spindle

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

The world is made safe by a woman...but it is a very big world.

It has been generations since the Storyteller Queen drove the demon out of her husband and saved her country from fire and blood. Her family has prospered beyond the borders of their village, and two new kingdoms have sprouted on either side of the mountains where the demons are kept prisoner by bright iron, and by the creatures the Storyteller Queen made to keep them contained.

But the prison is crumbling. Through years of careful manipulation, a demon has regained her power. She has made one kingdom strong and brought the other to its knees, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. When a princess is born, the demon is ready with the final blow: a curse that will cost the princess her very soul, or force her to destroy her own people to save her life.

The threads of magic are tightly spun, binding princess and exiled spinners into a desperate plot to break the curse before the demon can become a queen of men. But the web of power is dangerously tangled--and they may not see the true pattern until it is unspooled.

I added this to my TBR as soon as I knew it was going to be a book because I loved A Thousand Nights so very very much. That was before I read the official synopsis. Now that I have? My anticipation has soared even higher. And I just love the covers these books have. Can't wait for this one to come out December 6th!

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse

I enjoyed Brian Ferrey' The Vengekeep Prophecies trilogy, but missed that he had a new book out until I stumbled on The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse in the library. I checked it out and then received some encouragement to bump it up my pile from a friend, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Princess Jeniah will become Queen far sooner than anyone was expecting. Yes, the rulers of Monarchy tend to die younger than most, but everyone assumed there would be more time to prepare Jeniah than this. As Jeniah's training hastily begins, she is shown her entire kingdom from atop a tower and gets her first glimpse of Dreadwillow Carse. She is warned never to go there for if a ruler of Monarchy goes to the Carse, the monarchy will fall. In the village next to the Carse there lives a girl named Aon who has a deep secret. She can feel sadness, pain, and mourning where everyone else in the kingdom can only feel joy and happiness. The Carse is a refuge to Aon who goes there to shed her sadness even though it repulses her at the same time it welcomes her. When the girls meet by chance, they strike a deal. Aon will explore the Carse on Jeniah's behalf if Jeniah frees her father from the mysterious service he was conscripted into for the kingdom. Through exchanged letters, the girls become friends. When Aon ventures into the heart of the Carse and doesn't return, Jeniah must decide whether to risk Monarchy to save her friend.

One of the things I really appreciated about this book is it is a friendship tale documenting a wonderful bond between girls who appear vastly different but need each other. It is excellent fantasy too, but at its core it's the tale of two girls and their bonds to each other, their pasts, and the people of Monarchy. Jeniah has never had anyone her age to share her thoughts and sorrows with, because no one in Monarchy excepting the royal family is supposed to feel anything but joy. She is surprised to learn that Aon can too, but quickly embraces this and begins to open up to her. Aon has never been able to confess her secret to anyone for fear of what they will think. While she fears she overstepped herself confessing to Jeniah, she too soon finds comfort in having someone who understands. I loved how their relationship developed through letters too. The story moves back and forth between the girls alternating chapters. I enjoyed the way Farrey wove them together. Sometimes they overlapped and we were seeing the same scene again but from an entirely different perspective. I thoroughly loved both of the girls, their views on the world, how they dealt with their emotions, and their bravery which manifested in different ways.

The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is a stand alone MG fantasy and a quick read. Hallelujah. Please, give us more of these. The pacing of the story is pretty near to perfect moving the reader quickly along and conveying information at exactly the right points and in the right ways. It is part mystery. What is the Carse? Why is it there? Why is it so dangerous to the Monarchy? Why is Aon able to overcome the aversion everyone else has to going inside? The answers to these questions are given slow and the girls have to piece them all together. The revelation and final conflict that results is equal parts creepy and staggering moral dilemma. Through that Farrey was able to weave some interesting themes about the power of fear and the idea of joy without the despair. There is a lot of good food for thought or discussion here. Not many details of the world are given, and I do think the world building is the book's weakest point. The only places in Monarchy mentioned are the palace, the Carse (near Aon's village), and the village itself-all of these are so close together that traveling between them happens incredibly quickly. I did find myself wondering about the rest of the country, it's neighbors, and how exactly all that worked. But that is a minor complaint about a book that has many more strengths to recommend it.

For readers who enjoy friendship stories and fantasy adventures, The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is a must have.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Seventh Wish

I always enjoy Kate Messner's books. They make me laugh and cry. I always make it a priority when a new one comes out. I followed the controversy that accompanied the release of The Seventh Wish closely. I reference that, because as someone who read all of Kate's blog posts (and the comments on them) before reading the book, I found my reading affected by it. That in turn will affect this review. I'm going to attempt to do it in two parts. What you can expect if you go into the book with no knowledge of said controversy, and what you can expect if you do. Either way, you are getting another excellent heartfelt book from a talented thoughtful writer.

Charlie is a seventh grader with a passion for Irish dancing, great friends, and a plan to earn more money to buy the best solo dancing dress she possibly can. She often feels the least important in her family. Her older sister Abby has always gotten a lot of attention because of stomach issues. Then it was her senior year and now she's off at college. Between her parents worrying about college tuition and working more, Charlie can feel lost in the shuffle. But she knows she has a good life and her problems aren't all that great. When she catches a magical fish that offers a wish if she sets it free, Charlie makes two hasty wishes just for fun. She is flabbergasted when they actually come true. Soon she is returning regularly to the lake to catch her fish and get more wishes for her friends and family. Some of the wishes have funny results. Some are not so funny, and Charlie learns to be careful with her words. Then something happens with her sister that no amount of careful wishing can fix no matter how hard Charlie tries.

Charlie. One thing I always really appreciate about Messner's books is the authenticity in the voices of her middle school characters. Charlie is a girl with a lot of enthusiasm. She has good friends, and she is a good friend in return. She has moments of resentment and jealousy, but for the most part she loves life and all the people who are in her small beautiful world full of ice flowers, Irish dancing, zany science projects, and freezing cold fishing on the lake. Her parents are truly wonderful and active too. Even when Charlie is feeling resentful toward them for their priorities taking over her dancing, she knows she is loved and cared for. The way Messner introduces and deals with their family tragedy is incredibly well done. For savvy adults (who don't know anything about the book but what is on the jacket flap), what is coming may seem obvious. I think it will knock a good many kids over with shock, which I think is part of the importance in what Messner was doing here. Because it knocks Charlie over with shock. Those kind of things aren't supposed to happen in her world. Messner handled the fallout sensitively, and Charlie was able to mourn, grieve, feel anger, guilt, and shame and still be Charlie. She still wanted to dance her heart out. She still wanted a space with her friends that had nothing to do with the turmoil in her family. In the end, this is a book full of hope, humor, love, and life, but with the reality that life doesn't always go the way we plan.

If you are looking for a book with a lot of family, friendship, dancing, and just a touch of magic, The Seventh Wish is exactly the right book for you.

Okay, now if you want to know my thoughts on the spoilery part of this book that caused the controversy keep reading. If not, click away.






Nearly halfway through the book Charlie's parents get a phone call from Abby's college. She is in the infirmary after being brought there by her roommates. She has admitted to them that the reason she can not breath properly is because she has been doing Heroin. That is what has caused people some upset. This is a very frank look at drug addiction and how it impacts a family, but it is handled appropriately for the target age audience. (Middle Grade-which in publisher speak means as young as 8 or 4th grade) Yes, I mean I firmly believe this is exactly a perfect book for 4th-6th graders. Abby's addiction is not explored in grotesque detail. What the reader sees is the impact that addiction has on her life and the lives of the people she loves. As I said above, a lot of kids will be floored because just like Charlie they don't think Heroin addiction is something a salutatorian, math and science whiz, athletic college girl is going to have a problem with. For other kids, this book is going to show them they are not alone. That there are other families out there suffering the same way their family does. BOTH of these groups are incredibly important and will benefit from picking this up.

As a former fifth grade public school teacher who watched her students go through D.A.R.E., I especially liked how Messner incorporated Charlie's feelings on that into this. Charlie reflects on how the people doing drugs in the videos and books in D.A.R.E. looked sketchy and hung out in sketchy places. You would know to avoid them if you saw them on the street. How do you know the dangers lurking in a pill someone just like you at school offers you to help you stay awake to study for exams? Because that's the start of Abby's addiction. Taking Adderal. Which, you know, is not unheard of for kids to be offered on a middle school (or possibly elementary) bus or school yard. It's commonly prescribed medicine after all. Medicine given to children who go to school. I think this is so important. Abby's dangerous friend is a sorority girl. It highlights how very real and very close substance abuse is to everyone.

The impact of this is exactly real enough to be felt without overwhelming the hope and magic of Charlie's full story. Abby is a huge part of Charlie's life and this has a major impact on her, but I can not stress enough how well Messner balanced harsh realities with the magic of Charlie's exuberant personality and rendered the whole thing important and serious in exactly the sort of way 9-12 year olds are developmentally ready to take it in.

It is a book I would not hesitate to put in my classroom library if I were still teaching. It would make a really great read aloud too. It will certainly be one I give regularly in recommendations.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

TTT: Books with Less Than 2000 Ratings on Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday is a Meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

This Week's TTT Topic: Favorite Books with Less Than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads

I really like this bar for highlighting under appreciated books. I was rathe surprised by some of the books I love that have less than 2,000 ratings too.

I didn't choose books published in the last two years and decided to focus on older books that I feel need more love.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Shorter Musings: Recent YA Reads

Here are some shorter musings on some recent YA reads.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
I wish someone would have warned me that 2016 was the year the majority of my favorite authors would disappoint me. This book has won a lot of awards (including the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for fiction announced today an hour or so after I finished reading it), yet I feel it is the weakest of all Hardinge's books to date. The concept of the tree itself is intriguing but the way it manifests itself in the narrative is unimpressive. It is a tool of supernatural forces in an otherwise realistic setting that allows the heroine to investigate her father's death, but then conveniently doesn't need to be dealt with further at the end. When you add to that the feeling I could not shake that I was meant to be taking a lesson in how dumb religion is and pure and perfect science is form its thematic presence, well....I lost all tolerance with the book. I would LOVE a book that explores the tension between science and religion with nuance. Hardinge could have done that. She has dealt so well with tricky themes (censorship, imperialistic racism, political and economic oppression) brilliantly before. The difference is here every character and plot point feels manipulated to make her point whereas in her other books they flow naturally out of the intricate worlds and characters she created. Yes, this has won a lot of attention, but I recommend reading pretty much anything else Hardinge has written if you are trying to find a good starting place for her books. (My favorite is A Face Like Glass, which tragically still hasn't been published in the US. But this was. Grrrrr.)

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
Mercy is a progressive and modern female character yet she never feels out of place in this historical setting. Lee did an excellent job of balancing Mercy's independence and drive within the historical constraints of the time. Mercy never felt like a girl out of her time, just one ahead of it. Having a novel about the San Fransisco earthquake told through the eyes of a Chinese heroine is also a great plus. All around this is really good: great story, wonderful characters, just the right amount of romance.

Rook by Sharon Cameron
This book is a lot of fun. It is a futuristic adventurous retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel. As such, there is a lot of double-speak, spying, melodramatic shenanigans, and a hefty dash of romance. It is just fun. I do wonder how a person who had never read the source material would approach it or respond to the characters. I think a lot of my connection to them came from what I knew the characters in the original. There are some things that don't make a ton of sense to me. Like how centuries into the future France and England are repeating almost exactly the history they lived during the French Revolution. There is also a lot of double and triple crossing in the book that requires a lot of exposition and people explaining themselves. In all honesty it could be shorter. But still. It was fun. And it is a stand alone-a definite plus if you're looking for a read that won't have you anticipating a sequel.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo
This is a book that is equal parts ballet and science station in Antarctica. I bet no one ever predicted that combination and yet it works incredibly well, because at the heart of both stories is Harper. Harper is a girl who is figuring herself, her future, and what she wants from life out. She has friendship troubles, romantic troubles, and has experienced having her dreams crushed. That is a story any teen can relate to. I thoroughly enjoyed the relationships here and the dialogue. The author is a talented writer. I do think there is a lot that could have been cut out to make it shorter. The author clearly did a lot of research and knew her stuff, but we as readers don't necessarily need all the information she gave us for the story to have impact.