Friday, June 19, 2015

Summer Reading List

Well, you're out for the summer, and you've got some time on your hands. Unlike Netflix, books are 100% portable and require no electricity, which makes them the perfect personal entertainment system. To help you on your journey to summer reading bliss, I've compiled a list of some fun books to read yourself or hand to your kids.

Family Read-Alouds

 Flush by Carl Hiassen
A story of a boy and his sister, a pirate grandfather, poop, boats, and a Florida summer. Easy to read out loud and every single person I've handed it to has loved it.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
All Schmidt novels are an equally good choice, if you've already read this one. The man is a master writer. Holling Hoodhood deals with bullies, his family, Shakespeare, a first crush, and two very large rats. Hilarious and touching. Another one that everyone loves. 

Books for a Brooding Teen

 The Giver by Lois Lowry
If your teen is in the grips of puberty and loves to feel melancholy and deep and like the world is deeply unfair, hand them The Giver. It's a bit dystopian, so if they liked The Hunger Games and all the ensuing knock-offs, this is a good option that is better written and more insightful. I'd recommend it for ages 11-14.
Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
Another one by the great Schmidt. This story deals with family, tragedy, coming of age, love, and racism. It's beautifully spun and will make you feel all the feels. I'd recommend it for ages 14+.

A Book for the Crushing Teen

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
So you've got a teen obsessed with a crush? Boys and girls will laugh themselves silly over this book. It's not nearly as inappropriate as the title would suggest, and my side ached when I finished it. Follow the foibles and follies of a junior high girl in "love" and laugh at your own mistakes along the way. Delightfully British.

If You Love "Supernatural" and/or "Doctor Who"

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
I don't do scary, but I still loved this book. It's a ghost story, but with enough comic relief to keep me happy. If you're an Anglophile and/or you love a bit of spookiness, this is the book for you. (Let me just say: Jack the Ripper.)

If You're Going on a Road Trip

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
It has nothing to do with road tripping, but it's long enough to hold up to at least 4-7 hours of travel, depending on how fast you read. Good Omens  is about the end of the world. A devil and an angel are frenemies, and they really like Earth, so they team up to try to stop  Armageddon. Also, someone's misplaced the anti-christ. Funny, witty, and with just enough content to make you think a bit. 

If It's Your Turn to Choose for Book Club

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This one is perfect for a summer book club. It's a lesser-known classic, so many people have not read it before, but every library should have a few copies. The Joy Luck Club is the stories of several Chinese-American mothers and daughters. It's about family, tradition, race, culture, and what it means to be American or Chinese. Ripe for discussion. 

If You Love Harry Potter

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Yes, I know Harry Potter never gets old, BUT if you want to branch out a little bit, try Miss Peregrine. It's got a gifted child, magic, some danger and adventure, and a magical home. The story is illustrated with real antique photos, and they are haunting and awesome. It's a piece of writing you won't regret reading. 

Poolside Reading

Paper Towns by John Green
I've loved this book for a long time, and the movie comes out on my birthday. Paper Towns is the story of a boy named Q and how he learns "what a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person." It's about high school and infatuation, and some night time adventures, and an epic road trip, and a mystery. Oh, and it's also hilarious. (I will say, read it before you give it to your kids though, as there is a bit of strong language.) It's got a great plot and easy-to-follow dialogue, so it's easy to doze off intermittently in the sun and then pick up where you left off. 

Well, that's it. Enjoy your summer reading, and let me know in the comments what you're reading this summer.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More Books

I read some more books. They were good, real good. You should read some more books, too.

 Brown Girl Dreaming By Jacqueline Woodson
It's charming and touching. Jacqueline Woodson wrote her childhood story in poetry. It's the story of her experience growing up in the South and later in Brooklyn during the Civil Rights Movement, but it's not all about race and politics. Brown Girl Dreaming is about growing up, family, and dreams. Even though it's technically a children's book, it's got enough content to keep adult readers engaged (plus, it's got THREE medals on the cover, which says something).
 Half a World Away By Cynthia Kadohata
Another children's book, but oh boy, this will make you feel all the feelings. Jaden is 11 and Romanian, and he was adopted by his American parents when he was 8. Now his parents are adopting a baby from Kazakhstan, which must mean he's an "epic failure." The book is a first person narrative, and Jaden's pain was almost tangible as I read it. It's a short book, but it's powerful, and I cried at the end when Jaden finally recognizes and feels love. Read it if you have a difficult child or need a good cry or both. It was so good. It was sad, but it had a good ending, and I like books that make me feel things.   
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
(If I had to pick a favorite book out of everything I've read so far this year, this would be it. It's probably the best historical fiction I've ever read. I'll try to write about it without gushing.)

All the Light We Cannot See follows Marie-Laure, a French girl who went blind at six years old, and Werner, a German orphan who went to a Nazi academy to study engineering. As World War II erupts around them, Marie-Laure and Werner's paths begin to converge. All the Light We Cannot See is about finding light in darkness and strength in weakness.

Seriously, it's 500 pages and I read it in two days because I could not put it down. I wished it was longer. I loved it.

Good Books

I've done a lot of reading since January, and I thought I'd post my thoughts and responses to what I've read. Most of these I would not recommend for readers under 17 or 18 because they frequently deal with serious topics, sometimes graphically, and I think it takes some maturity to sense when reading about something brings greater empathy and understanding and when to skip something gratuitous and harmful.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
It's a retelling of Snow White, and it's a passing novel, and it's mystical realism, which seems too ambitious, but Oyeyemi does it well. (A passing novel is a story of a black person "passing" as white, usually set in the early 1900s.) What I loved most about Boy, Snow, Bird was the unreliable narrator. As the book progressed, it became harder and harder to differentiate between heroine and villain. I won't say it's a "fun" book, but it was intriguing and haunting.
Word of caution: deals with child abuse, race, gender, and mental illness. One mention of rape, and some profanity.

 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Following the life of Gogol, a second-generation Indian-American with a Russian name, The Namesake is a coming-of age story that searches for the meaning of country, race, and family. Gogol is trapped between two worlds: the India of his parents and the America of his peers. Because of a mix-up at the hospital, he's stuck with the name of an obscure Russian author, which further complicates his search for self. I loved The Namesake for its patience with Gogol's search and shortcomings, although fictional. It's short, but not rushed in its journey. The intimate look into immigrant families and the dynamic of race in the educated middle-class was fascinating. 

Word of caution: Generally fine, though Gogol does sleep with several women, although no graphic descriptions that I can remember. Some profanity.

 The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
Robert Peace was born into poverty in Newark to a single mother. He was brilliant, and his mother sacrificed to send him to a private school, and later on, Yale. But despite his brilliance, despite his opportunities, he was murdered by his enemies in the drug trade. It's the story of one man, written by his friend and college roommate, but it's really a much broader story. Without attempting anything beyond a detailed biography, this book gives insight into poverty, education, economics, and race. Even though the plot is summarized on the cover, I couldn't put it down. It's heartfelt and engaging.

Word of caution: Rob smoked and sold a lot of weed. He started drinking and smoking at 11. The book quotes Rob and his friends frequently, and they used profanity liberally. Because they used it so much, it lost its offensiveness to them, and likewise to me in this situation.

 Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Some Luck tells the story of the Langdon family with one chapter for each year between 1920 and 1953. Although it's mighty in its scope, the novel manages to go intimately into the thoughts and experiences of one family member in one chapter and pan back out to inform the reader of major events in the next chapter without any major halting or plot holes. The Langdons farm barley in Iowa, and we experience the Great Depression and World War Two through their story. The Langdons could be my family, and they could be your family. I loved riding along with their struggles and their successes.

Word of caution: More sex than I expected, and a bit more graphic than I felt comfortable with, so just prepare to skip some pages. The oldest son is disturbingly without conscience sometimes. Occasional profanity.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
While I have not had the experience of caring for elderly parents or grandparents, I still quite enjoyed this graphic memoir (graphic as in illustrated/cartoon). Jake read it as well, and he and his family cared for his grandmother for seven years before she passed away, so he enjoyed it even more than I did. It's at times hilarious and other times heartbreaking.

Word of caution: Some profanity.

We Were Liars by e. lockheart
So, I read a lot, and I can usually sense the narrative arc in a way that leaves me fairly certain of a book's ending by the 70th page. Not so with this book. Holy cow, what a plot twist. We Were Liars is the story of Cadence Sinclair, a 17 year old granddaughter in the massively wealthy Sinclair family. Each summer, the whole family vacations on their private island. This summer, Cadence knows she hasn't been to the island for two years. She knows something terrible happened two summers ago. But she can't remember what it was, and no one will tell her.

Word of caution: It's YA, so generally fine. Nothing I can remember. Perhaps some teenage make-outs and occasional profanity.

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar
I heard an interview with the author on NPR, remembered the title, convinced my library to purchase it, waited for it, and then stared at it for two weeks. I knew it would be a great book, but it intimidated me. But I renewed it and started reading. Although it's slow at the beginning, once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. I knew how it ended, but I was so invested in the lives of the miners and their families that I had to keep reading as if somehow my reading marathon would get them out of the mine faster. Deep Down Dark is a story of miracles, faith, survival, and brotherhood on a local and global scale. It's well researched and well told. Loved it.

Word of caution: Nothing really to worry about, although when quoting the miners, there's some profanity.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity
Written by Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

I haven't posted for a while. That's because I was reading Code Name Verity. Usually I'm able to coast through YA novels in a day or two, or really any book really, but a few will make me slow down and ponder. Code Name Verity did that to me. It demanded more time.

The book is written in two parts. The first is the narrative written by "Verity," a Resistance spy captured in France during the Second World War. In exchange for two weeks of life, she agrees to write all she knows. Her character is full of grit and wit, and she manages to stretch out her time by writing her information as a story of how she and her best friend, Maddie, became involved in the war. Her story is so engaging that her captor/torturer names her "Scheherazade" and lets her live until she finishes writing.

The first half is gripping and emotional and moving, but the second half is when it really gets good. The second half is Maddie's diary, which picks up where Verity's leaves off. In an almost Dickens-esque literary twist, small details from the first half become major plot points. It contains moments that made me laugh and moments that made me cry. Parts of this book are truly heart-wrenching. This is a book that'll stick with ya.

As a historical fiction novel, I enjoyed the female protagonist view. With many war books, men are the heroes, and women merely the nurses, or cooks, or messengers (not that those weren't important roles). But Code Name Verity shows two brave young women as a pilot and a spy. They are exceptionally heroic (but not annoyingly so), and I enjoyed the twist on typical historic fiction plots. However, part of what slowed my reading down was the history. There's a lot. Like a lot a lot. Lots of pilot and plane lingo, lots of details. That is part of what makes it great, since it contributes to the validity of the story, but it does drag a bit. I never feel guilty for skimming parts of a book, and there were a few plane paragraphs I skipped. Overall, a fabulous, well-researched historical novel.

Here are a few shining quotes:

"The anticipation of what they will do to you is every bit as sickening in a dream as when it is really going to happen.” 

“Nothing like an arcane literary debate with your tyrannical master while you pass the time leading to your execution.” 

“And I envied her that she had chosen her work herself and was doing what she wanted to do. I don't suppose I had any idea what I 'wanted' and so I was chosen, not choosing. There's glory and honor in being chosen. But not much room for free will.” 

“Von Loewe really should know me well enough by now to realize that I am not going to face my execution without a fight. Or with anything remotely resembling dignity.” 

Here's the link to the official book trailer:

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Madness Underneath

The Madness Underneath
Written by Maureen Johnson
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 304
Publisher: Penguin Books

"Ahhhhh!" is the sound my mouth made more times than I would like to admit while reading this book.

The sequel to The Name of The Star was So good. I mean the first one was good. But this one. Dang. Rory's adventures continue and deepen. I can't give too much of a plot summary for fear of spoilers, but I can say that Rory spends some time with her parents before coming back to school, and then stuff really starts happening, like more people die and more mysteries show up.

While the first book was more plot driven, the second is definitely more character driven. Rory has some real struggles with her friendships and relationships, and she's faced with some major life choices. Gah! I can't tell you about it or it will spoil it. It's just good, ok?

There's one part at the end that Maureen Johnson called The Thing. When I got to it, I yelled. Out loud. Then I fell on the floor. *plop* I was infuriated and distraught.

More great quotes:

"I like to talk. Talking is kind of my thing. If talking had been a sport option at Wexford, I would have been captain. But sports always have to involve running, jumping, or swinging your arms around. You don’t get PE points for the smooth and rapid movement of the jaw.” 

“Don't get stabbed. It makes everything awkward.” 

“I try to shake it loose-but these ideas, they cling. It's like I'm shackled to them with an iron chain. They rattle along behind me, dragging against the ground, always reminding me of their presence.” 

This is a great read if you need something short, funny, a little romantic, scary, intense, and awesome.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star
Written by Maureen Johnson
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 400
Publisher: Speak

I've long been a fan of Maureen Johnson. She's always got delightfully authentic and quirky characters, unpredictable plots, and plenty of funny one-liners. But this book may very well be my favorite of hers.

Maureen Johnson takes a step away from her girl-coming-of-age-in-an-awkward-and-funny-way books with this mystery novel set in London. Rory is a senior in high school from Georgia, and her parents take a sabbatical in England, so Rory goes along to attend a boarding school there. The day she arrives, a series of Jack the Ripper re-creation murders begin to happen not a mile from her school. Naturally, Rory gets caught up in the web of mystery.

This is perhaps one of the few books that's ever kept me awake at night. Maureen uses an age-old literary technique by taking the real and giving it just a little twist into the unreal. The story is so grounded in the present and the believable characters that I found myself believing the fantasy as well. The subtle blending between truth and fiction really brings this book above a standard thriller.

Maureen's characters also help this book stand out in a sea of mystery novels. The protagonist is typically American-in-London, but not annoyingly stereotyped. The supporting characters are vividly drawn, like the field hockey teacher who shakes hands like she's crushing a bunny, and the quiet roommate who plays the cello and loves Cheese Whiz. Instead of a brave, indestructible hero typical of mystery and thriller novels, Rory's just a typical person with a bit of spunk. These characters really invest the reader in the book, making it even more of a page-turner.

The book just wouldn't be Maureen Johnson without her great one-liners. (Also, if you don't follow the woman on Twitter, you're making a poor life choice. @maureenjohnson)

“Keep calm and carry on. 
Also, stay in and hide because the Ripper is coming.” 

“And if we get caught, I will claim I made you go. At gunpoint. I am American. People will assume I'm armed.”

“Welsh is an actual, currently used language and our next-door neighbors Angela and Gaenor spoke it. It sounds like Wizard.” 

“I looked at the stained-glass image of the lamb in the window above me, but that only reminded me that lambs are famous for being led to slaughter, or sometimes hanging out with lions in ill-advised relationships.”

“Fear can't hurt you. When it washes over you, give it no power. it's a snake with no venom.” 

See what I mean? It's fantastic all the way through. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Everybody Sees the Ants

Everybody Sees the Ants
Author: A.S. King
Genre: Social Issues, Violence
Pages: 320
Publisher: Little, Brown Books

This is honestly a life-changing book. It's a story of sadness, despair, weakness, strength, triumph, and family.

Everybody Sees the Ants  is a story of Lucky Linderman, a sophomore in high school. He's got a POW MIA grandfather, a squid mother, a turtle father, and a relentless bully. After a particularly bad experience, his mother packs him up and flies across the country to visit his wack-o aunt and uncle.

 The book powerfully and honestly deals with grief, weakness, dysfunctional families, bullying, sexual maturity, parental abuse, infidelity, and coping. It sounds like quite the downer, but I promise it's not. The characters and plot certainly bring the reader into Lucky's head and create a black moment, but the story is Lucky's journey from weakness to strength. It's full of hope and triumph and healing, and it's got a great ending.

The book rings true in many ways, on every page.

“The world is full of assholes. What are you doing to make sure you're not one of them?”  

“She's like a kindness ninja. Sneaking around in order to help people.”   

“I bring my hand to my face and pull away tiny pieces of the jagged scab. My face reflects in the rounded airplane window, and I see it is now a tiny Massachusetts, with Cape Cod curling toward my ear. In only a few more days it will be gone. I feel the fresh, smooth parts and marvel at how soft they are. New skin amazes me. New skin is a miracle. It is proof that we can heal.”  (Ok, that one's more than a line. But it was really good!)

Everybody Sees the Ants  is in no way a light read, but it's a good one. It's a book to read and ponder.

Word of Caution: The F word is used liberally. There's one detailed scene of sexual assault. Scenes of bullying. Read it before you give it as a gift.