Friday, February 13, 2015

friday's five

Another week down in this year that is seriously flying by. It's mid-February? At least we may be getting closer to warmer weather, though today's temperatures in the teens didn't bring many promises. So scratch that, spring still feels light years away. The teen finished his first semester of high school this week, and midterms were a big success, so he's moving into the second semester on a good note. Today is a day off for all the kids, so it's been a bit of a noise-fest with everyone inside for most of the morning, but there's nothing surprising about that. Our house is always filled with... spirit... yeah, that's it. 

Anyway. All of that is just to say that life is life, and while I never seem to get a chance to pop over here to say much about it, it is chugging along. Books, of course, are always going strong here, too. Yesterday's library trip saw us bringing another full bag of picture books home, so our shelf is pretty stuffed again. Yay! Just how I like it!

1. Betty Goes Bananas written and illustrated by Steve Anthony

A young gorilla named Betty is not only dressed like an average toddler girl, but as readers will quickly discover, she knows how to act like one, too. The banana won't open easily... tantrum. A nice toucan comes along and shows her how to open the banana... tantrum. Frustration is something that toddlers and preschoolers can understand quite well, and thankfully, after each of her tantrums, Betty does indeed calm down. Mr. Toucan gets a boatload of props from me for staying so cool, calm, and collected each time Betty loses it, and his refrain of "There is no need for that," will certainly make the grown-up reading this aloud crack a smile. 

2. Blown Away written and illustrated by Rob Biddulph 

Penguin Blue unwraps his newly delivered kite and tries it out on a windy day. Sounds good, right? Well, perhaps he should have picked a slightly less windy day, because, as the cover image shows, Penguin Blue is soon swept up into the air, the beginning of an adventure that will bring him far, far from his icy, Antarctic home. The only upside to all this is that in an effort to save him, several of Penguin Blue's friends get caught up in the wind, too, so at least his travels are not lonely. When they eventually find themselves on a hot, tropical island, they've got to figure out a way to get home, but they should also probably watch out for one last surprise.

3. You Are Not My Friend, But I Miss You written and illustrate by Daniel Kirk

My library opted to remove the paper cover of this book, and the image on the hardcover itself is a huge close-up of a sock monkey's smiling face. The book was standing up, cover facing out, so how could my four year old friend NOT grab it immediately upon seeing it? I could see this being a good read aloud in a preschool class, actually, since the refrain "You're not my friend anymore!" is heard pretty regularly when four year olds get ticked off. The concept of sharing requires an ability to see a situation from another's perspective, which is still a bit tricky for your average preschooler. That's what the sock monkey begins to realize in this book about the trials of friendship. 

4. Click, Clack, Peep! written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

A quieter, gentler in the collection by this author/illustrator partnership, this is a book that will get many parents to remember back to those wild days and nights with newborns. Perhaps this will be one of those picture books that has more parent appeal than kid appeal, I don't know. I can picture this being a colorful read aloud, though, with the right amount of energy by the reader. Subtle bits of humor are there (sheep knitting a blanket, ha!), and it's fun to see our good old pal Duck getting into a new role in life. I haven't read this one with my young pals yet, but I predict they'll giggle a little. For me, it was trip back in time, almost 15 years ago, to our first round of parenthood!

5. Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson

Making magic out of the mundane, and seeing beauty in the everyday, that is at the heart of this gorgeous new picture book by the fantastic pairing of two amazing author/illustrators. Traveling across town with his grandmother, CJ comments on several things that could be seen as downsides of their day-- not having a car and instead needing to take a bus to get somewhere, not owning an iPod-like device, and walking around a tough neighborhood. CJ's grandmother, however, helps him to see the positive aspects of each of these experiences-- chatting with the other folks who ride the bus, listening to a man play his guitar, and looking for beauty all around. The best quote: "Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful." I love everything about this book-- the inherent diversity that isn't the point of the story, but is simply a fact for the neighborhood in which the story takes place; the loving, but straight-talking, grandmother's way with CJ; and the urban beauty that is brought to gorgeous life in Robinson's illustrations. I was so excited to read this after hearing this story on NPR, and it was everything that I hoped for.

I hope you'll find some good matches here for your little ones' reading times!

Happy reading,

Friday, February 06, 2015

friday's five

Thankfully, that nasty cold I mentioned last week seems to have mostly gone away, though I'm still feeling exhausted in its wake. By mid-week this week, I was beginning to feel more like a human being again, just in time to resume our regularly scheduled library visit yesterday. After a surprisingly fantastic story time, we checked out a bag full o'new books to refill our library shelf at home. As I head to the library most of the time with toddlers and a preschooler, the selections that we bring back are quite often best geared toward their age groups. This week, I made a concerted effort to choose some that skewed to the older end of the picture book spectrum, to maybe spark some greater interest in independent reading for the seven year old, and just to add more fuel to the fire that is the 8 year old's reading obsession. 

I think that these five will appeal to elementary school kids for different reasons, some are familiar names and illustration styles, while others encourage curiosity from the first glance. 

1. Lifesize Rainforest: See Rainforest Creatures at Their Actual Size written by Anita Ganeri and illustrated by Stuart Jackson-Carter 

From the two inch long bee hummingbirds to the 20 foot long green anaconda, the animals of the rainforest come in a variety of sizes. In addition to learning interesting facts about the lives and habits of these creatures, the incredible selection of stunning, sharp photographs give an up close, life-size view. No other way to describe these photos than gorgeous. And fierce, especially when it comes to the jaguar and that anaconda. The larger the creature, the less of its whole body can be seen on the pages, of course, which give the impression of truly being eye to eye with it. Because my children and I do not live in, nor have traveled to, the rainforest, these animals weren't very familiar to us, so we all actually learned quite a bit!

2. My Grandfather's Coat retold by Jim Aylesworth and illustrated by Barbara McClintock 

The Yiddish folksong "I Had a Little Overcoat" has been the inspiration for more than one children's book, but this one is a welcome addition to the collection, because, well, Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock, obviously! Aylesworth's retelling features repeating stanzas from one iteration of the original coat to the next, encouraging children to help tell the story during a read aloud and giving newly independent readers practice as they gain confidence. The tenderness of his words are perfectly matched with McClintock's heartfelt illustrations. Familial relationships play out in the images, with years of hard work and every day life experiences going by with each page turn. There's something softer and gentler here to me than some of her previous work. I'm not sure I can articulate what it is, but they very much remind me of Marla Frazee's depictions of families, and that comparison is given with much love. 

3. Sebastian and the Balloon written and illustrated by Philip C. Stead

Here's another case of seeing a name on a book cover and putting it in the checkout pile without a second thought. Philip C. Stead is known for his quiet tales and his sketchy illustrations, and I'm always curious to see what he'll come up with next. Here he tells of a young boy who, when bored with everything around him, decides to gather supplies and head off on a ride in a balloon made from his grandmother's afghans and quilts. Along the way, he-- and his unnamed, but ever-present red bird friend-- cross paths with a couple of animals who seem to be struck with a similar kind of quiet melancholy. When they crash into the house of three elderly sisters, their adventure changes slightly, but with the entire crew on board, they still have more exploring to do. This fantastical, whimsical story is quirky, no doubt, but I can't help but find myself enchanted with each read.

4. A Bean, A Stalk, and a Boy Named Jack written and illustrated by William Joyce and illustrated by Kenny Callicutt

Leave it to William Joyce, genius and all around creator of unique things, to present a wholly original and highly entertaining version of the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack's town is bone dry, and water is needed by everyone from the "uncomfortable" fish to the thirsty people, all the way to the king whose pinky toe is badly in need of a wash. His daughter the princess seeks out the advice of "the local old wizard guy," whose magic brings the special bean into Jack's life. The story that follows is quite different from the familiar tale, and witty banter between the smallish, regular boy and the smallish, magic bean bring even more fun to a version that puts humor ahead of fright in an adventure up into the clouds. 

5. Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers 

I've never been shy about admitting my total crush on Oliver Jeffers, and this book is just another reason why I adore him so. In this hefty tome for a picture book, he has taken on the task of creating twenty-six separate short stories, one for each of the letters in the alphabet, and incorporating quite a few well-placed alliterative words in each. His ink drawings are as delightful as ever, always conveying his smart sense of humor that suits his writing so well. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this entire book is the full circle he completes by placing one particular character in both A and Z, with a funny shift in story. There's just something genuinely distinctive about Jeffers' storytelling tone and illustrative style, and again, I'm won over.

Another five books with the seal of approval from both me and the kids in my life.

Happy reading,

Friday, January 30, 2015

friday's five

I cannot fully express the depth of my gratitude for this week's end to come. A nasty cold has taken up residence in my whole head, leaving me a sputtering, coughing, sore-throated, and froggy-voiced hot mess. It's been cold and gray but with no real amount of snow on the ground to make it any fun. So instead, I've spent much of my downtime finally discovering the joy that is Parks and Recreation on Amazon Prime and staying in a semi-reclined position. Though it's been tough on my throat, I couldn't completely do away with reading aloud with my young friends this week, so thankfully, there are still a handful of books to feature this week in my cold meds haze of a Friday nap time. Phew! I was hoping not to drop the ball one week after finally getting back to it!

1. Rex Wrecks It! written and illustrated by Ben Clanton 

I'm fairly certain this has been the most read picture book in my house this week, being grabbed by my seven year old and my toddler and preschooler pals. I've read it aloud, my daughter has read it to my son, and my son has read it to the younger ones. The pattern to the story and the predictable, repeated title line makes this one a perfect read-aloud for audience participation. The illustrations are adorable; in addition to the big-eyed, enthusiastic dino on the cover are a robot named Gizmo, a bunny/unicorn hybrid named Sprinkles, and a fluffy, horned, innocent-looking monster named Wild (who really reminds me of a different illustration... but I can't put my finger on it...). Their block constructions are out of this world, until Rex gets a hold of them, of course. Adults may see the resolution coming a mile away, and maybe even young kids will, too, but that doesn't mean it still won't be entertaining as all out.

2. Go, Shapes, Go! written and illustrated by Denise Fleming

I'm a sucker for anything Denise Fleming creates, as every page of collage illustrations is just so interesting to look at. I couldn't help but get a little Leo Lionni vibe from the mouse on the cover, which definitely caught my eye first, so I'd like to think it's a subtle homage, but maybe that's just me. This book, too, has been a favorite this week, especially for one of my toddler friends who has a particular liking of shapes and monkeys, both of which play prominent roles here. The 'story' consists of the construction of a figure that eventually emerges as many shapes are pulled together, page by page. Some basic shapes of various sizes are included, along with two different sized arcs, and the handmade paper of which the shapes are made have cool designs that appear almost textured on the flat page. Watch for the twist in the end that gives the small mouse a bit of a scare!

3. Jack written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola 

I was surprised to see this on the shelf, as I hadn't heard anything about a new dePaola book last fall. My husband read it to my first grader son last night, and sadly, let's just say that neither was impressed. I hadn't listened when they read together, so I needed to check it out for myself, and I think I discovered the problem. Unlike some of dePaola's picture books, this one likely fares better with a much younger audience. The plot is simple and straightforward- a boy wants to move to the city, so he seeks out the king for help in finding a house. Along the way, he is greeted by one animal after another, who each ask to join him on his quest. The ending is just as basic, which is what I think was disappointing to my guys, who were probably expecting a more formal and complex story line, along with a big finish kind of ending. But, I've found that toddlers quite delight in the appeal of many noisy animals and a story that builds upon itself in a manner that they can see coming. And when it's accompanied by dePaola's gorgeous paintings, it's a winner to me. (Edited to add: Oh!! In my own quick reading, I failed to fully appreciate the backgrounds of the illustrations that include images from many Mother Goose rhymes... more than I can confidently identify!)

4. Sarah on the Potty written and illustrated by Pauline Oud

Speaking of reading with toddlers, it seems you just can't get away from the potty theme. And honestly, I get it. Going from doing your business in a diaper while never having to stop any of your other business to having to drop everything, wrangle out of clothing with your little toddler arms, and get onto a potty is a HUGE thing. Little ones need books that reflect their real world experiences, and if you spend even just a few hours a day with a toddler, you know that many of those daily experiences take place in a bathroom. There's a frankness to this book that I appreciate; the narrator's tone is straightforward and descriptive in a way that isn't talking down to toddlers. Sarah is noticing the differences between herself and her baby brother as she's learning to use the potty, and the emphasis on her "big girl" experiences is one that any parent will remember employing. 

5. Just Right for Two written by Tracey Corderoy and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw

Another theme that appears again and again in children's literature, and for good reason, is friendship. For young picture book readers, from toddlers to elementary school kids, friendship is another significant part of their lives. I like when the concept is presented gently and slowly, as it is here, between two characters who come to realize that they enjoy being together. Dog is a nice guy who enjoys the simple pleasures in life, some of which he keeps with him always in his big blue suitcase. When he's not admiring his treasures, the suitcase doubles as the perfect spot for one to sit. Then Mouse comes along and disrupts his usual schedule... but, Dog finds joy in sharing his treasures and playing games with Mouse. Only in Mouse's absence does Dog realize that he may not have everything he truly needs. The pace is slow and steady, and adults reading this aloud can act as such with their presentation of the text-- slow and precise, so as to let all the words sink in. I was quite taken with the illustrations, softly colorful and endearing. 

We're about at the point of exhausting our library supply by this week's end, so hopefully next week will bring an overflowing bag of new-to-us library finds and fodder for another round-up.

Happy reading,

Friday, January 23, 2015

friday's five

Oh, hello there, January. I hadn't realized you were going to be so speedy this year, what with 22 of your days gone already, while I've been hyper-focused on seven particular picture books. Now it's time to officially start a new year of friday's five posts, albeit a little late, with a handful of titles fresh off the library's "new releases" shelf. Though these were all just picked up today, all five have been read by or to at least one young one in my life in the last few hours, and they've all been enjoyed by their audiences.

For a couple of these, the familiar names on the spines and the front covers caught my eye, leading to placement in the checkout bag. For others, it was the cover illustration itself. No denying it, I'm a total judge-a-literal-book-by-its-cover kind of gal. My toddler pal was my assistant in the selection process, and each of these books were given her initial okay, too. Let's get to the books.

1. Lion Lion written by Miriam Busch and illustrated by Larry Day

Perhaps reading this for the first time with a toddler wasn't ideal, for I see this book working much better with a slightly older pre-k or kindergarten audience, but she still had fun trying to figure out what was going on. Sly and darkly humorous, this picture book doesn't tell a straightforward story. Instead, there are clues as to what's really going on in the mannerisms of the little boy, and his tone of voice, once readers understand enough to deliver the lines most appropriately. (Teacher friends, don't forget that golden rule for read alouds-- KNOW YOUR MATERIAL!) I read this for a second time today with my seven year old, and I was more confident in my delivery of the story, and he was better able to grasp the complexity of the story. Because of its twist, this book practically roars out for re-reads. (See what I did there?)

2. The Jacket written by Kirsten Hall and illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova 

The eyes peeking out definitely caught both my young friend's and my attention at the library. This happened to be one of the books that was chosen to stand face-out on the shelf, and it just happened to be at about her eye level. How could we not bring this one home? The story it tells is another slightly complex one, and I think my older kids will particularly enjoy it. I loved the personification of the book itself, because the idea of a book being alive just makes sense to me. The conflict here arises when a young girl's two loves-- the book and her dog-- just don't mix well. An accident of a muddy nature pushes the girl into action to create an entirely new look for her favorite book. 

3. First Snow written and illustrated by Peter McCarty

Though our snowfall totals have been small, just this week, we had a bit of a beautiful afternoon of flurries and that image often sticks in kids' minds with more positive feelings than for many adults. The picture of six furry friends in snowsuits and hats, sleds in hand, is surely an inviting one to children excited for their own chances for some fun in the snow. The plot here is a straightforward one, with a relative, Pedro, visiting just in time for a big, overnight snowfall, providing him with his very first experience with snow! But, his first impression isn't terribly positive. It's cold, it's uncomfortable, and he just doesn't know what he's supposed to do out there. But then it's time to climb up the hill for the big sledding session, and even though he has a bit of a spill, Pedro discovers the joy that can be found in a wintry wonderland.

4. Maple & Willow Together written and illustrated by Lori Nichols

My kids met Maple this past year, and they adore her, so I was happy to see her sequel on the shelf today. My daughter chose this as the book she wanted to read aloud to me and her younger brother tonight, and they shared a few glances at points in the story that they could absolutely relate to. Sibling relationships are a special thing, but that doesn't mean that even the best ones are void of conflict. Even sisters like Maple and Willow get in fights, but the important thing is that they try to make amends... a lesson I think most parents will find familiar. This book also opened my eyes to the fact that my younger children apparently have no understanding of the concept of "Pig Latin," so it was fun to try to explain the "secret language" that the sisters share!

5. Stormy Night written and illustrated by Salina Yoon 

I've become a big fan of Yoon's books for my toddler friends, because she knows how to blend age-appropriate themes with illustrations that have just the right touch of adorableness, with thick lines and big patches of solid colors, to result in a book that toddlers want to pick up as soon as they see the cover. In this new one, the topic is one that parents and young children both will likely have experience with-- the fears that can come during a loud storm, especially one that happens during the night. When Bear can't sleep because of the storm, he finds comfort in his parents, and guess what? They find comfort in him, too! The love that Bear shows his favorite stuffed bunny is reflected in the love his parents give him. Tender and quiet, this is a perfectly lovely, reassuring read.

Whew! Getting back in the swing of things ain't easy, I tell ya, but I'm looking forward to another year of exploring new-to-us picture books. 

Happy reading,

Friday, January 16, 2015

are there parents who are never disappointed in themselves?

Whether or not they're out there, I know that I am not of their tribe. Since I first became a parent almost fifteen years ago, I could fill an imaginary swimming pool with metaphorical drops of self-disappointment. Does that make me a bad parent? Sometimes. Yes. Sometimes I'm not the best parent I could be. I yell more than I'd like. I possess a remarkable amount of patience when dealing with young children, but just not the ones in my family. I say things sometimes that I later regret... hard. I am so imperfect that disappointment in myself is a feeling with which I have much experience.

Right now, perhaps more than ever, I have three children in very different times of their lives. The teenager... well, do I really need to expound? He's a teenager, and our first round as parents during adolescence is like a never-ending roller coaster. In a pitch black environment, no idea what is about to come... a straight, flat, smooth track or one that suddenly drops out, plummeting for who knows how long? Sigh. The eight year old has begun shifting into this second phase of childhood, as it were, and it's full of more emotion than ever. We're getting glimpses of the adolescent she will become, at that time when the mix of baby/toddler face and big kid expressiveness is constantly apparent. And then there's the youngest in all his goofiness and impetuousness. Though a mere 18 months younger than his sister, his seven year old self is simply in a different developmental stage than hers.

But I am just one person, engrossed in a seemingly constant struggle to figure out how to best parent each of these individuals, whose basic needs are obviously all the same, but who also possess such distinctly different needs when it comes to temperament and engagement. I can't be everything to everyone all the time, so there's always a shortcoming.

And yet, I still try. I still wake up every morning hoping for the best. Okay, maybe it's better to say the best possible. I love my children, even when I find myself not liking them in a moment. The moment will pass, though that can be so damn difficult to see right then. They assuredly are having the very same experience of emotional fluctuation when it comes to me, too. (At least I'll assume that from the grumbles and whines they think I can't hear under their breath.) 

I know there are no perfect parents out there, regardless of the shiny-happy-people images put forth on Facebook and such. It stands to reason then that there are also no parents among us who have never felt shitty after a heated interaction with their children, or asked themselves, "What in the world was I thinking?!" after doling out a harsh consequence in anger. I'd even go so far as saying that the vast majority of parents are trying their best, day in and day out, and that's the thing about trying... sometimes you fail. Some days are uglier than others, even when you tried.

A friend of mine has a funny way of saying things sometimes. She so succinctly summed it up not too long ago-- Parenting is hard, yo. Indeed.

This post was inspired by the novel If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie, about a boy who's never been outside thanks to his mother's agoraphobia, but ventures outside in order to solve a mystery. Though most of the story focuses on the boy's experiences, I couldn't help but feel empathy for the mother who had lost so much and became isolated from the world out of fear and anxiety. Yet, she was still struggling with the same basic issues of parenting that we all do, just from an intensely heightened emotional state.

Join From Left to Write on January 22nd as we discus If I Fall, If I Die. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Yours in reading,

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

a surprising post-break bonus day

The first snow of the winter season always seems to throw the mid-Atlantic region for a loop. Each year, there are times when I shake my New England-born head at the decisions made by the powers that be, whether it be the school system for closing, or worse, NOT closing, or the public works folks for not preparing sufficiently. For this winter, that day came today when a system came through exactly as forecast (emphasize those three words as you read along!), yet there appeared to be zero preparation for it. As a result, though there is an amount of snow on the ground that would make our northern neighbors scoff, the road conditions during the morning commute were abysmal thanks to the super cold temps and no pre-treatments. Our school system first called a two-hour delay, but at some point around 8 am, changed it to a complete closure. Oh, the joy expressed by the 2/3 of my children who attend public school. To the other's credit, he did some Spanish classwork before he was dismissed to go play in the snow until the time of his online class.

After the initial uncertainty of the morning for school and work schedules all around, the day's plan firmed up. For the children, that plan involved getting their father to climb up into the frigid attic to procure the outdoor snow accouterments, and then layering up, donning the now-too-small snowpants, and heading outdoors. Sadly for Hubby, working from home goes on as scheduled regardless of the wintry weather. Other than his breaks to help get the kids' stuff, blowing up a snow tube, and building a cozy fire, he's spending his time upstairs in his work space (i.e. our bedroom) having a regular old Tuesday.

For me, though, the snow opened the day up to more possibilities. Like this exact moment-- blogging in the middle of the morning, and even more remarkable, sitting in the living room with only the hum of the fan and the crackles of the fireplace as my soundtrack. The kid trio is out and about in the neighborhood, properly dressed and equipped with sleds, and I have been left to my own devices. With laundry going, and big fat flakes falling, this morning seemed the best time to get in some baking, and the eleven overripe bananas were practically screaming out to be made into something. An hour later, and I've got clothes that need folding and muffins that need eating. One of those sounds more appealing than the other, but both will inevitably get done later today.

Though the new year is often seen as a time for hope and renewal, I've been fighting a bit of seemingly cyclical melancholy lately. It's no surprise, as I'm fully aware of the way my brain chemistry likes to mess with me to varying levels now and then. As I reflect on my mood, I've been thinking that I don't fully appreciate the relationship between contentedness and happiness, and that I let perfectly wonderful moments go by unnoticed or unacknowledged because they're simple and not super exciting. If I associate happiness with only those extremely special times, then I'm missing a whole lot of everyday joys. Today, I'm trying to keep that thought in the front of my mind. Appreciating the quiet of this morning, the beauty of the snow, and the low-keyness of the day as a whole is a source of happiness, and I'm trying to be mindful of it.

As is our bird feeder. How thankful I am that my toddler friend and I refilled it yesterday, for the birds have been having a party there all morning. Though the cardinal didn't care for me getting too close, the nuthatches were as oblivious as always, and there are usually so many juncos that they never fully disperse. If I was a hardier person, I would have hunkered down and sat in the snow for a longer birdwatching session. With very few cars passing through our very busy corner, the hush of the snowfall was even more pronounced, and the chirping and twittering of the birds brought even more calm than usual.

a cardinal taking shelter while the juncos find my bread bit tossings in the snow

bright red cardinal looking good in the snow

junco on the line waiting for his turn at the feeder after the nuthatch

sassy cardinal chirping at me to stop going all paparazzi on him

Today's unexpected gifts have been wonderful so far, and it's only lunch time. I have a feeling that a movie is on tap for the younger kids later this afternoon while the homeschooler does his homeschooling-don't-play-by-snow-day-rules thing. The fire will keep going and some reading will surely take place, and maybe, just maybe there will be a calm upon this house.

Snow day salutations,

Saturday, January 03, 2015

book reviews 2015

There's no denying I have a bit of an obsession with lists and keeping track of things I don't want to forget. Give me a little while, and I'm likely to forget things, so I started to record my first thoughts after finishing a book back in 2008, not a full review, but just my immediate impressions. It's a tradition I enjoyed keeping through 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Let's see if 2015 can bring some fantastic new reads.

27. 5/25/15
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
It took me a looooong time to actually get into this novel, and I'm not sure why. It very much follows a similar pattern as Moyes' Me Before You, which I loved, but there was something keeping me from really understanding what was happening for much of the beginning of this one. When the two characters' plot lines intersected, I think I finally began to care about the story, and I'm glad that I did, because the story was worth it in the end. Moyes tackles the inequities between the rich and the poor here, and I liked how she portrayed one character's lack of understanding of what it is like for the "have nots." The children were probably my favorite characters here, and the alternating points of view narration gave readers a chance to see inside their heads every now and then.

26. 5/20/15
My Chinese-America by Allen Gee
This collection of essays started of quite strong to me, with the author's powerful and gripping account of being pulled over by a Kansas police officer for no real reason. The interaction described and the attitude and behavior of the officer was more consistent from what I would have expected, and have heard, from African-Americans, for some of whom this has become a regular experience. I had not considered it common for Asian-Americans, and Gee's account showed how racism works in the same ways across color and ethnic lines. Some of the other essays deal with Gee's experiences in his childhood, in academia, and among social groups in relation to his Chinese background, while others focus more on his personal feelings about getting older, or his take on masculinity in our society. Some essays had me feeling empathetic toward him, but in others, his tone turned more self-aggrandizing and pompous, leaving me with mixed feelings. His strongest essays are the ones that shed light on his experiences as a Chinese-American, and the stereotypes and assumptions made about Asian-Americans as a whole.

25. 5/19/15
Love and Miss Communication by Elyssa Friedland
I really loved the premise of this novel going in-- woman in her early 30s swears off the Internet after it gets her in trouble at work, takes up too much of her time, AND breaks her heart. Can she give life a go completely unplugged from the online world? Interestingly enough, that theme seemed to take a backseat at times to a plot that was going in several directions at once... sometimes working, other times just feeling bogged down. This was a mixed bag altogether for me, honestly. I enjoyed the characters (sometimes), and the story was mostly entertaining, but it felt about 100 pages longer than it needed to be.

24. 5/10/15
Look Me In the Eye by John Elder Robison
I really wanted to like this one, and I did appreciate the first-person account of growing up with Asperger's, long before it was even a recognized condition. But for several chapters, I just wasn't interested in the long, hyper-detailed descriptions of Robison's interests and experiences in trains, electronics, etc. And for several other chapters, I just couldn't see the humor in the ways he chose to interact with others, with his "pranks" (many of which were incredibly dangerous, which he dismisses in his epilogue by saying that no one ever got hurt) and his intentional misleading and misinformation to his child and others... I just couldn't shake the feeling that some of what this man wants to attribute to his Asperger's could really just be chalked up to him being an asshole. (The whole naming chapter-- I call people what I want, but I get pissed if they don't respect my made up names? WTF?)

23. 5/7/15
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
I really didn't want to put this one down, because I came to adore the characters, and I simply wanted to spend more time with them. Knowing that both main characters were in positions to go through some serious, soul-searching changes made for a desire to keep reading, and quickly, at that. Emotionally, this one's a tug-at-your-heartstrings kind of novel, and tears were plentiful, for sure. I'd never read anything by Jojo Moyes before, but I think her books will be perfect poolside reading this summer!

22. 5/1/15
Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center
Oh, how I enjoyed this one. I couldn't help but root for the young guy to win the slightly older, slightly more jaded woman's heart, and Katherine Center makes the whole thing, from beginning to end, a fun ride. I think I needed to hear some of this book's messages right now, especially the idea of reflecting on three good things at the end of each day. Much of happiness can be about choosing it... which is often difficult for me, as I saw it was for the protagonist here, but it's possible. This novel shows that many things are possible.

21. 4/30/15
Hit by Delilah S. Dawson
Holy cow, this one made me UNCOMFORTABLE. A dystopian idea, but taking place right at this moment, and done in such a way that the vast majority of people have no idea that everything they've come to know about their way of life has changed, effective immediately. No democratic government, no rights under the law, and all because of that super tiny print that no one reads when they sign contracts. A bit terrifying, no? Fast-paced and dialogue-heavy, this YA novel is ready made for the screen!

20. 4/27/15
Completely Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
This one started off rocky to me, but I don't know why... there was a different, rushed feeling in the storytelling, but it soon slowed down and revealed the full story of what was going on with our dear Clementine. The kids and I (7 and 8) loved returning to our favorite curly redhead, and I was once again reminded of how much I wish Clementine was a real person so she could be friends with my children!

19. 4/27/15
Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper
Zach is a middleman at work, and it's beginning to dawn on him, that in life, he also acts in a similar way. Is he happy? No, not really, but from an outsider's perspective, he seems to have everything falling into place. But, perhaps he's never stopped to ask himself if he's happy, so the possibility of his discontent is something he's never had to face. But peeing blood will do that to you-- force you to take stock and possibly screw up everything that seemed safe and right. On the precipice of turning his life upside down, Zach's father returns from his long ago abandonment just in time to assist in the upturning of Zach's life. Humor and moments of tenderness and honesty propel this novel of family, love, and loss.

18. 4/24/15
Diamond Head by Cecily Wong
Mysteries hang over much of this novel, as perspectives shift and stories from the past are slowly revealed. Three generations of the Leong family fill the pages, though it's just four women who hold all the secrets, and the burden of carrying them has affected each of them in devastating ways. The relationships among them have suffered, too, as a result of their own choices, as well as those of the men of the family, and the effects of traditions and lore. I found this family saga to be captivating.

17. 4/8/15
Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham
What a fun take on a modern-day epistolary novel. Rather than exchanged letters, this novel is told through emails and text messages sent between two people, newly dating, as well as between each of them and their respective best friends. As a result, you see the relationship from multiple angles and perspectives from the very beginning. Humor, pop culture, and social media all play significant roles, and the result is witty, smart, and totally entertaining. Coming in a little over 200 pages, this book can easily be read in one sitting, and will be perfect for spring or summer light fare reading!

16. 4/3/15
The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
I enjoyed this book for its snapshot of the 1960s through the eyes of a woman whose view of the time and her environment was still evolving. Answering the question of "What if?" becomes the center of the novel, as Kitty Miller begins to enter an alternate world in her dreams, where her entire future hinged on one crucial event that lead to a marriage and the birth of children. As she leaves her (uncommon for the time) life as a single woman with a small business for this other life in her dreams, the lines between reality and dreams become blurred. Swanson has a bit of a twist in store for readers, making the resolution not exactly what some would expect.

15. 3/25/15
Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer by Una LaMarche
Una LaMarche cracks me the hell up. This collection of essays gives readers hilarious peeks into moments of her life from childhood through adulthood, with a unifying tone of self-aware awkwardness. And she freaking owns it. Self-deprecating humor in LaMarche's hands doesn't invoke discomfort for the reader, because it's pretty clear that she's laughing right along. She admits to misjudgments and not-so-smart decisions as both a child and an adult, but she still exudes a confident attitude that everything will probably be just fine. With an understanding that with age doesn't necessarily come wisdom, LaMarche finds her transition to parenthood to be consistent with her previous stages of life... more fodder for her collection of misadventurous stories. Reading this collection is like hanging out with a goofball friend, reminiscing about pop culture from back in the day, bitching about the inanities of being a woman in today's world, and sharing a drunken college story or two. Funny, funny stuff (with the funniest freaking cover I've ever seen).

14. 3/17/15
Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại
Twelve year old Mai (or Mia, as she is known to everyone outside of her family) has just finished school and is ready for summer break, which in California means beach, friends, and more beach. Mai is a hard worker, a straight-A student, and a dutiful daughter, but she had no idea that this summer's duty would be to accompany her grandmother on a trip to Vietnam for answers about her husband's long ago disappearance during the war. Determined to get her grandmother to find the closure she needs as quickly as possible so they can fly back to California with some remaining summer break to salvage, Mai doesn't see the trip as an opportunity to "connect with her roots," as her parents encourage. Stubborn and willful, as adolescents often are (at least the American ones I know!), Mai doesn't want to openly acknowledge the transformation that readers will see gradually occurring throughout her visit. Eventually, Mai's experiences will help shape her for a long time to come.

13. 3/9/15
Girl Underwater by Claire Kells
I wasn't prepared for the intensity of this book when I first began reading. I knew that the protagonist had been in a terrible plane crash, but I didn't realize that the story would fluctuate between her post-crash life and her in-the-moments experience during the crash and in the horrific days afterward, in which she tried to survive. Though difficult to read, the author does a fantastic job of getting readers inside Avery's head and in tune with her terrified emotions. In the parts of the story that deal with her recovery and attempts to come back to a normal life after such an extreme trauma, though, the narrative is patchy at times. I was confused by her choices sometimes, not certain exactly what she was going to do or why. The ending felt somewhat rushed, but the epilogue helped to fill in the blanks.

12. 3/7/15
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Reading Nelson's debut novel after her latest was perhaps not the best idea. Had I read this one first, I think I would have been more affected. While I quite enjoyed this and think that it is a thoughtful and evocative YA novel, it didn't have the depth that I found in her second book I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN. There were many similarities in theme, characters, and relationships as in her second book, but this one seems like a warm-up of sorts. I'd still highly recommend it, and my teen also gives it his highest recommendation, as well.

11. 3/3/15
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
I've just finished this book, and I'm left a sobbing mess. Not totally unheard of, I know, but, truly, there are few books that have left me in such a state as I'm in right now. I spent huge, long chapters holding my breath. I gasped again and again with despair for these characters. I closed the book feeling as if I'd been tossed around in the ocean's waves. I'm exhausted and drained and so bursting with feelings, but it was worth it to see these characters come out of their darknesses. I implore you to pick up this book. It's a YA book, but it has complexity and depth, emotion and compassion, and literary beauty that transcends age groupings. READ IT NOW.

10. 2/28/15
The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson
At only 50, Patrick is saved by a heart transplant at what could be seen as a perfect time for a new start. In the face of troubles at work, and a personal life that consists of unfinished and unsettled relationships, he could be at the figurative crossroads upon which many thoughtful novels are constructed. In two other story lines, readers learn of the lives of both the teenage boy whose death provided the heart for Patrick, and his ancestor whose involvement in 18th century labor riots changed the course of his life. All three characters' loss of a parent in their childhood left a major impression that affected their later choices in life. Though Patrick begins to experience a few strange connections to his heart donor through dreams and mental images, there wasn't a big crossover event like I was expecting. Rather, this reads as three character-driven stories with slight connections in people and themes. A pleasant enough read overall, though the presentation was a bit confusing at times.

9. 2/22/15
This House is Not for Sale by E.C. Osondu
I found this to be a neat hybrid of a collection of short stories and a novel. Though each chapter reads as its own individual story focused on one particular resident of the house at the core of the entire book, the narrator remains consistent for them all, uniting the stories into one cohesive perspective on a large number of people who have lived at the house at one time or another. In an unspecified African country, a family/community comes to life in the The Family House, with Grandfather in the respected, and also at times feared, position of leader. The neighborhood surrounding The Family House is vibrant and ever-present, with many, many voices weighing in during the narrative, presented in bullet-point fashion in print that reads like overheard voices in a crowd. The first half or so of the book read quite comically at times, with even the misfortunes of some residents presented in a way that brought a chuckle, but then there was a sudden shift, and the stories (and fates) of the residents, some blood relatives of Grandfather, others simply people who sought out his assistance and shelter in his house, became much darker. The undercurrent of many conversations about the house and the people who called it their home was similar-- "It is always from that house that all things both good and bad emerge."

8. 2/16/15
Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting
A trampoline makes for a good image related to adolescence-- a whole lot of bouncing around on unsteady feet, with some fantastic highs and some crashing lows. For Tallulah de Longland, many of the most significant highs and the lows of those years come courtesy of two people-- her best friend, Annabelle, and her boyfriend, Josh. Their intense relationships, intertwined to a point where the lines between them became blurry, left a lasting effect on Lulu, so that even several years later, she has still not come out from under the shadow of that time. Her delayed adolescence puts her adult life in a standstill position for a while; even as she appears to have a "grown-up life," emotionally she's still hurting and unable to move on. One decision, unlike any she's made before, changes the game. I quite enjoyed this novel, for the character of Lulu is open and candid, displaying her vulnerabilities for the reader, if not for the people in her life. Her familial relationships are an important side story, and depict a family dealing with long term mental illness in a compassionate and loving manner, getting through the every day as best they can. The opening of the book set a scene so wonderful until the very last sentence, which turned it on its head, making for a twist to get things going.

7. 2/14/15
Single, Carefree, Mellow:Stories by Katherine Heiny
There's a little bit of irony to have finished this book on Valentine's Day, because there was so much melancholy related to love in its pages. It struck me, a few stories in, that the title is misleading, in that I couldn't find one protagonist who was actually single (maybe not true... but most of the "dating" that occurs here involves at least one married person), carefree (oh, there are lots and lots of cares troubling everyone involved), or mellow (see the previous adjective). While the choices the characters make, and continue to make in the case of one character who appears in several stories, are quite less than honorable, there are interesting insights in each story that speak to the conditions of attraction, relationships, and love. The statements made aren't terribly positive, but perhaps they can work as cautionary tales.

6. 2/7/15
The Grown Ups by Robin Antalek
The summer that Sam is fifteen, all of his neighborhood friends catch a virus. After Suzie's birthday party, it went rampant through his entire group of friends, and while everyone thought that was horrible, no one could have predicted what would follow in its wake. The dissolution of not one, but two marriages, and with the departure of one family, the revelation that there were more than a few secrets going on in the neighborhood. Over the next fifteen years, the lives of Sam and Suzie, along with Sam's brother Michael, and Suzie's best friend Bella, continue to intersect with a mixed bag of emotions in play each time. This novel was reminiscent of Wolitzer's THE INTERESTINGS, but with a focus over the years on a small subset of the larger group of teens. I adore character-driven novels, and this one really touched me.

5. 2/3/15
Lost & Found by Brooke Davis
Ummm... this was weird... but, weird in a good way. The trio of characters at the heart of the story are like none I've ever read before-- cantankerous Agatha, old in body, mind, and most definitely spirit; introspective Karl, the touch typist, who is finding a new perspective on living now that he sees the end coming; and tender Millie, abandoned at seven years old, trying to understand how those who love her could leave her behind. Even with very little action, these three would light up the pages with Davis' manner of developing their characters-- odd, but insightful internal  thoughts and bizarre conversations. But, add in wacky scenario after scenario, each with its own new set of oddball side characters, and you've got a recipe for both an action-driven and a character-driven narrative.

4. 1/24/15
The Way to Stay in Destiny by Augusta Scattergood
I kept waiting for something *more* from this book. The premise was interesting, and there were strong opportunities for character development and emotional exploration, but neither went as deep as I had hoped. Perhaps this was intentional, to keep the book geared toward the youngest end of middle grade fiction readers, but the themes and setting might still need some explanation anyway, so why not go deeper? I'm still going to pass it along to my 8 year old daughter, but I wasn't as impressed as I was with Scattergood's previous book GLORY BE.

3. 1/13/15
You Could be Home by Now by Tracy Manaster
I was happy to finish this book just so I could move on to something else. That sounds harsh, but it's not to say that there weren't enjoyable aspects of the book... I just didn't get pulled into this one like I usually do with novels. I didn't find myself caring much for any of the characters, and none of the several story lines really felt deep enough.I felt there was a disjointedness to the novel as a whole, and while I was pleased to see some resolutions occur for characters in the end, I was mostly just happy to be done.

2. 1/5/15
If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother by Julia Sweeney
With a month on her own while her daughter is at camp and her husband is away for work, Sweeney vows to relax and spend the time telling her story. Through her essays, readers learn many bits about her past, some flip, others quite serious. Her relationship history, the adoption of her daughter as a single mom, and then the too-wild-to-be-made-up meeting of her future husband, all make fantastic fodder for her engaging and introspective storytelling. I quite adored this entire collection of essays.

1. 1/1/15
If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie
An extreme case in agoraphobia, Will's mother hasn't left the house in as long as Will can remember, and as a result, neither has Will. The day that Will steps Outside (capitalized for its Otherness to him) introduces him, literally, to an entire world new to him. Throw in the mysterious disappearance of a local native youth, dark and untold family histories, and an exploration into mental illness unlike any I've read before. The parent/child relationship here is definitely not a healthy one, yet it holds elements I would guess most parents could understand. Will's budding adolescence cannot help but be influenced by his childhood of isolation, but again, there's a universality to this experience as well. I was taken by the tone of this novel, dark and foreboding, and rich with emotion.

As always, happy reading,