Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“Cracked” by K.M. Walton

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction

I find myself drawn to novels about young adults in mental institutions. In fact, I did a whole project on the subject while working on my master’s degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Chatham College. Though I never spent time in a mental hospital while a teenager, I have struggled with depression and anxiety since high school and relate to the stories of people who have reached the point of suicidal behavior. Reading stories of others, even fictional others, who have suffered make me feel more normal. There are many good books on the subject, and I have just discovered another one. I recently attended a young adult author panel at my local independent bookstore (Doylestown Bookshop) where I chatted for a while with author K.M. Walton. She told me about her book Cracked, in which a bully nicknamed “Bull” and his victim, Victor, both end up in a mental institution at the same time. The book is told in dual perspective, jumping from Bull to Victor every other chapter. This is an excellent way to tell this story, and perhaps the only way that would be effective. By being in both boys’ heads, we can understand each of them and see the similarities in their lives before they do. We see Bull’s miserable home life that has lead him to bullying Victor. We see Victor’s uncaring parents that lead him to attempt suicide. When the boys end up roommates at the hospital, we know why each of them is there, but we get to watch as they slowly figure each other’s stories out.

What I find most amazing in this book is Walton’s ability to make Bull’s character so sympathetic right away. His story is arguably the more tragic of the two, and I found myself torn between wanting him to find happiness and protection and wanting to slap him for taking his sucky life out on someone else. The author writes each character in such a way that we can feel like we know and understand them. Though the story progresses in a somewhat predictable way (the boys find a peace between each other in the end and have a better life waiting for them), I enjoyed the whole read. I don’t know how Walton managed to write the voices of troubled teenage boys so well, but they seemed liked real teens you could find at a local high school. Whether you have had personal experience or not with mental illness, bullying, or abuse, you should read this book to remind yourself that people who seem fine are often crying out for someone to listen. Maybe you can help.

Bibliographic Information:
Walton, K.M. Cracked. New York: Simon Pulse, 2012.

“Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” by David Sedaris (illustrations by Ian Falconer)

Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction, short stories

Since I have enjoyed two of David Sedaris’ other titles (Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day) and laughed through two of his live readings, I thought I would like Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. As a children’s writer myself, the idea of animal fables especially peaked my interest. Oh, this’ll be great! I thought. He’s totally going to turn animal tales on their head and it’ll be hilarious! I could not have been more disappointed. I kept reading story after story in this collection, waiting for them to be funny. I kept telling myself, Okay, that one was weird, but the next one…the next one will be when I laugh! Oh optimism, the unfortunate force that keeps one trudging through something despite all sense telling one to stop and spend time differently. I read all of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and came away disgusted and disappointed. Some of the stories were flat out gross, while the rest were just…well…not funny. I tried to imagine them in Sedaris’s voice, but still couldn’t find anything to chuckle about. I can’t help but wonder if I missed something here. I can’t even recommend this to my close friend who is a huge Sedaris fan but avoided this collection due to its fictional nature. Skip this one.

Bibliographic Information:
Sedaris, David. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” by Mindy Kaling

Age: Adult
Genre: Memoir, Essays, Humor

I wanted to read this book because I am a fan of the TV show The Office, for which Mindy Kaling writes and in which she plays Kelly Kapoor. I love The Office, so I guessed Mindy must be a funny person and therefore I might enjoy her book. I was right on both counts. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is a collection of Kaling’s essays. Some are autobiographical and span from her childhood (“I Am Not an Athlete”) to current day (“The Day I Stopped Eating Cupcakes”), while others are simply her observations on life, such as “Non-Traumatic Things That Have Made Me Cry” and “Revenge Fantasies While Jogging.” After having watched her for years on television, I was most interested in the stories of how she got to be a successful Hollywood writer/actress. I enjoyed reading about her friend Brenda and how they were able to take something they did just to be silly – impersonating Ben Affleck and Matt Damon – and turn it into a hit play. Isn’t that what we all want from life? To become successful thanks to something we just do for fun? Though I don’t think her intention was to inspire writers, Kaling at least inspired one – me. Reading her life story reminded me that if you stay true to who you are and what makes you laugh, you will eventually find someone else who can appreciate your humor and maybe even give you a job. I think this book will mainly appeal to people who are familiar with the author (part of what made it so enjoyable for me was hearing it all in her voice in my head), but it could have a wider audience amongst young women. In a time when people are talking about how surprisingly funny women can be, Mindy Kaling only proves the point that female comedians are here to stay. Though not every essay is a winner, the book overall is a fun read.
Bibliographic Information:
Kaling, Mindy. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).  New York: Crown Archetype, 2011.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

“Andy Squared” by Jennifer Lavoie

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction, Gay and Lesbian

Teens Andy and his twin sister, Andrea, live with their parents in a rural town where not much happens. They fill their time going to school and playing soccer. As college application time approaches, the twins are trying to decide where to go to school because, at least in Andrea’s mind, they will stay together no matter what. But Andy is feeling unfulfilled in life: no girl keeps his interest for long and he’s not sure he wants to play soccer after high school. However, life suddenly changes when a new boy, Ryder, moves into town. Andy starts to have unrecognizable feelings for Ryder and before he knows it, Andy is in over his head. Though he is happy to be with Ryder, he lives in constant fear of others finding out their secret. He can’t even tell his twin, but everyone is bound to find out at some point.

The love story in Andy Squared seems plausible enough and the characters feel realistic, but the story itself moves pretty slowly. It wasn’t exactly a page-turner as there was nothing pushing the story forward other than Andy’s self-discovery. The author needed to add some sort of external conflict to keep the plot interesting. I found I wasn’t all that interested in what was going to happen to the characters, and the only reason I kept reading the book was because I rarely stop reading a book I’ve started. So Andy Squared wasn’t terrible, just sort of boring. However, it may appeal to young gay readers looking to find someone like themselves portrayed in literature.

Bibliographic Information:
Lavoie, Jennifer. Andy Squared.  Valley Falls, NY: Bold Strokes Books, 2012.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“Into the Pumpkin” by Linda Franklin

Age: Picture Book (3 years and up)
Genre: Fiction, Halloween

The whirl of the witch,
With whimsical flight,
Is mailing out invites
Of spooky delights.

Linda Franklin’s picture book, “Into the Pumpkin,” invites the reader to a Halloween he or she has never seen before. The reader will see ghosts, witches, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, and other typical Halloween characters as they gather together for a party. The author uses rhyme to describe each ghoul and ghost and provides spooky illustrations. The pictures may, in fact, be too spooky for some young readers. I can imagine a very different book, one that would be less scary for younger readers, if it had more cartoonish illustrations. I’m not sure why the author chose to use the style of artwork that she did as it is quite creepy, with bony, reaching fingers and a mist hanging over most of the pictures. However, the book reads well and children may enjoy the rhyming style.

Bibliographic Information:
Franklin, Linda. Into the Pumpkin.  Atlgen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2012.

Friday, September 21, 2012

“Lucretia and the Kroons” by Victor LaValle

Age: Middle Grade
Genre: Fiction, fantasy/horror

Lucretia Gardner and her best friend, Zhao Hun Soong, have a lot in common. Both girls are twelve years old and have nicknames (Lucretia is “Loochie” and Zhao is “Sunny”). They go to the same school and live in the same building in Flushing, Queens – in fact Loochie’s apartment is directly below Sunny’s. But there’s one thing they don’t share: only Sunny has cancer. Loochie wants to celebrate her birthday with Sunny, but this is impossible because Sunny is out of the state getting yet another treatment. When Sunny finally does return to Queens, she is so sickly that Loochie has to beg to spend time with her. The day they are supposed to hang out, Sunny disappears and a very creepy, deformed person comes to lead Loochie to her best friend – but it means going into apartment 6D, which is supposedly haunted by the shells of former crackheads. What Loochie finds in 6D can only be described as a horrifying nightmare, but she must fight through it to save her friend.

Author Victor LaValle has certainly created a dark world for his preteen characters to inhabit. LaValle does an excellent job portraying the strained friendship between Loochie and Sunny as well as the girls’ emotions regarding cancer and death. I can see readers who have watched a friend suffer through any serious disease relate to Loochie and her desire for her friend’s healing and for things to just go back to how they were before. But when the story turned more towards fantasy with the Kroons in apartment 6D, it got too dark and nightmarish for me.

I did enjoy the author’s writing. He used some good descriptive phrases, such as describing the cool girls at school as “clumped together like socks that had just come out of the dryer.” I also liked the idea he proposed of hell and heaven as places we could access from earth. He has Loochie wonder about hell and ask, “why couldn’t [it] be located in a sixth-floor apartment […]?” And he presents heaven as a baseball stadium. Sunny describes it like this: “Everyone who makes it inside is at peace. It’s bright and warm all day. You can take a seat in the stands or run around with other kids down on the field. There’s no pain in there. No need for hospital visits. Doesn’t that sound nice?” This passage is particularly heart-wrenching coming from Sunny and seeing what her life has degraded into due to her cancer. For her, heaven is simply living a normal childhood. And the author’s descriptions of the horrors Loochie encounters are truly the things of nightmares, with a playground full of abandoned toys left by vanished children, people with slack faces and no jawbones chasing after her, and mud so thick and deep that she nearly drowns in it.

I guess that was the author’s point in writing the story – to scare the reader – but I didn’t enjoy that part of the story. That doesn’t mean the intended audience won’t like it, but hopefully they will be prepared for the darkness they are getting into when reading this novella. I would definitely recommend it for the older middle-grade reader due to the subject matter.

Bibliographic Information:
LaValle, Victor. Lucretia and the Kroons. New York: Spiegel & Grau (Random House Publishing Group), 2012.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“A Tale of Two Mommies” and “A Tale of Two Daddies” by Vanita Oelschlager

Age: Picture Book, 1-5 years
Genre: Fiction, gay and lesbian families

The idea of a child having two mommies or daddies instead of one of each could be confusing for the child’s friends, as author Vanita Oelschlager explores in her two picture books, “A Tale of Two Mommies” and “A Tale of Two Daddies.” Each book portrays a young child being questioned by his or her playmates about which mom or dad helps with various tasks, such as baking a cake, looking for a lost kitty, or coaching T-ball. The child answers each question with one of two names for his or her parents (Momma and Mommy or Poppa and Daddy), or sometimes the answer is “neither” or “both.” Whatever the answer, the child proves he or she is taken care of no matter what the situation. With bright, colorful illustrations and a positive message, children with gay or lesbian parents could easily enjoy these books. Since there are still few books available for this market, simply by writing these books the author is helping reach out to children who are searching for a family like theirs portrayed in what they read. These books do not get into the more serious problems, such as teasing, that a child of gay or lesbian parents may face, but that’s okay because that is not the author’s aim. By focusing on everyday activities, loving parents, and playing with friends, these books are tailored for a young audience simply looking for a life like theirs. Though the publisher recommends these books for ages 4-8, they are better suited to ages five and under due to the picture book format and simple text.

I only had two problems with these books:
1. The parents are only shown from the waist down. I guess this was to give a child’s-eye view, but any child focuses on his parents’ faces and it makes the story seem incomplete without being able to visualize the whole family.
2. Each book ends abruptly. Since these are not really stories, just a series of questions, there is nowhere for the books to go, and maybe that’s why the author seems to just stop the books without real endings.

I would recommend these books for the non-traditional families they portray, not for their writing, which is simple rhymes and lacks creativity. These books could be shared with any child to help introduce lessons on different family structures and the idea of acceptance.

Bibliographic Information:
Oelschlager, Vanita. A Tale of Two Daddies. Vanita Books, 2010.
Oelschlager, Vanita. A Tale of Two Mommies. Vanita Books, 2011.

Monday, September 10, 2012

“Painting the Corners, Volume I: A Collection of Off-Centre Baseball Stories” by Bob Weintraub

Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction, short stories, baseball

An eighty-three year old is signed to a major league team just to bunt. The hitter and catcher of a homerun ball stay mysteriously connected throughout their lives. A little league coach’s players don’t follow his signs but still win the game. All these are subjects in Bob Weintraub’s collection of fictional baseball stories.  In the eleven stories, the author displays a deep knowledge of baseball: how the game is played, players, scouting, fans, management, etc.  He presents scenarios that seem as if they are real, but adds something that puts them just a little out of reach. He creates characters that the reader will probably find likable, and his stories are creative, though sometimes get a bit heavy on the baseball jargon.

If I am reading a sports story, it is because I hope to be able to talk to my husband or friends about it. See, in my current circle of friends, I am the only one who doesn’t know the sports commentators by name, voluntary watch televised games, or visit espn.com on a daily basis. You could say I am a casual fan and am mostly interested because those around me are. So when I saw a book of baseball stories, I thought it might be interesting and maybe I would learn something I could share with my friends. However, I realized shortly after starting the first story that this collection was obviously fiction and would provide me with no interesting facts or anecdotes to discuss. I read the first five stories, but my interest waned and I simply stopped. It is to the author’s credit that a non-sports fan such as me got that far in the book and was able to mostly follow the jargon and explanations of happenings in the game. That proves the author wasn’t writing only to hardcore fans. However, being a casual baseball fan only, five stories was the limit of my attention span, and I decided to hang it up and find something more engrossing. Short stories (and essay collections, for that matter) are always a bit of a hard sell because without the continuous narrative there is little to keep the reader turning the pages. Collections are more suited to being read piece by piece, so the reader must truly enjoy each story and be drawn in by the voice of the author to want to continue on. For me, this book and this author did not draw me in. A real baseball fan may find the collection more enjoyable, but I cannot speak for such a person. Hopefully the author can find the right audience for this book. Perhaps one of my friends would like it.

Bibliographic Information:
Weintraub, Bob. Painting the Corners, Volume I: A Collection of Off-Centre Baseball Stories. Toronto, ON, Canada: Iguana Books, 2011.

Monday, September 3, 2012

"Sketchy Behavior" by Erynn Mangum

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction, suspense

Sixteen-year-old Kate Carter feels her life in the small town of South Woodhaven Falls is anything but exciting. She’s not involved in any groups at school or otherwise and she’s sworn off dating following an experience she labels “Do Not Speak of Ever Ever Ever.” When she’s not doing homework, she spends her free time drawing in her sketchbook and watching the E! channel with her best (and really only) friend, Maddy. But something is bound to happen to throw some excitement into her life, and it comes from an unexpected assignment for her art class.  A guest talks to the class about the career of Forensic Sketching, and he describes a criminal to the class. Kate uses the details the guest detective provides to compose a sketch of the criminal, only to find out later that she has drawn a very accurate portrait of a serial killer on the loose. When the killer is caught thanks to her sketch, Kate becomes a local celebrity, but she finds that attention can also bring danger. She’s soon under house arrest and followed constantly by police, who are trying to protect her from any accomplices of the now-locked-up killer. But will the police presence be enough to keep her safe? Kate begins to question what happens after death as she fears for her life, helping guide her to church for the first time in ages. In Erynn Mangum’s new book, Sketchy Behavior, the reader follows along with Kate as her life goes from boring to frightening in all too short a time.

This is the first YA Christian novel I have ever read, despite growing up Christian. I found Kate’s character to be funny and easy to relate to. She never did anything that seemed out of character for her, so I believed her as a person. I liked that the cultural references were modern and I think teens will easily relate to the language. I was expecting this book to be preachy, being unfamiliar with the genre, but was pleasantly surprised to find it was not so. The Christian elements were woven into the story and didn’t seem tacked-on. They caught me by surprise at first, however, because I’m not used to any mention of God in my fiction reading. I think this book could appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike since it’s a story of a girl searching for meaning and explanation in her life. The story moves along well and the drama should keep the reader interested. Non-Christians could relate to Kate’s search for answers while Christians may see the need to talk to others about Christ to help guide them. After all, it is through those around her being truthful about their beliefs and inviting towards Kate that she grows in closer relationship with God.

Bibliographical Information:
Mangum, Erynn. Sketchy Behavior. Zondervan, 2011.

"Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" by Steve Almond

Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction, food & humor

When I saw the title of this book, I knew I had to read it because it sounded as if it could be my autobiography. I especially related to part three of "Some things you should know about the author," which reads "The author has between three and seven pounds of candy in his house at all times." I immediately catalogued my candy after reading that line and found it to be, perhaps sadly, true of myself. Almond's stories of insatiable cravings, failed attempts to eat baker's chocolate, and pining for long-gone candies (Mr. Melons anyone?) certainly seemed as if they could come from my own sugar-fueled journals. However, after a while Almond's book changes from his memoirs to detailed accounts of every candy factory he ever visited. Sure, these stories are kind of fun, but after the third or fourth one, I lost interest. I was hoping for more autobiography, less Food Network, I guess. I can respect that he wants to bring attention to the little guys in the candy world, but writing an entire book that focuses on candy factories starts to become a bit redundant. Towards the end, Almond describes what his intention for the book was when he writes, "I told him it was about candy bars. But I didn't know if I could explain what I was really getting at: that candy had been my only dependable succor as a child, that it had, in a sense, saved my life, that I hoped to draw a link between my personal nostalgia and the cultural yearning for a simpler age, but that, in the end, the laws of the candy world were the laws of the broader world: the strong survived, the weak struggled, people sought pleasure to endure pain." He succeeded in sharing these points, however he simply rambled on too long. This book could have been about 150 pages shorter and the message would have been more effective.

Bibliographical Information:
Almond, Steve. Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. Harvest Books, 2005.

Book on bn.com

"Waffles: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Meal" by Tara Duggan

Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction, Cookbook

As a lover of all breakfast foods, the title Waffles: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Meal caught my eye and rumbled my tummy. As I browsed through the cookbook’s delicious-sounding recipes and drool-inducing photographs, I learned there are many variations on the standard waffle I have always enjoyed. The cookbook is divided up into five sections: All About Waffles, Breakfast and Brunch, Lunch and Dinner, Dessert, and Basic Recipes. In “All About Waffles,” the reader is given in-depth information on ingredients, equipment, tips and tricks, and even some waffle trivia. It is in this section that I learned how to properly prepare waffle batter to get the tastiest result, as well as how to reheat old waffles from the refrigerator (which comes in handy when you’ve made a large batch). Next come the recipes. “Breakfast and Brunch” waffles include Sour Cream-Orange, Lemon-Poppy Seed, and Yogurt with Honey Cream. The Lunch and Dinner Waffles reach to the savory side, with combinations like Zucchini-Asiago or Multigrain with Avocado and Tomato-Almond Pesto. The dessert section features such creations as S’mores, Coconut-Rice Waffles with Mangoes and Lime Cream, and Pineapple Waffles with Raw Sugar. Finally, the “Basic Recipes” section includes just what it states with nothing fancy required.

With so many options to choose from, I decided to try the recipe for Vanilla Bean Belgian Waffles with Whipped Cream and Strawberries. The directions were easy to follow and I only had to look up one word (macerate: it means “steep”). The ingredients were mostly ones I already had around the house, except for vanilla beans, which I had to get at a whole foods store. This particular recipe took a while to prepare because it required letting ingredients macerate (see, there’s my new word) for 30-60 minutes before cooking, so I would not recommend it for quick morning preparation. However, the waffles had a nice, vanilla taste that I enjoyed. I look forward to trying other recipes in the book as I explore the wonderful world of waffles. Though the savory waffles don’t appeal to me (I am a sweets kind of person and like my waffles that way), others may find the recipes give them some good ideas for enjoying waffles in a different style. I recommend this book for anyone who loves waffles and wants to get creative with preparing them.

Technical Note: I read this book as an electronic edition on a Nook Simple Touch e-reader, but the ingredients lists did not format correctly. Numbers for measurements appeared on different lines than the items being measured, making it impossible to correctly prepare the recipe from the e-reader screen.  The photos were also in black and white on my screen, making them less attractive. However, the electronic edition appeared fine on my computer screen with no layout problems and in full-color. I used the Adobe Digital Editions program to read the file, but was unable to print pages, so I had to retype the recipe to prevent myself from running back and forth from the computer to the kitchen while cooking.

Bibliographical Information:
Duggan, Tara. Waffles: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Meal. San Francisco: Weldon Owen, 2011.

Friday, August 31, 2012

"The Giant and How He Humbugged America" by Jim Murphy

*This review was based on a galley. Book will be released 10/1/2012.

Age: Young Adult, 10-14
Genre: Non-fiction, Historical

In 1869 in the farmland of Cardiff, New York, a rare and exciting discovery was unearthed from the property of William “Stub” Newell. While several men helped Newell dig a new well, they hit upon what they believed to be a large stone. Upon further investigation, the stone resembled an oversized human foot. With some more help, the men were able to unearth the entire body of what appeared to be a giant man who had been petrified (turned to stone).  Local Native American legends had told of a group called the Onondaga, who were stone giants that had terrorized the area long ago. Could this petrified man be a lost member of the Onondaga? Or was he proof of the existence of giants mentioned in the Bible? Either way, Stub Newell had a sensation on his hands with the discovery of what was called the “Cardiff Giant.”

He began charging people to come see this find, and as newspapers covered the story, more and more spectators came. The author believes the crowds were especially drawn to the news of the giant because of the dark times they were living indeaths in the civil war, the assassination of President Lincoln, and a massive economic depression. Murphy writes, “The Cardiff Giant offered readers something positive and inspiring to think about, something to distract them from more troubling news.” It may have been because of their thirst for good and interesting news that few people questioned the authenticity of the giant. Scientists examined it and some proclaimed it “positively absurd to consider this a fossil man,” while others called it “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country, and … deserving of the attention of archeologists.” The debate itself drew more attention to the giantand more money to Newell’s pockets. So was it a hoax, or was the giant truly a fossilized man? After much research, the author is able to proclaim the truth behind the mystery, leaving the reader to question the science and the people of a more na├»ve time.

In this book, Murphy has presented a true story many are probably unfamiliar with, and he has presented it well. Murphy seems to have used every resource at his disposal to gather facts from all sides of the story of the Cardiff Giant, as evidenced by his extensive bibliography of interviews, books, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I found it interesting to follow the story of the giant and its creators and to wonder about how so many people could have been so easily fooled. The photographs and replications of posters add greatly to the text and should help the young reader to better understand the goings-on and mood of the time. However, I am left wondering if young readers will be interested enough in this story to want to read it in the first place. It is aimed at ages 10-14 (grades 5-9), and the writing style seems to that level, but there is not a lot to draw a young reader in to the book. They have likely never heard of the subject, and unless they have a particular interest in oddities or hoaxes, probably wouldn’t want to read a whole 112-page book on it. The subject of the Cardiff Giant may have been better suited to a chapter in a book on oddities instead of carrying a text by itself.

Technical Note: I read this book as an electronic edition on a Nook e-reader, and it did not translate appropriately to the smaller format. The photos didn’t line up with their photo boxes and captions, often appearing on different pages entirely. Also, because of the column format, the text size was either very large or too small to read with no in between. However the appearance was fine on my computer screen.

Bibliographical Information:
Murphy, Jim. The Giant and How He Humbugged America. New York: Scholastic Press, 2012.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No, I didn't read all of these books this week

Just in case anyone is wondering why I have so many posts in such a short amount of time, I have a lot of backlogged book reviews that I have written over the last few years. I am trying to get them all onto this blog, so for awhile there will be more than seem humanly possible to read and review in the amount of time that has passed since the last blog post.

Also, at the end of each blog post I have placed a link to the book on Barnes and Noble's website since I'm unsure if I can use the cover art images in my blog. That way you can see what the book looks like and order a copy if you are so inclined.

"Get Well Soon" by Julie Halpern

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction

Having never been in a mental institution, I don't know exactly what they're like. However, having suffered through depression and considered going to a mental institution, "get well soon" describes it much as I imagined. At least the main character's experiences and feelings are much how I imagine I would feel in the same position.

Teenager Anna's parents send her to a mental institution after she can't make it through a class without a panic attack and so stops going to school. She is admitted as a "PSI II - Possible Self-Injury Level II," which she describes as "meaning I could kill myself at any moment, so someone has to watch me constantly." After a rough start, Anna soon finds a bunch of misfit teens to befriend and help her survive her healing time. Though she starts to feel better, she holds the very real concern, will I still be okay when I leave this place?

Julie Halpern has created a likable character in Anna, who keeps a good sense of humor throughout her ordeal and genuinely seems like the type of person you'd want to befriend. This story could appeal to anyone who is wondering what it's like to feel depressed, as well as to any teen looking for an underdog tale where the ignored become popular and personalities trump outward looks.

Get Well Soon on bn.com

"How to Be a Happy Hippo" by Jonathan Shipton

Age: Picture Book (3+)
Genre: Fiction

I read this story to a class of two-year-olds today, and not only did it not hold their interest, but I found it an incredibly bad use of anthropomorphism. Right from the beginning, you can tell the author has a lesson for parents. The whole book is a lesson. It's like the song "Cats in the Cradle," but with hippos. Where does a hippo go to "work" all day? The hippos are in their natural habitat, not even pretending to be people in clothes. We see the father scurry off to somewhere in the grasslands with nothing in sight. Something keeps him occupied all day, but who knows what? This story is obviously meant to remind the parent reader to spend time with their children and not meant to entertain the child. I child may relate to the story of the hippo, but if this were the author's intent, it would have been better done with human characters.

How to Be a Happy Hippo on bn.com

"The Cats of Mrs. Calamari" by John Stadler

Age: Picture Book (3+)
Genre: Fiction

I read this book to a class of four and five-year-olds, and they loved looking at the illustrations. Stadler dresses the cats up in funny costumes throughout the book, and so much is happening in the illustrations that you can find something new every time you look at them. My audience loved pointing out different cats in each scene and what silly business each was up to. The story is also good as it teaches tolerance, but not by beating it over the reader's head. I think it would open up a good discussion about blind discrimination. As a teacher and cat lover, I recommend this book.

The Cats of Mrs. Calamari on bn.com

"The Fourth Bear (Nursery Crime Series #2)" by Jasper Fforde

Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction

A slow start to this story had me almost giving up before I'd gotten through the first 50 of 378 pages. The main problem I had with the start was the scenes were jumping around a lot, so a bunch of characters and locations were introduced in a short amount of time and it was difficult to figure out what and who were important and needed to be remembered. Eventually the story began to stabilize and focus, so I was able to get into it more. It ended up being a creative story with bits of nursery rhymes and other literature thrown in, but overall the story was a bit hard to follow. I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters involved and maneuvering the turns of the mystery. People who enjoy light-hearted mysteries may enjoy this read, however.

The Fourth Bear on bn.com

"Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting" by Lucy J. Puryear

Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction

As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for over ten years, I was excited to find this book while looking for insight during my first pregnancy. I wanted to know how to tell my pregnancy moodiness from depression symptoms, what medications are okay to take, and how and when to seek help. This book answered all these questions, as well as providing information and first-hand accounts on what to expect emotionally during each trimester, when giving birth, and throughout the first few months of motherhood. The author explains how to tell the difference between regular "baby blues," which are very common, and the more serious postpartum depression and even postpartum psychosis. She even includes self tests to help you determine if you need to seek help or are just experiencing the highs and lows of hormones.

Throughout the book, I found the author's tone very comforting and her advice reassuring. She validates all feelings and makes me feel like whatever emotions I might encounter during and after pregnancy, I am not the only one to feel this way. I recommend this book to all pregnant women, but especially to those who have had a history of depression and are worried about how it will affect their pregnancies. I only wish the author lived in my area so I could seek her help personally if needed. That is how comfortable I felt with her after reading this book.

Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting on bn.com

"Preschool Day Hooray!" by Linda Leopold Strauss

Age: Picture book (1-3 years)
Genre: Fiction

As a preschool teacher, I can say that this book is a great one to share with your class (or your kids at home who go to daycare). I read it to my class of toddlers often and it covered everything we do during the day, so it was nice to be able to point out to them familiar activities. The text is simple and the pictures are colorful so it is appropriate for even very young children. An excellent addition to any preschool or daycare classroom.

Preschool Day Hooray! on bn.com

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" By Cheryl Strayed

Age: Adult
Genre: Autobiography

As a woman, a hiker, and a native to the Pacific Northwest, the first time I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. After all, it is about a woman hiker who spends at least part of her time in the Pacific Northwest. So I figured it was up my alley and I was right. But Wild is so much more than a woman’s book, or a hiker’s book, or a Northwesterners book: it is a story of survival. Not just survival in the wild, but survival of life and everything it throws at us.

In Wild, Cheryl writes the story of how she grew up poor and spent most of her life living away from civilization with her mother, stepfather, and siblings in Minnesota. She married young to a man named Paul and they were happy. Then Cheryl’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and the author’s whole world stopped. She details throughout the book what it was like watching her mother die and then dealing with the emotions that followedone might say plaguedher for many years. Her mother’s death was what eventually led the author to divorce her husband and set out to accomplish something big: hike the Pacific Crest Trail, solo. It was during this journey that she finally could face her emotions and come to terms with life as it is, not as she wanted it to be.

Throughout the narrative, the author goes back and forth through time, flashing between her childhood, college years, time leading up to the hike, and the hike itself. This allows the reader to get only bits and pieces of the author’s story at once, so we are left hanging at times and surprised with what we discover at others. The story is not chronological (except for the hiking portion), but it makes sense, and as we learn more about Cheryl, we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her. Herein lies the author’s greatest success: the reader cares about Cheryl and wants to see her overcome not only every hiccup on the trail, but life itself.

But this book should not only appeal to those looking for a woman’s story of recovery. Anyone who has ever backpacked could find themselves in some aspect of Cheryl’s hiking stories. Whether it’s packing too much (she calls her pack “Monster” due to its size), blisters, pumping water, craving “real food,” or meeting others on the trail, the author covers the terrain, if you will, rather well. My favorite passage in the whole book is this one because it resonated with me as a lover of the outdoors:

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. [p 212-213]

Readers should find not only deep thoughts and sorrowful, meaningful stories in this book, however. They will also find laugh-out-loud tidbits and heartwarming encounters between the author and her fellow hikers. This is a story not only of Cheryl, but of the world and people around herand around us all. Readers, prepares yourself for a journey that is at times fun, twisting, frightening, tearful, and most of all, enjoyable.

"Replication" by Jill Williamson

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction

A boy labeled J:3:3, nicknamed “Martyr,” has lived in an underground compound for his entire seventeen years. This whole time a team of doctors have raised him and the other “J’s” (short for “Jason”), and the doctors have told them the air above is toxic. They are part of a project to help save those who live on the Earth’s surface, and they must “expire” at age 18 to fulfill their lives’ purposes. It is almost Martyr’s time to expire, but he doesn’t want to die without seeing something he has heard about called the “sky.” He steals security badges and sneaks out of the compound, called “Jason Farms,” stowing away in a doctor’s truck. Martyr soon realizes the air is not toxic and, with the help of a girl he meets named Abby, discovers the true nature of Jason Farms and why he and the other Jasons are there.

Replication is a multi-faceted story that covers topics including incurable disease, human drug testing, cloning, and dating violence. As Martyr and Abby delve into the secrets of Jason Farms, the mystery keeps the reader turning pages, hoping to discover why such a place exists and how the scientists keep their research secret from everyone. However the story is not all darkness and science fiction. The reader also gets to see Abby, a new girl in town, develop friendships with those around her, including Martyr, and teach others about her faith in God and Jesus Christ.  Though Abby struggles with the death of her mother, she still prays to see “how God made beauty from ashes.” She trusts “that God would take care of Marty [her name for Martyr] and the other clones” and she uses prayer to get through every challenge she faces. She tells Martyr about God and does her best to answer his questions and even helps him confess his sins and ask God to come into his life. Abby makes talking to God and telling others about him seem realistic, and her example may help the reader see ways to share his or her faith with others in life.

Between the suspense, mystery, science fiction, and teen romance, Replication has something to keep any teenage reader turning pages.

"Petronella & The Trogot" By Cheryl Bentley

*This review is based on a galley. Book will be released 10/1/2012.

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction

Let me start by saying that I rarely give up on a book without completing it. However, after getting a third of the way through Petronella & The Trogot by Cheryl Bentley, I have had enough. It was a bit torturous to even read that far due to the poor writing and incredibly annoying language of some of the characters.

The book centers on Petronella, a character who is described as having green skin, a big humped nose, and yellowish, uneven teeththe standard witch. However, Petronella is not a witch, though she is treated as one by the community due to her looks. We are never told how old Petronella is, a detail which I feel is important for imagining and understanding the character. There is a big difference between her being an old woman, a teenager, or middle-aged, but we are left guessing. Petronella’s cat, unfortunately named Maalox, has some magical properties and is her only companion. One day Maalox digs up some bones in a nearby farmer’s field and inadvertently brings back to life some long-buried citizens of the town.  These people, called Strincas, speak in an old-fashioned language the author has created that makes them sound like a mix between Shakespearean characters and pirates. I found the language so distracting that it became annoying very quickly. Just because someone is from a different time doesn’t mean you have to add “th” to the end of every other word. For example, the author writes, “Giveth me the chance to telleth ye exactly what ye can doth to helpeth the civilisation of the Strincas.” Imagine this going on for long threads of conversation and you may understand my annoyance. Soon the Hooded Horseman appears to tell Petronella that she is the only one who can control the Strincas, and she is left with the responsibility of determining who should stay in the present time and who needs to go back to being dead.

I guess I will never know what Petronella decides because I don’t care enough to finish reading the book. I don’t want to read any more of the overwriting, the incorrect punctuation usage, and the “th” language. While reading Petronella, I kept wondering if this book was self-published because it seemed so poorly edited. I looked up the publisher and they are not a vanity press, which I was surprised to see due to the quality of the writing. Others may find this story engrossing and entertaining, but I simply do not. I’m going to read something else instead. 

"Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid" by H.P. Newquist

Age: Chapter Books
Genre: Non-fiction

Have you ever wondered about the tentacled beasts that hide beneath the waves of the oceans? Have you heard of the Kraken, but not known what it was? Have you spent nights awake trying to determine the difference between the giant and colossal squids? If so, then Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid by HP Newquist is the book for you. The book begins with a look at the legends of the Kraken and giant squid as recorded by fishermen, whalers, and sailors throughout history and around the world. The author collects all these legends into one place and includes photographs and written accounts when available, making for a well-researched presentation. He then follows scientific investigations and discoveries, opening up the truth behind the legends. With thorough research, eye-catching photographs and drawings, and dark stories from long ago, the author should draw in interested young readers who are looking to find out more about these razor-suckered, ghostly monsters. This book should appeal to readers aged third grade and up.

"Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame" By L.L. Samson

Age: Middle Grade
Genre: Fiction

If you were stuck with your aunt and uncle while your parents were off on an adventure, what would you do? Well, have an adventure of your own, of course! Fourteen-year-old twins Ophelia and Linus Easterday are left with their quirky Aunt Portia and Uncle Augustus Sandwich when their parents, Drs. Antonia and Ron Easterday, PhD, run off to study four-winged insects on a newly-discovered island for five whole years. As you can tell, the Easterdays are not the greatest parents. The twins find their aunt and uncle much more interesting, if not a little crazy, what with their costume parties and the book store they run, not to mention the secret attic the teens find in the Sandwich’s house. Ophelia and Linus make discoveries of their own in the attic, including what appear to be potions and magic books from one of the house’s former residents, a Cato Grubbs, who simply disappeared one day. There is also a circle painted on the floor that leads to the greatest adventure of all when one morning who should emerge from the circle but Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame—which just happens to be the book Ophelia is currently reading and which she had left inside the circle. With their friend Walter, Ophelia and Linus must find a way to protect Quasimodo from his master, Deacon Frollo, who also appears from book world and is bent on taking “Quasi” back to his slavish life in the novel from which he came.

The author has created an interesting magical device with the portal that transports fictional characters to real life, and the reader may enjoy getting to know the classic character of Quasimodo a bit better (or at least the author’s imagining of him). By focusing on literary characters, the author has presented two stories in one: we get to follow Ophelia, Linus, and Walter while also learning the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  After finishing this book, the reader could be interested in reading the classic Hunchback novel.

Though the story is enjoyable, it has its problems. In the beginning of the story, many characters are introduced at once and I found myself having a difficult time keeping track of names and relations. In fact I went back and reread the beginning after finishing the book just to straighten out the backstory in my mind. I think the author might have better served the readers by working the story presented in the prologue into the book in a natural way. Another problem in the text was the unnecessary use of the narrator, Bartholomew Inkster. His asides do not add to the story and his connection with the characters is never explained. Young readers may find his definitions of words helpful, but I felt they interrupted the story by adding an intrusive voice that seemed to be dumbing things down. Really, the author could have easily gotten by with no narrator and the story would be more focused. The final problem I noticed was the presence of the special camp in the book and the rainstorm that breaks the dam. Neither of these seem terribly relevant to the story and could be removed without affecting the plot.

Despite the changes that I would make to the book, I still enjoyed it. The author has certainly created characters and a storyline that could work across a whole series of books, each exploring a different classic text. Books like this could help young readers gain an interest in the classics of literature.

"The Storm in the Barn" By Matt Phelan

Age: Middle Grade/Young Adult
Genre: Graphic Novel (Historical)

In Kansas in 1937 there wasn’t much left of the once-hearty croplands except dry soil. The soil was so dry that it blew around in the wind, giving the area the nickname the “Dust Bowl.” People had to abandon their farmland and homes and travel west in hopes of finding work, food, and a better life. The dust was choking the life out of them and all they knew. Into this setting, author/illustrator Matt Phelan places eleven-year-old Jack Clark in the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn. One of Jack’s sisters is sick with a terrible cough the doctor calls “dust pneumonia” and believes Jack may have “dust dementia” due to his rash actions. Jack starts to believe the doctor when he sees a man-like being with a face like rain in the neighbor’s abandoned barn. Jack is scared of what he sees, but he must face his fear if he hopes to save his family and everyone else from the all-encompassing dust.

The story itself is a great mystery and a hero’s tale of a young boy who gets beaten down by bullies yet has the strength to face the unknown. But the story is not the best part of this book. Phelan’s illustrations are simply amazing. The pencil sketches are beautiful, portraying the dust in sweeping strokes and the characters’ faces in expressive simplicity. Phelan can show so much with so few marks on the page. It is because of the illustrations that this book caught my eye and kept me turning pages. The silence hits you across the drawings, across the pages, so you feel like you are in that dry wasteland with nothing but the wind swirling around you. It doesn’t matter if the reader is interested in the Great Depression or not—he or she will be engrossed by this awesome book. Readers who enjoyed Brian Selznick’s works The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck could love this book as well.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sharing my book reviews, all in one place

Hello readers! I have never had a blog before, but I have been writing a lot of book reviews lately and decided that the best way to keep them all in one place was to start a blog. I posted most of these reviews previously on sites such as Amazon, Barnesandnoble, and Goodreads.

As an avid reader since childhood (the first book I remember reading by myself was Mickey Mouse's Picnic by Jane Werner), I have read many books over the years. In the past few years, I have come to enjoy not only reading books but writing reviews of them as well. This desire to review books came from my former job at a subsidy publisher, where one of my duties was to write summaries and provide brief commentary on submitted manuscripts. I liked analyzing the texts, which probably stemmed from my years studying English and creative writing at Seattle University (where I earned a BA) and writing for children and adolescents at Chatham University in Pittsburgh (where I earned an MFA). So now I try to write some sort of review for every book I read, be it a children's picture book or an adult novel. You will find a wide variety of books on my blog because I like to read all kinds of works. For those of you only interested in reviews of a specific genre or age group, I will put a header on each review specifying such information.

In addition to book reviews, I will also include the occasional piece on current events in reading and writing or pieces I have written myself. I am an aspiring children's book writer, so most of my focus will be on that genre.

I hope you enjoy my reviews and find inspiration to read some of the books yourself!