Friday, March 31, 2017

Book review - Definitions of Indefinable Things

Title: Definitions of Indefinable Things
Author: Whitney Taylor
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: Life Unaware by Cole Gibsen
                      When We Collided by Emery Lord Rating:
it grew on me

Summary (provided by publisher): Reggie isn’t really a romantic: she’s been hurt too often, and doesn’t let people in as a rule. Plus, when you’re dealing with the Three Stages of Depression, it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy. When Reggie meets Snake, though, he doesn’t give her much of a choice. Snake has a neck tattoo, a Twizzler habit, and a fair share of arrogance, but he’s funny, charming, and interested in Reggie.   Snake also has an ex-girlfriend who's seven months pregnant. Good thing Reggie isn’t a romantic.  Definitions of Indefinable Things follows three teens as they struggle to comprehend love, friendship, and depression—and realize one definition doesn’t always cover it.

My opinion: It's a risky move, making your protagonist aggressively abrasive. Reggie goes out of her way to make herself unlikable. It is to Taylor's credit, then, that Reggie is ultimately a likeable characters. Even before we witness her vulnerabilities there is something charming about the way she calls out people about their failings, doesn't let anyone get away with anything I also admire the presentation of mental illness here. We are presented with two clinically depressed teens. They are medicated. They don't get "fixed" or reject conventional treatment. They are miserable, just tying to find a away to hold on to a slightly less miserable existence. They don't aim for "normal", just functional.  While the secondary characters lack much depth, it's a relatively enjoyable read.

More Information: Definitions of Indefinable Things releases April 4.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pick 6: grief

I'm always interested to see how novels treat sensitive topics. They explore an issue like grief from a number of perspectives. Here are six novels written in the last six months that have grief as a central issue.

6 new novels about grief

1. We are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

2. The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane

3. The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

4. The Sky between You and Me by Catherine Alene

5. A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom

6. Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book review - Duels and Deception

Title: Duels and Deception
Author: Cindy Anstey
Genre: historical fiction
Similar books: The Gilded Cage by Lucinda Gray
                      The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

Summary (provided by publisher): In which a lady and a law clerk find themselves entangled in the scandal of the season...
Miss Lydia Whitfield, heiress to the family fortune, has her future entirely planned out. She will run the family estate until she marries the man of her late father's choosing, and then she will spend the rest of her days as a devoted wife. Confident in those arrangements, Lydia has tasked her young law clerk, Mr. Robert Newton, to begin drawing up the marriage contracts. Everything is going according to plan.
Until the day Lydia is kidnapped—and Robert along with her. Someone is after her fortune and won't hesitate to destroy her reputation to get it. With Robert's help, Lydia strives to keep her family's good name unsullied and expose whoever is behind this devious plot. But as their investigation delves deeper and their affections for each other grow, Lydia starts to wonder whether her carefully planned future is in fact what she truly wants...

My opinion: High marks for style. Anstey really captures the atmosphere of something like an Austen novel. And not just the setting - the dialogue and the very sensibility of the culture and the characters. The plot has a fair amount of excitement and intrigue, what with kidnapping and secret machinations towards money and influence. It's intriguing but not always compelling. For a reader used to the style and pacing of most modern novels the pacing of this one can seem kind of slow. The plot is, at times, overly reliant on convenient twists and suffers from some logical deficiencies. While it isn't the sort of thing I normally read, I know of a certain class of teens that will adore this novel.

More Information: Duels and Deception releases April 11.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Now Rufus can go with me everywhere

Today's craft is a quick one. My local dollar store had some small, plain colored tote bags  that were calling out to me. I happened to have an iron-on transfer that went perfectly with the bag that I bought. While experience tells me these little woven bags don't iron (picture plasticy residue all over the iron surface. Not one of my prouder moments) it was easy enough to attach the transfer to a scrap of fabric, trim it, and glue it to the bag. A little bit of fabric paint finished it off.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Book review - Bull

Title: Bull
Author: David Elliot
Genre: retelling
Similar books: Underworld by Meg Cabot
                      Young Olympians series by Jane Yolen
a bit disappointing

Summary (provided by publisher): SEE THE STORY OF THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Minos thought he could
Pull a fast one
On me,
God of the Sea!
But I’m the last one
On whom you
Should try such a thing.
The nerve of that guy.
The balls. The audacity.
I got capacity!
Depths! Darkness! Delphic power!
So his sweet little plan
Went big-time sour
And his wife had a son
Born with horns and a muzzle
Who ended up
In an underground puzzle.
What is it with you mortals?
You just can’t seem to learn:
If you play with fire, babies,
You’re gonna get burned. 
Much like Lin-Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton, the New York Times best-selling author David Elliott turns a classic on its head in form and approach, updating the timeless story of Theseus and the Minotaur for a new generation. A rough, rowdy, and darkly comedic young adult retelling in verse, Bull will have readers reevaluating one of mythology's most infamous monsters.    

My opinion: It's not of ten that novels explore the emotions and motivations of the monster, so I was really looking forward to this one. My response, though, is mixed.
What I liked - The verse novel format keeps the pacing snappy. It's not weighted down with excess description and reflection. Additionally, it's a nod back to the original Greek storytelling method with a modern, near hip-hop, feel. Each character's perspective takes a slightly different format, helping to differentiate character and reflecting some aspect of their personality.
What I didn't like - This novel presumes that the reader has more than a passing familiarity with the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, simply referencing several details and never really telling the reader how the myth ends. Even more troubling for me, it bills itself as the story from the Minotaur's perspective. But Asterion gets very few pages. As the story progresses, he gets fewer lines. Asterion remains largely unsympathetic.

More information: Bull releases March 28.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Picture books for everyone

Yeh-Shen retold by Ai-Ling Louie

Retellings of classic fairy tales are a great choice for upper elementary school kids. They are, by that point, exceedingly familiar with the original story so variations fascinate them. You can explore similarities and differences. Yeh-Shen presents an interesting point of discussion as this tale actually predates the European version. Ai-Ling Louie's version is particularly atmospheric and is well supported by Young's illustrations. It may be a bit long for very young children but for the most part will go over well with mixed groups.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Non-fiction book review - Children of the Past

Children of the Past by Lois Miner Huey

Most archaeology books we read do a great job of exploring every day life in a given society. The children get a brief mention, at best. So it was very cool to read about the hard evidence we have of the roles children played in those societies - the art and tools we know for certain they produced, the jobs they did. As an adult I found all of it very exciting and fascinating. I doubt a kid will feel the same. It's heavy in text and surprisingly dense with only a few photos and side bars. A good choice for a kid with an archaeology fascination, not so much for the general youth population.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book review - Amina's Voice

Title: Amina's Voice
Author: Hena Khan
Genre: realistic fiction
Similar books: A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
                      Hundred Precent by Karen Romano Young
plenty of content but  brief

Summary (provided by publisher): A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel from the award-winning author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.
Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.
Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

My opinion: Amina's Voice takes on some pretty big topics in a fairly short novel. That's admirable but it tends to feel oversimplified. Nothing is explored in any real depth. Changing friendships, stage fright, increasing responsibility, culture clash, and hate crimes all just get a surface exploration. All of these topics are deftly handled with realistic, likeable characters. There was simply a lot of missed opportunity to dig deeper, to explore motivations and repercussions. A decent read to introduce topics.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley

Monday, March 20, 2017

Harry Potter bracelets

I ordered a Harry Potter bracelet online. It was reasonably priced and I figured if it didn't look good when I got it, I could scavenge the pendants for another project. It arrived looking pretty much like the picture on Amazon. The problem? It didn't fit. It was too loose and too bulky for my wrists. But I liked the individual elements.

Luckily, I keep a small stash of jewelry findings. It was a quick job to cut the cords on the original and attach new clasps. So now I have 3 bracelets that fit nearly perfectly and don't overwhelm my wrist. Not bad for a $3 purchase.
The bracelet as shipped

My new bracelets

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Non-fiction book review - Superman Science

Superman Science by Agniezka Biskup and Tammy Enz

Pop culture characters are a decent way to engage reluctant readers in non-fiction topics. It's easier to get a kid to consider all of the elements that go into flight, both by animals and humans, if you can compare it to how Superman flies. While there isn't a great deal of detail in this book, it does give the reader quick tastes of science in a wide variety of topics, hopefully enough to intrigue them and cause them to read a more in depth book on one of the specific topics. In addition to the wide variety of topics represented, there are a lot of images and the pages are designed in such away to move the eye along.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book review - Star Scouts

Title: Star Scouts
Author: Mike Lawrence
Genre: sci-fi
Similar books: Earthling by Mark Fearing
                     SPHDZ by Jon Scieszka
a fun variation on a middle grade standard

Summary (provided by publisher): Avani is the new kid in town, and she’s not happy about it. Everyone in school thinks she’s weird, especially the girls in her Flower Scouts troop. Is it so weird to think scouting should be about fun and adventure, not about makeovers and boys, boys, boys?
But everything changes when Avani is “accidentally” abducted by a spunky alien named Mabel. Mabel is a scout too—a Star Scout. Collecting alien specimens (like Avani) goes with the territory, along with teleportation and jetpack racing. Avani might be weird, but in the Star Scouts she fits right in. If she can just survive Camp Andromeda, and keep her dad from discovering that she’s left planet Earth, she’s in for the adventure of a lifetime.

My opinion: Once you look beyond the surface, this is pretty standard middle grade fare. Being the new kid, coping with bullies, trying to find your strengths; these are all common topics for this age group. Setting the bulk of the plot in outer space is novel and lends a sort of universality to the plot. Avani is a solid character and her new troop is charming. The illustrations are appealing. The panels are detailed and complex without becoming busy.

More Information: Star Scouts releases March 21.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Monday, March 13, 2017

King of the Jungle

Have you ever painted those little plaster figures that come in a six pack at the craft store? There is something oddly satisfying about them. I've had this little lion knocking around my craft room for a while now and this weekend seemed like the right time to finish him off.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book review - Jack and the Geniuses at the Bottom of the World

Title: Jack and the Geniuses at the Bottom of the World
Author: Bill Nye and Gregory Mone
Genre: mystery/adventure
Similar books: Waylon! One Awesome Thing by Sara Pennypacker
                     Framed! by James Ponti

Summary(provided by publisher): In the series opener, Jack and the Geniuses: At The Bottom of The World, readers meet Jack and his foster siblings, Ava and Matt, who are orphans. But they’re not your typical kind of orphans—they’re geniuses. Well, Ava and Matt are, which sometimes makes life difficult for twelve-year-old Jack. Ava speaks multiple languages and builds robots for fun, and Matt is into astronomy and a whiz at math. As for Jack, it’s hard to stand out when he’s surrounded by geniuses all the time.
When the kids try to spy on Dr. Hank Witherspoon, one of the world’s leading scientists, they end up working for him in his incredible laboratory. Soon, Hank and the kids travel to Antarctica for a prestigious science competition, but they find that all is not as it seems: A fellow scientist has gone missing, and so has any trace of her research. Could someone be trying to use her findings to win the contest? It’s up to Jack, Ava, and Matt to find the missing scientist and discover who’s behind it all—before it’s too late.
Integrating real science facts with humor and suspense, and featuring an ensemble cast of loveable boy and girl characters, this uniquely engaging series is an irresistible chemical reaction for middle-grade readers. With easy-to-read language presented in a fun, motivating, and accessible way, this series opener is a great book for both inquisitive kids and reluctant readers. The book also includes information about the science discussed and used to solve the mystery, as well as a cool science project about density that kids can do at home or in the classroom.

My opinion: The cast of characters in this novel, while not particularly complex, is charming. Each character has a strength and a weakness that affects the plot. The pacing is solid. The scientific explanations are, in large part, well integrated into the narration. They flow naturally as the plot progresses, not pulling us out of the moment. There are a few weaknesses. There is a fair amount of unnecessary gross-out humor. And I was a little troubled by the way the other characters, even his de facto family, undervalued Jack. He seems to accept doing all of the grunt work as a natural result of being less smart than the others, as if he has less value for anything other than manual labor. I am hopeful, though,  that his position will strengthen as the series progresses. All in all, this is a solid start to a solidly entertaining and sneakily educational series.

More information: Jack and the Geniuses at the Bottom of the World releases April 4.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Graphic novel spotlight - Odd Duck

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon

A fusion picture book graphic novel, this book has a surprisingly broad audience. The main characters are self confident. They like what they like and care very little what others think. Castellucci and Varon really celebrate individuality and "oddness" in this little book. A great companion to David Shannon's A Bad Case of Stripes, Odd Duck presents a different perspective on being yourself and the desire to fit in. The art style is a bit on the quirky side but this really adds to the charm.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Non-fiction book review - Eyes and Spies

Eyes & Spies by Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Issues of surveillance and digital privacy are certainly important for all of us to consider. We definitely want our young people thinking about these things, given how much of their lives are lived online. We want them to ask questions rather than blindly accepting invasions of their privacy as reality. While I'd have preferred more specific examples relevant to the lives of young teens, the topic is vital enough to make this automatically one that I recommend.
Additionally, there is a lot of visual appeal in the page design. The chapters are broken down into easily digested chunks.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book review - Armstrong and Charlie

Title: Armstrong & Charlie
Author: Steven B. Frank
Genre: historical fiction
Similar books: Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd
                     Paperboy by Vince Vawter
could spark some great discussion

Summary(provided by publisher): Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. If he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll grow older than the brother he recently lost. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. When his parents sign him up for Opportunity Busing to a white school in the Hollywood Hills, all he wants to know is "What time in the morning will my alarm clock have the opportunity to ring?"  When these two land at the same desk, it's the Rules Boy next to the Rebel, a boy who lost a brother elbow-to-elbow with a boy who longs for one.
From September to June, arms will wrestle, fists will fly, and bottles will spin.  There'll be Ho Hos spiked with hot sauce, sleepovers, boy talk about girls, and a little guidance from the stars. 
Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds, Different, yet the same.

My opinion: There are, of course, dozens of books about racism and the civil rights movement for every age level. For the most part these books explore blatant, systemic racism. Frank has taken a more subtle approach. Given a school that is the subject of busing, we do get some obvious racism, students leaving the school, bullying. The bulk of the prejudice, though, is more subtle. Its based on assumptions and snamp judgements. Its the kind of prejudice we may not even realize is happening. Frank's characters question everything. Even open and accepting characters have moments of bias. It's a subtle, nuanced cast of characters. The issues in the novel are perhaps a bit too easily resolved, but it's an important addition to the conversation about racism, prejudice, and assumption.

Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley

Monday, March 6, 2017

A very fancy bird

Back before Halloween, I spotted these crows at a local store. I was surprised by how well I liked them. Just not $13 worth.
 So when I found this foam crow at the dollar store I knew I'd found the perfect crafting opportunity. The problem was I didn't have the right fabric or paper to decorate my crow. So its been sitting in a bin ever since.
I finally got my crow decorated this weekend. The key was to forget the hat and collar from the original decoration and let her look however she wants. And this crow wanted a necklace and sparkly toenails.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pick 6: love stories

Romance is definitely not my favorite genre. I try to read them occasionally just be aware of what's out there.  Here are 6 love stories published in the last 6 months.

6 new love stories:

1. The Stand-In by Steve Bloom

2. How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You by Tara Egglington

3. If I Fix You by Abigail Johnson

4. We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

5. The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt

6. There's Something about Nik by Sara Hantz

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Non-fiction book review - Smash!

Smash! by Sara Latta

My understanding of physics and subatomic particles has always been basic. Neutrons, protons, electrons. Anything past that was well beyond me. So I was pleased to find this book. Think of it like the Magic School Bus for a slightly more advanced crowd. Now, it is a very basic introductions. I wouldn't say that I have a clear understanding of physics having read this book. More like a better idea of everything involved and what scientists are trying to achieve with the Large Hadron Collider. A solid choice for a middle grader with an interest in science.

More Information: Smash! releases April 1.
Advanced Reader Copy provided by NetGalley.