Saturday, May 29, 2010

Summer reading - adult fiction

Well, May was an excessively busy and stressful month. Job interviews, a pesky cold, graduation, my birthday, and trips to see the family made my month go by all too quickly. I've mainly been reading to relax and de-stress, hence the absence of blog activity lately. And now I need some reading recommendations.

I try to read more adult fiction in the summer because I have much more free time, and I feel like I need some balance from the children's and YA fiction-heavy school year. Here's what's on my to-read list so far:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder (and the next Study book)
A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Last summer, I read Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, What Happened to Anna K? by Irina Reyn, and The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale - all of which I loved. Throw in some Janet Evanovich and Christine Feehan, and that's about all the adult fiction I can handle in a summer. I certainly don't stop reading children's and YA fiction!

So, now you have a sense of my adult fiction tastes. What can you recommend for me?


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Max Spaniel series by David Catrow

I'm currently weeding the picture book section in the library - for you non-librarians, that means that I am making the critical and heart-breaking decisions of what books to remove from the library - and I'm having a blast getting to know the collection better. It's quite enlightening. Especially since children's books on my radar are either novels or picture books. That's all there is, right? Silly me, of course not. In between these two categories is a vast collection of early readers and first chapter books, from the I Can Read! series to Dr. Seuss to Dick and Jane. I don't have fond memories of these types of books - mostly because they're for emerging readers, with simple and repetitive language, and I was a reader at a very young age. But I am happy to say that authors do realize there is an audience for these books, and they are producing work that is just as engaging in content, text, and illustrations as those picture books that we get kids to love. One fine example of this is David Catrow's new Max Spaniel series. No need to See Spot Run anymore!

Max Spaniel: Dinosaur Hunt by David Catrow
published August 2009 by Scholastic

Max Spaniel is not a dog. In this book, he is a hunter. Of dinosaurs. He traipses around the yard, collecting evidence that will help him create a dinosaur fossil. A bottlecap as an eye, a football for a head, a rake for teeth, a toy fire truck for a knee, etc. With no more than a sentence or two per page, Max will completely captivate young audiences. The illustrations are lush and vibrant - the kind that make kids drool (or is that just me?). I love all the little details Catrow fits on a page - an olive on a toothpick piercing a sandwich on a plate, a lazy cat observing in the background, Popsi and Cola bottlecaps, and a night sky filled with sparkling dots of stars. The illustrations alone will sell this book to kids, but that's not all - Max is such a character. Full of life and curiosity, he will definitely pique kids' imaginations and interests. He's got my attention!

published May 2010 by Scholastic
review copy provided by publisher

Max is back, but this time as a chef, family legacy and all. He partners with the fat cat we saw lurking in the shadows in Dinosaur Hunt to make the special of the day at Max's Restaurant- pizza! But it seems that no one wants to try the special. Instead, a dog asks for chili (and gets a scarf) and another customer who asks for a hot dog gets quite literally just that. Finally, a take-out order comes in for 100 pizzas - Max has a lot of work to do! 

If at all possible, I liked this Max book better than the first. I giggled at the silliness and the subtle additions of adult humor - the Gray Spaniel Bus Line and a leaning tower of pizzas. :) Love love love the illustrations again. Glossy watercolor prints make my heart flutter. My favorite page is: "A tummy growls. I growl back." where Max bares his teeth at the customers while flipping a burger, including the cheese, lettuce, tomato, bun, olive, and pickle. The illustrations have that I Spy feel that kids absolutely adore. The one thing I noticed that was different from the first book is the slightly longer text and use of dialogue, but it's still very much an easy reader. Check out the book trailer for more of Max!


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
published December 2008 (c2005) by Mira
416 pages (paperback reprint), YA/adult

Yelena is in prison for murder. In Ixia, an eye for an eye rules the land, and Yelena merely awaits her eventual execution. Until she is afforded a choice - either she can die for her crime or she can become the new taste tester for the Commander. The choice is simple, and so she begins her training with Valek, the Commander's right-hand man, learning to identify poisons by smell and taste. Her life depends on it. She begins her new life in the castle with no friends or money or much hope for escape, and she is burdened by demons of her past. Perhaps a quick death would have been preferable.

I left out a lot from that description because although quite a bit happens in this book, ultimately, it is driven by Yelena's character. She is a survivor. Orphaned at an unknown young age, she is brought up with other children by a General. One whose kindness led to the murder of his son, which is how we learn Yelena came to be in prison. Was she justified in her actions? I do believe so, but you can disagree with me if you wish. She is strong in mind and body, and she is continually forced to make impossible decisions. Living in the castle, as a murderer, is no easy task - many would love to see her dead. And a few do try.

It's no surprise then that I loved this book. But loved it in a way that's reserved for the kind of literature that's painful to read because its content is disturbing and rather unpleasant. Milder than others of a similar nature (I'm very sensitive), it explores a world where right and wrong are absolute, and the consequences of disobedient actions are non-negotiable. Hmm, I've been reading a lot of dystopias recently. Nonetheless, this is a trilogy I would add to my favorites, and I haven't even read the next two yet. Magic Study is next, and I can't wait. Oh, did I forget to mention that there's a bit of magic too? :)

Others wrote:
GreenBeanTeenQueen; Read Into This!; Parajunkee's View; Dear Author; Grasping for the Wind; Reading Rocks; The Story Siren + many more


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Weird School series

Being an elementary school librarian has its perks for a YA-minded person like me - it forces me to read children's books. And not just the highly literary, hey look I won an award-type books, but also the books that kids are actually reading and enjoying. Which brings me to the My Weird School series by Dan Gutman. Students gobble these books up - I don't how much of it comes from library promotion or peer pressure or comfort in a formulaic story; whatever the reason, they check them out repeatedly. I confess, until today, I had not read a single one. If you're unfamiliar with the series, the premise is fairly simple. A.J. is in second grade, and he's not shy to admit that he hates school. Each book introduces a teacher or administrator who acts as the catalyst for conflict and resolution in these humorous stories.

In Miss Daisy is Crazy, the first book in the series, Miss Daisy is the second grade homeroom teacher, but she doesn't know a thing. She can't read, write, add, subtract, know her history or social studies - she's pretty dumb. So, her second grade students have to teach her a thing or two, especially when she admits to hating school too. Told through the voice of A.J., who truly does hate school and can be a bit oblivious himself, this story sets the tone and introduces the characters for the rest of the series.

In Mrs. Roopy is Loopy, the third book in the series, we meet the new school librarian, Mrs. Roopy or George Washington or Johnny Appleseed or Little Miss Muffet or Humpty Dumpty or one of her other many aliases. Mrs. Roopy has a thing for bringing characters to life, quite literally. The students don't know what to think of her play-acting and some are genuinely confused if she's the one dressing up or if these people who visit the library and tell them their life stories are actually real. I never realized how fragile students' perceptions of fantasy versus reality were, but I definitely see it in my own school. I'm constantly asking students if what we just read was nonfiction or fiction and how they can tell the difference - not an easy task! So, this one resonated with me. And it made me want to dress up in character the next time I read a story. :)

I mentioned it before, but I'll say it again, these books are funny and formulaic. And they're what some kids need. Especially reluctant readers or kindred spirits who don't think there's anything worth reading in the library. The kids who constantly check out joke books should check these out too. As a librarian, I understand the place that these books have in the library and in kids' lives. They hook non-readers. They allow students who may not be strong readers to read for pleasure and humor, within the confines of a very structured story with familiar characters. And they're not for everyone. Obviously. No book is. But I say this because some people, parents especially, need to be reminded that books in the library are as varied and diverse as students themselves. The collection is for everyone, but not every book will be the book for every child. And so Dan Gutman says so himself in a School Library Journal article entitled "How I Corrupted America's Youth." Check out the article - it's why I blogged these books in the first place. :) Happy reading!


Friday, May 7, 2010

End of the Year Read-Alouds

Can it be that we only have ONE month of school left? That means I'll only see my classes FOUR more times - or less depending on field trips, assemblies, and end-of-the-year festivities. Which doesn't leave me a whole lot of time for read-alouds! I need short novels! Less than 100 pages. Make it 80! Here's what I'm thinking about reading to the little ones...

We'll end the year with a Mo Willems author study. Mo makes me happy, even if the students make me a little crazy. We'll read some Pigeon books, Edwina, the Knuffle Bunny stories, and hopefully some Elephant and Piggie. They're all so much fun. :)

First Grade
I have SO many books I want to read to first grade. Do I have to just choose one? I think I will end up reading Miss Daisy is Crazy by Dan Gutman, the first in the My Weird School series. But I also really want to read Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osbourne, the first Magic Tree House book. Decisions, decisions.

Second Grade
I am definitely reading The Dream Stealer by Sid Fleischman. When I read it during the Dewey Read-a-thon, I knew instantly that it would lend itself very well to a read-aloud. It's such a magical story!

Third Grade
I'm leaning towards Frindle by Andrew Clements, but I'm worried that they'll know it. Will they, won't they? My back-up is The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling, which I don't think I've ever read. Yeah, I need to read or re-read all these books this weekend!

Fourth Grade
This grade has me stumped. Are there not any short, uplifting novels for this age group? My options at the moment are Bird by Angela Johnson (which looks to be a bit too long) or The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. But I'd rather have a short, funny book. Any ideas?

Fifth Grade
They also have me wondering... So far, all I have is Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Hmm, maybe I should look into getting the audiobook - I don't know that I have the voice for this one.

So, those are my ideas. But I'm still open to suggestions! Please, suggest away! I've consulted quite a few sources already, but it's really hard to find books less than 100 pages for the upper grades.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1) written by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen
published February 2010 by HarperCollins
272 pages (hardcover), MG

Miss Penelope Lumley has just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, with a glowing review from her headmistress to Lady Constance of Ashton Place for the position of governess. Penelope is well-educated and tender-hearted, and while she is nervous to begin her new life, she puts all worrisome thoughts aside by referring to the sayings of the wise Agatha Swanburne. Her charges are three feral children, found in the woods of the estate, and huddled together, growling, clothed in saddle blankets in the barn upon Miss Lumley's arrival. Most ladies of her young age and little experience would run far, far in the opposite direction, but Penelope is grateful for the opportunity and takes her job as governess very seriously and professionally. In no time, the children are transformed, not only in appearance but also in manners and speech. But something is amiss at Ashton Place...

Oh, I have so many mixed feelings for this book! Personally, I enjoyed it quite thoroughly. It certainly reminded me of Bronte's Jane Eyre and Henry James' works, which is a good thing for me! The language is in keeping with that era, as well as the setting and characters' thoughts and actions. But this is very unusual to me - a Victorian-ish children's book? What child will read this? The jacket flap recommends this book for children ages 8-12, but I don't know a single 10 year-old who will read and like this book. These were my initial reactions - as I thought about it some more, I reasoned that no, this book is not meant for every child. Not every book will have a wide and varied audience. This one has a great audience in teachers and librarians, and perhaps it will have an audience in 10 year-old girls wanting to (and being able to) read high school books. I'm forever seeing librarians puzzled by parents who are looking for something that their "gifted" children can read at their level but that is appropriate for their age - this one will fit that bill. The language (both vocabulary and style) is challenging, and it will certainly prepare them for the classics they will have to read in high school.

So, this really is supposed to be a glowing review. But it's hard to separate my personal and professional feelings on this one - in any coherent matter, at least. I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages so that you can experience the joy I felt while reading this book!
"This memory was both happy and sad: happy because it was so pleasant, and sad because it made Penelope think about how much she missed Swanburne--the girls, the teachers, Miss Mortimer. Or perhaps it was her own much younger self, that pint-sized person whom she could never be again, whom she missed. It was hard to say" (174).
"'My heavens!' Mrs. Clarke exclaimed. 'I am sure I have never seen three such extraordinarily handsome and well-turned-out children!'
As you may know, complimentary remarks of this type are all too often made by well-meaning adults to children who are, to be frank, perfectly ordinary-looking. This practice of overstating the case is called hyperbole. Hyperbole is usually harmless, but in some cases it has been known to precipitate unnecessary wars as well as a painful gaseous condition called stock market bubbles. For safety's sake, then, hyperbole should be used with restraint and only by those with the proper literary training" (188-9).
"In Miss Penelope Lumley's day it was often said that the mark of a good servant was to do his or her job with brisk efficiency while at the same time remaining 'invisible.' You may take this as another example of hyperbole, for Miss Penelope Lumley's day servants did not actually have the power to become invisible, although it certainly would be interesting if they had. (Some years later, a Mr. H.G. Wells would write a definitive book on the subject of invisibility, which is well worth reading. However, under no circumstances are you to repeat the experiments he describes except under the strictest adult supervision)" (201-2).
Do you understand now why I, as an adult, enjoyed this book very much but why I wonder if it has the same kid appeal? Wish I could hear some kid thoughts on this one.

Other thoughts:
Becky's Book Reviews; A Fuse #8 Production; A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy; Welcome to My Tweendom


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Beastly by Alex Flinn
published October 2007 by HarperCollins
320 pages (hardcover), YA

Kyle Kingsbury has it all - money, good looks, hot girlfriend - and he knows it. One day, at his NYC prep school, he notices a strange, green-haired girl for the first time in English class as she is attempting to make a point about how superficial outward beauty is. Feeling sorry for her, but really just wanting to make a joke out of her, he asks her to be his date for a school dance (she's not exactly pretty as a picture), for which he has no intention of picking her up let alone being seen with her. A cruel prank. A Kyle thing to do. At the dance, the girl expects Kyle to ditch her, but she also has something planned for him - a curse which will turn him into a beast and which can only be broken by a true love's kiss. And we have a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, from the Beast's perspective.

Beauty and the Beast is one of those stories with endless variants (an Author's Note at the end of the book will point you in the right direction for more) because it is timeless. Both vanity and love will always exist. And what better setting to showcase these characteristics than a modern-day New York? I won't lie - I had the Disney version stuck in my head for comparison because I absolutely loved it as a kid. After Kyle's transformation into Beast (or Adrian, as he prefers to be called), the similarities are actually quite striking but still fresh and unique. There are roses in abundance, a magic mirror, an imprisoned father traded for his fair daughter, and a friendship and later love that blossoms between Beauty and the Beast.

A sixth-grade girl recommended this book to me many months ago - oh, how she gushed about it! Her eyes lit up, and she said repeatedly, "You HAVE to read this!" Well, I finally did! And I'm happy to say that it is completely gush-worthy. I love a fleshed-out fairy tale, especially now that I've read so many of Grimm's, which, to me, just seem like the bare bones of our favorite fairy tales. And fleshed-out, this one is. The transformation from Kyle to Adrian in this book feels genuine and complex, as he learns to accept his fate as a hairy, ugly beast of a man, and slowly finds hope that someone can see past his appearance and maybe even love him. The moments he shares with Lindy, his prisoner and former classmate, are inwardly tense but gentle and precious. They both have much to learn about each other and themselves. Although I wasn't completely thrilled with the way the happy ending played out, I was glad to experience a happily ever after, as it should be.

I have a small confession to make. I moved this one up on the to-read pile because of this:

As much as I loved the book, the sap in me says that I'll like the movie even better. While I'm a little iffy on the casting choices (Mary-Kate as the ugly witch? hmm...), the updated look for the Beast fits better with the NYC landscape, and I'm a fan of the soundtrack already. Do I have to wait for summer?

More reviews:
La Femme Readers; Steph Su Reads; Books and Movies; read what you know; Today's Adventure; T.V. and Book Addict; I Heart Monster; All About {n}; Readingjunky's Reading Roost

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