Saturday, January 28, 2017

My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson

We love our library. I may have mentioned that before, but it is a truth that bears repeating. We have a wonderful library and the kids and I love to just browse its shelves. During a recent day off school, we made just such a trip to our library and I saw this one, My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson, sitting on the shelf just calling out to me. The cover art is beautiful and no matter how much someone tells me not to judge a book by its cover, sometimes I can't help it. This book features Gracie Lockwood, young girl living in plain, old Cliffden, Maine. You know, just the regular world with school and homework, Dairy Queen and Circle K, dragons and sasquatches. Oh, wait. That last part didn't sound right to you? Well, that is what caught my attention, too.

Gracie lives in a world that sounds exactly like us, shocking in its unremarkableness, except for the supernatural creatures that are viewed the same way we view squirrels and butterflies. Included in this strange world are dark clouds that arrive to take someone away when it is their time to die. Gracie has noticed a cloud making its way down their street and it has her concerned. Her family is sure that the cloud is coming for Gracie's sickly younger brother Sam, so in an attempt to protect him, the Lockwoods leave town. They know the cloud can follow them, but they have a plan for that. They are determined to go all the way to the edge of the world so that they can cross over into The Extraordinary World. Though most people have never heard of it, and those who have believe it is a myth, Gracie's father believes it is another dimension which they can reach after a very perilous journey across their own world. They will risk sasquatches, yetis (larger versions of sasquatches), and abominable snomen (larger versions of yetis); witches, ghosts and ghost ships, and giants. It's not your average family road trip novel, but it sure does have imagination.

I loved this book when it began. There was just something so funny about the way the ordinary was mentioned right along with the extraordinary, like when Gracie casually recalls a dragon burning down a TJ Maxx recently. No big deal. Happens all the time. As the story progressed, I did begin to get impatient and lose interest a bit and there were even times I wasn't sure I wanted to finish it, but I pressed on and by the time I reached the last few chapters, I was glad I had kept at it. Your middle grade reader would love it.

 My favorite quote comes from Gracie's mother:

"Books are the way to stretch out people's souls, and I won't have children with small souls."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What I've Heard- Talking As Fast As I Can

I loved Gilmore Girls. I have fond memories of watching it while I nursed my first child and I remember how sad I was when it ended. When the new episodes aired on Netflix this past fall, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. Perhaps my expectations and hopes were too high, or perhaps I've grown and changed. Either way, I liked it well enough, but not like I used to.

That all said, when I read that Lauren Graham was writing a book about her Gilmore Girls years, Talking As Fast As I Can, I knew I would have to read it. Right away, I put my name on the library reserve list, but the audiobook actually came in first, so I thought, "Hey, why not listen to Lauren talking as fast as she can?" It was a good choice. You know that I usually don't listen to books I haven't read yet, and this is a prime example of why I have that rule. Wait! Don't get me wrong- it was a wonderful book and a very fun experience. The only problem I have is that I wasn't able to mark the passages that I would like to share with you here. It's a lot harder to put sticky notes on my favorite parts of an audio book.

This book was fun and funny. I loved all the background information about how Lauren got into acting and all the hard work that led up to her success. She makes it very clear that she WORKED her way to stardom; there was no easy path for her and she is very encouraging of anyone working their way toward any kind of dream. I also really loved her writing advice. This is Lauren's second book, her first being a work of fiction, Someday, Someday Maybe. The main takeaway for me was to just keep going. Just keep writing. Set a kitchen timer and block out any distractions and WRITE.

This book also had lots of behind the scenes information about both the original Gilmore Girls and the new episodes. Lauren kept a diary during the filming of the new episodes and has lots of detailed info. The only complaint I had about listening to this as an audiobook is that I missed out on what sounded like some great photos. I believe there was a PDF file on the CDs I borrowed from the library, but I've returned it already and can't check. I liked listening to this and I think you will, too.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I have had Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver on my To-Read list for years. When I saw that the movie version was being released March 3rd, I knew it was finally time to get to it. Before I Fall is about Samantha Kingston, a senior in high school and one of the four most popular girls in school, along with her friends Lindsay, Ally, and Elody. Samantha is having a pretty good day, but it turns out to be her last day. Strangely enough, she then proceeds to repeat this last day over and over again.

Like the after-death equivalent of  Groundhog Day.

As Sam progresses through these days, she begins to wonder if there is a reason for it and if there is anything she can do to change her situation. At the beginning of this book, Sam is just awful. Mean Girl through and through. When her first thought as she is dying is of a girl she and her friends teased for being "fat", this is how she felt about it:

That's just the kind of thing that kids do to each other. It's no big deal. There's always going to be a person laughing and somebody getting laughed at.

Sam's friends are just as bad, or in the case of Lindsay, their ring leader, worse. It is Lindsay who decides who the group hates and, sadly, they unquestioningly follow her. These are the kind of sharks I am afraid my children will encounter when they enter high school. Or worse, that they will be. Sam and her friends know they have power over their peers and they love it. Fortunately, as the story progresses, Sam begins to change. She begins to see other people with a different perspective. She learns more about their individual experiences and understands them more. She is also less likely to blindly follow the group.

I really liked this book and I really enjoyed that it was the kind of book I couldn't wait to read. When it first began, it had a very sour flavor- so mean!- but as I read on, I was relieved by the improvements in Sam. It has been a few years since I was in high school, but much to my surprise, it continues to prove a microcosm of the world. Some people don't really change as they grow up and so it was much more relatable than I expected.

I have marked this as "Required Reading" because I think it could really help bring some perspective to teens who read it. High school feels like the only thing that matters while you are in it. Once you have moved on, it is so much less important. And yet, it is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and hopefully to be kind. This book did contain lots of references to sex (though no actual scenes), alcohol, smoking and drugs so be aware of that if you are sharing it with your teen, but I still think it is a valuable perspective of those formative years.

The only complaint I have is that it didn't end like I would have liked, but the beauty of an imagination is that I can rewrite it any way I would like.

I'll leave you with the movie trailer and this final quote:

Maybe for you there's one thousand tomorrows. or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around in it, let it slide like coins through your fingers. so much time you can waste it.
But for some of us there's only today. And the truth is, you never really know.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

What I Heard- First Frost

Sarah Addison Allen is one of my favorite authors for books that are just fun and sweet. I have just finished listening to the audio version of First Frost and I loved it. The narration is well done and the writing lends itself beautifully to being read aloud. Add this one to your audio files. You'll be glad you did. 

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

In Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Ally Nickerson is having quite a difficult time at school. She always has, but with moving every year or so as a military family, she's been able to hide it from her teachers and her family. Ally can't read and by 6th grade it is getting harder to get by without that particular skill. Things just seem to get worse for her until one day she suddenly has a new teacher, Mr. Daniel. Mr. Daniel is exactly the kind of teacher we would all like to have. He is kind, he is understanding and he sees each of his students as they are and individualizes their learning. Ally does what she can to keep her problem from him, but eventually she can keep it a secret no longer.

This was such a sweet, wonderful book. The title, Fish in a Tree, refers to this quote by Albert Einstein:

Ally, like a lot of young people, learns differently. She is certainly not stupid, but it takes one teacher paying the right amount of attention to see that and then to convince her of it. Ally is smart, but not in the ways that are measured at school. She is funny and kind and just the type of character that makes for a good role model in books for children. This book provides plenty of examples of students that don't have an easy road, but the concept of "grit" is well explained and demonstrated.

This book is also excellent for teaching a little compassion. Not everyone has the same experiences and my favorite thing about reading is exploring the life of someone else. Maybe the reader is the "weird kid" at school and is able to see that weird kids turn out to be pretty interesting. Or maybe the reader is the "cool kid" who isn't always very nice and can see the consequences of bullying or exclusion. Or maybe the reader is just a regular kid- is there really such a thing?- who learns that everyone around them has something special, themselves included.

I highly recommend this book, especially for teachers, but I think anyone can enjoy it. My 9-year-old has been impatiently waiting for me to finish so she can have her turn.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

Spy novels aren't usually my thing, but when a friend offered to loan me The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer, I was happy to give it a try. After all, I had heard that it was inspired a bit by Jason Bourne and I am a fan of his, though it would be more accurate to say I am a fan of Matt Damon. The Chemist features a young woman, a scientist whose real name isn't disclosed for some time; for most of the story she is called Alex. Alex was a brilliant young medical student when she was recruited by "the department" (no name, not even a capital D) to work on chemical compounds to be used in interrogations. After a number of very successful years, Alex decided to leave the department, but suddenly she is being called in again.

There are good guys. There are bad guys. There are guys whose affiliation of which we aren't certain. What we do know is that Alex is a bad ass. She is smart and strong and her survival instincts are sharp. This is no damsel-in-distress novel. This is a girl-saving-the-world novel and it's quite exciting. While Meyer is not likely to ever win a Pulitzer, her books are entertaining and this one had me reading late into the night. For those of you scoffing at the author's name, forget that YA series that made billions of dollars (who would want that, anyway??). Did you read The Host? It was really good and this one was, too, though in a completely different vein. I challenge you to read this. I think you'll really like it.

I'll leave you with this quote from Alex:

"I am the bogeyman in a very dark and scary world. I frighten people who aren't afraid of anything else, not even death. I can take everything they pride themselves on away from them; I can make them betray everything they hold sacred. I am the monster they see in their nightmares."

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What I Heard- Harry Potter

I love the Harry Potter books. I really do and I was thrilled to share them with my children. We made them a promise a while back that when the read all the Harry Potter books, we could all go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter together. I started out reading the books to them, but then we switched over to listening to the audio versions. My voice is certainly no match for that of the great Jim Dale!

Over Christmas vacation, we finally finished and it was fantastic! My favorite part, a moment I will always treasure is when my two sweet children looked at each other and me in shock as they then shouted in unison, "Harry's a horcrux!" It was wonderful! And as we discussed all the tiny little things that JK Rowling had woven into the story from the very beginning, they were fascinated with all the things they didn't realize were important. When the truth about Snape was revealed, they were so surprised. I think they will want to reread just to understand all of the things that were working under the surface.

I love these books and the audio versions are my favorite audiobooks. It was our rule that we had to read or listen to the books before we were allowed to watch the movies and we love to talk about how much less sense the movies make without reading the books. The movies mean well, but they just leave out too much. I am so glad we did this together as a family. I cannot recommend these audio books highly enough.

A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

My 9-year-old received A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron last year for Christmas. It took her a while to get around to it, but as soon as she finished she insisted that I read it. She is a huge dog lover and this was JUST the book for her. Perhaps you've seen the movie trailer? The film version is set to release January 17th and we will absolutely be there to see it.

It is hard to describe this book without telling too much of the story, but seeing as how the film trailer gives so much away, I don't feel badly about telling you a bit. This book follows the lives of one dog, reborn into many different dog lives. First he is Toby, then he is Bailey, then a few more, but I won't tell you too much about it. Throughout the book, this dog tries so hard to understand his purpose in life and each time he thinks he has found it.

My purpose, my whole life, had been to love him and be with him, to make him happy.

If you are a dog lover, or even if you just like them from a distance, you should really read this book. I hope the movie does it justice.

2016 in Review

1. The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellows
2. Nest by Esther Ehrlich
3. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
4. The Haunting of Sunshine Girl by Paige McKenzie
5. The Birth House by Ami McKay
6. Lost and Found by Emily Parkhurst
7. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
8. Nightfall by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski
9. Slated by Teri Terry
10. The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks
11. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
12. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
13. The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman
14. Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
15. Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster
16. Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent
17. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
18. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
19. I Am Sophie Tucker by Susan and Lloyd Ecker
20. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
21. Talk to Me by Sonia Ellis
22. The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright
23. Girls, Drums and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
24. Repeat by Neal Pollack
25. The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
26. Stuffocation by James Wallman
27. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
28. The Sound of Glass by Karen White
29. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
30. Scary Mommy's Guide to Surviving the Holidays by Jill Smokler
31. The Doctors Are In by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?
32. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
33. The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich
34. This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
35. Reading the Sweet Oak by Jan Stites
36. The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari
37. Smoke by Catherine McKenzie

Well, what a year it has been! I read some books I really liked and some that didn't really speak to me as much. I had stretches of heavy reading and other times when I languished with a book for far too long. Personally, it was a bit of an upside down year with an unexpected move so that hampered my reading with busyness and feelings of distraction. I would still say that 37 books is a perfectly respectable number. Perhaps I will improve on it a bit in 2017, but I refuse to allow my reading to become about the number of books I complete.

In addition to the books I completed, I was also very proud of my success at my first reading challenge. Since the challenge was about tackling my TBR pile, I was able to count books that I read and also that I removed from the pile completely. I was able to remove FIFTY-NINE books from my TBR list. I was especially grateful for this when it came time for that move across the country. I enjoyed the challenge to stop ignoring the books I've had for so long and, as a bonus, I didn't purchase ANY books for myself in 2016. Between that and the fact that I only purchased one book in 2015, I have come to realize that I really don't need to own nearly as many books as I used to think that I did. I still love receiving them as gifts, but I find that I am less interested in buying them for myself. I have so many still to read and I have access to a wonderful library system, so perhaps I won't buy many in 2017, but I'm not making any promises.

Speaking of 2017, I am making a goal to read 45 books, but I won't stress about it too much. I will be more flexible about what I read and the source of those books. I will continue to only read what I enjoy and any books that aren't holding my attention will be quickly put aside. There are too many good books out there to read to waste any time with stinkers.

How was your reading year? Did you participate in any challenges? Do you have any goals for the year ahead? I'd love to hear all about it!

Smoke by Catherine McKenzie

Her whole life was about fire, forest fires- detecting them, fighting them, investigating them. At least it had been before she had given it up to fight for something else. Elizabeth is the main character in Catherine McKenzie's Smoke and things have not been going as planned in her life. Unfortunately, it seems as if Elizabeth's work has come to her this time. The small, picturesque town in which Elizabeth lives with her husband, the town where he grew up, is on the edge of a huge fire that may or may not be controllable. We also meet Mindy, Elizabeth's former friend, who is feeling unsure and perhaps a bit useless in her life as a stay-at-home mom to a distant teenaged son and a young daughter whose early-in-life health troubles still keep Mindy up at night. She yearns for purpose and hopes that helping a local man will provide that.

While I would categorize this as "Chick Lit", something I don't always like, it was a very enjoyable read. I was anxious to learn what would happen to each of the characters. It also had a slight mystery tone to it as the reader waited to learn who was really responsible for the fire that just might destroy the whole town. I particularly enjoyed the theme of a woman searching for her purpose. Elizabeth loves her work, but chooses marriage and family. Mindy loves her family, but still wishes for fulfilling work outside of the home. Neither is right or wrong. Each woman must decide what is best for herself at the time. And what is right for now may change in the future.

This book would make for a wonderful vacation read and it was perfect for my last book of 2016. Please let me know if you enjoy it, too.