Friday, April 24, 2015

Almost there...

I have been listening to The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson on my daily commute. This is on the 2015-2016 Texas Lone Star Reading List.

The essence of the book is how the source of cholera was discovered in 1854 London. The main character, Eel, is a "mudlark." Orphaned, he supports himself and his younger brother by doing odd jobs and fishing discarded items out of the Thames. When Mr. Griggs, the tailor, dies of cholera (The Blue Death), Eel teams up with Dr. John Snow to help him map the area where the cholera has spread. Most people of the day feel that cholera is spread through miasma, "bad air," but Dr. Snow thinks that it is spread through water and targets the Broad Street pump where the affected area is located.

Of course, Dr. Snow is correct. However, it does take some sleuthing to figure it out.

As in so many historical novels, I was much more interested in the Author's Note than in the actual novel itself. This is where Ms. Hopkinson explains what is truth and what is fiction. The interesting twist is how she chose to write the novel itself.

I'm not really sure how sixth, seventh, and eighth graders will find an interest in the book. I guess there's a few that like medical mysteries, but I'm not sure how the historical setting will be received.

BTW, I wasn't impressed with the reader in this book. His depictions of the female characters was in a very forced falsetto, the kind men do when they are making fun of women. I really didn't care for it.

The good thing? I only lack TWO Books to meet the 40 Book Challenge. I'm reading a very LONG nonfiction book for my book club that meets a week from Sunday. The end is in sight!!!!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Latest Reading...

Wow! I've had a blast reading lately. I was recently at TLA in Austin. I went by myself and roomed by myself. I know that some folks may think that sounds rather lonely, but in actuality, I loved it because I had time to read at night.

The first book I finished was Sway by Kat Spears. I read this book because I had several eighth graders who were concerned about the book's content. In one student's comments, the book was OFFENSIVE.

Jesse Alderman (Sway) is a high school "Godfather." He sells drugs to the popular kids, can get a dorky guy a date with a high school goddess (for a price), has others to do his homework for him, and even does "favors" for the principal. He's not the most likable guy. His mother committed suicide and his father is a drunk itinerant musician. Jesse is pretty much on his own and detached from relationships. Everything is simply a business transaction. That is until Ken Foster, the football team captain asks Jesse to fix him up with Bridget Smalley, an angel of a girl. This Jesse does all the while really liking her on the side. Yes, this is the Cyrano de Bergerac story 21st century style.

I'm not going to go into most the students' concerns because I've asked if they want to be guest bloggers, and they've agreed to do so. Unlike the kids, I didn't find the book OFFENSIVE. Yes, there are references that are inappropriate. Like I wrote before, Jesse isn't the most likable guy. However, I felt that he did change over time. Especially (SPOILER ALERT) after he got beaten within an inch of his life near the end of the book.

"I wanted to die," I said into my chest, my voice a grunt as I jerked with another shudder of cold. "I want to die." 
"I know," Joey said, and shushed me and kissed me on the forehead. "I know. But you can't die. If you die, I'll be all alone." 
"S**t," Carter said, and I felt him start to shake with quiet sobs as I drifted in the black.

Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" drifted through the air from Joey's iPod, and I remember thinking how appropriate it would be to die listening to that song.

The kids did make a really great point about the cover, however. It does look like a happy, sunny story rather than the story that it is. I explained that is used as a marketing tool to make you want to buy/read the book. They agreed that it worked, but it was misleading.

I was also able to finish Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Set before and during World War II, the book is written in two voices, Marie-Laure, a blind girl whose father is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. To help Marie-Laure navigate her world, her father creates a replica of her Paris neighborhood with small wooden buildings that have unique mechanisms that open and close. With the impending Nazi invasion of Paris, Marie-Laure's dad is given a diamond for safekeeping to avoid the Nazi pillaging of the museum. He doesn't know if the diamond is authentic or a copy because there are four that are farmed out. The two leave Paris and go to the ancestral family's home in Saint Malo, on the coast of France. Her father also creates another replica of the town. Because he is observed measuring the street and the buildings, he is arrested by the Nazis. In Saint Malo Marie-Laure is looked after by her eccentric and reclusive great-uncle and his housekeeper after her father's arrest. The housekeeper becomes a part of the French Resistance and Marie-Laure becomes a willing accomplice.

The other main character is the story is Werner, an orphaned German boy who is fascinated by radios. He and his sister, Jutta, listen to a French storyteller/scientist over a radio that Werner pieced together. Unbeknownst to them, it is Marie-Laure's great uncle. Later Werner is accepted to a harsh academy for Hitler Youth where his talents come in to play later when he creates a device to track radio transmittals. It is in this capacity that hears Marie-Laure's voice as she reads Jules Verne from Braille.

This is a very sad tale, but one that I couldn't really put down. I was, however, disappointed in the ending. (I guess I really like the "Happily ever after" that doesn't happen in this book.)

The third book I finished last night. The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson is typically middle
school fare. Jackson Greene, who has a track record as a rounder, plans an intricate plot to get Gaby de la Cruz elected Student Council President. He's crazy about Gaby, but a stunt he pulled the year before separates the two. I heard Varian Johnson discuss the book last year. He wanted to write a a book like Ocean's Eleven. There's a number of references to Star Trek that I wonder if readers will understand. This is one of the books on the 2015-2016 Texas Lone Star Reading List.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

I made a deal with myself this year that I wouldn't count any book that I read for the 40 Book Challenge unless I blogged about it. That means I must blog about Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. I "read with my ears." Unfortunately, it took me a great deal of time because to be perfectly frank, I AM SICK TO DEATH OF DYSTOPIAN BOOKS!

After David's father is killed by the Epic Steelheart, David vows to get even. He studies the Epics to try to discover their weaknesses. It becomes an obsession. As soon as he gets out on his own, he becomes involved with the Reckoners, a group whose goal it is to bring down the Epics who are ruling the world. And the biggest Epic? Steelheart

The rest of the story deals with how David becomes a part of the group, the encounters they have with some of the Epics, and how he has a flirtation with one of the Reckoners, Megan. There's not much new here if you've read any dystopian anything. Pretty predictable...

And of course, there's a sequel...Firefight, just in case you can't get enough dystopia.

So, I've done my duty, read the book, blogged, and this one counts as TWO because it has 386 pages!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

When I was a kid, I read the Little House books over and over and over. I especially liked the books starting with By the Shores of Silver Lake. Any time I was required to do a book report, you could bet it would be about one of the Little House books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was my very favorite author. In fact, I continued to read the books even as an adult. In years past, I would reread the entire series every Christmas Holiday.

I've been so obsessed (like many others) that I've traveled to a couple of her homes. My husband and I went to Mansfield, Missouri to see Rocky Ridge Farm. Around ten years ago, we were in South Dakota, and we took a detour just to visit DeSmet. I loved seeing the surveyor's house which Laura described in great detail. In her time, she thought it was large. I was shocked at how small it was! There was also a replica of the Brewster School, and we drove to the homestead. There's no house there, but we saw the cottonwoods that Pa planted all those years ago. We also visited the house in town that Pa built and saw the furniture that belonged to Rose Wilder Lane. Last of all, we visited the cemetery where most of the family is buried (Laura is buried in Missouri.) Unfortunately, Silver Lake is no longer.

When I read about Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography edited by Pamela Smith Hill, I knew I needed to read it. Interestingly, I never knew that Laura's original book was an autobiography of her life. It was only later, when the autobiography was rejected, that she rewrote the book in a series of books for children. I knew the original illustrator was not Garth Williams, but it was weird to see some of the original illustrations having loved the Garth Williams illustrations forever.

Having read a number of books about Laura and visiting the two places, there was a lot I already knew about Laura and her family. I guess the part I found most interesting was when the family lived (illegally) in Indian Territory in what is now Kansas. Laura was so young then, I was amazed that she remembered so much so accurately about that time period.

The book stops when she marries Alamanzo (Manly), much like These Happy Golden Years. Unfortunately for them, the next four years were very trying and difficult. However, after the family moved to Missouri, things did get better.

Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was instrumental in the publication of the books. She was a well-respected writer, and there are those that feel that she is the true author of the books. I don't think so, however. Rose may have edited the books, but I think they are Laura's story to tell. I think Rose honored that.

The Kitchen House

I love the South. So many of my favorite places are in the South. As I wax poetic, I think of Hilton Head Island, Charleston, Asheville, Nashville, and my "best favorite" place Williamsburg, Virginia. Therefore, I was really excited to read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. Set in antebellum Virginia, the story centers on Lavinia, an indentured servant, and Belle, the daughter of the plantation owner and a slave.

We discussed the book last week at my book club. Most of the group rally enjoyed the book, and our hostess even made a cake that was described in the novel. However, even after our discussion, I wasn't enamored of the book.

I guess I didn't like the characters. Lavinia, the main character, just didn't appeal to me. Having been brought to the plantation as a child who had little memory of her past, I just didn't find her likable. Then, after she grew of age, I found her whiny and unsympathetic.

The Kitchen House doesn't glamorize the Old South as some books do. In fact, it's really a very dark story. I watched 12 Years a Slave the night before our discussion, and I found the book had more in common with the movie than I think I really wanted it to.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Earlier I listened to Sara Gruen’s book, Water for Elephants, and enjoyed it immensely. Recently, I downloaded At the Water’s Edge from NetGalley, and I read it during Spring Break.

The book is basically about three overly indulged, entitled socialites during World War II. Maddie and her husband, Ellis, have been bankrolled by mutual friend Hank to go hunting for the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland after Ellis and Maddie have been pretty much disowned by his family. Ellis and Hank were rejected for military service because of Ellis’ color-blindness and Hank’s flat feet. The coddled trio doesn’t even consider it risky to travel during wartime because after all, don’t the Germans know who they are?

When they arrive in a very small town in Scotland, they aren’t treated in the manner to which they are accustomed. No one is there to unpack for them, run their bath, or press their clothes. In fact, the men are treated as slackers for not participating in the war and Maddie scorned for her lofty attitudes.

Soon, however, Maddie realizes that more is happening that just a Scottish adventure. Ellis isn’t really interested in her at all. In fact, she was “won” in a bet with Hank. The two men really rather be with each other.

While Maddie is pretty much left alone, she can’t help but be attracted to Angus, the proprietor of the “inn.” Angus, she’s pretty sure, has been poaching in the woods to provide game for the villagers’ tables in order to keep them from starving due to rationing. She also befriends the two young women who work at the inn as well. It is from them that she learns of Angus’s secret.

Initially, I really didn’t like At the Water’s Edge. I’m not fond of entitled people. Ellis, Hank, and Maddie are indeed VERY privileged and expect to be catered to. However, as the story progresses and Maddie acclimates herself to her new surroundings, I found her to be immensely likable. (There’s definitely growth of the character here.) I also think she learns to really like herself.

There were some common themes I noticed between At the Water’s Edge and Water for Elephants. Both were historic fiction, both had an illicit love affair, both had “exotic” settings, and there’s a “convenient” death which sets up the opportunity for the couple to finally get together.

No, this isn't a book for kids. Occasionally I want to read a book just for me.