Monday, October 31, 2011

Status Check!

It's been over a month since I did a Monday status check about what I'm reading, have read, and what to read, and I want to clear the decks.  So, here is what I've read in October, and most of September:
There's a clear pattern -- I am not an intellectual.  What am I reading right now? Not that much:
  • One Door Away From Heaven, by Dean Koontz, a present from the school bus driver
  • Witch Eyes, Scott Tracey, for an online book club
  • Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom, Tim Byrd, for Reading My Library
  • If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, Pseudonymous Bosch, another Reading My Library pick
  • Reckless, Cornelia Funke, library book on my NOOK, also a Cybils nominee
  • Heat, Nancy Holder.  A fiction Buffy book.
  • Flux, Kim Fielding.  Another ebook.
  • Slave Empire: Prophecy, T.C. Southwell. More B&N freebies for my NOOK.
  • The Terrorists of Irustan, Louise Marley.  Bedside book.
  • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverley.  Another glacial read.
  • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  I'm trying to avoid reading so I don't learn that the big MISUNDERSTAND was that the man was not aware of how babies are made.
  • The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza.
What will I read next? I'm frantically trying to finish off the Cybils challenge, the alphabet challenge, and the 50 States challenge.  While plugging along on reading my library and working my way down my TBR list, but occasionally those help out in the challenges.  Somehow my library check-outs exploded again, but I hope to someday address that.

A-Z: 44/52. Just need to review my "Z" title.  I can't believe I haven't read any "N" authors all year.
Cybils: 66/76. And I'm reading one more right now.
Global Reading Challenge:14/21. Going for kids books here. I'm reading a South America book.
Read Around the World: 21/20. Done!
Science Book Challenge: 3.141/3.141... Done! And hey, Switch is sorta science. I should add that.
Stream: 3/3, 1/3, 3/3, 3/3.  I have to figure out how to register myself as done.
Take a Chance: 9/10. Time for a random walk!
20/11: 20/20. Done! 
What's In a Name?: 6/6.  Done!
Where Am I Reading?: 33/50. Seventeen to go.  Any good Virginia stories out there?

Personal Battles: Curfewed Nights

Basharat Peer's memoir Curfewed Night gives a journalist's account of growing up in Kashmir, a contested territory where bombings and disappearances gradually become so commonplace they almost seem an invisible part of life.  Peer describes his childhood, starting from before he really understood any of the politics and just before those politics became deadly; as he moves into adolescence and the conflict becomes violent he encounters military barricades, mandatory identify cards, armed searches, and friends disappearing to join the insurgents. His gradual understanding and growth in both experience and perspective helped me comprehend the situation, since I came to the book with a very limited knowledge of the history of Kashmir and its role in the Indian-Pakistan wars.

The second half of the book follows Peer's active attempt to understand what was happening to his country and to the people in it.  After he graduates and works in Delhi as a journalist, he decides to leave his job and write about his homeland.  He mentions the uncertainty of going from a salaried position to free lance work, but concentrates more on the issues facing the people he interviews, from parents of people killed (by both insurgents and the Indian army) to current and ex- warriors to people trying to navigate a life in between the restrictions and bombing.  He faces his own involvement as well, admitting that he isn't dispassionate and sometimes can't ask the questions his training prompts him towards because of the insensitivity required. His subjects are his peers and friends before they are witnesses, and he tells their stories from the inside.

I felt Peer gave a good introduction to the situation, one that gave me a sense of the many aspects of the situation and showed me hints of where I needed to know more of the history and personalities to really understand why the fighting continues.  I think I had picked this book because of my Global Reading Challenge, but actually it doesn't count since it's not a novel.  I'm still glad I read it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dumb Kids: Keeper

Keeper - by Kathi AppeltThis gentle, loving book (Keeper, by Kathi Appelt) should go over well with people who love the delicate innocence of childhood and its fragile magic.  Also with young children who still believe in fairy tales and Santa Clause.  Unfortunately for me, I felt old and jaded and grumpy while
Renton Libraryreading it. I couldn't get over how dumb Keeper is as a ten year old -- I know many ten years olds, two intimately, and they are much more aware than Keeper.  I needed Keeper to be six to justify her decisions and actions, from laboriously working out how to transport crabs in a bowl to coming up with her plan to solve everything by getting lost at sea.

And I wanted some consequences for the decisions made -- Keeper makes many bad choices, but the end was all unicorns and rainbows.  The only negative that didn't get fixed was the flowers blooming in the pots she broke and no one cared.  It felt cheap.  I mean, I'm not saying the dog should have died, but at least let the poor thing wash ashore to get adopted by another family, one with children that won't accidentally toss it overboard during an foolish attempt to talk to a mermaid.  Yes, I get that the boat ride was a metaphor for Keeper learning about her true family, but it was also a kid who doesn't have the sense to come in out of the rain sneaking a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico in the middle of the night, and the actual plot kept me from enjoying the layered meanings.

I did like how the true love of the old man with the ruined flowers turned out to be another old man. Go diversity in children's lit! especially when the text isn't all proud of itself for being so enriching.  I'm glad I read this book as I wonder through my library's shelves, but I didn't actually enjoy it.  I can see how other people might, and it has nice short chapters for an easy read-aloud.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reluctant Disciplinarian

Gary Rubinstein's Reluctant Disciplinarian is a slim book with lots of white space and padding, so it's more of an entertaining pamphlet than a manual or textbook about teaching. It was written by a Teach For America teacher who had a terrible first year, one that still has him apologizing to the students unlucky enough to be in his classroom that year. He clearly had no idea how to keep order in a classroom or how to call for help when he figured this out.

Eventually he managed to learn from his mistakes and become an effective teacher, and he uses this book to humorously show both some of the mistakes he made and what he learned. He also spends a bit of time discussing the nature of advice -- showing how advice he ignored really did have grains of insight and giving some perspectives from other teachers who do things a bit differently to acknowledge that not everything he did works for everyone.

It's not a book to be assigned in a classroom training teachers, but it looks like a good book for new teachers (especially thinly trained ones) looking for encouragement that things do get better, and maybe a bit of advice on how to get there even if they are starting almost from rock bottom.

Thanks to LibraryThing's EarlyReviewers program for sending me a copy of this book.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bleak Future: Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker CoverWell, things have gotten bad.  Due to the evils of big corporations, the world is a dark and dangerous place; the climate changes mean that bigger, stronger hurricanes batter the changed coastline of a ruined America, where only a few slums remain for the barbarous refugees to grunge for a living.  In the my latest Cybils 2010 YA Fantasy and Science Fiction finalist, Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, the protagonist Nailer has it lucky: he hasn't yet grown to big for his child-labor job of sliding through narrow vents in ancient wrecks hunting for wires and other salvageable materials.  His luck holds even when an accident almost kills him; he survives but another child in his work group moved too quickly to try to take his place and ends up thrown out to starve.  Time for a party!

Yes, this world is too gritty to reward loyalty or tolerate betrayal, and Nailer's abusive and drug-addicted father doesn't take it kindly when the boy chooses his work mates over his family. When Nailer and his friend find a survivor on the newest shipwreck, they have to choose between following a long shot chance at riches or accepting that they too can kill to survive.  Paolo Bacigalupi paints a world full of violence and greed, where corporations delight in grinding down the poor while creating half-men genetically forced into blind loyalty to their owner/employers.  Nailer himself faces test of loyalty in many different ways -- can he betray his father? Does he trust his work crew? Can he trust Lucky Girl, the rich survivor that so obviously finds him barely human?  Overall I found Nailer's world too grim for pleasure; I could guess plot points just by wondering what would put capitalism in the worst light and be most depressing for our hero.

I'd better hurry on my Cybils quest; next years nominations have already finished and the judging teams are preparing the list of the 2011 finalists.  I have one more left in this category so I'll order it up from the library today.  I'm not sure my seventh grader will get through this book; he tends to read more optimistic fare but I'll definitely leave it lying provocatively around.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Solid Standard: Grave Dance

Cover for GRAVE DANCEKalayna Price's Grave Dance provides the second installment of the Alex Craft saga.  It's an urban fantasy series that is competently written but for me reads as too much paint-by-numbers without anything that really resonates with me.  That's probably a personal thing for me; someone who identifies more with Alex probably gets a lot more out of these books than me.

There's the woman with nifty, unorthodox powers who doesn't understand all that she is capable of (Alex). She has stalwart friends that she alternately helps and gets help from; I do like that Alex gets to help her friends instead of only calling on them for their specialized aid.  She has a mysterious family background that provides conflict and mystery.  At least two men are fixated on her, and she can't quite choose between them.  Both have major drawbacks -- one is the sworn servant of an enemy, the other is Death, who is sexy but mostly incorporeal.  To solve her problems she needs to learn to use her powers in new and flashy ways, ways that are mostly consistent with the way magic is painted but still surprising.  It's all done fairly well, with an interesting world twist (faeries came out a while ago, and one result was new patches of land appearing), but nothing really grabbed me to make me insist on reading farther.  I guess the fact that I remember more about the plot than the themes is a sign that I wasn't deeply hooked.

If the library puts the next one out on the grab-me shelves I'll probably pick it up, but I won't actively look for it.  But if I were in the mood for a new urban fantasy, I wouldn't mind grabbing one of Price's books.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Seeking Out Misery: Room

RoomCover.jpgHave you ever felt so happy you could burst?  So filled with joy that your life was actually in danger? Worry no more, because any page of Emma Donoghue's Room is guaranteed to bring enough sorrow and gloom that explosions of happiness are right out.

Maybe I'm particularly vulnerable to her story because I like kids; both mine and all the ones I meet in the halls of their school.  The five year old Jack has spent his entire life inside the tiny room that his mother's captor built to contain his prize.  Although a bright kid, his lack of experience severely skews his expectations and conclusions about the world he finally meets Outside.  His mother has built her entire life around keeping him happy, secure, and away from the evil man who imprisons them.  They are highly magnified versions of every kid and mom -- the child whose mind often surpasses their knowledge, and the parent who bends over backward to make the world a safe and welcoming one for her family.

Donoghue paces the book carefully, showing us Jack's world and his place in it, then placing it in jeopardy both literally and emotionally, and then breaking him out in several stages.  Again these are highly magnified versions of real emotional checkpoints -- five year old Jack has to go out on his own, but instead of heading for kindergarten he has to fake his own death and escape from a sadistic kidnapper.  Although there are a few lapses into melodrama, overall the book kept a firm grasp on Jack and his emotions, a slightly looser hold on his mother, and a constant deep sadness for this reader throughout the entire read.  So a good book, but not for the sad-hearted.

Sick Days on Library Days

Renton Library
This Thursday library day looked doomed.  Two kids were home sick, one was in disgrace, and I was cranky.  But my holds called me, so I tried to sneak in on the way home from school with one kid, which made me so late I almost missed the pickup for another kid.  But I got my books and I got some reference material for an overdue school project.  And I forced that kid to at least watch me in research action, even if I didn't manage to make him attack the computers (or the reference librarians) himself. (Or write the report, so far.)

On the brighter side, most kids were off school today, so the ten year olds and I made a pilgrimage to the nearest Seattle Public library, since King County had neglected to purchase a book on my TBR list.  Slackers.

Due to a mainly musical disaster (last week everyone wanted to pick out several CDs) as well as the research books, my library list has ballooned to 58, although I have not aged accordingly.  Oops.  And I just realized I forgot to check out the next batch of Reading My Library books, so things will so get even worse.  La la la.  Oh, this is actually two weeks worth of books; I never got around to writing up last week's picks:
  • Archangel's Blade, Nalini Singh.  Looks like this goes back to a paranormal romance format, with a new couple instead of continuing with the power struggle of the previous Archangel books.  Hmm.
  • Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point.  David Lipsky.  From my TBR list.  I'm currently getting books from about 18 months back, so I can't remember anything about how they landed on that list.  I hope I knew what I was doing last year.
  • The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, Eric Berlin.  Because I enjoyed his other book.
  • Pluto Confidential.  Steven Maran.  Another TBR list pick.
    Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and Clare from The Captive Reader take turns with the linky for Library Loot. That's where all us library lovers go to compare our hauls for the week.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Pond Scum: The Dark Pond

    Image of itemI've done fairly well with the kidlit B section of the library, including the short adventure story The Dark Pond by Joseph Bruchac.  Although the protagonist is a high school student at an expensive boarding school, the tone and style place it fairly in the middle grade arena, since Armie carefully explains what is going on with a minimum of angst or sarcasm, two requirements for YA.  Being cast as older lets Armie have more freedom, so that the school policy of letting kids take themselves out for long hikes or overnight camping trips seems plausible.  

    Armie has the added attraction of being an animal magnet; small creatures such as birds gravitate towards him.  This and his large build have made him a bit of a social outcast, and his parent's obsession with their careers only feeds his loneliness.  The MONSTER IN THE POND preys on this weakness, but our hero, with the help of a friendly scientist, saves the day.  I liked Armie's identity as a Shawnee; his Indian heritage is an important part of his life and a source of a lot of his knowledge and competence, but he assumes that the readers don't share this knowledge and doesn't mind bringing us up to speed.  It's a fast read that ends with happy endings all around, to a degree that did make my adult cynical lip curl -- right after he discovers that the other students shockingly admire him, his parents show up for a long-delayed reunion.  But I bet my kids accept all that as his due.

    Do the Adirondack mountains extend into Vermont?  The book doesn't specify where the school is located, and I need a Vermont book for my 50 states challenge.  Vermont seems like a better tax haven than northern New York...

    Monday, October 10, 2011

    Book Game: The Potato Chip Puzzles

    As I wonder across the library on my quest to read a book from every shelf, I've found clunkers, gems, and everything in between.  Well, actually I'm exaggerating a bit.  I'm only on the B's of juvenile fiction, so my quest is barely started, but I've definitely read some books that I never would have found without this nonsensical plan.  Sometimes that's a good thing, as in the book The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin, which I mainly chose in the hopes that it would help boost my Where Am I Reading Challenge tally.  Sadly, the setting is not specific enough to tell the state (I'm betting Connecticut, which I already have), but I had a good time reading about the puzzle-loving Winston and his buddies on their quest to win their school glory and funding though a puzzle based challenge.

    There were plenty of puzzles scattered through the book, both for the contest the boys enter and ones they find or make up along the way.  Each time the book warns you so you can either solve it yourself or get the answer (I did a mix of both), and I also enjoyed the moral dilemmas along the way -- how much should you help or hinder other teams?  What if your team mates draw the lines differently?  How much help can you accept?  These puzzles don't feel forced by the text but natural problems caused by the story as it unfolds.  I like this book enough to request Berlin's other books, and to put it aside for my fifth grader to read as soon as he catches up with his book club assignments.

    Sunday, October 2, 2011

    October Book Club: The Snow Goose

    Family book club faced a crisis last night -- several members had not finished the September book.  Through adroit negotiations I negotiated a solution -- P picked the October book (short) by virtue of us having read it together over the past few weeks, X quickly read it, and we headed out for sushi to much rejoicing.  Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, illustrated by Beth Peck, provided a full meals worth of discussion and tangents, so I declare the intervention a complete success.

    X officially disliked the book, shocked at the unhappy ending.  The protagonist dies at Dunkirk, leaving the young girl bereft, and the goose disappears forever.  P also expressed his dislike for the ending.  I pushed the issue, asking what would happen next if the guy didn't die, and we got into a discussion of the creepiness factor of old people (really old -- some over 30!) who fall in love with children and then the children grow up to marry them.  All three of us find that very disturbing.  I mentioned Emily of New Moon's Dean and Bella's daughter Renesme as examples of creepiness in literature, and the boys declared that they currently had no teachers they intended to grow up to marry, which I applauded.  So I said that maybe violent death was the best place for this book to go, since a reunion between girl and old guy could only be creepy, but at that point their love was still innocent.  X seemed interested by the idea that death could be the happiest ending for a book.

    We also talked about Dunkirk and World War II a bit, and the boys even put up with me reciting a few lines of Robert Nathan's Dunkirk and we talked about the battle and about the difference between the snow goose imagery and the idea of the ghosts of English admirals helping the kids bring their boat home safely.  We talked a bit about Peck's paintings, which P and I had scrutinized as we read the book; X had assumed that the book was a collaboration, with the story and the illustrations informing each other (the story came first by many decades).  And I ate a Hella Hot roll (yum) and we all declared ourselves happy.

    Two Hauls in One

    Renton Library
    Remember our brave new plan of visiting our favorite bakery on library days?  Well, fate mocks us -- they have new closing hours that deny us our treats, unless I somehow start remembering to go on my way to pick up the kids from school.  That should take me a few weeks.  Oh well, we had fun at the library anyway, especially during the hilarious mix-ups when the boys couldn't tell whose library number was whose.

    I have managed for my third week to have my library list equal my age, so again I limited myself to my holds, and then had P pick two CDs to bring me to 43.  He scrupulously kept his eyes shut for the selection process.  Oh, this is actually two weeks worth of books; I never got around to writing up last week's picks:
    • Boiling Point, K.L. Dionne.  I need more South American Novels.
    • Reckless, Cornelia Funke.  Another Cybils book.  I have this out on paper and on my NOOK, I wonder which I'll get to first...
    • Emmy and the Rats in the Belfry, Lynne Jonell.  Third in the series.
    • The Vampire Defanged, Susannah Clements.  More literary vampire writing.
    • Don't Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson.  More from the TBR list.
    • Scrawl, Mark Shulman.  Another Cybils book.
      The music was a Meatloaf CD and something with two CDs that I forget.  Last weeks music included the new KidzBop 20 CD as well as some Parental Guidance stuff that I liked but couldn't quite share with the kids.  Maybe KidzBop will cover Robyn's "U Should Know Better."  Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and Clare from The Captive Reader take turns with the linky for Library Loot. That's where all us library lovers go to compare our hauls for the week, and now that I've written mine up I can go see what beauties other readers have brought home.

      Saturday, October 1, 2011

      Future Me: Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade

      When I reserved the next Cybils Early Chapter Book finalist, I noticed that the library had Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade in an epub version, so I grabbed that.  Instant delivery!  I wasn't sure how it would work; picture books definitely do not read well on my black and white NOOK, and illustrations are often an important part of a chapter book.  Luckily most pictures were half page, so that I could see them in full and clearly.

      In this case my bias against "girl" books worked against Stephanie Greene's story; in the words of my seventh grade son it was "just too pink.  Pinky."  I didn't really start to like Posey until she poked the teasing neighbor kid with a stick.  The story painted her character fairly clearly, although I thought her connection to her baby brother annoyingly stereotypical ("I was the baby until you got here.")  But she didn't do anything to solve her problem, and no one even suggested that maybe showing courage was an option.  Although it read easily enough I feel no need to search out the next one, or even to wonder what happens to Posey next.  This is probably a flaw in me more than in the book.