Thursday, August 21, 2014

Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

genre: fiction

As the amazing author John Steinbeck sees himself getting along in years, he realizes that it has been decades since he truly spent any time getting to know the people in the nation he writes about.  His desire to reconnect with America and see it again with his own eyes leads to something I personally love: a massive road trip.  He gets a truck that he turns into a camper and he names it after Don Quiote's horse, Rocinante.  And then he leaves his New York home and embarks on a cross-continental journey.

I chose this book because I was personally embarking on an 18 journey from Maryland to Las Vegas and back, I wanted something to inspire me and get me excited.  This did that - to an extent.  It's obviously a very different journey than the one I took, he took his in 1960 and instead of traveling with five children like I did, John's companion was his standard poodle, Charley.  Charley is a main character in this story - he is John's confidant and his muse.   And other than Charley, almost everyone else we meet in this story is a stranger, a snippet of a life that John is able to glean from a few minutes or hours of conversation over a bottle of whiskey.

I really, really liked it.  I liked it because he painted a portait of 1960 for me - the ferocious pace of progress, the rise of the city and the freeway and the rest stop.  I loved, particularly, his thoughts on traveling and how it changes us.  There are parts that are hard to read, especially when he gets to the South and encounters all the tensions and hatred that were constantly boiling over.  But in true Steinbeck fashion, he is a MASTER of our language. His prose is so fluid, his images so perceptive that I love his writing for its own sake.  I have been told to be wary of considering this a literal travelogue - that it is far more "novel" than "true."  But I think I am choosing not to let that bother me - I found truth in his words and ideas, not from whether or not he really stopped at a particular truck stop or not.

I want to mention that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, narrated by Gary Sinise, and he was INCREDIBLE.  His accents were wonderful, his tone was so smooth and dreamy to listen to.  I loved having him in my headphones.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blog Tour: Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta

I read this book as part of a blog tour - welcome new readers!!

genre: non-fiction

Wild things is a book for Bibliophiles.  It's an ode to children's literature - a romp through the ins and outs and behind-the-scenes adventures of the authors, publishers, editors and yes, readers of literature for the young.  In a conversational and familiar tone, this book assumes the reader knows a little about books and wants to know MORE, more about how this book world works and more about how it came to be the way it is.

I found it to be really engaging. I particularly loved the anecdotes and background information about books I'm already familiar with.  Did I wish I could UNlearn a few things?  Maybe.  I'll never think about Shel Silverstein the same way again.   But, truth is good and several times I found myself sharing stories I'd read with my reader-sister, I was so intrigued.  A good sized portion of this book is dedicated to the sexual orientation of various authors and the emergence of books about homosexuals - since this part didn't interest me as much as the rest, it felt a little long but I know other readers would feel differently, so there you go.

As a girl who grew up reading Where the Sidewalk Ends and Dr. Seuss, Little House on the Prairie and Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, I was always happy to pick this up and learn more about my favorite thing: books.

Disclosure: a copy of this book was given to me in exchange for an honest review

Interested in following along on the tour and getting other viewpoints on the book?    Here's the schedule!

August 5: 100 Scope Notes
August 6: There's A Book
August 8: Guys Lit Wire
August 11Book Riot
August 11: GreenBeanTeenQueen
August 14: Wendy on the Web
August 18: Into the Wardrobe
August 20: The Book Nest
August 21: Random Chalk Talk
August 22: Children's Corner

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some thoughts on Children's Books and Social Change, by the authors of Wild Things!

Tomorrow I will be posting a review of the book Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta.  Since my review will be part of a blog tour, I've got a fun piece for you to read by the authors that will help you get excited for this book:

Children’s literature, as we write about in our book Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in

Children’s Literature, has a way of accompanying social change. Sometime, though, it precedes it.

Our book, mind you, sets out to debunk the cute-and-fluffy notion of children’s literature.

For many people, the mere mention of children’s books conjures up this world of cute, fluffy

bunnies and sweetness and light. There’s a place for books like that, we suppose, but in our

book we aim to dispel the notion that all books are or should be that way by not only looking

at the wilder side of those authors and illustrators who create the books, but by also looking

at subversive literature itself. Yep, some of our favorite books are subversive and downright

WEIRD and life-changing and mind-blowing. Not all children’s books are sweet and fluffy.

But when it comes to looking at examples of children’s books that precede social change,

one book you can examine actually is about cute and fluffy bunnies. Garth Williams’ 1958

picture book, The Rabbits’ Wedding, is the simple story of two adorable, fluff-tastic rabbits who

want to be together forever. They have a happy forest wedding. That about covers it.

But it became one of the most controversial books of the 1950s. And that’s because one

rabbit is white, and one rabbit is black. And they appear on the very cover. In 1950s’ America,

such interracial marriages were taboo. Or, as we note in the book, “they didn’t like the color of

his hare.”

It’s brainwashing, wrote one columnist from Florida’s Orlando Sentinel, and it’s

propaganda, wrote another journalist at the Montgomery Home News. The book should be

burned, stated Alabama State Senator E. O. Eddins.

Garth Williams himself remained calm during this debate. We could tell you his response

to the arguing, but then we can’t give away all our book’s secrets, can we?

It just goes to show: Cute, fluffy bunnies are never what they seem.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

genre: fiction

When we first get to know Abbie Deal, she's a little girl on the prairie, making dolls out of rocks and spending her little free time daydreaming of growing up to be someone really accomplished.  As she grows up, gets married and starts a family of her own, Abbie Deal becomes a pioneer in her own right. She and her husband take their wagon to the Nebraska wilderness where she begins a life of sacrifice and accomplishment - if not the kind of accomplishment she'd imagined as a girl.

As I planned for a huge road trip all through the midwest, I did a lot of searching for a quintessential pioneer book and I found this book on several lists.  I found an awesome vintage copy online but of course it took me forever to actually read it, with the way my life is now. ANYWAY.  I hardly read any of it actually IN Nebraska but having just driven through that delightful state showed me how very intimate Aldrich was with the prairie.  Her love of the land while simultaneously cursing its wiles was real.

The writing is lyrical - simple and tender.  I can see how some people might feel like it sloshes into sentimental occasionally but for me, I believed in Abbie's experience I believed in her heartache. I felt so close to Abbie - as a mom myself, I related to her emotions about her children, her willingness to put her own dreams on hold to provide for them.   The book skips forward in time pretty quickly - there are often huge jumps with small scenes in between, snippets of her life - and it's an 80 year life!  The transitions forward in time felt smooth.  It's amazing to think of the change these pioneer women saw in their lifetime - from living in a sod house in near complete isolation to automobiles and electricity.   Abbie's reflections on her lifetime, the things that matter most to her in the end, actually had me in tears.

I know that it's not for everyone, but this book totally hit the spot for me.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Scan by Walter Jury and Sarah Fine

genre: science fiction

Tate's father is hard core.  Demanding and exacting, he's raised Tate to be strong and intelligent and not a little resourceful. McGyver-type resourceful.  And it's going to come in handy because one unfortunate choice brings to a crashing halt not just Tate's safety but also everything he's ever believed about his life.

This was an unsolicited arc sent to my house.  I almost didn't read it because it sounded a bit cheesy, but it was described as a cross between McGyver and War of the Worlds, both of which I like in a strange way. So I tried.  And I liked!  I totally want some more! There are aliens!  Bad guys!  Maybe-I-can't-trust-you good guys! Strange technologies and explosives made from Walmart junk!  I'm not kidding.  The plot grabbed me.  There are too many swears at the beginning but for a male protagonist, he felt his emotions deep enough that I believed them (ok, sometimes being in a teenage male head got annoying but I still wanted to keep reading). I just took my disbelief and suspended it, baby, and had a nice fluffy ride.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

genre: young adult mystery

Cadence appears to have an idyllic life.  She has everything money could buy and she spends her summers with her extended family on their private island off the coast of Massachusetts.  Between her two dear cousins and a beloved friend, she finds a haven of acceptance.  But during her fifteenth summer on the island, something goes very wrong - but despite time passing, Cadence cannot remember what.


It might be better for you to go read this knowing nothing.  Reading any more might be a spoiler.  Beware. 

Really. If you can handle books with a serious emotional punch, don't read more of this review.

I started listening to this having no idea what it was about. I didn't know it was a mystery, a piecing together of memories.  I didn't know it was about the all-consuming power of first love or the way that money and jealousy can rip a family apart - you can't help but think of King Lear.  So much of it I just did not see coming, and maybe I should have, but the scope and tragedy of this book caught me by surprise all the same.

I have read several reviews that sang its praises to high heaven and several reviews that hated the characters and the plot.  For myself, I was just compelled by it, in its entirety. I found the family dynamic to be completely fascinating and it made me think a lot about how huge we can let small things become.  I felt the ending very deeply, my emotions were real and I didn't feel like I was being manipulated, which really matters.  I cannot forget the moment where things hit my heart, like even I, as a reader, was backpeddling, trying to undo things that cannot be undone.

It's not an easy book, but it is a well-crafted book about love and loss, mistakes and consequences.  Even though it isn't a pretty story, I'm glad I listened.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (audioboo

genre: historical fiction

Coralie's life as the daughter of an illusionist-turned-side-show-museum-operator is anything but ordinary.  Coney Island at the beginning of the 20th century was a place to escape - and The Museum of Extraordinary Things provided guests with wonders to amaze and astound, for a price, and all carefully designed and lorded over by Coralie's father.

On another side of New York lives Eddie, an immigrant living in the Lower East Side whose flight from the orthodox community of his childhood has left him with little but himself to rely on. When Eddie and Coralie's lives intersect, their story begins to flash with new meaning and a deeper longing for more than the life they'd been handed.

For the most part, I really liked this.  It was solid historical fiction and I felt completely immersed in this New York of the past, there are two significant historical events that directly affect the plot of this story and I thought the writing in these scenes absolutely dripped with authenticity, every sense was wrapped in the moment.  I had to go online and learn more after I listened to these parts.  I happen to already be very interested in New York during this time - the immigrants, the labor politics, the way of life.  And while it is definitely historical fiction, there is also, by the nature of these "wonders" that Coralie's father employs, as well as parts of Eddie's life, a certain magical quality - I wouldn't go so far as to say magical realism but just a sprinkle of something MORE than what meets the eye that can't be explained.

 This audio production had three readers - a narrator, Coralie and Eddie, so the story was constantly told from three different points of view, which I found refreshing, it kept things interesting.  I do have to say, the reader for Coralie wasn't my favorite - I wanted more emotion from her sometimes.  And the other thing I must say is that the beginning sort of drove me crazy with all the flopping between time periods and people. I'm glad I stuck it out though because there is so much beauty in this story.   There is also some hideousness, where the rank underbelly of humanity somehow finds itself in charge and the weak have to obey.  But the beauty overcomes and that's the kind of story I like.

There was so much going on and it all fell into place so well, as wonder and the extraordinary leave the stuff of dreams and grace us here in real life.  I would read more by this author.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

genre: paranormal historical romance

Eva has just lost her dearest friend:  her beloved older sister Katrina.  When it is time to spread her ashes, Eva's choice is the most logical one she can think of: an old manor house on the coast of Cornwall where they spent summers together as children.  Among familiar companions, Eva hopes to finally find some peace, but when she starts having hallucinations that appear to be from another time - peace continues to elude her.  As Eva begins to understand that these hallucinations are nothing short of time travel, her experiences in the past begin to seriously affect her contentment in her own time.

When I was in a bus full of 8th graders on the way to an amusement park field trip and I just needed something fluffy to amuse me, I knew that Susanna Kearsley would not disappoint.  The slipping between centuries works well in this story and I liked Eva, especially as she tried to sort through living in a distant time with such different rules and expectations.  Her love interest is certainly dreamy, if not a little caricatured, and since I've read several of her previous books, the time period in the past was familiar.

I know I say this everytime, but it continues to be true.  I appreciate a clean, romantic and intriguing story.  Kearsley's books don't change my life but they sure do make it pleasant for a while, and the time travel elements of this one were a nice twist on the usual.  I liked it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (audiobook)

genre: young adult

When Park sees Eleanor walk onto the bus, he knows it's not going to be good.  She's overweight.  She's got huge red hair.  She's so clearly "other" that it takes about five seconds for her to be the biggest loser on the way to high school.    When he lets her sit next to him it's only so the bus can just start moving again, not because he has any interest in being near her or getting to know her.

Except, he DOES get to know her.

And when he does, it changes everything.

OH MY WORD.  If I could slurp a story through a straw, I would slurp this one.  I have never yet read a story of teenage love that hit me in the gut the way this one did.  This author NAILED IT.  She NAILED what it is to feel lonely and ugly and not-what-you-should-be and yet somehow have someone love you - and how you come to terms with that juxtaposition.  I loved what Eleanor and Park had in common and I loved how they sorted through what they didn't, especially the contrast because Eleanor's completely messed up homelife and Park's, which is so much better and yet still has Park feeling like he's not enough.

In fact, I think Eleanor's home, her horrendous and frightening stepfather and the current of fear within those walls is so tightly and expertly written I feel like everyone who works with hurting kids should read it, just to help you imagine what that might be like.

I can't stop having thoughts about this book.  I loved the 80s culture piece, especially the mixed tapes (how many of those did I make?).  I liked that it felt "period" without trying so hard to put in lots of cultural references.  One thing I must write down is how glad I am that I listened to it.  The perspective changes between Eleanor and Park throughout the book and the narrators were AMAZING.  The phone conversations between the two of them were so reminiscent of my own illicit teenage nighttime phone calls with boys that it actually gave me chills, the way the narrators almost whispered.   Also, I couldn't get enough of the guy reading in his Korean mother's voice. Oh, did I mention Park is part-Korean?    So, diversity is abounding but it was never shoved in my face like, LOOK!  We have fat characters!  We have half-Korean characters!  We're totally diverse!   It just felt like life, life in all its tragedy and its stolen moments of glory, like the inside parts of us just really want the same thing: to love and be loved, for exactly what we have to offer in this moment.

This book is a painful treasure.  It hurts because there is so much HARD and HORRIBLE but it also hurts because it is so freaking good and full of a hope that maybe there really is a little sliver of happy for everyone on this planet, if we're not afraid to grab it when we find it.

fyi - The language in this book is off-the-charts, if that's something that bothers you.  The "f-word" is in it about two hundred times.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Looking For Alaska by John Green

genre: young adult

Miles's choice to leave his hometown in Florida and enroll at a coed boarding school in Alabama was guided by the thought that there had to be MORE, some kind of grand adventure out there in life that he was somehow missing.   Through his new roommate, he meets Alaska -one of those girls that get under your skin and won't ever leave.  Alaska is full of everything Miles isn't - exuberance and experience and a recklessness that can leave chaos in its wake. And of course, she's got a boyfriend and so Miles has to settle for friendly sidekick, which is enough until one night it's not. It's not enough at all. And Miles and his friends have to deal with what's left over.

I think I can appreciate what John Green is trying to say in this book (and I really like him as an author and as a person, I think he's hilarious and I like to listen to him talk).  At its heart I feel like there is a search for how to deal with things in our life that can drown us - how do we forgive ourselves for our mistakes and how do we keep living a real life when our mistakes affect people we care about?  How do we NOT drown in our own suffering?   And Green does a lovely job of writing some pretty deep ideas down, and I appreciate his wit and the the quirkiness he hands to his characters (Miles memorizes the last words of people who have died - that's awesomely quirky).  But overall, the story just didn't click with me the same way that The Fault in Our Stars or Paper Towns did.  I didn't particularly like Alaska, she felt like a moody tease.  All the time.  I didn't get why Miles liked her so it was hard for me to ever connect with him in the way I wanted to.

I need to also say that I read a lot of young adult books and I feel like I am pretty liberal with the content I can deal with in a book for teens.  But describing a porn movie and an oral sex act seems a bit extreme, even to me.  I can't UNmake it bother me, so I need to put it out there.  I just didn't feel like it was necessary to the plot or Miles' character development.  It felt gratuitous when I read it.  I did, however, afterwards, watch this video in which John Green explains the point of that scene and I do feel like I understand now why he included it.  I would still prefer my own child to NOT read that but I get what he was trying to say - that physical intimacy is meaningless without emotional intimacy.

This was my least favorite of his so far but I do appreciate that he dealt with some pretty intense topics that teens could relate to.
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