Friday, September 29, 2017

Bone - Jeff Smith

Summary: An American graphic novel first! The complete 1300 page epic from start to finish in one deluxe trade paperback.

Three modern cartoon cousins get lost in a pre-technological valley, spending a year there making new friends and out-running dangerous enemies. After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone are separated and lost in a vast uncharted desert. One by one they find their way into a deep forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. It will be the longest -- but funniest -- year of their lives. (image and summary from

My Review: I just recently finished reading the nine volume graphic novel series Bone, and it was a seriously fun ride.  This series has everything, humor, fantasy, monsters, heroics, cows and quiche.

The premise itself us utterly strange, but at once so fun and sucks you right in.  It follows the journey of three brothers, weird cartoon characters that resemble bones, as they have been kicked out of their town and are traveling to find somewhere else to live.  You've got Fone Bone, the main protagonist, the relatable everyman who tries to keep things under control; Smiley Bone, the cigar-smoking simpleton who's always up for any adventure; and Phoney Bone, the money obsessed opportunist who doesn't care who he throws under the bus.

The series is a complete saga with a full story arc and finite ending.  It has a fine balance between the darker themes of war and destiny, and light, goofy humor.  The land the Bones stumble upon is filled with intrigue and hidden secrets, along with strange rat creatures, cow races, a particularly awesome old grandma, and a very spooky villain.

The art is just plain amazing.  The sweeping vistas contrasted with simple art of just the characters depending on the panels is well placed, and helps to further the story along.  The characters themselves are well rounded and adequately troubled (or untroubled, in the case of Phoney Bone) by their situations.  Fone Bone is a perfect protagonist, striving so hard to do his best and help his cousins and new crush Thorn, a girl with a strange destiny that unfolds at the perfect pace.

It's a pretty epic story with well written humor and beautiful art, as well as deep questions about the general nature of good and evil, filling this vast, rich world with adventure and fun.  Being a series of graphic novels, they are also pretty quick reads, but well worth it.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a good series for all ages, though there are some depictions of war and blood, and deaths of characters.  Also some mild swearing.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Perfect Stranger - Megan Miranda

Summary: In the masterful follow-up to the runaway hit All the Missing Girls, a journalist sets out to find a missing friend, a friend who may never have existed at all.

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own? (Summary and pic from

My Review: There’s just something really fun about a good mystery. There are different types of mysteries, of course. You’ve got the fun and light mysteries, the low commitment mysteries, the gory mysteries, the hard core mysteries, the thriller mysteries…I could go on but you get my drift. I do enjoy mysteries, actually, and I’ve read quite a few of them from many various persuasions over the years. I have a sister-in-law who is a mystery junkie, but she really enjoys the Scandinavian thriller types, as well a lot of classics from heavyweights in the field. She also enjoys trying to solve the mystery beforehand. She’s one of those who watches lots of mystery shows as well (favoring the British variety) and knows whodunit despite even the best red herrings coming into play.

I am not like this.

Oh, I’m sure I could solve the mystery if I really put my mind to it. However, I try consciously not to. I like to be taken for a ride by the author, and I feel like that’s half the fun. They guide you, they show you, they manipulate you, and all the while you know it’s happening and I just like to let it happen. In fact, I don’t like it when it’s super obvious what happens. There should always be a little bit of a surprise or a little bit of a twist. That makes it fun. There’s a certain skill to this, though. The author can’t be clunky lest I figure out their game.

The Perfect Stranger is not a super serious mystery. It is mysterious all right, and it’s got a really interesting human factor in it with interesting characters, but I wouldn’t say that it would take Sherlock Holmes an entire Netflix episode to puzzle it out. And probably not even one of those blips when he’s going through a hundred cases in an hour. I tried hard to stay neutral in the whole novel, even though I could see what the author wanted me to think. I don’t consider this a good thing, really, if it’s completely obvious how the author is trying to manipulate you. Contrary to my previous paragraph, I like to be led along by the author, but I don’t like to see it coming a mile away where I’m following Captain Obvious in a conga line. I mean, come on. Give me some credit. So I felt like this was manipulative in that way—like Miranda wasn’t quite able to pull off the nuances needed to make you think one thing when it’s actually another. However, I find this to be a fault in many super popular books, i.e. Girl on a Train. I didn’t love it like everyone else did for this very same reason. (Read my review here).

There are some fun little twists and turns and the writing makes for quick reading. There are some compelling characters, although some didn’t live up to their full potential, I think. They fizzled out for one reason or another. It’s not the best of the genre nor the worst, but if you’re into super popular mysteries that barely skirt the genre, this would be a great airplane book or one for something to just cleanse your palate. I used it for that and it fit my needs quite satisfactorily.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, and some minor sex and violence. I would say it rates on the lighter scale for the popular mystery genre.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Paper Wishes - Lois Sepahban

Summary: Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family's life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It's 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn't until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family. (image and synopsis from

My Review: I stumbled upon this book while looking through an old list of recommended books I'd received last year.  The premise intrigued me, and so I hurried to check it out.

This story was a quick read, well written and touching.  I knew about the Japanese relocations camps during WWII (even know someone who was in the camp at Topaz), but didn't really know much more than that.

History is stained with sad and tragic events that more often that not affect innocent people.  What I loved about this book was it took a difficult subject--how anyone of Japanese descent was placed in desert camps to wait out the war for fear they would spy for the enemy--and placed it in the eyes of the most innocent, a child.  And a vulnerable child at that.

Manami is not allowed to bring her dog when her family is relocated, and her poor Yujjin is ripped away from her, sending her into a state where she refuses to speak.  Not so much refuses as she feels her throat is caked and coated with the dust of the desert land her family is sent to, and she simply can't anymore.

Each chapter relates a month spent in the camp, going over the logistics of living there, how different the harsh desert land is from the lush wet coast where Manami used to live, school with her insightful and kind teacher, her confusion that anyone with a face like hers must be locked away, her older brother's attempts to make life better, and the dogs Manami sees cropping up that only remind her of her lost Yujiin.

Manami's connection with Yujiin was strong (and a particular strong point with me--I love children-dog relationship stories), and also the namesake of the book.  In hopes that she can reach her dog again, she draws pictures of Yujiin, sending them to the wind and hoping he will see them and come find her.  These paper wishes, along with other drawings she makes for her kind teacher Miss Rosalie, help her through her dark and scary time, the art helping her remember her old life, helping her to cope, and helping her to heal.

This was the author's first novel, and I felt a very noble story.  These sorts of tales are bits of history that could easily get overlooked or lost.  In my opinion, stories are a way we connect with the world, and for someone who struggles and dislikes reading history books and biographies, finding stories--however fictional the characters--that relate history help me to learn more about it.  The characters themselves may not be real, but they were based on real people and circumstances, and these stories help us to remember.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Again, this is a difficult piece of history, but it's written with care and compassion through Manami's eyes.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Fisher of Slaves - Dick Parsons

Summary: Always having wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father killed in 1759 in the Battle of Quiberon Bay, 13 year old Nathaniel persuades his reluctant mother to allow him to pursue a career at sea, but owing to a foolish misunderstanding, he serves his apprenticeship on a slave-trading ship. Her new-found horror of the slave trade and fears that her innocent son will be corrupted by it fires an unrelenting desire for its abolition. Her son’s life in a slaver, the horrors of the trade and her struggles to do “something for those poor creatures” are all beautifully bound up in this story which is difficult to put down. (Summary from, image from I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I like to listen to a popular history podcast. As a history buff, I could never get enough in school, and I love looking at specific instances in history in a deeper manner than a lecture designed to cover a decade or a century would entail. I subscribe to the belief that the more we know about history, the more prepared we are to choose more wisely and to avoid the same pitfalls our predecessors have. However, I struggle when the hosts of my favorite podcasts try to apply their current standards of living to situations centuries earlier. (Honestly, I could go on a whole tirade about the sanctimony and holier-than-thou attitude that accompanies that certain pitfall. But I won’t.) 

Unfortunately, I found that this attitude permeated this novel to the fullest extent. While there is no one who can deny that enslaving another human being is wholly wrong, I was bothered through the book by the broad-strokes that the author painted his characters. Were anyone to only read this book and no other historical text, one would think that the entire 17th century was ruled and practically populated solely by their equivalent of drug lords, pimps, and dog fighters, with only a small few people to be found with any goodness at all.

However, I can imagine why the author would choose to separate his characters so drastically. It certainly makes the writing easier if there are only black and white characters, unfortunately, it also makes the writing lazy, and I found that the laziness permeated the entire story. While the author certainly is knowledgeable about sailing, the passages that dealt with the ships were truly the only passages I found interesting. His passion for ships and the sea were evident, bringing life to those words that I found lacking throughout the rest of the story. 

The characters were, as mentioned earlier, either perfect or evil. That’s just not realistic. Never in my life have I met someone who is perfectly evil or perfectly good. Even the most despicable people I’ve either met or studied have had a measure of good in them, and the lack of that measure in these characters made them wholly foreign. I couldn’t relate to any of them at all, despite how desperately I tried. 
As for the story itself, I found it simplistic in the extreme. The only conflicts that arose were resolved within a paragraph, again, contributing to the dragging of the story. (In my personal notes about this book, instead of writing why I disliked it or why it didn’t resonate me, I only wrote “No.”. So, there’s that.)

There are so many reasons a book doesn’t find purchase with a reader. Truthfully, I expected more overall, and since it didn’t deliver, I was left disappointed. I can’t in good conscience recommend this to anyone, however. It’s simply too haphazard. 

Rating: One star

For the Sensitive Reader: Rape of a slave happens more than once, mistreatment of the slaves, misogyny, various anachronistic phrases, places, and things. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

Summary: From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country. 

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.
  (summary and pic from

My Review: I think that the best way to describe this book is to say that it is complex. It’s not complex in a way like your BioChem 200 textbook is, but it is complex in that it is many layered and the story is very involved. There are many characters, but enough that you need some sort of list at the beginning to refer back to. They are all contained in their own respective stories and Kostova is a competent author who can manage all of them.

The book starts with a flashback to a tragic situation in the main female character’s life. This situation is touched upon sometimes, but is actually kind of irrelevant and I think added a layer to the story that was unnecessary. Nothing ever comes to fruition about it and because of that I wouldn’t have missed it. I think people can be vulnerable and understand sadness and tragedy, especially in the situation that is upcoming.

Then the book moves to another part in the female protagonist’s life, the present day. As mentioned in the description, through a strange turn of events, she ends up with an urn and from there the story just takes off and has many complex and somewhat improbable twists and turns, although they weren’t completely impossible so that makes the story interesting.

So then it turns out that the book is actually a time hop book where we learn about the life of the man in the urn…and his family and friends and related people. Because of that, there is some time hopping inside the time hopping. And the history of Bulgaria is also in there, which I was unfamiliar with. It is tragic and horrible and reminiscent of other tragedies from that same area. I found this part to be the most surprising, actually. Good historical fiction has a way of bringing the past to life that I wholeheartedly appreciate and this book does just that. Kostova definitely brings to light a part of history that is just as tragic as the work camps during Nazi Germany, but is not as well known, and I appreciated that.

This book has some good twists and turns, some I saw coming and some I did not. Kostova is obviously a writer who is competent enough to juggle all of the complexities of the book and deal with the many layers even with the complexities, which I appreciated. When I finished the book my mind was kind of blown about how she was able to handle so much that was going on in such a graceful way.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I believe there was one layer of the protagonist’s story that could have been left out for simplicity’s sake. It didn’t really add to the story and with a book this complex and this deep, simplicity is a good thing.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book with some sad and tragic events, including war violence. There is some minor language and sexual content but I think it is fairly clean considering the genre and the events. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Surprise Yourself: Get Out of Your Head & Into the World - Lisa Currie

Summary: Turn every day into a new beginning!  Brimming with unique and game-changing ways to try something new, Surprise Yourself presents simple activities to make every day count.

  • Start a club
  • Compliment a stranger
  • Ask a child for advice
  • Draw someone's portrait
  • Celebrate a friendiversary
Offering plenty of room to record your progress and insights, this is a DIY happiness guide to share with a friend or use as a personal playbook for jump-starting each day.  Flip to any page and begin!  (Disclaimer: This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  Surprise Yourself is the first book that I have accepted for review in a very long time.  Seriously.  It’s been years. However, I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert with a tendency to spend a little too much time stuck in my own head, so the idea that a book could pull me out of that was intriguing.  At first glance, it certainly appears sunshine-y and uplifting, if I were to judge based solely on the cover (which I would never admit to doing).  Now, to dig into the book.

Oh, look!  The dedication is a reminder (to the author’s future self, but it works for the reader as well) to “spend less time trying to predict what could happen in every scenario and more time just showing up to see what does happen.”  *Gasp*  It’s like she knows me.  Moving on.

Surprise Yourself is not a book you read.  Not really.  While there is some reading involved, it is mostly a book meant to spur you to action -- to get you off the couch, out of the house, and out into the world.  It's designed to be something you can use to connect with others (say, a friend or family member) or to rediscover yourself and engage in a little activity that will stretch your comfort zone.  Essentially, she says:  It’s okay to be nervous.  It’s okay to do the easy things first.  Skip around the book.  Have fun.  Reach a little.  Explore yourself and the world around you.  Don’t take things to seriously. And, of course, surprise yourself.

Here are a few examples of activities in the book:
  • Have a stranger plan your day – Ask someone you don’t know very well (or at all) to suggest three ways you could spend your day in your current city or town.  
  • Partake in a bit of people watching – This page comes with some fun prompts for imagining the lives of strangers.
  • Go on a silent date – Don’t worry, the author provides several (clean) ideas for silent activities.  
  • Learn a few words in a new language
  • Put up an encouraging poster in your neighborhood  
  • Ask a child for advice (there are prompts or you can go your own way)
  • Let a dog take you for a walk
  • Sign up for a class you’ve always wanted to try
There are over a hundred more ideas (some silly, some serious) but I kind of feel like sharing them all wouldn’t be sporting.  Most of the pages have writing prompts, places to doodle, record your thoughts, or jot down the responses of others.  There are even several pages at the back that give the summarized version of each activity and allow you to color them in as you go  -- sort of an introvert's bucket-list, if you will, that rounds out the book quite nicely.  While the activity suggestions are appropriate for most ages, there are a few that might be more appropriate with adult supervision, simply for safety’s sake, so if your plan is to hand this book over to your kid, you might want to take a look at what they plan to do for the day just to give it the okay, lest your child attend a peaceful protest without you or decide to give a stranger a temporary tattoo.  Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a little extra push to get outside themselves and more fully embrace life.

For the sensitive reader: No worries.  

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

If you're interested in purchasing this book, you'll find it (and a few more examples of what's in the book) here.  (ps.  This is a courtesy link.  I don't make any money off it.)

If you'd like to read more about Lisa Currie's other books (The Positivity Kit, Me, You, Us, and The Scribble Diary, you can see them on the author's website here.  (Again...courtesy link.  No $$ made)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge - Helen Rappaport

Summary: Between the first revolution in February 1917 and Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in October, Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) was in turmoil – felt nowhere more keenly than on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt where the foreign visitors and diplomats who filled hotels, clubs, bars and embassies were acutely aware of the chaos breaking out on their doorsteps and beneath their windows.

Among this disparate group were journalists, businessmen, bankers, governesses, volunteer nurses and expatriate socialites. Many kept diaries and wrote letters home: from an English nurse who had already survived the sinking of the Titanic; to the black valet of the US Ambassador, far from his native Deep South; to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who had come to Petrograd to inspect the indomitable Women’s Death Battalion led by Maria Bochkareva.

Helen Rappaport draws upon this rich trove of material, much of it previously unpublished, to carry us right up to the action – to see, feel and hear the Revolution as it happened to a diverse group of individuals who suddenly felt themselves trapped in a ‘red madhouse.’ (Summary and pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: I don’t know if you read Helen Rappaport’s The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, but as soon as I started reading Caught in the Revolution, I remembered exactly what I thought about that book because this one is very consistently like that one. It’s about a similar time, a similar place, a similar topic, and a similar organizational and writing style. It’s like Rappaport took the telescope she was viewing the Romanov sisters with and just zoomed outward enough that she was looking at the city and the surrounding culture that was going on at the same time. I think they’re great companion books that way, actually, and I can totally understand how after an author would do so much research about this era that she would be able to write this book as well, using the same ton of research and original documents that were helpful for writing The Romanov Sisters.

So what did I think, you say? I’m so glad you asked.

First off, I am very impressed with the amount of knowledge and research that has been stuffed into this book. It’s astonishing, really. When I look at this book—which is quite hefty all on its own, actually—I can imagine that it’s like a meteor—it’s small, but hugely packed with information way denser than its outside would suggest. It’s just a virtual tome of wealth of this era. Secondly, as to be expected in a novel this in-depth and well-researched, it’s quite dense. It was not a book that I would sit down and read for a casual half hour of reading. No. I had to be focused and on my game in order to keep up what was going on. It moves quickly and from character to character. There were a few consistent characters throughout, but as it is not historical fiction but rather a historical narrative, the journalists who served as the main characters and eye witnesses to the revolution were quoted and discussed in a very scholarly way. That is to say, the descriptions were there, the dialogue was there, but I wasn’t getting all warm and fuzzy with the goings on. It was all very academic. That being said, Rappaport is obviously an accomplished writer, but her style in this book does not make for the kind of light beach or airplane reading. That’s okay, though. We can’t only survive on cake, can we? Sometimes we must read something of substance. This book is of substance. I thought the topic was fascinating and very pertinent to what is going on in our world right now.

This book took me a very long time to read. Usually I’m a really fast reader and if I am really into a book, I can finish that thing in a day or so no prob. If it’s JFic? Forgettaboutit. I can polish that off in a few hours. This book took me weeks. Months. It’s partly my fault because I wasn’t reading it consistently. It really is very heavy and dense and although it is a very interesting era, it just made for the kind of reading that frankly I’m not always up to.  However, like I said, that is my issue.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book about a revolution. There is some discussion of violence, but it is not gratuitous. There is some language, but it is quotes from people who lived through the revolution and the time surrounding it. I found this book to be very appropriate and one that could be shared in any setting basically. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Choices - J.E. Laufer

Summary: We are all familiar with the horrifying atrocities of the Holocaust, but lesser known is the second harrowing ordeal many Jewish families faced after the Hungarian Revolution. The inconceivable reality of returning to life after concentration camps to build a family and find yourselves fleeing as refugees 10 years later is the true story of author J.E. Laufer’s parents. Herself only 2 years old at the time, Laufer has used family memories and the account of the remarkable 16-year-old Christian girl who aided her family’s escape to write this fictionalized account of the events following this period of turbulence. 

The pages of history books come to life for young adult readers with characters that leap off the page and events that can sometimes parallel all-too-closely the modern resurgence of a refugee crisis, anti-semitism and political unrest. Summary and image from I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review:  Life after the camps wasn’t easy. While many Jews left Europe altogether, many tried to go home, to reclaim their happiness in a place that was familiar, to rebuild their lives. For many, that worked. But for the many Jews who found themselves behind the Iron Curtain, they found the same rabid anti-semitism and distrust too much to bear. Some of these brave individuals chose to emigrate to the West in the hope of finding a more tolerant life, but for many of those who chose to leave, the borders were closed. 

J.E. Laufer has captured the essence of her parents’ flight from Hungary to Austria in this delightful little novel. The writing and tact that are used in the retelling are perfectly suited for middle-grade readers or reluctant YA readers — I was able to finish it in an hour. Please don’t let the small size drive you away, the story is one that deserves to be read. The decision to leave, the nearly-insurmountable task of saying goodbye to loved ones without letting them know too much, the risk of trusting a stranger with such a life-or-death task, as a mother, I want my children to know and understand the sacrifice so many made for the chance to be free, and I love how gracefully this novel illustrates it.

It was nearly impossible to see the miracles this family experienced to allow them to get to the West, and then once in the West, allowed them to survive.This was one of those books that while I flew through it, it left an indelible impression on me. It’s sweet.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Squeaky clean, other than the mention of a boy who had been shot trying to escape.

Monday, September 11, 2017

We Remember

Another year has come and gone.  And we still remember. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Big Fat Spotlight on the Big Fat Notebook Series

Have you seen the Big Fat Notebook series?  
If your kids are headed into middle might want to keep reading.
These books are touted as the complete middle school studies guide for their respective subjects -- a useful compilation of notes borrowed from the SMARTEST KID in CLASS (Double-checked by an AWARD-WINNING teacher).  

Now, whether that last statement is truth or gimmick, I do not know.  I'm not sure how they decide who qualifies as the "smartest kid in class."  What I do know is that The Big Fat Notebook series is a study aid...(drum roll) that my kids ACTUALLY WANT TO USE!

I'm going to let you absorb that for a minute.

I purchased the set for my two older girls (one in middle school and one fast approaching) and they have really loved them.  My 11 year old likes to look through them for fun and my 13 year old actually reads them along with some of her lessons at school.  

If you open one of these books, it doesn't take long to see why it is so appealing to the middle school mind.  Each book is set up as if you are reading the class notes of a pretty fantastic (and artistic) note taker.  The pictures and text are engaging, approachable, and easy to understand.  Here's an example of one of the pages from the the Big Fat Science Notebook.

Pretty fun, huh?!  Like you might actually want to look at this for longer than 10 seconds, right?!

All the books are like that.  
Here are a few more sample pages I got off the publisher's website.

Just looking at those makes my brain actually perk up a bit and my fingers itch to flip through them.  I've included the table of contents from each book below so that you can see which topics are covered in each book, though I have omitted the sub-topics in the interest of space. 

In World History... 
Unit 1: The First Humans: Prehistory-3500 BC
Unit 2: First Civilizations 3500 BC - 300 CE 
Unit 3: The Middle Ages: 400 CE-1500 CE 
Unit 4: The Renaissance & Reformation 1350-1650
Unit 5: The Age of Exploration 1400-1800 
Unit 6: Revolution and Enlightenment 1500-1865 BC 
Unit 7: The Era of Imperialism 1800-1914
Unit 8: World Conflicts in the Early 20th Century 
Unit 9: Post-World War II:  The World from 1945 to Today

In English/Language Arts... 
Unit 1: Grammar 
Unit 2: Language
Unit 3: Reading Fiction
Unit 4: Reading Non-Fiction
Unit 5: Writing

In Science...
Unit 1: Scientific Investigation
Unit 2: Matter, Chemical Reactions & Solutions
Unit 3: Motion, Forces, and Work
Unit 4: Energy
Unit 5: Outer Space: The Universe & the Solar System
Unit 6: The Earth, Weather, Atmosphere, & Climate
Unit 7: Life: Classification and Cells
Unit 8: Plants & Animals
Unit 9: The Human Body and Body Systems
Unit 10: History of Life: Heredity, Evolution, and Fossils, 
Unit 11: Ecology: Habitats, Interdependence, and Resources

In Math...
Unit 1: The Number System
Unit 2: Rations, Proportions, and Percents
Unit 3: Expressions and Equations
Unit 4: Geometry
Unit 5: Statistics and Probability
Unit 6: The Coordinate Plane and Functions

In American History...
Unit 1: Prehistory- Early 1600s
Unit 2: Colonial America, 1607-1780s
Unit 3: American Revolution and the Early Republic, 1776-1791
Unit 4: American Expansion, 1801-1861
Unit 5: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850s-1870s
Unit 6: Reshaping the Nation, 1850-1917
Unit 7: World Wars and Modern America, 1900s-1930s
Unit 8: World War II, 1930s-1945
Unit 9: Post-World War II Era, 1945-1980
Unit 10: American History...and Current-ish Events!

In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I am not a proficient when it comes to any of these subjects, so I can't speak conclusively to the comprehensive coverage or complete accuracy of specific topics. I haven't read them all the way through and so I don't feel fully qualified to "review" them for this blog.  However, I found that from my own personal observations the Big Fat Notebook series did a great job of covering the basics while keeping things simple.  Ultimately, though, it all boils down to this...I was looking for something to help supplement my girls' education...something that would spur them along, liven things up, and give them something they could refer to if they needed a little refresher.  These have done the trick so far. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Summary: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I will, at some times in my life, be moving along and not really be aware—aware of history, aware of events, aware of things that I should be aware of. I do a lot of reading (or at least I try to) to expose myself to these things. Many times I’m aware of what I’m reading about, and indeed I will often pick books that involve something I’m interested in or a historical event I know something about and would like to know more about. Sometimes, however, I am caught completely off guard.

I am not unaware of slavery nor the underground railroad, nor the atrocities that these things brought to pass. I am aware of the racial struggles that continue even today in a nation with a history such as ours (and not just American history, BTW). But I think the thing I found most jarring about The Underground Railroad was just the sheer day-to-day terrors and atrocities and almost hopelessness that afforded slaves during this time.

The Underground Railroad is a book that combines historical fiction with a bit of a twist, that twist (and I’m not giving anything away here, this can be read in the description of the book) is that the underground railroad is an actual railroad with rail cars and trains and engineers and such. While this does add a bit of a twist to history, it doesn’t change what happened in the past and really just provides a mechanism and easy metaphor for what each railway station (i.e. slavery and attitudes of the residents towards those slaves) is like in the different stations it stops. I found it to be a creative way to move the story along and cover a lot of ground physically.

As mentioned above, the violence in this book is really quite difficult. I will often read while eating if I’m alone, and there were times that I couldn’t actually read this book while eating because it was so disturbing. This almost never happens, by the way. It is just so difficult to imagine people treating other people the way that some of the slave owners treated their slaves. It was horrible. I don’t enjoy reading about violence, and especially violence inflicted on children or babies, but every once in awhile I force myself to read a book that will bring reality back. I don’t go hunting for violence, but I try to vary my historical fiction from things where people are falling in love across time (which I don’t really read) to actual historical fiction, some of which is not as rosy as others. I don’t want to be too careful or too complacent in my day-to-day life. I want to remember what it took to get where we are—not only so I can be grateful and keep perspective, but also be aware of what could happen should not all be vigilant and continue moving towards more justice, more love, more freedom, more understanding. I believe this is just such a book—it will jar you out of your complacency and definitely be uncomfortable at times. But I find it to be one of those books that is worth the read, and a book that will force you to put yourself in the shoes of another, not just to more fully understand their plight, but the plight of us all.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is violence in this book, but it is not gratuitous. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Indian Creek Chronicles: A Winter Alone in the Wilderness - Pete Fromm

Summary:  Indian Creek Chronicles is Pete Fromm's account of seven winter months spent alone in a tent in Idaho guarding salmon eggs and coming face-to-face with the blunt realities of life as a contemporary mountain man.  A gripping story of adventure and a modern-day Walden, this contemproary classic established Fromm as one of the West's premier voices.  (Summary from back of book)

My Review:  Anyone who knows me knows that I am not an outdoorsy person.  I don't like mosquitoes.  I don't like being cold.  I loathe hiking.  Don't get me wrong, I can still sleep in a tent when called upon and a stay in a yurt can be quite pleasant (sans howling baby), but, as a general rule, I like my cozy bed and my indoor plumbing and can only be induced to leave it on occasion.  That's why it is so hysterical that I picked up this book.

When Pete Fromm, a young college student, is given the opportunity to spend seven months living in a tent in the Idaho wilderness, he imagines it will be a true "mountain man" experience, and volunteers without a second thought.  Unfortunately, Pete is wholly unprepared to hack it in the great outdoors, having only the foggiest notion of what it means to be a true mountain man.  Upon his arrival at Indian creek, Pete quickly realizes his survival depends on the ability to master a variety of skills (e.g. cooking, hunting, woodcutting, etc) in a short amount of time.  With youthful energy, he throws himself headlong at the task and quickly finds that a solitary life in the wintry backwoods of Idaho is more difficult, lonely, and wonderful than he could ever have imagined.

One of my quirks is that I love reading about experiences that I will likely never have in real life (see my review of Wild here).  I have absolutely no intention of spending any length of time alone in any kind of wilderness, but I thoroughly enjoyed joining the author on his adventures...if only vicariously.  Pete Fromm is nothing if not an excellent writer and his words paint a magnificent picture of the scope and grandeur of the natural world while still maintaining his own small place within it and within the story.  With each turn of the page, he brought to life beautiful vistas, new animals, and unexpected experiences.  I tramped along with him through the crusty snow, climbing icy ridges, watching a family of otters play, setting traps (and then regretting them), hacking at the ice covered streams, and stalking herds of elk.  And you know what, we both had more fun that we would have had I actually been there.  This book is a PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assosciation) Book of the Year Winner and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the great outdoors...or to those who would rather just experience it vicariously.

For the Sensitive Reader:  A handful of swear words.  Some drinking, trapping, skinning, and consumption of wild animals.

My Rating: 4 stars.


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