Monday, April 29, 2019

Dumplin' - Julie Murphy

Summary:  Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.

With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs, and a wildly unforgettable heroine—Dumplin’ is guaranteed to steal your heart. (Summary and image from goodreads.com) 

My Review:  If you've been on Netflix in the last several months, you've likely seen a trailer for the Netflix Original movie Dumplin'.  It centers around a somewhat socially outcast, extra-curvy, small town girl named Willowdean Dickson, who decides to enter the local beauty pageant where her mother had previously reigned supreme.  She isn't the typical sort to enter and her boldness encourages a few other social pariahs to follow her lead.  When I found out the show was based on a book, well, I threw Dumplin' in my Thriftbooks cart and added the movie version to my Netflix list.  Obviously, I'll be reading the book first, because that's how I roll.  If I like it (and you'll soon find out if I did), I'll let you know how the movie compares.

Julie Murphy's Dumplin' is a heartfelt, coming-of-age-novel with a unique and lively heroine.  Willowdean Dixon is just trying to make it through the daily rigmarole, mourning her aunt, struggling to connect with her mother, and, yes, carrying around a little extra weight.  Thankfully, Willowdean is okay with her curves.  She's got 'em and they're not going anywhere, and there's no need to apologize for it.  In her words:
"There's something about swimsuits that make you think you've got to earn the right to wear them. And that's wrong.  Really, the criteria is simple.  Do you have a body?  Put a swimsuit on it."
I loved her acceptance of her shape and I wanted to soak up some of that confidence. 

However, not far into the book, Willowdean is drawn into in a romance with a ridiculously handsome boy that knocks her self-confidence off kilter.  How could someone so gorgeous ever like me? she thinks, and cringes every time his hands stray to her waist.  When she finds out the boy will be attending her school, Will can't imagine facing the mountain of incredulity and ridicule that she is certain will come raining down from her classmates.  And so, the romance ends.  Sort of.  Frankly, I wasn't sure I liked this book while Willowdean was getting her groove on.  The relationship seemed almost entirely physical and I was suspicious of the boy's motives, probably because I've been conditioned (like the main character) to believe that super hot boys are only attracted to 'twiggy' girls.  I wasn't aware that I was size-prejudice, but I did have a hard time wrapping my head around their relationship and it was uncomfortable to confront that part of myself.  

When Willowdean decides to enter the local beauty pageant, in memory of her aunt and in order to prove something to herself, her stunning, slender best friend decides to enter as well. For reasons she can't quite fathom or explain, Will is furious and the two have a big blow up that lasts for much of the book.  The utter lack of BFF allows Willowdean to ever-so-slowly branch out into a new circle of 'misfits': Millie, the fat girl at school that makes even Will feel thin; Amanda, with her diffferent-sized legs; and Hannah, whose long face is frequently compared to livestock of the equine variety.  I loved the camraderie that came with Willowdean's new crew.  It wasn't easy at first, but eventually they grew into something pretty special and learned to to appreciate each other and their own uniqueness (and to care a little less about what others might think).  Each girl, including Willowdean, experienced their fair share of bullying at school and I appreciate this book for the issues it raised and the lesson it teaches on how we should (and shouldn't) treat others and that we should also be a little less critical of ourselves.   Honestly, who doesn't need this lesson?  

Dumplin's southern setting was another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed.  I've never been to the Texas (unless you count a brief layover Houston back in 2000), but I'm fascinated by southern culture, drawl, food, and general atmosphere.  I have no way of knowing how true-to-life Dumplin landed, just that it felt real in my mind and I enjoyed the trip.

Now, on to the things I didn't like.  I'll be brief.  First, swearing.  It was sprinkled throughout, and not lightly.  If the premise or writing had been crappy, I probably would have quit.  But it wasn't, so I didn't.  Second, there was also a fair amount of making out and sexual discussion (more so at the beginning that at the end.  The making out didn't really seem to have any emotion behind it, other than raging teenage hormones, and I was actually disappointed in the character.  I hate that I'm at this point in my life, with a teenage daughter or two, where I start to slip in to MOM mode when reading, even if I'm just reading for myself.  It's goes a little something like: (Willowdean makes out behind dumpster) Well,I certainly wouldn't want my daughters doing that! ...and so I am somehow critical of a fictional character for fictionally making out with her fictional crush.  It's annoying.  But there you have it.  I didn't like all the 'hanky panky' (because clearly I am old and and must now use such words) and the sexual break-down of Ellen's love life.  I will keep trying to remind myself NOT to slip into MOM mode while reading and to stop getting all judgmental about the life-choices of fictional characters.  I'm a work in progress.    

I really did enjoy the premise and overall message of this book, as it brings up some interesting topics for discussion (bullying, healthy romantic relationships, accepting others for their differences, and not being size-prejudiced).  The end of the book really brings it all together in a great, uplifting, you-go-girls kind of way and while I'm not quite ready to hand it over to my daughter right this second...I am considering it.   I'm going to give the movie a watch and see which medium is better at conveying the overall message without getting too graphic or salty.  It's weird, but sometimes the movie is 'cleaner' than the book in these situations. Ultimately, as with a lot of books I've read lately, you'll likely enjoy this book more if you aren't a sensitive reader.  


UPDATE:  I watched Dumplin' on Netflix tonight, or should I say Dumplin' Lite.  The Netflix version of the book is light on everything.  Light on all the things I didn't like (swearing, sexual convos, etc), which I thoroughly appreciated, but also light on all the things I loved.  All in all, it wasn't a bad tale, but it had far less emotional depth, several missing characters, and really only had time to skim the surface of the book.  Oh, and for those sensitive (or not) to such things, there were still plenty of Dolly Parton drag queens.   

My Rating: 3.25 Stars 

For the sensitive reader:  Swearing, some making out, and sexual dialogue.  A secondary character 'comes out' towards the end of the book.  The girls also accidentally ended up attending a drag show, but I actually didn't mind that part as they came away with new confidence and an important lesson learned.   

Friday, April 26, 2019

Bera the One-Headed Troll - Eric Orchard

Summary: Bera doesn't ask for much in life. She's a solitary, humble troll, tending her island pumpkin patch in cheerful isolation. She isn't looking for any trouble.

But when trouble comes to find her, it comes in spades. A human baby has arrived in the realm of the trolls, and nobody knows where it came from, but Bera seems to be the only person who doesn't want it dead. There's nothing to it but to return the adorable little thing to its parents.

Like it or not, Bera's gone and found herself a quest. (image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: I happened upon this book in the graphic novel section, and, of course since I love troll stories, I knew I had to check it out.  

First of all, I enjoyed our main character, Bera, a simple, contented troll who ends up having to go on a great quest to try and save a little baby.  Her little owl friend is a great companion to Bera, willing to help her out even when the situation gets dangerous, and it gets dangerous quickly with our villain, a creepy witch who is looking for the baby.

While on her quest she meets a lot of other spooky and cool characters, my particular favorite being a troop of giant hedgehogs who help her on her way.  The other trolls she meets are intimidating and only sort of helpful, which leads Bera to realize that she can't rely on these old heroes and must end up being the hero herself.

I loved the illustrations in this book, the kind of dark, creepy art with the glowing, orb-like eyes.  It really added to the ominous atmosphere of the story.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Just the spooky element of being hunted by a creepy witch and baby endangerment

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls - Anissa Gray

Summary: The Mothers meets An American Marriage in this dazzling debut novel about mothers and daughters, identity and family, and how the relationships that sustain you can also be the ones that consume you.

The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives.

Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband Proctor are arrested, and in a heartbeat the family goes from one of the most respected in town to utter disgrace. The worst part is, not even her sisters are sure exactly what happened.

As Althea awaits her fate, Lillian and Viola must come together in the house they grew up in to care for their sister’s teenage daughters. What unfolds is a stunning portrait of the heart and core of an American family in a story that is as page-turning as it is important.


Summary from goodreads.com and pic from amazon.com

My Review: This book was equal parts difficult and easy to read. It was difficult because the subject matter is raw, and it feels realistic and messy, much like real-life families and family relationships. Even if you have the best family and family relationships around, having a family is complicated. There are so many different relationships, and these relationships are ever-shifting and changing as life shifts and change. The Butler family has had its share of difficulties, maybe more than the average family, and so it’s difficult to read because some of these difficulties are really hard. It’s easy to read, though, because although I hadn’t personally undergone the situations that the Butler sisters had faced, they were very relatable. I also really appreciated that much like real people, the characters in this book had different facades for different people. Maybe they appeared successful whereas underneath they were really suffering; maybe they appeared to have solid relationships whereas in reality they were suffering…like I said. Just like real people. If nothing else, I think these kinds of characters help the reader realize that no matter what someone’s outside is telling them, there is always more to the story. So in that way, it was easy to read.

I’ve decided that I really enjoy books that have multiple points of view. I don’t know if I always prefer a first person narrator, but a well-done first person narrator has the potential to draw you into their lives and help you understand the situation in a way that is almost impossible to do in any other type of writing. This book had different points of view from each of the sisters in the different chapters, which is a style I also like if it’s done well. In this case it was, so I felt like it was easy to relate to the situations and see where each woman was coming from. Also, I enjoy the concrete organization of being able to see whose viewpoint it is by the title of the chapter. It simplifies things, and allows a reader to stop mid-way and pick up later and if the voice isn’t immediately apparent (by maybe an accent or a specifically-written prose style), the chapter title allows one to jump right back in. I don’t always get uninterrupted reading time (so sad), so I do appreciate small crutches that help me stay in the story and keep up with what is going on, even if I have to leave it temporarily.

This story is a somewhat tragic one, and there are many people who were hurt in various ways. Like I mentioned above, this family has definitely had its fair share of struggles, maybe more than most. I found it interesting that this became an almost-generational thing, whereas the older generation would pass down the struggles to the next and so on and so on until the cycle was broken for one reason or another. I do believe that people are striving to do their best, but sometimes it’s hard to break out of the mold that you’ve been put into your entire life.

There were a lot of issues to be dealt with in this book, since the women narrating it had a lot of issues themselves. It’s not a long book, and because of that I think some of the issues were not able to be addressed or dealt with in a manner that maybe would have benefited the reader and the story. Almost every character had something that needed to be resolved, and obviously this is pretty much impossible to deal with as not everything can be neatly wrapped up in a bow, but I do think that some resolutions were glossed over and others not even mentioned in the end. I did enjoy this book, though, and recommend it for fiction readers who aren’t afraid to look at some tough issues and tough family relationships. It was good, realistic fiction that I think gives the reader a good glimpse into the lives of others, which I always think is important for learning empathy and understanding in humankind in general.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, some discussion of sex, and some possibly triggering situations involving abuse.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Remarkably You - Pat Zietlow Miller (Illus. Patrice Barton)

Summary:  No matter your volume, your age, or your size, YOU have the power to be a surprise.  You have the know-how.  You're savvy and smart. You could change the world.  Are you willing to start?

This is a bold and uplifting love letter to all the things -- big or small -- that make us who we are.  With inspiring text by award-winning author Pat Zietlow Miller and exuberant illustrations by Patrice Barton, this book will delight readers as it shows all the ways they can be their remarkable selves.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Y'all, I feel like I've hit the children's book jackpot lately.  You might remember my recent reviews of Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre (the Spanish version of Alma and How She Got Her Name) and La Princesa and the Pea?  Well, I bought Remarkably You right alongside both of them at my local elementary school book fair.  It's a good think I snapped my copy up on the first day because the rest of the for-sale stack disappeared like elephant ears.  People bought them up quick.  With its essential, well-crafted message, entertaining, rhythmic cadence, and beautiful illustrations, it's not hard to see why!

Honestly, I loved every square inch of the book, but I feel like posting the text it in its entirety would violate some fairly standard copyright laws.  Still, I'd like you to get a feel of why I love it so much, so I'll stick to posting my three favorite parts:

  • No matter your volume, your age, or your size, YOU have the power to be a surprise.  You have the know-how.  You're savvy and smart.  You could change the world.  Are you willing to start?
  • You have your own spirit, unparalleled flair.  So rock what you've got -- every day, everywhere. Perhaps you wander.  Or wonder.  Or sing.  The world needs your voice and the gifts that you bring.  You can make a difference.  In big ways or small.  You won't know how much till you give it your all.  So find what you're good at, what you have to give.  Then go share your sunshine wherever you live.  
  • Don't change how you act to be just like the rest. Believe in yourself and the things you do best.  So whether you're daring or careful or kind, embrace who you are and the way you're designed.  Dream your own dreams.  Hear your own heart.  You could change the world.  You just have to start.  Follow your path.  Do what you love to do.  Be completely, uniquely, remarkably YOU.  

I love how Remarkably You celebrates and affirms different personalities, dreams, talents, appearances, ethnic backgrounds, and abilities.  It encourages children to explore their world, look for ways to help, and problem solve using their own unique set of skills. I adore how it points out that some kids are quiet and prefer to hang back, while others are a bit more outgoing and exuberant...and that both are okay ways to be. Overall, Remarkably You provides a powerful, much-needed message of self-acceptance, empowerment, and encouragement to the rising generation.

Now, if I were tied down, tickle-tortured, and forced to give one piece of constructive criticism for the book, it would be that it would have been nice to see a pudgy kid or two included in the illustrations, in the interest of body diversity.  But that's all I've got.   Seriously.  That's it.

If you have children, grandchildren, or need a great gift idea for a niece or nephew...GET THIS BOOK.

My Rating: 5 (Remarkable) Stars

For the sensitive reader:  All good things.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Unsheltered - Barbara Kingsolver


Summary: The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.
 


Summary and pic from goodreads.com.

My Review: I love Barbara Kingsolver’s writing. I’m obviously not alone, either, since she’s one of the best-known and best-loved authors in modern writing. Some of her books are seriously iconic, and I think I’ve read pretty much all of her novels. I don’t always agree with her politics, which I’ve talked about in reviews before. She’s very heavy-handed with them. However, I’m not a person who shies away from people who think differently than me. In fact, I love learning new things and new viewpoints, even if I don’t agree with them. That being said, she has viewpoints that I do agree with, some I don't, and she’s someone whose opinion I appreciate hearing, no matter whether I agree or not.

One thing I love about Kingsolver’s writing is that her stories are more substantive than just being a good story (although they are definitely that). Whether it’s a political opinion she’s trying to get out or an environmental issue she’s trying to make the reader aware of, Kingsolver writes with a purpose. Unsheltered is no exception to this. It’s a time hop book, which features two different stories going on in the same place (in this case) but at different times. One deals with (so many) modern issues (of which Kingsolver has many opinions), and one deals with issues of the past (of which Kingsolver also has many opinions about). Both stories are compelling and well-written. I really enjoyed the historical story, and would have loved to hear more about the female scientist, Mary Treat, who was a real person. She is so interesting and really ahead of her time, was even considered a peer by Charles Darwin, with whom she corresponded for years. She was not the main character in her story, however; a fictional male schoolteacher is, and although he is interesting, I would have loved to hear more about Mary.

The main character in the present day story, Willa, is not nearly as charming as Mary and the other story, although she seems more real in this regard. She is tired, stressed, and in a very difficult situation, especially considering that she should be—in her own opinion—stable and close to retiring at this point, instead of in the topsy-turvy situation she’s currently in. I did not like Willa that much, and found her to be tiring. She’s also the one who had the most dramatic political tirades and opinions, and I don’t always love that, whether or not I agree with the opinions or not. There’s something to be said for subtlety, and there is something else to be said for being hit over the head with opinions. Again. And again. And again, just for good measure.

So while I did enjoy it, this is not my favorite of Kingsolver’s books. The stories were not as cohesive-feeling as I feel like they could have been. When I read a time hop book, I always hope that the stories connect somewhat; that seems like what would be the point of a time hop book. These did in that they took place in the same house geographically (but in the end, well, you’ll see) but they also really didn’t. It felt like Kingsolver had read about Mary Treat somewhere and wanted to write about her but ended up concocting this whole shebang around her whereas I would have just enjoyed something more about Mary Treat. That being said, I continue to read all fiction by Kingsolver, and I probably will always continue to read all fiction by Kingsolver. She is an incredible writer and a true master in the field.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and discussion of sex. It’s a typical adult novel in this regard.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano

Summary:  A prime number is a lonely thing.  It can only be divided by itself or by one; it never truly fits with another.  Alice and Mattia, both "primes," are misfits haunted by early tragedies.  When the two meet as teenagers, they recognize in each other a kindred damaged spirit.  Years later, a chance encounter reunites them and forces a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface.  But can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together?  This brilliantly conceived and elegantly written debut novel by the youngest winner ever of the prestigious Premio Strega award has sold more than one million copies in Italy.  The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a stunning meditation on loneliness, love, and what it means to be human.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while now, giving me the eyeball and muttering read me, woman at odd intervals so this weekend I finally gave in.  I'll be honest, this book gave me the mixed feels. The writing was compelling, in that, like a river, it just sort of swept me away regardless of how I felt about it.  Sometimes the story was gentle and languid and other times it tossed me around, pushing me up against logs or dragging me under.  That's some powerful writing, but I can't say that I entirely loved the experience and I often thought about just throwing in the towel.  I'll explain a bit further...

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is almost entirely character/relationship driven, with setting barely putting a toe on stage.  In fact, I read three-quarters of the book before I realized most of it took place in Italy.  The where just didn't matter.  What did matter were the characters, their choices and interactions.  The main characters, Alice and Mattia, were two people so very different, broken, and alone.  The story began in their childhood and wound through and around key moments in their lives.  The author described their intermittent high school interactions as "a defective and asymmetrical friendship, made up of long absences and much silence, a clean and empty space where both could come back to breathe when the walls of their school became too close for them to ignore the feeling of suffocating."  I desperately wanted the 'mains' to really find each other (and themselves) and to have someone who could appreciate their differences, love their brokenness, and help them heal.  In some ways, I got what I wanted and in other ways I did not.

Unfortunately, it was the absolute vileness of a certain secondary character and the bullying, sexual situations, and crude subject matter that swirled around them that made me want to throw in the towel.  It was quite unsettling.  Viola, specifically, is a horrid horrid person.  She is like the sexually-aggressive Dolores Umbridge of this book and I couldn't hate her more.  Denis? Well, he's not so much vile as just lonely and confused about his sexuality, but I could have done without most of the details his story provided. To distance myself a bit, I skimmed over anything that got too graphic, but that fact that I kept having to do so made it rather hard to love the book in its entirety. 

One aspect of this book that I found interesting (and it was probably my favorite part of the book) was the way mathematics factored in to the story.  Mattia was exceptionally gifted, especially in math, and often preoccupied with the visual mathematics in the world around him.  Through his musings, the author introduced a concept that I'd never heard of before and that I find fascinating -- that of 'twin' primes.  Here's an thought-provoking excerpt that not only demonstrates what I mean in regards to the mathematical themes in the book but also showcases the author's writing abilities:
Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves.  They hold their place in an infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest.  They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia though they were wonderful.  Sometimes he thought they had ended up in that sequence by mistake, that they'd been trapped, like pearls strung on a necklace.  Other times he suspected that they too would have preferred to be like all the others, just ordinary numbers but for some reason they couldn't do it.  This second thought struck him mostly at night, in the chaotic interweaving images that comes before sleep, when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.
In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special.  Mathematicians call them twin primes:  pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching.  Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43.  If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer.  You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny.  Then, just when you're about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.  There is a common conviction among mathematicians that however far you go, there will always be another two, even if no one can say where exactly, until they are discovered.   
Mind.  Blown.  Such a fascinating concept and (in case you didn't catch it) it's also a not-so-subtle reference to Mattia and Alice's relationship over the years.  If I had to pick a page that best encompassed the entirety of The Solitude of Prime Numbers (minus the sexual elements), well, you just read it.

Booklist called this book "Beautiful and affecting. An intimate psychological portrait of two 'prime numbers'--together alone and along together."  It's an apt description.  However, though I loved the writing and was intrigued by the main characters journey and certain themes, I had a hard time overcoming my revulsion at some of the subject matter.  As such, I don't think I could recommend this book to most people I know.  Whether you like this book or not might depend on how much you fall into the category of "sensitive reader."  You'll have to make that call.

My Rating: 2 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  Move along.  There are a handful of swear words, a variety of sexual themes and situations, instances of self-harm, and triggers for anyone struggling with an eating disorder.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean - Lauren Child

Summary: It's not easy to concentrate at school when mysterious things are happening all around you. In fact, Clarice Bean is starting to feel just like her favorite heroine: Ruby Redfort, schoolgirl detective.

Clarice and her utterly best friend, Betty Moody, are planning to ace their book project about Ruby and win the class prize, until Betty disappears into thin air, and horrible teacher Mrs. Wilberton teams Clarice up with the naughtiest boy in school. Will her new partner ruin everything? Will Betty ever come back? And what on earth happened to the silver trophy everyone's hoping to win?

Lauren Child brings her trademark wacky wit and eccentric visual energy to a full-length, fastpaced Clarice Bean episode that will charm even the most capricious reader. (image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: I first discovered Lauren Child through the delightful children's show Charlie and Lola which is based on her picture books of the same name.  Child has an uncanny ability to write children so utterly well, particularly with dialogue.  The way her characters speak just feel like a child and how they observe the world.

Which is why I love Utterly Me, Clarice Bean so very much--the voice.  I love a unique first person voice, and love when they are so strong that person just becomes real.  Right away we're pulled straight into Clarice's life: "This is me, Clarice Bean.  I am not an only child, but I wish I was."

And from then on, we are taken along Clarice Bean's daily life, which is simple enough, except that the way this story is told you just don't want to put the book down.  Clarice and her best friend love these books called Ruby Redfort (I think a take on Nancy Drew), and they decide to become detectives and use the Ruby books to help guide them in how a detective should behave, which I also love because I love when children love books.  The characters in this book are also great, Clarice, her friend Betty, the naughty boy Karl, and Clarice's funny grandpa who is harboring several dogs in their house

Another fun thing about this book--the typeset.  Clarice has a vivid imagination, and often the words on the page will swoop and swirl, which only adds to the fun narrative.

And then we have Child's cute illustrations, her characters with big eyes, and the feel of someone playing cut and paste with magazine pictures, which works so well for her style of writing.

I have actually lost track of how many times I've read this book, it's one of those books that I love to pick up every couple of months and read again because the voice is just so charming.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Nothing offensive.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Dry - Neal Shusterman & Jarrod Shusterman

Summary: When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman.

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:  It’s been awhile since I’ve read any real post-apocalyptic YA Fic. There are always the fantasy novels that are dealing with societies on complete collapse after some far-in-the-past catastrophic event. And there are lots of books out there with “the chosen one” who is either a queen or needs to defeat the queen or comes from a lower point of society to overthrow those in charge etc., etc., etc. I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a good old-fashioned something-realistic-happens-that-causes-a-societal-collapse sort of situation. This is one of those books.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the droughts around the world, particularly in California (so it couldn’t be a rock in California). This novel deals with the scenario of the water finally being gone in California and the faucets turning off and people just not having water. It’s YA Fic so of course the parents are somewhat idiots and the kids have to solve all the probs (which, who knows, may be real if it ever happens? Idk). The kids are resourceful and clever, and they do a remarkable job of surviving on their own. They are faced with very real and adult-like situations, and yet, despite all of this, there is just the right combination of peeps in their little band of misfits that they are able to figure it all out and face catastrophes together and tra-la-la.

I know I sound sarcastic, but I’m really not trying to be. I actually enjoyed this book. I like good, snarky teenage characters, and I like ones that combine the right levels of intelligence and street smarts but also obviously have weaknesses. The characters weren’t as well-developed as other YA Fic books I’ve read, but I think part of that is because it is relatively short. I would have liked more character development, especially with some of the main characters who remained a mystery pretty much throughout, and yet played a large part in the story as a whole. This book would lend itself well to doing a companion or sequel novel where it dealt with other players in either the same scenario or even after the catastrophe. It almost seems like if you’re going to spend so little time on your main characters and instead focus on the event, you should give more power to the event and write a companion novel.

Still, it was a really fast, really interesting read. I thought the writing was well-placed and the story good. Sometimes in books I feel like apex situations happen so quickly that it is difficult to figure out what really happened. I don’t know if that’s because the author doesn’t go into enough detail, or glosses over it, or just makes it so short that it’s confusing. That is not the case with this book. I have a clear idea of what happened and even the apex moments were clear. That's a big deal, I think. If your apex moments are muddy and confusing, how the heck can it be an apex?

I think this book did a very good job of making the reader feel the panic and stress of the situation, and the reality of it too (and it definitely helps that this reality doesn’t feel all that far-fetched). The situations encountered in this story were not all completely believable or realistic, and sometimes things worked out really well and the realities were stretched, but that’s okay. Everyone wants to be able to survive a real-life catastrophe and if that means we have to live it out in the novel, that’s ok.

If you’re into realistic post-apocalyptic YA Fic, I think you’d really enjoy this book. I did. It was a really good distraction that didn’t take a long time or a big mental commitment to deal with. It had a good amount of peril and the story was compelling.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Abel's Island - William Steig

Summary: Abel's place in his familiar, mouse world has always been secure; he had an allowance from his mother, a comfortable home, and a lovely wife, Amanda. But one stormy August day, furious flood water carry him off and dump him on an uninhabited island. Despite his determination and stubborn resourcefulness--he tried crossing the river with boats and ropes and even on stepping-stones--Abel can't find a way to get back home. Days, then weeks and months, pass. Slowly, his soft habits disappear as he forages for food, fashions a warm nest in a hollow log, models clay statues of his family for company, and continues to brood on the problem of how to get across the river--and home. Abel's time on the island brings him a new understanding of the world he's separated from. Faced with the daily adventure of survival in his solitary, somewhat hostile domain, he is moved to reexamine the easy way of life he had always accepted and discovers skills and talents in himself that hold promise of a more meaningful life, if and when he should finally return to Mossville and his dear Amanda again. (image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: I think as a kid I liked the idea of going on an adventure and having to survive by my wits and cunning.  I always loved books like My Side of the Mountain, and this one, Abel's Island, where characters have to do just that.

I recently re-read Abel's Island, and it still had that same charm, and I love how he figures out how to survive on the island he's deposited on after an unfortunate incident.  Having grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, I also like how he has to humble himself to realize that the world does not revolve around him, and he has to work hard just to make it.

Despite his difficult circumstances, and how lonely he feels missing his wife Amanda, he makes the best of his situation, foraging and storing food, keeping out of reach of the hungry owl, and, in a bout of loneliness, starts sculpting his family members into life-size statues so he doesn't feel so alone.

I like introspective stories like this, where a character has to sort of analyze everything they've been dealt and work with it, and figure out where to go from here.  I think I also like reading these types of stories because I always wonder what I would do if I were ever stranded on a deserted island somewhere, and if I would have the stamina to survive, and even if that will never happen, it's something to think about, which is why stories and books are so great, they let you have that experience.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Nothing offensive, but Abel is put in a lot of dangerous situations.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Lovely, Dark, and Deep - Justina Chen

Summary:  What would you do if the sun became your enemy?  That's exactly what happens to Viola Li after she returns from a trip abroad and develops a sudden and extreme case of photosensitivity -- an inexplicable allergy to sunlight  Thanks to her crisis-manager parents, she doesn't just have to wear layers of clothes and a hat the size of a spaceship.  She has to stay away from all hint of light.  Say goodbye to windows and running outdoors.  Even her phone becomes a threat when its screen burns her.

Viola is determined to maintain a normal life, particularly after she meets Josh.  He's a funny, talented Thor look-alike who carries his own mysterious grief.  But the intensity of her romance makes her take more and more risks, and when a rebellion against her parents backfires dangerously, she must find her way to a life -- and love-- as deep and lovely as her dreams. (Summary from book flap - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Lovely, Dark, and Deep is about a young girl named Viola who is suddenly diagnosed with a rare condition.  Basically, she's allergic to the sun and quite a few other light sources.  And by allergic I mean hives, blisters, possible death.  As you can imagine, this wreaks havoc on pretty much every aspect of her life -- school, home, love.  All of it in shambles.  This book is basically how she learns to deal with the mess, reorder her hopes/dreams/ambitions, and live life on her terms.

Right out of the gate, Lovely, Dark, and Deep had my full attention.  The first chapter takes place at a Pop Culture convention, where Viola is dressed as River Tam -- a character from Firefly (my favorite lesser known/short-lived TV series).  As if that isn't enough, in the middle of peddling baked goods for a good cause, she passes out and it caught by none other than THOR, or at the very least a guy who strongly resembles him.  Possible love interest? Color me riveted.

When Viola received her official diagnosis (solar urticaria), my reading antennae perked up.  Re-perked? For two reasons.

  • First, this is the sort of thing that you hear about from time to time, but it doesn't often show up in books.  Or at least it hasn't shown up in any of the books that I have read before, and I like new material to chew on.  I was also fascinated by the lifestyle repercussions for someone with this allergy and the lengths a person or family must go to make their home and daily routine safe from something so seemingly harmless as sunshine.  It continues to boggle my mind. 
  • Second, my eldest daughter also has a rare allergy.  Long story short, she has physical urticaria, which means that if her skin gets too cold she will get hives, itch like crazy, and sometimes has to deal with swelling in her extremities.  It can also happen with extreme heat or contact, though this happens less frequently.  Her case is fairly mild (nothing like Viola's) and she is still able to do many things with relatively minor discomfort (and the occasional preemptive benadryl).  However, we are still careful to avoid polar bear plunges and the like for fear of how her body might react to a sudden temperature shift.  It was interesting to read about fictional someone with a real-life rare allergy.

In Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Vi's fury and frustration fairly radiated off the page as her condition continued to deteriorate and any semblance of a normal life kept slipping through her fingers.  Normal clothes, gone.  Cell phone, gone.  Giant hat, required indoors and out.  Sunscreen, everywhere.  Dating, impossible.  Cardboard in her windows.  College dreams in pieces.  It seemed fairly realistic that any teenager would try to test the boundaries of her illness, act rashly, and be angry at parents making decisions on her behalf, no matter how much in-her-best-interest they were.  If occasionally the dialogue included some heavily melodramatic lines worthy of an eye-roll or two...well, I suppose that's part of the writing in the teenage voice and probably more authentic than not.

One of my favorite aspects of the story was Viola herself.  She is a strong female character who is not only socially aware and concerned for others, but completely driven.  Vi knows what she wants out of life and has meticulously planned how to get it.  When her condition completely annihilates those plans, Vi inevitably flounders.  She fights and rages and gives up and tries again and figures it out (eventually).  I loved that about her.  Allergy or not, Vi finds a way to make a life worth living.

One clever aspect of the book is the authors use of ink.  As the story progresses and Vi's condition worsens, the first page of each chapter gets progressively darker.  It's unnoticeable at first.  I don't know that I even picked up on it until about halfway through the book.  Towards the end of the book, it becomes rather hard to read black font on a charcoal page.  I had to squint a bit, but thankfully it's only that first page of the chapter and not the chapters in their entirety.  I think it was meant to discomfort the reader, like how Vi might feel trying to read in the absence of light.  Eventually you get some relief, in the form of a white font, but the pages themselves continue to darken.  It's all very artistic and I just loved the little extra something it added to the book.

It might come as surprise, but while I really enjoyed many aspects of the story, I'm not sure I loved the book.  I just didn't feel the pull to pick-it-up-and-never-put-it-down that is the hallmark (for me) of a really excellent book. This could be partly my fault in choosing it in the first place.  I've been trying to find age-appropriate books that my daughter would like to read and picking up books that I think *she* would like, but they aren't really what *I* want to be reading.  I do think that Lovely, Dark, and Deep is thoughtful and well-written, but for me, it's a one and done kind of book.  I have my own stack to work on.  That having been said, I think that my 15-year-old daughter (The Great Hived One) would probably enjoy it, and I think she's of the age I can hand it over without too much concern.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  A handful of H-words.  Some references to having regrettably "gone further than ever" with another boy in his car (that's the extent of the details given).  Also some making out with "Thor".

Friday, April 5, 2019

El Deafo - Cece Bell

Summary: Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends. 

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school--in the hallway...in the teacher's lounge...in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different... and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

This funny perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way. (image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: El Deafo is a cute autobiographical story about when the author went deaf as a child, and her adjustments to life with her hearing aids after that.

I love the way that Cece tells the story of her childhood.  What's great about this little graphic novel is, yes it's about how she grew up deaf, but I feel a lot of us had similar experiences growing up that she had, finding friends, fitting in at school, trying to look cool, and other things.

However, I loved learning about Cece's unique view of life.  One of my favorite bits was when she was in an all-deaf kindergarten, and her teacher was teaching them how to read lips.  She told them that they not only needed to pay close attention to the person's mouth, but they also had to be a sort of detective, because many words look the same when they're said.

One day Cece sees a character on TV who has hearing aids like her.  She's excited to see someone like her (which is why I always advocate for a wider variety of positive characters with different disabilities, races, etc in media, it's great for children to see others like themselves).  However, this particular character is teased and called 'Deafo.'  Instead of being offended, Cece decides she will create an alter ego, hence 'El Deafo.'

The humor is delightful, and the way Cece views and lives life is alternately lonely and full of fun.  Though she is deaf, her story is also resonates with many, such as finding and losing friends, getting a crush, feeling left out, and ultimately coming to love what makes her different.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: there are a few instances where a character vomits, Cece get a bloody eye, some smoking and one mild swear word.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

We Were the Lucky Ones - Georgia Hunter

Summary: It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety. 

As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere. 

An extraordinary, propulsive novel, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can endure and even thrive. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I’m not going to lie. There were times when I physically had to put this book down and just walk away. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it—just the opposite, actually. I really enjoyed this book the entire time. Sometimes World War II literature is just. So. Hard. But let’s start at the beginning.

This book is excellent. The writing is excellent, the story is excellent. The book itself is organized in chapters that switch from narrator to narrator. It follows one Jewish family of Poles throughout the war, and it goes from person to person for the story. I found this to be extremely effective in the telling of the story. First off, the fact that the entire family is separated during the war makes this a great way to keep us up to date on what everybody is doing and where they are. When done poorly, authors have a way to keep the reader hanging for too long or break the momentum in a way that isn’t conducive to good storytelling. That is not true with Hunter. She is so great at timing the momentum is just right—she leaves you hanging for a good story arc and some necessary tension, but the “hanging” doesn’t become burdensome. And sometimes she doesn’t leave you hanging, and that is also important. In order for a changing narrator to work, the author definitely needs to pull it off.

I enjoyed the writing in this book. I really connected with the characters. I understood who they were. It was heartbreaking, really, and so hard to read, but also hopeful and brave at the same time. One thing that made this hard to read is the nature of children involved. Ugh. I can’t even. I understand that World War II history was not kind to anyone, and children were no exception, but it’s still difficult.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this whole book is that it is a true story based on the author’s family.  Although memoirs and biographies have their own power, it is even more powerful when the story is so remarkable and so epic that it is just an excellent story, and the fact that it is true makes it even better. This is how I felt that this book was—it was so excellent, and so well-written, and the characters so strong and phenomenal, that the fact that they were real people and the stories were accessed from some of the people who lived it, it just pushed it from a really great historical read to something that I believe everyone should read. As I mentioned, for me, World War II historical books are difficult to read. I have grandparents who fought in the war, and although it gets further away all the time, it feels so real and tangible even today. I think it is so important that we read about it—the people, the stories, the history—and never forget what happened. There is a plethora of really good historical fiction books out there, and I think this is one of the best I’ve read. It is even better because it isn’t historical fiction, it is real life. The fact that it reads like a well-crafted fictional novel is a testament to the author’s abilities and her incredible, brave, intelligent, resourceful, family members.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is difficult, as are many World War II books. There is some language and discussion of sex, but it is light and nothing compared to the horror of the atrocities the Nazis committed on Jews during World War II, some of which is mentioned in this book.

Monday, April 1, 2019

La Princesa and the Pea - Susan Middleton Elya (Author) & Juana Martinez-Neal (Illus)

Summary:  The Princess and the Pea gets a fresh twist in this charming bilingual retelling, winner of the Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration.

El príncipe knows this girl is the one for him, but, as usual, his mother doesn’t agree.

The queen has a secret test in mind to see if this girl is really a princesa, but the prince might just have a sneaky plan, too... (Summary and Image from penguinrandomhouse.com)

My Review: I found La Princesa and the Pea on my third day volunteering at our school's book fair.  What can I say?  I like to be around books...and the 25% discount for volunteers doesn't hurt either.  As I flipped through the pages, it seemed strangely familiar.  The drawings.  The cadence.  I couldn't put my finger on it until I got home and started, well, paying closer attention to things like authors and illustrators.  The author, Susan Middleton Elya has written several other books, including Eight Animals on the Town, a book that I regularly read to my kiddos.  Juana Martinez-Neal illustrated not only La Princesa and the Pea but also Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre, another book that I reviewed recently (and picked up at the same book fair on a different day).  With all that literary street cred, it was practically a forgone conclusion I would like this book.  And guess what?  I totally did.  In fact, I'm somewhere near love. I think you could say I am smitten. Yes, I am in deep smit.

La Princesa and the Pea is an adorable twist on a classic fairy tale, with the perfect little something up its sleeve.  First, it's just plain fun to read.  The author's prose has such a pleasing lilt and clever rhymes, that I don't mind reading it over and over....and I have to because my kids love it. Confession time, though.  When I flipped through this book at the fair, I didn't actually read all the way through.  I thought I knew how it would end.  It's The Princess and the Pea for goodness sake.  We all know how it ends, right?  Wrong.  The twist made me laugh so hard I had to re-read the page so my kiddos could understand me.  I promise, you'll love it.

On to the drawings.  The illustrator is Peruvian herself and drew a lot of her inspiration for characters, setting, and costume from the textiles, culture, and people of Peru.  Along with the author's particular prose, this change in scenery and custom breathed so much life back in to what some might call a tired-out tale.  As with other books by this illustrator, I found so much to look at on each page and noticed things in subsequent readings that I didn't pick up on initially.  I love stuff like that....kind of like little Easter Eggs.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it uses both English and Spanish in the text (heavy on the English, light on the Spanish).  If you or your kidlets don't speak Spanish, don't let that scare you.  I feel like these books are what I would call intuitively bilingual.  I'm pretty sure I just made up that term, but what I mean is that even if you don't speak Spanish it's pretty easy to figure out what a lot of the words mean using the pictures and other context clues (see picture for example).  If that doesn't work, they have kindly provided a Spanish/English glossary and pronunciation guide so you can fake it till you make it. It only took one read through and a few translations reminders for my monolingual kids (ages 6 and 8) to understand the entire story. 

Ultimately, if you have kiddos and even the slightest inclination to speak (or try to speak a bit of Spanish) I think you will love this book.  It's pleasantly surprising and too dang cute.

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  I had to dig deep for this one because really there is nothing to offend.  I suppose if you have a really dirty mind, the very last page could contain the smallest of completely and assuredly unintentional innuendo.  It'll likely go over everyone else's head.

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