Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Birthday by Meredith Russo

Everyone raved about Russo’s debut novel, If I Was Your Girl, but it fell flat to me because it lacked emotion and realism. I thought Amanda had it too easy as passing, and the trans issues were glossed over. My thoughts on the lack of depth in If I Was Your Girl doesn’t make it a bad book, but I had hoped for more struggle, more reality, and more information that trans teens (or anyone, really) might need to know to understand this issue better. (You can read my full review here, so I don't hijack this review with something only semi-related.)

That being said, I definitely wanted to give Russo a second chance, so I was eager to read Birthday. And wow, did it deliver!

Eric and Morgan were born on the same day, and a freak September blizzard in their small Tennessee town left their families stranded in the hospital together for several days. They bonded and became close family friends, and Eric and Morgan became best friends. They celebrate their birthday together every year, and this book is told from their alternating points of view, only on their birthdays from the ages of fourteen to eighteen. Seeing just these glimpses into the lives of Eric and Morgan was enough to get a good story rounded out, with enough room to imagine what the characters are like during the rest of their lives.

Over time, Eric and Morgan's families grow apart. Morgan loses his mother to cancer and struggles with the aftermath. When Morgan quits the football team, Eric's father labels him a sissy and doesn't treat him like family anymore. When Eric joins the football team, he and Morgan start to grow apart.  There were so many layers to this story - family relationships, school struggles, self-loathing and self-acceptance, friendship, love. It wasn’t too much, and it was all well-done and balanced to create a realistic world with characters you can easily identify with and understand.

Eric and Morgan are such deep characters, and I loved getting to see inside of both of their heads and hearts. They both struggle with identity and self in such real ways, and I was so glad all of that was laid out on the page for readers. I highly recommend this book, and hope it gets as much, if not more, attention than Russo’s first book. It is well-deserved.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Whisper Man

The Whisper Man by Alex North was my first selection from Book of the Month. This is totally a #bookstagrammademedoit type of thing. I've tried two different subscription boxes, years ago. One was a selection of local goods - food, crafts, coffee - that I really enjoyed, but got pretty pricey over time. The other was a young adult book club subscription. I was sent a YA book that had post-it notes marking certain pages, and small gifts wrapped up with the corresponding page number labeled on it. The idea was that it was an immersive experience - you're reading the book, then opening a gift that relates to what's happening in the story. It's a great concept, but I didn't enjoy many of the books, and the gifts were things I didn't really need or use, so I stopped that subscription as well.

Cue seeing The Whisper Man all over #bookstagram, with all the blurbs saying how creepy it is, how you shouldn't read it at night. I looked it up online to get my own copy, but it didn't release until August 20th, and this was the beginning of August when I was seeing it all over the internet. So I read more into everyone's posts, and saw that they were getting it from the Book of the Month subscription club. I found a code to get my first book for $10, and selected The Whisper Man.

It got to me a few days later, but I was finishing up one book, and had one that I needed to read to review. Once those were out of the way, I started The Whisper Man.

Tom Kennedy's wife dies unexpectedly, so he moves his young son, Jake, to a new town for a fresh start. Jake had been pulling away from his dad since his mother's death, and while they had never been close, the distance bothered Tom. It also bothered Tom that Jake was talking to himself. Except... not to himself. Jake seemed convinced that a little girl was his friend and was always around, even when no one was with him. Jake has trouble at his new school, which adds to the stress Tom is feeling about the state of his life. Their new house is odd and unsettling, too. Tom is determined to find out the history of the house, and especially the mystery of the junk in the garage.

At the same time, the local police are investigating the latest kidnapping of a young boy. Twenty years ago there had been a string of related kidnappings, and the cops were sure they had arrested the correct man. He's been in jail since, but now another kidnapping has occurred. It could be a copycat, but some of the details were never released. The police realize that their suspicions of the killer having an accomplice might be true.

My Thoughts:
I enjoyed this book overall, but I had no problem reading it at night. It was creepy and unsettling, yes, mostly because the boys being kidnapped were approximately the same age as my son, so of course that might bother a person a bit. Some of the twists were pretty entertaining, but I do wish we had gotten more information about the killer who was in jail and the accomplice. I can't say too much without spoilers, but there was a lot that could be explored there, or perhaps better explained. I'm glad I read it, and I'm looking forward to more Book of the Month books, but I don't think this story lived up to the hype.

Monday, August 19, 2019

FAKE by Donna Cooner

Thanks to the @kidlitexchange network for the review copy of this book - all opinions are my own.

Fake by Donna Cooner is a unique take on the high school popularity game. Maisie is tired of being ashamed of her overweight body and tired of hearing the popular kids make cutting remarks about how she looks. When she’s forced to be lab partners with Jesse, the king of these insults, she’s determined to make him suffer. She creates a fake online profile for a pretty girl she names Sienna, and gets to work making all of the popular kids believe Sienna is real. Maisie, who already escaped real life by drawing comics, now puts work into developing Sienna’s internet presence. Before too long, even Maisie has trouble remembering what is real and what happened online. She’s scared at being found out, but she‘s hooked on feeling popular and accepted.

Personally I was drawn into this book because Maisie is overweight and uncomfortable with it. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE all these YA books with overweight main characters who love their bodies and have confidence oozing out of every pore, but that wasn’t my experience. I was a chubby kid and struggled with weight and body image all through high school, and I wasn’t comfortable with it or confident about it. I always wanted to see that reflected in fiction, because otherwise I felt even worse about myself. Why wasn’t I confident about my size like other characters? Why was I so nervous about standing in front of the class and letting them see my whole body instead of being like other characters? I love that Maisie lets body conscious teens feel seen and understood, then empowers them in a realistic way. 

I highly recommend you check this book out for yourself when it releases on October 1, 2019!

Monday, August 12, 2019

The King of Kindergarten

Plot Summary
Today's a big day - the first day of kindergarten! The story is told in second person, with "you" being the little boy starting school. He wakes up, gets ready, has breakfast, and is encouraged by his parents to be kind and strong. He goes through the routine of the school day, which is brand new and exciting to him, such as "the never-ending mystery of numbers". Everything is (appropriately) described in terms of royalty, from the school bus being a "big yellow carriage" to sitting at "your round table". 

Critical Analysis
The illustrations in the book are colorful, vibrant, and convey the excitement of the text. The royalty humor will appeal to adults as much as to children, who so often love imagination play and making grand pronouncements about their everyday tasks. The words have great rhythm in their simplicity; they explain the first day of kindergarten with concise happiness. The children and adults in this book are realistically diverse.

Personal Response
Today is my son's first day of kindergarten, so I love the timing of this book's release! We went to see author Derrick Barnes at a local bookstore a week ago, and it was fantastic to hear him read his own work. He also talked extensively and candidly about his writing life. He was also very open about his family, as this book is based on and dedicated to his youngest son. (Crown was also written about and for an older son.) I love the language used in this book because my son definitely repeats new words he learns, and there are very vivid, descriptive words for him to integrate into his vocabulary.

Reviews and Awards
From Publisher's Weekly: "When a mother gives her son the titular nickname, it inspires him throughout his first day of school—the child imagines that a chalk-drawn crown is sitting on his head as he walks through the 'towering doors' of the 'grand fortress' and into his 'Kindergarten Kingdom.'"
     Kirkus Reviews notes, "The playful illustrations use texture and shadow to great effect, with vibrant colors and dynamic shapes and lines sustaining readers’ interest on every page. Text and visuals work together beautifully to generate excitement and confidence in children getting ready to enter kindergarten."

Connections and Activities
At the book signing, we were given promotional crowns, as seen in the top picture. A fun craft would be for new kindergartners to decorate their own crowns. You could start from scratch with white paper and colors, or use gold paper and have them add stickers and jewels.
Kindergartners can also talk about their own first day, or if they haven't started yet, they can talk about their expectations and how they imagine their days might go. This activity can be continued on paper, with students drawing themselves as kindergarten royalty, their school as a castle, their own personal carriage, etc.

Read it for yourself!

Barnes, Derrick. 2019. The King of Kindergarten. Ill. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.

Monday, August 5, 2019

First Camp Nano in the Books!

July was my first time participating in Camp Nanowrimo, though I've tried to participate in Nanowrimo every year since 2007.  I always love having a push to write, which has been my favorite thing about Nanowrimo, even when I didn't win. But participating in Camp always felt like too much - I don't know if it was the timing or just my mindset.

Summer is actually a great time for me to write, because work is a little slower and my kid is up playing longer, since the sun's out later, so that gives me time to explore my ideas. Since I started pushing myself to write daily this year, and have actually been writing daily since June, this seemed like a good way to continue my streak.

Spoiler alert: I won!

I put a little more at stake for Camp Nanowrimo, though. I challenged myself to a 20,000 word short story... but really, I wanted write about 1,000 words of fiction most days. One day I knew I'd be off work, so I set a goal for 1,500 (and didn't reach it - that'll teach me!), and one day I knew I'd be meeting my overall goal of 20,000 words, so I relaxed to 500 words. Since my 20,000 goal would be reached before the end of the month, my more informal goal was to complete that one short story, and at least start two more. I want to aim towards finishing more so I can start submitting like I did in college (and have hardly done since then, whoops).

Here are some stats for my month of Camp

  • I wrote 31/31 days!
  • I wrote 25,956 words total.
  • I reached my 20,000 word goal on July 19th.
  • I wrote an average of 837 words a day.
  • My biggest writing day was 1630 words.
  • My smallest writing day was 76 words. (Let's be honest - I barely tried that day. It was a big day and I was drifting off to sleep before I remembered I hadn't written, and I didn't want to break the streak. But I'll allow it.)
  • I wrote 11 fiction pieces - four are complete. I have ideas on how to finish 3 others. The rest... who knows! I'll have to look them back over after some time away.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Dahl Study: Mr. Botibol

My author study of Roald Dahl started with a reading of his Collected Stories while watching the accompanying episode of Tales of the Unexpected. Each Friday I'll recap a story and show (with spoilers, just so you know), but I encourage you to read and watch them on your own if you're interested!

- - -

"Mr. Botibol" from Collected Stories (read 7/14/19)

Mr. Botibol has lunch with a businessman who wants to buy his father's business. He accepts the first offer, even though the businessman threw a number out there to get the bidding started. The businessman is excited about the deal and orders lots of drinks for the two of them. Mr. Botibol isn't used to drinking, and the alcohol goes to his head. He starts talking about success, and how he's never had any. He gets home and listens to the radio, which is playing a symphony. He is overcome by the music and pretends to conduct it from his chair. It makes him feel good, so he stands up and gets into it with his whole body. He's exhausted when it's over, but feels proud of himself. He pretends that he composed the work and just conducted it, and the audience is demanding more. He looks up when more symphonies will be on the radio, and conducts those, too.
     This all makes him feel so good that he decides to convert a room in his home into a theater. He installs theater seating, a small stage, a box for the conductor, and special record players and speakers. He gets records of different kinds of applause, and buys a variety of symphonies to conduct. He loves acting like a famous composer. Botibol then decides to get a piano so he can pretend to play. He goes to the store to get one rigged to be silent, then goes to buy more piano records. There he meets a woman who starts talking about what music she loves. Never really having relationships, he awkwardly invites her over to his house to listen to music. She agrees and comes over and he explains his hobby to her. She doesn't seem to think it's weird, and pretends to play the piano while he conducts her. When he invites her back, she says she can't come because of work. She reveals that she's a piano teacher.

"Mr. Botibol's First Love" from Tales of the Unexpected (viewed 7/14/19)

The episode was pretty much the same as the written story. Overall it was an interesting story to read, because it seems like a pretty strange hobby. I thought it was amusing at one point - who hasn't danced as if they're onstage, or sang into a fake microphone and pretended they're a famous singer? But once the woman came over, I saw it from her point of view and realized how strange I would have thought it was if a man acted that way on a "date". The visual version of the story wasn't as interesting, but that's just my personal opinion.