Wild Librarian Bookspot

Welcome, book-lover types and interested others! After years of running a bookclub, it's clear that folks need to spread the word about good books ... and bad ones. I'll be uploading as many titles as I can. Read on.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Ten Things I Hate About Me" by Randa Abdel-Fattah

You might want to hate this book.  It features the typical whiny teen girl who puts popularity and self-preservation over being real and being honest.  The plot turns are (mostly) predictable and you can't wait for her to figure out what you, the readers, realize early on.  But ... this novel is more complex than it seems, and Jamilah is written so realistically that she feels like you could reach through the pages and talk with her.  Her struggle -- between "faking it" as a run of the mill Australian tenth grader and owning up to her Lebanese Muslim culture, in a country struggling with diversity and stereotypes, resounds as if it were America today.  Jamilah sees her father as a tyrant, but she loves him, and (bless Mrs. Abdel-Fattah) her dad is drawn with dimensions which take the entire book to discover.  The whole family unit is strong, and brings surprises -- her rebellious brother isn't a complete turd, and her activist sister makes a choice you don't see coming.  The book challenges preconceptions about the Muslim faith and makes clear that living as a first generation immigrant in any nation can create a sense of dualism.  There is a boy (of course) and while some of that goes the way I thought it would, some does not.  The ending is both predictable yet refreshing, as Jamilah has to decide whether to own her true self or the bleached blonde persona she has fabricated.  It was a story I thoroughly enjoyed, and one I chose to pick up and read whenever I had a free minute.  Now, if we could only get certain national leaders to understand the concepts layered in this delightful YA novel.  Brava, Randa. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Because of Mr. Terupt" by Rob Buyea

This fast-read school tale rings about 90% true and has the kind of rich characters students will like, and identify with.  Mr. Buyea does a great job of getting inside the head of 5th graders and makes almost all of these children feel like they can leap off the page.  Told in very short chapters -- reflections from the different students -- this is the tale of a group of kids who get a new teacher, a teacher who has embraced the idea of Personalized Learning!  The connections and dynamics play well in "Part One".  My challenges came with two aspects of the book:  The bully and the crisis.  As to the bully, that was the only voice I didn't buy for a good long time.  The bully delighted in tormenting others.  Here's my guess -- bullies don't see themselves as bullies.  I suspect that their inner motivation is complex, and has something to do with a need to control.  In any case, that didn't work for me, although it did get better by the end, sort-of.  The other issue which nagged was the climax.  It was an event predicted by the foreword, written by John Irving (John Irving!  John Irving!  What is he doing writing a foreword to a YA novel???)  In any case, don't read the foreword, as it is a spoiler, to some degree.  In any case, the big event felt too structured, too deliberate.  Bad things do happen, but it is the randomness with which they happen that often makes them hard to take.  In this case, it felt like the author really had to have things fall out in a very specific way to lead his characters to an ending that he wanted.  I don't particularly like overly crafted resolutions.  For me, books are more enjoyable when they just unfold, and one has a sense the author simply let the story go where it was going to go.  In any case, despite the two things that jumped out at me, it was a great little book, and one that I did enjoy.  For those who really like it, there is a sequel, with a preview in the eBook version I read.  Go for it.

Monday, November 07, 2016

"Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders" by James Rickabaugh

A fairly typical educational theory book, it's not bad, but it isn't fabulous.  It follows the very typical pattern -- identifying the current educational landscape as problematic, short testimonials about how change is good, a theory, a diagram, a distilling of the parts of the new proposal (which isn't actually that new).  There are lots of little nuggets worth taking away and I agree with the idea of personalized learning, but the book is best read in short bursts.  It is nicely succinct at less than 140 pages, and not particularly dry, but it is not hugely engaging, and takes the concept of "informational" to heart.  I found myself reading and re-reading sections because my mind wandered when I read it.  Having attended a school in the 1970s which was exactly this (students proposing independent research projects and activities to teachers to explore the given curriculum) I feel like I am watching the pendulum swing back again.  Is this a good book to get an overview of the latest undulation in education?  Sure.  It's clear, to the point, and has lots of quotes which can be used in Powerpoint presentations.  Is it the kind of book I'm constantly referring to over the next few months?  Not so much, but it is rare to find that kind of book in this kind of subject matter (see my review of Meeting Wise). 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"Out of My Mind" by Sharon Draper

Once again, I find myself strongly disliking a popular title with good reviews.  Ah well.  Variety (of opinion) is the spice of life.  From the get-go, this book about Melody, an 11 year-old with Cerebral Palsy who is brilliant but nonverbal, reminded me of another book -- "Stuck in Neutral" by Terry Trueman.  In that book, Mr. Trueman created a fictionalized version of his son's inner life -- his son also being a young man with special needs who is nonverbal.  As readers of my blog know, I take real issue when authors attempt to fictionalize their lives, as it often comes off as unrealistic, painting a rosy picture, and glossing over the bumps that go with actual living.  In the case of Mr. Trueman, I couldn't help but wonder if the whole thing wasn't an exercise in wish fulfillment.  In the case of "Out of My Mind", Ms. Draper's writing is far better -- because, well, she's Sharon Draper, and her writing is typically excellent.  My issue with the book is that I didn't feel this was Melody's voice -- it was Ms. Draper's.  Melody beats the odds (significantly, if you look it up) by being someone with Cerebral Palsy who is both nonverbal and brilliant (early on, it is indicated she also has an eidetic memory -- something generally seen in only 2-10% of the the population of kids under 12).  The book doesn't come off as preachy, but it isn't subtle in its messaging, and the observations of Melody sound completely like an adult's version of events, not an 11 year-old, no matter how bright she is.  The story is overly perky in many spots.  I counted 14 exclamation points over one two-page spread.  The sugary build-up to the climax was also "too much" for me.  There are Afterschool Special moments when everything looks like it is about to come to a super-shiny happy conclusion, and then that whips around 180 in a way that makes the ending seem jarring and rushed.  So, in other words, hated it.  Sorry.  A group of kids told me how wwwoooonnnnderfuuuulll it was, so I will defer to them.  As to me, I'll stick with Ms. Draper's other (superior) books (IMHO), such as Copper Sun and Tears of a Tiger.  I just wish, at some point, an author would write the story of the other kids in Melody's Special Ed classroom.  The ones who do have deficits, and yet still live in the world, looking for their place.

"Mosquitoland" by David Arnold

I had the privilege of seeing David Arnold speak with a group of 8th graders recently, and was intrigued by his humor, insight, and obvious smarts.  It was just luck that I happened upon his first book shortly thereafter.  "Mosquitoland" is vaguely reminiscent of Libba Bray's "Going Bovine" and Sharon Creech's "The Wanderer".  It is a travel tale, where the journey is both internal and external.  Written for mature audiences, the free-form flow of prose streams forth from Mim, our protagonist, a 16 year-old girl who is very much a 16 year-old girl.  I really (really, really) love that Mr. Arnold writes her without apology.  She is smart and strong and judgmental and typically all over the place with her emotions.  She doesn't really know who she is, given that her world-view is often limited to the space inside her head.  The journey here opens her eyes to the greater community, and her place in it.  The text is dense, and my "lunch reading" did not suffice.  I found I needed to sit at home, quietly, to absorb it all.  Context is sometimes missing -- intentionally, as the reader is undoubtedly supposed to be in the moment and enjoy the ride, rather than figure it all out at the beginning.  I like Mim, including her faults, and felt as endeared to the characters she comes across as she does.  None of the characters are black and white, a fact that she learns to appreciate throughout the book.  I read the digital version, so not sure if the print includes all the extras, but a series of extras, including an interview with the author, associated music and discussion questions, are worth the read, as is the teaser for his next book, "Kids of Appetite".  Definitely a strong addition to our growing canon of YA authors who don't dumb it down one little bit.  This author is one to watch.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"A Snicker of Magic" by Natalie Lloyd

Awww.  So sweet (and that is not actually a pun, despite the constant reference to ice cream in the book).  Frequently compared to "A Tangle of Knots" this story is actually quite different, but I understand the connections.  There is the syllabic similarity in the titles, a close color scheme in the cover art, and both are solidly "nice" with a nod to magical realism.  That is pretty much where it ends.  "A Snicker of Magic" is an Appalachian tale, pure and simple.  It's got weather, music, colorful legends, unique personalities and a kind of poetic lilt you only hear in a mountain story.  Days are hot, nights are cold, and the setting is a palpable character in and of itself.  Felicity Pickle, our heroine, sees words (think Synesthesia, but more mystical).  She collects them to use as an anchor to keep her heart in one piece as her mother drives the small family around from place to place, never settling down very long  For reasons Felicity doesn't understand, Momma comes "home again" to Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, crashing on the couch with kin until the late summer storms awaken her wandering heart.  In the meantime, Felicity begins to gather clues about herself and her family, coming across a cute boy (Jonah) a mysterious elder (Oliver), a poet (Florentine) and a lot of stories, woven like a quilt around the people of Midnight Gulch.  One thing I really liked was the blend of joy and sadness, making it clear that life isn't so much one thing as it is all things (Spoiler alert -- yes, the dog lives -- nothing bad happens to it).  This was an engaging and fast read, one I would recommend, and one which is likely to have wide appeal.  Most of it is delightful.  I was a tad disappointed that the school only appears in the beginning and end, seemingly inconsequential and nothing more than a device to forward plot points, but other than that, the book "sings."  Complex and simple, a free-flowing, experiential story, I was quite satisfied with it (although hungry ... ice cream is consumed in massive quantities).  Much of it is metaphorical and allusion, but astute readers shouldn't have any trouble seeing its heart.  I'd say two thumbs up, but one hand is reaching for a tub of Chubby Hubby ...

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators" by Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth A. City

"One of those books" -- a dry, business tome for administrators, this is not.  Boudett and City (who also wrote "Data Wise") got a shout-out from me in the very beginning, for the breezy, fun notes in the Intro about how the book could be read in "determined stints on an exercise bike".  That was quickly followed by an allusion to "Wrinkle in Time" in the first chapter.  Finally, in the end, there is a reference to sitting in a meeting "ordering socks" on your cellphone.  I laughed out loud.  I've never encountered a book of this type that was so real, so accurate, and so "human." Not only a fast read, but very digestable, with takeaways I already plan to use in my meeting planning.  It was short, clear, to the point, had the focus on the right spot -- it was simply terrific.  And I have honestly never said that about a work tome.  I wanted to lend it to half the people in my working group, but I've placed sticky notes on so many sections I don't want to part with it.  Bottom line -- meetings shouldn't be about one-directional input.  It's a revolutionary idea that every one of us who sit in those kinds of meetings knows.  It took these two women to show how a productive meeting can be so much more.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"Orbiting Jupiter" by Gary D. Schmidt

This is the third Gary Schmidt book I have read, and the third one I have really, really liked.  All three were different but have a literary quality which draws you in.  Mr. Schmidt is a true wordsmith -- writing the stories he needs to write, making them all accessible yet lyric, simple yet complex.  There is something truly intangible in how he is able to make every story seem real and personal, not to mention creating characters you want to reach out and hug through the pages.  In this story, sixth grade farm-boy Jack gets an eighth grade foster brother named Joseph.  (The name, by the way, is not accidental.  I suspect a biblical connection, although the reference is subtle, at best.)  Joseph has had a hard time of it.  Gary Schmidt often touches on abuse in his books, but does so with a light pen.  The point is made for the older readers in a way which younger readers may miss, but that's okay.  It's part of the whole style.  Take this passage -- elegant in its clarity:  "During the day, the air glistened with hovering ice.  At night, the stars were razor sharp.  At dawn, the sunlight went straight up in a hazy column.  And sunset closed the day with a quick wink."  It is this kind of depth which makes his books so brilliant and universally appreciated.  This novel, a selection in "March Book Madness" last year, was hugely popular with the many Middle School students who read it.  This is good to know, as I would have suspected the emphasis on rural New England life might not appeal to the urban set we have here.  Obviously, "the story" shines through, even if the experience is different from what students here are familiar with.


While Mr. Schmidt's stories often have a dark thread, this one ends on a truly devastating note.  I always struggle with endings like this.  On one hand, you kind of see it coming, on the other, you hope against hope that it "goes another way."  Jacqueline Woodson once said that she writes the endings she has to write, because the characters and the narrative give her no other choice.  So it is, I believe, with Gary Schmidt and this tale.  While hugely sad, it did come off as genuine, and, given the space allusions in the story, a kind of way that the universe works sometimes. 

Once again, Bravo.  Another powerful novel by a skilled writer.