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, July 24, 2017

"Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice" by Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack

This isn't one of those books trying to sell a particular educational idea as much as it is about saying most initiatives don't work.  And they don't.  The slim treatise (93 pages) maintains a few absolutes.  1) Professional Development must create permanent change in order to be considered successful.  2) Human beings are hard-wired not to think deeply and to change how they operate.  3) A significant challenge to PD is that many do not take enough time to understand the problem before jumping into action, which results in a lot of action but not results.

The authors aren't wrong.  They make their point in clear, clean points which are interesting if not incredibly engaging.  The book reads like a TED Talk.  Lots of quick, pithy points with a strong example here and there.  Thankfully, because of the nature of the topic there aren't a lot of graphs, charts, etc.  The one drawback is a lot of repetition.  They tell you what they are going to tell you in the Preface, then they tell you again what they are going to tell you in Chapter 1, then repeat the whole thing at the beginning and end of each chapter.  (It made for fast reading when you realize you can kind of skip the opening and closing section of each paragraph).  Worth the time to read it but could also get the gist from a well-crafted Powerpoint. 

"How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln" by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk, pictures by Valentina Belloni

This picture book was lent to me by a librarian after I told her of a story idea I had about a woman detective in the 19th Century.  A fairly innocuous little tome it covers the virtually unknown first woman to be a detective with the Pinkerton agency, a precursor to today's U.S. Secret Service.  It does a nice job with subtle jabs at the male-dominated society of the time, letting the readers know that women had skill sets men didn't have in this arena and how they didn't get credit when they did succeed.  Apparently Ms. Warne was instrumental in stopping an assassination attempt on then President-Elect Lincoln but history (as it often does) allowed her contributions to fade away.  Like many nonfiction picture books the various plotlines are boiled down a good deal which can create difficulties in having a clean narrative and the inclusion of occasional vocabulary which is not likely to be in the readers' reach.  The assumption is that a librarian (or parent) reading this to a child would put the story in context.  The artwork is somewhat flat, making it difficult to distinguish one character from another, but has bright colors and mimics collage.  An end note provides more details (although some, like her age, are in dispute) and leaves me intrigued to find out more about this woman.  While not a remarkable work it is another important story of the forgotten contributions to our history of the silent majority.

"Scythe" by Neal Shusterman

Like all Shusterman novels this is engaging, unique and accessible.  I flew through the 435 pages in less than a week, a new record for me.  Neal Shusterman begins this series by envisioning a near future where death has been eliminated for humankind.  To keep the population to bearable numbers society tolerates and has codified "Scythes" who randomly select people for permanent death.  The novel has everything from action to romance but most importantly it has really good philosophical underpinnings challenging the reader which are in no way high-falutin' or moralistic.  Mr. Shusterman does a terrific job at simply putting forth the ideas and letting you decide.  What happens to humanity when we no longer fear death?  There is "ultimate power ultimately corrupts" of course but many of the ideas are far more subtle than that.  I really loved this story, as I do with all of Shusterman's writing, which I find fresh and different.  It is nice to see him consistently producing strong books.  So many futuristic books focus on the tech, which can push non-Scifi readers away.  Shusterman gets it right by keeping the focus on the people, and how their world changes who they are (or doesn't).  Bravo.  Worthy of the Printz Honor and other praises heaped upon it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"The Porcupine of Truth" by Bill Konigsberg

The third of my Books for the Beast books, I haven't hit a clunker yet.  This engaging, heart-wringing book was pure delight.  It was like an Ice Cream Sundae with all the good stuff and some of the bad.  Carson, a loner teen boy, is hauled out to Montana by his psychologist Mom for the summer to be with his dying, alcoholic, estranged Dad.  It is a trip full of emotional minefields.  But that's just the beginning.  Carson meets Aisha, one of those soul-mates who feel like your best friend the first time you talk, and two journeys begin -- one internal and one external.  They weave together beautifully.  The prose is not flowery but it is strong and draws you in.  To say that the characters are multi-dimensional is an understatement.  It is a spiritual tale and the people Carson and Aisha interact with are steps in his journey to understand God.  Powerful and with a turn or two, this one had me sniffling at the end.  It can be faulted for a rosier outcome than one might get -- only because my own family, which had some parallels, didn't end so well -- but the "realness" of the people and the messages just rang so true that they bore their way into my heart.  Bravo, Mr. Konigsberg, for writing a simple story with tremendously complex undertones.  It is the kind of book you can read over and over again.

Friday, July 07, 2017

"Lucy and Linh" by Alice Pung

What saves this coming-of-age novel from being one big whine is an incredible level of literary merit.  It's not flowery or "high lit" but there is a tremendous richness to the prose, a kind of going deeper with every paragraph.  Part of this is the vocabulary which is not only full of colloquial Australian speak but has enough $1 words to fill a piggy bank.  It is a story told in first person, with letters interspersed.  The main character, Lucy, is trying to make sense of her surroundings and the letters become a tool for her introspection in terms of figuring out a world she does not feel she fits into.  A poor Vietnamese/Australian girl, she gets accepted to a prestigious private school and finds herself awash in a setting where none of the rules make sense.  A good student with a creative mind, she finds herself in constant observation, attempting to understand a society completely different from the one she lives in.  Ms. Pung gets snaps for dealing with bullying in a somewhat new way.  Lucy is pulled along and has to work to extricate herself from being one of the followers who allows things to happen.  It isn't easy as some of the adults around her aren't into making waves.  Lucy's voice is strong without being strident and she comes off real, with all of the blemishes typical in a teen girl.  What comes through is a young woman balanced between many sword-points, determined to succeed.  Lucy does feel somewhat older than the (presumably) 9th grader in the book but since the entire thing is told in past tense the reader can assume this is a way of looking back at what she learned.  One twist near the end will have many readers stunned but fit well with the overall theme and tone.  A solid read for my second "Books for the Beast" book.  I look forward to the next eight ...

Friday, June 23, 2017

"Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens" by Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine

This breezy, accessible book doesn't have a lot of original thought but summarizes some of the major trends and studies of the past few years into nuggets of interest.  Freely flowing from one topic to the next, it comes off like a conversation you might have with a group of parents after a long lunch, lingering over a glass of wine.  The book wheels from a serious concern about the lack of efficacy with so-called educational apps to how parents can grow literacy by working with their children.  Early on, the authors explore what "media" really means.  This becomes one of the few clunkers in the narrative.  The authors describe all the things encompassed by the term "media" and then proceed to create a new term for the student graduates of 2030 (today's Kindergarten class).  They call it "Readialand".  It's too saccharin and arch and brought me back to the idea of a conversation fueled by fermented grape drinks.  In any case, the book is clearly designed for skimming with its short stand-alone chapters.  Beyond the occasional a-ha moments one could get most of this content by attending a conference seminar and delving deep into the Tap, Click, Read website.  Since I was familiar with many of the studies mentioned and had seen Ms. Guernsey speaking recently, I found it somewhat difficult to focus on the narrative and often raced through, hoping to finish a chapter before lunch was up.  I didn't feel it was a bad book but it seemed "so-so".  I may not be the intended audience, however.  The book speaks heavily to parents, trying to determine which materials and practices will best help their children.  There is a lengthy list of resources at the end.  For someone who is just "curious" I would start with that.  One warning -- this book is already a few years old.  With the pace of technology there were elements already out-of-date.  I suspect it will have a short shelf-life.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

"Pax" by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

This is a difficult, sad, beautiful, simplistically powerful novel.  There is Peter, a boy without a mother who loves his pet fox.  There is Pax, a fox who loves his boy.  There is a father who is a soldier and war is coming.  Pax and Peter are separated, with each facing a kind of crucible.  As they fight to get back to one another there are many stories about how war destroys not only land but living creatures great and small, in body and in spirit.  At its core, this is a book about the pointlessness and destructiveness of war.  The book is symbolism, metaphor and allegory.  The place and time are ambiguous.  The time period could be now or then, the location here or there.  The generic setting is meant to let the reader focus on the voices -- those of Peter and Pax, as they grow to see a world they never expected.  For any animal lover, this novel pulls at the heart-strings.  The conclusion, one which makes sense yet is hard, will leave you reaching for the Kleenex.  The story ends with many questions about the future.  Again, this harkens to the uncertainty of war, the "not knowing" what may come.  A saving grace in the darkness seems to be the connections we have with one another, how we are separate but can learn to care, learn to love.  It is easy to see why this one made the National Book Award Longlist and is a New York Times Bestseller.  A good read, with an important message.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Absolutely Almost" by Lisa Graff

This is the book "Fish in a Tree" should have been.  Albie struggles in school.  He is an "Almost" in the sense that he isn't really good at anything, just "almost good".  His overachieving parents believe he can overcome with a little more effort but no matter how hard he tries, it never gets better.  The beauty of this book (over the aforementioned title by Ms. Hunt) is that it isn't clean.  A series of complex threads intertwine to make a kind of messy, slice-of-life story with fits and starts but not simple answers.  Albie transfers schools, deals with bullies, gets a new nanny and struggles with his one significant friendship while simultaneously working to create more.  The adults are not black and white.  His nanny is great but has her flaws, his parents care but don't seemingly have the time to really understand who their son is.  His teachers are aware of the bullying but don't stop it.  In one of the Kleenex moments in the book, one teacher gives Albie advice which changes his perspective.  It doesn't solve the problem but is one of the baby steps in growing up.  The end comes suddenly and not with the kind of neat conclusion you might expect.  Albie has made some progress but still struggles, questions remain.  The "absolutely real" voice of Albie and the urban NYC setting should make this a good read for many students.  Not as upbeat as "Tangle of Knots" (my Lisa Graff fave) but hugely accessible.  Another strong hit from an up-and-coming author to watch.

"The Girl Who Drank the Moon" by Kelly Barnhill

I don't even know where to start with this delightful fantasy which brings a kind of freshness to the genre.  First and foremost, Brava/Bravo to the Newbery committee for going outside their Historical American Fiction comfort zone to recognize an unusual, engaging book.  A page-turner from the beginning, it kept me up at night to finish it.  There are so many threads -- a story being told from mother to child, a madwoman, babies left in the woods by leaders with a hidden agenda, an apprentice who is more than he seems, a nice witch, a child who drinks moonlight, an adorable dragon, a sweet swamp monster, a sorrow eater, paper birds and MAGIC.  Lots of it.  There are varied voices as the story veers from one character to the next, all embedded with rich vocabulary and beautiful descriptions.  Luna, aka "the girl" in the title, has a real voice and one never doubts that she is an eleven/twelve year old child even though what awaits her is stupendous.  Ancient mythology weaves in with poetry and symbolism and yet the whole thing is quite readable.  It is a strong book in any category and will hopefully be one of those Newbery winners which actually has appeal for the kids willing to tackle it. 

"Lily and Dunkin" by Donna Gephart

What saves this from being your standard problem novel are some very solid characterizations, Ms. Gephart's ability to avoid the obvious in plot development and a kind of unique "layering" of the various issues.  There isn't one issue, there are many.  Lily needs her Dad to see her as she is, but she also needs to deal with bullies at school.  Dunkin needs to be true to himself but also be honest about his own challenges.  There is a tree that needs saving and a few lessons learned along the way which are just subtle enough to make an impact without hitting you over the head.  The extensive afterwards in the book makes for some good learning.  I was surprised by information on topics about being transgender and living with bipolar issues which I was unaware of.  Don't let kids turn away from this book because of the blah cover art and the sense that this is a romance.  It isn't.  This is a novel of exploration of self.  The eighth grade age is perfect for this kind of discussion and the back-and-forth internal struggles of the two protagonists absolutely hit the right mark in terms of being realistic.  The one unrealistic part may have been the "all is well/neatly tied up" ending, but by then I cared so much about the characters that I really wanted things to work out.  It's a great read and about more topics than you might expect, given it's status as an "LGBT" title.  It's rounded -- just like life.  Enjoy.

"Juana and Lucas" by Juana Medina

This Pura Belpre Award winner is an interesting but complicated little tome.  First, it looks like a picture book but is actually a step-up chapter book.  Second, the title is somewhat misleading, in that you might think it is about a girl and her dog, but it isn't.  It is about a girl and her family and her English classes and her friends and her neighbors and her city ~~and~~ her dog.  The dog doesn't actually appear in some chapters beyond a mention.  On one hand, it gives a nice "flipped view" of what English feels like to someone who lives in another nation (it also, coincidently, gives a nice overview of life in Bogota, Colombia).  It also mixes Spanish words in, sometimes defining them, sometimes not, so that readers get a good flavor of the language without being overwhelmed.  On the other hand, this feels like one of those "preachy" books which adults write for kids to teach them something.  The vocabulary is, at times, a little high-falutin' for the audience (i.e. "illuminated", "eternally" and "neurotic").  Juana doesn't want to learn English and all the adults tell her why she should.  Near the end of the book she learns another "lesson" about idolizing an action figure who isn't what she imagined.  Like oh-so-many books, this looks like a childhood memoir in disguise, which I rarely care for and often comes off with too much adult perspective.  None-the-less, the book is saved by the artwork and layout.  Ms. Medina creates engaging child-like figures in bright colors to illustrate the tale, but beyond that she turns the text into an "almost" concrete poem, playing with word font, size and direction.  It makes the story more engaging and exciting as phrases literally jump off the page at you.  Kids will enjoy this even if I found it slightly lacking.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

"Everything Everything" by Nicola Yoon

Huge kudos to Nicola Yoon for an unexpected, delightful, amazing novel.  Huge thumbs down to the Hollywood hype factory which exposes a MAJOR PLOT POINT in their 30 second commercials of a movie based on the book.  Unfortunately, knowing that plot point did reduce some of the joy in reading it, although there is much to appreciate.  Ms. Yoon writes in such a way as to be both simple and complex at the same time.  The voice of Madeline is strong, the settings vivid.  While this is a love story, and I don't particularly like love stories, Madeline's yearnings go beyond to boy to the world, to life.  Her passion isn't just about her body awakening, it is about her mind awakening to hopes, dreams and thoughts which she never dared to let herself have.  Ever take a bite of something simple, like pudding, and discover a half-dozen subtle flavors dancing around which you didn't expect?  It is kind of like that.  With echoes of Emma Donoghue's "Room" this story drew me in and didn't let go.  A page-turner I tore through in two days, it is the kind of writing which makes me eager to read her next novel, "The Sun is Also a Star" (preview provided at the end of this book).  Definitely a new talent worthy of her NY Times Bestseller status.  Brava.

"Jack Strong Takes a Stand" by Tommy Greenwald

Jack Strong has had it.  There is Cello, Chinese, Baseball, Karate, there are "volunteer" activities, tutors and more.  His schedule (listed neatly at the front of the book) is so packed that he literally doesn't have time to play a single computer game, much less hang out on the couch with his beloved grandmother.  So, he takes a stand.  By sitting down.  What could be a preachy, pedantic novel with a "POINT" is very accessible and warm.  Mr. Greenwald takes a modern issue many readers will readily identify with and embeds it with good characterizations and lots of humor.  Jack feels real.  His honest surprise at how his impulsive 7th grade behavior manifests into something he doesn't predict is genuine and keeps the novel from being a "lesson tome."  Family members and school friends have layers which create some unexpected twists.  The story as a whole is short and enjoyable. As a minor quibble, the drama at the end seems to be a bit much, but willing suspension of disbelief should suffice in letting any doubts go.  Greenwald again gets kudos for making the resolution more about complexities than a simple wrap-up.  The cartoonish drawings didn't add much to the narrative as far as I was concerned but will make the book more appealing to hesitant readers.  Overall a great little read which I wish I could recommend to a parent or two.