Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: “Inside Out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out and Back AgainInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Written in free verse, this book tells a semi-autobiographical story of a ten-year-old Vietnamese girl in 1975. Her family must decide what to do with the impending coming of the Communists to their home in Saigon. Their lives change forever, and the reader gets to see the emotional impact of these real events through the eyes of the young girl. I highly recommend this book which treats the serious subjects of war and refugees in an relatable way. It is a quick read too; it took me only about ninety minutes to get through. The author notes at the end of the book that the situation of the family, as well as many specific anecdotes, were straight from her own life.

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Book Review: “Waiting for the Magic” by Patricia MacLachlan

Waiting for the MagicWaiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan

This novel, written by Patricia MacLachlan (author of Sarah, Plain & Tall), I recommend highly for children who are beginning chapter book reading, as well as adults. MacLachlan does an excellent job of treating serious family concerns(absentee fatherhood, pregnancy) through children’s [and pets’] eyes. William and Elinor’s father leaves his family (again) and their mother decides to take corrective action by adopting four dogs and a cat. The family readjusts, and the reader sees, through William’s perspective, the conflicted emotions of being a child in a broken family. MacLachlan not only writes with poignancy, but with a sense of whimsy as well, when the children find out that their new pets can speak to them (Elinor hears first, since all four-year-olds can hear magic, according to the littlest dog). “Waiting for the Magic” is a sweet story that grapples with serious issues with a tone that isn’t ominous, and offers an uplifting message about the endurance of the family. Amy June Bates’ occasional black-and-white sketch illustrations support the text and help the reader to visualize each individual member of the family, human and otherwise.

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Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book may be long, but it is an engaging, and therefore quick, read. Kathryn Stockett tells the fictional (but semi-autobiographical-ish) story of the intertwining lives of white families and the black women that work for them in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s. I was wowed most especially by the three first-person perspectives that this novel takes: first, Aibileen, an elderly domestic worker who gets attached to every one of the many white children she’s raised; Minny, a cranky maid who has more under her strong and sassy facade than anyone would imagine; and Skeeter, a college-educated white woman who can’t sit idly by while her friends mistreat their “help.” I really enjoyed this novel, and I would recommend it to anyone with a mind open to hearing someone else’s point of view. (Note – There are some adult situations/themes that might only be appropriate for older teens and adults).

For more information, including book discussion resources, the author’s biography, etc, visit the official website here.

Book Review: The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

Image from Jim Trelease's Website

The Handbook begins with a rationale for the importance of reading aloud to children, and cites statistics and case studies that show the benefits it offers to literacy, family togetherness, child development, and more.  Then, Trelease walks the reader through some practical techniques as well as beginning reading suggestions for every age and interest.

Based on his experience as a father and grandfather, and his familiarity with many anecdotes from other parents, Trelease tells us (p. 4) that there are some major advantages derived from reading aloud to [your] child:

  • Associating reading with pleasure in the child’s brain
  • Establishing background knowledge (ie, what animals live on farms, what a bulldozer looks like, what a fiddle is).
  • Building vocabulary (Children’s picture books are meant to be read to a child not by a child because their vocabulary and structure are too sophisticated.)
  • Provide a positive reading role model (YOU!)

Although I’m only about halfway done reading The Handbook, I’ve skimmed the final sections that contain a plethora of reading recommendations of every sort.  I highly recommend The Read-Aloud Handbook to parents, teachers, librarians, and any other professional that works with children.

Here’s a link to the author Jim Trelease’s home page that contains book lists, lecture downloads, and excerpts/major points from every chapter of his book.

How to Give a Cat a Bath, and other dangerous advice

After decompressing from a semester of MLS studies, I’m finally getting back to Mr. Blog.  I’ve been reading a bit here and there, and have even been putting my VCR to good use.

Bad Kitty series by Nick Bruel

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I discovered this delightful little series of picture books and illustrated children’s chapter books that center around the life of a very, very bad, bad kitty.

In the original picture book, Bad Kitty, the kitty is loathe to find out that he’s been temporarily restricted to a vegetable diet.  Fortunately, his hazardous protests throughout the house won him back his omnivorous cat food.  The book, and its sequel, Poor Puppy (in which the kitty is introduced to an over-friendly new housemate), incorporate the alphabet and counting, and are devilishly funny and random in their choice of vocabulary.

Additionally, Bruel wrote illustrated chapter books about specific aspects of the kitty’s life, including Bad Kitty Gets a Bath. In this hilarious volume, the kitty’s owner explains the dangers involved in attempting to clean a cat, including injury, death, and pants-wetting.  The book even gives a detailed illustration and explanation of the escalating levels of cat anger as expressed through different hisses.  Any cat-lover (or cat-hater, even) will recognize the high-strung attitude of kitty, something common to many of our feline friends.  I highly recommend these books, to adults and childen.  The picture books are a longer read than most, so keep that in mind when reading with those with shorter attention spans (adults and children included).

Here’s a link to Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty series: click here.

Sharp North – Book Review

Sharp North
by Patrick Cave
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Simon & Schuster UK.
Published in USA in 2006 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.

Imagine a future in which the Earth has gone through drastic climate changes, and northern Europe is permanently covered in snow, and Mediterranean Europe is bone dry, save for the rising seas.  Human life becomes more difficult and uncertain, and few European settlements are still inhabitable.  Technological development, though advanced, has come to a standstill, as natural resources have become extremely scarce.

However, artificial genetic and reproductive technologies are still thriving, and serve as the backbone to this controlled modern Britain.  Conceiving a child has become a luxury only available to members of the Great Families or their wannabees, the upper class known as Visions…and natural conception is out of the question, a filthy and irresponsible alternative only undertaken by the low class Scroats.  Responsible families with enough money must first file applications with the Fertility Board, then get to choose the most attractive and advantageous genetic characteristics for their child.  Despite society’s unbridled affair with genetic manipulation, the state has put a ban on cloning, due to physical abnormalities that frequently were present in the experimental clones.  However, the Great Families see no reason to follow this statute, and they create clones to ensure the continuation of their power in the years to come.  These “spare” clones can come in handy as either a temporary replacement (in the case of injury or temporary amnesia a la Dave) or as extra body organs that are a perfect match.

Amid the wails of this disordered society are Mira, a plucky young woman chased from her isolated northern village, and Kay, the distracted and rebellious Scroat son of a powerful Saint family leader.  Mira witnesses a mysterious murder, and can’t ignore what she’s seen.  She vows to make sense not only of the crime itself, but of her friend Gil’s indifference to it.  Why was a woman from the South in her village, and what did she do to deserve such a cold death?  Mira’s insatiable thirst for understanding drives her to drastic measures and to a world she never knew existed.  Kay lives a life of privilege, separated from the gritty life all around him.  Like most teen lit rich kids, he longs to live a normal life, and to blend in with other Scroats like himself.  In Sharp North, Mira and Kay must push themselves further than they ever believed possible in order to answer their purpose that grows more concrete by the day.

Although I haven’t many novels about future dystopias since high school, but I found Sharp North to be a great combination of dramatic tension, fast-paced action, character development, soapboxing on issues, and interpersonal relations.  I enjoyed Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Huxley’s Brave New World, but I think that Cave adds an added portion of emotional relatability into his protagonist Mira.  Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that she and I are both female, but I think that Mira’s quiet moments in her isolated, snowy village, endow her with a certain sense of country, if not old-world, charm.  Sharp North, though engaging, was a long read at more than 500 pages.  Some critics have complained that parts of the story move too slowly, but I enjoyed those sections that allowed me to really get to know the changes going on in the characters.  I highly recommend Sharp North for teen readers ages 14 and up and for adults, with warnings about the content (mentioned above) for younger readers.

Sequel AND Prequel – in one volume (yep!):
Blown Away: British title, originally published in 2006
The Selected: Published in 2010
(According to author Patrick Cave’s website, Blown Away is book two in the series and The Selected is book three.  However, according to every other bibliographical resource I’ve looked at (Novelist, WorldCat, etc), they are the same book, although they have different titles and different covers.  If anyone has read them and knows, please do comment below.  I ordered Blown Away from inter-library loan, as I don’t really like the typeface in The SelectedSharp North used “Bembo” font; I liked that quite a bit.)

American Born Chinese – Graphic Novel Book Review

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Color by Lark Pien

Yang creates a mini, modern-day epic about the experiences of Jin, a boy born in American from Chinese immigrant parents.  American Born Chinese garnered many awards, including the American Library Association’s Michael J. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, and appears on many YA top ten lists.

The reader follows him from his first day at a new elementary school through the awkward middle school years. Jin is ostracized by his young classmates because of his race and doesn’t make a true friend until he meets a new classmate, Wei-Chen Sun, who has just immigrated from Taiwan.  Jin struggles with trying to fit into the white culture, especially after he discovers he fancies a white girl named Amelia.  To his dismay, no matter how hard he tries, Jin can never change what skin he’s in.

Parallel to Jin’s story are two other threads in American Born Chinese: a retelling of a popular Chinese folktale about the Monkey King, and look at the life of a white teenager named Danny who endures humiliation every year when his stereotypically off-the-boat cousin Chin-Kee visits from China.  Though disparate in time and place, the three stories all offer characters that are unhappy with who they are born to be, and go to measures to try to reinvent themselves.

American Born Chinese tells a universal story of coming to terms with one’s heritage, and all the baggage that comes along with it.  Moreover, it does it in such a way that is realistic, easy to sympathize with, and sometimes poignant.  Yang and Pien create an inspired combination of text and visuals that literally breaks the barriers of the frames to enhance an already excellent storyline.

This graphic novel is highly recommended for young adult readers.  It was a very quick read (I’m an adult and it took me about an hour to 90 minutes to read), and kept my attention nicely.  The racist remarks may be something to weigh when considering for younger readers, but these comments serve to exaggerate and dispel stereotypes, not to perpetuate them.

Gutter Geek did a thorough review of American Born Chinese here.

Have you read American Born Chinese? What did you think?