books and reading

The Best Picture Books I Read in January

As part of my goal of reading 365 picture books this year, I’m trying to start off strong (and maybe get a little ahead for when I inevitably slack in the future). This month, I read a lot of great picture books, and these were the best of the best:

31019568Lexie the Word Wrangler by Rebecca Van Slyke: Lexie is the best wrangler in the West–the best word wrangler, that is. She can turn a SPOT into a POST and make a CAT a CATTLE. When she finds that some bandit is changing words around her ranch, she sets off to solve the mystery.

Vivid, quirky illustrations and genuinely clever and funny wordplay make this one a hit. Kids and adults will like playing with the words in the book (there’s even a dictionary of “wrangler words” in the back) and pouring over the illustrations.

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Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One is Incarcerated by Becky Birtha: A close look at what kinds of feelings and emotions children can experience when a parent is incarcerated. Told from multiple perspectives, the book aims to answer questions about what it’s like when a parent is away, and provide helpful tips on how to process and deal with feelings.

Exceedingly well done, with a diverse cast of children and parents, multiple perspectives are presented. A helpful author’s note at the end provides additional resources and tips for adults caring for children with incarcerated parents. It’s an issue book that’s done with great care and compassion.

34144489Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes: The barber shop is where boys go in “like lumps of clay” and come out princely in their form. It’s magic, and this book is magic, too.

Gorgeous illustrations accompany Barnes’ smart prose. This is a sweet, clever look at barbershops, black boys, and the power of a good haircut. I loved this one and think it’s an important title for every library serving kids to have on its shelves.

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After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat: The story of Humpty after he falls off the famous wall. The king’s men put him back together, but he develops a fear of heights, which puts him at a disadvantage as an avid birdwatcher.

Lots to like here as Santat twirls together his text and his images. There’s a lovely message to the story that doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, and the images, especially near the end, are breathtaking.

 

 

 

 

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books and reading

What I Read this Week

These are the things I read this week. Without further ado:

28588390A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas: Charlotte Holmes is smart and asks a lot of questions. She’s never quite fit in with the expectations of society, but it isn’t until she ends up a social pariah that she realizes she’ll have to use all her wits to survive. Then there’s a rash of murders, and Charlotte’s sister is one of the suspects. It’s up to Charlotte to clear her sister’s name.

A smart re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, this first book in a series by Sherry Thomas is pretty delightful. While historical fiction (and cozy mysteries) is not my preferred genre, I liked this sneakily feminist, smart take on the classic detective.

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The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn:  Anna Fox is an agoraphobic former child psychologist who hasn’t left her home in over ten months. She spends her days drinking wine, watching classic movies, and spying on her neighbors using her Nikon camera. When she witnesses something across the street–the apparent murder of her new neighbor–no one believes her. After all, she’s been mixing her medication and alcohol, and her memory isn’t what it once was. But she knows what she saw, and she might be in the killer’s crosshairs.

This is definitely another book written by a man using sneakily vague letters in his name in an attempt to cash in on the “grip-lit” phenomenon (his author bio in the back of the book lacks pronouns in a very conspicuous way), and that makes me feel weird about the book. That said, it’s certainly a fast-paced thrill ride, and it will find a readership. It’s way too long, clocking in at over 400 pages, and could have used a much stronger editing hand. But it was pretty fun, and it made me want to re-watch Rear Window.

books and reading · reviews

Book Review: Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

Heather, the Totality (October 2017) by Matthew Weiner

Mark and Karen have built their family and their own marriage around their daughter Heather. Beautiful, smart, and compassionate, the world adores her as much as they do. But she’s so magnetic that she attracts unsavory elements as well, and it isn’t long before everything the Breakstones have worked for is in jeopardy.

Matthew Weiner’s (yes, the Mad Men guy) debut novel is very slight and is best read in a single sitting. A whip-fast pace helps this novel go down easier, but the fact remains that it’s short on many merits, including believable characters, and believable situations. Clearly aiming to fall into the “literary” side of fiction, it certainly succeeds in being “pretentious.”

The novel is on the whole not a particularly challenging read. While Weiner does well enough creating a sense of genuine suspense, it takes more than half of the book to get to the point, which is way too long in a novel that’s only 140 pages long. There’s also way too much time spent on the entire history of the Breakstones’s marriage, a marriage that is super boring and whose details don’t relate in any way to the central crux of the story. All of this seems to contradict the novel’s lofty aims of being one of those sparse suspense novels that are so eerily effective. By weirdly trying to do both, Weiner succeeds at neither.

There’s also the fact that the people populating this story are bizarrely vague in their characterization. There’s no real consistency in any of their actions or personalities, and the reader is not given much to go on, either. The result is that it’s hard to care about what fate awaits any of them.

The writing leaves a lot to be desired, too. Told in a stylized narration that will rankle most readers (there are a few critics out there who seem to think it’s brilliant, but they’re definitely in the minority). There’s virtually no showing done here. Instead, Weiner tells his readers–again and again–and the result is kind of like reading stage directions for a play. This reads like a treatment for a movie script more than it does a novel.

A total disappointment, and a hard pass. Maybe put it in the hands of hardcore Matthew Weiner fans, but even they deserve better.

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner. Little, Brown & Company: 2017. Library copy.

 

books and reading

What I Read This Week

These are the books I finished this week:

31707102And We’re Off by Dana Schwartz: Nora is seventeen and an aspiring artist, about to take a trip to Europe on her grandfather’s dime. But at the last minute, her mom decides to tag along, throwing a huge wrench in all of her plans. Can the two get along and navigate Europe together?

Hailed as Gilmore Girls meets 13 Little Blue Envelopes, I really enjoyed this sweet story about mother-daughter relationships and traveling through Europe. It’s a totally enjoyable, if a bit forgettable YA novel that should appeal to a variety of teens.

 

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling: In Harry’s sixth year at1 Hogwarts, things are not good. Voldemort is returned to power, Dumbledore has special assignments for Harry, and a new Potions master means that Harry’s dealing with Snape as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. And there’s something going on with Draco Malfoy, too.

I finished this on audio this week, which means I’m down to one more book (I haven’t decided if I’ll also re-read The Cursed Child, since there’s no audio for it). I’m excited/sad to finish listening to the series (my backlog of podcasts is getting ridiculous). Onward!

29010395I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez: Julia is not the perfect Mexican daughter the way her sister Olga is. She has big dreams: college, New York, a writing career…but now that her sister Olga is dead, Julia wonders if she can have any of it. Struggling with her grief over the loss of her sister while also trying to figure out the mysteries of Olga’s life, Julia uncovers a lot about herself in the process.

Well-written and moving, but I had a really hard time getting into it. I felt like this was a book that came to me at the wrong time, and it says more about me than about the book. Definitely an outstanding read from the last year, though.

books and reading · pop culture

Year in Review: 2017

Despite being a total dumpster fire of a year, 2017 also marked a year of pretty extraordinary reading for me. My goals of watching 100 new movies fell way, way short, but I met and exceeded many of my reading goals. Here’s how the year shook out:

Reading:

Total Books Read: 426
Picture Books: 283
Middle Grade: 20
YA: 39
Adult: 85
Fiction: 391
Non-Fiction: 36
Audiobooks: 19
# of Pages: 44,823
Average # of Pages Per Day: _____
Average # of Books Per Month: ________

Watching:

I watched 49 new movies this year. My favorite movies of the year were: The Big Sick, Landline, and Thor: Ragnarok. This was obviously way short of my goal of 100 new movies in 2017.

Goals for 2018:

I have a bunch of specific reading goals for 2018, but here are a few broad goals:

  • 50 adult books
  • 50 YA books
  • 12 Middle Grade Books
  • 365 picture books (a picture book a day)

In terms of watching, I’m hoping to watch 52 new movies (one a week).

What are your goals for the new year?

books and reading · reviews

Best Books of 2017

I read over 400 books this year, if I’m including picture books. I read a lot of stuff, and some of it was great. Some of it was terrible. These are the best books I read this year.

33375622Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: A collection of short stories that blends realism and science fiction, humor and horror. These stories are all knockouts, racing towards conclusions while keeping the reader riveted. Subversive, feminist, and unforgettable. I can’t wait to see what Machado does next.

30231763 Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller: Another short story collection makes the list, with Mary Miller’s excellent collection of stories about women on the brink of something. At times claustrophobic, and at other times blisteringly acerbic, this collection of women all in search of different things was one of the best and most accomplished collections of the year. I loved it.

30304222There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker: A collection of poetry that uses pop culture references (and a lot of Beyonce references) to explore black womanhood in modern day America. This is intersectional feminism at its most sharp and inciting, and it’s a must-read, even for those who don’t dabble much (or at all) in poetry. 33876540

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter: Part legal thriller, part coming-of-age novel, the debut novel from actress Krysten Ritter knocked my socks off. She hooked me from the first pages and didn’t let up until the story’s gripping, violent end. This is a knockout of a novel, one that demands to be read. I can’t wait to see what Ritter offers next, whether it’s a film or TV project or another novel. Seriously, go read this one.

32940879Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed: The island is the only safe space left in a world that is burning. The fathers run the island, and their daughters are the wives-in-training in this dystopian fiction piece from Jennie Melamed. The book is a gripping account of a patriarchy gone wholly wrong (well, I mean, all patriarchal societies are), and Melamed’s tight prose makes this a haunting read, especially given the current political climate. Comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale abound, but this one stands on its own.

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Grit by Gillian French: Darcy Prentiss and her sister and their cousin work the blueberry fields in the summer in rural Maine. Darcy knows how to have a good time, and her reputation reinforces that. But all of this is her way of distracting her from the secrets she’s keeping, including one about the disappearance of her ex-best friend. This slow burn of a novel had me riveted from the start. It was a surprise of a book, one I just picked up out of a stack of new arrivals at the library, and I was so pleasantly surprised.

32075671The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Starr Carter is there when her best friend is shot and killed by a cop. He wasn’t armed, but the media surrounding the event becomes an absolute circus. Starr isn’t sure whether standing up and saying something is the right thing to do. One of the most buzzed about books of the year, this fresh, smart, moving take on racialized police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement is required reading.

 

 

What did I miss?

 

 

 

books and reading · reviews

Favorite Picture Books of 2017

2017 was the year I got really, really into picture books. I tried to read as many new ones as I could get my hands on, and I started figuring out which authors were my favorites, as well as really sharpening the library of titles I can choose from when it comes to storytimes. These are my favorite picture books of 2017:

34137106A Different Pond by Bao Phi: This semi-autobiographical picture book features Phi as a young boy, fishing with his father in Minneapolis. The story is contrasted with Phi’s father talking about fishing in his homeland of Vietnam. Gorgeous images accompany Phi’s lovely prose. It’s a striking, moving story, and it features some beautiful pictures of Minneapolis’s Lake Street.

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Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin: A little girl brings her stuffed fox to the playground, and a real fox steals away with it. The illustrations in this wordless picture book are so beautifully drawn, and the story so sweet that it’s impossible not to be sucked into it. Totally marvelous.

31145060Stay: A Girl, a Dog, and a Bucket List by Kate Klise: Eli the dog has been with Astrid the girl since she came home from the hospital as an infant. Astrid is getting older, and so is Eli, so Astrid decides they need to complete a bucket list of experiences together. These things include eating together at a restaurant and sliding down a slide at the playground. This novel, written and illustrated by a pair of sisters, made me ugly cry. But it’s also one of the sweetest, smartest picture books I read this year. The story perfectly encapsulates the love between humans and canines, and I completely loved it.

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The Storm Whale in Winter by Benji Davies: Noi is waiting at home while his dad takes one last journey to the sea to fish before winter settles in. But a storm comes in and Noi’s dad doesn’t return, so Noi sets out to look for him. When Noi gets stuck in the icy sea, his whale friend comes to the rescue. I actually read this sequel before Davies’ original tale, and I loved both so much. A sweet story about friendship and family, this moving little book is guaranteed to satisfy kids and adults alike.

31145118Out! by Arree Chung: Everyone in the family is ready for bed after a long day, except for the baby. When Jo Jo the dog goes to check on the baby, she finds that the baby wants OUT. Shenanigans ensue. Repetition of the same word and fun, colorful illustrations make this a crowd-pleaser, and yes, I love picture books about dogs. It’s a whole thing.

 

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell: A girl gets lost in the snow on her way home 29102937from school and encounters a wolf pup, separated from its pack. She helps him find his family, and then they return the favor. This simple, nearly wordless picture book had me crying, and so much of that is due to Cordell’s ability to express a myriad of feelings in his pen-and-ink-and-watercolor illustrations. I loved this compelling book about kindness.

What picture books stood out to you this year?