Reading For The Heck Of It

Gosh, I love books. I love the way they feel in my hand, the way they smell, the way they look piling up all around me as I drown amongst their pages...I really, REALLY like books.

 

Favorite genres: nonfiction (especially science), sci-fi/fantasy, classics, and children's literature.

 

Unread/unloved genres: romance and seafaring odysseys.

The man behind the spider and the mouse

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White - Melissa Sweet

Up til this point, I could most likely count the number of biographies written for children that I've read. Actually I could probably count how many biographies in total I've ever read because I have to admit biographies in general not my favorite genre. However, there are always exceptions and every now and again there are people who I find intriguing enough to seek out more information about them. Last year I read My Ears Are Bent which included different excerpts from The New Yorker along with background on the magazine itself. I discovered from this book just how much of the writing was done by E.B. White. (You might recognize him from such things as Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web.) This piqued my interest in White but I had so many other things on my TRL that I somewhat forgot about him until I saw Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet pop up as a recommended read. I think E.B. White would have heartily approved of this biography even though he was an intensely private, low-key individual. This book delivered not only on giving me the biography that I was looking for but also offering up beautiful mixed media layouts which make it more accessible to children.  His approach to writing and his proliferation of works is fascinating and astonishing. Sweet manages to educate the reader about his works but she also manages to paint a portrait of a writer that was passionate about his craft, his family, and his farm. She does this almost from the start. This book is great if you want to learn more about E.B. White yourself or if you want to introduce your kids to biographies. It's easily accessible and the layout is beautiful. Quick, fun read that I'd recommend for reluctant biography readers (like myself). 10/10

 

To give you a taste of what I mean about the mixed media approach:

 

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

 

What's Up Next: Brian Selznick Masterpost including The Invention of Hugo CabretThe Marvels, and Wonderstruck

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Alice by Christina Henry

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

The devil is in the details

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep - Joanna Cannon

It's ironic that after I made the post about not finding enough time to post twice a week I exponentially increased how many books I was reading. This has resulted in a backlog of books which show as 'currently reading' on all of my literary social media sites. This has generally meant that the reviews which have been going up on Fridays are following in the order that I read them but I may have read them as much as two months ago. I'm going to change that up with this post because I'm just so excited to talk about this book that it's jumping the queue. Strap in, guys.

 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon was brought to my attention by watching this video by one of my favorite BookTubers, Mercedes. It was the cover that initially grabbed my attention (Honestly, are you even surprised anymore?) but it was the quick blurb which she read that truly won me over. (PS The UK and US covers are vastly different and honestly I prefer the cover from the UK.) Cannon's debut novel is set on a small road in England during the summer of 1976 and the winter of 1967. Two seemingly disparate events from these two time periods seem to be converging during what turns out to be one of the hottest summers on record. The reader follows several narrative threads from the inhabitants of this road but the central character is 10-year old Grace. We see her neighbors, family, and friend (Tilly is a delight) through her eyes while also getting to peek behind the shuttered windows and closed doors of their homes where secrets lurk in every corner. It started with a disappearance of a woman...or was it a baby? Maybe it was a fire that started things. It's sometimes difficult to determine just what started a chain of events, isn't it? The Trouble with Goats and Sheep explores that and much more. I don't want this novel to sound distressingly gloomy or dark because that's not accurate. It's difficult for me to convey just what it was that instantly drew me in and had me savoring it like a delicious treat. I think it's that Cannon was able to move seamlessly between the different characters and two time periods and create a story that was both believable and poignant. The people on the avenue felt real and tangible. Their foibles and fears weren't inconceivable or written with a melodramatic air. These were real people who had made mistakes but were too stubborn to admit them. It's a study of humanity and how two little girls tried to reconcile what they were seeing with what they desperately wanted to believe.  I knew within 30 pages that this was a book that this was going to have high re-readability for me and I daresay for many others as well. 10/10 highly recommend.

 

The UK cover:

Source: Waterstones

 

The US cover:

Source: Amazon

 

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

I continue to be drawn in by beautiful cover art

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle - Janet  Fox

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox is another prime example of an eye-catching cover which I couldn't resist. It evokes a certain gothic mysteriousness which I'm happy to say was delivered. From the very beginning,  the reader is launched into a tale of magic, wickedness, desperation, and all-consuming power. The story follows a family of children who are sent to stay at an estate in the country during the Blitz of WWII. However, all is not what it seems at this country school as the oldest daughter, Kate, quickly realizes after meeting the lady of the house. Much of the drama is tied to a chatelaine (a chain decorated with different items used around a house and usually worn by the woman in charge of the household affairs) worn by this woman. There are a lot of different threads to follow in this narrative which made it a little challenging to follow at times. The reader is sent back in time to follow this woman's history and then suddenly we're back with Kate in the present. That was a bit jarring but easily overcome. I'd say that the book's biggest strength was its originality in using magical artifacts of an unusual sort (I don't want to give it away entirely). If you are a fan of boarding school mysteries with a healthy heaping of dark magic then you'll most likely enjoy this book. It's a 6/10 for me but it would have been higher if the narrative thread had been a bit tighter.

 

I mean how could I have turned down this cover?!

 

Source: Amazon

 

What's Up Next: Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

 

What I'm Currently Reading: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Figuring out who you are

Roller Girl - Victoria Jamieson

The only exposure I've had to roller derby is through the film Whip It which admittedly is more than some people. Therefore, I thought it would be fun to read more about it especially when I saw the cover of today's book. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson follows a middle schooler named Astrid who (after going to a roller derby bout) decides that she will be an all-star roller derby girl. However, there are a few hiccups in this plan. (I was going to tell you what they are but I decided it would be better for you to discover them yourself especially since they make up the backbone of the book.) This is a story all about discovering what you're made of, adolescent friendship, and perseverance. It's pretty much middle school wrapped up in one volume + crazy rollerskating antics. I should also mention that it's a graphic novel with truly epic illustrations which were done by the author (I love when that's the case). Overall, I thought this was a fast paced, angsy book that captures what it's like to be a preteen girl who is obsessed with . It's a fun book, guys. If you have any middle grade readers in your life that love sports I think they'd really like this one. 8/10

 

And since I've done this with a few other author/illustrators I thought I'd include a blog post that Victoria Jamieson did with some sketches from the book. Here's a sample:

Source: Victoria Jamieson Illustration

 

And here's what you can expect from the finished product:

Source: books4yourkids

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Activism in India

Book Uncle and Me - Julianna  Swaney, Uma Krishnaswami

Like those of you who come to my blog looking for book recommendations, I often check out book vloggers/bloggers and 'what's new in children's lit' to see what I should be checking out next. That's how I heard about Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami. Firstly, I don't think I've ready any children's books from an Indian author before so I was interested to see if the styles would be at all similar and what kind of themes would be explored. Secondly, this book is about two of my favorite things: books and community activism. :-D Our main character, Yasmin, is a voracious reader and she gets all of her books from a lending library run by Book Uncle who sets up his 'shop' on the corner by her apartment building. There is no price for these books and if you want to keep it then that's perfectly okay. Yasmin and many members of her community come to see this little library as a constant in their lives but one day their world is upended because Book Uncle has been told that he must leave. What transpires next is nothing short of inspiring and that's just what I think is so phenomenal about this book. It teaches children that their actions matter and that activism can be accomplished by every member of the community. It's a great way to talk about 'doing your part' that doesn't make it overbearing or heavy-handed. It's also a great way to expose children to a different part of the world. 8/10

 

Note: This book will also make you extraordinarily hungry.

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Long overdue + Anniversary

The Phantom Tollbooth - Jules Feiffer, Norton Juster

"...the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what's in between..."

 

There were several lines from The Phantom Tollbooth that I could have chosen to start this blog post but this one really stuck with me. It might come as a surprise for you to learn that this was the first time I had read Norton Juster's classic work for children. It has been on my TRL for years and I finally knuckled down and checked out a copy. I'm glad that I did because it was just what I needed. For those who haven't been initiated, The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of a little boy named Milo who seems to make his way through the world with a listless, bored attitude...until a mysterious package appears in his bedroom. What happens next is a pun lovers' dream. (If you're a fan of grammar and word play then this is the book for you.) Milo goes on an adventure which will totally change the way he looks at the world. This is the perfect book to create lifelong learners because it's all about critical thinking. (I realize that I'm making this sound like homework but I swear it's fun educational learning.)

 

A/N: Today marks 6 years that I've been posting my book reviews online. I can't believe that something that started as a fun little side project has turned into my second job (albeit unpaid). I feel very proud of how far I've come and I am very much looking forward to the future (and all of those books!). Thanks to those who have been around from the beginning and those just now discovering me (hello!). I hope that in some small way I've helped you to find your next great read and somewhat brightened your day.  Here's to the next 6 years! :-D

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Slow on the uptake

The Deadly 7 - Garth Jennings

Alright, I'll admit it. I'm often drawn to a book because of its cover. There's nothing wrong with that. Why else would they hire people to make them attractive and spend so much time designing them to be eye-catching? And then there's the blurb on the back of the book. These can range from evocative, cringeworthy, perplexing, or in some cases spoiler-y. Even after reading the back of the book jacket of today's book and seeing the title and looking at the cover image I was still surprised to discover just what this book was about. Maybe you're all smarter than me. Can you guess what Deadly 7 by Garth Jennings is about just from the name? What if I told you that it was about a little boy who had 7 little monsters accompanying him on a rescue mission and each of them had a very separate personality? The main character of Deadly 7 is Nelson who comes across a machine which creates 7 monsters that only he can see. One is always sleeping, one is angry about pretty much everything, one keeps stealing everything in sight...have you figured out what they are yet? I almost hope you haven't because then I won't feel like such a dolt. This is Garth's debut novel but he's no stranger to writing as he was the genius behind the movie Sing. However, this book is pretty much nothing like that movie. This story feels like it could be rooted in our present but with a decided twist. There's an ever-present feeling of dread while flipping the pages of this book which honestly I think that a lot of kids feel at this age. Remember the anxiety and fear when you realized that you were changing and you didn't know into what? Jennings taps into that and uses the monsters as a way to illustrate it which I think is rather brilliant. I have to say that the plot of this is kinda all over the place but the writing is solid so I have hope that further books by him will be tightened up and be even better. Nonetheless, it was a quick read and entertaining and I think it would be a good springboard for conversation. It's a solid 6/10.

 

PS Here's an article where Jennings talks about writing the book.

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

I'm conflicted

Grandpa's Great Escape - David Walliams

I am struggling with how to express my feelings about Grandpa's Great Escape by David Walliams. This is due to the fact that this man might actually be a bigger Roald Dahl fan than myself and his writing definitely reflects that. I don't think that Walliams makes any bones about this but I do think that if you've read Dahl's works it will be difficult not to compare the two which leaves Walliams falling a bit short. (Sorry!) Read on its own merit, it's a great little book which touches on topics which I think are really important in middle grade fiction. Our main character, Jack, has a very special relationship with his grandfather who was a fighter pilot in WWII. Their relationship is a unique one which is further complicated by the fact that his grandpa has Alzheimer's disease and believes he is once again in the midst of the Battle of Britain. Jack's parents are torn about what to do with the old man but Jack is adamant that he continue to spend time with him...until the vicar puts an idea into their heads about the old folks home beyond the moors. In typical Dahl fashion, Walliams fashions a slapstick comedy amidst flashbacks to WWII and serious discussions over elderly care and familial loyalty.

 

What I didn't care for:

  • What felt like blatant ripoffs of Dahl's works as well as his illustrator, Quentin Blake

 

What I legitimately enjoyed:

  • The approach and handling of serious discussions revolving around elderly care and Alzheimer's
  • The glossary at the back which discussed in more detail the topics touched on in the book such as the Royal Air Force, Battle of Britain, etc.

 

I'd love to know what you guys think so please check the book out and leave a comment below. :-)

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Am I no longer afraid of robots?

The Wild Robot - Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown has both fascinated me and frightened me for at least 2 months now. I kept seeing the cover when I was shelving or visiting other branches and the image of the single robot standing on top of a pile of rocks kept leaping out at me. I finally gave up the fight when I decided that middle grade fiction was the way to cure my book reading blues. I'm glad that I did because The Wild Robot was a lot of fun to read (and it turns out it's the start of a series!) made even more amazing by the superb illustrations supplied by the author. [A/N Peter Brown is no stranger to creating books as he's a well-known children's picture book author/illustrator but this is his first attempt at middle grade fiction.] This isn't your standard 'robot story' but instead it's a look at climate change, the ever-evolving landscape of our world with the advent of technology, and what it means to be truly alive. In short, it's beautiful, thought-provoking literature. The illustrations peppered throughout enhance the story by adding depth to the characters (I love that they're black and white.). Roz is doing the best she can given her circumstances which is really all that anyone can do. The only difference is that she's an artificial lifeform living on an island without any humans. How will this shape her? Will her presence have any effect on the local fauna and flora? Brown's commentary on our world is perfectly geared for a younger audience but it wouldn't go amiss for the adult crowd either. ;-) I can't wait to see how this story continues to develop as Peter carries on with the series. 10/10

 

For a look at the book from the author's perspective check out this awesome post written by Peter about his process of getting his book published: "The Wild Robot lives!".

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Invisible food, shadow people, and a door with no obvious purpose

The House of Months and Years - Emma Trevayne

This book follows a little girl named Amelia Howling who is uprooted from her 'perfect' house into the home of her cousins who have just experienced a tragedy. If you're anything like me, you'll have little sympathy for this bratty little know-it-all but that thankfully doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment of this book. There's a mystery enveloping this new house which is strangely put together with doors that lead to nowhere and different climates for each floor (don't go in the basement!). Amelia is stubbornly determined to remain aloof from the rest of her family and instead gets swept up in things far more sinister than she at first realizes (despite her assurances of being so clever). For those who like a bit of darker fantasy now and again then this is sure to hit the spot. I'd say the ideal age range would be anywhere from 10-14 (although this is more of a suggestion instead of a rule). For me, I found the fantasy/mystery elements quite good and the imagery excellent. Amelia was the worst but you can't win them all. A solid 8/10.

 

 

PS The cover artist's website: Péah aka Pierre-Antoine Moelo (the artwork is GORGEOUS)

 

PSS I just went to the author's website and I've decide to check out another book that she's written (in the hopefully near future) titled The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister. Stay tuned for further developments. ;-)

 

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Slice of life is fun to say

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life - Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Not very long ago, I saw an article that had gone viral about a woman who knew that she was going to die and she wanted to make sure that her husband found someone (it was like a dating profile but way better). The author was one that somehow hadn't made it onto my radar before this time and I couldn't help feeling thankful that I had found her even though it was under very tragic circumstances. You might have guessed who I was talking about at this point but just in case it was Amy Krouse Rosenthal and the article I'm talking about can be found here. Ten days after the article was published she passed away. It turns out that not only was she a prolific writer of children's books but she also wrote for adults. I thought I'd start with one of her well-known adult nonfiction pieces called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. It's somewhere between a memoir which depicts a slice of Rosenthal's life and a quirky encyclopedia. It's one of the most unique books that I've ever read and after doing some research into the author that seems to adequately describe her. She took the events and circumstances of the year in which she wrote the book to record alphabetically (as one would do in an encyclopedia) different aspects of herself (and the world around her somewhat). For example, under the letter J you would find information about her husband, Jason, with a "See Also Husband" at the end of the entry. It was a lot of fun to dip in and out of it and learn about this totally singular individual. It's a shame that I'm late to the game discovering Amy's work but I am certainly glad that I've found her now. 9/10

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Fortunately, I've posted a new review

Fortunately, the Milk - Neil Gaiman, Skottie Young

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Skottie Young is simply delightful. It's hard for me to decide which was more enjoyable: the writing or the drawings. Honestly, I think that the reason I enjoyed this book so much was that the two of them paired so well together. This is exactly the kind of story that an imaginative parent would tell their child and embellish over time. The main character of this book is a father who is left alone to watch the kids and who goes out to get milk for breakfast and takes forever to get back home.When he finally returns he spins an impossible yarn to explain his tardiness to his extremely skeptical children. Anyone who has read Gaiman's writing knows that he's an absolutely wonderful fantasy author but it's his sense of humor that makes this book unique. Maybe you've heard of 'dad jokes' before? Well, this is basically one big dad joke accompanied by super cute ink illustrations. 10/10 on all fronts.

 

I absolutely love the illustrations by Skottie Young. This is another one of those books where you want to hang up the illustrations on the wall of your house...at least I do.

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

The violinist from Bulgaria

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

Because I loved The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, it really wasn't a difficult decision to pick up her newest novel, The Shadow Land. This book takes place in Bulgaria which is a land I am not at all familiar with beyond Viktor Krum and his Quidditch teammates. (I hope you know what that references because if you don't...let me know so I can review them for you.) You couldn't get further from witches and wizards with this book. The main character, Alexandra, is an American who travels to Bulgaria with emotional baggage (which I honestly could have cared less about) and an intent to teach English. Instead she stumbles into a mystery and a lot of dramatic intrigue. The cast of characters includes but is not limited to a wily taxi driver, an elderly artist, a menacing statesmen with flowing locks, and an intelligent street dog. I was expecting a lot from this novel and I have to admit that I came away disappointed. The characters weren't nearly as compelling or detailed as those in The Historian. **Possible spoilers ahead** The entire backstory of the main character turned out to be pointless. I had thought that there would be some kind of twist at the end but that did not turn out to be the case. For the most part, it was pretty predictable. **No spoilers beyond this point** Kostova still remains impressive when it comes to describing setting and events but as mentioned above the characters felt flat and one-dimensional. However, if you're a fan of historical fiction that is chock full of detailed descriptions then you're probably going to be a fan of Kostova's writing and if you're particularly interested in Bulgaria then you couldn't go amiss with this one. For me, I'm sorry to say, it's a 5/10.

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Persistence pays off

The Grumpface - B.C.R. Fegan, Daniela Frongia

The following book was kindly sent to me by the author, B.C.R. Fegan, who requested a review. This book is out now and you can get a physical or ebook copy by visiting the publisher's website, TaleBlade Press, or by checking out Amazon. :-)

 

The Grumpface by B.C.R. Fegan with illustrations by Daniela Frongia is told entirely in rhyme. It's the story of Dan who is a clumsy dreamer inventor who is simply trying to win over the affections of the girl he's loved from afar. The Grumpface is a creature determined to thwart anyone he comes into contact with no matter how earnest or good-hearted. It's not a huge leap to learn that the main character and Dan have a run-in and shenanigans ensue. If you're looking for a sweet book about a character that never gives up no matter how insurmountable the odds then you should look no further. Added bonus is that this book is told in rhyming verse which hearkens back to the fairytales of old (and which little people especially enjoy). This is one that I think they'll be requesting over and over to read. 7/10

 

Source: TaleBlade Press

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Sculpting the future

How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection - David F. Dufty

Longtime readers of the blog will recall that I've had a certain fear fascination with robots and A.I or Artifical Intelligence. You can check out my posts about books like Our Final Invention which details the growth artifical intelligence into super intelligence or In Our Own Image which is a thought experiment about what the evolution of AI will look like in the future to get an idea of what I mean. Today's book is somewhere in the middle. How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection by David F. Dufty covers the creation of a robotic incarnation of the famous sci-fi author which (according to its creators) has the ability to learn as it communicates with humans i.e. it is self-aware. The novelty of this machine was that it was created in the image of a man who was known for his paranoia about 'thinking' machines and that it was an artistic as much as technological acheivement. This book chronicled the creation of the android from its inception including the sculpting of the head and body by Dr. David Hanson through to its programming by Andrew Olney. (Not to mention the many volunteers from the FedEx Institute of Technology in Memphis who logged many hours helping to make this dream a reality without any compensation.) The PKD android was a sensation among scientific circles as well as among laypeople because of his realistic facial features, expressions, and his seemingly intelligent responses to questions. However, I am not convinced that he would have passed the Turing Test which proves that he was a self-aware artificially intelligent machine. Moreover, I found this book was lacking in many areas. Each of the chapters seemed to end without any real resolution and the ending fell flat. Also, one of my pet peeves is a nonfiction book without any endnotes or at the very least a bibliography and this one committed that sin. Overall, I'd say that this book would appeal to someone who hasn't done any significant research into this field and wants to dip their toe into that world but for me it didn't make the grade. 5/10

 

If you want to see the PKD android in action then you can check out the Hanson Robotics website. Be forewarned, if the idea of a seemingly artificially intelligent machine with human-like characteristics freaks you out then you shouldn't go to that website. To see what I mean, take a look at the pictures below. *shudder*

 

Source: Ascend Surgical

 

Source: Philip K. Dick Android Project

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Which witch is your fave?

The Lunch Witch #2: Knee-deep in Niceness - Deb Lucke

On a whim, I picked up Lunch Witch #2: Knee-Deep in Niceness by Deb Lucke. I was intrigued mainly by the artwork (it's a graphic novel) which at first glance seems delightfully whimsical. However, I found myself disappointed with the book overall. The story was only so-so and didn't really do it for me. I've certainly read more engaging graphic novels for this age group. Our main character, the Lunch Witch, was fairly boring. The plot was...threadbare is the only word I can think of to describe it. The highlight of the book were the pets (the bats were especially entertaining). The artwork was hit-or-miss and didn't make up for the bland storyline. I read some reviews for this book after I had finished and it seems that the consensus is that after the first book in the series (oops I started on #2) this one was a bit of a letdown. I've also just discovered that they're making a film adaptation with Kate McKinnon as the lead. Now that I'm looking forward to especially considering how the main character is depicted as such as the archetypal hag and you just know she's gonna be hilarious. With that being said, this book didn't rate higher than a 4/10 for me I'm afraid. I have no plans to continue reading anymore of the series. :-/

Source: http://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com

Currently reading

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold, Emily Gravett
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Comics Squad #3: Detention! by Victoria Jamieson, Matthew Holm, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Ben Hatke, Jennifer L. Holm
Wildwood Imperium by Carson Ellis, Colin Meloy
The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Do Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel by Madeleine Thien
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Under Wildwood by Carson Ellis, Colin Meloy
One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays by Scaachi Koul