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Sassy Peach Goes to Kindergarten: Happy 5th Birthday!

Wow! We made it! Half a decade! That's crazy talk. I said to a friend the other day how much I couldn't believe how far I've com...

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Max and Bird

Max and Bird is the latest in Ed Vere's Max series, and I almost died when I approached the Sourcebooks booth at Book Expo and asked if they had a new Max book out this year. I love Max with my whole heart and soul, and he is by far my favorite children's series. (You can read about the other books here and here.) Mr. Vere has not let me, or you, down here.

One day, Max and Bird meet. Max is used to chasing birds, and Bird is used to being chased by cats. However, they decide to be friends -- at least until Bird can learn to fly. Together the pair embark on an adventure to teach Bird how to fly, including a visit to the library and plenty of practice. Once they are successful, Bird offers for Max to eat him, as that was the deal. Max decides he likes Bird too much to eat him, and they agree to stay friends.

I am blown away by this book, as much as I have been by Vere's previous Max books. I would rank this one my second favorite after Max the Brave. I love the simplicity of the message -- friends help friends, and don't ask for anything in return. There is another message, which is keeping your word. When Bird offers to sacrifice himself because he told Max he would, it was a sweet, if martyr-ish offer. Max's willingness to turn his new friend down on a very tasty offer was kind, but it also showed a desire for friendship over carnal desires. It is sweet, but it is also a very good message of kindness and caring for others. As per usual, the illustrations are to die for, Max is a dreamboat, and Vere has a way of reaching the deep recesses of adults' sense of humor to make this book a huge winner in terms of children's books. Or any books, for that matter. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stay With Me: A Novel

One of the big books to drop this fall, I anxiously awaited approval for an advanced copy of Ayobami Adebayo's Stay With Me. I wanted to pick up a hard copy at Book Expo, but by drop time (4pm ish) I was in so much pain and could barely walk, so I taxi'd home. I'm so grateful to have been approved for an electronic copy. 

Yejide and Akin have been married for years, and theirs is a love at first sight story. Their union, however, has not produced offspring, which in their Nigerian culture is the worst thing that could befall a marriage. Akin is forced by his family to take a second wife. When Yejide is finally with child, the hope is that it will cure all ills, but unfortunately it is the beginning of a series of events that may rip the couple apart and will have a resounding affect on the family for the rest of their lives.

This novel was by far the best I have picked up in recent months. It was beautifully written in terms of the story; the narrators shift between the couple and there was never a moment when I didn't know who was speaking. Each of their voices broke my heart in their own ways; the unbearable pain of desperately wanting a child and then losing one was difficult to read at all, but especially as my little boy sleeps in my arms while I read through the couple's pain. You learn early on that there is a secret between the couple, and as it unravels through the course of the novel, I was flabbergasted at how simple it was yet how it deeply complicated several lives, some to the point of no return. 

I was struck by how simply stunning this novel was. It was impossible to keep the characters at a distance as they will burrow themselves in your soul. As their relationship became fractured, I couldn't side with one over the other. My heart hurt for both players, and I secretly hoped for a happily ever after. I held my breath for them and I rooted for them. I only wanted their dreams to come true. You may not be able to get what you want, but you can live within the confines of this incredible piece of work and experience the joy and the sorrow Adebayo gifts you for a few hours. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Burning Girl: A Novel

I was crazy excited to get a copy of Claire Messud's newest novel, The Burning Girl, at Book Expo. I always love reading her work. 

We have all been there -- one of your oldest and dearest friends pulls away and you don't know why. Sometimes it happens to us in adulthood, but for many of us it happened in childhood. This is what Julia experiences when Cassie, her best friend, begins to find new friends and ask out new experiences early in high school. Julia doesn't understand, and she has to watch her friend slowly make decisions that will alter her life, some of which are her choice and others she is forced into. It's hard to predict what will happen to Cassie as she slips away from her old life, but one thing we can know for certain is that Julia and Cassie's friendship will never be the same -- that is, if Cassie lives to tell the tale. 

I found this novel to be fascinating, and I was particularly taken by the younger characters Messud has written about in this novel. It's hard to find well written adult novels that focus on younger characters, and Messud really hit the nail on the head with this one. Julia came across as someone I could relate to -- a young woman in the making who feels babyish and uncool compared to her former best friend, who has chosen a new crowd and a new life that not only doesn't include her, but also makes her seem infinitely cooler than Julia. I think we've all been there and we can relate to that. However, in the context of the story, I would rather be Julia. It was a starts reminder that not everything that glitters is gold. 

I was absolutely creeped out by the presence of the new man in Cassie's life. I have to be deliberately vague in this description as it is an important point in the story that you have to read for yourself. Messud has this knack for creating super creepy characters who are deceptively necessary to the story arc. It's quite incredible, and it's what, IMHO, makes her a master at her craft. The fact that I finished this book a week ago and am still unsettled by this character when thinking back on the book is an unmistakable sign of a well-crafted, full-bodied character in the story. It makes both the man and the story take on a life. So yes, I think this book is worth your eyes and your brain power this fall. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Welcome: A Mo Willems Guide for New Arrivals

At Book Expo this year, I happened to be at the expo early, so I grabbed an autographing ticket for Mo Willems' Welcome: A Mo Willems Guide for New Arrivals. I am so glad I did -- it is one of the greatest gifts a new mama could have for her baby.

There is so much to see and do in this world. There are songs to sing and rides to ride and cats to watch. There as passwords to learn and there are mirrors to look into and there are families to love. Life is so big and so wide, and we are happy that you have decided to join us here. Mo Willems puts together a welcome book for babies, and what a glorious welcome it is. 

This was the first book I read my baby boy. The first time I read it through I teared up (because pregnancy), and I knew it would hold a special place in our hearts and our home. It is simple enough to read to your baby yet complicated with big ideas for the big people. The graphics are big and blocked, perfect for tiny brains making sense of the world. It has a consistent tag line and it can be argued that the book is a metaphor for life at large. The world can be a big and scary place, and sometimes it's important to have a book to break it down for you. 

It is a proper introduction to the world if I do say so myself. Welcome to the word, indeed. 

As you can see, the book is baby approved. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Unraveling Oliver: A Novel

Liz Nugent's Unraveling Oliver was a huge get at Book Expo this year. I was super excited to get my hands on it, and Liz Nugent was crazy nice and genuinely happy people were excited about her novel. I downed this whole book in about five hours. I couldn't put it down. 

Oliver Ryan is a famous children's book author who is beloved around the world and in his own circles. Until, that is, the night that he beats his wife into a coma. Who is Oliver Ryan? No one really seems to know. Told in multiple perspectives by those in the couple's lives, the whole picture of who this man is, what motivates him, and what his past looks like starts to come into focus. It turns out that not everyone is what they seem. 

When I tell you that I couldn't put this book down, I truly mean that. I had many things to do before the baby came, but instead I needed to keep reading to find out what the bloody hell was going on. And not just the next chapter -- I needed to gulp down the whole book or else I would lose my mind not knowing the truth. One review on the back of the advanced readers copy called this genre "grip lit," and I had never heard that term before, yet it seems to be entirely accurate for this novel. I was completely gripped and held in a stranglehold by Nugent and her characters. Their stories were astounding and honest, so real that this book blurred the lines between fiction and reality. While Oliver Ryan may not be a real , living and breathing person in Ireland, facsimiles of him exist in the world. Men who are willing to casually and callously use what opportunities come their way to walk over whomever they can. 

This novel did a truly outstanding job of creating twists and turns in the story that I didn't see coming. They were more revelatory than they were shocking, and it worked for this story, which was completely driven by the characters and their complicated, twisted involvement with one another whether they knew it or not. Whether it was coming to grips with Oliver's family or finally understanding the true betrayal of the book, there was always another shocker that was more of a slow burn than a heart-stopping sensation. It was incredible to read, and well worth the accolades coming Nugents' way when this book is released. I tore through this novel, and you will too. Just be sure you don't have to be anywhere -- you will be late. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats

Hi all! I'm back! I wasn't planning on coming back officially until October, but after the wonderful stack of books I picked up at Book Expo 2017, I would be remiss if I didn't post on the books I read that are coming out this month. 

We start with Vyvyan Evans' The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats. When I teach development courses, I usually devote one class to language development. Of course we spend a good deal of time talking about phonemic awareness and development, but I also devote some time to discussion on how and why language morphs. We talk about emoji's in terms of semantics, which is how we understand the meaning of sentences and phrases. Semantics are much easier to get in spoken word as opposed to written word, and electronic communication has made this even worse. I have argued for years that emojis allow us to insert semantics into our texting communication in order to express meaning to the recipient. That being said, when I saw that this book was on deck at Book Expo, I stalked the booth waiting for it to drop. 

I'm so glad that I did. Not only did I highlight and annotate the crap out of this book, I also sent it to my professors who teach language courses. I'll also reference it in my language lectures for my students. It's a valuable piece of writing to use in eduction, but the key to this book is that it's written for the layman. It's a book you or I can read on the couch, and wach chapter has anecdotes to support the argument as well as data that will make you stop and think. If you've been a long time follower of this blog, you know that I LOVE smart books that are accessible for the general reading population, and this fits into that category. 

I was a traditionalist early on with emoticons and emojis. I still don't believe they have. A place in professional emails, but I now use them fairly liberally in my personal communication. I've grown to see the value in them as enhancing written communication, and I've learned to embrace them. In fact, I just returned an email to a former student (he shared an article with me about the importance of reading) and ended with an emoji. I agree with Evans' estimation that emoji is not a language that can stand in and of itself -- you will have to pick up the book and read the argument yourself -- but they certainly LT are useful in terms of semantics. I love that they enhance language rather than attempt to replace it. So use emoji away, friends. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Book Thief


I’m currently taking a break from all the nonfiction I’ve been reading lately to get back to literary fiction for a while. I decided on The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because it has always been on my to-read list. It was definitely a heavy place to start, but this is a book I can highly recommend. It’s about as far as you can get from a light and bubbly summer read, but I loved it. Although it’s a cliché statement, this is a book I actually couldn’t put down.

The Book Thief is narrated by Death. The opening section of the book, in which Death describes his encounters with “the book thief”, foreshadowing the entire novel, was my favorite part of the story. Because you know once you pick it up that The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany, you have that overhanging cold feeling of dramatic irony in which you know that things will continue to grow worse. Still, the subtle foreshadowing helped to set the tone for the whole book and created an air of mystery that I found compelling.

Death is a theme in almost all novels that take place in Nazi Germany, but in The Book Thief its personification helps you to feel its presence, almost like even death itself didn’t want to be involved in this level of societal evil. The novel follows a young girl named Liesel, “the book thief” because she steals books at important moments in her life, and shows the effects of Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent war on Germany and its people through her eyes.

Unsurprisingly, it is heartbreaking. There are touching moments and terrifying moments. The book focuses on individuals and their human connections, their friendships and the emotions they feel in the face of such dread and confusion, and the ways they try to find meaning and connection in such a time. Some novels about this period in history are overdone and try to capture everything that happened, and the sheer scale of it makes it hard to process emotionally for the reader. The micro scale of The Book Thief, as well as the young age of Liesel and thus her innocent approach to processing many of the horrible and unprecedented things she sees and feels, makes the book hit home in an emotional way.

I loved the ending too, which I won’t give away here. The writing in The Book Thief is exquisite, and there are sentences you will read over two or three times just to let them sink in. It leaves you haunted and sad, which seems appropriate. It’s a long book but is worth the time it takes, and it gives real insight into the emotional perspectives of the characters. This is the first book I read about Nazi Germany that connected with me in quite this way, because I felt the sense of confusion and dread came through in a real way.

I think in today’s political climate, we are especially poised to resonate with feelings of powerlessness and to remember that we must notice the creeping changes in a political situation when it comes to rights, social norms, protections, and expectations, before they have crept too far. The Book Thief may leave you devastated and faintly queasy, but it should. It’s a beautifully written novel that deserves to be read. And if you love it as I do, I suggest that you go back once you’re done and read the opening section once more, now that you know the journey Death and Liesel have been on together.

All in all, the novel was very interesting, and I loved the ending. The novel is well written and although it is long, it is worth your time. I feel that I learned about different perspectives and ways of life, which was interesting and mind opening. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Outliers

Lately I have been wanting to read something different; although I still really enjoy reading young adult novels, I needed a break from adults trying to be teenagers! So, when Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell was recommended, I decided to give it a shot.  

I remember the first time I heard about this book, I was in 6th grade and learning to play violin. We had to practice everyday for homework and sometimes little Charlotte was just too lazy. However, I still wanted to be the best in my class… I guess I was ignoring the connection between practice and improvement. Cue my dad and his lectures! He told my siblings and me that a person had to practice for 10,000 hours to master a skill. I was shocked, counting how long it would take me to get to that point. To say the least, this has stuck with me to this day (even if to my parents’ dismay I stopped playing violin).

The book itself is a pretty quick read that mainly focused on different statistics and was definitely different from what I normally read. However, I found it quite interesting! It focused on (you guessed it) the ‘outliers’ of society, meaning individuals that are the best at their profession or skill. It was written in a way where it felt like I was solving a sort of puzzle with the author as I slowly discovered circumstances that made an individual an outlier. It was also really nice to have it confirmed that experts weren’t just born geniuses and that hard work and circumstances lead to their successes. The 10,000-hours anecdote may be the most quoted part of Outliers, but the book had lots of interesting stories and analyses of the reasons behind what makes someone excel.

Although, I found it enjoyable to read, I have a few complaints about Outliers. First of all, you get the point about outliers pretty quickly. After the first few chapters/examples, I was finding myself getting easily distracted. I made it through the book and was glad I had, but the farther I read, the more tedious it became. Next, it wasn’t until someone pointed this out to me that I noticed, but the author only uses research that proves his point. I mean it is pretty obvious why any author trying to prove a point would do this. Nonetheless, I was still disappointed. Whenever someone writes an argumentative essay, anticipating the opposite opinion and trying to convince the reader of that as well, should be a goal. At least acknowledge different points of view! Otherwise, its just one sided and ones argument can that be undermined easily.  I felt like someone could easily have found a similar amount of anecdotes and research points to give different conclusions than the author.

That said, I really enjoyed learning about how different aspects of life can have such a drastic effect on the rest of your life. The book is not only intriguing and well written but it is also educational so I recommend it. The chapters are mostly separate anecdotes that don’t build on one another, so you can also read them more like magazine articles in a stand-alone way, which I might recommend for a book like this (where all the chapters sort of make the same point).


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Everything Everything

At the beginning of the summer, every advertisement had been about the movie Everything Everything coming out in theaters. Once I realized it was based on a book, I decided to read it before I saw the movie.

The book Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon is a story about a girl named Madeline. Madeline has a disease that makes it unsafe for her to leave the sterile “bubble” of her home and therefore is unable to ever go outside. Because of this, the only people she has every really talked to are her mother, her nurse Carla, and Carla’s daughter Rosa, since the process for guests is lengthy. She is quite smart and loves to read, and the book is full of literary references that are admittedly a bit over-explained but are still interesting and relevant. Sometimes those references can feel forced and heavy-handed in stories, so at first I was a little hesitant, but I thought the author did a good job incorporating them and using them to shine a light on Madeline’s personality.

The real plot begins win a new boy moves in next door, and he and Madeline can’t help but start talking. This, of course, leads to a whirlwind of events and emotions between the two characters, their different home situations, and the twists and turns that happen as they build a relationship despite the limits placed on them by Madeline’s disease. I won’t give away the plot or the ending, but it does have some surprises and keeps you involved until the end.

The book was honestly pretty good. It was very cheesy and parts of it seemed a little out of place, like the fact that Madeline and her new friend communicate with IM and emails…. However! I still really enjoyed it. A lot of the book I could imagine actually happening, although there were some moments where the characters’ actions (especially the mom’s actions) didn’t really seem realistic. It captured what its like to have a new crush in high school, where all you want to do is stay up and talk and it feels like the most important thing in the world. I did feel like the characters were a little contrived and formulaic. Like the neighbor boy is dark and brooding and literally leaning against the wall in a black tee shirt, which I feel like is the start of every boy-the-girl-is-going-to-have-a-crush-on-moves-in-next-door story. Especially cringe-worthy were the extensive efforts to make them opposites-who-would-then-attract: she’s trapped inside, and he’s literally climbing the walls (because he is into parkour); she’s wearing white, and he’s wearing black; her mother is her closest friend and his father is his worst enemy, etc. I did love the cheesy dialogue in their early emails and IMs though, because it felt realistic and made you cringe the same way you would reading your journal from middle school. The writing was okay, but I did feel it was written for a younger audience and would really be best suited for middle-schoolers.

So I do recommend this book to all the hopeless romantics out there, even if it’s a little contrived. I was really glad to have read it before I saw the movie, because seeing the movie first would have given away the story and I think if I’d known the whole story first the book wouldn’t have been worth reading since it’s heavily plot-driven. The story is a fast read and enjoyable for what it is.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, is a book I am glad I read and a book I’m glad I did not have to read for school. Let’s start with the basics:

• It’s short.
• It has swears and sexual language in it.
• It gets put on a lot of lists of the best YA novels ever (this is why I read it).
• It gets banned by schools a lot (this is also a little bit why I read it).
• It was written in the 1970s and is kind of dated, so it can be hard to get really lost in it. I also found that the fact that it had LOTS of character who were all boys made it easy to get confused and meant that I had trouble getting lost in the book.

Like so many young adult classics, it’s a book about the dangers of mob mentality, the importance of standing up for yourself, and the ability to make an impact in an unfair world. I can’t say that I loved reading it, if only because it felt dated and I wasn’t able to really get absorbed in the book. It took a lot of energy to read. I think maybe stories set in high school, where the norms of communication and friendship change so much over time, have trouble aging well.

But even though I didn’t love reading it, I kind of loved having read it. This book sticks with you. The lessons and themes are ones we’ve seen again and again, but there are two things that make them particularly meaningful and special in this book, and I think they are the two things that make the book such a work of art.

Thing 1: The situation is so mundane. It is easy for an author to make drama in a dramatic situation. In Lord of the Flies or 1984, for example, there is an elaborately dramatic and abnormal setting in which the reader can watch rebellion take place. In those settings, we can try to think “What would I do?” and it’s easy to tell ourselves that we would take a stand, we would be brave, we would make a difference. Those settings are separate from our reality, and while we can relate to the emotions and connect them to the real world, they are more like allegories than they are an example of day-to-day life.

But unlike an island plane crash or a dystopian future dictatorship, the setting for The Chocolate War is so, well, boring. Everyone at Jerry Renault’s school is asked to volunteer to sell chocolates for a school fundraiser, and he chooses not to volunteer. That’s it. That’s his big rebellion.

And yet, it’s everything. The beauty of this book is that you can truly see and understand how those tiny things mean so much and make such a huge impact on yourself and the world around you. The kind of things that seem like a big deal in high school and people tell you, “In ten years, you won’t even remember this.” The kind of things that make you so deeply, profoundly upset, and when you try to explain them to your parents they sound like nothing so you end up saying, “you don’t understand” or “you had to be there” and leaving it at that. Comier expertly shows how such a small action can actually be giant, and that alone is worth reading the book.

Thing 2: The hero doesn’t win. Sure, The Chocolate War is far from the first novel where the good guy doesn’t get his way. In fact, both the novels I mentioned before are good examples of the good guy not getting his way – evil wins, and the good guy must find a way to go on (or not) without getting to be a hero at all.

What’s rare, however, is for the good guy not to win in a mundane setting. It would be easy and believable for some good to come from Jerry’s protest. It wouldn’t feel cheesy or contrived – in a school setting, the reader could conceive of a victory for right over wrong. When it doesn’t come, we feel cheated in a way that we don’t in dramatic, fanciful settings. When fanciful settings have a dark and unsatisfying ending, they still have a kind of satisfaction in thinking, “I’m so glad real life isn’t like that.” The Chocolate War doesn’t deliver even that satisfaction – it just ends, unresolved and unsettling, the bad guys keeping the power. It feels bad, but small enough that it feels real, which is what makes it unshakeable. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a real book. It’s a book-reader’s book. Immediately after reading it, I looked online to see if I could find any other books by Gail Honeyman and was sad to see there are not (yet!) any others. But she is a wonderful story in her own right – a great literary success with her first book at 40, which gives me hope as an author.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story, not surprisingly, of Eleanor Oliphant, a lonely, single woman who works in an office in England. The story is told from her point of view, and it is truly a window into another world. She has coping mechanisms, funny observations, rationales, and troubles. While you the reader are hearing from her perspective, you can imagine how she is seen from the outside. She is sophisticated in some ways, with elegant language and a detailed but dated code of politeness, but in other ways she is completely lacking in the basic skills needed to be “normal”. Her world is dictated by practicality in ways that leave others puzzled or even offended, and she obviously and simply doesn’t fit in. She knows it, as well.

What is most amazing about Eleanor Oliphant is the depth of the characters, including Eleanor herself. She is not a one-dimensional weirdo. She is bright, funny, and shockingly relatable. She is also sad, lost, and at times irritating. She is a person, and you feel that you know her very well, yet a large part of her remains a mystery.

Unlike so many “special” narrators – I’m looking at you, girl-in-the-bubble from Everything Everything and Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as just a few of many, many examples – Eleanor is not precious and perfect. What a relief. That is, I think, what makes her real.

The surprise of this book is that there is a bit of a mystery woven throughout – what made Eleanor this way? I think the revelations of Eleanor’s past are woven so well through the book that they don’t disrupt the flow of the story, until they do, sneaking up on you and creating a faint but creepy overtone to the book. It almost lets the reader experience what Eleanor might experience, going about her day and forgetting about troubles in the back of her mind until they pounce upon her without notice. It has the effect of helping you understand Eleanor and care about her, even as you realize you don’t know the whole story.

Don’t choose this book based on the plot – the plot is not the thing. It’s a book about emotions and rationalizations. A book about loneliness and humanity. The language is not simple and the jokes are not spelled out for you, which makes them all the more rewarding, The characters are regular people. As in the real world, this book does not have clear good guys and bad guys. This review is making it sound terribly boring, but it is the opposite. You will be enthralled, and you will root for Eleanor, and some of the scenes are truly heartbreaking. Nothing dramatic and cheesy happens, and yet it is somehow more dramatic than so many novels packed with momentous scenes.

I think above all these. it’s a book about perspective. Seeing the world from Eleanor’s perspective is eye-opening.  It may even make you aware of some things that you yourself do or think and how they may be perceived by others. It should certainly make you pause a moment before thinking a cruel or rude thought about the weird kid, the loner… the person you usually ignore. Because once you get to know Eleanor as a person, with all her imperfections, you can’t get her out of your head.

If you love character-driven literary fiction, books from the perspective of a unique narrator, or suspense novels, I suggest you give Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a try.