Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Depend on Katie John by Mary Calhoun (1961)

In this follow-up to Katie John (1960), Katie John Tucker and her parents have fixed up their large Southern house, and they are ready to accept boarders. Katie is enthusiastic about helping to find new tenants, but as the house fills up, she also begins to realize how much work it is going to be to help keep things running smoothly. Not only does she have to help with housework, she also looks after the young son of one of the tenants, and when she receives a puppy for a gift, she has to keep him from disturbing the tenants and surrounding neighbors. In the meantime, Katie is also the new girl in school, and though she is pleased to have Sue as her best friend, she really wants to find a way to win the affection of all of her classmates, which leads her to take on even more work than she can really manage.

As a kid, I was fascinated with the idea of a boarding house, so I really enjoyed meeting each of the characters who come to live in Katie John's house throughout the course of this book. They are a colorful bunch of people, including a pair of women who listen to loud country-western music, Katie John's own teacher from school, and Cousin Ben, a distant relative who shows up unannounced at the start of the cold weather and remains in bed, with his bedroom door wide open to the front hallway, all winter long. The quirks of these characters, and Katie's reactions to them as she becomes more and more overwhelmed by their presence, are the real appeal of this book, and they bring the big Southern house very strongly to life.

The other thing I really loved about this book is that it shows a 10-year-old girl as a dependable, helpful, and capable contributor to her household. By contemporary standards, Katie John does seem to have a lot of responsibilities, but I liked that her parents allowed her to work out many of her own problems independently, and that she resolves many of the difficulties in the book by her own wits. I also like that she makes her fair share of mistakes, but that these do not serve to undermine her overall positive contributions to the boarding house, and to her classroom as well. I look forward to reading the rest of the Katie John books: Honestly, Katie John! and Katie John and Heathcliff and will gladly save the series for my girls to read in a few years.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Book Review: The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson (1957)

The Crow and the Castle is the third of four books in the Carson Street Detective Agency series by Henry Reed, Inc. author Keith Robertson. In this book, teen detectives Neil, who narrates the story, and Swede, his best friend, are hired by a stranger in town to take photographs of a chess set owned by the ornery and hot-tempered Captain Wudge. In their attempts to gain access to Captain Wudge's house in order to snap the photos, they discover that some housebreakers are also intent on getting inside so they can steal a chess set from the Captain's collection. Curious as to whether the stranger who hired them is connected to the housebreakers, the two boys get to know Captain Wudge and slowly piece together their nefarious plot. Meanwhile, Neil's pet crow, Hector, complicates matters with his penchant for collecting and absconding with small objects.

This book was such fun to read. The main characters are funny and charming with a mischievous streak and a boyish sense of humor. Unlike the Hardy Boys books, whose storylines often feel forced and inauthentic, this book is sufficiently grounded in reality to make almost anything feel believable even if it is far-fetched. I had no difficulty at all accepting that these boys were accomplished detectives, nor was it difficult to buy into the role Hector the crow winds up playing in the mystery plot. Robertson's light touch and tongue-in-cheek tone make it impossible to take the book too seriously, which makes it very easy to suspend one's disbelief and just enjoy a good mystery.

Disappointingly, this book is out of print and so rare I doubt I will ever have a chance to own a copy. I'm so thankful that Open Library has it, however, because this was the exact kind of mystery I'd have loved as a kid, and I would have hated to miss out on it. I loved all the details about the history of chess and chess sets, and the fact that, though there is some real danger to the boys in the story, the reader is never really scared and it is always clear that things will come to a safe and satisfying ending. Book two of the series, Three Stuffed Owls (1954), is also available from Open Library, so I hope to read that in the near future. The last book, The Money Machine (1969) is also pretty widely available from used booksellers, so it's possible I'll be able to get my hands on that as well. Sadly, book one, The Mystery of Burnt Hill (1952)  is selling on Amazon right now for over 95 dollars, which is outside of my book budget for any single title, no matter how much I love the author!

This book was a wonderful surprise, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of the author as well as to young teen boys who are mystery fans, chess players, or both.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The RAHM Report for 10/16/17

I am writing this post just before midnight, and as of now, we have not yet had a baby, so this is officially our first child to go past his/her due date! Since all I've done all week is wait for labor to start, I had time to read a bunch of books and start a few more. Here's my report for the week. 

Finished Reading:

 


  • A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
    Though I didn't love it as much as the first book, I still enjoyed book two of the Armand Gamache series. My review is on Goodreads.
  • When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne
    I read this aloud to the girls over lunch over the course of two days. Some of the poems are easier to read than others but all are sweet and charming and my almost-four-year-old especially loved them. My guess is we will revisit this book many times in the future.
  • W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
    This was not my favorite of the series, but it was a more solid story than V is for Vengeance. My review is on Goodreads.
  • The Trouble with Jenny's Ear by Oliver Butterworth
    I loved this fun tale of electronics and telepathy from the author of The Enormous Egg. Review coming to the blog eventually. 
  • Hello, Star by Carolyn Haywood
    I believe this short 1987 chapter book was Carolyn Haywood's last book before her death in 1990. It's not her best, but it would be a good first chapter book for an early reader (I'll be giving it to my almost-four-year-old, probably when she is four), especially one who loves animals and has enjoyed Hilary McKay's Lulu series.


Did Not Finish: 


  • The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams
    I read a third of this book before giving up. It was just not for me. I wrote a quick review on Goodreads and NetGalley explaining why I didn't finish.


Currently Reading:



  • The Original Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy by Johnny Gruelle
    We finally made it into the much-anticipated Raggedy Andy section of this lunchtime read-aloud, but we've taken a break for a few days to read other things. I expect we'll finish the book sometime after the baby is born. 
  • The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
    I placed a hold on this book expecting it to take a couple of weeks for my turn to come up, but when it only took a few days, I decided to go ahead and start it. If this baby delays its arrival much longer, I may end up reading it straight through! 
  • Halloween Treats by Carolyn Haywood
    This is our holiday-themed lunchtime read-aloud, which I hope to spread out so that we finish it on Halloween. We've read one story so far, and it was a hit! 
  • Peeled by Joan Bauer
    I enjoyed Squashed so much last week that I've decided to read more Joan Bauer. I have this checked out from Open Library, but I haven't really started it yet and may not depending on when labor begins
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review: Patina by Jason Reynolds (2017)

Patina is the second book of Jason Reynolds's Track series which began last year with Ghost. Patina, also known as Patty, is another member of the Defenders track team, and like Ghost, she has a complicated family situation. Her father died just after the birth of her younger sister, Maddy, and her mother, who has diabetes, has lost both of her legs to the disease, leaving her unable to care for the children on her own.  Patty and Maddy now live with their uncle and aunt, whom they call Momly, and visit with their mom on weekends. After facing so much loss in her own life, Patty really can't stand to lose on the track, nor does she always work well in situations where she has to rely on others. This aversion to teamwork becomes a challenge when she is assigned a group project in school and asked to run relays for the Defenders.

Like the previous book, this one also had a strong sense of voice, but I found it took me a while longer to warm up to Patty than to Ghost. I liked him right away; my affection for her grew more slowly over the course of several chapters. Whether this is intentional on the part of the author or not, I'm not sure, but it does seem consistent with Patty's personality that I would feel a certain amount of distance from her until I got to know what exactly motivates her and makes her tick. Overall, she is a well-developed and multi-layered character, as are her family members and other supporting characters, and I did grow to like her, even if I wasn't quite as in love with her character as I was with Ghost.

It's hard not to compare a book like this to works of Chris Crutcher, which also focus on overcoming hardship through sports, but whereas sometimes Crutcher's characters seem to have too many problems, that is never the case with Reynolds. Patty's life is not easy, but every single problem she faces is handled realistically, fairly, and with great sympathy. This book does not have much of a central conflict, which does make it feel weaker than the first one, but it handles the smaller, everyday problems of life very well, and I think middle school kids, especially, can relate to the various incidents that make up Patty's life, even if they haven't had the exact same experiences.

It appears that this entire series is going to work as a relay race. Patina picks up exactly where Ghost left off, and this book also has a very abrupt ending, which presumably will lead right into Sunny, which is due out in April 2018. I like the way the books slip in and out of each other, and I think the handing off of the narrative from one character to the next works very effectively, especially in the context of a track team. I look forward to seeing where Reynolds takes these characters on their next lap.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Tower Treasure (1927) and The Tower Treasure (1959) by Franklin W. Dixon

Until this month, I had never read any of the original Hardy Boys books. In the interest of fully educating myself about this series, I decided to read and compare the two versions of the first book of the series, The Tower Treasure: the original, published in 1927, and the revised edition, released in 1959. The plot in both books is essentially the same. Frank and Joe Hardy are brothers and the son of Fenton Hardy, an accomplished detective. While out doing an errand for their father one day, they witness a man driving recklessly, and then discover his abandoned vehicle on the side of the road. They then learn that their friend Chet's car has been stolen. After they recover the stolen car, they hear news of a jewel theft at the Tower Mansion, owned by Hurd Applegate. When they realize that the accused is the father of a classmate, they become invested in the case and work to prove that the car theft and the tower robbery are connected.

Though the plot of this story remains mostly unchanged from the original edition to the revised edition, the way the story is told changes quite a bit. The first thing I noticed was how much the slang changed from 1927 to 1959. While the word "chum" is used in both books, many other phrases used in the 1927 edition fall out of favor by 1959. For instance, whereas Chet's car is a "roadster" in 1927, and other cars are called "coupes" or "touring cars," the automotive language in 1959 talks about Chet's "jalopy" and how to "soup up" a "hot rod" or "sedan." The 1959 book also introduces terms like "moon rocket," "super duper," and "hot shot" which are completely absent from the original, while the 1927 book throws around phrases like "bad medicine" and "chaps." Both versions sound laughably outdated now, of course, and newer Hardy Boys iterations probably include their own contemporary slang, but it is interesting to consider how many of these changes seemed necessary after just 30 years, and how many of the 1950s phrases would already sound funny again by the time I was a child in the 1980s.

Another major change which is very noticeable is the role of female characters in the story. In 1927, the only women mentioned in the entire book are Callie, a classmate of Frank and Joe, Adelia Applegate, the shrewish sister of tower owner Hurd Applegate, and Mrs. Robinson, the wife of the man accused of stealing the tower treasure. The number of female characters increases by at least two in 1959, as both Mrs. Hardy and Chet's sister Iola are added to the cast. Adelia Applegate is also given a much larger role which makes her come across as more sympathetic and gives the revised story a slightly stronger ending than the original.

The biggest alteration of all, however, is in the collection of evidence toward solving the case. In the 1927 book, clues are found in a meandering way, and it takes Frank and Joe quite a while to recognize the importance of wigs to the overall narrative of the crime. When they do get a big break in the case, their father goes to New York on his own to investigate while the brothers mostly sit around home and wait for news. In 1959, the clues are all basically the same as those the boys collect in 1927, but the aspiring detectives are much quicker about figuring out how wigs are involved, and they are permitted to tag along with Fenton on his New York trip. Since the purpose of revising the book was partly to shorten it, it makes sense that some of the investigating would be condensed, but beyond that, I think it had become a convention of children's books by the 1950s that the child characters actually need to be involved in the action, not just sitting home waiting for their smart dad to bring them the information they want. Interestingly, though, it also seems that the 1950s editor was more concerned about the safety of child characters than the original 1927 author. Whereas the boys build a bomb to delay a rival investigator from catching a train to New York in 1927, by 1959, they only decide to set a fire.

Reading two versions of the same book side-by-side made for a very interesting reading experience. I'm not sure I fully understand the appeal of these older Hardy Boys books, as they are very much a product of their time, but I found it interesting to look at what changes and what remains the same as one generation outgrows the series and another generation grows into it. It's been a while since I've read a Nancy Drew book, but I had the distinct feeling throughout my readings of The Tower Treasure that the Hardy Boys series is not as well-written. While I might consider owning some vintage Nancy Drew, I can't really think of a reason to buy any Hardy Boys books. I'd have no problem with my kids reading them, as they are perfectly acceptable mystery stories, but I don't see them as particularly great works of literature. The Tower Treasure left me feeling like I'd just watched a Saturday morning cartoon, but not as though I had nourished my mind with much of a story.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The RAHM Report for 10/9/17

We're officially on babywatch around here (baby's due date is the 15th!), and there's not much to do besides wait and read. I read 12 books this week (including 5 very short ebook versions of comic issues) and I have four more in progress.

Finished Reading:



  • Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
    I gave this book five stars. Esolen makes great arguments, and I love the way he uses literature to support them. At some point, I hope to write up more of my thoughts on Goodreads.
  • Here Come the Deer! by Alice E. Goudey
    Miss Muffet and I read this aloud before nap time on three consecutive days this week. I didn't enjoy it as much as a lot of the other titles from this series, but part of that might be because there just isn't that much to say about deer and the three chapters - about whitetailed deer, elk, and caribou - became kind of repetitive after awhile. Miss Muffet loved it and has announced that deer are now her favorite animal. 
  • Maurice's Room by Paula Fox
    There isn't a whole lot to this short chapter book about a young boy who collects things and keeps them in his bedroom, despite his parents' desire that he clean it all out. The writing was good, but the story is forgettable. 
  • Squashed by Joan Bauer
    This was a feel-good fall read that would be perfect for young teens. Review coming soon. 


  • Sylvania series by Kristin Kemper
    I was browsing Hoopla for something quick to read on Saturday afternoon and stumbled upon this interesting fantasy series. The main characters are three sisters who are tree witches. They live in a universe where everything is protected and helped by witches, so there are also star witches, sea witches, bird witches, etc. When the star witches try to recruit some of the other witches to help them cultivate life on Mars, two of the sisters - Rowan and Juniper - express interest in taking on the challenge, while Willow adamantly opposes the idea. Only one of the sisters ends up going to Mars, while the other who is of age stays home to be with her girlfriend. (The LGBT content was a surprise to me, but should not have been since it is clearly tagged on Hoopla. I just missed it.) I really like the artwork, and the story is available not just in these short digital issues, but as a webcomic as well, so I'll probably stick with it for a bit and see if I like where the story is going. 

I also finally decided to borrow all the remaining Stella Batts books from Hoopla and read through those. I checked out five, but Hoopla's copy of Something Blue  seems to be corrupted in some way, so I was only able to read these four:

  • Who's in Charge? by Courtney Sheinmel
    Stella has the opportunity to babysit her best friend's dog in this book, and of course the dog goes missing. I mostly sympathized with Stella's mom in this one - I wouldn't want to be taking care of someone else's dog with a newborn at home either!  
  • Superstar by Courtney Sheinmel
    In this book, Stella is invited to audition for her favorite TV show, only to lose the role to her sister, resulting in lots of learning opportunities about jealousy and not being a bad sport. Except that circumstances change near the end of the book, and things get kind of muddled, and I was a little bit disappointed in how it was all resolved.
  • Scaredy Cat by Courtney Sheinmel
    Why do so many children's books include Ouija boards? My kids are not likely to read this series anyway, but if they'd read the earlier ones, I'd be disappointed to have to keep this one away from them just because of that. There were plenty of other ways to work fear and ghosts into the story without resorting to actual attempts to contact the dead.
  • Broken Birthday by Courtney Sheinmel
    This was the best of the bunch I read. I would have loved reading about Stella's hospital visit as a kid, and I liked the way the story also looked back on everything Stella did when she was eight. There was a sweet feel-good ending, too, which made up for the Ouija board in the previous book.

Currently Reading:



  • W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
    I've read about 200 pages of this one. If the baby isn't born until the end of the week or after my due date, I might even finish it. 
  • A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
    I'm just past the halfway point in the Kindle edition of this book, and I'm loving it. I really hope I can finish it before going into labor! 
  • The Secret, Book and Scone Society by Ellery Adams (ARC)
    I like Ellery Adams's writing style, but I'm just a couple of chapters into this ARC and I'm not sold on the setting or story. I hope I get more into it. 
  • The Original Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy by Johnny Gruelle
    This is our current lunchtime read-aloud. It's not my favorite, but the girls are both loving it. 
I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?



Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser (2017)

The Vanderbeekers, a biracial family of seven living in a brownstone in Harlem are devastated when they learn just before Christmas that their disagreeable landlord, Mr. Beiderman, has decided not to renew their lease. The five Vanderbeeker kids - twins Isa and Jessie, and their younger siblings Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney - immediately begin hatching plans to win over Mr. Beiderman and somehow gain his permission to remain in the only home they have ever known. As Christmas day approaches, however, it begins to look as though nothing can warm Mr. Beiderman's heart to their cause.

This book is proof that a novel can satisfy contemporary demands for things like diversity without reinventing the wheel. The Vanderbeekers on 141st Street has a very classic feel that harkens back to series such as The Melendy Family books, The Moffats, and more recently, The Penderwicks.  It's not an issue book, or a political statement; it's just a good story where the characters happen not to be white. While I don't consider diversity to be an indicator of quality, I do appreciate that this book finds a way to meet the demand for non-white characters without turning the story into an age-inappropriate political lesson. This is clearly a book written with children in mind, inspired by a place the author knows well.

Speaking of the setting, I really enjoyed getting to know the Vanderbeekers' little slice of Harlem, including the college they can see from their apartment windows and the little bakery where they frequently stop to buy pastries. I could definitely have used more details, especially after reading a book like Harlem Charade that brings this area of New York City so strongly to life, but I definitely got a sense of why the neighborhood was so important to these kids, and why it was so heartbreaking to think of having to move.

As for Mr. Beiderman himself, he is mostly a believable antagonist. As this is a Christmas story, his Scrooge-like demeanor feels very appropriate, as does the ultimate resolution to the problem of the lease. I read one review that suggested he was not realistic because most people typically move on after tragedies, but I didn't feel that way at all. I think there are many people, older men in particular, who do have a hard time bouncing back after the kind of trauma Mr. Beiderman has endured, and they do go on to live as angry recluses. This story does a nice job of explaining why Mr. Beiderman is the way he is, and also of redeeming him when the time is right. Sure, there are probably some serious violations of landlord/tenant laws in the way the lease is handled, but who but a lawyer's daughter (which I am) would even notice those?

This is one of the few brand-new middle grade novels that I would actually consider encouraging my kids to read if they were in the correct age group. It will certainly satisfy more conservative parents, as it has so much in common with favorite children's classics, and even the subplot involving Isa being asked to a school dance is very sweet and innocent without any overly mature romantic overtones. A sequel is planned for 2018, and I'm really looking forward to spending another book with these characters.