Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Recently Abandoned Books

For years, I didn't have a "did not finish" shelf on Goodreads because I almost never abandoned books. This is partly because I was working in libraries and wanted to be able to talk intelligently about books my patrons asked about whether I was interested in them or not. Now, though, as I read primarily for my own enjoyment, or to preview books for my own kids, I  do make room in my reading life for the occasional DNF. The ten titles on my list today are the books I've abandoned since August 2019.


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Read on Arrival by Nora Page 

This is the second book in the Bookmobile Mystery series, which stars a librarian in her 70s. I gave the first book three stars, but really struggled to get into the second one last summer. I'm finding that for me, some cozy mystery premises stop being engaging after a book or two, and I think that was the case with this one. 

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Twins 101 by Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin

My twins were born 9 weeks ago, but back in September, we had just found out we were expecting them, and I was reading all the twin things. Unfortunately, this book made having twins sound like a major crisis during which I and/or my babies would most certainly have a brush with death. I had to stop reading for the sake of my mental health. (And my pregnancy and delivery were both totally smooth, so all the dire predictions ended up being wrong in my case.)

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Starlight by Debbie Macomber 

I am very picky about my Debbie Macomber books, and in general, the older the book of hers, the less I like it. Since her 2019 Christmas book was a Mrs. Miracle title, and I don't like those, I decided to try this older one (from 1983) on audio as Christmas approached. There was nothing wrong with it per se, but I just never got into it, and by the time Christmas arrived, I was over it and ready to move on, so I did.

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A Christmas Book by Elizabeth Goudge

This book I had to abandon because it was an inter-library loan and it was due back to its home library before I could finish it. Since it mostly consists of holiday-themed excerpts from Goudge's novels, I will probably get to most of these eventually, since what I did get to read I absolutely loved. 

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Murder at Icicle Lodge by J.D. Griffo

This is the third book in the Ferrara Family Mystery series. I have not read the first two books, but downloaded this from NetGalley because I liked the description and the wintry cover. Unfortunately, I was only 3% into the book when I realized that the writing was overly descriptive, and that the story wanted me to believe that a 65-year-old woman who would have grown up in the 60s and 70s was somehow ignorant of the concept of a "shotgun" wedding. There were just too many problems for me to feel like continuing with this book would be a good use of my time.

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Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun

I was torn on whether to accept this review copy from the publisher because it was a retelling of a classic (Great Expectations), and I tend to have issues with those. At the time, though, I had just received an unsolicited copy of More to the Story by Hena Khan, which is a retelling of Little Women, and I envisioned an Instagram or blog post highlighting both books. Unfortunately, as I should have suspected, I was irritated by the way the author tried to make the plot of the Dickens novel fit contemporary circumstances and I just couldn't make myself push through to the end. I now have a personal policy of not reviewing adaptations of classic novels!  

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Happy and You Know It by Laura Hankin

I've been on a contemporary fiction kick since we've been in this pandemic situation, and when I was browsing ARCs on Edelweiss+ this title jumped out at me. A musician who performs sing-alongs for a playgroup? That sounded like me doing story time for my friends in my living room! So relatable! Except it wasn't. I was not prepared for how negative this book was. Every character in this book was just miserable, and they were so cavalier about everything from adultery to abortion. It was just too much for me, and I had to quit. 

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Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis 

One of my reading goals for the Schole Sisters Reading Challenge this year is to read five books about linguistics. I realized, though, that what I really want is more of a "pop" approach to the topic than an academic one. Lewis is brilliant, of course, and the information in this book is fascinating, but it was not what I had in mind for right now. 

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A Mysterious Mix Up by J.C. Kenney 

This is the third book in the Allie Cobb mystery series, the first two of which I enjoyed very much. This one, though, felt like it was trying really hard to be relevant by throwing in lots of pop culture references that didn't quite fit the context. I tried to power through and just focus on the plot, but it was just too distracting.

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Deadly Ride by Jody Holford

This is the third book in the Britton Bay mystery series, the first two of which I also enjoyed very much. I think my issue with this one was the setting. The main action of the plot takes place at a car show, and I just couldn't get into it. I tried both the ebook and audiobook before realizing it wasn't me, it was the book. 

What have you abandoned lately?

Friday, May 1, 2020

Homeschool Progress Report: March/April 2020

Looking back at the homeschool report I posted just two months ago, I feel as though I must have written it during a different lifetime. A few short weeks ago, I hadn't yet delivered my twins, and we were completely ignorant of how the coronavirus was about to impact our freedom to go about our normal activities. Now we're not just homeschooling, but ordered by law to stay home, and since they came home from staying with friends while I had the babies (a boy and a girl, both doing well!), my kids haven't really seen anyone outside of our immediate family. Though our day-to-day routine hasn't changed that much - and honestly is more or less what it would have been with newborn twins even without the coronavirus - things don't feel normal, and as a result, our school life hasn't been fully normal either. We are also coping with the disappointment of a canceled visit from Grandma and the fact that there was no public Mass on Easter, two things which further contribute to our unsettled feelings.

Still, though we took a bit of time off in March, we have still been accomplishing schoolwork, and though our homeschool review this year has already taken place, I want to have a record of what we did for our own purposes. Since we have slowed down some, this post will focus on both March and April. 

First Grade with M., age 6

Math

Much of M.'s recent math work has been on the computer, using Khan Academy, where she is working at the 4th grade level, and Xtra math, where she has finally finished subtraction and has now moved on to division. We're also still doing "Fred Fridays" with Life of Fred (we're in Edgewood now) and most days, I try to assign a few pages of Singapore Math. She's working on 3A right now and has just moved into the workbook for 3A part two. This is mostly review since she has already learned her times tables, but working with division and remainders is new and she seems to be enjoying it even if she is sometimes making careless mistakes. 

History

Right before I went to the hospital to have the twins, M. finished a quick couple of weeks on Ancient China. We read The Ancient Chinese by Virginia Schomp and Science in Ancient China by George W. Beshore, and M. did narrations about the ancient Chinese belief in five elements and using moxa and acupuncture to treat illness. After the twins came home, we did a week or so on the Ancient Celts using The Ancient Celts by Patricia Calvert. M. did  narrations about Celtic kings and Celtic marriage.

After the Celts, we studied the Maya using The Ancient Maya by Barbara Beck. This book was perfectly suited to our purposes and much more enjoyable than the Celts book. M. did narrations about Mayan clothing, Mayan art, the eras of Mayan civilization, and the Mayan counting system. She also played this Maya math game from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, experimented with Maya pottery methods using play dough, and did some online tours of Mayan sites (such as Chichen Itza) using Google Arts & Culture.

As April comes to an end, we are reading Alexander the Great from the Landmark series, and she has just finished Our Little Macedonian Cousin of Long Ago by Julia Darrow Cowles, which involves Alexander's childhood. M. especially liked learning about Alexander's approach to untying the Gordian knot, and she wrote and illustrated a narration about it.

Science

For most of March, science mostly consisted of M. taking her microscope out on her deck to look at whatever struck her fancy. In April, we shifted gears and M. and C. started doing a unit on life cycles together. We have so far read about the life cycles of beans, frogs, and mosquitoes, and M. has drawn diagrams of each. We briefly tried planting beans in bags, but over-watered them so nothing actually grew. I do plan to have us try again.

Health

We avoided mentioning the coronavirus to the girls at all for a couple of weeks, but when it became clear we'd be stuck at home for weeks on end, we did end up telling them that there is a new germ around and we all need to be careful not to spread it. M. wanted to know what the name of the germ was (Covid, we told her) and there has been some discussion about washing hands to prevent sickness from spreading. Aside from that, welcoming new babies into the family has been our main health lesson. 


Reading and Writing 

M.'s recent reads have included Pippi on Board and Pippi in the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren, More All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, Dr. Dolittle in the Moon by Hugh Lofting, and several titles in the Dani series by Rose Lagercrantz. As read-alouds she also heard The Doll People Set Sail by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Aside from narrations, her writing has mostly been self-directed, in the form of lists of things she'd like to do each day, signs directing her sisters to join her for various clubs and activities, and other assorted random notes. 

Memory Work

M. is nearly finished memorizing "The Blind Men and the Elephant." 

Music

M. has continued to practice recorder and piano, and we have continued listening to Classics for Kids. We recently covered the sets of episodes on women composers, Frédéric Chopin, Antonio Vivaldi, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Antonin Dvorak.  We also watched some of this string duo performance by members of the Marine Band, which features neat arrangements of Gershwin and Joplin pieces we previously studied. 

Art

For art appreciation, we read Linnea in Monet's Garden to satisfy M.'s interest in his artwork. Afterward, she streamed the film adaptation through the public library. We also finally finished reading Looking at Pictures by Joy Richardson, though I think we will spend some more time with the paintings it covers before we move on to something else. M. also created a beautiful picture of Jesus's empty tomb following this video from Art for Kids Hub. 

Physical Education

Since our local playgrounds are also closed right now, phys. ed. mostly consists of running around on the deck when the weather is warm. God willing, outdoor activities will resume soon and we'll be able to get back to the park (or maybe even the pool in a few weeks?)

Catechism 

We finished the readings to accompany these Jesus tree ornaments  and glued the ornaments to a cross made from brown paper. We also streamed the pre-1955 Good Friday liturgy online and watched the Easter Vigil from the National Shrine. Each Sunday, we've been trying to "attend" Mass at a different church. We also made sure to tune in for the Pope's Urbi et Orbi blessing. M. has also demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the content in lessons 1 through 8 of her St. Joseph Catechism that we have finally started Lesson 9.

Handwriting 

M. is still practicing her cursive using exercises my husband makes for her, some of which are quotations from famous people and others of which are sentences relating to her day-to-day life.

Typing 

M. continues to use Typing.com. We discovered a section of the site where the typing exercises follow a "choose your own adventure" format. She types a page of a story and then gets to choose what happens next, which really motivates her to want to type. 


Pre-K with C., age 4 

Reading 

C. finished all the lessons in The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading and not long after, she started reading chapter books. She has now read several titles from Carolyn Haywood's Betsy series as well as all three books in the My Father's Dragon series, and her current read is Eddie and the Fire Engine by Carolyn Haywood. She also continues to read through our collection of easy readers, including books by Arnold Lobel, Crosby Bonsall, and Millicent Selsam.   She and M. also like to read aloud to their grandmothers over Skype and have been performing selections from the You Read To Me, I'll Read to You series by Maryann Hoberman.

Math

C. started Singapore 1A at about the halfway point and has now finished the book. Next, we're going to take a break from Singapore and focus on strengthening her mental math skills using the soroban. C. is also working on first grade math on Khan Academy.

Memory Work

C. made a video of her recitation of "A Spike of Green." We will assign her a new poem soon. 


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Book Review: Cracking the Bell by Geoff Herbach (2019)

Because of how much I enjoyed Geoff Herbach's writing in Stupid Fast, I always make a point of reading whatever he publishes, knowing I will probably enjoy how he tells the story even if I'm not that interested in the subject matter. This is how I came to read this novel focused on the dangers of concussions in high school football. (I downloaded the digital ARC from Edelweiss+.)

Isaiah has had a rough couple of years. After his sister was killed, he started acting out a lot, and the only thing that seems to keep his destructive behavior in check is playing on the football team. Isaiah is also a talented football player and he expects his football skills to pave the way for him to go to college. This is why, when he takes a blow to the head during practice, he tries to ignore the symptoms that make it very obvious he has suffered a concussion. The truth eventually comes to light, however, and Isaiah is left to figure out whether he can safely continue playing the sport he loves, and how else he might cope with his pent-up aggression and anger if he can no longer do so on a football field.

As he has in all his other books, Herbach has created a believable and sympathetic protagonist in Isaiah. Though it was somewhat nerve-wracking reading this as a mom and realizing how serious a head injury can be, it was also easy to understand why Isaiah was afraid to admit to his symptoms. The dilemma he faces is very difficult, and Herbach really illustrates how his relationship with his parents in the aftermath of his sister's death really contributes to that. Though this is very much a cautionary tale about the dangers of teens becoming injured playing football, it is also a family story about grief and growing up.  Herbach also does a really nice job of helping the reader to feel Isaiah's concussion alongside him. I imagine if a real-life football player didn't know he had a concussion, he could figure it out pretty easily after reading the descriptions in this book.

Cracking the Bell is ideal for fans of sports fiction by authors like Mike Lupica, Chris Crutcher, Fred Bowen, and Tim Green. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Graham Halstead.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Up From Jericho Tel by E.L. Konigsburg (1986)

Jeanmarie Troxell and Malcolm Soo are two latch-key kids living in a New York trailer park. They become friends when they team up to bury and give funerals for dead animals they find in their neighborhood. Their burial ground is a place they christen Jericho Tel, and it is beneath this makeshift cemetery that they meet Tallulah. Tallulah is a dead actress who enlists Jeanmarie and Malcolm to help her find the Regina Stone, which someone stole from her body as she was dying. In doing Tallulah's bidding, Jeanmarie and Malcolm come to meet some of her eccentric perfomer friends and they work together to solve the puzzle of what exactly happened at the moment of Tallulah's death.

Until now, I thought (George) was E.L. Konigsburg's weirdest novel, but Up From Jericho Tel has definitely given it some competition. What makes it so odd and therefore so intriguing is the fact that so little is explained. Why does Tallulah want the help of these specific kids? What does their burial of dead animals have to do with her finding them? What is the point, really, of seeking out the Regina Stone? The story doesn't really address any of these issues; rather, the reader is just plunked down in the middle of these unlikely events and asked to accept them.

Obviously some of what Konigsburg is trying to get at involves fame, as both Jeanmarie and Malcolm wish to be famous and Tallulah became so during her lifetime. Tallulah also waxes philosophical at every turn, and she has a lot of wonderful one-line insights that really resonated with me. Still, it is impossible to really articulate what this book is truly about; giving a booktalk to a child reader would be difficult to say the least. I think the only way to present it, honestly, is to say it's a Konigsburg book and trust readers who have enjoyed some of her less "out there" books to know what that means and to bring an open mind to the story.

Though it's not my favorite Konigsburg, reading this book was a fun way to spend a few evenings. I don't think I'll be likely to re-read this one any time soon, but it is definitely very different, and despite its many quirks, the quality of the writing is top-notch. Even a not-very-interesting plot is made somehow engaging by Konigsburg's unique voice. With this author, it's never so much what she writes that I enjoy, but how she writes it.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Reading Through History: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (1987)

Lincoln: A Photobiography tells the life story of President Abraham Lincoln from his childhood in Illinois until his assassination in Ford's Theater. The text is accompanied by photographs which provide context and insight into various aspects of Lincoln's life, including his career as the owner of a general store, his early days as a prairie lawyer, his inauguration day at the unfinished U.S. Capitol, his role in the Civil War, and his funeral procession. This book won the Newbery Medal in 1988.

I listened to this book on audio, but also followed along with my physical copy so as to fully appreciate the photographs. Though the photos might seem to be the main attraction in a book which calls itself a "photobiography" I was pleased to note that the text is equally as distinctive as the many fascinating images Freedman includes in his book. Lincoln really comes to life in these pages, and the reader comes to know him not just as the stoic face on the five dollar bill, but as a flesh-and-blood man with flaws and fears, interests and ideals, loves and losses just like anyone else. This book sympathizes with Lincoln in a way that makes it easier to understand the decisions he made at various points in his presidency and to appreciate the ways being the president of the United States was a real challenge for him.

My favorite passage in the book, unsurprisingly, describes Lincoln's reading life during his years as a farmer:

There are many stories about Lincoln's efforts to find enough books to satisfy him in that backwoods country. Those he liked he read again and again, losing himself in the adventures of Robinson Crusoe or the magical tales of The Arabian Nights. He was thrilled by a biography of George Washington, with its stirring account of the Revolutionary War. And he came to love the rhyme and rhythm of poetry, reciting passages from Shakespeare or the Scottish poet Robert Burns at the drop of a hat. He would carry a book out to the field with him, so he could read at the end of each plow furrow, while the horse was getting its breath. When noon came, he would sit under a tree and read while he ate.

Somehow this image of Lincoln pausing at the end of his plowing to read a favorite book makes him feel like a kindred spirit across the generations. It's hard not to feel a connection to a fellow reader, no matter his time period.

This is an excellent book for introducing young readers to Abraham Lincoln as a real person, not just a a name and date in a history book. Though it might be a bit much for my first grader, I imagine it will be just right by the time we hit American history in third or fourth grade. I'm also really interested in reading some more books by Russell Freedman; his writing really resonates with me, and I'm eager to learn more about the other historical figures he wrote about. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Book Review: New Kid by Jerry Craft (2019)

Jordan Banks, who really wanted to go to art school, has been sent instead by his parents to a fancy private school, where he is the new kid, and one of the only non-white students. As his seventh grade year unfolds, Jordan seeks to find his place in the student body as he also faces insensitive comments and behaviors from classmates and faculty members alike.

This graphic novel is the 2020 Newbery Medal winner. Much like 2019's winner, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, this is another stereotypically generic middle grade story which is distinctive only because its main character is a person of color. Being new in school is a main theme in hundreds of children's books, and for the most part, Jordan's feelings about the experience are almost identical to those of hundreds of other characters who have gone through it. With nothing new to add to this oft-told tale, this book is largely very boring.

Worse than causing boredom, however, this book also suffers greatly from its stereotypical portrayal of white characters. While it is certainly true that ignorant people make stupid comments about race, this book makes it hard to take that problem seriously because the white characters are just so laughably clueless. The teacher who repeatedly calls one black student by another black student's name is the most egregious, but almost every microaggression in this book didn't ring true as something a real human being would ever say. It would have improved the book a lot - and strengthened its message - if there had been some nuance to the ways white characters made Jordan feel marginalized, and if these microaggressions had been perpetrated not just by characters the story portrays as unlikable, but by some well-intentioned "good" characters as well.

As for the artwork in this book, it was fine, but not especially memorable for me. I think the style suited the subject matter, and the format is undoubtedly appealing to middle schoolers, but there weren't any images that I found myself spending extra time with or wanting to revisit. I also still question the legitimacy of giving an award for writing to a graphic novel, whose text and illustrations can't really be considered separately. I also question giving it to this book, which is not a particularly innovative or interesting example of this format.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Book Review: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (1991)

One day, in the hills behind his house in West Virginia, Marty Preston finds a beagle and falls in love with him. Unfortunately, the dog belongs to Judd Travers, a neighbor with so little compassion for the animals he owns he doesn't even give them names. Moved by pity, Marty gives the dog a name, Shiloh, and despite warnings from his parents to mind his own business, becomes actively involved in trying to save the dog from his sad living situation.

Like The One and Only Ivan, this is a book I avoided for a long time because it seemed like it might be a Very Special Animal Story. As it turns out, though, whereas I think of Ivan as animal rights propaganda for kids, Shiloh is much more open-ended in its treatment of the subject matter, raising questions without easy answers and allowing the reader to contemplate their implications on her own. Though on some level this is a typical "boy and his dog" story, it is just as much an exploration of morality that asks kids to think about situations in which right and wrong might not seem so black and white and to evaluate the decisions Marty makes to determine whether he does the right thing by interfering in Judd's life to save the dog he loves.

I really enjoyed Naylor's writing in this book, and Peter MacNicol's narration of the audiobook really helped me to get into Marty's voice and into the story in general. Though I am neither a dog owner nor interested in becoming one, I was fully invested in this story and really wanted Shiloh and Marty to end up together. Though I think this book will still mainly appeal to dog lovers, it is a well-written story that any young reader can enjoy, even the ones who are typically sensitive to sad dog books. (Obviously, because there are sequels to this book,  it is clear that this is not a dead dog story. If you need to know whether Shiloh eventually dies before investing in the entire series, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor kindly answers that question on her website.)