Thursday, August 27, 2020

Reading Through History: The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry (1933)

Set on the island of Crete during the rule of King Minos, The Winged Girl of Knossos (of which Paul Dry books sent me a review copy quite some time ago) retells the popular myths of Theseus and of Icarus and Daedalus. Inas is the fearless bull-jumping daughter of Daidalos, an inventor of sorts who has been working on a pair of wings that allow Inas to fly. These wings must be kept secret lest the government accuse Daidalos of using magic and condemn him to death. Inas is also a close friend of the princess Ariadne, and when Ariadne desires to rescue a Greek prisoner called Theseus, she entrusts Inas with the task of leading him away from the labyrinthine halls of his prison by way of a long black thread. With danger encroaching from a variety of angles, Inas must do her best to save the life of herself and those she loves.

In many ways this book is to Ancient Crete what J.G. Fyson's books are to Ancient Mesopotamia. This story, which provides a plausible explanation behind centuries-old popular myths, immerses the reader in its setting so completely that it becomes easy to imagine the customs and daily living of these ancient people, and to believe that these legends actually have their basis in reality. 

Inas, especially, is an engaging heroine, but without becoming what I sometimes call an "anachronistically woke female." (I've seen some reviews labeling this book feminist. That's a buzzword that typically turns me off from wanting to read a book, and I would not apply it here). She is definitely not interested in domestic arts like the nearby citizens of Siceli, but neither is she incredulously wise beyond her station in life or the era in which she lives. She feels real, and therefore the reader is entirely invested in her fate throughout the story. The tone of the story, too, is surprisingly contemporary-feeling despite this book being 87 years old! It truly reads like a much newer middle grade historical fiction novel. 

I plan to assign this book to my kids during their fifth grade years, as they study the ancients for the second time around, during the logic stage of the classical trivium. I think it would also make an excellent read-aloud, possibly even for a first grader with a particular love for ancient history and the appropriate background knowledge. At any age, however, prior knowledge of the myths is needed to fully appreciate this fascinating tale. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Reading Through History: A Bone From a Dry Sea by Peter Dickinson (1992)

A Bone From a Dry Sea is a 1992 Carnegie Medal winning middle grade novel with a dual timeline. In the past, Li, a primitive young woman in a prehistoric tribe, begins to imagine beyond her culture's current capabilities. In the present day, Vinny, the daughter of an archeaologist  accompanies her father to work on a dig and must contend with the oppressive behavior of his difficult boss.

While this book has an interesting premise, the execution mostly fell flat for me. The segments of the story set in prehistoric times are well-written and engaging, but their connection to the present isn't developed that well. The present-day chapters don't delve as much into actual archaeology work as they do into the inter-personal relationships of the characters. There's the tension between Vinny's divorced parents, as well the question of whether Vinny's dad's coworker is his girlfriend, and the overbearing tendencies of Vinny's dad's boss. With all of these issues commanding attention, there isn't much room left to contemplate the implications of any of the archaeology work that is accomplished. The story ends without a strong sense of what the reader is meant to take away from it. The ending is also so abrupt, it feels like there is no conclusion to the story.

Since we own The Dream Time by Henry Treece, which explores prehistoric society in a beautifully poetic way, and the present-day section of this book is so weak, I don't really see a reason to assign this in our homeschool. If my oldest daughter continues to show an interest in archaeology, however, I would like to find a better novel that explores archaeology without all of the side plots. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Reading Through History: The Dream Time by Henry Treece (1967)

The Dream Time tells a story set not long after humans first began walking the Earth, and its main character, Crookleg, is an artist whose capabilities are not fully understood by others. He wanders between different primitive civilizations to escape possible punishment for creating forbidden pictures.

The writing in this book is deliberately unusual as it tries to portray a consciousness that is not yet fully human, but is just waking up to its potential. Everything is new in these early days of civilization and the characters often have thoughts they can't yet express verbally or ideas that have never occurred to anyone in their tribes before. Attempting to capture how it would have felt to be a person during this time period results in a very poetic text from which the reader feels a bit disconnected.

There is a lot to philosophize about in this book, and for that reason, it seems best suited to middle school readers and older. Treece raises questions about what it means to be human, and reflects on how it might have truly felt to live in a time before most tools and techniques we use today hadn't even been imagined. I think it is hard for even adult readers to fully grasp this concept, so a book to help young readers begin to comprehend this idea is a true gift. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Book Review: Francie on the Run by Hilda van Stockum (1939)

In this sequel to The Cottage at Bantry Bay, Francie O’Sullivan has finally had the surgery required to heal his foot, and he is ready to head home. Unable to stand being cooped up in the hospital any longer, he takes to the streets of Dublin, determined to get himself home to show his twin brother Liam how well he can walk. When Francie gets on the wrong train, however, he sets into motion a series of encounters with kind strangers who, through roundabout means, help him to get home to Bantry Bay.  

The premise of this book is the kind of thing I tended to avoid as a kid. I was always troubled by the idea of a child going off somewhere without his parents knowing, and the idea of Francie having fun on the road while his mother doesn’t know where he is bothers me even now. Still, Francie’s indomitable spirit comes alive on the page, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his cheerful enthusiasm. It was really fun reading about how each new friend Francie made reacted to his strong little personality, and of course, there was never any chance that everything would be anything but well in the end. 

Francie on the Run is a great everyday adventure story. Though best enjoyed as part of the series, it could also stand on its own. Personally, as it is part of that larger series, I would have liked to see more of the rest of the family, but it does work just fine as just Francie’s book. It also piqued my curiosity with its introduction of Pegeen, whose name is also the title of the third and final Bantry Bay book. I’ll be reading that as soon as I can find a copy!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Half Magic by Edward Eager (1954)

 Mark, Katherine, Jane, and Martha, the children of a single mother, find themselves entrusted with a lot of responsibility when they discover a magic coin that works by halves. Their mother unwittingly has the first adventure with the coin, during which she suddenly finds herself halfway home from visiting her aunt and uncle, but soon the children are making carefully calculated wishes that take them to far-flung points in time and space.

My husband and I listened to the full cast audiobook recording of this book on a car trip years ago, but I believe I slept through some of it and therefore didn’t add it to my Goodreads shelves because I hadn’t read the full story. This time around, I read the book aloud to my three oldest daughters (ages 2, 4, and 6) and enjoyed it much more. My intended audience was really the oldest two girls, and they both loved the idea of the magic coin and its tricky way of granting wishes. Each time we sat down to read, they were curious to know who was going to have a turn with the coin next and how they were going to use it. 

For me, the appeal was largely that, despite the magical elements, the story is grounded in reality. I have a hard time diving right into fantasy worlds, so I always appreciate it when an author begins in the real world and slowly introduces magic. I also thought it was a fun way to encourage my kids to think mathematically, and also a great excuse to introduce them to the legend of King Arthur, which figures heavily into one child’s adventure with the coin.

Half Magic will appeal to readers who like old-fashioned family stories, like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendys series or Eleanor Estes’s Moffats books, as well as to those who enjoy stories where magic enters the real world a la The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. I plan to read aloud the sequel, Magic by the Lake, possibly during the upcoming school year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Book Review: Family Grandstand by Carol Ryrie Brink (1952)

The Ridgeways, Susan, George, and Dumpling, live with their father, a college professor, and their mother, a mystery writer, in Midwest city, in a house very near to the university campus. A student named Dorothy helps out with the family’s housework, and Tommy Tokarynsi, the university’s star quarterback who is better known locally as Tommy Tucker, mows the family’s lawn. When Tommy’s grades begin to suffer to the point that he might not be allowed to play football anymore, the Ridgeway kids look for ways to solve the problem while also trying to convince their father to allow them to rent out parking spaces on their property during football games and working on figuring whether Dumpling is a child prodigy.

This book has old-fashioned charm similar to books like The Davenports are at Dinner by Alice Dalgliesh and Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant, with similar family dynamics to those depicted in the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry. The characters are just quirky enough to feel believable, and the dialogue among the family members is really entertaining. There isn’t much of anything groundbreaking about this book, but anyone who enjoys football or dreams of living near a university will absolutely love it. This may not be as memorable as this author’s Caddie Woodlawn or Baby Island, but it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless. If you enjoy Family Grandstand, also look for the second book about the Ridgeways, Family Sabbatical.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Read-at-Home Mom Report: 2020 Challenges Check-In

Before the pandemic turned the world upside down, I had big plans for completing reading challenges in 2020. Though I have read a lot of books so far this year, I'm not sure that all of my challenges have been getting the attention they deserve. Today we'll find out. Here is how things are going with each challenge in which I am participating: 

A Year of Flannery O'Connor

The goal of this one is to read all of Flannery O'Connor's short stories in a single year. This started out as a project with a real-life friend who is also on Instagram. We decided to open it up to the wider bookstagram community and started out trying to run individual discussion groups. After a while, that felt burdensome so I switched us over to a dedicated account for Flannery O'Connor read-alongs where anyone could discuss the short stories. Unfortunately, my friend hasn't been able to keep up with the reading, and I am terrible at writing discussion questions, and the whole thing has not yet proven to be a huge success. I am typically good at running online groups but I am finding that I'm not really cut out to lead book discussions. 

2020 Classics

This challenge started in May of 2019, and the goal was to read 20 classics by the end of 2020. As of the middle of July, I have reached the goal but I plan to keep counting until the end of the year. The classics I read for the challenge are: Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, Gunnar's Daughter by Sigrid Undset, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexander Dumas, The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset, The Cross by Sigrid Undset, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Adam Bede by George Eliot, O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

The Unread Shelf Project

Thanks in part to the pandemic, this has been my favorite challenge of the year so far. With the libraries closed, I read like mad from my unread shelf all during the spring, and now it has become habit for me to constantly have a book that I own on deck to read next. I have read 47 (!!!) of my unread titles so far this year and DNF'd or unhauled a bunch more. I've also read at least one book each month to fit the monthly challenges that go along with the project. 

The Modern Mrs. Darcy Challenge

My enthusiasm for the Modern Mrs. Darcy challenge and the What Should I Read Next podcast have waned a bit in 2020, and so, while I have completed all of the prompts for this challenge, it has largely been by accident. (I am also kind of disappointed in the MMD Summer Reading Guide this year. The lack of nonfiction was a bummer, and I have DNF'd a bunch of the selections.)  

Scholé Sisters 2020 5x5 Challenge

I loved this challenge idea, but it feels awkward doing it when I'm not really part of this community. My five categories I decided to read from were biographies and memoirs, Catholicism, books about books, Concord, Massachusetts and linguistics. Oddly enough, though I have 5 titles sitting in my house that have to do with Concord, this is the only category in which I have not yet read a single book! 

For the biography/memoir category, I've read five titles: My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary,  Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle, and A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel. 

For Catholicism, I've also read five:  Made This Way by Trent Horn and Leila Sales, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion by Abigail Rine Favale, Giving Thanks and Letting Go by Danielle Bean, No Greater Love by Mother Teresa, and Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn and Kimberly Hahn. 

I've only read three books about books so far: For Reading Out Loud by Margaret Mary Kimmel, The Proof of the Pudding by Phyllis Fenner, and Books in Search of Children by Louise Seaman Bechtel. 

And I've read two linguistics books: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson and Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. 

Catholic Reading Challenge: A Year of Short Stories

This reading challenge depends upon a podcast. I have not been into podcasts at all and never even started the challenge. 

Craving for Cozies

I have read 18 of the 25 cozies I plan to read this year. This isn't really a challenge for me to complete; I just like keeping track of them in the Facebook group and seeing what others are reading. 

Cathlit 2020

I added this challenge after my initial challenge post. I am not going to get to all ten of the categories, but I like the way the prompts expand my spiritual reading horizons. So far I've read a memoir by a Catholic (Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion by Abigail Rine Favale), a book by a Catholic novelist (Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset),  a book about a saint (St. Paul The Apostle by Mary Fabyan Windeatt), and a recently published Catholic book (Your Blue Flame by Jennifer Fulwiler). The other categories are: a spiritual classic (I think I'll probably read Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich), poetry by a Catholic, a book by a doctor of the church (this is the one I feel most certain I will not complete), a book about beauty (I have Leah Darrow's The Other Side of Beauty in mind for this one), a book about feasting,  and short stories by a Catholic (which I can check off at the end of the year when I finish Flannery's Complete Stories).

I think chances are good that I will complete most of these by the end of the year, but I do wish I felt more enthusiastic about them.  I think I'll need to be more selective about challenges next year.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Read-at-Home Mom Report: Revisiting My 2020 Reading Goals

As hard as it is to believe, 2020 is nearly two-thirds over. I have both been wanting to check in with my reading and blogging goals and putting off doing so, mostly because I didn't want to think about how the pandemic has rained on my reading parade. As it turns out, though, on the whole, being home much of the spring and summer has actually been a good thing for my reading life. So today I'll bring you up to date on how my reading goals for the year are progressing, and I'll do a separate post next week to check in on my challenges. 

My first goal for the year was to read 365 books for the Goodreads challenge. I meant for this to be a low number so that I might consider taking it a little bit easy, but then we went on lockdown and I read like a maniac to keep myself from constantly checking the news and fretting over when, if ever, my new babies would see the outside world. So, while I should only be around the 220 mark right now, my current total is 237. I'm not going to increase the goal, but it is extremely likely that I will surpass it. (I'm seriously considering setting myself a goal in 2021 that I am not allowed to exceed. I do sometimes think less reading is more.)

My next goal was to post something on Goodreads for every book read. I started out strong with this, then abandoned it during the twins' newborn phase and now I'm trying to play catch-up. I do actually want my Goodreads to be fairly complete for this year, so I'm going to keep at it. 

Goal number three was to take one day off from reading per week. I mostly did this in the very early part of the year, but once we were ordered to stay at home, I gave it up. I'm reading something every day and until life starts to look normal again (if it ever does), I'm not going to worry about it. 

The next goal, read one book per format at a time, went out the window pretty much right away. I'm just too much of a mood reader to be able to adhere to this kind of restriction. My thinking was that this goal would remind me to actually use the Kindle Fire I bought on Black Friday last year, but with the libraries closed, e-books have figured into my reading life even more heavily than normal and that hasn't been a problem. 

Blog more is the goal that makes me laugh the hardest. I keep making this resolution every year, and every year I blog less. I don't think I actually want to blog more; I just want to blog differently. Having a specific set of prompts or an ongoing project would probably help this be more of a success. 

I also planned to read 6 vintage middle grade novels from our shelves and I have done so already. I read: Francie on the Run by Hilda van Stockum, Up from Jericho Tel by E.L. Konigsburg, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld,  The Dream Time by Henry Treece, and Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. 

My last goal was to read 6 adult books that are at least 20 years old. (Not counting classics.) This has been the most fun to complete of all my goals and I might very well end up reading an additional six. The ones I've completed up to now are: The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman, The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge, A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie, Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons, Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver, and Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons. 

The other two things on my list were more like rules than goals, and I think the policies of having  no monthly TBRs and participating in no open-ended read-a-thons have been good ones. I did make a TBR for a couple of challenges, and in neither case did I finish everything in the stack, so that solidifies the decision not to post them monthly. I have done a few read-a-thons with specific goals and that has been productive. 

All in all, in terms of the amount of reading I've been doing, this year hasn't been a waste at all. My reading challenges, on the other hand, may be another story. Check back next week to see how those are going.