Halloween Reads Review

I got so caught up in NaNoWriMo 2018 that I forgot to post about which of my Halloween Reads I got through. My plan had been to read:

  1. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  2. Contagion by Erin Bowman
  3. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  4. Sadie by Courtney Summers
  5. The Lies We Told by Camilla Way

The Westing Game I read in a day, and I probably should’ve read it back when I was a kid and in the book’s target reader demographic. I genuinely enjoyed the book and thought the mystery was interesting. The book would have gotten 5 stars out of 5 from me… if it weren’t for one particular character. Turtle, one of the major characters, was not my favorite. I’m generally not a fan of “child genius” characters, or genius characters in general, because I find them unbelievable. Not because child/adult genius don’t exist but because a character can only be as smart as the person(s) writing them (and statistically speaking, whoever is writing that genius is probably not a genius, no offense to writers of geniuses). So Turtle was cast as a preternaturally smart kid, largely because she was interested in and understood the stock market. I’ll grant that she had some smarts, but she spent so much of book trying to solve the mystery puzzle in a very self-focused way — rather than focusing on the mindset of the man who created the mystery puzzle — that I couldn’t give her intelligence too much credit. Also, her self-focused solution to the mystery and her childish behavior towards other characters (like her habit of kicking people’s shins when they made her angry) made me think that she was much younger than she actual was. I was putting her age between 8 and 10 years, and then 1/2 to 3/4 of the way through the book you find out she’s actually 13 or 14. What? Really didn’t like Turtle and while overall I liked the ending, I found the resolution to her particularly story and the roll she played in the mystery completely unbelievable, so 4 out of 5 stars for this book. Okay, I’ll get off my anti-Turtle soapbox now (I clearly had some ranty feelings about her.)

I don’t know why it took me so long to start reading Contagion but I enjoyed it. For me, it was another 4 out of 5 star book and I will be reading the sequel (Immunity) that comes out next Spring. However, it’s a low 4 stars and I would have rated it a 3 out of 5 if it weren’t for the last 1/3 of the book. Even though the story is fast-paced, the beginning 1/3 of the book didn’t engage me much so it took me a much longer time to read than it should’ve. A lot of time is spent introducing the eight main/ only characters, which I normally don’t mind, but I didn’t particularly care about these characters and honestly I can’t say I cared much more about them by the ending. I do care enough about their fates to read the sequel, though. Another issue I had is that while the book regularly raises the stakes, as seven of the characters are crew members investigating a tragedy that occurred on an isolated planet, these raised stakes depend almost entirely on the incompetence of the crew leader. The whole book, all the other characters acknowledge her incompetence, and to a certain extent ignore or undermine her authority, which I found… annoying. It definitely decreased my enjoyment of those moments and I wish the author had created the conflicts and dead ends that she did without having them be the result of the crew leader’s poor decision-making. (The fact that the incompetent leader was also a woman also got a raised eyebrow from me; however, the other women in the story were fairly capable and competent so that wasn’t a problematic as it could have been).

I’m currently reading and almost in finished with The Hazel Wood, which I’m really enjoying. It’s the perfect creepy Halloween read. The tone of the story reminds me a lot of Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series, given that this is a story about a girl whose grandmother wrote creepy, dark fairy tales. Aspects of the plot and the character relationships also remind me of Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, but I like these things much more in this story as I think they work better (Magonia also suffered, IMHO, from a genius character who I often rolled my eyes at). I didn’t feel compelled to read Magonia’s sequel, but I will read The Hazel Wood‘s.

Even though I have the physical copy of Sadie, I want to listen to the audio book because there’s a podcast in the story and I’ve heard that listening to these sections gives you a better feel for the story. So I’m waiting to read this until I can get the audio book from my library.

I haven’t started The Lies We Told yet, but will as soon as I finish The Hazel Wood. My slow pace in reading the beginning of Contagion and a cold I caught as the seasons changed in October meant I didn’t get to this before Halloween, but I keep hearing it’ll be a quick read once I start it.

YA Mental Health Review: Unbroken

Unbroken: 13 Stories about Disabled Teens wasn’t originally on my YA Mental Health book TBR, but I knew I’d have to read it when I saw it at the library. This anthology was edited by Marieke Nijkamp (who also wrote one of the stories), and included short stories by William Alexander, Fox Benwell, Keah Brown, Dhonielle Clayton, Corienne Duyvis, Heidi Heilig, Kody Keplinger, Katherine Locke, Karuna Riazi, Francisco X. Stork, Kayla Whaley, and Kristine Wyllys.

35120779It’s hard to review an anthology by different writers, since every style is different and you enjoy the stories to differing degrees. In the past, I’ve tended to like about half of what’s in the anthology while feeling the other half was just okay or straight-up not liking it. However, the majority of the stories in this anthology I liked, and there were only a few that didn’t work for me (but hopefully they work for other people).

All of the stories in this anthology are centered around teens with at least one disability, whether it’s physical or mental. The stories all generally have fairly diverse casts, in terms of the characters (MC and side characters) races and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientations, and gender identity. For most the story, the MC’s disabilities are another facet of who they are and aren’t necessarily central to the main plot/conflict, which I appreciated. Not every story that includes people with disabilities needs be hyperfocused on that disability. In these cases, the MC’s disabilities added nuances to their experiences and in some cases presented additional obstacles or problems they had to deal with in addition to the main conflict, but they weren’t the totality of who they were, which I also appreciated. (That said,  my favorite story in the collection focused on a blind cyclist and her blindness was critical to the plot.)

I actually mentioned that I was reading this book to my school’s librarian since out library doesn’t have it. We were wondering if it would be appropriate for middle schoolers or if it’s more of a high school book. There were some stories that seemed a little more advanced or mature (language-wise, in terms of profanity as well as general word choice) for most of our students, but I think I will recommend she order this for our library. She might mark it as an 8th grade and up book, though.

All in all, I really enjoyed this anthology. I’m glad to see such diverse representation of many different cultures in this book and how that resulted in stories that might not have otherwise been told. None of the stories stood out as ones I would use in an actual counseling session with one of my students, even the stories that touched on mental health topics; however, I would recommend it to students who are struggling with disabilities, as well as students who would like to learn more about what it might be like to live with a disability or be differently-abled.

One final note: I know from reading Memory of Light that Francisco X. Stork struggled with depression, and his story focused on a teen struggling with his mental health, but otherwise, I don’t know if the authors have dealt with the disabilities they wrote about or a similar disability. It does seem like the races of the characters generally matched the races of the authors, but I don’t know about sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. I only bring this up because I’m hoping that these stories are Own Voices, particularly in respect to the disabilities that are addressed, but it’s hard to say. I started reading assuming they are Own Voices, and my review probably would change if I find out they aren’t. This book and some (all?) of the authors are involved in the Diverse Books movement, so this anthology would feel a little disingenuous if it tells diverse stories without including diverse (and personally knowledgeable) writers. I think authors can and should be allowed to write about characters that are culturally distinct from them, as long as they do their due diligence to present an accurate and mindful representation of the characters, but for this anthology, it feels particularly important that the characters be written by authors who can more personality understand how their disabilities would affect their story. Which is why I’m pretty sure that is the case, I’m just not 100% positive.

Book Beginnings and Friday 56: The Lies We Told

Book Beginnings is hosted by Rose City Reader, while Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice.

Today I’m showcasing The Lies We Told by Camilla Way, which will be one of my Halloween Reads. I thought I’d make this my Friday book to prep for reading it, even though I decided to read the 5 books I chose for October in the order that I received them. Which means this book will last. Hopefully, my interest won’t be so piqued that I’m dying to read it and all the other books end up feeling like a slog.

Without further ado, here’s the first sentence;

At first I mistook the severed head for something else.

That line alone, which was on the Book of the Month page for this book, made me interested in choosing this for my BotM. Wow. I have so many questions.

And here’s page 56:

“[…] I love Hannah! But I know there’s something badly wrong with out little girl, and we need to get her help as soon as possible[…]”

Well, my interested is piqued. It’s not clear if the “something badly wrong” is a physical or a mental health concern, but given that this novel is  a psychological suspense, I suspect Hannah has some mental health concerns. And given that the story is about a dark family secret(s), I’m wondering how this will factor into the deception and intrigue.


A January through September Breakdown of Books: 2017

While writing one of my other posts the other day, it occurred to me that I’ve been mentioning quite a few male and/or white authors on my blog, and consequently fewer female authors or authors of color. Off the top of my head, I don’t know the breakdowns by other cultural groups, such as religion, sexual orientation or SES, but I imagine the group is fairly homogeneous in those respects, too. Having a diverse pool of authors to read from is important to me for several reasons. 1) I want to support authors and stories who have historically be excluded from publishing/authorship/the arts, and 2) diverse authors usually mean more diverse stories, which often means that 3) I’m getting exposed to a wider range of story ideas, conflicts, ways to problem-solve, life perspective and experiences, etc. And being exposed to and learning from all those things are a big reason that I love reading.  I want to vicariously experience things I might not otherwise.

It just so happened that while I was thinking about all of this, I stumbled on a blog post at Evelyn Reads, where she not only details the books she read for September but also broke down the books by author gender, format, page count, and her rating. I was inspired to do the same. Evelyn focuses on the 16 books she read in September (Holy cow!), but I wanted to read the books I’ve read all year, so that I can gauge my reading diet for the year, so to speak, and try to read a wider range of books by the end of the year. I’ve read 53 books so far, which sounds impressive but a bunch were graphic novels, as well as two picture books that I read so I could feel comfortable donating them to a local Little Free Library.

Here’s my breakdown of the books I read from January 1st to September 30th (okay, technically I finished The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers on October 1st, but the bulk was read/ listened to via audiobook in September so I’m counting that):

Reading Breakdown

Aaaannnddd, the font size on that is way smaller than I wanted it to be. I’ll fix that at a later time. For the most part, I’m actually pretty happy with the variety of what I read. It’s heavier on the non-fiction and children/YA books than one might expect, because I read those types of books often for work.  My labeling for race/ethnicity is imperfect, but looking at it I do notice I’ve read a lot of books by white authors. I lumped Jewish in there, but it did occur to me I haven’t really thought about the religious background of the author’s I’m reading. Also the “Greek” author was Marcus Aurelius so… I wasn’t sure what to count him as. Yeah, he’s Greek but…

With the above in mind, by the end of the year, I would like to 1) have a slightly more balanced racial/ethnic breakdown of the writers that I’m reading, 2) also look at the race and gender of the MC or non-fiction target person/group, if possible, and 3) take a little more consideration into the religious backgrounds of the authors and whether this seems to impact their writing/ my experience with their writing, again if possible. There’s not a lot of time left in 2018 to change these graphs very much, but I would like to revisit this at the end of the year to see if focused attention on having more diverse reads 1) numerically changes things, and 2) changes/adds to/improve my reading experience.

It occurs to me now that I’ve finished writing this that you can tell I have a background in research/ am more analytically minded than I care to admit.

Shelf Control: The Last Equation of Isaac Severy

Shelf Control is a meme by Bookshelf Fantasies, to celebrate the unread books on our shelves.

35297219The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs was my Book of the Month pick a few months back. After reading the blurb, I was really excited to read it and new immediately it would be right up my alley, so when it was shipped to me I naturally read it right away! Okay, no I did not, otherwise it could not be my Shelf Control book this week. I can’t remember why I didn’t start reading this right away, but I’m sure the reason was (not) a good one. So, this is definitely on my short list of books to read ASAP.

Here’s the blurb:

“Hugely entertaining… The Last Equation of Isaac Severy is full of delight. Though Ms. Jacobs’s writing has echoes of Thomas Pynchon, Nathanael West and J.D. Salinger, her terrific book displays in abundance a magic all its own.”
—The Wall Street Journal 

The Family Fang meets The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in this literary mystery about a struggling bookseller whose recently deceased grandfather, a famed mathematician, left behind a dangerous equation for her to track down—and protect—before others can get their hands on it.

Just days after mathematician and family patriarch Isaac Severy dies of an apparent suicide, his adopted granddaughter Hazel, owner of a struggling Seattle bookstore, receives a letter from him by mail. In it, Isaac alludes to a secretive organization that is after his final bombshell equation, and he charges Hazel with safely delivering it to a trusted colleague. But first, she must find where the equation is hidden.

While in Los Angeles for Isaac’s funeral, Hazel realizes she’s not the only one searching for his life’s work, and that the equation’s implications have potentially disastrous consequences for the extended Severy family, a group of dysfunctional geniuses unmoored by the sudden death of their patriarch.

As agents of an enigmatic company shadow Isaac’s favorite son—a theoretical physicist—and a long-lost cousin mysteriously reappears in Los Angeles, the equation slips further from Hazel’s grasp. She must unravel a series of maddening clues hidden by Isaac inside one of her favorite novels, drawing her ever closer to his mathematical treasure. But when her efforts fall short, she is forced to enlist the help of those with questionable motives.

Top 10 Tuesday: Authors I’d Like to Meet

Top 10 Tuesday is a meme currently hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl.

At this year’s National Book Festival, I had the opportunity to meet Jason Reynolds, author of several books that I’m using as a part of “reading group” at the school I work at. I type “reading group”, because really it’s a discussion group, for students who happen to be struggling readers, but more importantly they’re also African American students who my group co-leader and I felt would be interested in and could benefit from reading books and having honest discussions about “real world” topics (e.g., racism, poverty, community violence, police brutality) that may or may not be affecting them but are almost definitely on their minds. I think I’ll have to write a post/  series of posts about the groups at some point, once we’ve had a few more, but the first few have been fairly successful. Jason Reynolds wrote two of the books we’re using: Long Way Down and All-American Boys (which is co-written by Brendan Kiely). Reynolds signed my copy of Long Way Down – yay!

(Also, if you haven’t read Long Way Down, go read it! It’s phenomenal and thought-provoking and all my co-workers I’ve recommended have loved it. Plus it’s a quick read; I read it all on the Metro ride to the National Book Festival.)

Over the years, I’ve also been able to meet Holly Black and the late Terry Pratchett, both of whom signed books, which I still have as a part of my small but growing autographed book collection. Holly Black signed my copy of Tithe, a book I had read as a teen, and Terry Pratchett signed his at-the-time recently released copy of Snuff. Actually, he stamped it; because of his Alzheimer’s he wasn’t able to sign the book.

So that said, who would I still like to meet? Sadly, several of the author’s I’d like to meet have past away, but I’m going to include them on here. This list may or may not overlap with my list of people, alive or dead, I’d like to have over for a dinner party. Basically this list will be my list of author’s I’d like to have over for a dinner party, in no particular order:

  1. J.K. Rowling. What Harry Potter fan in their right mind wouldn’t want to meet her? I’d say I’m a Ravenclaw, except as an American I’d really be a Horned Serpent. (At least I was a Ravenclaw on the first iteration of Pottermore, but when they redid the site I was sorted as Gryffindor and Thunderbird. I’ll take Thunderbird but no one’s making me leave Ravenclaw tower!)
  2. Isaac Asimov. First of all, Asimov’s wealth of knowledge means we’d likely have no shortage of things to talk about. Also, having read his short story mystery anthologies, such as the Tales from the Black Widowers, which had little anecdotes from Asimov introducing each story, I get the sense that he had a very entertaining sense of humor and was very personable.
  3. For a similar reason, J.R.R. Tolkien. He just seems like he’d be the kind of guy who is both intelligent and imaginative in a way that would lead to so many interesting dinner party conversations.
  4. And for continued similar reasons, Hildegard von Bingen. Okay, this choice is probably a little out there. Hildegard was a 12th century German Benedictine abbess, who (because Medieval women of the church were actually educated and whatnot, unlike many of their non-church-bound counterparts) writer, composer, philosopher, botanist, mystic, visionary and polymath. This lady was a boss.
  5. Mark Twain. You gotta have the king of satire at your dinner party.
  6. Franz Kafka. Mostly because I want to see how much his personality matches his writing. Also, I wouldn’t not mind if the dinner became a little Kafka-esque.
  7. Neil Gaiman, cuz he seems awesome and I thoroughly enjoy his writing.
  8. N.K. Jemisin. I’ve really liked the creativity and uniqueness of her stories, so I would think/hope she would bring that same perspective to the dinner party discussions. Also, similar to Neil Gaiman, she just seems awesome.
  9. Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen (author and illustrator of the Magic School Bus series). I actually met them in 3rd grade when they did a book reading and signing at a local bookstore, so I have a signed (and personally illustrated!) copy of The Magic School Bus Inside a Beehive. But meeting them in 3rd grade doesn’t count, so on this list they go!
  10. K.A. Applegate. I loved her Animorphs series growing up, and I’ve used her Ivan books in my work with students, so it feels appropriate that she would be at this dinner party, too.

Mailbox Monday: Scribbler #2 and Sadie

Mailbox Monday is a meme that’s currently hosted here.

This past week, I received my second ever Scribbler box, a subscription box designed for writers, which was good timing since I’m starting to buckle down and get serious about writing and publishing. I had to put those plans on hold as I went through grad school for sanity reasons. The theme of this box is “Breaking the Rules”,  which reminded me of a blurb from Bill Watterson I read in a Calvin and Hobbes anthology. Watterson talked about how to break visual arts/ drawing rules you have to 1) know what the rules are in the first place, and 2) know when to break the rules to create your desired effect. That made so much sense to me that it’s stuck with me years later, and idea is essentially what this box is about.


The box came with:

  • Sadie, a YA thriller novel by Courtney Summers
  • The “Breaking the Rules” Passport with a letter from Courtney Summers about how she broke the rules/conventions in her story and why. This was really interesting since she went into her thought process on some of the unique aspects of her book, e.g., sections of the book are formatted like a podcast. This made me interested to read and see how effectively those writing choices were.
  • A Publishing Process Inside Look booklet, that has an email exchange between Summers and her editor focusing on editing and perfecting one small (okay, it was the ending so not so small) part of the book
  • A Scribbler Writing exercise. This month’s was simple and straightforward: list my NaNoWriMo goals. And yet… some how I have not done this easy exercise.
  • A WWJKD (What Would J.K. Do) magnet
  • A creepy-cool art print of an anatomically correct heart with authorial inspiration
  • The most adorable bird-themed book flags from Girl of All Work. I will absolutely be buying more of these when I run out.
  • Turmeric and ginger tea from Big Heart Tea Co. Not pictured because I took it out to drink it. Very tasty, if you like turmeric and/or ginger teas, which I do (but may not be for everyone…)

34810320Now for this month’s book, Sadie by Courtney Summers. This looks really interesting. The premise is that a podcast narrator/host/whatever-you-call-them, is pulled into pseudo-investing disappearance of a girl, Sadie, who vanished while trying to avenge the death of her sister.

*TRIGGER WARNING* The book addresses alcoholism and sexual abuse, in some way, shape, or form. So I’ll be reading this with a close, semi-judgmental eye. Personally,  I hate when abuse, especially child abuse, is used in a gimmicky or exploitative way; HOWEVER, I don’t get the sense that’s what’s happening here.  If you have a difficult time reading books that tackle this topic, this may not be the book for you.

The other reason I will be doing a close examination of this book: I really want to see how Summers “breaks the rules”. I love that some of the story will be structured like a podcast, and it almost makes me wonder if it would be worthwhile to also listen to the audiobook (if and when one comes out), to really get the podcast feel. I’ll have to keep an eye out for other ways this novel breaks with conventions (and mark those sections with my new birdy book flags).

Here’s the blurb for Sadie:

Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meagre clues to find him.

When West McCray—a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America—overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.