BookTalk: Coming Clean

Kimberly Rae Miller has written a thoughtful and touching account of her life as the child of loving, supportive parents who also struggled with hoarding. From the outside, her life in a working-class community on Long Island probably seemed typical to most of the people around her–because even as a young girl, Miller put tremendous effort into creating that impression to protect her family.

In fact, she lived in homes that were packed to the brim with papers, broken appliances, and more–homes in which the plumbing didn’t work, and repairs went unmade, and fresh food was an impossibility.

Read the rest at Cannonball Read 10

BookTalk: Pity Poor Mrs. Popper

We’ve started reading chapter books to Baguette at bedtime. Our first was The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. Neither Mr. Sandwich nor I had read that as children, and we’re continuing that with our next selection: Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.

On its surface, the story is cute enough. A seasonally unemployed house painter unexpectedly takes delivery of a penguin, and hijinks ensue. There is a second penguin, and then little penguins, and more hijinks. Baguette is enjoying the story, and that’s really the point.

But as an adult, I can’t help but be struck by something. Mr. Popper does not think things through at all. He only has an income for half of the year, which means that his family has to eat beans all winter. Nevertheless, he goes into debt to buy a “chilling machine” for the penguins in the basement.

Mrs. Popper, meanwhile, doesn’t even get a personality. All she does is clean the house and talk about whether the house is clean. And they have two children, but darned if I can figure out why. Janie and Bill are barely present and don’t add to the plot or the humor.

So on a level that the writers don’t seem to acknowledge, this is the story of a woman who puts a lot of effort into making a home for her family, but has the misfortune to be married to a man who spent the entire winter’s bean money on extreme air conditioning.

Fine. It’s fine. But it’s the kind of book that’s probably charming to a child, and a source of some eye-rolling for an adult.

cover of Mr. Popper's Penguins

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Book Talk: What Did I Just Read?

Capitol Hill Question Mark (Washington, DC)

So apparently I’m now selecting books without having any idea what they’re about.

First, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. This is a really good book. I’d heard great things about it. Apparently I’d never actually read a synopsis, because for reasons I can’t explain, I thought it was about a teenage boy.

Spoiler alert: It’s lovely and moving. Also, it is not about a teenage boy.

Second, Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. I was expecting funny anecdotes about Ansari’s life, and there are some. But this is actually the funniest serious book about sociological trends that I’ve ever encountered. This book is based on a study and references others. It has substance.

I recommend both of these books. But I am surprised that, twice in a row, I read (well, in the case of Modern Romance, listened to) books of which I had no prior knowledge or understanding.

What books have taken you by surprise?

Photo by takomabibelot. Public domain.

Book Talk: Things I’ve Read Recently

Your definition of “recently” and mine may not be quite the same. Whatever. It’s my blog, so I get to pick.

Anyhow, here are some books I’ve read, with the occasional thought attached.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
This was a hard read, but I’m so glad I read it. Lilith’s story is compelling from the start, and heartbreaking and painful throughout. It’s a powerful illustration of how slavery is brutal and corrupting.

The Martian by Andy Weir
I’m never going to see the movie. I accept that. But I did enjoy the book, even if I wasn’t particularly surprised by how the story developed and played out. But I liked the fact that Mark is a problem-solver. Because he encounters a lot of problems.

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris
As a tween/teen of the 1980s, I have fond memories of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Clearly, so does Neil Patrick Harris. This was a fun read. Maybe he’s a little too diplomatic. But it’s fun.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
I don’t like horror, and didn’t really realize that’s what this was until I started reading it. It was an interesting story, and it held my attention, but I didn’t buy the ending. Also, in poking around on Amazon, I realized that I had read another one of the author’s books and didn’t care for it, but I had no memory of her name. Hopefully I’ll remember it going forward.

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
I thought Station Eleven was really good (if something I should not have read), but this book didn’t come together for me.

Valley of Ashes by Cornelia Read

I like the Madeline Dare books, even though they get weaker with each entry. This one had a really cliched villain, but if she writes another, I’ll read it.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
“Why are so many recent books set in the 1980s?” asked Mr. Sandwich. “Because it’s recent enough to feel modern, but you don’t have to worry about cell phones,” I answered. I remembered liking The Tenderness of Wolves, and Penney’s next book–which is completely different from its predecessor–is also worth a read.

Tomorrow They Will Kiss by Eduardo Santiago

Santiago has written two books about Cuba and Cubans. I hope he writes more.

Roughing It by Mark Twain
This book is taking me forever to read. I guess maybe that’s fitting.

So that’s about six months worth of books. Clearly I’m off my game. Please leave recommendations in the comments.

Book Talk: The Emerald Key

Sponsored: I received a free Advance Reader’s Copy of The Emerald Key in exchange for writing a review. All thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

So one of my friends has written a book! Co-authored, actually.

The Emerald Key, by Mark Frederickson and Melora Pineda, is the story of a group of friends who discover a journal and accidentally open a portal to another world. The main characters, Penny and Laci, are life-long friends who anticipate a dull vacation and an unwelcome family wedding, but find themselves transported to another reality filled with danger and dragons.

EmeraldKey

I enjoyed the book–it’s fast-paced, with lots of action, and the characters are likeable. And while Penny and Laci and their friends go through a number of trials throughout the story, it seems like an adventure that tweens might actually imagine they want to have.

I was curious to get some of the story behind the story, and Melora granted me an interview.

1) What was your inspiration for The Emerald Key?
Both Mark and I have tweenage daughters. His daughter is extremely athletic, and I have on occasion, had to threaten mine to get her to put her book down and meet basic needs, such as eating and showering. Our goal was to write a story that would entertain their age group, but also have a little bit of each of them in it.

2) What made you decide to write a book as a co-author, and how did you develop a process that made that work?
Mark and I had worked on a treatment for a children’s show a few years prior to starting The Emerald Key, so we knew we worked well together. Originally we decided to write a screenplay aimed at a middle-grade audience, but by writing it as a book, we created the source material first. Our process was countless hours on the phone hashing out ideas. I took notes and wrote the first version of each chapter. One by one I sent them to him and he expanded them. Next, we spent an entire weekend reading the book aloud and laughing at some of our blatant mistakes, such as the repeated use of our characters “starting” to do something instead of just doing it. I edited per our crazy weekend and then submitted to various publishers.

3) Laci and Penny have a close and supportive friendship, in spite of–or perhaps because of–the many ways in which they are different. How did you develop the characters?
We wanted an unlikely pair of friends to create more contrast in their skills and more challenges in getting themselves out of the mess they landed in. We began with qualities from each of our daughters, but these are fictional characters, so added more differences than actually exist between them.

4) I noticed some references to Norse mythology throughout the book. Were there particular legends or features that inspired you as you wrote?
Although Hallvard’s village was not seafaring and the Norse dragons are more serpent-like than the ones found in Botkyrka, we used a lot of Norse mythology to relate to popular culture (thanks, Marvel). We mention Thor and the mythology surrounding him frequently, but Beowulf is an Old English poem and wyverns are considered to be from European mythology, so we clearly played around with various dragon-based myths. By having Hallvard familiar with the same mythology the kids knew, we could bridge the gap between the cultures and create a camaraderie.

5) What would you like readers to take away from The Emerald Key?

I hope this book reminds our readers to search for and have faith in their own strengths instead of comparing themselves to others. As well as believing in themselves, they should never forget the importance of trusting their friends, and that in the end, it’s a combination of strengths working together that can overcome obstacles. And beat the bad guys!

Book Talk: Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven is the book that really, really convinced me to stop reading post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction.

Sure you might think that The Road would have done that. But while I found Cormac McCarthy’s father-and-son novel to be incredibly sad (and some of it to be horrifying), most of it didn’t dismay me in the way that this book did.

Since my second miscarriage, I’ve found that I have to be more careful about what I let into my head. While I once read innumerable true crime books, I find that now I can’t handle the cruelty. (I’ve read Game of Thrones and its sequels, yes, but there are passages that make me take breaks, and there are things I skip entirely in the HBO adaptation.)

Mandel’s book hooked me from the start. It’s really well-written, and the characters are interesting. I’ve had a long-standing interest in pandemics, so her story of the world after a particularly devastating flu seemed right up my alley in many ways.

But it got in my head in ways that were troubling. The idea of being plunged into a world without infrastructure is frankly terrifying. The death toll from Mandel’s “Georgia flu” would mean an end to existing family and friendships for any survivors. And while the idea of losing either Mr. Sandwich or Baguette is heartbreaking, the idea of losing both was almost insurmountable. (As I told Mr. Sandwich, “I’m not saying I’d just sit down on the side of the road and give up, but I really don’t know why I would choose to keep moving.”)

The book is not all bleakness, though, and I’m glad I finished it. It looks like Mandel’s other books are not as dystopian, and I want to read them. And I do recommend this one. Just not to myself.

cover of novel "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

BookTalk: More Please, The Hungry Animal Book

book

Dorothy Kunhardt is famous for writing Pat the Bunny. She also wrote More Please, which we discovered via Baguette’s speech therapist and may be the most maddening thing we own.

Baguette calls it “Make a Doggie.” I’m not sure why, because you don’t do that. You “feed” tiny pieces of posterboard shaped and colored like various items into the die-cut mouths of animals.

From a technical standpoint, I’m impressed. This was not easy to create.

From a parental standpoint, ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME????

The tiny pieces of posterboard are really tiny. Every time we read this book (and when it’s in rotation, I’m talking four or five times a day), I have to do an inventory of the parts. The text is maddeningly simplistic and sing-song. And the illustrations are just bad.

But Baguette loves it, and it definitely plays into her affection for animals.

Oh, and if you lose any of those tiny pieces? Yeah, I can’t find a replacement for less than $65 (a month ago, that price was $150). Hence the inventory.

If I didn’t like that speech therapist so much, I’d feel like she owes us an apology.

BookTalk: Petunia, The Girl Who Was NOT A Princess

Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for writing a review. All views expressed are my own.

Looking for new books to mix up your child’s library? Baguette really likes to revisit her favorites, but we want to add to the mix without taking away her comfort zone. So let’s kick off a new series with a book about broadening your comfort zone while being true to yourself.

M.R. Nelson is a technology management consultant who has two young daughters, and her daughters love stories. Her second children’s book is Petunia, The Girl Who Was NOT A Princess.

book cover for Petunia, the girl who was NOT a princess

Petunia prefers sweatshirts to frilly dresses and mud pies to tea parties, and she can’t understand the girls around her who love playing princess. Then Penelope moves in next door, and Petunia realizes that she may have been misjudging princesses and the other girls she knows.

The book is about growth, but it’s not didactic; it’s fun and funny, and I enjoyed reading it (and I enjoyed Holly Liminton’s illustrations). I also like that Petunia and Penelope’s world is multicultural, and that the focus is on appreciating both similarities and differences, not on changing who you are. “Princess” and “NOT A Princess” are equally valued and valuable–which is just what I want Baguette to learn.

So if you’re looking for a nice read about nice kids who learn to appreciate one another, this book may be for you and yours. (Available in hardcover and Kindle editions. Also available in Spanish.)

I was not compensated for this post, however I did receive a sample for my review. All opinions are my own and not influenced in any way. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”