All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

img_8460-1Book: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Dates Read: October 30 to November 25, 2018

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

The last couple months have been a bit crazy for me, and so it has been quite awhile since I have done a normal review. This is one that I struggled with quite a bit. On the one hand, this is a beautifully written and compelling story. On the other, the subject matter is a bit… should I say, problematic? I think perhaps the author hit the nail on the head with the title.

When I first read the description of this book, I thought it sounded potentially interesting. Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that it is definitely polarizing. The main plot is the development of a relationship between a young man and a female child. When they first encounter each other, I believe they are 19 and 8 years old, respectively. The situation that Wavy is living in is quite horrific. Her father is a meth dealer, her mother was recently released from prison and is obviously mentally ill, and she ends up as the primary caregiver to her infant brother as well as her mother. Enter Kellen, a “business associate” of her father, after he crashes his motorcycle on his way up their driveway. After recovering from the accident, he takes an interest in the children at the house. This seems partially due to a perceived debt to Wavy for saving him, as well as some genuine concern for how they are living (really, the first thing he does when he goes to the house is to clean up). Things become much more complicated from here, especially when 11 year old Wavy begins referring to Kellen as her boyfriend, and wondering what she needs to do to get his attention away from other women. This all leading to an increasingly inappropriate relationship developed between Wavy and Kellen over the next several years, with the novel spanning over two decades.

In some ways, it is difficult to deny that Wavy’s relationship with Kellen is in many ways the most functional and healthy relationship that she has with anyone. Does that make this relationship okay? No. It doesn’t. However, I think most of the commentary I have seen about this book ignores what I think might be the most important piece of this: where do we draw the line? I don’t think there are many people who would try to argue that any type of sexual relationship between a 13 year old girl and a 25 year old man is normal. Kellen himself is quick to point this out, and is very clear about the fact that he will not have sex with her. However, there are certainly lines crossed into the territory of sexual impropriety and even sexual abuse (no, it does not matter that she was a willing participant– she was a child, and encouraged his sexual interest in her because she thought it was what she had to do for him to love her).

However, if we look back to the beginning of the relationship, when did it become inappropriate? I think there are some definite places where we can see crossed lines, but many of them are a bit blurred. Was Kellen bringing food to the house, and helping care for the children wrong? Should he have not gotten involved when Wavy’s father was physically abusive? Was the line crossed when he knew that Wavy had a crush on him, but continued to come to the house? What about pretending to be her father for a parent teacher conference, or lying on the forms so that she could be enrolled in school when her parents would not? When Wavy told her Aunt and cousins that she had a boyfriend? Was laying next to her on a blanket in the field wrong, or was it not wrong until she tried to kiss him, or when they started to go out on dates? When Kellen realized he loved her, or told her he loved her? When he gave her a ring?

Doubling back for a second, does any of this make the abusive factor of the relationship okay? Still no. My point though, is that Kellen is not exactly a sexual predator or even a definitive pedophile (he did not have a sexual preference for children; he had no interest in other young girls, just Wavy). Perhaps this is something we should take as food for thought, consider it in how we view other people in the real world. Does it justify their actions? No, but it can help us to understand how lines are blurred for certain people in certain situations.

Boris’s thoughts: “This is complicated. Can we try some light reading next time? 2 paws.”

Dragon’s Merry Christmas

img_8672Book: Dragon’s Merry Christmas by Dav Pilkey

While I have written about Dragon before, I could not let the holiday season pass without a mention of my favorite Christmas book: Dragon’s Merry Christmas. (And it’s a day early!) Dragon is up to his normal mis-adventurous antics, but with a bit of a heart-warming Christmas twist.

Dragon finds the perfect Christmas tree, decorates his house, and goes out shopping for all the things that he wants for Christmas. All, of course, with that little extra Dragon twist of silliness: it would be a shame to cut down the perfect tree, and we can all guess how things might turn out when you make Christmas decorations out of chocolate! The final story really pulls it all together as a Christmas tale, where Dragon learns a lesson about the spirit of giving.

As usual, I love the extras that Pilkey adds to the story with the illustrations. Each section of the book adds something into the illustrations, that make appearances throughout the rest of the story: the lengthy extension cord to light up Dragon’s perfect tree in the forest, the devastated chocolate candy wreath. In true Dragon fashion, he improvises when he runs out of room to write out “Christmas” in lights on the front of his house.

Boris’s thoughts: “Aww, warm fuzzies. I’m warm and fuzzy too! 4 paws. Oh, and Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Gingerbread Friends

img_8670Book: Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett

While this one is not strictly a Christmas story, there is something about Jan Brett that just feels Christmasy to me. This book is a follow up to her telling of a more traditional Gingerbread Man. In this case, it is a Gingerbread Baby. After running of on his initial adventure, the Gingerbread Baby has made his way back home. The story starts with him living contentedly in a gingerbread home with Mattie, although feeling terribly lonely when Mattie goes off to school or out to play with his friends. The Gingerbread Baby goes off on a second adventure in search of friends.

Unfortunately, he goes looking for friends in a plain, normal bakery… where none of the other cookie creatures can talk or play! He is perplexed and decides to rest while he thinks about what to do next. Of course, resting turns into sleep, which is interrupted by a hungry mouse! The Gingerbread Baby decides that this friendship search is not working out for him, and dashes back home– leading to the chase scene that we expect from Gingerbread characters. While he is discouraged from his journey, he does find a nice surprise waiting for him when he gets home, which folds out into an extra large pop-up picture for the end in the hardcover edition.

I like this story as a read aloud. It’s a nice traditional type story, and has a combination of normal storytelling, as well as some verse in the Gingerbread Baby’s speech. The pictures are great: large and with tons of details to look through with kids. One of the compliments of Jan Brett’s books I have heard is about the beautiful borders around the pages of her stories, and this is no exception. I like in this one that the borders serve a dual purpose– there is a recipe for gingerbread cookies included, while we also get to see what Mattie has been up to while the Gingerbread Baby has been away.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think the real lesson here is that I don’t ever need to leave my comfy home. Sounds good– it’s time for a nap.”

Here Comes Santa Cat

img_8520Book: Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood, Illustrated by Claudia Rueda

I stumbled upon this one while browsing the Christmas section in one of my favorite bookstores. (Short digression: I love The Book Loft of German Village in Columbus, OH even though I live nowhere near there. I make a point to stop in every time I have the opportunity!) Of course, with a cat and a cute cover like that, I had to read it. So happy that I found this one!

Cat is getting ready for Christmas. However, he has come to a sad realization: he’s been pretty naughty this year. What’s the best solution? To become Santa so that he can give a present to himself, of course! With a little help from the narrator, Cat realizes that this might be a little misguided. He tries to make up for his prior naughtiness with some good deeds– but ends up just causing some more trouble. In the end, Cat performs a good deed without even thinking about it, earning him some credit with the REAL Santa.

The set up and illustrations in this book were cute. It is staged as a conversation between an unseen narrator and the character, Cat. As a cat, of course, Cat cannot talk. He communicates with various signs and uses gestures to get his point across. This could be fun as a read aloud, with children old enough to talk through some interpretation of the drawings. Of course, this could be a good read aloud for younger children too, to talk through the drawings and help them make the connection between the text and the illustrations. Kids will find Cats antics enjoyable, and there’s a nice lesson to point out at the end, when Cat ends up succeeded with “being good” when he stops trying so hard!

Boris’s thoughts: “Hmm. I could be Santa. But I don’t need to be, because I’m definitely on the Nice list. Right?”

Snowmen at Christmas

img_8529It’s December! Do you know what that means? (Of course not, I have never done this before.) It’s Children’s Christmas Book Month!!!

Let me explain: In addition to the holidays and a busy month at work, I have quite a few other things going on that are keeping me EXTRA busy. It’s impacting both my time to blog, and keep up with my reading. I did not want to put the blog on hold for the month, but I need to pause a bit. And so, I introduce to you: Children’s Christmas Book Month! For the month of December I will be sharing some fun holiday themed Children’s Books.

Book: Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner, Illustrated by Mark Buehner

First up, there is Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner. I actually bought this book as a pre-Christmas gift for my nephew– he is two, and while he obviously cannot read yet, he enjoys a good story and loves to turn the pages himself. This one pictured is a board book with him in mind, but this book can also be found in hardcover and paperback.

This is a cute, fun story told in verse. It begins with a boy building a snowman on Christmas Eve, and then imagining how snowmen might celebrate the holiday. Their celebration is full of all the traditional holiday events: treats, singing, and even a Snowman Kris Kringle! I love the imaginative aspect of the book, and think it can be a great jumping off point to get kids thinking creatively. Have you ever built a snowman? How do you celebrate the holidays? How do you think a snowman might celebrate?

A Turkey for Thanksgiving

img_8588Book: A Turkey for Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting, Illustrated by Diane de Groat

Although it may be a bit late for the traditional Thanksgiving, I could not let November end without a nod to a seasonal children’s book. This is a fun little story from Eve Bunting, which sees several animals preparing for a Thanksgiving feast, hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Moose. Although Mrs. Moose has hosted many parties, she has never had one very traditional thing: a turkey for Thanksgiving. It is something she has always wanted, and Mr. Moose sets out to make it happen. Along his way to find a turkey, Mr. Moose encounters several of their planned dinner guests, some of whom join him in his search: Rabbit, Goat, Sheep, and Porcupine (notice a trend?). Turkey, of course, is not thrilled with the idea of anyone having him for Thanksgiving, and tries to escape the group coming to fetch him. Alas, Turkey cannot fly away, and is pushed along to join the Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, the fun twist at the end, being that this group of herbivores is looking to have a turkey AT their table, rather than ON their table.

I have heard this used as a read aloud leading up to the holiday, and the groups I have seen tend to enjoy the story. It can be a good story to talk about predictions and make kids thing about what could happen next, or using the pictures to as clues to the story. For students who are a bit older, the play on words is fun and could spark some good conversation and creative thinking.

Gone, Part 3

Book: Gone (Series) by Michael Grant

Date Read: June 13 to October 26, 2018

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Fearimg_7940

There is a bit of a jump from the end of Plague to the beginning of this one, so it allows for a bit of time for things to settle. It is a time of relative calm, with separate settlements at the Lake with Sam and Caine reigning as the self-proclaimed King of Perdido Beach. Diana separates herself from Caine at the end of Plague, and Astrid has gone off the grid. It’s good to see Astrid on her own, relying on her own intelligence to survive rather than looking for someone to “save” her. It was also nice to see life outside of the FAYZ.

This was a pretty eventful book, which did keep it interesting and moving along, although I found some of the middle sections a tad overwhelming. There was so much going on simultaneously, with shifts in perspective, which sometimes made it a bit hard to follow. I liked the new perspective gained with Little Pete as still alive, but without physical presence.

img_8184Light

Unlike most of the other books, there is a minimal time gap going into Light. The FAYZ has gone clear, giving the children of the FAYZ their first glimpse into the outside world– and, of course, the world’s first glimpse into the horror of the FAYZ. I thought this was good in putting the whole arch of the story into perspective. Obviously after being cut off from the world for over a year, the mindset of those inside has changed dramatically. Normal life in the FAYZ is far from normal. This is, of course, an obvious observation. However, five books into a series that technically takes place in the “real world,” it’s nice to get that reminder. Grant does well in imagining how this change will play out in the minds of different characters– Brianna, who is younger, takes this as an opportunity for notoriety, bragging about her heroic deeds that horrify the outside world; some of the older characters– Sam, Caine, Astrid– are a bit more realistic about the consequences they may face with an end to the FAYZ.

Overall, I would say this is a solid wrap up to the series. The “end game” unfolds bit by bit, we get to see the demise and redemption of the main characters from throughout the series. My only complaint here would be that the final battle scene was a bit anticlimactic– we certainly have a big build up to this point, but the actual battle is over within about a paragraph. The only real surprise here is the revelation of who Little Pete has chosen to battle with. I also liked that there wasn’t a simple wrap up with the FAYZ wall coming down– there is a fallout, and we get to see how this plays out for most of the main characters.

Series

As a whole, this was a well written and well developed series. There is a good mix of action and the sometimes dull reality between, which helps to build the world of the phase. My only real issue with the series as a whole, is what I addressed specifically in the first book– the content seems a bit mismatched with the Fourth Grade reading level of the books. I can certainly see children that age enjoying parts of these novels, but there are some pretty graphic descriptions of the horrors of the FAYZ, as well as some elements that I would be a difficult discussion with that age group. I don’t just mean violence (although there is plenty of that)– I mean description of intense violence including mass murder, cannibalism, people being eaten alive from the inside by parasites, and issues related to sexuality, suicide, and religion. While I would agree that all of these fit in and have a place in the story (remember, we are focused on a group of children forced into adult roles by the situation), it just seems to be aimed at a bit more mature of a group than the reading level would suggest. I would consider this more appropriately as a young adult read than a novel for the middle grades.

Date Read: June 2018 to October 2018

My rating: 4 (of 5 stars)

Boris’s thoughts: “This is all a bit too intense for me. I think I need a nap. 2 paws.”

Gone, Part 2

Book: Gone (Series) by Michael Grant

Date Read: June 13 to October 26, 2018

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Liesimg_7907

I found this next novel in the Gone series to be a bit more interesting than the previous, Hunger. As in the previous books, there are multiple simultaneous plot lines, all of which seem to move at a fairly quick pace. We get to see a new side of Astrid as the town leader. I was excited for this development, but felt that she became an unlikable character very quickly– many of the minor flaws from the previous books came to the forefront– although I do feel there is some redemption for her in the end.

There are developments in knowledge about the “Darkness” (now being referred to as the Gaiaphage), and the FAYZ in general. Most intriguing, I felt, was some blurring of lines to go along with this. We learn more about the Gaiaphage as a force against the children of the FAYZ, but see some overlap and connection between the Gaiaphage and Little Pete. We also get a brief glimpse into the world outside the phase, although there is some ambiguity about how much of this is reality.

One thing I started to notice and appreciate in this book is the balance of good and evil, and wins and losses. Astrid and Orsay are set at odds with each other over the truth of Orsay’s “prophecies,” although it’s not clear which side is the actual truth. There are two major culminating “battles” of sorts– Zil’s chaos with the Human Crew, and Mary’s eventual meltdown as she reaches the age of 15. While both of these could be considered overall victories for Perdido Beach, they are also mental losses: Zil is taken down as a leader, but much of the town is destroyed; the risk and danger to the young children is averted at the last second, but Mary, who has been an important figure up to this point, is lost when she chooses to “step out.”

img_7916Plague

Plague starts with a time of relative calm in the FAYZ. Some systems have been agreed upon and instituted, and things seem to be running smoothly. With the calm in Perdido Beach, it seems reasonable when Sam is sent to find a new source for water. This sets up an interesting dynamic for most of the novel: for the most part, Sam is on a hopeful and fruitful journey; by contrast, the sickness and danger begin to grow in Perdido Beach in his absence. While this is happening, there are also further developments related to the Gaiaphage, which really sets that stage for the remainder of the series. Drake/Brittney return in service of the Gaiaphage, and although lines are drawn between Sam and Caine, they both return as major players with some semblance of peace between them.

One thing I loved in this book is the inclusion of Little Pete’s perspective. He has autism, is nonverbal, and tends to tune out from the rest of the world. Up to this point, Little Pete has been portrayed as an important person in the FAYZ, but we do not really get a good picture of his experience. When we get to see the world from his eyes, it is a scary place of sensory overload. While it’s accuracy can obviously not be certain, I felt that Grant handled the task well.

Gone, Part 1

Book: Gone (Series) by Michael Grant

Date Read: June 13 to October 26, 2018

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This summer, I started reading this young adult series, that I have heard was popular. To be honest, I did not know much about it, but had heard some positive feedback. With so many other things going on this summer, it turned into a bit of an undertaking. I decided that a single post would not be sufficient to address a whole series, but a post for each book also seems just a bit excessive. I’m trying something new here, so let’s see how this goes!

img_6422Gone

A solid start to the series. One day, in the middle of a high school class, the teacher suddenly disappears. It is soon discovered that it was not just the teacher– everyone over the age of 15 has “poofed.” They soon discover that they have been trapped in some sort of dome, deemed the FAYZ, Fallout Alley Youth Zone, due to their vicinity to the nuclear plant and lack of adults. We get an introduction to most of the main players of the FAYZ here– Sam, Astrid, Caine, Diana, Lana, Edilio, Albert, Quinn, Orc, Drake, and Little Pete. I thought this was done well, in that we get to see pieces of each of them, although it is not quite clear if or why these individuals are important. The plot was fairly straightforward Good vs. Evil, although I appreciated that it definitely showed some gray areas. I thought Grant did a good job in imagining the actions of young people in the absence of adults: most aren’t quite sure what to do, and so they indulge themselves in junk food and laziness; those that recognize that they should be doing something are still not quite sure what that is. I also thought the discovery and development of the mutant powers was done well. Several characters start to show powers, but most seem to be uncertain about them. I also liked that many of the main characters do not have any special power, but still are able to find their place.

The early parts of the book left a bit to be desired as far as writing– I wouldn’t call it bad, but it certainly was not great. I felt like this improved later in the book. I did, however, have some issues with the book in general. The story is pretty intense, and there is some fairly graphic violence. While this does not bother me on principle, I find it a bit mismatched with the Fourth Grade reading level of the book. Also not a fan of the liberal use of the word “retard” in describing Little Pete. While it does address this as problematic, I feel like it could have been toned down quite a bit without losing the intent.

Hungerimg_7718

After the final battle in Gone, we have a 3 month time jump to Hunger. The kids in the FAYZ are beginning to realize that things cannot be maintained long term. Food supplies are running short, and the mysterious “Darkness” is starting to create influence in some of the teens. Much of this book felt slower, and a bit less connected than “Gone.” While it did come together in the end, I felt like it took a long time to get there. Sam, as the main character and leader, is in an obvious slump. I can admit this could be realistic, but to me he mostly came off as whiny and annoying.

We do see some good character development in this novel, although I was not a big fan of the female characterization. The three main female characters at this point are Astrid, Diana, and Lana. Astrid and Diana are claimed to be independent and strong women, but really seem to just be sidekicks for their male counterparts. Astrid is somewhat manipulative of Sam, but this is not for some bigger ambition, it’s her survival mechanism, as she does not seem to think she can do so on her own. Diana claims to be independent and in everything for herself, but her actions are primarily as a pawn for Caine. Lana appears to be different– she is strong, she has an attitude, and she is not afraid to take matters into her own hands. However, her encounter with the Darkness in the latter half of the novel leaves her broken and weak.

There is also the introduction of a new character, Zil, whom I find to be extremely unlikable, although interesting. Zil wants to be important, but has always been someone on a lower rung of the social ladder. He wants the prestige of being a leader, but does not really want the responsibility that goes along with leadership. It appears that he is somewhat jealous of those developing powers, but also mostly wants to save face when he is “shown up” by them. He feeds into fears, and seems to bring out the worst in those around him.

The Hallo-Wiener

img_8015Book: The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilkey

I love the creepy of Halloween, but the season would not be complete without a little bit of the goofy of Halloween. Who better to bring that element than Dav Pilkey?

Poor Oscar doesn’t quite fit in with the other dogs, being that he is a dog and a half long, but only half a dog tall. The other dogs tease him, and while his mother means well, the Halloween costume she made for him is certainly not helpful. But when the other dogs are attacked by a “monster,” Oscar isn’t going to just run away!

This is a fun book for the season, and can be a good teaching tool for kids too– the other dogs tease Oscar, but they learn that sometimes being different as its advantages when Oscar comes through to save the day. Good for a read aloud in October, and also a relatively easy read that incorporates some bigger vocabulary (such as the ornery cats!). Like in some of the other Dav Pilkey books, I like the little “extras” added into the illustrations– we can see that Oscar’s last name is Myers on his mailbox, and the title page has the book title lettered in hot dogs!

Boris’s thoughts: “Seriously? Cats as the bad guys? Boo. Hiss. 1 paw.”