Category Archives: Book groups

Currently Reading, End of Vacation Edition

I’ve had an absolutely lovely vacation, packed to the gills with lots and lots of reading and enough jewelry making to keep me very happy – not to mention all the time spent by the woodstove with the cats (which helps explain how much reading I’ve done!).

I’m still chipping away at Joe Jackson’s musical memoir, A Cure for Gravity, and it’s one of the best books that I’ve read in a very long time. I’m definitely a fiction reader, and I don’t often seek out nonfiction (my husband is the exact opposite – he is always reading nonfiction, usually about music or history), but Jackson’s memoir has held my interest because it is witty, wise, fascinating, laugh-out-loud funny, and has expanded my musical horizons. The book is dense, and draws you into Jackson’s life (mostly his professional and artistic life) in a way that makes it hard for me to read more than twenty or so pages at a time; I find I need to take breaks from the book in order to fully appreciate it, if that makes sense. He is an amazing person, and as a very longtime fan it is so cool to learn about his journey from working-class Portsmouth kid to the Royal Academy of Music in London (from which he graduated with a degree in percussion) to the cusp of stardom (my bookmark is on page 210, which is 1976). I’m looking forward to reading about his experiences from 1976 to 1999, which is when the book was published. Highly recommended, even if you’re not a Joe Jackson fan.

On the flip side, I’ll admit to being very disappointed by Neil Patrick Harris’s The Magic Misfits, which I read for the 4th grade book group. I found it to be poorly written, but, more importantly, incredibly condescending to its intended audience. In my experience, children are pretty good at figuring out the meaning of words they don’t know from the context clues that they can find around the unknown word – and as a former teacher of reading, I know that use of context clues is something regularly taught in schools. Children are not stupid, and many children actually love to puzzle out the definitions of new words on their own. So I was annoyed by Harris’s constant defining of words and terms for his audience. I’d include an example here, but I hated the book SO much that I returned it to the library immediately in order to get it out of my house. Blech. Having said that, though, the 4th grade book group members absolutely loved the book. I kept my mouth shut about my own opinion, and let them carry the discussion on their own, since I’d hate to wreck a book for them that they love so much. Once again, a children’s book that shows the divide between what an adult “expert” thinks makes for good children’s literature, and what the intended child reader actually enjoys. There will always be a disconnect here on some level for every children’s book; I see my duty to be to nurture the love of reading in kids while also gently encouraging them to try some of the deeper, better written books in addition to the books that they will pick up on their own. Sort of like having your vegetables along with the dessert – a body can’t exist on dessert alone, just as a mind can’t exist on bestsellers alone. But dessert sure is nice, and makes life a lot more fun.

I’ll quickly list two books here that I was also disappointed in, though I know from the starred reviews both earned that I’m a bit alone in my harsh opinion of them. The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd feels to me like a book that was written with the hopes of winning an award: it’s very conscious of how lovely and unique it is, and for me that puts it in the two stars out of five category. It’s not a bad book, and I enjoyed it to a point, but I wish that it had been less obvious in its intent.

I’ve also heard great things about The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty, but for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype. I think this is partly because I so love Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, a book about a similar type of character. Lightning Girl (Lucy) has OCD and acquired savant syndrome, which sets her apart from her peers, while Rose is autistic and misunderstood by both her father and her classmates. But Martin’s depiction of Rose feels more genuine, understanding, and complete than McAnulty’s portrayal of Lucy, and I was left wanting much, much more from McAnulty’s book.

On the happy surprise side, I loved Monstrous Devices by Damien Love. Unique, creepy, breathlessly exciting, and hard to put down, this book is one of my recent favorites. I wish that the 6th grade book group hadn’t already decided on all of their books for this year, because I would love to share it with them (but at least I can tell them about it!). I don’t want to give away the plot, because it is so unique, so I’ll just say that fans of fantasy that is based in reality (think Harry Potter) should give this book a try. Even better: the sequel is due out soon, so if you read Monstrous Devices now you won’t have to wait long to find out what happens next…

Finally, I just started The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, and so far am enjoying it. I like Albert’s writing style, and I’m intrigued to see where she goes with the plot. I’ve also started Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, and can’t wait to read more. Of these two fiction books that I’m currently reading, I think that I’ll finish Lalani first, since I have a suspicion that it’s a contender for the Newbery Medal…we’ll see if I’m right about that soon enough.

And that’s been my reading for this vacation, in addition to various magazine articles and the Sunday Boston Globe. A little more jewelry making is on the docket for today (before and after the Patriots game), and then it’s back to work tomorrow!

Currently Reading

Now that the semester is over, I have had a little extra time for reading. Here are a few of the books that I’ve just finished or am currently reading:

Paint the Wind by Pam Munoz Ryan

This was chosen by the 5th grade book group for their December meeting (which, sadly, was cancelled due to snow).  This is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for years – the paint horse on the cover has been taunting my internal younger self ever since I added the book to the library’s collection – but somehow I had never gotten around to it.  I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed by the book; there was too much melodrama for my taste, and some of the plot points didn’t quite make sense.  But, I also know that my 5th grade self would have loved the book: horses! interpersonal relations! an earthquake!  I’m looking forward to discussing this book with the 5th graders at our January meeting; it will be great to hear their perspectives on it.

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie

I picked up this book at my local independent bookstore, The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, when I was there one day browsing with a friend. For the first third of the book I was skeptical, and frankly not a fan, but by the time I finished the book I loved it. It’s rare to find a well-done ghost story for middle grade readers, but this one delivers. It’s great to have this in my back pocket as a recommendation for readers who are looking for something a little spooky. (And, as a side note, this is the book that I stayed up until one in the morning reading as the snow fell outside in the season’s first big snowstorm.)

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

This is another book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, since I’ve known many 5th and 6th grade readers who have gobbled up this series, and who keep reminding me that a new book in the series is out. I’m about two-thirds through the book right now, and I have been enjoying it. It’s an intriguing premise (which I won’t give away here, since half the fun is diving into the book without knowing what to expect), and McMann builds a well-thought-out world that feels eerily prescient at this point in our history.

The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris

This book is on the docket for this weekend, chosen by the 4th grade book group: we’ll be discussing the book on Monday. I’m looking forward to reading it, since I have a lot of respect for Neil Patrick Harris, and I’m hopeful that it turns out to be a good children’s book and not just another celebrity children’s book.

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

This book is also on my schedule for weekend reading, since we will be discussing it at Tuesday’s 6th grade book group meeting. I chose this book for the group because I wanted to share this awesome series with this group of readers. As a children’s librarian, I mostly read just the first book in a series; it’s rare for me to read beyond a first series book since I’m always trying to have a broad overview of children’s and young adult literature. But I broke my own rule with this series, since I love it so much. I’ve read all twelve books in the main series, I’ve dipped into a few of the Brotherband Chronicles series, and I’ve read both of the prequels to this book. It’s been a few years since I’ve read The Ruins of Gorlan, though, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it.

And on the horizon for my vacation week which will begin a week from today are two books that I’ve dabbled in over the years, but want to read in their entirety now: Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry and A Cure for Gravity by Joe Jackson. Stephen Fry is amazingly smart and funny, and I’ve loved the bits of this book that I’ve read in the past.

And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a HUGE fan of Joe Jackson – I’ve seen him play live five times (twice this past May), and his songs and talent speak to me in ways that few musicians do. If you think that Joe Jackson is just his hits from the late seventies and early eighties, think again. Jackson is hugely talented, with an amazing touch on the keyboard, and the writer of lyrics that are simply amazing. (Yes, I used “amazing” twice in one sentence, but justifiably so!) At the time of going to the two concerts in May I joined a Joe Jackson fan Facebook group and noticed that a lot of the members talk about Joe’s memoir, A Cure for Gravity. First I requested a copy from a library in the CWMARS network, and both Jim and I enjoyed it so much that I went on the hunt for a hardcover copy to buy (the book is out of print). By some miracle I found a pristine first edition copy on Abe Books that – brace yourself – has been SIGNED BY JOE JACKSON. This, of course, became my birthday gift to myself, and I’ve carefully stored it in the middle of the pile of books next to my reading chair so that the cats, who have an uncanny sense of what is important and valuable, won’t chew it or throw up on it. I’ve been waiting for classes to end and this vacation to come so that I can read it cover to cover…my special treat to myself.

And I’ll leave you with this link to a sample of Joe Jackson’s writing, his latest entry in his “What I’m Listening To” blog. I was reading this entry last evening as I listened to Drums and Wires by XTC, which I’m proud to say I have on vinyl…and which hopefully we’ll be listening to tonight after work.

Currently reading

There’s a large stack of books next to my favorite chair, waiting to be read.  Most are for upcoming book groups, but I’m also starting to accumulate some “fun reading” books in anticipation of the June break from book groups (and then the August and September break from book groups, which allows me a lot of time to read other things!).

Here are the books that are piled next to me:

  • The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (5th grade book group)
  • Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (6th grade book group)
  • The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (Teen book group)
  • The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown (Teen book group)
  • Years of Dust by Albert Marrin (Teen book group)
  • The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
  • The Outcasts by John Flanagan
  • Marmee & Louisa by Eve LaPlante
  • My Heart is Boundless edited by Eve LaPlante
  • The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  • Curtain by Agatha Christie
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  • And assorted magazines, long neglected by me:  The Atlantic, many New Yorkers, and Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country.

Any other must-read suggestions for me for my upcoming season of fun reading?

Currently reading

In the last few months, I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries – and I do mean a lot – in addition to my usual book group books.  I’m cooling down a wee bit on the Agatha Christie books now, partly because I have less time available for “fun” reading now that book groups are in full swing again (each group met only once over the summer, and not at all in September, which was a lovely gift of “fun” reading time for me) and partly because I seem to have exhausted the supply of Christie books at our two local bookstores.

This weekend I need to read The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for next Tuesday’s Teen Book Group meeting; I have great memories of reading the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was in highschool, and am looking forward to an adult re-reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  This reading of it will be tinged by laundry soap and dryer lint, since I need to spend a couple of hours at the laundromat today washing our comforter, but hopefully that won’t wreak the book for me.

I’m also reading The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda, a book which has happily surprised me.  I really only brought it home to read because the reviews written about the book have a wide range of reading levels – from 4th grade and up to 8th grade and up – and thus placement of the book in the library is difficult.  I placed it in our advanced reader section, which is for grades 5 & 6 and up, but now the book’s sequel is about to be published, with similarly divergent age recommendations in the reviews, so it was time for me to read the book myself and thus make a totally informed decision about placement.  It turns out that the book is well-written, engaging, full of action (which kids today demand above all else), and also gently educational as it introduces Indian mythology and culture.  I like the book enough that I may even choose it for a book group…hmmmm…

Other books in my to-be-read pile right now:

  • Atlantis Rising by T.A. Barron
  • The Outcasts by John Flanagan
  • The Royal Ranger by John Flanagan
  • Pi in the Sky by Wendy Mass
  • Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus
  • The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion
  • Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
  • Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie

And I’ve officially given up on the Megan Whalen Turner series that begins with The Thief.  I loved the first book, hated the second, and am luke-warm on the third at the half-way point.  Frankly, the character of Eugenides got on my nerves early in the second book, and it’s tough to finish a series when the main character drives you nuts.  I’ll be taking the whole series to the used book store soon, just to get it out of my house.

On that note, time to get to the laundromat and start reading The Hound of the Baskervilles

Summer books

Today I chose the books that we’ll be reading this summer in my book groups!

Teen Book Group ~ Grades 7 to 9:  Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

6th Grade Book Group:  From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

5th Grade Book Group:  The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor

Yay!  I’m really excited about all of these titles, and I think each book really suits the personality of the book group that will be reading and discussing it.

First foray

We read all kinds of books in my library book groups, but until yesterday we had not yet read and discussed a nonfiction title.  I’ve tried to convince the groups to let me try a nonfiction book, but the idea has always been promptly shut down.

I was very pleased, then, when this years’s 6th grade book group acquiesced and permitted me to thrust a nonfiction title upon them.  They weren’t enthusiastic – they were skeptical – but they still said “yes.”  And so yesterday we discussed Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose.

I purposefully chose a book that I was excited to read, knowing that some of that excitement would help carry the group, but I also chose this book because it is absolutely fascinating and engaging.  A species of shorebird that is suffering a rapidly decline, yet one individual bird of that species has thrived for twenty years or more?  And flown from the tip of South America to the Arctic and back each year?  Amazing.  I LOVED this book: it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.

Unfortunately, as I had predicted to myself, it didn’t go over so well with the book group.  Of six group members, only three attended yesterday (one who couldn’t come most surely had read the book, though), and of those three, only one had actually read the whole book.  One other had read four pages, and the third hadn’t read any of it.  Fortunately, Phillip Hoose’s website has some great links to useful video and audio, so we watched (and heard) Hoose discuss why he wrote the book and read an excerpt from it.  We also watched part of a great informative video by Parks Canada about the rufa red knot to bring everyone up to speed on the subject of the book.  And the group member who had read it helped me discuss and explain the most interesting parts of the book to the other two sixth graders present.

All in all, not a failure, this first foray into having a nonfiction title to discuss in book group.  Perhaps the secret might be to introduce nonfiction titles right at the beginning, with our youngest book group (the third graders) so that it doesn’t seem odd or unusual the way that it did to the sixth graders.  I’ll keep trying, definitely, and I’m very glad to have had a reason to read this excellent book.

Still here…

Yes, I’m still here – but I’m finding that my still-healing broken foot is limiting my evening creativity.  While at work, I think of things that would be awesome blog post topics: a very young child who says or does something charming, a book group that takes the book discussion to a new level, an idea for a new program.  But I can’t write blog posts at work, and by the time I get home I’m a bit cooked, mentally and physically, after stumping around at the library all day with the walking boot on my foot.

So here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to for the last couple of weeks:

  • Lots of storytimes, which have been especially crowded now that the gloom of winter and cabin fever has set in for everyone.  Last week there were forty-one adults and kids at the Thursday storytime, which is about the limit of what we can fit into the story room.  But it’s such a nice group of attendees, all of whom participate enthusiastically.  There was a wonderful moment at one recent storytime where every single adult in the room was belting out (in harmony, of course!) “Where is Thumbkin?”.  Very very cool.
  • Lots of great book groups.  Of course I’ve waited too long to write up coherent retellings of each book group discussion, so I’ll just sum up each one quickly.  The 5th grade group read Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, and eleven out of twelve kids disliked the book because it was “too slow.”  The teen book group read The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, and while talking about what kind of book it is I discovered that most of the group had never heard of caviar, creme brulee, or Agatha Christie.  The 4th grade group discussed Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, and they unanimously loved it.  (They were also happy to hear that a book they read earlier this year, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, was the winner of this year’s Newbery award.)  And the 6th grade group discussed Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, which they mostly loved; it interested me that they were all surprised to find out that Brian Selznick both wrote and illustrated the book – the group members thought that he was only the author.
  • And then there are the random things: sweet moments at the art portion of the storytime for 4’s & 5’s (a five year old discovering that he can “erase” his painting and start fresh, thus prolonging the creative experience); an eighteen month old finding his dancing legs and grinning ecstatically while bobbing up and down to some Zydeco; two sweet girls at the Create a Valentine program surprising me with Valentine cards (one said “Feel Better!” and the other – launched at my back – was emblazoned with “Guess Who???”…the artist finally came over and told me she had made it, since I was clearly confused); and the daily niceties of working in a small town filled with caring people.

Hopefully my foot will be fully healed soon (eight weeks and counting right now, this is a loooooooong process), but until then please forgive me if I have lapses of blog entries.  I’m still here!

My New Books

Thanks to N—-, I had a sizable gift certificate to the Concord Bookshop burning a hole in my pocket.  The Concord Bookshop is my favorite bookstore, and I can’t think of anything more fun than having a guilt-free shopping trip there.

Monday was the day I got to use my gift certificate, and for the first time in years (more years than I can count), I didn’t make an immediate beeline for the children’s and young adult section at the back of the store.  In fact, I realized that I had absolutely no interest in looking at books in either of those sections; I wanted and needed to avoid them for a change.  One bad side effect of being a children’s librarian is that you need to read gobs of children’s and young adult books, and it becomes very hard to have enough time left to read grown-up books.  And, for the first time in years, I think that I’m actually burnt-out on juvenile literature.

So here is what I ended up buying:  two Agatha Christie books, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and a Philip Pullman book, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, A New English Version (which was shelved in the adult section).  Admittedly, fairy tales are often viewed as children’s literature, but I like to remember that they were not always intended for just children; I’ll be reading Pullman’s versions of the tales from that perspective.  And, admittedly, Agatha Christie’s books aren’t necessarily deep and challenging novels for adults, but oh how I do love them.  Nothing like a good murder mystery to keep you company by the woodstove on a winter’s evening.

It’s been lovely reading these books the last few nights, knowing that I don’t have to read them, and that I can savor and enjoy them just because I want to.  I’ll need to kick into gear this evening and reread Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon for tomorrow’s book group, but then I’ll move right back into one of my new purchases for a little study break before I dig into next week’s book group book.  And I have a feeling that I’m entering a phase of obsessive reading of Agatha Christie…

Book lists updated!

I’ve been procrastinating for a while (almost four years, shockingly) on updating the lists of books that Jennifer and I have used for our book groups, but today I finally got around to this large project.

Sadly, the Excel spreadsheet that I use at the library for tracking the books we discuss in the book groups cannot be easily pasted into my blog; I learned my lesson about the incompatibility of Microsoft products and WordPress a few years ago when I lost my entire blog after pasting something from a Word document into a blog post.  But today the library opened late due to the snowstorm, and then my boss and I agreed that perhaps it would be better if I and my broken foot stayed home today rather than try to negotiate the slickery snowiness from home to car and car to library – which meant that I had time to tackle this updating project.  (And, yes, I have a broken foot.  Four weeks on crutches, and now I have graduated to walking with a walking boot, which is both awkward and a bit slippery.)

As I added to the book lists, I was impressed by how many titles Jennifer and I have used with the groups over the years.  Some of the books have been terrific for discussion, others have been terrible, and the majority have been adequate.  If you have questions about any particular title and its success with book group discussion, please feel free to contact me about it, either here in the comments or by sending me an email (see my email address information in the “Comments” informational section in the blog header).

When a book isn’t what you expect it to be

This evening I finally had a chance to start reading Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire! by Mrs. Bunny and translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath.  My first plan was to read The Georges and the Jewels by Jane Smiley, which I’ve been itching to read for a long time, but when I opened my library copy it looked as if someone had peed on the lower right corner of the pages.  Ick.  Guess I’ll be ordering a new copy for the library tomorrow…

At any rate, I was equally excited to read Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, and my plan was to preview it to see if it would be appropriate for the third grade book group.  Not that I personally believe that children’s literature has to be all cute and fluffy, but I have found that for the books I choose to read with my younger book groups, cute and fluffy is a good path to take, considering the variety of readers in any book group.  Mr. and Mrs. Bunny seemed like it would fit the bill.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mrs. Bunny has written a book with some bite to it – humor that appeals to me, and surely will appeal to a lot of kids who are older than third grade.  Mr. and Mrs. Bunny engage in some wonderful spousal repartee, such as their animated conversation after Mr. Bunny comes home with the news that he has bought a new hutch for them without Mrs. Bunny’s input.  Mrs. Bunny ends up with her head down on the table, then comes this lovely exchange:

“Mrs. Bunny, I am sure you are only hungry.  Once you have a little carrot stew in you, this mood of yours will pass in a trice.”

“DON’T TELL ME ABOUT MY MOODS!” began Mrs. Bunny, and that is when Mr. Bunny, in one of his few smart moves that day, pulled out the picture of the hutch and shoved it in her face.

“SEE?” said Mr. Bunny, a trifle hysterically.  “SEE?”    (pages 18 – 19)

And, of course, the hutch is beautiful and perfect and just what Mrs. Bunny would have picked herself.  And I realized that I was holding a book that is far, far better than I had expected – and I’m hooked.  It’s not for my third grade book group, but that’s ok.  I’ll use it with one of my older book groups, kids who have enough life experience to “get” the wry humor, and I’ll be sure to put it into the hands of those library kids who like the quirky and fun and unusual, with a little dash of gory (did I mention that there are foxes who kidnap and are looking to open a canned rabbit products plant?  and that the foxes like to say and write “Mwa-haha”?).  Ah, how I do love a book that’s unexpectedly much better than I thought it would be – especially when I thought it would be pretty good.