Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kids’ Review: Love From Paddington

--> I’ve indulged in a fun bit of nostalgia the past two days, listening to a new release about a beloved character from my childhood (and my sons’ childhood, too), Love From Paddington by Michael Bond.  This is a new novel from the original author, with a new perspective on the familiar stories.

You do know who Paddington is, don’t you? Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 60 years or so, Paddington is an adorable little bear who stowed away on a ship from Peru to immigrate to England. The Brown family discovered him in Paddington Station with a tag around his neck saying “Please look after this bear,” and they brought him home with them. They named him after the station and soon adopted him as part of their family. Paddington is a very kind bear with a good heart, but he’s always getting into trouble. 

This new book is a brief review of some of Paddington’s earliest adventures in London, told in a new way, as a series of letters he writes home to his Aunt Lucy at the Home for Retired Bears in Peru. The stories are warmly familiar to anyone who’s read the original Paddington books, but it’s fun to hear them from Paddington’s own perspective.

I have always loved the Paddington books, from the time I was a child myself through to reading them to my own children and, apparently, even now, as an adult, listening to them on my own. Paddington is such a lovable character, someone children can relate to, as he is often misunderstanding the adults in his life and taking things a bit too literally. He has good intentions, but things often don’t turn out the way he expected. As an adult listening to this new book, I realized how clever the Paddington books are – Paddington’s misinterpretations are often rather Amelia Bedelia-ish.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this new take on Paddington’s familiar adventures, and I see that the written book includes plenty of fun illustrations by Peggy Fortnum (Paddington’s original illustrator) and R.W. Alley. This would be a great book to share with your children or grandchildren, whether they are old fans of Paddington, like me, or as an introduction to the lovable bear in the duffle coat and floppy hat. I smiled all the way through.

HarperChildren’s Audio

144 pages, HarperCollins

(Great for elementary and middle-grade readers or as a read-aloud for younger children)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fiction Review: Blankets

During the second half of 2014, I have been on a mission to explore graphic novels, after reading This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki and being pleasantly surprised by its emotional depth. All in one week, I heard two guests on the Bookrageous podcast both recommend Blankets by Craig Thompson as one of their favorite graphic novels and then saw it again on a list of 25 Essential Graphic Novels posted by Flavorwire. So, I requested Blankets from my local library. It was the first graphic novel for adults I have ever read, and all of the rave reviews were right on target.

Blankets seems to be a mostly autobiographical story of the author’s childhood and adolescence in rural Wisconsin. He grew up with a younger brother in a household ruled by his parents’ strong Christian faith, and their local church also played a prominent role in his childhood. Craig loved to draw from a young age, but otherwise, his childhood was difficult. He never felt he fit in with the other kids, was bullied at school, and had a very stern father. Like many people, he was close to his little brother when they were younger but gradually grew apart as they each struggled with adolescence.

As a teen, Craig even felt like the odd man out at church camp, until he met a small group of other misfits there, including Raina. Craig and Raina developed a strong friendship, mostly fed by long-distance correspondence, that eventually blossomed into his first love. This section of the book is especially powerful, as Craig’s formerly hopeless-feeling life is transformed by Raina’s love.

The entire graphic novel is depicted in strong black and white drawings filled with details that convey the pain and joy that Craig is experiencing, against the dramatic backdrop of a never-ending northern Wisconsin winter. Some of the drawings are very realistic while others are fanciful, showing Craig’s internal creativity, struggles, and feelings. As with This One Summer, I was astounded by how much feeling could be conveyed in drawings – this is not an illustrated novel, but the drawings actually tell the story, in great detail and with tremendous emotional depth.
Sample page from Blankets
Blankets is an engrossing, captivating coming-of-age story told with great feeling. Thompson effectively conveys the range of adolescent emotions – from sorrow to joy – as Craig struggles with his sibling, questions his religious upbringing, and falls in love for the first time. We watch Craig grow up, mature, and gradually begin to answer that age-old question, “Who am I, really?” I thoroughly enjoyed this as my first adult graphic novel and can’t wait to read more (I am working my way down Flavorwire’s list!).

592 pages, Top Shelf Productions

For more from the author, check out Craig Thompson's blog.

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's Monday 12/29! What Are You Reading?

I hope everyone is enjoying a wonderful holiday season with friends and family. Our plans changed drastically - we were supposed to be in CT celebrating Christmas with family last weekend and in the Florida Keys right now, enjoying a beach vacation, but with one son with mono and the other with a concussion, we had to cancel all those plans. Instead, we are making the best of things and enjoying a rare quiet holiday season at home!

We had a very Bookish Christmas, as always, and I hope to catch up on some of my reviewing backlog this week so I can start the New Year fresh!

Here's what we're reading this week:
  • I think I saved the best for last this year - I finally started Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a highly-acclaimed novel that I've wanted to read ever since it came out last year. This unique story about a woman who keeps dying and getting reborn (my favorite kind of plot! See my favorite book, Replay) is so far living up to expectations, and I'm enjoying it immensely.
  • I finished listening to The Jewel by Amy Ewing on audio. It's a teen/YA novel, the start of a new dystopian fantasy series, and was fast-paced and intriguing. I already reviewed it! How's that for a fresh start?
  • I finished Blankets by Craig Thompson, my first-ever graphic novel for adults. I'd read and heard many times that this is one of the best graphic novels ever published, and I enjoyed it. It's an autobiographical story of a boy's difficult childhood and adolescence, and it has a lot of emotional depth.
  • My husband, Ken, read a fun, light book for the holiday week, Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich. We've both read the entire Stephanie Plum series, though he's gotten behind by a few books. I heard him laughing out loud, so I think he enjoyed it - we are both partial to Grandma Mazur and Lula.
  • Last night, Ken started Stephen King's Just After Sunset, a book of short stories that my Dad lent to him (we are a whole family of readers!).
  • Jamie, 20, is still recovering from mono but showing signs of improvement. He finished reading book 2 in Melissa McPhail's A Pattern of Shadow and Light series, The Dagger of Adendigaeth. He's really loving this series.
  • I think Jamie finally started The Passage by Justin Cronin last night, a book we have been telling him he'll love for years! He said he had to be in the right mood for it since lately he's been reading mostly Medieval-type fantasies.
  • Craig, 16, was on "complete brain rest" for his concussion for three weeks, so he turned to audio books in desperation! He claims to hate reading and audio books, but with nothing else to do, he ended up really enjoying listing to the Harry Potter series on audio again. Last week, he finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and then immediately started Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He may never finish that one, though, because on Christmas Day, with a new video game and about 6 days headache-free under his belt, he declared brain rest was over and went back to video games! He started out slowly and cautiously, and thankfully seems to still be doing well (check-up with the concussion clinic tomorrow).
I managed a good bit of blogging last week, in spite of the holiday, because I was home with no travel to get ready for!
Review of Us by David Nicholls on audio, one of my favorite novels and audios of the year!

Review of The Jewel by Amy Ewing, teen/YA audio - dystopian fantasy

A Bookish Christmas - books we gave and received

Saturday Snapshot - a few pics from a walk in the sunshine this week

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.  

Christmas morning!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 12/27

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Hope you are enjoying this holiday season! We had a lovely Christmas, mostly quiet and at home, with a few family visitors.

The big news is that sunshine has returned to Delaware! After a horribly dark, gray, gloomy month, the sun has been out for the past few days, and we've enjoyed some milder temperatures, too. Here are a few pictures from my neighborhood walk yesterday:

Bare branches against a brilliant blue sky!

I loved the look of these branches also reflected in their shadows.

Bright pop of color from the winter berries

Pine branch against blue sky (sliver of crescent moon between branches hard to see here)

Hope you are enjoying the weekend and the holiday season with your friends & family!

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Bookish Christmas

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! Today's post is devoted to the wonderful books that we gave and received for Christmas - the best kind of gifts!

My husband gave me three novels I am dying to read, and my son gave me a cookbook I'm sure I will get a lot of use from:
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • Close Your Eyes Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian
  • Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
  • 500 Paleo Recipes: Hundreds of Delicious Recipes for Weight Loss and Super Health by Dana Carpender (we switched to a Paleo diet this year because my son and I have an immune disorder and it's supposed to help)

I can't wait to dig into these!

I gave my husband:
  • The Three by Sarah Lotz (one that I want to read, too!)
  • Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo, one of his favorite authors
  • And my son gave him: Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard, Book 2 that the TV show Justified is based on, which he loves.

We gave our college-aged son:
  • Shadow of the Winter King by Erik Scott de Bie (Volume 1 in the World of Ruin series)
  • Much Loved, with photographs by Mark Nixon, a book of portraits of favorite stuffed animals that have been overly loved with short bios of each - fabulous! I read most of it before I wrapped it.
  • Far Side Gallery 4 by Gary Larson, one of his favorites

We gave my mother's husband, for his Christmas birthday:
  • The Secret Life of Sharks: A Leading Marine Biologist Reveals the Mysteries of Shark Behavior by A. Peter Kimley (he loves sharks)

We also gave a few more books as gifts, but they haven't been received yet, so I'll keep those a secret for now.

Did you give and receive books for the holidays? Hope you are enjoying this joyous season!

Teen/YA Review: The Jewel

Amy Ewing’s debut novel, The Jewel, is the first book in a planned dystopian fantasy series. She’s off to a good start with a unique setting and a familiar, time-tested dystopian concept – a world where the upper class can no longer have their own children and must rely on surrogates from the lower classes.

Sixteen-year old Violet is one such surrogate, pulled from her loving family in the Marsh, the poorest of the “circles” where lower level, working-class families live, to fulfill her destiny as the baby-carrier for a royal family in the Jewel, the inner circle. This is Violet’s fate not only because she is fertile but also because mandatory genetic testing as a baby revealed that she has special powers, known in this world as Auguries.

Violet has spent the past four years with her fellow surrogates in the Southgate Holding Facility, being trained to use her powers to their greatest potential and perfecting the Auguries. Now, the big day has arrived – the older girls, including Violet and her best friend, Raven, will be auctioned off to the highest bidder from the Jewel, so that the royal families can use them as surrogates. Given her special talents with the Auguries, Violet is given one of the highest lot numbers in the auction, #197, and is purchased by the Duchess of the Lake, a member of one of the Jewel’s most prestigious families.

All her life, Violet has heard that the Jewel is an amazing place of riches and luxury, with no poverty or hunger, but she soon discovers that its glittering façade hides all kinds of not-so-pretty secrets. The more Violet learns – about her surroundings, her friends’ circumstances, and her own fate – the more frightened she becomes. She knows she must find a way out of this horrible situation, but she becomes distracted when she meets a handsome young man, with a similar background to hers, who is also a prisoner in his opulent surroundings. Their love is forbidden but irresistible.

I enjoyed listening to The Jewel on audio. It’s a fast-paced, intriguing story in a fairy tale-like setting that will appeal to teens who enjoy dystopian novels with a helping of romance. Violet and her friend, Raven, were both likable characters, and I was rooting for them to figure a way out of their chilling fates. If you like your endings to wrap up neatly, then you probably won’t like this one – this book is clearly a set-up for the series, and it ends with a surprise but nothing resolved. I guess I have to wait for book 2 to find out what happens to Violet and her friends. I don’t always read sequels, but I think I will read or listen to this one.

HarperChildren’s Audio

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Fiction Review: Us

Although I’d never heard of author David Nicholls before, I recently watched the movie adaptation of his first novel, One Day. So, when I started hearing rave reviews of his latest novel, Us, I requested the audio book for review. I absolutely loved this poignant and hilarious book! It is one of my favorite audio books listened to in several years.

Douglas is the first-person narrator of this novel about marriage and family. He’s in his 50’s and has been happily married to his wife, Connie, for 25 years. He’s a biochemist, and Connie is an artist, and they have a sullen teen son named Albie. One day, seemingly out of the blue, Connie announces that she thinks their marriage has run its course and she is considering leaving. Though Connie is somewhat matter-of-fact about this pronouncement, Douglas is completely knocked for a loop and never saw it coming.

They have plans to embark on a big family vacation this summer, a trip to the great sights of Europe that they have nicknamed The Grand Tour. Connie insists they can still go ahead with their trip, and Douglas secretly hopes it will be a chance to rekindle their romance and win her back. In the midst of all this turmoil is the moody Albie, whose relationship with his father is distant and angry. So, they head out on The Grand Tour! What could go wrong?

The novel moves back and forth between the present, traveling across Europe, and the past, as Douglas thinks back to the start of their romance and how they first met and fell in love and married. The flashbacks show how their relationship began, while the present scenes demonstrate what has gone wrong between them.

If a story about a marriage falling apart sounds horrible and depressing, you need to know that this novel is also very, very funny. Douglas has a wonderfully dry sense of humor (and, often, the humor is in things he doesn’t realize are funny), and that humor moves the story along at a fast pace and keeps it compelling. It’s also just plain intriguing to trace the entire course of a 25-year relationship to see how things began and what went wrong.

I imagine the written novel is good, but the audio book is wonderful! Reader David Haig completely becomes Douglas, and it feels like you are listening to the real Douglas tell his story. The trip across Europe is interesting in its own right, and there is a good deal of suspense, as you wait to find out whether Douglas and Connie will stay together or not. Douglas’ broken relationship with his teen son is also spotlighted, and I was rooting for them to mend things, regardless of what happened with Connie. Having celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary this fall and having two teen/young adult sons breaking away from us and finding their own identities made this novel even more poignant to me.

Us is a story of love, marriage, and family, and it feels completely real. It is sad and moving, occasionally even heart-breaking, but it is also heart-warming, hopeful, and very funny. I’m sure my family thought I was crazy, as I frequently laughed out loud while making dinner! This is a wonderful novel, warm and genuine, and absolutely riveting on audio. I felt like Douglas was a good friend by the end. Highly recommended.

Harper Audio

(NOTE: Us was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in the UK).

You can listen to an audio sample at the following Amazon link:


Monday, December 22, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Happy Holidays! Our house is all decorated now (you can see some tree pics on Saturday Snapshot), and last night we had our annual Cookie/Grinch party with our oldest friends - now it feels like Christmas! Lots to do this week but plenty to look forward to as well.

We always find time for good books. Here's what we've been reading this week:
  • Sound the trumpets! I finally finished Hild by Nicola Griffith last night! It took me over three weeks to finish it, but I'm glad I stuck with it. It's the fictional story of the childhood of the woman who later became Saint Hilda in real life, set in the 600's. It was very slow going at first, with too many unfamiliar & unpronounceable names and places, but by the second half, I was hooked and enjoyed finishing it. Glad to be moving onto a new book now, though!
  • I started listening to The Jewel by Amy Ewing, a teen/YA fantasy/dystopian novel. It's good so far, about a 16-year old girl whose life has been devoted to being a surrogate for the wealthy class, ever since genetic testing as a baby revealed certain magical abilities (plus the ability to get pregnant and carry a child to term). It's creepy and compelling.
  • I am still reading Blankets by Craig Thompson, my first-ever graphic novel for adults. I'd read and heard many times that this is one of the best graphic novels ever published, and I'm enjoying it so far. The beginning is about the main character's difficult childhood and his first love as a teen, and it has a lot of emotional depth.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This is one of our son's all-time favorites, and my husband agreed it was excellent.
  • Next, Ken read a book on his Kindle, Gone the Next by Ben Redher, Book 1 in the Roy Ballard Mysteries series. Seems like it was a quick read.
  • Last night, Ken started a fun, light book for the holiday week, Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich. We've both read the entire Stephanie Plum series, though he's gotten behind by a few books.
  • Jamie, 20, is still home with mono (though showing signs of improvement finally). He enjoyed Cephrael's Hand by Melissa McPhail so much that he is now reading book 2 in her A Pattern of Shadow and Light series, The Dagger of Adendigaeth.
  • Craig, 16, has had a concussion for the last two weeks and been on "complete brain rest" - no school, homework, computers, texting. video games, reading, and only limited TV. So, in desperation, he's turned to audio books! He's listened to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (that's book 4) on cassette tapes (!) and just started Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which he asked me to get from the library for him.
 Between holiday preparations and having both boys home sick, I didn't have much time for writing or blogging last week. Just a couple of posts:

Review of Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge, a teen/YA graphic novel

Saturday Snapshot, with pics of our Christmas tree, from tree farm to finished.

 What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

I can't wait to give Ken and Jamie new books for Christmas this week because they both love to read so much! Hope you enjoy the holidays with your family!

Our annual Cookie/Grinch party!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 12/20

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Happy Holidays! Here are a few photos of us getting our Christmas tree last week and putting it up. Our tree is filled with memory-filled ornaments, from vacations, friends, and the kids' childhoods, so decorating the tree is one of our favorite parts of the year! Hope you are enjoying the holidays with your family, too:

My son and I riding the hayride at the tree farm.

My husband and son carrying the tree they cut down.

Our tree, with all our favorite ornaments on it!

A family holiday photo we took last weekend
We love how the tree looks lit up, shining on the ceiling

Enjoy the weekend and this whole holiday season!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Page by Paige

I’ve been on a quest this year to explore and discover graphic novels. I was inspired by This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki because it told such an intricate story with so much emotional depth and little text. I checked out the teen graphic novel section of my local library, but it was mostly superheroes and anime. I did, however, find one graphic novel there that looked interesting to me - Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge – and I enjoyed it very much.

The format of Page by Paige is unique and creative – it’s the sketchbook of a teen girl named Paige. Paige’s family has recently moved from rural Virginia to New York City, and the sketchbook details Paige’s adjustment to her new life and also her quest to better understand herself. Like many teens, Paige is suffering an identity crisis, not sure if the person she presents to the outside world is the real Paige. She’s very shy and wants to come out of her shell a bit and be authentic, while making new friends in her new home. The sketchbook is her way of opening up – to herself and to those around her – and truly discovering who she really is.

It’s a very creative approach to telling a story, and it works wonderfully. There are some pages of more standard graphic novel format, with boxes and dialogue bubbles, but many of the pages are Paige’s attempts to sketch how she is feeling and what she is experiencing. Throughout the novel, Paige makes new friends, falls in love for the first time, and yes, begins to understand herself and feel comfortable in her own skin.

This journey of self-discovery will be familiar and inspirational to all teens struggling to figure out who they really are and how they fit into the world around them. It seems to be somewhat autobiographical, as the author’s bio explains that she, too, moved from Virginia to NYC with her family as a teen and used a sketchbook to better understand herself. The book even contains a playlist at the back of the characters’ favorite songs (many of them are in this Page by Paige YouTube playlist). Page by Paige is a wonderfully creative coming-of-age story about finding yourself and your place in the world.

Amulet Books (imprint of Abrams)

For more on Page by Paige and its author, see the Who Is Paige blog. This post includes some sample pages from the book.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Monday 12/15! What Are You Reading?

Another dark, gray day here in Delaware - we haven't seen the sun in weeks! It's been pretty gloomy inside our house, too - both of our sons are still home from school. College son has mono, high school son has a concussion, and both are still feeling pretty crummy. And our post-Christmas vacation to the Keys is hanging by a thread. We are just taking things one day at a time right now.

As always, books are a comfort! Here's what we've been reading:
  • I am still reading Hild by Nicola Griffith, even though my neighborhood book group met last week to discuss it. It's set in seventh century Britain and includes both a map and a family tree filled with unpronounceable names at the front and uses a lot of Old English words with a brief glossary at the it was slow-going at first, with a lot of flipping back and forth. But, as one of my neighbors told me, it's like a rollercoaster and the second half goes much faster. I'm glad I stuck with it through the difficult beginning because it's a great story about the childhood of a real-life woman who became a saint.
  • I finished Us by David Nicholls on audio, the story of a marriage falling apart amidst a family vacation across Europe. I LOVED this book, and it was fantastic on audio - warm and real and sad at times, but with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. One of my favorites of the year.
  • I started a new graphic novel, my first-ever for adults: Blankets by Craig Thomspon. I'd read and heard many times that it's one of the best graphic novels ever published, and I'm enjoying it so far. The beginning is about the main character's difficult childhood.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This is one of our son's all-time favorites. Ken had trouble at first, reading it while he had the flu, because it's a complex story, but now he's enjoying it.
  • Jamie, 20, finished Midnight Thief by Livia Blackburn. His concentration has been poor due to the illness, but our avid reader can now read again, which he's happy about! 
  • He also read a new middle-grade book we received as an ARC last week, Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen. He said it was kind of light, and he didn't enjoy it as much as her earlier series...but he does realize that at 20, he is no longer the target audience for middle-grade novels!
  • Last night, he just finished Cephrael's Hand by Melissa McPhail, book 1 of the series, A Pattern of Shadow and Light. He enjoyed it very much.
  • Craig, 16, is very limited because of his concussion - no screens, video games, school, homework, computer, or anything on his phone. No reading, either, but he doesn't normally enjoy reading anyway. He's been so bored that he's been listening to audio books! Mostly, he's listened to an old family favorite, Looking for Bobowicz by Daniel Pinkwater, several times this week! I'm trying to get him to try something else, but this is his favorite...the equivalent of bookish comfort food.
I'm getting very busy with the holidays and the boys home, so just a few blog posts last week:
Review of Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, a middle-grade/teen graphic memoir

Review of  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, a novel

Summary of Books Read in November
This week will be even busier!

 What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

Friday, December 12, 2014

Books Read in November

November started with one long book, followed by a bunch of quicker reads:

  • Haunters by Thomas Taylor, teen/YA fiction (Switzerland, UK)
  • The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi, teen/YA audio fiction (CT)
  • Trouble Maker by Janet Evanovich & Alex Evanovich, graphic novel (FL)

So, that's 7 books for November, 3 for adults and 4 for kids or teens (though Brown Girl Dreaming is really for all ages). Two were on audio and two were graphic novels and a whopping three were nonfiction, so I had plenty of variety.  My favorite book of the month - and maybe the year - was Brown Girl Dreaming. And that's pretty amazing because it's actually poetry which is not normally my "thing." It's a beautiful, lyrical memoir of the author's childhood, told in verse, and it was wonderful on audio.
I added only 2 new states (CT and FL) to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month (end of the year). I read only 1 book from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge - I have really not done well on that one this year. I listened to two more audio books for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge for a total of 23 so far this year - I am rocking that one! I added three nonfiction book to my Nonfiction Reading Challenge. And for my new Travel the World in Books Challenge, just started in September, I read one more book.

What was your favorite book(s) read in November? 

Fiction Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

My cousin chose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis for our online family book group, and I was thrilled to finally have a chance to read this highly acclaimed novel that was published in 2012. It is the compelling and emotionally powerful story of a family, set against the backdrop of the changing face of America in the 20th century.

The novel is divided into twelve chapters, each of which is a separate story focusing on a different character, all part of the same family. Hattie, the family matriarch, begins her journey (both emotional and physical) in 1923 when, at 15 years old, she and her mother and sister leave their home in Georgia to move north to Philadelphia, where they’ve heard there are plenty of opportunities and less discrimination for a black family. Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as that, and Hattie experiences more than her share of hardship in Philadelphia.

Each chapter focuses on one of Hattie’s children (or, toward the end, grandchildren), so the reader learns about Hattie’s life through the stories of her offspring. Each chapter also moves forward in time. Chapter 1 takes place in the winter of 1925, when Hattie, only 17, is married and living in a small rented house in Philadelphia, desperately and tenderly caring for her twin babies who are very sick with what sounds like pneumonia. Each following chapter is labeled with the year (through 1980) and the name of another of Hattie’s children, sometimes looking at them as adults and sometimes peeking into their childhoods.

Through these separate but linked stories, we get a full picture of Hattie’s life: her dreams and her reality. It’s not an easy life or a happy one. Hattie devotes her life to raising her children, with her own pain and disappointment coloring everything she does. She’s not an affectionate or tender mother, but she does her best to try to prepare each of her children for a cruel and unforgiving world. As she fears, there are plenty of tragedies and challenges for her offspring. All of those personal stories are told against the backdrop of the changing U.S., with glimpses in each chapter of what is going on in the world and how things are changing for the characters.

It’s a very well-written and creative novel, though it is quite depressing. Life is very hard for Hattie and her children. The book does end on a note of hope, with a glimmer of better things to come for the next generation, and I really needed that and thought it was the perfect ending. The author pulls no punches – this novel is raw and emotional and compelling, as Hattie faces the never-ending adversity head-on and never gives up (though she comes close at times). The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Mathis’ first novel, and it shows her considerable talent as a writer and storyteller. I hope there will be many more to come!

243 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: Sisters

I enjoyed Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel Drama but missed her highly-acclaimed graphic memoir Smile. So, I was glad for the chance to review its sequel, Sisters, another excellent graphic memoir for middle-grade readers (and appealing to teens as well).

Sisters focuses on young teen Raina and her younger sister, Amara. As a young girl, Raina begged her parents for a sister, but things between her and Amara have been rocky ever since. As the memoir opens, Raina, Amara, and their mother are getting ready for a long road trip from their home in California to a family reunion in Colorado. That’s right – three weeks in the car with the sister whom she fights with constantly (as well as their little brother). To make matters worse, adolescent Raina is worried about what her cousins will think of her, since she hasn’t seen them in many years.

Raina and Amara’s nonstop bickering and Raina’s insecurities aren’t the only tensions in this story, though. Through flashbacks and scenes of getting ready for the trip, it’s obvious that things are also stressful between Raina’s mom and dad. This is one of the many strengths of Telgemeier’s latest book – there are many layers of emotion here, despite the colorful, fun cartoon style of the drawings. It’s a meaty story about underlying tensions in a family and how they affect all family members.

All in all, Sisters is a clever, funny, warm graphic memoir with plenty of emotional depth. It tells the real-life story of a typical family, with marital tensions and sibling rivalry…but also plenty of fun and love. The drawings are filled with telling details that often provide even more information than the text. The overall tone is warm and fun with an undercurrent of serious issues. Younger kids will simply enjoy the story, while older kids and teens (and adults, like me!) may see aspects of themselves in this universal story about family and sisters. And, I also enjoyed the photos of the real-life Raina and Amara at the back!

197 pages, Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic)

Monday, December 08, 2014

It's Monday 12/8! What Are You Reading?

Another one bites the dust. If you're a frequent visitor to my blog, you may recall that my college son
came home with mono before Thanksgiving. Well, today I have both sons home with me - our youngest got a concussion playing soccer this weekend. Until the test results come back today and his headache goes away, he is on super-restricted duty - no school, no screens, no homework, no sports, no video games. Within an hour of coming back from the clinic yesterday, he was complaining he was bored, so wish me luck today! Since he's well enough to complain and to want to do stuff, we are hoping it's not too serious and he will recover quickly. He is the non-reader in our house (a very good reader just doesn't like to read), but I actually convinced him to listen to an audio book last night, since it was one of the few things he is allowed to do - that's how bored he was!

Here's what he's listening to and the rest of us are reading:
  • I am still reading Hild by Nicola Griffith for my neighborhood book group. It's interesting so far but moving very slowly. It's set in seventh century Britain and includes both a map and a family tree filled with unpronounceable names at the front, plus it uses a lot of Old English words (there's a brief glossary at the back). So, reading is going slowly, as I flip to the front and back every sentence to decipher it! 
  • I am still listening to Us by David Nicholls on audio, the story of a marriage falling apart amidst a family vacation across Europe. It's a wonderful book -warm  and compelling, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. I am loving it.
  • I finished a teen/YA graphic novel, Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gullidge. I needed something light to break up my heavy novel. It was excellent - creative, warm, and engaging.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This is one of our son's all-time favorites.
  • Jamie, 20, is still reading Midnight Thief by Livia Blackburn. His concentration has been poor due to the illness, but our avid reader is starting to be able to read more, which he's happy about!
  • Craig, 16, is listening to an old family favorite audio book, Looking for Bobowicz by Daniel Pinkwater. if you have kids of any age, you must find a copy of this audio to take on your next car trip (see link below)! It is a light mystery with lots and lots of laughs - plenty of its lines have become favorites at our house. Pinkwater is a genius.
Blog posts from last week:
Review of Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, a fabulous, award-winning YA memoir

Review of Haunters, a time-travel novel for middle-grade and teen readers

Saturday Snapshot, featuring a few photos from our quiet Thanksgiving week

Weekend Cooking, with my recipe for Sausage & Vegetable Roast Dinner - super easy & delicious

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Weekend Cooking 12/7

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

With my college son home sick with mono and the weather cold, I made a lot of favorite comfort foods this week, including Chicken Pot Pie and Mini Meat Loaves.

I made two of our old favorites from Cooking Light. Sunday night, we had Beef Bourguignionne over noodles (yes, we broke our Paleo diet and splurged on egg noodles!). My high school son's girlfriend was here for dinner that night, and the five of us ate so much that my planned leftover meal for the next night disappeared! We got two small lunches out of the leftovers. It's a delicious recipe, meant for making in a pressure cooker, but I just follow the directions, then double the cooking time in a standard Dutch oven (unfortunately, this recipe isn't online - it was from the April 2000 issue).
Tuscan Chicken & Beans

Tuesday night, we had Tuscan Chicken and Beans. I made this dish once before according to the recipe instructions, using a whole cut-up chicken, and it turned out a bit greasy (might have been the store-brand chicken we used). This time, I used skinless, boneless thighs, and it turned out perfect! There were no leftovers at all from that one. Everyone gobbled it up and went back for seconds.

And on Wednesday, I made Roasted Polish Sausage and Winter Vegetables, using rutabaga, sweet potato, onion, red potatoes, and chunks of cabbage. The smell and flavor of cabbage and Polish sausage together remind me of my Ukrainian heritage! I often make various roasted dinners this way. It's so easy and versatile that I almost didn't write up the recipe...but I did. It's included below, with the basic instructions and some of our favorite combinations. This is a perfect quick weeknight meal, with little clean-up (bonus!). If you also like to make roast meals like this, I'd love to hear about your favorite combinations.

Roasted Sausage & Vegetable Dinner
(Serves 4)
A simple and versatile dinner perfect for weeknights

Sausage, cut into large chunks (nitrate-free)
1 large sweet onion, cut into large chunks
Assorted vegetables, cut into large chunks
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Cooking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 425 F.
  2. Chop sausage and vegetables and add to large bowl.
  3. Toss sausage and vegetable pieces in olive oil, salt and pepper.
  4. Add mixture to a cookie sheet covered with cooking spray (we cover ours with foil for easy clean-up). For larger meals, split mixture between two cookie sheets to prevent over-crowding.
  5. Roast in oven for about 20-30 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring once halfway (if using two cookie sheets, rotate them at the halfway point so they each take a turn on the lower oven rack).
  6. Divide mixture among plates and enjoy!

Two mixtures we like are:

1 – Italian chicken sausage with red potatoes, onion, and bell peppers.
2 – Nitrate-free Polish sausage (kielbasa) with assorted root vegetables and cabbage (perfect for fall and winter!)

© Suzan L. Jackson 2014
(Do not reprint or publish without written permission from the author)