Thursday, January 31, 2013

Who Peed on My Yoga Mat? More Stories From a Perfectly Imperfect Life, by Lela Davidson

Who Peed on My Yoga Mat? 
More Stories From a Perfectly Imperfect Life
Author: Lela Davidson
Publisher: Jupiter Press
Publication Date: December 4, 2012
I don't know how many times I actually laughed out loud while reading this book (lots, by the looks my partner was giving me while he was trying to do work) but I remember thinking, "If I'm going to include quotes for my review, I don't know which ones to choose!" Would it be the letter at the beginning explaining to the PTA why she shouldn't be expected to volunteer for anything involving other people's kids ("Kids never believe my 'I'll smack you in the face' threats until it's too late. No one wants that lawsuit.")? Would it be the horror she experienced when her nearly-teen daughter started listening to awful music (Enya! Her father gave her his old Enya CDs!)? Or would it be the time when she was irritated with her shaggy-haired and goateed husband after a long trip only to discover that the flight attendant was taken with him, and she realized she should see him as others do ("a handsome goat")? Too many to decide really.

I loved this book. I figured from the title that it would be funny--and it was--but I was also surprised by how sincere and even poignant it was at times. Lela Davidson writes honestly. She's just a lot funnier when she's being honest than most people are. 

And she doesn't shy away from sharing experiences that might not be universal. Not everyone can relate to "gated private public schools" and sending their kids to cotillion (a cotillion? the cotillion? cotillion classes? I don't even quite know how to write it...the thing with dancing and fancy gloves...I think) but most moms can relate to her scrimping on groceries and "not buying name brand cereal." (Actually, now that I think about it, I do buy name brand cereal and I could never afford private school tuition...maybe there's a correlation? Note to self: No more fancy cereals!)

It's not an easy thing to be funny and sincere at the same time. Well, I mean, unless you're Lela Davidson obviously. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sequela, by M.P. Kollman

Author: M.P. Kollman
Publisher: Outskirts Press 
Publication Date: May 11, 2012 
The expression "You can't judge a book by its cover" is not strictly true. You can usually tell quite a lot about a book from its cover. If, for example, you were to discern, based on the amateurish cover art, that M.P. Kollman's novel Sequela is an amateurish detective novel that was published without the benefit of a publisher or a professional editor...well, you could feel justified in that assessment. It's meant to be second in a trilogy but I can't imagine subjecting myself to reading the other two (actually, I couldn't even find them so the point is moot).

I won't bother to outline the plot because it was convoluted and, quite frankly, a little silly. Although not as silly as calling your sequel "Sequela," I suppose. Apparently "sequela" refers to a long-lasting medical condition that results from a disease or illness, which I suppose is meant to reference the long-lasting effects on Sandy Grayson of his brother's death (in the previous novel). But really...sequela? It's a terrible name for a deeply flawed book.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Silence of the Llamas (A Black Sheep Knitting Mystery), by Anne Canadeo

The Silence of the Llamas
A Black Sheep Knitting Mystery
Author: Anne Canadeo
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: January 22, 2013
This is another of those cozy mysteries that I would recommend to fans of the genre--particularly if you like knitting, farming or llamas--but not to the general public. It's a competent cozy, but nothing more. Lucy and the other members of The Black Sheep Knitters must help their friends Ellie and Ben Krueger solve the terrible crimes on their llama farm--namely, someone has been attacking the llamas. But the animals aren't the only victims and when the Kruegers' contentious neighbour is found stabbed with a spindle, they need their friends' help more than ever. The book comes with recipes (of course!) and some websites for knitting pattern ideas. It's an easy read and a perfectly acceptable cozy, but there was nothing about the characters or the writing that made me want to put it on my "Read Everything by This Author" list. It's a B-.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare

Here's the "review" (again, not exactly a proper review) of The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare, as it appeared on my Shakespeare blog:

In this painting by Charles Robert Leslie, Autolycus is seen selling his wares. BUT WHERE ARE THE DILDOS? WHERE? I'm guessing he sold those first.
I've read a fair bit of literary criticism of The Winter's Tale this past week (and not all of it on Wikipedia!) but I'm just going to tell you what I personally thought of it. Don't cite me in your essays, kids. I'm not a good source.

First of all, I loved this play. It was one of my favourites as a teenager (back when I read a lot of Shakespeare) and even though I didn't remember anything about it until I re-read it this week, I can still see why. It's still one of my favourites. It's sad, it's messy, it's a tad unresolved, and in its surrealism it's actually quite real.

King Leontes is a moody, jealous asshole who has way too much power to act on his moods. Most jealous boyfriends and abusive husbands don't have the power of an entire court and army behind them but if they did, I can imagine quite a few of them behaving like Leontes does. He casts out his wife and children on the flimsiest of suspicions (mostly because he's grumpy and paranoid) and there's nothing she can do to reason with him. Although everyone agrees that he's paranoid, irrational and just plain wrong, the only one who stands up to him with any vigour is Paulina, another woman. There's a lot that's relatable about this. Women may have more power in society now than we did in Shakespeare's day, but some things never change. There are a lot of irrational Leonteses out there.

What I particularly love about this play is that Leontes never becomes sympathetic. Sure, he's repentant (sort of) and sure, he gets his wife back (sort of) in the end, but it's not like we're rooting for him. We're just glad that Hermione and Perdita are both alive and well. And let's face it, that had nothing to do with Leontes.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

So Cool Sunday: Look at Book

Look at Book was an art project that was assembled from June 2003 until February 2004 by four artists: two in Brooklyn, NY and two in Belfast, Ireland. They sent the book back and forth to each other in random order for thirty-six weeks, each creating a new entry before sending it to the next artist. 
"Every Wednesday, one participant would receive book. The following Monday it was sent out, giving each artist five days to complete a spread in response to the one that preceded it.
A small portion of each entry extends on to the following page. Beyond this, there was no communication between the artists concerning the content of book during its making."
The result is a stunning collection of collage, drawing and mysterious communication among artists. You can view the whole book on their website:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tomorrow is Human Library Day in Canada!

Saturday, January 26, 2013 is National Human Library Day in Canada. What is a human library?
"On January 26th, 2013 the doors of 24 Human Library events in 15 cities across Canada will invite readers to take part in the very first "Human Library Day" in Canada. National Human Library Day is a one-day event (with Winnipeg hosting a three-day event) hosted by local libraries and media and cultural centres across the country, in an effort to help dispel myths and stereotypes by creating an opportunity for one-on-one conversations between people who may never have met otherwise. People from various walks of life, including CBC personalities, will volunteer their time as "books." Members of the public will have a chance to "check out" a "book" and ask questions to learn about the person and their extraordinary life." 
Check out or to find out more and see if your city has a Human Library event!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare

Here's my "review" of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare. Or at least the post that I published on my Shakespeare blog:

What did I learn? I learned that the stupid "identical twin brother and sister" premise has been going on for centuries. Why would everyone in Twelfth Night meet Sebastian and think he was his sister Viola, who has been posing as a man the whole play? Because they're twins. And in the popular imagination that means that they look EXACTLY alike. No exceptions. 


This is particularly annoying to me because my brother and sister ARE twins (and no, they're not identical because THAT DOESN'T EXIST) and trust me, no amount of wigs would make them look alike. No amount.

So I guess I learned nothing from Twelfth Night because that one plot point was so distracting that it's all I can think about.

Oh, but I did watch a lot more Downton Abbey after reading it. But I probably would have anyway.

Wait, I did learn one thing! The quotes, "If music be the food of love, play on" (which sounds smarmy in any context) and "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them" are from this play. That second quote I was sure was from Oscar Wilde. So yes, I learned something!


The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard, by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare by 40--Let's Do This Thing

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Summerset Abbey, by T.J. Brown

Summerset Abbey
Author: T.J. Brown
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: January 15, 2013
Ever since I discovered Downton Abbey, I have a habit (an insufferable one, I'm sure) of comparing everything I see and read to it. The Grantham girls have snuck into just about every Shakespeare play I've read lately, and any book that takes place in England before 1930 (or any country before 1930, if they have even a trace of aristocracy or heiresses) has an air of Downton in my mind. But I think I can be forgiven for making the comparison with this book. I mean, c'mon. I'm pretty sure this book was marketed as "perfect for fans of Downton Abbey." And, from my perspective at least, it sort of is.

The first in a trilogy, Summerset Abbey follows the lives of three young women dealing with the death of Sir Philip Buxton, the man who raised them to be independent thinkers despite the social confines of England in 1913. Two of the women--his daughters Rowena and Victoria--are sent to live with their uncle at his sprawling manor of Summerset Abbey, while the third--Prudence Tate--is allowed to accompany them only at Rowena and Victoria's insistence. Prudence has been raised as their third sister since she was born, but really she is the daughter of a governess. Moving to Summerset Abbey will mean that Prudence is treated as a servant in a way she never was before.

Everything I loved about this book was everything I love about Downton Abbey. The strong female heroines who are also hopelessly sheltered and pampered. The class tension between upstairs and downstairs. The good intentions of the upper class who wish to treat everyone equally...but also don't want to lose their servants or their titles. The changing times of the early twentieth century that means the end of some of England's aristocratic families...but certainly not all. And the costumes! Can't forget the costumes!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

This is not exactly a review, but more of a retrospective on reading The Tempest, the first play in my Shakespeare in a Year project. You can follow more of my progress on my Shakespeare blog, My Shakespeare Year.

This is how the "review" appeared on my other blog:

So this is a bit late, but here are some thoughts on the first play I read in my Shakespeare This Year Project, The Tempest:
Plot: Prospero is a sorcerer and rightful Duke of Milan but he's been usurped (so he says) by his brother Antonio (though, to be fair, Prospero even admits that he sort of put Antonio in charge while he was too busy with his books and sorcery to be bothered with being a duke) and now he's exiled to an island with his daughter, Miranda. Thanks to a magical storm (or "tempest") Prospero manages to make sure that Antonio's boat is shipwrecked on his island, along with the King of Naples and his son, Ferdinand (and others). Prospero then arranges for Ferdinand and Miranda to fall in love, thus securing a position for his daughter, albeit through magical contrivance. Prospero is aided by his deformed slave (and son of a cursed witch) Caliban, his airy spirit servant Ariel and numerous spirits and goddesses, most of whom resent him and think he's a prat.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Shakespeare by 40--Let's do this thing

As you may know, I've taken on a side project this year. I'm attempting to read all of Shakespeare's plays in a year. I say "attempting" like it's some big Herculean task, like I'm "attempting" to climb a mountain or something. Really it's just reading. If I can't read, what the hell am I doing with a book blog? 

Still, the prospect intimidates and excites me just a little bit. It's something I wish I had done years ago, but was determined to at least do before I turn 40. That's only a few years away, so I figured the time had come. I've created a schedule of one play a week (which gives me plenty of time at the end for catch up or in case I want to read the sonnets and poems too).

You can follow my progress on my other blog, My Shakespeare Year (, which is also linked in the tab at the top of the page. I'll also post "reviews" of each play here, but they'll probably be more like "what I learned" ramblings than proper reviews. I've read three plays already and am just about to start on the fourth, so I'm behind in posting reviews here. Therefore, expect a lot of Shakespeare posts this week while I catch up!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

So Cool Sunday: Wearable Family Photo Wall

Artist Ashley Gilreath created this gorgeous necklace based on her grandparents' staircase photo wall as part of a project called I Am Who They Are. It features tiny portraits of her ancestors connected with delicate metalwork and chains. 

You can check out more photos of this and other artwork by Ashley Gilreath on her website:


Improbables Librairies/Improbables Bibliotheques on Facebook

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger
Author: Sarah Waters 
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart 
Publication Date: March 30, 2010 
(first published in 2009 by Virago, UK)
I read this because it was recommended for those who love Downton Abbey (I do!) and ghost stories (ooh! me! me!). In the end, it was a long walk down a hallway to nowhere. 

Imagine watching a horror movie and the main character is walking slowly down a dark corridor toward a mysterious door at the end. What's behind the door? The scary music starts up and you're on the edge of your seat with anticipation. Now imagine the character continues to walk toward that door for over an hour. After a while you don't give a damn what's behind the door and nothing could possibly be shocking enough to excuse the length of that slow build up. That's this book in a nutshell. 

Plus the "what's behind the door" question wasn't really answered to my satisfaction. Some reviewers have said that they enjoyed the ambiguity of the book, and I can understand that. For me, though, the book lacked a "big reveal" or at least a payoff for the excruciatingly slow and lengthy build up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Leah's Voice, by Lori DeMonia (illustrated by Monique Turchan)

Leah's Voice
Author: Lori DeMonia
Illustrator: Monique Turchan
Publisher: Halo Publishing
Publication Date: October 9, 2012

A few months ago I wrote a review for a book called My Brother is Different: A parents' guide to help children cope with an Autistic sibling. Although the book had good intentions, I did not give it a glowing review because I didn't think it was very successful as a children's book. Despite the title, it was written and illustrated like a book to be read to--or read by--children (rather than just as a resource for parents or educators) and I didn't feel it held up well as a story book. I've been both a writer and a daycare teacher for many years (including several years as a Special Needs teacher) and I appreciate those children's books that try to tackle difficult subjects, but ultimately they still need to be good children's literature. Lori DeMonia clearly agrees. 

Her book, Leah's Voice, isn't just a "difficult subject" book. It isn't just about Autism. And her goal isn't just to help kids "cope with" an Autistic sibling. She knows first hand that there are many challenges that the sibling of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder faces--their sibling's behavior may sometimes be confusing or frustrating, their friends may not be as understanding about why their sibling is different--but she also knows that having a sibling with ASD isn't some constant burden that kids need to "deal with." Siblings love each other! And siblings fight. And they misunderstand and get frustrated. Just like...well...SIBLINGS.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
I disliked this book in the same way I disliked Microserfs. Which is to say, if you are reading this you will probably like it just fine. I've noticed that most people who've read this book--just like most people who read Microserfs--loved it. Not me, however. I'll see if I can explain why.

It's not that I hated it. It just didn't grab me. I think i was supposed to be drawn in by the "coolness" of the techie characters with their Macs and their jobs at Google. Or maybe I was meant to be amused by the quaintness of the eccentric bookstore. Or intrigued by the "mystery" of the store's late-night customers.

But I just couldn't get myself to care enough. The characters didn't ring true as real people so much as collections of references to remind you of the exact year (and month?) the book was written.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, by Chris Stedman

How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious 
Author: Chris Stedman
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication Date: November 6, 2012
So, yes, there are times when it's obvious this is a memoir written by a twenty-five-year-old. There are passages that either read like a term paper or a diary entry. But the premis could not be more exciting to me so I overlooked it. (I felt exactly the same way about Zach Wahls' book My Two Moms.)

Chris Stedman is a gay atheist who, unlike many atheists, is not anti-religion. In fact he spent many years as a fundamentalist Christian even though it often filled him with loneliness and self-loathing because of his sexuality. He studied religion in university (as did I) even as he was coming to terms with his own atheism (just like me!). He even went on to study theology at the graduate level which would essentially make him a minister if he were Christian (okay, I never did that, but I did consider studying to be a high school religious education teacher in Quebec even though I'm an atheist).

So there's a lot I can relate to personally in this book. I came to atheism from a place of religious searching and although I am critical of many aspects of religion, I still sometimes long for the community, charity and sense of sacred time that religion provides. So maybe I'm a faitheist too.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Good Night, Monkey Boy, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Good Night, Monkey Boy
Author: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
It's time for Monkey Boy to go to bed but first he must take a bath (without climbing the shower curtains!), clean up his toys and brush his teeth (and no more bananas!). Any parent of a toddler or preschooler can relate to the hijinks of a child before bedtime, with or without their trusty monkey pajamas.

Fans of the "No, David" books by David Shannon will love this new board book by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of Punk Farm.

Hit the jump for illustrations from the book!

Cute & Cuter, by Michael Townsend


Cute & Cuter

Author: Michael Townsend

Publisher: Knopf (Random House)

Publication Date: June 11, 2013
"Janie Jane was an expert on all things cute. And on her birthday she was given the cutest thing she'd ever seen: Sir Yips-a-lot."

So begins Michael Townsend's decidedly cute children's book, Cute & Cuter. Janie Jane is the sort of girl who coos over anything cute. She adores all things adorble. She swoons over sweet.  She prizes precious. She is the sort of girl who will certainly grow up to dot her i's with hearts. She is the sort of girl who would name her puppy "Sir Yips-a-lot" and carry him with her everywhere she goes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cat, by Veronica Bains

Author: Veronica Bains
Publisher: Moonleaf Publishing
Publication Date: March 4, 2013
Veronica Bains has achieved something all too rare in crime fiction. Namely, she makes the reader identify immediately with the victim rather than the investigator. Told entirely in present tense, Cat creates a sense of urgency, almost danger, for the reader. If the killer isn't caught, it isn't just our hero's career on the line, it's her life. We feel her distrust of authority, her struggles against victimization, and we cheer when she takes control of her life in the face of deadly odds.
So often crime fiction is about the cat-and-mouse game played between the detective and the criminal. I found it refreshing--and ironic--that a novel that uses a cat as a metaphor for a knife-wielding, trophy-collecting killer would focus so much on the survival of one of the intended victims (a mouse no more, if you will) instead of just presenting the police officer as the main hero of the story, hunting for the criminal.

Bains' debut novel is a powerful one. I found myself rushing through it to find out what would happen next and my only disappointment was that it was over so quickly. I hope this is a genre Veronica Bains continues to explore because clearly it is exactly what she should be writing. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

When Mermaids Sleep, by Ann Bonwill (illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher)

When Mermaids Sleep
Author: Ann Bonwill
Illustrators: Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
The illustrations are gorgeous--fanciful and evocative and detailed--and the tone of the book is both exciting and soothing at the same time. It reminds me a little of The Tickle Tree

Hit the jump for more, including more pictures from the book...

The 5 Money Personalities: Speaking the Same Love and Money Language, by Scott Palmer and Bethany Palmer

The 5 Money Personalities:
Speaking the Same Love and Money Language
Authors: Scott Palmer and Bethany Palmer 
Published by Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: January 1, 2013
I'm not one who reads a lot of self-help books, particularly those aimed at couples. I find the advice is usually so general (because it has to be if it's going to apply to everybody) that I could figure it out on my own, or else it's specific but certainly not specific to me (i.e. it makes assumptions about my religion, philosophy or goals). A lot of them just seem like gimmicks.

But The 5 Money Personalities is a little different. Everyone can relate to money. Everyone sharing a household and sharing expenses has to figure out how to make money decisions together. And a lot of us feel intimidated by the prospect.

The 5 Money Personalities is not a financial planning guide. It's not there to chastise you for the poor financial decisions you've made in the past, nor to tell you what investments to make in the future. It's a book for couples--or anyone who shares finances with someone else--to help take stock of the decisions we make and why, and to understand why our partners may make very different decisions.

Changing Tomorrow 2: Leadership Curriculum for High-Ability Middle School Students Grades 6-8 by Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Ed.D. and Linda D. Avery, Ph.D.

Changing Tomorrow 2:
Leadership Curriculum for High-Ability Middle School Students
Grades 6-8 
Authors: Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Ed.D. and Linda D. Avery, Ph.D. 
Editor: Jennifer Robins 
Publisher: Prufrock Press 
Publication date: November 1, 2012 
Changing Tomorrow 2 outlines an entire unit plan for teachers on the theme of leadership, with lesson plans that include in-depth study of several famous leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Pablo Picasso, Charles Darwin and more. Students are asked, through a series of lessons and projects, to learn more about each person and assess the ways in which each does or does not exemplify the qualities of leadership. This leaves a lot of room for class discussion and critical thinking because even though all of the people included in the book are exemplary in many ways, even great humans have their flaws and their detractors. The lesson plans in the book encourage students to ponder whether a person's positive contributions to society outweigh their bad decisions, or whether it is even necessary for them to do so in order for us to rightly admire them as great leaders.

Differentiating Instruction with Menus for the Inclusive Classroom: Language Arts Grades 6-8, by Laurie E. Westphal

Differentiating Instruction with Menus for the Inclusive Classroom:
Language Arts Grades 6-8
Author: Laurie E. Westphal
Editor: Sean Redmond
Publisher: Prufrock Press
Publication date: November 1, 2012
I can't say enough great things about this series. On the other hand, I'm a preschool teacher, so my lesson planning looks a lot different than that described in this book, so why should you believe me? Because I'm an awesome book reviewer, that's why!

And also because my partner Mike teaches middle school English and Social Studies (junior high, as it's known here in Canada) and this is what he had to say:
"I particularly liked the way the choice boards were set up with 'free choice' options. Like in the bingo or tic-tac-toe menus, the whole board may have different things like "write a newspaper article" or "create a children's book" but then in the centre there'll  be "free choice." Of course the kid is going to choose that. But the trick is for 'free choice' they actually have to come up with their own project idea and write a proposal explaining it and get it approved before they even start. But writing a proposal is something you can grade them on! So it's like getting them to do a bonus assignment before they even do the real assignment. And the whole time the student is thinking he's getting away with something because he chose the 'free choice' square. Genius."
I couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Differentiating Instruction With Menus for the Inclusive Classroom: Social Studies Grades 6-8, by Laurie E. Westphal

Differentiating Instruction With Menus for the Inclusive Classroom
Social Studies Grades 6-8 
Author: Laurie E. Westphal 
Editor: Sean Redmond 
Publisher: Prufrock Press 
Publication Date: November 1, 2012

Oh these books make me excited! The entire series is filled with such enthusiasm for teaching and so many great ideas for teachers that I actually get a little tingly when I read them.

First of all, I love the idea of creating choice boards (or menus) for students' assignments. It's such a great way to incorporate different means to a common end. This is good for a classroom in which many students may have IPPs (individualized program plans) so they have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways.  (A student with dyslexia may choose to do an oral or a visual presentation instead of a written assignment, for example.) More importantly, it empowers the students to make the choice themselves, so they can decide which assignments best play to their strengths (The student with dyslexia may prefer the written assignment because it allows more time for proofreading and revision as needed.) And, of course, it allows all of the students to have a variety of assignments to choose from, not just those with identified special needs.

And, as Westphal points out, having an inclusive classroom doesn't just mean taking students' different learning abilities into consideration It also means paying attention to things like socioeconomic differences. One thing she suggests is the "$1.00 contract," in which students and their parents verify that no more than $1.00 was spent on additional materials for a project. This encourages students to be more resourceful with materials available in the classroom or to re-purpose things they have at home, and evens the playing field for students who may not be able to afford expensive presentation materials or props.

Friday, January 4, 2013

How to Handle Difficult Parents: Proven Solutions for Teachers (2nd edition), by Suzanne Capek Tingley

How to Handle Difficult Parents: 
Proven Solutions for Teachers
(2nd edition)
Author: Suzanne Capek Tingley
Editor: Lacy Compton
Publisher: Prufrock Press
Publication Date: August 1, 2012
I've been a preschool teacher for about a decade now, and my partner Mike is in his first few years as a middle school teacher, so we've both had reason to be concerned about "difficult parents." It's important to stay professional and focused, but some parents can drive you around the bend! Most of the time, parent interactions are smooth and easy, but for those other times, there's this book. 

Mike and I agreed that we had never encountered a resource for educators about dealing with parents that was so, well, readable. We both read this book cover-to-cover almost as soon as we got it, often waiting impatiently for one to be finished a chapter so the other could keep reading. We skipped back and forth between sections, saying things like, "Did you read that part about the helicopter parents? I wish I'd read that before parent-teacher night!" This book was the subject of frequent conversations for several weeks.

And it's written to be conversational. Suzanne Capek Tingley is speaking directly to educators, almost as though she were in the room. She gets that we work hard, we do our best and we genuinely care about our students, BUT that there are times we just wish we could throw a coffee mug right at sweet little Johnny's blowhard dads (But don't do it, she cautions!) She also gets that we all want to be professional and not let difficult situations escalate if we can help it. In other words, she's on our side.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

And of course...The Worst of 2012

I read over 300 books this year, some because they were highly recommended and/or hyped, some because they were critically acclaimed, many because publishers, authors and early review sites sent them to me, and plenty just because they looked interesting. But of course they couldn't all be good. Although there were many books I read in 2012 that I disliked, below is the list of the ones that I truly hated, almost to the point that they made me angry for having read them. I almost hate to make the list, because I've already given bad reviews to each of them (it seems like kicking a book when it's down) so I've only included the books that I REALLY disliked. Plus I've given a little explanation for each choice.

So here they are, the 10 WORST BOOKS I READ IN 2012:

10. Big Brave Daddy, by Smiljana Coh
This book wasn't offensively bad, it was just sort of lazy. The illustrations look like they were done with Facebook Grafitti or MS Paint, and not very well at that. It didn't seem like anybody's best effort.
9.  Balloon Toons: Prickles vs. The Dust Bunnies, by Daniel Cleary
This one just sort of grossed me out. It was about sentient dust bunnies. Ick.

8.  Pyg: Memoirs of Toby the Learned Pig, by Russell Potter
My disappointment with this book came mostly from the height of my expectations. I had been looking forward to this one so much; it should have been better! I had hoped it would be a whimsical animal tale, like a grown up Roald Dahl or E.B. White story, but it was over-wrought and more committed to its own stylistic choices than to overall quality.

7.  Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
I tried. I really tried. I was determined not to be a snob about this book, not to listen to all of the criticisms that it was poorly written until I had read it myself. In the end, it was this pressure to "read it myself" that annoyed me the most. I did not like it AND I was irritated that I had felt compelled to read it simply because of its popularity. And it wasn't even just the poor writing that irritated me (the repetitive overuse of slang, for example). The character development and story arc was not compelling. The main female character was so naive that she was a barely functioning, crass idiot. The main male character's interest in her was inexplicable. The S&M never seemed like something the female character enjoyed, rather than tolerated because she wanted to "keep her man." I just didn't find any of it sexy. Ugh, I could go on but why bother?

6.  Zombies of the Apocalypse (A 2012 Undead Reckoning Novel), by Lacy Maran and Kevin Michael
There is often a debate between small, independent publishers (or self-published authors) and major publishing houses about the quality of editing. Independent publishers decry their reputation as producing books full of typos that go unnoticed because of a smaller editing staff, and often delight in finding the occasional error in a book published by a major company. Yet this book should not have even passed the editorial pass of an eighth-grader handing in an assignment for English class. It was so hard to read I wonder if the authors (two authors! surely that meant they read each other's work!) actually read it themselves before sending out digital copies to the blogosphere. Perhaps not, since between them they've written (I almost feel like I should put that in quotes--"written") dozens of these books. If only they'd spent the time perfecting the first one.

5.  Big Blue, by Vanita Oelschlager (illustrated by Kristin Blackwood)
I haven't always Vanita Oelschlager's books for children. Her mandate seems to be to help children and families face the difficult and confusing times in life--and she certainly has her fans--but I've found some of her books trite and overly simplistic. Big Blue was one that I found actually a little offensive. It's about a bird with a weight problem, but it results in a book that offers more in the way of "fat shaming" than meaningful discussion. I really hated it, which invited quite a bit of criticism on my blog. I feel compelled to mention that I don't have anything against Oelschlager on a personal level and, in fact, her book A Tale of Two Daddies made my Top 12 favourite children's picture books this year.

4.  The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography, by Chris Elliott
Oh Chris Elliott. I loved you so. Not as an actor so much, but as an author. The Shroud of the Thwacker was sooooo good. Then Into Hot Air was...okay. But this? This was awful. Do you hate me, Chris Elliott? Reading this, it kind of felt like you hated me.

3.  The End of Sunshine Street, by Johanna Constance Hunt
I agonized over this book. The author sent me a copy for review and she seemed so nice. I really like her. I wanted to like her book. I really did. I read it carefully, kept an open mind, and even took notes about the things I did like about it, so I'd have nice things to say in the review. I rewrote the review five times, trying to soften the blow. But at the end of the day, the book was terrible. It actually seemed like an early draft of a book that wasn't finished. The character arc didn't make sense, the plot didn't have a natural progression (nor a deliberately non-linear one either). The whole thing seemed random and inexpert. It's definitely a case of a writer who needs to get herself an editor, ASAP.

2.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
This was one of the first books I read in 2012 and I'm still recovering from the disappointment of it. Jonathan Safran Foer certainly claim inexperience, lack of proper editing staff, or any of the other excuses (often valid) that first-time authors or self-published writers could use to explain a poor showing. In short, he should know better. I'm sure there are people who loved this book (or maybe there is just a VERY talented publicist creating that impression) but I did not. At all.

And the WORST BOOK OF 2012 is...

1. Journey to Virginland: Epistle 1, by Armen Melikian
I don't think there's anything that would make me enjoy this self-important monstrosity of a novel MORE, but if it was possible for me to like it LESS, the author certainly explored every avenue to make that happen. He engaged in petulant flame wars with reviewers on Goodreads. He insisted time and time again that anyone who didn't like his book wasn't smart enough to understand it. He rebuffed comparisons to other authors by insisting that he never read any books but his own. He did everything in his power to remind everyone that he is an insufferable prig...on the off chance that would make people hate his book less?

Well that's it. That's my list. What about you? Did you have a favourite (or least favourite) book last year? 

Best of 2012: Children's Fiction Roundup

Most of the children's and young adult literature that I read this year (i.e chapter books aimed at children aged 7-18) were not new books but rather "classics" that I read aloud with Magda. But some new books also made my Top 5:

1. The Case of the Ruby Slippers: A First Kids Mystery, by Martha Freeman

  2. Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

3. Funny Frank, by Dick King-Smith

4. A Mouse Called Wolf, by Dick King-Smith

5. Sword Mountain, by Nancy Yi Fan