Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: Among the Hidden

I recognized Margaret Peterson Haddix's name, having read her book Double Identity almost six years ago. This book, Among the Hidden, jumped out at me in the tween audio section of our library (filed as a teen book in the other neighboring library I use) and turned out to be a riveting story to accompany my daily walk on the treadmill. It was frighteningly plausible and well-executed, providing plenty for tweens and teens to think about (although one Amazon reviewer did express concern that the subjects are too difficult for the target age group to handle - I think I disagree and would not dissuade my ten year old son from reading this book).

The government, in order to clamp down on the problem of starvation and over-population, has outlawed the birth of more than two children per family. When Luke's parents learn of his impending birth, they decide to ignore the law and keep him hidden in their home as a "third child." Hiding is all Luke has known, until his twelfth year when the woods on his farm property are chopped down to make way for a housing development. As he watches the new houses from the vents in his attic hideaway, Luke catches sight of something breathtaking and unimaginable. Risking the penalty of death, Luke sneaks over to the nearby house and discovers Jen, another third child. Jen doesn't tolerate being hidden quite so well as Luke. She is the daughter of a government official and is convinced that she can force change on society by planning a rally to embrace third children and set them free.

I did note, from the author's website, (where discussion questions and related activities can be found) that this is the first in a series of books. All of the books in the series sound equally riveting and action-packed. I will probably seek out a few more of these books to follow Luke's story and see where life takes him after the adventures of this book (thankfully, it looks like my library has the entire series available, though not in audio form).

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book Review: Mind Change

One of the books selected for my evening book club is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Although that book is not on the reading schedule until July, I jumped when I saw this alternative title available at our library. I wanted a second book to evaluate Carr's book against. Of course, I cannot make any comparisons until I read The Shallows, but for now I will offer up a brief description of this book by Susan Greenfield, entitled Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains.

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist and member of the House of Lords, where she has argued her premise that the digital age is altering the way we think and relate. Hers is a cautionary tale which argues, similarly to the perils of climate change, that we are on the brink of cultural mind change with just as possibly devastating consequences. She begins by introducing her term "mind change" and asserting that it is a highly controversial global phenomenon. She then breaks down technological advances into three separate categories of concern: "social networking and the implications for identity and relationships; gaming and the implications for attention, addiction, and aggression; and search engines and the implications for learning and memory."

As she dissected how social networking is changing the way we think and relate, I could easily see both positives and negatives in my own life. How often, indeed, do I log onto my computer in the morning hoping to see some sort of feedback from friends, be they virtual, close or distant, to something I have shared or simply hoping for news from someone else's existence in order to spice up the boring nature of my own existence? How often do I share something on-line that I may not have shared with more than a handful of people prior to the advent of Facebook? My life would be entirely isolated without social networking. It would be like living in a desert. But how often do I compare myself, unfairly, to others whose lives are presented in technicolor for the digital world to envy and admire? How does my own sense of identity profit from or bear harm from my involvement in a wider society of friends available through social networking? These are tricky questions.

The gaming section was perhaps the most sobering of all, because I fear the effects my own sons are reaping from their involvement with multi-player on-line role-playing games. On the one hand, it is cool to watch their ability to play a game and interact with their cousin while he is miles away in his own home. However, my sons play games their cousins would never be allowed to play and many of them are violent in nature. They have seen far more graphic episodes of violence than I ever experienced in my own childhood. Although this is most definitely a negative thing, the author doesn't paint the scenario as entirely bad. There are some positives to the use of video games for developing certain skills and reactions (indeed, video games like "Fruit Ninja" are actually used to help rehabilitate stroke sufferers). Still, her focus is primarily on the chemical responses of the brain to such gaming and how close those experiences are to the chemical responses occurring in the brains of those with severe addictions. Gaming addiction is a serious problem to consider and I fear my sons might be at risk for this, given the satisfaction they seem to receive (achievements, status, manliness, etc) from playing such games.

The final section focuses on the changes brought about by surfing the Web. We have become a culture with the knee-jerk reaction of "I'll just Google that and find out the information I need." The ability to find information so quickly and freely doesn't necessarily mean that we are becoming smarter. If anything, we are less inclined to retain information because we are under the impression that such information is always just a click away. Moreover, we do lose something in acquiring our information via a screen instead of through books. The immediacy of information and entertainment is shortening our attention span and drawing us away from traditional methods of learning. Students are interrupted far more frequently when trying to study because there is a constant stream of distractions from text messaging and multi-tasking. The pull of You Tube is quite fierce in my own household, with both of my younger boys watching videos others have recommended because they are funny or because they show information for tackling some aspect of a game they are wanting to play.

While I found the book fascinating and frightening, I also found it a bit difficult to digest fully and found myself skimming through bits because it just didn't hold my interest or I wanted to get to the next bit more quickly. Perhaps my own response is an example of the arguments the author frames. Perhaps I just wasn't entirely in the mood to focus in with more depth to the study at hand. For whatever reason, I don't think I absorbed as much from the book as I could have if I had been more careful in my reading and retention (say, if I had been given the assignment of reading this for a class). I will be anxious to see how Nicholas Carr's book measures up to this one. Hopefully, I will remember enough of what I read here to be able to form an opinion about which book was more effective in discussing this modern day problem of the alteration of the brain in response to our technological advances.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: Rotters

This book is not for everyone. I would even have thought it not appropriate or welcome to me, given the creepy subject matter, frequent expletives, unsavory characters, and disturbing plot development. However, I did find much to embrace in this novel. I was especially drawn to the writing. This author has a rare gift for dissecting a moment. Like the main character in the story, who "specifies" to avoid facing upsetting situations, this author narrows in on the minutest details of every experience, like a microscope highlighting the infinitesimal. It was, indeed, a thing of beauty and something I wish I could emulate in my own writing (although I doubt I have that skill or ability). Moreover, the narration by Kirby Heyborne was an experience to remember for a very long time.

In Rotters, we meet sixteen-year-old Joey Crouch, one of the few male teenage characters I have ever met who openly expresses his devotion to his mother. He adores her and depends upon her in their quiet existence in Chicago, where he practices his trumpet and achieves straight A's in order to please her. Thus, his world is turned upside down when an unfortunate accident kills her and Joey finds himself shipped off to Iowa to live with a father he barely knew existed. Because his father is known around town as the "garbage man," Joey is instantly the butt of jokes and bullying as the "son of the garbage man." But what is more horrific than the bullying and the challenges of being a new kid in a small rural town, is the fact that Joey's father is, in actuality, a grave-robber. The two live in a stand-off for a while, until Ken Harnett (the father) decides to apprentice his son for the trade.

The author certainly did his research, presenting countless facts and interesting details about graves, decomposition, and the history of grave-robbing. The characters he created are vivid and despicable. There's the bully who is alpha-dog in his small Iowa town. The attractive girl who only pays attention to Joey because she thinks he has connections to big-wig theater types back in Chicago. The loner who befriends Joey and introduces him to heavy metal music. The host of characters, known as "diggers," who work in separate territories, digging up graves for their material spoils. Once Joey snapped and decided to seek revenge upon the bully who taunted, the girl who rejected, and the teacher who humiliated him, the plot grew darker still and a bit unbelievable, but it was still an entertaining romp of a tale.

This book is certain to appeal to teenage boys, especially reluctant readers. It is full of things boys find fascinating like bullying, revenge, biology, dead bodies, and creepy gruesome activities. Writers will benefit from reading this book for instruction on so many great skills like character development, plot development, realistic use of dialogue, world-building, and microscopic description. I had to be very careful listening to the book. I couldn't just have it on when my boys were around, for fear that shouting expletives would explode from the soundtrack. Nor did I listen to it while doing dishes when a few workmen were around, because I was worried they'd think I was a nutter for the type of stuff I was listening to - ha! I still can't believe I liked it as much as I did, but for a reader who is willing to put up with bad language, horrible bullying activities, despicable evil, and gruesome details, it will provide a story which will stick with you for a long time to come and introduce you to a world you would never want to visit in reality. Somehow the author manages to bring brilliance and raw humanity from the seedier parts of life and death. I'm with author Michael Grant, who said, ""This is a bold, utterly fearless, uncompromising story told with such skill, with such beauty, and with such depth of focus it just warps the fabric of reality. I'm in awe of this book."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Here's to You, Rachel Robinson

Here's to You, Rachel Robinson is a companion novel to go with Judy Blume's Just As Long As We're Together but it can stand alone, as well. While both books discuss the same characters and references are made to the first book, with a new narrator the reader really gets a new story perspective and a different experience from the first book. They were both very well written, but this one felt a little bland.

Rachel Robinson is heralded as the perfect student by her teachers, yet she is struggling with the expectations for perfection. Moreover, everyone seems to want to push a new activity on her. With trouble brewing at home, thanks to her older brother Charles, Rachel feels pressed in on all sides. Everyone else seems to find Charles amusing, but Rachel knows the emotional turmoil he can manufacture with ease in their home. Living in a family of over-achievers can be a daunting task.

Again, I'd have to say (just as with the previous book) I prefer the books about Fudge, but this book will surely appeal to girls between the ages of 9 and 12. They will, no doubt, relate to the anxiety of crushes on older boys and the pressure to keep up appearances. I think I would have really enjoyed these books back when I fit into the targeted audience.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Just As Long As We're Together

This month, our young adult book club decided to explore Judy Blume's books for tweens and teens. We each selected two novels and this was the first of my two, Just As Long As We're Together. It was a quick and easy read about two best friends who allow a third girl to join their ranks. It had typical Blume fare of introducing topics previously seen as taboo - the girls discuss the perceived sexual activity level of a boy and talk about getting their period for the first time. It was still pretty tame compared to some of the other books offered up to our group.

Stephanie has been best friends with Rachel since second grade. When Alison moves into the neighborhood with her actress mother and step-father, she immediately strikes up a friendship with both Stephanie and Rachel. Each girl struggles with her own unique situations in navigating seventh grade: Stephanie with the recent separation of her parents, Rachel with the pressures of perfectionism, and Alison with her status as an adopted child to a famous mother. Can three girls all be best friends or will the friction of an interloper cause Rachel and Stephanie to drift apart?

I wouldn't say this was my favorite Judy Blume read. I am, by far, a bigger fan of the series of books starring Fudge. Of course, this might be because those books appeal strongly to my sons. I can remember really enjoying her tween books when I was a pre-teen, so I know they have great enduring appeal to tween girls. Next up is the companion book to this one, Here's to You, Rachel Robinson.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: The Opposite of Spoiled

This is a subject I haven't given nearly enough thought to - parenting my children with respect to the use of money. Ron Lieber's book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, was an excellent way to begin thinking about being more pro-active in guiding my children's experiences with and attitudes towards money. He urges parents to make a point of talking with their kids about money and presents many examples of others who have influenced their children powerfully in a variety of ways.

The author begins by establishing a definition of spoiled and I had to cringe because my kids could easily fall into this category given his four criteria: "1) they have few chores or other responsibilities, 2) there aren't many rules that govern their behavior or schedules, 3) parents and others lavish them with time and assistance, and 4) they have a lot of material possessions." Yikes! Nobody wants to raise kids who will be labelled as "spoiled." Next, he lists the traits he feels are the opposite of spoiled. The target characteristics are: "curiosity, patience, thrift, modesty, generosity, perseverance, and perspective." While I'm sure my boys have gained some sense of thrift simply by watching me save money with coupons and shop for necessities at resale shops, I haven't really made a concerted effort to teach them these targeted characteristics in regards to money.

Reading the examples, while inspiring, also felt a bit convicting. There were parents who encouraged their children by providing them with allowances and teaching the children to divide the money into three categories of giving, spending, and saving. Parents who encouraged their kids to put any purchase to the "hours-of-fun-per-dollar test" (an exercise we tried to illustrate by thinking about the punching bag Trevor requested for Christmas which languishes in the exercise/guest room now). Parents who, spurred by the curious questions and challenges of their children, sold their house to downsize and spent the proceeds on a philanthropic project selected jointly by the family. Parents who gave their children blank checks to fill out for the charity of their choice. Story after story of parents who have risen to this challenge in far greater ways than I ever will.

Still, the book did cause me to think about how I could go about instilling more subtle lessons about money, its value and its purpose. I do want to raise boys who feel a sense of obligation to help others less fortunate. I want them to realize the many blessings they have been given and show gratitude for what they have and can offer to the world. I want them to be smart in their spending. My middle son is the one who bemoans our standards the most. He wants an I-phone because "all the other kids have them." He wants to go to Florida on Spring Break because everyone else is doing it. For the most part, we don't give in to his desire to "keep up with the Joneses." It is communicating why we don't simply rush out and purchase whatever we desire that needs to be more intentional. I think this book is a great tool for introducing parents to the topic and providing examples of ways to be more proactive in your approach to the topic of money with your kids.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Mightier Than the Sword

Somehow I thought this was the last book in the Clifton Chronicles. Alas, it isn't so. The story will continue and I will probably have to wait a further year for another installment of the riveting story of the lives of the Clifton family, which is disappointing. While I did enjoy this book, I missed listening to it in audio form (as I have done with the other four in this series). There are so many details to keep straight and somehow listening cements them in my brain better. I enjoyed everything except for the bits about Harry Clifton trying to help a Russian author achieve publication of an expose book on Stalin. I could have done without that bit (merely out of disinterest), although I can understand why it was helpful to the plot development.

The book picks up with the cliff-hanger ending from the last book, where the reader is waiting to hear whether the IRA attack on the Buckingham ship has successfully scuttled the maiden voyage or not. It follows the woes of Emma as she attempts to steer the board of Barrington Shipping and the trials of Giles Barrington in his further bids for political advancement. By far the most entertaining aspect of the story centers on young Sebastian, who is on the cusp of an engagement to an American girl, Samantha, and also rising in his banking career despite setbacks, intrigues, and opponents. It seemed like someone was constantly scheming something in this novel.

Although this was probably the weakest book in the series, I will happily stick with it to discover what piece of evidence is waiting to be revealed at Emma Barrington's libel hearing, whether Sebastian will end up with Samantha despite their rocky road, what will come of their talented daughter, Jessica (named after Sebastian's dead sister), and whether Giles will finally get the girl from Germany. The ending wasn't quite as strong a cliff-hanger as in the other books of the series, but it still leaves you wanting to know more details. Archer certainly knows how to weave a lengthy tale full of twists and turns and engaging characters.