Thursday, August 21, 2014

Kids Everywhere!

Today was the second day the students were back at school. So far all has gone smoothly, and I'm finding my second year to be much easier. I know the names and personalities, and can head off problems before they occur. Not that there are too many problems. By and large, our student population is pretty well-behaved and pleasant.

There is this one sweet second grader. I'll call him Robert, but obviously, that's not his real name. I saw him several times over the summer, and a couple of times around the school before the first day. Every time, without fail, he runs up to me as if he's spotted a celebrity and gives me a big hug. He is simply overflowing with enthusiasm for life, and I hope that never changes. I don't know what kind of student he is, but I'll tell you this, he is one of those kids that can just light up your day.

I've set up a few displays; my "LEAF Summer Behind and FALL in to a Good Book" ensemble is taking up the ginormous shadow box outside the library, and inside is my new book display, and a display of the books I read over the summer. One of those on my summer reads display is "Caddy's World," the most recent of Hilary McKay's books about the eccentric Casson family of London.

Let me start by saying I love McKay's Casson books. They are just the perfect blend of funny and serious, and all the strange happenings of this little family unit will keep you guessing constantly. This was the only one of them I hadn't read, and though it departs from the others in terms of it's timeline, it has the same spirit, and made me smile just as much.

In this offering, McKay takes us back in time to when Caddy was twelve, and baby sister Rose was about to come into her life. Even then, the Casson household was turbulent and topsy-turvy, although Caddy can remember a time when it was just her, Eve and Bill. She loves her family and home, and doesn't envy her friends, except perhaps for their stability and normalcy.

Caddy has three best friends. Ruby, the smart one, is being raised by her four grandparents together, in a quiet, scholarly home with an enormous pet cat. Beth, the perfect one, has a perfect home, a less-than-perfect little sister, and a beloved pony. Alison, who hates everyone, is all about image. Caddy is the bravest of the brave, but if I had to label her, I would call her selfless. She wants the best for her friends, and encourages them to be their best selves, even if it impacts her own life negatively. Each of these girls has problems in their seemingly idyllic lives, but none of them quite measure up to Caddy's.

Into her already eccentric home, the new baby has arrived early and clings precariously to life. Caddy, who has unsuccessfully nursed a succession of orphaned animals, has the feeling her fragile little sister will suffer the same fate. Father Bill is much more present in this book than he was in any of the others, and ends up being quite likeable, though Saffron refers to him even then as "Bloody Daddy."

I especially enjoyed how the book ended by flashing forward to the time of Caddy's fateful driving lesson, where, with little Rose in attendance, she meets darling Michael for the first time.

Though this is part of a series, this book could easily stand alone. It was equally as enjoyable as the others. These are books I would like to own, because I could read them over and over. Good thing they are on my library shelf; I can grab one any time I want. They never fail to put a smile on my face.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Being Professional

Well, the Tanana Valley State Fair is over, heralding the end of summer in Fairbanks.  Every year I say I wouldn’t even go if it weren’t for the annual photo magnet we get taken, but I always end up having a good time. The absence of cheese curds was a matter of sorrow for me, but a couple smoked turkey legs and some bear claws helped take the edge off the pain.

This year, the kids were big enough we could split up into smaller groups. Emma was off with her friends. Gabe took Henry on a couple of rides. Jack and I even got to go off alone and ride the Octopus. Over the years, I have convinced myself that I don’t really like rides anymore, but it was so much fun. I had forgotten about the thrill that adrenaline can give you.

I’ve been back at work for a week now, and most of what I’ve been doing is purging old files and supplies, and general reorganization. Furniture has been moved, book sets relocated, and the entire look of my office and circulation desk has changed.  My home tends to exist in a state of barely organized chaos, while my workplace has always been a quieter and more orderly haven. Now it’s even more so. Tomorrow, I’ll be able to do some actual library tasks, like processing new books.

Giddy with Anticipation!
Today’s review is one I have been avoiding, because it is one of those books that reduces me to a gibbering, juvenile fangirl. Yes, that’s right, today I am reviewing “Four: A Divergent Collection,” by Veronica Roth. The emotional part of me wants to just gush, “ohmigosh, ohmigosh, it was sooooo good!!!” The professional in me needs to come up with something better; I need to explain why it was so good. Let me begin by explaining the premise of the book. If you’ve read the Divergent trilogy, or even just the first book, you will be familiar with the character of Four/Tobias. This book is a collection of short stories told in Four’s voice, covering the time between his and Tris’ initiations, and including much of the same time period as “Divergent.” This is not the first time we have heard his voice; half of “Allegiant,” the third book, is written from his point of view as well. 

Four’s voice is similar to Tris’, but there is an additional spareness that gives it a more masculine sense. Seeing the happenings of the book from his eye gives a more complete vision of the story. Four differs from Tris in that he seems to have a better understanding of himself, but they are the same in that they both see through the veneer of Dauntless and the faction system to what lies beneath. Before he joins Dauntless, while he is still Tobias, he has an encounter with a factionless man, and thinks “there is something appealing about it here, too, a freedom, a refusal to belong to these arbitrary categories we’ve made for ourselves.” Even before he has made it, Tobias understands the rigidness and limits of the choice he has to make.

The bulk of the plot is like “Divergent,” naturally, but the story is fleshed out with details we don’t get in the original. More information emerges about Tobias’ childhood, and Marcus’ monstrous behavior. It’s amazing to me that Marcus would expect Tobias to stay in Abnegation and continue to subject himself to abuse, when escape was just a drop of blood away. It’s hard to reconcile the skinny, self-conscious boy with the more masculine and confident Four we know from the trilogy, but the transformation is logical. It’s a matter of harnessing the inner core of strength that enabled him to survive his horrific childhood.

We learn some things that are complete surprises – that Four knew his mother was alive long before Tris joined Dauntless, and that he attempted to warn Marcus about the attack on Abnegation. Seeing Tris from his point of view is interesting; he cares about her and hates to see her suffering in the simulations, but his compassion never descends to pity. He is awed by her strength and capability; “I’m hard on her because I know she can handle it. And also because I don’t know any other way to be.” Later, when he posts the scores after the simulation training, he worries that her high score might make her a target for jealous competitors. He realizes though, “This girl would never want to be tucked safely in the middle of the pack, never.”

I have been professional. I have been logical. Now I get to gush a little! One of the reasons I loved this book so much is that it fulfilled a desire I often have after reading a good story that is told in a first person perspective. It’s the desire to understand the other person’s view. When I read the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought, “wouldn’t it be awesome if she wrote another series that related the same events, but told by Peeta?” I always wondered what Peeta really thought and felt; we get an idea, but we don’t’ really knowWhen the ebooks about Four started to come out, well, I was ecstatic! At last, we get to hear the other side of the story!

Another reason that I loved the book is just because, it’s Four, man! My old co-worker, Julie, an English teacher, coined a phrase for me that has stuck in my vocabulary ever since. She referred to the male leads in books as her “book boyfriends.” They aren’t real, after all, so they are harmless to crush on, and they are so attractive and appealing. Who didn’t want to be Katniss to “book boyfriend” Peeta? Who didn’t want to be Clary to “book boyfriend” Jace? Who doesn’t want to be Tris to “book boyfriend” Four? I never read the Twilight books, but I’m sure the Bella-Edward thing is the same. It’s the classic appeal of the romantic hero, and Four has that charisma in spades. I can analyze books and enjoy the story and the characters, but what really hooks me in is always the romance. My husband doesn't get it. We are watching the old "Burn Notice" seasons on DVD right now, and while I love the action and plot twists, really, it's all about the love story between Michael and Fiona.  I am such a girl, that way, but I have a feeling I am not alone in this. 

So thank you, Veronica Roth, for an amazing series. I know you have other things to write, but if you ever wanted to write more about Four, I would buy it. I loved it all, except, you know, for that little part in the third book that I (and pretty much the rest of the world) absolutely hated. But still, I own them all, and they have a place of honor on my shelf with my other favorite YA books - The Hunger Games trilogy, the Matched trilogy, the Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series'. Dear readers, the bottom line is this:  "Four - A Divergent Collection" is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed the Divergent trilogy. Do yourself a favor, just go out and buy it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Do as I Say, Not as I do!!!

In my last blog, I extolled the virtues of writing even when you don't feel like it. So naturally, it has been nearly two weeks since I've written anything - unless you count the occasional tweet, Facebook status, or grocery list - which I don't.

Life sneaks up on you. I realized that I had managed to procrastinate all summer on getting my kids their dental appointments and check-ups. With only a couple weeks until starting back to work, I was suddenly under some deadlines! I've managed to get all the kids in, but there are now cavities, wisdom tooth extractions, and orthodontic consultations to plan for. Not one, not two, but three orthodontic consultations! Let me tell you this, boys and girls, do NOT neglect your teeth!!! We are regrettably lax in our household about our daily dental care, and it has caught up with us!

Emma as "Rich Person"
And our Emma is now home after a fabulous fun-filled and dance-heavy month in Anaheim. She met lots of people from all over the country and even the world, and most importantly, she feels she has become a better dancer. Here she is in one of the costumes she wore for their final show. There were a number of costumes, but this is my favorite. Isn't she lovely? Isn't she wonderful? She is off this morning to a job interview of sorts. Best part; she's driving herself! Now, we just need to get her a vehicle of her own, so Mom and the rest of the kids aren't stranded when she goes somewhere.

There have been a few nice days sprinkled in, but the rain continues for the most part. While the housework beckons, I decided to sneak in a book review before the kids get up. Today's book is "The Fourth Stall," by Chris Rylander. This book was a bit of a sleeper for me. I picked it off the shelf at my library because I knew it was popular with boys from the middle grades. It didn't grab me right away. I was not instantly struck with an intense desire to find out what happens next. But it had a sneaky way of building up, and by about six chapters in, I was hooked. I kept finding time to slip off to my room to read another chapter or two.

The whole concept of the book is clever and imaginative. Mac is a 6th grader, a little on the small side, not much of an athlete, not much to look at, but he more or less runs his school. You see, Mac and his bestie, Vince, operate a business out of the fourth stall of an unused restroom. Mac is the problem solver. Vince is the manager. Together they make peoples troubles go away in exchange for money or favors. Generally, it's nothing illegal; Mac and Vince are nice guys, and they don't want to see anyone get hurt. But then someone else moves in on Mac's territory, and starts an all-out war.

I expected to dislike Mac. Given the premise of the book, I thought he would be one of those thoroughly smart-mouthed kids who are too big for their britches. Surprisingly, Mac is a thoroughly likeable guy. He is smart and resourceful, but also compassionate and intuitive. And in Staples, Rylander manages to create a villain who is at once detestable and sympathetic. Some of the funniest moments in the book come when Vince quotes metaphors from his senile grandma, such as "Don't wash the cat until the raccoon eats his glue stick."

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. We have books two and three at our library, and while I won't be beating down the door to get to them, I will probably read them eventually. Even if these are books that don't pique my own personal interest, they are well done, and their appeal to middle grade boys is obvious and undeniable.