Nov 30, 2019

Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head

by Nancy Viau

This is a fun book about some serious stuff, and I liked it a lot. I actually bought it for my youngest as a gift, but wanted to have a look myself first. She likes rocks, and so does the main character in this book, Samantha (called Sam). Sam has a growing rock collection, which she's looking forward to showing off for a school science project. She loves science and making lists about things, often spouting off facts in class. I really liked how she incorporated her rock collection into the school talent show (although it didn't turn out the way she'd hoped). But Sam's hot temper and penchant for science make it difficult for her to get along with peers and make friends. One time she even gets labeled as a bully on the playground because she doesn't back down when another kid teases her, but retaliates. Sam also squabbles a lot with her older sister and struggles to stay on her mom's good side. She's kinda got a quirky family- her mother makes really um, creative birthday cakes with every dinner- (she works for a greeting card company). Dad is out of the picture- at first I thought this was due to a divorce situation, but later in the story find out that he had passed away. So there's a bit about that in the story too, how Sam misses her father and wants to find out more about him, but without making her mom feel sad. The big thread through the book is Sam's eagerness for a family trip to the Grand Canyon- except she has to learn to keep her temper under control or they won't go. Sam learns some self-calming methods to not blow her top so often, and it's great to see how she improves with practice over the course of the story. It did feel kind of odd to me that when Sam was going on about something that bothered her, adults or friends or sister would suddenly step in telling her to quit yelling but to the reader it didn't seem as if Sam was so upset. I expect that was done on purpose, to show how Sam herself didn't realize when she was getting out of control. Overall I thought this was a really good book about a girl who's something of a science geek but still wants boys to like her and is figuring out how to get along with her sister and keep peace in the family. I hope my kid likes it enough to ask for the sequel, because I'd read that one too!

Rating: 3/5               192 pages, 2008

Nov 27, 2019

Leaves on Frozen Ground

by Dave Carty

A small family living on the edge of the forest. They have an apple orchard, own a few rental properties and the father also works in construction. The kid loves to roam the woods alone- which his mother worries constantly about. The boy simply loves the outdoors and practicing survival skills his father taught him; when they get two border collies he joyfully goes out on long walks accompanied by one or both. I liked the depiction of the dogs- seemed very true to type. The lives of the couple- not so much. Lots of conversations about struggling finances and the economy, the mom's worries about her son and the father's dismissal of that. Their very different ways of seeing things. Eventually a few crises happen- problems at work, a bear in the apple orchard, the death of one dog- that slowly starts to unravel the family. Unfortunately I didn't care much about them as individual characters and I'm not interested in baseball, so the father and son passion for that did nothing for me. I got tired of mention of the wife's prettiness that turned the wrong heads, the husband's muscles and workouts. Every now and then there was a little detail that felt out of place and kinda knocked me out of the story. There is some lovely descriptive writing of the landscape and the weather, but somehow even the kid's forays into the woods left me uninterested. While the characters and situation felt very realistic, something about the narrative style just fell really flat for me. I knew something very sad or critical would happen to this family in the end, and it did. I read about their dissolution with the same detachment. Surprisingly, I liked the ending well enough- the few final pages had a very satisfying moment. But the way it was told- just not my type.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 2/5               225 pages, 2019

Nov 24, 2019

Symptoms of Being Human

by Jeff Garvin

Riley, the protagonist of this novel, is going through a lot. A new high school. Parents involved in politics, very high-profile. Anxiety attacks and therapy sessions after a brief stay in a mental hospital. And Riley is gender fluid (feeling like a boy one day, a girl the next), which nobody (except the therapist) knows about. Riley mostly wears neutral clothing that leave him/her feeling untrue to self and (as much I could gather from the story) strikes an androgynous appearance. Riley makes a few friends but suffers taunts and harassment at school which eventually escalates. Meanwhile, the therapist suggest writing as an outlet, so Riley begins to blog- about personal experiences, with a nice scattering of snark and humor thrown in. It's something of a shock when the blog becomes wildly popular among the online LGBTQ community- and Riley starts cautiously giving advice to people who send in messages. Receives a lot of support on the blog, but also some negative comments. Then it turns sour when an anonymous commentator starts leaving hateful messages and hinting that they know Riley's true identity, threatening to out Riley at school. Fair warning: some of the events at the end of this book could be traumatic to read. There's an assault, and there's talk about a suicide and its affects on someone's family. However there's also support, true friendship, and positive self-discovery. Sometimes things get ugly but Riley makes it through and finds strength.

I liked how realistic this book felt- in that nobody's perfect. Riley's two friends are mostly accepting, but one avoids stepping in sometimes when Riley needs help, and the other is hiding her own secrets. Riley finds support among the LGBTQ community, but sees how someone else faces a violent reaction when coming out to parents. There's even a moment when Riley isn't sure if a new acquaintance is male or female, and feels awkward about it- realizing that everyone has an innate tendency to judge on appearances, even when we don't want to. Rather pointedly, the author wrote the book in a way that never actually reveals which sex characteristics Riley was born with- this made sense, but sometimes it felt a bit forced to me. This is the first time I read a book with a main character who is gender fluid, so it was educational for me. However for readers already familiar with this, the explanations might feel like an info dump at times, even though they were woven pretty well into the story.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                  340 pages, 2016

more opinions:
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Nov 20, 2019

Intensive Care

More Poetry and Prose by Nurses
edited by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer

This was among a box of books my sister once gave to me (she's a nurse). It's a collection of poetry, short stories and a few essays written from personal experiences. (There's a prior volume called Between the Heartbeats). As I'm not terribly keen on poetry, and the book has more than twenty authors, this was a rather uneven read for me. Some pieces just didn't speak to me at all, or were difficult for me to connect to. Others were downright disturbing, or very very sad. Especially of innocent people suffering, stricken by illness or worse injured by outright cruelty. The stories and poems span a wide range of nursing experiences- from students practicing their technique to men or women years into the job, or others looking back after a long career. There are nurses in the usual hospital setting I would expect, but also many stories from remote areas in poor countries, from refugee camps, from the front lines in battle zones. There are stories of frustration and burnout, of exhaustion and misunderstandings. And also those of tenderness, of compassion and deep caring. Quite a few tell of a particular patient or experience that had a profound impact on an individual nurse. I skimmed over a few, puzzled over others, but found many resonating with sensitivity or tense with discomfort, letting me glimpse what it's like to do such work.

Several that really struck me: "The Color of Blood" by Victoria May Collett- how a scrub nurse experiences working alongside a renowned heart surgeon- the thrill and stress and strain. "Water Story" a poem by Cortney Davis. "We Do Abortions Here" by Sallie Tisdale- the subject is exactly that. And these lines from "What Nurses Do: the Marriage of Suffering and Healing":  The rhythm of a heart repeats itself like vows / in a chapel full of light, but we are gathered / here because this man's heart choked after forty years /  . . . and now something as old as love / must be the pencil that helps the heart write / its good-byes across our screen.

Rating: 3/5                           269 pages, 2003

Nov 4, 2019

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

This is a book that has been on my TBR a very long time- and before that I had definitely heard of it. It won a Newbery in 1977. I think I may have seen a film version when I was a kid- one of the scenes where the family and their neighbors fight a fire in the cotton field at night, beating the flames with dampened grain sacks, was suddenly visually familiar to me. It's about the Logans- a black family living in Mississippi during the thirties. Cassie's family owns their land, but is surrounded by black families who are sharecropping, barely able to make ends meet. The nine-year-old narrator tells about all the inequalities she experiences and witnesses- from sub-par segregated schooling to suffering insults and snubs in public, to watching her family struggle to hold onto their land as white people in positions of influence and means make life hard for them. At first this is subtle, and Cassie's parents resist by equally subtle means- encouraging the black community to boycott the local white-owned grocery store, for example. But gradually things escalate into violence- beatings, theft, shooting, threats of lynching. Even the kids get involved, trying to sabotage the school bus (I thought this was funny) and Cassie cleverly (but in a rather backhanded way) gets even with a white girl who once forced her off the sidewalk and humiliates her in school. While the racism and violence is disturbing to read about, Cassie's family bonds tighter through their troubles- the kids definitely stick up for each other- and the parents share wise words to counsel their children. I can see why this book is taught in schools and considered a classic, but somehow I did not really feel invested in the characters. Might just be the other distractions around me IRL right now. Actually the two characters that interested me most were outside the main family- one a black boy who has a cocky attitude and winds up in bad company- a gradual thing but you see it coming. The other a white kid who is something of a loner and walks with Cassie and her siblings to and from school- he tries to befriend them but they are wary. I liked this kid, wish he'd been more a part of the story. The book is part of a series about the Logan family- but unfortunately I don't really feel interested in seeking out any of the other volumes.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                276 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Valentina's Room
the Literate Mother
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