New to Me: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, Incorrigible
Stephanie Burgis
First published 2011

My history with this book
None, since it was only published a few years ago.

My thoughts
Kat, Incorrigible is a delightful middle grade book about a 12-year-old girl in Regency England who has magical talents. It’s an alternative Regency England where magic exists. Katherine Ann Stephenson is the youngest of four children. Her mother, from whom she inherited her talents, died shortly after she was born, and her father later remarried. Kat’s stepmother values propriety above all else and wants to restore the family’s social position, which was damaged because Kat’s mother was a witch.

Kat spends a lot of time getting into trouble, and she’s often at odds with her stepmother and her older sisters, prim and proper Elissa and spitfire Angeline. The family’s financial situation is dire. Kat’s older brother Charles has incurred huge gambling debts and will be sent to debtor’s prison if he can’t pay them. The family can’t afford to bail him out, but if he goes to prison, it will ruin the family’s reputation and make it impossible for the sisters to make good marriages. The family’s best hope is for the beautiful Elissa to find a rich husband, and the stepmother has her eye on Sir Neville Collingwood, who is very rich, but also very creepy and his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. Kat is determined to save her sister from marrying Sir Neville, and she’s willing to use her newfound magical powers if needed.

So, basically, you’ve got all the social pressures of Pride and Prejudice against a backdrop of magic. Even with magical powers, Kat and her sisters are at the mercy of society. I enjoyed the social aspects of the book very much. I was less impressed with the magical system, which felt a little vague to me, but this is the first book in a trilogy and I assume the magical side of things will be explored in more detail in the subsequent books. Kat is a great heroine, a feisty kid who strains against the conventions of society. She’s very bright, but she’s still a kid and she often misinterprets situations, sometimes to hilarious effects. I also enjoyed the subversion of the evil stepmother trope. In this case, Kat’s birth mother was an actual witch, and although Kat can’t stand her stepmother, the woman isn’t evil and she’s stuck in a difficult position.

I think this book would be good for kids who are interested in history and/or magic. Depending on your child’s age and interest in history, you may need to provide some context about Regency England. You could have an interesting discussion with your child about women’s roles during this period and how constricted their lives were.

Would I want my kid to read it
Yes.

Is there any objectionable content?
No. Obviously, there are historical attitudes toward women that are offensive, but they are well done in the historical context, and Kat rebels against the constraints of society.

Availability
It’s available in print and ebook.

80s Flashback: Little Sister

Little Sister (Sweet Dreams #5)
Yvonne Green
First published 1981

My history with this book
I read a lot of Sweet Dreams books when I was around 11 or 12, and the cover of this one looked very familiar, so I was sure I had read it. But I remembered nothing about it, and the plot didn’t come back to me when I read it (possibly because it’s a really unmemorable book).

My thoughts
I was pleasantly surprised that the first Sweet Dreams book I revisited wasn’t too bad (How Do You Say Goodbye), but unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Little Sister. It’s the story of Cindy Halley, an upper middle class white girl from the suburbs (80s teen romance series didn’t have a lot of racial or socioeconomic diversity, unless the white middle class suburban heroine was dating someone from the “wrong side of the tracks”). Cindy’s life is miserable because she’s just turned 16 and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. It’s not terribly img_3286surprising that Cindy is dateless and not as popular as her older sister, because Cindy has all the personality of dry toast. She spends the first few chapters of the book whining about her lack of dates, until popular senior Ron inexplicably becomes interested in her. Ron is a sort of magical unicorn, a star basketball player who’s also a talented actor, hard-working, and devoted to his family. He’s also lacking in a personality, which may be why he and Cindy are attracted to each other.

Once Cindy has a boyfriend, she spends the rest of the book terrified that Ron is going to fall in love with her sister Christine, because Ron and Christine are playing Romeo and Juliet in the sch0ol play. I was sort of hoping Ron would dump Cindy for Christine, because although Christine is awful, she’s more interesting than snoresville Cindy. Of course, Ron sticks with Cindy because the heroine of a Sweet Dreams romance never gets the short end of the stick.

Although it’s less than 150 pages, I struggled to finish Little Sister. Cindy and Ron are painfully dull, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about them. It’s also obvious to everyone but the terminally stupid Cindy that nothing going on with Ron and Christine, so there’s no real tension in the story.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Nope.

Is there any objectionable content?
Attitudes about dating feel a little dated, but there’s nothing terribly objectionable about this book (unless you object to being bored to tears).

Can you read it aloud?
Please don’t.

Availability
Little Sister is long out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

 

On Not Finishing Books

As part of keeping track of books I read, I’ve also started keeping track of books I don’t finish. When I was younger, I used to try to slog through any book I started, but nowadays, I occasionally give up on a book. According to my list, which I’m pretty sure is an underestimate, I started six books that I didn’t finish in 2016. I’ve already given up on one book in 2017.

Sometimes, I just don’t like a book and I give up, guilt-free, after a few chapters. But more often than not, I just don’t click with a book. Objectively, I know a book is pretty good, but for whatever reason, I’m just not feeling it at that moment, so I stop reading. It’s along the lines of “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Occasionally, it’s the timing that isn’t right. I decide I want to read a book, so I put it on hold at the library. Sometimes, the book is available within a week or two, but sometimes, it’s a couple of months, and my interest in the book has waned. Sometimes, you’re just really feel like reading a YA fantasy dystopian zombie novel, and then two months later, not so much.

The majority of the books I abandoned last year were ebooks. I think I find it easier to abandon an ebook since I don’t have to actually look at it again. An abandoned physical book will sit on my shelves, and occasionally I’ll see it and think that I need to get back to it. I do think the physicality of reading an actual paper book is a very different experience than reading an ebook, and although I read a lot of ebooks and I enjoy the convenience, physical books are still my favorite.

 

2017 Reading Goals

Having looked back at 2016 in my last post, now it’s time to set some reading goals for 2017.

I want to go for quality over quantity. There are so many books I want to read that I often feel like I’m in a race to finish them all. I’m probably never going to finish all the books I want to read (and that list is ever expanding), so I need to accept that and just enjoy what I have time to read.

img_3132

A small fraction of my to-read list.

I would like to work on my current to-read list without adding anything new to it. I honestly don’t know if this is possible for me, because I’m always coming across more books I want to read, but I’m going to try.

I want to read more diversely. Something like the Book Riot Read Harder challenge is a great idea, although I know that I would get frustrated trying to check off that many boxes. Still, I think even trying to hit a few of these goals would encourage me to try different things than I would normally read. (I just don’t see myself reading a book about sports, but I think I may have a nonfiction book about figure skating on my shelves. It’s a sport.)

My husband and I have come up with a reading project that we can do together. He’s been reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and he mentioned that he’s never read any of the books the characters (Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Allan Quartermain) are taken from. I’ve only read one, so we decided we would try to tackle all five books this year: Dracula, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and King Solomon’s Mines. It should be an interesting challenge (I don’t read much nineteenth century literature these days, unless it’s Jane Austen, this so will definitely be a challenge for me). I think doing this with someone else makes it more likely that I will actually make the effort to complete this.

I want to continue my 2016 nonfiction streak. I already have several nonfiction books in my to read pile. I’m already well into one nonfiction book, Ten Years in the Tub, which is Nick Hornby’s columns about reading from the Believer. It’s fantastic and hilarious, and I’m ripping through it in no time. It also made me realize that Hornby has several book sI haven’t read yet, so they promptly went on the to-read list. Sigh.

2016: My Reading Year in Review

At the end of the year, I like to look back at what I’ve read. I use both Goodreads and a Google doc to track my reading, and I have different totals: 83 on Goodreads and 111 by my own accounting. The discrepancy is because I re-read a lot of books this year that were already counted on Goodreads. You can change the date read, but if I had already read and rated a book on Goodreads, I didn’t bother with updating the entry.

Why so much re-reading? In a few cases, I read a book, intending to write about it on the blog, but by the time I got around to writing a post, enough months had passed that I felt I needed to read the book again. I also just enjoying re-reading old favorites, and it somehow feels like less of a commitment than starting a new book.

I tend to set yearly reading goals for myself. Sometimes it’s a formal goal, like in 2010, when I decided I would read a poem every day for the whole year. (I achieved that goal, enjoyed it very much, and haven’t read a single poem since. Sigh. Perhaps it was too much of a good thing.) Sometimes, it’s a less formal goal. In 2015, I sort of vaguely decided I should read less YA and make more of an effort to read some adult, literary fiction. I did pretty well with that goal, so I decided to carry it over into 2016 but aim for nonfiction. (I used to read a fair amount of nonfiction, but I hadn’t read any in recent years.)

I read 22 nonfiction books in 2016. Seven of the 22 were science, and seven were about Antarctica. I’m glad I set this goal, because it helped me rekindle my dormant interest in Antarctica (and in particular, Antarctic exploration). My re-fascination with Antarctica was triggered when an acquaintance mentioned doing scientific research in Antarctica, which got me thinking about icebergs. A few weeks of considering white polar wastelands made me delve into my polar exploration shelf. The other nonfiction books were a mixed bag: self-help, history, current affairs, literary criticism, and memoirs.

The rest of the 83 books I read (I won’t count the re-reads here) break down as follows:

Children’s books: 27
Young adult: 23
Adult fiction: 10

If you combine adult fiction and nonfiction, that’s 32 books, so I suppose I did ok at reading books for grown-ups.

The most important book I read this year is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s not exactly a feel-good read, but it’s important and should be required reading for all Americans. I’m very glad I read it and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen.

I’m delighted that my nonfiction goal led me back to Antarctica, and I enjoyed all of the books I read on the subject, which includes one novel, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. I have more Antarctica on my 2017 to read list. There are so many books on Antarctic exploration that I’m not going to run out of reading material anytime soon.

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

Radiance by Catherynne Valente
Your Inner Fish by Neil ShubinThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Alone on the Ice by David Roberts
Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Mandy by Julie Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Quality-wise, it was a pretty good year, and I can’t recall any major duds.

Next up: 2017 reading goals.

 

Anastasia Krupnik Is Very Groovy

Anastasia Krupnik
Lois Lowry
First published 1979

My history with this book
None. Lois Lowry is an award-winning author, and her Anastasia Krupnik series was first published when I was in the right age group to read it, but I wasn’t aware of this series until recently. I read Lowry’s The Giver a few years ago and liked it very much, so I decided to give Anastasia a try.

My thoughts
img_3062Anastasia Krupnik has a bit in common with the Ramona books and it also reminded me of some of Judy Blume’s work. Anastasia a smart, funny 10-year-old, who lives with her parents in an apartment in Boston (fitting into the 1970s trend of books about city kids who live in apartments, although it’s usually New York, so Boston is a nice change). Her father is a poet and English professor and her mother is an artist, so they’re slightly bohemian.

Anastasia faces some challenges in her life. Her parents announce that they’re expecting a baby boy, and she’s not thrilled about that. She has conflicted feelings about her grandmother, who’s suffering from dementia. She thinks she may be in love for the first time.

This is a sort of a slice of life book. There’s not a huge amount of plot, and it’s mostly about Anastasia coming to terms with the impending birth of her brother. I really enjoyed the book, and there are some very funny bits, like these two passages::

“Well,” said her father, “my vacation doesn’t start until day after tomorrow. But I only have to teach one class this morning. Do you want to come along?”

“Will it be boring?”

Her father adjusted his glasses so that he could look down his nose at her. “Boring? Dr. Krupnik’s English 202, required for English majors, eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry, three prelims, four papers, and a final exam, boring? He sighed. “Yes, it will probably be boring.”

And this one, where Anastasia’s father responds to a student he clearly finds very annoying:

“That’s very interesting, Miss Eisenstein,” said her father. But he said it with the same voice he used when Anastasia described in detail the plot of a television program. It meant he didn’t find it terribly interesting at all.

There’s a rather rough scene in the first chapter where Anastasia has to read a poem she’s written out loud in class. It’s a pretty amazing poem for a 10-year-old to have written, but Anastasia didn’t follow the teacher’s instructions to write a poem that rhymes, so she gets an F, which her teacher announces in front of the entire class. I was also a creative kid who didn’t always follow directions to the letter, so I sympathize with her.

img_3061Anastasia Krupnik feels a bit dated; there are a lot of things in it that are very 1970s. When Anastasia visits her father’s class, both her father and his students smoke. Anastasia asks her mother if she ever had a love affair before she got married, and her mother tells her all about a failed romance (not that this conversation couldn’t happen now, but something about it felt very 70s). Anastasia develops a crush on a boy who wears in a comb in his hair at all times and likes Roberta Flack. These details were nostalgic for me, but I wonder how they will register for a kid today.

The edition I read is apparently the original cover, and I like how much it references the book. There’s Anastasia, wearing her Amelia Earhart t-shirt and her big 70s glasses, writing in her special notebook, surrounded by lots of discarded poems. It’s very true to the book. And check out how groovy her parents look on the back cover. Her dad could be a minor character in Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Sure.

Is there any objectionable content?
No.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, although the chapters are a little long.

Availability
It’s still in print and available as an ebook.

 

 

Sheila Is Pretty Great

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great
Judy Blume
First published 1972

My history with this book
I know I read this book as a kid, but I had no memory of it, so it apparently didn’t leave as much of an impression as my favorite Judy Blume books: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, and Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself.

My thoughts
It’s funny that this book apparently didn’t leave much of an impression on me as a child, because I really enjoyed it as an adult. I recently read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for the first time, so I sheiladecided to read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which is about a minor character in the former book. My husband read both of these books as a kid, and he still remembers being blown away by an author writing related books from two totally different viewpoints. Sheila comes across as a very annoying character in Tales, and she’s something of a nemesis to the main character (who is painted in a negative light in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great).

Sheila Tubman lives in an apartment in Manhattan (in the same building as Peter, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing) with her parents and her boy-crazy older sister Libby. Sheila wants to go to Disneyland for the summer, but her parents end up renting a house in Tarrytown instead. Sheila makes a new best friend, Mouse Ellis, and learns to face her many fears, the most serious of which are dogs and swimming. Sheila is forced to confront her fears during her time in Tarrytown, because their house comes with a dog and her mother insists that she take swimming lessons.

Sheila is a quite a character. She’s something of a legend in her own mind, but she’s also a very anxious child with a lot of fears. She hides her fears behind boasting and bravado, but her bluff ends up being called when she makes friends with the very clever Mouse. Sheila thinks she’s good at hiding her fears and presenting a confident, even brash persona. But Mouse figures her out.

“Sheila, if a person is scared of something, a person should just admit it. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said. “And if I was ever afraid of anything I’d be the first to admit it.”

Which is, of course, totally untrue, as Sheila lies constantly in an effort to hide her fears and whenever she doesn’t know how to do something. The lies are kind of hilarious: She used to be really good at yo-yo’s but she hasn’t played with one since she was two, she can’t go in the pool because she had a cold, she’s allergic to dogs and gets hives inside her body, she can run a newspaper single-handedly.

I found Sheila’s first night in the new house very funny. She’s having trouble sleeping, so she turns on the light, which leads to her seeing a spider on the ceiling, so she wakes up her father. The sense of weary resignation from her father’s gives one gets the feeling that this is not the first time this has happened. Later that same night, Sheila is awoken by a strange noise. This time, she wakes her mother, who is annoyed at first but then gets freaked out by the noise as well (which turns out to be the dog howling at the moon).

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great would be an excellent book to offer to a kid who has some fears. A parent could read along with their child, and use Sheila’s experiences as a good conversation starter.

Does it hold up?
Quite well. Judy Blume’s book are so universal, they don’t really seem dated. The only thing that struck me as odd was that the milkman still delivers milk in Tarrytown. I’m not sure when milk deliveries stopped being common, but I never knew of anyone who had milk delivered in the U.S. (milk delivery in rural Ireland was still common when I was a child).

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes

Is there any objectionable content?
No, except for some mild fat shaming of one of Sheila’s friends.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes.

Availability
It’s still in print and available in audio and ebook format.