Una LaMarche was a much-loved kid and a self-described late bloomer. She writes about incidents from childhood through adulthood, moments so personal and embarrassing that most would never speak of them.
Why I picked it up: Look at that cover photo. Doesn't it tell you everything you need to know about her level of joy as a child?
Why I finished it: Una is hilarious, plain and simple. She cleans her house according to the "stairway" method -- she puts on “Stairway to Heaven“ at full volume and runs around picking up like a maniac. When the music ends, the cleaning ends. Speaking of the widespread dislike of allowing one’s flesh to touch a public toilet seat, she claims that most women would rather give Gary Busey a full-body massage than sit on one without a disposable paper cover. On how much ketchup servers should put on her fries, "It should look like a Carrie diorama, only the people are fries and the blood is ketchup." When she said that comfortable granny panties are "genital sweatpants,” which is why she wears them, I had to finish the book to find more gems like that.
Una blogs as the Sassy Curmudgeon.
It's perfect for: My irreverent colleague Michele, who often spouts out things no other teacher would say out loud at faculty meetings: ”I told the little darlings that if I didn't get a two-inch margin on their research papers I was going to pull them out of a random class and go Old Testament on them." Una also says socially inappropriate things, like (when using public restrooms): "I enter the stall like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, in and out in sixty seconds.”
In 1930s Sydney, guns and booze are outlawed but organized crime, prostitution, bootlegging, and violence are a way of life. Young Kelpie has been barely surviving on the streets. Dymphna Campbell is a beautiful and popular prostitute whose clients die so often she is called the “Angel of Death.” When Kelpie discovers Dymphna standing over a body, they team up to elude the police and the mobsters who are chasing them throughout Sydney’s underworld. They even get some help from the ghosts who populate the city.
Why I picked it up: I follow Justine Larbalestier on Twitter, and she’s been tweeting about this book for a few months. And I’m always looking for audiobooks to pass the time on my commute, so I was thrilled to find this one at the library.
Why I finished it: The voice actors Rebekkah Rimmington, Fiona Hardingham, and Davis Ligudzinski really bring the book to life. Rebekkah’s and Fiona’s strong Australian accents are perfect for Kelpie and Dymphna, providing just the right combination of sweetness and cunning. Davis reads the part of the narrator who fills in the backstory. His chapters are almost like commercial breaks, providing important details on minor characters and the time period. The action is swift, the characters (including the ghosts) are believable, and there are twists and turns that will keep anyone guessing. It’s a perfect mystery/adventure with a touch of humor.
Readalikes: The Diviners by Libba Bray, which is set in 1926 New York City among flappers and speakeasies where the supernatural is alive and well. It’s the story of a country girl with hidden abilities caught up in big city life and the seance craze. The amazing January LaVoy voices all the characters with skill and gusto.
The Asian longhorn beetle snuck onto U.S. shores via boreholes in wooden pallets. It spread, chewing its way through trees in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Ontario, threatening commercial and wild forests on the East Coast. The only way to stop the infestations is to cut down infected trees and chip them into tiny pieces.
Why I picked it up: I'm in love with the Scientists in the Field series because each book covers a cool topic and many different kinds of scientists.
Why I finished it: This entry in the series included not only professional biologists and entomologists, but also the citizen volunteers who observed beetle infestations and the students in a Biodiversity Club who tracked the effects of the loss of trees on local wildlife.
I liked the race against time to stop the beetle, and how the entomologists used statistical tools and observation to figure out how the beetles spread from tree to tree in their new environments outside of China. They discovered information that made control efforts more effective and less damaging to trees.
Readalikes: It's perfect to pair with David Rees' show Going Deep in which you can see the techniques of professional tree climbers in action, including beetle control team members who get the best view of bore holes from really high up.
Art Before Breakfast
This inspiring book is designed to get you off your butt and into the habit of making art (not Art) for yourself, even if you only do it for a few minutes each day. It starts with a week of fifteen-minute drawing lessons that you can do during or before breakfast, and moves on to offer inspiration and approaches for working art into your day, including while you’re stuck in traffic and during TV commercials.
The Kitchen Art Studio
Peter Jenny wants us to look around our kitchens, draw artistic inspiration from things we often look past, and transform them. He urges us to let chance play a role in creating art, and to do our best to be aware of the possibilities. This tiny book has hundreds of photos that made me think about things like the textures of nuts, the shape of noodles, the colors of fruits and fish, and the motion of milk.
Why I picked it up: I’m always looking for advice on how to be more visually creative. Plus I spend four to eight hours a day in my kitchen (a.k.a. my “office”).
Why I finished it: Gregory does a great job of inspiring us not only to be creative, but to let go of the need for perfection and neatness. His drawings are just good enough to provide “I could do that” moments, and he made me want to try drawing everything from the stacks of books in my house to my keys to my feet.
After flipping through Jenny’s book, I can see the beauty in the mess of wires, books, and boxes on my table, the artistic possibilities in trying to capture the difference in texture between my hat, my worn notebooks, and my ballpoint pen. There really is a world of possibility right in front of me. (I’ll never look at budding potatoes the same way again.)
Readalikes: These are going right on the shelf next to my favorite book on drawing, Lynda Barry’s What It Is.
Laia, a Scholar, is less than nothing to the Martials, the warlike people who run the Empire. She has no rights, the Scholar people are demeaned and mistreated as being too soft and meek, and her brother has just been hauled off by vicious soldiers. The only way for Laia to rescue her brother is to go undercover at a Martial school and work there as a servant for the commander.
Elias is just graduating as a top student at the school, and his life could not be more different from Laia’s. He is a well-trained killing machine, but the things he’s expected to do after graduating are rubbing him wrong -- he will have to eliminate political dissidents and terrorize smaller groups like the Scholars, instead of fighting to keep his country safe as he expected.
Elias and Laia meet when she is on campus, and both their lives change dramatically as a result when Elias helps Laia out of a deadly situation.
Why I picked it up: I gave it to two of the most avid readers at my middle school, and told them that if they vouched for it, I would read it. They both told me it was superb.
Why I finished it: Even better than the politics and fighting that are prevalent throughout were the Augurs, long-lived mystics who read minds and know the future. They wear robes, and only their malevolent, red-rimmed eyes are visible within the darkness of their hoods. They are deliciously creepy, and definitely one of the main reasons that I got completely lost in this book. I never knew whether to trust their vague prophecies and strange powers (they can freeze time and cause a thick fog to appear instantly).
Readalike: Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Both books feature a kick-ass heroine, deadly magic, and a healthy dose of politics.
Eleanor is a large, oddly dressed, and awkward redhead. Park is a half-Korean guy trying to keep his head down. Eleanor sits in the empty seat next to him on the high school bus on her first day. Park fears the attention she brings, and he’s less than friendly. Day after day Eleanor reads comic books over his shoulder, though he doesn’t speak to her. Then things change. Soon he’s bringing stacks of comics for her to read, and letting her listen to the music he loves. They slowly fall in love.
Why I picked it up: I'm a sucker for books about first love and I couldn't resist the cover, with both characters sharing one set of headphones.
Why I finished it: This book has everything for my teenaged and adult soul. It takes place in 1986, in Omaha, Nebraska. I could completely relate to the pop culture references like mix tapes and comic books and growing up in a mid-sized, conservative town. (I grew up in Spokane, Washington.) It deals with serious issues about bullying and abuse. As Eleanor and Park become more involved with one another, Park learns about the awful situation she is living in and does what he can to help her. This is not a perfect love story where everything is tidy in the end, but it is a perfectly real love story where the characters are willing to risk everything for one another.
Ten-year-old Maddy's gotta spend the summer in the Louisiana swamp with her Grandmère who knows Maddy has African traditional medicine and magic running in her young veins, too. Maddy learns she can talk to fireflies and summon mermaids from the dark waters of Bayou Bontemps. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, Maddy's gifts are put to the test in order to save her friend and the Bayou.
Why I picked it up: On the cover, fireflies flickering 'round a young girl dancing barefoot in a Louisiana swamp reminded me of how much I liked the spirited girls in Jewell Parker Rhodes' two previous YA novels, Ninth Ward and Sugar.
Why I finished it: The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill looms over every step of this magical novel. No sooner has Maddy settled into her summer visit than her powers begin to become evident. Maddy takes to Grandmère and learns "how to read the bayou like Pa reads his newspaper." As Maddy soaks up Grandmère's wisdom, she learns her way around the bayou from a boy named Bear, whose Pa works on an oil drilling platform. It is with Bear that Maddy first spies the face then hand and tail of a mermaid who, Grandmère explains, is an African protective spirit who has followed the women of her bloodline since their enslavement and journey to America.
Readalikes: YA fantasy fans may be drawn to other fantasy novels with mermaids like Liz Kessler's The Tail of Emily Windsnap and Alice Hoffman's Aquamarine. Anyone wanting to explore the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the bayou should be sure to check out Steve Duin’s and Shannon Wheeler's nonfiction graphic novel, Oil and Water.
This is the story of Inzer’s eight week trip to Japan in the summer of 2013, when she was sixteen. After a brief explanation about her family (American father, Japanese mother), the story begins with her on a plane and ends with her headed to the airport on a train. In between she visits places in and around Tokyo and takes a trip to Kyoto with her grandmother. Her entertaining comics are supplemented with photographs from the trip.
Why I picked it up: I read that the teenage Inzer got blurbs from comic greats like Lucy Knisley, Hope Larson, and Jeff Smith for her self-published book.
Why I finished it: I was in Tokyo in the summer of 2013 with my daughter, on a class graduation trip for her Japanese immersion grade school, and this book brought it all back, from the weird clothes in Harajuku to the beautiful soft drink vending machines, from the girls (and boys) dressed as sexy 19th century British maids in Akihabara to trying to avoid other tourists.
It's perfect for: My daughter. She’s quite an artist, and I told her she should have Kickstarted a book about her trip before we went. (I wanted her to help pay for it, of course.) This is proof that I was right. How often does any parent get that? Maybe she’ll do it next time.