Saturday, August 1, 2015

What I Didn't Do (Much Of) on My Summer Vacation

I didn't read much on my summer vacation. Okay, I'll wait a minute for you to pick yourself up off the floor where you collapsed after reading that last sentence. Sorry, there was no easier way to drop that bombshell than to just, well, BOOM, drop it. Now, let me explain what I mean by summer vacation. Specifically, the nine days I spent with members of my extended family who came to visit me in Chicago and with whom I then traveled to northern Michigan to see other family members who had rented a lake house. Dottie and Ty didn't visit Chicago so they could sit around and watch me read. They came to see the city I love so much and have called home for...a really long time. We took a guided architectural tour of Chicago's historic skyscrapers (built in the decades after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871), enjoyed a yummy lunch at the Art Institute, then wandered through a dozen or more galleries so I could share highlights of the incredible permanent collection of the AIC. My membership at the Art Institute was their Christmas gift to me so getting them in as my guests was sweet. We had a busy weekend and then hopped in the rental car, drove east and north, and had many adventures over five days with Dottie's niece and her family. This was my first visit to Traverse City and the beautiful small towns and not-so-small lakes of the Leelanau Peninsula. We biked, played miniature golf, took a Pontoon boat ride, ate out, cooked in, ate lots of cherries, wandered through shops and galleries, watched sunsets, and talked. When was I going to read, right!! But, the area has some great bookshops and, of course, I visited a couple and, Of Course, bought some books. And my favorite is Brilliant Books in Traverse City. Connect with them

Grand Traverse Lighthouse near Northport
Fishtown in Leland, Michigan

The time with family was pure tonic and the Leelanau Peninsula is really quite magical. Magical realism--fantastical or unreal elements embedded in an ordinary, very realistic environment--plays a critical (and a wee bit confusing) part in the one book that I was able to finish on this vacation.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Balzer + Bray, $17.99, ages 14 and up
I love the portrait of small town life that Bone Gap paints. The residents of Bone Gap, Illinois are quite familiar with love and loss, magic and mystery, and regret and forgiveness. To 18 year-old outsider Finn O'Sullivan (Sidetrack and Spaceman are two of the names residents call him), Bone Gap "seemed to be cursed somehow, big losses salted with tiny tragedies almost too insulting to bear." And the latest loss hits very close to home for Finn and his older brother Sean. Roza, beautiful Roza from Chicago-via-Poland, Sean's love interest and town-favorite Roza, has disappeared from Bone Gap, where she showed up a year earlier, muddy and bruised, in the O'Sullivan barn. The people of Bone Gap know their town is full of gaps, gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever (just like Finn's and Sean's mother did), so Roza's being gone, well, that's just how things go. But Finn knows she was kidnapped by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. Searches turn up nothing and soon folks, Sean included, stop believing Finn. This DRAMATIC story is mostly told through the alternating voices of Finn and Roza (I can only say that Roza's story is eerie, frightening, and sometimes confusing), as well as the occasional voices of other Bone Gap residents. These include Priscilla (Petey) a strong, independent girl (and beekeeper) with whom Finn is exploring a relationship, Charlie Valentine, an eccentric keeper of chickens, and Finn's brother Sean, heartbroken and damaged. Memorable minor characters, including a really smart, enormous black horse that also mysteriously shows up in the O'Sullivan barn, help Ruby build a magically believable small town world. This GORGEOUSLY written story weaves together elements of folktales, myths, and suspense tales and asks us to consider just how much we're defined by how others see (or don't see) us. Bone Gap is also a love story in which one character wonders whether love is "seeing what no one else could." This is one great end-of-summer read.

I'm wondering...what have you read on your summer vacation. I mean, if you're a kid or teen on summer vacation. Or if you're an adult who had or will be taking a summer vacation. I'd really really like to know if you've read any of the books I've reviewed and recommended. If so, did you like the book(s)? Why? I'd even like to know if you read and then completely and thoroughly didn't like a book, or books, I wrote about. And why? I would like to hear from you. Do you have recommendations for me? I can see that the blog has had well over 500 page views, so yay! Leave a comment or email me at

I've read far more books than I've written about here. I plan to write a new post next week with some short, capsule reviews of books I highly recommend.



Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why I Rarely Re-Read a Book

I think my habit of not re-reading books started when I was a bookseller, which was my profession before I went to graduate school and became a teacher. As a bookseller, some customers relied on me to provide them with their next great read, and in some cases, all their great reads. Free books from sales reps and New York publishers arrived daily at the store, making it easy to read and then recommend the newest titles to our loyal customers. Their loyalty was intense and most of them were as voracious a reader as I am, which made reading all the newest titles, often before they were even officially published, a full-time job. Oh, but it was the BEST full-time job imaginable, at least before I started teaching at Park View. I just never had the time to re-read books when the new books never stopped coming. Now, as a teacher, I do re-read certain books every year. These are the fantastic books I share with my students when I read aloud to them every day after lunch. The books of E. B. White and Roald Dahl, Mary Pope Osborne's adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey, A Tale Dark and Grimm by the awesome Adam Gidwitz, and Pam Munoz Ryan's Riding Freedom are only a few of the treasured classics I happily read year after year. And I also discover and read aloud a few new titles each school year because you never know which title is going to become a classic. But I still rarely re-read books that are not intended to be read aloud to my students. This is true for both adult and kids' books that I just want to read for my own solitary enjoyment. You might remember that I want to read everything (or nearly everything) and I can't accomplish that if I re-read books. I comfortably own my weirdness! That being said, I want to recommend a three-book series that I've read more than once, and never out loud to my third graders. These are three of the all-time most exciting adventures I've ever read!

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman, Random House Kids' Books, $7.99 each, ages 11 and up

These are not new books. In fact, the first title in the series, The Golden Compass, is celebrating its twentieth birthday this year, so you may actually have already discovered this MAGNIFICENT series. If so, you've re-read them too, I know it, and it's your job to help me spread the word. And if you haven't read Pullman's masterpieces of science fantasy, I'm going to do my best to remedy that intolerable situation with this post. But honestly, I wish the fact that these are among the less-than-a-dozen-books that I've read more than once could be enough incentive for you to head out to the library or used bookstore tonight. Oh, if you saw the movie version of The Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, get that out of your head immediately. If you didn't see it, don't!

The fantastical element of the series His Dark Materials that strikes me as the most magical and intriguing is the idea that all humans are constantly accompanied by daemon familiars, the animal embodiments of their inner-selves, which are fluid and form-altering when we're children, but which begin to settle into a fixed animal form when we reach puberty. The story takes place across a multiverse and moves between parallel worlds, including one which resembles England between the late Victorian era and the beginning of World War I. Also cool, their are no cars yet and zeppelins are a major mode of transportation. The hero of all three books in the series is Lyra Belacqua who, with her daemon Pantalaimon, runs wild among the academics at Jordan College, Oxford, under the not-so-watchful-eye of her uncle, scholar and researcher Lord Asriel. Upon her uncle's return from a research mission in the North, Lyra accidentally learns of the existence of a strange elementary particle called Dust, and thereby sets off a chain of thrilling and horrifying events that draw her into the heart of struggle so fierce and powerful Pullman needs three books to chronicle it's resolution. On her quest, for this is what the trilogy explores,  Lyra encounters many memorable allies and enemies, among them 12 year-old murderer Will, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter, director of grisly experiments involving children and Dust, the regal and armored exiled bear Iorek Byrnison, Lee Scoresby, skilled balloonist from the country of Texas, witch queen Serafina Pekkala, rebellious angels Balthamos and Baruch, and Dr. Mary Malone, former nun, physicist, and builder of the amber spyglass which allows her to see the otherwise invisible Dust.
Pullman is an incredible writer, filling each book in the trilogy with scenes of pulse-increasing adventure, heartbreaking sadness, hard-earned celebrations, and quiet contemplation. Lyra's story includes elements of physics, philosophy and theology. Readers are asked to think deeply and are deeply rewarded for doing so. The fate of the living, and the dead (YIKES), depends on Lyra and Will as they journey across Pullman's fully-realized, richly detailed worlds within worlds, coming closer to the the most devastating threat of all-and the crushing truth of their own destiny. So stretch out in a hammock, hang the "Do Not Disturb" sign on your bedroom doorknob, nab the lounge chair in the most remote corner of the pool, and embark on a reading experience that you too will want to repeat more than once.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Another Thing About Those Wild Things

The Last Wild by Piers Torday, Penguin Young Readers Group, $8.99, ages 10-14

As I shared in my last post, I've been experiencing some creature (dis)comforts this summer. Yes, yes, I know (this is for those of you who've read my last post) the goat and the bear made their only appearances in stories told to me, and some folks might not even consider spiders and moths creatures, as the word creature generally conjures up images of things bigger and more fierce than spiders and moths. Whether I actually saw them, or merely heard tell, regardless of how fascinatingly annoying or just annoying they are, goats, bears, spiders and moths have kept me connected to the animal kingdom. A connection to the animal kingdom is exactly what twelve-just-about-to-be-thirteen year old Kester Jaynes doesn't have anymore because he lives in a world where animals no longer exist. They were wiped out by red-eye, a "disease worse than a nuclear bomb", and which "turned animal bodies and brains into mush and, just before they died, made their eyes burn bright red like they were on fire inside." Kester, who is a student, well, really a prisoner, at Spectrum Hall Academy for Challenging Children in the Quarantine Zone, hasn't been able to speak a word in six years (when he tries to speak nothing happens), ever since the night he was bundled out of his home in the middle of the night and separated from his scientist father. What's really scary is that Kester doesn't know WHY he's imprisoned there. With help from some "varmints" (cockroaches and pigeons with whom he CAN communicate! Who knew!) Kester escapes from Spectrum Hall and is taken to a hidden enclave, the home of the only surviving animals in the land. This environmental thriller/science fiction adventure is the first in a series by Torday and is the beginning of Kester's journey to save the Last Wild, as well as prevent society from being taken over by the evil head of an all-powerful corporation. He isn't alone in his fight. A wise stag, the independent, fierce, and funny Polly (an actual human girl), the bossy General of the cockroaches, a determined wolf-cub, and a mouse who expresses all emotions through dance accompany Kester on his dangerous race against time. This is an entertaining and exciting book that presents a frightening picture of greed and corruption and forces readers to think about our precious relationship with the natural world.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Webs and Wings and Wild Things

There are dangerous and unstoppable spiders living behind the side-view mirror on the passenger side of my car. Dangerous not because they're poisonous (I hope not!), but because they're fascinating. I don't mean fascinating in a words-written-in-the-web sort of way (spoiler alert: Charlotte dies), but in a look-what's-caught-in-the-web-now-way. At first I was captivated by what had been captured in this intricate delivery system for lunch. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road (and the other cars, with people in them) while caught up in the life and death drama a couple of feet to my right. So, in order to avoid becoming part of the life and death drama of a car accident, I pulled over recently and, with an unbent paperclip, gently detached the web and the spider, along with her take-out lunch, and placed them gently on the ground, then safely continued on my way, eyes on the road. I don't remember where I had to go the next day, but I needed my car to get there. I buckled up and was just about to turn the key in the ignition when I glanced over to my right. And there it was! Stretched delicately between the side-view mirror and the glass of the passenger side window was ANOTHER WEB! A gossamer gotcha! Yes, yes, I removed the web before starting the car and driving away. But the spiders are unstoppable. So I'm just going to ride my bike everywhere until school begins in August.


But I can't just sell my condo and move to avoid the moths (in league with the spiders, I'm certain) plaguing me this summer. I catch them out of the corner of my eye as they flit around the house, irritating for sure, but not dangerous. When not in motion, these moths look like tiny slivers of straw clinging to a wool blanket, wool pillows, and sofa cushions. Three closets now smell pleasantly of cedar and a couple of traps with bait have done their job, but searching for a nest hasn't been a priority. So for now the moths are unstoppable, too.

Little Mothra

Finally, before I get down to business and recommend a book, I spent several days with my family at Claytor Lake near Blacksburg, Virginia. These cliffs, which are directly across from our cabin, were until recently home to a goat that would regularly make it's way down them to...well, no one is sure why. Perhaps to watch the people in the houses across the way. And a bear was also recently seen swimming in this part of the lake, going who knows where. These critter sightings happened before my arrival and the timing couldn't have been better, because when I heard that there were brown recluse spiders in the immediate area (like on the pontoon boat cover) I had to be talked out of getting back in the car and driving away from this fascinating and potentially dangerous family vacation.
The cliffs are alive

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton, David Fickling Books, $6.99, ages 10 and up
When asked "Where to?" by the bear, who's been holding the little boat steady as the boy climbs aboard, the boy, waving "his unbashed hand vaguely out across the water without looking up," replies "Just over to the other side, please." So begins one of the most peculiarly charming adventures I've ever read. This book is fantastic! This book is not for everyone. What!? A fantastic book and it's not for everyone!? How can that be when it's got a boy and a bear? Yes, it does, and they are in a boat...a very little boat called Harriet, and not a lot happens. But let me share some chapter titles and maybe I can convince you the book is for you! Unforeseeable Anomalies, The Comic, Teatime, Trust, Message in a Bottle, Smelly, Alone, The Very Last Sandwich, and The Thing from the Deep. That last chapter title should convince you that I'm not kidding about the adventure in this book. And humor! I grinned from ear to ear because this book is that funny. I've read the chapter called On-Board Entertainment (I can't reveal what it is, but we've all played it, probably on a car trip) more than once and laugh out loud each time. Is the book allegorical? Metaphorical? Full of symbols? It might be and you can decide when you read it. Shelton's writing is glorious and his illustrations are magically simple, and in this exceptional book, the journey really is more important than the destination.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Silver Lining

The wind is whipping the tree branches around as if they are rag dolls, as the rain ceaselessly assails my windows. The temperature is less than fifty degrees and there are only a few adventurous souls on the street. I find it difficult to believe that it will be the first of June in two days, and practically unimaginable that summer vacation begins in six days. Because surely this is March. Oh, but wait, this is Chicago. Duh! So, like you, reader, I looked for and found the silver lining in one of those clouds, accepting Mother Nature's dramatic cancellation of all outdoor activities as my personal invitation to read all day. But I'm taking a break to share a couple more books with you. Summer storms aren't unheard of, and you'll need something to read. You're welcome!

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, Puffin Books, $6.99, ages 9-13

I rarely re-read books (more on that in another post) but I've read Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel several times since first stumbling upon it in the Ruby F. Carver Elementary School library in Richmond, Virginia when I was in fourth grade with Miss Lampkin (see my first post for more on Miss Lampkin). The book chronicles the life of a refugee family during a dark, tense time in world history from the perspective of nine year-old Anna. The story begins in Berlin in 1933, where posters of Hitler, with his Charlie Chaplin mustache, are everywhere. Anna and her twelve year-old brother Max are too busy being kids to pay attention to the upcoming elections (which Hitler is poised to win), but their father, a well-known anti-Nazi writer, knows that, as Jews, he and his family won't be safe in Germany when Hitler's in power. Anna awakes one morning to find dear Papa gone, with Mama explaining that the rest of the family will soon secretly join him in Switzerland. And thus their almost-three-year-long odyssey begins. I keep coming back to the book because Anna, a young writer herself, is always optimistic, no matter how dire the situation. In one passage, Kerr has Anna thinking "It seemed rather fine and adventurous to be a refugee, to have no home and not to know where one was going to live. Perhaps at a pinch it might even count as a difficult childhood like the ones in Gunther's books and she would end up being famous." She's a little self-centered, but who of us as children wasn't. Anna is also steadfastly intrepid and she finds herself in many stranger-in-a-strange-land situations. One of my favorites is when a red-haired boy and his friends (Anna is in Switzerland now) follow Anna home from school and begin throwing gravel at her and chanting "An-na! An-na!" Mama intervenes and later Max explains, "It's what they do here...when they're in love with anyone they throw things at them." Anna looks at events in her immediate world in a matter-of-fact way and this creates some of the funniest and scariest moments in this life-affirming novel. This is a must-read for historical fiction lovers, as well as family saga lovers. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a modern classic that I hope you read, and read again.

In an earlier post I declared that I want to read EVERYTHING. I need to clarify that statement. I generally want to read EVERYTHING that's FICTION. I don't read much non-fiction, and when I do, I prefer narrative non-fiction because these books deliver their non-fiction in the form of a story. So, it feels like I'm reading a novel and I'm learning a bunch of cool facts! I also don't read many graphic novels because blah, blah, point is that I can't believe that I read and enjoyed this next book!

This is the fourth book in Hale's Hazardous Tales series and it's the story of World War I told in graphic novel form. HUH??!! I know what you're thinking. How can he reduce the horrors of the Great War to a comic book? Well, Hale doesn't reduce anything, especially the horrors. The hazard level indicator on the back of the book assigns TTMB a hazard level of green, for dire, and warns that the book contains, among other atrocities, assassination, bombing, bayoneting, flamethrowers, guts, machine guns, trench warfare, and tanks. Obviously Hale had to include all this because he's telling the true story of a violent moment in American history. Actually, Hale the author has Captain Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War hero/spy executed by the British, tell the story of WWI, along with his Hangman and a British Provost. These three narrators provide unexpected (and much-needed) comic relief and are the "storytellers" in each book in the series. Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a rich, vivid overview of what was called the War to End All Wars, from its complicated beginnings when an archduke is assassinated in 1914, to the deafening cacophony of booming shells in France's Argonne Forest at 11:00 on November 11, 1918. It's important to mention that one troop, the 33rd Prairie Division from Illinois, feature prominently in a particularly grim final scene. And, because in the beginning the Hangman finds the tale "the most boring story in the universe!", our narrator Nathan Hale reluctantly agrees to make all the major players in this retelling of the conflict "cute little animals." And, of course the United States of America is represented by the bunny. WHAT!? I guess a bald eagle isn't cute enough. 
This is number four in the series Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales. I just found out that the fifth book in the series is the story of Harriet Tubman. I can't wait!!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

So Much (Summer) Time and So Many Books to Read

As busy as I am all summer traveling, visiting with family, taking a class here and there, engaging in professional development opportunities at Park View, and thinking about how to make the upcoming school year even better for my new third graders, I am reading all the time. All. The. Time. I have alarmingly tall piles of books waiting to be read this summer stacked precariously in more than one room at home. I don't imagine I'll read them all, and it's so much fun pretending that I will.

Here are two books I hope you will add to your own wobbly stacks of summer reads...

What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark, Little Brown, $7.00, ages 9-13

Some of you might remember that I pretty much insisted you use crayons when illustrating your work. I still insist and I won't go into all my reasons why I prefer them, but now I can add that a crayon might just save the world one day. In fact, in this very wacky science fiction caper, a zucchini-colored one from a limited-edition box of crayons called Victory Garden helps the outcast heroes foil an evil billionaire's attempt to take over the world using cell phones and junk food. River, Fiona, and Freak ( an orphan, a color-blind science geek, and the son of an angry, down-on-his-luck father ) live in the town of Cheshire, in houses surrounding Hellsboro, an enormous patch of off-limits, toxic land which occasionally glows with the light of subterranean fires. One Tuesday these 12 year-olds discover a sofa a few feet down the block from their bus stop. The arrival of this seemingly innocuous piece of furniture launches the three friends on a high-stakes adventure to save the world from invading interstellar storm troopers.

The word play and puns in this book are plentiful and spot-on. The message, about the importance of curiosity, is vital. The technology is AWESOME! Flash mob scenes where the participants sing Broadway show tunes ( It's mind control, people!) are hilarious. And this sentence from the book cracks me up: "Freak risked his life every time he went to the library" There are plenty of libraries around in which you can find this book. Take a risk!

The gifted booksellers at bbgb bookstore in Richmond, Virginia thrust this book into my hands with such enthusiasm it nearly knocked me over. And it turns out The Glass Sentence nearly knocked me over, too, it's that powerful. In the summer of 1799, the Great Disruption unfastens the continents from time, sending them spinning freely in different directions, each piece of the world flung into a different age, from prehistory to the far future.  In 1891 Boston, now part of New Occident, renowned cartographer Shadrack Elli is kidnapped. His rescue, and the FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD, are in the hands of his 13 year-old niece, Sophia Tims, whose parents disappeared 8 years earlier on a mysteriously urgent mission. Unfortunately for Sophia, the local government, brimming with xenophobia, has just closed the borders of New Occident, potentially frustrating any search efforts for her uncle, and leaving her fearful that her parents now might never come home.  To top things off, Sophia has no internal clock (she has learned to compensate) and this mortifies her since she comes from a family "famous for its sense of time and direction." Armed with everything her uncle has been teaching her, and accompanied by Theo, an unreliable refugee from the Baldlands in the west, Sophia finds herself caught in adventures both thrilling and terrifying, in worlds she could never have imagined. 
Can you lose more than things? Can you lose emotions? Can you lose your past? And what sort of maps would you need to find them? This big book poses big questions!
The world-building undertaken by S.E. Grove in The Glass Sentence, the first volume in her Mapmakers trilogy, is astonishing, and Sophia Tims is a hero for the ages. 

In addition to the stacks of books waiting to be read, I've got stacks of books waiting to be written about for A Bald Guy with a Book. Yay! One stack is two books shorter. Now go read!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Who is this bald guy and what book is he talking about?

If I was your third grade teacher at Park View, you know how much I love to read. If someone else was your third grade teacher, well, you need to know, I love to read. Books have nourished me, supported me, and taken me on adventures my entire life. My mom began sharing stories with my sister and me when we were very young. She read aloud to us every night and two special books were Charlotte's Web and The Secret Garden, stories that we happily heard over and over. When I could read on my own, I became a big fan of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, and Encyclopedia Brown. In fifth grade my friend Stacy and I challenged each other to read all of the books in the series The Childhood of Famous Americans, short biographies of American presidents, explorers, inventors, writers, and athletes, just to name a few. The old-fashioned covers didn't do justice to the books' ability to transport me to eventful and exciting times in American history. And I hadn't even heard of some of these "famous" Americans, so our challenge taught me a lot.

As a teacher, reading aloud is what I love the most, and I shared many favorite stories with you, my former students, because, let's face it, everyone needs nourishment, support and a whole lot of adventure.

Reading for pleasure remains an enormous part of my life. I probably spend way too much money on books, but they're difficult to resist. And I love visiting independent bookstores around Chicago and across the country, and I can't leave without buying a book...or two...or, well, you get the point. I mostly read new fiction for adults and poetry. And I also keep up with as many new books for kids and young adults as I can. I'm talking about books for fourth graders and up. I'm still sharing great read aloud classics with the third graders I teach, and now with my blog A Bald Guy with a Book, I want to share the new books I've been reading with former students and other Park View readers and book lovers. So let the adventures begin.

we were liars by e. lockhart, delacorte press, $17.99, ages 13 and up

A popular sub-genre in adult fiction right now is the suspense story told by an unreliable narrator, with a shocking! surprise! twist revealed mid-way through or at the end of the story. Think Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. You can experience the pleasurable feeling of uncertainty created by an unreliable narrator and the pulse-quickening jolt to your system a surprise twist delivers right now with we were liars. Cadence (Cady) Sinclair Eastman tells this dark tale of a family torn apart by tragedy and the horrible accident that destroys the bonds between a group of friends. These are rich, prominent, beautiful people. The story takes place on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts and evokes the type of life I imagine the extended family members of the late President John Kennedy lead in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.  How do we endure after devastating tragedy? Do our family mythologies support or crush us? we were liars is a page-turner. Don't miss it!

The Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson, Random House, $16.99, ages 11-14
This was my FAVORITE book of 2014 and this book stinks. It's filled with the stench of muck, fire, smoke, sugarcane, decay, death, zombies, the Everglades, vultures, crows, rabbits, and long-buried secrets. 12-year old Charlie Reynolds moves with his family to the middle-of-nowhere Florida and stumbles upon a CRAZY world hidden in the depths of the sugarcane fields. This is ancient crazy. The weirdness of the plot hooked me at once. Wilson's absolutely stunning writing brings it to rich, full life. At times the prose is so emotional I felt like I was having a sensory experience. This is a book about small-town southern life. This is a book about football ( I hate football and did I mention this was my FAVORITE book of 2014). This is a book about fathers and sons and overcoming and righting mistakes, both your own and a family member's. It's a book about friendships and new family connections. Oh, and in all the onslaught and devastation, there is humor. Charlie is funny, even when he's scared and running for his life. 

Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume, Random House, $16.99, ages 10-13

Julianna, one of the amazing booksellers at bbgb books in Richmond, Virginia personally recommended this book to me. I told you I always buy books on my travels (practical and otherwise) across the country, especially books that a trusted book-lover recommends. Julianna knows I love books that take place in New York City, and a significant part of Julia and the Art of Practical Travel takes place in Greenwich Village, just about the coolest neighborhood in NYC. It's 1968 and 11 year-old Julia Lancaster and her Aunt Constance take to the road in search of Julia's long-lost mother. Julia brings her treasured Brownie camera and documents their stops in New Orleans, Texas, Nevada, and San Francisco. They meet some peculiar characters on their cross-country journey, including a voodoo queen and the sheriff of Gold Point, Nevada (population: 1). Can you be practical when your whole your family is gone?  How do you know when you've found your home? Some folks say it's the journey, not the destination, that matters. Find out for yourself in this quirky, heart-felt novel.

I'd like to pause for moment and share a big problem that I have. I want to read EVERYTHING and I want to read it RIGHT NOW. Whew. It felt good to get that off my chest. 


Greenglass House by Kate Milford, Clarion Books, $17.99, ages 10-14

The back and front covers of this book are so awesome that I included a picture of both. Greenglass House is a smugglers' inn sitting high atop Whilforber Hill, overlooking an inlet of harbors connected to the Skidwrack River. The inn is owned by and the residence of Nora and Ben Pine and their adopted Chinese son, 12 year-old Milo. It's winter and the beginning of the holiday season and Milo is looking forward to relaxing at home with his family on his school break. Historically the inn is quiet during the winter, but suddenly guests are arriving like clockwork (and the weather is terrible) and any chance of quiet family time vanishes. And these aren't just any guests; they're a quirky ( I love this word) and secretive bunch, all of whom are searching for something in Greenglass House. Pretty soon things are disappearing and the guests are barely speaking to each other. And the winter weather just keeps getting worse. 

Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter, decide it's up to them to figure out who's who and what's what in this glorious, compelling mystery/ghost story. As he discovers more about each guest and Greenglass House, Milo also discovers a confidence he thought he lacked and talents he is surprised he has. He is a real hero, and on his journey Milo comes to terms with being adopted and learns and embraces more about his Chinese heritage. 

The setting of the entire book is Greenglass House. There are a finite number of characters. A wicked winter storm rages outside, trapping everyone in the inn. I feared that I might feel trapped in the book after awhile. Well, I can assure you that this is something you need not fear! Milford skillfully provides each of the guests with the opportunity to tell the story of their connection to the inn. Their tales are colorful threads that when woven together create a rich narrative tapestry. One day you might read Agatha Christie's mystery And Then There Were None. In fact, if you haven't already read it, do so. Greenglass House is reminiscent of Christie's classic whodunnit. Kate Milford has written other books and I want to read them all. Of course I do!

And Then There Were None has also been made into a movie, several times. It's also known as Ten Little Indians. The 1940-something version is quite clever and fun. 

You're wondering what I read when I was your age. 

If you're a writer, you need to read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, 
 If you plan on being a writer, you need to read Harriet the Spy. If you love New York City...yup, you do, too. Ages 11-14

All the books ( Half Magic is the first and there are seven in the series) by Edward Eager are witty, full of adventure and written by a guy who understood that kids are as smart as adults. Ages 10-12

Mrs. Pace, my sixth grade teacher, read The Phantom Tollbooth aloud to us. It's about another Milo. It's about words and numbers and puzzles. It's smart. It's a classic. Go read it right now! 
Ages 11-14

Okay, you CANNOT read Love Story by Erich Segal.  Just because Miss Lampkin, my fourth grade teacher, gave me a copy at the end of fourth grade (What was she thinking?! It was her first year teaching; she didn't know any better), you cannot read this book because no fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade or any grade teacher at Park View is going to give you a copy. I had to sit a few yards away from my parents in our backyard, hunched over this book, swiftly turning the pages, yelling "Nothing! I'm not reading anything, Mom!" 

You shouldn't read The Other by Thomas Tryon either. At least a teacher didn't give this book to me. And remember, I'm just sharing what I read when I was your age. When I was young I really loved scary books. If you love scary books then read this when you are not this young. 

As a boy, I used to retreat up to our attic to dig around in two large metal storage bins filled with my mom's mass-market paperback novels. She read all the time and rarely discarded any of her books. I was too young to read her books then, and we eventually got rid of them. Now I'm semi-obsessed with visiting used bookstores and rummage sales to track down copies of as many of those books (in their original paperback edition) as I can. And, yes, I've found some of them!

Okay. Back to business.

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud, Disney Hyperion, $7.99, ages 10-14
I have not read any of the several books in Stroud's The Bartimaeus Books, and The Screaming Staircase is the first in his new series, Lockwood and Co. I can tell you right now that I want to read each book in this new series! I can also tell you that it took me longer than usual to read The Screaming Staircase. I could put the book aside and pick up something else to read, but each time I came back to The Screaming Staircase I immediately fell under the spell Stroud has created. In an alternative, and richly specific, London (another favorite city of mine) a nasty, malicious Problem plagues the good citizens. Ghosts! A whole bunch of disturbed and decidedly unfriendly ghosts! So, who ya gonna call? Lockwood and Co. 
The story is told from the perspective of teen-aged Lucy Carlyle, recently arrived in London and newly hired by Lockwood and Co., one of many psychic investigation agencies established in response to the Problem. Young people are the ONLY ones equipped with the psychic abilities needed to see, hear, sense, and obliterate the supernatural foes. Lucy's boss is teen-aged Anthony Lockwood, he of the "very bright, dark eyes, and...nice lopsided grin", and research-oriented, sarcastic, chubby and somewhat slovenly George Cubbins rounds out the firm's agents. 
When one of  Lockwood and Co.'s assignments ends disastrously, jeopardizing the agency's very existence, Lucy, Lockwood, and George are compelled to investigate one of England's most notoriously haunted houses. One of the cool things about this book is that our heroes operate without any adult supervision. They are smart, brave, dedicated and funny. 
Be prepared for a final hundred or so pages brimming with grisly, horrific chills and a nearly unbearable level of suspense. 
And remember, a cup of good tea matters the most. 
This book trailer nearly does justice to the spookiness of the novel. 

This is only the first post of my blog A Bald Guy with a Book. If you read it, or any of the books I've written about, I'd love to hear from you. Also, you can let me know what you're reading and recommending. I'll be back. Now I've got to go read.