Audiobook: Flying Lessons

flyinglessonsedited by Ellen Oh
Read by: An Ensemble of Narrators
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Content: The stories are all set in middle school, and some deal more explicitly with “older kid” problems. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’m considering moving it to the YA (grades 6-8) because I’m wondering if that’s more the audience.

I’m not a huge fan of short story collections, but when I saw the audio book of this one, I couldn’t resist. I’ve been neglecting reading books by non-whites this year (I shouldn’t be!) and I thought since diversity is the point of this collection, I’d give it a try.

And I loved it! Sure, I loved some stories more than others (The titular story, “Flying Lessons” was one of my favorites, as was “How to Transform an Everyday Hoop Court Into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Pena, and “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents” by Kwame Alexander, and “”Sol Painting, Inc.,” written and read by Meg Medina), but that’s to be expected. I loved that there were different readers for each story, which helped me tell the stories apart as well as giving them their own, distinct voice. I loved hearing the diverse stories, from the inner city, from the suburbs, from rural people to rich people to poor people to disabled people. It really did embrace the diversity that’s out there. Which is really the best thing.

Now to make sure that kids read it!

Audiobook: Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince

woodenprinceby John Claude Bemis
Read by Ralph Lister
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Content: There are some scary parts, but not many. I don’t know how it is as a book, but the story is good for 3rd grade and up.

In this magical steampunk retelling of Pinocchio set in a Renaissance-like Vienna, Pinochhio is an automaton, Geppetto is a alchemist, and there are chimera and a magical kingdom ruled by an immortal ruler. All the elements of the story (or at least the Disney movie; I’ve never actually read the story) are there — the blue fairy, the carnival master, the whale (it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie) — but in an entirely new, and fantastical form.

I think this is one I would have liked better reading than listening to. The narrator was fantastic; it often sounded like an ensemble rather than just one person. But, there were sound effects added in, and they drove. me. nuts. They were super distracting and sometimes gross (really, do we need a sound effect for throwing up?), and sometimes made it hard for me to understand the dialogue.

And, to be fair, I kept fading in and out of the story, so I missed a bunch of the story line. Though, it didn’t really seem to matter. I was a bit disappointed it was a first, as well. I wanted it to be a wholly contained story, but it seems a stand-alone speculative fiction isn’t something that is often written anymore.

It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t the best experience, either.

Audiobook: The Inquisitor’s Tale

inquisitorstaleby Adam Gidwitz
Read by the author and Vikas Adam, Mark Bramhall, Jonathan Cowley, Kimberly Farr, Ann Marie Lee, Bruce Mann, John H. Mayer, and Arthur Morey
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a lot of poop and fart jokes, plus a bit of a running ass/donkey joke. It’s also a bit, well, long, and some violent moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it’d probably be good up through the 8th grade or so.

I’ll be honest here: I tried reading this one and I didn’t make it through the third chapter. It just didn’t grab me.

The story is this: in the 13th century there are three children who can perform miracles. And someone is asking about them, collecting their story. Told in stages by several people over the course of a night, it follows the children — Jeanne, a peasant girl who has vision; William, a super strong oblate; and Jacob, a Jewish boy with healing powers — how they met, their run from the church and then the king, with a showdown outside of Mont-Saint-Michel.

It’s a very religious story (which shouldn’t have surprised me, considering when it was set), but it also deals with race relations and bigotry and just oppression in general. I think audio was the way to go for me on this one. I loved that the different tale tellers had different narrators reading the tale, each giving it their own spin. It made the tale come alive for me. (Maybe this is one that’s better read aloud?)

So, I’m glad I gave it a second chance. It was worth it.

See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

squirrelgirlby Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
First sentence: “Doreen Green liked her name.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Release date: February 7, 2017
Content: There’s a bit of violence, but it’s mostly cartoonish. There are some complicated words and it’s a bit long for younger readers, but the chapters are short and action-packed and I think reluctant readers will take to it. It will be in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to 6-7th graders as well.

Doreen Green was born with the abilities (and tail) of a squirrel. For her her whole life (all 14 years of it) she’s been home schooled and told to keep her abilities secret. But she and her parents have recently moved to the suburbs in New Jersey, and there are Things that need to be Done, and can only be done by a superhero. And it looks like that Dorreen, with the help of her new BFFAEAE (best fried forever and ever and ever) Ana Sofia and the local squirrel contingent, is the hero her town needs.

I have to admit that it took me a bit to get into the feel of this book. I generally like the Hales’ sense of humor, but for some reason this one felt a bit too over the top for me. But, I settled into it (also: not really the target audience), and they had me laughing by the end. (I especially liked the text conversations with Rocket Raccoon.) I liked that Doreen’s parents were basically good people, and understood the need to get out of their daughter’s way. And even though the book started out slow, it finished exciting.

A lot of fun!

The Matchstick Castle

matchstickby Keif Graff
First sentence: “It was supposed to be the perfect summer.”
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Content: It’s a whole lot of silly, and there are some big words, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd grader and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Brian has a good life in Boston. Friends, his family (consisting of Dad and two older brothers), soccer. Then this summer comes along and his dad gets an opportunity to go to Antarctica to look through this awesome telescope (which probably had something to do with his job, but I was never quite sure), and takes it. Brian’s older brothers can either stay with friends or are old enough to stay home alone, but Brian is farmed out to his Uncle and Aunt’s house… in Boring, Illinois. (At least it’s not Ohio or Kansas).

Brian and his cousin Nora are in for the most Boring of Boring summers: Uncle Gary is developing educational software and needs beta testers. He’s obsessively strict about it: “school” starts at 8:45 and goes until 4, and the kids aren’t allowed to leave the yard. (UGH.) But Brian breaks the rules and goes exploring in the woods and finds… this awesomely weird and crazy house with an awesomely weird and crazy kid, Cosmo, with his awesomely weird and crzy family He drags Nora into it (after there’s some grounding and a lot of lying on the part of the kids), and they end up having a couple of Adventures as they search for Cosmo’s missing uncle (turns out he was in the house) and fight against Boring’s Bureaucracy that wants to knock the house — the titular Matchstick Castle — down.

I liked that it was just weird and crazy and not Magical; everything unusual that happened had a rational, realistic explanation while still seeming fantastical.  It did have an old-fashioned feel (it’s interesting to see how authors get around the Modern Dilemma of hovering parents and technology; in fact, one of my favorite bits was the weird and crazy family interacting with computers, which they have avoided for lo these many years) to it, which was fun.

But, I wasn’t super wowed by it either. Uncle Gary was such a caricature of overbearing parents that it was silly. And, aside from Nora, there wasn’t any girls in it at all. (Well, Cosmo’s mom does make an appearance, and Nora does have a mom who kind of hovers in the background). And, honestly, Nora doesn’t do all that much, either. Which was disappointing.

It was fun enough, though, even if it wasn’t brilliant.

The World of Pooh

worldofpoohby A. A. Milne
First sentence: “If you happen to have read another book about Christopher Robin, you may remember that he once had a swan (or the swan had Christopher Robin, I don’t know which) and that he used to call this swan Pooh.
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Content: These are meant to be read aloud, and we started our girls on them when they were around 4 years old. That said, they’re delightful for anyone.

I was in need of comfort reading, and so what better thing than to pull out Pooh Bear, who hasn’t been read in several years. At least since K was 4 or 5. Which is definitely too long.

I’d forgotten how enjoyable and silly and wonderful these stories are. (And how faithful the Disney movie is!) I loved all the characters from the passive-aggressive grump Eeyore to the simple yet profound Pooh Bear to the small and anxious Piglet. The stories are so delightful and they made me laugh, which is something I needed. I read one or two stories each night, and I looked forward to visiting the animals every night.

It’s definitely a classic. And one that I should revisit again soon.