Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reading in the Classroom: Our Current Read-Alouds

Even seventh- and eighth-graders like to be read aloud to. (Yes, I could have rewritten that sentence so that it didn't end in a preposition. But I didn't. I like to teach my students that writing isn't always about rules!)

I am currently reading aloud three different novels to my students, almost one for each class. I abandoned one (really, really good) book because my first period just wasn't that into it, so I'm reading the same book to both my first and fourth periods.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage: I already gushed about this book in my Best Books Read in 2013 post, and I wasn't kidding around. It was one of my favorites last year. I love mysteries and also "feel-good" middle grades novels; this book happens to combine the best of both worlds. Mo LeBeau is a fantastic main character. Bonus: I get to read in several different southern drawls, as the setting is the Carolina coast. Also, it's both humorous and deals with serious topics. A bonus when you're reading to middle schoolers.

Rules by Cynthia Lord: Although this didn't make my "best of" list, it was probably an oversight. I really, really like this book. I'm not the only one -- it's won awards (as you can see on its cover). It also happens to be on the Beta Club Battle of the Books list, which many of my students need to read books from in order to attend this year's convention. Twelve-year-old Catherine wants to have plenty of friends, but helping care for her younger brother with autism takes a lot of time and patience, not to mention rules. My students identify with her family issues, even if they don't have a sibling with a disability. They also identify with her inner struggles.

The Witches by Roald Dahl: You can rarely go wrong if you choose to read aloud a Roald Dahl book. This one is no exception to that rule. Although the other two books I'm reading might be "better" for middle grades (and they are definitely more updated), I think my second  period is enjoying their read-aloud experience with this book more than my other classes. For one thing, I have to read in a Russian accent when I'm reading aloud the Grand High Witch's dialogue -- and she talks a lot! They've spent countless time wondering if I could be a witch and discussing the various ways to spot a witch. They're proving to me that a good book can be just that, no matter your age or how mature you think you are.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

January's SheReads Book Club choice is a novel with a fascinating premise: a woman is found standing knee-deep in the San Francisco Bay, with no memory of how she got there or why she arrived. In fact, Jennie Shortridge's Love Water Memory tells the story of Lucie Walker, who arrives at her watery destination with no memories at all; she doesn't know who she is, where she came from, or what her life was like.

After her picture is broadcast on the news, two people come forward: a man who says he is her fiance and an elderly aunt. After Lucie is released to her fiance's care, Shortridge relates the story of her quest to find both her memories and herself. Through Lucie, Shortridge poses questions for us all. Is who we are innate, or created? If you lost yourself, as Lucie did, would you still be you? Or another version of yourself?

Love Water Memory is a deeply charming book with characters who will fully win over your heart. My one complaint with the novel is that I would have (and wished to) read about twice the amount that Shortridge wrote. At 336 pages, it wasn't a thin novel. Yet I longed for more. I could easily have read 500 pages or more about Lucie and Grady. I wished fervently for a prequel, one in which we learned more about their lives before -- both separately, and then together. Although Shortridge expertly weaves the past into their present-day, I nevertheless wished for more.

Grady's family, full of half a dozen sisters and a father lost at sea, would be worthy of an entire novel themselves. Lucie's family and their story would fill the pages of a novel all on their own, as well. Although I seriously doubt Shortridge will return to their previous lives, perhaps she will make this new fan happy and write a sequel so that we find out more about Lucie and Grady's future.

Related Links:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Books Read in 2013

Y'all, my reading this year fell a little short of my usual 100 or so titles. Okay, so it fell a lot short. I only read 39 books this year! (*I'd like to note that this number does not include children's books, which I have read a lot of. Repeatedly, many of them.) Apparently, having a baby can put a damper in your reading life. Well, having a baby, taking on a second job with your state education department, being a wife/ daughter/ sister/ sister-in-law, teaching middle school reading & language full-time... You get the idea.

Anyway, despite the numbers, I read a lot of good books this year. Much of this was a result of both reading for my middle school classroom and reading professional titles for school. The SheReads blogger network and book club also sent a large number of good reads my way. Divided into genre sections, here are my top reads for 2013.

Middle Grades & Young Adult

 Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage: Mo LeBeau is the orphaned 12-year-old narrator of this middle grades mystery novel. Turnage creates a realistic small-town setting for her larger-than-life, yet utterly believable characters. Join Mo as she and her friend Dale (yes, named for that Dale) work to solve a murder and also find Mo's Upstream Mother.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Foster child Carley is not happy about being placed with the Murphys. She wants one thing only -- to return to her mother's care. Or does she? As Carley remembers more about the night her mother ended up in a hospital room and she ended up in the foster care system, her strong feelings begin to change.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: I still haven't read another Green novel, but I plan to soon. Made into a movie coming out in June 2014, you have plenty of time to catch up by reading this bestselling novel. Although many bestsellers are not actually excellent reads, this one is. Join Hazel and Augustus on their journey through both adolescence and cancer. Read my review here.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: If you haven't heard of Wonder, you must. August Pullman is the hero we never knew we needed. Born with several birth defects that affect his looks enormously, August has been homeschooled for most of his life. When it's time for him to enter middle school, his parents decide it's also time for him to actually go to school. August does not initially agree, but eventually he does, with spectacular results.

Adult Fiction

Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson: Shandi and her three-year-old son Natty will steal your heart. Read my review here.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: I can't explain how blown away I was by this novel. Although I had read here and there throughout the winter and spring, my reading life was revitalized when I read this tale about Yunior. I guess Diaz was old news by the time I read this, but his work revamped the way I thought about reading and made me dive back into books with a new vigor.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: This was the first work I'd read by Gaiman of any length (having read only a short story or two before this), and I was blown away. This novel was unlike anything else I'd read in a long while, and, like This Is How You Lose Her, Gaiman reminded me why I loved reading. His magical, nostalgic story took me into a entirely different universe, and that was exactly the point.

The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore Gilmore was an author I had read before and liked, but The Funeral Dress took her to a new level in my mind. The tale of Emmalee Bullard and her newborn daughter touched my heart in multiple ways. Read my review here.

Professional Education Nonfiction
Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher: I've never read a better book about teaching writing. Period.

Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson: While Gallagher wrote the best book on teaching writing, Anderson is the best at the mechanics behind the writing. If you're tired of doing Daily Language Practice sentences and exercises out of the grammar book, read Anderson's book.

Book Love by Penny Kittle: Gallagher and Anderson taught me about writing, but Kittle's book is all about book love. You will be renewed in your goal to lead every student towards a love of reading after reading what Kittle has to say.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review: Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

The moment a new novel releases from Joshilyn Jackson, you should be all over it. Many, many people have come to realize this, several books into Jackson's career. For one thing, Jackson's latest effort, Someone Else's Love Story, was named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month for November 2013. Among other honors, the book has also been named an early #1 Pick for Indiebound's Next List in December 2013.

I mentioned Jackson and her newest heroine Shandi, mother to three-year-old Natty, in my last post about Jackson's novella My Own Miraculous. (I also mentioned Jackson's previous novels and linked to my reviews of them, so click on over in a bit after you've read all about SELS.)  Someone Else's Love Story  falls directly into chronological order behind My Own Miraculous.

Once Shandi accepts that Natty is more than a tad bit special, her father and stepmother decide he should be in a fancy preschool that matches his high abilities. They offer use of a townhouse in Atlanta, closer to both Shandi's college classes and more education options for Natty.

On the way to Atlanta with best pal Walcott, Shandi is jolted out of her moving fog and lands directly in the pathway of a cupid's arrow:

I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.
It was on a Friday afternoon at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had all been boiled red. We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.
I thought then that I had landed in my own worst dream, not a love story… And yet, seventeen seconds later, before I so much as knew his name, I’d fallen dizzy-down in love with him.
I’ve never had an angel on my right shoulder; I was born with a pointy-tailed devil who crept back and forth across my neck to get his whispers into both my ears. I didn’t get a fairy godmother or even a discount talking cricket-bug to be my conscience. But someone should have told me. That afternoon in the Circle K, I deserved to know, right off, that I had landed bang in the middle of a love story. Especially since it wasn’t— it isn’t— it could never be, my own.

The story that follows is Jackson's best work to date. That's saying something given that Backseat Saints and A Grownup Kind of Pretty are among my favorite novels of all time. We follow Shandi and William through a tale both current and steeped in personal histories, his and hers. Jackson writes of their separate heartaches with aplomb and grace. Each character in the novel, as always, is wonderfully flawed yet immeasurably sympathetic. You will be rooting for Shandi, Walcott, and William -- and perhaps even an antagonist or two like William's long-time female friend who despises Shandi from the get-go.

Joshilyn Jackson is at her finest in Someone Else's Love Story. It's a definite addition to your Christmas list for some lucky recipient.

Related Links:

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A (Prequel Short Story) Book Review:
My Own Miraculous by Joshilyn Jackson

You guys. It's almost time. Joshilyn Jackson has a new book coming out, and I am stoked. Like, really, really stoked. I have read everything Jackson's ever published, plus her blog, plus anything else I can possibly get my hands on. She does southern. She does dark. She does funny. She does mysterious. She also does amazing things with her characters, making them fabulously flawed people who make enormous mistakes and terrible decisions, all mixed in with some perfect choices. Who love and hurt and lash out and comfort and so, so much more. Have I convinced you yet? That you need to read her new novel?

Let's forget about my opinion, because Jackson has given you the perfect opportunity to decide for yourself. Her new novel, Someone Else's Love Story, doesn't come out until November 19, but she's done something unprecedented. (Okay, maybe not unprecedented, but SHE'S never done it before. So unprecedented for her.) She's written a prequel. A little taste of the world she's created, and you get to visit before diving into the real thing later in the month.

My Own Miraculous introduces readers to Shandi Pierce, star of Someone Else's Love Story, and young mother to three-year-old Natty. It provides a short glimpse into Shandi and Natty's Georgia world in a mountain town outside of Atlanta. We also meet Mimmy, Shandi's mother, and Walcott, her long-time best friend. My Own Miraculous, while introducing Shandi's world for Someone Else's Love Story, also tells a story all its own. It begins with a punch and doesn't stop until the last page:
I was twenty-one years old when I became a mother, though if I wanted to get technical, Natty happened three years and nine months earlier, inventing himself secretly inside me in the summertime when I was seventeen. That was just biology. It didn't instantly remake me as a mother. . . . having him, even loving him so -- it didn't make me a mom. . . . In the mornings, I fed him while my own mom slid fried eggs and melon slices onto my plate, feeding me.
I wasn't a mother; I was just a daughter with a son.
 As Jackson relates the story of how Shandi grew from a "daughter with a son" into a full-fledged mother, she pulls readers hook, line, and sinker into her newly created fictional world. You will not be able to not read Someone Else's Love Story after finishing My Own Miraculous. Shandi and her life aside, you will most definitely need to read more about the exceptional (and exceptionally lovable) Natty.

My Own Miraculous is out now in e-book form for Kindle, Nook, KOBO, and iBook for only $1.99. You can also buy it in paperback or audio form.

Related links:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why I Didn't Finish The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Yet)

Let me preface this entire post by saying this: the first part of The Girl You Left Behind is phenomenal. I have fallen entirely into Moyes's war-torn setting, a tiny French town occupied by German soldiers. The characters fairly jump off the page: Sophie Lefevre, narrator and lead heroine, her sister Helene, the children, the other townspeople, Herr Kommandant and the German soldiers. Moyes writes beautifully, a master of the craft leading her readers bit by bit into her created world.

I cared far too deeply for the characters; I think that was the beginning of my being undone by this novel. I should probably also mention here that historical fiction, and in particular war-time novels, are by far my least favorite genre. I'll blame this on my mom: she could never enjoy a war novel or movie. Along with her fear of birds (although we've both come a long way on that one), she passed on to me a lack of ability to read or view fictional accounts of war. The list of things I've abandoned or avoided as a result are long:

  • Saving Private Ryan (I walked out of the theater; I later refused to view it in junior year history in high school and took an alternate assignment.)
  • The Sandcastle Girls by Christ Bohjalian (He is one of my favorite authors, and this was a wonderfully written book I couldn't continue reading because of the descriptions of the Armenian genocide -- and his newest book is set during World War II, so I most likely won't read it either, although I'm sure The Light in the Ruins is every bit as fantastic as his other work.)
  • Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (I read several of the books in this series before I simply couldn't handle the period of time after WWI when the novels are set.)
  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Despite some of the most glowing reviews out there, I have not been able to force myself to pick up this award-winning book set during the war in Iraq).
The list could probably go on. But you get the idea. Wonderful, award-winning movies and books simply fall off my radar if war is part of the story.

When Moyes wrote characters I loved, and set her novel during a world war, bad things were bound to ensue for them, no? I knew this, yet I hoped against it. A third of the way into the novel, I had to stop reading. Although it was a fantastically-written book, it and I simply did not agree with one another. 

My hope is that someday I can overcome this (somewhat crippling, when it comes to excellent fiction) aversion. Until then, I'll leave the reading of books like The Girl You Left Behind to others. For some glowing reviews from readers who finished Moyes's novel, please click below:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore

If you've read my blog for a while or visited my "About" section, you know that southern literature has my heart. Although much of what I read lately is YA, education-related, mystery series books, or women's fiction for SheReads, southern lit is still near and dear to me. So I jumped at the chance to read Chattanooga author Susan Gregg Gilmore's latest novel The Funeral Dress.

This novel, y'all, is not for the faint of heart. If you can't stand a good, long cry, this isn't the book for you. I tweeted the other day that I had cried my way through the book, and I wasn't kidding. Once you get over the first little bit of hormone-adjustment that comes after having a baby (as I did just over a year ago), the baby's first year of life isn't exactly a time for tears. You simply don't have time for that. So I can't remember the last time I had a good cry -- until this book. It's characters turned me inside out. My baby girl just turned one, and something about this novel and that combination made my heart hurt. In a good way.

The Funeral Dress begins in 1970s Dunlap, Tennessee -- renamed Cullen, Tennessee, for Gilmore's literary purposes. Most of the work than can be found for women in this small valley town is at the Tennewa garment factory, and Emmalee Bullard gets hired on at the tender age of sixteen. She doesn't have any experience sewing, but the lady in the next seat over, Leona Lane, does. For whatever reason, this tough cookie takes Emmalee under her wing, showing her the ropes both at the machine and navigating the waters of Tennewa's complicated social scene.

For the first time in her life, Emmalee has a place that's solely hers. Not her mama's, long dead from an illness her father blames on Emmalee, or her father's, a mean drunk who acts as the king of their tiny, rundown shack. When Emmalee turns up pregnant with a baby of her own after a brief affair with a boy out of her league, she struggles to find a way out of Red Chert holler and away from her father's meanness. Leona offers her a way out, and Emmalee jumps at the chance to escape. However, life hasn't had a history of being easy on Emmalee, and it isn't about to start now.

When Emmalee's one chance out of her father's house and her only chance to give motherhood a real try disappears, she makes a decision that she isn't going to let fate decide what happens to her. Instead, she's going to stand up and make her own destiny.

Emmalee's story touched my heart in many ways -- as a new mother, I identified with her struggle to feed her baby, to heed the baby's cries, to reconcile the end of her previous independence. As the granddaughter of a garment factory worker, I considered my Granny Mullins's back-breaking work at a sewing machine. As a Tennessean living less than an hour from the story's setting, I understood the deep-rooted struggles of the townspeople living in an Appalachian wilderness. It touched me so much, that (in the midst of tears), I almost gave up. It was almost too true a fictional story for me to keep reading. But I did, and you should. The ending is worth all the crying.

Related Links:
Susan Gregg Gilmore's website
Crown Publishing's feature "Susan Gregg Gilmore on Writing The Funeral Dress"
Nashville Scene's book review "Susan Gregg Gilmore's thrid novel The Funeral Dress imagines the struggles of a young Tennessee seamstress: Making Ends Meet With Every Single Stitch"
SheReads's feature "Tell Me Something True: A Visit with Susan Gregg Gilmore"


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