Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Genius Files Roundup

A secret organization to identify kid geniuses is the premise on which Coke and Pepsi are given ciphers and chased to the death by evil masterminds.

Their family cross-country drive in an RV - stopping in little-known towns with little-known claims to fame - provides the basis for random facts of all sorts.

An entertaining read. As far I could tell, a couple of the books had extra ciphers directed at the reader, and I thought those were especially fun.

License to Thrill (The Genius Files #5) by Dan Gutman

★★½

First of all, don't let my low rating scare you away. I know I am not the target audience for this book, which is probably middle-elementary school boys. Sebastien, currently in 3rd grade, enjoyed this series quite a bit, and I credit these books with helping to get him interested in longer chapter books.

That said, it's just too silly and outrageous for my liking! In this book, we deviate a bit from the familiar cross-country trip during which Coke and Pep fend off Dr. Warsaw and his henchmen. Instead, the first few chapters pick up where the last book left off - with Coke and Pep being abducted by aliens! At least it provided some context for the author to impart a bunch of science and space-related facts.

The book does give us a conclusion, though maybe I'd stop short of calling it satisfying.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

From Texas with Love (The Genius Files #4) by Dan Gutman

★★½

Hm. This installment seemed lacking.

First, I was taken by surprise by the finality of Evil Elvis's demise in the last book. Given Evil Elvis's true identity, I kept expecting him to re-appear, as Dr. Warsaw did. It seems a bit much to think about the kids' role in that death.

While still trying to stay one step ahead of Mrs. Higgins and the bowler dudes, for much of the book there was no defined antagonist masterminding opposition to the twins. They continued to receive ciphers, so there was the promise of a new adversary - who finally showed up in the last quarter of the book - but most of this book just felt like a lot of waiting for something to happen.

I also am continually tired of the sexism - intentional or not. I haven't been keeping tabs, but it seems like every time the twins get into trouble together, it's Pep who cries in desperation, and Coke who comes up with a clever means of escape.

I'm not sure I like the supernatural twist at the end of this book... That would be going too far, even for this crazy series!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

You Only Die Twice (The Genius Files #3) by Dan Gutman

★★★

Hmm... Still not crazy about how these books reinforce sexist ideas along the lines of, "girls like bunnies and shopping, boys like water balloons and car crashes."

The first cipher was uncharacteristically easy, and I was annoyed that Pepsi had such trouble figuring out something so simple! CLEARLY, the cipher was meant to read "EVIL LIVES", as a warning that all their troubles were NOT behind them. Well, imagine my surprise when I realized I was wrong! Ha. The actual meaning was certainly more comical, but I still don't see why Pepsi wouldn't have gone down the same path I did.

I continue to not understand why Bones and Mya insist on making their presence known by initially kidnapping Coke and Pepsi and giving them a scare instead of just walking up to them and talking to them!

It also didn't sit well with me that Coke and Pepsi managed to illegally purchase fireworks.

With so many negatives, you'd think my star rating would be lower. But I did manage to find 3 ciphers directed at the reader in this book, and that made me happy. Plus, there was another crazy twist at the end! This series is obviously not meant to be taken seriously, so if you suspend disbelief and just go with the flow, it's an entertaining read.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

★★★★

This book is written as a letter to the author's 15-year-old son, though I didn't find it particularly accessible. The subject matter is heavy, the writing itself at times poetic.

My rating is mostly a reflection of my belief that the content should be widely read, especially by people who might not spend a lot of time thinking about race. In this book, we have a first-person account of what it's like to grow up with no choice but to think about race, to think about race in every facet of life, and what that race means not only to your sense of identity, but how it relates to your very survival. As Coates explains, at the most basic level, a black person's greatest concern is his struggle to control what happens to his own body.

Part think piece, part memoir, the author puts on display the raw reality of growing up black in West Baltimore. There's a dichotomy between the streets and school, yet both institutions failed the author as equally unrealistic paths to achieving the American "Dream".

The author writes about "being 'politically conscious' - as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty." (p. 34) Coates's lack of religious faith is notable. He faced all the tough questions without being able to fall back on a "greater good" or "God's plan", forcing him to continually grapple with a search for answers and explanations. Though he struggled at first with finding a common narrative, a single truth, he learned at Howard University - his "Mecca" - to embrace the dialogue and debate as being worthwhile in themselves.

Early on, Coates states an important premise: "America believes itself exceptional... I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard." (p. 8) Clearly, an "exceptional moral standard" would preclude pervasive and institutional racism, and at the end of the book, the author poignantly urges his son to "struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca." (p. 151) I get wanting to pass the torch, but I did wonder if maybe it's a heavy burden to place on a 15-year-old.

I found the memoir portions of the book most engaging, for example, the complete revelation he had when he traveled internationally for the first time, and his incredibly profound coming-to-terms in dealing with a friend's death at the hands of the police.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Never Say Genius (The Genius Files #2) by Dan Gutman

★★★

Coke and Pepsi and their parents continue their cross-country drive from CA to Washington, DC. Even more than in the first book, this book has the children caught up in outlandish situations. In between, we learn all sorts of random facts. In a way, this books actually seems less about The Genius Files and more about spreading quirky facts about Americana!

Truth be told, I was disappointed not to find any ciphers directed at readers in this book. But, I did enjoy the big twist in the end!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Mission Impossible (The Genius Files #1) by Dan Gutman

★★★½

A fun read about twins named Coke and Pepsi whose cross-country drive with their parents is overshadowed by their recent discovery of being secret members of The Genius Files.

The third person narrator frequently employs author intrusion, speaking directly to the reader for comedic effect. There is humor throughout the book, mostly of the "safe" kid-appropriate variety.

It's worth mentioning, though, that there is prominent scatological humor involving the dumping of waste from an RV. And I was slightly bothered by a reference to boys not having feelings; it just didn't seem like a productive thing to put in a book that many young boys are likely to read. We also see a bit of talking back to teachers, and the word "retarded" is used. Though effort is made to point out that "retarded" is not appropriate language, it's done somewhat dismissively. Oh, and the kids were required to keep The Genius Files secret from their parents. I don't know, I get that the appeal of many children's books is that the kids are supposed to figure things out for themselves, but the whole don't-tell-any-adults thing in kids' books always rubs me the wrong way.

All that aside, this book reminded me a bit of the 39 Clues series, not only because of the brother-sister pair who try to figure out clues while on the move with dangerous individuals on their tail, but also because the brother in each series is the funny one with a photographic memory, and the sister in each series is the more emotional but clever one. Also, like 39 Clues, the reader has lots of opportunities to learn about real people and places as the sibling duo travels from place to place. Only, in this book, the places and things that kids can learn about are not always educational, but more like fun facts, for example, the existence of a Pez museum in California, or giant balls of twine in Kansas and Minnesota. There are drawings and photos that are entertaining, too.

The book was published in 2011, so it's a very contemporary read, with references to Facebook and Twitter. The author even suggests that the reader follow along with the family's cross-country travels by mapping out their route on Google Maps.

There are some kind of mature ideas in this book, including assassins and references to genocide, cannibalism, and 9/11.

One last thing to mention, lest it is overlooked by readers as it was by my children! Three times in the book, a cipher is randomly printed along the side of a page. In each instance, curious readers will find that the same type of cipher is given to Coke and Pepsi a few pages later, and then several pages later the kids decode the cipher. Motivated readers can turn back to the cipher given to the reader and decode a secret message. It's fun!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

It Takes a Village, Tenth Anniversary Edition by Hillary Rodham Clinton

★★★★

When this book was first published in 1996, I was in college and not at all interested in parenting or politics. Now, 20 years later, I'm all about parenting and politics!

In the introduction, Hillary Clinton makes clear that "parents are the most important influences on the lives of their children." (p. XII) However, since "no family exists in a vacuum" (p. XII), the well-being of all children also depends on the society in which they live. The "village", of course, is a metaphor for not just the neighbors and teachers and police officers in a community, but also the institutions like government, churches, schools, and medical facilities that all play a crucial role in every child's development. In matters of public policy, the bottom line should always be, "Is it good for our children?" (p. XVI)

Like her public persona, Clinton's writing style is not especially engaging, however, this book is dotted with personal anecdotes that I found relatable. It was especially fun to read about Hillary as a young mother, and Chelsea as a child.

While certainly not a "parenting book", I would readily recommend this book to first-time pregnant women and new parents. In discussions that reference studies and experts (many of which are further explained in the "Notes" section), Clinton explores what's best for children. Along the way, she provides not just information, but insights and suggestions that I think any new parent would find helpful.

Ultimately, the book is about public policy. For each issue discussed in this book, Clinton talks about her own experiences, lays out the conclusions of what studies show, and then describes existing programs that successfully address the issue at hand. A couple programs might be implemented at the national level, but for the most part, a lot of them are state-funded or church-run or even founded by community coalitions. The point is, people are already finding ways to fix problems, and we need those fixes to be prevalent in all areas where they are needed.

The book covers a wide range of issues including support for new mothers, vaccinations, nutrition, public safety, gun control, adolescent drug use, race, education, child care, and public service - and that's not even an exhaustive list! It even talks about faith and building good character. Clinton looks at every issue from the perspective of, "What is best for children, and how can we make that happen for all children?"

Even as a staunch supporter of Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, I do not agree with every position she took in this book. But her intentions are clear, and I have to respect that her motivation comes from a good place. Every issue from the environment to the global economy can be boiled down to whether or not a particular policy benefits children and/or the world in which children live.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The 39 Clues Roundup

Dan and Amy are on a world-wide adventure, searching for clues to some mysterious prize while trying to outrun and outsmart older and richer members of their extended family.

Much suspended disbelief must be employed, but it's a good premise for learning facts about famous people and places in history.

The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues #3) by Peter Lerangis

★★★

Another book, another author! Despite the multiple authors, the style seems mostly consistent. If anything, maybe both Dan and Amy's personalities came out a bit more in this installment.

It's mostly more of the same, only this time in Asia. There're hidden underground tunnels, alliances, and betrayals. I still find it distracting that you just have to accept that other people have uncovered other clues in ways that are never explained. Like how did the Kabras get that antique coin? And I'm a little bothered by how Amy and Dan keep leaving important items in random places while trying to outrun someone in pursuit. It just seems like such a huge risk; I can't believe that they manage to get their stuff back, again. But I guess suspended disbelief is a pre-requisite for this series already, given the whole premise of two minors competing in a world-wide challenge to find a mystery prize of unlimited power!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman

★★★

The world-wide search continues!

Where the first book had Amy and Dan Cahill learning about Ben Franklin in Paris, this book has them learning about Mozart in Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice. The brother and sister pair travelling to different places and learning about important historical figures reminds me of the Magic Tree House series, but of course this series is written for an older audience.

I'm enjoying the chase for clues, but I have to get used to only having Amy and Dan's perspective. The first book of the series made a point to mention that there are multiple paths that lead to the actual clues that need to be found. So we follow Amy and Dan, but along the way, they keep getting intercepted by other Cahills. Since we don't know how other Cahills are figuring things out, I keep wondering about things like: How did Jonah Wizard know to go to Vienna? How did Alistair Oh get the paper that he hid in his cane? I guess none of those things are really important, you just have to accept them.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

★★★

I am a staunch advocate for common sense gun control, but even I have to admit that in the first chapter, the author manages to describe a situation that could arguably be a case in which a 12-year-old child might be justified in using a gun. The shockingly eye-opening account went on to tell how that same 12-year-old girl got pregnant at 13 and married at 14 (her husband was 17). This girl eventually becomes the imposing matriarch of the Vance family - Mamaw - whose life and spirit were central to the book's themes.

I found Hillbilly Elegy to be compelling and informative. It provides ample context for discussion of race, poverty, socio-economics, education, and politics - especially in light of the 2016 presidential election. Still, this book is first and foremost a memoir. It's one man's family history, told in a conversational narrative voice. It's approachable and easy to read, though I sometimes got tripped up by some of the author's turns of phrases. From time to time, there are brief academic discourses, with references to sources and studies, but social commentary and analysis are not focal points of this book.

As a memoir, I might have given the book 4 stars. However, I think my enjoyment of the book was affected by my own misplaced expectations. I know that's probably not fair, but it was part of my reading experience, so I'll explain.

The reason I picked up this book is because I read some fascinating interviews with the author (including this one). These articles discussed two main ideas that struck me: 1) how poor, uneducated, working class white people (like hillbillies) make up the base of Trump supporters, and 2) the importance of "individual agency," i.e., the idea that whether or not you think the government is doing too much or too little to help the poor, poor people themselves still need to take responsibility for their own life decisions.

Reading this book, I was hoping to have a revelation to help me understand why Trump has garnered so much support, but I don't feel I got that. The book does not mention Trump at all, which, I realized while reading the book, is understandable since it was probably written before Trump burst onto the national political scene. The book does briefly discuss how white conservatives distrust Obama, actually doubting his citizenship and faith, but the author only acknowledges that some people think racism is a factor, and then quickly moves on to other possible explanations.

As for "individual agency" - the concept is exemplified in many anecdotes throughout the book, but the idea wasn't fleshed out in a comprehensive way like I had hoped.

The interview linked above also mentioned the idea that hillbillies, i.e., poor "white trash", are the only group of people that Americans are unashamed to look down upon. It would be unacceptably racist to openly disparage poor blacks, but somehow, thinking less of poor whites is okay. This book had a lot of potential for in-depth discussions of race, but it largely avoided the topic. In fact, the author's wife has an Indian-sounding name - Usha - but her ethnicity is not revealed in the book. Not knowing for sure, but assuming she was Indian, I found myself wondering how the author's family, given their deep white roots, might have reacted to Usha's non-whiteness, or how the author might have felt marrying into a non-white family. (Being in a mixed-race marriage myself, my experience is that race is not a non-issue.)

One completely random but interesting side note. The author credits his Yale professor Amy Chua - of Tiger Mom fame! - for giving him good advice and encouraging him to write this book. Just seemed like a small world type connection - perhaps an example of the kind of elite networking the author describes in the book!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues #1) by Rick Riordan

★★★★

I really enjoyed this book! It's like the movie National Treasure; there's a series of clues that are buried in time and based on history (so there's even some educational value beyond the reading itself), and it all leads to some kind of mystery treasure. Except this book has more teams competing to find the treasure, and a couple of the teams include kids. Lots of over-the-top espionage and action, but if you can commit to the suspended disbelief, it's a lot of fun. There's a good deal of chuckle-worthy humor, too, especially in the form of random kid-typical comments from Dan.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Friendship Matchmaker by Randa Abdel-Fattah

★★½

I had a shaky start with this one. Lara Zany is the official "friendship matchmaker" at her school. She comes across as sincerely wanting to help others make friends, yet she's got a misguided list of "rules" about how to make and keep friends in school. She's not very likable at first, but I have to admit, by the end - when she learns a thing or two about how to really make friends - I was glad everything worked out for her.

I'm always on the lookout for diversity in books, so I'll mention that this book happens to have a character named Emily Wong. She is the new girl in school who just happens to be Chinese. She is an independent-minded individual and is immediately skeptical of Lara's "rules". Again, she was strangely not entirely likable. I liked her confidence and sense of self, but she kind of bordered on impertinent.

Finally, I was a little put off by how the characters in this book were meant to be 7th graders. They actually seemed to behave more like 5th or 6th graders to me. It's weird, because I just read another book about 5th graders who seemed more like 7th graders to me!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio

★★★★½

Auggie & Me consists of three separate stories, each previously published as an ebook. Wonder left me downright yearning to read Julian and Charlotte's stories, so I was eager to read this collection that includes both Julian and Charlotte's perspectives.

The Julian Chapter ★★★★

I started out not really liking this story, with Julian's actions basically being explained away with excuses. Still, it made sense from Julian's perspective, and I could understand Julian's parents being blinded by love for their son; it's hard for any parent to believe that their child could actually be the bully.

The school administrators, however, were another story. Mr. Tushman and Dr. Jansen were in a position to do more for both Julian and Auggie. Why didn't they arrange some kind of mediation between Julian and Auggie to address the issues between them? In this book more so than in Wonder, it was clear that the administrators all knew there were problems, but instead of stepping in to help with the root cause, they just took disciplinary action after events unfolded. Yes, Julian was responsible for his own behavior, but I felt the school should have done more to help diffuse the situation.

It wasn't until Julian went to visit his grandmother in Paris that things started to fall into place. Grandmere and Mr. Browne were finally able to identify the root problem - which, again, should have happened much earlier - and Julian finally received some empathy and understanding as Grandmere told him a rather incredible story of her own with a similar theme, and a worthy lesson.

Pluto ★★★★★

This story surprised me! I wasn't at all curious to know more about Christopher when reading Wonder, but I really enjoyed his story. His perspective was honest and sweet, yet still believably realistic. Suddenly, Christopher is one of my favorite characters from Wonder!

Shingaling ★★★★★

One of the things I liked about Pluto and Shingaling is that both stories felt down-to-earth, more realistic. Nothing too over-the-top.

My one complaint about Shingaling is that, like Wonder, it had a lot of relationship dynamics that I think are more typical of 7th graders than 5th graders.

Putting that aside, I think Charlotte's story was more representative of how most kids would deal with someone like Auggie. Charlotte put it well at the end of her story - she was "nice", but Summer was "kind", a more genuine and meaningful sort of friendliness. Could Charlotte have been kinder to Auggie? Sure. But Auggie just wasn't a high priority for her. She had her own troubles, mostly worrying about changing friendships - which she cleverly outlined in Venn diagrams. When she wasn't trying to figure out middle school relationships, she had a dance performance to rehearse, regular school work to attend to, not to mention the mystery of the accordian-man to solve.

This book includes a little recap of the different-books-for-different-perspectives style of writing that is used in these Auggie books: On page 280 of my edition, Charlotte says, "Funny how all our stories kind of intertwine. Every person's story weaves in and out of someone else's story." And that's just it. Every single person has a rich and complex life that can't be understood solely through their interactions with just one other person. Through Charlotte's story, we see how Ximena - just a marginal character in Wonder - was much more fleshed out in this book. We can imagine that even Charlotte's friend Maya must have a pretty compelling story of her own, if we just took the time to get to know her, too.