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The Smell of Other People's Houses

posted by: February 11, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Smell of Other People's HousesAlyce is trying to figure out how to attend the dance try-outs that could secure her future when she's supposed to be working on her father's fishing boat. Dora is trying to build a life for herself away from her abusive parents. Ruth is just trying to get by and avoid the attention of her domineering grandmother. Hank is running away with his brothers. Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's novel The Smell of Other People's Houses interweaves the stories of four teens as they confront their personal challenges and begin to gain control in determining how their life choices are made.

 

Set in Alaska during the Reagan administration, Hitchcock makes the Last Frontier seem like home with her descriptions of daily life — hanging out with friends, shopping at Goodwill, eating blueberries — interspersed with that which is wholly new to “Outsiders” (anyone from the mainland United States). By writing this story, she brings to light many challenges of Alaskan society — limited resources, Native rights and government representation—as well as many challenges that are not unique to Alaska — alcoholism, divorce, and abuse. Fans of Rebecca Stead will find a compatible voice in the naturalistic way Hitchcock includes the historical aspects of the ’60s, juxtaposing her characters’ development with Alaska’s acceptance of statehood into the U.S., in this emotionally-driven tale. 
 

Liz

Liz

 
 

Hoodoo

posted by: February 10, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for HoodooIn Ronald L. Smith’s novel Hoodoo, twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher’s family has a history of practicing hoodoo or folk magic. Despite his name Hoodoo can’t cast a single spell. His grandmother, Mama Frances, tells him that his heart-shaped birthmark under his eye is a sign he’s marked for magic and his ability to conjure will come in time, but Hoodoo’s time is rapidly running out. A mysterious and malevolent man called the Stranger has appeared in town and he’s stalking Hoodoo. Hoodoo has to discover the truth about his family’s past and find a way to conjure before the Stranger destroys Hoodoo and everyone he loves.

 

Part coming-of-age story, part Southern Gothic tale, Hoodoo is creepy and mysterious, perfect for any middle schooler who enjoys the supernatural. Even though the story is set in 1930s Alabama during Jim Crow, Hoodoo’s world is a self-contained society with its own secrets and powers. Hoodoo is a likeable and relatable narrator, struggling not just with supernatural forces but also with bullies and his first crush.

 

Smith currently lives in Baltimore and he recently won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award. His writing is smooth and easy, with a rhythm to it that lends well to reading the book out loud. Hoodoo is a good read for any fan of scary stories, but fans of Lemony Snicket should definitely check this book out. Read the Between the Covers author interview of Ronald L. Smith here.
 


 
 

The State of Play

posted by: February 9, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The State of PlayVideo gaming is one of the most rapidly growing and ever evolving hobbies of the 21st century. The gaming industry grosses more money each year than the movie and music industries combined. With figures like this, it’s no surprise that a gaming counterculture has arisen, eager to create and share games that shun traditional styles in favor of a more indie appeal. In The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, notable game designers, players and critics sound off their opinions on the current trends and directions of both the AAA and indie game movements.

 

One of the topics most frequently discussed in The State of Play is the concept of player identity. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural,” Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” and Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’ “Your Humanity Is in Another Castle” all make great arguments for more diversity in every aspect of the characters players control and interact with.

 

Zoe Quinn, creator of the notable indie game Depression Quest, details her harrowing experiences developing, launching and living through her game and gives readers a glimpse into what it was like to come under fire during the infamous #Gamergate movement of late 2014. Merritt Kopas’ essay “Ludus Interruptus” makes a great argument for much more open-minded views of sexuality and acts of sex in Western gaming. Despite making massive strides in both technical and creative compositions in the past few years, video games have still remained very old-fashioned when it comes to sex and how it’s initiated, portrayed and perceived in media.

 

Readers who identify as gamers or are interested in the increasingly complex culture of video games should read The State of Play. Games are currently one of the most powerful creative mediums for expression, offering users the chance to become fully immersed in their experiences through interaction. The State of Play is a fantastic, unprecedented collection of reflective literature on different experiences from every angle. Every essay is spliced with Internet links and footnotes leading to resources for further exploration, and there is much to be learned.
 

Tom

Tom

 
 

The Mystery of Hollow Places

posted by: February 9, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Mystery of Hollow PlacesRebecca Podos' debut novel The Mystery of Hollow Places is a combination coming-of-age story and atmospheric mystery. Imogene has always loved reading detective books, especially the ones written by her dad. When he disappears in the middle of the night, leaving behind only one cryptic clue, Imogene decides to start sleuthing herself. The clue points her toward her absent mother, a figure she only knows from fairy tales spun by her father at bedtime. In order to find him, Imogene is convinced she must find out the true story behind this woman who vanished from their lives so long ago.

 

As a mystery aficionado, Imogene draws on the skills she has picked up from novels over the years to try and solve her case. Her dad’s first best-seller becomes her how-to manual as she tries to figure out the fine art of private investigation. Along the way, she references dozens of fictional detectives which fans of the genre will enjoy. The fast-paced plot is set against a chilly, snowy New England backdrop, perfect for a good mystery story.

 

In the hands of a lesser writer, it could become a fun, noir-flavored mystery, but Podos creates a novel with depth. Imogene is forced to start rethinking who she thought she was in the light of the truths she uncovers about her missing parents, both of whom battle mental illness.

 

Podos hooks readers with a suspenseful mystery, but what makes this book so memorable is her beautiful style and Imogene’s endearing first person narration. Aside from missing parents, Imogene still has to navigate awkward interactions with the boy she has secretly adored forever, fights with her best (only) friend and procuring gas money for her illicit investigation. There is nothing trite or saccharine about Podos’ handling of love, loneliness and the struggle toward self-discovery. Imogene is real, funny and absolutely endearing. 
 


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The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

posted by: February 8, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for The Very Persistent Gappers of FripGeorge Saunders is an award-winning author and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who’s made a name for himself writing dark, occasionally violent stories that satirize capitalism. In other words: not exactly bedtime material. But with his newest book, he decided he wanted to write exactly that: a story to tell his daughters at bedtime. To do this, he had to come up with a whole new bag of tricks and the resulting book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a refreshingly touching defense of tenderness.
 
The story takes place in the three shack seaside town of Frip, where a young girl named Capable lives with her father and makes a meager living producing goat’s milk with the rest of her community. Unfortunately, Frip is also home to some orange spiky baseball-shaped creatures called gappers who attach themselves to goats, stopping them from producing milk. Getting gappers off of goats is a constant chore for the people of Frip, until the gappers form a new strategy: to gang up on Capable’s yard all at once. Capable asks her neighbors for help, but, sadly, they’ve decided that their sudden gapper-free life is a reward for their good character and that Capable’s bad luck must be punishment for bad character. They offer her ridiculously impractical advice like, “Be more efficient than you’ve ever been before. In fact, be more efficient than is physically possible. I know that’s what I’d do.” In order to survive Capable will have to find a new way of life and a way to teach her neighbors the value of community.
 
As always, Saunders' prose is a comfort. Even in storybook mode he manages to be scathing and critical without sacrificing warmth, something not many writers have balanced since Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a reassuring voice, and, much like a good bedtime story, you’ll want to read this book again and again. If you have time, check out his most recent appearance on The Late Show to hear him sing a song inspired by Frip (Saunders is one of those rare guitar strumming MacArthur Geniuses).


 
 

The Sound of Gravel

posted by: February 5, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for The Sound of GravelSome books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.

 

Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.

 

Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.

 

Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.

 

The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.


 
 

Picture Books Are for Everyone

posted by: February 4, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for Mr. Postmouse’s RoundsCover art for Mother BruceMarianne Dubuc is an awarding-winning author and illustrator, but never before has she created such an absolutely mesmerizing book for children (or unselfconscious adults). In Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, we follow Mr. Postmouse as he delivers the mail, getting a sneak peek into a detailed cross-section of each animal abode on his route. Mr. Mouse must travel from treetops to the bottom of the sea in his quest to deliver the mail, but he is never too busy for a smile and a wave at each happy package recipient. Roller skates for turtle or a new shovel for mole, each package in the wagon must be delivered. The illustrations are bustling with details, and readers are sure to find something new each time they open this book. Every panel creates complex, funny characters like the yeti who loves to knit, the overeager ants and a very friendly dragon. While the text is amusing and easy to read, the book’s clever illustrations will win over readers of all ages.

 

Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins is a laugh-out-loud picture book that also gently pokes fun at our interest in cooking fancy, gourmet foods. Bruce is a grumpy little bear who only likes eggs. He scours the Internet for new and interesting ways to prepare them. No ingredient is too difficult for him to procure as he combs the forest, ever the local shopper. However, things get complicated when he finds a recipe online which calls for duck eggs. The eggs hatch as Bruce attempts to prepare them, and he finds himself the victim of mistaken identity when the ducklings think Bruce is their mama. This book has a great sense of humor and will delight both kids and the grownups they beg to read it again. The author infuses this same hilarity into the illustrations as well. I especially enjoyed Bruce’s unibrow and his many disgusted and disgruntled expressions.


 
 

Computer Science Books for Kids

posted by: February 3, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for Ruby WizardryCover art for Adventures in PythonCover art for JavaScript for KidsLearning a new language is challenging, fun and rewarding. Some of the most useful languages a person can learn today are computer coding languages. Many people would be surprised to find that coding languages are not privy only to the extremely tech-savvy or even those who are math geniuses. In fact, even children can learn programming languages, and there are many great books to help introduce them to it. Children today are growing up intuitively knowing how to use technology. Take it a step further by introducing kids (or yourself) to the rewarding aspects of creating or making technology. Creating technology is the best way to fully understand how it works and how it affects our everyday lives. Each of these books explains how coding can be creative, artistic, exciting and engaging. Although they are targeted for children, these books can easily be read by adults who want a true beginner’s approach to computer science. The only materials needed to learn each of these languages are a computer with a working Internet browser and an eagerness to start coding!

 

Ruby is a programming language that is very easy for people to understand. Ruby Wizardry by Eric Weinstein explains how coding languages are like the translator between human language and computer language. Sometimes languages are very easy for a computer to understand, but difficult for humans to understand and vice versa. With Ruby, each line of code is easy for both humans and computers to understand. Weinstein explains that Ruby is so easy to read, writing Ruby code is just like writing a story. He formats his book into a story about two kids helping a king organize his kingdom through the magical power of code. The analogies in his story help explain more complicated computer science theories and concepts. For example, he uses a story about a broken pipe in the king’s castle to explain how computers can be coded with conditional statements to respond to various outcomes. The book is entertaining to work through because of the storylines and a great introduction to coding in general.

 

Similarly to Ruby, Python is also good for kids to learn because it is easy to read. It can be used for creating games, building websites, analyzing data and more. Craig Richardson’s book Adventures in Python is organized more like a textbook for slightly older kids. Each project in this book is arranged by adventure, and each adventure covers a different aspect of the Python language. The projects get steadily more difficult as you work through the book, with each adventure building on concepts covered in the previous section. To begin, you use Python coding to create text and drawings that use Python’s built-in turtle module. Eventually, you use these skills in another module called PyGame, and the book concludes with building an interactive, two-player game. It definitely takes time and patience to work through, but Python is an exceedingly useful language and the book’s “adventure” structure makes it approachable and fun.

 

While Ruby and Python are two very well-known and useful languages, JavaScript is one of the most popular and widely used language among programmers today. JavaScript for Kids for Dummies by Chris Minnick and Eva Holland is a wonderful introduction not only to JavaScript, but programming in general. The book asks for only a few things: that you can use a mouse and keyboard and that you have a working Internet connection and web browser. JavaScript is used for webpages, so the book takes the reader into Google Chrome’s console to show exactly how it works. Those already familiar with blogging and designing their own webpages will recognize how JavaScript works with HTML and CSS. However, even if you have never heard of HTML or CSS in your life, the book explains all concepts truly from a beginner’s perspective. JavaScript is slightly more difficult to read than Ruby or Python, but the book’s use of pictures and screenshots make it easy to see if you’re on the right track.

 

No matter which language or book you choose, you will gain a better perspective on how technology and computers work. Computer science can be a daunting topic, but these colorful, youth-oriented books make it approachable for anyone!


 
 

The Wheel of Time Companion

posted by: February 2, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for The Wheel of Time CompanionRobert Jordan spent more than two decades of his life writing his Wheel of Time series. What started as a proposed three-book series ended up a 14 book epic, and The Wheel of Time Companion is an absolute must for any fan of the series. Fourteen volumes involves a lot of world-building. So many characters! So many plot threads dangling all over the place! Who killed Asmodean? Why is Aran’gar such a nut? Readers need to know.

 

Jordan’s wife Harriet McDougal and longtime editors Romanczuk and Simons assembled this detailed compendium and dedicated it to “all the readers who love the Wheel of Time.” Readers certainly do love the Wheel of Time, and this book reflects the love that the Wheel’s curators feel for the readers, too.

 

For anyone who has ever wondered about the difference between Sea Folk and Seanchan, or how the male power level differs from the female powers, or how in the world the rank system in Cairhien works (and what is the Great Game, anyway?), pick up this book. Every named character, every named location, every creature Jordan ever mentioned, every permutation in name of every Forsaken is included. It even has a dictionary and grammar guide for the Old Tongue. Because, really: What was Mat Cauthon saying half the time?

 

Fans of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, fans of Brandon Sanderson’s book Elantris and his Mistborn series, and any fans of complex world-building need to read this book. It is, in essence, a manual on how to create a rich fantasy world that will keep on attracting readers for decades.


 
 

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