What I read this year: 2017

I read a lot this year. A lot. More than any other year in the last 14 or so. Some of that had to do with 2 book challenges I ran- one over the summer and one that’s currently going. For the summer challenge, that meant 50 books read over 3 months, which definitely boosted my total.

My total as of this morning (I’m in the middle of a book that I’ll most likely finish by tonight) is 163 books finished. 38% of those were non-fiction, 62% fiction. (Not once, in all the years that I’ve been tracking what I read, have I gotten my non fiction percentage higher than 40%. I just can’t do it.) 62% by women, 33% by authors of color, 11% in translation from another language. For the last two years I’ve made a concerted effort to read more authors of color, and I’m hoping to push that percentage higher in the coming year.

I’m not going to list all of the books I read in this post (maybe in another one), but rather those I rated 5 stars. My rating system is fairly subjective- if I loved the book and/or it stays with me for a long time, it gets 5 stars.

I’m starting with my top 5, and the rest are in no particular order. But these top five- man, I love them so much. SO much. When I was reading them I didn’t want them to end, and when I finished I wanted to read them again.

#1 Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw: Dr. Greta Helsing (yes, that Helsing- they dropped the Van a generation or so ago) is a doctor that specializes in treating the undead. Vampires, werecreatures, banshees, mummies- if they need help they go to her. Then a group of murderous monks shows up. (As they do.)

#2 A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro: There are three Sherlock Holmes inspired books on this list, this being, obviously, my favorite. Set in current day (in a slightly altered version of our world, as you’ll see), at a private school, the descendant of John Watson (who really lived and wrote about the real adventures of the real Sherlock Holmes) and the descendant of Sherlock Holmes (Charlotte Holmes, of the title) meet and are thrown into the middle of a murder investigation. The characters of Jamie Watson and Charlotte are true to the originals while being thoroughly modern, their interactions are things of beauty, and the mystery itself is excellent. Charlotte is an enigma, and Jamie is kind and good, as any Watson should be. His attempts to solve the mystery that is Charlotte is as excellent as the murder investigation itself.

#3 Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero: What if the monsters that the Scooby Doo gang investigated weren’t old men in masks, but Lovecraftian horrors? The gang would grow up to be seriously damaged, somewhat suicidal, guilt ridden adults who decide they have to go back and find out once and for all what’s real and what’s not. That’s this book, and it’s magnificent.

#4 If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio: I’m a sucker for a book set in a school. Make in an exclusive acting school, add in a group of hyper intellectual, full of themselves students who converse in lines from Shakespeare plays, and a murder, and I’m in heaven. This book is SO GOOD. The characters are living, breathing people, and the tension between the group of friends is absolutely believable. It reminded me of The Secret History, but it’s definitely its own beast.

#5 My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: Ambrose and Phillip are cousins, confirmed bachelors, and best friends. Phillip is Ambrose’s heir, and together they live on a grand estate. Then Ambrose goes on a trip to Florence, marries a mysterious distant cousin (Rachel),  sends home disturbing letters, and dies. Uncertain as to Ambrose’s mental health, the reasons behind his death, and the role of Rachel in all this, Phillip welcomes Rachel to the estate… This book is so incredibly atmospheric and encompassing. I missed it when I finished reading it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: It’s 1922 in Russia, and aristocrats are being killed. Count Rostov would be dead if it weren’t for a favor from a friend, which sentences him instead to a life of house arrest in the grand hotel, Metropol, where he lives. If he step outside, he will be shot.  The rest of his life, as it plays out within the walls of the hotel, is a thing of beauty.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas: This is the second of the Sherlock books, and again, the Sherlock character is a Charlotte. But this Charlotte lives in the late 1800’s, where investigating a series of murders (of which her sister and father are accused) is far more difficult for a young woman trying to keep her reputation in tact.


Moshi Moshi by Banana Yashimoto: I love this book so much. Yoshie’s beloved father dies in a suicide pact with an unknown woman, and it throws her life upside down. She and her mother move to a new neighborhood and try to rebuild their lives, but Yoshie keeps dreaming of the day her father died and his trying to contact her. Is she being haunted? As she and her mother begin to get to know their new neighborhood and the people there, things begin to change for them.

It seems like this should be a super intense, dramatic book, but it has a detachment that keeps the melancholy light rather than overbearing. I particularly love it because it’s set in Shimokitazawa, which is an adorable Tokyo neighborhood that I loved going to.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber: This book is magical and lovely. A young woman has to escape from the grip of her cruel father to attend Caraval, a once a year performance where the audience is part of a huge game, so that she can save her sister. The concept of Caraval and what it entails is gorgeous, and the magic of the experience is reflected in the writing. It has a feel reminiscent of The Night Circus, in that it is full of magic and wonder, while being something completely different.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This book won tons of awards, and they were totally deserved. I don’t even really know how to describe this book. President Abraham Lincoln’s young son has died, and Lincoln visits him in the cemetery. In doing so he brings the reader into the Bardo, a liminal space where the spirits of others buried in the cemetery exist and speak. Those spirits run the gamut of social strata, and the things they say cover things of earth and beyond. It was described as kaleidoscopic, and that’s pretty accurate. Fair warning: There are two or three sections that feature characters that are vulgar and curse constantly, to the point that I skipped their sections, but the rest is brilliant.

Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone by G.S. Denning: This is the third Sherlock book, and the most delightfully crazy. Warlock Holmes is a … wait for it… warlock. Necromancy, demons, and mystery- what more could you ask for?

Brimstone by Cherie Priest: After World War 1, Tomas comes home with nightmares of the liquid fire throwing weapon he was charged with operating. His wife has died in his absence, and fires keep starting wherever he is. Alice is a clairvoyant whose dreams have been filled with fire. When the two come together in a small community in Florida, things get dangerous. Cherie Priest does brilliantly at creating creepy, disturbing, yet completely enjoyable stories, and this one is of her best.

Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie: I’m copying from Amazon’s blurb, because I just spent 15 minutes trying to write this in a way that makes sense and it kept getting tangled up. “Fourteen years ago, famous Pakistani activist Samina Akram disappeared. Two years earlier, her lover, Pakistan’s greatest poet, was beaten to death by government thugs. In present-day Karachi, her daughter Aasmaani has just discovered a letter in the couple’s private code—a letter that could only have been written recently.”  This is the first book that I’ve read set in Pakistan, and the cultural and historical elements were fascinating, as was the mystery at the core of the book.

Concussion by Jeanne Laskas: This book was the biggest eye opener of all of the books I read this year. It’s about the epidemic of concussions in the NFL, and the incredible amount of damage that concussions cause to players. It’s disturbing, informative, and angering. I highly recommend it.



Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegria Hudes: This is a moving, inspiring, heartbreaking play about a veteran trying to fit back into civilian life, a group of addicts trying to keep each other afloat via a private chat room, and families trying to hang together.

A Million Little Ways by Emily Freeman: This book is jam packed with inspiration about living creatively and fully, and seeing art in a different way. I think I highlighted a solid half of the book.

Jack the Ripper Case Closed by Gyles Brandreth: I love anything by Gyles Brandreth. This is part of his Oscar Wilde series, where Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle solve mysteries. In this case, they’re trying to solve the mystery of the identity of Jack the Ripper, years after the fact. Brandreth’s books are always historically accurate or possible (Wilde and Doyle did know each other in real life), and the resolution of Jack the Ripper’s identity is interesting, if improbable.



Planning for school 2017 edition

I haven’t posted for a very long time, but Brandy requested a post about how we choose our homeschool subjects, so here we go.

Our process for picking subjects for the school year is somewhat cyclical and mostly based on what the girls need that year. I also take into account what the public schools are covering, as a reference point.

History is the most cyclical subject for us. We did early history in the beginning grades so that we could take advantage of the fun stories. Then we covered US history and Texas history in the years that Z would have done them in public school. This leads to a typical homeschool issue (at least typical for us-) when Z was in 5th grade and was supposed to do US history, Tiny was in 3rd grade. I’m not the type of homeschool mom to do two different history curriculum at once, so Tiny did US history in 3rd grade, at a 3rd grade level. This is where the cyclical nature of our approach comes in- she’ll do US history again when we cycle back through to it when she’s in 7th grade and will pick up lots of things that she didn’t get earlier.

The cycle is roughly (based on Z’s grade):

1st grade: Ancient history

2nd: Medieval/Middle Ages

3rd: Japanese history (this won’t be repeated in the cycle- probably) and World cultures

4th- Texas history

5th: US history

6th: Ancient history

7th: Medieval/Middle ages

8th: Early Modern and Mid modern World history
9th: US history through the Civil War
10: US history post Civil war to present

11th: Current events/World cultures

12: US government

All of this could change, of course, depending on what the girls do for high school, but this is the current plan at least.

We’re approaching science a little differently this year. In previous years I’ve followed the rubric outlined in the state standards, which covers a bit of a bunch of different topics. You get a little geology, a little astronomy, a little biology, etc. This year both girls are really interested in chemistry, so we’re going to make that our main focus.

For the arts I choose whatever makes sense for that year. (How’s that for clearing things up?) I know the general areas in which I want the girls to feel comfortable, and I pick from those what seems appropriate and fun for where they are. When they were younger, that meant classical music that they could dance or draw to. One year it was poetry, another Shakespeare (we’ll cycle back through him again too).  Last year we did American music along with our US history. This coming year we will be doing musicals, and painters that they don’t already know. We were going to do jazz, but I think waiting a year will be better, and then we’ll follow that with the history of rock.

This coming school year, Z will be in 6th grade and T will be in 4th. We’re changing up what we’re doing a bit, putting more of the responsibility on the girls to dig in and learn. We’re also changing things up by shifting to a year round schedule. Our summer term school days will be lower key than fall, winter, and spring, and will likely happen in the afternoon when it’s way too hot to be outside anyway.

So here’s what we’re doing.

Math: We will continue to use Math-U-See; it’s served us well up till now, and I can’t see that changing. Z is starting pre-algebra, and T is starting on fractions. (Z would like me to mention that Math-U-See is hard, and Tiny would like to mention that the pages don’t have color and are not interesting to look at. I don’t know what either of them is comparing against.)

History: This year we’re doing Ancient Civilizations, and we’re all excited. We’ll be covering Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia/India, Greece, Rome, and the Byzantine Empire. I’ll have a menu of topics that the girls can choose from to research, study, and create a project about, including: government, architecture, art, clothing, famous people, mythology/religion, etc. Projects can include videos, informational posters, stories, dioramas, models, etc. We’ll do a number of these per civilization.

Writing: This year we’re using the Brave Writer curriculum, which includes copy work and dictation to learn grammar, and writing projects. The writing projects are things like creating a book jacket for your favorite book, or making up a new country and creating a travel brochure about it.

Artists: We’ve done a lot of art, and the girls know a lot of artists, so this year I’m trying to catch some that they should know, but don’t. These will include Munch, El Greco, Durer, Klimt, Rockwell, Escher (I’ve been saving him), Rothko, Dali, and Magritte.

Musicals: This is going to be fun. I made a list of all the musicals I think they should see, and we’re watching one a week for the entire school year.

Science: I already said above, we’ll be doing chemistry this year. I’m still sorting out how we’re approaching it, but hopefully it will be fun.

Of course, all of this is subject to change if it isn’t working, which is one of the beauties of homeschool.

Books I read this week: All of August

Catching up, catching uuuuuuuuup!

Here’s what I read in August.

Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford is an excelllent biography of Zelda. It is also the book that made Z declare that I’m “always reading about Zelda Fitzgerald”. Zelda is truly a fascinating person and her relationship with Scott was so very interesting.

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald seemed like a natural choice after the biography, especially after reading Scott’s statement that  Zelda could have been a genius if she had never met him. She wrote this in one big burst while in a mental hospital, and there are points where you can see the rushedness of it, but there are some gorgeous images and sections.

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest was a wonder of a find. The premise is, what if the reason Lizzie Bordon “gave her mother fifty whacks” was because her mother and father had been taken over by Lovecraftian eldrich horrors. That’s really all you have to tell me for me to be totally in, and it lives up to its potential- creepy, well written, and one of the few Lovecraft inspired books to really capture the feeling of a character going slowly mad.  I loved it.

Chapelwood by Cherie Priest is the sequel to Maplecroft, and takes place a long while later. Strange and horrible things are happening in Louisiana, and Lizzie Borden gets called in to help. It’s part Lovecraft, part True Detective, and I loved it.

Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton is really good. Glennon is a brutally honest woman, and she has some great things to say about life. I liked this one a lot.

The Determined Heart by Antoinette May is about Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein), and it sent me down a crazy rabbit hole of books that you’ll see in the next post. But as to this book- it’s a novel about the life of Mary Shelley, and whoooo boy, she had a life. It’s the best kind of historical fiction, the kind that pulls you in and teaches you about the whole time period, not just about the main character. It’s a super great read, and I really enjoyed it.


Books I read this week: July weeks 3 and 4

Here’s what I read at the end of July- lots of non-fiction, but quite excellent non-fiction.

Careless People Sarah Churchwell is about the state of America in 1926, the year that Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. It covers so many topics, and illustrates so clearly what was influencing and inspiring Fitzgerald. One of my favorite things that she points out was that in 1926, when cars were still fairly new, traffic lights were even newer, and they weren’t codified. So a red light might mean stop in one area, but it might mean go in another. When you take that idea and apply it to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, suddenly it takes on a different meaning. It’s really an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.

The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins centers around one of the most gruesome murders in US history (at the time), that occurred in 1897. Pieces of a body were found scattered around New York, and while the police investigated, two newpapers, run by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled it out to report on the mystery. The lengths they went to in order to outdo the other and to have headlines that would sell papers were crazy.  They often had reporters at crime scenes before the police got there, they made wild leaps of logic, they turned the investigation into the story they wanted it to be. It’s fascinating, and proof that there wasn’t a “golden age” of journalism where every reporter strove for the truth.

Everyone Behaves Badly by Lesley MM Blume is about Ernest Hemingway’s trip to Spain in 1925 with a bunch of his friends and the things that happened that inspired his book, The Sun Also Rises. I find Hemingway fascinating, and this is a beautifully researched and written book, not only because it brings to life this period in history, but because it illustrates just how Hemingway created his own “character”, the way that readers would see him to this day.

Missional Motherhood Gloria Furman was ok; I think I had my expectations too high. It’s about how motherhood can be viewed from a missional/ministerial perspective. There’s good stuff, I just wanted more hands on, practical insights.

Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe is incredibly good. It’s the story of Vera, a 17 year old who was recently diagnosed as bipolar, and her father Lucas who left her and her mother when she was young. When Lucas comes back into Vera’s life he offers to take her to Lithuania so that they can discover more about their family history. Their trip is narrated by Lucas and through emails that Vera writes to her boyfriend Fang.  Over the course of the trip the truth comes out about the psychotic break that prompted Vera’s diagnosis , as well as her current mental state. I’m not really doing it justice at all, but I highly highly recommend this one.

The Poe Estate by Polly Shulman is an awesome middle grade book about a library of things that exist in books. There’s a mystery at the center of it (the book, not the library), and its a super fun read.

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck is a novel about Zelda Fitzgerald. Set in the later years of her life, it’s narrated by a nurse who works in the mental hospital where Zelda lives, and parts of it are made up of autobiographical information that Zelda writes for her.  It’s very engaging and stays quite close to the facts. I really enjoyed it.



Books I read this week: July weeks 1 and 2

Almost caught up! These are the books I’ve read over the last couple of weeks.

Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke is a disconcerting book, because you’re never sure who is telling the truth and who isn’t. It’s the story of three teenagers, Wink, a girl who loves stories, Poppy, a domineering queen bee, and Midnight, a young man who loves Poppy but is beginning to realize that she may not be good for him. The three of them circle and feint around each other, and you know that something is going to happen as the tension builds, but not exactly what. It’s a great reading experience that catches you up in the story, such that you don’t notice a couple of holes until you’re thinking about it afterward, but I liked this one.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower is about the investigation into the murder of Mary Rogers in 1841 and how Edgar Allen Poe became involved as he wrote the story “The Mystery of Marie Rogt.” Similar to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, this book is chock full of historical details such that you come away knowing so much more than when you started. The mystery of who killed Mary is fascinating, as are the lengths that Poe went to. Poe doesn’t come off terribly well in this book, I didn’t care for him by the end, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is SO good. It’s the story of Truman Capote and the lovely, rich women he befriended in New York, and how he ultimately betrayed them by using their stories in his writing. Every character is so vividly portrayed, everyone’s motivation so clear, I want to read biographies about every one of them now. There’s so much in here about class and gender roles, but none of it bashes you over the head, it just gives you a clear picture of how life was and how far we’ve come. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira is about the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and it is gorgeous. So much good stuff about art and painting and love and family and independence, and I loved it.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore is one of my favorite books. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve read it before (I could check but I’m lazy), but I had to reread it again after I Always Loved You because of the themes of muse and art. It’s a story of the Impressionists, and how they really got their inspiration. It’s all about the color blue and Tolouse-Latrec is a main character and is utterly delightful. There’s quite a bit of swearing in it, and the humor is rather dark, but it’s one of those books that you just have to gasp when you realize what exactly the author has pulled off.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale is about a pair of pre-teen brothers in Victorian England who murdered their mother. It follows them from their childhood. through their capture and trial, to their adult lives, and it’s fascinating.

Books I read this week: All of June

Here’s what I read in June:

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is a deceptively simple book. Peggy’s father takes her from their home in London into the German mountains to live when the world ends. He’s prepared for this, and they are able to survive while everyone else in the world dies. Living alone is hard, but they do it, and then one day Peggy sees someone that is not her father, and their isolated existence begins to crumble around them. This book is disturbing, but really, really good.

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom is a YA novel about a blind high school girl who loves to run. She has very strict rules for those around her, and is very sure of herself; until her father dies and her aunt, uncle, and cousins move into her house, her school is combined with another school, and her old boyfriend shows up again. Parker is a great character, as are the others in the book. They’re all very realistic teenagers, and though some of the situations are a little groan worthy as you wish that people would JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER, they’re also very realistic. I enjoyed this one.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is fascinating. Lahiri has long been besotted with the Italian language, and in an attempt to become fluent, decided to only write in Italian. This book is a translation of essays that she wrote about the process of learning to write in another language (the translation done by someone else, not herself) and her Italian and the English translation are on facing pages of the book. It’s so interesting to read about someone who is so skilled at writing in English choosing to “hobble” herself by writing in a language she doesn’t know as well, and to see the choices that she makes as a result.

Loving My Actual Life by Alexandra Kuykendall is a lovely book about focusing on appreciating the things and people around you. It has some excellent insights and I really enjoyed it.

He said, “I stopped trying to impress people a long time ago. I realized when I’m trying to impress someone, I’m not loving them well.”

The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt is SO fascinating. It’s the result of a year of letters written back and forth between the two, wherein Vanderbilt tells Cooper stories that he never knew about her childhood and early years (she’s his mom). They talk about life and death and love, and it made me want to write letters to my parents. I highly recommend this one.

There have been times when I wished I had a scar or a mark, a visible sign of the pain I still feel over Daddy’s death and Carter’s. It would be easier, in a way, if people knew without my having to say anything that I am not whole, that part of me died long ago.

Give Your Child the World by Jamie C. Martin is a book full of lists of books. That’s one of my favorite kinds of books. This one focuses on books set in different parts of the world, with an eye on helping kids learn empathy by “knowing” people all over the world. It’s broken into sections by continent, and then by age group, and includes fiction and non-fiction. I marked a ridiculous number of books as “must reads”.

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen is a gorgeous little book. Full of short segments about any number of things (including a love of Japan, Frankenstein, orange being a trendy color), all the pieces add up to a picture of motherhood that is raw and honest. The child in the book is never referred to as a child, but rather whatever animal the mother is reminded of- she begins as a puma  and becomes a chicken as she gets older; this is indicative of the book as a whole. It’s a little surreal, a little metaphorical, a ton real.

It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.

The Cozy Life by Pia Edberg is about the Danish concept of Hygge, which translates roughly into “cozy”. It’s an approach to life that makes homes welcoming and winters less cold and dismal. There are some lovely ideas about how to make little changes to become more “cozy”, and I really liked this book.

The joy in the simple things, such as making a home-cooked meal, cleaning the house, planting our own herbs, or inviting someone over for tea has been removed because we perceive them as difficult and time-consuming. We need to pause once in a while, embrace the calm, and find joy in the small details, even in the tasks that seem so mundane.

Something Beautiful by Courtney Roberts is about living consciously and deliberately. There wasn’t really anything terribly groundbreaking, but it was an enjoyable read.

Make Room For What You Love by Melissa Michaels is one of the best organization/clutter books I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot. Her central goal is honoring the space that you have in your house, and making good decisions when it comes to what comes in and stays in it.  She poses a question: “Will keeping this item or making this decision increase the clutter and chaos or move my space closer toward order and beauty?” that has been really helpful in approaching different areas in my own home. She also suggests that every space have a definition of what goes there- as specific as “this shelf is for up to 5 sweaters that currently fit me and have no holes in them” or “this is a drawer for jammies I would not be ashamed to be seen in should the fire department need to rescue me”. I highly recommend this one.

Honoring the space we have first is a different mind-set for decluttering than evaluating the worthiness of each object to determine what we can keep. It’s understandable that we will perceive each item we own as having some worth to us because perhaps we paid a lot of money for it, it has sentimental value, it’s appealing to us, or it may be useful or used again in some way in the future.

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick is a graceful book about a young woman who feels like an outcast, who is given an out of print, cult favorite book. She becomes enthralled by it, and writes a letter to the author, who meets with her and introduces her to a young man who is similarly obsessed with the book. They both decide to live by the book’s exhortation to quit the things that they don’t find meaningful, and that plays out in different ways for each of them. The parents are beautifully portrayed,  (rather than being neglectful or stupid) and the main characters are realistically flawed and struggling. The book definitely didn’t end the way I thought it was going to, and I really enjoyed it.

“Because lonely people often have great ideas but no support. People with support too often have bad ideas but power. And you don’t give up power. No one does, regardless of whether they have good ideas or not. No one gives up power without a long, bloody fight—one that usually involves foul play. Lonely people typically can’t stomach treachery, and that’s another problem. They tend to tell the truth and fight fair. So we need art and music and poetry for the lonely people to rally around.”

This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee is a gorgeous foray into the Frankenstein story. Set in a history where clockwork and mechanical body parts are used to help those injured in war, a young man uses his knowledge of such things to do something no one has ever done before- bring his brother back from the dead. And his friend, Mary Shelley, knows about it. And that’s really all you need to know. Just go read it already. You won’t regret it.

When I was a boy, I remember reading books and thinking the monsters weren’t afraid, but they are. They’re more frightened than anyone.

Books I read this week: All of May

Here’s what I read in May:

The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz is a really bizarre, really disconcerting (in the best way) book. You start the book not having any idea where you are or what is happening, and only as you go further and further does the situation become anything close to clear. It’s told in first person, which is incredibly effective, as the narrator (the Calamity Leek in the title) leaves out information she takes for granted and explains things as she sees them, which means the reader has to piece together what is really happening, because things are definitely amiss. Very reminiscent of Margaret Atwood (again, in the very best way), this book will stick with you for a long time. I recommend knowing as little as possible going in.

Your Retreat by Erin Odom was part of a ebook package deal I got (along with the next few books on this list). It lays out an outline for a “retreat” day, one in which you sit down and do some long term and short term planning. It’s a pretty good outline, and I got some good ideas from it.

Plan It, Don’t Panic by Stephanie Langford is all about meal planning, and it breaks things down into nice steps.

My Kitchen, My Classroom by Jennifer Bly was not my favorite of the bunch, it was a bit vague.

The Confident Homeschooler by Pam Barnhill is really short (30 pages), but there’s some good stuff in here.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry is really good.  Set in Puerto Rico, it centers around Lucas, who is spending the summer with his hotel developer dad. Lucas has a tendency to get in trouble, but his whiteness and his dad’s money tend to keep him from too much punishment. There’s an urban legend  in the area about a cursed green girl who lives locked away on the island, and Lucas starts getting messages from her on the same day that his girlfriend disappears. The mystery of the green girl and the disappearance of his girlfriend form the crux of the book, around which rotate questions of privilege, race, ethics, and a lot more. I really enjoyed it.

Books I read this week: All of April

I haven’t written about books for a long time. I haven’t written about anything for a long time. It is what it is. So I’m trying to catch up. Seeing as I haven’t posted since the end of March, and I’ve read 35 books since then, I’m going to post by month instead of one huge post. Here’s what I read in April.

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood is a lovely book about a young black woman from the US who goes to Paris in search of the same experience that previous black expatriates like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin had in the earlier years of the 20th century. What she finds is not so romanticized, not so straight forward, but still beautiful. The writing in this book is lyrical and evocative, and I love the look into living in a country that is not your own.

A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille is really interesting. I like expanding my education theory base, and this approach has a lot that is positive and useful. There’s also quite a bit that I’m not ready to jump on board with, but the underlying core of “everyone is responsible for what they get out of their education” is one that has really helped my perspective lately.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby is one of my favorite books of the year. Filled with short (a couple pages) biographies of women in different fields of science, it is so incredibly inspiring. I highly, highly recommend it.

Crash Course: Essays from where Writing and Life Collide by Robin Black is a really powerful book about writing. It’s the kind that kicks you in the butt because it reminds you that you have a story to tell, and that the only way it’s going to get told is if you tell it. She doesn’t pretend that it’s not work, or that it’s easy, but makes it clear how worth it the work is. There are also lovely insights into life with a child with special needs, and how parenting and writing can intersect.

It’s Just My Nature by Carol Tuttle is a personality/energy typing book. I’ve read others of her books, so there wasn’t really anything new in this one. Her views are interesting, and she does have some insights that have helped me view and deal with people differently.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge is incredibly good and incredibly thought provoking. An all-hearing family who are all fluent in sign language is recruited to live at an institute and incorporate a chimpanzee into their family, with the goal of teaching him sign language and trying to discover how much he can really communicate. The family comes in with their own issues, the institute has its own issues, race gets complicated, and everything implodes. I really, really liked this one.

Art Journal Freedom by Dina Wakley is a great introduction to different techniques and approaches to art journalling.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is another of my favorite books of the year. It’s a loose retelling of Jane Eyre, except that where Jane Eyre was strong willed and meek, Jane Steele is strong willed and kills people. It’s delightfully wrong in the same way that the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie is- the violence is so out of place in the milleu that we know so well that it becomes right, and my goodness is this right. The writing is top knotch, it’s funny and poignant and just really, really good. I highly, highly recommend it.

Summer challenge sticks

This summer I decided to bypass the complaining about not having anything to do by coming up with summer challenges. We have challenges that we choose from each day to do together, and then another set that are for when the girls are individually bored and need something to do on their own. I wrote all of them on Popsicle sticks and color coded the tops of the sticks with washi tape to indicate what category of challenge it is. (Mon-Friday we pick from a different category.) Then each category got it’s own little plastic box that is conveniently separated into two segments so that we can keep the already done sticks away from the still-to-do sticks. It’s worked pretty well so far; the girls are excited every day to find out what’s on our stick for the day, and it gives some focus to the day.

Here’s the list. There are more movies and games than we will actually use, and obviously those are geared to the games and movies that we have (as are the trips), but you could easily make an inventory of what you have or want your kids to experience.


  1. Make pizza
  2. Make pancakes
  3. Make chocolate covered strawberries
  4. Make a cake
  5. Make snow cones
  6. Make tortillas
  7. Bake a pie
  8. Make donuts
  9. Make pudding
  10. Make rice krispy treats
  11. Make cupcakes
  12. Make popsicles


  1. Create shell creatures (collage items and googly eyes on to shells)
  2. Make art with pastels
  3. Paint with watercolors
  4. Paint like Pollock
  5. Scratch Magic Fashion
  6. Draw a background for your sister to stamp
  7. Create rock monsters
  8. Make a multi media picture
  9. Make a basket from newspaper
  10. Use the collage box
  11. Make friendship bracelets
  12. Sew an animal
  13. Make a mosaic
  14. Paint a thing (a paper mache animal from the craft section at Target)
  15. Make things with Playdoh
  16. Color with the rubbing plates


  1. Go to Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
  2. Go to Obstacle Warrior Kids
  3. Go to Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium
  4. Go to Kimbell Art Museum
  5. Go to Forth Worth Science Museum
  6. Go to Amon Carter Museum
  7. Go to Kidmania
  8. Go the the Aboretum
  9. Go to the Perot Museum
  10. Go to NickelRama
  11. Go to Dallas Zoo
  12. Go to Dallas Museum of Art
  13. Go to Heard Museum


  1. Nerf Gun battle
  2. Go swimming
  3. Play in the hose
  4. Water gun battle
  5. Go roller skating
  6. Go to the splash pad


  1. Do LinkIt puzzles
  2. Do a jigsaw puzzle
  3. Play with the pattern blocks
  4. Do Eureka puzzles
  5. Make pictures with tangrams
  6. Do QBitz puzzles
  7. Play with Gravity Maze

MOVIE CHALLENGES (a mix of movies they’ve seen and some they haven’t yet):

  1. Boxtrolls
  2. Winnie the Pooh
  3. Prince of Egypt
  4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  5. Matilda
  6. Nanny McFee
  7. Cats
  8. Wizard of Oz
  9. Jungle Book
  10. Ernest and Celestine
  11. Hotel Transylvania
  12. Shaun the Sheep
  13. Into the Woods
  14. Tink and the Neverbeast
  15. Cinderella
  16. Emperor’s New Groove
  17. Mary Poppins
  18. Snow White
  19. Sound of Music
  20. Tarzan
  21. Cats Don’t Dance
  22. Pippi Longstocking
  23. Muppet Movie (They get to choose which one)
  24. Little Mermaid
  25. The Pirates
  26. Beauty and the Beast
  27. Brave
  28. Monster in Paris
  29. Hello Dolly
  30. I need to come up with another one because it bugs me that there’s not an even 30.

So that’s our plan. We’re also doing some educational stuff, which we’re calling Science Camp, which I’ll write about in another post.  The girls are reading a lot, and there’s never a dearth of paper with drawings all over them.  We have a new trampoline, and Tiny is taking swimming lessons; just how summer should be.

Kids books we’re loving lately

In honor of International Children’s Book Day (which is today), here are some of the recent favorite kids books in our house.

The Creature Department by Robert Paul Weston is so awesome. Two kids discover that the success of the Google type business in their town is due to the existence of a department within it run by monsters, and that department is in danger. It’s up to the two kids to become friends and save the monsters! It’s a great story that also features boys and girls being friends, working with science, and has a little “love yourself for who you are” thrown in with an interesting twist.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George is the first in a four part series about a magical castle that changes its rooms around every Tuesday. Celie is the youngest of the royal family that lives in it, and when her parents are attacked and presumed dead, she and her brother and sister have to defend the castle and the country against those who would try to take it away. Strong, smart, compassionate female characters work and fight alongside strong, smart, compassionate male characters, and individual’s talents are celebrated.

Ms Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera is just fantastic. Ms Rapscott runs a boarding school for daughters of extremely busy parents (so busy that the daughters arrive in cardboard boxes in the mail) where she teaches the girls practical life skills as well as lessons like “how to find yourself” and “how to get lost on purpose”. The characters are diverse and flawed and each grows in a realistic way. There’s lots of humor and the takeaway lessons don’t clobber you over the head.

Masterpiece by Elise Broach is a lovely story about a little boy who befriends a very talented beetle. When the beetle draws a miniature picture for the boy for his birthday, everyone thinks that the boy drew it himself, and he gets pulled into a tangle of lies and tricks as a museum curator asks him to help foil an art thief. There’s a lot of action and low key tension in this one, as well as real information about the artist Albrecht Durer and museums.

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder is a cute story about a dragon whose pet human dies, only to leave her house and her “house guest” to her niece, who believes that the dragon is now *her* pet. The little girl gets a hold of a magic sketchbook, and when her drawings come to life and begin to run amok in San Francisco, dragon and girl have to go gather them all up again. Told from the perspective of the dragon, it’s a nice twist, and the story is sweet and imagination provoking. There’s an undercurrent about grief which is quite effective, and it’s a fun story over all.

Villain School: Hero in Disguise by Stephanie S. Sanders is the longest book that Tiny’s ever read by herself (240 pages), and she loved it. She says, ” It’s about a school for villains. The main characters are good guys but they go to a villain school. In part of it they have to use a blueprint to figure out how to get past booby traps so that they can get to the girls’ dormitories. They want to go there to cheer up one of their friends whose best friend had to go to another school. Going there would cheer him up because you have to do a lot of girlie things to get there and it’s really funny. There aren’t very many scary parts in it, and there’s a part with a crystal ball where you tell it to do stuff and it does it. I think you should read this book.”

Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner is the most recent book that Z read, and she loved it. She says, “It’s about a kid who gets kidnapped and taken to a thief school. He doesn’t really like it at the beginning but then he likes it and then he doesn’t. It’s complicated. The school itself was actually stolen from a Duke in France, and the boy and his friend have to return it to him. It’s very funny and not scary at all. There’s ice cream in it called Triple Diple Ultra Deluxe Melty Creamy Creamer Rainbow Swizzle Milk Munch Ice Cream. I would recommend this book.”

Playing Juliet by Joanne Stewart Wetzel was another big hit with Z. She says, “Playing Juliet is about a twelve year old who is in theater and wants to play Juliet. There’s lots of jumping out the window and sneaking places you’re not supposed to be at night. It’s highly enjoyable but not too long. It made me want to be in theater. I would recommend this book.”  For the record, the sneaking out is dealt with responsibly and the girl does get caught and in trouble for it.

Bake Sale by Sara Varon is a graphic novel “about Cupcake, who is literally a cupcake, who has a bakery and is in a band, but then he’s too busy in his bakery to have time for the band, so they hire a potato. I really liked this book. It’s in color and I liked the art,” Z says.

Mr Pants: Trick or Feet by Scott Mccormick and RH Lazzell is “about three kitties and their mommy who is a human. They want to go to the zombie walk but all of the costumes are sold out. Then they try to get to the zombie walk but they miss their plane because it’s snowing so they decide to trick or treat in the airport but Mr Pants only gets bread and soda cans while the others get candy. I like the art and it’s very funny,” Z says.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth  by Judd Winick is a favorite in our house. Z says, “it’s a book about a little boy who falls from the sky and he thinks everything is outstanding. He stays with another little boy and he enrolls in his school by putting a raccoon in the office and signing himself in. He’s trying to stop a bad guy and it’s really funny.”