23 posts categorized "Audio Books" Feed

Literacy Milestone: Listening to Audiobooks on Her Own

LiteracyMilestoneALast week I ran across a guest post that Amy from Sunlit Pages wrote for Erica at the blog What Do We Do All Day? Both of these blogs are on my regular reading list, full of practical tips for encouraging young readers, plus book suggestions. This particular post was about helping kids learn to love audiobooks. A couple of things about the post caught my eye:

  1. Amy noted that listening to audiobooks can be especially good for kids who are introverted, because "he will probably welcome some alone time where he can relax and listen to a story." I had a feeling that this might apply to my daughter, too. 
  2. She mentioned that listening to audiobooks that he had heard before was helping one of her sons to fall asleep on his own, and that it was generally a good way for kids to fill time when they had nothing else to do. 

And then she got into tips for how to introduce audiobooks (what types of books to choose, what sorts of device to use, etc.), and ended with some suggested titles. 

Well, I myself am an avid listener of audiobooks. I listen when I am exercising, when I am in the car by myself, and when I'm doing mundane chores around the house (folding laundry, etc.). At all of these times, audiobooks turn what might otherwise be boring or tedious into something enjoyable. I've been known to exercise longer because I don't want to stop listening, or to continue tidying the house beyond what is strictly necessary. (I have only once missed my highway exit because of an audiobook.)

So I'm quite familiar with the joys of audiobooks. And I had dabbled a bit with listening with my daughter. We started listening to The Wizard of Oz when were are in the car together. But the truth is that I'm not in the car alone with her very often, for more than extremely short trips, and so our opportunities for listening together were slim. 

After reading Amy's article, though, I thought it might be worth trying to l find a device that would work for us to listen a bit around the house. I did a bit of research, and was pleased to learn that my old Kindle (not the PaperWhite that I currently use) supports audiobooks. And as Audible (where I've had a membership for about 12 years now) is now part of Amazon, this support is actually quite seamless. So I dug out the old Kindle (maybe 3 years old), charged it, and gave it a try. 

I took Amy's advice to start with a book that we had already read together. Well, sort of. I decided to start with the Ramona series. The whole set of 8 books is available for a single Audible credit, narrated by Stockard Channing. My daughter and I had only actually read the first couple of chapters of Beezus and Ramona aloud together, but she has also seen the movie. This makes Ramona and Beezus familiar to her. 

So while we were doing some coloring Saturday afternoon, I asked if she would like to listen for a bit. She said sure. I stayed with her to make sure she was able to follow the story, and she was. Eventually she stopped coloring and curled up on the couch to listen instead. That's when I knew she was hooked. She also asked to take the device with her on one of our very short car rides that evening.

The next day my husband and I had some chores to do, and she asked if she could listen to Ramona while she waited for us to finish. This time she just took the Kindle and wandered off to another part of the house. She kind of alternated between just listening and listening while working on other projects. And we got over an hour of work done. That evening my husband wanted to read to her himself, so he asked her where she was in the audiobook, so that he could pick up with the paper copy. She knew exactly what she had listened to and what she hadn't, so I do think that she's taking the story in. 

And so my daughter is now an audiobook listener. I expect to continue reading aloud to her just as much as ever, of course. But if she can listen on her own sometimes, to keep herself both occupied and immersed in the world of books, well, I think that's a great thing. I do happen to already own audio versions of a number of my childhood favorites...

One final point: It's also possible to listen to audiobooks on the Kindle Fire tablet. We do have one of those that my daughter uses. However, she is not aware, and is not going to be aware if I can help it, that she can use that device to listen to audiobooks. I fear that the distraction of knowing that videos are just a click away would be too much. The old Kindle (I don't even think this version is available any more) is gray and boring and all she can do is listen to the book. And really, isn't that all she needs?

I don't expect to be blogging much for the rest of this week. Wishing you all a peaceful Thanksgiving, and plenty of time for books. 

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. There are some affiliate links in this post. 

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: Book I: The Mysterious Howling: Maryrose Wood

Book: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: Book I: The Mysterious Howling
Author: Maryrose Wood (@Maryrose_Wood)
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren (@KatyKellgren)
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

HowlingI do not, alas, recall who it was that recommended the audio versions of Maryrose Wood's Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. But I am grateful to whichever blogger it was, because I quite enjoyed the first book, The Mysterious Howling, and have already started the second. These are excellent audiobooks. The narrator, Katherine Kellgren, is fabulous. And the audio production (involving more than one scene with howling noises) is top-notch. The book itself is hilarious (though I always find it difficult to review books that I only have on audio, as I can't flag passages, and flip back through the book).

The Mysterious Howling begins as 15-year-old Penelope Lumley heads to Ashton Place for her first ever interview to be a governess. Her parents lost, Penelope has been raised at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. She is a capable, resourceful, and animal-loving young female, all traits that stand her in good stead at the highly unconventional Ashton Place.

The book is set in some unspecified historical time period in rural England. The narrator often speaks directly to the reader, explaining how things were different back then (and, in some cases, how they aren't so different). The narrator also sometimes defines unfamiliar words, etc., shades of the Lemony Snicket books. I sometimes find this writing style entertaining, while in other cases I find it annoying. Maryrose Wood stays solidly on the side of entertaining. Although I can't share any quotes, unfortunately, I know that I laughed out loud on a number of occasions. This omniscient narrator approach also enables the reader to sometimes notice things that Penelope herself misses (thus making the reader feel smart). 

Katherine Kellgren is especially good at showcasing the personalities of the secondary characters in the book, including the housekeeper and Lord and Lady Ashton. The children, well, I suspect that their personalities will be developed more in later books (to say more would be a spoiler). As for Penelope, she is a delight from start to finish. 

The Mysterious Howling doesn't really stand alone. It leaves a number of mysteries unsolved, positively begging the reader to start the next book immediately. In fact, as soon as I started Book 2, I made sure to order Book 3. I've learned from Penelope the benefits of being well prepared. 

I should note that although the heroine is 15, The Mysterious Howling is solidly middle grade (albeit with sparks of humor to appeal to adults). Penelope is quite innocent for her age, and her adventures with the Incorrigibles are fully kid-friendly. I highly recommend The Mysterious Howling, particularly in the audio version, for anyone who enjoys middle grade fiction presented with a droll wit, and more than a dash of mystery.

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@BalzerAndBray)
Publication Date: February 23, 2010
Source of Book: Purchased from Audible on MP3

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


All These Things I've Done: Gabrielle Zevin

Book: All These Things I've Done
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Pages: 368
Age Range: 12 and up

IMAG015All These Things I've Done is the first book in a new dystopia series by Gabrielle Zevin. All These Things I've Done is the story of Anya Balanchine, sixteen years old in 2083 (told in her first person viewpoint, looking back from many years later). Anya's parents are both dead, and her grandmother is dying. Anya is responsible for her 12-year-old sister Natty and her developmentally disabled older brother Leo. Anya's life is complicated by the fact that she is the heir apparent of her father, legendary crime boss Leonid Balanchine, founder of Balanchine Chocolates.

What I think is noteworthy about All These Things I've Done as a dystopia is that Anya's 2083 New York isn't fundamentally different from the New York of today. Oh, sure, there are some changes. Chocolate and caffeine are illegal. Public funding has deteriorated to such an extent that most museums have been turned into nightclubs. Water is heavily rationed, and riding anywhere in a car is extremely rare. International travel is prohibitively expensive, because of fuel costs. But really, it's a logical extension of today's world, as public and environmental resources have become scarcer and scarcer, and public perceptions of what constitutes an illicit substance have shifted a bit. Kind of depressing, though reassuring in some ways.

But the dystopia is a backdrop, anyway. All These Things I've Done is a character-driven coming of age story that focuses squarely on the tribulations of Anya. She is mercurial in temperament, fiercely loyal to her family, and as cynical as one would expect from someone of her background. But she's a good Catholic girl, too, refusing to have sex before she's married, and confessing her sins in chapel. She's surrounded by a slightly zany cast of characters, and she only gradually finds her place among them all.

I listened to the audio edition of All These Things I've Done. I thought that the narration and pacing were well done. The narrator's voice felt like Anya's to me, and listening to the audio version increased my empathy for the character. (The audio version made it harder for me to flag passages as I was reading, however, one of the reasons that I rarely review audiobooks).

Here are a couple of passages from the print edition of the book, to give you a feel for Anya's voice, and Zevin's world-building:

"The first day of school stunk more than most first days of school, and they tend to stink as a rule. Everyone had already heard that Gable Arsley and Anya Balanchine were over. This was annoying. Not because I had any intention of staying with him after the foul he'd committed the night before, but because I'd wanted to be the one to break up with him. I'd wanted him to cry or yell or apologize. I'd wanted to walk away and not look back as he called my name. That sort of thing, right? (PAge 10, ARC)

"We had missed our regular crosstown bus and, due to MTA budget cuts, the next one wasn't for another hour. I liked to try to be home when Leo got back from work and I decided that it would take less time for us to walk across the park back to our apartment. Daddy once told how the park used to be when he was a kid: trees and flowers and squirrels, and lakes where people could canoe, and vendors selling every kind of food imaginable, and a zoo and hot-air balloon rides and in the summer concerts and plays, and in the winter, ice skating and sledding. It wasn't like that anymore.

The lakes had dried up or been drained, and most of the surrounding vegetation had died. There were still a few graffitti-covered statues, broken park benches, and abandoned buildings, but I couldn't imagine anyone willingly spending time there." Page 21, ARC)

I wasn't wholly won over by Anya's relationship with the son of the acting District Attorney, Win. Despite the story being told in the first person, it felt like Anya wasn't really sure how she felt, or wasn't admitting how she felt, so it was difficult as a reader to invest in the relationship. Anya's relationships with her siblings and her best friend, and even with Win's father, on the other hand, all felt real.

All These Things I've Done features an intriguing premise (What if chocolate was illegal? How would that affect society and the black market? Would a black market around something as benign as chocolate still breed violence?), and detailed, plausible world-building. But its real strength as a book is Anya, a compelling and admirable character faced with a series of difficult situations. I will certainly read future books in this series, because I want to know what happens next to Anya and her family. I'd like to know if she lives up to her birthright, and if she ends up happy or not. Recommended for dystopia fans, or anyone who enjoys reading about strong characters facing moral dilemmas.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers / Macmillan Young Listeners (@MacKidsBooks)
Publication Date: September 6, 2011
Source of Book: Listened to review CDs from the publisher, and then pulled quotes from the print advance review copy (also from the publisher).

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

AudibleKids Launched: Audiobook Website for Parents and Children

I received the press release below in my inbox today. It's about the launch of a children's book-specific Audible site, with various community features like sharing of reviews and lists. Audible/Amazon will be working with Reading is Fundamental on the project, too. I'm interested in this site as a long-time Audible subscriber, one who frequently download children's and young adult books, so I took a quick look.

It's not clear to me exactly how the integration will work with existing Audible accounts. I was able to log in using my Audible username and password, but it didn't list any of my previously purchased titles in the download list - that seems to be completely separate. This makes me wonder if this is a first step in weaning people away from Audible's subscription model to a pay per book model, now that Amazon has purchased Audible. But perhaps I'm just being paranoid. I just hate the idea of potentially losing a service that I've enjoyed for years.

Anyway, I could see using this site to select books for now, and then going back to my regular Audible account to purchase them. I'll be interested to see if all of the books are available at both sites, or whether there are differences. It's definitely something that I'll be following. The press release follows (highlighting mine).

One-of-a-kind community of parents, educators, and children launches a website with nearly 4,000 titles and exclusive and never-before-released content

NEWARK, N.J.--Monday March 31--The leading provider of premium digital audio, Audible, Inc., part of the Amazon.com, Inc., group of companies (NASDAQ:AMZN - News), today announced the launch of AudibleKids, a first-of-its-kind destination where families can find and purchase the highest-quality digital children's audio books available online. AudibleKids.com is a safe and engaging community environment for parents and children to discover and listen to thousands of children's audio books, share recommendations and discuss listening experiences. AudibleKids is launching with nearly 4,000 titles from over 75 publishers, including 500+ new-to-digital titles such as exclusive stories from R. L. Stine of "Goosebumps" fame, all playable on iPods and hundreds of audio players and mobile devices. AudibleKids provides unmatched choice and convenience for parents, children and educators.

"We're igniting a young person's love of reading through digital audio books. We believe that AudibleKids will help children to develop critical literacy skills such as improved reading ability and comprehension," said Donald Katz, founder and CEO of Audible. "The unique power of audio books to engage, entertain and bring a story to life can help children develop a love of books. We fully expect AudibleKids will reposition digital music players as story-tellers and learning machines, and thus build a new generation of enthusiastic readers."

"AudibleKids is a truly unique community for anyone who is passionate about children's books, where one can discover the highest quality children's audio books available on demand-in a medium that is becoming as common as backpacks and pencils," added Brian Fitzgerald, vice president of AudibleKids. "From reaching out to reluctant readers to encouraging gifted readers to stretch their limits with more challenging books, AudibleKids is helping families build a bridge to books for this media-saturated, multi-tasking generation."

AudibleKids is working with Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. (RIF), the nation's oldest and largest nonprofit children's and family literacy organization, to help support RIF's mission of motivating all children to become lifelong readers. As part of the arrangement with RIF, AudibleKids will provide a featured section on the website where children, parents and educators can always download a select number of audiobooks for free. "Children enjoy listening to stories being read aloud," said Carol H. Rasco, president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental. "RIF's new relationship with AudibleKids is especially exciting because it's a generation-relevant way to motivate children to read and improve their literacy skills."

Beyond its extensive library, AudibleKids can help families discover great audio books for the first time, and receive peer-to-peer audio book advice. The friendly, easy-to-navigate site provides the ability to search and browse titles by age, grade, category, award winners, and more. Further, with AudibleKids, parents can get recommendations of the best books for their kids from English teachers, librarians, reading specialists, and other educational leaders. Through the ideas children have expressed in extensive field studies, and by working with top media literacy experts, AudibleKids has developed a curriculum for parents, teachers and educators designed to help them get the most from their listening experience.

About AudibleKids

AudibleKids is a creation of Audible, Inc., the leading online provider of premium digital spoken word audio content on the Internet. Content from AudibleKids is downloaded and played back on personal computers, CDs, or AudibleReady(r) computer-based and wireless mobile devices. Audible and AudibleKids are the preeminent providers of spoken word audio products for Apple's iTunes Store. Audible headquarters are in Newark, NJ, with offices in London, England, and alliances in Germany and France.

Not Feeling Like "I Should Be Doing Something Else"

I ran across this quote recently, at Ocean Without End, and it's really stuck with me:

"Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else." ~ Gloria Steinem

For me, the thing that when I do it, I don't feel like I should be doing something else, is walking while listening to a book. It doesn't work just walking - then my brain is active, and I start worrying about tasks that I should be working on. And it doesn't always work just reading (unless I'm in bed, ready to go to sleep). But if I'm out walking, striding along getting good exercise, and my mind if taken up by the audio version of a good book, then I am completely in the moment.

This is pretty much the only time all day that I don't stress about the other things that I'm not working on (whether they are paying work or working on my blog). Something about the combination of doing something to help me get in shape, and being outside in the California air, and being immersed in a story, that works for me. It captures my full being (at least most of the time).

What about you? What are the things that you do that, when you're doing them, you don't feel like you should be doing something else?

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Boy Proof: Cecil Castellucci

I'd been hearing good things about Cecil Castellucci's Boy Proof for quite some time, and noticed it recently on Audible.com. Boy Proof is another book that kept me out walking longer than I would have otherwise, because I wanted to know what would happen next (though in a different sort of way than with Life As We Knew It).

Boy Proof is the story of high school senior Victoria Jurgen, who prefers to be called "Egg." Victoria/Egg is an unabashed geek, and self-selected social outcast. She dresses in a long white cloak and shaves her head, in homage to her favorite movie character, Egg from the science fiction adventure Terminal Earth. She sits by herself at lunchtime and reads. Her only school participation is in the Science Fiction club and as the photographer for the school paper. She's very bright, and accustomed to doing well in school, with a particular interest in World History, but she's not very good with people.

Egg considers herself "Boy Proof". She deliberately makes herself unattractive, wearing baggy clothing and no make-up, and genuinely believes herself to be invisible. Imagine her surprise when a new student, the handsome and popular Max Carter, starts to pay attention to her. She resists his friendship, but is eventually drawn in by the things that they have in common. The two soon share a bond, but things are complicated by Max's decision to date another, more conventional, girl.

I love Egg. She's smart, talented, and funny, but she's also insecure, and sometimes downright mean to other people. I cringed for her at times, and wanted to scold her at others (she's particularly harsh to a perfectly nice girl from the Science Fiction club who just wants to be her friend, and to her mother). But through it all, I identified with her, and wanted her to succeed.

The audio version of Boy Proof is excellent. The narrator, Carine Montbertrand, perfectly captures Egg's combination of prickliness and vulnerability. She also does a nice job with the other voices, rendering them remarkably distinct.

Egg is refreshingly unique, and impossible to forget. I especially like the fact that she's not conventional, and not afraid to go her own way, despite the pressures of high school. I think that anyone who has ever felt that sense of otherness while in school will be able to relate to Egg on one level or another. I was sorry to see the book end, because I would have liked to spend more time with Egg (though Castellucci certainly wraps things up in a satisfying manner). Highly recommended for kids 13 and up, especially girls and/or sci-fi buffs.

Book: Boy Proof
Author: Cecil Castellucci (see also Egg's page)
Narrator: Carine Montbertrand
Publisher: Candlewick
Original Publication Date: February 2005
Pages: 208 (though I listened to the audio version)
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Downloaded from Audible.com
Other Blog Reviews: bookshelves of doom, Chicken Spaghetti, Book Girl, Swarm of Beasts, Kiddie Lit, What's the Rumpus?

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Life As We Knew It: Susan Beth Pfeffer

I wanted to read Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It from the moment I first heard about it. I finally downloaded it from Audible.com a couple of weeks ago. I generally only listen to books while I'm out walking. I find that a good book can keep me going for much longer than I would stay out otherwise. Let's just say that Life As We Knew It is so good that I literally had joint pain, because I couldn't bring myself to stop listening.

Life As We Knew It is a post-apocalypse story, told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl named Miranda. I have a weakness for post-apocalypse stories (see here for details), and this one did not disappoint. The story begins with everyone in Miranda's small Northeastern Pennsylvania town fascinated by an imminent galactic event. An asteroid is slated to strike the moon. There are block parties, as people gather outside to watch. However, the asteroid is heavier than anticipated, and jolts the moon right out of its orbit. This leads to a host of environmental problems, beginning with huge tsunamis that strike both coasts of the US. Things get gradually worse from there, as society deteriorates, and resources become scarcer and scarcer.

The book chronicles, via Miranda's journal entries, the struggle of her family, and her town, to survive. Despite being a relatively sweeping topic (the devastation of the world), the canvas for the story is actually quite small. Most of the action takes place within the family's home. While the larger aspects of the story (What climactic event will happen next? How will the town deal with looters?) are fascinating and disturbing, what really makes the book compelling is the intimate portrayal of Miranda's internal growth.

Miranda starts out a typical teenager, railing against her mother's unfairness over not being able to take skating lessons. When privations start, she complains about her mother's more generous treatment of her younger brother, and fantasizes about going to stay with her father, in a happier and more abundant environment. She is initially sheltered from the worst news by her mother and older brother, and goes through a realistic (though not whiny) "what about me" phase. But as circumstances worsen, Miranda gradually and believably rises to the challenges expected of her.

This book is quite bleak. People all over the world are dying. People in Miranda's life are leaving. First modern conveniences, and then basis essentials, are stripped away. But there are moments of brightness, to contrast with the bleakness. The family learns to appreciate small things, and to rely on one another. Their joy, at times, over things that would have once seemed trivial, brought tears to my eyes. The end does include a hint of hope, which is something to hold onto as you read.

Life As We Knew It is a book that will make you appreciate what you have, without ever feeling like the idea has been forced upon you. I was literally rendered hungry just from listening, at times. I found myself looking at the blue sky, and the green trees, and my glass of red wine, with a new appreciation. This is also a book that will make you think, pondering those what-if sorts of questions. What would I be willing to do to survive? Who would I give up my own life for? How would you keep basic social rules from crumbling in circumstances like this? Ultimately, it's a book that will make you care about Miranda and her family, and empathize with their struggles.

The audio book was for the most part satisfying and well-paced. I at first found the narrator's voice to be a bit too chirpy and high-pitched, making Miranda feels younger than she needed to be. And the male voices didn't sound very male. But I got used to it, and when Miranda's voice did eventually flatten later in the story, it made her depression stand out all the more. And the great thing about listening to a book like this (as opposed to reading it) is that you're really inside the story, surrounded by it, living and breathing the world of the book.

I highly, highly recommend this book to fans of science fiction, and especially the to fans of the dystopian/post-apocalypse genre. Life As We Knew It is a well-written and gripping addition to the cannon of such titles. I also think that any thinking person could benefit from reading it, for the perspective that it sheds on our dependence on the environment, and on what we would be willing to do to survive. I can't wait for the promised companion title, still being worked on by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

Book: Life As We Knew It
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer (See also an interview with Susan Beth Pfeffer at SciFi.com)
Narrator: Emily Bauer
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
Original Publication Date: October 2006
Pages: 352 (though I listened on MP3)
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: Downloaded from Audible.com
Other Blog Review and Discussion: Propernoun.net, This Just In (where Katherine calls it "is my personal “most compulsively read so far this year” book"), Pixie Stix Kids Pix (Kristen's first posted review), Sara's Hold Shelf, Shaken & Stirred, Emily Reads (a Haiku review), OMS Book Blog, interactivereader, Si, Se Puede and bookshelves of doom (and doubtless many others). I was also pleased to learn from Gail Gauthier that the author is working on a companion book to go with this one. This book was shortlisted for the Andre Norton award.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Boyfriend List: E. Lockhart

This weekend I listened to E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List (15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver) on MP3. The Boyfriend List is the story of several months in the life of high school sophomore Ruby Oliver. They are angst-filled months, featuring a harsh dumping of Ruby by her first-ever boyfriend, and subsequent social mis-steps on her part that caused her to:

  1. Lose her close friends;
  2. Become a social leper;
  3. Be widely considered a slut in her small pond of a Seattle prep school; and
  4. Start having panic attacks

The panic attacks result in Ruby (aka "Roo") being sent to see a shrink, Dr. Z. The story is told in bits and pieces, moving backwards and forwards in time, as Ruby examines what happened, and why. The Boyfriend List of the title (also used for chapter titles), refers to a list that Dr. Z. asks Roo to prepare of all of the boys that she's ever had any kind of romantic interaction with (dates, crushes, gifts left in lockers, etc.). Of course the mere existence of the list leads to problems, too, but you'll have to read the book for the details.

The audio version works quite well for this story. The text was apparently edited slightly, because Ruby occasionally will refer to "this story that you're listening to", instead of what I presume is "this story that you're reading" in the printed version. It feels like a long phone conversation with a new best friend, in which she tells a story filled with classic high-school drama. The narrator (Mandy Siegfried) sounds youthful, without being annoyingly girlish.

Ruby is a fully 3-dimensional character. She loves her slightly eccentric parents. She is, without much comment, a vegetarian. She buys clothes from vintage shops. She's insecure, and she makes foolish mistakes. She moons around after boys, on the slightest provocation, but is happiest hanging out with her girlfriends. She talks too much when she's nervous. She likes narrow-ruled notebooks. She feels real.

And the story feels real, too. I was humiliated for Ruby at her low points, and wondered how she could face school in the morning. But I also nodded my head, and laughed with her at some of her insights. There's a description in which she likens kissing a boy she doesn't find attractive (as part of a spin-the-bottle/7-minutes-in-heaven game) to going to the dentist. It's hilarious. There are many references to body parts and sex, though nothing too advanced actually happens with Ruby. She's refreshingly open and curious, with an entertaining voice.

Of all the books I've read, this one most made me reminisce about my own junior high and high school experiences. It's not that my experiences were the same as Ruby's, but E. Lockhart has so exactly captured what it's like to be a girl of that age—uncertain about what boys are thinking, having disagreements with friends over trust, and thinking about relative levels of popularity. The details are dead on. I particularly worried over Ruby's friend Meghan, a sophomore girl with a senior boyfriend and few friends in her own class. I wanted to reach into the book and warn her about the difficulties facing her during junior year, after her boyfriend graduates. (I haven't read the sequel yet, so don't tell me.)

One other nice thing about the book is that talking with Dr. Z. does help Roo to identify some negative behavior patterns in herself, and to start taking tiny steps towards resolution. There's no big drama over this—just small, incremental insights and improvements. The book touches on issues related to self-esteem, body image, forgiveness, and treating friends with respect, but it touches on them very lightly.

In summary, The Boyfriend List is an entertaining read, with strong characterization (at least of Ruby, the others are necessarily more remote to the reader). I think that many teen girls will find Ruby's experiences believable and, perhaps, reassuring (if Ruby could survive her humiliations, surely readers can endure the emotional traumas that high school dishes out on a regular basis). I think that adult readers who were once teenage girls will enjoy it, too, as a bit of a trip down memory lane (though with modern details). I highly recommend The Boyfriend List, and I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel, The Boy Book.

Book: The Boyfriend List (15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver)
Author: E. Lockhart
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Original Publication Date: March 2005
Pages: 240 (though I listened on MP3)
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: Audible.com
Other Blog Reviews: MotherReader, Trashionista, Sara's Hold Shelf, Adellis, Tea Cozy (one of Liz's best books of 2005), Bookshelves of Doom

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Readio Seeks Families for Free Trial of Interactive Reading Product

I received the following announcement from Suzanne at Soliloquy Learning, and thought that some of you might be interested:

Seeking families with kids ages 5-9 to test interactive reading product

Do you love books and want to share that love of reading with your kids? Are you interested in being one of the first users of a cutting edge technology that helps kids learn to read and gets them excited about reading? Would you like to contribute to the development of a breakthrough product by providing feedback about your experiences? 

If you answered yes to these questions, we’d like to invite you to try out an early version of this product by participating in the Readio Network Pioneer Program. The product, called Readio, is a new software program and web site that takes parent and child read-aloud to a whole new level. Readio is not yet commercially available, but we are inviting qualified families to participate in a free trial. The program has been up and running for a few weeks and will continue to run until April 2007. 

In addition to influencing the development of this product, as in-home Pioneer Program participants, your family will receive a complementary six-month subscription to the Readio service once it is commercially released. 

All you need to qualify is at least one child between the ages of 5 and 9, a Microsoft® Windows XP-based PC with broadband Internet access in your home and a willingness to provide feedback. 

If you would like to apply, please visit this site and complete our brief survey. You will then be contacted directly with details on getting started.

I don't have any personal experience with this company, or with this specific program. But I do like their mission statement:

Our Mission is to get kids excited about reading and learning by providing them with a tool that makes reading a fun, real-time interactive experience.

I don't think that anything is a substitute for parents spending quality time reading with their kids. But this could be an interesting way to augment that. If it sounds promising to you, the next step is to participate in their survey.

The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

I don't review adult books very often. But I simply had to bring Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel to your attention. If you enjoy books, especially old-fashioned Gothic books like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, then you must read The Thirteenth Tale.

The Thirteenth Tale begins as the reclusive novelist Vida Winter summons Margaret Lea to her home in remote Yorkshire, and asks Margaret to write her biography. Margaret is somewhat skeptical of this author because a) she lacks the credentials of a real biographer, having merely written some obscure accounts by way of a hobby; and b) Vida Winter is notorious for lying to reporters about her past. However, Miss Winter eventually convinces Margaret that she plans to tell the truth. Miss Winter is dying, you see, and her story has been eating away at her for a long time.

The remainder of the book alternates between Miss Winter's tale, as told to Margaret, and Margaret's own independent investigation of the story. I listened to the book on MP3, and the production used two narrators, one for Margaret and one for Miss Winter. This worked quite well.

Miss Winter's story is a complex, Gothic tale encompassing twins, ghosts, mental illness, incest, loyal family retainers, a meddling governess, a foundling, and murder. The exact time-frame of the two stories is vague, but we know that Miss Winter's story takes place more than 50 years in the past, while Margaret's present seems not quite modern. Margaret, it turns out, has her own secret, one which helps her to understand Miss Winter better, but which tortures her, too.

The characterization in this book is excellent, both detailed and largely free of stereotypes. The alternation between the old story and the modern one keeps up the level of suspense. There are several clever parallels between the books that the characters read (most notably Jane Eyre) and the events that they experience. The writing is excellent, suspenseful yet lyrical, sometimes startlingly vivid. The evolving relationship between Margaret and Miss Winter is particularly well-done. I also enjoyed Dr. Clifton, who, in all seriousness, prescribes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle as a remedy for Margaret's temporary illness.

What makes the book especially appealing to the passionate reader is that both Margaret and Miss Winter love books, far more than they love most people. Margaret was raised in, and works in, an antiquarian bookstore. Miss Winter used books as a lifeline during a traumatic childhood. Many passages pay homage to the joy of books and reading. (In fact, this is a book that I wished I had been reading in print instead of listening to in audio format, because I would have liked to flag some of these passages.)

I highly recommend The Thirteenth Tale to any book lover. Please note that, unlike most of my reviews, this is an adult novel, not a children's or young adult book. There are some mature themes, and the plotting is quite complex. Young adults branching out into the adult fiction section could certainly handle it. However, although much of the story centers around a pair of young twins, this is not a children's book. What it is is a modern-day melodrama, filled with mystery, suffering, and the love of books.

Book: The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 416
Age Range: Adult
Source of Book: Download from Audible.com

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Penny from Heaven: Jennifer Holm

It almost seems redundant to review Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm, because there have been so many other positive reviews of this book (not to mention posts about positive interactions with Jennifer Holm from her book tour). But I liked it enough to want to say a few words about it.

Penny from Heaven is set in 1953 in a neighborhood somewhere near New York City. It's the story of Penny Falucci, who turns 12 that summer. Penny's story is based on tales from Jennifer Holm's Italian-American relatives, and carries a ring of authenticity. Penny's father died when she was a baby, under mysterious circumstances, and she lives with her mother and "plain old American" grandparents. She also spends time with her father's large, boisterous Italian family. She is especially close to her engaging scamp of a cousin, Frankie, and her reclusive uncle Dominic (who lives primarily in his car, and wears bedroom slippers most of the time).

Penny lives in an oddly fractured world. Her life with her mother and grandparents is both different and separate from her time with her father's family. Her father's family is more colorful and lively, and the food that they eat is much, much tastier. And her uncles buy her presents all the time. There's a poignant scene in which her Uncle Dominic gives her Dodgers tickets for the game on her birthday (her first game ever), and she begs off of her mother's carefully planned celebration. What's wonderful about the scene is that Jennifer Holm conveys both Penny's 12-year-old longing and excitement, and her mother's wistful resignation.

I'm not generally a fan of stories that are episode driven, rather than being plot-driven. However, I will make exceptions for characters that I really like (e.g Anne of Green Gables), and/or truly excellent writing (e.g. the Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright). Both of these exceptions (engaging writing and characterization) apply to Penny from Heaven. Also, there is an ongoing mystery concerning the death of Penny's father, and some suspense concerning Penny's mother's possible remarriage, and the fate of young Frankie.

But what really makes this book special to me is that the characterization is detailed and realistic. I especially enjoyed Frankie, with his schemes and risk-taking, and his hidden vulnerability. Penny's grandfather is also entertaining, burping without restraint, and pretending to be hard of hearing. Her Italian grandmother, Nonny, cooks all the time, fights with her daughter-in-law, only speaks Italian, and always wears black. I can imagine readers thinking that she's a bit of a stereotype, but I personally thought that she was dead on. I also liked the former dancer, Aunt Gina, and the generous, yet powerful, Uncle Nunzio.

The other nice thing about this book is that it's a snapshot of life in the 1950s. Penny isn't allowed to swim in the public pool or go to the movies, for fear that she'll catch polio, and end up in iron lung. World War II is still casting a shadow over people's lives. Penny's relatives speak English instead of Italian, because speaking Italian was a mark of suspicion during the war. Her maternal grandfather continues to shed tears over death of his nephew, a pilot shot down during the war. The little things stand out, too: the way that Penny and Frankie know everyone in the area, both by name and by history, and the fact that the butcher shop and the milkman deliver.

Penny from Heaven has an old-fashioned feel, focusing on somewhat quirky characters, and mostly ordinary life events. There's much for an adult like myself to love about this book: the writing, the pathos, the suspense, the humor. I'll be interested to see if kids like it, too. I hope that do. I'll certainly recommend it to them.

Book: Penny from Heaven
Author: Jennifer Holm
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Original Publication Date: July 25, 2006
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Downloaded from Audible.com
Other Blog Reviews: Book Moot, Miss Erin, Children's Literature Book Club, Big A little a, bookshelves of doom, Young Adult (& Kids) Book Central, and A Fuse #8 Production. See also posts about meeting Jennifer Holm from Book Moot and A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

How to Be Popular: Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot's How to Be Popular is the story of Steph Landry. Steph is about to start 11th grade. She has been something of an outcast in her small town ever since the legendary red Super Big Gulp incident five years earlier, in which she spilled a big gulp onto the white skirt of popular, and unforgiving, Lauren Moffat. This incident led to the phrase "way to pull a Steph Landry", now ubiquitous in Bloomfield, Indiana as a way of accusing someone of doing something really, really stupid.

Fortunately, Steph has two loyal, if quirky, friends. Becca is a somewhat ditsy former farm-girl who enjoys scrap-booking, and has a history of falling asleep in class. Jason is Steph's long-time best friend and neighbor, who she has recently, and disturbingly, discovered to be attractive. But Steph's unrequited heart belongs to school quarterback and dreamboat Mark Finley. Mark, sadly, is dating Lauren, and apparently doesn't even know that Steph exists.

As the school year begins, Steph has a bold plan for becoming popular. She's discovered an old book on the subject, which she takes as her bible. She changes her hair and makeup, buys new clothes, and even (gasp!) participates in school activities. And she discovers that it is possible to edge her way into the "A Crowd". But will it last? Will her efforts capture Mark's attention? Will she alienate her existing friends? Will she be able to overcome Lauren's enmity?

All of this is set against a backdrop of Steph's family chaos, her four (soon-to-be-five) siblings, her mother's feud with her beloved grandfather, her grandfather's upcoming wedding, and the fear caused by declining revenues at the family bookstore. You have to love a book in which the family owns a bookstore, don't you?

I did find this book predictable, for the most part, but I enjoyed it anyway. I listened to it on MP3, and found myself sneaking listens even when I didn't really have time for it. Steph is a realistically flawed, likable character, as are her friends and family members. Even when you know that Steph is making a mistake, and setting herself up for trouble, you still like her, and can relate to where she's coming from.

I think that the real power of How to Be Popular, as with most of Cabot's other books, is that it's pure fantasy fulfillment. I would guess that most kids who aren't in the in crowd fantasize at least occasionally that if they could just fix their hair, and get better clothes, and get a break somehow, they could crack the code of popularity. I know that I did.

Here's what I think is interesting about this book - it actually comes down on both sides of the popularity question. Steph's popularity plan requires a certain amount of hypocrisy, shallow behavior, and letting down of her friends and family. There are some negative quotations late in the book from famous people about the ephemeral nature of popularity. However, some of the advice from Steph's popularity manual is actually quite useful and lasting. For instance, don't make catty remarks about other people. Be dependable so that your friends can rely on you. Have your own interests, and don't be a afraid to let people see that you enjoy them.

Ultimately, How to Be Popular is about being true to yourself, and what you stand to gain from that in terms of friendship and popularity. No, the details of the story aren't particularly plausible. Would a whole town really continue to torment a girl for a single, minor mistake that happened five years earlier? No. Can one really achieve popularity instantly, by following the right instructions? No. But it's fun anyway. And Steph speaks to that unappreciated teen who lives inside many of us. I think that it will make an excellent teen movie, and will be a sure hit with current and former teenage girls.

Book: How to Be Popular
Author: Meg Cabot
Publisher: HarperTempest
Original Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 304
Age Range: Young Adult
Other Blog Reviews: Once Upon a Bookshelf, Teen Book Review, Hip Librarians Book Blog

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.