Saturday, October 20, 2018

Darius the Great is Not Okay

Darius the Great Is Not OkayDarius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Darius Kellner, named after Darius the Great, doesn’t always feel great, and he and his family know that. Darius’s father also has Depression, and while he struggles to vocalize his love for Darius, does not shy away from tougher conversations about his own mental health and the importance of both therapy and medication. These conversations happen against the backdrop of a rough patch for Darius – he is bullied at school, not appreciated at his part time job at Tea Haven, and feels distance growing between himself and all of his family members: dad, mom, and younger sister, Lelah, who he sees as a replacement for himself.

As a narrator, Darius is not without faults – he routinely gets in his own way, and many times would rather remove himself from a situation or conversation with an “Um” and redirection towards the nearest tea kettle – but his character does learn and grow in his own way. During a family trip to Iran, where his mother grew up, Darius begins to recognize and find his place in his family as son, brother, and friend, though not without mistakes, painful conversations, and learning how to advocate for himself. This young adult novel, told from the perspective of an awkward but earnest narrator, is a testament to the importance of open and honest conversations around mental health. Aspects of daily life in Iran, from religious customs to food preparation rituals, add depth and interest to the characters and give the story a firm sense of place and nuanced secondary characters allow for a reader to see multiple facets of Darius as a protagonist.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Tokyo Neighborhoods

For my final honeymoon photo recap, I'll be sharing a few of our adventures from our last few days in Tokyo. We had no set schedules on these days - Jesus picked out a few neighborhoods he wanted to explore, I told him things I'd like to see, and we wandered all day long. We stayed in a wonderful hotel that featured breakfast each morning, a glass of beer along with a bowl of yakisoba at night, and coffee and hot chocolate all day. By this point, the time change was only slightly confusing, and it was fun to think about how we were ending our days as our families were starting theirs. We had mostly figured out traffic patterns, how to work public transportation, and other common cultural norms regarding being out and about in public. And finally, we had been married for over a week!

Day 1

Photos aren't allowed in Tsukiji Fish Market (several AMERICAN tourists disregarded this and got dirty looks from me and some choice words from Jesus - why are we (Americans) the worst when traveling?), but here is the view outside the market, and looking down onto a tiny tiny portion of it.
 We took a lovely stroll through the Imperial Gardens:

Then we boarded a water bus to float down the Sumida River towards Odaiba, a man-made island built for shopping and entertainment.
Rainbow Bridge (photos at night show why it has this name!)
Our spaceship-style water bus, and Rainbow Bridge in the background.
Did you know Tokyo has their very own Lady Liberty?
This is the Ferris Wheel that's visible from Disney!
A Venice-themed mall (reminded me of The Venetian in Las Vegas)!
Bedtime Beer!
Day 2

In what was not our best decision of the day, we visited a virtual reality "park" in the morning of day 2. Via a headset and a few key atmosphere-creators (fans, sound effects), we explored a haunted house, swam underwater, escaped a building onto a helicopter, and bounced around a jungle on a swing (that's what Jesus in doing in the photos below). While a fun time, doing this the first thing in the morning meant we both felt a delayed motion sickness in the afternoon.
We also learned we have zero crane game skills between us.
Forest Library was a relaxing (and quiet) spot for us to grab some lunch, do a little reading, and even take a short nap!
Then we ventured back out, taking our time to maneuver Shibuya crossing, wander Nezu Museum, and visit Roppongi Hills before ending our day at Tokyo Tower and getting a view of the city from above.
That's Tokyo Tower in the background!
Who needs the Eiffel Tower?
Can you see Rainbow Bridge and the Odaiba Ferris Wheel way back there?
(a zoomed-in shot)

Day 3

We started this briskly chilly day at Meiji Shrine before heading to Harajuku, the cute/hipster/art & fashion neighborhood of Tokyo.
Yes, we got their Chicago mix. Yes, it was amazing.
Jesus has most/all of our photos from Kawaii Monster Cafe. I was a bit overwhelmed by it all and spent most of our quick lunch there staring at the ceilings, walls, tables, and overall atmosphere. We got to see a short song & dance show after we ate, which was really fun to watch. This is one of those super touristy things that basically all American visitors to Japan do, but you really can't get this kind of experience anywhere else!
Renovations for the 2020 Summer Olympics were well under way!
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden reminded me a lot of Garfield Park Conservatory. The indoor was a welcome respite from the cold, but walking around outside was super lovely - the trees were all sorts of yellows, oranges, and reds.
The face of a man about to see the famous Toho Godzilla.
We ended our tours of Harajuku and Shinjuku at the Toho Building, where Godzilla (or at least his head) lives. This area of Shinjuku is very metropolitan and commercial - lots of lights, billboards, and nightlife - and is most definitely an entertainment district. These lights are what many people picture when they picture Tokyo, which made it strange for us to see on one of our final nights. We had already seen so many other sides of Tokyo, seeing the "popular" Tokyo felt surreal.

Day 4

Our final (full) day in Japan consisted of sleeping in, revisiting a few of the neighborhoods near our hotel, packing (!!), and ending the night with our traditional last-night-on-vacation Domino's Pizza. Yes, Tokyo has Domino's, and yes, we got something you can't get here!

We ended our trip with one last interactive activity in the airport: woodblock printing (many thanks to the women who guided us through the process!):

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Slight Frights to Daring Scares: 2018 "Spooky" Children's Books

I'm saving all the creepiest books for later this month, but I did read quite a few not-so-scary scares earlier this fall. They are presented here as I would place them on my own personal Scare Spectrum (okay, Stephen King has one too) - from Slight Frights, all the way up to Daring Scares - though since these are all written for 8-12 year olds, hopefully none of them will keep anyone up too far past bedtime (except to finish a marvelous book!).

WizardmatchWizardmatch by Lauren Magaziner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Prime Wizard de Pomporromp decides it’s time to retire, all of his grandchildren are invited to compete for his title in Wizardmatch. Lennie Mercado wants nothing more than to be Prime Wizard, and to hold the unlimited magical powers that come with the job, but finds out the deck may just be stacked against her. Written for a younger crowd, Wizardmatch leans into its silliness and takes a more irreverent approach to magic and spells, though it’s not without a deeper message of acceptance and equality.

Fake BloodFake Blood by Whitney Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nia Winters likes vampires. AJ likes Nia, but since he isn’t a vampire, he can’t seem to catch her attention – until he decides to become a vampire himself. Then he realizes it’s not that Nia likes vampires – she slays them. Suddenly his great idea could be the death of him, if he can’t convince Nia it was all a ploy, and that a real vampire of Spoons Middle School is still out there. This graphic novel is more silly than scary, with all of its parodying of other well-known vampire tales. The illustrations add a level of fun, and the relationships between AJ and his sister and AJ and his friends are sweet with plenty of goodnatured needling. For readers who would rather laugh at monsters than be terrified by them, Fake Blood will satisfy.

Winterhouse (Winterhouse, #1)Winterhouse by Ben  Guterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fun fantasy romp of a puzzle! This one reminds me of Greenglass House - it has the same cozy-yet-adventurous feeling, a precocious protagonist, and just enough magic to add to the charm. I was fully invested in the mystery, loved all the colorful characters and friendships, and was so super jealous of the massive library. Written for middle grades, but heartily enjoyed by this 30 year old!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clivo Wren is only taking up the family business when he becomes a cryptid hunter at age 13, after his father’s death, but he may have taken on more than he knows how to handle. After all, he just found out cryptids really do exist – is he really ready to track and catalog them? Humanity as we know it may be on the line if Clivo isn’t up for the task of finding the rumored “immortal” cryptid, so with the help of several trustworthy friends, and a few more less-than-trustworthy colleagues, he sets out to catch whatever cryptids he can. Teenagers with plenty of dry humor and monster-hunting lore make this a delightful read that’s less scare and more dare.

The Girl in the Locked Room: A Ghost StoryThe Girl in the Locked Room: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The cover and title of this story make it seem far scarier than it is in reality. Narration shifts between Jules, whose family has just moved into an abandoned house, and the “Girl,” Lily, whose family lived in the house decades ago. Both girls are curious about each other, and of their respective time periods, and their friendship might be just what Lily needs to find her final resting place. This is gentle ghost story, for readers want to ease into the season.

The Spirit of Cattail CountyThe Spirit of Cattail County by Victoria Piontek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This Southern Gothic novel for a young audience hits just the right notes. It's chilling on a summer day, but still has heart. Sparrow Dalton is a protagonist to remember, and the Florida Everglades become a character all on their own. Sparrow's haunting friend has more substance than his ghostly form reveals, while the living citizens of Cattail County made my blood boil with their cruel dismissal of Sparrow. Not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it - and one with a nice twist at the end.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Less a ghost story, and more historical fiction featuring supernatural characters, The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery’s scariest features are the German soldiers and the threat of a bombing looming over the action of the tale. In London during World War II, young ghost Flossie Birdwhistle is in charge of keeping the cemetery’s buried souls at rest, but a mysterious soldier – also a ghost – draws Flossie into England’s war efforts. Readers who prefer their ghosts to act with integrity and honor will find it easy to support Flossie and her ghostly friends.

Scarlett Hart: Monster HunterScarlett Hart: Monster Hunter by Marcus Sedgwick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part Sherlock Holmes-ian detective, part Lara Croft action-adventure hero, and all quippy one-liners, Scarlett Hart doesn’t shy away from danger as she follows in her late parents’ footsteps. With the help of Napoleon, Mrs. White, and plenty of hunting gadgets, she tracks down and hunts various monsters – from gargoyles springing to life to zombies terrorizing the theatre – hoping to catch them before the conniving Count Stankovic catches her. Hand drawn illustrations bring the monsters and Scarlett to life and help to build intensity as she escapes each dangerous situation.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This first book in an forthcoming trilogy creates a world where witches live across an invisible border and live by a set of ancient rules. Mup, her mam, and her brother cross this border to save her her dad after he is kidnapped by the creator of these rules – her grandmother. Reminiscent of other fantastical journeys taken by young women to rescue those they love and get back home, Begone the Raggedy Witches gives its readers characters to care for and a magical world to explore. The villains are just cruel enough to resent, but good witches abound as well, and Mup’s fight becomes more than just a rescue mission – she must save Witches Borough itself from her grandmother’s control.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lee and Felix Vickery are twins, but the only thing they do together is travel to town on Halloween, the one night that Death allows. For the rest of the year, they go about their lives in Poplar Wood, on opposite sides of their house, as the Agreement states. Felix helps his father, who is an apprentice to Death, and Lee does the same for his mother, who is Memory’s apprentice. It’s not the best life, but they make it work – until the daughter of Passion’s apprentice is killed, and Gretchen Whipple, the mayor’s daughter, and sworn enemy of the Vickerys, decides to get to the bottom of a feud that has controlled the lives – and deaths – of everyone in their small town for years. Lee, Felix, and Gretchen form a friendship as strange as their living arrangements to set things right. Poetic descriptions give this book a contemplative feel, though the action ensures it’s never bogged down in too much detail.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this first novel of a new supernatural fantasy series, Schwab creates a world similar to ours: a reality TV show featuring two “ghost hunters” travels to Scotland to film their pilot episode. They are faking it: though the “Inspectres,” as they call themselves, truly believe in and want to see ghosts, they just don’t. Their daughter, Cass, does – and has even befriended the ghost who saved her from a near-death experience several years ago. The ghosts of Scotland aren’t nearly as friendly, and it will take another young “In-betweener” to help Cass realize her full powers as someone who can cross the Veil. There’s plenty of good versus evil in this ghost-hunting adventure, with humor and heart to balance out the action.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For having a rather tame cover (though it gets creepier the closer you look), this story is shockingly scary. A field trip to a local farm turns terrifying as the bus breaks down on the way back to school and the bus driver smilingly says, “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Eleven-year old Ollie and two of her classmates are the only ones who take the driver’s advice, choosing to try their luck in the surrounding forest. They aren’t sure if they’ve made the right choice, or who (or what) exactly is coming for them, but they’ll soon find out. Excellent pacing and well-timed cliffhangers, along with a smart and courageous heroine make this a treat for brave readers.