The Art of Racing in the Rain

Image result for art of racing in the rainThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is an excellent, quick read that’s not your everyday dog-book.

Told from the point of view of Enzo, a terrier mix, Enzo tells the story of his life and his owner, Denny.  Denny is a struggling race car driver.  Typical story.  He falls in love, gets married, has a child.  But what Enzo knows and no one else does is Eve, Denny’s wife, is sick.  She has cancer and has an inkling something is wrong but is in denial.

Eve takes a fall and in the hospital her disease is discovered.  Given only 6-8 months to live, Eve is taken care of by her parents who have the financial means to care for her.  Her daughter, Zoe, lives with them as well while Denny continues to travel and race.

When Eve passes, her parents fight for custody for Zoe.  Denny is falsely accused of rape and the custody battle begins.

However, this is the framework for the story.  The real story is Enzo and his insights into humanity.  He is convinced when he passes he’ll come back as a human.  He absorbs racing mantras from the greats such as:  “That which you manifest is before you.”  “Our successes and failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.” “The physicality of our world is a boundary to us only if our will is weak; a true champion can accomplish things that a normal person would think impossible.”

“Any problems that may occur have ultimately been caused by you, because you are responsible for where you are and what you are doing there.”

“The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles in order to triumph.”

“The one who drives smart will always win in the end.”

“I was not killed because I was not finished.  I still had work to do.”

“There is no dishonor in losing the race.  There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.”

“Can we not will ourselves to achieve the impossible?”

“My soul has learned what it came to learn.  We can’t have everything we want.  Sometimes, we simply have to believe.”

I don’t usually recommend books where the animals die at the end, but the ending to this book is joyous.  I’m not promising you’re not gonna cry (I was sad), but the book is so full of hope and ends on such a positive note you definitely won’t regret reading this book!  Full of wisdom and great themes of standing up for what’s right, not giving into pressure, and living each day to the fullest.  You don’t want to miss this book!

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The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

Image result for mostly true adventures of homer p. figgThe Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick is a delightful tale of a twelve-year old boy who is determined to find his brother who was illegally sold into the army during the American Civil War.  Orphans, Homer and his brother are being raised by their mean uncle, Squinton Leach.  Squint sells Harold and Homer sets out to find him.

“A person has only two options in life, to do something or to do nothing,” Homer is told.  For Homer, “Nothing is not an option.”

He runs into some slave catchers who try to use Homer in their schemes to collect runaway slaves and return them to their owners.  In this process he meets a nice, rich man named Jebediah Brewster, a Quaker, who puts Homer under the guardianship of a preacher and gives him money to find his brother.  On the train ride, the guardian, Mr. Willow, is duped by con artists and the money is stolen.  Homer finds himself thrown into a pig pen.

The pig pen leads to Homer being cast into a traveling medicine show who performs for troops.  They follow the army until the leader, Fenton Fleabottom, is caught as a Confederate spy.  Homer escapes by climbing into an air balloon, which lands in a nasty pond on the side of the Confederates.  Taken as prisoner, Homer is soon freed due to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Homer flees on a horse, through the raging battle, and finally meets up with his brother who has been labeled a deserter.  However, every man is needed in the battle so Harold gets his chance to fight.  Homer, so afraid Harold will die, tries to stop him.  He shoots a bullet at him to scare him but it rickochets into his leg.  Homer ends up being the flag bearer and then the Confederates surrender.  Both are adopted by Jebediah Brewster back in Maine and end up leading a happy life.

Newbery Honor Book for 2010, this book is full of fun and unbelievable twists and turns.  Homer likes to fudge the truth, which lands him in all of these precarious situations but also gets him out of them.  Great historical read that depicts the 1860’s turmoil perfectly.  Highly recommended for all ages!

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Image result for evolution of calpurnia tateThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jaqueline Kelly, a 2010 Newbery Honor Award winner, is the story of an eleven-year old girl at the turn of the twentieth century.  She is the only girl in a family of seven kids and is expected to act like one when all she wants to do is play outside with her brothers.  Her chores are around the house.  She must take piano lessons, knit, and cook.  Her expected life is one of a wife and mother.

Enter her grandfather, Captain Tate, who’s a war hero from the Civil War.  He started a cotton gin company, which Calpurnia’s father now runs so Captain Tate spends his days trying to distill liquor from pecans and exploring the scientific world around him.

Calpurnia’s brother, Harry, had given her a notebook to write down her scientific observations.  Confused on the color of grasshoppers, Calpurnia went to her grandfather for help.  Here blossomed over the summer of 1899 a relationship of mutual hobbies.  Calpurnia spent every possible moment with her grandfather, learning, observing, and assisting him in his endeavors all the while learning everything possible she could.  He gave her a copy of The Origin of Species and she plugged through that as well.  The most exciting event is when Calpurnia and her grandfather discover a new species of plant and send off to Washington DC to have it confirmed.

Calpurnia’s mother dislikes all the time she is spending with grandfather and begins to make her take more and more time to learn to sew and cook.  Calpurnia hates every minute of it but slowly begins to understand what her expected role in this world will be.  However, she dreams of going to university and becoming a scientist.

At Christmas that year, Calpurnia is given a book.  She is so excited until she reads the title:  The Science of Housewifery.  She is devastated and defeated.  She begins to wonder if her dream will always be a dream.

Finally, word comes of the plant:  it is confirmed!  It’s a new species and named after them!  Calpurnia realizes then how grandfather had been “the greatest gift of all” and she can do whatever she desires.  “There are so many things to learn, and so little time is given us.”

Instead of resolutions, Calpurnia makes a bucket list of things she wants to see before she dies, one of which is snow.  And guess what?  The next day it snows for the first time in decades in Texas.  “Anything was possible.”

Great read about defining who you are, believing in yourself, and following your dreams.

The Underneath

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, is a powerful book not to be missed.

Ranger, a neglected dog, lives under the deck of a tilting house in the middle of a Louisiana swamp.  His owner known as Gar Face is an outcast in society.  He banished Ranger for coming between him and a kill and Ranger has been chained ever since.

One day a mother cat (herself abandoned) wanders in the swamp and finds Ranger.  They become quick friends and companions.  She soon has two kittens, a boy and a girl named Puck and Sabine.

They work together to raise the kittens.  She hunts and shares with Ranger.  Ranger guards the kitties.

One day Gar Face sees the cats.  He captures Puck and the mother cat and throws them into the swamp where only Puck survives.  Alone and frightened, Puck does his best to survive.

Meanwhile, we learn about an ancient creature known as Grandmother Moccasin who herself is a water moccasin.  She has been entombed in a clay jar buried under an ancient tree for a thousand years.  Her story is interwoven with the three animal’s.  We learn she was banished because she was selfish and wanted her daughter for herself whom had chosen to leave Grandmother and cleave to her husband.  Another ancient creature, the Alligator King, himself as old as she toys with Gar Face as Gar Face becomes obsessed with killing him.

Through hardships and more misfortunes the three-some end up together at the end.  Grandmother Moccasin chooses love over all else.  And love binds the three friends together.

This is a heartfelt book that had me close to tears many times.  It’s the classic story of how love conquers all but applied to animals in a very realistic manner.  Promises are broken and the consequences are deadly.  Gar Face is filled with hate.  Happiness is as mystical and fragile as a glass ornament.  Heartfelt and moving, this book is a page-turner not to be missed.

Warning for those with young children: it may not be appropriate as it deals with heavy themes.  The mother kitten dies.  The dog is abused.  Grandmother’s daughter pines away and dies when she is separated from her husband.  And Gar Face is eaten by the Alligator King.  Love definitely endures, but it is not sugar-coated as in real life.

The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D Schmidt

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D Schmidt is a Newbery Honor Book for 2010.  And for good reason.

We follow a seventh-grade boy named Holling Hoodhood in 1967 during the Vietnam War on Long Island.  He is the only Presbyterian in his class so he has to stay at school on Wednesdays while the rest of his class leave early for Catholic school or Jewish school.  His teacher, Mrs. Baker, is resentful.  She makes Holling clean the chalkboard and clean out the coat closet.  He thinks his teacher is out to get him.

She assigns him extra work as well which include reading the great plays of William Shakespeare.  This leads to him performing in the Christmas performance of The Tempest.  He begins to memorize whole passages of Shakespeare and learn lessons from the plays as well.  His father is overbearing and is very self-absorbed with making sure his architecture business grows and succeeds.  He is also convinced Holling will succeed him in the future.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny as Holling deals with his Tempest costume of yellow tights and white feathers on his butt.  He deals with a bully and pet rats he accidentally let loose in the school.  He learns it’s more about giving than spending money on a date.  Mrs. Baker takes him on a field trip to study architecture and Holling sees buildings and the history they hold for the first time.

There is a very moving scene in the book where Holling rescues his older sister who ran off with her boyfriend and realizes it’s a mistake.  “The first time that you know you really care about something is when you think about it not being there, and…the emptiness is as much inside you as outside you.”  We get to see Holling grow in maturity and into his own as he realizes how much he loves his family and friends around him and realizes there’s more to life than architecture.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  Historically accurate and entertaining I haven’t read this good of a book in a long time.  I read it outloud to all of my kids and they all loved it!

“Sometimes the real world is like Hamlet.  A little scared.  Unsure.  A little angry.  Wishing you could fix something you can’t.”

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Al Capone Does My Homework

Al Capone Does My Shirts is a wonderful book for children about life on Alcatraz Island in the 1930’s, which is the time the infamous gangster Al Capone was incarcerated there.  This book is a Newbery Honor book for 2005.

Matthew “Moose” Flanagan has moved to Alcatraz Island when his father gets a job as a prison guard in 1935, during the height of the Great Depression.  He has a 15 year-old sister who nowadays would be recognized as special needs but in the book is considered handicapped and unfit for society who should be shut away in a mental institution.  Moose loves to play baseball and do typical activities 12 year-old boys do.  Moose and his friend, Piper, the warden’s daughter, hatch a plot to make money by having the criminals do the laundry of the kids at school.  The criminals currently do the laundry of all those on the island so their plan is to slip in the kids’ clothes and claim Al Capone did their laundry.

However, Moose’s world is consumed by taking care of his sister and her needs.  His family is trying to get his sister, Natalie, into a special school for children like her.  However, she is rejected due to her age.  Desperate, Moose writes a letter to Al Capone to pull some strings and get her in.  He does.

Cute book.  Very historically accurate.  Kids learn all about Al Capone and the infamous Alcatraz Island prison.  Great writing.  Engaging.  Fun.  Funny.  The characters are well developed.  Highly recommended.

Two sequels have been written:  Al Capone Shines My Shoes where Moose is called out by Al Capone to help him since he helped his sister get into the Esther P Marinoff School and Al Capone Does My Homework where Moose’s apartment is burned and his sister being blamed, he sets out to discover who set his family’s apartment on fire and why.  All three books are great reads and a great lesson on siblings caring for one another and standing up for one another.  Moose also shows signs of liking girls and he struggles with making new friends and keeping them.  The books deal with the discrimination of those kids different from others and the struggles these families faced.  Gennifer Choldenko does a fabulous job of narrating a tumultuous time in kids’ lives.

The Witches

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl is a fast-paced novel kids will devour eagerly and clamor for more.

A seven-year old boy and his Norwegian Grandmother (known as Grandmamma in the novel) travel to the English coast for a get away.  Unbeknownst to both of them, they are staying at the same hotel as the annual convention of witches for all of England.

Wanting to play with his pet mice, the boy (unnamed in the novel) hides in the hotel convention hall.  In strolls the witches for their meetings and he overhears the witches’ plot to kill all of the children in England by turning them into mice and having them killed by humans.  He, however, is sniffed out (literally) by the witches and turned himself into a mouse.  Returning to his grandmamma, he hatches a plot to take down the witches by giving them a douse of their own medicine.

The boy says to his Grandmamma, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.”

A master of fast-paced writing for children, Dahl writes a tale full of adventure and fun.  Guaranteed to entertain and make you laugh.  Classic kids literature at its best!