[Book Review] This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

This is Not My HatThis is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Compared to the hilarity that was I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat was downright disappointing.

I Want My Hat Back was spectacular because I honestly didn’t see the ending coming. I expected your typical kid’s book. Main character has a problem, does a few random boring things to try to solve the problem, and then succeeds in solving the problem. But the way I Want My Hat Back ended was so wondrously unexpected and absurdly amusing that I couldn’t help but love it.

This is not the case with This Is Not My Hat. In effect, This Is Not My Hat is the same plot as I Want My Hat Back except from a different perspective (a hat thief this time rather than a victim)… and it’s boring. You know what’s going to happen, and then when it does, it isn’t funny. There’s no absurdly endearing final line. No barely-hidden black comedy. No humorously detailed final scene. No surprise twist.

So this was a miss for me. Maybe next time, Klassen.


Goodreads "Joins the Amazon Family"

Pre-Rant Note: This post is merely an initial reaction to what I consider to be deeply distressing news about my favorite social networking website. The story to which I am reacting is still unfolding, and this is only a reaction to the information that has been made available at this time. A follow-up post is likely to appear at some future point, after more information is revealed and the actual effects of the situation are apparent.

As you may know, I’m a volunteer “Super-librarian” at Goodreads. That means I maintain the database of book records, and that I’ve been chosen by staff as one of the handful of people permitted to access certain editing functions of these records. It’s a privilege and a responsibility that I’ve loved since Patrick Brown offered it to me in the summer of 2012, and one that I never dreamed of acquiring when I joined the website in April of 2011. For the last two years, I’ve sung the praises of Goodreads.

When they severed ties with Amazon and its API in early 2012, I was downright ecstatic. I’m no fan of Amazon or their policies, so I adored the fact that Goodreads was willing to sacrifice the API for their independence and integrity. Since the end of 2011, when Goodreads announced that we would be losing access to Amazon data, volunteer librarians worked tirelessly to compensate. We dug out our old books to fill in the missing details. We scoured library databases, publisher websites, and author sites for details left blank. We worked on this for months, and there are still thousands of books that need to be cleaned up. But we felt like we had accomplished something. We’d earned our independence, and we’d compensated for what was taken with lots of hard work.

Today I find out that I shouldn’t have wasted my time. Today Goodreads “Joined the Amazon Family“.

Having received the news several hours ago, I’m furious. Furious. All my hard work, all that sense of accomplishment, all that asserted independence? It’s worth nothing now.

I’m a Superlibrarian at Goodreads because I want to support independent book companies. I want to support independent bookstores. I want to support Barnes and Noble. I want to support Smashwords. I do not want to support a company accused of trying to create a monopoly. And I will not maintain their database for free.

Of course, as I said, we only received the news several hours ago. I don’t know what changes, if any, Amazon intends to inflict upon Goodreads. I don’t know if they’re going to retool the site to shill their merchandise. I don’t know if the review policy is going to change. I don’t know if the author program and author guidelines are going to change. I don’t know if they’re going to remove the purchase links to Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and other bookseller sites. I don’t know if they’re going to dismantle the librarian program, or retool the groups, or alter the recommendations engine or the giveaway system.

What I do know is that I don’t believe Otis Chandler when he says that “Amazon supports [Goodreads] continuing to grow…as an independent entity”. I don’t believe that Amazon will be able to keep their grubby hands off of the site to which I’ve contributed so many free hours of volunteer work. I don’t believe that the site will maintain its integrity for longer than a year or two. I don’t believe Amazon will appreciate what the vast army of Goodreads volunteers has done for the site’s popularity, usability, and data quality.

Tonight, I don’t believe I’m going to be sticking around.

For now, I’ll be giving Goodreads the benefit of the doubt. I’m not going to jump ship immediately, as I’ve invested so much time and effort into the website.

What I am going to be doing is making daily backups of my Goodreads data. I’m going to be keeping an eye out for Amazon-esque shadiness such as mysteriously missing negative reviews. I’m going to be expecting Amazon to try to foist their pro-censorship, pro-business policies on us rather than Goodreads’ long-held anti-censorship, pro-cataloging policies. I’m going to be on the lookout for Amazon trying to use my reviews, ratings, and shelvings to their advantage.

Most importantly, I’m going to be looking for an alternative website–one that has the integrity to say “no” to Amazon’s piles of cash.


Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment is a short story that I read in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Haunting Tales. You can read it online here.

In my copy, Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment begins with a rather amusing note from Nathaniel Hawthorne:

“In an English Review, not long since, I have been accused of plagiarizing the idea of this story from a chapter in one of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. There has undoubtedly been a plagiarism, on one side or the other; but as my story was written a good deal more than twenty years ago, and as the novel is of considerably more recent date, I take pleasure in thinking that M. Dumas has done me the honour to appropriate one of the fanciful conceptions of my earlier days. He is heartily welcome to it; nor is it the only instance, by many, in which the great French Romancer has exercised the privilege of commanding genius by confiscating the intellectual property of less famous people to his own use and behoof.
September, 1860.”

So, old-school author rivalries. That’s cool.

Anyway, in Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, the titular Doctor gathers together three elderly man and one elderly widow. He claims to have to the secret of youth; and he does, as he demonstrates when the rose given to him by his dear departed Slyvia is rejuvenated by water from the mythical Fountain of Youth.

Next, he tests this water on his human companions; the widow and her three former lovers are each restored to their bygone states… for a time. They cavort about like fools, energetic and impassioned until the effects of the water starts to wane.

It’s not long before each in turn has returned to his, her, or its former state. Dr. Heidegger, he says, has learned a valuable lesson; he wouldn’t restore his youth, whether momentarily or permanently.

The widow and her companions disagree, of course, and each vows to set out on a pilgrimage to that blessed Fountain in Florida.

All in all, it’s a mediocre horror story, worth seeking out only because it’s out of copyright and free to read online.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


January First by Michael Schofield

January First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save HerJanuary First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield

My rating: ★★★☆☆

January First was tragic.
There’s no other word for a child suffering undiagnosed schizophrenia than “tragic”, and reading about a young couple struggling to not only manage their daughter’s psychosis but also to get a diagnosis at all is equal parts stressful and heartbreaking.

January First was terrifying.
January First offers a paralyzing glimpse into the United States mental health industry and how it can (and does) go horribly, horribly wrong. If you, like me, have the tendency to involuntarily empathize with victims of tragedy–fictional or otherwise–the chapters dealing with Jani’s periods of hospitalization are extremely difficult to read. Jani is treated like… there’s no word for what Jani is treated like. She and many of her fellow sufferers are downright abused under the guise of medical care, and any attempts by her parents to intervene make it increasingly obvious that Jani isn’t a patient so much as she’s a prisoner. The passages about Jani’s stays at these so-called mental health facilities, with only one exception, read like horror novel fare… or the introduction to a ghost story about the lost spirits of nineteenth-century asylums.

I can’t possibly communicate how deeply these passages horrified me.

January First was frustrating.
Regardless of how terrible his situation is, Michael Schofield is a person with whom I never, under any circumstances, would want to interact. His obvious anger management issues and martyr complex make the passages about his relationship with his wife quite uncomfortable to read. His insistence that his daughter is not just a special needs child but a “genius” is insulting to the reader and equal parts understanding Jani’s potential and self-deluding himself into thinking that she’s not sick–she’s just better than everyone else’s children. But most of all, Michael Schofield always thinks he’s right. From the way he tells it, Mr. Schofield is the only person on this earth who understands and can help Jani.

January First was harsher in hindsight.
Not knowing how to deal with one of the youngest, if not the youngest, diagnosed case of childhood-onset schizophrenia, the Schofields made a very large mistake: they hoped to pull Jani out of her undiagnosed psychosis by attempting to forge a bond between Jani and a hypothetical younger sibling. That younger sibling came into the world as Bodhi, a brother who immediately becomes the subject of Jani’s wrath and exasperates her condition. But as the Schofields start to get a handle on how to manage their schizophrenic daughter through medication, therapy, and creative living arrangements, life starts to turn around. When the memoir ends, the Schofields still struggle to manage their very unfortunate circumstances but seem to have achieved quite a bit.

Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the Discovery Health special, Born Schizophrenic: Jani’s Next Chapter, which was filmed quite a bit after this book was written but before it was published, you’ll know that Bodhi is now also showing signs of psychosis and may also face a schizophrenia diagnosis. Wince-worthy doesn’t cover that.

I definitely recommend January First to anyone with an interest in childhood schizophrenia. However, I recommend that anyone interested in reading this book sit down to watch the Born Schizophrenic documentary first; having seen both Schofield documentaries before even realizing this book existed, I’m sure my opinion of the book would have been vastly different had I not had prior experience with the Schofield family and their experience.


The Berenstain Bears Get Their Kicks by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears Get Their KicksThe Berenstain Bears Get Their Kicks by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★★☆☆

When I’m surprised by a Berenstain Bears book, it’s rarely ever pleasant. This installment, luckily, was a refreshing divergence from the typical expectations of its series.

Rather than Mama Bear trying to get her kids to stop enjoying themselves and calmly “appreciate” things instead (as was the warped moral of the last BB book I read), here we have one of the stifling, old-fashioned parents learning to loosen up and enjoy life.

In The Berenstain Bears Get Their Kicks, Papa Bear is astounded by and disapproving of his children’s decision to play soccer. The first half of the book focuses on his antics as he tries to persuade his children that the sport they and their mother so enjoy is ridiculous and pales in comparison to his “old-fashioned” sports like baseball. They aren’t buying it, of course, and a sulking Papa Bear follows them to their team tryouts.

He’s impressed by his children’s obvious talent at the sport, which he even grows to enjoy himself. By the last page, he’s learned that there’s certainly enough room in his life for soccer and the “old-fashioned” sports the family also enjoys.

Frankly, it was wonderfully refreshing and incredibly astounding for one of the self-righteous Berenstain parents to learns lesson for a change. (And I found if oddly amusing that the Berenstains actually wrote a book speaking out against the odd anti-soccer vendetta some Americans seem to harbor.)


The Birth-mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birth-mark is a short story that I read in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Haunting Tales. You can read it online here.

The Birth-mark is the story of a mad “scientist”‘s obsession towards his wife’s birthmark.

The protagonist, Aylmer, is a hateful and abusive lunatic who, upon marrying the coveted Georgiana, decided that he hated the tiny birthmark on her cheek. Whereas her former lovers often referred to it as something exceptionally endearing–as if “some fairy, at [Georgiana’s] birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek”. Aylmer, however, vows to remove the “frightful object”.

The protagonist’s wife, Georgiana, is a creature so weak as to have no will of her own. Her husband is consumed with making her the vision of perfection, all the while seeking to “release her mind from the burthen [sic] of actual things”. He so often expresses his hatred of Georgiana’s so-called blemish that his wife, who fully admits to worshipping him, begs him never to look at it again because “not even Aylmer now hated it so much as she”.

In the end, as one can predict, Aylmer removes the mark with one of his alchemical concoctions–it just so happens to have the side-effect of killing Georgiana.

All in all, this was very disappointing. It would have made an excellent psychological horror novel, but instead… well, instead we got this.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


The Berenstain Bears on the Moon by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears on the MoonThe Berenstain Bears on the Moon by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

I’m not quite sure what the Berenstains were thinking with this one. It’s a cute little story about children pretending to go to the moon… right up until you realize that there isn’t a thing to imply that these two children didn’t honestly build (buy?) a spaceship and take their dog to the moon.

Am I the only one vaguely annoyed by this? The Berenstain Bears are ridiculously wishy-washy when it comes to their genre. Are they anthropomorphic fiction, or are they straight SF/F? It’s normally the former, but today it’s the latter for some unexplained reason… and I’m sure that must be confusing to children of the target age group.

If your child wants to read something about going to the moon, give this a pass in favor of a book about real astronauts. And if your kid’s set on reading this, be sure to at least try to explain the reality of space travel and how to become an astronaut.


The Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain BearsThe Birds, the Bees, and the Berenstain Bears by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★★☆☆

This was an acceptable effort toward introducing young children to the concept of birth. On the other hand, I found it disappointing; it doesn’t address “the birds and the bees” at all, though the title implies otherwise. It only deals with pregnancy and delivery, not conception.

The reason is obvious: teaching children of any age about conception is in many places incredibly taboo. I don’t agree with that, personally, and think it’s far preferable to introduce children to the scientific idea of conception when they’re old enough to start wondering about it, rather than trying to keep them in the dark and building up sex as some kind of massive, taboo secret they’re not allowed to learn; I think presenting it honestly to a child–rather than keeping it a secret or teaching it as something shameful–would help cultivate a more mature understanding of human sexuality in these children’s future adolescence and adulthood. But that’s just me, and I recognize that even those parents who don’t find sexuality to be some kind of damnable sin aren’t often comfortable with the idea of their children learning the related concepts before puberty. (Though I would argue that dumping all that information on a child at once right when it’s about to start effecting them–or even worse, after it has–can create a truly frightening and confusing experience for the child.) It’s just that history has shown that taking away the taboo of sex and opening up communication about its function, its purpose, and its side effects has had the wonderful effect of decreasing teen/childhood pregnancy rates, which is always a good thing in a society with too many babies to begin with.

So I take this book, mediocre though it is, as a step in the right direction. I didn’t teach as much as I felt it should, but it taught far more than it would have been allowed to just a few decades earlier.


Final Exam by A. Bates

Final ExamFinal Exam by A. Bates

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

When it comes to 80’s and 90’s YA horror, I have read a lot of Fear Street–I daresay I’ve read most of Fear Street–but only a few in the subgenre that weren’t from Stine. One of those few is Final Exam, which I believe I originally read sometime between 2004 and 2006. I recently picked up a copy at a semi-local thrift store, and so here I am reading it again in 2012.

Final Exam is in most ways incredibly similar to the less supernaturally-inclined installments of the Fear Street franchise, and as most of my familiarity with the 80’s and 90’s teen-horror scene is through that franchise, the best way for me to express my opinion of Final Exam is to compare it to what I’ve been reading lately.

Imagine Final Exam as a Fear Street plot placed in the hands of a writer other than Stine. It’s really an interesting study at its core; the plot of Final Exam is incredibly similar to one of Stine’s plots. All the same elements are there:

1) the Everygirl protagonist
2) the gorgeous and popular sister
3) the gorgeous but possibly dangerous love interest
4) the loyal but increasingly suspicious best friend
5) the abusive ex-boyfriend with anger management issues and stalker tendencies
6) the “sixth ranger”–i.e., that other guy

The Everygirl Protagonist
In Fear Street installments, the main characters are almost entirely interchangeable. They are as devoid of personality as Bella Swan, and their taste in men is just as terrible (but more on that later). Final Exam suffers similarly; Kelly’s personality is just “normal girl”. It’s Kelly’s passion that sets her apart from Stine protagonists.

While Stine tried every once in a while to make his protagonists unique from one another, he opted for the physical or circumstantial. They might be exceptionally beautiful yet still unpopular. Others might be sporty or (referred to as) smart. Many were “the new girl”. One was blind.

Kelly is a mechanic. That shouldn’t be as mind-blowing as it is, but Bates actually bothered to give his character a passion and a skill, something she enjoys and does besides boys. After reading about the same guy-obsessed vapid Girl Next Door over and over again in Stine’s books, it’s refreshing to see a girl who at least has something to define her, if only a tiny something.

The Gorgeous and Popular Sister
Susan is Kelly’s younger sister. She’s got looks and friends, and she’s a cheerleader. She’s also clearly hopelessly jealous and more than a little spiteful. There were definitely a few Susans in the Fear Street series, and when they appeared, they were likely to be the stalker/killers.

The Gorgeous But Possibly Dangerous Love Interest
Tad is the cheerleader-chasing rich boy who takes an unexpected interest in Kelly. He’s also the top of his class and a sports stars of the school, driven to succeed and exceptionally pressured by his father.

Tads are exceedingly common in Fear Street, especially as love interests. The town of Shadyside can be assumed to be brimming with rich guys dating poor girls, driven male valedictorians, and mash-ups of the two.

Lucky for Tad, however, he escaped the fate of many of them: being an abusive bastard and/or raving lunatic.

This character is quite often the stalker/killer, especially if the protagonist doesn’t suspect him. (If she does, it’s probably the rival love interest.)

The Loyal But Increasingly Suspicious Friend
Every Everygirl starts out with a best friend. An Everyfriend, if you will. (Or, if you’re of the more obnoxious sort, an Everybestie.) At the beginning of the story, these two girls will invariably have been friends for years and seem as loyal to one another as can be.

This will almost invariably unravel over the course of the story, causing our Everygirl to suspect, if only vaguely, that the Everyfriend might be the stalker/killer. And if the Everygirl never suspects… well, in that case, the Everyfriend probably did it because UNEXPECTEDPLOTTWISTLIKEWHOA.

Kelly and Talia opt for the “vague suspicion” route.

The Abusive Ex-Boyfriend
This guy. Fuck this guy. This is the ex-boyfriend who threatens, stalks, and abuses the Everygirl until she can’t take it anymore–if she’s lucky.

If she’s not lucky, this guy is ten times worse. He’ll be instead the Abusive Current Boyfriend and will make the protagonist’s life a living hell, all while she explains to the reader how his jealous and threats of violence make her feel special.

This is the character that makes me hate R.L. Stine books.

Danny is Final Exam‘s incarnation of this character, and thankfully he turns out better than most.

The Other Guy

Insert who or whatever you need here. No personality needed! Have a vacant boyfriend spot? Need an “outsider” friend? Slip him (and it’s always a him) right in here, and he’ll fit perfectly. He only needs to show up for a few lines, and he can even be the surprise killer if you want–as long as you mention him in the beginning!

Final Exam‘s Other Guy is Jeffrey, Talia the Everyfriend’s boyfriend. He shows up for a chapter or two towards the end.

And that’s just the characters. The plots are also exceptionally formulaic. The books open with teenagers doing normal teenage things; stressing about school, friends, and romance as they struggle with jobs, parents, and sometimes even the law.

And then shit starts to get real.

Well, sort of. There’s nothing particularly “real”–that is, true to life–about the way the characters react most of the time. Villains lose their minds at the drop of a dime, teens stumble into (and back out of–alive!) multiple attempts on their lives, and no one–not the teens, the parents, or the teachers–bothers to call the police.

There’s a distinct disconnect between these books and reality; the teens here are living in a silly, overly-dramatized version of the ’80s and early ’90s that lets them live ridiculously dangerous and exciting lives while facing none of the consequences. Grades don’t suffer from the mental stress. Attacks and threats aren’t reported. Parents, teachers, and police don’t notice exceptionally obvious problems. Mental illness is an explanation for villainy and is rarely treated. Multiple life-threatening events never impact the victim’s psyche. Animals exist only so they can die in grotesque threats (and dead animals shoved into school lockers are never noticed by staff). The list goes on and on.

And yet I can’t pretend it doesn’t work. These over-dramatic elements serve their purpose; they hold the attention of young teens, and they make for a fast-paced and easy read. There’s a reason that so many of these were churned out by Stine, Cooney, Pike, and others–they sold. In spite of the formulaic plots, the cliche characters, and every other flaw inherent to the genre, even I have to admit… Final Exam and its brethren are more than a little addicting.


Inside, Outside, Upside Down by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a Bright and Early Book for Beginning Beginners, and that line could not be more aptly named. On the scale of picture books, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is at the very bottom. This isn’t a Cat in the Hat; this isn’t even a One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Any child who has been reading independently for more than a year will find this book to be below their reading level (though they may still enjoy the scant plot if they’re young enough and/or enjoy the Berenstain Bears), and any parent reading this book to a child will likely find it insufferably dull and repetitive.

I do, however, recommend this to parents looking to read to their infants/toddlers for the first few times, or parents whose children are just about ready to start reading independently but aren’t ready to handle a picture book of average complexity.