Book Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

i-capture-the-castle.jpegMy middle school Mother Daughter Book Club met last night to talk about I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. What an interesting book. As we talked, we all discovered even more layers than we had thought of before.

I Capture the Castle takes place in the 1930s, and it tells the story of a family living in a crumbling castle in England. The dad is a well-known author who hasn’t written since his first book was released to critical acclaim in both England and the U.S. The narrator is Cassandra, the 17-year-old daughter. Rose, 21, Thomas, 15 and stepmother Topaz, complete the family.

With no income coming in, the family has gradually sold off all its furniture and other valuables until they are on the brink of crisis. When two young men from America inherit the castle next door,  it’s no surprise that the family sees the men as their salvation in more ways than one.

The characters are all very complex, and as Cassandra writes in her journal, the reader watches them grow in many different ways. We see Cassandra grow from childhood to adulthood and take on more responsibilities.

Some of the many things that can be discussed after reading this book: the changing role of women in society, love and marriage, the role of religion in our lives, money, children and their parents

I served tea sandwiches and scones for dinner, and everyone seemed to think it was a fun tie-in to the book. We talked about our favorite scenes in the book, and all twelve of us had a different one. I think that’s amazing depth for one book. As we talked about what we liked about the characters, I also felt like I learned a lot more about each one.

The only criticism is that the book was a little wordy, and some people had a hard time getting into it. It also uses fairly sophisticated, complex language. With that in mind, I still highly recommend it for a mother-daughter book club where the girls are in 8th grade or older.

One final note: I Capture the Castle is also a movie, but it’s rated R. It’s hard for me to imagine how this book was made into an R-rated movie, but the mom’s have decided to have a movie night in the next month or so and find out for ourselves. We’re really looking forward to getting together with just the adults.

Book Review: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

twilight.jpegLast night my daughter, Madeleine, and I met with our book club to talk about Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. Kirsten started the conversation by saying she loved! the book and she thought Edward was the perfect guy. The other girls jumped right in and echoed the exact same thought. The moms tried to bring the discussion around several times to other things that went on in the book: Would you so eagerly put yourself at risk in a relationship? Do you think Bella would continue to be so enamored of Edward if she had time away from him? Would you trade your life for an eternity with someone else if it meant never having children or forming close ties with anyone else?

Clearly the girls were more interested in the image of Edward as the perfect boyfriend than in thinking about any lasting consequences. A couple of us moms said we thought Twilight was an Outlander (an adult series by Diana Gabaldon) book for teens. While Outlander involves a totally different plot line, time travel in Scotland as opposed to moral vampires in Washington, the books are similar in that they feature a male hero who is loving, attentive, protective, strong and seemingly perfect (except for an endearing flaw or two).

The girls say everyone else they know who has read Twilight loves it. It certainly has it’s place as a light, fun book to read as long as you’re not expecting to explore issues in-depth during a discussion. We all need that sometimes.

Youth Librarians Can Help You Choose Books for Your Book Club

If you’ve ever been stuck for an idea of a book to recommend for your mother-daughter book club, you know how valuable it can be to get advice from someone who works with kids and books everyday. Web sites like this one and other book sites certainly provide good information, but being able to talk to your local youth librarian about your group can be even more helpful.

If your group tends to like science fiction or historical fiction or any other genre, she’ll often be able to recommend related books by age group. She’s probably read many of the selections herself, and she’ll be able to talk to you about themes that will make good discussion or challenge group members to see issues in a different light.

Our youth librarian is named Susan, and when my daughters walk into the library she greets us immediately and talks about exciting new books she’s heard about. If a book is not in at our local branch, she’ll put a copy on hold for pickup at a later date.

Through her recommendation, we’ve all discovered books we probably never would have on our own. She makes going to the library fun! Look for your own Susan at your local library and get to know her. Chances are she’ll become one of your most valuable resources.

Book Review: Every Crooked Pot by Renée Rosen

every-crooked-pot.jpegI was sucked into Nina Goldman’s life the minute I started to read this little gem of a book from Renée Rosen. Nina was born with a strawberry birthmark that covers one of her eyes, and early on she learned that it brings both good and bad attention to her. I agonized along with Nina as she struggled to fit in socially through middle school and high school, sure that her eye was the only thing keeping her from being popular. Nina’s story brought back memories from the mixed up social scene of my own school years, where everyone was trying to find who they were, and most of us were insecure about something.

Dominating Nina’s life outside of school is her father, Artie, whose larger-than-life character sucks in everyone around him as they try to live up to the high expectations he creates for himself and his family. There’s not much room for other memorable players in this story, but Rosen weaves other characters into the narrative seemlessly, and she makes it easy to get the dynamics between Nina and her friends, and Nina and the rest of her family.

Nina’s mother is a minor character, but readers will find lots to talk about in the family dynamics at play, the times described in the book (1960s and 70s), and Nina’s search to find what’s really important to her.

It’s hard to believe this was penned by a first-time author, but Rosen brings very complicated issues together seamlessly in a book that’s hard to put down once you start it. Something to note: the frank handling of drug use and teenage experimentation with sex probably makes Every Crooked Pot most appropriate for high school readers and their moms.

Finding Time to Read

“When do you find time to read?” I hear the question all the time from moms and dads, but rarely from kids. Kids who like to read seem to be good at finding time to read even when they’re staring down several hours of homework and sports practice in the evenings after school. It seems to help them relax or take a break when they’re dealing with other challenging mental issues.

In some ways I think of reading as “massage for the mind,” which means a way to completely and totally relax and rejuvenate my mind so I can go back to handling the million little details that crowd my day. When I’m reading I’m not thinking about anything but the words in front of me, and that total concentration helps me to tackle the other issues with more energy when I get back to work.

So when do I read? In the morning with my daughter before she catches the school bus. In the afternoon with my older daughter when she gets home from school. At lunch, while I munch on a sandwich. During my daughter’s piano lesson. While I’m in the car waiting to pick one of my daughters up from an after school activity. Before bed. Since I read a little bit at different times of the day, I also find myself thinking about characters from a fiction book or real issues from a nonfiction book as I go through other mundane tasks like doing the laundry or vacuuming the carpet. And that helps me process what I’m reading better.

I can’t imagine having a day with nothing to read. For me, it would be harder, not easier, to get everything done without knowing there’s a book waiting nearby.

Book Review: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

stargirl.jpegWhen my oldest daughter, Madeleine, was in fifth grade, we read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli in our mother-daughter book club. The girls all liked it, but they couldn’t really identify well with the issues brought up in the book: What does it mean to be popular in school, can you find friends who accept you for who you are even when you’re different from the mainstream, are you strong enough to go against the popular mindset by befriending someone who is different?

The moms on the other hand, got the issues exactly.  We remembered all too well the days of junior high and high school when you’re not only trying to determine who you are, but also realizing that who you choose to hang out with is a reflection of that. We thought the book was excellently done, and that we had maybe read it when our girls were too young.

I’ve been thinking about that lately because my youngest daughter, Catherine, is reading Stargirl now. She’s in eighth grade, and she’s really enjoying it. The things she’s reading about are resonating with her, because she’s seen similar situations happen with kids in middle school. recommends this book for ages 10 – 14, but I’m more inclined to agree with the age recommendation by Publisher’s Weekly, which is 12 and up. It’s perfect for a mother-daughter book group because the adults will appreciate Spinelli’s excellent writing as well as identify what he’s writing about, and girls in middle school and older will be able to make correlations between situations in the book and things they deal with in their own social and school lives.

I’m looking forward to discussing Stargirl with Catherine when she’s done reading it, and we’re both looking forward to reading the sequel, Love, Stargirl.

Games Can Keep Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Discussion Moving Along

A reader from Milwaukee, Wisconsin recently sent in a few ideas for games to play during a meeting. Here’s what she had to say:

“In addition to the discussion, some of our meetings ‘pit’ mothers against daughters in games quizzing us on the book—we’ve played Jeopardy, Deal or No Deal and others. It provides a little change to the agenda. We have a short game and then discuss the book.”

What great ideas to get lively discussions going. Sometimes the books my club members have liked the most have generated the least discussion, because we couldn’t think of anything to say beyond, “I really liked everything about this book.” Situations like this would really benefit from a game that brought out different aspects of the book that the group could then talk about.

Here are a few book recommendations from the group in Milwaukee for 7th – 8th graders:

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pies by Jordan Sonnenblick
Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter
by Adeline Yen Mah
Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice (short but impactful)

A Reading with Gennifer Choldenko

My daughter, Catherine, and I went to see Gennifer Choldenko when she spoke at Powell’s Books in Portland on Monday. She gave a wonderful presentation, and she talked about how she writes her books as well as gave details about Al Capone Does My Shirts and her new book, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period. She also read the first chapter of the latter book.

Three of the six girls in our group made it to the reading. They loved it! They got to meet one of their favorite authors and have her sign copies of their books. They asked questions, and they got to know a little bit about the person who created the story they had read and loved so much.

It was interesting to hear Gennifer say that she writes about middle school, because she remembers those years so vividly.  “Anything can happen, because everything is changing,” she said. “I give my characters a lot to deal with because life is scary sometimes.”

Indeed. Here’s a group photo we took that night:

gennifer-choldenko.JPGAttending an author appearance makes a great outing for your group. Check listings in your local paper, or look for flyers at your favorite bookstore to find out about upcoming appearances. You can also check the author’s Web site, which often lists places where she will be talking.


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