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Save 20% at the Critical Thinking Co. with the code at the end of this review!

If you are looking for an easy-to-use workbook to help expand your student’s vocabulary, look no further than Vocabulary Virtuoso by The Critical Thinking Co. For the purpose of this post, I’m reviewing the PSAT-SAT Book 2, which according to the Critical Thinking Co. is appropriate for grades 8-12. (They offer workbooks for younger levels as well.) 

To be honest, I didn’t plan to do formal vocabulary work with my son. He reads a great deal, and I know he already possesses a high vocabulary. But now that I’ve seen Vocabulary Virtuoso, I’m going to have him begin the book next year as he starts the 7th grade. Even though the workbook is geared towards 8-12th graders, he’s a strong reader, so I don’t think it will be difficult for him to work through it. I think it will help him prepare for the standardized tests that are required for homeschoolers in our state.

In fact, he’s already looked at it and volunteered to start using it now.  How cool is that? When he was younger, he hated doing worksheets, so I never made him do them. Now, he’s much more willing to do them, and he even seems to like them! A book like this is much easier for me because he can work through it on his own without me looking over his shoulder.

Vocabulary Virtuosos PSAT-SAT Book 2 is 187 pages long, and it contains twenty lessons. Each lesson begins with a list of vocabulary words that may be used on the PSAT and/or SAT exams. The list contains the word, pronunciation key, definition and a sample sentence using that word. 

Following the vocabulary list is six worksheets or exercises that require students to think critically and use words in different ways. For example, they will see synonyms for the word, fill in the blanks with the appropriate word, read a story that uses each word, etc. Another exercise requires them to unscramble the letters in the word, which will help them learn how to spell it correctly. They will also need to complete a sentence that shows they understand the definition of a word. I believe that going through each of these exercises slowly will help a student remember the words and their meaning.

I also like that through the exercises and stories, students who complete this workbook will also learn a little about ancient Greek history, ancient Greek drama, Shakespeare’s London, Renaissance artists, epistolary writing, U.S. musical history, types of literary conflict and many other interesting topics.

The Critical Thinking Co. is a great company with many products worth looking at. Each one incorporates critical thinking, so they aren’t your run-of-the-mill workbooks. I’ve only just started looking through their catalog and determining what we can use in the future. 

They have an awesome free critical thinking puzzle of the week you can get by signing up here.

If you would like to purchase Vocabulary Virtuoso or any other product from the Critical Thinking Co. (Suzanne uses MindBenders in her critical thinking classes), they are offering home/school/life readers a special discount. Use the coupon code TCTCBLOG for 20% off any size order. Expires 12/31/19.

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For some kids, just opening the door is inspiration enough for outdoor play. But when you need a little more inspiration, these ideas make green hour — the recommended one hour of outdoor free play for kids — come a little more naturally.

Make the Most of Rainy Days

As long as there’s no thunder in the air, a warm rainy day is an ideal time to get a little closer to your natural world. (The idea that wet weather causes colds is erroneous—most bugs are caused by viruses, which thrive in dry environments.) Kids love squishing through mud and splashing in puddles while they observe the sights and smells of a rainy day.

Play Natural Hide and Seek

One of the best ways to get familiar with your neighborhood nature is to seek it out, and a photo scavenger hunt is a great way to do that. Snap pics around the neighborhood or in your backyard for your child to duplicate with her own camera.

WWOOF IT Up

Some of the farms that participate in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms network allow children with their parents, and this hands-on, farming apprentice program is a wonderful way to introduce kids to everyday farming life.

Mark the Change of Seasons

Now that most of us aren’t waking up in the morning to milk the cows and feed the chickens, it’s easy to lose touch with the rhythms of the natural world. One way to remember the natural cycle: Make note of seasonal milestones — like the upcoming summer solstice—on your calendar, and celebrate them together.

Keep a Cloud Journal

Encourage kids to keep a daily record of the sky outside, sketching the day’s cloud patterns in a special journal and using colored pencils or paint to capture the color of the sky.

Nature Hunt in Unexpected Places

There’s plenty of nature to be found in urban spaces—if you know where to look. Pick up a book like Take a City Nature Walk by Jane Kirkland, and set out on an urban nature walk.

Add a Green Hour to Your Routine

Set aside one hour a day for unstructured outdoor play. (Start with 15 minutes if you feel like an hour might be too much for your younger children.) As you feel comfortable with the prospect, give your kids the reins to explore wild spaces independently.

Stock Up on Maps and Field Guides

Being able to identify trees, wildflowers, wild animal tracks, and birds on your nature hikes definitely makes outdoor time more interesting, so start a collection on your homeschool bookshelf. Topographical maps are also a great way to plot future outdoor adventures. Over time, mark areas on the map you’ve explored or wildlife you’ve identified by its tracks.

Have a Backyard Campout

A backyard campout is a practical way to test the camping waters without commitment. Even if you decide to bring your sleeping bags inside at bedtime, you’ll get to know your backyard in a whole new way when you tune into the sounds and sights of a spring night.

Give Your Child a Piece of Land to Care For

Taking responsibility for a piece of land gives kids the opportunity to build a hands-on relationship with nature. You can keep it simple — stocking a bird feeder or caring for a plant on the back porch — or engage your child in more complex activities, like creating a backyard habitat or planting a vegetable garden.

Put Up a Bird Feeder

It’s an amazingly simple way to lure all kinds of interesting avian friends to your backyard. Scatter a little seed in the yard, too, and you may see an influx of squirrels, rabbits, and other small mammals in addition to birds.

Start a Rock Collection

Even little kids can collect stream-smoothed rocks when they’re wading in the creek, stones from your hike through the forest, and shells from the beach. If your children are interested, consider picking up an inexpensive rock tumbler to polish some of your finds.

Raise Butterflies

Watch your butterflies develop from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. (Shelli recommends Painted Ladies as a good choice for newbie butterfly farmers.)

Make Family Hiking Part of Your Routine

Start with short day hikes, and work your way to more strenuous hike- thrus if they appeal.

Explore a New Place

NatureFind hooks you up with a list of parks, trails, and other nature sites within a chosen distance from your home so that it’s easy to find new nature stomping grounds.

Watch a Creepy Crawly Movie

Set up a lamp or other light source behind a hanging white sheet on your clothesline, and wait for the bugs to gather. Insects, attracted to the light, will land on your sheet, where you can observe them up-close.

Paint a Flower Rainbow

Gather fresh white flowers (carnations, daisies, and Queen Anne’s lace are all good options), and arrange one or two each into small vases or jars of warm water. Snip the submerged stems with a diagonal cut, keeping them under water the whole time. Add 20 to 30 drops of food coloring to each container, and watch as the flowers slowly change color. 

Be Nature Detectives

My kids had trouble just hanging out outdoors until we invented the nature detectives game. It’s as simple as games get: The kids grab their investigator notebooks and head outside to look for mysterious objects. When they spot something they can’t identify, they break out the magnifying glasses, snap photos, and jot down identifying details. A few field guides later, and the case is cracked — until the next nature mystery arrives.

This was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of HSL.

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I had a long lunch with my best friend, saw a movie with my family, and am looking forward to a sushi date with my husband tonight. Hello, my life, how I’ve missed you!

WHAT’S HAPPENING AT HOME/SCHOOL/LIFE

LINKS I LIKED
  • I am fascinated (and I think also a little terrified?) of the implications of this test-your-DNA craze.

  • Yes! Why have we embraced burnout as a professional value? I’m thinking a lot about this lately.

  • I’ve always been really interested in the construct of the frontier and the role it played (and still plays) in the development of the United States, and after this year of obsessing over U.S. history, I’m even more interested.

  • This was fascinating to me: The Mississippi Freedom Trail markers that mark sites connected to the murder of Emmett Till are more controversial than I’d realized: “As soon as the Bryants’ store was allowed to crumble, the forensic fascination of who-did-what-to-whom was reframed as an examination of how racism persists in the Delta. The onset of ruin has transformed the focus of commemorative inquiry: the inattention of the local community is now part of the meaning of Till’s murder.”

  • Why are we talking about electability (what does that mean??) and not about the best candidates? 

  • I love real pictures of people’s lives on Instagram! (But it takes a lot of courage to put them out there.)

THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW BUT NOW I DO

BOOKS ADDED TO MY TBR LIST THIS WEEKWHAT’S MAKING ME HAPPY

(I feel like this list is totally dating me, you guys. I mean, I guess maybe the Cure poster I still have in my office does that, though?)

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Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!


It’s that time of year again — the time when I finally give up on reading the entire stack of library books on whatever-flavor-of-history-we’re-doing-in-class that I’ve collected all semester. Around the time I’m starting to think about final projects it dawns on me that I’m probably not going to get to them all before we’ve actually wrapped up the class, which means that I have to return all those books (though not before making sure they’re on the to-read list for the next time we visit this era) and start collecting books for next year’s class. (It’s the American Revolution and the Civil War in 2019-2020!) It also means that my Library Chicken score is going to go negative, so I should definitely schedule more reading time next week. (Sorry fam, I know it’s my turn to make dinner, but you’re on your own tonight — Mom has to get her Library Chicken score into the positive digits!)

Stalin: A Biography by Robert Service

My last WWII book ends up being a biography of Joseph Stalin. For a child of the Cold War, I’m realizing how little I actually know about Soviet Russia. This bio was a good place to start with Stalin, if a bit dry. And depressing. Though I guess that comes along with the topic. (Okay, I lied: this isn’t my last WWII book because I’ve kept back a stash of Eleanor Roosevelt books. And I’m definitely going to get to them Real Soon Now. I’d much rather finish up with the awesome Eleanor than with this guy.)

(LC Score: +1)

If you’re going to be reading about one of the great mass murderers of history, it helps to have some Heyer on the side! These three were all new to me, and they were all quick, fun reads.

(LC Score: +3)

The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark by Muriel Spark

I like ghost stories and I like Muriel Spark, so this seemed like an obvious choice. The longest and most well-known story here is “The Portobello Road,” which I’ve encountered in other collections. It’s a very slim anthology and some of the stories here are only vaguely ghost-related, but it was a nice little break from All the War Stuff.

(LC Score: +1)

The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Whew. At nearly 1000 pages this collection is NOT slim. But I’m always happy to dive into another VanderMeer compilation! Amy and I talked about this one on the podcast, even though I was only about 80 percent through at the time. I did eventually finish it and some of my favorite stories were towards the end: I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more by Bob Leman, Tamsyn Muir, and Carrie Vaughn.

(LC Score: +1)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

This mystery, the first in the Ruth Galloway series, has been on my to-read list for a while, and now that I have finally read it, I have mixed feelings. I was unprepared for the brutality of the murder plot, which involves kidnapping and child murder (and even the killing of a pet animal, which SHOULD COME WITH A WARNING LABEL ON THE COVER, PEOPLE). I enjoyed getting to know Ruth, who is an archaeologist and professor, and I appreciated that she was not a stereotypical protagonist, but I thought that there were some unfortunate cliches in the way Griffiths handled gender issues and Ruth’s concerns about her weight. That said, it was a fast, entertaining read, and I have a feeling that Griffiths was just beginning to hit her stride when she wrote it. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series!

(LC Score: +1)

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Amy and I both enjoyed Anders’s first novel, All the Birds in the Sky (which we also talked about on the podcast), so I was very excited to read her second novel. This one is an ambitious science fiction adventure set on a tidally locked planet, meaning that the planet keeps one side facing the sun and one side facing out to the stars. Humans can only live in the small band where day meets night, and have to learn to deal with never-ending twilight. I loved the world-building here, and the way that Anders thought about all of the different ways that her characters would be impacted by this sort of life. I also loved the diverse relationships. Unfortunately, though, I thought that the plot lost some of its narrative drive and focus at a certain point, so even as we’re building to the climax things just sort of happen. Which was a bit disappointing, if only because I had such high expectations. I’m still thinking about the world that Anders created, however, and I’ll be first on the hold list for her next novel.

(LC Score: +1)

  • Books Returned Unread: -14

  • Library Chicken Score for 4/5/19: -6

  • Running Score: - ½



On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:
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School’s out for summer! Well, our homeschool is kicking into summer mode since we go year round, but the hybrid school Suzanne and I run has officially wrapped for summer. Graduation is Saturday, and I am looking forward to a glorious month of no teaching before I hop back into my summer chemistry class in June.

WHAT’S HAPPENING AT HOME/SCHOOL/LIFE
  • in the store: Our Year One and Year Two curricula are on sale now, and you can get a nice deal if you preorder them! (I expect to keep the digital editions all year, but the print editions will have a limited run again.)

  • on the podcast: Suzanne and I are talking about why we decided to add “run a hybrid school” to our to-do lists.

  • on patreon: Weigh in on what you’d like us to cover in our series on academic homeschooling through high school.

  • on instagram: Project season!

  • at the academy: If you’re in Atlanta, you should come take chemistry with me this summer!

  • from the archives: Shelli reviewed IEW’s Student Writing Intensive; a peek back at Amy’s 3rd grade; homeschooling is messy, but maybe that’s okay.

LINKS I LIKED
  • This piece about neighborhood Facebook groups is funny because it’s true. (We literally have a guy in our neighborhood group who prefaces almost every post with “I don’t want to be that guy, but”— and it makes me laugh out loud every time.

  • Similarly: Private Facebook groups can be surprisingly wonderful spaces, in a totally non-ironic way.

  • Carmilla was one of my lit students’ favorite reads this year, so I found this kind of perfect. (Read it all the way to the end!)

  • This was just … wow: “I can endure about five minutes more of this. Nothing of any value has been said by either party on any subject.”

THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW BUT NOW I DO

BOOKS ADDED TO MY TBR LIST THIS WEEK

WHAT’S MAKING ME HAPPY
  • Sandal weather! (I’m still tromping around in my super-comfy, super-clunky Alegria sandals — I think breaking my ankles has permanently altered my shoe wardrobe, and I am okay with that!)

  • Molten caramel cake 

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Year Two is here!

And if you pre-order it, you can save about 20%: Through August, the print cost for Year Two is $775 (regularly $995) and the digital cost for Year Two is $350 (regularly $450). You don’t need a coupon — the discount will be automatically applied.

And I think it’s even better than Year One, thanks in no small part to the fabulous team of students who test-drove Year One this past year. I have loved hearing from folks every week about how things are going, nerding out about books together, and getting to read some of their awesome work. It has been a real pleasure! And as a bonus, they’ve given me tons of feedback about how the curriculum plays out in a real-life homeschool, so I’ve been able to make some tweaks to make Year Two even better.

One of the tweaks is maybe more of a big change than a little tweak: As you can see from the lovely picture above, for Year Two I’ve written several books to go along with the Year Two curriculum. I struggled to find the right spines for classes like history and science — so, in classic homeschooler fashion, I ended up writing them myself. I’ve also edited separate readers for literature, philosophy, and government (in Year One, readings are included in the lesson guides) so that you can more comfortably read them in bed or the hammock.

Another tweak is that we’ve upgraded from audio to video lectures for Year Two. One of the nicest pieces of feedback I got from the folks who used Year One was that they loved the lectures that came with each class, so I’ve been making videos for Year Two. (Don’t worry, you hardly have to look at me at all! But I still make random Buffy references and default to feminine pronouns.) I think for things like Latin and chemistry, you’ll really love the visual component — but you can download just the audio if you prefer your lectures podcast-style.

Just like last year, you can choose between the print edition and a digital edition. The curriculum ships in August, and both curricula will be on sale until shipments start.

So what’s actually in our Year Two curriculum? I’m so glad you asked! Year Two is our U.S. history year, which means we’re focusing on the United States — history, literature, and government.

What’s included:

This 28-week curriculum contains everything but math. 

Philosophy

After a year of grounding ourselves in critical thinking, we’re ready to tackle some real philosophy! We’ll start easy with Transcendentalism, arguably the most American philosophy and one that’s very accessible. In the second half of the year, we’ll turn to ethics, considering Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and care ethics.

  • Philosophy primary source reader (edited by HSL)

  • Philosophy student guide (with weekly lessons and assignments)

  • Philosophy lectures channel (this year with video!)

U.S. History

I feel like by high school most of us know the basics of U.S. history, so I’ve chosen to focus on the lives that often get left out of history books: immigrants, women, people of color, LGBTQ people. I’ve tried to tell the story of the United States through their stories, and I hope I’ve done them justice. And, of course, we continue to emphasize primary sources.

  • The Colorful, Queer, Feminist, Immigrant Lives That Helped Shape the United States by Amy Sharony

  • History student guide (with weekly lessons, assignments, and primary source readings — see a sample)

  • History lectures channel (this year with video!)

Literature and Composition

We’ll explore “American literature” through a series of focused studies, including American Gothic literature, The Awakening, the Harlem Renaissance, American poetry, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We’ll be writing a mix of critical and personal essays about literature.

  • Literature reader (edited by HSL)

  • Literature student guide (with weekly lessons, assignments, and critical considerations — see a sample)

  • Composition student guide (with assignments and rubrics)

  • Literature lectures channel (this year with video!)

Chemistry

Our textbook-based biology last year was fine, but I think we can do better. Chemistry is fascinating, full of compelling people and wacky elements (there’s a Poisoner’s Corridor in the periodic table!), and there wasn’t really a book that managed to cover the basics of chemistry while also giving plenty of room to the stories that make it interesting. I hope this book fills the gap — I certainly had a great time writing it and working with a couple of super-smart chemists on balancing information and fun and making sure we had really good labs.

  • Chemistry for People Who Would Rather Be Reading by Amy Sharony

  • Chemistry Lab Manual

  • Chemistry student guide (with weekly lessons and assignments — see a sample)

  • Chemistry lessons channel (this year with video!)

U.S. Government and Politics

It only makes sense to cover U.S. government and politics during our U.S. history year. We’ll spend about half this class taking a close look at the Constitution, including elections and the branches of government, and the other half exploring some of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court cases.

  • The Annotated Constitution of the United States (edited by HSL)

  • Major Supreme Court Cases (edited by HSL)

  • U.S. Government and Politics student guide (with weekly lessons, assignments, and primary source readings)

  • Government lectures channel (this year with video!)

Latin IB

We’ll continue with Ecce Romani, learning more vocabulary and more complex grammar. I’ve also added more individual grammar lessons with videos because I hear you: You want more grammar!

  • Latin student guide (with weekly lessons and assignments — see a sample)

  • Latin lessons channel (this year with video!)

Student Guide

The student guide is part inspirational manual, part goal-setting tool, and part weekly planner. (See a sample.)

  • Contracts, annual goals, and semester goals

  • Grade matrix options and tracking for each subject

  • Annual, monthly, and weekly schedule suggestions

Parents Guide
  • Midterm and final exams with answer keys

  • Suggestions for counting units and course descriptions

Online Support
  • I am available online for a live chat every week in our curriculum Facebook group to answer questions and offer whatever other support you need.

You will need: (This is the stuff you’ll need that is NOT included in the curriculum.)

  • The Awakening

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  • Ecce Romani 1 and 2 (if you don’t already have it from last year)

  • Supplies for chemistry labs (listed in lab manual)

  • whatever you’re doing for math


Questions You Might Have

If I don’t tackle your question here, please feel free to ask!

What if we want to jump right into Year Two without doing Year One?

You can, of course — I am not the boss of you! The challenge you might run into is that some of the critical reading and writing you’ll be doing in Year Two builds on skills you learned in Year One, like annotating as you read, self-editing your essays, using the toolkit, etc. You could certainly learn these things as you go, but you’ll miss out on the structured development of these skills. 

Can I buy Year One?

Yes! It’s on sale again now, too. (It will ship in August, too, so I can do all my box-packing / emailing in one big push.)

Can I buy just one piece of the curriculum?
Not yet — sorry! It is a goal for down the road, but right now, it makes sense for us to keep the curriculum as a bundle. (I am teaching a couple of online classes this fall at the Academy based on this curriculum, including history and literature, so keep an eye out for those if you’re looking for just one class.)

How does this translate to credits on our transcript?

As a general guide, I recommend:

  • 1.0 History

  • 1.0 Literature: Main Literature (0.75) + Composition (0.25)

  • 1.0 Latin

  • 1.0 Philosophy

  • 1.5 Chemistry (with Lab)

  • 0.5 U.S. Government and Politics

But I’m happy to chat specifics with you if you run into questions!

How much parent support is required?

The curriculum is written for the student, so it’s designed for students to work through on their own. I’ve included step-by-step strategies for close reading, critical thinking, making connections, and analyzing information as well as tools for self-evaluation with the idea that students will get better at these things over the course of the year — there’s a lot of skill-building integrated into the program. You know best what your student needs, but an on-level high school student should be able to use this curriculum largely independently.

How do I grade this?

For each subject, I’ve included a grade matrix, which students can use to plot their own version of academic success. Each grade matrix includes a recommended number of points to indicate a level of academic success: students can opt to pass the class, work to earn an A, or aspire to an honors-level A based on their own goals for that particular subject. The grade matrix includes a broad range of output activities, from taking notes and completing annotated readings to writing papers and projects with lots of different options in each category. Aside from a few required items, students can combine projects and activities to create their own assessment framework. Output options include midterm and final exams for each subject.

What do the rest of the years look like?

We’re building this curriculum as we go, so some of the specifics might change as our weekly plans actually start to come together. But the broad outline for the next three years is set as follows and will remain the same, even if specific readings change:

  • Year Three: Asian and African History includes:

    • Humanities: History, literature, and philosophy of China, Japan, India, and non-Egypt Africa

    • Composition: Synthesis essays (explanatory and argumentative); creative writing

    • Philosophy: Confucius/Daoism/Chuang-Tzu

    • Science: Physics (with Labs), includes history-related primary source readings

    • Latin 2

  • Year Four: The Classical World includes:

    • Humanities: History, literature, and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome

    • Composition: Scientific writing; persuasive essays

    • Philosophy: Plato/Lucretius

    • Science: Astronomy (with Labs), includes history-related primary source readings

    • Latin 3

    • Supplements: World Religions; The Epic of Gilgamesh



Other things you might want to note:
  • This curriculum was designed to cover two 14-week semesters, for a total of 28 weeks of structured academic time. Because of the short time span, it’s a very focused, rigorous curriculum — you could definitely slow down and spread it across more time if you wanted to.

  • This is a reading- and writing-intensive curriculum. While you could definitely modify it to make it less so, critical reading and writing are such essential parts of it that if you hate those things, this curriculum might not be the best fit for you.

  • All of the information in this curriculum was reviewed by and created by or in close collaboration with people with advanced degrees in the subject area.

  • This is a secular curriculum.

  • This sample does not include complete lessons and is only a sample — the completed curriculum may differ from what you see here. 

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It’s crunch time here at HSL HQ: Finals at the Academy are next week, our galleys are in for the new Year Two curriculum, and the spring issue just wrapped.

WHAT’S HAPPENING AT HOME/SCHOOL/LIFE

LINKS I LIKED

THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW BUT NOW I DO

BOOKS ADDED TO MY TBR LIST THIS WEEK

WHAT’S MAKING ME HAPPY

The prospect of getting caught up on the parts of my life that get put on hold during editing binges!

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Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!

This school year I’ve been doing a lot of World War II reading for the middle school history class, which means (among other things) a lot of very thick biographies about very terrible people. (I’ve discovered that I’m really not comfortable carrying a Hitler biography around to read in public). I’ll do a round-up post of my nonfiction WWII reading later in the year, but as we’re getting back into the swing of things, I thought I’d focus on my recent non-Hitler-related reading:


The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Turton’s debut novel is a Groundhog-Day style murder mystery where the detective relives the same day over and over again, each time inhabiting a different guest at a house party, while trying to solve the murder that will happen at the end of the night. I am definitely up for this level of weirdness, but I was a little disappointed: it felt like the author worked so hard to get all the puzzle pieces to fit together that he forgot to create interesting characters for me to root for. (LC Score: +1)

City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

We’ve reached South America in World Lit, which means I get to make my middle schoolers read one of my very favorite authors! City of the Beasts is Allende’s first children’s/YA novel and the first in a trilogy. In it we follow our 15-year-old protagonist up the Amazon river in search of a mysterious yeti-like creature. It’s a little slow to get started and occasionally the prose (translated from the Spanish) can be a bit clunky, but I love the descriptions once the adventure really starts and things get exciting. (LC Score: 0, off my own shelves)

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz is hit or miss for me. I really enjoyed Magpie Murders, but haven’t fallen in love with any of his other books. This one (coming after Horowitz’s popular Sherlock novels The House of Silk and Moriarty) casts an obnoxious ex-cop as a “consulting investigator” and stand-in for Holmes, with Horowitz himself as first-person narrator and Watson. I have mixed feelings about authors who insert themselves as characters in their own books; I think it creeps me out a bit, not knowing where the reality ends and fiction begins. There are some good plot twists, but I really didn’t enjoy the Holmes character and I don’t think I’ll be picking up the forthcoming sequel.  (LC Score: +1)

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

A high school English teacher is horrified when her best friend is murdered--and is even more upset when the murder seems to be connected to a famous Victorian ghost story written by an author that she has studied for years — and THEN mysterious messages start to appear in HER OWN DIARY!! So creepy I get chills thinking about it! This one is hard to put down and I’ve got my fingers crossed that Griffiths will write a follow-up with the same investigating officer, a not-quite-out lesbian Sikh who still lives with her parents. (LC Score: +1)

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

I already know I love Gregory’s books and this one, his first, was no exception. Since 1950, the United States and the rest of the world has been living through an epidemic of demonic possession, though no one can quite figure out what the “demons” actually are. Are they aliens? Telepaths? Jungian archetypes? Gregory’s worlds are always bizarre and fascinating, and I thoroughly enjoyed this story of one man desperately trying to solve his own demonic possession problem. Plus lots of cameos by celebrities both fictional and non! (Let me know when you read it so we can have a conversation about the true identity of Siobhan O’Connell.)  (LC Score: +½, returned overdue)

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

I’m always up for a good Lizzie Borden book. (Most recent favorite: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest, which is Lizzie Borden plus Cthulhu.) Schmidt’s book is a retelling of the Lizzie Borden murders, showing us the inside of a deeply dysfunctional family. (Slight SPOILER: I was concerned that it was all going to be about sexual abuse, which I do NOT enjoy reading, but it turns out that there are many ways of being dysfunctional! Hurray!) I maybe wanted to go a teensy bit deeper, but it’s incredibly compelling and I read it in one sitting.  (LC Score: +1)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Aw, man, I really wanted to like this one. I love the cover and I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of taking a year off to “hibernate,” but I found the protagonist--who is miserable but always (as she keeps reminding us) beautiful--completely unrelatable and borderline unrecognizable as an actual human, capable of actual human relationships. It’s an example of what I think of as a very New York City novel about very New York City people, who are apparently completely unlike the rest of us in the rest of the world? This one, unfortunately, didn’t work for me.  (LC Score: +1)

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault

Adventures in lexicography! While researching etymologies for a new edition of the dictionary, editorial assistant Billy discovers pieces of a story told via the citations collected in their catalog. As he looks for more pieces of the puzzle, he discovers the outline of a mystery, perhaps even involving murder! I found the ending slightly anti-climatic, but it was a very fun read.  (LC Score: +1)

Books Returned Unread: -1

Library Chicken Score for 3/22/19: 6 ½

Running Score: 5 ½

On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:
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We’ve been homeschooling for two years, and I still feel like I haven’t figured out how to balance everything. When homeschooling is going great, I’m dragging at my part-time job and the house is a mess. When the house is running like a well-oiled machine, homeschooling seems to fall through the cracks. I know there’s a way to balance it all because other people seem to do it. So what’s their secret, and how can I do it, too?

Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I think you’re operating from faulty premises. We all want to believe that there’s some magical balance out there, but the truth is what you’ve probably always suspected on some level: There’s no such thing as perfect balance. There’s just finding an un-balance that works for you.

“I don’t know who came up with the myth of a balanced life, but it’s become a real problem for a lot of people,” says life coach Adrienne Harlick, who specializes in helping busy moms find ways to navigate the different parts of their lives. “You’re never going to find some magical equation that lets you manage everything perfectly all the time. What you can find is a way to set priorities and manage your time so that at the end of the day, you feel good about what you’ve accomplished.”

Harlick says that moms often react to this with disbelief and disappointment — they genuinely want to find a way to do everything and are dismayed when Harlick tells them they just plain can’t — but once they accept the initial premise that perfect balance doesn’t exist, most of them feel strangely liberated.

Georgia Parker, a homeschool mom with a full-time job, came to Harlick in the same situation you’re in now: She felt like she should be able to do everything in a way that made her feel less stressed and more competent. She felt like she was constantly dropping balls because every time she focused her full attention on one area of her life, another area suffered. “I kept thinking I was just doing it wrong, but Adrienne helped me understand that what I wanted was impossible,” Georgia says.

There is no perfect balance, so you’re wasting time and energy trying to find one. Instead, Harlick says, you need to focus on figuring out how to deal with the unbalanced life you have. You have to accept that you only have so much time, so much energy, so many resources — which means everything can’t be the most important. In order to find a way to balance your life amid perpetual imbalance, you’ve got to figure out what your priorities are.

This can be challenging because it often means letting go of some ideal of a “good mom” or a “good partner” you have stuck in your head. A good mom could keep the house spotless, shine at work, cook healthy, kid-pleasing meals three times a day, and homeschool kids in a way that’s both rigorously academic and relaxed and child-led. You are never going to be that imaginary mom. Setting priorities lets you imagine the kind of good mom you actually want to be and gives you the space to build a life that plays to your strengths. Yes, you will probably still have days where everything falls apart, but once you start prioritizing what matters to you, you will have a lot more days that end with you feeling good about what you’re doing.

  • Make sure you’re setting goals that line up with your priorities. You’ll never feel balanced unless you can feel like you are making progress, and you can’t feel like you’re making progress if you’re stuck in an endless to-do cycle. Once you know what your priorities are, you can start setting goals that will move you toward reaching them. Setting goals helps you pinpoint what’s really important to you and gives you permission to sidetrack the things that aren’t. “You will feel much less guilty about not doing that co-op class if it’s because you are working on your dissertation, or much better about ordering takeout if you didn’t start dinner because you spent the day helping your kid work on a big project,” says Harlick.

  • Recognize that you have a choice. When you’re feeling unbalanced, it’s often because you feel like you have to do everything, but you have more choices than you might initially think at any given moment. When you feel overwhelmed, Harlick advises pushing yourself to figure out what is the least important thing on your list — can you pause that? Outsource it? Let it go completely? What about the second-least important thing? The third? “People tend to fall into the trap of thinking that because everything they do is important, everything they do is essential, but that’s almost never the case,” Harlick says. “What if you didn’t make lunch for your 10-year-old? He’d probably feed himself when he got hungry.”

  • Give overlapping a try. So you want to start a garden, but you have no time to do it. Or you’d love to write that curriculum, but to do it, you’d need an actual moment of quiet. Try including your kids. There’s not reason your kids can’t help you get that garden going or test-drive a NaNoWriMo project while you’re writing, too. This doesn’t always work out, but it’s always worth a try because the times when it does work out are magical.

  • Take the big picture view. Your goal shouldn’t be to find balance in one-day increments but over the long term, says psychologist Nigel Marsh. “Your days are always going to feel lopsided and uneven — because they are probably going to be lopsided and uneven,” he says. “But if you look at a six-month chunk of time or the course of a year, you can see more clearly where your time and energy are going.” If that view makes you happy, you’ve got as much balance as it’s humanly possible to have. If it doesn’t — well, you’ve got a much better perspective of what you want to change.

  • Throw money at the problem. This isn’t always an option, but if your budget has some flexibility, consider outsourcing some of the things on your to-do list that don’t match up with your priority list. Georgia Parker hired a cleaner to come in twice a week to do the heavy cleaning so that she just has to keep a handle on everyday clutter and clean-up. If you need more time for your own work, an online class or hybrid homeschool might free up some of the hours you’re putting into homeschooling. A mom in our homeschool group raves about her dinner box subscription, which takes away all the time and energy she used to spend on figuring out and shopping for dinners every week. If you can afford to let someone else handle a problem area, you’re giving yourself more space to focus on what you care about.

  • Stop putting off self-care until you have time. “You will never have time, so do it now anyway,” Harlick says. Harlick says ones of the symptoms of the balance myth is that women tend to put themselves last on the assumption that they’ll eventually figure out a way to fit their own self-care into the routine. The truth is, taking care of yourself will only end up in your routine if you actively put it there, so schedule your meals, your bedtimes, your free and fun time, just as you schedule park days and standardized tests. “Once you accept that you’re never going to magically get everything balanced, you can also accept that your own needs shouldn’t wait indefinitely,” Harlick says.

  • Know what makes your good day highlights reel. What makes you feel really good about your day? A run in the morning? A book in the bath? Nature time with the kids? Identify the little get-to moments that make your have-to list a little easier to work through, and get them on your schedule at least a few times a week.

  • Plan when you’re going to leave, not just when you’re going to get there. This applies to everything from social activities like park days to dance lessons to the office. “If you know when you’re leaving, you can start preparing to go 20 minutes in advance — you won’t have that and-one-more-thing stretching out activities, which can make you feel like you’re always scrambling,” says Harlick. Setting your exit in advance of your arrival reduces a lot of stress and hassle.

  • Don’t be afraid to multitask when it helps. We’re always trying to be in the moment more, and that’s a worthy goal — but it’s not one we can meet every minute of the day. Sometimes a quick email check while the kids are working on their math means you can squeeze in a little work time, or it might make sense to practice your poetry verses while you tend the garden.

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Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!

HEY GUYS, I’M BACK! Did you miss me? I missed you! I thought about asking Amy to commission a zombified back-from-the-grave version of the Library Chicken logo (which would be AWESOME, am I right?) but then I thought maybe not. Also — and I blame this entirely on the current political situation — I think about a zombie apocalypse waaaay too much.

I hope that your 2019 has been wonderful so far and you have been busily checking books off your to-read list. To get us back in the groove, I thought I’d start out with my own Best of 2019 So Far list.

Part of self-care for me is comfort reading: re-reading old favorites. If you do a lot of comfort reading (ahem), you may find that you need to at least temporarily retire some of those favorites that you nearly know by heart (Jane Austen, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Sayers) in favor of relative newbies. These are all on my nextgen comfort reading shelf.

Paul Cornell is a talented author and screenwriter (he wrote the Doctor Who episodes “Father’s Day” and — one of my personal favorites — the two-parter “Human Nature/The Family of Blood”). In this series (The Shadow Police) we follow a modern day London detective squad that acquires special powers during a very strange case, allowing them to see the “shadow” London of magic and mystery that exists side-by-side with the everyday world. It’s a great combination of police procedural and urban fantasy, occasionally hard-boiled and dark (the first book, London Falling, involves child-murder) with a dash of weird humor (a witch who kills soccer players who score goals against her favorite team). Very much UNfortunately, according to Cornell, this supposed-to-be-five-books series has been dropped by the publisher, so it’s possible we will never get to see the very end of the story arc. That said, if book three, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?, does end up being the last one, it is not a bad wrap-up for the series (most of the urgent plot points are dealt with), which is still very much worth reading.

Jesse Ball is weird and wonderful and I don’t know what he’s doing half the time but I’m totally fine with it. In A Cure for Suicide, we’re transported to a carefully constructed village where people who want to leave their lives behind are taught to live again after having their memories wiped. Census follows a father, recently diagnosed with a terminal disease, and his young son on a journey as census-takers through a world that is not quite our own. How to Set a Fire and Why, a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl with a tragic past (and, almost certainly, a tragic future) is the most mainstream (and perhaps the saddest) work of his that I’ve read.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

I read this immediately following How to Set a Fire and Why, which turned out to be one of those happenstance pairings that works really well. Our narrator, Sean, has severe physical handicaps as the result of an “accident” when he was in high school. He now runs a by-mail adventure game, which has unexpectedly led to tragedy for some of his players. It’s a short novel, but there’s so much good stuff going on here that I look forward to revisiting it some time in the future.

Confessions of the Fox: A Novel by Jordy Rosenberg

This is the bizarre and wonderful story of notorious 18th-century London thief Jack Sheppard, told in parallel via footnotes (I LOVE STORY-TELLING IN FOOTNOTES GIVE THEM ALL TO ME) with the story of the professor who found the mysterious manuscript detailing Jack’s true history (turns out he’s transgender, among other things). It’s weird and compelling and (SPOILER) there is a LOT of explicit sex, which can sometimes turn me off a book (that’s just me) but didn’t bother me here.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

We’re doing biology in the high school and middle school this year, which means I’ve been reading up on Darwin. This nonfiction biography of the Darwins’ marriage (aimed at the YA audience, I believe, but certainly enjoyable for adult readers) shows the challenges and complexities of their relationship, which was long-lasting and, by all accounts, incredibly successful. I love reading about all the Victorians, but Darwin — who was apparently a quite decent and loving human being! — is one of my very favorites.

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose

I believe that everyone should read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank at some point (I prefer The Definitive Edition, edited by Mirjam Pressler and published 1991), and this is the year for my middle school students, since we’re covering the 1930s and World War II in history class. Francine Prose (Reading Like a Writer) explores the diary as a piece of serious literature, along with the history of its publication and popularity, and the (surprisingly!) scandalous production of the play and movie adaptations. This is a great companion to the diary for students and teachers, and a fascinating read in its own right.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

More 1930s reading: companion book to the excellent American Experience documentary episode, Surviving the Dust Bowl. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to live through this ecological disaster, but Egan does a great job bringing it to life with first-hand accounts.

I may be a teensy bit obsessed with the Roosevelts, and this year I’m getting to indulge my obsession. These are all great accounts of Franklin and Eleanor and their complex relationship. I’ve got another stack of Roosevelt-reading next to the night stand; we’ll see how much I can get through before I have to start studying up for next year’s history class.

These two funny, compelling, and occasionally heart-breaking essay collections (by the author of the blog “bitches gotta eat”) cover a wide range of topics including dating, chronic illness, and tyrannical cats. Irby is currently working on the Hulu adaptation of Lindy West’s Shrill (another great book!) starring Aidy Bryant (so many talented women!).

...AND I’m starting fresh for the new year, even though the new year was some time ago, so:

Library Chicken Score for 3/15/19: 0

Running Score: 0

On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:

Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: The Defining Years 1933-1938 by Blanche Wiesen Cook (I want to be Eleanor when I grow up)

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (everyone in the world has read this already, including my daughter who is very upset that it is taking me so long)

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (don’t know much about it other than that it’s supposed to be a “gripping gothic thriller,” so yes, I’m in)

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory (Spoonbenders was great, and this looks good too!)

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