Goodreads Book Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You are an astronaut on the third manned mission to Mars. You, and your five other fellow astronauts, will be there for a month of mars days (aka sols). It’s going to be the best month of your life. But then—six days into the mission—disaster strikes! You are dead. Or so your crew thought. They abandon the mission and head back to Earth. Unfortunately…you are not actually dead. What do you do? How will you survive? Will you survive the next 4 years until the next scheduled mission to Mars?

The Martian
, by Andy Weir, is a space castaway story. It is full of science, space, ingenuity, and luck. It follows the successes and failures astronaut Mark Watney faces while stranded on Mars. Weir chose to utilize a diary-like format to really put readers into Watney’s frame of mind. The story of what occurs on Earth uses standard prose format (third person, past tense).

Weir self-published The Martian in 2011. Eventually, requests came in to have the book put in an Amazon Kindle format. He did, setting the price for the minimum that Amazon would allow. The book just exploded from there. It was quickly made into a movie starring Matt Damon . I actually enjoyed the movie version as well. It kept pretty true to the book (of course, things were left out because that always happens in a book to movie conversion).

The Martian is great for book clubs, in fact, at the end of the book, there are some good questions for discussion. A word of caution, the book has a bit of a gallows sense of humor and some swearing. If that language is inappropriate for the audience reading the book, you may want to pre-screen the book. Swearing is not often and is used well in context.

While some situations were a little far-fetched, for example, the economics of the various situations/problems and Watney’s ingenious plans, they were within reason. Most readers accept a bit of suspension of disbelief when reading.

So, did Watney survive? Would you? The only way to know for sure is to read (or watch) The Martian.

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List Challenge: The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge

I was a die-hard Gilmore Girls fan back when it was on TV. I’ve rewatched the series several times and am excitedly awaiting the release of the the new episodes on Netflix.

There were many reasons I liked Gilmore Girls, and one of those reasons was that Rory loved to read. She would throw out literary references faster than I could catch them. I never kept track of the references, but thankfully, someone else did.

I present to you: The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge! (Also, see below for this embedded list.)

According to the list challenge, throughout the entire seven seasons,”Rory Gilmore was seen reading 339 books on screen.” Some of the comments on the list challenge beg to differ. Some commenters mentioned that some books were only mentioned, not read. Others mentioned that only other characters read the books mentioned and not Rory. Another commenter disagreed with The Divine Comedy  and Dante’s Inferno  being listed separately because one is a part of the other [I happen to agree!]

I delved a little further and found Buzzfeed wrote a list as well, titled, “All 339 Books Referenced in ‘Gilmore Girls'”. There are also a number of lists on GoodReads as well with different book totals. One cited 355, while others separate the books out by season. There is even a Richard Gilmore book list.

I found another post that lists 338 book references. This blog post even references a  Wiki article that lists all references in each episode and a link to the Rory Gilmore Book Club on GoodReads.

So many books, not enough time! Speaking of time, it’s time to get reading.

Oh, in case you were wondering, I’ve only read 40 of the 339 books. How many have you read?

National Banned Books Week 2015

National Banned Books Week is September 27-October 3. According to the American Library Association, there were 311 book challenges in 2014. Check out the infographic below to see the top 10.

Want to know more about National Banned Book week? Check out, the ALA’s Banned Books, or Teaching and Technology’s previous post about National Banned Book Week.

Download this infographic as a PDF.

Goodreads Book Review: All By My Selves by Jeff Dunham

All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and MeAll By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me by Jeff Dunham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve had Jeff Dunham’s autobiography, All By My Selves, sitting on my “to read” shelf for quite some time. I have no other reason for not getting to it sooner other than time and “not being in a biography mood”. Luckily, the stars aligned and I read the book.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it only took me about 2 days to read it. The text was easy to digest, the content was entertaining, and, well, I enjoyed hearing the character’s voices in my head.

I’ve been a fan of Jeff Dunham since I nearly died laughing one night when I saw Arguing with Myself on Comedy Central. I could barely breathe…the dummies seemed so real and the jokes were great. The more I rewatched Arguing with Myself, the more mesmerized I became with the technology of Dunham’s dummies.

In his book, Dunham talks about how he got started in ventriloquism and the long, arduous road he traveled on to become the international comedian he is today. He explained all the lessons he learned, his successes, and failures. He wasn’t an overnight YouTube sensation–he worked his way up, gig by gig, making sacrifices, and putting in long hours.

Dunham also explains the technology that goes into ventriloquism. He explained (roughly) how he can produce sounds that involve the lips without moving the lips. There were also sections that explained the differences in the type of dummies (the proper term is actually figures) he has and how the figures actually function.

The book was unique in that there were sections in which the figures jumped in and gave their 2 cents on the current conversation. They were represented by a graphic and their name. In fact, even Dunham jumped in on the fun here and there.

All By My Selves is a must for any Dunham or ventriloquism fan. I truly enjoyed the book.

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Book Review: The Strange Museum Quartet

The Strange Museum: Book set only

I picked up this quartet of “Hooked on Phonics” MasterReader books at a second-hand bookstore to use with some of my young, yet proficient ESL students. The story sounded interesting and engaging and who was I to argue with the “Hooked on Phonics” brand? It taught me to read and spell oh-so-many years ago.

I’ve since found out this set has a some curriculum materials that weren’t available at the bookstore. I am slightly disappointed, nevertheless, my students enjoyed the books as an independent series. One student in particular was incredibly disappointed to find out there were only four books in the series. She wanted more to read. In fact, I bet if I offered to write additional fan fiction stories based on these books, I bet she would read them.

The quartet is an excellent series, each book escalating in length and complexity, while still retaining the same essential plot. It is great for readers who like short books yet should be moving on to longer ones. Reviews on Amazon claim that students who don’t like reading “devoured” these. I agree, my students couldn’t put them down and were excited to see where the next book would take them.

The Strange Museum
The essential plot of the four books we discover in the first book. The two siblings, Jake and Mandy Strange, work and live at the Strange Museum. It’s a museum their parents own on the first two floors of an old, large house. The third floor is the Strange Family Home and the basement is the office and workshop. The museum is a strange one…they display historically relevant lost and found items. But one day, Jake and Mandy discover a museum secret…if you touch anything after five o’clock (when the museum closes)…you can be transported back in time!

The Midnight Ride (Book 1)
Jake and Mandy accidentally touch a piece of an old map and are transported back in time…to 1775! Now they must help Paul Revere with his midnight ride or risk not being able to get back home because they changed history!

Pirates Revenge (Book 2)
Jake and Mandy tried hard not to touch objects after 5pm, but an accident with a lantern while searching for a history book in their dad’s office transported them to a North Carolinian sandy beach in 1718. But, just when they were about to return the lap to its rightful owner, their ticket back to the present, the pirate Blackbeard shows up and complicates things.

Men in Green (Book 3)
Mandy has learned her lesson. Don’t touch things after 5pm…or else. So what else is a little brother to do? Threaten to touch things. Jake doesn’t plan on actually touching anything; he’s learned his lesson too. But what’s the harm in teasing his sister? Accidents happen. A lute falls. Jake and Mandy catch it, transporting them back over 800 years to Sherwood Forest. Does the lute belong to Robin Hood or someone else? Jake and Mandy better hurry and figure it out…before English history has a chance to change!

The Royal Switch (Book 4)
Mandy wanted a cat. Jake thought a cat in a museum was a bad idea. Mandy snuck a cat into the ancient Egyptian exhibit anyway. Who would have thought the cat would break a display case? And how did that necklace get on the cat? There is only one way to remove it…by touching it. Even stranger…who would have though Mandy and Cleopatra would be doppelgängers? Now Mandy has to go undercover as Cleopatra if she wants to get back to the present!


Book Review: Rip Tide

Note: Rip Tide, by Kat Falls, is the sequel to Dark Life (read review).

Rip Tide
picks up a couple of months after the end of Dark Life. The main characters, Ty & Gemma travel into the trash gyre (a vortex of Atlantic Ocean trash) to hide some of Ty’s family’s crops. Deep in the trash gyre, Ty & Gemma make a grisly discovery; someone has sealed a township…with people inside! Ty & Gemma try to claim salvage rights to the township, but there is no time to waste because surfs have kidnapped Ty’s parents. Could the kidnapping be related to township? Or is there something more sinister going on with the government? Rip Tide is a race against time to find Ty’s parents while trying to avoid Seaguard officers and outlaws. Will Ty’s parents be found alive?

Expansion of World Building
Falls surpasses expectations on world-building with her Rip Tide. She expands upon the universe she built in Dark Life and brings more aspects of life in the Benthic Territory to life. In Dark Life, Falls focused on Ty and the comparison to life his Topsider friend Gemma knew. While townships were mentioned in Dark LifeRipe Tide brings them to life. These townships are remnants of the first wave of pioneers to tried to live in the ocean. We also find that for some people, like Ty, living in the ocean is a utopia, but we also find that for others, the world is a dystopia.

Expansion of Subplot
In her first novel, Falls uses the theme the government vs its people; however it moves out of the subplot status and into the plot for this second novel. We find that not everyone in the government has its constituents best interests at heart.

Connection Between Novels
Rip Tide is a sequel. For some authors, they have an amazing idea first novel and the subsequent one falls flat because the publisher wanted more but the novel wasn’t meant to be a series. This is not the case with Rip Tide. Both novels feel like they are part of the same universe and the characters are consistent between the two novels.

School Materials
Dark Life and Rip Tide are excellent novels in a cross-curricular unit between science and language arts. If you’re interested in pursuing that, please leave a comment! I’d love to blog about it. Find resources from Kat Falls herself in the links section of her website.

For Further Reading
As of now, Dark Life and Rip Tide are the only books in the series. Kat Falls has another book trilogy, Inhuman, about a post-apocalyptic world where people are losing their humanity.

Book Review: Origin

Let’s just start with the back of the book…

Pia has always known her destiny. She is meant to start a new race, a line of descendants who will bring an end to death. She has been bred for no other purpose, genetically engineered to be immortal and raised by a team of scientists in a secret compound hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest. Now those scientists have begun to challenge her, with the goal of training her to carry on their dangerous work.

For as long as she can remember, Pia’s greatest desire has been to fulfill their expectations. But on the night she turns seventeen, she finds a hole in the seemingly impenetrable fence that surround her sterile home. Free in the jungle for the first time in her life, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village. Unable to resist, she keeps sneaking out to see him. As they fall in love, they begin to piece together the truth about Pia’s origin—a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.

Origin is a beautifully told, electric new way to look at an age-old desire: to live forever. But is eternal life worth living if you can’t spend it with the one you love?

Origin, by Jessica Khoury, is a thought-provoking book that made me question science experiments. I thought about both perspectives, the experimenter and the experimentee. It made me think about life, love, and ethics. I loved that the book felt so real that it made me question my own beliefs. For me, the more times I question myself, the more refined my views become. I love it.

Some reviewers on Amazon complained the book moved too slow. Perhaps…but I couldn’t put it down. Others complained about the animal torture and instalove. As I mentioned, the book made me question love and ethics. I don’t believe the story is promoting animal cruelty. In fact, the story is highlighting exposure therapy for behavior modification. I’m not going to elaborate more because I don’t want to spoil the story. Also the problem with instalove? C’mon, the story is for young readers and published by Scholastic…what are you expecting? Nevertheless, the love story is believable…she’s never met a person her age before. Of course she’d fall in love!

I picked up this book at a Scholastic Book Fair a few years ago and just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it sooner. It was a real joy to read Khoury’s exact language. Her word choice and the use of present tense made the words on the page play like a movie in my head. Here’s an example:

But as I follow Uncle Paolo to the laboratory, my bootlaces trailing in the mud and my hands clutching a struggling sparrow, the last thing I feel is perfect. (p.1)

I’m pleased to find out that this book is the first in a series. Each book follows a different set of characters. As one can imagine, it takes a lot of money to fund a super secret compound in the Amazon. And surprise! The people with the money were funding a variety of super secret projects.  Poof: instant series. Keep an eye out for reviews of Vitro and Kalahari.

In summary: I really enjoyed Origin. Young readers need plenty of science-y books that they will devour and will make them think and converse about the topics presented in the book.

Book Review: Stowaway

Stowaway is the diary of Nicholas Young, an eleven-year-old stowaway aboard the H.M.S. Endeavour. He writes of running away in England and stowing aboard the ship with the help of a few crew members. He doesn’t stay hidden for long and eventually becomes part of the crew. Nick writes of danger, natives, foreign lands, and death in the three years it takes the Endeavour to circumnavigate the globe. As often as it is relayed to him, he inserts their position using longitude and latitude coordinates. When the Endeavour returns home to England, Nicholas has matured and has a new outlook on his future.

Stowaway, by Karen Hesse, blends fiction and history. The entire diary is fictitious; however, as many facts as possible are true. The following information is from the Afterword.

Captain James Cook made three voyages of discovery between 1768 and 1779. Stowaway documents the first of those voyages…

Nicholas Young’s name first appeared in Endeavour‘s muster book on April 18, 1769, eight months after the ship left England. Scholars have speculated as to how Nicholas might have boarded Endeavour in the first place. Some argue he was smuggled aboard by the botanist, Joseph Banks. Others speculate Nick stowed away unaided. A third hypothesis suggests Nicholas was brought aboard and kept hidden by certain members of the ship’s company. This last scenario seems the most likely. Endeavour was a small vessel. It would have been nearly impossible for Nick to remain undetected until the ship sailed…

Here is what is known about the real Nicholas Young….He became an official member of the crew in Tahiti and was promoted to surgeon’s assistant at Batavia. He was the first to sight New Zealand: Young Nick’s Head is named for him…Nick was also the first to sight Land’s End. These fact’s are documented in journals kept aboard Endeavour by Captain Cook himself…He truly did write in Mr. Bootie’s journal, “Evil communications corrupt good, boldly signing his comment…The remainder of Nicholas Young’s story is undocumented. His hair color, his fondness for birds, his family situation, are all the author invention…There is one other fact about Nicholas Young existing in the public record. Though he didn’t travel again with Captain Cook, he did make one more voyage with Joseph Banks, a journey to Iceland in 1772.

After the Afterword, there is full ship’s company manifest. It lists the names, ages (if known), and rank at the time the ship set sail. After the manifest, there is a brief ship’s itinerary. Following the ship’s itinerary, there is a glossary of  words. These include naval and nautical words, destinations in which the names may or may not have changed over time, words in which meaning may be different that currently accepted (such as burial), or words frequently used in the late 1700s but less so now. Finally, there is a note on the maps used on the end papers versus the longitude reading in Nick’s diary, as James Cook recorded longitude “as the full 360 degrees of a circle.”

Overall, I enjoyed Stowaway. I liked the diary format, as that was most common on the ships at the time. I really enjoyed just how much truth the author weaved into the story. This story takes all the facts we know about Nicholas Young’s life and adds some fiction to link them together. The story is an interesting, exciting, and realistic coming-of-age story for a stowaway in the late 1700s. This book will entertain you as well as educate you.

Book Review: Goodnight iPad

As a child, one of the many bedtime stories I heard (and eventually read myself) was Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. The basic premise is a bunny who is going to bed and looks around his room and sees different objects and then says good night to them, including the moon outside the window.

Goodnight Moon was originally published in 1947 (Wikipedia). And though it still is beloved by many parents as they read to their children at night, some children may not connect to the book the way the parents did when they were younger. Now, there’s a parody for that.

Goodnight iPad tells a similar story of the bunny family at night. However, this family has so many electronic gadgets that the mother bunny cannot sleep. She says, “okay, that’s it!” and start’s saying goodnight to all the electronics…by tossing them out the window! She then tucks the little bunnies into bed and reads “Goodnight Moon” via flashlight.

According to the back of the book, the parody was written by Ann Droyd (get it?…android!), a pseudonym for an IRA/Children’s Choices winner who has written over 25 books. A quick visit to and I found that Goodnight iPad was the first book in the parody series. There is another…If You Give a Mouse an iPhone! I may have to get that one too…

I love the book. I thought it was cute, however, some of my younger tutoring students did not think the use of digital devices was all the clever or interesting. Perhaps they had not read Goodnight Moon or maybe I’m too old and still fascinated by technology rather than it being everyday objects. Or most likely, it was just below their reading level. We all go through a “that’s for babies” phase. Perhaps I caught them in it.

You decide….On Ann Droyd’s website there was an animation of Goodnight iPad. Watch it below and leave your thoughts on the book in the comments below.

(New Edition) Master the Basics: English

I’m apparently behind on my publication of new materials, despite the inordinate amount of time I spend in bookstores. I have rather lame excuse for my inattention to this new edition…I was reading other books…for my Master’s degree.

Nevertheless, I am now aware that there is in fact a third edition to Master the Basics: English.  If by some chance, I am not the last person to be aware of this fact, I shall spread the word.

I wrote a blog post for the second edition of Master the Basics: English in December of 2012.  The third edition was published in September of 2013.

The third edition did not go through a major rewrite.  In fact,  it is nearly identical to the second edition.  There is, however, one new section: “Common Forms to Avoid”. This section goes through pronunciation and each of the parts of speech with advice on common errors that ESL/ELL students make.  This is very helpful for those students to curb major problem areas.  It is also helpful for native speakers to help them understand common errors and be ready to correct (and explain) those errors.

There is also a brand new yellow cover.  This now standardizes the Master the Basics covers and the 501 Verbs books.  They still only have Master the Basics for English, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and English for Spanish Speakers.

The third edition also boasts it is fully recyclable and printed in the USA.

For more information on Master the Basics: English and other language guides by Barron’s, visit