* The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key

Written by Kevin Sands, The Blackthorn Key is a thrilling mystery for older kids, set in London in the 1600s.  Christopher Rowe is the main character, a 14 year-old orphan who has been apprenticed to an apothecary.  His master, Benedict Blackthorn, treats Christopher with uncommon kindness and respect while teaching him the skills to become an apothecary in his own right.  Ultimately, Christopher and his friend, Tom, find themselves in a desperate battle against the Cult of the Archangel, which has been systematically murdering apothecaries in London.  The mystery is enhanced by the use of clever ciphers, secret dungeons, and unusual medicinal remedies.  And which of the realistic characters can the boys trust?  Will Christopher decode the clues within clues in time to save himself and others?

I used this book as a read aloud and would not suggest it for kids below middle school due to the graphic violence, which I filtered out.  Axes and swords make for messy battles, along with a brief torture scene using acid.  Kids will love Christopher’s penchant for blowing things up; the tender relationship between him and his master/father figure is a bit of a tear-jerker.  Kevin Sands accurately portrays the era, with its dreadful sanitation, political intrigues, and abuses of power.  We are transported to a time when people used poop on sores and drank poppy tea as a pain reliever.  There are a few anachronistic references, primarily verbal expressions, but this book could easily spark a study of British history, ciphers, and medicine.  And explosives!

The Blackthorn Key is a 5-star read, even for adults.  I’ve already started the sequel, Mark of the Plague, which is another winner!

* Got an attitude?

How fun!  Another week of Cee’s Share Your World, one of my favorite blogging challenges.  I don’t know how she does it, but Cee not only blogs multiple times every day, sharing terrific photos, she also comes up with some cool questions.  Here are the latest.  I hope my snake-like attitude tonight doesn’t pop up in every answer!

What is something that people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?  I have erased many topics on this one, mostly because I don’t want to offend someone who adores whatever.  I DO get the point of them but simply don’t care much about celebrity culture and current fashion trends.  I don’t spend much time on social media, either, because it’s not a priority.  If I have any time that isn’t scheduled, I’d prefer to read.

What quirky things do people do where you are from?  I guess I’m from North Carolina now, so bickering about basketball and football allegiances is huge in this area.  The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are major rivals; be careful what kind of bumper sticker you have when driving through Chapel Hill or Durham!

What are some things you wish you could unlearn?  There are some social non-graces I’d like to undo or simply relearn.  I’m not a good listener unless I work at it.  My “filter” is often compromised and I say the first thing that comes to mind.  Ouch.  I work hard at not being critical, but I was raised with such harshness and cruelty that my deep-inside default is often negative.  Like tonight.

Who is someone that you miss having in your life?  No one comes to mind.  My dearest teaching widower (aka psychologist) says I have an attachment disorder.  I’m OK with that because I’d rather read.  Yep, I’m a bit grouchy this evening.  This critter and I got into it today.  I mean, seriously?  Get off the BIRD feeder, you rascal.

 

squirrel with tude

* Syllable talk

I just completed a reading evaluation of a home-schooled student who has all the skills he needs except one: recognizing/identifying syllable rules.  As students move into upper elementary grades, rules for syllabication become increasingly vital.  This kiddo is now reading to learn, not learning to read.  He may use context effectively but still stumbles over unfamiliar words with multiple syllables.  If this student were dyslexic, he’d be crippled without an early introduction to syllable types.

I have found that most folks are not passionate about syllables.  My family groans when I start a lunchtime conversation about open or closed syllables.  But what about this?  I paid a middle school student to learn syllable types one summer and he gained a couple of years’ growth in reading.  AND he was no longer a behavior problem at school.  My dearest teaching widower is resigned to the reality that we sometimes pay students to learn.  But since finances are a topic I avoid like the plague, money and syllable rules are off the table for lunchtime conversations.  Hey, anyone want to talk about the schwa?

schwa happens.jpg

Get your schwa shirt at Wilson Language- a terrific site for reading teachers.

* Soho thriller

The book I’m reviewing is called “Soho Dead,” but I didn’t want that title blaring across the screen because I have many British readers.  You have suffered so much horror and loss in the past months and we are all saddened on this side of the puddle.  Tough times.

I’ve just finished “Soho Dead” by Greg Keen and now must wait over a year for the next installment of this thriller series.  Boo hoo!  The protagonist is Kenny Gabriel, a far-from-angelic skip-tracer with a core of integrity under a cloud of depression.  We view Soho and its motley citizens through Kenny’s clever, bleak, and self-deprecating humor.  At 57, his bank balance is low, he relies on his brother for a place to live, and has a no-talk, all-sex relationship with Stephanie.

As the book opens, Kenny is trying to decide whether he should take an antidepressant.  In short order, after agreeing to hunt down a missing daughter, Kenny’s life becomes an unpredictable boxing match.  With Kenny wearing a blindfold.  Will he go down for the count?  Kenny’s entangled in his own past relationships and mistakes, all the while hunting for a killer among a diverse group of suspects.  At one point, Kenny himself is charged with murder.  I was stunned at the ending because the author is that clever.  I also like happy endings and this one delivers just enough hope to sustain me until the sequel is published.  Keen lives in Soho, so the book rings true in every scene.  This would make a marvelous movie, in part because the author adds a strong visual component, not to mention action at every turn.

Soho Dead” is a terrific read, perhaps a much-needed distraction for folks in the midst of genuine disasters.

Soho Dead

 

* TToT

How little time I take to be thankful!  I’m better than I used to be, but this Ten Things of Thankful blogging challenge is good for my soul and spirit.  Here we go:

  1.  The kiddos are here, 8 of them tonight, playing on various devices and eating endlessly.  I’m grateful for their humor (“I’m just teasing, Aunt Katharine”), their enjoyment of one another, and all the Beatles’ songs we’ve heard tonight.  One niece has perfect pitch, which is truly amazing to a tone-deaf person like myself.
  2.  We are far over the year’s average of rainfall, which keeps all the plants growing so deer can snack on the yard.
  3.  The rain also brings mold, so we are FINALLY getting our house pressure washed.   The mold must be worse than I thought, because my dearest teaching widower suggested the washing.  That leads me to #4:
  4.  I call it The Dead Man Theory, as my dearest widower could step over a dead man on the kitchen floor and not notice.  The good news is that he has never once been critical of my multiple stacks of paperwork.  I have not been as generous towards his debris.
  5.  I’ve been given some awesome chocolate this week.  Ooh, pure pleasure.
  6.  We had a fabulous women’s event last night at church.  Designer desserts, candles flickering, a jazz trio humming.  Wow.
  7.  I still have more chocolate to eat!!
  8.  My foot is healing well.  It could have gone south, but that compression boot and tons of prayer did the trick.
  9.   I’ve run out of things so…
  10.  I saved the best for last.  Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I am married to the best father I’ve ever met.  He is gentle, patient, wise, and unselfish.  Wait!  Another one!
  11.  Speaking of patient, my dearest widower stopped the car so I could take a photo of a most beautiful sunset.  Sadly, my iPhone doesn’t capture the gorgeous colors, but who gets tired of admiring sunsets?                                                                                                           sunset.JPG

* My intermission

Hiatus, pause, gap- I prefer to think of my blogging lull as an intermission.  I could blame it on end-of-school-year woes, with paperwork, meetings, and a hidden objects app.  Believe me, I’ve thought about blogging every day.  But it felt like One More Thing I Had To Do, so I didn’t.  My computer cooperated with me by stalling constantly.  Our internet has been fickle with a new router.  Plus we had delightful guests, full of love and showing off a sparkling engagement ring.

You won’t believe this, but my battle with deer is also on hiatus as we enjoy the babes who are “parked” on our property.  I need to wash our windows to improve pictures of this pair.

baby deer 2.jpg

We had another visitor who might have been concussed during a thunderstorm.  This bat showed up on our doorstep, looking more dead than alive.  He or she hung from the steps during the day and eventually rejoined the troop.  I was kinda glad about that.

I’m also glad to be blogging again!  It feels like One Thing I Want To Do.  Hurray!

* Christopher and me: defining success

Christopher failed the reading portion of the End of Grade (EOG) tests.

Christopher 1

I tutor my precious nephew, Christopher, a 4th grader on the AU spectrum.  He’s made terrific progress in the past year, with gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension.  But was it enough?  During a benchmark trial for the EOGs at school, Christopher melted down with tears and distress.  After 3 hours of testing, he had answered 7 out of 45 questions.

In our follow-up tutoring sessions, Christopher spoke angrily about the injustice of test questions that were meant to “trick” him.  He stated accurately that he could not read the test passages.  What to do?  If the EOGs were an accurate measure of his growth, I would have been very concerned.  In reality, Christopher’s gains are best measured against specific objectives on an IEP, not against grade level norms.  His reading performance remains well below that of his peers, but remarkably above where he was a year ago.  And we have long abandoned efforts for him to read orally; he cannot maintain focus, he benefits from seeing what he hears, and natural phrasing helps him use context for unfamiliar words.

Knowing that he would likely produce a test misadministration for himself and the other kids in his small testing group, I suggested- gulp- that he not attempt to read the passages but instead read the questions and scan for answers.  Using this strategy on grade level passages in our sessions, he scored about 50% accuracy.  That would have to do.  The alternatives were unacceptable.

Christopher called me every night in the week-long EOG countdown.  His determination to succeed in this rather hopeless endeavor was both encouraging and heartrending.  “What does ‘most likely’ mean, Aunt Katharine?”  “What are key words?”  I reaffirmed my conviction that he would do his best and that I was proud of him.  Christopher survived.  He did not lose the gains we had made, he does not know he “failed,” and he will continue to grow.  Going forward, audio books with a visual component will be the key for Christopher’s ongoing instruction in all academic areas.

I understand the need for standardized testing, but I value the effort Christopher has made, his desire to keep learning, and the confidence he has gained this year from measurable growth in his skills.  The 4th grade EOG does not define Christopher’s future.