Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fairy Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley ***

This is the first book in a series that looks really cute for kids in the 4th-5th grade. The premise is two sisters have been abandoned by their parents and have been bumped around in the foster care system for the past year. Finally a woman who claims to be their grandmother agrees to take custody of the children--the only problem is that the girls had been told by their father that their grandmother was dead!

Soon the sisters are living in Ferryport, a small village in upstate New York, with their "Grandma" Grimm and her unusual associate, Mr. Canis. Adventure ensues when Grandma is kidnapped by a giant and the girls realize that fairy tales really are true--at least in Ferryport!

Though there are more books in this series, I'm not planning on reading them at this time because I'd rather try to get through all the Mark Twain Award nominees this year! Plus this book is one of those that is so focused on a particular age group that it isn't ageless--I can tell it's a great read for the younger set, but not a timeless classic.

I can recommend this book, and probably the entire series for 4th-5th graders.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge ***

I belong to a great online support group, Hemi-kids, that I get a lot of information and understanding from. Though Puppy doesn't have hemiplegia himself, he does have the same underlying issue--stroke. Puppy had a blood disorder when he was born called NAIT. Though it can be complicated to explain, I'll just say it made him prone to bleeding. When he was born he was covered in bruises and because the doctor used a suction device to deliver him he had a stroke.

A couple of years ago some of the people on the list serv started talking about this great book that proved brain plasticity. Not only that, it talked about how plasticity doesn't go away when we get older. For those of us dealing either personally or as a parent of someone with a brain challenge, this information can make your hopes soar. Something can be done to help either regain or establish those connections lost to brain injury.

Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, and maybe because of this his writing sometimes gets a little...dry. But despite that, the book compels you to continue reading. Three chapters in particular were not boring at all for me: Chapter 2, Building Herself a Better Brain; Chapter 3, Redesigning the Brain; and Chapter 7, Pain.

Chapter 2 is fascinating in that it is about a woman who was labeled mentally deficient and how she not only figured out how to overcome her own obstacles, but opened a school for children in order to help those with learning challenges. Two things I took from that chapter that I've already tried implementing with Puppy are tracing and memorizing. Tracing has been found to help with writing (duh!) by building up those neuro pathways in the brain that control that function. It's a low-stress way of dealing with it, but with good results. The memorization helps kids with poor auditory memory. Puppy has poor memory in almost all ways, but right now I've been reading poems to him at bedtime over and over in the hopes that it will help him memorize them himself, and help him to learn how to do that too.

Chapter 3 is fascinating because of a program that is being used at Puppy's school--Fast ForWord. A scientist named Michael Merzenich developed it to help people with learning disorders learn to read. But as a side effect, it was discovered to also help kids with autism and various other developmental disabilities. Basically he figured out how to rewire the brain using fun computer games that get results without kids even realizing it.

Chapter 7 was interesting because it was about V.S. Ramachandran. He's described in the book as the Sherlock Holmes of modern neurology, and that description is apt. He doesn't like working with fancy technology--he works with what is around him and comes up with startling and amazing discoveries. I won't go into how he does it, but he can make it feel like he's hit your hand with a hammer simply by hitting the table in front of you with one.

Overall this was a very good book. I have a very hard time reading non-fiction and this book was no exception. I start to feel like I'm back in college reading something I have to for a class, so even if it was my own idea to read it in the first place it soon becomes a chore. But I forced myself through it and I'm glad I did.

I don't agree with all the theories presented by Doidge in this book, but I do understand them. Overall it gives me some hope for Puppy's future. But I also worry--there is no such thing as a magic bullet. And even if there was one, do I want Puppy to be someone else? Thoughts to ponder.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan ****

I am loving Percy Jackson! Rick Riordan has really done a fine job of blending the old Greek myths into modern times, and his characters are great. Tyson is one of my favorites, he's such a sweet clumsy kid--who knows how many kids like that are really cyclops in disguise!

In this, the second of the Percy Jackson books, Rick Riordan wonderfully captures the horror of some of the classic monsters: Scylla, Charybdis, the Sirens. I don't know how much kids know of the Greek myths these days, but if they didn't know about them before they'll know about them now. So not only are the Percy Jackson books entertaining, but they subtly inject some classical education in there too.

Rick also makes this a great series for boys and girls by introducing some strong female characters too. At the end of the book you may meet the most compelling one yet.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett ****

I'm not sure what I think of this book. It's well written and the characters will stay with me for quite some time, which for me is a sure sign that this is a good book. But I can honestly say I feel confused by this book in some ways. Maybe I can explore that here.

The Help is about the maids/housekeepers/nannies of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960's. I have no personal concept of having someone do your housework and raise your children for you, mostly because of where I grew up (further North) and the society I grew up in (I never knew anyone that had hired help at all). So this book was like entering a foreign country for me, one where racism is so deeply ingrained that you would build another bathroom in your house just for the black maid to use.

Mostly this book is about Aibileen, a black woman in her 50's who's job is to clean a white family's house and raise a white family's children, all while not complaining about her foul treatment at the hands of her employers. It's about the complex relationships between these women and the white children they love, and who love them in return. That is until they reach the age when the subtle teachings of their society make them realize that the woman they love is less than human in their parents' eyes.

It's also about the relationships between the white women who depend on their maids, and the maids who make their lives run smoothly. These white women can make their maids' lives hell on Earth, as is the case with Yule May. Or they can try to befriend their maids, and treat them as equals, which is what Celia tries to do with Minny. Either way, the relationships are tense and filled with a protocol that has been laid down by centuries of racism--the maid eats lunch in the kitchen alone, while the lady of the house eats in the dining room alone--both of them eating the same meal that the maid has prepared; the maid is to use one plate, cup, and set of silverware for themselves, and keep them separate so they aren't accidentally used by the white family--but the maid has to clean and polish all the good silver in the house.

It's a bizarre world that existed in Mississippi back then, before the civil rights movement had reached its peak. And it's hard to believe sometimes how far we've come as a nation and as individuals learning to live together.

We live in a strange world. The Help is a wonderful road map of where we've come from, and a hopeful and shining beacon of where we are still going.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Seer of Shadows by Avi ****

Alright, I'm starting in on the Mark Twain Award nominees for 2010! I thought I'd try to read them all this year, so I figured why not do it in alphabetical order by the author's name? Therefore, my first book is one by Avi (though I've actually read one of the nominees before I realized it: Leanin' Dog).

Horace is a young apprentice to a photographer in New York City in 1872. When his mentor gets a commission to photograph a high society woman so that she can place her picture on her dead daughter's grave, Horace gets his first chance to take a picture himself. But when he does, he discovers a hidden gift--the image of a ghost appears on his photographs. And the ghost seems to be coming to life through Horace's pictures. And she isn't happy.

Written in a way that will help children really get into the past, Avi has told a story that I know most children between the ages of 9-12 will appreciate--it's spooky, yet doesn't talk down to kids or sugar coat the time period.

Not a bad start to the new season of awards!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows ****

I kinda like epistolary novels, one's that are written in the form of letters exchanged between the characters. I read a great one once, Fair and Tender Ladies, that I highly recommend. I also recommend this one.

Not many people in England are very aware of the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, let alone Americans. But it was the closest Hitler got to conquering the British Isles, and it's still amazing to think how close he came. From 1940 to 1945 the Channel Islands were occupied and fortified by German military forces, and the citizens of the islands were subjected to the same atrocities as other occupied territories.

The authors of this book lovingly spin a tale from letters exchanged between a young author in London and the remains of a small resistance group in Guernsey. They didn't resist overtly, but rather by gathering and finding comfort in each others' company and in their love of books, they were able to survive the war.

I believe that we in the US just can't grasp fully what it was like for Europe during WWI and WWII--we haven't been invaded, had bombs dropped on us on a daily basis, or had to deal with the kind of deprivation that was experienced on the continent and adjacent British Isles. The fact that a potato peel pie could be a delicacy to these starving people (the peels made the crust, the mashed part was the insides) is something I surely hope we never have to face here.

I hope you give this page-turner a try!


A special thanks goes out to my friend Wendy from high school, who suggested this book to me, and my Aunt Patt who seconded her idea! Give me more!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan *****

Yes, I'm back volunteering in my son's school library! I can find out about & read all the cool books for kids, and I've got to say there are quite a few good ones out there.

Now I knew I'd probably like this book from the get-go because it deals with the Greek gods. I remember distinctly checking out D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths from the library at Ferguson Junior High when I was in the 7th grade, not realizing at the time that I would be starting a life long love of mythology. The book not only talks about the Greek myths in a wonderful and interesting way, but the illustrations are the best ever! I think it's one of the best books you can get for the kid in your life (I bought it for myself online a couple years ago!).

Back to the book at hand--Percy Jackson is a 12 year old delinquent who's been tossed around from school to school for most of his life, always causing unexplained trouble where ever he goes. But now he's finally found out what makes him different--he's the son of a god! As he travels across the US on a quest with his new two best friends, he learns what his own special powers are and which Greek god is his father.

As if all that isn't good enough, Percy travels through St. Louis at one point and battles Echidna and Chimera at the top of the Arch!! I love it when my home town is featured in books--it's pretty darn rare to be honest. But having some Greek monsters cross paths with the Gateway Arch--that is just too cool!

I feel like Rick Riordan wrote this book especially for my 7th grade self! Thanks Rick, I feel like a 12 year old again (minus the awkwardness, ugly glasses, crippling shyness, bad hand-me-down clothes...alright, maybe it's good I'm not 12 again!). Five stars all the way!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates ****

Have you ever read a book where one of the characters hits too close to home, reminds you of a relative or (even worse) yourself & you just have to cringe every time you read about that person in the book? The Falls had a character like that in it for me. I'm not going to say which one it was, but it was damn hard reading about this person because I wasn't sure if I liked or hated them. And I suppose that having those feelings is a sign of very good writing.

The story starts in 1950 at Niagara Falls. Married for barely 12 hours, a young man is running toward the Falls, to throw himself in. You hope that he will be stopped by someone, anyone. Maybe the man who takes tickets on the footbridge to Goat Island. But no one stops him. No one is able to. He succeeds in killing himself, & scaring his wife for the rest of her life.

The Falls is about this woman, but it's mostly about the Falls themselves & the city that encompasses them. Through her story I learned more about the city of Niagara Falls than I'd thought possible. Did you know that the Love Canal was in this city? I thought it was in Buffalo for some reason. And did you know that the people that work in the tourist trade at the Falls are discouraged from telling visitors how many people have killed themselves there?

The story of this woman & her second husband & the family they make together is a history of Niagara Falls, both the city & natural phenomenon. I really want to visit the Falls now, though I also am a little afraid to. The siren song of the water, as described by Joyce Carol Oates, holds out fascination & fear to me, even from afar.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz ***

I like to read books that have won awards, I always want to see if I agree with the illustrious personages who determine which books are winners and which aren't. I don't know who decides the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I agree with them about 50% of the time.

In this instance, I think the writer is great and the story riveting. But my beef is that I don't speak Spanish. I know it is an extremely common language in the US, but I have to say that when about 20% of the book is in a language other than English, I'm gonna get lost. And I'm also going to feel left out and irritated. I like to know what's going on, and that ain't easy when you don't habla. There's an arrogance about it too, at least in my opinion. Like if I was a decent intellectual I'd know what these words are, therefore I must be an ignorant slob. I guess I kinda like being an ignorant slob. I like things spelled out for me, I'm silly that way.

I have another beef too, in that I can't quite figure out what was wondrous about Oscar's life. I kept waiting for the epiphany, but if it happened it was probably in Spanish. Oscar is an overweight nerd of Dominican lineage, born in the US. He doesn't fit in anywhere, disappoints his family and himself, and can't seem to get a girlfriend no matter what he does. He's the consummate outcast, trying constantly to fit into society while reading and writing science fiction and collecting roll playing game miniatures. We learn about his family and the dark curse over them all, and most enlightening we learn about Dominican Republic history too. I knew absolutely nothing about the state of affairs in that country, so I was very interested in learning more.

As I said, what I could understand of the story was great. It was witty, funny, tragic, heartbreaking, a very good read. But I just don't like not knowing the whole picture, and not knowing Spanish was a huge deficit when reading this book.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

East of Eden by John Steinbeck ****

I thought I'd turn to a classic for my next book. I've read some of Steinbeck's works, my favorites being Cannery Row & Of Mice and Men. I'd seen the movie of East of Eden with James Dean about 15 years ago and I couldn't remember any of it except that JD played an angst-ridden teen, angry at the world. So it was really all new to me.

This was a retelling of the Cain and Able story, set in the Salinas Valley of California at the turn of the last century. There were many themes explored by Steinbeck, but I think my favorite is whether humans have the ability to choose their own destiny. Even though you have tendencies given to you by your parents, can you be yourself and choose your own path?

Cal and Aron are twin brothers who both want their father's love and approval. But only sweet-natured Aron seems to get it. Cal is smart, crafty, and loyal. Yet somehow the things he does to gain his father's attention only seem to offend his dad, while Aron can do no wrong.

The story is more than this, though. It also deals with the boys' mother, a woman who has something missing from inside her. She doesn't seem capable of love and only uses those around her to get what she wants. After giving birth to the twins she leaves her husband and enters the oldest profession in a nearby town. The boys are told their mother is dead, and without the loving ministrations of their father's hired housekeeper, a Chinese-American man named Lee, they surely wouldn't have made it to adulthood.

Lee is a philosopher by nature and it is through his musings that Steinbeck explores his ideas on the meaning of life and man's ability to control his own destiny. I was very disappointed to see that his character was totally lost from the movie version that I'd seen. I knew I didn't remember a Chinese cook in the movie, but just hoped I'd forgotten. It seems a real shame that that opportunity was missed, but then again the movie was made in 1955, just two years after the end of the Korean War. At that point in American history, China was not seen as a "friendly" and unfortunately that fear was transferred to the big screen.

I've noticed that Steinbeck doesn't write very nicely about women in general and this book was no exception, with Cathy/Kate being an icy whore. But he tries to redeem that by creating Abra, the love interest of both Cal and Aron. She is everything Cathy is not and is a mother-figure to Aron, while something more to Cal.

Overall, the book was good though long. I like Of Mice and Men more, but I can't bring myself to read that book anymore since having a son with a developmental disability. Dog and I went to see it performed as a play about 3 years ago and we both left in tears after the first act. It's a very good story, but it hits too close to home for me anymore. If you have never read Steinbeck I recommend it as his best work in my opinion.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer ***

I've been lax. Very lax. It's not that I haven't been reading, heavens no! It's that I haven't been blogging. Now why that is is a multi-faceted, complex, & difficult to describe reason. But I'll take a whack at putting that reason into words: I've been busy. And that will just have to do as far as excuses go.

Now, on to the book. I had seen this movie a couple years ago only because it had Eugene Hutz in it, & I love Gogol Bordello. Not only did Eugene give a great performance, but so did Elijah Wood & Boris Leskin. I highly recommend the movie.

The book was another story (no pun intended). It started out in a hilarious manner as a letter written by Alex, a young Ukrainian man, to Jonathan Safran Foer. You see, JSF is a character in his own book. And while I warmed up to his character in the movie, I grew to dislike JSF in the book. I think this is to be expected since we see Alex improve his English but also grow & change during the course of telling the story of why JSF came to the Ukraine. As Alex learns, he learns to dislike JSF also.

Why is JSF there? To find the woman, Augustine, who saved his grandfather from a Nazi death squad. All he has is an old picture to go by, & the name of the town he's looking for. But how can you find a Jewish town 50 years after the Holocaust?

The book has a lot of very confusing story lines that I just frankly didn't understand. I don't know why the story of Brod was part of this book, it didn't seem to advance the plot at all. And I've got to say I've never been a big fan of stream of consciousness, so when I ran into a few pages of it I had to just put on a determined grin & slog through it.

Overall this is one of those rare books that was, in my opinion, much better as a movie. It made more sense & it had a much bigger impact. I suggest renting the movie & enjoying Eugene & the fellas do a fine job of making pain, beauty, & collecting things illuminated.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer ***

Yep, I finally gave in and read the whole stinkin' series. I hadn't heard much about the last book, so I went in not sure of what would happen. I've got to say that Stephenie Meyer is great at writing for women--as my husband put it, her books for women are like Clint Eastwood movies for men.

I enjoyed the story up until the very end, when I was sorely disappointed. I'm not going to give anything away, but I think it just reminded me that these books weren't originally intended for an adult audience. I was looking for a lot of reality, but I'm not sure what I was thinking--these are vampire books we're talking about! Reality has nothing to do with it!

Overall, the series was a good read. I'm curious as to whether Meyer will be able to come up with a new series of books, or whether she'll take a chance on more adult literature. Either way, it will be interesting to see.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin ****

I found a flier at the library that listed all the "classic" literature they have on their shelves. I perused the list and decided to read the first one I could find on the shelves that I hadn't read before. Go Tell It on the Mountain was totally new to me, and reading this story of how the sins of our fathers quite literally can shape our own unwitting lives was fascinating.

John, the main character, cannot figure out why his father hates him so. He is obedient, helpful, and the apple of his mother's eye. But his father favors his brother Roy, despite Roy's wild ways. In the 1930's, at a store front church service on a Saturday night in Harlem, we get to see the prayers of all the elders in John's life--his aunt, his mother, and the man he calls his father. The truth of who he is and how the circumstances of his life--including being a young black man--will shape his future we, as readers, must guess at. But at the end of the night, when John is saved, we are left with the hope that he can rise above his father's hypocrisy.

The separate stories of the adults in the book and how they came together to make a whole picture was great. I got lost on the imagery of John's "possession" by the Holy Spirit and didn't get much out of that, but I did like the sense of hope we are left with in the end. Despite being black in America in the 1930's, I really got the feeling that John was going to be able to somehow rise above what was expected of him.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ******

Six stars. I don't have six stars on my rating system, so I know I'm breaking my own boundaries by giving a book six stars. But if ever a book was written that would break boundaries, it is this one.

I never read this book before, mostly because of my high school English teacher my junior year. He was a good teacher, though very anal. He didn't want any of us to "cheat" on the book list that year, so he assigned only books that had no Cliff Notes written for them. I was exposed to some great literature that year, most notably Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It was a very eye opening year of reading for me. But I did miss something.

In a way, I'm thankful for that teacher. I don't know how I would have reacted to this book if I had read it as a teenager. It certainly would have been in a different way than I've reacted to it now. My first knee-jerk response as I started reading was that I had to have a daughter. There had to be a way, and I was going to have one. I wanted a girl like Scout.

But after looking at my life, and looking at our family, I came to the conclusion that we don't always get what we want. As an adult I've had to deal with this many times. I'm not going to be able to have an infant daughter that I give birth to myself. Just as Scout didn't get to have a mother.

And then I got to the summer of Boo in the book. Boo, who has withdrawn from all society because of the things he's been told, the small trouble he got into as a child. He is locked away. I thought of my son, who I'm doing everything in my power to encourage to be part of our society, despite how our society has treated people like my son in the past. It was then that it hit me: I don't have a daughter like Scout, but I have son like Boo. But my Boo, my darling Boo, will be seen. He will be heard. He will be a character in life because of his presence, not because of his absence.

Mistakes are made when raising children, it can't be helped. But if you are there for your child, that may be something that even I won't mess up.

"He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson ***

The movie that has been made from this book is just now out in the US, though it was released last year in Europe. The premise sounded good to me and I wanted to read the book before I saw the movie, so it seemed like a good choice for the Kindle. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I hope to soon.

The first thing that strikes you when you start this book is the violence. It's not immediate, but once it gets going it's very graphic and disturbing. For whatever reasons, I just don't like books like that in general anymore. About 10 years ago I think this would have been much more my thing, but not now.

Another beef I had with the book was one of the main characters, Mikael Blomkvist. I just never really liked him. Again, I can't put my finger on it and say exactly why, but he annoyed me.

The character of Lisbeth, the titular female, is an interesting one. She has had a very difficult past that has made her a person of very little outward display of emotion and she is mostly misunderstood by those around her. Her ambivalence towards issues that most other people find very important has marked her as a rebel.

The mystery in the book is good, with many twists and turns that are hard to anticipate. I think the story itself is a very good one.

I don't think I'll be reading the other two books that Larrson wrote before his untimely death, but you never know.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake ***

This is one of those books that you finally get to the end of and you're left wondering many many things about it. Like, why?

It takes place in 1940-1941 before the US had joined up for WWII. The action happens on the home front and over in Europe, following two stories that converge in the end. The premise is that the postmaster of a small town on the tip of Cape Cod decides to buck her own principles and not deliver a letter to a woman who's husband is in London helping out during the Blitz. Now, my big Why? in this book is why did this woman's husband go over there? He's a doctor, he's lost his first patient, and he can't take it anymore. So he goes over to help in London. But he loves his wife very much and knows that he leaves her utterly alone when he's gone. I was mad at this guy from the get go. I guess it just didn't make enough sense to me that he'd leave her and that made any sympathy I had for him go right out the window.

Alright, meanwhile there's an American lady radio reporter over in London too, reporting on the Blitz. Her impassioned reporting is partly why the doctor went over there. She soon leaves London, though, to go to continental Europe and report on the plight of the Jews there. She makes voice recordings (the technology wasn't really quite there yet in reality) of the people she meets fleeing for Spain and Portugal, realizing that many of them would soon be dead. This was a pretty neat part of the book, and devastating in its description of children, older men, pregnant women, all of them desperate to get out of the hell that Europe had become for them.

Overall, this book is good. But the hard part for me was the slowness of the action, especially at the end. I kept wanting to yell at the characters to just get on with it. The opening of the book is odd too, since I don't really see where it was necessary at all for the story.

I'll say this--if you like books about the people caught up in WWII, this one will at least be up your alley.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Among the Barons by Margaret Peterson Haddix ***

This is the fourth in the Shadow Children series. I'm pretty committed now to finishing them all, and this one is pretty good. It takes up where it left off with the character of Luke, who has assumed the identity of Lee Grant in order to come out of hiding. The problem now is that the real Lee, who died mysteriously, had a little brother who has decided to come visit his brother "Lee". Smits, the younger brother, knows that his real brother is dead, but can't seem to come to grips with that reality. Luke tries to help Smits, but after awhile everything becomes murky--why is Smits here? Why does he have a bodyguard that follows him everywhere? What are Smits' parents up to?

A good sequel, and it leaves the ending open for a new chapter in the series.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield ****

This one was recommended by a co-worker, she said she couldn't put it down and now I can see why! Though the time period is never clear, the action takes place in England and it is like a modern Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, with all the Gothic horror to go with it.

A biographer, Margaret Lea, is summoned by the most famous writer in Great Britain, Vida Winter, to write her life story. Miss Winter has given at least 200 versions of what her life was like to 200 different reporters, all of which are untrue. Haunted by one young man from the past who asked her for the truth, Miss Winter decides to finally reveal her origins to Margaret. But is this the truth this time?

Like my friend told me, this is a very engrossing story that will leave you pondering how it all fits together until you get to the end. I'm not the most romantic person in the world, so I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at certain points in the book, but overall it was a great read and filled with interesting character studies. The twists and turns were at times hard to follow, but when looked at in the context of a master storyteller giving her last performance, I could believe that Miss Winter could tell her story in this way.

Another aspect of this book is it's description of the love of reading. This was one of my favorite parts, because I feel as compelled as the character Margaret to read all that comes within my grasp too. All the books of the world are there to be read, and when you look at them you realize that all their authors were trying in their own way to keep themselves alive, to make a monument to their knowledge to pass on. Even the most dull textbook from 100 years ago is of some value, because it contains the life work of someone. It is an attempt to continue one's soul beyond our earthly scope.

So if you like a good Gothic mystery in Jolly Old England, or if you just love to read, I think you will like this book.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Among the Betrayed by Margaret Peterson Haddix ***

This is the third book in the Shadow Children series. Like all sequels, it's hard to keep up the excitement that the first book had. Ms. Haddix gets around that problem by introducing all new characters in this book, the main one being a child that was in the background of the last book. Now we learn about her story.

Nina is a third child, illegal in this future version of the US. So she has been in hiding at Harlow's School for Girls, along with most of the other students there. But when her first love, Jason, betrays her, Nina's life goes into a downward spiral that ends up with her beaten and in prison, waiting to be executed. When she's given the opportunity to live if she will betray three other third children, Nina faces a difficult decision. Mattias, Percy, and Alia are all younger than her, Alia only being 6. Should she do what she can to stay alive, or should she help these other kids too?

My only criticism of this book has to do with the ending, which if I reveal any of I'll give the story away! Let's just say I'd have been a little more angry with the way I was treated if I were Nina! But otherwise, this is a great book. I can't wait to read the next one!


As a side note, I tried reading an adult book between this one and my previous post, but I couldn't finish the book! It was The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. After reading other people's reviews of it, I realize that not knowing Yiddish was a big part of my problem. I can't recommend that book to anyone, so if you're wanting to read a Michael Chabon book, read The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay instead--much better!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Among the Impostors by Margaret Peterson Haddix ****

This is the second book in the Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix. I read it pretty quickly, so that could be seen as an indication of how good I thought the book was!

Luke has now assumed the identity of Lee Grant, in order to come out of hiding as a shadow child (any third child, since any children more than two are not permitted in this vision of the future). He's in a very odd boarding school without windows, trying to figure out what he's supposed to be doing and how to survive in this new world he's been thrust into. And most of all, he's trying to figure out who, if anyone, he should trust.

This was a good sequel to Among the Hidden, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes futuristic sci fi.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett *****

I'd heard about this book somewhere, perhaps while listening to NPR. It sounded like an interesting experiment--what if a group of hostages started liking where they were and who they were with? What if they didn't want to be rescued? It's not really like Stockholm syndrome, it's something different. All the people are rich, powerful, and very busy. And when they are taken hostage, they suddenly have time.

The action takes place in the vice-presidential home of an unnamed country in South America. We are told the country is very poor, so in order to attract more investment they are holding a birthday party for a very important man--Mr. Hosokawa. Mr. Hosokawa is the CEO of an electronics company in Japan. But Mr. Hosokawa has no intentions of building a new plant in this "God-forsaken country". His only reason for travelling halfway around the world to this birthday party is because Roxanne Coss, the most talented operatic soprano in the world, will be singing for the guests. And Mr. Hosokawa's great love is opera.

So begins the infamous party, which soon turns ugly when three "Generals" and their barely teen aged troops sneak into the mansion through the air conditioning vents and take over the premises.

This is the kind of book I like, in that it is an in depth look at the characters and how they interact. Mr. Hosokawa, Gen, Roxanne Coss, Carmen, the Three Generals, Simon Thibault, etc. etc. You care deeply for them all by the end of the book, and fear what will happen to them. Roxanne I tended to get annoyed with, she was a very entitled person. But I have noticed that in general that if you act entitled, you are treated with entitlement. Of course you can't help but wonder how you would have behaved in the same situation. Selflessly, like Father Arguedas and Ruben Iglesias? Or otherwise?

I didn't like the ending of the book, but I think that was the point. It wasn't supposed to happen, and it leaves you feeling a sense of doom for the relationship that is featured. It's a futile attempt to recapture something that is gone forever. And haven't we all tried to do that ourselves?

If you like to delve into others, and thereby into yourself, I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix ****

Although I'm due for an adult book, my school librarian friend suggested this one to me. I thought I'd give it a try & I'm glad I did!

I know the whole crazy-future-government thing has been done many times before in both adult and children's literature (Below the Root, The Handmaid's Tale, 1984, etc.), but this is a fresh look at it from the perspective of a 12 year old boy.

Luke is a forbidden third child, prohibited by the government and hidden in his family's attic. Luke has no friends, and has never left the farm he is raised on. What little freedom he has is lost when the woods next to his house are torn down and a new subdivision is built. Now he can never leave the house again.

But one day, he sees a face in a window of one of the new houses. Is this another illegal child? Luke takes the biggest risk of his life--he sneaks to the neighbor's house to find out. What he learns turns his world upside down.

This is the first book in a series called the Shadow Children, and I can't wait to read the next one!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Emma's River by Alison Hart ****

It's always neat to read a book set in your home state, especially if it's not written about very much. I've lived most of my life in Missouri, and most of that in St. Louis. So to have a book about a girl from St. Louis that rides on a riverboat up the Missouri River in 1852 is a nice change from all the books about westward expansion that only begin after leaving Missouri.

Emma is 10 years old & is travelling with her mother & a family friend on the riverboat Sally May up to St. Joe, Missouri to meet her father. From there they have plans to travel west to California and seek their fortune in the gold boom. Emma has finagled her mother into allowing her pony, Licorice Twist, to come also, despite the extra stress this causes the family. Emma is worried that Dr. Burton, the family friend, isn't going to make sure that Twist is taken care of properly on board the Sally May, so she sneaks off to the lowest level of the steamboat to take care of him herself. There she meets Patrick, an Irish stowaway, and befriends him.

The details are expertly given on riverboat travel at the time, and I learned quite a few things about them. I didn't know that there were steerage passengers on steamboats also at that time, though after learning that it didn't surprise me that they were treated so poorly. I did know of the dangers of riverboat travel, especially the nasty habit they had of blowing up, after learning a few years back about Mark Twain's younger brother who died in a riverboat accident. They would try to race each other and get to their destinations fast, so they pushed the edge of their steam engines quite a bit.

I was a little disappointed in the ending of the book since it ended so happily--all of the main characters not only survive the blast, but decide to travel west together. But that could be because I'm a jaded adult reading a children's book!

All in all, it was a well done historical read, one that would help children really get into the past and understand what went on.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DeCamillo *****

Lot of stars, I know. But this is the type of book I just loved as a kid, & evidently still love as an adult!

Edward Tulane is a rabbit, 3 feet tall, made of china. Abilene, 10 years old, is his mistress. She dresses him in silk suits, little leather shoes, & hats with two holes cut out of them for his ears. But Edward doesn't love her--he cares for no one other than himself.

But when he goes on an ocean cruise with Abilene & her parents, Edward is suddenly thrown overboard. And his life changes forever.

Not only is the story beautiful & sad, but the illustrations are so moving that they leave you breathless. There are several full color plates in the book, but I think my favorite picture is of the young boy Bryce, pausing while hoeing a garden, looking up at Edward. His expression is wonderful, & he looks rather similar to my own son.

This story about love, both giving & getting it, is appropriate for children at about the 4th grade level. There are some heartbreaking moments in the book that would be hard for a younger child to grasp.

I heartily recommend this jewel of a book.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Lobotomy by Howard Dully ****

Howard Dully was given a lobotomy in December 1960, when he had just turned 12 years old. His step-mother hated him & wanted him gone from her life, & this was her way of doing that. When that brutal procedure didn't make him non-communicative & immobile, he was made a ward of the state of California & lived the rest of his childhood & young adulthood in mental hospitals. As Howard writes in this book, he always wanted to know "why?" What had he done so wrong to warrant these actions against him?

When he was approached by two producers from NPR to do a 22 minute story about lobotomy, Howard finally found out what had happened to him. And the horrible truth, which was that he was a typical 12 year old boy, with no justification except his step-mother's lies for what was done to him.

To say this is a moving book is to put it mildly. The horror & outrage that I felt when reading this, & the fear that filled me when I realized that sometimes the medical community is not only incompetent but twisted, was breathtaking. How could this happen? How could this happen?

After reading the book I looked up Howard's NPR story online. If I thought the book was moving, it was nothing compared to hearing Howard himself finding out & dealing with what was done to him.

I think the thing that made the biggest impression on me was the realization of the power we, as adults, hold over children. We make so many choices for them, & not just for our own kids, but those we deal with in our jobs & in the community. We owe them the responsibility of doing what is best for them at all times, in all ways. As Howard points out, he was helpless against what was done to him. But no one stood up for him: not his father, not the doctors, not the nurses, no one.

With Holocaust Remembrance Day fast approaching (April 11), we remember to say, "Never again." Let's remember that when we deal with children also. Never again.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gabriel's Triumph by Alison Hart ****

This was a very satisfying sequel to Gabriel's Horses, & again for me it has a lot to do with the horse racing aspect of it. Hearing about the races, the crowds, & the excitement makes me anxious for the Kentucky Derby!

It's 1864, and Gabriel is traveling north to Saratoga Springs to race at the most famous racetrack of the day. He meets many hazards on the train ride there & in the barns of the racetrack itself, but also meets up with his old friend Jackson & makes a new one. His goal is to become a famous jockey, while overcoming the prejudice he experiences by being a free black man during the Civil War.

I enjoyed the second book in the Racing to Freedom Trilogy, & can't wait to read the third book now. I'm also looking forward to reading Emma's River, Alison Hart's newest book, & which the author was kind enough to send to me! How cool is that?!? Thanks again, Ms. Hart, & happy reading everyone!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Every once in a while, I will read a book that has a meaning of more than just the words that are written on its pages. This book in two parts, Suite Francaise, is a work of fiction. But the story behind its author has made it even more than the sum of its parts.

In the first part of the book, it's June of 1940, & the Nazis are invading France. The people of Paris are abandoning everything & racing in a frenzy to leave the city behind to what they assume will be its utter destruction. All classes of people are thrown together, much to their dismay, in this mass exodus. The rich, the famous, the struggling, the poor, all of them have the same kinds of experiences in the countryside surrounding Paris.

In the second part, Dolce, a small French village is subjected to the occupying forces. Nazi soldiers are housed in spare bedrooms, the community's horses are all bought for the war. The townspeople make money off the Germans, & the young people gradually find themselves in relationships with the enemy that they never thought they were capable of. As the new Eastern Front opens up with Russia, the book suddenly ends.

My above descriptions are of the book itself. What makes this more than it is, is the fate of the author.

Irene Nemirovsky was doubly damned, being not only Russian but Jewish. To the Nazis, Communists were almost as bad as Jews, & they pretty much assumed anyone from Russia was pro-Communist. Though Nemirovsky lived her adult life in France, she wasn't a citizen. When Paris fell she fled, like the characters from her book, into the countryside with her husband & daughters. There they thought they were safe, even as Irene started writing her new novel. Suite Francaise was going to be her masterpiece--her own War & Peace. She envisioned it in 5 distinct parts, like an orchestral symphony. She was destined to only get the first 2 parts done.

In July of 1942, she was arrested & sent to a concentration camp in France. From there she wrote 2 last letters to her family. Then she was put on a train east. To Auschwitz. She didn't last long there & died on August 17, without her family's knowledge. Desperate to find his wife, her husband, who was also a Russian Jew, frantically telegraphed & wrote to everyone he could think of who could help. It was to no avail, & 2 months later he was deported also. He was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.

At this time, Nemirovsky's daughters were 5 & 10 years old. A family friend immediately removed the yellow stars off all their clothing & hid the children in several different places for the rest of the war. They were continually hunted by the French police, who apparently had nothing better to do, but luckily they were never caught.

Denise, the older daughter, kept her mother's leather bound notebook with her all through the war & after. She couldn't bring herself to read what was written within, but kept it simply as a memento. Then, in the early 1970's, she decided to donate it to a French collection of war writings. Looking at her mother's writing for the first time, she was surprised to find not just a journal as she always suspected, but also a book. It was finally published in 2004.

That is the story of Suite Francaise. I could go on & on about the book & the emotions it has stirred up in me. Anger, mostly. The waste, the terrible waste of human life & genius because of the Holocaust. I wanted so very much to read the end of this book--all 5 parts. I know it would have been the masterpiece she envisioned. Instead, her own life became the ending of her book.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Leanin' Dog by K.A. Nuzum ****

This book was recommended to me by the librarian at my son's school. I'd read another book by this author before & thought it was very good, but I didn't realize this was the same author until I'd finished Leanin' Dog.

12 year old Dessa Dean's mother has died--frozen to death while Dessa Dean helplessly tried to warm her. Now she can't even leave the porch of the cabin she lives in with her father without having what she calls a "daymare"--flashbacks to that horrible ordeal. But one day an old brown dog shows up at their door, & slowly Dessa Dean starts to come back to the world of the living again.

Leanin' Dog is another wonderful book by K.A. Nuzum. She's able to help us understand a girl's intense grief, & gives her a unique & special voice that you seem to be able to hear, as though she's talking out loud to you. For an author that's only written two books, she's had two winners already. I highly recommend this one to you.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gabriel's Horses by Alison Hart ****

First, I have to say that this book has something to do with horse racing. And I've really liked horse racing since I was about 13 years old & watched the Kentucky Derby for the first time on TV. So right there, it had me. But it's also a well written book, with some interesting characters & a great insight into what life was like in Kentucky during the Civil War.

The book starts with Gabriel, a 12 year old slave, being given the chance to go to Lexington with his father & also his master. His father has bought himself freedom, & hopes to earn more money to buy both his wife & son theirs also.

Gabriel has a true gift with horses, which he inherited from his horse-training father. With a fair-minded master, he has an easy life for a slave, & he knows it. Opportunities seem to be opening up for Gabriel as a jockey, but just when he thinks he knows what the future will bring, the War invades his work life & his family.

I'm honestly not sure if I'll read the other two books in this series, but I do like this book for the back-door education it gives young readers into the Civil War from a slave's point of view. I never knew myself that Kentucky was a neutral state--it was much more peaceable than my native Missouri, where there were many bloody conflicts. But no state came out unscathed by the war, & no family did either.

Another great Mark Twain Award nominee. The kids of Missouri are voting right now on the winner--I'll be anxious to see what they end up liking the most!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Way Down Deep by Ruth White *****

This is another of the Mark Twain Award nominees, & so far it's my favorite. It's the story of the town of Way Down Deep, West Virginia, & also about a 3-year-old named Ruby June mysteriously found in front of the town courthouse just before the end of WWII. Ruby June becomes the heart & soul of Way Down Deep, but the peace & tranquility of town is disturbed when the mystery of her origins starts to surface.
Way Down Deep is the story of the preciousness of childhood, our greatest treasure. It's a quick read (2 days for me) & it will leave you feeling good about your own childhood & the kids around you. Give it a try, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling ****

I've never read The Jungle Book before--it was pretty good! I was bracing myself to read some of Kipling's notorious racist comments, but I didn't really encounter anything overtly bad. In the context of when it was written, it seemed fairly tame to me. I'm sure Kipling made his infamous opinions known in other works of his, but this one seems to be just typical of it's time.
The best part of this book was reading Riki-Tiki-Tavi. Puppy has watched the cartoon of this many many times, so I knew the story well. I was amazed by how true to the story Chuck Jones stayed when he made the cartoon--it's almost verbatim!
At this point in the book Puppy came up to me & asked what I was reading. I told him, & he insisted I read it to him. So I did. And then I had to read it to him again. And then one more time. He loved to hear it read, I think because he already had the pictures for it in his mind. It was neat to see how happy he was to totally understand every word he heard. I wonder if I can't find some other books that have been made into cartoons that I could read to him after he's seen them. It really seems to help with his comprehension.
Overall, a good book written mostly from different animals' points of view. Kipling had a wonderful way of portraying animals so people could understand them. I recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it before.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Emma on Masterpiece Theatre *****

Well, I'm diverging. I'm going to review a TV show for a change, simply because it was so good. It's based on a classic piece of literature, though, so I figure I'm not going too far off my beaten path.
For the past few weeks, a new version of Emma has been on Masterpiece Theatre. Now I love Masterpiece--I've watched it since I was about 14 years old. And last year at this time they had a Jane Austen festival, if you will, where they showed all of her books made into movies. But this is a new production, & the very best version of it I've ever seen.
I think what makes this one so good is the rapport between Emma & Mr. Knightley. They banter back & forth & give each other trouble throughout almost the whole production without Emma ever realizing that they are actually in love. The actor playing Mr. Knightley does a wonderful job of making him a much more human character than I've seen in other productions. And though I know they've taken a few liberties with the book, this interpretation really speaks to modern viewers without totally forgetting the context in which it was written. The screenwriter also goes to the trouble of trying to help us understand why Mr. Churchill does the things he does, & leaves him in a little more sympathetic light.

Rent it, buy it, whatever. If you like Jane Austen, or any good romantic comedy, please see this!!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mansfield Park by Jane Austin ***

I've been putting off reviewing this one. I'll tell you why: it just wasn't as good as I expected it to be. I'd seen the BBC production of it last year on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, & knew it wasn't Jane Austen's best story. But I thought, as most people do, that the book would be better. It wasn't, in my humble opinion. The movie actually made the story better & more believable, I think because it made it just a little more modern.
The biggest annoyance I had was the main character, Fanny Price. I just couldn't ever get to where I sympathized with her very much. She was so timid & frail that she just got on my nerves after awhile. And she tried so much to be good always that she just came across as a prude to me. Every time I got close to identifying with her, she would turn me off again. I especially didn't like her dislike of her own, very un-polished, family, who she visits towards the end of the book. Fanny was much more a bore to me than her family was to her.
The only redeeming character I came across was right at the end--Susan, Fanny's younger sister. It's like Jane Austen realized at the end of the book that she could have made Fanny more interesting--she could have been like Susan. Susan ends up in the same role Fanny had with the Bertram's, only with the promise of being a much more interesting person.
Sorry to slam it, but I just felt very frustrated by the end of the book. So sorry, Austenites!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy *****

A couple years ago I was reading Shannon's blog, Half Soled Boots, when she posted a link to the blog What Is Stephen Harper Reading?. First, for all my ignorant fellow Americans (I'm including myself in this), Stephen Harper is the PM of Canada. Duh. Why didn't I know that?
Anyways, the Canadian author Yann Martel started the blog to give Mr. Harper some suggestions of things to read. Looking at the list (which is now on it's 73rd book) I realized I've read very few of these lovely books. So I thought that whenever I felt the urge I'd just whale away at it.
This is book #1. If you're wanting something light & happy, don't read this amazingly short Tolstoy story. But if you want to read something profound & satisfying, do it.
The book opens with Ivan already dead, but we then travel back in time to follow his life up to the moment of his last breath. Ivan followed all the rules of society. So why does his life look like nothing as he lays in bed dying?
As I read the story, I couldn't help thinking of my own father's death. Is this how he felt, I wondered, as his life quickly folded up around him? Did I keep up the act, the farce, that he wasn't dying, just as Ivan's family does? I don't know. I do know that this is a book of great value. And I certainly can see why Yann Martel recommended it to Stephen Harper.
I recommend it to you.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery ****

The second book in the series reminded me quite a bit of Little Men, at least at first. It grated on my nerves because the author, like Louisa May Alcott, tried to use her writing to influence the morals of the young people reading her books. Though I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that, it does date the books very much. I wish both those authors would have just stuck to telling the stories of their main characters, rather than using them as moral benchmarks that I think very rarely are ever lived up to. For me, Anne of Avonlea was redeemed by some of the stories contained in it, which did just tell of Anne's journeys & experiences.
I know the use of characters as pinnacles of virtue to be attained is still used, but I do think that now they are shown in their weakness, thereby helping those of us who are so very imperfect feel more in common with them. Anne's imperfections are those of being dreamy & perhaps too optimistic, but I don't think those are really considered faults in our society.
All in all, Lucy Maude Montgomery paints a picture of a character that it's hard not to like, simply because she embodies youth & the promise therein. I'm sure my own pessimism towards Anne, which isn't much, has to do with the fact that I'm moving farther & farther away from those days myself with each new year. It's a hard job to keep those feelings alive in your heart, but perhaps I can give it a try in this new year. I do have one major thing in common with Anne--I love nature & am inspired by it as much as she is. Despondency gets wiped away when I look outside & see the beautiful world around me.
Maybe there is a bit of Anne in me after all.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Garden of Eve by K.L. Going ****

I've just finished another Mark Twain Award nominee, & the best one word description is "magical". Evie lost her mother to cancer 10 months ago, & her father has moved them far away from their home in Michigan to a failing apple orchard in New York state. She meets a boy who says he's a ghost, & gets a gift from someone she never met. And when given the choice between this world or one where her mother may be waiting for her, she has a hard time deciding.
The heartache of loss is told very well in this book. Losing a parent is never easy, but I can imagine losing one at the age of 10 would bring your world to a halt. Change is inevitable, & it's hard moving forward when you feel like you're leaving someone behind. But as Evie's mother says in the book, "There's a time for birth & a time for death. Life moves in cycles, Evie. That's the way things are meant to be."
May you read this book & find the beauty in life again.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery ****

I've found that copyright-free books are available for free on my Kindle, so after downloading about a dozen of them I decided to actually read some! I'd never read Anne of Green Gables, though I'd seen a dramatization of it once when I was younger. It's one of those great classic books for girls, & I'm glad I've finally read it.
If you aren't familiar with the story, it's about an 11 year old girl who is adopted by an older brother & sister, Matthew & Marilla Cuthbert, who never married. They intended to adopt a boy to help around the farm, but accidentally got Anne instead. After meeting her they decide to keep her, & the rest is history. By the end of the book, she's made a bosom friend, a bitter enemy, & a lot of mistakes. But she's 16 years old & about to start teaching.
This brings up a question from me--how could a 16 year old be a teacher? I know Anne goes away to school for a year to study for it, but wow! I guess since the children she teaches are all younger than her it works. And I'm sure back when this was written it was hard to get teachers in the more remote parts of Canada. But being married to a teacher myself, I find it amazing to see the discrepancy between teacher training 100 years ago & now. Wow!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Let the Great World Spin by Colum Mccann *****

First & foremost, this a beautiful book. That's the best word to describe this masterpiece--absolutely beautiful. Love & death, loss & renewal, hope & failure. It's all here. I marvel that a man could so eloquently & perfectly describe what goes on inside a woman's head. Not just one woman, but many women. All different, all familiar. Then you have the men. So different also, but at the same time all trying to get something, somewhere.
The setting is New York City, August 7, 1974. What happens is a man walks along a tightrope strung from one tower to the other of the World Trade Center. And how that is a backdrop to all the millions of lives in the city, that one moment in time, suspended in space.
If you read one book this year, I highly encourage this one. If you don't feel as though you have a connection to the person telling the story, just keep reading. You will. Because there are many tellers of this story.

On another note, this was the first book I read with my new Kindle. It is nifty, to say the least! I don't think I'll read all my books this way, but it is neat to use when I want to. I ordered a cover for it, which I think is a necessity for me since I take books everywhere & I know I'll be doing the same with the Kindle. I feel funny reading books on it, since I'm so used to holding an actual book, but I think I'll get used to it. I also hope libraries start having ebooks, then it would be a little more practical. Until then, I'm reading all the great free books I can get my hands on (other than the above book)! If you have an ebook reader, let me know what you think about it.