Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton (2014)

A novel that sticks in my head and memory - but really, all Jo Waltons seem to do that.  I loved that Walton references Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, one of my favorites (which I read as an adult, not as a child) - because My Real Children is a kissing cousin to this most excellent book (as is the movie It's a Wonderful Life).  It took some effort to put the book down; I finally raced through it last night, quickly devouring each and every scrumptious detail. 

I can pick out two themes here.  As this is alternate history - and really, at its very, very best - the idea that small actions create reactions that can change the world.  We all know "for want of a nail, the horse was lost" but the linchpin, Pat/Tricia's yes/no to a marriage proposal - is so completely unrelated to war or peace.  A better cliche is the idea expressed in Jurassic Park:  "A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine."  Or quite possibly It's A Wonderful Life:  "One man's life touches so many other lives."  In ways we can't even imagine.  That's terrifying and exhilarating.  

The alternate timelines - two of them actually, both familiar yet distinctly different from our own - are really just a science fiction-y backdrop to the strong and interesting lives of Tricia/Pat.  In one timeline, Tricia says yes and marries a boorish beast; in the other timeline, Pat says no and forms a loving relationship with another woman.  Using these strong women's lives and experiences, she's able to subtly highlight what's happening in each alternate timeline that's different from our own (nuclear exchanges, world wars, etc.) as well as some cautions and insight on our own timeline as well.  It's interesting that the abused Tricia ends up in a more peaceful timeline; strong Pat who superficially has an easier, more satisfying life ends up in a far scarier world.

Walton obviously loves her alternate history - see the masterful Farthing - but she also strongly writes about sexuality as well.  Her lesbian characters, at least to me, seemed incredibly and vividly real; her gay characters in the Farthing series, tragic as they were, felt the same way.  


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Alternate history at its very best , and more than that.  This isn't your typical science fiction time travel book (but then Jo Walton books are never, ever typically anything other than brilliant); rather, Walton uses two alternate timelines to tell the story of two women, who are the same woman, and how the answer "now" or "never" to a wedding proposal changes not only them but the world.   She uses this woman, Pat/Tricia, to compare and contrast; she is the shadow puppet against the scene changes of vibrant and changing histories (that are different from our own).  Because of the small incidents in this woman's life (lives), the bigger incidents taking place in the world around them (nuclear war, political upheaval, etc.) loom on the backdrop behind her.  Walton is an incredible writer of real characters and intricate, beautiful plots; there is plenty of attention to detail (she always reminds me of a Connie Willis who writes shorter books).  There is a delightful feminist maxim that runs through this book that I loved; I also thought she wrote strongly and honestly about sexuality. 





Tuesday, July 29, 2014

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer (2012)

I'm really torn here, because I started out loving this book - so much so I shared a passage I found particularly humorous with my husband - but by the end, I was ready for it to be over (and it's a short book).  It was really funny at the beginning but turned this dark, dark corner - not even really turned, but sort of wallowed around the corner in this bloated sort of way, that made for some almost unpleasant reading by the end.  It's a New York Book for sure - genetically related to Edith Wharton and Judy Blume and The Catcher in the Rye and Seinfeld (although not a book) and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and every single musical ever written about New York City.  Like the city, the book, particularly half way through and beyond, was crowded and noisy; the paragraphs tended to run together.  A clown - yes, a clown - says at the beginning " This is New York, right?  We're all so close.  You have to breach boundaries and respect them at the same time."  Which is basically the plot in a nutshell - nice of Kramer to do that for us.  I make it sound like I hated this book,which I didn't - I would highly recommend i it and thought some of the writing was particularly beautiful.  Kramer describes 15 going on 16 year old Wesley:

"In his fatigue and lostness I see the ways in which he's still like a bird, really, species Boy urbanis; he's smaller at night, on a bench, resting from the hard work of being a hormone vat, a cell divider, a gather of evidence against us.  A bird, exactly.  Which means:  careful; be a nest, not an answer; don't' risk crushing the forming, mysterious bones."

Kramer beautifully portrays a certain kind of New York intelligentsia boy, subtly and with love.  The gay couple he portrays is beautifully written as well, using cues and scenery and dialogue and hints to illuminate cracks in their relationship.

These Things HappenThese Things Happen by Richard  Kramer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm really torn here, because I started out loving this book - so much so I shared a passage I found particularly humorous with my husband - but by the end, I was ready for it to be over (and it's a short book).  It was really funny at the beginning but turned this dark, dark corner - not even really turned, but sort of wallowed around the corner in this bloated sort of way, that made for some almost unpleasant reading by the end.  It's a New York Book for sure - genetically related to Edith Wharton and Judy Blume and The Catcher in the Rye and Seinfeld (although not a book) and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and every single musical ever written about New York City.  Like the city, the book, particularly half way through and beyond, was crowded and noisy; the paragraphs tended to run together.  A clown - yes, a clown - says at the beginning " This is New York, right?  We're all so close.  You have to breach boundaries and respect them at the same time."  Which is basically the plot in a nutshell - nice of Kramer to do that for us.  I make it sound like I hated this book,which I didn't - I would highly recommend it.


View all my reviews

Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)

This is the second time I've read Coraline, and I'd forgotten what a delightfully, deliciously dark and scary book this is.  The Narnia-ness of the plot is unmistakable.  Lewis's Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy finding a nondescript wardrobe that leads to another world, a world with, among other oddities,  talking animals and people turned to stone and a monstrous witch, a world that ultimately wants to keep them (at least for a while) as kings and queens.  Coraline finds a nondescript door that leads another another world as well, with talking animals (rats, a cat) and people turned into ghosts and a witchy monster who also wants to keep her indefinitely, at first as a spoiled princess, and the more likely as a princely snack.  What I always love about Gaiman, what he does so brilliantly, is that he takes these modern folk tales, and spins them around, re-sculpts and re-colors them, into something completely different.  If Coraline is a perfectly thrown pot, then Narnia is a glaze, but also Alice, and the darker parts of the Grimms, and Stephen King, and Beowulf, and The Twlight Zone, and Neil Gaiman himself.  (like The Graveyard Book had some cultural reference to Tolkien, so does Coraline:  at one point, when Coraline grabs one of the soul marbles she's desperately trying to find, the creature from whom she grabs it awakens and says "Thief! Give it back! Stop! Thief!" which, of course, echoes these famous lines from The Hobbit:  "Thief, thief, thief!  Baggins!  We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!") .

The book is both something derivative - in the most pleasing and and interesting of ways - and something unique.  It's also really scary, true horror.  What's different about Coraline from the Pevensies is that you never get the feeling that Pevensies realize the danger they are in from the White Witch, or even miss their parents in the least. What's worse to a modern child than being kidnapped by a stranger?  So if anything, Coraline updates Narnia, makes it more realistic, gives Coraline feelings that the Pevensies (save Edmund) lacked.  Like Edmund, she in intrigued and attracted by the monster; Edmund eventually realizes he's been seduced by something evil.  Coraline is never really seduced, and knows instinctively the danger she's in.  Unlike Narnia, in Corarline's world, there isn't an Aslan to come save the day.  This is where the worlds diverge; Coraline is frightened to death, but knows she has no choice but to keep battling the monster.  The Pevensies - again save Edmund - act like Narnia is more of an exciting lark.  The danger is much more clear and present in Coraline.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is frightening, but like all the best scary stories to tell in the dark, in such a good and satisfying way.  The modern parent and modern child have many worries, but one of the biggest ones (besides getting shot and killed at school) would be stranger danger and being kidnapped.  Gaiman has taken that modern fear and mixed it in with some Narniana, to create a delightfully and deliciously dark and scary horror story.  I say Narnia because Coraline is a descendant of Lewis ( E. Nesbit is the literary Australopithecus here).  Four children enter a nondescript wardrobe to find another world full of talking animals and a monstrous witch, and are asked to stay there indefinitely as kings and queens; Coraline enters a nondescript door into another world with talking animals (rats, a cat) and a witchly monster who wants her to stay indefinitely as a princess (of sorts, although ultimately as a princely snack).  Gaiman has done it again; if Coraline is a pot thrown on a wheel, then Narnia is a glaze, as is Alice, and Stephen King, and Beowulf, and Tolkien, and the darkest corners of the Grimms.  It's derivative in only the most pleasing sense; those bits and pieces of modern and ancient folklore that Gaiman glazes the pot don't detract from a solid, eerie, most original plot.   This was published for children, but I guess I'm a big child, because I loved this book.


View all my reviews

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century by Graham Robb (2003)

I apparently  read this back in 2005, so this is a re-read.  I have no idea how I felt about it back then, but this go around the re-read fizzled.  So very, very dull.

Frog Went A Courtin' by John Langstaff; pictures by Feodor Rojankovsky (1955)

This was the Caldecott winner for 1955.  I don't know what else was published that year except Eloise, which is a book I don't like.  Too pink.  Anyway, Crow Boy by Taro Yashima and Play With Me by Marie Ets were the honor books.  Crow Boy I've never read, but can see vividly in my mind - it's a very distinctive book.  I know the name Marie Ets, but I don't know off the top of my head what she's written.

I really liked Frog Went a Courtin'.  I vaguely know the song - I probably had it on one of the Peter Pan records as a kid.  I really liked the illustrations - very vivid and bright.  Interestingly, John Langstaff was a musician first and a children's author next.

Frog Went a-Courtin'Frog Went a-Courtin' by John Langstaff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bright, vivid and fun illustrations.  The last picture is by far the best and most fun.


View all my reviews

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (1971)

I love a big, bloated, fact-driven historical epic.  Anything under 800 pages isn't worth it (except for Edna Ferber's Giant).   Gone with the Wind sort of falls in this category.   Michener was the king of this genre;  Edward Rutherfurd drops one like a ton of bricks - well, at least five pounds of bricks - every couple of years or so.  Interestingly, if you look at the "Authors Like James Michener" list, Rutherford is included, and most of the other authors are dead.  Apparently, this is a dying genre, which is sad.  I don't think an author can churn these out very quickly; the research must be incredible and take a long time.  Hilary Mantel is definitely carrying that flag though.

The Winds of War is definitely and gloriously and deliciously big (888 pages), and historical fact-driven (it even has a fake nonfiction book written from a German general's point of view between chapters).  It's slightly lighter than a brick, but slightly bigger.  Unlike a Michener, I didn't like every single bit of this book.  I thought the first half or so was really good, but the last half felt sort of half-assed and rushed, like he had HAD IT with writing the book and just couldn't wait to get to the end (the last page has the dates 1964-1971, which probably refer to length of time he spent writing the book - so who can blame him?  That's a long time).  


In Wouk's foreword, he referred to The Winds of War as a romance, which I thought was an interesting word to describe the book.  Of course, a romance book has certain connotations today that it perhaps did not have in 1971; Wikipedia describes the romance genre as placing their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”  That definition does not fit The Winds of War; There is much love in the book, but it does not end in a particularly satisfying way; and although we all know who won the war, it's not particularly optimistic - Pug and Rhoda are on the cusp of getting a divorce, Natalie and Aaron are Jews trapped in Fascist Italy.  

However, if you place it against another definition of romance, the chivalric romance of the Middle Ages, then calling the book a romance makes more sense.  To quote Wikipedia again: "They were fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest, yet it is "the emphasis on heterosexual love and courtly manners distinguishes it from the chanson de geste and other kinds of epic, in which masculine military heroism predominates."   Now that describes The Winds of War.  What are Pug, Warren, Byron but knights on a quest?  Pug is all manners and morals.   The Winds of War  has an Arthurian soul!

There is some frothy writing here, and some bloated writing, and some boring writing.  But the start of Chapter 45 is beautiful, and I wish I could quote it in full.  It starts with "The players in our drama were now scattered around the earth.  Their stage had become the planet, turning the solar spotlight that illumined half the scene at a time, and that moved always from east to west."  It's the first day of the surprise German attack on the Soviet Union, and Wouk follows the sun to tell what each of the players, as well as the countries at war they represented, were up to.  It's a really cool way to describe the day, and writer-wise sort of out of blue.  

I know I read this before, sometime in the misty past.  I also know I read War and Remembrance.  I have to admit something - I don't think I can read War and Remembrance again. I'm not a fan of the Holocaust genre; it's too sad and upsetting.  My trip to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. was Holocaust enough for me in a lifetime.  I don't need to see it or read about it to understand how terrible and disgusting and evil people can be to each other.  I also know that Aaron and Natalie get caught up the horrors of Holocaust, and I read The Winds of War with that fact always haunting the back of my mind.  I already know what happens to them; I found out 25 years ago.  I don't remember what happens to anyone else is the whole damn book, just them.  I can't skip the parts about them to read War and Remembrance and find out what happened to everyone else.  So I'm just going to put The Winds of War down and go on to the next book that's not about the Holocaust, thank you very much.

The Winds Of WarThe Winds Of War by Herman Wouk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Winds of War is definitely and gloriously and deliciously big (888 pages), and historical fact-driven (it even has a fake nonfiction book written from a German general's point of view between chapters).  It's slightly lighter than a brick, but slightly bigger.  I didn't like every single bit of this book.  I thought the first half or so was really good, but the last half felt sort of half-assed and rushed, like he had HAD IT with writing the book and just couldn't wait to get to the end (the last page has the dates 1964-1971, which probably refer to length of time he spent writing the book - so who can blame him?  That's a long time). In his forward, Wouk calls the book a romance, but if you think you're getting a steamy hack-written paperback with manly chests of stone on the cover, you probably ought to pick another book.  If you want something that has hints of Arthurian romance though, grand quests with brave knights and courtly manners, then you may hit closer to the mark you are aiming for.  This isn't an exact parallel of Camelot, but instead Pug Henry and his family are players in a game that includes soldiers (knights), much romantic love mixed with high morals and manners, and several quests of various sorts. Like all good historical epics, this one is a pepperpot full of cameos by the famous and infamous names of the Greatest Generation - the whole club from FDR to Uncle Joe Stalin make one appearance or more.  There is some frothy writing and some heavy handed writing and some beautiful writing as well.  If not exactly fun, it's a great read.



View all my reviews




Saturday, July 19, 2014

Paul Thurlby's Wildlife by Paul Thurlby (2013)

A glorified advertise for Thurlby's work.  To quote the back cover:  "His work has appeared in advertising, on cards and t-shirts and in national newspapers in the U.K."  And that's exactly what the illustrations felt like - a catalog of posters or t-shirts, with informational bits about animals thrown in to make it a book.  This is all style and no substance.

I like the pictures though - I'd definitely buy one of his cards or have some of these pics on a t-shirt.  But overall, as a book, I'm underwhelmed.

Paul Thurlby's WildlifePaul Thurlby's Wildlife by Paul Thurlby
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A cliche will do - all style but no substance.  I'd buy a greeting card from Mr. Thurlby in a heartbeat, or wear a t-shirt with one of these pages emblazoned on the front.  But this is essentially a catalog for his works, with some information about animals thrown in to make it seem like a book.  The illustrations are clever and cute and funny.  But as a book, it's the essence of blah-dom.


View all my reviews

I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas; illustrated by Floyd Cooper (1995)

Some of my favorite kinds of picture books have text that, to the ear and in the mind's ear, have the beauty and rhythm of poetry.  Unlike other picture books, careful thought goes into this text, what it sounds like both read aloud and in your head.  I Have Heard of a Land has that beautiful rhythm and cadence.  It's written in the voice of a pioneer woman to be, a woman who sounds both hopeful and doleful, clearly in another place of some sadness, dreaming of a place where she can be happy and free.  "I have a heard of a land," she writes:

Where the pioneer woman still lives
her possibilities reach as far
As her eyes can see
And as far as our imagination
Can carry us."

That's a good place to dream about.

Floyd Cooper's illustrations were winners of a Coretta Scott King in 1999.  The oil wash technique perfectly captures the color of hope for the future while mourning the present, and give the illustrations the dreamlike quality that matches the tone of the poem perfectly.

I Have Heard of a LandI Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A picture book with poetic text, the words, rhythm and cadence expressing a woman's visions and dreams of a new world, with shadows of mourning for her present existence. Based on the author's family history of emigrating to Oklahoma during the land rush days.    Floyd Cooper's award winning illustrations in oil wash perfectly illustrate a dream of things to come, with a color palette that mixes the hope with a sense of mournfulness.  The pioneer woman's face and stance remain strong on every page though, underlying the last words:

I have heard of a land
Where the pioneer woman still lives
her possibilities reach as far
As her eyes can see
And as far as our imagination
Can carry us.

That exact pioneer world may not exist, but the ideas and ideals of building a new world, I hope that still stirs hearts and minds.  We need it now more than ever.


View all my reviews



Friday, July 18, 2014

A Real Prince is Hard to Find: A Modern Fairy Tale by Joanna Rivard ; illustrated by Adam Larkum (2013)

Why do we need this book?  Why?  I'm not really sure British kids need this book, let alone Americans.  What exactly is the point of it?  It's really, really, really boring.  Boring, boring, boring.  I like Kate and Wills as much as anyone, but come one.  Their life isn't interesting enough (yet) to warrant even a picture book.  They've done nothing of interest.  They are just two good looking, really rich twentysomethings.  This is not the worst picture book on earth.  That would be: Sheetzucacapoopoo: My Kind of Dog by a celebrity.  Actually, I shouldn't say Sheetzucacapoopoo: My Kind of Dog is the worst picture book on earth, because I never actually read it. I refused to.  It just has the worst title of a picture book ever on earth, and the worst reason for being a picture book ever on earth.  But this is a picture book I have read, and wasted some time on, which I can never get back, so it certainly is going into the bin marked "worst picture books I've ever read, if not worst on the entire earth."


Plus, what the hell does that title even mean?  Is it a play on "a good man is hard to find?"  But why?  It wasn't so hard to find for Kate Middleton, though, was it?  

And so weird - the nipple-less picture of Prince William:







A Real Prince Is Hard to Find: A Modern Fairy TaleA Real Prince Is Hard to Find: A Modern Fairy Tale by Joanna Rivard
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Maybe,just maybe I can understand the appeal of this book to a British audience, but why was it published in the United States?  And the title, ugh.  A real prince wasn't so hard to find for Kate Middleton - she met him when she was 19, and married him ten years later.  That is sort of a long time, and perhaps he was hard to catch or hard to pin down or hard to choose to commit, but he still wasn't hard to find.  This isn't my least favorite picture book of all time (that honor belongs to Sheetzucacapoopoo: My Kind of Dog).  But it's thrown in the same bin.  



View all my reviews

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Bear's Song by Benjamin Chaud (2013)

Great illustrations - but sort of a so-so storyline.  Apparently, the bears appear in other book on similar types of adventures, only those are all in French.  These adventures, macap chases of Papa Bear after Baby Bear through different scapes (cityscape, landscape) allows Chaud to draw these busy, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go or Where's Waldo types of illustrations.  Lots of action, many small details, on each page.  I liked those kinds of books as a kid, and I imagine if I were 9 years old I'd be in love with The Bear's Song.  As a grownup, I'd like a little more story.  Still, it's cute.  And I love bears.

The Bear's SongThe Bear's Song by Benjamin Chaud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The illustrations live on the same block as Cars and Trucks and Things That Go or Where's Waldo? - great spreads of intricate details with lots going on.  You could pore over the pictures for hours and still find new things.  Short on story (essentially, a madcap chase that ends with an "awwww"), but still perfectly good and fun.


View all my reviews

Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried (2014)

Fictitious DishesFictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An interesting little coffee table-ish (save for the size) photography art book.  The most interesting photos are re-creations from books I've actually read.  Not much more to say.


View all my reviews

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset (2013)

Queen Anne is sort of a big cow of woman - not only because she was obese (she was) but she seemed to be just about as interesting as a watching a big old cow chew its cud in a field.   It's interesting for a while if you've never seen a cow before, and you may even watch it for a while because it's something new.  And if you love cows, of course, you're going to watch it forever, maybe even until it moves.  But once the novelty of the new wears off, it's just a cow in a field.  Queen Anne was dull.  And I made it about half way through this book because even though she's dull, it was a novelty.  Once the novelty wore off, I lost interest.  I don't think that's the fault of the writing or the research either - I just think Queen Anne is dull.  The houses and furniture named after her are far more interesting.  

The Farjeon's poem pretty much says it all:

Queen Anne's dead!
Poor Queen Anne!
If she was plain,
She had a pretty fan,
If she was dull,
She wore a pretty gown,
And almost looked alive
Underneath her crown.

Queen Anne's dead!
Poor plain Anne!
Fold her pretty gown,
Close her pretty fan,
And on her pretty monument
Let nothing else be read
But these plain words:
Queen Anne's dead.



Queen Anne: The Politics of PassionQueen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset


Queen Anne is sort of this big cow of a woman, not only because she was obese (maybe she was the fattest British monarch?) but because reading about her was sort of like watching a big old cow chew its cud in a field.  If you've never, ever seen a cow before, watching a cow chew its cud in a field is wildly interesting at the beginning.  But soon you realize the cow isn't actually going to do anything, and the novelty wears off.  If you LOVE cows, then the cow will remain infinitely interesting.  But for most of us, the cow has to do something else to keep us in its thrall. I don't think this is Anne Somerset's fault - the writing is pretty good, and the research is detailed.  It's just that Queen Anne is a dull subject.  There is this moderately amusing book Kings And Queens that has a poem about Queen Anne that cleverly and snarkily sums it up:

Queen Anne's dead!
Poor Queen Anne!
If she was plain,
She had a pretty fan,
If she was dull,
She wore a pretty gown,
And almost looked alive
Underneath her crown.

Queen Anne's dead!
Poor plain Anne!
Fold her pretty gown,
Close her pretty fan,
And on her pretty monument
Let nothing else be read
But these plain words:
Queen Anne's dead.




View all my reviews



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins; illustrated by Eric Gurney (1969)

The mystery of Al Perkins.  He apparently wrote some of the best selling children's books of all time,then vanished.  Perhaps not into the Bermuda Triangle, but there's nothing about him on the internet other than some rudimentary bookflap flap - and not existing on the world wide web is essentially the same as vanishing, right?

I mean everyone has heard of Al Perkins,even if they haven't heard his name.  We were all in second grade at one time, stumbling over "Monkeys drum... and monkeys hum.  Hum drum.  Hum drum.  Hum drum hum."

As poetry goes, it ain't Shakespeare.  I don't know about you though, but I've never forgotten "Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum."  I'm not sure I can name as much from Wordsworth or Keats or Shelley.

Eric Gurney, the illustrator, has  Wikipedia that's three times as large as Al Perkins.

Note:  isn't this how Planet of the Apes began?



My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It ain't Shakespeare, but 35 years or so later after first reading this, I can still hear "Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum" which is more than I can say for Keats or Shelley.  The question remains: who the hell was Al Perkins?  The man has sold a bazillion "bright and early books for beginning readers" but his Wikipedia is two sentences long.  It doesn't even say if he's dead or alive!  He also wrote Hugh Lofting's Travels of Doctor Dolittle which I totally dug as a kid too.  



Kings and Queens by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon; drawings by Robin Jacques (1983)

I don't really have anything interesting to say about this.  The poems were interesting but nothing really stood out.   The concept itself is cool; I wonder if anyone has done something similar for U.S. presidents?  Maybe they should.  The Henry VIII poem is probably the best of the lot.

 I'm reading a biography (a very long one) about Queen Anne right now, who is dull, which makes for dull reading.  The Farjeon's poem about Queen Anne sort of sums up that book as well:

Queen Anne's dead!
Poor Queen Anne!
If she was plain,
She had a pretty fan,
If she was dull,
She wore a pretty gown,
And almost looked alive
Underneath her crown.

Queen Anne's dead!
Poor plain Anne!
Fold her pretty gown,
Close her pretty fan,
And on her pretty monument
Let nothing else be read
But these plain words:
Queen Anne's dead.

Actually, thinking about this poem, it's delightfully snarky.

Kings And QueensKings And Queens by Eleanor Farjeon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The concept is far more interesting than most of the poems.

I liked the one about Henry VIII the best, although the one about Queen Anne is delightfully snarky.


View all my reviews

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin (2013)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I loved these illustrations so much I wanted to fall asleep so I could ride one of these dreams animals to the fantastic places Emily Winfield Martin has dreamed up for us (please let it be the fox).  Something I else I loved was that this wasn't the land of blonde white children either – children of color can easily find themselves.  Beautiful bedtime book.


Henry’s Hand by Ross MacDonald (2013)

 It's cute , I guess,  and I did enjoy the 1940s illustrations and sort of macabre, Addams family-lite sense of humor.  It didn't age all that well though; after a few hours of thinking about it, only the illustrations stuck with me; the story was totally 'meh.'  I almost came away with the feeling that MacDonald wanted to draw pictures of Frankenstein and his disembodied hand, and then built a story about it.  Which is dodgy at best when it comes to picture books.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Cute, I guess, and very Addams family-lite.  But all that sticks out are the illustrations (1940s Superman style).  The story is mostly flat, and then sort of obnoxiously cloying.


Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (2013)

Really, Shaun Tan exists and writes and illustrates and creates on this plain of artistic being, that I have yet to achieve.  I never know enough artistic lingo to adequately describe illustration, and always fall back on general statements that probably don't even make sense:  I'm going to call his work surreal, and if it's not actual surrealism but some other movement in art (post postmodern surrealistic realism?) then so be it.  What I mean by surreal is that I have no idea what the hell is even going on; the illustrations are NUTS in a wonderful way  - not just nuts, but roasted nuts, Macadamias even.  And even though I don't know what the hell this book is supposed to be about, what I want it to be about, what it reminded me of, was being ten years old, and having a whole summer in front of you, with your brother or your gang of little rascals, and making up stuff throughout June and July, games that occasionally turned into gigantic feuds that were unfathomable to outsiders but made total sense to our gang.  The lazy days of summer never existed for us back then, and I totally want and think Shaun Tan's marvelous book captures that.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm not exactly sure what this book was supposed to be about, but for me it represented the lazy days of summer that never existed if you had at least one friend, a fertile imagination between the two of you, and the entire hot months of June, July and most of August spread out at your feet.  A great mind is at work here - Shaun Tan exists and writes and illustrates and creates on this plain of artistic being -  and I came away nostalgic and impressed.




Hand Book by Jeff Newman (2011)

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Interesting (if a bit simplistic) illustrations - but I kept thinking of Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb.  If I were to give a gift to a child, I would definitely go with Al Perkins.  But if I were taking a child to the public library and wanted to check out a book about hands, I certainly would do that!


Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2013)

BullyBully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Climb aboard the bully bandwagon.  I wonder if there will be a bully backlash as well?  If I have to read a book about bullies and bullying, at least it can be illustrated by the wonderful and phenomenal Laura Vaccaro Seeger.  I hate picture books with in your face messages, but this rose above that. It also reminded a bit The Story of Ferdinand.


View all my reviews

You Know what I love? By Lorena Siminovich (2013)

You know what I love?  When books aren’t used to sell stuff.  Bleh.  I was already ambivalent about this conversation between a doll to her girl?  A girl to her doll?  And then I read this on the back cover:  “She is the founder of  Petit Collage, a line of modern kids’ wall d├ęcor and accessories.  Lorena and her products…”  So essentially, this book is a product.  And while I know in my heart of hearts that all books are merely products, I guess I my idealistic fairy land of a world, I want a book to be about art first and products second.  I guess I can’t always have it my way, but I certainly don’t have to like it. 
17081109

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)

Like many of my favorite children's classics, I've read and re-read The Phantom Tollbooth so many, many times that I can't remember a time when I wasn't familiar with it.  I think the genius of so many classics is that a re-read reveals new things about the book that you hadn't noticed the time before, reminds you of beloved things you may have forgotten, and lets you make new connections to books and ideas you've recently discovered or re-read recently.

What I noticed during this current re-read is how much The Phantom Tollbooth reminded me of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The dreamlike state, the jumping abruptly from episode to episode, the mathematical and grammatical word play.  

Some great ideas from The Phantom Tollbooth:

The idea of starting over, from the mouth of the Mathemagician:  "I often find... that the best way to get from one place to another is to erase everything and begin again."  Oh, if only it were that easy!

On the difficulties of life, again from the Mathemagician (he gets good lines):  "You'll find... that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong and that's hardly worth the effort."

And my favorite line in the whole book, this time said by the brother kings Mathemagician and Azaz:  "So many things are possible as long as you don't know they are impossible."

Of course, Julies Feiffer's illustrations are classics.  I particularly have always loved the Soundkeeper; I don't know why.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've re-read this book so many, many times that I can't even remember not knowing what it was or what it was about.  The best books, whatever they may be or who they are written for, are eminently re-readable because a re-read reveals new things about the book that you hadn't noticed the time before, reminds you of beloved things you may have forgotten, and lets you make new connections to books and ideas you've recently discovered or re-read recently.  The Phantom Tollbooth resides in that statement, perfectly.  What I noticed this umpteenth time around was the the similarity to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass.  This may seem like a "well, duh" statement, but I hadn't paid that close attention to that aspect before.  A child's quest through a strange dreamland, the abrupt change of scenery and scene, the grammatical and mathematical puzzles.  A modern Alice - more so than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which you could compare to the book as well.  I don't understand why anyone would dislike this book.  The illustrations, by the way, are memorable and wonderful; without the book is still good, but perhaps not great.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)


This is Agatha Christie's breakout hit, and no wonder, because it's really marvelous, a real masterpiece among murder mysteries.  Even almost 90 years later, it's fresh and fun.  And the murderer!  I imagine in 1926, people were gasping with pleasure at Christie's brilliance.  And probably some haters were gnashing their teeth.  The characters are all brilliantly drawn, particularly Caroline Spencer, who is a proto-Marple.  


I read this long ago, so I already knew who the murderer was this re-read.  I don't remember what I thought of it so long ago, but this time I read for "clues" that Christie left.  There are a few; it's a puzzler, but possibly you could put it together from the hints dropped throughout the story.  It's the narrator's voice that I think is particularly brilliant, and knowing ahead of time whodunnit allows you look for clues in the narration, which was great fun.  

The first book in my Christie quest that I truly enjoyed - I read the entire thing excitedly!

On the tapis.   "I don't know what Mrs Cecil Ackroyd thought of the Ferrars affair when it came on the tapis."  Under consideration or discussion.  Tapis is an obsolete french word meaning tapestry or carpet.  "On the carpet" in English means something completely different, essentially "in trouble" so the two must not be related.  Another definition of tapis was "a tapestry or carpeting, esp as formerly used to cover a table in a council chamber," which may explain the context of consideration or discussion, as that is what one would do in a council chamber.  Wikipedia calls it a "Victorian phrase."  

Dipsomaniac.  To put it bluntly, Mrs Ackroyd was a dipsomaniac. She succeeded in drinking herself into her grave four years after her marriage.    An old timey word for alcoholic.

Vegetable marrows.  CHAPTER 4 The Man Who Grew Vegetable Marrows.  Various kinds of summer squash.  It looks like Mexican squash to me.  Hercule Poirot is famous for them.

Leetle.  Twice Christie used this word, and I can only think it's meant to be the word "little."  It's like a bad Spanish accent though.  "he is just a leetle peculiar about money" and "'If you would only play a leetle quicker, dear,' said Caroline."

Poirot French.  Inutile: unnecessary.  Pas de blagues:  I'm going to assume this means "I'm not kidding" because the literal translation is "no jokes." C'est dommage:  what a pity. Amour propre: esteem.  

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot, #4)The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bet murder mystery lovers in 1926 were gasping then giddy after finishing this - and haters were gnashing their teeth at the big trick Agatha Christie pulled off.  This is my second time reading it; my first being in seventh grade long ago; so this time I was reading for clues rather than for whodunnit.  I have to admit, if you're careful and thoughtful, Agatha Christie plunked down plenty of clues - and some doozies of red herrings as well.  Her characters are not fresh (although they may have been in 1926) but are interesting (and stock; it's two other things stand out and make this great.  The character of Caroline Spencer, the proto-Marple, is great and every time she disappeared from the narrative I waited impatiently for her to return.  And the narrative voice is incredible.  I would hazard a guess that no one had written anything quite like this before in the world of the murder mystery, and using that voice really shows Christie's brilliance in the genre.  I think because of this, the story holds up remarkably well, and with a few changes (technology, drug paraphernalia)could be plucked from 1926 and plopped down in the 21st century.  Most of Christie's works are probably throwaways; but this is one of those books that will never go away.



View all my reviews

Blog Archive

Followers