Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci (2014)

Whatever happened to H.M. Hoover?  I discovered her works late in life but loved it.  Her science fiction is sharp and interesting.  There was always something under girding her story; she didn't write space operas.

Cecil Castellucci's Tin Star isn't like Hoover's. I only bring up Hoover because no one is writing really good, interesting science fiction for kids anymore, unless its dystopian, and that is getting old. Castellucci at least is fixing that.  Her Tin Star is really wonderful.  It's a space opera, but really is Casablanca set in space.  I was so afraid it was going to have the very tiresome love triangle found in so much teen literature now, and it was headed down that despicable path - and then Castellucci slapped us in the face with something completely different.  Several things in fact.  Several things that made this book wonderfully exciting, in my opinion.

It's nice to have something in the science fiction genre to read again.  It had been a long time.

Tin Star (Tin Star, #1)Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going to give this five stars simply because it's science fiction for kids. Nominally - adult lovers of the genre would probably dig this as well.  It's sharp, interesting, has terrifically drawn characters and rollicking and twisting plot.  It's space opera at it's very, very best.  I was so afraid that, like many teen series now, there would be a Hunger Games-esque love triangle that would drip and melt all over the plot and characters like some sort of candle of doom.  And it seemed to be headed that way... but (I won't give away anything, I promise, other than...) Castellucci slapped us so hard in the face with something wonderfully different from that same old tired trick that I feel head over heels in love with this book.  It's a shooting star in a field of dreary teen novels.  I can't love this enough - I didn't want it to end!

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Somewhere towards the end of Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, the character of the same name says (coldly): "I am never embarassed."  That could be the leit motif of one of the most embarassingly hideous and fascinating (a friend described her as "odious" which is perfect) characters I think I've ever read about.  At the beginning of the novel, Angel is a spoiled, petulant teenager with no friends or father, an overly doting mother who is terrified of her, and an aunt who recognizes the truth about her.  She's curiuosly modern for a character from 1900; she is unlike any Edwardian character I've ever read about before.  Any romance about her is drowned by her arrogance, her obstancy, her crassness, all embarrassingly so.  By the end, she's almost a Miss Havisham type of character (I'd describe her more as a Sunset Boulevard type of character actually, but I've never seen the movie and I have read Great Expectations).  But she remains modern throughout; this is one of the joys of this novel.  It's like Elizabeth Taylor was foreseeing in 1957 a both a certain kind of celebrity and a certain kind of person.  We all know a person like Angel; socially awkward but never aware of it, friendless, always saying an doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong type of clothes.  About that kind of person in the 21st century, we might say today they were "on the spectrum."  Taylor then takes that person we all know, and gives the power of celebrity.  That kind of odd celebrity that says and does whatever she wants, and seems oblivious to the standards of society, that kind of celebrity that people both adore and hate, the talentless kind who are still famous.  There are actresses like this, and pop stars.  Celebutants.  Maybe all celebrities have a bit of this.  They just can't be bothered.  They are famous for their art, and the public both be damned and be loved.  Every celebrity has their Nora, the adoring flunky too, who stands by them and puts up with them, and keeps their whims satisified, and praises their art.  It's how bad movies get made, how bad albums are produced.

It's a tremendously fun book to read.  Angel is so dislikabled, yet liked. You are repelled by her, and feel sorry for her, yet she's not a figure of pity either.  She's not embarassed or even aware that her life is strange and beyond the pale.

AngelAngel by Elizabeth  Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somewhere towards the end of  Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, the character of the same name says (coldly): "I am never embarrassed."  That could be the leit motif of one of the most embarrassingly hideous and fascinating (a friend described her as "odious" which is perfect) characters I think I've ever read about.  Really, she is awful.  Terrible.  Horrible and hateful.  Yet, and yet, strangely attractive.  Kind of (tritely) like a train wreck, you just can't stop reading about her, to see what awful thing she will write or think or do next. You are embarrassed for her, face flushing, cringingly ashamed - yet she is not.  Ever.   We also all know someone like her - socially awkward yet arrogant, unteachable yet (as the saying goes) "can fall into a vat of shit and come out smelling like a rose."  Angel is never you or me, right?  She's always someone else, a neighbor, an annoying person on Facebook, a colleague.  But deep down, I think we're always afraid that Angel IS us, which makes her story all the more engaging; you read for clues about yourself and your own wellness and well being.  Additionally, the story of Angel is the story of a certain kind of celebrity (or probably most celebrities).   You'd think the concept of celebrity was a new thing, wrought by the internet, but actually Taylor was writing in the 1950s about a turn of the century celebrity.  Yet Angel is one that could easily fill the the gossip blogs today.  Fading star, sans makeup, caught blah blah blahing... I am never embarrassed describes most celebrities haunting our lives today (Kardashian, anyone?).  Judge not though.  

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dodsworth in Tokyo by Tim Egan (2013)

I've always liked the Dodsworth books by Tim Egan; I like the simple, deadpan stories and the art work. The animals are all dressed like they are straight out of the 1930s, and every beast is wearing a hat.

Dodsworth In Tokyo is cute.  If I were a little kid, and I was traveling to Japan on vacation (or to live), I think this would be a fun little book to have.

Dodsworth in TokyoDodsworth in Tokyo by Tim Egan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dodsworth books are always cute.   I like the dry humor and the simply told stories.  Everyone knows the duck in this story, or is related to him.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1971)

The Headless Cupid has always just been around for me.  I don't know when I first read it; sometime between 1979-1981.  I imagine I either checked it out from the public library or school library growing up.  It exists in that same mysteriously eerie world at The Witch's Sister and Witch Water by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Lois Duncan's Summer of Fear, which I know I read in high school, or The Ghost Next Door by Wyllie Folk St. John.   Boston's  The Children of Green Knowe, which I re-read recently, as well, albeit in a slightly different way.     I'm sure there were a few others (I know had a book of ghost stories, but I no longer have it, and I don't remember what it was called).  The Headless Cupid was (and is) better than just a scary story though.  Snyder has a tremendous build up, and she uses David's doubts of his step-sister Amanda's so called supernatural talents to put doubt into our minds as well.  Of course Amanda is faking, you think. She's trying to trick them.  Her snide remarks about their initiation costumes and other aspects about the Stanley family also lead you to believe she's making it all up.  But Snyder also drops hints about what's really going on, with Blair, and the ghost in the house.  This isn't blood and gore horror; it's not dark Satanist occult shit either.  It's not even really an old fashioned ghost story; it's something new, I think (or at least was something new in 1971).

I can remember when I heard about M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Village  back in the day, and thought how much it sounded like Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time.  Now I can see some shades of The Sixth Sense in The Headless Cupid.  Just shades - both films have an overall goosebumps factor, and both have younger characters who can communicate with dead people.  There is a scene in the book where Blair is playing under the covers, and I thought of the scene in The Sixth Sense where the little boy was playing under the covers (a homemade fort maybe) and saw the ghost.  I don't think the similarities aren't anything but genre superficial - sort of like how Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising has crept into a couple of books I've read in the last year.  

The Headless Cupid (Stanley Family, #1)The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 The Headless Cupid exists in the same eerie world as Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's  Witch books Witch's Sister and The Ghost Next Door or Lois Duncan's Summer of Fear (The Children of Green Knowe has this flavor as well, only more gothic and less suspenseful).  Snyder was one of the masters of the craft of children's literature; The Headless Cupid continues to hold up really well.  It's deliciously slow, and like the best suspense and ghost stories, tricky.  She uses David, her main character, and his thoughts and beliefs to trick us into thinking things are one way... and then turns the tables on us in a most extraordinarily wonderful way.  I never need blood and gore to make my spine tingle - The Headless Cupid is perfect that way.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (2012)

They are definitely a mixed bunch of saints and sinners, and Dan Jones mostly does them justice.  It's a long time period to cover in 500 pages; most of them could have warranted five hundred pages of their own.

Matilda and Stephen always make a good tale.  She's such a grand high sorceress of bungling, boldness and arrogance; that escape through the snow is always one of my favorite stories.  The two of them deserve a miniseries.

The ups and downs of the Henry II's - that story is familiar enough (The Lion in Winter).  But I thought Jones did a particularly good job here of flushing out Henry II's accomplishments, slicing through some of Richard the Lionheart's mythology to come to a more true place, and a really in depth look at John.  I especially liked how Jones cut the revisionists down when it comes to the reign of John.  There is a valid reason that no English king has ever been named John again:  HIS legendary wickedness is mostly rooted in fact.  He was personally more than a scoundrel; he was sort of a monster.  He locked up one of his enemy's wife and son and starved them to death; one tried to eat the other in the end.  That's a gruesome story, caused by a gruesome king.

The book became much more choppy after this, and not quite as good; it almost but not quite ran out of steam.  Jones pushes it along the tracks, but it's never quite as interesting again after Henry II and his brood.  Henry III is just an incompetent dullard as a king, although if you are interested in how the Magna Carta was really put into action, and the seeds of modern British (and American) democracy, then this is the place it really starts (that's not as interesting to me, so that's probably why I found this chapter dull).  I knew next to nothing about Edward I, and I still don't remember a whole lot (he put up the Charing Cross to his wife, though, I remember that).

Edward II was a more interesting chapter again, and the story once again picks up.  He's a fascinating figure, as his she wolf of a queen.  The whole story of his rise and fall, and then the rise of Edward III  was quite interesting.  The actual chapters on Edward III were sort of mixed; there is so much drama and excitement there, but occasionally the train couldn't get up the hill and Jones had to struggle to get it there.  Edward III's entire huge brood are actually as interesting as Henry II's, and I'm surprised there aren't more fictionalized accounts of that enormous and interesting family.  As a family saga, I think it would make a great potboiler (Joan of Kent's story alone, his daughter-in-law, is fascinating).  It's like a Sharon Penman sprawling epic waiting to happen, if only they wrote sprawling historical epics.  Edward Rutherfurd, get thee to work.

Richard II's bit at the end felt similarly to Edward III's - a very, very interesting character, but Jones had trouble keeping the train on the tracks.

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a big book, but it could have been bigger. It's a long time period with a collection of characters (saints and sinners) that's wide and varied.  There are folks in this book who could have warranted a 500 page biography all their own.  The early Plantagenet chapters are the best; Matilda and Stephen's war for the throne is a fascinating story, particularly Matilda's combination of bungling, boldness and arrogance, which Jones captures well.  We know the gloss of Henry II's story, but Jones again does a good job of adding substance to the lives of Henry and Richard.  John he paints with the black brush that he deserves (revisionists aside); he definitely would feel right at home in (and win at)  Game of Thrones.  The book enters more hilly terrain after that, and Jones's writing does its best to keep the train on track; but occasionally it loses steam.  The chapters on Henry III and Edward I aren't quite as thrilling.  Edward II really picks up again - anything about him and his she wolf queen is fascinating.  The Edward III chapters were mixed, as was those about  his petulancy, Richard II.  Overall, a strong book and interesting, with occasional lurches off the track.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer (1971)

I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast anymore. I certainly can't remember the plots of books I read even a month ago.  Some stick out - A Tale for the Time Being has a certain resonance to it.  Station Eleven.  The Bone Clocks and the movie Cloud Atlas are sort of entertwined in my head.

I can vividly remember series from childhood, tweenhood and teenhood though.  This is probably because I was bereft of reading choices for great chunks of time, the nearest large libraries and bookstores were an hour away.   So I re-read books I liked.  Robert Silverberg's Majipoor series is one of those.  The characters, the plot, the feeling and emotions of the book are still stuck in my head.  Narnia has that element for me; certainly Tolkien does too.

The Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer was one of those as well. I read this series again and again as a high school and early adulthood.  I don't remember where I saw the first book, but I know which one I read first and why:

Look at that fantastic cover.  It's fucking awesome.  This is the last book in this series, but I read it first.  Then I went and bought every single book in the series.  I remember loving it.

My memory of the books themselves have dimmed.  The feeling I got when reading and re-reading them though, I remember they were dynamite.

Let's see if I can tell the story in a nutshell.

Richard Francis Burton and Alice Pleasance Liddell, the girl who Lewis Carroll based Alice in Wonderland on, wake up naked on the banks of a river that's a mile wide and millions of miles long.  Everyone whose ever lived is resurrected.  They are fed three times a day through some sort of grail that fits into a mushroom shaped rock - similar, I guess, to how people on Star Trek eat.  The first night, everyone kills one another (because they are scared shitless), and then has naked sex alot, because they are all 25 years old and naked.  Oh yeah, Richard Burton woke up early, and saw everyone asleep in some giant chamber.  EVERYONE.  The people Burton and Alice wake up with are 19th century citizens of Trieste.  I probably had to look this up at the time in some way (pre-Internet, maybe on a map?  I had an atlas).  It's in Italy, so they keep getting served spaghetti and meatballs.  They meet this guy whose a writer with the same initials as the author.  I think his name was Peter.  Richard Frances Burton kills himself a bunch of times.  I don't remember why, but it has to do with a renegade alien (?) who didn't want this whole resurrection thing to happen.  He ends up back with Alice and company, and they decide to make it to the beginning of the river.  I don't remember why.

These books are impossibly stupid.  I didn't know they were when I was 17, but they are.  They are not very well written.  Sort of preachy.  Too much explaining.  And too many famous characters just happening to meet.

Anyway, the one I just tried to read - and failed at because it's so bad, was The Fabulous Riverboat.  Sam Clemens - Mark Twain, and a huge neanderthal, and some Vikings, and King John, and the red baron's brother, build a steamboat... to get to the beginning of the river (remember, where Richard Burton is headed to) because of that same Mysterious Stranger and... I just didn't give two fucks by about mid-way through.  What drew me to this stupid series?  It's so dumb.

The other books all run together.  I think the next is called The Dark Design.  A woman whose name i don't remember builds a dirigible (because they couldn't just build a fucking plane; I don't know why) to go to the beginning of the river.  The dirigible explodes at the very end once they get there.

The next one was called The Magic Labyrinth, so some such nonsense.  They all make it to the end, but the steamship sinks.  Except a few of them make it to the place where all the souls are stored.  One of the people on the steamship was the woman who played the mother in Meet Me In St. Louis.  Mary Astor.  Why Mary Astor?  Who knows.  Anyway, she apparently gets killed.  Who does make to the actual end?  Burton, Cyrano (maybe?), that guy Peter (actually, the real Peter, because the first Peter was a fake Peter - and fucking forget it, that's too fucking difficult to explain.  Plus it's stupid).  Alice in Wonderland.  Some other woman.  A Chinese poet.  A Sufi mystic.  I don't know who else.  Maybe not Cyrano.

In the last book, Alice in Wonderland thinks it would be funny to create robotic versions of all the characters from the books, but they turn on everyone and slaughter them.  Also, a room gets filled with gin and drowns a bunch of people.  And...

It's just so fucking stupid.

You can never go home again.  Never.

Some things you re-read, and you remember why you loved them.  Narnia.  The Hobbit.  Pinky Pye.  From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Some things you re-read, and you discover things you missed 30 years ago (in Judy Blume's Blubber THEY CALL THE TEACHER A BITCH.  A bitch!  Not a witch, or a gritch, or a hag - a BITCH).

But some things, you re-read them, and they are disappointingly bad.  For a series that I pretty much can narrate large chunks of, even though I haven't read it in at least 20 years or so, how it could be so godawful bad, I have no idea.  What the fuck was I thinking back then?

I'm going to go home and give these away now. I've kept them for so long, but keeping them around may make me sad.

The Fabulous Riverboat (Riverworld, #2)The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The last time I read this book was probably 25 years ago.  But for about 10 years - let's say age 14 - 25, I loved these books.  If you asked me, I could probably reliably narrate most of the plots of each book in the series, enough to maybe even make YOU want to read it.

Some books from long ago, you go back and re-read and it's a pleasure.  You discover new things about the book, you remember why you loved the book in the first place, it becomes even more a part of your heart and soul.  Some books, you re-read after many years, and you rediscover new things, or notice things you may have missed (In Judy Blume's Blubber they call the teacher A BITCH.  Not a witch, not a hag, not a gritch, not a grump - a BITCH.  That was a shocker I did not remember).

Some books, I guess, you re-read, or try to re-read, and realize what a piece of shit taste you had when you were 17 years old.  The Fabulous Riverboat is fucking awful.  It's dreadfully written, with incredibly stupid dialogue and plot twists.  It looks wonderful on paper. The covers are brilliantly rendered and clever.  But oh, my brain!  It hurts after reading this.  So much.  I have saved these books for years, moved them from place to place (paid to have them moved several times).  No more.

You REALLY can never go home.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

I completely don't get the prize winning-ness of this book.

I thought it was simplistic.

I hated the pacing and spacing.

It was nonlinear storytelling but no discernible reason.  Although I didn't actually finish the book, so perhaps that was made clear later.

I didn't finish the book because I didn't care about the facile characters or anything that was happening to them. Out of order, of course, because literature, I guess, can't be linear anymore.

Blah blah blah.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I'm alone in my tepid reaction to this book.  I thought it was simplistic at its very worst, with facile characters and an annoyingly nonlinear plot.  I guess if a plot is nonlinear, that's literary.  (a nonlinear plot can be a good thing when used for a discernible purpose; I couldn't see the purpose here).  I hated the pacing and spacing of the short chapters.  I hate that this is a prize winning beloved bestseller and I don't get it.  I feel like a cretin.  Book, you made me feel stupid!  Damn you book.  Damn you.

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The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess (1918)

Villains are always the most interesting characters in stories, particularly children's stories.  Maybe they appeal to my dark side.

Reddy Fox and Old Granny Fox are my two most favorite characters in Thornton W. Burgess's animal world; I also am a fan of Sammy Jay (I like blue jays; I also think I'm sort of loud, hence the appeal).  I liked the crow too (I think his name was Blacky).  I wonder if there is a cardinal or chickadee?  I don't remember.

I'm sorry more kids don't read Thornton Burgess today.  They are great easy chapter books.  They hold up well, although Unc Billy Possum's southern speak is difficult to read (although that didn't stop me as a kid; I don't think I knew he was from the south, I just thought that was how he talked).  

I like how even good characters have flaws, and make mistakes (really, possibly deadly mistakes, although no one ever dies except some chickens).  Peter Rabbit in this book is the good example; generally Peter is the good guy and Reddy Fox is the bad guy.  But Peter pulls the trick on Jimmy Skunk, and really rotten thing to do.  He pays for it though.

That brings me to Jimmy Skunk and Unc Billy Possum.  I remember loving these characters.
Unc Billy Possum is like someone from Hee Haw almost; he's clearly modeled on Uncle Remus stories.  Interestingly, opossums were at one time found only in the south, hence his southern accent.  Both of them are also examples of characters with dark sides.  They are almost anti-heroes here; they are the focus of the story.  Jimmy throughout the book; Unc Billy (even though the book is nominally about Jimmy) gets the last fourth of the book to himself.  They both have to eat and what they want to eat are eggs, even though eggs (as Thornton Burgess explains) are the young of birds.  They don't actually get any eggs, but they do try.

Still beloved books to me.

The Adventures of Jimmy SkunkThe Adventures of Jimmy Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do kids still read Thornton W. Burgess?  I still have my beloved childhood set, with a place of honor on a bookshelf at home.  My father used to occasionally read a chapter or two aloud at night.  I think I developed a love and appreciation of nature and animals from Burgess.  Jimmy Skunk is a standard Burgess.  A teensy bit preachy, but also cute and funny too.  What's interesting about Burgess is that no one is purely good or bad - all the animals have shades of dark and light.  In this book, Peter Rabbit, who you think would be a good guy, pulls a trick on Jimmy Skunk, and then gets a comeuppance for it.  Jimmy Skunk and Unc Billy Possum would be portrayed as bad characters - creatures of the night, eaters of eggs - but they also have good characteristics.  So to Sammy Jay.  I like that about these books.  Animals can stand in for people, and we can learn something from their mistakes.  That said, these books are never overly moralistic, or perhaps less so than other books from the same time period.  I think it's high time these books make a come back!

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Three Little Pigs by James Marshall (1989)

James Marshall went whole hog here - no Disneyfication here.  The first two pigs get eaten by the Big Bad Wolf, and the Brick House Pig eats the wolf at the end.  What kind of meal would that be?  Wolf doesn't sound appealing at all.  I guess who can account for the taste of pigs.  I like fairy tales and folklore of all sorts, without sugarcoating.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm not hog wild about this version of the three little pigs (I'm not a huge fan of James Marshall's art), but I liked it.  I will say this, Marshall went whole hog here - no Disneyfication here.  Pigs are eaten.  The wolf is eaten!  I'm not a picky eater - but wolf?  Yuck.  I guess who can account for the taste of pigs.  No sugarcoating here!  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Snow Joke by Bruce Degen (2014)

Bruce Degen wrote and illustrated Jamberry, which I liked. This one, not so much.  He also illustrated The Magic Schoolbus series, which I didn't realize until I Wikipedia'ed him.

It's not a bad book.

It's just not very good either.

It's just okay. Kind of bottom of the barrel.  Like last chosen for the dodge ball team.

Snow JokeSnow Joke by Bruce Degen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Like last chosen for dodgeball; fills it's place on the easy reader team, but not very good.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Monkey & Robot by Peter Catalanotto (2013)

I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book.

The pictures weren't very interesting.  That's piss poor reasoning, but children's books should have pictures that are appealing.  These reminded me a little bit of pictures someone might have done with a pencil and some scratch paper, like old copy paper with something printed on the back of it.

I was wrong.  This book was really, really cute.  And laugh out loud funny in a couple of parts.

Like many beginning readers, it's divided into short chapters. "The Game" , which is the second story, is when I really started to dig this book.  Robot asks Monkey to play a game with him, and Monkey answers really honestly that he doesn't want to play because "I don't like to lose... I don't like to win either.  If I win, then I'll feel bad that you lost."  That's exactly how I feel about games too!   Although I love playing games, I had to learn to lose, and learn to win as well.  I'd never heard games described that way before, and I imagine lots of kids feel the same way.

I also loved "The Hide-and-Seek" chapter, and loved the picture when Monkey found Robot.  That's the only picture I liked in the whole book, but I actually guffawed!

Reminded me of easy / beginning readers I've loved in the past, simple stories that are cute and/or funny.  Arthur's Christmas Cookies by Lilian Hoban is also about monkeys (no robots), and the tone of this book, the language and dialogue, definitely reminded me of Hoban's monkey world.  James Stevenson's Mud Flat also has this tone, although the wit in Mud Flat is much dryer and adult (in an intelligent way, not in a sexual way).

Monkey & RobotMonkey & Robot by Peter Catalanotto
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The tone and dialogue reminded me a little bit of another monkey world - Lilian Hoban's Arthur's Christmas Cookies (sadly, no robots in that world).  This monkey is more modern than Hoban's, but the stories are simple and funny, just like that.  The best beginning readers and short chapter books all seem to have that delightful tone to them - a little droll, with some humor, tinged with sweetness.  The pictures in this weren't my favorite - they sort of looked like someone gave the author a pencil and some scratch paper (like copy paper with something printed on the other side that no one wanted) but there is this one picture at the end that made me literally laugh out loud.  The first line though - "Monkey and Robot met at work."  Was that a lab, and the idea of monkeys in a lab is a sad one.  I didn't want to dwell on that one too much.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

This is my second time trying to read this.  This time, I made it farther.

I first tried to read it right after it came out.  I distinctly remember this young woman I knew at the time - Brianna was her name - saying how good it was and how much I would enjoy it.

I did not.

But it seems to be one of those books that I should like!  I love books that include magic in the "real" world. I love alternate histories, particularly with magic as part of that world. I love Diana Wynne Jones.

I don't hate this book.  I just don't fucking get it.

It took me at least three tries to read The Wind in the Willows.  Third time was a charm; I now think the book is a piece of art.

I don't know if I will give Johnathan Strange... a third shot though; it's too goddamn big.

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I dunno.  I just can't get into this book.

It's frustrating, because it has all the elements of books I usually like.

I just can't.

I tried to read The Wind in the Willows at least three times before it finally stuck; I now think it's a genius piece of Edwardian art and I love it.

I'm not sure, thought, I have the patience to give Jonathan Strange a third shot; for one thing, it's so big that I know it will take up a considerable amount of my precious reading time.  And I'm not so sure it's worth it.  For another, someone will have to sell me on it, and my best reading buddy right now feels the same way about this book as I do.  So that's a no go there too.

Oh well.

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Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Bike Lesson by Stan and Jan Berenstain (1964)

Early, old school Berenstain bears are still rad.

Only page I remembered
The Berenstain Bears franchise, however, probably ranks as my least favorite of all children's books.  I hate them because they are annoyingly pedantic and issue driven.  And the Bear family went from being pleasantly goofy to Christian conservative.  I'm sort of surprised that Mama Bear now doesn't have her own 19 kids and counting, a la the Duggars.  Or running for president on the Republican ticket (or at the very least, for governor of Alaska).

Phooey to the Berenstain Bears.  You should have stayed old school cool.

Bumbling Idiot
The Bike Lesson is the second book.  Mama Bear's knowing and wry looks bookend this story perfectly.  Plus, I love her house dress.

Oh Grrrl
This book appeared in 1964, when Dads maybe could still be called the Kings of Television. Although Father Knows Best had gone off the air several years before, and Ward Cleaver the year before (and Kennedy assassinated the year before too), the top shows all had strong father figures:  Bonanza, Andy Griffith, My Three Sons.    But the goofy, dumb, bumbling dad, the favorite of so many modern television commercials - he was sort of on the television schedule as well.  Dick Van Dyke was sort of that kind of dad; The Munsters dad was sort of that kind of dad too.  Father Bear from the Berenstain Bears, he's the classic dumb father, at least in these early books.
The side eye of true love

The Bike LessonThe Bike Lesson by Stan Berenstain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like this book as a thoughtful period piece (think about the roles of fathers on television in the 1950s and 1960s, and roles of fathers today, particularly the trope of the dumb dad in television commercials; now compare and contrast to these proto-Berenstain bears; discuss among yourselves).  I also like this book because the proto-Berenstains were rad and cool.  And there is a touch of nostalgia; everyone learned to read on at least one Berenstain Bears book.  Modern Berenstain Beariana though, I have no use for, other than to comment that I think Mama Bear is running for President on the Republican ticket in 2016 (or maybe Governor of Alaska, I'm not sure).

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Urgency Emergency! Big Bad Wolf by Dosh Archer (2009)

At work, we are on a month long quest called "A to Z Challenge: Easy Readers" in which staff who work with children are supposed to read books from the easy reader section whose last names range from A to Z.  My first book is Dosh Archer and his book Big Bad Wolf from a series called Urgency Emergency.

I wasn't hoping for much when - this looked like a typical easy reader.  And I'm still not a big fan of the clunky illustrations, which seem to be some sort of paint and line drawing.  But I ended up being enchanted by the story.  Doctor Glenda (a female dog...  for real...  no joke...) and Nurse Percy (ummmm... a cock...  again, no joke... I guess I'm a beast myself...) work the ER of some busy Aesop's fable hospital (since this is an English easy reader, perhaps this is the hospital that they built when they tore down Toad Hall) when a wolf comes in with something stuck in his throat.  I must be dense, because it took me a while (and this is a short book people) to realize what was stuck in his throat - and it was exactly what I wanted it to be!  Too many books for kids today are squishy and namby pamby.  Not this one.

Urgency Emergency! Big Bad WolfUrgency Emergency! Big Bad Wolf by Dosh Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While the illustrations weren't my favorite (too clunky for my taste), the story ended up being a real kick. Doctor Glenda and Nurse Percy (a dog and a rooster) work in a hospital ER (St. Aesop's?  Or perhaps, because this is an English import, maybe it's the hospital built after they tore down Toad Hall).  Their urgent emergency in this story is the Big Bad Wolf, who is choking on something - and that something is EXACTLY what I wanted it to be!  

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Please Mr. Panda by Steve Antony (2014)

Please, Mr. PandaPlease, Mr. Panda by Steve Antony
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most of the time in picture books (and elsewhere), pandas are depicted as gentle, happy and even mystical creatures.  Steve Anthony's panda, however, is pictured as a sour-faced, almost Abe Simpson-curmudgeonesque grump.  Appearances are deceiving; he's actually a cuddly and nice underneath and offering doughnuts to his friends.  His schmuckish friends, who one by one are ruder than a rude awakening on crack.  Penguin, Skunk, a mean girl Ostrich, an bully of an Orca - they all can't seem to say please or be nice.  A lemur (or something - I don't know what the hell creature that was, but I'm going to call it a lemur), is finally polite, and gets the whole goddamn box!  The moral of this story is - don't be an asshole.  If Aesop were alive today, he'd give it his stamp of approval.

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