Thursday, December 1, 2011

Books Read in November 2011

Picture Books

Susanna continues her love affair with the My First Little House books. We re-read all of the series a few times this month, and found A Farmer Boy Birthday at the library. There was great rejoicing, as it was the first time we've read that one. (I kept refusing to buy it.) I have to say, when I first saw these books years ago at the library, I was appalled at the thought of "dumbed down" classics, but when I perused them, I found them to be excellent. The illustrations are reminiscent of the original Garth Williams illustrations, and they use the sentences from the originals, for the most part, just simplified. We love them. They have been favorites of all my girls. And it segued nicely into reading the original novels as they grew old enough.

Wolf! Wolf! by John Rocco. The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, from the wolf's perspective. (Warning: it might undermine the moral of the original!) Fun story. Great pictures. My girls really enjoyed it.

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by John Scieszka. The wolf's version of the story, claiming it was all a big misunderstanding. Funny, clever story. My older girls thought it was great, Susanna wandered away. This is definitely one that needs a certain level of maturity to be understood and appreciated. (Ages 7 and up.)

Waiting For Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser. Susanna's new favorite book. Charming story about some hibernating animals that have never seen snow, but stay up to watch for it. And then, thinking that they have somehow missed the first snowflake, they search the forest floor for it, with hilarious results. The pictures had Susanna giggling all the way through. (They had me giggling, too.)

The Snow Day by Komako Sakai. This one just didn't appeal to me or my girls.

Snow by Uri Shulevitz. (Caldecott Honor book) Fun illustrations; I love the palette. But the story didn't really excite my girls.

White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin R. Tresselt; illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. (Caldecott Medal) Not very kid-appealing. My four-year-old's attention was lost less than half-way through. My 7 and 8 year olds' reaction was "That was kinda boring."

Young Adult

Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Very well written, interesting story, great characters, and I couldn't put it down. But it was also quite unrelentingly depressing, with just a few clutches of hope.

The Shakeress by Kimberley Houston. I picked up this book from the library shelves, knowing nothing about it, but intrigued by the title (because I'm fascinated by the Shakers) and the great cover. There are so many ways this could have been a great book based on the plot, but it just fell flat for me. It turned into a typically done Mormon conversion story.

Chime by Franny Billingsley. I reviewed this one already. Clicking on the title will send you to my review.

The Bargain Bride by Evelyn Sibley Lampman. This is a book that I picked up from a library sale because I vaguely remembered reading it when I was young, but couldn't remember if I liked it. It was a good read, but not stand-out. Twelve-year-old me would probably have liked it more.

Adult Books

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson. I couldn't finish this one. The overblown "lushness" of the language just turned me off. I felt like the author was trying too hard to make each sentence a work of art, and by the end of it I had no idea what she said. The other thing that bothered me was the blatant similarity to Du Maurier's Rebecca. There were other things I found wrong, but I won't belabor the point.

When Autumn Leaves by Amy S. Foster. Overall fun to read despite certain weaknesses (e.g. weak dialogue, flat-feeling characters. Sometimes I felt like the author was talking about life situations she had no experience with and hadn't fleshed out the emotions of very well. Other situations I felt she knew intimately, and those really worked.)
I like the premise of the story. But my main problem with the book is this: have you ever been talking to someone and you're right in the middle of an interesting conversation that gets interrupted, and you never get back to it? Reading this book feels like that. I felt like I had barely begun to learn about each woman before I was whisked away from that particular person.
Quite possibly that was the intention, since the whole premise is about new beginnings.
I'm looking forward to reading Foster's next book.

The Mousewife by Rumer Godden. An allegory for repressed womanhood. It's a quick read, well-written, but ultimately disappointing (for me).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Karina's New Favorite Series: The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley; illustrations by Peter Ferguson

Our library has a section devoted to Middle Reader book series, and one day about a month ago, Karina spied The Sisters Grimm series on the shelf and brought one (it was Book 4) to show me. She was so excited. "Don't you think this has a spooky cover, Mom? It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. Is this one I can read?"
I was a little nervous, because I didn't know what these books contained. And with her still being so young, (she turns seven in December) I don't want her reading things she isn't ready to handle. I also know Karina. She has, up until now, been largely a book snacker (meaning she rarely reads a whole chapter book straight through.) And although lately I have noticed her getting more into reading whole books, I doubted that she'd stick with this book.

On the other hand, they sounded right up her alley. (Combining fairy tales with sleuthing? Genius!) So I gave the go-ahead. She started with Book 4, Once Upon a Crime, because she liked the deliciously spooky cover.

She started reading it on the way home. After about 20 minutes of silence, she said, "Mom, I'm not sure I got the right one."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, I think I've started in the middle of the story. Things are happening and I don't know why. I don't think these books are separate like Nancy Drew, I think the story continues in each book. I think I need to start with Book 1." So we went back to get Book 1, The Fairy-Tale Detectives. And last week we got Book 2.  And yes, indeed she reads them avidly. And comes to share funny bits and scary bits, and I have only the vaguest notion what they're about.

She got Olivia hooked on them too.

The library only has Books 1-7. The other night I was looking at Hastings (a book store in our area that also sells used copies, which is now going out of business) and found Book 8. There was much jumping up and down and squeals when I came home with the loot. I was the hero of the hour.

And then they discovered the audio books at the library. More jumping up and down and giddiness. And I hear them upstairs, blasting (okay, I'm getting old) the audio books and chortling at the antics of the characters, and squealing when something bad starts happening. And again with the pausing and running down, both of them laughing and trying to outdo each other in relating the current happenings. And still I have no idea what's going on. (The audios are very ably narrated L.J. Ganser.)

Here's the little I know about the books:
  • Read them in order!
  • The main characters appear to be sisters Sabrina and Daphne, and their mischievous friend Puck, who comes to live with them, and both helps them and makes their lives fun and miserable, as only brothers can.
  • Something has happened to their parents and they live with their granny, whom they only just met.
  • There are loads of fairy-tale characters.
  • They have awesome covers and internal illustrations.
  • I'm going to have to read them myself.

The Fairy-Tale Detectives (Book 1)
The Unusual Suspects (Book 2)
The Problem Child (Book 3)
Once Upon A Crime (Book 4)
Magic and Other Misdemeanors (Book 5)
Tales From the Hood (Book 6)
The Everafter War (Book 7)
The Inside Story (Book 8)

There may be more coming??? Not sure.

Author Michael Buckley's website
Illustrator Peter Ferguson's website

Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Briony lives with her mentally challenged twin sister and her detached clergyman father in the small town of Swampsea. Her world is full of dichotomies. Progression, in the form of trains, automobiles, and gas lights, stands in sharp contrast to the ancient supernatural beings -the Old Ones and their ilk- that inhabit the Swamp and still hold sway over the villagers. Briony has always been able to see and talk to the Old Ones and she thinks this means she is a witch, a secret that only she and Stepmother knew, since witchcraft is a hanging offense in her village. Not only that, but sometimes her passions and jealousies wreak havoc on those she loves best.

As the book opens, it is several months after her beloved Stepmother's death. Briony believes -because it is what Stepmother helped her to understand- that she is responsible for the many bad things that have happened in her family, including her sister's mental condition and her stepmother's injury and subsequent death. The dreams Briony once had of education and a life of her own are buried under the guilt and self-loathing she feels, as she cares for the sister she feels responsible for. To a certain extent, Briony has withdrawn mentally from the world around her, in order to protect her family from her wickedness. When Eldric -the son of the engineer sent to oversee the draining of the Swamp (in order to advance the railway line)- comes to stay at their house, he befriends her and accepts her for who she is, without any pressure. Little by little Briony's frozen mind begins to accept his friendship.

When the Old Ones' anger erupts at the draining of the Swamp, Briony must strike a deal with the Old Ones to save her sister from becoming their next victim. But saving her sister is going to mean revealing her own wickedness.

Told in first person, past tense, Billingsley's writing style reflects Briony's mind. It is self-deprecating, at turns humorous or serious, jumpy, a bit muddled (because Briony knows things that we, the reader, aren't privy to yet) and a bit like actually being inside her head, listening to her stream-of-consciousness thought. Sometimes this got a little frustrating and sometimes I had to go back and re-read the passage because I thought I'd missed something. Still, the story moves along at a good clip, and I really didn't want to put it down. I found it interesting and compelling. I wasn't surprised by the reveal; I don't think you're meant to be, because you pick up little clues all along, but I was completely invested in the story and anxious to see how she would come into her own truth. (Am I sounding really vague? I'm trying not to give too much away.)
There is a somewhat dark, oppressive tone to the story, not only because of Briony's guilt, but because of the Swamp inhabitants, who are not very nice. And yet there are lighter moments in the interplay between Briony and Eldric, and there is the seed of hope, that surely Briony will not be left to wallow in her misery forever, surely she is not as wicked as she thinks she is.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

De-cluttering My Books Is Surprisingly Painful

I don't, generally, form sentimental attachments to "stuff." Growing up in the nomadic way I did, you'd think it would be the opposite. But no. "Stuff" doesn't mean much to me. I have only a few physical items from my growing up years: letters from my family, some of my better artwork, five expired passports, a piece of Kolonyama pottery from Lesotho, and a leather jewelry box from Ougadougou that got stained by a green marker in one of our moves. I have kept only a shoe-boxed size container of the girls' baby stuff I can't part with.

I'm a ruthless purger. If I don't love it, and/or it's not performing a function, out it goes.

But not when it comes to books. I have a hard time letting go of books, except for those I didn't care for. I have a theory about that. Books were the one constant -besides my family- of my nomadic life.  They were the steady friends that never failed me, bringing comfort and pleasure.

But my shelves will only hold so many books. So it's time to purge...I guess. Either that, or buy more bookshelves, which Todd's not thrilled about. I'm not either, since it means I'll have to put them together.
Theoretically, I don't believe I need to keep every book I buy. And just because we homeschool doesn't mean we need a house full of books...does it? See, here's the problem: that sounds like a great idea to me: a house full of books. Bookshelves as functional decoration.

I've been working on book purging for over a month, but I'm killing my effectiveness with my waffling.

Do you have regular book purges? Any ideas on how to get over my dread of missing a book after I get rid of it?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: The Little Match Girl, adapted and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

My favorite tale by Hans Christian Anderson has always been The Little Match Girl. The poignancy, the moved me deeply as a child, and still does. Naturally, then, it was a story I wanted in my own library, to share with my daughters, but with so many versions, which to choose? It was blind serendipitous luck that the version I ordered, because the cover drew me in, was adapted and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. I love it. And that seems like a feeble way to describe my emotional reaction to it.

It is an incredibly moving version, both the text and pictures. Set in a large turn-of-the-century American city, where horse-drawn carriages are sharing the road with automobiles, Pinkney's version highlights the poverty prevalent in such big cities. His match girl has a more homogeneous, easily overlooked face. But don't let that fool you into thinking this is a bland version. The pictures, to me, reflect the rough life of the poor. From the very first picture of the story that shows the fear and destitution and hopelessness on the children's faces as they work in the cold attic to make small bouquets of flowers to sell, to the hungry longing on the little girl's red-cheeked face as she stares at the food on a cart on another page, to her little hand cupped around the lit match as she sits on the snow covered sidewalk in her torn stockinged feet.... It a good thing you can't see me now; the emotion that his drawings evoke in me in really quite embarrassing.

And yes, my children love it, too.

Thank you, Jerry Pinkney, for making this hauntingly beautiful book.