Sunday, July 31, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #35)

Trial By Journal
Author: Kate Kilise
Illustrator: M. Sarah Klise
Pages: 238
Age Range: 9+
Published: 2001
Genre: Juvenile Fiction/Epistolary Novel
Cover Score: **
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: G

Thanks to a newly instated law, any trial that concerns a child victim must have a child on the jury and 12 year old Lily Watson is the first lucky kid to serve. A classmate, Perry Keet, disappeared from his volunteer job at the local zoo and a reclusive co-worker, Bob White is on trial for Perry’s murder. When she finds out she’ll have to go to summer school to make up the time she’s missed (nearly 6 weeks) while doing her civic duty, she pleads to her teacher for the chance to do a report on her experiences instead.  Her teacher, Mr. Holmes, agrees and the book is a compilation of her journals as well as the journals and notes from other jurors, court sketches and evidence, newspaper articles, and more.

Mr. Rhett Tyle, the town’s wealthy tycoon and owner of practically everything is distraught over the horrible events that allegedly took place in his zoo and vows to do everything in his power to see justice done. But he’s also a bit distracted by the hoopla that begins when his female gorilla begins painting masterpieces in her cage. Suddenly the entire nation is focused on the tiny town of Tyleville and its talented primate. And when words start showing up in the paintings a Charlotte’s Web sort of madness takes over threatening to outshine the murder trial.

Things don’t quite add up. Bob White is a sad and peculiar character but nothing backs up the idea that he could be a murderer. The other jurors (a quirky and motley crew in their own rights) are divided in their thoughts about the facts and testimonies and there are several gaping holes and curious incidents that keep everyone guessing. Lily is the only one in a position to unravel the mystery thanks to her past interactions with Perry and her willingness to step outside the lines a bit. She also comes to accept herself and make some unlikely new friends in the process.

There are allusions to other books and stories, puns and plays on words galore (check out a few of these names for a start; Ed U. Caytor, Ken Airy, Maggie Pie) and subtle clues throughout that an astute reader could pick up on to help them piece together the mystery. There are a few technicalities (the minority clause, obvious conflicts of interest like the gossip columnist who is serving on the jury but is allowed to continue writing his column even in the sequestration) but there are some actual insights into the workings of the judicial system. It’s silly and entertaining and clever. A great read.

The author and illustrator are sisters and have collaborated on several other books, most of them in the same vein (silly epistolary novels rather than straight narrative fiction) and all thoroughly entertaining.  My favorites are the Regarding The… series.

Epistolary novels, those composed of letters or journal entries usually (though more modern books have used text messages and emails, movie scripts, TV show transcripts, faxes, newspaper articles, ticket stubs, memos and more) have always been one of my favorite kinds of books to read. I could wax rhapsodic over them for pages and pages but I’ll spare you all. But if you haven’t read any I cannot urge you enough to do so. If you prefer an adult book to a juvenile one there are a few exceptional examples you could try. A few of my favorites are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, These is My Words, 84 Charring Cross Road, and A Woman of Independent Means. Do you enjoy reading books that fall outside the typical fiction/non-fiction format? Any you could recommend? I’d love to hear from you!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #34)

The Dark and Hollow Places
Author: Carrie Ryan
Pages: 374
Age Range: 13+
Published: 2011
Genre: Sci-fi/dystopia
Cover Score: *** 
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG-13 (gruesome violence, some language)

This is the third in a trilogy so whil I will try not to give away any major plot points I can’t guarantee there won’t be spoilers for the first two; The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves.

Annah lives in New York City, 150 or so years after the Return (the infection that causes the dead to rise again and walk the earth hunting for human flesh…yes, zombies!) Society has dwindled to a few pockets of the living struggling to keep barriers between themselves and the Unconsecrated (the zombies) but the numbers are so great that most of them have fallen and the last great stronghold, the Dark City, is on the verge of falling as well. She’s been trying to make ends meet and take care of herself since being abandoned by Elias (her pseudo brother) who joined the Recruiters three years earlier. She’s resentful of him and still harboring guilty feelings for not having done more to help her sister Abigail escape the forest when they were children.

As she’s making her way out of the city though she spots a girl on the bridge, her sister she’s sure of it. And then she meets Catcher. He’s got some secrets and regrets of his own but he knows all about Annah and Elias and Abigail, now known as Gabry. He’s promised to look after Annah but Annah’s not sure she trusts him.

Eventually they find themselves on the Sanctuary, a small island run by the Recruiters and the only place left not overrun by the Unconsecrated. Elias and Gabry are there as well and together the four of them uncover their twisted and intertwining paths and begin to forge new relationships together.

Elias thinks he’s done right by everyone, protecting them by leading them all to the Sanctuary, but the remaining Recruiters are cruel and merciless, torturing the helpless for sport, using anyone they can (Catcher in particular who has an immunity to the virus and can walk undetected among the Unconsecrated) to ferry back and forth between the two worlds to gather food and forcing the Soulers (a fanatic religious group that believes the dead who Return have found the elect resurrection and are somehow pure) to patrol the beaches around the building.

The four must learn to trust each other (Annah in particular who feels abandoned and betrayed by them all) and find a way off of the island and hopefully to a place where they can start again (though the maps and plans show that most of the world is overrun.) Annah is also dealing with her many scars (physical and emotional) that keep her from trusting or allowing herself to be loved.

They are forced to make one major decision after another and answer some life-altering questions: what does it mean to live? Is existence the same as life? Who has it better, those who are aware and continually suffering and in fear or the Undead who eternally exist (until someone chops off their heads) and have no memories, pains or emotions? What would you do if you knew you only had a few days left to live? Which fears are justifiable? When is it okay to give up?

I didn’t find myself as engrossed in this one as I did the other two. I think I got a little bored with Annah’s insecurities. She’s in a struggle for her life and yet she’s constantly worried about her scars (though they are extensive) and if the men in her life will find her attractive. I’m not sure how realistic that would be. Sure she’d want to be desirable, she’s human after all, but she spent a lot of time dwelling on it, and dwelling on it, and dwelling on it. But it was still a thrilling and basically non-stop ride. And it’s a satisfying conclusion to the series; questions are answered and characters are tied together and there’s a bit of hope though not a truly happy ending (true to the incredible and comprehensive world built by Ms. Ryan.)

Full of gore and violence and decapitations it’s also a story of love and forgiveness. There is proof that even in the most horrid of conditions and potential futures one can still make choices and many choose to cling to humanity and kindness. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopias, or zombies or are looking for something a little different, give it a look-see. I think you’ll like it!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #33)

Author: Kevin Henkes 
Pages: 176
Age Range: 9+
Published: 2011 
Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ***
Rating: G

Alice Rice is on her way to Scallop, the small cottage by the Florida seaside that her parents rent every year to escape the harsh winters of home. This year is special; Alice will be celebrating her 10th birthday, double digits, the last birthday she can count using her fingers. And she knows it's going to be the year she finds a junonia, a rare spotted sea shell.

But when they finally arrive at the cottage Alice is disappointed to find that her neighbor Helen Blair is snowed in in New York, the Wishmeier's kids were too busy with school to make it this year and her mother's friend Kate (whom Alice calls Aunt Kate) is bringing her new boyfriend and his 6 year old daughter along. Alice's own family is small, just her mother and father, no grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins and she looks forward to her adopted extended family visits in Florida. Now nothing will be the same.

She spends most of her days hunting for shells, watching birds, hoping to see dolphins and trying to entertain 6 year old Mallory. Mallory's mother abandoned her to move to France and Mallory hasn't adjusted well. She's moody and sullen and loud and a know it all and just plain too little. There are some misunderstandings and hurt feelings along the way but as Alice learns to see things from others’ points of view and to make occasional sacrifices she comes to understand how lucky she is and learns to feel empathy for the other girl. Ten is a lot closer to being a grown up and Alice is definitely maturing and well on her way.

This was a quiet, pleasant little book. Nothing overly dramatic or unique, nothing that stood out or wowed me but I found myself drawn into the simplicity of it, wishing I was with Alice on the beach; searching for seashells, watching the waves roll in and the dolphins frolic in the foam. There are images and labels of the various shells talked about in the book on the front spread which was a nice addition. I found myself referring it to now and again as I read. (I've never given much thought to the fact that seashells come in varying shapes and sizes, each with their own name.) Also the small illustrations in deep blue heading each chapter echo the waters of the ocean that set such a lovely backdrop for the story.  
Hand this to a child struggling with jealousy issues or having a hard time dealing with change.

Kevin Henkes is a jack-of-all-trades sort of character in the children's publishing world. He writes and illustrates picture books, writes juvenile fiction such as this and even has a YA title or two to his credit. I haven't loved his full-on fiction as much as I adore his picture books but the man is definitely talented.  If you're not familiar with his work, check out a few of my favorites:

Yes!! A book about Peeps! (though they  aren't technically called that in the story)

Have you read any Kevin Henkes books?  Which are your favorites?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #32)

Running with the Horses
Author and Illustrator: Alison Lester 
Pages: 32
Age Range: 6+
Published: 2011 (first published in 2009 in Australia)
Genre: Historical Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG

Inspired by the rescue of the Lipizzaner stallions from Austria during WWII, this is a good book that was almost great but missed the mark by not being quite as accurate as I’d hoped. Never does it claim to be anything but ‘inspired by’ it was just my own hope for a little more history than fiction that left me disappointed.
Nina is a young girl whose father works for the Royal Academy of Dancing Horses. Her mother had been a rider/dancer with their own troupe before she died and her father had found a more secure lifestyle for himself and his little daughter while still working with the horses he loved so dearly. But war is moving through the city and Nina and her father will be leaving to drive the horses across the mountains to the safety of her grandparent’s farm. Just before they are to leave Nina finds Zelda, an old cab horse, abandoned in the street and is determined to save her too.
During a desperate race through the city the old mare leads the group down dark streets and alleyways away from the smoke and gunfire and eventually out to the safety of a hillside. When daylight comes both horse and girl are a bit worse for the wear but also determined to go on. When they all come to a stone bridge Nina’s father urges the horses to cross but Zelda pushes past them driving them back off the bridge. When the moonlight shines out from behind the clouds the gaping hole in the bridge becomes visible. Zelda has saved the band again.
And finally as they cross the mountains the snow becomes so deep that even the strong horses struggle but the brave old mare stumbles and at first refuses to get up. Only after the strongest of urgings and physical pushing/lifting does she stand again and is able to make the rest of the journey to the safe house.
The tale is truly heroic and inspiring and there is an author’s note at the back that explains the inspiration behind it, but again I wished it was a bit more fact-based. As an adult I can Google information to my little heart’s content, but kids aren’t going to do that, or possibly even realize that it was a true event that they might want to know more about. A little back-matter, some additional information, timelines etc. could have added a whole new dimension and made it even more powerful.
The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. There is a mixture of photographs (the city streets, some of the mountain scenes and images of what I assume are the Winter Palace/Riding School in Vienna) and watercolor scenery cunningly combined in a sort of layered collage making it impossible at points to tell what is real and what is drawn/painted. The characters of the girl, her father and stable hands and the horses are all rendered in black and white pencil sketches, contrasting beautifully against the deeply colored backgrounds.
Read it. Marvel at the beautiful images and be inspired by the acts of bravery. And then go learn about what really happened.
Try this site or this one.
And if that's not enough, take a look at this video with a little bit of the history as well as the horses themselves in action. Beautiful!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #31)

Just to be sure we're all on the same page and no one got stuck back in the past, today is Wednesday. Honest! Glad you could make it!  :)

Small as an Elephant
Author: Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Pages: 275
Age Range: 8+
Published: 2011
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: **
Rating: PG

Young Jack awakes one morning to find himself abandoned in a campsite in Acadia National Park.  His mother is manic depressive and has been known to disappear for days at a time but it’s always happened when Jack has been home, in familiar surroundings, with a routine to stick to and food to eat. He sticks around for a while hoping she’ll show up but eventually realizes he’s going to have to fend for himself. 

Slowly he makes his way down the coast heading in the general direction of Massachusetts and home. He resorts to stealing food and provisions on several occasions though he has a strong conscience and has to fight himself each time he does it. He also happens upon a few kind souls who take pity on him and mostly fall for his stories about being home schooled or his mother having a headache or whatever it takes to get people to let him go on his way.

He finally decides he has to make the journey to see Lydia, the only live elephant in Maine, before he can go home. He’s been fascinated by elephants since seeing one at a circus with his mother when he was 3 or 4. It was an argument about Lydia that was the turning point in the trip and he thinks if he can just see her she can somehow make things right again.  He does finally get to her and things do work out but not in the way he had imagined.

I’d heard some good things about this but I must say I was sorely disappointed. I felt sorry for poor little Jack and could understand why he felt like he couldn’t trust any adults but I got frustrated that his logic never took over and let him ask for help. (I realize he’s only like 10 and there’s not a lot of logic there to begin with but for some reason it just irritated me rather than making me care for Jack’s character. Or maybe I’m just in a cold-hearted mood today!)

The best parts were the bits of information and quotes about elephants that headed each chapter and the closing chapter where Lydia and Jack interact. Elephants are truly remarkable animals. I would have loved for Jack's mother to have abandoned him at the elephant enclosure and then seen the boy and beast make a journey together illustrating some of the ideas about their loyalty, compassion and ingenuity.  Here are just a few:
It is known that one elephant who was rather slow in learning his tricks and had been punished severely by his master’s beating, was discovered later that night, alone in his tent, practicing those tricks. –Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book III(pg. 206)
A forest elephant that had torn his trunk while freeing himself from a trap was in too much pain to feed himself. So he walked right up to an African savanna elephant in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and put his trunk in the other elephant’s mouth. The African elephant understood: he immediately ripped up an acacia tree and fed it to his new acquaintance.(pg. 73)
Interesting, eh? I think the two bonding and adventuring together would have made a much more powerful (and yes, I realize far less realistic or believable) story.  Maybe I’ll write it!  But I’d love to hear from others who may have read this.  Argue with me and tell me why it’s great.

** I can’t believe it! We're down to the final 10 reviews of the summer reading extravaganza. (I decided to go with 42 in all to make it a complete 6 weeks’ worth of posts. My brain wanted things to come out a little more evenly than they did when I stopped with the 40 it would have been if I stopped when our library program ends.) Don't forget to check back to see what's in store for the finale. And look for a wrap-up post chronicling everything I read (and didn't) during my experiment.  Thanks for reading!

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #30)

Happy Tuesday!  What? It's not Tuesday you say? Well, let's see what we can do about that. (Cue wiggling fingers of illusion and appropriate time travel music).

                                                    *    *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ah, my friends!  Welcome to Tuesday, July 26th. I'm so glad you could join me. I have a lovely book to review for you today. Are you ready for this?!

Author: Jennifer Bradbury
Pages: 309
Age Range: 12+
Published: 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery/Young Adult
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: *****
Rating: PG

Agnes Wilkins is an unusual 17 year old girl about to debut into 1815 London society. Her father is a government official and her mother is determined to see her only daughter engaged to their charming and wealthy neighbor Lord Showalter before the season is out. While Agnes knows her duty and is somewhat excited at the prospects she's also loathe to give up her opportunities to continue her education to settle into a life of bland domesticity. (She speaks 10 languages, longs for adventure and loves the romance in the newly published A Lady's novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice, and fancies herself finding a Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy type relationship full of banter and passion.) 
Her first social adventure is attending a mummy unwrapping party in Showalter's garden. As she cuts into the linen wrappings she's equally enthralled and disgusted. She's fascinated to see something very few have from a place she, as a proper English lady, will probably never visit but feels that the relics, ruins, and artifacts should remain in their places of origin rather than be desecrated by people for entertainment's sake.
As she unwraps a small jackal's head in the bindings there is a disturbance and insistence that the party stop so the mummy, supposedly switched with another during shipping and unloading, can be returned to the British Museum. For some reason Agnes finds herself pocketing the iron head and witnessing a few odd exchanges before the party comes to a chilling end with the murder of one of Showalter's grooms. 
By morning talk of ancient curses has spread throughout the city with several of the party goers being attacked or having their houses broken into. Agnes scoffs at the talk of curses but is sure it all has something to do with the jackal's head hidden under her pillow. Throughout the course of the book she goes behind the scenes of the British Museum, unlocks a code with the help of the Rosetta Stone, dresses as a boy, uncovers Napoleon Bonaparte's dastardly plans to conquer Britain, meets a handsome and vexing young scholar, learns to shoot a gun and more.
There's enough fact and history interwoven into the story to make it all sound very credible and give it some substance. There's also an author's note at the end separating fact from fiction and giving a bit of additional information about the historical setting and customs. It's lightly flavored with turns of phrase that remind you of the time period and keep it from sounding modern yet it's highly readable.  Agnes is a spunky heroine eager to buck the system that keeps her confined and locked into a particular role and future, both likeable and relatable. Like a watered down combination of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Peters it begs to be read during afternoon tea in the garden. I thought this book was thoroughly delightful. It was the perfect blend of smart and fluffy. The perfect easy escape for my crazy weekend, I highly recommend it (particularly to fans of either of the aforementioned authors!) 

Hope you enjoyed your short journey to Tuesday.  Can't wait to see you all again tomorrow!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #29.)

You don't have to pretend this time.  It's actually Monday and this is Monday's post...amazing, isn't it?! :)

Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator
Author and Illustrator: Mo Willems
Pages: 69
Age Range: 4+
Published: 2011
Genre: Juvenile Fiction/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: G

I haven’t gushed about my love for Mo lately so let me take a minute to do so now. Is it possible for the man to write a bad book?  I think not!
Amanda and her alligator entertain us for no less than 6 ½ surprising stories in Willems’ latest book. It could almost qualify as a beginning reader with chapters and a table of contents and relatively simple text but it’s still got the shape and feel of a picture book.  So, you decide!
We are first introduced to Amanda’s alligator as he is impatiently pacing and waiting for her to return from the library.  He hates it when she’s gone. But she soon returns and even has a surprise for him, though it’s not the kind of surprise the reader would guess.  Chapter two has the alligator trying to surprise Amanda this time, but she’s onto him. In chapter two and a half he decides to give the surprise to himself instead. Chapter three finds him thinking of a better way to surprise her thanks to his Good Old Thinking Cap. In chapter four alligator is surprised to find out he was only worth seven cents at the garage sale where Amanda found him but she cheers him up and shows him how much she thinks he’s worth and in chapter five alligator finds a surprising and humorous way to beat boredom.
But everything culminates in chapter six when Amanda brings home a new stuffed animal from the zoo. Again we see the alligator pacing and waiting for Amanda to return but when she does she has sparkling new panda (worth way more than seven cents) with her. Amanda’s off again to dinner with her grandfather leaving the two animals to get to know each other. Panda’s perky and eager to explore his new surroundings while alligator is brusque and stand-offish.  But soon panda confesses he’s just no good at waiting, he’d much rather be singing silly songs or making discoveries or dressing up. And the two spend the rest of the evening doing just that.
The simplicity with which one can re-tell the events doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexities of the stories themselves. There are clever quotes and subtle (and not-so-subtle) puns and jokes throughout the text. And how does one even begin to describe the mastery that is a Mo Willems illustration? They are also deceptively simple; pencil-like sketches and pastel watercolors that are able to convey more emotion, movement, and humor than other far more detailed illustrations. He truly has a gift.
I didn’t love this one as much as I love nearly all of his Elephant and Piggie books but it still made me laugh out loud. (I adore the illustration of alligator chewing on Amanda’s head…priceless!) Sure to tickle the funny bone of just about every child on the planet, we have another winner from the man who can apparently do no wrong!  (Don’t forget to look for half-hidden cameos from the Pigeon and Knuffle Bunny as well.)

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #28)

Uh, just pretend it's Sunday! (With a second and official Monday posting to follow later today.)

What My Mother Doesn't Know
Author: Sonya Sones
Pages: 259
Age Range: 13+
Published: 2001
Genre: Realistic Fiction/YA
Cover Score: **
Overall Grade: ***
Rating: PG-13

(I realize this is the image for the audiobook but I did actually read the printed copy. This was just the only image I could find that looked like my cover looked.  All the print editions have newer covers, just FYI!)
In an effort to broaden my scope a bit I've tried to hunt down a few older titles and varying genres. This one fits the bill for both.  While 2001 wasn't that long ago it's enough to have changed the landscape of the teen world. No IPods or texting occur though there are emails and cell phones. The real reason I picked this though was the fact that it's a novel written in verse. Some of these are more masterfully done than others (Helen Frost for example creates poetic forms that she adheres to throughout the book, diamant√© and so forth, many of which could stand as beautiful poems on their own) while others simply write in spare prose, the poems falling more into the free verse category.   This is one of the latter.

Sophie is a ninth grader on the quest for finding Mr. Right. She thought she had found him in the beautiful and thoughtful Dylan but as their relationship progresses she realizes that it's hinged more on physical aspects than common goals or interests. As he pushes her to 'go further' than she wants to and she finds herself becoming more and more interested in an online relationship she steps up and breaks things off.

She has a series of flirtatious encounters, pity parties and daring adventures while coping with her two best friend's different love interests, school and trying to avoid running into Dylan, and dealing with her neglectful yet interfering mother. A run-in with a mysterious masked man at the Halloween dance has her examining all of the male forearms she comes in contact with. And she worries about her sanity when she begins to have daydreams and lustful thoughts about the nerdy, unattractive but talented guy in her art class. She does find a Mr. Right after all but even that revelation comes with its own dilemmas. 

Sophie's pain and doubts are well portrayed and anyone who's ever felt the longing or heartache involved in a new/old/past/unrequited love will recognize the emotions and know exactly where she is coming from. 
The over abundance of white space on the page will be encouraging for reluctant readers and teens will appreciate Sophie's humor and insecurities. There are some slightly more mature themes, particularly regarding sexuality and maturation though nothing overly graphic.

I enjoyed this quick glimpse into Sophie's life (and made me grateful t o no longer be a teenager!) It would make a great beach read for the middle school set or anyone trying to recover from a first love.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Happiness is...a busy weekend.

Despite the horrendously hot and humid weather that is upon us (a friend picturesquely described it as knowing what it must feel like to live inside a person's armpit) I have a full calendar of things to do this weekend, many of them out doors. (Hooray!?)

My sister flew in from Utah yesterday afternoon and after the requisite stop for some sustenance and gossip we set out directly to do some outlet shopping. (She was much more successful than I, darnit!)

Next it was off to the gorgeous Wolf Trap venue of the performing arts to see Sweeney Todd. We sat on the lawn feeling as if we were in a sauna even after the sun went down. It was a bit miserable actually. But the music was devilishly delightful and made up for it! We were also in great company and well-fed which can go a long way to making any situation bearable.

Such a gloriously gruesome production! I'm not sure why I like it so much because it really is dark and disturbing but I love it. We got into a discussion amongst ourselves about the varying merits of the live productions versus the movies and which performers are best and so forth.  I remember being shocked when I found out that Angela Lansbury played Mrs. Lovett on Broadway but had never seen any of her performance.  Assured that she was fantastic I came home and Googled it.  Thanks to the marvels of the internet and Youtube I'll share a bit of it with you!
As you can tell from the lyrics it's got more than a bit of the ick factor about it and yet it's so catchy and clever.  It's also a grat story about the value of forgiveness. Really. Benjamin Barker aka Sweeney Todd had been greviously wronged and in just about everyone's eyes is justified in seeking revenge for the lives of his wife and daughter destroyed by evil men.  And yet his insistence at getting even lead to his own downfall despite his technically getting back at those who ruined his life. A lesson to be learned there for sure.

If you haven't seen the production or heared the music I would highly recommend it (if you can stomach the subject matter.) The Johnny Depp movie version does a great job (though never as powerful or impressive as a live performance, but he's so pretty even in his creepy make-up it's more than worth it!) though it is a bit bloodier thanks to special effects and such. Make that tons's pretty intense at times. I found myself listening more than watching at some points but I don't have a very high tolerance for blood. Just be forewarned!

Anyhow, the rest of the weekend will include various wedding activities for a good friend (outdoor games and a picnic, sure to wilt the heartiest of us), a possible 24th of July Hootenanny (I do miss having a second holiday full of BBQs and fireworks in July), a trip into town to spend some time amongst the monuments and air-conditioned museums, more shopping and delicious food. It promises to be very hot but very eventful.

And this will serve as my pre-apology excuse in case I miss any of my book review postings!  Just like to make sure I've covered all my bases you know.  :)

I hope your own weekend is full and fulfilling and not nearly as sweat-inducing as mine.  I'd love to hear about it!

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #27)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: Catherynne Valente
Pages: 247
Age Range: 10+
Published: 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: ***
Rating: G

In the midst of WWII, young September finds herself being whisked away from her Nebraska home on the back of a leopard headed to Fairyland. She has a series of adventures ala Alice in Wonderland, meets an amazing array of creatures, comes face to face with a wicked queen and must save her friends and sacrifice herself in order to return home (and more importantly to September, be able to return again to Fairyland.)

This book has gotten a lot of buzz in the blogosphere and I can definitely see its merits but try as I might I just never found myself becoming lost in its magical world. It’s beautifully written. The language is flowery and old-fashioned giving it the feel of a timeless classic in the vein of E. Nesbit or the Oz adventures.  The plot, characters and scenery are all creatively inventive from the Wyverary (a wyvern with a library for a father) to the golem made of soap.  And some of the conversations and ‘logic’ rival those put forth in The Phantom Tollbooth.  Here’s a quick sample:

"When you are born," the golem said softly, "your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk...and fear and knowing how bad things can get you and what pain feels like. By the time you're half-grown, your courage barely moves at all...So every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you'll never be brave again." (pg. 60)
"Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble." (pg. 36)

Lovely, yes? Many, many others will agree. But as I said, I just never fell completely under its spell.  Perhaps it was just my mood and I had I read it on any other day I would have felt differently. I will keep it on my backburner as a potential re-read but my first taste I would have to judge as pleasant but not exquisite. Read it for yourself and tell me what you think.  Do you agree or am I completely off base?  I’d love to know!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Happiness is...a good book! (Summer Reading edition #26)

Author and Illustrator: Patrick McDonnell
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4+
Published: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction/biography/picture book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Grade: *****
Rating: G
This is a simply lovely biography recounting the early life of Jane Goodall. Beginning with her love for a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee, the two go on many adventures together. The text highlights her fascination with nature, her studiousness and curiosity and her dreams of one day visiting Africa and helping the animals there (and finishes with a brilliant spread showing the realization of those dreams.)

There is an author's note that shares additional information about Jane and her life's work with Louis Leakey at  Gombe Stream Game Reserve (now National Park), her written research, conservation efforts, and formation of the Jane Goodall Institute, her Roots and Shoots program and more.  There is also a personal message from Jane herself encouraging readers to get involved and make a difference.

There are simple pen and ink/watercolor illustrations on one page, while the facing page containing sparse text is accented by ornamental engravings/stamped images from the early 20th century giving it a Victorian scrapbook sort of feel, hearkening back to that age of great exploration and discovery. Goodall's own sketches and journal pages (scientific discoveries, research, puzzles, questions, drawings from her childhood 'Alligator Society') make an appearance in the illustrations as well. The final spread showing a photo of Jane reaching out to a tiny little chimp, who is in turn reaching out to her, is the perfect ending note.

While not a complete resource on Ms. Goodall’s life, it is a perfect introduction. Its simplicity makes it appropriate for the youngest of readers (hard to find in a biography) while the charm and magic of her story makes it appealing to a much wider audience.  Highly recommended for readers of all ages, I would love to see this on the Caldecott list come January!