Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The State of the Picture Book

Holly wrote a post a while back reacting to an NYT article that suggested that picture books are in decline.

Well, my friend Gwyneth alerted me to a rebuttal in Publisher's Weekly that really made me feel better about the whole picture book thing :) The article goes through the assertions made by the New York Times to support their theory and pretty effectively relieved my concerns about the loss of picture books. They're here to stay!

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

What an extraordinary first novel. Rebecca Hunt has taken an audacious, ambitious premise, and executed it in an insightful, rich way. Winston Churchill is a well-known depressive who referred to his sometime companion as The Black Dog. Hunt has personified The Black Dog with Mr. Chartwell, the new (canine) boarder at the home of librarian Esther, who is a widower. His presence is entirely unwelcome, yet strangely irresistible. Esther allows him to move in, but resents his presence. He has moved to be conveniently situated near Winston Churchill, who is reflective on the eve of his retirement from Parliament, but he has other jobs as well. This novel really should have been a disaster with this premise. A dog who walks on two legs and affects human manners (though not so well that he can resist chomping on a bone in the hallway) sounds laughable, and not in a good way. But Hunt approaches the subject of depression with sensitivity and deep understanding, and "Mr. Chartwell" embodies it nobly, with messy rudeness and plaintive pleas for understanding.

Hunt's language reveals a sensitivity to the nuances of depression, as well as an elegant precision. Churchill says that "the prospects of retirement could not yet be fully contemplated, being too full of awful passion. It churned the heart with thistles."*** Esther feels that "...the weeks of her life had drifted past as ghosts. There was the rare bump of pleasure, perhaps from a meal out or a visit to the cinema, but it was brittle and shattered under the lonely monotony of the ghost days." But she doesn't immediately recognize that her relationship with "Black Pat" is much more complicated than that of a landlord and boarder. He explains his "job" to her, nicely summing up the symptoms of depression: "With Churchill we know each other's movements, so we have a routine, I guess. I like to be there when he wakes up in the morning. Sometimes I drape across his chest. That slows him down for a bit..." Churchill speaks to Black Pat with familiarity, even affection, but also with bitter resentment. He always knew that Black Pat would return for Churchill's retirement, and he reluctantly accepts the presence.

Hunt's Churchill is fully believable and complex, a great man plagued by doubt, dreading retirement. Esther represents a different stage of visitation by depression, still adjusting to Black Pat's charms. She is also a well-developed character in her own right; a young widow still mourning her husband and coming to terms with loss while attending to new and old friendships and her job, which eventually leads her to Churchill's study to take dictation. Their encounter is the crux of the novel, beautifully exquisite and surprising.

I fully expect this to be my favorite novel released in 2011. Hunt's writing is utterly inventive and surprising, her story told with wisdom and sensitivity.

***All quotations are taken from an uncorrected proof and should be checked against a final copy, tentative publication date 2/22/11.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader's Edition from the publisher.

An interesting discussion of Churchill's history with depression can be found here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Superheroes: A Pop-up Book

I was absolutely delighted when I received a box in the mail from Little Brown and Company! It had some fun stuff inside that I hope to review in the next couple months. But there was one treasure in there that could not wait! I had to get this up, and it would have been posted sooner except I had to take photos of this AMAZING book!

Now, let's preface this by saying, I don't know the first thing about superheroes aside from watching the first couple Superman movies back in the day and the first couple Batman movies in the '90's. Oh, and I did happen to watch reruns of the original Batman television show when I was a kid in the summer when I visited my dad. I suppose, I might have a few Wonder Woman episodes stored somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. Heh....maybe, I actually have more Superhero knowledge than I thought! ;-)

But now, I have a son. And I do feel like I will eventually have to be up on my Superhero speak. This book will certainly send me on my way!

There are about 6 or 7 different pop-up pages, each featuring a superhero. For instance, the first page is Superman.Each page contains smaller pop-ups on the side discussing various villains and superpowers. Here's an example:
The details in the pop-ups are incredible. Here's the Wonder Woman page and a detail:

Her lasso is made out of gold cord! This is the detail that really blew me away! I will admit, I'm relatively new to pop-up books so maybe many of them have real 3-dimensional details out of materials different than paper. But I couldn't believe it when I opened this page.

Then the grand finale of the book:
A collage of all the superheroes on one page, complete with little numbers and a legend identifying each character.

Still have a little boy to buy a gift for this week? This would be PERFECT! Run out and get it NOW! :-)

Source disclosure: Received unsolicited from the publisher: Little Brown & Company.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teaser Tuesday - Mr. Chartwell

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser is from Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt:

Churchill stared out of the window at the green slopes below..."I've wondered on occasion whether you were there, waiting to stake your flag from the moment my soul entered the world."

"I didn't come until sent for." Black Pat's eyes were like leeches on him. "But I've been a companion to others around you, so I've never been far away." (ARC, p. 149)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor: Set a potboiler in 1786 Cambridge, and it instantly has more credibility as literature than say, The DaVinci Code. Funny how that works, that the "historical" classification adds gravity. The Anatomy of Ghosts is a historical potboiler, and a good one, but it is not transcendent literature. It is, however, a fun read, and a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours. John Holdsworth, a washed-up bookseller, is nursing the loss of his son, who drowned in an accident, and of his wife, who committed suicide after losing significant amounts of money to a "medium" who claimed to be in contact with the son. He is in dire straits when Lady Anne summons him to perform two jobs for her: to inventory her late husband's book collection and to bring her son, Frank, a Cambridge student, back from the insanity that claimed him after he supposedly saw a ghost. She feels Holdsworth is uniquely qualified to go to Cambridge and debunk Frank's "haunting" because the angry widower Holdsworth had written a scathing debunking of the spirit world called The Anatomy of Ghosts.

When Holdsworth arrives at Cambridge, he finds a strange array of clues in Frank's room, and Frank's roommate is missing. To complicate matters, a secret society called the Holy Ghost Club doesn't want Holdsworth (or anyone else) to find out what happened at Frank's "initiation" into their society the night before he went mad, the night an orphan girl and the wife of the master both died. Is one of these women haunting Frank? Or is something else afoot? What really happened the night Sylvia Whichcote died? What sort of depravity does the Holy Ghost Club get up to? Why does Frank insist on quacking? Throw in all this intrigue with a completely unbelievable "romance" (that, far from being romantic, was creepy and rather off-putting), and you have all the ingredients for a bestseller. Though I saw for the most part where the plot was going, I kept turning the pages to find out who really killed Sylvia Whichcote, and for Taylor's rich, lovingly described 18th-century Cambridge campus, whose narrow lanes and lush quads are the most realistic part of the novel. Taylor has a gift for evoking a time and place in the past, using language, descriptive passages, and perfectly phrased details to bring his setting to life.

Fans of historical settings will love Taylor's masterful depiction of Cambridge, and lovers of potboilers will enjoy the suspense, twisting plot, and depraved young men that populate it. All in all, a fun read.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Joy of Spooking + contest winner

Some of you may recall that I reviewed The Joy of Spooking: Unearthly Asylum. And then I disappeared from the face of the blog-world. I am going to cite "personal reasons" and get on with a long overdue contest announcement!

I know there are those who swear by random number generators, but I am old-fashioned. I have yet to embrace Kindle or Nook, and I prefer pulling a slip of paper out of a hat. Actually, I have Lilah pull a slip out of the hat, a task she takes very seriously.

The winner is...drum roll...JenL! Thank you very much to all who entered. This is a delightful series. The third book, SINISTER SCENES, comes out next year, and I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Teaser Tuesday - holiday murder mysteries

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Kensington has a brilliant marketing strategy for their cozy mysteries. At the holidays, they release a hardcover collection of three short mysteries, one each from Joanne Fluke (the Hannah Swenson mysteries), Laura Levine (Jaine Austen), and Leslie Meier (Lucy Stone). Fans of each series will pick up the volume for their personal favorite sleuth, then get hooked on the two with which they're less familiar. I've sometimes read the Meier series, but I've read every Fluke and Levine. The Fluke entry was rather perfunctory this time, but the Levine is quite funny. My teaser is from the Laura Levine story/novella in Gingerbread Cookie Murder:

"Then, before I knew it, Edna grabbed the sparerib out of my hand and hurled it across the room at Preston, hitting him on his forehead, somewhere around his brow lift. As much as I hated to lose that sparerib, the guy had it coming." (p. 151)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Mystery Monday - Arnaldur Indridason

I received Arctic Chill, the fifth book in Arnaldur Indridason's mystery series set in Iceland, featuring Inspector Erlendur, as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer selection, and had no trouble jumping right in. The fifth was so well-written that I immediately snagged the first four in the series. I'm not going to do full-on reviews of the first four books; I just wanted to mention them to anyone needing something to fill the void left by the end of the Stieg Larsson trilogy! Though the books are very different, they seem to me likely to appeal to fans of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The forbidding landscape, insular culture, and twisting mysteries are satisfying additions to my mystery shelf (shelves...who am I kidding?).

My review of Arctic Chill is right here.

Here are the first four, in order. The sixth is out in hardcover, and is called Hypothermia.

Jar City
Silence of the Grave
The Draining Lake

My overview of the series: These are excellent police procedurals, strongly rooted in solving the crime (the way I like it!), but with compelling police officers who become more nuanced with each entry in the series. Erlendur has two children, estranged until recently, and a tragedy hidden in his past that haunts him. Indridason's Iceland is bleak, insular, forbidding...and strangely captivating. When issues of racism related to immigration arise, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to move there. Erlendur refers to "the usual Icelandic disappearances;" i.e., suicides in a casual fashion. Murders are rare and easily solved...but this series tests Erlendur's sleuthing abilities with more complex murders. Stark realism and nuanced characterization make this series stand out from a sea of procedurals.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A New, Spookier Deadline!

I was in a car accident this week, and am therefore spending my free time car-shopping. With that in mind, I've extended the deadline for the JOY OF SPOOKING giveaway. Creepy Halloween entry deadline: 11:59 pm EDT on Sunday, October 31! Retweet or post the new deadline on your own blog for an extra three entries!

Link to the contest!

Friday, October 22, 2010

How To Get Boys To Read

An interesting article on getting boys to read. Getting me to read was never my parents' problem; that would be getting me to stop! I do remember my mom struggling to find books that engaged my little brother so that he would love reading, too. Nowadays, he's a huge reader, so it must have worked, but back when he was little, there was a sense of desperation in the air.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays - Silence of the Grave

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

I'm reading SILENCE OF THE GRAVE, the second in the Reykjavik thriller series by Arnaldur Indridason. The first line:

"He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Joy of Spooking: Unearthly Asylum by P.J. Bracegirdle

Sequels are tricky things, what with the balancing act of preserving what made the first book good while creating a fresh story. The more I enjoyed the first book in a series, the more anxious/hopeful I feel as I approach the second. A good first book could be a fluke, after all. As you can see here, I loved the first book in the Joy of Spooking trilogy, FIENDISH DEEDS. I will not keep you in suspense: the second book more than realizes the potential of the first to kick off a fantastic trilogy. Now I'm conflicted, because I can't wait for the third book, SINISTER SCENES, in Summer 2011, yet that will be the end of the series!

In FIENDISH DEEDS, we met Joy, a morbid yet likable young denizen of Spooking, her decaying hometown perched on a hill outside the perfect, cookie-cutter suburb of Darlington, where she attends school with the insufferable Darlings. Joy adores everything about Spooking and is convinced that her favorite horror writer, E.A. Peugeot, was writing about Spooking in his chilling tales. When the presumed bog of his stories is threatened by the ambition of the mayor's assistant, Octavio Phipps, she springs into action. In UNEARTHLY ASYLUM, Joy is out of sorts because her little brother/sidekick is occupied with a new friend and her mission to prove that Spooking was the home of Peugeot runs into a major obstacle. Meanwhile, Phipps has a new plan to destroy Spooking, involving the creepy old asylum (the possible setting for Peugeot's story, "The Asylum"). When her beloved pet frog turns up on the wrong side of the asylum wall, Joy mounts a rescue operation. Will she make it out in one piece? Will she find proof of Peugeot's presence in Spooking? Will she uncover the secrets of the strange asylum? Good heavens, you don't really think I'd answer these questions, do you? Go read the book.

The snappy dialogue and clever wit of FIENDISH DEEDS continue in the second book. I was delighted to find that Joy was not only as delightful as she was in the first book, but Bracegirdle has added new dimension to her character. In the first book, her loyalty to Spooking was unwavering; in the second, she begins to see that decay may also have a downside. She also considers the possibility that she might be mistaken about Peugeot having lived in Spooking. Phipps, Joy's nemesis, is also fleshed out further. We learn more about his past and the source of his hatred for Spooking. His interaction with Joy is a delight. As Joy's mother decides to send her to a psychiatrist, attitudes toward mental illness are touched on.

A sample of Bracegirdle's witty phrasing: "Her already excitable character had become impossibly effervescent, and like a shaken pop bottle, she seemed about ready to explode." (p. 158)

For more information about UNEARTHLY ASYLUM, now available in hardcover, see P.J. Bracegirdle's website
Like P.J. Bracegirdle on Facebook!

Source disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.

You want to read this book, don't you? Of course you do! Here's how to receive your very own, brand-new copy of UNEARTHLY ASYLUM (and since I expect you'll love Joy as much as I do, I feel moved to throw in a paperback copy of FIENDISH DEEDS if you haven't yet read it):

1. For one entry, comment on this post and tell me whether you've read FIENDISH DEEDS and/or your favorite mystery/horror story/novel.
2. For three entries, "Like" P. J. Bracegirdle's page on Facebook and post below that you did (yes, I WILL check, and I will be annoyed if you try to put one over on me).
3. For three entries, follow my book musings on Twitter and tell me that you did.
4. For three entries, follow this blog and tell me you did (or already do).
5. Come back every day this week and comment on posts - each genuine comment (no, "I'm commenting!" does not count; say something insightful or, at the very least, entertaining) will add one entry.

Yes, you CAN win with only a comment on this post...but don't be shy about upping your odds.

UPDATE! I was in a car accident this week, and am therefore spending my free time car-shopping. Therefore, you now have an extra week to enter the contest. Creepy Halloween entry deadline: 11:59 pm EDT on Sunday, October 31! Retweet or post on your own blog for an extra entry. Don't forget to include some way of contacting you.


I have finally found a use for my long-neglected Twitter account. I often think I would post more often to this blog, but I never think my random book-related thoughts, news items, etc. really warrant a one-line blog post. Twitter is the perfect place for this sort of thing. Follow me by clicking here. Let's be ambitious - Follower #100 will get...something. Some kind of exciting book-related package.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Randomness for the day: Picture Books in Decline

Get ready....ahem...stepping up on soapbox now. Shelf Awareness published an article this morning discussing the decline of the traditional children's picture book. Oh, how this makes me sad! And makes me want to keep up the Picture Book Thursday post all the more! Also, makes more sense to me why Penguin has sent me picture book after picture book to review on here.

I can't even imagine a world without children's picture books. There are pictures books from my childhood etched into my brain forever, I remember them fondly and have shared many of those with my own children. I hope they will grasp onto a few books they love and share those with their children. How can parents go from board books to chapter books? Makes no sense! I know there's pressure for children to read at a younger age. But come on! Let children take the time to enjoy the wonderful illustrations and stories in picture books. Let them develop their reading skills by looking at the pictures and have them tell YOU the story. Just because kids CAN read chapter books, doesn't mean they SHOULD read them. We already schedule our children's activities to the hilt. They already learn things in kindergarten I didn't learn until first or even second grade. And now, we're pushing picture books out of the way. No wonder our children are blowing through childhood and growing up so much more quickly! I imagine if a child is destined to get into Harvard, it's probably going to happen regardless of what they are reading at age five. *stepping down from soapbox*

Here's the Shelf Awareness article:

Notes: Picture Books in Decline

Has the golden age of the picture book for children passed? The New York Times reported that the "picture book, a mainstay of children's literature with its lavish illustrations, cheerful colors and large print wrapped in a glossy jacket, has been fading.... publishers have scaled back the number of titles they have released in the last several years, and booksellers across the country say sales have been suffering."

"So many of them just die a sad little death, and we never see them again," said Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children's Book Shop, Brookline, Mass.

Justin Chanda, publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, observed: "Parents are saying, 'My kid doesn't need books with pictures anymore.' There's a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We've accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books."

At Politics and Prose bookstore, Washington, D.C., children's department manager Dara La Porte said, "They're four years old, and their parents are getting them Stuart Little. I see children pick up picture books, and then the parents say, 'You can do better than this, you can do more than this.' It's a terrible pressure parents are feeling--that somehow, I shouldn't let my child have this picture book because she won't get into Harvard."

Picture books have earned their place in children's reading lives. Karen Lotz, publisher of Candlewick Press, suggested that, "To some degree, picture books force an analog way of thinking. From picture to picture, as the reader interacts with the book, their imagination is filling in the missing themes."

And Kris Vreeland, a book buyer at Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., noted that "Some of the vocabulary in a picture book is much more challenging than in a chapter book. The words themselves, and the concepts, can be very sophisticated in a picture book."

The Times reported, however, that over the last three years, Scholastic has published 5% to 10% percent fewer hardcover picture books and Don Weisberg, the president of the Penguin Young Readers Group, "said that two and a half years ago, the company began publishing fewer titles but that it had devoted more attention to marketing and promoting the ones that remain. Of all the children's books published by Simon & Schuster, about 20% are picture books, down from 35% a few years ago."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Picture Book Thursday: How to Raise a Dinosaur by Natasha Wing

I was so excited about this picture book when I opened its envelope! Doesn't the cover just make you want to look inside? My 8-month old will love this as he gets bigger.

Natasha Wing seems to be most known for her "The Night Before" series of books: The Night Before Kindergarten, The Night Before Halloween, The Night Before Valentine's Day, etc. How to Raise a Dinosaur is a very different book from these! And a fabulous entry to her lists of books!

In the beginning, a young boy asks if you're thinking about getting a pet. Then he proceeds to "sell" you on a dinosaur complete with instructions in care, housing, and commands you should teach your dinosaur. On the last page of the book, he even suggests that you "Above all, give your dinosaur lots of love...or it will eat you!" :-)

This is absolutely adorable! And if I saw this laying on a bookstore table, I would snap it up immediately. Even more interesting than the text, the illustrations by Pablo Bernasconi make this fabulous. They are so rich in color and texture, they are sure to keep your child interested as each page is turned. The book also contains various flaps for further entertainment value.

This book is very HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!

About the Author:
Natasha Wing has been writing children's stories since 1992 with her first publication, Hippity Hop, Frog on Top. She has also been published in children's magazines such as Highlights, Babybug, and Ladybug. After the first publication of The Night Before Easter in 1999, Wing was asked to make The Night Before into a series. Since then, the series has sold more than one million copies. As a girl, Natasha visited the Peabody Museum of Natural History and was fascinated by the dinosaur exhibits. She doesn't have a dinosaur for a pet, but does have a calico cat, Jemima, who shares a home with Natasha and her husband Dan.

About the Illustrator: Pablo Bernasconi has been published in many newspapers and magazines like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Time. He has published seven children's books that he authored and illustrated, which have been translated into eight different languages.

Source Disclosure: This book was sent to me unsolicited by the publisher Running Press Kids.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

Arctic Chill is the fifth in Indridason's Reykjavik Thriller series, but it is the first I've read. Before I had even finished reading this book, I had placed an order for the first four. This novel has much to offer the mystery aficionado: a well-crafted police procedural, an unflinching indictment of modern culture, and a glimpse into Iceland's racial tensions and changing demographics. Erlendur and his two detectives, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, investigate when a young Thai boy, Elias, is found stabbed to death, his blood freezing his body to the ground outside his apartment complex. Elias's mother, Sunee, had been brought to Iceland as a bride in a marriage that ended in divorce, partly because of Sunee's insistence on bringing her older son to Iceland as well. Niran's difficulties in adapting to Icelandic culture provide the backdrop for a fascinating discussion on assimilation versus preserving one's own culture. Was this crime racially motivated? There is an abundance of liberal Icelanders whose hackles have been raised by the influx of immigrants who don't learn Icelandic and whose children scoff at learning Icelandic history in school. One of Elias's teachers is full of hateful rhetoric about "those people." Hints of a possible pedophile in the area, tensions between Icelandic and immigrant children at Elias's school, the disappearance of Niran, and whispers of a boyfriend for Sunee complicate the investigation.

Iceland itself is almost its own character in this novel. This is not a culture with which I was terribly familiar, and the insight was fascinating. In Iceland, disappearances are accepted as part of life in a country with an astronomical suicide rate. The Icelanders are welcoming of immigrants, but fear losing their dwindling culture. The climate is forbiddingly harsh, and it makes me wonder what keeps people there.

Subplots supplemented the central murder investigation. A second mystery, the disappearance of a woman, slips into the storyline as Erlendur receives strange phone calls. Erlendur broods on the disappearance of his brother decades before while awkwardly dealing with his son and daughter turning up, and his mentor is on his deathbed. The plots altogether added up to one of the bleaker mysteries I've read, but even a clunky translation can't diminish its compelling appeal.

Source disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Picador through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program.

Banned Books Week--Article

Lauren Myracle had a really good article posted on Shelf Awareness this morning. She discussed the issues behind two of her books and why they receive flack from people who want them censored. But the greater part of her article was very self-reflecting in how she is against censorship, but knows that she censors herself. And how she needs to work on that. Good stuff! You should read it!

And just as an added plug, here's a link to my review of Luv Ya Bunches from last year. I really enjoyed her book and thought it was very reflective of today's society.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Picture Book Thursday: Back to School!

Unfortunately, this feature is becoming more of a monthly item. But I'm hoping as the school year gets underway that I have a bit more time and can post more often. I have three books today that could fall into the "Back to School" category.

This School Year Will Be the Best! by Kay Winters is a fun little book perfect for the start of school! This one might be especially good for early grade teachers to read for story time. The children in one classroom each tell what they hope for the school year. Some are realistic things like getting a good report card, kicking the soccer ball into the right goal, or winning the science fair. And others are a little more far-fetched: hoping there is a chocolate water fountain or having a skateboard day. At the end, the teacher's hope is that she gets to know each one of the students. A great book for discussing YOUR child's hopes for the upcoming school year. And very fitting, my homework assignment this week for my first grader is to write down what our hopes and dreams are for her for first grade. :-)

David Milgrin's How You Got So Smart starts with a baby learning about everything by observing his/her world, then exploring it and tasting it bit by bit. Then, moves on to children making friends, asking questions, expressing themselves, and being confident in who they are. This book might actually be more appropriate as an end of year book. It could even be a graduation present a la Dr. Suess' Oh, The Places You Will Go. However, I'll feature it here because I think kids need to be reminded at the start of the year about everything they have learned and done so they can continue to be confident. Each year brings new challenges and if they are reminded of all the past challenges they've conquered, then maybe facing the new ones won't seem so hard.

Dewey: There's a Cat in the Library! by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter isn't really related to back to school, but it's about books and therefore, relates to school for me. Okay, that was a stretch but go with it! ;-) This is a cute picture book showing how Dewey tries to help people because he's a Library Cat. He helps shelve the books, helps read stories to the children and helps a sad little girl smile again. If your child is a big fan of cats/kittens this is a perfect book for them with highly realistic illustrations by Steve James.

Have you read any great books for back to school with your children? I'd love to hear what you've been reading! Happy New School Year!

Source Disclosure: This School Year Will Be the Best and How You Got So Smart both came to me from the Penguin Group. Dewey arrived via Little, Brown and Company.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Mystery Monday - Donna Andrews

Stork Raving Mad is the twelfth mystery in Donna Andrews's Meg Langslow series. Meg is eight months pregnant...with twins. But her home is in more chaos than just the usual visiting family members; Caerphilly College's heating plant has failed, and she's offered up her large house as a barracks for the displaced students. When her husband asks if she minds another houseguest, Meg assumes she won't notice one more. But Senor Mendoza, an elderly Spanish playwright, has come to visit Caerphilly because one of Michael's drama students is writing his dissertation on and staging a performance of one of Mendoza's bawdy plays. A pair from the college's administration turns up, accusing the student, Ramon, of having failed to complete the requisite paperwork for his dissertation topic. The more unpleasant of the two turns up dead. If all this sounds convoluted...well, it is. The premise isn't the best in the series, and the resolution of the mystery is a bit tedious. But after twelve books, Ms. Andrews is entitled to a weaker entry, and there is still plenty for fans of Meg and the Langslow clan to enjoy. The pregnant Meg on her constant search for a snack or a place to rest, is constantly sidelined by having to investigate. Rose Noire is taking her role as caregiver extremely seriously. I enjoyed her presence in this entry, including a key plot point. While Rob was absent, some of his employees were on hand, using Meg's basement as a place to test their new software. The students added an interesting dynamic as well. In all, a fun entry in one of my favorite series. Start with the first, Murder With Peacocks.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

As I read Murder at Mansfield Park, I experienced the full range of emotional responses: I nearly flung the book across the room, I chuckled at Shepherd's mastery of Austen-like humor, I flipped back in frustration to the pages establishing the revamped relationships among characters. As I read, my star rating vacillated wildly. I have finally settled on three stars, which feels a bit like a copout. But this is really two separate projects shoehorned into one, and ultimately, I'm not convinced they coexist well.

Those unfamiliar with Mansfield Park will miss a huge chunk of the fun here. In Austen's original, three sisters marry with varying degrees of success. Lady Bertram married well up and produced three children, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Mrs. Norris did just fine, marrying the parson of the estate, and is now widowed with no children. The third sister married imprudently for love and produced a passel of children they can ill-afford, among them Fanny, the oldest girl, Susan, the next oldest, and William. Fanny is closest to Susan and William and misses them the most when she is sent to live with the Bertrams as a money-saving measure, where only Edmund treats her with kindness. Sister and brother Mary and Henry Crawford come to live in the parsonage. Henry begins a flirtation with all the girls, while Mary has her sights on Edmund. Shepherd interferes with the relationships and status of Austen's characters. Now Fanny is a spoiled orphan heiress who comes to live with her socially inferior cousins, the Bertrams, Edmund is Mrs. Norris's son, Henry Crawford has a profession, and Mary Crawford is a virtuous girl. This is the first reimagining of the novel. The second turns Mansfield Park into a Regency crime novel when Fanny turns up dead and Mr. Maddox is summoned to get to the bottom of the matter. This second approach has a number of effects: the servants figure more prominently, since they are a great source of information to Mr. Maddox, Mr. Maddox himself adds a wrinkle into the class portrayals, and much of the social commentary is redirected into the murder investigation.

I found a great deal of enjoyment in this novel, but I felt it was overly ambitious. Either of the two premises would have been sufficient, but both crammed together seemed excessive. Either shed light on class divisions by turning the relationships on their head or reimagine the novel as a murder mystery, but both is too much departure from the original material. Austen's own words are incorporated extensively, but Shepherd's prose blends almost seamlessly. She has an impressive command of Regency language and of Austen's brand of humor. Ultimately, there is simply too much going on here to really shed light on Austen's original, and the reader has far too many departures of which to keep track. I kept forgetting that WIlliam wasn't Fanny's brother in this interpretation, the class change for Henry was a sticking point, Edmund as Mrs. Norris's son...all this and more AND with a murder mystery thrown in. While there were fun, insightful parts, the rest was chaos.

An overly ambitious reimagining of Austen, but one with plenty of enjoyable moments.

Source disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quick Note

I forgot to mention yesterday in my Picture Book Post that Abbie is hosting a giveaway this week. All you have to do is go over to Greening Sam and Avery and leave comments on the guest posts. You could win fun prizes from Acorn Naturalists!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Picture Book Thurday: Guest Post at Greening Sam & Avery

My friend Abbie has started a new endeavor with her young children: to teach them in a hands-on way about nature and the environment around them. She asked me be to be a guest blogger for her blog Greening Sam and Avery. At first I was a little nervous, what could I contribute? Other than recycling regularly, using reusable bags, and doing a garden in the summer, we don't do nature activities very often. Then she said she wanted people to write about an interest of theirs but somehow relate it to "being green". Okay, I could do that!

While at the library with my kiddos last week, I picked up a couple picture books that I thought would fit into the environmental theme of her blog. Since Abbie's daughters are in the two and under age group, I wanted to find at least one book that might appeal to a very young audience.

The Earth and I jumped out at me both for the title and the author. I LOVED Frank Asch's Popcorn when I was a kid. LOVED it! And I have to say I really enjoyed this book as well. There are very few words, the pictures mostly say it all, which makes it great for a younger audience. It depicts one child's friendship with the earth: listening to the earth, helping her grow, playing in the backyard together. The book also shows the earth being sad (polluted) and how we can help clean the mess up to make her happy again. The pictures are really great and colorful. He also wrote the companion book Water which looks to be just as colorful and interesting.

For the girly girls out there (this would include my girls!), Fancy Nancy: Explorer Extraordinare is the perfect guide to investigating nature. Nancy and her best friend Bree start a new club. Nancy writes on the first page of the book, "Bonjour, everybody! Welcome to our club! Bree and I love to go exploring in the wild. We collect leaves, watch birds and butterflies, and inspect insects. If you're like us, then you can be an Explorer Extraordinaire too." The pages that follow show the club rules (Nobody in the club thinks bugs are gross. No touching; just looking. We never catch butterflies because they are fragile.), talk about various bugs, their life cycles, birds and trees. Photographs depict different types of insects, birds and leaves. My favorite part of the book are the little activity ideas sprinkled throughout. They tell you how to make a cookie-cutter bird feeder, a pine cone bird feeder, a lavish leaf crown, and more.

The last two books, I actually haven't read, but wanted to include them because they are on the less girly side of things. I've seen them around and have been meaning to take a look at them. Ellie Bethel has written two pictures books starring Michael Recycle; Michael Recycle and Michael Recycle Meets Litterbug Doug. He's a superhero whose power is to teach people to recycle. In the second book, the green caped crusader must teach Doug to be less lazy and clean up after himself.

These are just a few of the books that fall into the category of the environment or promoting being green. If you're interested in finding more books, here is a link to what I found when I searched "environment" in children's fiction books on the Barnes and Noble website. There are so many fun books to take a look at!

Source disclosure: I borrowed these books from the library.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

"Je me souviens" (I remember) is the motto of Quebec, and Bury Your Dead echoes this sentiment in every plot thread. In the acknowledgements, Penny says, "Bury Your Dead is not about death, but about life. And the need to both respect the past and let it go." (Advance Reader's Edition) The main action takes place in Quebec City, an ancient, walled settlement literally built on the bones of those who came before. Here, the dwindling English minority huddles together, surrounded by the Francophones who mostly resent their presence. Their symbolic last stand is in the Literary and Historical Society, the depository for all English-language books and papers. The old building needs an infusion of cash, but the Anglophone community responds poorly to attempts to sell off the worthless books and papers choking the Lit and His, insisting that to sell off a few books to save the many devalues the English language. It is here, in the Lit and His, that Inspector Gamache seeks refuge in the past, and is pulled into a murder investigation in the present.

Bury Your Dead is the sixth entry in the Inspector Gamache series. I first read the fifth, The Brutal Telling, then immediately ordered the first four books in the series. I was delighted to receive a review copy of the sixth, which picks up some time after The Brutal Telling. Gamache and Jean-Guy are both on leave following a disastrous case that left both men wounded, physically and emotionally. Gamache seeks refuge in Quebec City with his mentor, Emile, researching the history of another leader whose mistakes piled up until it was too late. In the basement of the Lit and His, the half-buried body of amateur archaeologist and eccentric Augustin Renaud is found, his head caved in with a shovel. Renaud is well-known as a fanatic obsessed with finding the final resting place of Champlain, the father of Quebec. French-English relations are threatened by Renaud's death in the English stronghold, and Gamache is asked to act as liaison between the two communities and assist with the investigation. Penny has dealt in intriguing fashion with the Anglophone/Francophone relations in Quebec in previous books, but this marks her most thorough discussion so far. I was fascinated by the political/historical implications of the unfolding events.

Meanwhile, Gamache is haunted by doubts and sends Jean-Guy (also on leave) to Three Pines to reopen old wounds. I can't go into detail without spoiling The Brutal Telling for those new to the series. But Jean-Guy's covert investigation is a welcome return to the charming village, intersecting with Jean-Guy's attempts to deal with his own past. The final plot thread, the disastrous last case, is teased out in remarkably effective fashion as Jean-Guy and Gamache attempt (separately) to come to terms with the tragedy. So much of both men is revealed in this entry of the series, and this unifying idea of respecting the past, but letting it go, is carried through this psychological exploration as well. It's really a breathtaking book, and I found it difficult to put down.

While a newcomer to the series wouldn't be completely at sea, I recommend against starting with the sixth, which refers to many events in The Brutal Telling. In addition, The Brutal Telling marked a deepening psychological examination of the main characters, which is further explored in Bury Your Dead. Readers will find the most satisfaction in reading the series in order from the beginning as the characters are fleshed out and relationships evolve.

Bury Your Dead is available in hardcover September 28, 2010.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

My blurbs for #1-4, Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, and A Rule Against Murder.
My review of #5, The Brutal Telling.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Clouds Beneath the Sun by Mackenzie Ford

Books don't often shock me. I read so much that I seem to be in tune with the narrative flow, I see plot twists coming from miles away, and I'm good at spotting foreshadowing. However, in his second novel, Mackenzie Ford has created a story of such surprising richness that I closed it on the last page, then promptly began thinking if the surprises were fair, if they had been foreshadowed. I had to conclude that I had fair warning of the plot developments all the way through, which makes The Clouds Beneath the Sun all the more extraordinary. In fact, some events were foreshadowed, but I discounted them as impossible to pull off in a realistic fashion. How delighted I was to have been mistaken.

The book opens with Natalie Nelson taking her newly minted Cambridge Ph.D and broken heart to her first dig, in Kenya. Ford (a nom de plume for historian Peter Watson) eases us into the setting with Natalie passing elephants involved in a mourning ritual on the way to the remote camp. I actually had trouble getting into the book at first. An archaeological dig in 1961 Kenya is not an easy setting to evoke, and the "Attention: You Are Now In the 1960s!" details did not feel as effortlessly part of the story as the history and political climate of Kenya. (Examples: that newfangled birth control pill, friends of Natalie's who (gasp) live with men instead of marrying, Natalie's parents utter shock at her disastrous affair with a married man, the publication of Lolita, talk of men going to the moon.) And Natalie's mooning about Dom, her lover, is a bit overdone. However, once I'd made it through the set-up, I could not put this book down. Ford's Kenya is beautiful, vibrant, and complex, so well-drawn that I had no difficulty visualizing it. He lays out the political climate neatly. The moral complexity of the story means that I'm still thinking about the implications.

As Natalie and the others on the dig begin to make extraordinary discoveries in the gorge, she develops relationships with her colleagues. Eleanor, the widow of a celebrated paleontologist, wants to take Natalie under her wing, forcing a confidence that Natalie isn't sure she wants. Eleanor's two sons, Jack and Christopher, vie for her attention, as does Russell, an Australian on the dig. When Richard Sutton, Jr. is found murdered after he and Russell commit an unforgivable act against the Maasai, Natalie is thrust into the center of a political minefield, as the only witness who can implicate one of the Maasai. The tensions between the Maasai and the colonial paleontologists, between blacks and whites (some want a system of apartheid for Kenya, while other groups seek an integrated society, and still others want all the whites ejected), between English law and tribal custom, are absolutely riveting. Jack, having grown up in Africa, is an honorary Maasai, so his insights are invaluable. These are not easy questions posed by Ford, and he doesn't offer easy answers. The pressure on Natalie to refuse to testify in order to diffuse the political situation is not unwarranted, and she herself wavers between doing what is morally right to her, and doing what may be politically and culturally appropriate.

This is a morally complex novel that evokes a realistic picture of 1961 Kenya, of a country divided by race on the brink of independence, and of an impossible choice. I highly recommend it.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James

I chose this as an Early Reviewer book from LibraryThing because I thought the storyline sounded intriguing and I usually like psychological thrillers. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I read this book in two days which is quite a feat for me these days with three kids.

In Beautiful Malice, Katherine has suffered through losing her sister in a family tragedy. She is living with her aunt and trying to start over at a new school when she meets Alice, a popular and fun girl. After knowing Alice for a bit, Katherine thinks there is something that seems a bit off about her but dismisses it. As the story unfolds, Alice is not who she seems to be and starts wreaking havoc on Katherine's life just as she starts to move past her sister's death.

The author took her time revealing all the secrets of the book and paced it just right to keep the reader moving through the pages. I didn't really guess any of the story before it was revealed to me which I always think is the sign of a good book.

It only received mildly warm reviews on LibraryThing, but I felt it was one of the better books I've read in awhile.

Source disclosure: Received from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Mystery Monday: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham

I enjoyed John Grisham's first foray into juvenile fiction better than his recent adult novels. His knack for storytelling never gets old and translated well for a younger audience.

Theodore Boone is the thirteen year old son of two lawyers. He spends his afternoons at their law office doing his homework and helping students with occasional legal troubles. He is good friends with many of the cops, lawyers, judges and secretaries in town. When the trial of the century takes place, Theo is chomping at the bit for a front row seat. During the trial, a fellow student comes to him with information that could change the outcome of the verdict. Theo must figure out how to help without risking breaking a promise and without messing up the whole trial.

I enjoyed reading this novel and whipped right through it. I only have two complaints. One is very minor. Grisham tended to overexplain things with regard to the courtroom and he defined random words here and there. But, I realize many kids reading this book would not have knowledge of how a courtroom works so these explanations are necessary. It was just a little much for me as an adult reading the story.

My second gripe is that I felt like the book just sort of ended. I wanted a bit more closure. Not sure if Grisham's enthusiasm for writing the book just fizzled out, but I didn't feel like the ending was very polished. There was one man creeping around (Omar Cheepe), and maybe I was reading too fast and missed the background on this guy, but I didn't feel like I fully understood what this character was up to. He was following Theo around but I couldn't figure out why or how he was related to the defendant in the trial. I guess I sort of wanted an epilogue what would neatly tie it all together.

All that being said, I definitely recommend this to any young reader out there looking for a good mystery or interested in how a trial is run. I think this is a great book for children who may read above their level. Content-wise this is very appropriate for younger readers. No real violence, no bad language. Just good storytelling.

Source disclosure: I received this from the Penguin Group as part of their summer promotional package.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

Arcadia Falls had a little bit of everything! Good storytelling, interesting characters, and awesome atmosphere.

After Meg Rosenthal's husband passes away suddenly, she finds herself in need of a job to support her and her daughter, Sally. They move to Arcadia Falls where she starts teaching at an arts school. Meg's background is in fairy tales and part of the appeal of Arcadia Falls is the town's rich history in both the arts and storytelling. One of the schools founders created wonderful fairy tales which Meg grew up on. She couldn't resist going to the place that inspired it all. Just as Meg and Sally arrive and get settled, a student mysteriously dies. The death starts to reveal the dark side of the school and the town. Meg stumbles upon many secrets from both past and present.

Arcadia Falls has a very atmospheric Gothic feeling to it. I really liked how the fairy tales were woven into the story. I also liked the multi-layered historical aspect of the book. Without giving too much of the story way, everything and everyone seems somehow connected to the past and current stories taking place.

My only gripe about Goodman's book is that there seemed to be an abnormal amount of people drawn to one particular cliff on the school grounds. The number of people falling, dying, threatening to kill themselves at this cliff provided over the top drama.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you were a fan of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. This had a very similar feeling to it.

Source disclosure: I received a review copy of this from Ballantine Books as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

First Come Love, Then Comes Malaria by Eve Brown-Waite

I read various reviews of this memoir last year and suggested it to my book club. I'm glad I did, because everyone who read it loved it!

Eve Brown-Waite recounts how she met her husband while joining the Peace Corps, her brief stint as a Peace Corps worker and then their experiences as ex-patriots living in Uganda.

Brown-Waite's husband is the type of guy who loves traveling the world and helping out in third-world communities. Eve isn't so sure she's up for the same adventure but goes along with it anyway. Arriving in Africa, she doesn't quite know what to expect. The other ex-pat wives teach her all that she needs to know to be as comfortable as possible in this strange place. When she believes she might be pregnant, she sees a doctor who can't really tell her if she is pregnant or not. She is "maybe" pregnant. She also spends a good part of the book trying to figure out how she can use her background in public health education to help educate the people there about HIV/AIDS prevention.

I thoroughly enjoyed joining Eve on her African adventure and her entry into motherhood in less than ideal conditions. It was interesting how they learned to adapt to the different culture and climate and returning to the fast-paced, overstimulated world of America was so overwhelming to her. The end of the book hinted at a sequel of their next adventure when their time in Uganda was finished. I certainly would jump at the chance to read anything else by this author. She had me laughing out loud at her stories.

Source Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Picture Book Thursday: Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora

If you're looking for a picture book that is not only visually interesting but also has a great message showing how diverse our communities can be, take a look at Say Hello by Rachel Isadora.

Carmelita and her mother take their dog, Manny on a walk through their neighborhood. Each person they encounter speaks a different language and Carmelita greets each in their native voice: Spanish, Japanese, French, Italian and many more!

The text of this book is pretty simple and introduces children to many greetings from around the world. The images are wonderful collages and so engaging! There are store-fronts, restaurants, and a parks. You and your child could talk about all the different things you see on each page, and what types of things were used to make the images. You could also get a globe and show your child where each country/greeting is compared to your current location.

Written and Illustrated by Rachel Isadora: She received a Caldecott Honor for Ben's Trumpet and has written and illustrated numerous books for children, including Peekaboo Bedtime, the Lili at the Ballet series, and several classic tales set in Africa. She lives in New York City.

Source disclosure: This book was sent to me from the Penguin Group unsolicited in hopes that it would be reviewed.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

What can I say about this book that hasn't already been said? I put off reading it, despite the delicious title. After attempting to read Infinite Jest years ago, I was a bit off self-conscious postmodernism. This is a difficult book to review. The opening pages are...worthless, story-wise. "Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of This Book" are almost unbearably clever. I flipped through them without thoroughly reading them. I recommend this approach. Later developments will make you glad for a passing knowledge of the self-referential (Hi! I'm writing a clever novel! See me writing a clever novel?) parody of a preface, but don't torture yourself by reading it word for word. For the first fifty or so pages, I was wondering, "Is Eggers brilliant, too clever for his own good, or both?" And then I got sucked into the story. Eggers is a brilliant writer with a gripping story: as a young man, he becomes an orphan and de facto single parent, trying to give his younger brother, Toph, the childhood he should have had. Less engaging is the considerable time Eggers spends on his tenure at Might Magazine, an above-it-all publication produced by a group of disillusioned young adults infatuated with their own cleverness. I simply didn't care about the magazine or the people devoted to it.

The description of his mother's end-of-life saga is difficult to read, not because it's clunky or poorly written, but because Eggers has captured the truth of dying in a painful, exquisitely beautiful way. And the relationship with the younger brother is equally well-written and beautiful. Eggers uses outrageous hyperbole to great effect, and if the reader is unsure how much of a grain of salt is required in the reading, well - that's life, isn't it? It's all relative, and what's true in Eggers's mind as he raises this child is not a lie, just as an outsider's perception is its own truth. Small, pedestrian struggles, like the desperate need for a washer/dryer are given equal weight with the bigger problems such as sister Beth keeping Toph in touch with his memories by pulling out photo albums while Eggers works harder to keep Toph distracted from the fact of his orphanhood. Eggers's parenting seems at turns irresponsible (as in the hideous weekly menu of bachelor dishes) and heartbreakingly conscious (as in his evaluation of potential girlfriends based entirely on their view of Toph and their life together).

Eggers goes all the way with his cleverness, and like all risks, some pay off, while some fall flat. An extended "transcript" of an interview to be on MTV's The Real World is used to reveal extensive background on Dave, and quickly becomes tiresome. And the disclaimer that, of course, Eggers realizes that it's a cheap literary device, doesn't excuse the tedium. I don't care how postmodern you are -- don't pull me out of the story. The list of "recipes" for disgusting bachelor food, though, was surprisingly touching and hilarious. The gimmicky ending, reeking of Joyce or Salinger, somehow worked for me. It brought the story to a satisfying close on an emotional note.

I'm not sure how to sum up this review, really. There's brilliance, but a too-clever edge that could have been edited out for a better story. Worth reading? Absolutely.

FTC Source Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

YA Weekend - series grab bag edition (again!)

I was happy to see a fourth book in Linda DeMeulemeester's Grim Hill series. Cat is a lovely, strong heroine for the tweener crowd. In this entry, she goes on an exchange trip to Sweden where odd happenings are afoot. Even before she leaves, Cat is haunted by a recurring dream of drowning in cold water, which she ignores, busy as she is with fundraising for the trip. She's horrified when her mother tells her that to save money, Cat will stay with her aunt instead of with her school group, but even worse, her sister, Sookie, will tag along. Her aunt acts very strangely, the Swedish headmistress is odd, a strange fog hovers over the town, and Sookie seems to be conversing with a black cat in the barn. Cat and her friends get to the bottom of the strange occurrences, and Cat's aunt is revealed in a very surprising light. The setting means that there's no soccer in this entry (one of the things I love about this series is that Cat is an excellent athlete), but Cat refers to it, at least, and she seems to be growing in maturity in terms of handling problems and accepting her responsibility for her sister. A fun entry in a unique series.

My reviews of the first three books in the series.

Enola Holmes is a delightful heroine. The much-younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, she runs away from home after her mother disappears, wanting to avoid the finishing school and crippling corseting her brothers seem to think necessary. She sets herself up as a "perditorian," a finder of lost things, and succeeds quite well. Her path intersects often with Sherlock's, and she must use her wits (and collection of disguises) to avoid capture. This is the final entry, and it's a treat. Enola and Sherlock have grown fond (from a distance) of each other as the books have evolved, even working briefly together. In Gypsy Goodbye, they work together more closely than ever before on the case of a duchess who disappeared at an Underground station. Simultaneously, they work to decode a cryptic message from Enola's mother. Will we finally find out her fate? The Victorian setting is brilliantly evoked, Enola is a delight, and the social messages are deftly inserted. A delightful conclusion to one of the best mystery series for young people.

My reviews of the first four books in the series
My review of book five

Alison Dare, The Heart of the Maiden by J. Torres and J. Bone:
Alison Dare, daughter of a world-renowned archaeologist and a superhero, has exciting adventures in these graphic novelettes, and she drags along her best friends from her boarding school to help her. The girls unleash plagues, stumble onto a band of Ninja nuns, and run afoul of a mummy's curse. These are cute, funny vignettes, chock-full of adventure. This would be an excellent series for the reluctant reader.

My review of Alison Dare, Little Miss Adventures

FTC Source Disclosure: I purchased all of these books.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Picture Book Thursday: Summer Fun!

With the Fourth of July upon us, I thought it would be fun to feature some books that just scream SUMMER!
I was pleasantly surprised when I opened Hot Diggity Dog by Adrienne Sylver! Even though it is a book about hot dogs, it also provides little fun food facts in general. Such as, July is National Hot Dog Month, but it is also National Ice Cream, Watermelon, Baked Beans and Blueberry Month. And did you know that Americans eat 2 BILLION hot dogs JUST in the month of July! Holy smokes!

There are so many fun facts and lists in this book, such as: what cities eat the most hot dogs (Los Angeles was #1, followed by New York), different types of hot dogs (Chicago Dog, Coney Island Dog, etc), different food contests (not just hot dog eating, but also M&Ms, tamales, grilled cheese and more). The book even has two recipes in the back for Beans and Franks and Hot and Tangy Dogs.

This is a great book showing how the hot dog arrived in America and how it became a stadium food. I think many children will enjoy this book, especially if they are looking for something different from a storybook. It is pretty text-heavy so it might be better for grade school age children.

Ladybug Girl At the Beach is David Soman's third installment of the popular picture book series. Lulu and her family spend the day at the beach. It's her first time visiting the ocean and the waves look a little daunting to her. She finds many other things to do like build sand castles, walk along the beach, get ice cream. But she really thinks the water would be fun even though it looks a bit scary. Not until her favorite pail gets washed away does Lulu finally get into the water as Ladybug Girl! And the rest of the day Ladybug Girl has no fear and enjoys the beach AND the water!

Although my girls and I have enjoyed all the Ladybug Girl books, I think this one is my favorite so far. My younger daughter is definitely less adventurous than our older daughter and the ocean/water makes her very nervous. I think this is a great book to show there are MANY things we can do at the beach even if we are a little scared of the water. And maybe one day, we will decide the water isn't that scary after all and jump right in!

Whatever you do or eat this summer have a fabulous time!!! :-) Happy Fourth of July!

Source Disclosure: Both of these books were sent to me from the Penguin group as part of their summer promotional materials.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mystery Monday - Laura Levine

Killer Cruise by Laura Levine is the eighth book in the Jaine Austen (Writer-for-Hire) mystery series. This is excellent beach reading. Levine has a great sense of humor, and she doesn't take herself too seriously. Instead, she infuses each entry with tongue-in-cheek observations, snappy dialogue, and Jaine getting herself into ridiculous situations...again. Jaine is a freelance writer, and she pretty much takes any job that will help keep Prozac in expensive kitty kibble. This time, she's thrilled to be offered a free Mexican cruise to fill in for the writing teacher who had cancelled. Her illusions are shattered when she's shoehorned into a closet on the Dungeon Deck with the other employees and meets her "students," one obsessed with Mary Higgins Clark (and she's the most normal). One writing exercise splits up a couple on the cruise to celebrate a milestone anniversary. And Prozac has ended up on board. To keep him quiet, Jaine agrees to read the porter's dreadful manuscript. It's the usual fun, wild ride until Jaine uncovers a murderer.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Mystery Monday - Lisa Lutz

Still in Paris! I read the newest Isabel Spellman book over a month ago, though, so I wanted to schedule a Mystery Monday post for the series, which has become one of my go-to rereading series. For fluffy, fun re-reading, I still go to Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum books, but Izzy Spellman is fresh and funny, but with a more serious edge. And she's good at her job. A little TOO good...

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (Book One): At twenty-eight, Izzy Spellman is comfortable in the family business, a detective agency, where she enjoys surveillance a little too much. And she's not the only one. The Spellmans can't seem to leave their work at the office, spying on each other with every professional resource they have, except for David, the "black sheep" of the family, who has chosen a respectable job as a lawyer. When Izzy's mother hires fourteen-year-old Rae Spellman to follow her sister to find out about Izzy's new boyfriend, Izzy decides she wants out. Her parents agree to let her go...after one more case. An impossible-to-solve fifteen-year-old missing persons case. They're banking on her insatiable curiosity keeping her in the business after the required hours have been put in. Rae, whose hobby of recreational surveillance is more than a little dangerous, disappears, presenting Izzy with the most important case of her life. The dialogue is snappy, the dysfunctional family outrageous, yet believable, and the cast of characters rich and quirky. This is pure fun.

Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz (Book Two): Izzy is obsessed with the Spellmans' neighbor, who seems just a bit 'off.' She can't seem to leave him alone...despite the restraining order. She's arrested four times in three months, which she writes off as a hazard of the job. It all started when the friend from whom she'd been subletting an apartment showed up in the middle of the night. He's happy to be roomies, but she quickly moves back home. Rae, now fifteen, befriends a cop and great guy, Henry Stone. He really doesn't deserve to be saddled with the Spellmans, but he's so good for them, the reader hopes that he and Izzy will get together. But Izzy is preoccupied with that suspicious neighbor and with her brother David's problems. This is a worthy follow-up to a fantastic debut mystery.

Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz (Book Three): This series just gets better and better. Izzy is in court-ordered therapy, Rae is accused of cheating on the PSAT, and a new case seizes Izzy's attention. Ernie Black's wife is probably not having an affair...but something odd is going on. Even after Ernie is satisfied, Izzy can't let go until she uncovers the secret. The transcripts of Izzy's therapy sessions are hilarious - she's a terrible client, but a funny one. Her preoccupation with Henry's annoyingly perfect new girlfriend adds another subplot. Another fun read.

The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz (Book Four): I was delighted when Lutz released a fourth book in this series. I can't get enough of Izzy and her crazy family. Unfortunately, this looks like the final entry, but what an entry! Izzy has finally agreed to take over the family business. Her first task is to gather dirt on Rick Harkey, the competition, one she enjoys a bit too much. A mysterious disappearance convinces her to hire an actor friend to play butler in a mansion, a role he can't leave at the end of the day, driving his partner crazy. Rae, now interning by researching pro bono cases, becomes obsessed with freeing a prisoner. And what on earth does Henry Stone mean by hanging around again? A funny, delightful conclusion to a fantastically fun series.

Source disclosure: I purchased all these books.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

YA Weekend - series grab bag edition

I am in Paris, not thinking about book reviews even a little bit. I love the scheduled posts feature, which lets me review books for future posts! It also allows me to catch up on the book blog without posting eleven posts in one day...

The 39 Clues: I have not been great about reviewing this series, and it took me a bit of pondering to figure out why. I think I haven't been taking it seriously because each book takes me less than an hour to read, and it has a definite whiff of the potboiler about it. There's also the feeling of being manipulated by a marketing department - the books are released every couple of months and tell a tiny part of the story, stretching it out into ten books AND the books are complemented by a slick website, collector's cards, and a sweepstakes. I was skeptical for the first few books, but really, this series is growing on me. I think it may be the ideal way to coax reluctant readers into picking up a book or ten. And face it, the books are fun! Not high literature by any means, but enjoyable and entertaining and even...educational. But not in an overt way. Each book takes Amy and Dan (and Nellie, their au pair) to a different part of the world, where they delve into local history and biography to solve the next Clue. The improbable villains and unlikely adventures distract the reluctant reader from the fact that he's learning something along the way. I can see a child getting sucked into the story and looking to read more about one of the historical figures he found most intriguing. The books are easier to read than, say, Harry Potter and its descendants, but high-interest to be sure. The interactive component with the cards promotes involvement for children who are more into games than reading. Each book ends with a cliffhanger that would make it difficult to avoid picking up the next book. There is definitely a place for this series, and I think it serves its purpose well.

That said, my "reviews" are going to be more reports of which location the books focus on. Too much information about the plot would ruin the suspense. The overarching plot: Amy and Dan Cahill, orphaned at a young age, find out at the reading of their grandmother's will that they are part of the powerful Cahill clan, a collection of four family branches, each with its own strengths, including most of the famous/influential figures in history. Grace Cahill's will offers each member of her family a choice: one million dollars, or a chance to join the race to uncover the 39 clues of the Cahill family - clues that will make the winner all-powerful. Amy and Dan choose the clue hunt and travel the world with their au pair, Nellie, and Grace's cat, Saladin, searching for clues and uncovering more about their own past.

Book 7: The Viper's Nest by Peter Lerangis: In this book, Amy and Dan travel to South Africa, where they learn about apartheid and finally discover which branch of the Cahill family they belong to. Amy and Dan also become suspicious of Nellie's motives in helping them. South African history was integrated quite nicely into the story, and the family factions continue to be unclear. Whom to trust is a constant theme in this series, with Amy and Dan forging alliances when they must, but agonizing over those decisions. The different families continue to evolve, growing in complexity from the caricatures they were in the early books to fairly interesting characters.

Book 8: The Emperor's Code by Gordon Korman: The hunt moves to China, where the children travel to the Forbidden City and boy-band sensation Jonas Wizard befriends Dan. Or does he? I enjoyed this one, but I find myself not having much to say about it. The children are separated for a while, and I missed the banter between Amy and Dan, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Chinese history is fascinating, and well-integrated into the plot.

Book 9: Storm Warning by Linda Sue Park: The penultimate book in the series is a blast...and made me pre-order Book 10 immediately. Pirates. Really, that's all I need to say. Pirates are fun, and this book is a wild ride. There's a moment when Nellie muses that the clues in this adventure all have to do with "women kicking butt," and I realized that I enjoyed that element as well. This book is more revelatory with regard to the family and the Clue hunt; we learn more about Nellie, about the Man in Black, and about Amy and Dan's family branch. Linda Sue Park really did a fantastic job on this one. The history of Jamaica and of pirates like Calico Jack and Mary Bonny is fascinating. There's a very serious plot twist that I think is handled extremely well. I sometimes think of this series as superficial, but Park really delves into one consequence of the Clue hunt, giving it the weight it deserves. An excellent entry, and a fantastic set-up for the conclusion (Into the Gauntlet, August 31).

Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison by Brandon Mull: I've really enjoyed this series, but the last book was a bit of a slog. I could easily put this book down for long stretches, and I almost dreaded picking it back up again. Things are getting very dark and serious, and I missed the lighthearted fun elements that were more prevalent in the early books. On top of that, Kendra and Seth are separated for most of the book, and their sibling interaction is one of my favorite parts of the series. Plot twists like "a shocking betrayal!" were becoming stale for me. A reader can only take so many shocking betrayals before he can't be shocked anymore. This one is the most plot-driven of the series. As the characters race from danger to danger, there's little time for character development or reflection. It was rather exhausting, and while Book 5 tied up all the loose ends, making it a must-read for fans of the series, it had a perfunctory feel, as if Mull were checking off dangling threads from a list. I read this for closure, and so will anyone who read the first four books, but I was disappointed in the execution. The joy I found in the rest of the series was missing.

The rest of my Fablehaven reviews here.

Source disclosure: I purchased all these books.