Thursday, April 30, 2009

Plenty of picture books

Man oh man, I could just keep a whole separate blog about picture books. There are just too many to write about. Wait, that could be a problem. There are too many good picture books out there and if I only blogged about them, I would get sucked into this universe that included me ignoring my children for the sake of reading picture books and that is just wrong in so many ways. I'll just stick to the ones that really pop out to me and share them with you, okay? It's a deal. My children are breathing a sigh of relief right about now.

Of all the books in the post, this is the one that I have memorized and my children can quote. Wild About Books by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Marc Brown was clever and fun, filled with references to books my children love and spread with bright and happy drawings. Marc Brown is the author and illustrator of the Arthur empire, books and shows, but here you get to see him take his hand to a zoo filled with book-loving animals. The bookmobile driven by Molly McGrew parks outside the zoo and soon the animals discover how wonderful it is to read. The tree kangaroo loves Nancy Drew, the otter loves (wait for it) Harry Potter, and the hyenas love joke books, the llamas love dramas, etc. etc. Some of the animals weren't as gentle with the books, like when the giant termites devoured The Wizard of Oz. Pretty soon the animals decide to take a try at writing. My kids' favorite section is when the insect zoo tries their hands at haiku, with the scorpion giving each one a stinging review.

Hands down this was the best loved book of the bunch we got this time around. We have read it over and over again, have chuckled over the rhymes and the silliness, and loved the pictures of animals buried in books, oh so happily reading and enjoying it as much as we do.

When I read in at least five different places that Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury was the perfect picture book, I had to see if I would feel the same. It's told from a mother's point of view about how all little babies are born the same way all over the world, with ten little fingers and ten little toes. The babies were utterly kissable and huggable, the rhymes were sweet and lilting, and my two-year-old insisted on at least fifty readings. Perfect is a term I would hesitate to use, but doggone it, that book sure gave me warm fuzzies. Perfect for bedtime or snuggles with babes.

I read an author/illustrator profile of Polly Dunbar months ago and decided I needed to check out every single book of hers from the library. I did just that and we read all of them over and over again. I debated on doing a post just about her books, but decided that I liked best two of her books, Dog Blue and Penguin. Her illustrations are simple and the little boys in each of the books looked really similar to each other. Bertie in Dog Blue wishes he had a dog that was blue and makes do by pretending to be a dog. When he meets a darling little white dog with black spots, he wonders if he can love this dog, even if it isn't blue. Ben in Penguin is given a penguin as a gift, but is frustrated when he cannot get a word or sound out of the penguin, no matter what he says or does. It's only when something huge happens that Penguin is pulled out of silence and saves the day.

Dunbar's books are not overly wordy. In fact, I would guess that there's not even 100 words in either, but she packs it in with her simple illustrations. Her books usually have surprising endings that take you off guard and make you laugh. Penguin would probably qualify as a SDPB, but isn't quite as startling as some of those books. If you decide you like Dunbar, check out her Tilly and friends series.

Another book that was receiving a lot of buzz out there in the blogosphere was All in a Day by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Nikki McClure. The illustrations are cut paper which McClure did by drawing on black paper and then cut with an x-acto knife. She describes it at the end of the book in the publishing notes and I enjoyed reading that more than reading the book itself. The book felt like a philosophical message disguised as a children's book. Each day is an opportunity to grow and learn and is a "perfect piece of time", which is all true, but I just felt like this would be something my kids would hear and go, "huh?" Sure enough, I asked my eight-year-old to read it and tell me what she thought it meant and her response was, "I have no idea." Shouldn't a book written for children be able to be understood by children? Maybe this is one of those instances where the language is nice and the rhythm of the words is appealing and comprehension comes later. I wouldn't bother to buy it, though.

Ahh, another batch of picture books. Makes me happy. If I read half as many blogs about novels as I do about picture books, I would read all the time and never get anything done. At least this way, I'm enjoying books with my kids and I get good parent points for that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Want a free book?

Want some incentive for you child to do some summer reading? Or have a niece/nephew/grandchild/neighbor who might want a free book in exchange for cracking the books instead of zoning out in front of the tv? Go check out Barnes & Noble's promotion and download the reading journal the child has to fill out to receive their free book. They have until September to read eight books and keep a record of what they read. The journal is also available in Spanish, which I thought was cool. The choices for the free books are fairly limited, but hey, it's free! Don't get all picky! It's for 1st through 6th grades, so two of my kids will qualify. That means two free books and two kids who will be reading instead of bickering with each other or begging to go to the swimming pool for the eighth time that week! Yay for me!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Associate

I enjoy a John Grisham book as much as the next gal. When a new one comes out, I'm usually #375 on the holds list at the library, being too cheap to shell out $25 for it. His books are characterized (in case you don't live on Earth) by lawyers in trouble, using their wits to get themselves out of the grasps of greedy corporations/lawyers/individuals. I have my list of Grisham favorites and I get excited thinking that the newest one will be added to that list. Grisham's newest novel is The Associate and it won't be added to that list.

I promise to tell you why, but first I'll give you a synopsis of the book. Bright and hard-working Yale Law School student Kyle McAvoy is about to graduate and enter into the field of public service, using his gifts to help others. He is cornered by a mysterious character, Bennie Wright, who claims to have evidence that he was an accomplice to a rape that happened when he was 20 years old, living with frat brothers and binge drinking on a regular basis. The girl, Elaine Keenan, had cried rape back then, but was known to be premiscuous and unreliable, so the police couldn't put enough evidence together to prosecute. Kyle has moved on since then, so a video from that night with compelling evidence that there was, in fact, a rape is horrifying news. Kyle was passed out drunk on an armchair when it happened, but just being there is enough to get him a nasty trial and possible jail time.

Here's comes the extortion, people! Bennie wants Kyle to work for a huge law firm in New York City instead of the poor and downtrodden and act as a spy. Bennie's client wants documents and information about a huge lawsuit that has to do with contracts between massive corporations and the military. Kyle is pressured into this deed by fear of the damage that the rape video could cause. He never even told his parents about what had happened because the police never went forward with it. He goes to work for Scully and Pershing with Bennie's team hot on his trail, monitoring his every move, bugging his apartment and laptop and is forced into meeting with him on a weekly basis. His life is horrific.

Kyle is smart. He can lose the guys that trail him constantly. He knows about all the wiretapping and bugs and collects his own evidence of his blackmailers while he is under Bennie's power. The action is constant, the law firm brutally inhumane about how they treat their associates, the technology advanced, and the story keeps it all going at a fast clip. The problem was that I just don't care about Kyle. I wasn't emotionally invested in his success. He was no Darby Shaw (The Pelican Brief), Rudy Baylor (The Rainmaker), Mordecai Green (The Street Lawyer), Luke Chandler (A Painted House) or any of Grisham's other characters that I wanted to see succeed. I didn't wish Kyle ill, I just didn't care.

It didn't help that I didn't particularly like any of the other characters. Joey, Baxter and Alan were his former roommates and were unlikeable in every way. Baxter at least got sober and started making amends with people from his past, but that doesn't last for long. Bennie is a pretty good villain, but he gets very little attention other than Kyle obsessing over who he works for. Dale, Kyle's pseudo-girlfriend, is okay but gets almost no dialogue. Kyle's dad, John, gets a scene at the end that is one of the best parts of the book, but it was all of 5 or 6 pages. What this book lacks, that I know Grisham is capable of, is great characters. These characters are absolute dry toast and nobody likes eating dry toast. You only eat it if there's nothing else in the kitchen.

So sad. I feel frustrated when I read books like this from an author that can be really amazing, or just dumb. It's a gamble if my time spent reading his newest book will make it on the favorite list, or make me annoyed for having spent time on it. This is a draft of a letter I'm mentally composing for Mr. Grisham.

Dear John Grisham,
You know, I like your books. In fact, I was in Oxford, Mississippi one time and I actually went to the section of the library on the Ole Miss campus that is named after you. It was closed so I couldn't go in, but I pushed my face up to the glass and looked around as best I could. Most of what I know about the law comes from reading your books and I don't even care that it's fiction and therefore not reliable. I consider it gospel truth!

Now that I've buttered you up a bit, couldn't you put a warning label on the outside of each book, stating whether or not it is up to the caliber of A Time to Kill or The Runaway Jury or The Innocent Man? A big sticker, like the award stickers publishers love to smack on the covers of books, except it says, "Big Waste of Time But I Need to Make My Yacht Payments". I think people would appreciate the honesty. I know I enjoy a good fluff read every once in a while and I'd like to know if your latest book fluffs like cotton before I dedicate a Friday night to read it instead of playing on the Wii or clipping my toenails. You know, so I don't expect more than I'll actually be getting.

A big fan but probably not the biggest,

P.S. Would you autograph this copy of The Broker and send it back to me? It's one of my favorites. Thanks so much!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

I've had a hard time trying to categorize this book beyond just saying "fiction". It's a love story with mysteries and folk lore and villains. Let me give you the 411 on this very cool, very suspenseful, very amazing book. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker is all about our larger-than-life heroine, Truly Plaice. I write larger-than-life in the literal sense since she was born a 13 pound baby and grew to be taller and broader than any man in her small town of Aberdeen. It didn't help that her older sister, Serena Jane, was tiny, beautiful and adored by the entire town. Born in the 1950s and therefore before the era of political correctness, Truly is openly mocked and stared at. Her first teacher sent her home with a note saying that her size was out of the bounds of normalcy and she needed to see a doctor immediately.

There's a problem with seeing a doctor. In Aberdeen, Robert Morgans have been doctors since the Civil War. The first Robert Morgan was a deserter who wandered his way up to northern New York state and married the local herbalist/healer/witch, Tabitha Dyerson, that everybody went to for their medical care. He had a son whom he named Robert Morgan, who had a son named Robert Morgan, who had a son named Robert Morgan that delivered Truly and watched her mother die during the process. Truly's father never forgave Robert Morgan IV and blamed her for death and Truly was never seen by anyone to discover the source of her extreme size. It also didn't help that Robert Morgan IV had a son, Robert (called Bob Bob by his family) who constantly tormented Truly throughout her life.

Truly's only friends are the very small Marcus Thompson, who is smarter than everybody else and kinder too, and Amelia Dyerson. Amelia's family eventually becomes guardians of Truly after her dad dies and the family that takes Serena Jane refuses to take care of Truly. The Dyersons are incredibly poor and constantly chasing off creditors, but they love Truly and make a home for her. Amelia becomes like a sister to Truly and since Amelia is sparse with words, Truly is able to help her function in the world. These two characters make the book so beautiful, knowing that Truly is loved by some people even if the whole world thinks she's a freak. And the love the blossoms between Truly and Marcus is absolutely the best part of the entire book.

Back to the mystery part. It is rumored the Tabitha Dyerson kept a shadow book with all her secrets about healing and herbs. Each Robert Morgan has searched the house for signs of it and has never found it. Robert Morgan V returns to Aberdeen with his wife, Serena Jane, and son, Bobbie, but Serena Jane disappears soon after. He calls on Truly to come and help raise his son and Truly, out of duty and love for the boy, agrees. She knows how evil Robert Morgan V is, but she doesn't feel like she can say no. Truly starts to get wrapped up in the mystery involving the shadow book and eventually, consents to let Robert Morgan V examine her and determine the cause of her size. Two mysteries for the price of one!

I think a hero is only as interesting as how well the villain is written. Truly is amazing, spunky, full of love, and takes care of herself, but Robert Morgan V is also sneaky, manipulative, selfish, conniving, heartless and a total dirtbag. It is shocking that she agrees to live in his house and care for his son and his barbs and snide comments are even worse than when they were kids. As an example of how awful he is, he chased Serena Jane all through high school and she didn't give him the time of day. When she finally consented to go on a date with him, he raped her and impregnated her with Bobbie. They married right after high school , much to their mutual dismay, and then they left for college in Buffalo, NY. How despicable is that? Yeah, he's bad to the bone, people. He is so unlikeable that the ending will completely throw you for a loop. I almost fell out of my chair.

There is so much to this book! I keep wanting to write more about it, but then I remind myself that I want to give just enough detail to entice, but not so much that the whole plot is given away! It's a fast read, not because it's short but because it's so riveting. My husband and I both read it over a weekend and then we sat and talked about it one evening. There's so much to think about. Would we make the same choices Truly made? She's so good, yet capable of succombing to revenge and deeds that I couldn't stomach. I love her, yet I don't know if we would be friends. She's complex.

This book has so many good characters, an amazing story, is morally compelling and heart-poundingly suspenseful. What more could you ask for in a book?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Co-Review: Freddy and Fredericka

I almost didn't survive this book. I am one who rejects books based on trivial reasons. Font too small: reject. Character names too weird: reject. Too long and boring looking: reject. By all of my pathetic reasons, I never would have read this book had it not come so highly recommended and I had already put it in the sidebar as a co-review and I was too lazy to take it off. That and Caren was all, "We can do it or not, whatever you want." Gak! I couldn't back out now that I had to decide whether or not to back out. This is not to say that I didn't put off reading it for as long as humanly possible. I got the book two months ago, read two pages and set it down in favor of reading An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, which was excellent by the way. John Green is a genius of teen angst and awkwardness. Yes, I picked awkwardness over Freddy and Fredericka. I knew I had to figure out how to motivate myself to get it read, so I put the fourth Fablehaven book on my nightstand and had it staring at me every night as I read Freddy. We do what we can to get things done. I'm not proud of it, but Freddy is now read.

Mark Helprin is a wordy fellow. Freddy and Fredericka is a billion pages long and huge sections of that are filled with descriptions that are almost too intelligent for me to even read and feel like he is actually writing in English. Speaking of English, that's what Helprin is and this book is a satire/parody of the British monarchy. Freddy is Prince Charles, Fredericka is Diana, Queen Phillipa is Queen Elizabeth and Prince Paul is, uh, Mr. Queen Elizabeth. Freddy is stricken with the ability to embarrass himself in public. Over and over again he misunderstands people, makes inappropriate comments, is seen in public looking like a buffoon and making the royal family a laughing-stock. His wife, Fredericka, is adored for her beauty and compassion but is actually an empty-headed nitwit. Freddy doesn't love Fredericka because she isn't intelligent or insightful, which is what he values more than anything. Weird coming from a guy who laughs hysterically over nothing and wears bizarre costumes to state dinners.

Phillipa and Paul are sick and tired of the both of them, so they call in a mysterious man to solve their problems. Mr. Neil is ancient and some sort of royal expert on how to solve situations where the heirs to the throne are out of hand. He determines that F&F must be sent into a dangerous and hostile country in an ancient tradition of forcing the future ruler to conquer said country to prove himself worthy of the throne. Freddy and Fredericka are then dumped out of a planed into New Jersey with only their essentials covered with fur and parachutes on their backs. From here on out it gets weird.

Yes, they are supposed to conquer the U.S. Mostly they wander all over the country, figuring out how to fend for themselves with no money, no privileges and undercover as dentists. And in true Freddy fashion, they are misunderstood and act ridiculously, but also start to discover more about themselves and each other.

Jenny: I'm serious, I almost didn't finish. This book was way too long and the side trips with the newspaper magnates and Dewey Knott (Republican candidate for president) almost made me put it down. What kept me going was how much F&F were learning to love America and love each other and love working hard. But the misunderstandings between Freddy and nearly everyone he ever talked to made me crazy. I couldn't stand it. I would pace while I read because it made me so agitated.

Best part? The names. Some of my favorites included: Craig-Vyvyan, Cecil Psnake, Alfie Didgeridoo, Watson Axlerod, and Phoebe Boylinghotte. I meant to keep a longer list, but by the time I hit the middle, I was in my stride and didn't want to break out of the zone.

Other best part? How much Helprin loves America. It says in his blurb that he was educated in England and the U.S. and it was obvious that he has great love for America. My two favorite parts of the whole book was when they were in D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial and he talked about what a great man Lincoln was. It almost brought me to tears. The other was at the very end when he said that in America, every man is born a king. Oh man, that almost did me in.

Caren: Yes, I loved Freddy's speech at the end. Both what he said about America and also what he said about coming to love his wife. But, like you, I felt like I was plowing through and if it weren't for committing to this co-review I would have set it down as soon as I picked it up. The story was entertaining, and the way the characters developed.....well....character....made it have a bit more depth by the end. But that wasn't enough to be worth 553 pages of really small type! Just for the record, I'm not afraid of a long book. But you have to have a pretty riveting story to justify that kind of length (e.g. Mistborn), and this just wasn't it. He could have easily cut 200 pages out of it in meaningless descriptions about meaningless people and places and the story wouldn't have suffered. In fact, it would have been a vast improvement because it wouldn't have taken me all month to get through!

It was typical British humor; random, bizarre, and often juvenile. There were some very funny things about it, and occasionally I would have to relate parts of it to my husband. (I'm not sure he appreciated the twenty minutes of back-story for any of it to make sense.) Unfortunately, I can't remember any of the funny parts now. So apparently, it still wasn't enough to compensate for the length. (Have I mentioned how long it was?)

Jenny: Seriously, who was his editor? What kind of pull did Helprin have to get away with that much extraneous writing? Didn't anybody point out to him that he uses way too many words than normal people can suffer through? Yes, there were parts that actually made me laugh out loud but most of it was like you said: bizarre, random, juvenile and not to mention uncomfortable. I would squirm as I read. Also, don't forget the completely messed up ending. It ended with me going, "Whuh?"

I loved how we got to know Fredericka better. She wasn't as empty-headed as everybody assumed she was. And as Freddy got to know her better, he came to realize how smart and capable she really was. What was shocking to me was how much Fredericka loved him despite all his many, many foibles. He became a better man by the end of the book, but he was still a nutter, as the Brits say.

I am so glad to have this book out of the way. It has been ruining many a lovely evening when I could have been reading the latest Fablehaven, catching up on my stack of selections for National Poetry Month or maybe doing some blogging. I've been ignoring the blogging in favor of Freddy.

Caren: Yeah, part of the problem was that since it was so pointless, it was hard to justify taking the time to read it. Like watching a bunch of Seinfeld episodes for hours and hours on end. It might be funny, it might be stupid, and really, can't you think of anything better to do?

I actually liked Freddy. He was a great big geek, but he had the capacity for nobility and honor when it was forced out of him. I liked him a lot until the incident with Lucia, and then I was downright disgusted. Phoebe I could handle, because that was during his idiot days. But the fact that he could have developed such feelings of love and commitment to Fredericka, and then mentally toss it all out the window for the first pretty face to come along......I was not so impressed. And Fredericka was way more magnanimous about it than he deserved, I thought.

So, were Freddy and Fredericka supposed to be Charles and Diana? I didn't make that connection and thought they were just a fictional royal family, but my knowledge of Charles and Diana is pretty slim. If Freddy was supposed to be Charles, I take back everything I said about ever liking him. And I'm embarrassed to have to ask this, but what was odd about the ending? I'm having a hard time sorting out all the anecdotes to remember which ones added up to be the conclusion.

Jenny: Oh man, it totally screamed Charles and Diana to me. He was goofy looking and not that well-liked, she was beautiful and loved by the people, Phillipa's father died young and she ascended the throne younger than she anticipated, etc. Maybe I know too much about the royal family.

So the odd ending included Phillipa and Paul not knowing that F&F were in America the whole time, Paul's bizarre explanation of Freddy's weird behavior his whole life, the fact that several members of the royal family were probably completely insane and then the secret room in the palace. Wait, I liked that last part. And I loved the fact that Freddy became a great ruler and truly loved his mother. And that Craig-Vyvyan (the bird) flew for him and Craig-Vyvyan (the boy) got an education and wrote Freddy's memoirs. Those parts I liked.

My recommendation is that if you have the time to commit to a long, wordy book and think the royal family is fascinating, go for it. If neither of those things strike your fancy, stay away.