Thursday, December 31, 2009

Co-review: 2009 Best and Worst

Happy New Year! But before we move on to 2010, let's take a look back at 2009. For December's co-review Jenny and I decided to share the best and worst books we read in 2009. Keep in mind that these are not necessarily books that were published in 2009, but rather were read for the first time that year.

Caren's List of Favorite Reads:
I had quite the battle trying to decide which books should make the "best" list. Some deserved to be on it because I had so much fun reading them, but weren't necessarily amazing examples of literature. While others deserved to be on it because they were fantastic literature that left me deeply moved, but weren't necessarily the kind of thing I would pick up and read again anytime soon. In the end, I decided to include both.

1. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. I love when a new author can blow me away with an amazing work, and this was definitely one of those "wow" experiences.
2. A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. This lighthearted memoir is elevated beyond just a funny-yet-forgettable personal story by Kimmel's keen wit, observation, and powerful command of language.
3. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Definitely not to be taken lightly, this is one work that gets deep inside you and won't let go, leaving you forever changed.
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A delightful story with a deeply human touch, as well as a wonderful nod to the power of literature in improving the human condition.
5. These is My Words, by Nancy E. Turner. A fascinating period piece with a great mix of action and sympathetic characters.

A Few More I Just Can't Leave Out:
And then there were a few more that I can't in good conscience fail to mention, even if they didn't quite make the "best" list.

1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Fun and a little bit freaky, but in a good way.
2. The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. More than a little bit freaky -- okay, a lot freaky -- but a well-crafted story if you can stomach the bad language and themes of abuse.
3. The Thursday Next Series, by Jasper Fforde. Some were better than others, but the whole series provided me many hours of entertainment this year.
4. She Got Up Off the Couch, by Haven Kimmel. This follow-up to Zippy continues Kimmel's story in a similarly delightful style, but leaves some of the childhood innocence behind.
5. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Worth reading even if it did put me to sleep more than once.

Definitely Worth Skipping:
I try to avoid books that I suspect I won't enjoy, which helps keep my "worst" list pretty small. But these are the ones that I disliked the most, ranging from mild irritation to serious aggravation.

1. Spare Change, by Aubrey Mace. Such a major waste of ink and paper that I didn't even bother reviewing it. Think "local author spends too much time watching lame romantic comedies" and you'll get an idea. To add to the insult (because I did feel insulted reading it), I accidentally spilled water on it right before returning it to the library and had to buy the stupid thing!
2. Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin. Helprin's sense of humor might have redeemed it if he had cut the thing down by, oh, about 500 pages.
3. The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs. This one falls more into the mild irritation range. Jacobs over-estimated her abilities and the result is shallow and forgettable.
4. Running with Angels, by Pamela Hansen. Worthy message, but poor execution. But what else can you expect from someone who isn't a writer?
5. The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan. Corrigan has some skill as a writer, but I had a hard time really connecting with her as a narrator of her personal story.

And now I'm excited to see what Jenny has picked for her top reads of 2009!

Jenny's List of Favorite Reads:
This project of picking favorite books over the year is harder than it looks, people. It has taken me literally minutes and minutes of thinking to determine what I loved best this year. Like Caren said, it isn't always about great literature but about how much I enjoyed reading it.

1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
I kept coming back to this book whenever I would try to tabulate my favorite books of the year. The story was so engaging and the people so lovable that I felt like I was living on the island with them. It was the best book all around.
2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I put that book down and felt altered forever. Stockett gives the women of this story three dimensions and made me respect and relate to them. Amazing writing.
3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This book completely freaked me out, frightened me to death and refused to be put down for more than a few minutes at a time. Kostova reinvented the Dracula tale in such a compelling way that anybody could enjoy it, if they can handle the scariness.
4. Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Such a beautiful tale of friendship in a setting that completely blew me away with its beauty and painful atrocities.
5. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker. An unusual heroine who you can't help but root for, with mystery, love and suspense all tied in.

Honorable Mentions:
I read and review lots of books for young adults and younger readers and oftentimes, I find them to be the very best of books to read for both me and my kids. A few of those made it into my honorable mentions list.

1. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. Not since Ramona Quimby has a little girl caught my family's adoration like Clementine. The three books written so far were read out loud with delight and thoroughly enjoyed.
2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Never has a group of ghosts been so lovable. Or a villain quite so deliciously terrifying. It got me hooked from the first chapter.
3. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Oh my heavens, the quirk! The hilarity! The quirky hilarity!
4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Eye-opening and informative, a look at how Americans eat and where our food comes from. It made me take a serious look at what I was feeding my family.
5. The Gathering Storm by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. The long-anticipated newest installment of The Wheel of Time series was given new life by Sanderson and did not disappoint.

Books I hated with a fiery vengeance or just plain didn't like:
1. The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. A book by Hale should never leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, but this one did. It had many redeeming qualities but the inappropriate and incomprehensible friendship ruined it for me.
2. Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin. Oh my gosh, will it never end? I have never forced myself to read beyond my tolerance of a book since I was in college. It was painful.
3. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen. Was funny for about five seconds then just turned out to be stupid.
4. My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Child abduction is terrifying and upsetting, and yet this author makes us want to believe that a 10-year-old girl would be okay with it. Sick.
5. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. I never blogged about it because I never finished it. After pages and pages of her sexual awakenings and exploits, I couldn't stomach another page. Plus, Julie Powell comes across as a selfish, horrible person. Wasn't this supposed to be about cooking? And Julia Child? The movie was a million times better and not at all a waste of time, unlike the book.

Hey, I'm impressed by all the reading we did in 2009! Not bad for a couple of moms with nearly ten kids between them.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unblogged books

I admit, I like things to be tidied up. I like my loose ends tied. Here we are, nearing the end of the year and I have a handful of books I never blogged about but they won't stop nagging at me because of it. I deemed each of them unworthy and yet, here I am blogging about them. Darn those unbloggable books. You might be wondering, what makes a book unworthy of me sharing my opinion willy-nilly? Mostly it was because I couldn't think of anything spectacular to say that would either deter readers or cause them to leap from their computers and dash to the library. Those are the two reactions I prefer to instill in people. Some of these I loved and some I hated, but the most I can conjure up is about a paragraph each.

I read one book this year that I so completely disliked that I didn't even want to think about it after I read it. Usually, if I really don't like a book it's just that much more fuel for my fire. But this book was repulsive to me and I didn't want to think about it ever again after I read it. My Abandonment by Peter Rock is about a girl, Caroline, and her father who are living in a state park in Oregon, off the grid and avoiding people. Their past is mysterious and you gather that the father is a veteran with mental illness. They do get discovered and people try to help them in their situation, but everything just deteriorates more and more. It's based on a true story but the whole thing made my skin crawl. That's all I want to say about that.

Mark L. Van Name's newest installment of his books about Jon Moore and his intelligent ship Lobo is just as awesome as I thought it would be. If my blogging about the previous books haven't gotten you to pick up a copy of the first book yet, me writing yet another blog about it probably won't do the trick. Overthrowing Heaven is more action, more great sci-fi and focused much more on Lobo than Jon. Loved it.

When I was at my uncle's funeral, I met the father of an upcoming author, Aprilynne Pike. It's a long story, but I decided to read her young adult novel, Wings. It's about a girl who suddenly sprouts a blossom out of her back that resembles wings. Ends up, she's a faerie and never knew it. This story could have been very cool and original and yet, it just reads like a Twilight knock-off, love triangle and everything. Except in Wings it's the girl who's supernatural, not her love interests. Well, one of them is, but whatever. If you love Twilight, read Wings, but I can't endorse it much more than that.

Caren went to a midnight release party for The Gathering Storm by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan and didn't know what the hubub was about. My husband was seething with jealousy that she went and had pre-ordered a signed copy of the book months before. Caren sent us the bumper sticker she got at the party that said, "Bela is a Darkfriend" and my husband giggled like a schoolgirl and then dashed upstairs to plaster it to his bookcase. The fact is, if you're already a fan of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, you'll have read the latest installment finished by Sanderson after Jordan passed away. You don't need me telling you how awesome it is or how perfectly Sanderson accomplished the task of taking over this epic book series. You already know. And those of you who don't know probably would be hesitant to start a series that includes twelve books, one prequel and a nearly rabid fan base. I don't blame you.

I like fairy tale retellings, like Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl or Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. They're fun and interesting and flesh out a tale so creatively that it gives it new life. Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George falls directly into that category and the caliber of Hale or Levine. George retells the tale of the twelve dancing princesses, which was one my favorite stories growing up. It was riveting and exciting and very well done. I read it, then passed it on to both my eight- and six-year-old daughters who both adored it. I would gander that any child on a skilled enough reading level would love this book and would also be a great read-a-loud. I'm going to have to do some more reading of George's books if this is what I have to expect. Excellent stuff.

Speaking of excellent writing, I recently re-read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. This book is a perfectly crafted dystopian future story about a tyrannical drug lord, cloning, and corrupt governments, but written for the young adult age group. Nancy Farmer has written many books but Scorpion has to be my favorite. Matteo, the clone of drug lord Matteo Alacran of the nation of Opium, a strip of land between Mexico and the U.S. is just as clever as his original version and with the help of some other clever people is able to make more of his life than as spare parts. Very cool, very exciting and some interesting deep thinking about the idea of cloning in general and the value of life.

Ahh, I'm feeling better. Now I can dive into books for the new year knowing that I tidied up my pile. Now if only I felt that way about my desk...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Al Capone in a new light

I think that there is a justifiable fascination with Alcatraz. I remember when the magician David Copperfield escaped from Alcatraz on national television, back when he did those t.v. specials that had my entire family riveted. Okay, so it's an illusion, but it was very cool. The tales of The Rock and its inmates make for great stories and when my husband and I made a trip to San Francisco several years ago, touring the island was at the top of my agenda. It didn't disappoint. You could imagine these men, the worst criminals of their time, locked away with no hope of escape, the surrounding ocean full of dangers and the guards on watch at all times. What I didn't realize is that the families of the guards and workers lived on the island with them. The history behind that is very interesting and Gennifer Choldenko explores it in her two books, Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

Matthew Flanagan a.k.a. Moose and his family have come to Alcatraz for his father to work there as an electrician and guard, and also to be close to a nearby school for his sister who has autism. It takes place in 1935, which was before autism was labeled as such, but I quickly figured out that is what is going on with Natalie. That time period is also when Al Capone was an inmate of Alcatraz and the whole world seemed fascinated by this fact. When Moose and his family arrive, the warden is quick to inform him of how fast his dad will get fired if Moose is caught ever talking about Capone to anybody, ever. Moose also becomes acquainted with the warden's daughter, Piper, who is both beautiful and devious and manipulative. There are other kids on the island which make for a fun ensemble. Jimmy and his sister Theresa who are loyal friends and good to Natalie, Annie the girl who plays baseball as good as a boy, and a few others.

Moose makes a friend at school, a boy named Scout, who is as equally obsessed with baseball as Moose is. A highly coveted item is a baseball retrieved from where the inmates play and Scout begs for Moose to get one for him. Trouble is, those balls are hard to come by since the inmates do their best to not let them get over the wall of the yard. Moose tries his best to find a ball, but with Natalie in tow, it's hard to look and keep an eye on her. When he discovers a small hole in the outer fence, he has better luck looking but that is asking for trouble.

Most of the kids are accepting of Natalie, except for Piper, but the adults are another matter. Moose's parents are anxious to get her into this school, but they deem her too old and unmanageable. She starts working with a local woman to try and re-accepted to the school and makes some progress. It grated on my nerves the way people treat Natalie and their family, but it is probably accurate. It's not socially acceptable to make rude comments about a person with disabilities now, but back then people probably considered it their right to tell somebody to ship their kid off to an asylum.

The second book follows right behind the first and has Moose come into direct contact with Al Capone, along with some other inmates. The story behind the titles of the books is that the inmates did the laundry of the families on the island, if the families took up that opportunity. The warden also had them doing plumbing, some cooking and also serving at parties. These inmates, considered to not be flight risks because of how close they were to finishing up their sentences, were called passmen. It surprised me how much time the kids were around these men, considering they were in the country's most secure prison for a reason. Choldenko makes her facts pretty accurate and even includes an appendix with references from books and interviews that she did.

I thought both books were fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable reading. Choldenko's storytelling was detailed, fun and interesting. You can't help but love Moose with his big heart and conflicting feelings about Natalie, Piper, Annie and Scout. And Al Capone for that matter. The man has unmistakable charisma and Moose can't help but get caught up in it, but be afraid of it at the same time. I had to keep reminding myself that Capone was a hardened criminal, a crime boss and murderer, no matter what favors he carefully doled out. The ending of Al Capone Shines My Shoes was awesome and Natalie proves to be a hero to the other kids. Great reading for you and any kids in your house that would have an interest.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The City of Ember series

I enjoy some post-apocalyptic fiction when I can get some, same as any other mommy in her 30s with a pack of kids and a penchant for reading. But sometimes I'd like something a bit less gritty than Cormac McCarthy's The Road or even Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series. If you ever find yourself in the same boat, then Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember series is the one for you. Do I sound like an infomercial yet?

Let's break it down. The first book, The City of Ember, takes place in a city far below the earth's surface. The reader catches on quickly that the city is underground but the inhabitants have no idea that the world could be anything different than dark and cold and dependent on electricity for light. They've been down there for over 250 years, at least 50 years longer than the original Builders had in mind when they created the city and sent people down there to live after the Disaster that destroyed the surface. Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow are the heroes of our story, young people who realize that their mayor is corrupt, that the generator that keeps everyone with light and heat is dying, and that a mysterious message from the past will lead them out of Ember. To where, they have no idea. They don't even know what out of Ember could possibly be like. They follow and hunt down clues, deal with adults who help and hinder, and have some truly heart-pounding moments where the reader has to wonder if they will ever leave Ember. The book is geared towards tween readers, meaning 9-12 year olds, depending on reading ability and interest. For me, it was a fast, easy but intense read. Loved it.

The second installment, The People of Sparks picks up where The City of Ember leaves off, like a mere second later. I don't know how to talk about this book without spoiling the first, but let's say that Lina and Doon have a new set of challenges and new cultures to adapt to. It was interesting and compelling, but a bit heavy-handed. There is a huge message of non-violence and the consequences of bigotry and mob mentality, which would be interesting to discuss with a younger reader. I found it interesting, but not as exciting as the first book. Then again, how often do you encounter a book that addresses these topics in a way for a tween to understand it?

The third installment is actually a prequel to The City of Ember, called The Prophet of Yonwood. It takes place mid-21st century in North Carolina where a woman has seen a vision of the future and it is desolate and destroyed. She becomes semi-comatose and her incoherent ramblings are interpreted by a Bible-thumping, militaristic woman named Mrs. Beeson, who twists the words into whatever serves her own agenda. Dissenters are punished severely. Eleven-year-old Nickie and her aunt come to town to deal with the mansion that Nickie's great-grandfather has left behind at his death. Nickie is fascinated by the town and its inhabitants, but soon falls victim to the machinations of Mrs. Beeson. She slowly begins to see that blindly following beliefs of those around her is not the way to make the world a better place. Again we see this message about mob mentality, blindly following the crowd and intolerance. I found this book to be the slowest read of them all, since it's mostly Nickie dealing with the situation she's in. Not until the very last chapter did I feel like I knew what the purpose of this installment was, despite DuPrau's message of non-violence and independent thinking. It's probably my least favorite and since it doesn't conclusively explain the events that lead to the Disaster and the settlement of Ember, it doesn't really feel necessary. I'm waiting for my daughter to finish reading it so I can pick her brain about what she thought of it.

The fourth, and final, installment was The Diamond of Darkhold and here we get back to some of the action and compelling story-telling of the first book. We're back to Lina and Doon and their desperate attempt to help the citizens of Ember, which leads them to a ruined city with a tyrannical patriarch waiting to capture anyone who crosses his path. It had the same excitement as the first book and not nearly the preachy overtones of the second and third books. Not that books shouldn't have a message, but I wonder if she could have integrated these messages into the other stories instead of writing two books full of morality lessons. We finally get a firm resolution to the series in this book and it feels right and complete. The most horrifying aspect of the book is some people's nonchalance towards the value of books, often burning them for firewood. Gave me chills. Doon and Lina plead with these people to stop but they can't read and see no need for it, so why not? If ever I find myself in a post-apocalyptic world and desperate for firewood, heaven help me if I start burning books.

The series as a whole was interesting and a different take on mere survival in a desolate world. It was about friendship and tolerance, problem solving and independent thinking, non-violence and humanity and other aspects of building a functioning society. Pretty hefty topics for the age demographic DuPrau was aiming at, but even when I thought it was a bit preachy, it didn't feel unapproachable and incomprehensible to your average twelve-year-old. That's impressive, I think. Maybe we can save those kids from reading Lord of the Flies or some other such horrifying book and try this series instead.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Historian

Books about vampires seem to be the thing these days. If it's not vampires, it's zombies. But vampires remain the book du jour, as evidenced by how easy it is to find some when you walk into the Young Adult section of your local library. What's hard to find is books about vampires for adults that are intelligent and interesting and not lust-filled romps or horror-infused terror tales. I lucked out that when chatting with my BFF, Abby, she mentioned this amazing book she was reading. She didn't tell me much about it but because she loved it, I had to read it. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is indeed about vampires, but so much more than that. It's a creepy tale, but also a thriller, a mystery, a historical adventure novel and a love story. It's also (roughly) five billion pages long, but believe me, it's worth it.

The confusing part is how many narrators there are in the book. It's starts out with a young girl (whose name we never learn) who finds an old book in her father's study with an woodcut imprint in the center of a dragon. When she asks her father, Paul, about the book and a stack of old letters that were tucked inside, he slowly reveals the story of his professor, Bartholomew Rossi, a beautiful woman named Helen, and his search for Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Dracula. The narration switches between the girl, her father, the letters from Rossi, the letters to the girl from her father, briefly to Helen and back and forth. I spent the first fifty pages fighting confusion on whose point of view I was reading, but it settled in after that and I was good to go. It's organized, but I just couldn't find the structure to the story at first.

The bulk of the novel takes place in the 1950s with Paul and Helen as they try to track down Professor Rossi after his mysterious disappearance. Helen also happens to be Rossi's daughter that he doesn't know exists. Rossi is Paul's friend and advisor in his graduate program and after confiding his secrets to Paul about encounters with Dracula's followers and his attempts in tracking down his burial site, Rossi disappears with only bloody evidence behind. Paul and Helen go on an adventure to Istanbul and then Budapest in their search, finding historical evidence of Dracula's location and his true nature, all in the attempt to see where Rossi might have been taken.

Fast forward to 1972, our young narrator is on the search for her father who has disappeared after telling his daughter all the background of his search for Rossi, the disappearance of Helen, Dracula's touch in his own life, and his studies since then. The girl has to do some detective work of her own to find where her father has gone, or has been taken to. The whole situation is packed with peril and adventure. When we do get the few glimpses of Dracula that Kostova parcels out, it is absolutely breathlessly terrifying. What's admirable is how Kostova blends what we know of Dracula from Bram Stoker and popular culture with the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes, brutal 15th-century prince of Wallachia (aka Transylvania), otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. This book is one giant history lesson of that time period and location made into a very appealing package of adventure and thrills.

This book has to be one of the most exciting and enthralling books I have ever read. Even if you're only so-so about vampires but you do enjoy a good adventure, it's worth reading. If you're a history buff, you'll enjoy this book. If you enjoy reading about vampires but are disenchanted by the popular version of them right now (basically brooding gorgeous teenagers), you will love this retelling. When I was absorbed in this book and basically incapable of conversation, my husband decided he had to read it and afterward we compared notes. He's not big on vampires, but we had conversation fodder for hours about The Historian. The only people I would steer away would be people who scare easily. This book is not for you. Everybody else, give it a try.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Co-Review: The Persian Pickle Club

We're late for this November co-review, but better late than never, I say! It's not often you can find a light-hearted book about the Depression and the dustbowl midwestern suffering during the thirties. When I hear those two qualifiers I immediately think of The Grapes of Wrath and I wouldn't exactly call that book a laugh riot. The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas is sweet and mostly light-hearted despite being about Kansas farmwives dealing with poverty, death, and deception. Probably because our narrator, Queenie Bean, is a happy person despite her trials.

The Persian Pickles are women who gather to quilt and talk and read aloud to each other once a week. Queenie is by far the youngest member of the group, if you don't count the sour and embittered Agnes T. Ritter who's got a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas. The other members are women in their 50s and 60s and in various degrees of life circumstances, though no one is all that well-off in Harveyville, Kansas in the 1930s. The Pickles take care of each other and are bonded through their quilting, which they all love to do. When Rita is added to the group as a new member and Agnes' new sister-in-law, she shakes things up a bit. She's a city girl, reluctant to the farm life and anxious to make a name for herself as a reporter. Not that there's much to report about until one of the members of the club's husband is dug up in a field on her property. Rita is determined to get to the bottom of the murder and stir up trouble that everyone else wishes would stay hidden.

As usual, we don't hold back on spoilers. It's no fun trying to discuss a book in coded phrases, after all.

Jenny: The murder mystery part of the book was fun, but for me the friendship between the Pickles was the best part. I found myself wishing throughout the book that I had my own group of Persian Pickles. They were all such different women, but they had that bond of friendship through quilting and all kind of being in the same boat with the hardship of that time. There were plenty of quirks and foibles but they loved each other anyway.

It's interesting how hard Queenie was trying to make Rita become a true Pickle and that it took her some time to figure out that she was never going to make Rita love farming and quilting. It cracked me up at one point when Queenie said something about how farming was the most interesting work in the world and couldn't understand why anybody would do anything different. Wow.

Caren: Yes, and I laughed when she thought Rita was crazy for wasting her time reading. Unlike quilting, she couldn't understand how anyone would spend time on something that didn't lead to a finished product! But Dallas made Queenie such an endearing and sympathetic character that I could enjoy her even though her life experience was so different from my own. And I have to admit that she would probably judge my quilting abilities to be on the same level as Rita's!

I read this book some years ago, and reading it again knowing the ending helped me enjoy even more the bond that these women shared. It didn't seem naive for Queenie to trust them with the secret of her adopted baby when you know the deeper secret that already bound them together. And I was better able to acknowledge Dallas' craft in leading us to believe that the women wanted to avoid the subject of Ben Crook's death because they were uncomfortable with the topic of murder, and not because they were trying to protect the murderer. And all along, you never got the sense that Queenie as the first-person narrator was keeping anything from the reader. It was a clever narrative sleight-of-hand, but didn't feel manipulative or forced, so I thought it was well done.

Jenny: Yes, I never once caught on to the fact that they as a group were hiding Ben's true end. It just seemed like a bunch of ladies who thought it would hurt more than harm to dig up the truth. I just chalked it up to the culture of the time, like sending away an unmarried mother to save her the shame as being known for having a baby out of wedlock. Some things people just didn't talk about back then, murder being one of them. But no, it's because they were all in on it.

I know of a quilting group from my church that gets together once a week and works on projects. I've seen some of the finished quilts and they are mind-blowing. My grandmother is in a quilting guild and has had some of her work featured in a magazine. I always associate quilting with something from a different era, until you see what our mother-in-law can accomplish and realize it's as much an art form as painting or sculpture and probably will be timeless. I loved the Massies--the drifters who Queenie and her husband take in and provide a home for--because despite their poverty and superstitions, Zepha Massie was as much an artist as the Persian Pickles. I bet if anybody had referred to the Pickles as artists, they would have scoffed.

Caren: I agree with the artistic nature of textile arts such as quilting. I know some women for whom quilting is an art and a passion and I am in awe at the things they can create. And some of the most amazing quilters I know are from our generation, so I do think it's an art form that is alive and well. But I am just not patient enough to put in the effort to elevate my skills above the rudimentary level! It's fun to dabble with, but that's about all I can do!

I really liked the Massies too, and it broke my heart when Zepha left Queenie her prized quilt. It bothered me that they left so abruptly like that to who-knows-what kind of future when they really didn't need to go. They added another human element to the story that contributed to its sensitive nature. Like you said, overall it was the relationships that carried the story.

I've only read one other Sandra Dallas novel and I was disappointed in it so I haven't tried any more from her. It was another period piece with captivating characters and an interesting plot. But there were some things that bothered me about the main character's development that I not only disagreed with, but also seemed false and insincere. So it was nice to read The Persian Pickle Club again and remember why I tried her in the first place, and maybe it would be worth giving her another shot.

Jenny: You'll have to let us know if you find another great Dallas book. This one was fun and worth a quick read.

Books for bedtime

I haven't done a batch of picture books in forever so I figured it was about time to share some recent finds. We haven't had the best of luck finding books lately, mostly due to my lack of effort, but I happened across some books these last few weeks that have made it into the favorites pile.

I'm completely behind the times in discovering Kevin Henke's book Kitten's First Full Moon that also won a Caldecott Award some years ago. My daughter picked it up at the library and all of us loved it. Kitten thinks the moon is a giant bowl of milk hanging in the sky, but all her efforts to get to it fail. She eventually gets her bowl of milk after an accidental dunk in a pond. The book is done completely in black and white illustrations that are beautiful and riveting. I can see an infant being interested in this book because of the stark contrast. The story is sweet and it has all the charm of Henkes' book.

My two-year-old has a mantra that she shares with the title of Jonathan Allen's book I'm not cute! My daughter hates it when her sisters pat her head, give her kisses and say the dreaded phrase. I think it makes her feel small when she thinks she is so very big. Little Owl in this book feels the same way and keeps insisting to the other animals that he is NOT cute and is actually a deadly predator. When bedtime comes around, his mommy reassures him that he is a stealthy hunting machine. I could relate to this book as the mommy who loves her darling little child and reassures them that they are big and important despite their inherent adorableness. Serious points on the cute scale for this book.

The idea of kids being frightened by monsters under their beds isn't anything new, but author Amanda Noll gives it a new twist in I Need My Monster. Ethan gets a note from his regular monster that he's gone fishing and that a substitute monster will be filling in for him, but how will Ethan get to sleep without his monster? He'll miss his ragged breathing and scratching claws. Ethan rejects each monster fill-in that shows up and is in despair over how he'll get to sleep. This book is far from frightening and my kids wanted it read to them over and over again. Part of that is due to Howard McWilliam's amazing illustrations. These eye-popping, zinging pictures leave you wanting more. Too bad this is his first picture book because now I want to see everything he's ever done. Somebody please hire him for more books! This book is a big winner.

For another slightly scary but mostly cute bedtime book, we have The Book That Eats People by John Perry. The conversation I had with my five-year-old went something like this:
Me: I'm a little nervous to read this book. I mean, it says that it eats people.
Adorable Daughter: Mom, books don't really eat people.
Me: Are you sure? It has warning tape all over the cover and seems pretty serious about it.
Adorable Daughter: It'll be fine, Mom. Just read it.
She wasn't falling for it, despite my best efforts to build up suspense. The book is serious about it being hungry for people, describing the fates of many young children who carelessly ate cookies while reading or turned their backs on it. We survived that first reading, thankfully, and have since read it over and over again. The illustrations are very cool and slightly frightening, two aspects I greatly enjoy. I read about this book somewhere online and immediately requested that my library purchase the book, which they willingly did because they are smart.

Another book I requested for purchase for the library was Spot the Plot: a riddle book of book riddles by J. Patrick Lewis. I bet all the children's librarians who review my requests for material purchases are wishing they could shake my hand and thank me in person. This clever book has a riddle and illustration that hints at a book that most children would know. There was only one that I hadn't heard of and another additional one that my kids hadn't heard of but that's my fault. These riddles are seriously awesome, one of my favorites being: "Good wood makes fake bad lad. Toy boy cries, lies. Nose grows." How cool is that? Loved it. Your kids will too.

This is a good batch of books! It'll make up for not having done any picture books in forever. It might be too late for any Christmas shopping, but certainly it'll at least give you some selections for the next library trip.