Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: Bella at Midnight

Stanley, Diane. Bella at Midnight. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Isabel, though she does not know it, is the daughter of a knight. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father couldn't stand the sight of her. Reared by peasants, Bella, as she is called, has a happy childhood. She has a brother and a sister and her dearest friend is Prince Julian. Bella and Julian separate under bad circumstances. Bella is summoned home by her natural father when he remarries. Unwanted and ill used, Bella finds little comfort in the home of her birth. When she learns of a plot to murder Julian, she knows she must act. Disguised first as a boy, then as a lady of the court, Bella warns Julian of the plot. Her warning is not enough. Julian's brother refuses to halt the attack on the country of Brutanna. Bella must and does avert a tragedy. After much worry and wondering, they all live happily ever after.

What I thought: I found it difficult to become engaged in this story. For one thing, each chapter was told from a different character's perspective. I'm sure the author did this for a reason, but wouldn't a first person or third person narrative have made much more sense? From the title, I assumed that this was another Beauty and the Beast story. The beauty is often called Belle or Bella, as bella means beautiful in Italian. This was more of a Cinderella story with a beautiful dress, glass slippers, a godmother, an unwanted stepdaughter, and a prince.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: Nine Days a Queen

Rinaldi, Ann. Nine Days a Queen: The Short Life and Reign of Lady Jane Grey. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Jane is mistreated by her parents. Beaten when she doesn't obey. They have an agenda: they want to see Jane married to the King's son. The power and influence of their family will then be secure. Jane becomes a mere pawn in a game of power. She tries to assert herself, but fails. Through the ill-guided endeavours of her power-hungry family, Jane looses her head (literally).

What I thought: If you've ever seen the 1986 film Lady Jane, Rinaldi's superbly researched account of Jane Grey's life will set you straight. The assumption that everyone loves a romance must explain the sentimentality of the film. Jane was married to Guildford Dudley against her will. She found him repulsive. In the movie, they eventually fall in love. In reality, they become friends only under threat of imminent death. I like a romance as much as the next girl, but in matters of history I prefer the facts. Rinaldi assures readers, "I have fictionalized some events for the sake of the story, and interpreted others to tighten my plot, but otherwise, no amount of invention or creativity could add to this incredible story" (Author's Note).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Review: Brooklyn Rose

Rinaldi, Ann. Brooklyn Rose. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.

Rose is a fifteen-year-old Southern Belle at the turn of the 20th century. Given a diary, she records her thoughts on her family, life in the South, and her growing attraction to an older man. She marries Rene Dumarest. Rose must adjust from being a Southern Belle living in diminished circumstances since the War between the States to being a rich man's wife in Brooklyn, New York. Still a child and not yet a woman, Rose must find her feet as a married woman.

Author Ann Rinaldi describes her story: "It is my grandmother and grandfather, as I imagined them to be" (Author's note).

What I thought: I particularly like the format Rinaldi chose for this tribute to her grandparents, that of a diary. Rose's voice comes across just as it should: childish yet womanly, uncertain, and at times humorous.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Gold Dust Letters

Lisle, Janet Taylor. The Gold Dust Letters. New York: Avon Camelot, 1994.

It all starts with a letter. Angela decides to write to her fairy godmother. Angela's that kind of girl. She still believes in magic. Her belief is validated when her fairy godmother writes back. Written on parchment paper with purple ink, the letter sheds gold dust whenever it's open. But what does the letter say?

"With great honor I present myself: Pilaria of the Kingdom of Faeries, Eighth Tribe, Fourth Earth, Under the Sun-Star Aravan, May It Shine on Our Land Forever and Ever.


Your message has been received. Unfortunately, boxes of chocolates like the one you requested have long been out of stock. A hundred years ago they were all the rage, but fashions change. The kingdom has not filled such an order in fifty or sixty years and no longer prepares them. We are sorry that we cannot grant your wish in this matter.

The Gray-Eyed Faerie,

With the help of her friends Georgina (doubter of magic) and Poco (talker to animals), Angela sets out to discover more about the Pilaria and the fairy kingdom.

What I thought: This was a delightful book. I was pleased to learn that it is the first in a series. The other books are Looking for Juliette, A Message from the Match Girl, and Angela's Aliens. Angela's belief in magic is what made this book so enchanting. After all, believing is seeing, right?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Review: Beastly

Flinn, Alex. Beastly. New York: Harper Teen, 2007.

You know the story. Boy behaves badly. Gets cursed by a witch. Has a limited amount of time to find a girl to love him in all his beastliness. This is exactly what happens to Kyle Kingsbury. His bad behavior pisses off a witch. Forsaken by even his father, he takes refuge in gardening. His roses are his one peace. He wastes one year feeling sorry for himself. He finally embraces reality and adopts a new identity, Adrian King. Can he find a girl in time to break the curse?

What I thought: As a fan of fairy tale re-tellings, I wasn't disappointed in Alex Flinn's urban version of Beauty and the Beast. I enjoyed that the reader gets Kyle's story from his point of view. In traditional versions of the story, readers often sympathize with the girl. After all, there's a reason the beast was cursed in the first place. For fans of Donna Jo Napoli's Beast, this is a must read.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Happy Birthday, A. A. Milne!!!

Happy birthday to A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and friends. Milne was born January 18, 1882 in England.

In celebration of his 127th birthday, I ask that you read something from his books. I'll share my favorites here.

From When We Were Very Young (published 1924), my favorite poem is "At the Zoo." From Winnie-the-Pooh (published 1926), my favorite is chapter 2, "In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place." From Now We Are Six (published 1927), my favorite poem is "Us Two." From The House at Pooh Corner (published 1928), my favorite is chapter 5, "In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day, and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings."

You might also watch The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, released by Disney in 1977.

Other Pooh resources for those of you who want more information or to throw a Pooh celebration:

The Pooh Party Book by Virginia H. Elliason (1971)
Pooh Corner:
Penguin's Pooh Party Guide from 2001:

Whatever you do today, just remember the joy that Pooh and his friends brought you as a child.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: Our Only May Amelia

Holm, Jennifer L. Our Only May Amelia. New York: Harper Trophy, 1999.

May Amelia is the only girl in her settlement on the Nasel River in Washington State. some say she's a miracle. Others think she's a pest. But they all concur that she's their only May Amelia. May endures a pregnant mother (this means she has to do all the housekeeping), 7 older brothers, a disproving father, and a cruel grandmother. She also has any number of people (relatives, friends, and acquaintances) tell her she needs to be a "Proper Young Lady." May Amelia doesn't see anything special or fun in being a proper young lady. She prefers to be herself though others despair of her lack of refinement.

What I thought: It took me a few moments to get engaged in this book. I think the absence of quotation marks around speech was part of the problem. May Amelia is such a spunky girl. I guess she has to be when there are 7 older brothers there to roughhouse with her. I'm the oldest in my smaller family (only 1 brother & 1 sister) so it was nice to experience what it would be like to be the youngest. I am pleased to discover that Jennifer Holm based the character of May Amelia on her grandaunt. Historical books based on family stories always seem more real to me. (Another of my favorites is Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review: Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons

Rinaldi, Ann. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Gulliver, 1996.

Torn from her native land in Africa when only a small child, Keziah arrives in Boston terrified. She doesn't understand what the white people say. On the voyage, she was treated inhumanely and watched her mother die. Bought by Mr. Wheatley for his wife, Keziah becomes Phillis Wheatley. She is a slave, but the Wheatleys don't treat her so. When she shows an aptitude for learning, her master's son, Nathaniel, teaches her how to read. Phillis does well with her tutoring. After a time, she writes a poem. This is astounding because most of the white world doubts that a black person has such talent. Writing poetry turns Phillis into a oddity, you might even say a commodity, that the Wheatleys cultivate. Phillis views her writing differently.

"All I ever wanted to do was write some words down on paper. The fact that I could do so never ceased being a matter of incredulity to me.

I love the way the words look, all of a piece on the parchment beneath my hands, weaving my thoughts into the tapestry, like a spider weaving a web.

I love the way I can make them rhyme. I love the smell of the very ink I use.

Most of all, I love that when I write I am not skinny and black and a slave. My writing has no color. It has no skin at all, truth to tell.

When I write I am the real me.

I am whole, beautiful, alive, filled with a sense of pleasure and worth. Why can't they just leave it be?" (21-22).

What I thought: This is a profoundly moving book. I found myself crying with or for Phillis at several intervals. I like the fact that Ann Rinaldi makes Phillis her own. She doesn't claim this is the factual account of Phillis, merely the story of. Rinaldi describes her aim in the author's note: "This is what I have attempted in my novel, to flesh Phillis out" (332). The level of detail in the book attests to the depth of research Rinaldi does for her books. She takes the dry, historical facts and gives them life. Bravo, Ms. Rinaldi!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: I Had Seen Castles

Rylant, Cynthia. I Had Seen Castles. New York: Harcourt, 1993.

As an old man, John reminisces about coming of age in the midst of World War II. The things he saw, the things he did as a young soldier changed who he was.

What I thought: For a small book (97 pages), this certainly packs a punch. Through John's narration, I experienced all the things he did. I felt his heartbreak as he lost his idenity to the war, as he saw the sacrifices his family made. I felt his terror as he waited in a hole on the front lines for death to claim someone. Looking back on the boy he was and the man he becomes, John comes to grips with the war. This would be a great book to read when studying WWII.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Little Whistle by Cynthia Rylant

Rylant, Cynthia. Little Whistle. Illus. Tim Bowers. New York: Harcourt, 2001.

Little Whistle, a guinea pig, lives in a toy store. He sleeps all day, but at night he explores the store and makes many friends. When Little Whistle first came to the toy store, a kindly sailor loaned him his blue peacoat because it gets chilly in the store at night. Every night before Little Whistle sets off to visit his friends, he dons his peacoat. He cuts quite a dashing figure. He normally makes use of the train to go see all his friends. There's a teddy bear who loves hats, a rabbit who is always running, a china doll who sings, and a toy soldier who reads to the babies. Little Whistle and his friends have many adventures at night when the store is closed. Little Whistle has more fun in Little Whistle's Dinner Party, Little Whistle's Medicine, and Little Whistle's Christmas.

What I Thought: This is a delightful book. I love the idea of a toy store coming to life after closing time. The Little Whistle books have the potential to be classics. This book would be prefect to use for a story time that had toys as its theme.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Borrowers Series by Mary Norton

Paperclips, safety pins, needles, thumbtacks, and pencils are just some of the things that go missing the minute you need them. Where do they all go? Surely they're not just piled up forgotten in a corner somewhere. Suppose creatures exist who borrow such things when they need them. This is just the question that author Mary Norton must have considered when she wrote her series of books about the borrowers.

In The Borrowers, we meet the Clock family (Pod, Homily, and Arietty) who live under the kitchen floor in an English manor in the country. The Clock family are borrowers. They borrow things from "human beans" so they can furnish their houses and eat. Borrowers are quite tiny, no more than 6 inches high at most. One of the rules of borrowing is never to be seen by "human beans." Alas, Pod didn't know that a boy had come to stay for the summer. While he was borrowing in the nursery, he was seen. He and Homily worry that the humans will bring in cats and rat-catchers. They might have to emigrate. For the time being, their worries don't amount to anything. Arrietty, their 13-year-old daughter, befriends the boy. In exchange for reading to him, he brings the Clock family all sorts of treasures from the nursery. However, the boy's nocturnal activities do not go unnoticed by the housekeeper. She soon sees the borrowers and thinks they're mice. The rat-catcher is called. With the help of the boy, the Clock family escapes.

The Borrowers Afield chronicles the Clock family's adventures in the wilderness. They live in a boot and search for their relatives, the Hendrearies. They make a new friend in Spiller, an outside borrower who brings them borrowings. Being discovered by humans is always a worry. A gypsy finds their boot and they are trapped in his caravan. Luckily, Spiller and another boy come to their rescue.

In The Borrowers Afloat, the Clock family is reunited with their relatives. They live in harmonious discord until the humans leave the house. A house without humans means famine for borrowers. With nothing to borrow, they will soon starve. With Spiller's help, they leave the house and began a journey to Little Fordham, a model village downriver.

In The Borrowers Aloft, the Clock family settles in to their new life in Little Fordham. Arrietty speaks to another "human bean." The lady, who still believes in fairies, is delighted that the family has settled in the model village. Unbeknown to the borrowers, the proprietor of another model village has been spying and has seen them. He steals the borrowers and locks them up in his attic. He means to put them on display come spring. Pod, Homily, and Arietty go over the attic inch by inch looking for tools to help them escape. They end up building a hot air balloon. Their homecoming is not what they expected. In their absence, Miss Menzies (the lady Arietty talked to) and Mr. Pott (owner of Little Fordham) have made improvements to the family's cottage. They furnished it and laid on both electric and running water. How can the borrowers think of staying anywhere that "human beans" are providing for them? They make plans to move out within a few days.

In The Borrowers Avenged, the Clock family, again with Spiller's help, move into the old rectory at Fordham. Arietty meets the other borrower in residence, Peagreen. He is an Overmantel, but he fell and crippled his leg. The Hendrearies, minus their two oldest boys and daughter, have taken up residence in the church. The Clock family settles down to a comfortable life. In the back of their mind, there's always the threat of being captured again.

What I Thought: This series has been one of my favorites since I was young. I have recently re-read them. The only complaint I have is that I didn't want the Clock family's adventures to end. I want to know who Arietty married. Before they came to the rectory, I would have said Spiller with some certainty. But now she knows another borrower of marriageable age. Peagreen also has his reading and writing (He's a poet) to recommend him. If you haven't ever read these before, they are classics not to be missed.

Review: The Pretty One

Klam, Cheryl. The Pretty One. New York: Delacorte, 2008.

Megan is perfectly used to living in her sister Lucy's shadow. Lucy is the pretty one. Megan is the other sister. You might describe the sisters as day and night. Lucy is day with her blond hair and blue eyes. Megan is night with her dark hair and dark eyes. More than coloring, Megan's features aren't what you'd call pretty. Despite this, Megan is content with her life. When she finds out what Lucy really thinks of her, she's distraught and walks out into to traffic. Luckily, most of the damage done is cosmetic. Doctors reconstruct Megan's face. She looses weight. She has become the pretty one. When Megan goes back to school, she struggles to retain her identity. Her new face gives her new friends, but she wonders why they never bothered to befriend her before. Do they truly like her or are they just enamoured of her new face? This is the story of how Megan deals with her new life courtesy of her new face.

What I thought: I liked this book. It's not a story line I've ever considered before. It takes sibling rivalry to a new high. I do wish that there was more closure at the end of the book. I'm not certain I (or Megan) know if her crush likes her for herself or for her face. To be certain, the qualities he admires in her (her humor, interest in comic books, etc.) are ones she had before the accident. Overall, the book is engaging. I couldn't put it down. I wanted to see what would happen next to Megan. I think the book has broad appeal as chick lit. Hopefully, the people who read it will consider seriously the question of inner beauty versus outer beauty.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Winter Reading

Winter is the season when I find myself re-reading my favorite books. Most of my favorites fall into the category of "Children's Classics." I think winter is the season that is most conducive to reading. After all, reading in winter is so cozy. It's cold outside. It's often windy and rainy. What could be more perfect than curling up under a blanket with a good book and a cup of tea? I'm currently re-reading The Borrowers series by Mary Norton. In this winter season, I encourage you to rediscover your favorite books.

Here's the books I'll likely re-read this winter:
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster
anything by L. M. Montgomery

I might also re-read some new favorites:
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
The Wedding Planner's Daughter and The Cupid Chronicles by Coleen Murtagh Paratore
The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick
anything by Joan Bauer

Happy Winter Reading!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Review: Artichoke's Heart

Supplee, Suzanne. Artichoke's Heart. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Unlike most 16-year-old girls, Rosemary dreads Christmas. The holiday doesn't ever bring her anything she wants. This year she gets a treadmill, 2 diet books, and tickets to the "Healing the Fat Girl Within"conference. Do you see a theme here? Yeah, so does Rosemary. If anything, it depresses her even more. Her gift to herself this Christmas is gaining 10 pounds. Here's how Rosemary sees her life: a fat girl with no friends, no boyfriend, a mom who won't defend her, and an aunt who constantly nags her. Could things get any worse? Yeah, they can. Rosemary's mom gets diagnosed with cancer. Rosemary feels that she has no control over her life. She tries to get some control back by dieting. She even starts exercising. As the pounds go away, Rosemary learns a few things about herself. Even when she weighed 200 pounds, people were willing to be her friend. A boy crushed on her while she still weighed 200 pounds. Her mother does love her.

What I thought: I picked this book up because I saw other reviews of it in the blogging community. The fact that it's set in Spring Hill, Tennessee endears it to me as I'm a native Tennessean. The interesting thing about this book is that for the first 10 pages or so it reads like an adult book. Rosemary has such a sarcastic, resigned voice that I assumed she was in her 20s or 30s. It wasn't until she mentioned going back to school that I realized she was only 16. I like the fact that the author addresses not just the physical issues of being fat (at Rosemary's heaviest, even her sweats won't fit) but also the mental issues (Rosemary continues to retain a low self image even after she's lost weight).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: The Magic Circle

Napoli, Donna Jo. The Magic Circle. New York: Puffin, 1993.

Ugly One, Mother, Ugly Sorceress, Witch, Old Woman, Mother.

She'd been called many names in her life. Everything she did, whether good or evil, was for love. She loved her daughter so much. That love caused her to go from being a simple midwife into a sorceress. When the demons stopped obeying her and commanded her to obey them, she agreed only to save her daughter. She remembered the fairy tale land a young boy had told her about. There she fled. For nine years, she lived in solitude. She avoided anything that would tempt her to embrace the demonic side of her nature. Then, Hansel and Gretel found her candy cottage. For a time, she believed they could live together. She became a mother again. But the demons soon ended her believed happiness.

Have you ever wondered why the witch hungered for childish flesh? Why she lived in a candy cottage deep in the wood? What was her life like before Hansel and Gretel came? This book will give you more answers than you can imagine.

What I thought: Donna Jo Napoli is indeed a expert at retelling fairy tales. You read one of her books and say "Why didn't I think of that?" Her elaborations on the simple tales are not just plausible but believable. In this book, Napoli uses a common method for retelling fairy tales. She tells the story from a minor character's point of view. In the original tale of Hansel and Gretel, the witch was secondary to the story of the children's struggle to survive. Napoli's story makes the witch worth your notice.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

2009 Reading Resolutions

Okay...I've finally had some time to write down some tentative reading resolutions for 2009. Here they are:

1. Read at least 1 poem every day.
2. read at least 1 short story every week.
3. Read more picture books (Goal: 20 per month).
4. Read lots from my TBR pile.
5. Make more use of the public library (After all, the books there are FREE!).
6. Read 1 biography per month.

That's that for the resolutions. Hopefully I can keep them.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review: An Occasional Cow

Horvath, Polly. An Occasional Cow. New York: FSG, 1985.

Imogene Spark understands summer. She knows what to expect. Imogene goes away to camp where she secludes herself in the craft room making wallets. Her occupation is not one of choice but necessity. Imogene lacks the skills to excel at athletics, so she makes wallets.

But that all changes the summer her camp burns down. Her parents decide to send her to Iowa to visit her cousins. Imogene is a New York City girl through and through. She is appalled at this turn of events. As Imogene tells her best friend Edie, "I am not going to camp this summer. I am not making wallets this summer. This summer, I am being sent to stay with my cousins and my aunt and my uncle and their pigs and mosquitoes and cows and cornfields and potato fields and probably other dangerous forms of wildlife in, and I hope you appreciate this, Iowa" (15).

While Imogene dreads the thought of spending her summer in such a rustic place, she's soon caught up in the antics of her cousins. They train pigs to curtsy, spy on neighbors, take moonlight swims, and hold regular meetings of the AGAC (Association of Great Agate Collectors), BTWS (Bathtub Walking Society), and LCCS (Laundry Chute Climbing Society).

What I thought: I was not disappointed in this book. When you read a book by Polly Horvath, you expect to laugh continuously. And I did. Imogene reminds me of Ivy from Horvath's When the Circus Came to Town. This book is definitely a light-hearted funny read. Perfect to read in the middle of winter or at the start of summer vacation.

Review: Black Duck

Lisle, Janet Taylor. Black Duck. New York: Scholastic, 2006.

Aspiring newshound David Peterson wants to find a story that will get him a job with the local newspaper. He knows that rum-running was rampant in his small coastal town back in the 1920s. He asks around. He reads some newspaper accounts. His haphazard research leads him to Ruben Hart.

Maybe it's his age that compels Ruben to tell the story that's never been told. Maybe it's because David reminds him of his childhood friend Jeddy. Whatever it is, Ruben soon has David so enthralled in his story that he can't remember to take notes.

On December 30, 1929, the coast guard fired on the infamous elusive rum-runner, the Black Duck. 3 of the 4 men on board were killed. The other was injured. What nobody ever knew is that there was a 5th man on board. At a young age, Ruben saw, heard, and experienced things that no young man should.

What I thought: The Prohibition Era is a fascinating time in US history. Prohibition lasted from 1920 through 1933. The 18th Amendment became effective on January 16, 1920. On the 1920 Census, taken January 7th, the occupation of two of my great-grandmother's brothers was listed as "moon shiner." My personal connection makes books about that time even more interesting to me. This would be a great book to read along with Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts. I loved the way Taylor frames her story in the present. She alternates between the actual story and David's interview of Ruben.

Review: Spinners by Donna Jo Napoli

Napoli, Donna Jo. Spinners. New York: Dutton, 1999.

Have you ever wondered why Rumpelstiltskin is the way he is? Small, gnarled, deformed, and covetous of ladies' first born children? Have you ever asked yourself why that miller's daughter? What compelled Rumpelstiltskin to help her? Spinners answers all these questions and more about the traditional fairy tale. To discover the story behind the story, you'll have to read it.

What I thought: This is another fantastic fairy tale book by Donna Jo Napoli. Her expansion on the original tale is inspired. I especially like all the detail she put in about the types of yarns Saskia makes. For fairy tale fanatics, this is a must read.