Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto

If you remember Winnie-the -Pooh from your childhood, or the childhood of someone dear to you, with fondness, then The Natural World of Winnie-the -Pooh by Kathryn Aalto is good for a relaxing, nerve-calming read. In the book she relates the career of A. A. Milne, author of two Winnie-the-Pooh books as well as many other books and plays. Aalto also tells of the collaboration of Milne and artist E. H. Shepard whose iconic illustrations created visual memories to accompany the classic stories.

Aalto goes on to talk about the origins of the stories, many based on elements from the childhood of Milne's son Christsopher Robin, namesake of the boy in the Pooh books. The real Christopher Robin's rambles in Ashdown Forest near the Milnes' home inspired the Hundred Acre Wood of the books. Aalto takes the reader from location to location in Ashdown Forest, telling of its history and geography as well as likely connections to the settings of the dwellings and adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger. The last portion of the book deals with the flora and fauna of the forest.

The Winnie-the -Pooh books continue to remain top best-sellers. The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh is a lovely companion. It has many photographs as well as illustrations. In the pre-publication advance reader copy the photographs are all in black and white. When published in September 2015, most of the photographs will be in color. Aalto, overall, does a good job. My only criticism is that she is a little repetitious. I think there is too much material related to the game of Poohsticks, a simple game from one of the Pooh stories.

There is a popular idea that similar things often happen in threes. My reading of this book was a part of such a grouping. Just before picking out this title from the advance reader book cart at my local library, I was reading cartoonist Bill Watterson's Exploring Calvin and Hobbes - An Exhibition Catalog. In it he describes a wooded area behind his childhood home in Ohio. While he denies being any Christopher Robin, he does fondly speak of his own woodland rambles and the freedom they made him feel. Certainly the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons often had their own woods and adventures in them, with Calvin a more zany, roguish six-year-old than Christopher Robin and Hobbes perhaps more philosophical than Tigger.

At the same time I was reading Watterson's book, I was dealing with some writings of my own. They involved an old newspaper clipping about a three-acre woods in Virginia. Curiosity about the status of the woods twenty-four years after the article was written led me, via the Internet, to come in contact with a gentleman who is a master gardener and certified Virginia naturalist. He has been using the 3-acre woods as a resource to educate over 13,000 local school children about the marvels of nature, its plants and critters. With the appearance of Aalto's book on the library's cart, I had an unplanned set of three - three woods, three connections with childhood woodland experiences. What a delight - tiddely-pom.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hide and Seek by Jane Casey

I love Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, so much that I had to read her Jess Tennant series as well. The Jess Tennant books are aimed squarely at the teen market, the third entry even more than the first. (I somehow missed the second.) There’s a lot of angsty teenager stuff about true love and parents who don’t understand.

Jess Tennant is a kind of modern Nancy Drew.  After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother from London to the small coastal town where her mother’s twin sister lives. In the first book, How to Fall, Jess investigated the mysterious death of her cousin Freya. In Hide and Seek, she is caught up in intrigue around a high school classmate who disappears the night she is supposed to meet Jess at the library to work on a project. Jess finds her classmate’s diary and reads it before the police. She also flirts with a love triangle although she professes to be in love with her boyfriend Will, now away at college most of the year. His father and her mother were in love as teenagers but married others they didn’t love, which ratchets up the angst factor.

Characterization is Casey’s real strength. I would give this book two stars for its predictable and overwrought plot. I figured out what was up with the missing girl as soon as I read her diary. Jess’s boyfriend’s father Dan is the local police chief, and it’s ridiculous and unbelievable that he allows Jess to go with him as he investigates the missing girl. The climactic scene with Jess, Will, and Dan in danger is also eye-roll worthy.

But Jess is a compelling narrator, and Casey’s writing compelled me to keep reading despite the plot. The English teen scene feels authentic, as does life in a small coastal English town. The tidy and happy ending was satisfying and I enjoyed reading the book. I think the entire series would be a hit with teens who enjoy reading mysteries. Overall I give this entry four stars. I’ll hunt down the book I missed, Bet Your Life, and read the next book in the series if Casey writes one.

I read a digital galley of Hide and Seek. It is scheduled to be published in August 2015. The first book in the Jess Tennant series, How to Fall, is available at the Galesburg Public Library in the Young Adult section and as a digital book through eRead Illinois.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

First Impressions is another work of fiction that sucked me in through promises of Oxford and Jane Austen. It’s a literary mystery and perfectly readable but not great. (It is certainly no Possession, although it’s better than Pioneer Girl.)

One very annoying thing is that Sophie, the librarian/researcher/bibliophile main character, is a thief. Another one! (The main character of Pioneer Girl is also a researcher and thief.) You can’t solve a literary mystery without stealing? Without stealing from an Oxford library? I hope she loses her Oxford library card in perpetuity!

(The declaration new readers must agree to before being granted access to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which I had to declare in 2005 when I took a continuing education course at Oxford, reads as follows: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”)

When the hot stud Wilson (who is after the same book Sophie is seeking) takes her to The Randolph (a fancy and expensive Oxford hotel), he admits she’s not the first women he’d brought there and “Somehow the fact that he had been here with other girls only made her want him more.” (p. 236). Ugh, really? Not a very good judge of character, our Sophie.

Also this happens, when Sophie hears some shocking news (p. 140):
“He rang off, but Sophie didn’t know it. She had fallen to the floor in a faint.”

Seriously? People do faint, I realize that, but how often do people really faint when they hear bad news, especially plucky and daring heroines like Sophie? I didn’t buy it.

The mystery is actually a fairly interesting one, and I enjoyed the made-up parts about Jane Austen as well as the factual information, but on the whole this was only an okay read for me because Sophie is not very likeable. Also, there is a romance (*SPOILER*) but the heroine spends way too little time with the good guy and too much time with the bad guy.

For die-heard Austen fans who also love literary mysteries and don’t mind heroines who need rescuing from their own foolish behavior. First Impressions can be found in the adult fiction section under the author's last name.

The Book That Proves that Time Travel Happens by Henry Clark

Genres: Time Travel, Historical, Middle Grade
Release Date: April 14th, 2015
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: ARC from Publisher

Add on Goodreads
The first novel that explores--with dazzling wit and high adventure--the previously undiscovered, astonishing-yet-true connections between Morse Code and ancient Chinese I-Ching hexagrams!

This never-before-seen twist on time travel adventure explores the theme of accepting those who are different--and having the courage to join them. The moment Ambrose Brody steps into a fortune-teller's tent, he is whisked into a quest that spans millennia with his best friend, an enigmatic carnival girl, and an unusual family heirloom that drops them into the middle of the nineteenth century!

The year 1852 is a dangerous time for three non-white children, and they must work together to dodge slave-catchers and save ancestors from certain death--all while figuring out how to get back to the future. Fortunately, they have a guide in the helpful hints embedded in an ancient Chinese text called the I-Ching, which they interpret using Morse Code. But how can a three-thousand-year-old book be sending messages into the future through a code developed in the 1830s? Find out in this mind-bending, time-bending adventure!

I feel so cheated by this book. The title suggested something really fun and quirky and perhaps something that was in the vein of Pseudonymous Bosch (whose books are hilarious and you should totally check them out.) This book wasn't really any of those things though. Some readers will find it hilarious, and there were moments when I laughed but this book just didn’t work for me the way I wanted it to.

The time travel aspects were not believable and given that this book is set in a world resembling ours, I was surprised at how easily the characters believed things without even questioning them. They find a connection between two codes and they are so quick to believe it isn’t a coincidence. I mean one of these codes was SWEET, sweet wasn’t a term used in the specific context they were using it when the code was invented.

I hate conveniences like that and I don’t think a book should be excused for relying on them to explain important parts of the world building just because it is intended for a younger audience. That seems like cheating to me.

I also didn’t really like the characters. Tom was smart but there were times when he would want to do things that put everyone’s life at risk, including his own, because he felt like it. Ambrose was kind of a jerk when the novel started and even though he became better by the end of the novel, his improvement came too late for me. I also didn’t give a flying fart about Frankie.

This all left me with a book I felt very mediocre about. It’s not a bad book; it’s just not the book for me because almost none of the aspects of the book really made me get excited. It’s especially a pity since I think MGs about time travel can be so much fun.

This book is not one I’d personally recommend but don’t be put off if you’re interested! It might work out for you.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! by Elise Parsley

Genres: Picture Book
Release Date: July 7th, 2015
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: BEA 2015

Add on Goodreads
Note to self: If your teacher tells you to bring something from nature for show-and-tell, she does not want you to bring an alligator! But nothing will stop Magnolia, who's determined to have the best show-and-tell of all--until her reptilian rapscallion starts getting her into some major trouble. Now it's up to Magnolia to find a way to send this troublemaker home--but what could possibly scare an alligator away?




What do you mean I am too old to be reading picture books? SHUSHHHHH.  I READ WHAT I WANT and what I want to read are cute picture books like this one.

A couple months ago, I decided I wanted to read picture books and it’s been an interesting experience. I read middle grade novels often these days and sometimes my age does become an issue, but it’s even harder to ignore that picture books are written for an audience that is NOT me. It is why it’s even harder to come across picture books that completely win my heart over and cross over from the territory of being enjoyable and cute.

This one did. For starters, all the artwork in the book is GORGEOUS. I am actually flipping through the pages again as I write this review to see the amazing artwork once again. The story is also really cute and features a little girl who decides to bring an Alligator to school for show and tell. As the title already lets you know, it’s not such a great idea and she ends up not having such a great day.

This is the perfect book to read aloud to kids, and to read aloud to yourself (hush, don’t judge). This book not only has my approval, but the approval of one little 6 year old girl who enjoyed it too so you know it’s going to be a great little picture book.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

I chose Last Night at the Blue Angel as a discussion book for the library's Tuesday/Thursday book club. It was a little “steamier” (their word) than I realized it would be. One of the main characters is not only a bisexual, but she participates in a threesome at one point. While not graphically descriptive, it’s descriptive enough to cause comments from the club members.

But it’s the 1960s, and Naomi is rebelling against the conventional expectations of her. The book is narrated in turns by Naomi and her 10-year-old daughter Sophia. In 1965, Naomi is a jazz singer who has been performing at the Blue Angel for some time. The book opens with her last night before moving on from that venue.

Naomi’s narration takes us back to 1951 and the circumstances that caused her to leave Kansas and her family as a teenager. We learn how and when she met some of the unconventional people who are still present in her life in 1965. We learn about her relationship with Sophia’s biological father, and why she decided to keep the baby although unmarried.

Sophia’s narration describes life with her self-absorbed mother and the “family” Naomi has surrounded herself and her child with on her life’s journey. Sophia is as much the parent as the child. The truest parent Sophia has is Jim, who has been in love with Naomi for years but is willing to take whatever role he can play for her in return. Sophia is obsessed with the obliteration of the world through a nuclear war. She keeps a list of all the things she’ll need to reinvent after the bomb. She also keeps a list of the people her mother has had sexual relationships with – people who never stay.

Sophia notes, “Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance, and I get tired of it, being careful, and mad at her at the same time.” (p. 37)

I liked that the book addresses the sexism and racism of the time but also the destruction of many of the fine examples of architecture in Chicago. Jim is a photographer and is modeled loosely after Richard Nickel, who photographed architecture in Chicago in the 1960s and 70s and fought for the preservation of many buildings. Jim is a sober and steady counterpoint to Naomi.

I knew the book would have a bittersweet ending, since the story is bittersweet throughout, although I did not quite guess how it would end. (You might, however, if you are familiar with the life of Richard Nickel.)

Last Night at the Blue Angel has an engaging story and was an easy read. Many of the minor characters are quite interesting. The 1960s Chicago setting is delightful, and music is key to the feel of the story and the plot. If you don’t mind some sexual content and enjoy strong narrative voices, music, and a Chicago setting, I recommend it.

The Galesburg Public Library has Last Night at the Blue Angel in the adult fiction section and as an audiobook on CD.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

Due for release June 9, 2015, The Truth According to Us is by Annie Barrows, the partial author of her aunt's best selling book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.

This new book is by Annie Barrows, alone. The story takes place in a small West Virginia town in 1938. The town is the subject of a Federal Writer's Project book to celebrate the town's sesquicentennial. Daughter of a U. S. senator and of privilege, Layla Beck is made by her father to work, out on her own, on the project. In the town of Macedonia, Layla stays with one of the main families. Both she and the reader are introduced to the family and various townspeople and their histories. Much of the story is told through the eyes and voice of 12-year-old Willa Rymer, a member of this key family.

The story has elements seen before in many other books: a hot summer, a (somewhat) Southern town, a prominent family with conflicted secrets which are slowly revealed and family loyalties which seem slightly unhealthy in the final analysis.

Many readers will undoubtedly select this book in eager hope of a "good read" based on enjoyment from Barrows' previous co-author venture. Many readers will like this story and its characters. Many pre-publication reviewers have awarded it four and five stars.

My feeling is that it is an average, familiar story, with characters that fall short of being fully developed, and it is WAY too long. And that's the truth according to me.