Monday, March 30, 2009

68. The Werefox

The Werefox (originally published as Pure Magic) by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Illustrated by Ingrid Fetz

Pages: 73
Ages: 7+
Finished: Mar. 27, 2009
First Published: 1973
Genre: children, paranormal
Rating: 2.5/5

Reason for Reading: Read aloud to my 8yo.

First sentence:

Johnny Dunlap woke and lay on his back in his narrow bed listening.

Comments: Set in a very rural area, a new family moves onto the farm nearest Johnny's place and he becomes friends with the eldest son Giles. Turns out they are French Canadians and Giles looks just like his mother while the two younger children are spitting images of the father. This is because Giles and his mother are Werefoxes, similar to werewolves, only much more gentle creatures. Giles and Johnny are typical boys during the day but at night Giles the fox takes Johnny on his midnight runs with him. Everything comes to a head when a new man moves into the area bringing with him a host of hound dogs and gives a portion of the local men the fever for fox hunting.

Sadly to say this was a rather lacklustre story. The boys adventures as boys were boring, doing chores together, walking home from school. The idea of a werefox was interesting but other than nature descriptions nothing much happened when they ran together at night. The ending with the fox hunt finally brought some action to the story but it was predictable and not altogether very exciting. The 8yo did enjoy it. He would probably give it a bit better rating than I did but he also knows we've read much, much better books than this one. I suggest you give this out of print book a skip.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

2 Mini Reviews of Catholic Books

#67: Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith, Fifth Revised Edition by Leonard Foley, O.F.M. (2005)215 pgs. - This is the book we have been using for our RCIA classes this year. It is not the type of book you would want to sit down and read cover to cover in one go as it is a little dry for that approach to reading but it was perfect reading a few chapters every week or two over a long period of time. I also found myself browsing through certain topics and will certainly refer to it in the future. Starting with a summary of the books of the Old Testament and ending with message that Jesus will come again, this book covers every Christian topic about Jesus for those new to Him and those who have already found Him. It then expounds on topics by introducing the Catholic viewpoint which may differ from the Protestant view, pointing out views which cause misunderstandings from Protestants and explaining these misunderstandings away. Then totally Catholic practices, beliefs and sacraments are explained. The book is cleared my head on many topics and backs itself up with Biblical quotes, and quotes from the Popes and Catechism. This is a book I will keep and refer to often as I refresh my mind on certain topics of the Faith.

Meeting Jesus in Holy Communion: A Child's First Eucharist with guide notes for parents and teachers by Roger Marchand (1984) - As we have been participating in RCIA classes I have been using this little (32 pgs) lesson book with my 8yo. With a total of 14 lessons within 5 units it is a small and easy book to either use quickly or slowly. We have been using it slowly over the last few months. First the child learns who Jesus is, then what the Eucharist signifies, what the parts of Mass mean, how we meet Jesus during Mass and finally how to share Jesus with others. Each little lesson is written in an entertaining format starting with a Q&A. Then a short lesson explaining answer often including biblical quotes. The end of each unit contains some glossary words to explain along with questions to ask for each page of the lesson. We really enjoyed using the book and though the book is entitled "First Eucharist" it can be used at any time. I think we will use it again in a year or to and see how his understanding of these topics has grown.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

66. Drood

Drood by Dan Simmons

Pages: 775
Ages: 18+
Finished: Mar. 29, 2009
First Published: Feb. 9, 2009
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Rating: 5/5

Reason for Reading: Received review copy from Hachette Book Group.

First sentence:

My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name.

Comments: Where to start with a book of over 700 pages? If I were to have written this review immediately after finishing the book, and closing my hanging jaw, one word would have sufficed, "Wow!"

Wilkie Collins is the narrator of this book, being a memoir of his life from the time of The Woman in White's end of serialization to minutes before his death. Written in an authentic Victorian sensationalist novel voice the book is incredibly brilliant. What starts off as a simple tale of Collins' life and his friendship with Dickens takes a wild turn into murder, mayhem and the supernatural. The reader is taken along for a ride through opium dens, laudanum addiction, underground catacombs and an underground city in London, cemeteries and crypts, Egyptian cults, mesmerism as a science, and well, the list is endless. More of a summary would be a disservice to future readers. You must let the plot (or should I say multiple plots) unfold for yourself.

Filled with wonderful, eccentric characters; most of whom were actual real-life figures, one becomes fascinated with them all from the highest of character to the lowest of the low. As per a Dickens novel, the characters come and go, some shining briefly as main characters only to leave rather quickly while others are around from beginning to end. The writing is superb, simply superb. The Victorian style is followed to a "T", including having certain people named Mrs. G______ and swear words printed as d___n. Never does Simmons loose beat with the style and language of original Victorian novels. I presume this book is an homage to Wilkie Collins' style, but as I have never read him I can only surmise.

The beginning 300 pages or so are what one could call slow-paced presenting an interesting story of Collins and Dickens' friendship, their scandalous affairs concerning women, their failing health and their addictions; Collins with opium and Dickens with mesmerism. While I'm calling it slow paced that is only in contrast to the rest of the book where unbelievable things start to happen and the reader is surprised and surprised again and again as twist after turn takes the story to a place you will not see coming a mile away. The reader is taken through the writing process and life happenings of both Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood as the author entertains all sorts of possible reasons for how these books' plots came to be.

This is a book that has left me wanting more. I've read plenty of Dickens' but none of Wilkie Collin's work and that must be remedied some time soon. Along with wanting to read his work, I want to read a biography of both men having known nothing about them as people previous to reading this book. After I read the book I Googled them both and was very surprised at how much of the biographical aspects of this novel were based on reality. They are both extremely interesting (and eccentric) men.

This book is not going to be for everyone. If you've never read Victorian novels or either Dickens or Collins you'll probably have no interest in reading it anyway. But if you have, well, you are in for a treat. I read D.J. Taylor's Kept a year or two ago and thought that was brilliant but Drood sweeps it under the carpet. A fantastic ride which makes me want to read Simmons' The Terror even more now than I did before, (which was a lot) since I have always been very interested in the Franklin Expedition. Don't let the 775 pages deter you from reading this book, it took me ten days to read and I found myself flying through the pages as I could not put the book down. Lovers of Victorian literature I have one thing to say to you: "Read this book!"

Thursday, March 26, 2009

65. Who Was Thomas Jefferson?

Who Was Thomas Jefferson? by Dennis Brindell Fradin
Illustrated by John O'Brien

Pages: 103
Ages: 8+
Finished: Mar. 25, 2009
First Published: 2003
Genre: children, biography
Rating: 3/5

Reason for Reading: Read aloud to my 8yo as part of our curriculum.

First sentence:

Thomas Jefferson is pictured on U.S. nickels.

Comments: A quite detailed biography of the third President of the USA for children. Large type with a space and a half between lines makes reading easier on the eyes of young readers. Many comic-type illustrations on virtually every page along with illustrations that are labeled and drawn maps. The book is very even-handed, on the one side siting Jefferson's accomplishments as a great American while on the other keeping in mind he was a slave owner and had his own family of children from a slave woman. The book also does not presume the reader is an American which certainly makes the book reader friendly to non-Americans. So many books about the US use the words "our" and "here" as if everyone in the world was an American and thus causing us foreigners to edit on the fly as reading aloud. The book ends with Jefferson's signature, a page of his famous quotes, a bibliography and finally a two-page spread timeline of his life.

A very readable and enjoyable book. Written in a narrative voice the book is very entertaining. It does have a bit too many names and dates which become monotonous after a while, but it is no means saturated with them and dates are easily skipped over. Appropriate for ages 9 and up to read themselves while younger will still enjoy the book read aloud, though I recommend skimming over some of the political details which can become tedious at times. I enjoyed that Jefferson's political life and role in the creating of the Declaration of Independence is a focal point in the middle of the book but by no means is the focus of the entire book. Just as much attention is given to his boyhood and young manhood as well as his post presidency and old age. An all-around suitable book on the topic and most children should find it satisfying.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

64. Unpolished Gem

Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me by Alice Pung

Pages: 282
Ages: 18+ (though entirely suitable for teens)
Finished: Mar. 20, 2009
First Published: Jan. 27, 2009
Genre: memoir
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: I received a review copy from the publisher, Penguin USA.

First sentence:

In 1980, my father, mother, grandmother, and Auntie Kieu arrived in Australia by plane.

Comments: A Chinese family escapes communism by moving to Cambodia, only to find some years later that the next generation must escape from the dictator Pol Pot. This Chinese-Cambodian family of grandmother, brother, sister, and brother's eight-month pregnant wife are given a choice of Canada or Australia. Knowing nothing of either country they chose Australia because the father does know it doesn't snow in Australia.

This is a story of three women from three different generations with very different life experiences and especially the life of a second-generation immigrant. Alice, the daughter born shortly after arrival in Australia, tells the story of her life living between two cultures. Her beloved Grandmother, from China, was the second wife of a Chinese man and very traditional in her Chinese religious beliefs. Her mother, a product of Chinese rearing, even though born in Cambodia, remains within the Asian community in the new land and never learns English beyond a few words and phrases. Alice, an Australian by birth, goes to a ghost (white man's) school and finds her culture clash of being an Australian girl within the confines of her old Chinese way upbringing.

While concentrating on Alice's life, we learn a bit of the Cambodian and Chinese way of life through off-hand comments and brief explanations of the mother and grandmother's past. However, the book is mostly concerned with the here and now of Alice's life in Australia as she lives with her mother and grandmother (and father, of course) being raised with Chinese religion and morals, while being pushed to become a part of the white man's world and yet keep her Chinese heritage and dignity.

This is a very entertaining memoir and full of interesting details of the Chinese way of life. Alice's grandmother and mother are very strong characters both, though in very different ways, smothering her with the strict rules of Chinese behaviour and the Chinese beliefs. The mother makes Alice's life very difficult as she does not learn English and Alice, though taught to speak Chinese as a child, slowly looses much of her ability to speak the language as she goes to school and interacts with her own new culture.

A truly wonderful read, the book is very humorous and yet at times touching and tragic. In a way, I found this memoir to be like an Amy Tan fiction in the way it deals with the mother/daughter relationship and having read all Tan's books I can wholeheartedly say that Amy Tan fans will surely enjoy Alice Pung's writing and the story this book has to tell. I'm very impressed with Ms. Pung's first book and wonder if she'll turn to fiction for her next book. I can certainly see her following in the footsteps of Amy Tan and Lisa See. Recommended!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Homeschool: All About Spelling 1

All About Spelling: The Multisensory Program for Spelling Success by Marie Rippel
Level One

First of all, I will not take time to thoroughly describe the components and philosophy of this program as the information can be found in detail at the website. Working from an index card box and a Teacher's Manual this is the best spelling program I have used and after homeschooling for 16 years I've tried them all. Spelling is taught phonetically by first learning all the sounds of each letter; the majority have only one sound but many have more going up to four sounds each. The student is both taught to say the sounds of the letters and to write the letter upon hearing all the sounds. It is due to this reason that I would recommend any student starting this program to start with the initial volume. An older student will work quickly through this volume but it is the basic core that other levels are built upon. I also recommend that this spelling curriculum not be started until the child has finished a basic phonics reading program.

My son, who was 8yo as we used this book, has dyslexia and he has sailed through this book with no problems of note, plus he enjoys it very much. Of course he whines a bit when he has to write the words and phrases but I ask you "what 8yo boy likes handwriting?". We had tried a couple of traditional workbook approaches with him first and they did not succeed. We would usually took three days to complete a lesson. In the morning we would always review the cards in the index box, plus ten words of spelling review. Then in the afternoon, each lesson would be broken up into three days. Day 1: Teach the lesson from the manual. Day 2: Practise the word list with the tiles on a magnetic board. Day 3: Practice the word list on paper. This was our usual routine but we would sometimes take 4 or 5 and occasionally more days to complete a lesson if it was a longer than usual lesson or if my son did not "get" the lesson being taught, or if he was having a hard time with the word list. Besides the word list printed on index cards, there is also an extra set of words in the book for more practice when needed. About halfway through the book, spelling a few phrases is added to the routine.

What I loved about this book was the review. Everyday you review sounds, letters, rules and ten words that you've learnt so far until they have been mastered. And several times throughout the lessons time is taken to get out all the mastered cards to review and cards that have been forgotten are added back into the daily review. The phonetic approach is wonderful. After the initial 3 and 4 letter short vowel words the book moves on to rules such as whether to add a "c" or a "k" at the beginning of a word or whether to end a word with "k" or "ck". Did you know that words ending in "nk" never have a short vowel "e" proceeding it? This one was particularly helpful to my son as when he says words like "pink" and "sink", I hear him saying them correctly but he hears the vowel sound as "ee", so he would write "penk" and "senk" and then immediately remember the rule and correct.

Level one follows concrete rules that are never broken. There are several circumstances when the rule will use the word "usually" or "often" letting the student know that this may not always be the rule, but the rule is followed with all words presented in this volume. Rule breakers are not introduced until Volume 2.

What I didn't like about this book was having to cut up all the cards which arrive printed on full sheets of cardstock. This takes a lot of time and I suggest you prepare in advance by leaving the pages out on your table with some scissors and a few times a day over several days cut several pages of cards out. If you try to do it all at once you'll go crazy. This is a problem with no solution though, sometimes there just happens to be prep work for the teacher. I would not pay extra money for a precut set of cards as this would increase the price of shipping for all those cards would make for a much heavier package. I will also mention that I received this book in Canada and found the service quick, shipping reasonable (I ordered 2 levels at once to save myself paying full shipping for each level), and had no problems with international delivery.

An ideal program to start with at the beginning of your child's spelling routine and especially wonderful for children who seem to be poor spellers and you've tried "everything" with them. This program goes at your child's own pace and review is plentiful. I just wish these books had been available years ago when my currently 20yo was struggling with spelling all those years ago.

ETA: I just heard from the author and Level One now comes with micro perfed cards. A fabulous solution to my problem. And news is that the other levels are soon to follow suit!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

63. Bloodsucking Fiends

Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
Bloodsucking Fiends, Book 1

Pages: 300
Ages: 18+
Finished: Mar. 18, 2009
First Published: 1995
Genre: paranormal, humour
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: I am reading all of the author's works.

First sentence:

Sundown painted purple across the great Pyramid while the Emperor enjoyed a steaming whiz against a dumpster in the alley below.

Comments: Jody wakes up one evening, under a dumpster, with a burnt hand, and an awful lot of money. It takes a bit of figuring out but she soon concludes that she is a vampire. She also realizes quick quickly that she is going to need a human to watch over her when she loses consciousness at daybreak and to help her need for blood. She meets C. Thomas Flood, writer by nature, night crew manager in reality. Jody finds him attractive, pleasant and his hours are perfect so she convinces him to move in with her. Flood being new to the city figures why not. As Jody and Tommy explore what she can and can't do as a vampire they realize that the ancient vampire who turned her is out to kill them both.

Classic Moore! Eccentric characters who are a joy to read about. Laugh out loud humour in parts and the rest of the book keeps a smile on your face as you chuckle under your breath. Loved the story, very unique, and a fun take off on all the vampire books out there. I was hooked from the beginning. This is the type of book that showcases Moore's talents and would be a perfect one for first-timers to start with. A few years ago he wrote a sequel and I'll be reading that one next.

62. Fade

Fade by Lisa McMann
Wake Trilogy, Book 2

Pages: 248
Finished: Mar. 16, 2009
First Published: Feb. 10, 2009
Genre: YA, magical realism
Rating: 4.5/5

Reason for Reading: I received a Review Copy from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, Canada.

First sentence:

Janie sprints through the snowy yards from two streets away and slips quietly through the front door of her house.

Comments: Janie has found out that she is not the first to experience her ability to enter other people's dreams. She and Caleb start researching dreams and she begins to learn to gather some control over her blackouts and the dream events themselves. The nightmares are the worst they make her totally helpless and she begins to experience a classmate's terrifying nightmare over and over as they share study hall together. Caleb and Janie become aware of a horrible situation taking place at Fieldridge High between teachers and students but no one will talk. Janie tries to find the truth, and stop the terrible event from happening anymore, through her dreams. Caleb and Janie's relationship also matures and two people who have never felt love from anyone their whole lives find love for each other. Janie also learns a brutal truth about her condition and how it will affect the rest of her life. Again tough issues are dealt with here; rape and once again parental neglect and terrible abuse.

Picking up immediately after the first book, Wake, and written in the same day-by-day format the second book of this trilogy grabs you from the first page and doesn't let go until the end. This book is on an equal footing with the first; well-written, dynamic characters, compelling and page-turning. I haven't felt this way about a trilogy since the Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray. There is no doubt these books are going to catch the heat of popularity from teens and adults like.

While I liked this book probably even more than the first one, my slightly less rating is due to two points, one of the author's doing and one of my own personal opinion. First, Janie and Caleb's relationship turns s*xual and while not graphic it isn't left to the imagination either. On one hand, the author handled the situation well; it is not portrayed as reckless. But on the other hand, I do not like teen s*xual intercourse to be portrayed as a "good thing" in books aimed primarily at Young Adults. My second quibble is the plot went, I felt, beyond realistic believability in the way Janie's "job" was handled.

I can't wait until the third book of this trilogy, Gone, is published but I will have to somehow make it through the wait until 2010. Highly recommended!

Friday, March 20, 2009

61. Wake

Wake by Lisa McMann
Wake Trilogy, Book 1

Pages: 210
Finished: Mar. 13, 2009
First Published: Mar 4, 2008
Genre: YA, magical realism
Rating: 5/5

Reason for Reading: I received the second book for review purposes, so just had to read the first one first.

First sentence:

Janie Hannagan's math book slips from her fingers.

Comments: Seventeen-year-old Janie gets sucked into other people's dreams. It's been happening since she was eight. Now that she is getting older things are getting worse. More and more students in high school fall asleep at their desks and Janie blacks out and enters the dreams more frequently. She blacks out at school, on the job at a seniors home, and shortly after buying her first car, while driving. This is getting out of hand and she must learn how to take control of the episodes. So far all she knows is that distance or a closed door will prevent the dreams.

I'm going to say it straight off. I loved this book so much, I could gush about it on and on. Page one and I was hooked! With an absolutely unique plot and characters that appeal to you from the first; I could not put this book down. The world around me stood still as I entered this fabulous plot.

It is a quick read, compelling and moves at a fast pace. Written in a journal type format, yet in the third person, there are no chapters but only short dated entries that make it so easy to keep saying "just a few more pages" well into the wee hours of the morning.

This is a book that is going to appeal to older teens and adults, equally. The story is very realistic; dealing with issues of abusive and negligent parents. This will haunt me for quite some time and is most certainly my most favourite book read this month.

I have now read the sequel and the review will be coming up tomorrow.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

60. Sins Past

Sins Past by J. Michael Straczynski
The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 8

Pages: unpaginated
Finished: Mar. 13, 2009
First Published: 2005 (compilation of comics #509-514)
Genre: graphic novel, superheroes
Rating: 5/5

Reason for Reading: Next in the series.

First sentence:

"...and I said to him, I said why are you touching me like that?"

Comments: Volume 8, collecting issues #509-514, has an intense plot with one main story arc running throughout. Spider-man has always been haunted by the death of Gwen Stacy, his former "love of his life". Now that day has come back to haunt him in the present as two people arrive determined to kill both Peter Parker and Spider-man for their respective parts in Gwen's death. The events of the past, his relationship with Gwen, are relived as Peter discovers the connection between that relationship and the two would-be assassins. There comes a time when the fateful day of Gwen's demise is relived in the present as Peter determines not to let the same thing happen twice.

This volume was absolutely riveting. The one continuous plot of the book makes for a fast, page-turning read. With this volume Peter's character, and Spider-man's, becomes much more real and multi-layered. Spider-man is a man with issues but one who will never give up on choosing to do the right thing, no matter what the risk to himself.

My only complaint is that the volume has a different illustrator and while the characters have kept the same basic components; there was no attempt to make them identically the same as previously drawn. It was a weird feeling at first as I didn't immediately recognise some of the characters and it took some adjusting to get used to the new renditions. It felt like watching your favourite TV show to find that all the actors have been replaced with similar looking, but obviously different, actors. We'll see if the next volume keeps this new look or if the old illustrator comes back.

Despite the illustration, this is a fabulous entry in the series that will be one of my favourites, if not the top favourite, of the whole canon.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

59. The Secret Soldier

The Secret Soldier, The Story of Deborah Sampson by Ann McGovern
Illustrated by Harold Goodwin

Pages: 64
Finished: Mar. 13, 2009
First Published: 1975
Genre: children, biography
Rating: 3.5/5

Reason for Reading: Read aloud to my 8yo as part of our curriculum.

First sentence:

Deborah's mother looked down at her five sleeping children.

Comments: This is a brief, easy to read (RL3) biography of Deborah Sampson, a young woman who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the American Revolution. The story is told quickly but in an entertaining, interesting way. While being a biography for children I think the proper term would be "biographical fiction" as much dialogue and feelings are used which couldn't possibly be known as fact, plus there is no index. But that is no reason not to read the book, as far as I know the facts are all true. Sampson was a remarkable woman for her time, who defied social conventions and led the life of adventure that she so yearned for. After her days of adventure she did marry and have children, as was expected at the time. When the truth came out everyone was totally shocked and had no idea that the young soldier was indeed a woman. An interesting tale of one of the early woman refusing to play her requisite role as a female in a male dominated world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick by Ann Tompert
Illustrated by Michael Garland

Pages: unpaginated
Finished: Mar. 13, 2009
First Published: 1998
Genre: Christian
Rating: 5/5

Reason for Reading: We read this on Friday, the last day before March Break, as Saint Patrick's Day was coming up today.

First sentence:

Long ago in the fourth century, a boy was born in southwest Britain near the Irish Sea.

Comments: This is a wonderful picture book! It was the only one available in my library system so I was just hoping it would turn out to be ok. But instead it was great. Everyone knows the story of how St. Patrick got rid of the snakes in Ireland, but this book does not relate that story. This book tells the story of St. Patrick's life as a boy, his days of slavery in Ireland, how he escaped, went back home and was called by God to go back to Ireland and convert the pagans to Christianity.

The book is from a secular publisher so it is suitable for both Christians and non-Christians alike. The artwork is divine. Each page is lush and full of colour, the text is even written within the illustration in a few places but mostly every left-hand page has the text with a gorgeous frame of golden Celtic knots, with the illustration being on the right-hand side. At the end of the book there is an Author's note which briefly tells the legends of Saint Patrick, including the one about the snakes. I really like how the main part of the book stuck to the few facts we do know and left the legends for consideration at the end.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Did you know the shamrock is a symbol of the Holy Trinity? One leaf each for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!

Monday, March 16, 2009

58. The Golden Phoenix

The Golden Phoenix: Eight French-Canadian Fairy Tales by Marius Barbeau
Retold by Michael Hornyansky. Illustrated by Arthur Price

Pages: 144
Finished: Mar. 12, 2009
First Published: 1958
Genre: fairy tales, folklore
Rating: 5/5

Reason for Reading: As many of my regular readers will know I always read a tale (fairy, folk, myth, legend, etc) to my 8yo each school day as a part of our homeschool day. We are currently learning North American history and the French-Canadian tale is appropriate to read at this time.

First sentence:

There was once a King renowned for his wisdom.

Comments: This is a collection of eight tales collected by Marius Barbeau (b. 1883) during the first half of the 20th century. He set out in Grimm fashion and collected fairy tales and folklore, from the French-Canadians, that had been passed down generation to generation since the 1600s. His entire collection is housed at the National Museum of Canada. When he wrote these tales he wrote in the words of the people telling the tales, usually rural, uneducated folks. He then collaborated with Michael Horyanski to re-write a small selection in a polished literary manner suitable for the masses to read and enjoy.

I have always had this book my entire life. Not the exact copy I have now, but whenever for some reason I give up the book I will always find another at a thrift shopgarage sale and pick it up again. As a child I had the scholastic paperback, but I have never read the book until now; some thirty-odd years later!

These tales are European in origin, most but not all, have a French setting and they have most likely been altered from there European origin by the French-Canadians in their re-telling through the generations. None of them however is set in Canada, or Canadianized. These are some of the best fairy tales I've read. Each is rather long, we would read half one day and half the next. They mostly follow the tradition of three brothers who set out to accomplish something and the youngest one comes back with the prize and usually a princess to boot. Again mostly, each uses repetition as a literary device, brother two following the exact same steps as one, then brother three following along until he deviates by being so much wiser than the others. The brother theme is just an example, each one of these tales is unique and many traditional fairy tale plots are included. The artwork is clearly a product of the time of publication, being black and white drawings with a singular colour (ie. red, yellow, etc) added in.

The 8yo really enjoyed these tales, in fact he was often spellbound. There is something special about a book your are reading to your child and when glancing over at them to see that look on their face as they hang onto each word you read. I wholeheartedly recommend these tales to all, young and old, who are interested in traditional fairy tales. The book is currently out of print, but they always turn up in used book stores, thrift shops and garage sales plus I'm sure it will be readily available from online book dealers. Try to find a copy, it's worth the read.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

57. She Always Knew How: Mae West

She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler

Pages: 303
Finished: Mar. 11, 2009
First Published: Feb. 10, 2009
Genre: biography
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: Received a review copy from Simon & Schuster Canada.

First sentence:

My first thought was, women need a Bill of Rights. "And then I thought, no, what women need is -- a Bill of Wrongs."

Comments: A very interesting biography of Mae West written by an author who interviewed West extensively near the end of her life. Mae West was a feminist before the word was invented, and a very racy character, who created herself an image based on sex that she always upheld in public. The book covers Mae's entire life from her parents up to and including her death in 1980. Mae lived through most of the 20th century and is a legend today for her risque work both on the stage and as a playwright and her movies that pushed the boundaries of 1930s/40s morals. Mae had a way of saying the tamest thing in such a sexy way it became a double entendre.

While a biography, the book is almost completely written in Mae's own words quoted extensively from interviews with the author and also from a few of her contemporaries such as George Cukor. The author interjects with her own narrative briefly here and there to make a cohesive narrative. I found the book extremely interesting. I love this time period of Hollywood. Though I must say Ms. West does come across as egocentric and narcissistic which surprised me not really knowing anything about the woman herself. One thing I very much enjoyed was every time a play or movie was mentioned the author included a brief synopsis of the plot and since many of these, especially the plays, were unknown to me it was very interesting indeed. I wonder if a book of Mae West's plays has ever been published... I'd certainly like to read them.

The author has written plenty of other biographies on actors/directors of the golden age of Hollywood and I will look out for them in the future. While I always prefer to read auto-biographies, what I look for biographies is an author who respects the subject and doesn't dish dirt nor come up with all sorts of wild (unprovable) theories. Charlotte Chandler has most certainly lived up to my expectations of a good biographer.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

56. Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go by Dale E. Basye
Illustrations by Bob Dob
Heck, The First Circle of Heck

Pages: 288
Finished: Mar. 11, 2009
First Published: July, 2008
Genre: children, fantasy
Rating: 3/5

Reason for Reading: Received a review copy from Random House Canada, in anticipation of the second book coming out this summer.

First sentence:

As many believe, there is a place above and a place below.

Comments: Milton's sister Marlo is a lot of trouble; a Goth girl always pulling off pranks and often dragging her younger brother along for the ride. When Milton and Marlo are killed in a marshmallow-bear explosion at the local mall they slide down to a place with big sign "Heck". Seems children aren't fully responsible for their earthly actions and Heck is the place where they go until they are 18 or eternity whichever comes first. At that time their soul will be re-weighed and their final destination (up or down) will be determined.

Heck is not a nice place. They have to go to school with teachers such as Lizzie Bordon, Richard Nixon and Blackbeard. Then there is a principle Bea "Elsa" Bubb who has particular designs on Milton as it appears he really shouldn't be here and she watches him carefully. Milton, Marlo and Milton's new found friend Virgil come up with plans to escape.

A fun romp through demons, teachers and yukky places provide plenty of humour and a fun ride. While much of the book is predictable I found the ending quite a surprise. The humour is a bit much of the toilet variety and I had expected something more witty but the potential is there and I'm looking forward to see where the story goes in book 2. Ages 9 to 11 are certain to enjoy the book, while I found it somewhat lacking in believable characterization I still found the story a lot of fun. Sometimes a book can just simply be a pleasant diversion and that is how I conclude my impressions of this book.

Friday, March 13, 2009

55. The Fighting Ground

The Fighting Ground by Avi

Pages: 157
Finished: Mar. 10, 2009
First Published: 1984
Genre: children, YA, historical fiction
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: Read aloud to my 8yo.

First sentence:

It was in the morning when Jonathan first heard the bell.

Comments: Taking place during the span of only two days this is a vivid story of a young boy who rushes off to fight a battle during the American Revolution against a troop of Hessians. When news comes of a Corporal's arrival at the town tavern, Jonathan anxiously asks his father's permission to go, as they work together in the field. His father, who has a badly damaged leg from fighting in the war himself earlier on, says he may not and to get back to the house to help his mother. When he arrives home he tells his mother of the news and urges her that he should go to town and investigate, the mother reluctantly agrees to let him go after Jonathan lies to her that his father has said he can go. At the tavern where there is a call for men at arms, Jonathan gets caught up in the excitement, and at 13 years of age, convinces the Corporal to let him join up.

A boy among men during a fierce battle, Jonathan experiences the true horrors of war. At one point he is kidnapped by the Hessians and escapes. After a terrible incident and reflecting on his treatment by the Hessians he often starts to wonder whether he is on the right side and whose side is he on. Ultimately he must make decisions based his own conscience and sense of right and wrong as opposed to what side of the war he is on.

This is certainly the most intense and life-like book I have read to my 8yo, at first I wasn't too sure whether he would be able to handle the book (recommended for ages 8-12) due to its brutal portrayal of war. However, he showed immense interest and feeling towards the book's plot and main character. There was one spot where he became afraid that the main character might be killed and asked me to skip that part but I could already see on the page that it turned out alright so I told him that; and we got through the scene. Parents may also want to be aware that a certain swear word, "d*mn", is used repeatedly throughout the book as is the taking of the Lord's name in vain. I easily edited these out while reading aloud to my child. There is also one very realistic scene of a dead woman being buried in a hole that was very graphically described and I chose to skip the paragraph and simply state the woman was buried.

This is an engrossing, intense and sometimes brutal display of what a battle was really like during the American Revolution. The author doesn't hold anything back but he does keep the action age-appropriate. A very well-written book with a wonderfully developed main character who ultimately must face his own conscience. The author's message about war is not pro or anti but rather that there is no black and white "enemy" in war; soldiers on both sides can both be either good or bad in their actions.

Avi is one of my favourite current children/YA authors and this is just as good as one can expect from this author. I do recommend the book for those towards the end of the recommended age, but as a read-aloud a parent can easily edit on the fly as they feel needed for the younger age range. I also think that teens would appreciate the complicated themes of war and good and bad that are displayed in the story.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two more Spider-man and Fables

Here are two short reviews of two graphic novels I have read.

53. The Book of Ezekiel by J. Michael Straczynski.
The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 7

This series is really getting better as it goes along. This is a brilliant volume. We start off with a story arc continued from the last book. Seems that when Spider-Man came back from The Void an evil goddess came back with him. She has now taken over the body of a human and the god Loki comes to help Spidey fight this villainess. Then we move on to the series about Ezekiel. So far he has appeared off and on and we are not sure whether he is a bad or good character. Now we find out his true colours and fights a vicious battle of souls and true character. Very gripping plot and a quick read as it's certainly a page-turner. 4.5/5

#54. Storybook Love by Bill Willingham
Fables, Volume 3

Wow, in volume three this series really picks up with a bang! First we are presented with a few tales of Jack during the Civil War and how he often beats Death. Thus, giving the reader a bit knowledge of Jack's trickster personality. Then we follow a two issue caper involving a journalist who has been watching the fables for many years and keeping files and pictures. He comes to Bigby with the news that he will be publishing a story shortly and is giving Bigby the opportunity to respond. The journal has figured them all (or so he thinks) out and is going to expose them to the world. Another issue takes us back to the story of Goldilocks and we find out what the fugitive is up to now. The Lilliputians enter the story here as major characters and we learn their story. And finally we get to the series mentioned in the title, Storybook Love. This continues for the rest of the volume and I really don't want to give away any of the plot. It was riveting to say the least.

This is a big scale issue with lots of violence, thus lots of blood, a bit of s*x, and not a few deaths. I was surprised at the blood but must say found the story arcs very compelling reading. If the first two volumes haven't convinced you this is adult reading material this third volume will settle that for you. This is my favourite volume to date. It is amazing how deep the characterization and intricate the plot can be in a graphic novel. Willingham certainly shows the rest of us how this medium can be used to utmost advantage over plain text. If you are one of the few people on earth (ok, in the online book community) who hasn't read this series yet, I'm asking you: "What the heck are you waiting for?" Highly recommended. Can't wait to read the next book! 4.5/5

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Dangerous Alphabet & A Dog Came, Too

Here are two short reviews of picture books I've been reading.

A Dog Came, Too by Ainslie Manson. Illustrated by Ann Blades

This picture book is a wonderful telling of Alexander Mackenzie's voyage to find a Northwest Passage through Canada to the Pacific Ocean. He was the first white man to do so and left a message upon a rock which can still be seen today. What makes this picture book unique and so enjoyable for kids is that it is told from a dog's point of view. From Mackenzie's journals we know that a dog was included in his party and Mackenzie's voyage is told here through the eyes of that dog. It is very well done and not anthropomorphic at all. Very enjoyable, gripping text suitable for all ages. I read it aloud to my 8yob as part of our curriculum. Beautiful water colour illustrations by the award winning Ann Blades. 4.5/5

The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Gris Grimly.

Virtually a poem written in rhyming couplets this alphabetical (A is for...) verse tells the tale of a journey two children take looking for treasure. The poem itself is vague but it is the illustrations which bring the story to life. Extremely detailed with many events happening on each page, one lingers looking deep inside each picture before turning the page. The illustrations add to the text by showing a story of the brother and sister traveling through an ancient sewer-type of environment and the sister gets kidnapped by some ugly looking dudes. The brother then follows them trying to be a hero and rescue his sister. Not recommended as an ABC book for young children as, for one thing, the alphabet is not entirely in order and the author uses creative licence for what the letters stand for such as "Y's your last question", "U are the reader" and "L is, like 'eaven...". Also the pictures are quite creepy with very creepy creatures, skeletons and lots of bones. For the appropriate age it is a fun book with especially fun illustrations. 3/5

Monday, March 9, 2009

52. Dandelion Fire

Dandelion Fire by N.D. Wilson
100 Cupboards, Book 2

Pages: 466
Finished: Mar. 8, 2009
First Published: Feb. 24, 2009
Genre: children's fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5

Reason for Reading: I received a review copy for the publisher, Random House Canada.

First sentence:

Kansas is not easily impressed.

Comments: In the previous book Henry finds out a secret about himself and now with only two weeks left before his parents come to take him home from visiting his uncle and cousins, Henry decides to enter the cupboards again and find the truth. His cousin Henrietta finds out and is annoyed at not being included so she secretly follows behind him. Henry is kidnapped almost immediately and Henrietta soon finds herself in similar circumstances only with different kidnappers.

The evil witch who is now roaming free is taking over the world with her power of death that kills every living thing that touches the ground. Henry is one of her prime targets. Once Henry finds out his truths the battle to stop evil is well underway.

Full of magical powers, witches, wizards and strange creatures Dandelion Fire is a fantastic read. Much longer than the first book and also oh so much more intricate a plot. A marvelous book that I couldn't put down. The premise of the 100 cupboards and the worlds behind them is extremely unique. I also like that Henry, while not parent-less though discarded by his parents, is part of a loving family with adults who play an integral part of the story. The orphan theme has been done to death and ND Wilson has not fallen into that trap.

A page-turner recommended for ages 9-12 that any fantasy buff is going to be thrilled with. The ending is very complete and it leaves me to wonder whether this will be a trilogy (as I had assumed for some reason) or not. While the story has all been wrapped up I can't help but want to meet these characters again and explore more of the worlds hidden behind the 100 cupboards.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Trio of Reviews

#50. Better Days by Joss Whedon (Serenity, Vol.2) - This graphic novel takes place sometime during the regular time frame of Firefly. The crew finally have themselves a heist that ends up in uncovering a huge amount of cash. As they daydream what they will do with all the money, someone is chasing them down coming to kill Malcolm Reynolds, but little does he know that it is in fact another member of the crew who he wants. Fun romp with the wonderful Firefly/Serenity characters. Nothing too special but a bit of fun to read. The artwork is fun and an introduction by Adam Baldwin (Jayne) is an added bonus. 3/5

#51. Happy Birthday by J. Michael Straczynski (The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 6) - This is my favourite volume so far. While engaged in a battle, Spidey (with the help of many other superheroes, including the Fantastic Four) finds himself called by Doc Strange. Seems they've made a big mistake and the world is now about to end. As Doc fights the ultimate bad guy Spider-man steps in to help and finds himself warped into the Void with the Dr. The Dr. can send him home but he must follow the trail from the beginning of his life to just before his current present so he can fix things. Lots of action and superheroes/villains abound in this volume as Spidey relives his life fighting all the bad guys of his past: Sandman, Green Goblin, Doc Oc, Electro, Hulk and many more. 4/5

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Dave McKean - Unfortunately, I can't say I enjoyed this picture book much. A cliched story of swapping one thing for another ... and so on, with a little twist that the thing being swapped is a boy's father. The father is oblivious to his repeatedly being swapped as he is immersed in reading the newspaper. When the mother finds out that father has been swapped for two goldfish she sends the son off to swap him back. Of course, when he arrives he finds out that his dad has been swapped for something else and the boy runs all over town re-swapping items until the mindless father is finally found. Can't say the story did anything for me at all and I really didn't like the portrayal of the clueless father. (A great book with a swapping theme that I highly recommend is The Seventeenth Swap by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.) However, I did really enjoy the mixed-media collage illustrations by McKean. I dabble in this artform myself and ended up studying the techniques used in each illustration. 2/5

Thursday, March 5, 2009

49. The Vagrants

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Pages: 337
Finished: Mar. 4, 2009
First Published: Feb. 3, 2009
Genre: literary fiction, historical fiction
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: I received a review copy for the publisher, Random House Canada.

First sentence:

The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket.

Comments: This book is a story of ordinary Chinese citizens in 1979, China. A year in which people are still getting used to the Communist regime after the break-up of the Cultural Revolution. Those who were staunch Red Guards during the rule Mao have been take care of and anyone still harbouring those or any feelings other than communism are antirevolutionists. The book opens upon the day that the Gu's daughter, Shan, now 28 after spending 10 years in prison for her actions during the rule of Mao is to be executed for her writings found in her diary in her cell.

The story is mostly one of the characters who knew Gu Shan, those affected by either her life or her death, and those who live upon her street. It is a story of the horrors of political indoctrination, crimes against the people, ordinary people trying to live their lives, and of love. Love, both gone sour from years of hardship and burning romance between two very unlikely people.

What a beautiful book! Very well written, continuously moving from one character's experiences to an other's. A slow-paced plot, the book encompasses only one year, but
a moving look into the minds of various Chinese mindsets from traditional superstition to staunch communist to fierce activists. I loved every one of the eclectic characters but especially Nini and Bashi, two young people who slowly become more and more the main focus as the book progresses.

I love reading about China and this brief period of the seventies is one that, historically, I haven't read of before. I found it fascinating as well as tragic and heart-wrenching. While slow-paced as mentioned above, it is not a slow read and I found myself turning pages as fast as I could. By no means a happy story but a dark and heart-rending one with glimpses of hope.

This is the author's first novel, having previously published an award winning collection of short stories, and I most certainly will be keeping an eye out for her next one. Highly recommended especially to those who enjoy character driven novels.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

48. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore
Pine Cove, book 2

Pages: 304
Finished: Mar. 2, 2009
First Published: 1999
Genre: humour, monsters
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: I am reading the author's works.

First sentence:

September in Pine Cove is a sigh of relief, a nightcap, a long-deserved nap.

Comments: Oh, how does one begin to summarize the plot of a Christopher Moore book. This time let us not even try but instead let's take a glimpse into the characters in this novel. First and foremost, we have Steve, sea monster, who has recently woken from a long sleep and has come ashore in Pine Cove. Steve has an unusual way of catching prey, he sends off pheromones that make any nearby mammals "horny" and they seek him out. This plays particular havoc on Pine Cove's population as the local shrink, Valerie, has just decided to take all her patients off antidepressants (about 1/3 of the population) and try talking to her patients instead of just medicating them. Then there is local constable Theophilus Crowe, a pothead, who had been given the job to keep Pine Cone off the local sherrif's hands, as he is too busy working his meth empire to bother with policing sleepy Pine Cove. By no means the last and certainly not the least, there is Molly Michon, aging warrior actress in Italian movies who dresses daily in her Warrior Queen outfit and works out with her broadsword, but known to the locals as "the crazy lady".

A hilarious romp, this somewhat of a sequel to the first Pine Cove book, Practical Demonkeeping, and is by far a better read. Hilarious, far-fetched, un-politically correct and a down right page-turner. I really enjoyed this. Moore is not for everyone but if you like your humour a little over the top and don't mind some well-placed vulgarity you'll enjoy this ride with the citizens of Pine Cove.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

47. Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe

Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe, 3rd edition edited by Tom Pomplun
Graphic Classics, Volume 1

Pages: 144
Finished: Feb. 28, 2009
First Published: 2006
Genre: graphic novel, short stories, poetry
Rating: 3.5/5

Reason for Reading: I noticed my library had just shelved a quite a few of the books in the series and I also noted that Rick Geary was one of the contributors in several of them. My interest was piqued by that and the looks of the book.

First sentence:

True I have been nervous ... very nervous.

Comments: An anthology of graphic adaptations of some of Edgar Allan Poe's works, both short stories and poems. Each story is written/illustrated by a different person such as Rick Geary, Matt Howarth, Lisa K. Weber and many more. Most of Poe's works collected here are his most famous but there are a few lesser known ones as well. A wide variety of styles are present, mostly the familiar cartoon bubble but also frames with narrative written beneath and even simply illustrated. For example "Hop-Frog" is presented in the original Poe text along with profuse illustrations by Lisa K. Weber.

My favourites were Rick Geary's retelling of "The Tell-Tale Heart" as I am fond of his work. I also enjoyed "The Imp of the Perverse" by Tom Pomplum and Lance Tooks which I had never heard of before. I also enjoyed Pedro Lopez' rendition of "The Cask of Amontillado" as that is one of my favourite Poe stories and the adaptation was well done.

Ultimately, an enjoyable and well done book. A great way to sample Poe's work before going on to read the real thing and also a new and different way for Poe's fans to enjoy his work in this modern format. I'll be looking into other books in the series.