"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Children's/YA: It's A Book

Smith, Lane. It's A Book. New York: Roaring Brook, 2010. 32 pages.

"Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-fi? Tweet? No...it's a book." (excerpt from book cover)

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Plot. I am strongly in favor of exposing children to the value of books, and though this book highlights all of the things that books can't do, it also highlights what books can do.
  • Illustrations.  The pictures in the book are adorable and evocative.  The full page spread without words that shows the jackass (because, hey, that's what donkeys are sometimes called) discovering how engaging a book can be is beautifully illustrative of the magic of the printed word.
  • One of the Characters is a Jackass. Literally (see above).  And it is introduced as such on the first page, setting up to the book's punchline.  If anyone objects to exposing their children to a less than flattering term used in its correct context, then just read it for fun and don't share it with the kiddies.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. 368 pages.

"Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world....Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons....Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Shiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order." (description from book jacket)

Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Excellent Scholarship. Shiff not only did extensive primary source research, she takes advantage of her subject matter to explain something of the difficulties of doing primary research, during the ancient period particularly.  And though I have a background in history, I believe that she explains it well enough for a non-historian to both understand it and find it interesting.  Which beings us to...
  • Engaging Writing. Well-researched history doesn't have to be boring, and Shiff's masterful writing proves it.  She weaves a compelling narrative of a period of time about which many people don't truly know that much.  Popular history often leaves something to be desired in scholarly rigor, and academic history is often depressingly dry.  Shiff neatly balances the two, creating a scholarly work that is eminently readable.
  • Non-Fiction. Shif's book suffers from all of the drawbacks of non-fiction work, such as lack of dialogue and the sort of fast pace found in fiction.  It is also much more scholarly than most popular history, and Shiff deals at length with the methods and practices of historical research.  Readers who are simply interested in the story itself may find some of her method discussions to be tedious.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Film Friday: Jurassic Park

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990. 399 pages.

"An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now mankind's most thrilling fantasies have come true. Creatures extinct for eons roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and all the world can visit them--for a price. Until something goes wrong...." (description from book cover)

Book Rating: **** (out of five)
Film Rating: *** (out of five)

  • Premise. As a cautionary tale of the dangers of unbridled scientific power has the potential to be dry and didactic, but when the story is that we've used our power to create dinosaurs that are in turn destroying us is highly entertaining.  It is also absolutely terrifying at times.
  • Writing Style. Crichton's writing is engaging and when characters such as Ian Malcolm are explaining technical concepts, they are are clearly, while still being relevant to the plot.
  • Characterization. Some of the characters, such as Hammond, are rather one dimensional (though Crichton makes his narrow-minded focus disturbingly plausible).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Children/YA--The Girl Who Owned a City

Nelson, O.T. The Girl Who Owned a City. New York: Laurel Leaf, 1977.

"A killing virus has swept the earth, sparing only children through the age of twelve. There is chaos everywhere, even in formerly prosperous mid-America. Gangs and fierce armies of children begin to form almost immediately. It would be the same for children on Grand Avenue but for Lisa, a ten-year-old girl who becomes their leader. Because of Lisa, they have food, even toys, in abundance. And now they can protect themselves from the fierce gangs that roam the neighborhoods. But for how long? Then Lisa conceives the idea of a fortress, a city in which the children could live safely and happily always, and she intends to lead them there." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Strong Female Character.  As an antidote to some young adult fiction that girls read these days, it is nice to have a book where the main character is not worried about boys.  Rather, Lisa is worried about surviving by some method other than violence.
  • Premise.  The appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing ordinary people survive and even thrive.  What is more interesting than seeing the weakest and most unprepared members of society, children, attempting to face what we might consider grown-up challenges.
  • Violence. There is fighting, children with guns, and other potentially problematic behaviors in this book.  Usually, this is limited to the "bad guys" of the story, but in some cases the good guys, too.  It's not on the scale of The Hunger Games.

Monday, June 20, 2011

American Gods

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: Harper Torch, 2001. 588 pages.

"Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she's been killed in a terrible accident. Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible. He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Premise. As he admits in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Neil Gaiman is not the first author to discuss what gods, both modern and the modern fates of the increasingly archaic.  Yet Gaiman's sweeping narrative says so much about modern faith, but also how gods feel about being left behind. But more than that, as a non-native of the U.S., Gaiman is able to present an unflinching view about how this country treats gods, and it is fascinating.
  • Narrative Style.  In order to add substance to the feelings of the gods in America, the narrative jumps back in time to present stories of how different gods were brought to America by the beliefs of immigrants.  This not only highlights the breadth of the gods that came here, but how the difference in life here made it hard for them to survive.
  • Narrative Style.  While the stories presented in the flashbacks enhances the overall message of the novel, there are times when the main story line is so engrossing that the sudden shift in story feels jarring.
  • Language, Sex, Violence.  This is always a personal choice moment, but there is plenty of profanity, explicit sex (see "Somewhere in America" at the end of chapter 1), and quite a bit of violence.  If none of those are your cup of tea, then be forewarned.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Friday: Gone with the Wind

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Pocket Books, 1964. 1448 pages.

"Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone with the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives. In the inimitable Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, Margaret Mitchell not only conveyed a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, she also created the two most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet" (description from book cover)

Overall Review: **** (our of five)

  • Writing.  Everything else aside, Margaret Mitchell is a damn fine writer.  She's not afraid of using complicated words and language (unlike some modern authors I could mention) and her descriptions are vivid and lasting.
  • History. While her view is undoubtedly biased, Mitchell's descriptions of life during the Civil War and Reconstruction are painful and haunting, and (from my limited knowledge) fairly accurate.
  • Racism. The attitude of white Southerns towards blacks is patronizing and paternalistic, the Klu Klux Klan is a fine upstanding organization, and Northerners are crazy for thinking the Southerners mistreat their slaves.  But these sorts of items are few and far between, and are indicative of both the setting of the book and the time when Mitchell was writing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mary Cassatt

Venezia, Mike. Mary Cassatt. Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989. 32 pages.

"Mike [Venezia] believes the best way to introduce kids to art and artists is through fun. If kids can look at art in a fun way, and think of artists as real people, the exciting world of art will be open to them for the rest of their lives." (description from the book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Illustrations: Mike Venezia's original illustrations are amusing and add the the appeal of the text.  They are perfectly tailored to the young audience of the book.
  • Painting Reproductions.  The reproductions of Cassat's paintings that appear in the book are beautiful, with bright colors that would be appealing to children.
  • Text.  The text of the book is simple, well geared toward children, particularly those that are reading on their own, but it would also be good for parents to enjoy with their children.
  • Length.  The book could stand to be a little longer.  Cassatt's life was complex, and it could have benefited from slightly more exploration.  However, that is an occupational hazard of children's non-fiction, and Venezia succeeds with the limitations.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Strange Wine

Ellison, Harlan. Strange Wine. Kilimanjaro Corporation, 2008. 252 pages.

"From Harlan Ellison, whom the Washington Post regards as a 'lyric poet, satirist, explorer of odd psychological corners, and purveyor of pure horror and black comedy,' comes Strange Wine. Discover among these tales  the spirits of executed Nazi criminals who walk Manhattan streets; the damned soul of a murderess escaped from Hell; gremlins writing the fantasies of a gone-dry writer; and the exquisite Dr. D'arque Angel, who deals patients doses of death..." (description from the book cover)

Overall review: **** (four stars)

  • Variety of Tone.  This collection of short stories provides a little bit of everything.  It ranges from the lighthearted ("Working with the Little People"), to the bleak ("Croatoan), to the whimsical ("From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet"), to the cautionary ("In Fear of K").  Being short stories, the reader can choose to read what tickles his/her fancy.
  • Variety of Genre.  Ellison is a master of transcending genre.  This work contains a fairly straightforward ghost story, as well as stories of pure science fiction, stories of fantasy, and stories that go just beyond the possible.  The variety helps to keep the reader interested throughout.
  • The Introductions.  Not only did Ellison write an introduction to the whole collection, but he also wrote intros to each individual story.  As these stories were originally written and published in magazines, he had time to reflect on them before they were collected.  His comments often add insight, not only into the stories, but into the person who created them.
  • Subject Matter.  Harlan Ellison is a man of strong opinions who does not apologize for them.  The contents of some of these stories might very well make readers uncomfortable.  The first story, for example, deals not only quite bluntly with abortion (and this was first published in 1975, mind you), but with some unintended consequences thereof.  
  • Format.  The stories in the collection are in no way related.  There is no connecting thread among them.  As not everyone is a fan of short stories, this collection might not please everyone.
Favorite Stories:
  • "Working with the Little People"
  • "Hitler Painted Roses"
  • "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet"
  • "Seeing"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Almost There!

My many week long, somewhat epic, journey of reading Gone with the Wind is almost over.  With about 200 pages left (which is saying something; the whole book is 1450 pages), I hope to have it done by the end of the week.  With luck, it will be the feature of this week's Film Friday.

As for the rest of the week, tomorrow you can expect a review of Strange Wine, a collection of short stories by Harlan Ellison.  On Wednesday, look forward to Mary Cassat by Mike Venezia, one book in the "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists" series.

I appreciate all of the positive response to the blog so far, and I can only hope that you all continue to enjoy it and that the following will expand :)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. New York: Plume, 1999. 233 pages.

 "History and fiction merge seamlessly in Tracy Chevalier's luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Griet, the world of 1660s Holland comes dazzlingly alive in this richly imaginative portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings." (description from the book cover)

Overall rating: **** (four stars)

  • Historical Setting. Chevalier paints a fascinating picture of life in Holland in the 1660s.  Not only does the novel explore the class differences in Delft, but also the religious differences. We also get to learn about the camera obscura and its role in Vermeer's painting.
  • Characterization of Vermeer. Though the novel is about one of his paintings, we do not see Vermeer as often as we might.  He says little, but Griet observes him carefully. The other characters, however, discuss him constantly.  This character creation not only serves to keep Vermeer elusive, it also imbues his moments of presence in the story with that much more meaning.
  • Description of Painting.  One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is the exploration of Vermeer's way of seeing the world and his method of paining.  Chevalier also provides wonderful details of some of the technical aspects of painting, such as preparing the paint itself.
  •  Motivation.  Some of the ancillary characters are more two-dimensional than they might need to be. Van Ruijven is a fairly stereotypical lecherous rich man, and Vermeer's daughter Cornelia is spite personified. While they elegantly serve their purpose, they could be more fleshed out.
  • Dialogue.  For a first person narrator, Griet is fairly silent. She thinks a great deal and listens to other characters, but she says little herself. For people who need dialogue to understand a character, this may be a problem.  The novel is highly internal, rather than based on action, and this could be a problem for some people.

Film Friday

I've settled on a tentative schedule of what I will review:
  • Mondays: Whatever I happen to be reading, what I've read in the past that just calls for a review
  • Wednesdays: Children's/Young Adult Literature
  • Fridays: Books that were turned into movies, books about the movies, movies based on books, or movies about books.
As today is Friday, expect a review later of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, including comments about the book versus the movie.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Schwartz, Alvin. Illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. New York: Scholastic, 1981. 109 pages.

"Phantom footsteps! Ghostly wails! Creatures that go bump in the night! Turn the lights down low. Now get ready for the fright of your life. Here are chilling, thrilling stories that will make you shiver and shake -- and make your friends quiver and quake!" (from the book cover)

Overall Review: **** (four stars)

  • Length of Stories. The stories tend to be nice and short; perfect for both the attention spans of younger children and for reading aloud at sleepovers or around the campfire.
  • Historical Notes. The notes at the end of the book are invaluable.  Not only does Schwartz discuss the various types of ghost stories/folk tales presented in the book, he discusses his sources for the stories and presents reasonably comprehensive lists of references.  These notes enhance the interest of the collection for precocious children and older audiences.
  • Illustrations. Stephen Gammell's illustrations, replaced with more toned-down drawings in the latest edition, add to the ambiance of the book.  They are creepy and are what I personally most remembered of the book as I grew up (according to reviews on Amazon, the same is true of many readers).
  • Read-aloud-ability. That isn't a word, but the stories lend themselves well to recitation (as do most folk tales, being from oral traditions), and some include instructions on what the narrator should do while reading the story.  It would be a good way for young readers to practice reading aloud.
  • Subject Matter of Stories. This book and its sequels have been highly challenged over the years for the sometimes disturbing subject matter.  The stories are simple, but they are not watered down.  If you are the type of parent who objects to stories of ghosts and Sweeny Todd-style cannibalism, then perhaps you should monitor your child's reading of this book and its sequels.
  • Illustrations.  Gammell's drawings are, to quote The Horn Book, "ghoulish."  Creepy and disturbing are further appropriate words.  In some instances, the illustrations are more disturbing than the actual stories.  Of course, this is solved by the new illustrations in the latest edition.  Again, parental oversight is important when it comes to what children read.  For older children and adults, however, both the stories and the illustrations are likely to simply send good shivers down the spine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Madame Tussaud

Moran, Michelle. Madame Tussaud. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. 448 pages.

"Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire.  From her popular model  of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie's museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics....Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war?  And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?  Spanning five years, from the budding revolution to the Reign of Terror, Madame Tussaud brings us into the world of an incredible heroine whose talent for wax modeling saved her life and preserved the faces of a vanquished kingdom." (description from the book dust jacket)

Overall rating: **** (four stars)

  • Main Character. Marie Grosholtz (later Tussaud) was a strong, single career woman back before such a thing really existed. Her story is compelling and provides and excellent platform for a book about the horrible tragedy that was the French Revolution.
  • Other Historical Figures. Some of the most fascinating historical developments in the book relate to the more ancillary characters, such as Robespierre or Marat.  We see the change in Robespierre from talkative commoner at a political salon to the architect of the Reign of Terror.  And seeing Marat through Marie's eyes, it is less than sad when he is stabbed in his bath.  
  • French Culture. The presentation of the importance of the newspapers and Marie's Salon as venues for new is a fascinating insight into life very much before the information age.
  • Historical Liberties. It is a historical novel and, as such, the writer has altered some bits of history in the narrative to make for a better story (which she addresses very well in her historical note at the end).
  • Character Development. There are a few times near the beginning of the book when a character has a change of heart or does something without what seems like adequate motivation.  These moments are rare and fade out, so they do not detract too much.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Da Vinci Code

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Doubleday: New York, 2003. 452 pages.

"While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call. The elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum, a baffling cypher found near the body. As Langdon and a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, sort through the bizarre riddles, they are stunned to discover a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci....Langdon and Neveu find themselves matching wits with a faceless powerbroker who appears to anticipate their every move. Unless they can decipher the labrynthine puzzle, the Priory's secret--and an explosive ancient truth--will be lost forever." (description from the book dust jacket)

Overall review: *** (three stars)

  • Pacing.  The book keeps a fairly constant fast pace which draws the reader quickly through the book without making it feel like the mysteries and riddles are being solved too quickly.
  • Riddles.  Sometimes "obvious" sounding riddles or prophecies in stories can end up having solutions that seem to be stretching credulity a bit (see "no man of woman born" in Macbeth).  Brown's linguistic puzzles, however, are well-constructed with reasonable and fitting solutions.
  • General Plot.  Despite some weaknesses (see below), the plot is engaging and hooks the reader fairly early, even if you disagree with some of the interpretations presented by the characters.
  • Character Motivation.  At times the motivation of the characters feels contrived or convenient rather than realistic. Characters should never feel as though they are simply serving the plot at the convenience of the author.
  • Conspiracy Theories.  Yes, the theories presented in this book are compelling.  However, there are times when characters seem to be making interpretations that seem a bit far-fetched. (Let's face it: sometimes men in Renaissance art look like our idea of women.  That's just the way it is.  See the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks, about which Dan Brown makes other comments.  Totally looks like a chick.)
  • Portrayal of Religion.  Despite some comments obviously tossed in to show that the book is not anti-religion, the Catholic Church is not portrayed in a particularly flattering light.  This may or may not bother readers, depending on their religious inclinations and feelings about Catholicism.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Llama Lama Red Pajama

Dewdney, Anna. Llama Llama Red Pajama. New York: Viking, 2005. 30 pages.

"A bedtime story. A good-night kiss. And Mama Llama turns of the light. But is everything all right? NO! At least, Baby Llama doesn't think so. . . .And soon his whimpers turn to hollers. It's an all-out llama drama! Until Mama returns to set things right." (description from the book jacket)

Overall review: **** (four stars)

  • Fun to read aloud.  Naturally, children's picture books are meant to be read aloud by the parents, and it helps when the words and rhymes are genuinely fun to say (especially as small children, when they really like books, want them read aloud quite often).
  • Illustrations.  The illustrations are simple but enjoyable, sometimes depicting multiple scenes on one page, such as Mama Llama downstairs and Baby Llama upstairs.
  • Good story.  It is important for kids to know (especially as they get older) that their parents often have other things that they need to do, and just because they are not with their kids all the time does not mean that they don't love and care about them.  I imagine that most parents will sympathize with Mama Llama's plight of trying to get things done after she has put Baby Llama to bed, until Baby Llama throws a fit.
  • I find myself unable to think of any weaknesses for this book...hmm.