Aug 27, 2012

Babies, Babies!

by Debby Slier

A baby book could not be more simple. This one is just baby faces showing a variety of identified expressions and activities: smiling, pouting, crying, looking curious or surprised. My child's favorite page seems to be the one of a little girl peeking through her hands; she always stops on that page and wants to initiate a peek-a-boo game herself. She just loves looking at pictures of other babies her age, something I wish more board-book publishers would realize, as I have trouble finding any more books like this at the library. Of course, it could just be that they're popular with other toddlers as well and so are never available on the shelf. Very cute!

rating: 3/5 ........ 12 pages, 2012

Aug 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

I've had Catching Fire sitting on my TBR shelf for ages, but never felt motivated yet to find the first book at the library and start the trilogy. But then my sister gave me a copy of the Hunger Games, so I've been reading it over the past few weeks. Slow going only because other events in my life have limited reading time of late; the story actually moves very quickly and its one of those books that are hard to put down; you want to just read straight to the end.

So- in case you don't know the brief version, The Hunger Games is a dystopian story set in a future country called Panem where the United States used to be. There's twelve districts all in subservience to the Capital and periodically in order to assert their authority the Capital requires each district to offer up two teenagers to participate in the Games. The kids are prepped and then thrown together into a wilderness arena where they basically fight to the death- it's a game of elimination. The last one alive wins glory, fame, wealth for life, you name it. Oh, and it's all televised and everyone's required to watch. So not only does Katniss (our female protagonist) have to pit her wits against her peers in the Games, she also has to keep in mind how the audience responds to what she does (or doesn't do) as gaining favor with viewers can earn her support. It's really a gruesome thing, this life-or-death reality tv battle. There's plenty of harrowing scenes. But somehow those didn't stick with me. The writing is sparse yet descriptive; I found it easy to gloss over the gory details and instead enjoyed the adventure, the survivalist aspect of it all, the intrigue between the characters. Pretty gripping stuff. I don't think I'd like to see it on the screen, though. I think that would be too much for me.

rating: 3/5 ........ 374 pages, 2008 ........ find it on Amazon

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Aug 24, 2012

Funny Farm

by David Doepker

This cute board book is just close-ups of animal faces, all living on a farm. It's the captions that make it so amusing- the horse curling his lip is proclaimed to tell jokes, the cross-looking chickens are declared "pushy", a goat posed regally and shot from a low angle is touted as being "as big as the sky." The "happy hog" really does have a big smile on its face; the only picture that doesn't really seem to fit is the shaggy sheep- he's really not that shaggy. I've seen ones with much longer wool! Regardless, it's really cute and flows with singsong phrases that introduce kids to animals attributed with recognizable emotions or personalities. The pictures are big and bold, which makes it really attractive to my little one.

rating: 4/5 ........ 16 pages, 2004

Aug 21, 2012

Kitten's Summer

by Eugenie Fernandes

I finally got hold of a copy of Kitten's Summer from the library, completing this little quartet of picture books. Lush illustrations made of paint washes, cut paper and modeled clay collages show the little kitten exploring the forest around his farm during a rain shower. We see flowers blooming, baby animals hiding from the rain with their mothers- raccoons, squirrel infants in a leafy nest, a fuzzy robin chick under its mother's wing. My favorite was the darling little nest of baby rabbits under a bush. The details of leaf, twigs, forest litter, raindrops and other tiny things and textures are just exquisite. And there are snails and other small creepy critters tucked into corners just awaiting discovery. It's an adorable book full of woodland wonders to explore on every page. When the kitten comes back home at the end of the book, a basket of strawberries and freshly-picked peas next to muddy boots show the bounty that nature provides in the garden during the summer as well. Lovely!

rating: 4/5 ........ 24 pages, 2011 ........ find it on Amazon

Aug 12, 2012

One Moon, Two Cats

by Laura Godwin
illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

I seldom find and read a book so quickly after seeing a review of it online, but this time I did. Something about what Puss Reboots said of this picture book made it sound appealing, so I went and checked it out.

One Moon, Two Cats shows what two different cats are up to at night while their owners sleep. A fluffy white cat lounges on a little girl's bed in a city bedroom; a somewhat sneaky-looking tabby seems to be just waiting for the moment to escape from his boy's room in the country. Both cats stretch and jump out the window, go strolling along high vantage points, sniff about and then chase mice. Even though their environment is different- city streets and grassy countryside lanes- they both delight in the same feline activities. A thunderstorm frightens them home where they curl up to sleep just as the children awake, having no idea what their kitties have been up to. The text is simply, brief phrases that rhyme nicely. The acrylic paintings have a lovely soft texture, and the cats' faces are really expressive with their knowing eyes. I liked it.

rating: 3/5 ........ 32 pages, 2011 ........ find it on Amazon

Aug 11, 2012

Kenneth Graham's The Reluctant Dragon

retold by Robert D. San Souci
illustrated by John Segal

This is the Reluctant Dragon book I found browsing, that made me look for the original. And it is nearly cut in half. The length, I mean. But the text is lifted so easily that the story still reads seamlessly. Having read the first one so recently I recognized passages immediately and could tell where parts were missing- conversations cut short, detailed descriptions just not there. It lost some of its whimsy and charm, but still a good story. The boy has a name here; he's called Jack. He doesn't express glee at the dragon's prospect of a fight, which I noticed right away. Not much else stood out to me as being different. The pictures are charming but rather small, however there are several on each page and the font is one of those that makes you read slow and careful, holding the book perhaps a little closer than usual, which makes you see those bitty pictures up close too. Well, I enjoyed it and so did my seven-year-old who read it after me. But I still prefer the original, it has just that much more character that's missing a bit here.

rating: 3/5 ........ 40 pages, 2004 ........ find it on Amazon

Aug 10, 2012

books are my ally

It's become pretty much a regular thing in my house that there's always a little stack of board books by the potty. At first it was just a way to get her to sit still long enough to do her business, but now she insists on having a book read to her (often that's just two or three pages!) even if she's already tinkled. A few times I've taken her potty into the bathroom so she can join me there and she runs out to get a book and brings it back with her. I think it's kind of funny. I have to keep rotating which books are sitting there to keep her interest in them long enough for moments when a bit of patience is needed.
The books have also started helping with my older daughter as well. She's been having some rather late nights and very early mornings of late, and I've been suggesting naps but of course she balks strongly at the idea. Today I was putting the baby down for a nap and handed older daughter a picture book I'd brought home just to read for myself. She started reading, picked up another one, and when I looked back over she'd fallen asleep! And I think she really needed it because she slept for several hours. I know I can find a lot more picture books at the library that are sophisticated enough to hold her attention, even though on her own she'd rather read chapter books. Perhaps I can coax her into some daily quiet time and induce a few more naps...!       

Aug 8, 2012

The Reluctant Dragon

by Kenneth Grahame

This is one of those books I just can't believe I never read before! It's a charming little story about a boy who befriends a dragon near his cottage home. The dragon is quite the gentleman, loves poetry, and is also rather lazy- he likes his quiet time, let's say. The local villagers discover his cave is occupied and get quite upset. Even though he's never bothered them or so much as set foot in the village, they ask the famous knight St. George to come get rid of the dragon. When the knight arrives, everyone is eager to see a battle- except that the dragon doesn't want to fight at all. The boy is just as excited as the others about a fight, but of course he wants to help his friend. How can he work out the situation? I thought the solution quite clever, and funny too. The original illustrations by Ernest Shepard (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) are just lovely.

I really discovered this one because of another, newer edition with colored illustrations that I found on a library shelf. I wanted to read the original before the adapted version. It's really not a long story so I'm not sure why it had to be adapted, but I'll find out soon enough if a lot of text got cut; reading that one next.

rating: 4/5 ........ 48 pages, 1966 ........ find it on Amazon

Aug 7, 2012

The Kindly Ones

Sandman Vol 9
by Neil Gaiman

As usual, reading a Sandman volume has been a rather uneven experience for me. I could see very well that the storyline was pulling in loose threads from previous volumes, and characters reappeared that I hadn't seen since the beginning. But unfortunately since I have been borrowing these from the library I don't have the earlier volumes on hand so couldn't check back to refresh my memory of those storylines and characters that started resurfacing. So there was quite a bit that went over my head, but the main arc managed to hold my attention: Dream's realm is facing possible destruction. Wronged woman from his past comes with revenge on her mind. That creepy Corinthian guy with the teeth in his eyes goes searching for Morpheus' son (the younger one, that lives in the waking world) and the intriguingly flighty Delirium is looking for the dog she adopted from Destruction.... lots of other stuff happens, but mostly it is about this revenge being enacted, and the Dream King resigning himself to his fate- out of duty? I thought the bit about Nuala, the fairy who preferred her plain face, most touching.

One of the things I really enjoy about these volumes, strange to say, is their forwards and the after-pages that introduce the author and illustrators. The forwards are always written so eloquently and gushing with praise I'm always just a tad disappointed when I read the bulk of the pages. And the parts at the end with all the contributors are just funny. They're always uniquely bizzare and curious. This time those final pages had old-looking black and white snapshots of children with one-liner descriptions. (Another volume had hand-drawn crazily expressive portraits for each, and I can't remember the others now but they were equally amusing). I also enjoy seeing how the artwork changes with each volume- different artists depicting the now-familiar characters in their own style, but still making them quite recognizable even to me, who has trouble following who's who sometimes.

Moving on to the tenth soon.

rating: 3/5 ........ 352 pages, 1993 ......... find it on Amazon

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Aug 6, 2012

in the bookshelf

I have a small bookshelf in the living room that is just for the little one's board books. She seems to enjoy pulling them all off the shelf just as much as turn the pages or bring one to me to read.
Today she took this activity to a new level and climbed into the shelf herself once it was emptied.
Then tried to pull the books back in with her- and got stuck, of course.
Silly girl!

Aug 5, 2012

Kitten's Winter

by Eugenie Fernandes

The final book in a little quartet that depicts a kitten exploring the seasons. In the opening scene we see the farm blanketed by winter: the fields covered with snow, the little pond iced over, trees bare of leaves, a snowman in the yard. As Kitten hurries to get home through a mild snowstorm, the reader gets to see how wildlife experiences the winter world. We meet some birds that stay at home: a blue jay and cardinal perched in evergreens, a chickadee on a shrub with some red berries, woodpecker rapping on a tree. We see which animals sleep through the winter: the beaver in its house, raccoon in a tree, turtle burrowed under the ground, chipmunk in its nest, bear in a den. Other animals are out and about searching for food: rabbit, fox, squirrel, even an otter catching a fish. A skunk huddles in a hollow log, a mouse scurries through his tunnel. There are even fish depicted beneath the ice! (Torpid from the cold?) The kitten scampers through the background, sometimes just barely visible as a patch of russet fur, making it fun for kids to try and find him on each page. On the last spread before he gets back home, just his pawprints are seen in the snow. As Kitten enters the house he finds mittens, hats and snow boots on the floor, children's drawings of the animals, books and a mug on the table- nice winter activities I agree! And already there is a hint of spring: some flower bulbs blooming in a pot. The textured illustrations made of sculpted clay, cut paper and paint are just wonderful, something you must see. I'm keeping my eyes out for more Fernandes books now. (And I haven't yet read Kitten's Summer but it's on my request list).

Borrowed from the public library.

rating: 4/5 ........ 24 pages, 2011 ....... find it on Amazon

Aug 4, 2012

Kitten's Autumn

by Eugenie Fernandes

This little book is just as charming as the first. In the opening farm scene we see the pumpkins in the field that was green leaves before, tilled bare earth in the flowerbed, a rake leaning against the house, leaves falling, an empty nest in the tree. As Kitten explores his surroundings he meets birds and caterpillars, finds pinecones and nuts on the ground, sees squirrels busy gathering food for winter. There's a porcupine chewing on a shoe, a bear getting into a stump for honey, a big fish eating a smaller one. Raccoons are after the corn, a skunk slurps worms, a chickadee picks seeds from a sunflower. When the kitten comes back inside, stuff just inside the door indicate what people have been doing: gathering apples and pears, baking pies. Lovely book that shows all kinds of indications of the season, how animals live and find food in nature, with beautiful textures and the Kitten himself hiding throughout the scenery. The illustrations, as I noted before, are made with clay modeling, paint and cut paper- a wonderful combination of colors and textures.

rating: 4/5 ....... 24 pages, 2010....... find it on Amazon

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Aug 3, 2012

Kitten's Spring

by Eugenie Fernandes

I saw one of these little picture books on display and was intrigued by the charming illustrations so then I searched out the entire set. The concept is very simply; a kitten wanders through the woods near his home seeing what other animals are doing during different seasons of the year. At the end of the book Kitten returns home where a warm meal or cozy bed is always waiting for him. The text is just two-word rhyming phrases, it is the pictures that make this book. They are so rich in detail I sat looking through the book several times just to take it all in.

As the kitten wanders through the forest we see birds singing and nesting, insects crawling about, frogs near the water, a ducking hatching and a new baby calf, a lamb gamboling and a horse running in a meadow, as well as many other things. I like that the book doesn't tidy up nature; the owl is shown feeding her baby something obviously fuzzy and limp (dead mouse?), the piglet is nursing as his mother lies in a mud wallow. But the pictures are so charming that I don't think these details would bother anyone on the contrary they would encourage children to learn about those kinds of realities. The pictures are just amazing. They're made from a combination of modeled clay, cut paper and cloth, painted backgrounds (looks like watercolor to me but might by acrylic washes.) The cow's tail is yarn threads. It's just lovely and wonderfully engaging to look at. As a plus, each book begins by showing the farm scene and you can look at them altogether to observe how the garden, pond, flowerbed, etc change with the seasons. As the kitten enters the house at the end of each story, there are things scattered about evident of what people have been doing at that time of year; in this spring book there are seed packets and seedlings in trays, bulbs flowering in pots. For most of the pages the kitten is in the background or peeking through leaves, so it can turn into a find-the-kitty exercise too, which is always fun for kids.

rating: 4/5 ........ 24 pages, 2010 ....... find it on Amazon

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The Good Luck Cat

by Joy Harjo
illustrated by Paul Lee

I'm anticipating the time when my fourteen-month old will sit still long enough to read real picture books. I do like good children's books and now sometimes when we're in the children's section at the library, she's pushing chairs around and playing with the few toys they have there; I'm idly looking at titles and covers on display and sometimes I bring a few home to read myself, or share with my older child.

The seven-year-old is into Ramona books right now, so she declines whenever I offer a picture book. Last week she read the episode where Ramona's elderly cat dies, and started talking to me about how cats have nine lives. I saw this kitty title on the picture-book shelf and when I saw the beautiful rich paintings and that it was about a cat with nine lives, I had to bring it home.

The Good Luck Cat features a Native American family and their beloved tabby cat Woogie. A young girl narrates the story, telling how her aunt said Woogie brought them good luck, and explaining how cats have nine lives. She recounts how Woogie lost each of his extra lives, in narrow escapes from the neighbor's dog, a car in the street, falling out of a tree etc. The best picture is when he momentarily gets shut in the clothes drier and tumbles around yowling before someone rescues him! (This part of the story could be distressing to younger readers, as the cat also gets threatened by boys with BB guns) Then Woogie disappears and the girl worries that he's lost his ninth life and will never come back. She puts out food on the porch for him and worries anxiously until he returns, missing part of his ear but apparently a happy cat, and certainly glad to be back home.

This could be any family with their pet cat. The identity of them as being Native American isn't really prominent, apart from the mention of the family gathering at a powwow, they really look like any other kids. The little girl is mischievous and irresponsible at times; she shuts her cat in a box and hides it under other things in the trunk to try and sneak him into a party, for example. But when he goes missing she anxiously posts lost-cat signs and frets about his safety. It's a tender, well-told story that appealed to my older kid who was intrigued with the nine-lives concept, as well as the younger one who just loved the cat's faces. And did I mention the illustrations are just lovely?

rating: 4/5 ....... 32 pages, 2000 ........ find it at Amazon

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Aug 2, 2012

Tess of D'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

I don't know how or when Tess of D'Urbervilles first got on my reading list, and I really had no idea what it was about before reading it this week. I've been fitfully participating in our public library's summer reading program (yes, they let adults play too) which this year is mostly about familiarizing yourself with the library's many resources- so for the first time I've browsed their DVD selections, and used some of the online databases- interesting stuff! One of the requirements however is to read a classic you've always wanted to and I picked Tess.

This is one of those cases where I don't quite know how to write about a book without possibly giving spoilers, so you've been warned!

It's been a long time since I read a classic and I've never read Hardy before- let me tell you, it was a rich experience! I was drawn in immediately by the descriptions of rural lifestyle and the character of Tess herself. She lives in Dorset, 19th century. Her family the Durbeyfields is poor but her shiftless father discovers one day that they are supposedly connected to an ancient aristocracy named D'Urberville and he immediately starts putting on airs, gets so drunk he can't function the next day so Tess is sent on an early-morning errand. She falls asleep on the road and gets into an accident which kills their family's only horse. They are now facing ruin but the mother urges Tess to visit a well-to-do lady in the next valley who is also supposedly of the D'Urberville line, and ask for help. Tess reluctantly agrees because she feels guilty about the death of the horse. When she arrives at the estate she immediately catches the eye of a certain young man. He's not really related to her- his family assumed the D'Urberville name for their own reasons- so he has no qualms about flirting with her, then practically stalking her, then well- things go badly for Tess- who disliked him from the start- and she ends up back at home with an illegitimate child. Things are miserable for a while but Tess eventually moves on, vowing to never marry.

She takes work as a dairymaid in another part of the country where people don't know her history, and then falls in love with a man who has rejected his family's standing as clergymen to become a farmer himself. This Clare sees Tess as a beautiful unspoiled country girl, even though she repeated tries to tell him of her sullied past he refuses to listen. Tess wants to marry him, but feels unworthy and is afraid of his finding her out. And then- of course- the man who ruined her life in the first place makes a repeat appearance- and things just get worse and worse. I've probably said too much already so I'll stop now. But it has a sad ending. Rather melodramatic, I thought. I mean- really- Stonehenge? I can't imagine anyone sleeping on a slab there, when today you can't even step inside the circle to take photos, it's so roped off (or so I've gathered, never having been there myself)

But regardless, what a story. I really felt bad for Tess. She was a good person at heart, smarter than her family, had her pride, did what she thought best. Some seem to think she deserved her lot and put herself in harm's way with her so-called "cousin" but that guy gave me the creeps from the start. Ugh, what an awful man. What I really enjoyed about the book was all the details about how people lived in rural communities more than a century ago. The tasks of threshing wheat, preparing straw to thatch roofs, digging turnips in the fields, and particularly how work was done on the prosperous dairy farm- all so different from today's operations. The dialect of the people being particular not only to the time and locale- many words out of use- but also to the family's being poor it was often hard to understand what exactly they meant but I was usually able to gather it from the context- I like that kind of reading challenge- and only after finishing the book did I realize there was a glossary in the back.

It's not as long as it looks. The edition I read (borrowed from the library) had appendixes, maps, several different forwards and afterwords written by different people for various other editions, excerpts that had been edited out of early editions (which shocked contemporary readers) and copious notes on the text. It's the first time I've ever read a book which had a note at the head of the forward warning of spoilers! so of course I didn't read that until later, glad I did as it gave away some of the crucial twists in the plot. I didn't read all the extra material, but did find interesting an included article all about the artists who illustrated early editions of Tess (which was first published as a kind of magazine serial). I definitely want to read more Hardy now.

That was rather rambling, apologies. It's late but I wanted to jot something down before sleep while it's all still turning in my head. I could say a lot more but will rest now.

rating: 4/5 ........ 518 pages, 1891 ...... find it at Amazon

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