"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Goblin Secrets

by William Alexander

Randomly came across this book while browsing the library shelves, and thoroughly glad I did.  The National Book Award Winner sticker on the cover caught my eye.  This book is all about masks, and how they change people.  In this book, that is taken in a literal sense.  Rownie is a young boy who serves a witch who sounds a lot like the "Baba Yaga" from old fairy tales.  He wants to find his brother who has disappeared so he escapes from the witch, but runs into trouble with the "law" when he gets involved with a traveling troupe of goblins who put on plays with masks, even though it is against the law.  Rownie then discovers the masks are much more than just make-believe and he has an important part to play.

The atmosphere of this book was mysterious, intriguing, and beautiful.  The landscape set by the words was mesmerizing and really drew me into the town.  The "scary" element was indeed scary, especially with the masks, and it really kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen, and it was all very mysterious until the end.  I liked the juxtaposition of an "old world" feel of witches and magic, with the "new world" feel of mechanisms and motors.  I'm hoping there are sequels to this book, because the end leaves a little mystery still to be told.  This book feels very much like sitting down to watch a play in a dark and magical theater, with musical and strange colors all around you.

Princess Academy

by Shannon Hale

This book was recommended by my sister, and it was a joy to read.  Miri is a young girl who works in a remote village high up on a mountain, where the livelihood of everyone depends on work in the nearby quarry.  Miri doesn't feel that she fits in and is of no use to her father.  When she hears that the prince will choose a bride from this village, Miri believes this is her chance to show her father what she can do.  She, along with the other girls of the village, are taught how to be princesses.  They compete but also learn to work together.  Miri comes to learn more about herself and just what she means to her family and her father.  She also learns of an important talent that helps save her friends when trouble comes along.

I like this story because based on the title, one might thinks its a "fairy-tale" type story, but it is not.  The end comes to a good conclusions for the girls, but it is not what you expect.  Miri is a strong main character who is believable and also inspiring, as are many of the other girls, who together give the book a rich mixture of personalities.  The setting of the book is also written well, with the feeling of this place embedded into the story throughout.

There is a bit of a magical element to the story as well, which is not overdone, but simple and interwoven into the story very quietly.  I enjoyed that it felt natural that this would occur, though it was a book that I wouldn't necessarily consider a "fantasy".  I think this would be an especially good read for young female readers.  You don't usually go wrong with a Newbery Honor Book.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

52 Books for 52 Weeks - My Year in Review

Happy New Year!  One of my discoveries in 2012 was the website goodreads.com.  It speaks to my love of books, my love of recommending books, my love of getting recommendations from people I trust, and my love of organizing and tracking books!  At the beginning of the year the website encouraged me to set myself a reading challenge goal, so I did.  I figured one book a week wouldn't be too hard. Well, my consistency went up and down, but I finished my 52nd book with 5 days to spare! 

For my own benefit (and perhaps yours if you are interested), I'd like to do a quick review of the year in book terms.

I started the year off by reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.  And just so you know, I do not know that because I remembered, only because goodreads tracks it for me.  Anyway, I was excited to find that I started the year off with an excellent classic, a book of sci-fi short stories that were both mesmerizing and haunting. Some were funny, others were disturbing.  All were mind-opening.

Some of the books I enjoyed the most included:

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba
The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

Brandon Sanderson, author
My favorite of the year was not a single book, but multiple books by Brandon Sanderson.  I can't believe it took me this long to discover such a fabulous author!  Thanks once again goes to my friend Emily for the recommendation.  First I started with the Mistborn trilogy, then read a couple of his other books like Elantris and Warbreaker (good but not as good as Mistborn), and finally finished with the first book in his "Stormlight Archive" called The Way of Kings.  Sanderson has an amazing ability to write realistic systems of magic that aren't just conjured out of thin air.  Only problem now is that I've run of of books by this author.  He is projecting that The Way of Kings will be followed by NINE other books in the series, so now I have to WAIT!  I'm already waiting for the final installment of the Kingkiller Chronicles to come out, and now I've got another set to anticipate.  My only comfort is that I have introduced these books to a number of family members who are enjoying them as much as I am.  Success!

I also wanted to note a few of my favorite picture books that the kids and I came across this year.  Most of them are our favorites because of great artwork combined with fun and interesting words.
Happy by Mies van Hout
Jump! by Scott M. Fischer 
Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble by Judy Schachner
The Wide-Mouthed Frog by Keith Faulkner
A Hat for Minerva Louise by Janet Morgan Stoeke

I finished the year off with a children's book called Goblin Secrets by William Alexander, all about goblins and witches, secrets, and the wearing of masks.  Not to mention a National Book Award Winner.  A nice laid-back way to end the year, especially after the busy holidays.

I haven't decided what my reading goals will be this year, so what do you think?  What are your reading plans for 2013?

It's been a good year all around and I'm looking forward to many more adventures next year, both in my world, and in the many worlds between many pages.  Hopefully I will see you there!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Books Worth Reading

I've was hoping to have this post out before Christmas, but alas, things got busy.  Better late than never, now you can prep for next year!  Anyway, I've seen a number of facebook posts recently, asking about favorite books for Christmas.  I have a number of friends who do a countdown to Christmas with children's books, and I like to give a book to my kids for their Christmas Eve gift to open before bed.  That being said, there are a lot out there that are downright lame.  So, here are some of my choices that I think are worthy of your time:
1. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg

Read this instead of watching the movie.  Please.  A lovely tale about children who know and recognize the true meaning of Christmas.  Beautiful, haunting illustrations.

2. A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas

This story is about a little boy's experience with the sights, sounds, smells, and adventures of Christmas in his small Welsh town.  The characters in the story are wonderfully rich and quirky, and the warmth and laughter it brings truly will make you smile.  I believe this would technically be considered a prose poem, but it is very accessible and easier to read than some of Thomas' other poetry.  And if you can find an audio recording by the author, or even go see a play of this work, its almost better to listen to than to read.  You can really let yourself disappear into the richness of the language and the story.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Wales since I had the pleasure of studying abroad there for a few months during college.  One of the best experiences of my life. And one of the best days while there was when I was able to see a performance of this work at  the college a few days before my own Christmas in Wales.  It was truly a marvelous experience.

3. Merry Christmas, Festus and Mercury, by Sven Nordqvist

I came across this treasure in some used book sale, and one look at the cat on the front had me hooked.  When I read it and looked at the other illustrations, I loved it even more.  Its got a quirky feel to it because of its focus on a different tradition/culture, so its refreshing, and the relationship of this old man and his cat is hysterical and heartwarming all at the same time.  Not sure how easy it would be to find a copy, but keep an eye out.  I believe there are others in the series.

4. Duck and Goose, It's Time for Christmas!, by Tad Hills

A fun little board book for the younger crowd.  Duck and Goose and two funny characters who are getting ready for Christmas.

5.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

This is a chapter book instead of a picture book, but is a pretty quick read nevertheless.  Its about a town putting on their Christmas pageant and all the funny moments that entails, as well as how one family of misfits teach everyone the true meaning of Christmas.

6.  A Little House Christmas: Holiday Stories from the Little House Books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I have re-read the Little House books so often I have lost count, and they only get better and better.  Many of my favorite excerpts (except for my all-time favorite parts about her falling in love with Almanzo - but that's for another post) are the Ingalls' Christmas celebrations.  They are so happy with so little, and I love the old-time traditions and family gatherings.  I'm so excited to find this collection because it gathers all these stories together to be enjoyed during the holidays.  And I plan to definitely get the collection that has the original Garth Williams illustrations.

7. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

A true classic, the story of Scrooge and his journeys with three spirits who teach him about the true Christmas spirit of love and kindness.  My favorite quote is when Scrooge is confronted with Jacob Marley's ghost, who is weighed down with the chains of greed he forged in life:
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

8. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski

A talented old woodcarver never smiles, having lost his family to illness.  But when a widow and her son ask him to make a new crèche, he discovers his own Christmas miracle.  Lovely illustrations and a touching story. 

9. A Christmas Parable, by Boyd K. Packer

This is a deceptively simple story about a man who has a dream that teaches him about the greatest Christmas gift of all - the Atonement of the Savior.  I especially love his poem at the end about being washed clean, in relation to the miracles of Christ both in the Bible and in our hearts today.  My mother started a tradition many years ago of reading this book to us on Christmas Eve and then writing down Christmas memories in the back.  We would then review our favorite memories from the year before, and then each take a turn picking one of the Nativity pieces to display.  Finished off with reading the Christmas Story from Luke.  So many joyous memories, surrounded by an eternal family.

10. Christmas Bells, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Most of us know this poem better as the words to the carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", however it is interesting to read the original version, which has a total of seven stanzas.  Two omitted from the song make reference to the Civil War.  Either way, the words of this poem/song are some of the most joyous, hopeful, and true words you will hear.  No matter what each Christmas brings, whether in hard times or good times, Longfellow's verse will give you renewed hope that "God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! / The Wrong shall fail, / The Right prevail, / With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

So, there are some of my favorite books.  However, I can't end without sharing a few of my other favorite entertainments for Christmas:

It's a Wonderful Life
Mr. Kreuger's Christmas
White Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street
While You Were Sleeping

"O Holy Night" and "O Come O Come Emmanuel" by Manheim Steamroller
"Halleluja Chorus" from The Messiah
"Jingle Bells?" by Barbara Streisand 
"Silent Night" by Boyz II Men
"Ode to Joy" by Beethoven
"A Soalin" by Peter, Paul & Mary
"What Sweeter Music" written by John Rutter

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Way of Kings

by Brandon Sanderson

I am really obsessed with this author right now, as you might notice from the many books I've read of his lately.  It has been so long since I've really found a good set of fantasy books, and Mistborn fulfilled that longing.  Then I voraciously read a few of his other single books like Elantris and Warbreaker and like them, though not on the epic scale of the others.  Then I discovered a 10 book series called the Stormlight Archive, the first book of which is The Way of Kings and I quickly ordered it from the library.  A large volume, in both a physical and a written way, but well worth the time.  Then I excitedly went to order the 2nd book, only to find it was not available.  Why?  Because it hasn't been published yet!  I didn't realize that this is a "projected" 10 book series, meaning that Sanderson has only finished and published the first one, and now I have to wait for 9 more books, which will probably mean the next 10 years of my life will be spent waiting to know what happens at the end!  But if the first book shows anything of that ending, it will be well worth the wait.

So, as I read The Way of Kings I felt like the book did two things.  It told a great story.  Actually it tells a number of great stories about great characters.  But it also felt like a huge introduction to the even larger series.  What I'm saying is, it covers a lot of territory, sets up a lot of stuff for future reference, and leaves a lot of parts hanging with no definite answers, because there are many more stories to come that will flesh it all out.  As long as I go into the book understanding this, I love it because it builds and builds the suspense.  And yet, it is amazing to me that an author can do all that, yet still work in some really amazing stories and characters as well.

And as you can imagine, its not easy to really sum up.  This first book tells the beginning stories of a few different characters.  First, a man who goes from healer, to soldier, to slave, to leader.  The details of his slavery on the "bridge crew" are fabulous and the setting and characters are well thought out and presented.  Another character is a mysterious assassin, one who loathes his job but is for some reason compelled into it.  There is also a female character who becomes the apprentice of a wise woman, only in hopes of stealing her most precious possession, but instead finds herself learning more than she thought.  And finally, another character is a chivalrous military leader who is turning away from way and trying to find the way of peace.  All these characters are set amid a world that is plagued by great storms, so much that the world has adapted, with descriptions of plants and animals and people that are suited for weathering great tempests. A truly epic landscape and story.

And just like another great series, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, its killing me to have to wait for the next installment!  Its going to be a long 10+ years.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach

In honor of Halloween just having finished, I thought a review of this book would be appropriate.  Though it sounds rather gruesome, it is very interesting and quite hysterical.  The author's side notes are almost better than the actual text, because this is where all her random and bizarre comments are made.  A word to the wise however.  I am not a squeamish person in any sense of the word.  Lots of time in the hospital probably got that out of me years ago.  However, this book definitely went into some details that were best left for non-meal time.  But by no means should you avoid it for this reason, just choose your reading time wisely.

I was introduced to this author by the book Packing for Mars, and found it just as entertaining. Whereas that book deals with the very real human details of what it takes to get a person into space (the food, the sanitation, etc.), this book literally details with very human details, as in the remains of a person and what is done with a body after physical death occurs.  Experiments, embalming, burial, investigation, and decay are all covered, but in a way that allows for humor and respect to both have a part of the story.

The ways in which human cadavers have contributed to science is innumerable and amazing.  Medical testing, crash tests, CSI studies, organ transplants, etc. have all led to very real and very important contributions to our way of life.  And cadavers have been a part of all of that.  Of course, many of the ethical questions come into play as well, and Roach discusses many of these, including religious beliefs, grave robbing, etc.

Overall, though it sounds a little disturbing and somewhat gruesome, this book actually gives you a great respect for the human body and its complex design, for science and its discoveries, for those who donate their bodies to science, and to the families that respect these wishes.  Instead of avoiding this topic and feeling it taboo, I love that Roach unveils a stunning landscape of something that is all around us, and just below the skin.  As much as this book is centered around death, it is actually very much about the wonder of life.

Jump! (and Halloween books)

by Scott M. Fischer

This is a fun children's book that my son actually discovered at the library.  Each page is about an animal that gets scared by a bigger animal, which makes it JUMP!  The book has great rhymes, good rhythm, and kids love to "help" read the story when its time to turn the page and JUMP!  And the artwork is fun, nothing fabulously amazing but not cheesy either.  My son picked this book to share with his Kindergarten class on his Superstar Day, and it was very popular.  The teacher commented that it was a very good choice for that age.  I love finding new books for the kids, and I enjoy them myself.

On a side note, I was invited to read at my nieces' school for their Halloween party.  My mother often reads there and she is quite popular but she was going to be out of town and recommended they ask me.  I was happy to fill in.  It was to be arranged thus: 15 kids at a time from ages K-7th grade, for 15 minutes each, and I would do this 5 times in a row.  I bit daunting but it was also exciting.  I love sharing my love of books with anyone and everyone.  I tried to think outside the box and pick some different books that the kids may not have read before.  And it was difficult to think of how to appeal to all the different age groups.  Luckily, the kids seems to enjoy it and were very respectful and well-behaved.

I had four different things to read, though I found I had to shorten my time and finally had to cut one out.  However, I'll include them all because they went well together.

1) I started out with reading/singing a poem called "Three Little Witches" by Marjorie Barrows.  My mom used to sing this to me when I was a kid, and it has a good rhythm and is fun.  A good way to get them interested and paying attention.

2) For the younger children, I chose a book called "Little Goblins Ten" which is kind of a Halloween version of the poem/song "Over in the Meadow".  Its a counting book, but its also got a good rhythm, and with this one I had the kids participate.  When I would say a word they had to respond back.  So it would go, "Haunt! said the daddy" and the kids would have to say back, "Haunt! said the two" and they would have to do it the way I did, so I tried to really ham it up and make scary Halloween noises

3) "The Witches" by Roald Dahl is a favorite of mine and so I used them for the older children, some of whom had read it.  I started by summarizing what Dahl says are the characteristics of a "real" witch, things like that they are bald, have no toes, etc.  The kids got a kick out of this part.  I then read an excerpt, the chant that the Grand High Witch says about their evil plan to turn all the children into mice.  This is the one I finally had to cut out of the last couple because I didn't really have enough time and I had to summarize the book a lot, but it was a good choice and a high recommendation from me.

4) I finished with Chris Van Allsburg's "The Witch's Broom".  It has the most wonderful haunting illustrations, as all his works do (Polar Express, Jumanji, Harris Burdick) and though its about a witch's broom, really its not too scary at all, just clever and quite a funny turn at the end.  It has a lot of deeper meaning which I thought maybe some of the older kids might pick up on as well, but most of the kids really were quite mesmerized with it.

So, all in all, it was a lot of fun and I hope the kids enjoyed the reading.  I certainly did, and I loved being able to visit the school and teachers, since I actually attended there way back in 4th grade.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that since a few of my books were about witches, I decided to dress the part, complete with a homemade broom, black teeth (braces are handy for this), and a big ugly wart on my nose.  It was fun!