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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

A friend of mine recently said she had finally gotten around to reading this book, and then exclaimed, "How did I miss this one for so long?!"  I felt the exact same way.  My mom had this book on her bookshelf all the years I was growing up.  I remember the cover distinctly.  Yet, it got passed up year after year.  Occasionally, as I would browse through her books for a new read, I would ask her about it and she would be surprised I hadn't read it yet.  Finally, I found it as a book-on-tape and listened to it on my commute.

This is a story about Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in a poor area of Brooklyn.  The images Ms. Smith draws of the people in her life and the daily life of early twentieth century city dwellers are strong and memorable.  Like the "Tree of Heaven" which is a hardy tree that grew invasive in the vacant lots of New York City, Francie Nolan flourishes in seemingly inhospitable circumstances.  She has a mother that works hard to support a drunken father, but her father is still and good and kind man.  An illiterate but entertaining aunt who has many men, but cannot have children.  Tough grandparents who immigrated from Germany.  There are myriads of other memorable characters that influence her life and she comes of age.  This book shows, through Francie's eyes, the political and social changes of the time, as well as experiences of war, race relations, immigration, and first love.

Francie is a wonderful narrator of her life, never wallowing in self-pity or getting sappy, just presenting her life for the reader to enjoy and be a part of.  It is a long book, but one would hardly know it because the story draws you in so well that it is hard to put it down.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tacky the Penguin

by Helen Lester

Tacky the Penguin is...well...tacky. He doesn't quite fit in with the other proper penguins. He's always doing things a little different. The others think he's just too weird, until his crazy antics save them all from a bunch of penguin hunters.

We have a lot in common, Tacky and I. In fact, my good friends know my "Penguin" nickname and how it came to be. It's a story I don't need to tell here because its not that exciting really, but let's just say that like Tacky, I've always tried to embrace the things that make me a little different.

Children's picture books require a good illustrator almost as much as a good author, and Lynn Munsinger does not disappoint. This is a lovely and funny book that shares a great message about being yourself. There are also a number of other Tacky books that further share this lovable bird's unique personality. Make this a birthday or Christmas gift for any of the young readers in your life. Or even the old ones like me!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Walk Two Moons

by Sharon Creech

There's nothing better to read on a road-trip than a road-trip story.  So if you are taking a big trip before fall arrives and school starts, pick up this book and laugh and cry along the way.  Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels from Ohio to Idaho with her eccentric and hysterically funny grandparents.  They are going to visit her mother's grave, which is near where she died in an accident.  Salamanca doesn't tell anyone that the real reason she wants to go is because she believes her mother is not dead and she can bring her back.  And even though much of the book is concentrated around Salamanca and her mother, the real story is about her relationship with her father and the new woman in his life.

I love the layers of this book, the different and complicated relationships of the family, as well as the stories stacked on each other.  As the trio travels, Salamanca tells her grandparents the story of Phoebe Longbottom, a girl who has many interesting adventures, and who also is searching for her lost mother.  Her story is very similar to Salamanca's own, and the way she uses it to explain and sort out her own life gives the book a depth and richness that keeps you intrigued.  But the real stars of the book are Gram and Gramps, who keep you laughing the whole time, but also touch your heart with the love they share. 

Another Newbery Medal Winner that is worthy of the honor.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


by Roald Dahl

The BFG is a Big Friendly Giant who whisks a little girl away from an orphanage one night, after she catches him blowing dreams into the rooms of other children.  In typical Roald Dahl fashion, this book is filled with humor that is just a little dark, a fantastic chain of events, heartwarming friendships, and justice for the bad guys.  The author has a vivid and quirky imagination which all children will enjoy.  I also like that he doesn't always ignore the darker side of life.  He himself had a rather dismal childhood in the time when English children were sent to boarding schools.  This upbringing obviously colored his writing, which you can also read more about in his autobiography called "Boy".

This was the first of Dahl's books that my mom read to me when we were growing up, so it will always be my favorite.  We also enjoyed reading some of his other books together, such as Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Danny the Champion of the World, The Witches, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Read this one before someone attempts to make a bad movie out of it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ella Minnow Pea

"a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable"
by Mark Dunn

Don't let the subtitle scare you away.  To do a rough translation, it means "a fable about letters that is written in a progressively limited way."  To some of you this may sound a little boring, but trust me, it is a fascinating and fun story with an underlying message that reminds us all of the importance of our freedoms, particularly the freedom of speech.  At first it seems like a simple little story about an imaginary land called Nollop, which is named after a man who invented the pangram (a sentence which uses all the letters of the alphabet).  Their society is focused around words and language, and all is well until the letter Z falls down off the monument commemorating the pangram.  Some see it as a simple accident, while others see it as a "sign" and decide to make it illegal to use the letter Z in any spoken or written communication.  This begins a chain of events which leads to, as one review says so well, a "linguistic siege".  Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living in Nollop who sets out to save her society. 

What is particularly clever about this book is that the author himself is under his own writing constraints, as laid out by the book, and reading his sentences as letters disappear is challenging, funny, and sometimes infuriating.  The title alone gives you an idea of the word play throughout.  It is engaging and an easy read, despite all the "wordy" references.  A cleverly written book that makes an important point about how we should never become complacent about fighting for our freedoms.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

I know a lot of you may have already read this series, but just in case you haven't, I had to get this recommendation done because the third book in the series will be released soon and I can't wait!

This is considered a young adult sci-fi fiction book, but adults can enjoy it just as much as youth, and I personally found it quite gripping.  I can see why it is considered a sci-fi book, but it is more about the human spirit than anything.  It will keep you on the edge of your seat, or in my case bed, since I finished it at 3am. 

Set in a future post-apocalyptic time where 13 districts of people are ruled over by one powerful Capitol government, the Hunger Games are forced to be played every year by a boy and girl from each district.  It is a game of survival where they are supposed to kill each other until only one remains the victor.  The Games are used by the Capitol as a form of entertainment, but also as a reminder to the districts of their lower status and to keep them in subjection.

It sounds disturbing and it is.  However, I am a fairly sensitive soul when it comes to disturbing and scary topics.  I often have nightmares about books and movies that are just not worth it, no matter how good the material.  This book did not bother me.  I felt Collins covered the graphic parts with restraint, but did not gloss over them either.  I have heard some say that it was too disturbing for them, so take that as you will.

The characters feel real and their relationships are complicated.  Collins does a good job of leading you to think something predictable will happen, and then turning it to something you wouldn't expect.  It leaves you satisfied and interested for the next book, but does not wrap up everything into a pretty, happy ending.  The second book, "Catching Fire" did the first book justice and I won't tell you about it because if you read the first, I don't doubt you'll be hooked.  The third book "Mockingjay" is being released August 24th.

It's refreshing to find a new series which everyone is talking about, and which is worthy of all the attention.

Friday, August 13, 2010

James Herriott Books

During college I got the fabulous opportunity to study for 4 months in Wales, and also got to briefly visit parts of Ireland and England.  I loved every minute of it!  Wales is a pretty quite area of the world, unless a Rugby match is on, and mostly it is a place of rolling green hills, castle ruins, and a whole lot of sheep.  While I was there, the landscape and people I met often reminded me of stories by James Herriott.  His books are considered fiction, although they are loosely based on his life as a veterinary surgeon in England.  He wrote numerous short stories, the best of which are contained in these books:

All Creatures Great and Small
All Things Bright and Beautiful
All Things Wise and Wonderful
The Lord God Made Them All
Every Living Thing

Herriott, whose actual name is James Alfred Wight, tells stories about the people and farmers and animals of the Yorkshire countryside, with laughter, thoughtfulness, at times sadness, and often with a good eye for the absurd.  The way he describes the life of a vet will give you a new appreciation for the job, but he also covers his brief stint in the military, as well as his family life.  He gives forthright details about the illnesses and procedures, covering a period of time when new advances in veterinary medicine were slowly starting to be implemented.  Yet Herriot constantly keeps his focus on the humanity of both the animals and their people, without getting overly sentimental.  There are characters in every book that you will never forget, some good and some bad, but mostly ones that will just make you laugh.  Herriott pokes fun at himself as much as any other.

These are not books just for animal lovers.  I myself am not much of an animal-lover.  We have a cat, which truthfully I wish we didn't.  I will never get a dog, at least not of my own volition.  I liked the cows and goats and chickens that my parents raised us with just fine, but didn't particularly mind when butchering time came around either.  I love these books because it goes beyond the animals, to observe and comment on how people interact with the natural world around them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

I've been telling everyone about this book lately, so if you've already heard my thoughts or read it yourself, then you can ignore this post.  If not, go find a copy.  Its been on the LA Times bestseller list at #1 for a year, so you may have to get on a library waiting list unless you can find someone to loan it to you.

This books tells the stories of a group of African-American maids who work for Southern white families, during the time of the Jim Crow laws, which touted the idea of "separate, but equal".  Of course, it didn't end up being equal at all and wasn't really much of an emancipation.  The book also tells the story of a white woman who decides to write about their stories, even if it means that she will face repercussions from the southern society she lives in.

One would expect the heart-breaking stories of hatred and abuse found here, but the books delves to a deeper level regarding the interaction of the white people to their "colored" servants.  The relationship of black nurses to the white children they raise was fascinating, as well as the relationships of the women themselves, both in the white and black communities.  It put me in the time and place with such force that I was loathe to have to leave it and wanted their stories to continue for much longer.  I couldn't put it down so ended up reading the entire book in about a day and a half, finishing at 3am!  I love when that happens.

There are also plenty of moments of humor, one of which is so funny that I couldn't stop giggling while I was reading, so much that my husband actually wanted to know what I was laughing about.  I can't give it away because it is a pretty big part of the plot, but let's just say you will never think of pie the same way again!  This is Stockett's first book, and it is brilliant.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Patrick McManus Books

Anyone go camping or fishing this weekend?  Do you find that not all your outdoor activities always go as well as you planned?  If so, you should check out the humorist Patrick F. McManus.  He has a lot of books, but my favorites are his original first four:

A Fine and Pleasant Misery
They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?
Never Sniff a Gift Fish
The Grasshopper Trap

My family and I often read these books to each other on long road trips, which kept us all entertained, but also made it necessary to stop for extra bathroom breaks because we were laughing so hard.  If you are an outdoorsman, or if you have perhaps a father-in-law like me that is obsessed with hunting and fishing, these are the books for you.  The names he uses for his regular characters gives you some idea of the kind of humor you will find.  Retch Sweeney, the best friend.  His little sister, nicknamed The Troll.  The crotchety old neighbor man/mentor called Rancid Crabtree.  And don't forget about the family dog, Strange.

Even if you have no love for outdoor things, you will still find these stories funny.  I can't remember one family camping trip where we didn't have at least a few things go wrong, which makes these stories so familiar to me.  Such chapters as "How to Go Splat" and "Poof! No Eyebrows" are classics.  But if you hesitate in my recommendation, just pick up the book The Shoot Canoes, Don't They? and skip to the chapter called "My First Deer, and Welcome to It" and then decide for yourself.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mrs. Mike

by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

I love stories about the invincible women who lived during the early frontier days, mostly because it makes me appreciate all the wonderful things I have like electricity, running water, clean clothes that don't involve petticoats or bloomers, and no hard manual labor.  But those trials made for some tough, independent, amazing women.  Mrs. Mike is no exception.  She falls in love with a mounty and then faces trial, hardship and tragedy in the wilderness of the Canadian north.  It is a wonderful and realistic love story as well as a tale of survival, based on Kathy O'Fallen's real life experiences.

The descriptions of the scenery and characters are well-written and puts you very much into the moment.  The writing does not gloss over the hardships they face, or make the tragedies any less heart-wrenching than they might have felt at the time.  I also appreciate seeing their young romance blossom into a strong marriage.  Read this book and then do some research on your own ancestors and find out about the strong women who brought you to where you are today.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

by Mary E. Pearson

She wasn't supposed to survive the accident.  But she did.

From the beginning, you know there is something odd about Jenna Fox and the circumstances surrounding her accident, coma, and now her reawakening.  It's hard to review this book without giving away the secret, so you'll just have to believe me when I say this is a fascinating book about a girl that is trying to discover herself and the mystery surrounding her recovery.  Not only does she deal with having been moved clear across the country abruptly and trying to make new friends, but she also must deal with strange ways her parents and grandmother act toward her. 

I figured the mystery out shortly before it was revealed, but up until then it kept me in quite a lot of suspense and made me feel slightly uneasy.  I love when a book can do that so subtly.  What really surprised me was the questions and issue that it brought up, which made me thing long and hard about my beliefs in the soul, science, life, and mortality.  Yet the book was not heavy-handed with this issues and did not feel like it was preaching to me.  It only placed the questions before me and made me really think about how far I would go to save someone I love.

I wish I could say more, but I can't.  So please go read it and then I'll finally have someone to talk to about it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Original Oz Books

by L. Frank Baum

We've all seen the classic Wizard of Oz movie, perhaps even read the book.  But not too many people realize that L. Frank Baum wrote a total of 14 Oz books, all of which I recommend today, both for you and your kids.  The original favorite characters of the Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Dorothy, and Toto are in all the subsequent books, but many new and fantastical friends join the journey.  Polychrome, the Rainbow's Daughter, Tik-Tok the Mechanical Man, and the Nome King are just a few of my favorites.  These books, more than any others, take me straight back to my childhood because they tell stories that come directly from childhood imagination, unfettered by something so boring as reality.  Baum tells good stories that are easy and fun to read, and will make you smile.  If only I could own a tree that grew lunch boxes and dinner pails, then I would be a happy girl!

The 14 books in order (which is how one should always read series) are:

-The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
-The Marvelous Land of Oz
-Ozma of Oz
-Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
-The Road to Oz
-The Emerald City of Oz
-The Patchwork Girl of Oz
-Tik-Tok of Oz
-The Scarecrow of Oz
-Rinkitink In Oz
-The Lost Princess Of Oz
-The Tin Woodman Of Oz
-The Magic of Oz
-Glinda Of Oz

Many other authors since L. Frank Baum have tried writing Oz books and I have read some of them, but none are as good as the originals.  I highly recommend reading these to or with your kids, just as my mom did with me.  Leave your boring Kansas lives for a moment each day and go visit the wonderful world of Oz.