Monday, June 30, 2014

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library

"...the twelve twelve-year-olds who write the best essays on 'Why I'm Excited About the New Public Library' will get to go to the library lock-in this Friday night. The winners will spend the night in the new library before anybody else even gets to see the place!"

I needed an easy and entertaining read this weekend and Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein fit the bill perfectly. The dialogue is snappy; the kids are funny. Plus, it's a book that combines four of my favorite things: books, libraries, puzzles, and games. Luigi Lemoncello, the world's most famous game maker, donated the money for and helped design and build Alexandriaville's new public library. He also designed a contest where the game board is the library itself. Kyle Keeley and his friends have 24 hours to decipher the clues, solve the riddles and find the secret way out of the library. The first kid out wins the prize. Cool, huh? I thought it was a very clever plot. I mean, who wouldn't want to have an overnight adventure in a library like Mr. Lemoncello's? This is a fast-paced and fun mystery that readers of any age will enjoy. I know I did!

Happy Reading!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One hundred years ago today...

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife, Sophie, were shot to death by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. I have to admit, before reading Greg King's and Sue Woolman's excellent book, The Assassination of the Archduke, all I really knew about Franz Ferdinand was that his assassination precipitated the First World War. But now I have a much clearer idea of the kind of man he was and what the world was like on that fateful day he died.

Vladimir Dedijer wrote that "No other political murder in modern history has had such momentous consequences." What led up to it? That's what this book tries to explain, but it does more than that; it also focuses on the personal lives of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. "This is the story of the couple's romance and marriage; it is also the story of how the public and the imperial court saw them...and how these views often conflicted with reality." It also tells the story of their three children: Sophie, Max and Ernst.

There's no way I can sum up Franz Ferdinand's life or the intrigues and conflicts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a few sentences. So I'm not even going to try. If you're interested in the Hapsburgs during this time period, or this particular event in history, this is a good book to read. It's well-researched, thoughtfully written, and gives a fair portrayal of the Archduke and his morganatic wife.
"A hundred years have passed since that fateful Sunday morning in Sarajevo. No newsreels captured those pivotal few seconds in human history...yet the unseen ripples from those moments continue today. The bullets Princip fired did more than kill Franz Ferdinand and Sophie or leave their children orphaned; they inaugurated a century of enormous upheaval and mass slaughter on a scale previously unknown. No other two deaths can have served as the tipping point that led to so much misery and loss."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Having a strawberry summer...

There's a small strawberry patch in my backyard that has been busy producing strawberries like there's no tomorrow. In the past three weeks I've picked enough berries to make two batches of strawberry jam, a lovely rhubarb-strawberry crisp, a pint of strawberry syrup that's scrumptious on pancakes and waffles, some strawberry muffins, and the world's yummiest strawberry cheesecake pie. Plus, there's been enough strawberries left over to share with family and friends. So far it's been a very strawberry summer and I feel blessed by the bounties of my small strawberry patch. What's next for my little strawberry patch that could? I'm thinking strawberry shortcake for sure, and maybe a strawberry smoothie, or two. What about you? Got any good strawberry recipes you plan on trying out this summer?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sisters in books...

 The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

First Line: The night before the worst day of my life, I dreamed the sun went dark and ice cracked every mirror in the house, but I didn't take it for a warning.

Characters:  Olivia and Jazz Moon, two sisters grieving the death of their mother. Olivia, who sees sounds and tastes words, is exasperating and impossible; she's also a dreamer who goes blind staring at the sun. Jazz, who can't compete with her younger sister, is down-to-earth, responsible, and angry; she also feels like it's her job to watch out for her sister.

My Thoughts:  When they're together, Olivia and Jazz bring out the worst in each other; around Jazz, Olivia seems incredibly selfish and spoiled, while Jazz seems rigid and controlling. I liked them much better apart. Luckily, they both do some growing up over the course of this novel. My favorite character was Hobbs, the tattooed train-hopping wanderer the two sisters meet along the way. I knew about synesthesia--the stimulation of senses other than those receiving input (like hearing colors, or tasting sounds)--before I read this novel, but glimpsing the world as viewed through the eyes of someone (Olivia) who has this 'faulty wiring' was fascinating. And I love the way Walsh writes--there's just enough poetry in her words to make her prose sing. Most of all, I liked the way she divided her novel (and Olivia's and Jazz's journey) into the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What a great way to tell this story!

Similar read: When Venus Fell by Deborah Smith

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Art of Summer Reading

Alfred Victor Fournier - The Beach, 1929

"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."
--Bertrand Russell

Happy First Day of Summer!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reading 1914...

The DeVere family is down on their luck. Hosmer DeVere is a stage actor without a part; his two teen-age daughters. Alice and Ruth, worry about household expenses and fret about their father's health. Things seem hopeful when their father lands a part in a new play, but then he loses his voice. What's an actor to do when he can no longer speak his lines? Alice, the livelier of the two girls, determines to do something to help.
"There's no use in two strong healthy girls sitting around, and letting poor old daddy, with a voice like a crow's, doing all the work and worrying...Girls ought to be brought up able to do something so they could earn their living if they had to, instead of sitting around doing embroidery or tinkling on the piano...I'm going to look through the advertisements in the paper tomorrow, and start out after the most promising places."
Before Alice is forced to take a 'common' job, her neighbor, Russ Dalwood, who works at the Comet Film Company offers a solution. He suggests that DeVere become a silent film actor. It seems like the perfect answer to their problems, except for one minor thing: Hosmer DeVere thinks that moving pictures are vulgar and low and he wants no part of them. Alice and Ruth try to convince him otherwise, as does Russ.
"...with all due respect to him, your father is wrong. There's nothing vulgar or low about the movies--except the price...The moving picture shows were once, perhaps, places where nice persons didn't go. But it's different now. All that has changed...The moving pictures are getting better and better all the time."
Needing money, Hosmer eventually gives in and agrees. Alice and Ruth join him at the studio to watch, fascinated by the film-making process. Soon they are acting, too--that's how they become the Moving Picture Girls.

Laura Lee Hope's novel, published in 1914, gives an interesting (and informative) look at those first silent films--how they were rehearsed like plays, filmed in a few days, processed, and quickly distributed to theaters to be viewed by the public. I also liked her characters; Alice is playful and enthusiastic, while her older sister, Ruth, is conventional and quiet. The narrative is dialogue-driven, which gives you a taste for what life was like in 1914. While this book may not add up to much, I thought it was a fun 1914 read. Laura Lee Hope wrote several other novels about the moving picture girls; I just might check them out.

Happy Reading!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Seduction by M.J. Rose

Every story begins with a tremble of anticipation. At the start we may have an idea of our point of arrival, but what lies before us and makes us shudder is the journey, for that is all discovery. This strange and curious story begins for me at the sea. Its sound and scent are my punctuation. Its movements are my verbs....This is the story of a lost man. An exile not just from his beloved country but also from his sanity. I believe it to be a true and honest account. Whether or not you will, I know not.

 There are two story lines in this novel, one set in the past, one in the present. They intersect in unexpected ways on the Isle of Jersey. The first involves Victor Hugo. Grieving the death of his favorite daughter, Leopoldine, Hugo seeks answers in table talking and seances. And though he does manage to contact his daughter's spirit, he also contacts something else. Something far more sinister. The second story line, set in the present, revolves around Jac L'Etoile, a mythologist who investigates legends and the truth behind the myths. When an old friend invites her to Jersey to investigate some ancient Celtic ruins that might prove the Druidic myth, she leaps at the chance. But what she finds there is more haunting and personal than she could ever have imagined.

There are so many things that I loved about this novel: the island setting with its Celtic monuments and its ruins and secret caves, the ghostly mystery, this previously (to me, at least) unknown, ghost-driven side of Victor Hugo, and, last but not least, M.J. Rose's beautiful writing. What didn't I like? Rose throws in an additional story line near the end that threw me a little, and I have to admit, I kept wishing it was a little more suspenseful and scary. Overall, though, it's an engrossing read, and the different stories and timelines are interesting. While the Victor Hugo parts were my favorite, I found Jac L'Etoile to be a sympathetic and engaging character. And now that I'm done with this novel, I'd like to read Rose's other books; I hope they're as good as this one.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Bookish Deluge...

Has this ever happened to you? You go to the library and check out a reasonable number of books only to have a bunch of holds come in a day or two later. Books that you reserved weeks, sometimes even months, ago. Books you weren't expecting. (Some that you'd even forgotten you'd ever put on hold in the first place.) And not just a few books. Five! Five holds on top of the books I've already checked out!

How does this happen?

Two are new books that I've been waiting for forever; two had really long hold lists when I first put them on reserve, and it's finally my turn to check them out, and one's an Interlibrary Loan book that I requested weeks ago. Now they're all here.

I've been inundated! Talk about a bookish deluge. (But I guess that's better than a bookish drought!)

Here's the five books I now have to find time to read:

  1. Lydia's Party by Margaret Hawkins
  2. The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh
  3. The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans
  4. Tragic Beauty: the Lost 1914 Memoirs of Evelyn Nesbit
  5. Panic by Lauren Oliver

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sixth Classic of 2104...

"That's what I'll do after college! I'll get my hands on one of those prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration ... Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain Elsie books. I'll make 'em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street!'
 Carol Milford is idealistic and full of youthful enthusiasm. She wants to do something important in life, make a difference in the world. So when Dr. Will Kennicott, a country doctor from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, comes along and asks her to marry him she sees her chance to live a different, more meaningful life. But Gopher Prairie is smaller and uglier than she expected, the people more provincial and resistant to change. All her visions of social reform and artistic transformation fall flat. Even with her husband, Will. Carol soon realizes she's not influencing and changing Gopher Prairie; Gopher Prairie is changing her.
She was a woman with a working brain and no work. There were only three things which she could do: Have children; start her career of reforming; or become so definitely a part of the town that she would be fulfilled by the activities of church and study-club and bridge-parties.
Sinclair Lewis' Main Street was first published in 1920. It was an immediate success. In fact, it "became the best-selling American novel of the first quarter of the twentieth century." But that was then. No one seems to read it much any more. I can see why. It felt 100 pages too long. And while I liked it, I definitely didn't love it. Lewis writes well, but I found his story slow-moving and depressing. I really sympathized with Carol; she's so naive and full of hopeful optimism at the beginning of the novel, and at the end, sadly, she's given up her dreams of living a great life and resigned herself to Main Street. Still, I'd give Lewis another try. He does a good job of depicting life in 19th century America. (But I am glad this classic is done.)
The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot; and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest.


Monday, June 9, 2014

The Bear by Claire Cameron

It started off as a simple family camping trip for five-year-old Anna, her little brother, Stick, and her parents--a short canoe ride across Lake Opeongo to their favorite spot on Bates Island. But then a bear attacks their camp. Anna wakes when she hears her mother screaming. Before she knows what's happening, her father shoves both her and Stick into their large Coleman Cooler. In that dark box, she hears the sniffs and growls of what she imagines to be a big black dog, and the snap and crunch of bones breaking. The next morning, with her last breaths, Anna's mother tells her to get Stick into the canoe and float away to safety. Anna reluctantly does what her mother says.

The Bear is a story of struggle and survival as narrated by five-year-old Anna. Parts of it will make you cringe, other parts will break your heart. Cameron's choice to tell this story through the eyes and voice of a child is a unique and interesting one, but I struggled a little with Anna's first-person narrative. There were times I felt it dragged, and times when Anna's childish perception of things was not only muddled and confusing, but also a bit annoying. (I found myself skimming those parts.) Overall, though, I really liked this novel. Especially the ending! So don't give up on it too soon.

Happy Reading!

For another review of this book (and a better one!) check out Melwyk's post.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Reading 1914...

Q. What do Tik-Tok of Oz, A Little Maid of Massahusetts Colony, and Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone have in common?
A. They're all children's books that were published one hundred years ago.

This summer, I thought it'd be interesting (and fun!) to read some books that were published in 1914. Out of the ten books on my list, I decided to start with these three. And I'm glad I did. They're delightful stories. In three quick reads I traveled first to a magic fairyland with a talking mechanical man, a girl named Betsy and her mule, Hank, Quox the Dragon, and Queen Ann of Oogaboo and her army of 17 men who are out to conquer the Nome King himself; then to Province Town and Boston during the Revolutionary War with a daring little maid named Anne Nelson; and lastly to the early twentieth century and the non-stop adventures of a young inventor named Tom Swift.

Seeing what children were reading one hundred years ago was actually pretty entertaining. I'd read Tik-Tok of Oz before, but the other two books were new to me. (Although I have read several other Little Maid books by Alice Turner Curtis.) I thought all three books shared a similar sense of curiosity and adventure. The dialogue, especially in the Tom Swift book, was full of the flavor of 1914, while the main characters in all three stories were bright and engaging. There's also an innocent quality in these books, an old-fashioned optimism and hopefulness that I found kind of refreshing. Not to imply that they're boring; they're not. They're just a bit kinder and gentler that most of today's fiction. In the vernacular of Tom Swift and his chum, Ned, these books are 'the limit'. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading each one. I guess in that respect 1914 and 2014 aren't so different after all.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Bookish Art for June...

C. Cole Phillips 
"Reading gives us someplace to go 
when we have to stay where we are."
--Mason Cooley

Monday, June 2, 2014

Minaret by Leila Aboulela

"There are all kinds of pain, degrees of falling. In our first weeks in London we sensed the ground tremble beneath us. When Baba was found guilty we broke down, the flat filling with people, Mama crying, Omar banging the door, staying out all night. When Baba was hanged, the earth we were standing on split open and we tumbled down and that tumbling had no end, it seemed to have no end, as if we would fall and fall for eternity without ever landing. As if this was our punishment..."

When this novel begins, Najwa is a university student in Khartoum. She is the privileged daughter of a well-connected and well-off family. She does not get up at dawn to pray, or attend the mosque, or wear a hijab; she is completely westernized. But then there is a coup in Sudan, and Najwa is forced to flee with her mother and twin brother to London where her life changes forever.

This is a novel of journeys: from Khartoum to London, past to present, rich to poor. But the most important journey of all is Najwa's own inward spiritual journey, a journey towards Allah. In Islam, she finds the answers she's been seeking and the peace that was missing from her previous life. It's not a viewpoint that is usually taken when it comes to women and Islam, but it's that journey into Islam as viewed from Najwa's perspective that makes this novel so interesting.

Najwa's life is not easy. I kept hoping for more and better things for her. But maybe that's just my love of happily-ever-after fairy tale endings. I did like this book, however. Najwa's Sudanese upbringing and culture is so different from mine; I enjoyed those aspects of this book most of all. And I loved the way Aboulela writes. This is a quiet, thoughtful novel that's worth checking out.