Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Celebrating Maurice Sendak

For Celebrate the Author this month, I'm celebrating Maurice Sendak, who certainly deserves it! He was born June 10, 1928. I get many compilments on my "Where the Wild Things Are" t-shirt. And I had the pleasure of re-reading WTWTA it to my 3-year-old niece this month, and it was lovely - she was captivated. Best children's book ever. And I have such fond memories of singing the songs from Really Rosie when I was a kid - I wanted to put it on as a play!

Maurice Sendak = awesome.

But I had to pick a book I hadn't read of Sendak's, which was a challenge. I found Brundibar - a picture book version of "a Czech opera for children that was performed fifty-five times by the children of Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp." I didn't know that until just now, when I looked it up, although the Jews in the pictures are wearing prominent yellow stars on their coats and there are Nazi-looking uniforms in the town, so I knew it had something to do with that period.

Here's the story: "When Aninku and Pepicek discover one morning that their mother is sick, they rush to town for milk to make her better. Their attempt to earn money by singing is thwarted by a bullying, bellowing hurdy-gurdy grinder, Brundibar, who tyrannizes the town square and chases all other street musicians away. Befriended by three intelligent talking animals and three hundred helpful schoolkids, brother and sister sing for the money to buy the milk, defeat the bully, and triumphantly return home."

It's a bit of a weird picture book, I have to say, but I was pleased by the triumphant ending. The artwork is classic Sendak - the kids look like his kids and the baker in town is straight out of In the Night Kitchen. It would be a good read aloud for 7 or 8 year-0lds, especially the part about bullying. And it would definitely be good to pair with units on Anne Frank for older elementary school kids.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review: The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Maggie's endorsement at Maggie Reads; first book for the Southern Reading Challenge 2009

Description: "Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed."

My thoughts: I really enjoyed the 3 narrators - sometimes that device can be annoying, but Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny's voices were all very different and all well done. Also, dialect is sometimes annoying to see written down, but Aibileen and Minny's suited them well and weren't written in an awkward way. There's so much in this book - hatred, love, affection, sadness, hope, humour, warmth... It's a really interesting portrait of a time when change was starting to come.

I found the disconnect in the white Southerners' minds quite astonishing- how can black women be good enough to raise white women's children, cook their food, and clean their houses, but they can't use the same toilet or cutlery? They can't shop at the white grocery store unless they're shopping for their employers, yet aren't they just as black in their uniform as out of it? They think of black people as dirty, yet have no problem with them feeding, bathing, and holding their children? The way people can justify things like in their minds that is incredible.

I also liked that Stockett showed the affection between black women and the children they look after and sometimes even the older women whose lives they're much more involved in than those ladies would like to admit. Some employers are actually very kind, some are cruel, some are just stupid.

I don't want to give much away, but there are parts that made me laugh, made me want to cheer, made me angry, and made me sad. It's a great read.

The verdict: I agree with the author that these are some of the best lines in the book and I think they sum it up well: "We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: Bewitching Season

Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle
3 stars

Reasons for reading: Sounded fun; last Sisters book for the Themed Reading Challenge

"In 1837 London, young daughters of viscounts pined for handsome, titled husbands, not careers. And certainly not careers in magic. At least, most of them didn’t.Shy, studious Persephone Leland would far rather devote herself to her secret magic studies than enter society and look for a suitable husband. But right as the inevitable season for "coming out" is about to begin, Persy and her twin sister discover that their governess in magic has been kidnapped as part of a plot to gain control of the soon-to-be Queen Victoria. Racing through Mayfair ballrooms and royal palaces, the sisters overcome bad millinery, shady royal spinsters, and a mysterious Irish wizard. And along the way, Persy learns that husband hunting isn’t such an odious task after all, if you can find the right quarry."

First line: "My God, Persy, you killed him!"

My thoughts: This book was equal parts cute and adventurous, with a great historical setting. I really liked that it featured Queen Victoria as a young girl, not the portly, austere lady we normally associate with her. The mythical names were fun - Persephone, Penelope, Melusine, Lorelei... There's romance and gorgeous gowns and intrigue and danger - a bit like The Luxe, but much more innocent, and with a magical twist. It was fun that the girls were twins - I was glad to have twin sisters on my list for the Themed Reading Challenge. They weren't sickeningly twinny and they did quarrel, but overall they were still each others' other half and best friend. They were a bit stereotypical - one's bookish, the other's flirty, but they both managed to be more than that, Persy especially, as she gained confidence over the course of the book.

The verdict: A light, fun read for fans of magic and/or historical romances.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: Three Can Keep a Secret

Three Can Keep a Secret by Judy Clemens
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I enjoyed Clemens' first Stella Crown book, Till the Cows Come Home, last year so chose this one for the Seconds Challenge.

Description: "When Stella Crown hires a new farmhand to help run her Pennsylvania dairy business, she gets more than she bargained for. The Mennonite widow arrives burdened not only with grief, but with rumors of infidelity and murder. And a young child. Stella herself is battling deep sorrow over the loss of her long-time friend and employee Howie and worries over her shaky finances. Before you know it, she is coping with an influx of nasty in-laws, heartbroken beaus, and spiteful vandalism. Determined to protect herself and her farm, Stella sets out to discover the truth while trying to give her new employee a respectful benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, Stella's good friend and fellow biker Lenny is riding a crisis. At one moment jovial, the next angry and suspicious, Lenny is haunted by pain and secrets he won't share with Stella. His odd behavior is soon complimented by bizarre attacks on his home and his business. Now there are two people close to Stella with undisclosed pasts. And the saying, "Three can keep a secret, if two are dead," suddenly gains new and terrible meaning."

First line: "Dr Rachel Peterson stepped back and shook her head. 'I have to tell you, Stella. I'm concerned.'"

My thoughts: Hooray, a great sequel! Stella is a really interesting character. She's only 29 but has already had enough tragedy to last anyone a lifetime. She has a cow skull tattooed on the back of her neck and she had another one on her arm that said "To thine own self be true," but it got shredded in a terrible bike accident in the previous book, which takes place a few weeks before this one. She looks lean and mean, and she is tough, but she also has a very good heart underneath. She's fiercely independent, but is going through a time where she needs lots of help, as mentioned in the summary above.

That help comes in the unexpected form of Lucy (the Mennonite widow) and her young daughter Tess. Despite the rumors and air of mystery surrounding Lucy, Stella quite likes her and she's a lifesaver around the farm, but someone has it in for her. Unfortunately, someone also has it in for Stella's biker friend, Lenny, and the results are much worse than the vandalism and visits from Child Services plaguing Lucy.

This is less of a whodunnit (though there is some of that) than a why-are-they-doing it, which I found interesting and a nice change from the usual formula.

The verdict: It's no secret - I'll definitely be reading more about Stella!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One Lovely Blog Award

Aw, it's so pretty! Trin at the Bloody Bad Book Blog has awarded me this! Thanks so much, I think you're lovely, too!

Here's the blurb that goes along with it:
One Lovely Blog Award goes to new blogs and blogging friends.The rules are: Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who granted the award and his or her blog link. Pass the award to 5 other blogs that you've newly discovered.

Hmm, some new ones, eh? Let's see, I have to find a few more...

TexasRed Books
Under the Honeysuckle Vine
Stacy's Bookblog
Jenny Loves to Read

Monday, June 1, 2009

Book Awards Challenge Wrap-Up

Made it just in the nick of time! I'd somehow forgotten the challenge ended on June 1, but I managed to hustle (with a few late-in-the-game substitutions!).

I managed to represent 9 different awards, yay!

Agatha Award: Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews

Alex Award: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Anthony Award: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Booker Prize: Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

Carnegie Medal: Millions by Frank Boyce Cottrell

IMAC Dublic Award: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Newbery Medal:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Orange Prize: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Printz Award: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Favourite: Murder With Peacocks - it's just a really fun book.
Runner-up: Water for Elephants - a great story, cleverly told.

Least Favourite: Out Stealing Horses - I know lots of people really liked this one (including memebers of my book club) but I think it was just too... quiet for me.

Thanks so much to 3M for hosting this challenge - it definitely challenged me to read some books I probably wouldn't have picked up without it.

Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
4 stars

Reasons for reading: 2009 Newbery Medal-winner for the Book Awards Challenge

Description: "Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family . . . "

First line: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

My thoughts: I didn't think I was going to like this book. The only Gaiman I've read is American Gods and it was tooooo weird for me (though, to give him credit, very memorable). And, as it opened with horrible murders, I figured I was going to be right. But it was okay - because out of those murders came Nobody Owens, an extraordinary boy. He's raised by an entire graveyard of ghosts and one shadowy guardian who is neither alive nor dead. Gaiman really makes the ghosts come alive, as much as they can - they never change, but they all have their own distinct personalities and they all come to love the living boy who grows up to be a brave, clever young man.

My only quibble is that backstory of why Bod's family was murdered by "the man Jack" is a bit...vague, in my opinion. It felt a bit like there had to be a reason for the murders and that was inserted in. (I'm sure it wasn't the case, but it felt like it to me.) But I loved how the evil league of Jacks of All Trades had the names of every famous legendaryJack in history.

Gaiman is definitely a very talented writer, I should stop thinking of him as weird and creepy and give him more of a chance. :) His description of the Danse Macabre - when the dead come down to town and dance with the living - is beautiful, haunting, sad, and joyful. The section with the ghouls (who name themselves after dead historical figures, like The Emperor of China or The Bishop of Bath and Wells) is both hilarious and horrifying. And the climax with Bod being chased by Jacks around the graveyard kept me up last night.

The verdict: I had my doubts, but I can definitely see why this won the Newbery.