Saturday, February 28, 2015

463 (2015 #20). El Deafo

by CeCe Bell

This partial autobiography/memoir in graphic novel format won a much-deserved John Newbery Award Honor Book designation, given "to the author[s] of the most distinguished contribution[s] to American literature for children."

CeCe Bell suffered a severe hearing loss as a result of meningitis at age four.  While she could wear a less conspicuous hearing aid at home, she needed to use a "phonic ear" at school, a rather bulky personal sound amplification system, to best hear the teacher.

Bell, who also did the illustrations (colored by David Lasky), gives her characters rabbit ears and faces, and they remind me of the anthropomorphic characters in Marc Brown's Arthur series -  which, interestingly, came out about the time this book begins, in the late 1970s, when Bell is age four.  The book ends when Bell is in the fifth grade.

The rabbit ears, of course, highlight the issue of hearing.  Empty speech bubbles (when Bell can't hear) and random collections of letters (when she can hear but not understand) emphasize some of the issues she had.  The Phonic Ear and her hearing aid solve some of these, but not when they are broken or have dead batteries.  CeCe learns to lip read at in a kindergarten class with other hearing-impaired children.  The summer following, though, her family moves to a smaller town, and CeCe is in a regular classroom for first grade on.

CeCe struggles to find a best friend who will accept her as she is and not make a big deal of her deafness.  She has her first crush.  She imagines a superhero alter-ego she christens "El Deafo" to help her through the tough times.  All in all, though, this memoir is positive, because CeCe remains upbeat.

An author's note at the end of the book explains that deafness has many causes and degrees - and that deaf people choose different ways to deal with it, ranging from trying to fit in, as CeCe does, with hearing aids and lip reading, to embracing the Deaf community or culture, in which sign language (which CeCe resists learning as a youngster) is the preferred means of  communication.  I loved her conclusion:

I found that with a little creativity, and a lot of dedication, any difference can be turned into something amazing.  Our differences are our superpowers.
Despite the picture-book like illustrations, at 233 pages, this book is probably most appropriate for third through sixth graders.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, February 27, 2015

462 (2015 #19). Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty

After reading Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret a few months ago, I was eager to read her new book.  Last night I couldn't put it down, and stayed up late to finish it.

The beginning was a little confusing.  An elderly woman describes the commotion at the adjacent elementary school's fundraising event, and this is followed by a number of (rather amusing) comments from seemingly random people about what started the commotion - including one from a police officer, clarifying that "this is a murder investigation."

Instant hook.

The book then goes back six months in time, moving forward to the fundraising event (the trivia night).  The chapters then move between the viewpoints of three main characters (as in The Husband's Secret).

Madeline Mackenzie has just turned forty.  She is married with two young children with her second husband, and a daughter (Abigail) by her first.  Her ex, and his new wife, have a kindergartener in the same class at the elementary school as Madeline's youngest child.  Madeline and her ex don't get along very well.  He walked out on her 14 years ago when Abigail was a baby, not supporting her in any way, but now Abigail wants to live with her dad.  I could definitely relate to this character.

Jane Chapman is a 24-year-old single mom of another kindergartner who meets Madeline at kindergarten orientation.  Celeste White is the wealthy, beautiful friend of Madeline who has twin boys in the kindergarten class.  Both Jane and Celeste have secrets.

When the three women pick up their children from the orientation later, the daughter of a full-time-career-woman mom accuses Jane's son of bullying her, and battle lines are immediately drawn.

Most chapters end or begin with more gossip from people that we learn are minor characters in the story, as well as the police officer, but there aren't a whole lot of clues there as to who died and how.  I was able to guess fairly early who the victim was (and why), but was completely surprised at the end by who was accused.

Once I got about halfway through the book (at the "one week before the trivia night" point), it was a real page-turner.  But it wasn't just because of the suspense, it was also because I really cared about the three main characters, especially feisty Madeline and her issues with her oldest daughter.  It was also heartwarming (and a little heartbreaking in one case) to see Jane and Celeste evolve.

The book tackles some serious issues (bullying, date rape, domestic violence), but it's also quite funny, with its tongue-in-cheek portraits of helicopter parents and exposition of school parent politics.

I highly recommend this book, and think it would be great for a book club discussion.  I'll definitely read more of Moriarty's books.


© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

461 (2015 #18). Queen Isabella

by Alison Weir,
read by Lisette Lecat

I had previously read five of Alison Weir's books about the British monarchy, four of which are fiction, so when I saw this was available in audiobook format, I had to select it for my library's collection.

Subtitled "Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England,"  the book is about Isabella of France (1295-1358), the wife of England's (probably bisexual) King Edward II.  Frustrated (along with much of England) with the king's promotion of his "favorites," she and Roger Mortimer (who became her lover) overthrew Edward II.  They put her son Edward III on the throne, with Isabella ruling as regent on his behalf.  Unfortunately she and Mortimer became unpopular, partly because of Isabella's greed. When her son Edward came of age, he executed Mortimer, but Isabella lived out the rest of her natural life in peace.  I found much to admire in this queen.

However, Weir is a bit of an apologist for Isabella in this book.  While I knew little about this queen before reading the book, and would agree she has gotten a bad rap in history, Weir seems to go to great effort to rehabilitate her "She-Wolf of France" reputation.  Much of that reputation is based on theories that she and Mortimer had her husband murdered, but Weir presents theories that he did not even die naturally, but lived out his life as a hermit.  There's not a lot of primary source material from that era, other than Isabella's account books - which do provide an excellent record of her movements and travel, as well as interesting detail about life in those days.

Unlike a lot of other nonfiction audiobooks I've tried, I found it pretty easy to follow this one.  I think that's due to the narrator, Lisette Lecat, a native of South Africa, who lived in Spain, France, and England, where she worked as an actress, voiceover artist, journalist and translator.  She now lives in the USA, narrates audiobooks, and writes plays.  Lecat read the book slowly enough that I found I did not have to stop and repeat sections as often as I usually do with nonfiction audiobooks.

Nevertheless, I'd recommend a print copy of the book in addition to or instead of the audiobook, to have access to the many illustrations (most color plates), genealogical tables, extensive end notes and bibliography, and the index.


© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university and local public libraries respectively.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

459-460 (2015 #16-17). Two More Award-Winning Picture Books

A Boy and a Jaguar is an autobiographical picture book about and by wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz.  In it, he tells how his stuttering as a child led to his passion to protect jaguars and other animals.  This book won the 2015 American Library Association Schneider Family Book Award in the children's category "for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences."  Catia Chien's acrylic and charcoal pencil illustrations help the reader feel the enormity of the isolation Rabinowitz sometimes felt as a child, as well as the possibilities of the huge forests and jungles he finds so rewarding as an adult.  Rabinowitz's book will be inspiring for any children who stutter (and their friends, families, and classmates).

The Day the Crayons Quit was recently announced as the 2015 winner of the Texas Bluebonnet Award, a children's choice award by students in grades 3-6 in my state.   This hilarious fantasy by debut book author Drew Daywalt (who has lots of experience in film writing and directing) has the crayons in the box on strike and writing letters to their owner about their various complaints.  Oliver Jeffers' whimsical illustrations incorporate crayons (of course!) as well as mixed media.  This book would be a great mentor text for a lesson on letter-writing.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[These books were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

458 (2015 #15). Love, Again

by Eve Pell

Part memoir, part a collection of interviews, and a little bit of self-help/advice, this book is about what it's like to love and be in love when you are "old" - here, defined as both partners being age 60 or above. Author Eve Pell chooses this word to describe them because "Senior sounds tepid; older sounds like a way to soften old; elderly sounds fragile.  Old is just a fact of life - if we are lucky to live long enough, it's what we become" (page xix).

I'm therefore not old yet, and my husband and I don't quite fit the profile of the 15 couples in the book, because I was just 49 and he was 64 when we married.  However, like a number of the couples, we reconnected after originally meeting 27 years before, and after marrying (and divorcing) other people.  So I felt I could relate to this book, even though I wasn't quite "old" enough.

Pell introduces her "cast of characters" at the beginning of the book with brief paragraph profiles of the couples, which include herself and her spouse, and two gay couples, one male, one female.  After a short introduction, there are nine chapters that address such topics as how the couples met, how they knew the relationship was serious, deciding what to do about it, obstacles they encountered, and ways they make the relationship work.  There are also a couple of sensitive chapters addressing sex and death.  Two other chapters ask the interviewees about the differences in love now compared to when they were young, and about what they'd learned from their experiences.

Each chapter begins with the author's experiences with her husband Sam, who she met when she was 67 and he 77, marrying four years later.  Sadly, he died a little over three years after that.  In her epilogue, Pell describes what happened afterward.

This book grew out of a piece Pell wrote for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column in January 2013.  Not surprisingly, there was a huge response to the column, and that led to the interviews in the book.

The segments of each interview (and Pell's story) in each chapter are easy to find, as they have headings with the couple's names and subheadings summarizing each segment in a few words or a phrase.  This made it easy for me to follow the stories of the couples (introduced at the beginning of the book) with which I felt the most in common.

This book is reaffirming for those of us in a relationship begun when (at least one of the couple was) "old," as well as encouraging for those contemplating seeking or entering such a relationship later in life.


© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This hardbound edition was sent to me in exchange for an unbiased review by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It will be donated to my public or university library.]

Sunday, February 22, 2015

456-457 (2015 #13-14). Two Picture Books From Belgium

Red is a good picture book about the issue of bullying and should spark good discussions - although I do wish the girl who started the teasing had been brave enough to be the first to stand up for her friend when teasing turned into bullying. The illustrations by Flemish author Jan De Kinder were created using pencil, charcoal, ink, aquarelle (watercolor), acrylic and collage (bits of newspaper in the tree leaves); and red, obviously, is a predominate color.  I will definitely be purchasing this book for my university library's children's literature collection, used by future teachers.

Roger is Reading a Book immediately reminded me of the Dick and Jane basal readers of my childhood (without the 1960s-style illustrations), with the frequent repetition of phrases so helpful to beginning readers. There are also examples of onomatopoeia. The illustrations by Flemish author Koen Van Biesen are in mixed media in a muted palette that is predominately browns, greens, and oranges. At first it's not immediately obvious that Roger and Emily were in separate rooms, as a wall is not visible.

Originally published in Belgium, the English translations of these books are by Laura Watkinson under the Flemish Literature Fund.

 © Amanda Pape - 2015

[These unbound galley proofs were sent to me in exchange for unbiased reviews by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.]

455 (2015 #12). New York

by Edward Rutherfurd

I'd read Rutherford's Paris last year, so when I was ill recently and needing something else to read, I borrowed this e-book from the library.  I wasn't able to finish it before the e-book was due (the book is 860 pages long!), but luckily my local library had a print copy available.

As in Paris, Rutherfurd intertwines facts and real people (such as Peter Stuyvesant) with fictional characters and events in this novel about New York City that spans the period of 1664 to 2009.  Most of the action takes place from 1735 to 1790 and from 1825 to 1901, however.

Rutherfurd presents New York history (including some of the state as well as the city) through the lives of members of various families through the ages.  Predominate are the Master family from England, a son of which marries into the early-settling Dutch Van Dyck family.  An African slave to the Van Dykes named Quash and his descendants (many confusingly named Hudson) also appear throughout the book.  Other families include the immigrant German Kellars and Irish O'Donnells in the mid-1800s, the Italian Carusos coming through Ellis Island in 1901, and the Jewish Adler family in 1953. 

I liked Theodore Keller, the photographer, best, although his character is rather minor.  The story of Charlie Master and Sarah Adler was poignant, and involves an heirloom that appears at both the beginning and the end of the book.  The chapter about 9/11, near the end of the book, was gripping, and I wondered which of the book's characters would survive and which would not.

Unlike Paris, this book did not have a family tree chart available, so at times it was hard to keep track of whom was descended from whom.  However, this book did not jump back and forth in time as Paris did, which made events easier to follow.  There are maps at the beginning of the book which help to place the action.

I enjoyed this book.  It should be noted that I'm no expert on New York - I've only been to the Big Apple once, and in other parts of the state only a couple of times, so most of my knowledge of the area comes from American history classes.  I'm not sure if one would appreciate this book more with such familiarity and knowledge, or be inclined to criticize it.  As for me, I learned a lot I didn't know about New York, and I plan to read more of Rutherfurd's books in the future.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[The e-book, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]