Wednesday, January 27, 2010

137 (2010 #12). Tears of Pearl

by Tasha Alexander

I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program just before the holidays. Before I read it (post-holidays), I had no idea it was the fourth book in a series. To her credit, the author has written a story that stands on its own. The fact that the two main characters, Lady Emily Bromley Ashton Hargreaves and her husband Colin, are on their honeymoon in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) was the first indicator that another book might have preceded this one.

The book is also interspersed with various letters Emily receives from friends and family that didn't make a lot of sense to me until I read other reviews of this book and found they were from characters in previous books. I found the appearance of friend Margaret in the midst of the honeymoon to be rather unbelievable. But then, the whole idea of the couple working to solve a mystery while on this so-called honeymoon is rather far-fetched, as is the idea that a woman like Emily would have so much freedom in 1892, particularly while in the Ottoman Empire.

The reason, of course, that Emily must solve this mystery is that it occurs in the sultan's harem, and her husband cannot go in to interview witnesses. The behavior of the sultan, his wives/concubines, and a eunuch did not seem realistic to me, particularly the fact that they could speak English (today, maybe yes; 1892, probably not), and that they would be willing to speak to an outsider at all.

The descriptions were good and Alexander gave me a feel for what Constantinople (Istanbul today) looked like. The flirting between Emily and Colin was enjoyable. The ending, however, was disappointing. This was a fun beach-read type of book, but I'm not interested in reading the three prior books in the series nor any to follow.

[Since this is a hardbound copy, it will be donated to the library to either be added to the collection or sold in the fund-raising book sale.]

Friday, January 22, 2010

134-136 (2010 #s 9-11). 2010 Caldecott Winners

Here are the three books that were honored by the American Library Association on January 18 as the Caldecott Medalist and Honor Books, awards given to the artists of the most distinguished American picture books for children:
The Lion & the Mouse, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, is a wordless retelling of Aesop's fable. The only words in the book are the onomatopoeia for the sounds that the pictured animals might make. The story is also told through the animals' very expressive faces. There is no title on the wraparound book jacket, except on the spine. In an artist's note at the end, Pinkney says the setting is the African Serengeti and the earthy colors reflect that. The book is warm and inviting. Pinkney used pencil, watercolor, and colored pencils on paper. Pinkney had an Honor Book in 2003 for Noah's Ark, in 2000 for The Ugly Duckling, in 1995 for John Henry, in 1990 for The Talking Eggs, and in 1989 for Mirandy and Brother Wind. This top prize was long overdue.

All the World was written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee. This was Frazee's second Honor Book in a row; she was recognized last year for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. Frazee used black Prismacolor pencil, soft watercolors, and hand-lettering to bring to life Austin resident Scanlon's rhyming couplets that celebrate our similarities. I wasn't particularly wowed by either the poetry or the illustrations. I would have liked to see Susan Roth honored for her textured collages in Listen to the Wind.

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors is also a book of poetry, unrhymed free-verse on the four seasons by Joyce Sidman. This is illustrator Pamela Zagarenski's first recognition as a Caldecott Honor Book. She used mixed-media paintings on wood, and computer illustration.

Zagarenski clarifies Sidman's sometimes-vague imagery for children. For example, "Red squirms on the road after rain" are earthworms. "In spring, Yellow and Purple hold hands. They beam at each other with bright velvet faces. First flowers, first friends" are pansies. "And here, in secret places, peeps Pink: hairless, featherless, the color of new things" are baby birds. In summer, "Red darts, jags, hovers; a blur of wings, a secret throat" are hummingbirds, while "Red whispers along my finger with little beetle feet" are ladybugs. "In the summer night, Gray waits by the porch light, sticky webbed toes against window screens, belly pale and soft. Such a long tongue" is a frog. In fall, "Brown gleams in my hand: a tiny round house, dolloped with roof" is an acorn. "Red swells on branches bent low: Red: crisp, juicy, crunch!" are apples. "Orange ripens in full, heavy moons, thick with pulp and seed" are pumpkins. "White whispers, floats, clumps, traces its wet finger on branches and stumps" is snow.

In these ways, Zagarenski's illustrations are integral to the book, but I found her people, with their large conical clothing and their crowns (and the crowned dog), very distracting.

[These books were borrowed from my university and the local public libraries, and go back tomorrow.]

Monday, January 18, 2010

133 (2010 #8). When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

This book won the 2010 John Newbery Medal today, awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

It's a quick read - at 197 pages, I read it in less than two hours while working out on my elliptical trainer. It's not going to be easy to review, as it's part mystery, part realistic fiction, part science fiction, and part historical fiction (it's set in 1978-79 Upper West Side New York City). It's funny, but it's also very meaningful.

Newbery aficianados will get a kick out of the book right off. Miranda, the 12-year-old main character, reads her favorite book, the 1963 winner, over and over. I'm glad I recently read that book (although I have not reviewed it here yet - soon, I promise!). There are a number of parallels between that book (its title is not revealed until page 135) and this one. It inspires a discussion between Miranda and two other characters, Marcus and Julia, about time travel. I'm not sure if this 2010 winner will resonate as well with people who haven't read the 1963 winner.

Another plot device is Miranda's mother being selected to be a contestant on the TV game show $20,000 Pyramid. Variations of this show (with different dollar amounts) were on from 1973 though 1988, and a basic familiarity with the show is helpful. Kids today can find clips of it on YouTube and elsewhere, and the game is explained pretty well in the book. Most of the book's short chapters have titles that reflect the second "Winner's Circle" round of the game show, when contestants have to guess categories ("things that...") that a group of words fit.

I really liked this book. The interesting characters and their development (and the way the book started out) reminded me of Criss Cross. Like that book (set around 1970), in many ways it could be a contemporary story--although I doubt that sixth-graders in New York City today are allowed to leave campus and eat lunch at the nearby delis and pizza places. The story has a lot to say about friendships and family relationships in children of this age.

The science fiction part of the plot was carefully constructed, as it was in The Time Traveller's Wife (okay, not a Newbery, or even a kid's book, but another book I love and am reminded of by When You Reach Me). The mystery kept me guessing, although I had my suspicions.

The cover and title (which appears in the text on page 189) may not inspire kids to pick up the book. Its short chapters and intriguing plot make it great for reading aloud to a class or your own children - and that will probably be all it takes to hook them in to finishing it or re-reading it on their own. A New York Times reviewer found that her fourth-grade students loved the book.

This is only the second novel for author Rebecca Stead. There are some good interviews with her on Amazon, the Fuse #8 blog, School Library Journal, and Time Out New York Kids, all probably best read after reading the book. I've tried not to spoil it in this review, either. Just go read it. Highly recommended - five out of five stars.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed from the local public library and goes back there tomorrow.]

Sunday, January 17, 2010

132 (2010 #7). Ines of My Soul

by Isabel Allende
read by Blair Brown

This is a first-person fictionalized account of the life of little-known Ines de Suarez, c. 1507-1580, conquistadora and gobernadora of Chile along with her lover, Pedro de Valdivia (originally field marshal to Perus' conquistador Francisco Pizarro), and later with her husband, Rodrigo de Quiroga.

Isabel Allende, born in Peru but raised in Chile, writes as though she is Ines telling the story of her life, at age 70 and shortly before her death, to her adopted daughter Isabel. Allende brings to life Ines' adventurous voyage to the New World, the harrowing trip from Peru to what will become Chile, and her part in its settlement and the battles with the natives. At times the descriptions of the latter scenes become tedious, but it's offset by the detailed research into the life of the heroine and the narrative style that makes her real.

Veteran New York actress Blair Brown does an excellent job reading the book, with a perfect Spanish accent and pronunciations. Spanish guitar interludes at the beginning and end of each disc add to the atmosphere. Highly recommended.

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

131 (2010 #6). BenHazar, Son to a Stranger

by Aron Shai
translated from Hebrew by Dalia Bilu

I won this book in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in late September 2009, but the book did not arrive until at least two months later, right in the heart of the Christmas season. The book is only 204 pages and I finally got around to reading it after the previous interlibrary loan books were returned.

As noted in a line of text running along the top of the front cover, this self-described historical novel has a variety of settings in time and place: World War II, pre-1948 Jerusalem, Oxford, Greece (specifically Ioannina), Hong Kong, and the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). The book actually begins five years earlier, when 25-year-old Benhazar (which in Hebrew means "son to a stranger") Cohen tries to find out about the strange secret life of his father, Jochanan, who has recently died in a suspicious fire.

For many readers like me, this book suffers from the author's assumption of reader familiarity with Israeli history, as well as perhaps an awkward translation from the original Hebrew. Unfortunately, the story was not interesting enough to do what good historical fiction does for me, which is to inspire me to learn more about the historical setting (time and place). Three eras and four locations in only 204 pages didn't help. I did read a little about Ioannina and the aforementioned war, and I was intrigued by the use of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in the dialogue.

I was not inspired, however, to read more about the complicated political situations and people that Jochanan was involved in with Japan, Israel, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, and Burma. The author is a professor of history and East Asian studies and apparently wanted to incorporate his interests in the book. A blurb on the back of the book says "Many of the events in this fascinating and suspenseful novel are based on actual historical events disclosed for the very first time," but it's not clear what those events are. The book might have benefitted from an afterword. BenHazar makes an rambling political speech at his wedding, and that and the epilogue are apparently the author's theories about reaching peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The most interesting part of the book was the chapter about Jochanan's sister Sarina and her family hiding from the Nazis in Ioannina during World War II, apparently aided by a German soldier named Hans who was in love with Sarina. She is the most interesting character in the book. BenHazar's mother Irena is mildly intriguing, but like many other characters in the book, she is a caricature, confined to a mental institution for unexplained reasons. Another character's disappearance is supposed to be significant, but it's never explained why.

This book was confusing and rather boring, and I can't recommend it. Thank goodness it was a quick read.

[This book came from the publisher, Gefen, via LibraryThing. It will be donated to the local nonprofit Friends of the Library for their fundraising book sale.]

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

129-130 (2010 #4-#5). Christmas Collector's Guides

These two Christmas collector's guides are by Robert Brenner. I borrowed them via interlibrary loan to research outdoor Christmas decorations for 1910 through the 1940s, as mentioned in my previous post.

Christmas:1940-1959 : A Collector's Guide to Decorations and Customs is a "revised 2nd edition" with 2004-2005 prices, according to the author's website. The book is profusely illustrated with gorgeous full-color photographs of ornaments, decorations, and other Christmas paraphernalia and ephemera, as well as nostalgic black-and-white period photographs. Interestingly, many of the latter have prices listed in the captions.

The text, however, is nearly impossible to read. The font used in the book is very small. Sentences are repeated in nearly identical format on the same page, often in adjacent paragraphs. Apparently the proofreading was very poor, as every time the phrase "after the war" appears, "after" is capitalized, irregardless of its position in the sentence. Finally, there are many detailed descriptions of items that are not illustrated, which is frustrating.

The organization of the book adds further to its tediousness. After an introductory section on "Our European Past," divided by decades from 1850 to 1939, the book has two chapters, one on the 1940s and one on the 1950s. Each chapter covers the same topics - historical perspectives, cards and paper, trees and decorations under them, European and American influences on glass ornaments, other tree decorations, how homes were decorated, and indoor and outdoor lighting. However, since there weren't that many changes from one decade to the next, there is a lot of repetition. Although there are no footnotes or endnotes, there is a references cited list at the end of the book, as well as a two-page index.

This edition of Christmas Past: A Collector's Guide to its History and Decorations was published in 1985. That (and the referrals to East and West Germany) immediately dates the price guide at the end of the book, but that was of little interest to me anyway.

The 216-page book has 14 chapters, also well-illustrated with black-and-white and full-color photographs of ornaments and other decorations, as well as black-and-white period photographs. Most of the latter appear in the first two chapters, on the evolution of Christmas celebrations and "The Christmas Tree and What Lies Under It," and are quite interesting in and of themselves. These two chapters also benefit from numerous quotations (most footnoted) of personal Christmas memories from various places and times.

The next eight chapters cover various categories of tree decorations (Christbaumschmuk in German), ranging from "miscellaneous" (why this is covered first is not clear) to three chapters on glass ornaments alone, divided into time eras. Then there are a chapter each on "early" tree lighting (i.e. candle holders and counterweights) and electric lighting. The latter chapter gets a bit technical, but it's fascinating to see the different kinds of decorative bulbs (such as bubble lights) manufactured over the years.

The 13th chapter, on "Ornaments - Stories Behind Them and How to Disply Them," is quite interesting. This is followed by a chapter on dating and repair of ornaments, the footnotes (16, although the numbering in the text skips from 15 to 17), short bibliography, and two-page index.

Overall there are fewer proofreading errors in this book and it is more readable, although the font again is very small. I would have liked to see a short glossary (with illustrations for examples) defining terms such as "Mazda" lights, Dresdens, kugels, chromos, and "Venetian Dew" (tiny glass beads applied as a glitter). Once again, there are many detailed descriptions of items that are either not illustrated at all, or there are no references to the matching illustrations.

[These books were both obtained via interlibrary loan from various libraries around the country, and are being returned to them tomorrow.]

Sunday, January 03, 2010

126-128 (2010 #1-#3): Three American Christmas Cultural History Books

A house in my small neighborhood was on the holiday Candlelight Tour of Homes this year. Other houses in the neighborhood were asked to go all out with outdoor decorations, as the tour has Saturday evening hours the first weekend of December. Given that our planned unit development of 20-odd lots is supposed to have homes that "reflect the styles of single family homes typically constructed in the United States in the years from 1910 through the 1940s (since we are adjacent to our city's historic district), I thought I would research to find out what kinds of outdoor decorations were being used during that period. I requested five books through interlibrary loan.

Unfortunately, due to being ill and requesting the books too late to get them before Thanksgiving, I wasn't able to use them for this purpose this year, but decided to read them anyway. Here are reviews of the first three (since they are due tomorrow!):
A quick preview of Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday by Karal Ann Marling made me think that this was someone's dissertation. The book has 442 pages (which includes 67 pages of endnotes, a six-page index, and four pages of acknowledgements) and few illustrations, all of which are in black-and-white. It was published by Harvard University Press. It turns out I wasn't too far from the truth. Marling is currently a professor in both art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, and a "well-known specialist in American culture."

In her preface, Marling states that the book is "about the visual and material culture of Christmas in America." In nine (long) chapters, Marling discusses various aspects of the American Christmas such as gift wrap, decorations (greenery, lights, ornaments, toy villages), trees, Santa Claus, and retail (window displays, parades, and store Santas), and their evolution over time.

She uses period illustrations from magazines and advertisements to illustrate many of her points. Some of these are included in the book, but many are not; they are only described. This was a weakness of the book, in my opinion, as I really wanted to "see" what she was talking about. None of the included illustrations are in color (even though, for example, Norman Rockwell's famous Saturday Evening Post covers were done in color).

At times the writing feels forced and dry, as if Marling was trying to include every bit of research she did in the book, and more illustrations would have helped relieve this (plus made some of her points better). However, I suppose including more illustrations would have made the book even longer than it is. I particularly liked the last two chapters, on greeting cards and gifts and on Christmas songs, movies, and television specials.

Susan Waggoner's It's A Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965 is organized similarly to Marling's book, with chapters on trees and ornaments, indoor and outdoor decorations, greeting cards and gift wrap, shopping and retail practices, gifts for adults, toys, Santa, and holiday travel and food. This book would have been particularly helpful in sparking memories for participants (like me) in the 2009 Geneabloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

The book is 104 pages long and profusely illustrated with period images (many from advertisements or catalogs). In fact, in this case, I would have liked MORE information about the sources for the illustrations. Of particular interest to me were sections detailing the types of greeting cards sent in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; a list of new holiday songs published from 1942 to 1963; gift shopping lists (with prices) for each decade, and a chronology of the introduction of various popular toys from 1942 through 1965.

The third book was the best one. Also by Waggoner, Christmas Memories: Gifts, Activities, Fads, and Fancies, 1920s-1960s was just published in October 2009. It has a chapter devoted to each of these decades, addressing most of the same topics as in her other book. Each chapter features a "cost of Christmas" list of popular gifts and holiday supplies, with their prices at that time and in today's dollars. She also includes some quotations and short narratives of personal experiences of herself and others, often accompanying photographs; as well as "must-have" toy lists for each year from 1950 through 1968.

This 127-page book is illustrated like Waggoner's other, and again, my only complaint is that I would have liked more details on the sources and years for each illustration (even if presented as notes at the end of the book rather than in captions). This book got passed around among my parents and aunt (born 1928-1930), spouse (born 1941), and siblings and in-laws (born 1956-1964) during the holidays, and elicited a lot of comments and memories.

[These three books were all obtained via interlibrary loan from various libraries around the country, and are being returned to them tomorrow.]