Saturday, February 25, 2012

270 (2012 #15). The Girl in the Garden

by Kamala Nair,
read by Anitha Gandhi

Kamala Nair's debut novel is as lush as the cover.  The Girl in the Garden begins with an adult Rahkee (pronounced "rocky") Singh leaving her engagement ring and a long letter to her fiance, explaining why she cannot yet marry him and must go back to India to deal with her past.

The reasons date back to a visit she made there in the summer when she was ten-going-on-eleven.. Her troubled mother, Chitra (whom Rahkee calls Amma, for mother) had been receiving letters from someone back home in Kerala, in the southern part of India, and she decides to take Rahkee with her on a visit.  Rahkee, born and bred in Minnesota, doesn't want to leave her father Vikram (whom she calls Aba, for father) behind, especially as her parents are now estranged and she fears a divorce, but she doesn't have any choice.

Rahkee meets her extended family and becomes friends with two cousins, Krishna and Meenu, who are near her age.  They've been told not to go beyond the low stone wall surrounding the family home, but Rahkee goes exploring one day and discovers a beautiful garden surrounded by a high wall with a locked gate - and a mysterious girl inside.  She also learns bits and pieces about other family mysteries as the summer goes on, ultimately exposing a number of long-kept secrets. Eventually Rahkee has to make a decision that will change the rest of her life - and leave a hole in her heart.

While the magical realism of the plot stretched credibility at times, Nair's vivid descriptions of the setting, culture, and customs, as well as her intriguing characters (both good and bad), kept me going.  I figured out pretty quickly part of the secret about the girl in the garden, but part of it was a surprise.  The garden itself reminded me a lot of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, and indeed, Nair has stated in interviews and on her website that it was a big influence.

Actress Anitha Gandhi made a wonderful reader of the audiobook.  Her voice was perfect for the youthful narrator Rahkee, and she also did an excellent job with the British India accents of Amma's family and friends in Kerala.  I also appreciated hearing the correct pronunciation of all the names and places.

Hachette Audio, the producers of the audiobook, are also to be commended for including a PDF of the Varma family tree (near the front of the print book) on the final disc, as well as an interview of Nair by her editor.  I wish all audiobook producers would include PDF files of illustrations, maps, diagrams, graphs, charts, footnotes, bibliographies, and other important information from print books on their audiobooks.  However, the discs did not include helpful end-of-disc messages, which is a disadvantage.

I don't want to give away the conclusion of the book, but I will say that a letter from one character to Rahkee near the end made me cry.  I think this novel would be excellent for a book club discussion.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

268-269 (2012 #13-#14). Two Nonfiction Youth Award Winners

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet is about its subtitle:  "The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade," immigrant Tony Sarg (1882-1942).  With her trademark 3D collages, gouache, and mixed media including period photographs, Sweet brings to life the little-known man behind the giant balloon puppets at the New York City Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade beginning in 1927 (as well as Macy's famous "Wondertown" display windows).

This is a fun book with an author's note providing more information about Sarg at the end, as well as a bibliography and source list.  This book was also honored in 2012 with the Orbis Pictus Award "for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children" from the National Council of Teachers of English, and as a 2012 Zolotow Award Highly Commended Book, an award "given annually to the author of the best picture book text published in the United States in the preceding year" by the Cooperative Children's Book Center.  This book has a fifth-grade reading level, so it is probably most appropriate as a read-aloud for younger children, but older kids will get a kick out of it as well.

I'm not too crazy about the cover of Caldecott Medalist (in 1994, with an Honor book in 1988) Allen's Say's partial autobiography in graphic novel form, Drawing from Memory.  It doesn't really invite one to explore the fabulous pictures and story inside. Say used watercolors, pen and ink, pencils, and photographs to tell the story of his unusual childhood, particularly his teen years in post-World War II Japan.  At the age of 12, Say was living independently and apprenticed himself to master cartoonist Noro Shinpei.  The book ends four years later, in the summer of 1953, when Say decides to take up his estranged father's offer and join his new family in the United States.

Say's life story after that point is also intriguing, and one would have to know it to appreciate the irony of a statement he makes on page 50, "I hated photography."  Say also hated his father, made clear in the book with only one drawing that includes him - back turned, hands on hips.  In contrast, the book is a tribute to Shinpei, who also served as a father figure to Say, and there is an extensive author's note at the end with many photographs of Shinpei and his family.

Say wrote an autobiographical novel in 1979, The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice, that covered much of  the same material, but this book is probably more accessible.  Its 63 pages and numerous illustrations, many in comic book format, combined with a reading level of about fourth grade, makes it appealing to reluctant readers, as the book would interest students up through high school.  This book was named a 2012 Robert F. Sibert Informational Honor Book.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

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

Monday, February 13, 2012

267 (2012 #12). The Year of Fog

by Michelle Richmond

Abby Mason is a photographer engaged to Jake Balfour.  One day in July, she takes Jake's six-year-old daughter down to a San Francisco beach on a foggy day.  She stops to take a picture of a seal pup, and when she looks up, Emma is gone.

The Year of Fog recounts the year Abby spends looking for Emma, beyond the time when others, including Jake, have given up.  Abby thinks Emma was kidnapped, not drowned, and wracks her memory trying to come up with some detail that will crack the case.  Through her search for Emma, Abby discovers a lot about herself and her family background.

Michelle Richmond's beautiful writing includes research and observations on the nature of memory and the art and techniques of photography. (I thought it was interesting that Abby also works with a Holga camera.)  I love a statement she makes through Abby on page 271 about photographing people:  "the image I've created...in my mind is not about the subject...so much as it is about the person I was when I knew him."

It's also obvious that Richmond knows San Francisco well, as the action in the book takes place all over the city and nearby areas.  She even has a Google Map on her site pinpointing locations in the book, with quotations from it.  At the Silicon Valley Reads 2011 program at the Palo Alto Arts Center on February 17, 2011, she said the book was written as a "love letter" to San Francisco and the Bay Area, a "story that could not take place anywhere else."

This story is suspenseful without being creepy.  This book had been in my TBR stacks for a while - I'm glad my book club chose to read it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I purchased a copy of this book at the local Friends of the Library book sale.]

Sunday, February 12, 2012

266 (2012 #11). The Last Nude

by Ellis Avery

This book is a fictional story of the real-life Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and the model for a number of her paintings, including both versions of La Belle Rafaela, The Pink Tunic, and (probably) High Summer, Nude with Dove, and Reclining Nude with Book, as well as The Dream (pictured on the book's cover), a girl named Rafaela.

According to a biography written by de Lempicka's daughter Kizette, the artist met the real Rafaela on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris around 1927.  She was struck by Rafaela's beauty and asked her to model for her.  One of the last paintings she was working on before her death in 1980 was a replica of La Belle Rafaela.

Ellis Avery built her novel around these two points.  She fleshes out Rafaela, making her a Jewish-Catholic Italian-American 17-year-old escaping an arranged marriage by linking up with another man on her voyage to Sicily.  She's in Paris trying to make it on her own and avoid prostitution when de Lempicka approaches her.  The bisexual artist introduces Rafaela to the pleasures of lesbian love, and Rafaela falls in love with her.

Part One of the book, told in first person by Rafaela, covers about 250 pages, from the beginning to the end of their relationship, as well as Rafaela's back-story.  Part Two of the book, about 65 pages, is told from de Lempicka's first-person viewpoint, on the last day of her life in 1980, working on the copy of her most famous painting and looking back at her time with Rafaela.

While the relationship with Rafaela is conjecture, Avery has incorporated various other real people from that time in Paris, both from de Lempicka's life (her husbands, daughter, and various people she painted), as well as Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate who founded the Shakespeare and Company English book store and lending library in Paris and published James Joyce's Ulysses.

Avery also has Ernest Hemingway hidden in her novel.  In an interview, she says "my Anson Hall—and Anson is Hemingway’s paternal grandfather’s first name, Hall is his maternal grandfather’s last name—is the person that Hemingway would have turned out to have become if he’d never gotten over the loss of his suitcase with all his manuscripts in 1922....Yet he got over it and went on to write the really beautiful work of his 20s. I think that a lot of other people wouldn’t have gotten over that loss....My Hemingway figure is the one who never got over that loss and whom he might have turned out to have become."  The fictional Anson plays a key role in the fictional Rafaela's life.

Avery does such a convincing job making Rafaela come alive (and makes her so appealing) that I found myself searching for more information to see if there was anything out there about the real model (no luck so far).  While de Lempicka is not particularly likable in this book, her narrative provides some insights into her behavior.

I read an uncorrected proof, so perhaps this is in the final edition, but I do wish the author had listed some of her sources for information on de Lempicka, as well as a listing of all the art works referred to in the story. While I'm not too crazy about most of her paintings of Rafaela, I thought High Summer (pictured left) was gorgeous, and many of de Lempicka's other Art Deco works are stunning as well.

This book does have some highly-charged erotic scenes, so it may not be suitable for all readers, but I do recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This uncorrected proof was obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.] 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

265 (2012 #10). The Borrower


by Rebecca Makkai,
read by Emily Bauer

I have mixed feelings about this book.  First, a brief summary:

Twenty-six-year-old Chicago-bred Lucy Hull graduates from Mount Holyoke with an English degree and no clue what to do next.  She e-mails a list of alumni contacts provided by her school's career development office and is offered a job as children's "librarian" by an alcoholic director who needs a quick replacement in a small town public library in Missouri.

One of Lucy's patrons is ten-year-old Ian Drake is an avid reader and quite possibly gay, the son of fundamentalist Christian parents who have him enrolled in a religious program designed to turn him straight. When Ian runs away from home, his first stop is the library, where Lucy finds him early one morning. While trying to take him home, they wind up taking a road trip in her car, with Lucy thinking she must continue on with Ian so she doesn't appear to have kidnapped him.

Try to suspend belief and follow this far-fetched plot, because the characters are intriguing, there are some funny situations and passages, and the book explores some controversial issues (censorship, fundamentalist so-called Christianity, and anti-gay "de-programming" among them).  There are some good messages in the story, such as the transformational nature of books and reading, and about coming to terms with your family and heritage.

A few things that bothered me about this book right off the bat:


  • Rebecca Makkai does state (page 20) that Lucy does not have a master's in library science, but I'm afraid that detail will be missed by most readers.  Ditzy Lucy is NOT a good representative of the librarian profession.  Makkai readily admits on her website that her library experience consists of two summers in circulation in a small college library (and indeed, I'm pretty sure Lucy was just a circ clerk in the college library where she later works, as one MUST have at least a master's in library science from an accredited program to have to title of librarian in any legitimate college and university in this country).  To be fair, I have worked in libraries, even in good-sized cities, where the children's "librarian" does not have that master's degree. And Makkai said, "It was more important to the story that Lucy be an 'accidental' librarian than that she have her credentials in order."  However, I still cringed at how bad stupid Lucy was making librarians look, because she was called a librarian and not a library associate or library assistant.

Some things I really liked about the book:

  • Makkai does a wonderful job of weaving in humorous riffs on and allusions to well-known children's books, such as Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Eric Hill's lift-the-flap Where's Spot, Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline books, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series.  In her job, Lucy also reads aloud from and recommends to Ian many other children's classics, including a number of Newbery winners. "Recommending books to children has been one of the best parts of my teaching career (and one of the few things I really have in common with my narrator)," said Makkai.  There are also references to and hints of Lolita and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and not just because Lucy calls her Missouri workplace Hannibal).
  • I thought Emily Bauer was fine as the narrator for this audiobook.  Other reviews have complained about her reading, but her girlish voice was perfect for the immature Lucy, as well as for the often-loud, sometimes-annoying, very-precocious Ian.  Her Russian accents were a little over the top, and her voice too high-pitched for male voices, but then, the story is told in first person from Lucy's view.  Bauer was very expressive and I truly believe she added to my ability to suspend belief and enjoy this story for what it was.

Lucy and Ian's road trip bogs down a bit in the middle, but I kept on listening because I wanted to know if and how Lucy would get out of her predicament.  This is very much a coming-of-age story for Lucy.

It's a coming-of-age for Makkai, too - an experienced short story writer, this is her first novel.  I would read her again.  I'd recommend this book with reservations - be willing to take the plot with a grain of salt.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library, and a hardbound copy for reference was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, February 10, 2012

261-264 (2012 #6-9). 2012 Caldecott Winners

Here are the four books that were honored by the American Library Association on January 23 as the Caldecott Medalist and Honor Books, awards given to the illustrators of the most distinguished American picture books for children:
A Ball for Daisy, written and illustrated by Chris Raschka, took the Medal. A wordless book, the story is conveyed through Raschka's simple, almost child-like paintings in watercolor, gouache and ink.  A dog loses her favorite red ball when a poodle steals it and it bursts.  She's down and depressed until a later visit to the park when the poodle's owner gives her a new blue ball.

In an interview, Raschka said the book was inspired by his son at age 4, who was devastated when his yellow ball broke during a quarrel with a neighbor. The author said he began thinking of "those first feelings of losing something beloved" and knowing you can't get it back. For the story, he changed the main character from a boy to a dog.  "When you're a picture book illustrator, your readers are often three or four years old, and you don't want the drawing to be upsetting in itself.  By having an animal, there's some distance, and yet there is still a connection."

I think ages 3-5 is about the right target for this book.  It could also be used with older children to encourage them to tell or write a story to go along with the illustrations.

This is Raschka's second Caldecott Medal; he won in 2006 for illustrating Norton Juster's The Hello, Goodbye Window, and his Yo! Yes? was a Caldecott Honor book in 1994.  Raschka is the 2012 USA nominee for illustration for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Three Honor books were also named. Blackout was written and illustrated by John Rocco, who is also the illustrator of the dust jackets of Rick Riordan's fantasy novel series such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the Kane Chronicles.  Rocco has an interesting background as an art director on the movie Shrek and a designer of Disney theme park rides.

Blackout tells of a busy family's experiences during a power outage one evening. His colorful cartoon-like illustrations bring out the fun and magic in the situation.  He makes especially good use of silhouettes and the lights and shadows created by candles, flashlights, and stars.  It's a story I think a lot of us can relate to, being forced to "unplug" from our wired, always-connected lives for an evening.

Rocco set his story in his home of Brooklyn and interviewed people in New York City about their experiences in the big August 2003 blackout there.

This book has a Lexile measure of 0, due to the fact it has very few words. It is designated as a beginning reader, so it's probably best for ages 4-7.  It's also appropriate as a read-aloud, with its page-filling illustrations.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith also took a Caldecott Honor. A little boy wanders through a fanciful garden of topiaries created by his great-grandfather that evoke memories of the latter's life.

The whimsical illustrations were created using watercolor, oil paint, and digital paint for the foliage, and brush with waterproof drawing ink for the characters.  This is a very different style from Smith's other books, but it works perfectly with this story.

I loved the subtle message about valuing our seniors for what they remember rather than what they forget, as the little boy collects the tools and accessories his great-grandpa gardener has left behind.  Young children may not get that message, but the parents (and grandparents, and great-grandparents) reading the book to them will, and all will enjoy the little details in the illustrations.  The book's reading level is about second grade.

Smith also received a Caldecott Honor in 1993 for illustrating (his frequent cohort) Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.

The final Caldecott Honor went to Patrick McDonnell's Me...Jane.  This is a picture book biography about primatologist Jane Goodall's childhood.  McDonnell is on the board of directors of the Humane Society of the United States and active in animal welfare work, so this homage to Goodall is fitting.

McDonnell does the comic strip Mutts, and his India ink and watercolor illustrations in this book reflect that style.  Except for double-page-spread illustrations (of young Jane and her ever-present stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee), these drawings fall on the right-hand page, with the text on the left.  The text is overlaid on beautiful, muted ornamental engravings from the 1800s and early 1900s, "evoking Jane's lifelong passion for detailed, scientific observation of nature," according to the art notes at the end of the book.

McDonnell has also included photographs of Jane, as well as some of Jane's own sketches, including a double-page spread "of drawings and puzzles that Jane herself created" as a young girl leading a nature club called the Aligator (sic) Society.  End notes also include an "About Jane" section and "A Message from Jane."  The book's clever title is inspired by Jane's love of the Tarzan books as a child.

This book also won the 2012 Charlotte Zolotow Award "for outstanding writing in a picture book," and was named a 2012 Orbis Pictus Recommended Nonfiction Book for Children by the National Council of Teachers of English.  With a third grade reading level, this book would be a good starting point for students even up to third- and fourth-grade to learn more about this famous researcher and her work.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[These books were borrowed from and returned to my university and local public libraries.]