Saturday, December 28, 2013

371 (2013 #55). Manfish

by Jennifer Berne,
illustrated by Eric Puybaret

I borrowed this e-book from my local public library mostly to test out Overdrive, the system used for e-lending, to see if it would work alright on my Kindle before an upcoming cruise.  I needed a short book for the test and this fit the bill.

Manfish is subtitled "A Story of Jacques Cousteau."  This picture book biography focuses on his younger years, especially his childhood, and less on the time after he became famous.  The writing is poetic at times and the illustrations are gorgeous.

I was curious how well a picture book would translate to the electronic format.  So, I picked up a print copy of the book at my local public library to compare them.

Below is a screenshot of the title page in the e-book version.

Below is the double-page spread for the title page (to the right) and the verso (copyright information, opposite the title page in this case).  Click on it to see it in a larger format.
You will notice that the same illustration that just takes up a few inches in the Kindle version is a double-page spread in the print version.  ALL of the illustrations in this book are double-page spreads, some turned vertically to emphasize the depth of the ocean, so being able to view them in their full glory is important, in my opinion.

I don't think this particular e-book was published with the Kindle Format 8 (KF8) feature, also referred to as Kindle Text Pop-Up.  This might better replicate the experience of reading a print picture book.  For now, though, I plan to stick with the latter.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I borrowed and returned both versions of this book, print and Kindle, from my local public library.]

Friday, December 27, 2013

370 (2013 #54). Golden State

by Michelle Richmond

I was excited to win this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, because I'd read Michelle Richmond's The Year of Fog and really enjoyed it.  The description for Golden State was intriguing, as the background event going on in the book is a vote by the residents of the state of California on whether or not to secede from the United States.  I had no idea some Californians are actually proponents of this.  I thought my state of Texas was the only one talking about it - although for many (but not all) different reasons.

The action in this story takes place on the day of the vote, June 15 of an unknown year.  Protests and ensuing traffic jams provide the obstacles for Dr. Julie Walker, on her way from her soon-to-be-ex-husband Tom's radio station, to a small hotel near her employer, the San Francisco Veterans Administration hospital, to deliver her still-somewhat-estranged half-sister Heather's baby.

After a brief prologue (tied in nicely at the end of the book), the story starts around mid-day on June 15, when Julie has just arrived at the hotel.  Her sister has barricaded herself in a room, as a crazy man - who knows Julie - is holding hostages across the parking lot in her hospital office.

The story then flashes back to about six hours earlier, near the beginning of Julie's day, when she gets a text from Heather.  Additional chapters fill in the back stories about Julie and her relationships with Tom, Heather, and the crazy man, Dennis.

Early on, the reader learns that Julie and Tom lost a son, Ethan, and Julie blames Heather.  Wanting  to find out how and why (as well as the hostage situation) kept me reading, and I finished the book in one sitting.

There is one rather unbelievable plot point, and some issues are not resolved, but they are immaterial to the main story.  Richmond does a masterful job creating suspense and developing her characters with realistic interactions that are tenderly described.  Plus, she has a nice message to impart about life.

Definitely recommended.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.] 

Monday, December 23, 2013

369 (2013 #53). Cleopatra's Daughter

by Michelle Moran

This is another historical fiction about the life of Cleopatra's and Marc Antony's daughter Cleopatra Selene II, the only one of their four children who apparently survived to adulthood.  As mentioned in my review of another such novel, Cleopatra's Moon, Cleopatra Selene is a perfect subject, since so little is known about her real life, and it is easy to build a novel around those facts.

This book begins a little later than Cleopatra's Moon, on August 12, 30 BCE, in Alexandria, Egypt, with the defeat of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony by Octavian.  There is very little about Alexandria and Egypt in this book as compared to Cleopatra's Moon.  The book ends in 25 BCE, the year Cleopatra Selene married Juba.

Author Michelle Moran visited many sites in Rome that appear in the book, including the recently-restored villa of Octavian (Augustus Caesar), where Cleopatra Selene likely spent much time growing up.  Her descriptions of these places and of life in ancient Rome are the best part of the book.

The book focuses on what it was like for Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother, Alexander Helios, to grow up in the homes of Octavian and his sister Octavia (Marc Antony's rejected previous wife), mostly treated equally with the other children in the household.  However, they were always in fear that their lives could be ended at any time, either through execution or slavery.

A subplot involving an unknown abolitionist called the "Red Eagle" was just silly.  I think this was a plot device to justify the (otherwise mostly negative) behavior of Juba, Cleopatra Selene's eventual husband, and make her acceptance of the match more palatable.   It's highly unlikely that either of them, or any upper-class Roman for that matter, would have led a slave revolt, much less have abolitionist leanings. 

It also was not very realistic to have Cleopatra Selene more or less apprenticing under well-known Roman architect Vitruvius.  Roman women of that era had no careers other than being wives and mothers.  They didn't even merit having unique names in that time period.  I think that this was also a device used by Moran to incorporate her interest in and research on Roman architecture.

I did appreciate the inclusion of a timeline, maps of the Roman Empire and Rome during Augustus' reign, a list of characters, an afterword explaining what happened to the real ones, a "historical note" that explains some of the changes in reality that Moran made in her story, and a glossary of unfamiliar Greek and Latin terms.

In an interview, Moran stated that, "I like to begin my novels during the time of greatest transition in a person’s life. And in the ancient world, the greatest transition in a woman’s life was often the time when she was married. Because women married at much younger ages two thousand years ago (twelve years old was not uncommon), my narrators have all been very young girls. In fact, [publisher] Random House will be making a concerted effort to market Cleopatra's Daughter to young adults as well as adults."

Because of some of the things that happen in the book and some of the issues it raises (about slavery and abandoned children, for example), I think the book would not be appropriate for many ten-to-twelve-year-olds, even though Cleopatra Selene is ten when the book starts.  Although she is 15 when the book ends, I think that's a better age for the youngest readers of this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[This book was borrowed and returned via interlibrary loan.]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

368 (2013 #52). The Christmas Companion

with Garrison Keillor

I don't listen to A Prairie Home Companion and am not that familiar with it, but I picked up this audiobook at the library as something short to transition me from audiobooks to the Christmas music I'm now listening to on my commute - the last day of work until 2014.

Subtitled "Stories, Songs, and Sketches," it's just that.  Musical performances are average; Christmas carols done, in some cases, by well-known actors, although I could only recognize the voice of Sarah Jessica Parker singing "The Christmas Song," and that only because her name was listed on the blurb on the back of the audiobook - liner notes either didn't exist or were missing from this library copy.  I've since found out that "December Waltz," and "Wise Man Blues" were perforned by Pat Donohue,"Count Your Blessings"  (very pretty) by John McDonough, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Diana Krall.  There was also a bluegrass-style rendition of  "Christmas Time's A-Coming" that's now (annoyingly) stuck in my head, and a version of the traditional "Christ Child's Lullaby" (one of my favorites) that I did not care for (mangled Alleluias), as well as a version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" that I also didn't like.  Host Garrison Keillor also sings a very funny (but abbreviated) version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

The stories and sketches were the best part. A recurring character, the private eye "Guy Noir," is subbing at an office Christmas party for someone who works offsite and is not very well liked.  The Christmas Fire tells what happened when a house in Lake Wobegon puts up too many Christmas lights. "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (a parody of the original about a puritanical Baptist family), was quite funny; as was "Santa," about a modern-day Mr. Claus who operates Christmas like a business, and "Bebopareebop Rhubarb Pie," on what happens when a gift-buying expedition goes wrong.  He waxes nostalgic (in a humorous way) on "Green" and "Four Christmases."

If you are a fan of "A Prairie Home Companion," you will probably love this collection.  For me, it served its purpose in moving me into the holiday spirit.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

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

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

367 (2013 #51). The Starlight Bride

by Paul Owen Lewis

I don't remember holiday books from my own childhood so much as I remember books I read to my own offspring about 20-25 years ago.  One that I still have in my Christmas box is this one, The Starlight Bride, written and illustrated by Paul Owen Lewis and published in 1988, when my son was two.

This book isn't really about Christmas, but it is set during Advent - which right there makes it rather unique for children's books!  A prince must marry before taking over the kingdom from his old father the king, and (as in Cinderella), noble women from the surrounding area are invited to come and stay the month of Advent, during which time the prince (Bachelor style) interacts with each of the ladies in a variety of social environments.  When it comes time to make a choice, though, he cannot make up his mind.  He asks God to give him a particular sign to indicate the right woman.

On the book jacket, Lewis says the book was based on a friend's dream, "in which she saw me with an elderly man in a courtyard surrounded on three sides by little houses with different-colored doors.  At each we knocked, and each opened to reveal a different young woman who invited us in to visit.  The dream fascinated me, and I couldn't help but see it as a story of father and son, or King and Prince, seeking the perfect mate.  Reflecting on my own experiences and desires, I projected myself into the scene and the story practically wrote itself."

This beautiful book has a lovely message and gorgeous illustrations, full of rich, vibrant color.  I especially like the border designs around the main picture on each page. I also like the fact that the story is set in a place that does NOT have snow at Christmastime.  For a girl who grew up in a Gulf Coast climate, that is important!

© Amanda Pape - 2013

Friday, December 06, 2013

366 (2013 #50). Cleopatra's Moon

written by Vicky Alvear Shecter,
read by Kirsten Potter

Cleopatra's Moon is a well-written young adult novel (that will also appeal to adults who like historical fiction) about the only daughter of the famous queen Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra Selene II.  In ancient Greek, Selene means "moon," hence the title of the book.

The novel begins with the 16-year-old title character, despondent, on a Roman ship heading to Africa in 25 BCE.  Then we flash back nine years, to Egypt in 34 BCE, when Marcus Antonius announces the Donations of Alexandria that probably led to his (and queen Cleopatra's) downfall. 

I loved the descriptive passages of life in beautiful, civilized Alexandria, Egypt, during this time (34-30 BCE).  The contrast is marked with dirty, ugly, barbaric Rome, where Cleopatra Selene and her brothers, twin Alexandros Helios (helios means "sun") and younger sibling Ptolemy Philadelphus, are taken by Octavianus (Caesar Augustus) to live in his household.  They are raised by Octavianus' haughty wife Livia and his sister Octavia - whom Marcus Antonius divorced to marry Cleopatra - along with the various children of these people, most notably Octavianus' daughter Julia (by a previous marriage), Octavia's son Marcellus (by a previous marriage), at that time presumed Octavianus' heir, and Juba, the son of a conquered Numidian king, brought to Rome as an infant.

As the cover illustration implies, this novel is aimed at young adults, so of course there is romance - and a triangle.  The beauty is, so little is known about the real Cleopatra Selene, that what author Vicky Alvear Shecter has written is plausible.  It's also refreshing to read a viewpoint of this era that is non-Roman - history from the loser's perspective, so to speak.  The author adds to the appeal for young adults by including lots of Egyptian mythology.  The book also raises some relevant questions (especially for the young) about fate versus free will, acceptance versus acquiescence, and the power to choose.

Shecter had previously written two nonfiction biographies for middle-graders, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen, and Alexander the Great Rocks the World, as well as the nonfiction Anubis Speaks!: A Guide to the Afterlife by the Egyptian God of the Dead.   I'll be reading all of these soon, as well as her upcoming Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii. Shecter is also a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta, and writes a blog on ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece called "History with a Twist." She knows her stuff.

Although there are some minor anachronisms in the dialogue, they did not bother me, and likely make the book more readable for its intended audience.  The only problem I had was with the reference to a father as a "tata" (pronounced tah-tah).  While the word does mean father or daddy in Latin (and other languages), I think I would have chosen something else, especially for the audiobook.  I can imagine a lot of adolescent males sniggering each time the word is mentioned, with its slang meaning in English.  That, and some references to nudity and sex, probably make this book more appropriate for a slightly older audience, perhaps high school and up, although younger but more mature girls will likely enjoy this novel.

On the audiobook, actress Kirsten Potter turns in a great performance as narrator Cleopatra Selene.  The audiobook also includes some wonderful musical interludes between chapters, incorporating drums, finger cymbals, and a gong. I really appreciated the inclusion of an author interview on the final disc, and the PDF that includes a helpful list of characters (identifying who is real and who is not), as well as a section on "facts within the fiction."

© Amanda Pape - 2013

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

Thursday, December 05, 2013

365 (2013 #49). Becoming Josephine

by Heather Webb

In 1814, Empress Josephine learns of the arrest of her former husband, Napoleon I of France, and begins to reminisce about her life.  We flash back to 1779 on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, and meet 16-year-old Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, daughter of a Creole sugar plantation owner.

The book follows her life over the next 30 years, through her tumultuous first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais and the birth of their two children, their imprisonment in the Reign of Terror and Alexandre's death, and her efforts to survive as a widow with children, often using her sexuality to get what she wants or needs.

She meets Napoleon Bonaparte, six years younger, during this period, and marries him about a year later, in 1796.  Although she doesn't love him, she is 33 and she knows she isn't getting any younger, and Bonaparte is crazy about her.  He starts to call her Josephine - and indeed, she has reinvented herself.

As the ambitious Napoleon rises in power, Josephine finds herself falling in love with him, despite her despicable Bonaparte in-laws who are out to discredit her any way they can.  Eventually Josephine's love leads her to agree to step aside when she is unable to have more children and Napoleon divorces her in 1809, when she is 46.  She retires to her beloved estate, Malmaison.

This is an excellent debut by Heather Webb, a freelance editor who majored in French and cultural geography.  She really humanizes this woman of history and makes her into a person I cared about.  Her descriptive passages evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of Josephine's tropical homeland, the Paris of her era, her horrendous prison during the Reign of Terror, and the rigors of travel (by land and by sea) in that time period.  I was already very familiar with Josephine's life story, but this book gave me some insights into her character.

On both her website and in an author's note at the end of the book, Webb lists what's true and not true in her novel, and it's clear she's done her research.  She also has some great resources for book clubs, including discussion questions and a suggested menu for the meeting, photographs of places and paintings of people mentioned in the story, fun facts, and suggested further reading.

I'd like to suggest another book for the latter list.  Désirée, by Annemarie Selink, written in 1953, is actually about Napoleon's first love (Désirée Clary, who went on to become Queen of Sweden), but Josephine is a major character in the story. Readers of Becoming Josephine would like it because the style is similar - a first-person narrative covering most of the main character's life, who lived in the same era as Josephine and encountered many of the same people.

I would recommend Becoming Josephine as an enjoyable way to learn more about the fascinating woman who was Napoleon's first and most beloved wife.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I received this advance reader's edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]