Tuesday, July 18, 2017

750 (2017 #48). Victoria


by Daisy Goodwin,
read by Anna Wilson-Jones


I'd seen some bits of the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Daisy Goodwin's novel about Great Britain's second-longest-reigning monarch as a young queen, so I was excited about listening to this audiobook.

Victoria is subtitled "A Novel of a Young Queen," and that it is.  It covers her life only from the age of 18, when she ascended to the throne, in 1837, to her engagement to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in October 1839.

In that time period, the politically inexperienced Queen Victoria came to rely quite a bit on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  The book highlights rumors that Victoria wanted to marry the widower, 40 years her senior, but I doubt that was true - I think she probably saw him more as a father figure, given that her own father died when she was a baby.  It does make for an interesting story, though.

While the Masterpiece series continues Victoria's relationship with Prince Albert after their marriage, the book stops with their engagement.  I have to say that the book didn't really sell me on an instant romance between the two - but that's why it's historical fiction, not a biography.  Still a great read.

British actress Anna Wilson-Jones reads the book with great gusto.   She also played the part of Emma Portman, one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting and a friend of Melbourne, in the miniseries.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Monday, July 10, 2017

749 (2017 #47). Plume

by Isabelle Simler


This simple book is about feathers - and a cat named Plume who likes to collect them.  The first 18 double-page spreads features one bird (and one word, the name of the bird), along with samples of its plumage - and some portion of the black cat.  The last two double-page spreads introduce and feature the cat.

The digital illustrations by French author Isabelle Simler are exquisite.  On the front and back endpapers, there are guides to 42 more bird feathers, along with a few stray cat hairs (or cat "feathers” if you will).  I could see this book being used in a lesson about birds or feathers.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this hardbound book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

748 (2017 #46). Fates and Traitors



by Jennifer Chiaverini

Although its subtitle is "A Novel of John Wilkes Booth," Fates and Traitors - like nearly all of Jennifer Chiaverini's books - is really about women.  In this case, four women whose lives were intricately tied to that of Lincoln's assassin:  his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth; his sister, Asia Booth Clarke; his supposed fiancee, Lucy Hale; and a co-conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The book opens with a prologue from Booth's viewpoint about his capture, in which he is shot and as he is slowly dying, he thinks of these four women.  Then his life's story is told through theirs in the next four chapters:  his early years (1838-1851) with his mother, who has an fascinating background; the years 1851-1864 from his older sister Asia's point of view (she later became a poet and writer); then 1864-1865 as seen by both fiancee Lucy (daughter and later wife of senators) and Mary Surratt (the first woman hung by the federal government for her part in the plot to kill Lincoln).

This is followed by a chapter in John's voice again, set in 1865, just after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.  The final chapters tell what happened to all four women in the rest of 1865, and end with Lucy in 1890.  I knew very little of any of these women, and found their stories to be the intriguing ones.  Telling the story this way, though, also adds to the mystique of Booth - because one can see how his words and actions sounded and appeared to others, yet still not be able to get fully inside his mind to fully understand his motivation to kill Lincoln.

The title comes from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene III, the last line:

If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live.
If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.

A longer passage including this line is the epithet of the book, rather fitting for Booth, who apparently stated his favorite Shakespearean role was that of Brutus, Caesar's lead assassin.

Chiaverini provides a map at the beginning of the book marking relevant locations in Washington, D. C., and lists her sources in three pages of acknowledgements at the end of the book.  I liked this novel better than Chiaverini's other novels featuring Civil War era personages.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

747 (2017 #45). Stormy Weather



by Paulette Jiles,
read by Colleen Delany


After reading Paulette Jiles' News of the World earlier this year, I was eager to read all her historical fiction.  Like News, Stormy Weather is also set in Texas.  This one takes place from 1927 to 1939, and mostly in places within an hour to an hour-and-a-half's drive from my home, places like Mineral Wells and Ranger and Cisco and Rising Star, Palo Pinto and Comanche Counties, and on the Brazos and Leon Rivers.  Not surprisingly, I loved this book.

Jeanine Stoddard is nine when the book begins, accompanying her drinking, gambling, womanizing father on an errand.  He's an oilfield worker, and the family - Jeanine's mother and older and younger sisters - move from one town to another, following the Texas oil boom. A man named Ross Everett helps Jeanine get her father home.  Later, her father dies in the height of the Depression, and the women have nowhere to go than back to Elizabeth's family home, vacant since her parents died some years previously.

Jeanine's mother and sisters seem to blame their situation on Jeanine, for "always covering up for him."  So Jeanine sets out to make the falling-down farm operable again.  She fixes the roof, clears cedar from the land, revitalizes the peach orchard - and finds time to remake old clothes of good cloth into something new for her mother and sisters.  Slowly but surely, despite the dust storms and drought, the old house becomes a home.

When Jeanine's little sister breaks her leg and needs an operation, Jeanine sells the one thing she has left from her dad - a fast horse named Smoky Joe - to Ross Everett, now a widower.  Instead of giving her a higher cash offer on the horse, he offers her a stake in Joe's future winnings - and Jeanine accepts.  Gambling seems to run on both sides of her family - her mother, meanwhile, has been buying up shares in a wildcatter's oil well.



The action moves slowly in this book, but I didn't mind.  I loved Jiles' evocative prose.  Here's an early (page 20) description of an oil well coming in:

It was in June of 1931 that the Lou Della Crim came in outside of Longview, near the Louisiana border.  The Lou Della roared up in a gusher that took the drilling pipe out with it and threw the twenty-foot, two-hundred-pound joints of pipe into the air like jackstraws.  The blowout of oil hurled a three-cone roller drill bit the size of an alligator a flull two hundred yards....They had hit the biggest oil pool in the history of the world and it was sweet, high-gravity oil so pure....it was the color of honey.  The wildcatter who drilled the discovery well reached the oil-bearing strata with an ancient cable-tool rig and a decrepit derrick and secondhand equipment. 

The date is wrong on that one - that gusher actually happened in December of the previous year.  Other reviewers have found numerous errors in historical details.

For me, the bigger problem is that the geography is a bit off at times.  On page 65, the family is en route from Wharton to the Tolliver homestead in the Mineral Wells area.  They go through Glen Rose - but then through Dallas, which is very much out of the way.  The same thing happens near the end of the book - on page 318, Jeanine and Ross are traveling from Lubbock back to Mineral Wells - and they inexplicably go through Amarillo, far out of the way to the north.  There's also a town Jiles calls Tarrant that doesn't exist - it's not too far from the Tolliver place, and near the Leon River and the Texas and Pacific Railway - and I can't quite place what real town it might be.

I also like this description of another oil well (from pages 298-299):

They heard the deep and sinister roar coming from the borehole as if something down there was calling out to them in a rage at being awakened from a million-year sleep....He saw casing pipe rising up out of the borehole as if it were self-propelled, joints of pipe that weighed more than two hundred pounds apiece, flying up one after another, in a spray of white salt water that was as thick and hard as a sycamore trunk.  And then more pipe was blown out by a great fountain of sand, enclosed in a foaming mist of gas that expanded like a geyser, sideways, snaking low and wild over the ground.
Then the massive drill bit rose up out of the hole, twenty feet long and weighing two tons, spewing straight up through the derrick and taking out the crown block along with it.  Spars and shattered planks flew upward in ballistic fragments....Then the oil came in, under great pressure, a standing column of jet that erupted with a deafening roar.  The entire derrick blew away, leaving only the footings and twisted masses of metal. ...overhead the tornado of pure oil wavered and shrieked and lunged snakelike into the night sky....the noise of the blowout sounded like some beast roaring and looking for prey.

Actress Colleen Delany, the audiobook narrator, read this passage in such a manner that I could feel the excitement of the event.  She did a fine job as well supplying appropriate Texas accents for all the characters. 


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

746 (2017 #44). Sisi: Empress on Her Own

by Allison Pataki,
read by  Elizabeth Knowelden


This historical fiction novel is the sequel to The Accidental Empress, and covers the second half of the rather tragic life of  Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi," the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The book begins in the summer of 1868 in Hungary, about a year after the previous book ends with the establishment of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837–1898),
the day of her coronation as Queen of Hungary, 8 June 1867.
Emil Rabending [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Sisi is finally on her own, with the idyllic life she has always wanted.  She is in the country she loves, with occasional visits from the dashing Count Andrassy.  She is raising her newborn daughter Valerie without interference, away from the protocol of court life in Vienna and her overbearing mother-in-law and aunt, Archduchess Sophie.  Unfortunately, it doesn't last.

Sisi was the Princess Diana of her time - extremely beautiful and very misunderstood.  I would recommend that The Accidental Empress be read before this book.  Although Sisi can stand on its own, the first book in the series provides context for Sisi's character and behavior in the second book.  Reading the books in order makes Sisi somewhat sympathetic - although she does often behave in ways that appear shallow and self-centered.

Compared to the audiobook of The Accidental Empress, this one was disappointing.  Actress Elizabeth Knowelden was not as good a narrator as Madeleine Maby.  Knowelden's soft British voice was pleasant enough, but her reading was very, VERY slow.  The audiobook also does not include the author's notes on history and sources at the end of the book.  I had to refer to the e-book (page 425) for this great quote from author Allison Pataki summarizing the book:  "this was a fairy tale meets a Shakespearean tragedy meets a family soap opera meets an international saga."


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Sunday, May 28, 2017

745 (2017 #43). The Women in the Castle


by Jessica Shattuck,
read by Cassandra Campbell

This was a powerful story about three German women in post-WWII Germany.  Marianne, Benita, and Ania (pronounced Anya) are widows of resisters executed after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944.  The story begins six years before this, when the aristocrat Marianne pledges to her husband and to Benita's husband, her childhood friend to take care of the widows and orphans should the plot fail.  True to her promise, she locates Benita's son Martin in a Nazi orphanage and Benita in a Russian brothel, and brings them to her husband's family's castle, (the fictional) Berg Lingenfels.  Although much of it is a shambles, with no running water or power, it's a shelter, and it's surrounded by land to grow food and trees for firewood.  Soon Marianne, her three children, Benita, and Martin are joined by Ania and her two boys.  After the initial extremely difficult postwar years, life gets somewhat better in the 1950s, when things happen that tear the three women apart.  The story ultimately ends in 1991.

Author Jessica Shattuck also gives us the backstories of these women, so readers have three different representative types, all with flaws:  a true resister, a clueless and somewhat selfish young person, and another who sees the growing horror too late.  Shattuck modeled the latter character on her own German grandmother, who, with her husband, joined the Nazi Party for idealistic reasons.  Shattuck did much research, and I learned a lot about what happened in postwar occupied Germany.

Cassandra Campbell was an excellent audiobook reader.  She used German accents when the characters were speaking, and her normal soft voice for narration.  Its gentleness drew attention to the moral dilemmas of the story, as well as the beautiful descriptions.

Definitely recommend this one.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

Saturday, May 20, 2017

744 (2017 #42). Goodnight from London

by Jennifer Robson

I really enjoyed this World War II fiction by Jennifer Robson.  Ruby Sutton is an American orphan working for a weekly publication in New York City, who is given the opportunity to go to London as a shared correspondent with another weekly there.

The reader is with Ruby on her trip across the Atlantic in a cargo ship in late June 1940, through the Blitz, and even into France and Paris for its liberation in August 1944, all the way to the end of the war.  As the cover photo implies, there's a little bit of romance for Ruby too, with the enigmatic British officer Bennett.

The blurb on the back of the book stated that it was "inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author's own grandmother," but my advance reader edition was missing the acknowledgements/afterword that might have had that information.  I was quite curious about it, so I searched for an answer.

Robson clarified in an interview and in a Facebook post:

"My late grandmother, Nikki Moir, was a newspaperwoman, and it was her experiences as a young woman in a male-dominated newsroom that acted as the starting point for Goodnight From London. My heroine, Ruby Sutton, is entirely a product of my imagination – she isn’t at all similar to my grandmother – but I wouldn’t have found Ruby without the inspiration of my gran and her career." "...it was in learning about the obstacles and challenges Nikki faced in her work as a journalist from the 1930s onward that I was inspired to create Ruby.  It really was as simple as asking myself, 'what would it have been like for a young woman journalist in the Second World War?' Ruby is my answer, but Nikki was my inspiration."

The book is well-researched and has believable characters.  Robson has written other fiction set during and after World War I - I'll be sure to read those too.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

743 (2017 #41). The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


by Lisa See

A bit different from some of Lisa See's other fiction set in China, in that this one takes place in the years 1988 to 2015.  Li-yan, a member of the Akha ethnic minority in the mountainous Yunnan Province in China, is ten years old when the story starts.  The reader learns a lot about Akha customs and beliefs, as well as about tea, especially pu'er, a valuable type of fermented tea.

At 17, Li-yan has a daughter out of wedlock, taboo in her culture, and abandons the baby at an orphanage.  When she later marries the father, they try to reclaim the baby, who of course has been adopted by an American couple, who name her Haley.  Haley's story becomes a theme in the book.  At times, I found parts of Haley's story jarring when it interrupts that of Li-yan, who also sees big changes in her life.  Furthermore, the book's ending feels abrupt and rather predictable.

All in all, I didn't like this book as much as I've liked others by Lisa See, perhaps only because the first two parts of the book (through 1995) read like historical fiction, due to the rural settings.  Part three quickly jumps ahead to 2004 and more modern times in China and elsewhere.  Nevertheless, I'm still glad I read this book.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

742 (2017 #40). The Accidental Empress


by Allison Pataki,
read by Madeleine Maby


This historical fiction is about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi," someone I knew little about before reading this book.  It covers the first half of her life, to her coronation in Hungary, with the sequel Sisi: Empress on Her Own (which I plan to read) covering the second half.

Sisi is a very interesting character.  Her older sister Helene was intended to be the bride of their first cousin, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, but when both girls traveled to Austria with their mother, Franz fell in love with Sisi. Hence the title of the book.

Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, 1864, portrait by
Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Author Allison Pataki presents Sisi as initially being just as much in love, but becoming overwhelmed by her domineering and controlling mother-in-law and aunt, Archduchess Sophie, as well as by court protocol.  Of course, the story is told from Sisi's point of view, but the reader can see that, despite the environment, some of Sisi's choices are not good ones.

Actress Madeleine Maby does a fine job narrating the book - her voice is perfect for Sisi, and she does very well with all the other characters as well.  I very much appreciated the lengthy Q&A with the author at the end of the book (read by the narrator), which clarified what was fiction and what was true.  Pataki's acknowledgments list the books she used in her research.  Little details, such as descriptions of the castles and palaces and surrounding countryside, as well as examples of Sisi's poetry and a mention of the waltz commissioned in her honor, add to the atmosphere.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Saturday, May 06, 2017

741 (2017 #39). Mistress of Rome


by Kate Quinn

I really enjoyed Kate Quinn's soon-to-be-released The Alice Network, so I decided to try one of her other books.  My local library had this one, Mistress of Rome, the first of (so far) four in her Empress of Rome Saga.

Nearly the entire story takes place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, from 81 to 96 A.D.  Thea, the main character, is a 14-year-old Judean slave at the beginning to another 14-year-old, the vain and selfish Lepida Pollia.  The both fall for the gladiator Arius, a slave from Briton, but Lepida just wants to bed him - Thea actually falls in love.  When Lepida learns of their affair, she sells Thea to a brothel far away. Eventually, Thea catches the eye of the emperor and becomes his mistress, thinking Arius dead.  But of course he's not...

I found this story rather exciting (although a little sickening, with all the gladiatorial bouts).  Thea is a complex character, as is Arius and some of the minor characters, while Lepida is just plain hateful.

Quinn works in a lot of real historical figures into her novel, although given the era and the lack of unbiased information from primary sources of the period, she can take a lot of liberties with the characters - so who knows, for example,  if Domitian was as cruel as she paints him to be.  She does mention five histories she used as references.

No matter.  I was entertained, and I plan to read the rest of the books in the series.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

739 & 740 (2017 #37-38). Two Books about Edinburgh, Scotland



My niece is attending the University of Edinburgh, and brought me these two books when she was home for Christmas.  Michael Fry's Edinburgh: A History of the City, felt somewhat disorganized, going back and forth in time.  Its 388 pages are in eight chapters, seven of which are headed by quotes about the city from famous Scots. It has 18 pages of footnotes and a 13-page index.

Picturing Scotland: Edinburgh has over 120 full-color photographs, with captions or sometimes a paragraph of description, of sites in this beautiful and historic city and surrounding areas.  I felt like I'd been mailed over a hundred postcards.




© Amanda Pape - 2017

Saturday, April 29, 2017

738 (2017 #36). The Alice Network

by Kate Quinn

This was a fascinating story, based on the real-life "Alice Network" of mostly-female spies centered in Lille, France, on the border with Belgium, during World War I.

This book has two story lines, one set during World War I and the other in 1947.  Eve Gardiner is the character that ties them together.  She begins 1915 as a 22-year-old file clerk England, recruited to spy in France during the war because she can also speak French and German - with a stammer in all languages that makes people overlook her and assume she is stupid.

The 1947 Eve is a broken woman with gnarled hands, contacted by pregnant 19-year-old American Charlotte "Charlie" St. Clair, who runs away from her French mother (while en route to Switzerland for an abortion).  Charlie is trying to find her French cousin Rose, last seen working in 1943 in a restaurant in Limoges, France, called Le Lethe, owned by a Monsieur Rene.

That hits close to home for Eve - whose cover while working as a spy involved working in a restaurant in Lille, also called Le Lethe, and also owned by a Monsieur Rene - the evil Rene Bordelon, a Frenchman collaborating with the Germans.

The tale goes back and forth in time and between narrators.  Along the way, the reader the real-life head of the Alice Network, Louise de Bettignies, aka Alice Dubois, aka "Lili" (among many code names) in this book.

Kate Quinn does a masterful job weaving this (and other) real-life character(s), places, and incidents into the story.  I had a hard time putting this exciting book down, but the short alternating chapters make it easy to take a break if needed.  I will definitely be reading more by this author.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

737 (2017 #35). The Marriage of Opposites


by Alice Hoffman,
read by Gloria Reuben, Tina Benko, and Santino Fontana

This is a fictionalized account of the life of the mother of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.  It's a little bit of a fictionalized biography of the early life of the artist as well.

Author Alice Hoffman stays true to the basic facts about the artist's family.  His mother, Rachel Manzana Pomié, was born to Jewish parents of French, Spanish, and Portuguese heritage, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas (then part of the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Island) in 1795.  She married a widower with three children 21 years her senior, Isaac Petit, and had four children with him before his death in 1824.

Isaac's nephew, Frederic Pizzarro, seven years younger than Rachel, came to the island as his uncle's executor, and the two fell in love.  The close-knit Jewish community on the island frowned upon a marriage between a nephew and aunt by marriage, and it was not for many years (and four sons) later that their private marriage ceremony was finally recognized.

One of those sons was Jacob Abraham Camille Pizzarro (he changed the spelling later), born in 1830.  He was sent to boarding school in Paris at age 11, where he began to explore his artistic talents.  He returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father's business, but continued to work on his art, and went to Venezuela at age 21 and then on to Paris at age 25, in 1855.  His parents followed shortly after, and Rachel never went back to St. Thomas, even after Frederic's death in 1865, which is about when the book ends.

Hoffman fleshed out her characters quite a bit beyond that, making Rachel in particular an intriguing woman. It's interesting to see how she tries to control her son Camille, just the way her mother tried to control her, with similar results.  Hoffman also invented the characters on St. Thomas who are the Pizzarro's employees and friends there.  There's an interesting subplot involving a family servant, Jestine, who is like a sister to Rachel.  These secondary characters are interesting and add a lot to the story.

Hoffman also researched (as noted from the titles in her bibliography) the history of St. Thomas' buildings and Jewish community, as well as birds and folktales of the West Indies.  The folktales are a major part of the story, and Hoffman's descriptions of the island of St. Thomas and the town of Charlotte Amalie make me want to visit them.

The audiobook readers make this book even better.  Actress Tina Benko narrates the chapters told in Rachel's first person viewpoint.  She has a rich, deep, throaty voice, just what I might imagine the real Rachel to have.  Actor Santino Fontana reads the chapters told in Camille's first person voice (there aren't as many).  Actress Gloria Reuben is wonderful as the narrator of all the other chapters, putting lots of emotion into her voice and adding to the magical realism of the story. Perhaps it is because, as she states, her parents are also from the Caribbean and of mixed heritage.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

736 (2017 #34). Lion, King, and Coin


by Jeong-hee Nam,
illustrated by Lucia Sforza,
edited by Joy Cowley

This is another book in publisher Eerdmans' Trade Winds series, "an educational series featuring stories set in key periods in the history of economy and culture."  Like the other book I've read in this series, the fictional story about the invention of the first coins around 600 BCE feels forced (again, perhaps a weakness of being translated from Jeong-hee Nam's original Korean).  Much better are the four pages of information about the development of coinage at the end.  In this case, the reading and interest levels for the informational part of the book are a good match to the reading and interest level of the fictional story.  Artist Lucia Sforza uses a muted pastel palette for the detailed illustrations, which seem appropriate for the setting in the ancient country of Lydia (in present-day Turkey).  However, I'm not sure this book has enough appeal to add this paperback to my university library's collection for future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this paperback through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be donated to a library.]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

735 (2017 #33). Ma Speaks Up

by Marianne Leone

This memoir by actress Marianne Leone is a collection of anecdotes about her mother, an Italian immigrant.  Some of the chapters have been previously published in other formats.

 Leone is particularly good with creative metaphors to capture the typical angst of teenage and young adult daughters' relationships with their mothers.  The anecdotal style can be a bit hard to follow, with jumps back and forth in time from one chapter to the next.  But the book is heartfelt, and will make the reader laugh and cry.  It did me, as I recognized some of my own at-times turbulent relationship with my own mother (still alive but now suffering from the early stages of dementia).

An insert of black-and-white photographs helps bring the characters even more to life beyond the vivid prose.  And I just love the cover, which is apparently a colorized version of a "black-and-white picture of Ma, shy but sexy, posing on a beach for my father away at war in her two-piece bathing suit, her hair a riot of black curls, arching her back just enough to thrust her breasts upward, a carnal offering to the gods of lust" (page 81).

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This hardbound book was sent to me by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review.  It will be donated to a library.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

734 (2017 #32). Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise



by Oscar Hijuelos,
read by James Langton, Polly Lee, Henry Leyva, and Robert Petkoff

The real, nearly-lifelong friendship between American author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and British explorer Henry Morton Stanley is the basis for this historical fiction novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

The two met on a Mississippi riverboat in the autumn of 1860 when Twain was about 25 and Stanley 19.  Their friendship lasted until Stanley's death in 1904.  Framing this period, at both the beginning and end of the book, is Twain's last visit to England in 1907 (to receive an honorary doctorate) where he has tea with Stanley's widow, the artist Dorothy Tennant (as he truly did).  There's also some coverage of both men's earlier lives (particularly Stanley's), and of the brief period between 1907 and Twain's death in April 1910.

Hijuelos died suddenly in 2013, before this book was published - the manuscript was found in his study after his death.  According to an afterword by his widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, Hijuelos spent more than twelve years researching and writing the book.  Amazingly, the numerous letters between the main characters, as well as diary entries and speeches they make - are ALL fiction. They sound so real, I thought some had to be from the historical record.  There's even a reference near the end of the book to a supposed footnote (with page number) in a real chapter in Stanley's real autobiography (edited by his widow) - but that footnote does not exist.

Hijuelos does a good job contrasting Twain and Stanley, highlighting what they had in common and where they differed.  As Twain is better known, Hijuelos wisely concentrated on Stanley (probably best known for supposedly saying "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" which turns out to be a later invention).  I was amazed to learn that such an intrepid explorer suffered from recurring malaria and other gastric disorders, but if you are looking for detail on his actual expeditions, you won't find it in this book.

In his introductory author's note, Hijuelos speaks of the "paradise" in the title:

For Twain it came down to his memories of his fairly happy, carefree youth, the sweet energies of which he put into his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn....Twain's "paradise" also entailed his love for a family that, as the years went by, simply vanished - two of his three daughters died, then his wife [as well as his infant son and three siblings in their youth]....What paradise remained for him came down to what he had captured so beautifully in his books and in his lingering friendships.
For Stanley, whose life began so badly - his childhood in Wales spent in a workhouse as a ward of the British state; his dangerous but successful enterprises on behalf of King Leopold in Africa eventually, perhaps unfairly, linked to the atrocities committed in that region "for rubber and ivory tusks" - this "paradise" came belatedly, in his later years [his late marriage to Tennant, their adoption of a son, and his acquisition of his country estate].

In the book, the two men also have frequent discussions about faith and religion (Stanley was mostly a believer, Twain mostly was not) and the notion of an afterlife.

Hijuelos also says that "as a writer best known for certain subjects, I also intend the book to give a glance at nineteenth-century Cuba, mainly through the journeys the men made in their lifetimes to that island.  Stanley went there in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War,...Twain journeyed there in 1902, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War."  The novel has both men making the 1860s trip together, and the descriptions of Cuba in that era are particularly good.

Apparently this book has received some criticism because it's not like Hijuelos' other books.  Not having read any of those, I am more open-minded.  I do think the book would have benefited from a little more editing, as the book dragged in a few places, but Hijuelos did not have the opportunity to do that.

What kept me going were the excellent narrators.  Henry Leyva voices Twain, and in my mind is perfect in that role, sounding the way I would imagine Samuel Clemens might have sounded in real life.  Britisher actors James Langton and Polly Lee are wonderful as Stanley and Tennant respectively, and Robert Petkoff does the overall narration and other major characters admirably.


© Amanda Pape - 2017


[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and a public library respectively.]

Friday, March 31, 2017

733 (2017 #31). A Soldier's Sketchbook

by John Wilson,
based on the diary and sketches of R. H. Rabjohn

Historian John Wilson hit the jackpot when he was approached by a third grade teacher after a Remembrance Day presentation on World War I at a Canadian school in 2013.  She showed him a wartime diary self-published by her grandfather's uncle that was filled with detailed sketches.  Russell Hughes Rabjohn (1898-1977) served in the war from February 1916, shortly after he turned 18, until finally getting home in March 1919 after the war's end.

Wilson worked with the Rabjohn family and the Canadian War Museum (which holds his original sketchbooks and diaries) to produce A Soldier's Sketchbook:  The Illustrated First World War Diary of R. H. Rabjohn.   This 112-page book includes selected entries and drawings from Rabjohn's diaries and sketchbooks, carefully edited, with additional material to set them in context.  He's also added maps on the end papers, a timeline of the war, an index, and suggestions for further reading.

This book is filled with excellent examples of primary sources for learning about World War I.  It's appropriate for fifth grade (when many United States schools first cover history) on up, and can be enjoyed by adults just as much as (if not more so than) children.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

732 (2017 #30). The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The local book club I used to belong to (until their meetings moved to daytime, when I work) read this as their last selection, I suppose because it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.  I thought it was historical fiction, but I'd have to classify it as a historical fantasy - and, not being a fan of fantasy, I was somewhat disappointed.

The book starts well, with the introduction of the main character, Cora, her grandmother Ajarry who was captured in Africa, and her mother Mabel, who managed to escape their Georgia plantation.  The horrors of slavery are described realistically.  Cora is a strong woman, though, and she attracts the attention of Caesar, another slave who wants to escape.  It seems he thinks Cora might be a good luck charm, since her mother managed to get away.

But here's where the fantasy comes in.  The Underground Railroad in this book is an actual, subterranean, train with tracks.  From this point on, author Colson Whitehead seems to compress many years of African-American history into the novel.  In an interview with NPR, he said,

...once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, you know, it freed me up to play with time a bit more. And so, in general, you know, the technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn't happen in 1850 - skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it's all presented sort of matter-of-factly...

In a PBS interview, Whitehead says,

...each state she goes through is a different sort of state of American possibility.  South Carolina is a benevolent paternalistic state, where slaves are given programs for racial uplifting. North Carolina is a white supremacist state....so each stop is a sort of island in the “Gulliver’s Travels”-type sense.

I wish I'd read these interviews and some reviews before starting the novel.  While many parts were clearly unrealistic for the time period, other parts were confusing as to whether they were complete fantasy, or based on reality.  For example, the scenes in Indiana made me wonder if perhaps there was some sort of refuge for escaped slaves there.  This book is crying for a reader's guide within its pages.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

731 (2017 #29). The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant,
read by Linda Lavin

The Boston Girl provides a picture of life in and around that city, concentrating on the years 1915 to 1931.  Addie Baum is the first-person narrator.  Born in 1900 in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents, she has two older sisters.  She tells her story to her granddaughter in 1985, looking back over the years.  Life in the immigrant tenements, the effects of World War I, and the changes it brought about in the 1920s, especially for women, are all part of the story.

Author Anita Diamant says she was inspired to write the novel by a building she passed by frequently - the real Rockport Lodge, an 1857 farmhouse on the coast that in 1906 became a vacation site for women of modest income.  Addie begins going there in 1915, and attends regularly over the years, meeting a group of girls of all backgrounds - daughters of Italian and Irish immigrants - that become lifelong friends.

I found it fascinating that the librarians and archivists at Harvard University quickly processed the Rockport Lodge papers that had been donated to them so that Diamant could use them in their research.  It's also interesting that the Lodge building, with its sign, still exists today, although it has been a private home since 2007.

The Saturday Evening Girls club in the story is also real.  The two Ediths in the story who started it, Chevalier and Green, appear to be adapted from the real life Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown.  Guerrier was a librarian who went on to a distinguished career.

Actress Linda Lavin certainly sounds like she could be an 85-year-old Bostonian telling her life story, as she narrates this book.  The accent did begin to grate on me after a while, though.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and a public library respectively.]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

730 (2017 #28). The General's Women

by Susan Wittig Albert

The latest historical fiction novel by Susan Wittig AlbertThe General's Women focuses on the triangle of World War II General Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower while overseas, his wife Mamie back home in the States, and Ike's British volunteer driver and aide, Kay Summersby.

The story is told from all three characters' viewpoints.  Mamie comes off the worst of the three, sounding like a rather vapid, jealous belle.  But then, she was a low-key Army wife and First Lady.

Albert's portrayal of Ike and Kay and their romance is far more interesting, and it's obvious she has done a lot of research.  In a "biographical epilogue," she switches to third-person nonfiction, documenting Kay's postwar life, complete with endnotes.  There's also an author's note, highlighting the differences between the novel, the "official" record, and Summersby's two memoirs.  This note also has endnotes, and there is a further reading section.  How the romance was hidden, after the fact, is almost more interesting than reading about the romance itself.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I purchased this book from the author.]

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

729 (2017 #27). The Summer Before the War

by Helen Simonson,
read by Fiona Hardingham

Like Helen Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, her second one also make me laugh and cry and think.  The Summer Before the War starts in the summer of 1914, when 23-year-old, orphaned Beatrice Nash is hired by the school board of the small town of Rye in England to be the Latin teacher.  In the first part of the book, the reader gets to know the independent Beatrice and her champions, Agatha Kent, her London government employee husband John, and their nephews, medical student Hugh Grange and poet Daniel Bookham.

There's also all sorts of interesting characters in the town of Rye, many of them typically snobby towards the impoverished Beatrice.  There is an extremely funny scene when one of them attempts to boot Beatrice out of her job and install her nephew, a Mr. Poot, into it instead.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as World War I starts about 23% into the book.  The first impact on the town of Rye is the arrival of a number of Belgian refugees - Beatrice takes a beautiful young girl named Celeste into her small apartment, so she can be near her widowed father, taken in by an American writer living across the street.

Later, though, British soldiers are drawn into the war, and both Hugh and Daniel enlist (Hugh as a surgeon) - along with Beatrice's promising Romani (Gypsy) Latin student nicknamed Snout.  Simonson does an outstanding job showing the impact of the war on these participants as well as their friends and loved ones back home in Rye.  She also subtly takes on issues such as women's roles and rights in that era, as well as class distinctions and prejudices.  Simonson lists numerous research sources in her acknowledgements at the end of the book.

Fiona Hardingham is a fabulous narrator for the audiobook, creating convincing voices and accents for different characters.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

728 (2017 #26). A Wilder Rose

by Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wittig Albert mostly writes mysteries, and this was her first foray into historical fiction.  A Wilder Rose is based on the true story of Rose Wilder Lane and her much more famous mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series.

Unpublished letters written by Rose and Laura, as well as Rose's unpublished diaries, reveal that Rose was an uncredited ghostwriter/editor in the first eight books in the Little House series.  Albert used this source information (as well as William Holtz's biography of Rose, The Ghost in the Little House) to craft her novel.

This book focuses on the years 1928-1939.  Rose (born 1886), a successful journalist and freelance writer, returns in 1928 from Albania to her parents' home and farm in Missouri when they (Laura was then 61, her husband and Rose's father Almanzo was 71) are ill.  Flush with funds, Rose spends extravagantly to build them a new house on their Rocky Ridge farm, with all the modern conveniences.  Then the stock market crashes in 1929, Rose's investments (and those of her parents, made with Rose's advice) are wiped out, the freelance market dries up, and Rose is stuck at Rocky Ridge, feeling guilty and obligated toward her parents.

Rose encourages her mother to write down her stories of her pioneer girlhood, but the resulting first manuscript needed a LOT of work.  Rose did this, but did not claim any co-authorship.  Her goal was to create an income stream for her parents through book royalties, relieving the financial burden on herself.  The book, Little House in the Big Woods, was so successful that publishers wanted more - and Rose was further stuck, longing to escape Rocky Ridge but unable to work much on her own writing while editing her mother's.

But this book isn't just the story of this uncomfortable collaboration. Rose Wilder Lane is a fascinating person in her own right, and Albert covers most of her interesting life by including an epilogue.  The book also has a four-plus page bibliography, and Albert has a reader's companion with more details about the book's writing on a resources page on the book's website (along with a bibliography-in-progress of Rose's works, and a link to a Pinterest board).

I read the original 2013 self-published version of the book (the cover pictured at the beginning of this post).  In February 2015, the book was republished under an Amazon imprint, and Albert said in August 2014 that the book would get "a do-over....minor touchups and a few major revisions, using my own notes and some suggestions from Lake Union's editor, who gave the book a careful going-over."

I'd like to see this revised version, pictured above.  My problem with the original book was the inclusion of a little too much repetitive and extraneous details and tedious anecdotes that slowed the story down.  I'm curious to see if those were edited out in the reprint.

I do know that the third-person sections of the book, set in Rose's home in Danbury, Connecticut, in April 1939, remain in the revised version.  I found these sections somewhat distracting, as they pulled me out of the more-compelling first-person narrative in Rose's voice.  According to a Q&A, Albert used the (real) Norma Lee Browning as "an 'interlocutor' to get Rose to tell her story and an audience to hear her and react" and "a way to show some of Rose’s controlling behavior."  Given this explanation, the diversions from the first-person story line makes sense.

Albert originally wrote the book as creative or narrative nonfiction, according to an interview, but her agent found no one willing to publish it in that genre, either because they felt it would have a niche audience, or because they felt it didn't adhere to "the legend of Missouri housewife Wilder as the primary author of the books."  That's when Albert decided to recast the book as fiction and self-publish.  Given her previous success as an author and familiarity with publishing, she knew how to do this successfully.  I'm looking forward to more historical fiction by this author.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

727 (2017 #25). Loving Eleanor

by Susan Wittig Albert,
read by Karen White

Author Susan Wittig Albert was coming to my local library for a Texas Writes program, and when I found she writes some historical fiction, I decided to read/listen-to this one.

As the subtitle indicates, Loving Eleanor is about "the intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok."  Hickok was one of the first Associated Press female reporters, and met Roosevelt when assigned to interview her in 1928.  They quickly became *very* good friends.

At the Texas Writes event on February 25, Albert said this book grew out of reading a very bad biography of Hickok.  "The story needed to be corrected, for history's sake," Albert said.  She went to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and read the original letters exchanged by the two.  Hickok donated them shortly after Eleanor Roosevelt's death in 1962, with the stipulation that they be sealed for ten years after Hickok's death (which was in 1968).

Beyond the relationship with Eleanor, I found Lorena Hickok to be an interesting person in her own right.  Besides a number of firsts as a female reporter, she worked in Franklin Roosevelt's administration for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration as its Chief Investigator, conducting fact-finding trips to learn about the poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, and lack of education resulting from the Great Depression.  She worked in public relations for the 1939 New York World's Fair, then as an executive secretary for the Democratic National Committee, and later wrote or co-authored ten books.

I started out listening to this as an audiobook, but had to switch to the print version to finish it on time for the library program.  Karen White has a voice that I could imagine being that of Lorena Hickam, that's right for the era.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

726 (2017 #24). New Boy


by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy is Othello retold - the fifth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series where bestselling authors are commissioned to retell stories from Shakespeare. Tracy Chevalier did this one - fortunately, I have read some of her other works.

Chevalier sets this tragedy in a Washington, DC, school in May 1974, and the main characters are sixth-graders.  According to an interview on YouTube (and her website),

I was 11 in 1974...I grew up in Washington, DC, and lived in an integrated neighborhood and went to a school that was about 80% black, and so I had the unusual experience of being a white minority. And I wanted to write about that, although I have flipped it ... the book opens with a black boy walking onto an all-white playground, and it's about what happens to him over the course of the day.

Chevalier of course simplified the story, removing most of the subplots, but the characters are still recognizable:

  • Othello - "O" or Osei , the son of a Ghanan diplomat, whose name means "noble" in his language.  He is the "new boy" of the title - this is his fourth school in at least three different cities in six years.
  • Desdemona - Dee, short for Daniela, the most popular girl in the sixth grade, although her mother is very strict and she goes home for lunch every day.  She is assigned by their teacher to take care of O on his first day.
  • Iago - Ian, the clever sixth grade bully (and the villain of the play).
  • Emilia - Mimi, Dee's best friend, now "going with" Ian although she wants out of it.
  • Cassio - Casper, the most popular boy in the sixth grade.
  • Roderigo - Rod, Ian's sidekick, who has a crush on Dee.
  • Bianca - Blanca, Dee's and Mimi's friend who is "going with" Casper.
  • Brabantio - Mr. Brabant, the teacher for O, Dee, Casper, and Blanca, a Vietnam veteran.
  • Lodovico - Miss Lode, the teacher for Ian, Mimi, and Rod.
  • Montano - Miss Montano, the school nurse.
  • Duke of Venice - Mrs. Duke, the school principal.

The handkerchief, the symbol of perceived betrayal in the original play, becomes a pencil case.

The book is divided into five sections - before school, morning recess, lunchtime, afternoon recess, and after school - corresponding with the five acts of Shakespeare's play.  Each section begins with a jump rope chant.  Chevalier said she especially enjoyed being able

...to reference ... the games we played, the slang we used, the candy we ate, how school worked, how I felt in school, and all that stuff came rushing back.  It was it was a great experience and very different from what I normally ... write, historical novels that are set ... centuries ago and have nothing to do with me.

Nevertheless, Chevalier's experience with writing historical fiction has her including all sorts of period details from 1974 (songs, TV shows, etc.) that made me appreciate the setting even more.

I also loved the way she worked in the class preparing to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream (page 112).  When Dee tells O she is playing Hermia, Ian overhears.

"Doesn't she fall in love with one boy after another?" Ian interjected.  "She's fickle like that.  Lucky boys."
"Only because of what you do.  It's just magic," Dee explained, as O's face darkened.  "It's a comedy, so it turns out alright in the end."
"Who do you play?" O demanded of Ian.
"He plays Puck," Dee said.  "The head fairy who makes all the mischief happen."

So true!  This is a tragedy of jealousy.  Updating the story to the 1970s also highlights the prejudices that are still relevant today.  I was in sixth grade just a few years before 1974 - and all the ever-changing friendships, crushes, and jealousies of that age ring true.

The book's ending is vague, but I think that is deliberate.  Something bad happens (the play IS a tragedy, with three of the four main characters dead by the end, and the fourth is arrested), but it's not quite clear what.

Highly recommended.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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



Saturday, February 18, 2017

725 (2017 #23). The Endless Forest


by Sara Donati,
read by Kate Reading

This is the sixth and final book in Sara Donati's Wilderness series, historical fiction set in upstate New York spanning the period from late 1792 to mid 1824 - the latter year being when this book takes place. The setting moves back to the location of the first book, the mythical town of Paradise, in the Adirondacks near Lake George and Saratoga, both of which I have visited.

The romance focus in this book is on Elizabeth & Nathaniel Bonner's son Daniel, who lost the use of his left arm in the War of 1812, and Martha Kirby, recently returned from living in Manhattan a number of years.  I decided to classify this book as a historical romance rather than historical fiction - because sex is a big part of this book, and the historical setting is not as relevant to the plot.

What does drive the plot is the return of the notorious troublemaker, Jemima Southern Kuick Wilde Focht, Martha's mother, and the stepmother of Martha's former best friend, orchard owner Callie Wilde.  The fear that Jemima might lay claim to Martha's inheritance from her father Liam Kirby, or to Callie's orchard, drives Daniel and Martha to go to nearby Johnstown to quickly marry, followed by Callie and Daniel's cousin Ethan Middleton.  The marriage of the latter two is for friendship and protection, as Callie fears she will pass on her mother's mental decline to any children.

Jemima left Paradise eleven years before pregnant by Callie's father, and claims that the little boy she brings with her, named Nicholas Wilde for his father, is both Martha's and Callie's half-brother.  Callie, desperate for the family she's lost and knows she will not have otherwise, accepts him as such, but Martha and the rest of Paradise adults are more cautious - especially since Jemima goes away and leaves Nicholas behind along with a couple black servants, who play a part in the story.

I never quite understood how Jemima could possibly claim the orchard for her son.  In Fire Along the Sky, the fourth book in the series, Jemima sells the orchard unbeknownst to Callie's father (which leads to his death), and leaves town with the money.  Callie later buys the orchard back, so it seems to me that she should be the owner outright, and not have to fear any claims from her half-brother or former stepmother.

Otherwise, the book brings us up-to-date on the lives of other members of the extended Bonner family and their friends.  Both oldest son Luke Bonner's wife Jennet, and Daniel's twin Lily are pregnant - Lily with her first after many miscarriages.  Gabe Bonner marries his childhood playmate Annie, a Mohawk, in secret at the beginning of the book.  And ten-year-old Curiosity "Birdie" Bonner, the youngest child, tells much of the story from her viewpoint.

Jemima comes back again at the end of the book, and that plot line gets resolved.  Donati ends the book (and series) with an epilogue in the form of newspaper articles and advertisements - including obituaries - that span the next twenty years.  Some deaths are to be expected, given the ages of the characters, some are surprises.  In a comment to a reviewer upset with this epilogue, Donati said,

I certainly wasn't bored with the series, but I did know that Bantam [the publisher] wouldn't give me a contract for another book in the series. That made the novel especially difficult to write, both technically and emotionally. I felt obligated to bring everyone to a fairly stable place. 

I was fine with the epilogue.  Many of the characters that survive past 1843 - and their descendants - show up in the first book in Donati's next series, set  in New York City forty years later, in 1883, The Gilded Hour.

Kate Reading's narration of the audiobook was superb as usual.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

723-724 (2017 #21-22). Two "Lowriders" Graphic Novels

by Cathy Camper, 
illustrated by Raul the Third

I'm not really into graphic novels, but Lowriders in Space was on the 2016-2017 Texas Bluebonnet Award reading list (it did not win the award, though), and the illustrator (Raul The Third, aka Raúl Gonzalez III, who grew up in El Paso) recently won the 2017 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for the sequel, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth.  This award is "presented annually to a Latino/Latina ... illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."  The illustrations are all done in red, blue, green, and black ballpoint pen ink on light brown paper and are incredibly detailed.

I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that author Cathy Camper is a K-12 outreach librarian with the Multnomah County Library system in the Portland, Oregon area.  In an interview, she said, “When I came up with the idea for Lowriders, I had three goals: To publish a book that would connect with English-Spanish speakers...To create a book that would appeal to boys since boys’ literacy rate was dropping...To connect with kids who loved comics and graphic novels.”

The books feature a female impala mechanic named Lupe Impala, a mosquito named Elirio Malaria who paints and details cars with his proboscis (beak), and El Chavo "Flappy" Flapjack, an octopus who cleans and buffs the cars.  The character names are clever - Chevy Impalas are popular models for lowriders, malaria is a disease spread by mosquitoes, and there really is a flapjack octopus.

In the first book (Space), these three work at the Cantinflas used car dealership, but long to have a garage of their own.  They use all their extra time and money to build a lowrider to enter into a competition - but some of the parts come from an old airplane factory, and their test ride takes them into outer space.  The second book (Earth) takes them deep inside the earth on a hunt for their missing cat, where they encounter Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld.

These two books reminded me a lot of Joanna Cole's old Magic School Bus series, specifically, the Lost in the Solar System and Inside the Earth books.  Both series manage to work in a little science along with the fantasy story.  The Lowriders books have a glossary at the end with definitions of Spanish and science terms, as well as explanatory notes about lowriders (Space) and Aztec and other cultural references (Earth).  Both books also translate Spanish terms within the stories with asterisked footnotes.

While aimed at middle-grade kids, even adults who aren't into graphic novels or knowledgeable about Latino or lowrider culture will appreciate some of the humor in the books, such as some of the cultural references like that to Cantinflas, and art that sometimes looks like Krazy Kat or Mad Magazine).  In Space, the protagonists get rid of a black hole with w(h)ite-out; and in Earth, Flappy describes igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks as "big dumb ignoramous rocks," "sedentary rocks....like napping at the beach," and "metaphoric rocks-these are the building blocks of poets everywhere!"


© Amanda Pape - 2017

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

721-722 (2017 #19-20). Two More Picture Books




Leather Shoe Charlie is a historical fiction picture book set in England during its 19th century Industrial Revolution. It is part of publisher Eerdmans' Trade Winds series, "an educational series featuring stories set in key periods in the history of economy and culture."  The fictional story is so-so (perhaps a weakness of being translated from Gyeong-hwa Kim's original Korean).  Much better are the four pages of information about the Industrial Revolution at the end - although the reading and interest levels for this information is not a good match to the reading and interest level of the fictional story.  The mixed-media illustrations by twins Anna and Elena Balbusso fit the atmosphere of the story.  Nevertheless, I'm unlikely to add this paperback to my university library's collection for future teachers.




Clean Sweep!  Frank Zamboni's Ice Machine, is another book in Monica Kulling's "Great Ideas" picture book biography series highlighting inventors.  This book should appeal to sports fans - hockey, speed skating, figure skating - and anyone interested in how this ice-smoothing machine came to be.  Renné Benoit's simple illustrations are done in watercolor and colored pencil.  Kulling is a poet, which may explain the poem that opens the book (and otherwise really doesn't fit).  However, this book definitely gets added to my university library's children's literature collection, used by future teachers.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received these books through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  They will be donated to libraries.]