Friday, April 11, 2014

A Fish Named Glub, by Dan Bar-el (illustrated by Josee Bisaillon)

A Fish Named Glub
Author: Dan Bar-el
Illustrator: Josee Bisaillon
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Source: NetGalley
View on Amazon

What a strange book. The book's description refers to the existential questions of a fish living in a bowl and, boy, they weren't kidding about that. So I was prepared for the "Who am I? What am I doing here?" questions the fish asks. What I was not prepared for was the sudden plot twist when the fish becomes some sort of psychic medium divining the futures of all who touch the water in his bowl.

I did not see that coming.

Magda's Take:
Why are people putting their hands in his bowl? That can be very stressful for a fish. What is going on in this book?
My Take:
I don't know. I don't know what is going on in this book. It's...quite strange.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Mangle Street Murders (The Gower St. Detective: Book 1), by M.R.C. Kasasian

Research always shows in writing. If an author skimps on their research before writing a novel, it can ruin the impact of the whole book. While this may not be true for every book, it is always true for historical novels. Always. After reading some truly stellar historical mysteries set in Victorian England (plus several great non-fiction books about the time period and its real life crimes), as well as some truly awful ones, I approach every historical mystery with some healthy skepticism. Will this be as good as Ann Granger's Inspector Ross series? Or Alex Grecian's first book? Or will it be a mess, like Mrs. Poe? Or Alex Grecian's second book? I'm ever hopeful, but I've been disappointed so many times.

In the case of The Mangle Street Murders, I'm undecided. On the one hand, I'm not sure I completely trust the author's research, but on the other hand I'm not sure if it's factually incorrect or just poorly written. It sometimes seems that the whole book is written with modern values in mind, just "aged back" with old-timey words like "pianoforte."

One character says she didn't want the indignity of "going into service" so she earns extra money by teaching pianoforte and French language instruction, as well as "taking in children when their parents are unable to care for them." I'm not sure I'm buying it. In 1882, would the middle class have been sufficiently established to allow for people to need pianoforte and French lessons for their children, but without them just hiring a governess or nanny? I'm skeptical. I think the working classes may indeed have left their children in the care of neighbours while the mothers went to factory jobs, but I don't think they'd be concerned about paying extra for French lessons. And I think pianoforte lessons would have only been for the wealthy, and those people had staff for those sorts of things.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it's just one example in the book that made me think, "Are you SURE about that?" Like I said, I didn't trust the author.

Also, the "personal detective" character of Sidney Grice was, as other reviewers have noted, not easy to like. I also kept seeing his name as "Sidney Grace" which reminded me of "Sophia Grace," that British child who sings Nicki Minaj songs in a tutu. Remember her? It's who I was picturing the whole time I was reading this book.

I guess if I had liked the book more, these little things wouldn't have bothered me. But I just wasn't that into it, which is why I had time to wonder about the details and get lost in tangents.

In the end, I thought it was only okay. I think the expression I'm looking for is "damning with faint praise."

The Mangle Street Murders
Author: M.R.C. Kasasian
Series: The Gower St. Detective (Book 1)
Publisher: Pegasus/Open Road
Publication Date: February 6, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

The Black Country
(my review)
A Particular Eye for Villainy
(my review)
The Yard
(my review)
Mrs. Poe
(my review)

The Vanishing, by Wendy Webb

Look at that cover. Isn't it gorgeous? So atmospheric and evocative. Okay, now for the bad news. It's everything else. Everything else except the cover is the bad news.

Maybe not everything. The basic storyline is okay, there's the makings of a good ghost story in there. But the writing is SO BAD. It's poorly constructed, full of cliches, and the research is completely non-existent. As in, I'm pretty sure that if Wendy Webb was in the middle of writing and she couldn't remember the name of something (like the specific Great Lake or Canadian province near where her story takes place) she just said something vague like "lake" or "border" and skipped over it. Annnnnd repeat. It was beyond irritating.

I don't have much else to say about this book. I was going to list all the ways in which the book was disappointing, but I got tired just thinking about it. I think the worst review I read for it was one that said, "This is Wendy Webb's best book so far!" Oh dear. I guess I won't be reading her other books then.

The Vanishing
Author: Wendy Webb
Publisher: Hyperion/Hatchette
Publication Date: January 21, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

The Bellwether Revivals
(my review)
The Little Stranger
(my review)
The Revenant of
Thraxton Hall

(review coming soon)
The Fall of the House
of Usher 

(short story)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (A New English Version), adapted by Philip Pullman

The Grimm Brothers are having a real moment in pop culture right now. There are numerous movies and television shows with dark fairy tale themes, including one simply called Grimm. There's the Grimm trilogy by Adam Gidwitz. There's even a take on The Three Billy Goats Gruff called The Bully Goat Grim. And then of course there's this new collection of Grimm fairy tales by Philip Pullman.

I say "new" but of course the stories are very old. The Brothers Grimm themselves did not originate most of these stories, but gathered them from many sources, travelling around listening to tales. So Pullman warns us not to be too precious about the "right" version of these stories.

"A fairy tale is not a text," he says in his introduction. Each storyteller who repeats a fairy tale has the liberty--nay, the obligation--to tell it in his own way with his own embellishments. In this collection, Pullman has striven to stay true to the spirit of the original fairy tales rather than worrying about the exact wording or details.

He's also included a lot of stories that I had never heard before, such as "Hans-my Hedgehog." I was excited about that one because my daughter, Magda, is in love with a hedgehog character that her father created for her in a series of stories (which are sadly not available outside of our house, as much as I'd love to see him publish them). The Grimm Brothers' take on a hedgehog was, uh, less charming. In true Grimm fashion, it was a little horrifying. I didn't tell Magda.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm
A New English Version
Author: Philip Pullman (adapted by)
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: October 29, 2013
(Published by Viking November 8, 2012)
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

A Tale Dark and Grimm
(review coming soon)
In a Glass Grimmly
(review coming soon)
The Grimm Conclusion
(review coming soon)
The Bully Goat Grim
(review coming soon)
Grimm (TV)
Once Upon a Time (TV)
Maleficent (2014)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cupcake Cousins, by Kate Hannigan (illustrated by Brooke Boynton Hughes)

I read this to Magda, who is four, and she loved it, but the target audience is probably around ages 7-9. It's a great chapter book overall, with just a few minor problems (in our opinion).

First of all, at nearly 300 pages it's quite long for a children's chapter book. Of course some of those pages are recipes or illustrations, but still.

Second, most of the characters have flower or plant names (Rose, Willow, Violet, etc.) but since it's hard to come up with plant-themed boy names, the little brother in the book is called Sweet William. Although I've seen that conceit used to great effect before (have you seen the movie The Hanging Garden? It's great), it did get very annoying that he was called that Every. Single. Time. Not once did they just call him William or Will. Does it say Sweet William on his birth certificate? Also, it didn't help that he was the worst character in the book. He was five but he acted (and was treated) like he was two, in that nobody ever reprimanded him for all of the horrible ways he screwed everything up. My four-year-old was a little insulted by how useless the five-year-old in the book was.

But on the plus side, the characters of Willow and Delia (the so-called Cupcake Cousins, though they seem to make everything BUT cupcakes) are great. And I loved that Delia comes from a mixed race family and it's NBD. Willow likes the fact that even though they have different hair and skin colour, she and her cousin still look a lot alike and have the same eyes. In real life, lots of families and extended families are racially diverse, but that's something you almost never see represented in children's books. I liked that a lot.

Cupcake Cousins
Author: Kate Hannigan
Illustrator: Brooke Boynton Hughes
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

I Don't Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star, by Judy Greer

For the record, I totally DO know what I know Judy Greer from. She was Kitty on Arrested Development AND she's the voice of Cheryl on Archer. YAY ARCHER!!! To be honest, I mostly wanted to read this book because I wanted to find out what she said about working on Archer or at least Arrested Development, but she barely mentioned them at all. And even though she worked with Jessica Walter on BOTH shows, she mentioned her exactly zero times. Did I get the abridged version of the book? So disappointing.

Other than that, it's an okay celebrity memoir. It's not ground-breaking or super emotional or laugh-out-loud funny, but it's cute and competently written. If she were my favourite celebrity (or someone I knew in real life) I would definitely love this book. Then again, I still would have wanted her to spill about her TV gigs.

I did like her story about getting her first movie role by auditioning wearing her favourite blue raincoat and using it as a prop in the scene. When she got a callback, the director asked her where her raincoat was and she said, "Look outside. It's not raining today so I didn't wear it." (That's a LOT funnier if you picture her saying it in her Cheryl Tunt voice) She got the part and they made her wear her blue raincoat in the movie, so she kept it forever because it was so lucky (and famous). And she managed to tell that whole story without ever once referencing the Leonard Cohen song, "Famous Blue Raincoat," which I think shows incredible restraint because the song was pretty much playing on a loop in my head the whole time. Or maybe she just doesn't know that song. No, that's too horrible to think about.

Compared to similar celebrity memoirs, I'd say it was a better read than Maybe We'll Have You Back, by Fred Stoller, but not as good as Official Book Club Selection, by Kathy Griffin.

Okay, can somebody find out if Jessica Walter has a book?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Pig and Small, by Alex Latimer

Oooh I love Alex Latimer! My whole family absolutely fell in love with Lion vs. Rabbit and now he's on our permanent watch list. As in, we always watch for any new books by him and try to get them as soon as possible. Well he has a new picture book coming out in August and we're all so excited! (We're especially excited because I got an advanced digital review copy from NetGalley--yay!)

Pig and Small is the story of a pig (Pig) and his new friend, a tiny bug named Small. They enjoy each other's company but it takes them a while to figure out what kinds of activities they can enjoy together without their size difference being a problem. Small tries knitting a sweater for Pig but it's far too little. They try hide-and-seek but Pig can't find Small for days. They try playing chess but it takes too long for Small to move the pieces. They're starting to worry that it's hopeless.

Luckily they figure it out and a beautiful friendship is born. Awwww.

I read this with my four-year-old, Magda, and she and her dad (who was listening from across the room) both had the same reaction. They both thought that Small reminded them of the character of Very Small Beetle, one of Rabbit's "friends and relations" from The House at Pooh Corner. Very high praise indeed!

Magda also pointed out that in the scene in which Small tries to play chess, his opening move is to (try to) move the queen, which isn't a very good opening play so his game of chess probably wouldn't have gone well anyway. (Magda's dad has been teaching her to play chess and both of them are always excited when they see chess mentioned in story books.)

There Was an Old Sailor, by Claire Saxby (illustrated by Cassandra Allen)

I do love cumulative rhymes in the style of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and this is a particularly good one. The old sailor swallows a krill, a jelly, a fish...all the way up to a whale (at which point he burps them all up and sets sail). 

The illustrations are delightful--which is especially important when you're doing a variation of such a familiar, well known rhyme--and the book even ends with "fishy facts" about each of the creatures the sailor swallowed.

When I was a daycare teacher, I certainly sang the original song plenty of times, and also sought out the many variations available as picture books. One of my favourites was There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro, who has made a career out of writing variations on the same theme. 

So I was surprised that when I read this book to Magda she wasn't familiar with the concept. "Why did he swallow a whole squid? Where did he get the seal from? How is that even possible??" Did I really never sing "There Was an Old Lady" to her before? 

After we read this book, we watched a video of the original song on YouTube and she appreciated the rhyme even more. I also noticed that one of the comments on the video said that the song is actually great for teaching various blended consonant sounds (catch, swallowed, fly, spider, perhaps, wriggled, etc.) which I never thought about, but it's absolutely true! And since this book stays very close to the original rhyme except changes which creatures are being eaten, this book is also great for practicing consonant sounds. Actually, it includes even more combinations than the original because of the krill, squid, whale, etc. Nice!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Big Book of Things to Make, by James Mitchem (DK Publishing)

Fantastic! As always, DK Publishing delivers exactly what it promises. This is like the quintessential book of kids' crafts. It's got all those things I vaguely remember from my own childhood (pinhole cameras, bottle rockets), plus a bunch of things I used to know when I was a daycare teacher but have since forgotten (homemade slime, milk art), and a couple of things I just never knew at all (if you make jello with tonic water it glows under UV light -- why?). Basically it's one-stop awesome.

And it has a whole bonus section of "things to do" that includes tips for how to play detective or pirates or even how to make your own board game. You know, for kids who want to better at playing and figure the answer is probably in a book (hint: it totally is). I was that kid. Actually, I still am, which is why I strongly approve of this book.

The Big Book of Things to Make
Author: James Mitchem
Publisher: DK Publishing
Publication Date: March 18, 2013
View on Amazon

Source: Edelweiss

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Best Book in the World, by Rilla (Rilla Alexander)

Whatever the "best book in the world" is, it's not this. This book is okay, it's nice, it's fine, but it's not superlative.

Like many of the Flying Eye books I've encountered it seems to have been created by someone who loves art more than they love children. I"m not saying it's a bad book or inappropriate in any way, I just think the main (and nearly the only) focus of the book is on the artwork, and the words and story are of little consequence. 

If you love the artwork, you'll love the book. But, as with other books from this publisher, I'm not as enamoured of the artwork as the publishers seem to be. Meh.

The Best Book in the World, by Rilla Alexander
Published by: Nobrow / Flying Eye Books (July 8, 2014)
View on Amazon

Source: Edelweiss
Rilla Alexander's website


The Black Country (A novel of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad), by Alex Grecian

Hoo boy. This book was a mess! I was really excited about reading it because I love detective fiction set in England, especially in the late Victorian era, and I loved Grecian's previous novel, The Yard. I could not have been more excited about this book, but like I said, it was an absolute mess.

My only criticism of The Yard was that it somewhat lacked focus. It was hard to see who the star of the book was because the narration followed around several characters indiscriminately. By comparison, The Black Country is the literary equivalent of a kid being allowed to decorate his own cake with every single candy topping he can get his hands on. Grecian pulled out every plot device he could think of and threw them all into the book.

I'm adding a jump just in case you don't want to read any possible spoilers...

My Happy Life, by Rose Lagercrantz (illustrated by Eva Eriksson)

My Happy Life
by Rose Lagercrantz
Illustrated by Eva Eriksson
Published by Gecko
Publication Date: January 13, 2013
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

"Mommy, are you awake? Can we read My Happy Life again now?" This is what I've been hearing on a near constant basis since I first read this book to my daughter Magda. Unfortunately we only have a digital copy at the moment (thank-you to the publisher and NetGalley!) so I think we'll have to get a print copy soon so Magda can read it over and over again to herself. It really was an instant favourite for her.

When I asked her what she liked about it she said, "I liked how the author wrote the words and I liked how the illustrator drew the pictures, and I liked how the words and pictures went together." Well that about sums it up then.

My Happy Life: the perfect book, according to my four-year-old.

Endangered and Extinct Mammals, by Jennifer Boothroyd

Conversation with my 4-year-old:

Magda: Mommy, if you were in the forest and you met an animal that was endangered, would it poison you?

Me: Uh...what?

Magda: Like would it swoop down and kill you, like right away?

Me: Would what? What kind of animal are you talking about?

Magda: Endangered animals. Are they really poisonous or something?

Me:, honey. Endangered means the animal is in danger, not that they're really dangerous.

Magda: In danger of what? Dying?

Me: Yeah, dying out, becoming extinct.

Magda (giving a knowing nod): Oh because they're really old.

Me: Sigh. Just a second. I think I have a book on the computer that can explain this better than I am...

And so it did. Magda now has a better understanding of the meaning of "endangered" and "extinct" (I hope, at least) though I suspect she still thinks the dinosaurs all died of old age at the same time (this book only deals with mammals, so dinosaurs weren't covered).

This book is a good entry to the topic of endangered animals, though the section on "how you can help: was maddeningly vague. I don't think the author sufficiently explains how being sure to recycle your water bottles will prevent pandas from dying. I know Magda had a lot of followup questions, so I'd recommend a trip to the library, museum, or at least the internet after reading this.

Endangered and Extinct Mammals
Author: Jennifer Boothroyd
Series: Lightning Bolt Books ™ — Animals in Danger
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication Date: February 1, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley
Publisher's website

Starring Me and You, by Geneviève Côté

This book is all kinds of adorable. A pig and a rabbit want to put on a play but they can't seem to get it together. First they're both too shy, then they can't agree on the costumes (pig wants to be a pirate, rabbit wants to be a flower), then they get frustrated and bread each other's stuff, until finally they're able to come to a compromise and put on a show together.

Geneviève Côté does a great job of helping children name their feelings--when I'm shy, sometimes I hide or sometimes I fake a smile--as well as identifying what other people are feeling based on their behaviour--when you smile like that, you look eager. This is an important skill that children need help to learn because it does not come naturally. If children have the language to talk about their feelings it can really help them express themselves without having a tantrum.

The Strangling on the Stage, by Simon Brett

There's no doubt in my mind that Simon Brett is a very talented mystery writer. He's responsible for one of my favourite mystery novels of all time, The Christmas Crimes at Puzzel Manor. He's also a very prolific writer and, in my opinion, not always consistent. This book, for instance, is definitely not one of my favourites.

It started out with some great elements. It's set in the world of amateur theatre ("SADOS" not "am-drams"), which is always fun. It reminded me of "The Dangers of Gingerbread Cookies," by Laura Levine, or the movie Hot Fuzz in that respect. 

Of course it's strange to read a Simon Brett mystery about the theatre without having Charles Paris show up, but I suppose Paris is an amateur detective but a professional actor so he wouldn't be anywhere near the am-drams (sorry, SADOS). But it's a good setting, flush with drama, histrionics and things not being as they appear.

Which brings us to the murder, the so-called 'strangling on the stage.' It seems straight forward enough. A prop Velcro noose is replaced with a real one and an actor is hanged while reahearsing a gallows scene. So who switched the ropes? Seems simple enough but it felt like 150 pages are devoted to nothing else but this question. I really could have used a few subplots to keep the interest up.

And if I never read the words "drinkie things" again in my life, it'll be too soon. It's what the SADOS members call their after theatre cocktails and according to my e-reader the phrase appears over thirty times in the book. I don't believe that. I'm sure it was more like 200 times. And we don't actually get to see much "drinkie"-ing!

The whole book could have taken a cue from that old Elvis song, "A Little Less Conversation (A Little More Action)". And no "drinkie things"!

The Strangling on the Stage
A Fethering Mystery
by Simon Brett
Publisher: Creme de la Crime
Publication Date: February 1, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: NetGalley

Gingerbread Cookie

(my review)
The Christmas Crimes
at Puzzel Manor

(my review)
Hot Fuzz
A Little Less Conversation