Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Mommy, can I review this book?" Magda's Review: Bud and Gabby, by Anne Davis

Bud and Gabby
Author/Illustrator: Anne Davis
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: August 1, 2006

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Source: bought from library sale

"Mommy, can I review this book?"

We must have read Anne Davis' Bud and Gabby at least fifty times since we bought it at a library sale a year ago (or was it two?) but this time Magda wanted to review it. I think it was because she had a cold at the time and the book is about two cats and the worry one goes through when the other one gets sick. It spoke to her this time.

Magda's review:
"In between the silly part and the all together part, there's a sick part. I didn't like that because I don't like being sick. But mostly it's a happy book. Even in the sick part, there's a silly part where Bud the orange cat makes a mess with the toilet paper. I like that it's a silly book and a nice book. I also like being an author and a writer so I'm going to do that."

So there you go. Magda's first review as a four-year-old (she just had her birthday last week). Bud and Gabby is a nice book, and a silly book, but there's a sick part in the middle that can get kind of tense. Don't worry. It all works out in the end.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Now I have to re-watch every Downton Abbey episode! NON-FICTION BOOK REVIEW: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Lady Fiona J. M. Aitken Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon (Audiobook narrated by Wanda McCaddon)

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle
by Lady Fiona J. M. Aitken Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon

Narrator: Wanda McCaddon
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Audiobook Publisher: Tantor Media
Publication Date: March 5, 2012

Disclaimer: I received a free digital copy of the audiobook from Tantor Media through Edelweiss (Above the Treeline). I was not required to write a favourable review, nor was I otherwise compensated in exchange for my review. I also borrowed the print edition of the book from my local library. All opinions expressed are strictly my own.

I loved both the print and audio versions of this book! As a fan of Downton Abbey, I was fascinated with all the ways in which the show mirrors the real life of the family who inhabited Highclere Castle (where the show is filmed) at the time. Normally with books like this I try to indicate whether or not I think it would be "for fans only" or if it be of interest to non-fans as well, but this book is aimed at fans of Downton Abbey for a reason. If you are interested in the lives of the aristocracy and the servant classes in early twentieth century England, you will probably like this book. Then again, if that's the case you'll probably like Downton Abbey too! 

I loved reading about the similarities between the fictional Lord and Lady Grantham and the real Lord and Lady Carnarvon, including the Earl marrying a wealthy woman to save his fortune, the castle serving as a hospice for soldiers in WWI, the shooting hunts (or is it hunting shoots?) the division of labour among the servants and much of the specific details about their lives, the Earl's ever faithful dog, and even a stoic but compassionate man named Mr. Bates who is forced to walk with a cane due to a war injury (Wow! So many things! And more, actually.). Above all, I loved reading more about my absolute favourite character on Downton Abbey, which is Highclere Castle itself.

Plus the audiobook narration by Wanda McCaddon is absolutely perfect. Although you miss out on some of the photos if you opt for the audiobook only, I'd almost say it's worth it just to hear the story in Ms. McCaddon's pitch perfect delivery. If only they could have somehow had the Downton Abbey theme playing in the background of the audiobook, it would have been sheer heaven.

I wonder what other similarities the writers will use in upcoming seasons of Downton Abbey. Will Lord Grantham help uncover the tomb of King Tut in Series Four, just as Lord Carnarvon did in 1922? OH I HOPE SO!

An oldie but a VERY goodie...MYSTERY BOOK REVIEW: The Christmas Crimes at Puzzel Manor, by Simon Brett

The Christmas Crimes at Puzzel Manor
Author: Simon Brett
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Publication Date: October 15, 1992
Source: I borrowed this from my local library years ago. Now that I think about it, I should probably buy myself a copy.

I read this ages ago (probably 10 years or more) and I can't remember if I ever wrote a review, even in the form of notes to myself about the book. Nonetheless, I do remember that it is one of my favourite mystery books of all time ever. Full stop. It contains puzzles throughout the book, usually at the end or beginning of each chapter and, although you can just keep reading to see how the protagonists solve the puzzles, the plot of the whodunnit advances better if you solve the mysteries yourself as you go. And unlike the Puzzle Lady series by Parnell Hall, it's not just crosswords or Sudoku. It's clever logic problems and other brain teasers that are left by the killer for the sleuths--and the reader--to find and solve. I LOVE LOVE LOVED it so much that I sincerely wished it was not only one in a series but one in a genre of mystery novels. 

I've been chasing the satisfaction I felt in reading this book for years, first by checking out other Simon Brett novels (none were like this though) and then by seeking out other mysteries with puzzles in them. I didn't care for the Parnell Hall books, but I did find a book by Antoine Bello called The Missing Piece that was quite good (though the "puzzle" in that one was rather elaborate and I wasn't very good at solving it).

Since it's been a sufficiently long time since I've read this book, I suppose I might just go back and re-read it. It'll have to do until I can find others like it. So if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

Pretty illogical for a book about a logic puzzle maker...MYSTERY BOOK REVIEW: A Grid For Murder (A Mystery By the Numbers), by Casey Mayes

A Grid For Murder
A Mystery By the Numbers
Series: Mystery by the Numbers / Savannah Stone
Author: Casey Mayes
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime
Publication Date: 2012
Source: local library
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It's a good little cozy, or rather it's almost a good little cozy. My main problem with it is the flaw in the lead character's logic. The amateur sleuth, Savannah Stone, makes the same leap of logic when trying to solve a murder that nearly all cozy sleuths make: she is so obsessed with finding people with motive that she completely ignores means and opportunity. Who was actually in the area when the victim was killed? Who could have had access to her in the time period before she died? She's focused solely on the "why" and not the "how."

The reason this bothers me in this book more than in most is that the sleuth in question was a material witness to the crime! She was there! Right around the time the victim was poisoned! She had tea with her! So yes, on the one hand I understand why this would give her motivation to try to solve the crime herself because obviously she's a prime suspect, but on the other hand you'd think she'd be better at steering that investigation. Because she knew who else was there! Start with them! It annoyed me.

The other thing that I thought was a bit odd was that the character of Savannah is written to be a bit older (in her 40's I think?) but she behaves like a much younger woman. Her relationship with her husband is so soppy and clingy that she seems like she's more like a twenty-year-old. At one point a neighbour tries to give her information as long as she keeps it quiet and doesn't tell anyone. Savannah insists she has to tell her husband. I assume it's because her husband is helping to clear her (by working with the police, which seems odd considering his wife is a suspect) so she needs to be able to share information with him in order to clear her name. Nope. It's just because she loves him sooooo much that she can't possibly agree to keep anything from him, lest it jeopardize her marriage. Of course he keeps information from her (because he's working on the police investigation, incredibly) but that's not a problem. Honestly, she seemed like a love sick teenager.

At first I assumed this might have been because the author herself was a younger woman and was giving her middle aged character somewhat unbelievable qualities. Turns out Casey Mayes is actually one of the many pen names of mystery author Tim Myers. I don't think I've ever read any of his other books so I can't categorically say that Tim Myers doesn't write believable female characters, but I did find this one in particular a little unbelievable.

So overall not the worst cozy mystery. It's not poorly written and the setting is developed. I can picture the town and its fictional inhabitants clearly. It just requires more suspension of disbelief about the process of crime solving than I'm willing to give. Plus for a character whose job is "logic puzzle creator" it's weird that she doesn't use logic, isn't it?

MY librarian hardly EVER kills people...MYSTERY BOOK REVIEW: Killer Librarian, by Mary Lou Kirwin

Killer Librarian
Author: Mary Lou Kirwin
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication Date: November 27, 2012
Source: local library
View on Amazon

Full Disclosure: I didn't finish this book. I rarely abandon a book I'm not enjoying, not because I have a problem doing so, but because so many of the books I read have been provided by publishers through review programs (usually in the form of digital galleys) and I feel bad abandoning them because then I can't write a proper review. So usually I slog on, even if I'm hating the book (which almost always results in a negative review, but at least an honest one). In this case I had gotten the book from the library so I hadn't promised a review to anyone, so I didn't feel bad about stopping after only a few chapters.

So here's why I abandoned Killer Librarian:

The writing was a bit odd to me. The tone of the narration was very young, with phrases like "Rosie was way into speculative fiction," even though the main character was meant to be middle aged. And it was too conversational, written the way someone might talk, but distracting in a novel. Plus the romance-gone-bad premise didn't appeal to me. The set up is that our heroine, Karen Nash, is about to fly to England with her boyfriend and the "love of her midlife" for a much needed vacation and literary tour. It sounds great, except that he cancels at the last minute, breaking up with her over the phone and neglecting to mention that he is taking someone else on the trip. When Karen decides to go anyway, she is of course on the same flight as the miserable ex and his new fling.

Now if someone like Helen Fielding or Sophie Kinsella or even M.C. Beaton were writing this, I'd be sure it would be handled perfectly, but I didn't have enough faith in Mary Lou Kirwin to continue. She describes Karen's emotional state clumsily, writing things like, "After that first tsunami of hate washed over me, I tried to call Dave back." It just didn't appeal to me.

Now before you start telling me that I didn't read enough of this book to judge it properly, let me say that yes, you're absolutely right. I didn't. So take this "review" for what it's worth: a first impression based on about five chapters. But my first impression wasn't great and I think I'd approach this author with caution in the future.

He has HOW many? Celebrity Memoir Review: Dad is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan

Dad is Fat
Author: Jim Gaffigan
Publisher: Crown Archetype
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
Source: local library
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Author's website

Jim Gaffigan is a comedian. I've seen him on TV loads of times. He's the Hot Pockets guy. He was the other half of Pale Force with Conan O'Brien. I feel like I know him. And yet he and his wife have five kids under the age of 8 and live in a two bedroom apartment in New York City. They don't have a car. I feel like I don't know anything anymore.

I have so many questions. How do you--? Where do you--? But what about when you want to--? In Dad is Fat, Gaffigan answers many of those questions, complete with maps and layouts of his tiny apartment and its various sleeping arrangements (is that a baby in the kitchen?), along with a few "None of your business, you pervert!" responses. I guess he gets the same questions a lot.

At its core, Dad is Fat is relentlessly endearing. Gaffigan is a dad. That's his true identity. He loves it, is overwhelmed by it, is annoyed by it, and is completely at the mercy of his love for his children and his love of being a dad. And I get that, because I'm lucky enough to live with a man who feels exactly the same way about being a dad.

And the title? Oh that was written by one of his kids. In fact it was the first full sentence that his son Jack ever wrote. He proudly displayed it to his father, beaming at his accomplishment. Gaffigan includes a photo of the original sentence with the explanation, "This was written by my former son."

I've already gotten this book out from the library so I don't need any more convincing to go out and get it. But if I did, this "Book Chat" with the Gaffigan kids would certainly do the trick. I want Marre Gaffigan to have her own show!

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case (A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers), by Alexander McCall Smith (illustrated by Iain McIntosh)

The Great Cake Mystery: 
Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case 
Series: A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Illustrator: Iain McIntosh
Publisher: Anchor
Publication Date: April 3, 2012

Source: local library (digital)
View on Amazon

Author's website
Illustrator's website

Originally published in the UK
by Polygon
on February 1, 2012
with the title "Precious and the Monkeys"

Magda and I read this in one sitting. It's absolutely delightful! It's based on the character from The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, except it's her as a little girl, solving her first case. She's logical and adorable! My daughter and I were thoroughly charmed.

I admit that I've never read the Alexander McCall Smith series, though it's not for lack of trying. I must have started one or more of his books at least six different times, but I could never get into them for some reason. I'm not sure why. But I did love (LOVELOVELOVELOVE) the BBC/HBO production based on the books, starring Jill Scott as Mma Precious Ramotswe. I know I shouldn't admit that I liked the TV show better than the books but oh my god, you guys, it's sooooo good. The acting, the location, the theme music, the opening credits...it's a nearly perfect show. I only wish they had made more than just seven episodes.

So it was the TV show that I had in mind when I was reading this book with my daughter. But with the illustrations, the simple story with the satisfying and humourous ending, and the memorable (read: awesome) characters, it definitively ticked all the boxes for me. It was exactly how I hoped a children's version of a Mma Precious Ramotswe story would be.

The book was originally published as Precious and the Monkeys in the UK with this cover:

And if you haven't seen the BBC/HBO show, check out these credits. Honestly I could just watch that opening sequence over and over and over.

OMG Is it the Feast of Saint Lucia ALREADY? CRAFTY BOOK REVIEW: Handknit Holidays: Knitting Year-Round for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice, by Melanie Falick (photographs by Susan Pittard)

Handknit Holidays:
Knitting Year-Round for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice
Author: Melanie Falick
Photographer: Susan Pittard
Publisher: STC Craft | Melanie Falick Books
Publication Date: October 30, 2012
View on Amazon
Source: NetGalley

Unless you are a person of very diverse talents and interests, it's unlikely you'll make every single one of the projects in this book. Unless of course you happen to knit, crochet, embroider, do lace work, metal work, felting AND you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, winter solstice, the Feast of St. Lucia and various Russian folk traditions AND you make gifts for children, adults, newborns and dogs AND you're looking for a new holiday craft book. In which case, you're amazing. And I just found you the perfect book.

For everybody else, this book would be more of a starting point, a source of inspiration or new ideas, even if you only make a few of the projects in it. It really takes the "something for everyone" approach to heart, with a selection of clothing, decorations, household items, ornaments, gifts, toys and more to make. There's even a cookie recipe. For me, it's probably not a book I would buy (I received a digital copy for review purposes) because I just don't think I'd get enough use out of it. But I could see it making a great addition to your crafting library if you have a crafting circle, if you teach classes, etc. Otherwise, I would recommend checking it out from your local library first and seeing if the projects appeal to you. There are a lot to choose from and there may be enough that are intriguing that you want to own the book.

I'll just say one more thing about the projects though. Don't judge them based on the picture on the cover of the book. In my opinion the cover photo is the ugliest one in the whole book (sorry). It's dated and, I think, a little tacky. And most of the projects in the book are not at all like that. I'm not sure what made them choose this particular glove-hood combo thing for the cover but it makes the whole book look like it came right out of the early 1980's. So don't be fooled. A lot of the ideas in the book are actually very pretty and modern.

Which reminds me. If I'm going to make any knitted gifts for Christmas this year, I'd better get started! There's a tree skirt and a table runner in the book that I'm dying to try but I'm not sure if they're too hard for me (I'm truly a beginner). If I make them, I'll be sure to post my results!

 Or maybe I'll just start with some of those adorable tree ornaments...

That's one high fashion sweater! CRAFTY BOOK REVIEW: Lovely Knits for Little Girls: 20 Just-Right Patterns, Just for Little Girls, by Vibe Ulrik Sondergaard

Lovely Knits for Little Girls:
20 Just-Right Patterns, Just for Little Girls

Author: Vibe Ulrik Sondergaard
Publisher: Taunton Press
Publication Date: February 21, 2012

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Source: NetGalley 

In many ways, this book delivers exactly what it promises. The patterns in this book are indeed lovely and they are definitely meant for little girls. They're not just frilly dresses covered in flowers and bows, but they are feminine and pretty things like billowy sweaters, knit shrugs, sweater dresses and wrap scarves. Most of them are presented in neutral but stylish colours like creamy ivory, soft grey and light blush pink, with details like fabric bows and puff sleeves.

Sofia Elf Cardigan with Fabric, page 10

I wouldn't say these are the most practical garments. I agree with Deirdre at Wyvernfriend Knits who said that "this is a book more for events than for everyday." There are a lot of short-sleeved sweaters with VERY puffy sleeves and small shrugs or mini-vests in thick yarn. In both cases I think that if it's cold enough for those garments, it's probably cold enough for a coat but I'm not sure how you'd wear one over them. In most cases they look like they're purely for fashion and not for actual cover ups. 

And the oh-so-high-fashion photos confirm that. The photos are beautiful and full-colour, with multiple photos per garment, but they're very "fashion-y." The girls are wearing satin bubble skirts with giant bows on the hips and elaborate fascinations on their heads. It's definitely not playground wear or even everyday school clothes, though some (but not all) of them probably could be worn  that way.

Apart from the lovely photos of the finished garments, there were no pictures or schematics of the pieces in progress, closeups of techniques, or closeups of seam stitches or anything like that. And the introduction is pretty sparse, without any "mastering the basics" introduction. So it's not really a book for beginners, at least not without some good reference books to help you along with the techniques. 

And I had trouble figuring out the sizing. I have other books that have directions for how to make the same garment in multiple sizes (how many extra stitches to cast on to make it one size bigger, etc.) but with this book I was a little skeptical. Many of the designs are only described in one size with little to no information about sizing it up or down, while others claim to be suitable for sizes 3-8 years but the measurements for each size are nearly identical (surely a girl grows a lot from the age of 3 to 8?). And it seemed most of the size adjustments were in the chest measurements but not the length, which is where my daughter grows the fastest. All in all, I found it a bit confusing and a little daunting.

Has anyone tried any of the patterns in this book? If so, I'd love to hear from you and find out how it went. Leave a comment!

I can think of at least two things wrong with this title...MYSTERY BOOK REVIEW: The Summer of Dead Toys, by Antonio Hill

The Summer of Dead Toys
Series: Inspector Salgado
Author: Antonio Hill
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Source: NetGalley and Edelweiss

Every time I tried to read The Summer of Dead Toys--which was a lot of times, I had the advanced copy for, like, ever--I had the exact same thought, "Is this the book that's supposed to be so good? Do I have the right book?" And then I'd go and read some of the advanced buzz and reviews and see that everyone seems to love this book. Like crazy love it. So I'd think, "I must just be reading it wrong." And I'd keep reading. Another hundred pages in I'd think, "Surely not EVERYONE loves this book, right? I can't be the only one who is finding it boring as hell, right? Am I?" And I'd look at online reviews and find out that yup, I was. So I again figured I was reading it wrong. By the time I had slogged through two thirds of the book I realized that nothing was going to make me like it but it was too late to stop at that point. So I finished...eventually.

Okay first of all let's start with the title. It is not the SUMMER of dead toys because the entire 10,000 page book takes place over a course of ten days. So at best it's the "Fortnight of Dead Toys." (And no, it's not really 10,000 pages, it just feels like it, but it is long.) And also, "dead toys"? That is the stupidest imagery ever. Dolls are not dead. Finding a sea of dolls is not creepy like "dead toys." Stop trying so hard to be creepy! It's like the whole book was trying to sneak up on me with an evil villain laugh, "Mwah-ha-ha! Look how EEvil I am!" Ugh. Stop.

The whole tone of the book was off-putting from start to finish. I was constantly surprised by the fact that this was a debut novel. That sounds like a compliment but it's really not. It felt like I was coming in on a story already in progress, like the second book in a trilogy that's not meant to be read out of sequence. The characters all had back stories that were alluded to and then explained, as if I was supposed to be tantalized by the secretive details. As if I was supposed to already care about all of the characters, their foibles, and their histories. But I didn't at all. I was just annoyed. JUST TELL ME THE STORY ALREADY! I wanted to scream.

Then I thought maybe the book was badly translated. Sometimes translators can focus too much on precision and lose the tone, or focus so much on tone that the story makes no factual sense. Back to the internet to investigate. Turns out Antonio Hill is a professional translator. So if there was a translation problem, whose fault would that be? His, that's who.

I rarely disagree so vehemently with the overwhelming majority of online reviews, but man I hated this book. It took me forever to get through it because I just hated so much. For me The Summer of Dead Toys turned into The Year of No Joy. Ugh, I'm making terrible book reviewer jokes now, that's how much I hated this book.

Move over, there's a new vicar detective in town! MYSTERY BOOK REVIEW: The Advent of Murder (A Faith Morgan Mystery), by Martha Ockley (aka Rebecca Jenkins)

The Advent of Murder:
A Faith Morgan Mystery
Author: Martha Ockley
Publisher: Lion Hudson
Publication Date: July 19, 2013
Source: NetGalley
View on Amazon

Oh I'm a sucker for a good vicar mystery. The Father Dowling Mysteries, The Father Brown Stories (both with excellent TV adaptations), Sidney Chambers stories (we need more of those!) and now, the Faith Morgan series.

Faith Morgan is a lot of cozy mystery detective types all in one. She's a former police officer who has changed careers and become a vicar, and she has to deal with her surly police inspector of an ex-boyfriend Ben (I've never thought of vicars as having ex-boyfriends), and in this one she has to solve a murder while planning the Christmas pageant. Oh and it's a Christmas cozy! Basically this book was written with me in mind. If it had somehow included recipes or puzzles, I would have been in heaven.

I liked this one a lot. I had high expectations because, as I said, the setup ticked a lot of boxes for me, and I wasn't disappointed. One of the big advantages of having a clergy member as an amateur sleuth is that it gives a perfect excuse for your character to be both nosy and interested in solving crimes. Most of Faith's sleuthing was done under the guise of ministering to her parish, which worked out well. I'll definitely be looking for other books in this series.

Martha Ockley is a pen-name of writer Rebecca Jenkins (not to be confused with the Canadian actress of the same name). You can read more about her and her books on her website.

They're better dressed than I am...CRAFTY BOOK REVIEW: The Best-Dressed Knitted Bears: Dozens of Patterns for Teddy Bears, Bear Costumes and Accessories, by Emma King

The Best-Dressed Knitted Bears: 
Dozens of Patterns for Teddy Bears, Bear Costumes and Accessories
by Emma King

View on Amazon.com

Publisher: Anova Books (Collins and Brown)
Publication Date: July 5, 2012
Source: NetGalley

It's cute, and the idea is a good one: provide a few patterns for basic teddy bears and then provide patterns for clothing them. If you like those teddy bears, you'll love dressing them in dresses, pants, hats and various costumes. The only thing is, I didn't really like the teddy bear patterns. They're okay, but they're the kind that have the arms and legs attached separately so there's a seam at the connector points. I'm sure that makes them a little easier to make than if they were all one piece, and it probably makes it easier to put them in a sitting position, but I don't think it looks as nice, especially when the bear isn't dressed.

I guess I think these would make good "display" bears but not necessarily good "playing with" bears. Having said that, that's just my personal aesthetic preference. There's no reason you couldn't make these bears--which are mostly the same but in different sizes--for a child to play with. And if they loved it you could easily surprise them with new clothes for the bear without needing to measure again. Personally, I think I may skip making the teddy bears for now and just try making some of the outfits for my daughter's other stuffed animals. I think she'd be thrilled!

They make it sound so easy...NON-FICTION BOOK REVIEW: The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (DK Publishing)

The Religions Book:
Big Ideas Simply Explained
Publisher: DK Adult
Publication Date: July 15, 2013
Source: Edelweiss

I studied religions at university (I have a degree in Religious Studies and Women's Studies from McGill University...not strictly the most practical degree but fantastic for having interesting conversations) and I wish I had had this book at the time. It's not that any of the information is in-depth or comprehensive, it's just that it's a great at-a-glance guide to a lot of information, a quick reference "cheat sheet" of world religions. Plus it's easy to read and pretty to look at. And even though the information about each religion is basic, the book does a fair job of distilling complex ideas into accurate nuggets of essential facts. In all honesty, the book lives up to its title. It IS a book of "big ideas simply explained." Well done, DK!

Of course I'm not surprised. DK Publishing is responsible for some of my favourite "big ideas told simply" infographic and quick reference books. I think I'd be very happy to have an entire library of their books. It could be my "knowledge at a glance" book shelf. Oh that would be brilliant! And the books are all tall and thin so they wouldn't actually take up that much space.

Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. Bottom line: I highly recommend this book. Scroll down to see some page spreads from the book, which will give you an idea of the layout and general feel of the book.

Does this book make me look fat? BOOK REVIEW: Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver

Big Brother
Author: Lionel Shriver
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: June 4, 2013

Source: Edelweiss

I had trouble with this book and this review. I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin so much and I was excited to read another book by Lionel Shriver. But as I was reading it I couldn't help thinking, "Lionel Shriver HATES me!" Her book Big Brother isn't just about obesity. It's about her protagonist's (and probably her own?) absolute revulsion over obesity. Pandora HATES that her big brother is fat now. She hates it so much that it is literally the worst possible thing she could imagine to happen to her. She MUST fix this because HOLY COW DID YOU SEE HIM TOUCHING EVERYTHING WITH HIS FATTY FAT FINGERS? Her life depends on stopping her brother from being so gross. Oh, and, uh, health and all that. 

Lionel Shriver has brushed up against fat-hating before. She's claimed that fat acceptance killed her brother (because maybe he wouldn't have died from obesity-related illness if we'd all just made him feel worse about himself as a society), and her characters in We Need to Talk About Kevin reference fat phobia, albeit in passing. When she wrote Kevin, she said she imagined what it would be like to have a child and have the worst possible thing happen to you: having them turn out to be a psychotic school shooter. Reading this book felt like she'd done the same thing, except that the "worst thing" she was imagining was having someone be FAT near you. WHAT IF THE FAT PERSON WAS RIGHT THERE, IN YOUR HOUSE?!

I kept hoping that the all-consuming (sorry) loathing that Pandora feels for her brother Edison's obesity was just the fault of the character, not the author. Perhaps this novel is really about how Pandora's attitude towards her brother's weight are something she has to deal with, just like he has to deal his own weight issues? Perhaps Shriver will have her characters realize that the climate of nonacceptance in the family is part of the problem that led to Edison's weight issues in the first place? But no. Instead Shriver has Edison eating every thing in sight, plying the family with mountains of pancakes made with *gasp* white flour (NOOOOOOOOO!!!) and chocolate, and comically falling over from being so fat and gross. Real nice, Shriver. 

So it was hard to read this without thinking, "Am I thin enough to read this book? At what weight would the author and her loathsome characters turn their wrath on me? 150 pounds? 200 pounds? 300?" It was a dizzyingly bizarre thought to have while reading a novel, but it was a nagging one. Her utter disgust at the notion of fatness swallowed up (sorry again) everything else in this novel for me. 

It's weird to say, but I liked Lionel Shriver better when she was writing about a mother who had managed to raise the worst human being on earth because, oddly, I found her more likeable and relateable than the characters in this book.

Oh dear Dawn French, how I love you...BOOK REVIEW: Oh Dear Silvia, by Dawn French

Oh Dear Silvia
Author: Dawn French
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
Source: Edelweiss

Oh Dear Silvia is not what I expected. For starters Silvia is lying in a hospital bed in a coma when the novel opens, so the book isn't really about her as much as it is about those around her and how they cope with the situation. Each chapter is a one-sided conversation between one of the characters and their comatose wife/mother/sister/friend/employer/patient, Silvia. And though the book is over 300 pages long and there are many of these one-sided conversations that reveal more and more about Silvia's character, the entire novel takes place in only a ten day period. 

In many ways it's like a novel in letters. Or one made up entirely of journal entries. We rarely see the characters interact (except with Silvia of course) and we never learn more than they're willing to tell us (or rather, to tell Silvia). Still, taken together, the individual perspectives of each of the grief stricken characters gives the reader a more complete picture than any of them has access to. By the end we know Silvia better than any of them--even though she hasn't spoken--because we know all the secrets that they never share with each other. 

Oh Dear Silvia is a subtle novel. It has moments of dark humour and absurdity, but is certainly not uproariously funny. For fans of Dawn French, this may come as a shock. When I read her previous novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, I was surprised that it wasn't the wickedly funny, laugh-out-loud novel I was expecting based on her comedy writing. But it seems that Dawn French the comedian and Dawn French the novelist are quite different creatures, and I quite like them both. 

Putting the ham back in Hamlet...MYSTERY BOOK REVIEW: A Decent Interval (A Charles Paris Mystery), by Simon Brett

A Decent Interval:
A Charles Paris Mystery
Author: Simon Brett
Publisher: Creme de la Crime
Publication Date: July 1, 2013 
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Source: NetGalley

Simon Brett is responsible for what is possibly my favourite mystery novel of all time, the criminally little-known The Christmas Crimes at Puzzel Manor (1992). It's a Christmas cozy in which disparate guests at an estate house are being murdered and our heroes must solve the crimes by first solving an increasingly difficult series of puzzle clues left by the killer. The reader can uncover more of the plot by solving the puzzles along with the sleuths. It's an absolute delight and it almost ruined all other mysteries for me, since I spent years seeking--to no avail--other books just like it. As such, I haven't read a Simon Brett novel in years because every time I picked one up I just found myself sorely disappointed that it wasn't another puzzle mystery.

But finally, after many years, I decided to let that go and give Simon Brett another try, this time with A Decent Interval (I figured that was appropriate considering I'd waited "a decent interval" between Simon Brett books).

Well I'm glad I did because I loved it!

A Decent Interval stars Charles Paris, an aging working (or barely working) actor who finds himself occasionally solving crimes. Since I had never read a Charles Paris story before, I was glad that the references to his previous cases were just subtle enough to pique my interest without giving too much away, in case I decide to go back and read them (which I probably will).

The thing I liked most about the book was the description of life for a "jobbing actor" as Charles describes himself. He is at times bitter, desperate, hopeful, resentful, passionate and despondent  sometimes all at once. It reminds me of many real conversations I've overheard between actor friends of mine who get enough work to stay in the business but are still waiting for that big break. Or any episode of Extras

Plus the book mentions Shakespeare a lot (our hero has a small part in a stage production of Hamlet in which the set is constructed to look like the inside of Hamlet's skull) so it tied in well with my ongoing Shakespeare in a Year project!

It's all about the pictures really...CHILDREN'S BOOK REVIEW: Monster, Be Good!, illustrated by Natalie Marshall

Monster, Be Good!
Author: Blue Apple Books/Harriet Ziefert
Illustrator: Natalie Marshall
Publisher: Blue Apple Books
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
Source: Edelweiss
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My daughter Magda and I have read similar monster books before and--I hate to say it--we're often disappointed. The pictures are so great and promising (they remind me of Ed Emberley's monster books) but the books are very short (okay for very young readers I guess) and the lyrics don't seem to match the whimsy of the illustrations.

This one in particular is trying to tell children not to be scared of monsters by reminding them that they are "in charge" of them, but I found it a little clunky, if that makes any sense. I think the message could have been better told with funnier text (like Ed Emberley's books) and they would have suited to fantastic pictures better.

Magda's Take: "Is that it? Is that the end of the book? Oh."

Halloween is a tough time for scaredies...HALLOWEEN CHILDREN'S BOOK REVIEW: Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Halloween: A Safety Guide for Scaredies, by Mélanie Watt

Scaredy Squirrell Prepares for Halloween:
A Safety Guide for Scaredies
Author: Mélanie Watt
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Publication Date: August 1, 2013
Source: Net Galley
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Everyone's favourite perennially frightened rodent, Scaredy Squirrel, is back in a new holiday guide. This time Scaredy takes on the one day that's specifically designed to be scary: Halloween. But not to worry, Scaredy Squirrel is prepared! This guide will show you how to survive the frights, blights, and--worst of all--germs of the spookiest night of the year.

My daughter Magda and I both adore Scaredy Squirrel. Like many three-year-olds, she is a bit prone to fears (rational or otherwise) and recoils at the thought of spiders, monsters and those strings on bananas. But Scaredy Squirrel's fretting makes her feel positively brave. As she reassured Scaredy that he needn't be afraid of cobwebs, bats or butterflies (!), she realized that she didn't need to either.

Incidentally, this is nearly identical to one of the strategies for overcoming childhood anxiety recommended by Dr. Lawrence Cohen in The Opposite of Worry. Namely, to comically exaggerate your own fears in a way that a nervous child will find funny but not insulting ("Oh you're WALKING?! Do you know how dangerous walking is? I'm so worried!!). That way the child will get in on the game and reassure their "nervous parent" by showing off how adventurous and brave they are ("You're RUNNING now? Oh my heavens!").

So see? Mélanie Watt was doing that all along! You can visit her website to learn more about Scaredy Squirrel and see inside the book!

Magda's Take:

"I like the rock star costume. I'm going to be a rock star for Halloween!"

Sooo gross!! CHILDREN'S BOOK REVIEW: Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices, by David M. Schwartz (photographs by Dwight Kuhn)

Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices
Author: David M. Schwartz
Photographer: Dwight Kuhn
Publisher: Creston Books
Publication Date: July 23, 2013
Source: Net Galley

My three-year-old daughter and did not quite agree on this book. And rightly so. A preschooler's reaction to icky gross things is usually quite different than her mom's. So I've split it up into two reviews:

My Review: Ewwww! It's so gross! I mean I knew it would be gross because it's about mold and rotting fruit. It IS called "Rotten Pumpkin" after all. But still, it's sooo gross. Close ups of fuzzy mold and slugs, coupled with little stories from the points of view of the bugs, fungi, soil and pumpkin itself. It's definitely not for the squeamish.

Magda's Review: This book was fantastic! I really liked how the slime mold is actually a whole bunch of little molds that work together. It's good to work together. And there are a lot of true facts in this book, like how some molds are used for medicine and fermentablation [she means 'fermentation'] which is good. Why don't we let our fruits rot so we can feed all the bugs and molds? We should do that!

Sigh. Thanks a lot, David M. Schwartz and Dwight Kuhn. My daughter loved your very informative and verrrry icky book.

Twas the night before Halloween...HALLOWEEN CHILDREN'S BOOK REVIEW: Black and Bittern Was Night, by Robert Heidbreder (illustrated by John Martz)

Black and Bittern Was Night
Author: Robert Heidbreder
Illustrator: John Martz
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Publication Date: August 1, 2013
Source: NetGalley and Edelweiss
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What an unusual book! It reminds me a little bit of the Dr. Seuss meets The Nightmare Before Christmas, with all the adorable spooky skeletons trying to take over the holidays. In this case it's "skel-a-mug-mugs" who are trying to scare everyone in town so that Halloween is cancelled. It almost works when the "tall-bigs" lock up their "doorholds" and "drapefolds" and won't let their "tyke tots" out to trick-or-treat. Luckily the kids know better and sneak out to out "splook" the skel-a-mug intruders. The nonsense rhyme with made up words and silly tongue twisters is hard to read but surprisingly easy to understand.

It would also make a good exercise for elementary school aged children to try to figure out the silly poem's meaning. Poetry can be a bit daunting and inscrutable for some, and what better way to take on the task of deciphering poetry than to practice on a silly rhyme about skeletons at Halloween?

My daughter Magda had fun picking out all of the children's Halloween costumes ("Look! A wolf! I wonder why he doesn't have any candy?") as well as the silly skeleton features (some were wearing glasses, others suspenders). She was so amused by the silly rhymes and charming pictures that she forgot to be scared by the spooky "splooks."

Magda's favourite part: When they were trying to go in the houses but they couldn't get in. The pictures were so funny.

My favourite part: Don't laugh, but I really liked it because it reminded me of Plants vs. Zombies.

NOTE: I borrowed the "Magda's favourite part/My favourite part" idea from a great children's book blog called Read It Daddy. It's written by a dad from the UK with his daughter Charlotte and features "Charlotte's best bit" and "Daddy's best bit" in each review. You should definitely check it out. It's all kinds of awesome.

Great title, but...CHILDREN'S BOOK REVIEW: The Night the Moon Ate My Room!, by Jesse Wilson

The Night the Room Ate My Room!
Author: Jesse Wilson
Publisher: Tate Publishing
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
Source: Goodreads
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Oh dear. I can tell that author Jesse Wilson loves this book dearly. Not only did he promote it on Goodreads (which is where I first heard about it, and how I won a free giveaway copy--thanks again) but when he sent me a copy I saw that he had also sprung for the matching bookmark. This book is his baby. Not only that, but his author bio lists his job as giving "educational performances of The Night the Moon Ate My Room for schools." Eek! This book is his life. So I'd hat to tell him I didn't love it.

In fact, if your name is Jesse Wilson and you're reading this you may want to just stop right now. Go get some tea, take a walk, then come back and look at a different website altogether. Okay?


The truth is I hated this book. There's so much I hated about it I don't even know where to start because it makes me feel a little mean. But here are the main criticisms:

First, the book is such a clumsy allegory that even the author of the "Footprints in the Sand" poem would be like, "Whoa! Pull back a little!" It's like if you took a Mitch Albom book (say, Five People You Meet in Heaven) but stripped away all the sentimentality and relatability and all the things that make you care about hte character, and all you were left with was "The Lesson." Or if you took a Roald Dahl book (like James and the Giant Peach, for example) and surgcally removed all whimsy and clever writing until all that remained was...well, still better than this book, quite frankly.

Don't believe me? Well how about this. Even though the book is over 120 pages long he never bothers to give the main character a name. It's not all told in the first person either. Most of it is a third person narrative in which he refers to the hero of the story as simply "the boy."

Few things irritate me more than authors who are so intent on "teaching a lesson" that they forego good writing, good editing or good storytelling in order to focus solely on "the message." I find it insulting to the target audience and to the target buyers, teachers and parents. Because do you know who doesn't have to sacrifice good storytelling in order to impart a lesson? Good storytellers. And Jesse Wilson is not one.

Whew! I'm glad I asked him to leave the room before he read that.