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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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 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

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?

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Even Monsters..., by A.J. Smith

I think he needs to check his facts...

This cute book for toddlers and preschoolers claims that even roaring, growling, snarling monsters have to do regular kid things like eat breakfast, ride the school bus, play soccer and get goodnight kisses. I'm not sure how A.J. Smith could possibly know that. I'M STARTING TO THINK HE MADE THE WHOLE THING UP.

This book also has a QR code that takes you to the author's website (well, the book's website, I guess), I haven't checked it out yet, but I'm imagining it's like one of those magazines with the "Celebrities Are Just Like You" sections, showing famous people pumping their own gas or eating french fries, except it'll be drawings of monsters with captions like, "They do math problems!" or "They sit in the time out chair!" 

Don't Dangle Your Participle, by Vanita Oelschlager (illustrated by Mike Desantis)

So THAT'S what a participle is?

In the past I have criticized Vanita Oelschlager for not taking her ideas far enough or only telling half the story (Out of the Blue, for example) but here she gets it just right. 

I have nothing bad to say about this book. She explains the concept of participles--verbs used as adjectives to modify or describe a noun--and uses many examples of how a participle can be left "dangling"--i.e. modifying the wrong noun.

One example from the book: The verb "growl" can be used as a participle to describe a lion, as in "growling lion." If it's left "dangling" you can get a sentence like this: "Growling as they ate, the children gathered around the lions' cage." It sounds as though the children are growling instead of the lions, then there's a picture of children growling at the zoo. Very cute!

A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession, by Lucy Worsley

Ooh I do love a British murder mystery! I mean, I love all murder mysteries and always have, but lately I've been particularly in love with mysteries that either take place in England between 1860 and 1900, or are written by British authors writing between 1900 and 1960. So Lucy Worsley's account of the rise and fall of the "golden age" of British detective fiction was right up my alley.

I must say I was surprised to find myself shocked by some of the things in this book. I know the British are known to have an almost ghoulish fascination with murder and mayhem (hence this book) but then again so have I. I had an older brother who made sure I knew more about Edgar Allan Poe than Dr. Seuss and watched more Stephen King films than Sesame Street. Thank heavens for older siblings or children would be at risk of never learning how to handle being properly terrified. But even I balked at some of the murderous exhibits that British audiences have apparently flocked in to see. The book made out of the skin of a convicted murderer was particularly gruesome, especially considering Worsley also made a convincing argument that wrongful convictions were once a fairly common occurrence.

Monday, March 10, 2014

American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton, by Joan Barthel (foreword by Maya Angelou)

American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
by Joan Barthel
(Foreword by Maya Angelou)
Publisher: St. Martin's Press / Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: Mach 4, 2014
View on Amazon

Source: Goodreads, NetGalley

Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized on September 14, 1975, when my mother was three months pregnant for me. It is from her that i get my middle name, Elizabeth (though as a child I insisted on pretending I was named for the more glamourous Queen Elizabeth I, a notion which irritated my French Catholic mother). Apart from giving me part of my name, Elizabeth Seton founded the Sisters of Charity, the religious order that my mother joined before she was married (had she stayed, I presumably would never have come along to inherit the founder's name).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd

A Fatal Likeness
Author: Lynn Shepherd
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: August 20, 2013

Source: Edelweiss, NetGalley

Never trust a writer who doesn't read. Lynn Shepherd has gotten a lot of attention lately for her anti-J.K. Rowling rant on HuffPost, but the part of her whiny, attention-seeking article that stands out the most is when she proudly declares she's "never read a word" of Rowling's work.

Moans Shepherd:

"I've never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can't comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there's so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. But, then again, any reading is better than no reading, right?"