Saturday Review of Books: August 13, 2016

“A book wasn’t something you could open anywhere and then flip to anywhere else. You opened it at the front and went forward, and the pages went from one to the next, each adding to the last, and the story grew more exciting with each page. It was like the way corn grew from the seed that got planted in spring to the tall rows you hid inside in the fall. A story grew.” ~Rachel Simon, The Story of Beautiful Girl

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine. (February, 2017)

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sophie Taylor-Cavendish is the recently orphaned fifteen year old daughter of a military man and world traveler, her beloved “Papa.” However, since Papa died in an accident way out in South Africa, Sophie must make her own way in the world. And a job as a shopgirl in the millinery department at the fabulous new Sinclair’s Department store in Piccadilly, London, is just the place for a young girl with sense of adventure and a need for a regular source of income.

“Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes, and mysteries around every corner! Wonder at the daring theft of the priceless clockwork sparrow! Tremble as the most dastardly criminals in London enact their wicked plans! Gasp as our bold heroines Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lillian Rose break codes, devour iced buns, and vow to bring the villains to justice.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much capture the general atmosphere of this series of middle grade/YA mysteries. I read the first two books, and I hope to read the third book in the series when it comes out next year. These are not profound, literary, or even particularly well-plotted. There are few glitches in the mechanism, and suspension of disbelief is required. However, the setting and characters are just so enchanting and delicious that a few creaky or inconsistent plot details can and should be overlooked. I’m not sure the London of these books ever really existed, but it’s a delightful place for a mystery romp, nevertheless.

The books are appropriate for middle grade readers; the romance parts of the story are tame and miss-ish, as would be appropriate for the time period. However, there is a murder that takes place in each of the first two volumes in this series, and if a sensitivity to plain but not-gory descriptions of violence and crime are an issue, then younger readers may not be ready for these books. It’s not Agatha Christie, but it’s a good introduction to the genre that Dame Agatha owned.

There’s an ongoing mystery in these books concerning Sophie’s family and background, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series to see if there’s a resolution.

Between Heaven and Earth by Eric Walters

David, Junior, aka DJ, has been given a task in his grandfather’s will: to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and scatter his grandfather’s ashes at the summit. DJ, a typical oldest child/oldest grandchild, is hyper-responsible, committed, and a tad bit over-confident. He’s sure he can complete the climb in two or three days and return home, having done the job that his beloved grandfather, also named David, has asked him to do.

But climbing Kilimanjaro is not as easy as DJ thinks it will be.

This book is part of a Canadian series from Orca Books called The Seven. There are also The Seven Prequels and The Seven Sequels, so a total of twenty-one books in the entire series, three books for each of the fictional grandfather, David McLean’s seven grandsons. Each set of books (prequel, series book, and sequel) has a different author, and each one deals with the tasks and legacy that Grandfather McLean left to each of his seven grandsons. The authors are all award-winning Canadian YA writers: Eric Walters, John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Norah McClintock, Sigmund Brouwer and Shane Peacock. And the stories themselves are real-life adventure quests that are designed to draw in reluctant readers, especially middle grade and teen boys.

In fact, I read that the idea for the series began with Mr. Walters and that he invited the six other authors to join him in writing the inter-linked books that are also good as stand-alone novels. I do want to read the other books about D.J. and his cousins now, even though a series of twenty-one books sounds like rather a big project to take on.

I’m rather intrigued to see whether the other authors’ books can stand up to the quality of this first book in the series. Has anyone else heard of these books or read any of the books in this series? I only discovered them because I read another book by Eric Walters last year and enjoyed it immensely. So, I went looking for more of Mr. Walters’ fiction. I have heard of Sigmund Brouwer, but not of the other Canadian authors who are collaborating in the series.

The Prequels (published in Fall, 2016)
Jungle Land by Eric Walters.
The Missing Skull by John Wilson.
Speed By Ted Staunton.
Weerdest Day Ever by Richard Scrimgar.
Slide by Norah McClintock.
Barracuda by Sigmund Brouwer
Separated by Shane Peacock.

The Original Seven (2012)
Between Heaven and Earth by Eric Walters.
Lost Cause by John Wilson.
Jump Cut By Ted Staunton.
Ink Me by Richard Scrimgar.
Close to the Heel by Norah McClintock.
Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer
Last Message by Shane Peacock.

The Sequels (2014)
Sleeper by Eric Walters.
Broken Arrow by John Wilson.
Coda By Ted Staunton.
The Wolf and Me by Richard Scrimgar.
From the Dead by Norah McClintock.
Tin Soldier by Sigmund Brouwer
Double You by Shane Peacock.

Saturday Review of Books: August 6, 2016

“In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language.” ~Mary Ruefle

SatReviewbutton

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

Reading Through The Olympics

Here are a few of the books in my library related to the Olympics:

Biographies of Olympic heroes:
Jim Thorpe, Olympic Champion by Guernsey Van Riper. A biography of the Native American athlete known as one of the best all-round athletes in history, for his accomplishments as an Olympic medal winner as well as an outstanding professional football and baseball player.

Babe Didrikson, Girl Athlete by Lena Young de Grummond and Lynn de Grummond Delaune. Babe Didrikson Zaharias was an all-round Olympic champion female athlete, with ability similar to Jim Thorpe’s in a number of events. After her Olympic career, Didrikson Zaharias excelled as a professional golfer.

Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift. A biography of the famous runner and missionary from the movie, Chariots of Fire.

The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

Mary Lou Retton: America’s Olympic Superstar by George Sullivan.

Highlights of the Olympics: Past and Present by John Durant. This history includes the origin of the original Greek Olympics and of the modern-day version and then highlights mostly American Olympics athletes through 1964.

Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (adapted for young adults) by Laura Hillenbrand. The best true Olympic story ever.

About kids participating in Olympic, and not-so-olympic, sports:
Stop! the Watch: A Book of Everyday, Ordinary, Anybody Olympics from Klutz Press. Host your own Olympic games with raisin-tossing, finger snapping, and under the bed crawling.

Everybody’s a Winner: A Kid’s Guide to New Sports and Fitness by Tom Schneider. A Brown Paper School book.

Jump: The New Jump Rope Book by Susan Kalbfleisch.

Olympic sports-related fiction for elementary and middle grades:
Mission to Marathon by Geoffrey Trease. The first marathon in 490 BC. Philip must run across the mountains to warn his family and all of Athens that the Persians are invading. Will he get to Athens in time to save the city?

The Winning Stroke by Matt Christopher. Swimming.

Soccer Halfback by Matt Christopher.

Stepladder Steve Plays Basketball by C. Paul Jackson.

Break for the Basket by Matt Christopher. Basketball.

Soup’s Hoop by Robert Newton Peck. Basketball. Soup has a plan to help his favorite hometown basketball team win, including the use of a musical instrument called a spitzentootle.

The Hockey Trick by Scott Corbett. When three brothers, all extraordinary baseball players, move into the neighborhood, two rival teams play a game of hockey to determine which team will get them.

Face-Off by Matt Christopher. Hockey.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. Sailing. The jolly crew of The Swallow pursue summer adventures in their sailboat.

Young adult fiction:
The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. A Harlem high school dropout escapes from a gang of punks into a boxing gym, where he learns that being a contender is hard work. Young adult.

The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. For Jerome Foxworthy, basketball is a metaphor for life. But trying to to teach the moves to Bix Rivers is a job that even Jerome may not be able to handle. Young adult.

The Runner by Cynthia Voigt. In the Vietnam War era, a black student joins the track team, forcing Bullet Tillerman to question his own prejudices. But nothing will keep Bullet from running. Nothing. Young adult.

In the process of making this list, I’ve decided to read some Olympics books myself, and also a book or two set in Brazil. I’d like for most of the books I read to be from my library, but I’m open to suggestions. Do you have any great Olympics-related books to recommend?

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet

Jan Balet “was a German/US-American painter, graphic artist and illustrator. Affected by the style naive art he worked particularly as a graphic artist and as an Illustrator of children’s books. Besides this he painted pictures in the style of naive art. Referred to as a “naïve” painter, his works exhibit a dry wit and refreshingly candid, satirical view of life.” ~Wikipedia, Jan Balet.

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet was first published in 1948. The AMMO Books reprint edition that I received for review is certainly a lovely re-gift to today’s children from the golden age of children’s literature. The story is reminiscent of James Thurber’s Many Moons, which won a Caldecott Medal in 1944. In Thurber’s story, the ailing Princess Lenore wants the moon, and her father, the king, directs various servants and courtiers to get it for her. In Balet’s picture book, Amos sees the moon in his mirror, believes it belongs to him, and goes out to find it himself when it disappears the next day. Various vendors and storekeepers give him gifts–a piece of ice, a horse, a watch, a moon-shaped cookie—- as he searches, but none of his friends can give Amos “his moon”. Finally, Joe Ming, the Chinese laundryman, wisely tells Amos, “No one has the moon always–just once in a while.”

It’s a gentle, old-fashioned kind of story, and the illustrations are delightful. Mr. Balet was first and foremost an artist, and the pictures of the various shops that Amos visits in search of his moon will interest and appeal to anyone, young or old, who is inspired by detailed scenes, exquisitely rendered. The illustrations sort of remind me of Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives or even the Impressionists like Manet, but Balet has his own style and subject matter. There is a European feel to the story and to the pictures, perhaps because of the many immigrants and ethnic groups that Amos encounters on his quest, even though the story is obviously set in an English-speaking, probably American, city.

AMMO Books has reprinted another of Balet’s picture books, The Five Rollatinis, which is a circus story and a counting book combined. Some of his other books, both those he illustrated that were written by other authors and those he wrote himself, are available on Amazon used. I really appreciate the publishers who find these old, treasured titles and bring them back into print for a new generation.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand

“Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.” Yes. Collide is the operative word. I wasn’t a fan of the way the story transitions from the real world of a precocious eleven year old named Finley to the fantasy world that Finley has created for herself, Everwood. All the characters in Finley’s extended family seemed like just that, characters, not real people. And Finley herself repeats her introspective and twisted thinking to the point of being annoying.

The secrets in the story that add to the tension are sort of arbitrary; why Finley’s aunts and grandparents and parents couldn’t come up with better answers to at least some of her questions was never clear to me. It’s about the three D’s: depression, divorce, and delusional thinking—and about adults with guilty secrets. I get why the adults are keeping their Big Guilty Secret, but I don’t understand why they keep all the little secrets. For instance, Finley and her cousins become friends with some neighbor boys whose father is an alcoholic and who also is a part of the Big Guilty Secret. So, the adults don’t want Finley and the cousins to associate with the Bailey boys. Why can’t they just say that dad is unstable, and they don’t want Finley to go to the Bailey house? Why can’t the kids still be friends at Finley’s grandparents’ home? Why is there so much “Just do it because I say so!” And why does Finley keep asking questions in her head but refuse to ask them out loud?

This story frustrated me because I felt the potential. Finley could still have struggled with her parents’ impending divorce if the parents had been honest and told her that they were having marital issues. And the grandparents and aunts could have been at least partially honest, and much more believable and sympathetic, had they told at least part of the truth. And would any responsible parents leave their eleven year old daughter for the entire summer with grandparents she had never met, grandparents who were just about completely estranged from their only son (Finley’s father) for the past eleven or twelve years, and for good reasons?

I wanted to like this one, but I just didn’t believe it. Your mileage, and opinion, may vary from mine.

New Biographies in the Library: July, 2016

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know, I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past month:

Harry Houdini: Young Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland. Illustrated by Helen Ross Speicher. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Albert Einstein: Young Thinker by Marie Hammontree. Illustrated by Robert Dorms. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Kate Douglas Wiggin: The Little Schoolteacher by Miriam E. Mason. Illustrated by Vance Locke. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

George Eastman: Young Photographer by Joanne Landers Henry. Illustrated Rawson. Childhood of Famous Americans series.

I have a young library patron who devours these Childhood of Famous Americans series books. They are a series of somewhat fictionalized biographies of almost all of the famous Americans you can think of. They’re written on a primary grade/easy chapter book reading level, and the stories are engaging and adventure-filled. The bios focus on the childhood years of the subject, hence the series title, but do give information about each person’s adult life as well. I recommend them for second to fourth graders who want to read about real people. I find them to much more readable and “narrative” than more recent biography series for that age group, which sometimes tend to be dry and factual and focused on the adult lives of the biographical subject.

The War in Korea: 1950-1953 by Robert Leckie. World Landmark series is another great series for children and young adults, this one more middle grade level and usually about historical events or time periods, although some are biographies. I didn’t really have any books in my library about the Korean War or set during the Korean War, so I was glad to pick up this Landmark history book.

The Story of Beethoven by Helen Kaufmann. Another series, Signature Books from Grosset and Dunlap publishers. Excellent biographies written by top-notch authors.

Giants of Invention: Stories of the Men Whose Inventions Remade our World by Edgar Tharp. Illustrated by Frank Vaughn.

History’s 100 Greatest Composers: Life Stories of the Immortals of Music Selected by America’s Top Music Critics by Helen L. Kaufmann.

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne. I found this more recent title, a picture book biography emphasizing Einstein’s unrelenting curiosity, at a thrift store. It’s a lovely introduction to the great scientist and his work.

Thistle Games by Mike Nicholson and Jo Litchfield

Just in time for the summer Olympics, here’s a rhyming picture book about a different kind of sports event, the Thistle Games. Subtitled “a braw Scots story for bairns,” this Picture Kelpies imprint book from Scotland gives a lovely introduction to traditional Scottish games and competitions and also to all those fun Scottish words. How many of these do you know? (The definitions are in white font, so that if you move your cursor to highlight the spaces immediately after the word, you can read the definition.)

Dour: stern, severe

Dwam: a blank or dreamy state of mind

Gie-ing it laldy: giving it energy and enthusiasm

Havering: talking nonsense (I thought it meant wanting or desiring.)

Hirple: to limp or hobble

Keek: a peek or glance

Lugs: ears

Mingin: stinky

Numpty: a silly person

Skiver: someone who dodges work

Sleekit: sneaky, cunning Isn’t this word used in that Burns poem about the mouse?

Spurtle: a short stick for stirring porridge

Stookie: a plaster cast

The fun thing is that you don’t have to memorize these words in your study of Scotland: they’re all used in the rhyming text of this rollicking good story about a community picnic, games competition, and musical event, with races, food, shopping and dancing. Unless you’re a numpty or in a dwam, you should queue up and take a keek at this braw Scots story.

Thistle, by the way, is a made-up place and the Thistle Games are imaginary, too, but real in the sense of being played by Scots, old and young. The authors have written two other “Thistle” books: Thistle Street and Thistle Sands.

Thumbelina, illustrated by Elsa Beskow

In the mail the other day, I received a review copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, illustrated by famous Swedish artist Elsa Beskow. Ms. Beskow’s illustrations are justly known throughout Sweden and the world as classic artwork, both for her own books and for stories by other authors. Of course, Andersen’s story of a tiny girl “no taller than your thumb” is perfectly suited to Ms. Beskow’s lovely watercolor pictures.

This edition of Thumbelina features beautiful framed, full-page illustrations. The illustrations probably come from one of the eight (!) fairy tale collections that Elsa Beskow illustrated. Like Beatrix Potter, Ms. Beskow was a close observer of nature, and her pictures remind me of Potter’s, except larger. The “largeness” of the world, from Thumbelina’s vantage point, is portrayed quite well in this book, and a child reader will identify with Thumbelina as she travels through the countryside until she finally finds a home with the tiny King of the Fairies.

Elsa Beskow also wrote thirty-three stories of her own in Swedish, many of which have been translated into English and published along with her original illustrations. In my library I have Ollie’s Ski Trip and Pelle’s New Suit. Floris Books, the publisher of this Thumbelina, also has available and in print: Peter in Blueberry Land, The Land of Long Ago, The Sun Egg, Princess Sylvie, The Children of Hat Cottage, Emily and Daisy, Children of the Forest and many more. If you like classically styled picture book art, like the picture on the cover of Thumbelina, and then you will probably enjoy all of Ms. Beskow’s books.

The author and her husband Nathanael Beskow, a minister, had six children—all boys. I’m sure she enjoyed creating the pictures for Thumbelina and feeding the “girl-y” part of her nature, while surrounded by all those boys.