Thursday, December 25, 2008

This year's Christmas books

I love Christmas books, especially children's Christmas books, which is why we already have a collection of them even though we don't have any kids yet. I bought two children's books to add to our collection this year: Rocky Mountain Night Before Christmas by Joe Gribnau and illustrated by Salima Alikhan, and The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry and illustrated by P.J. Lynch.

iconiconThis picture book is a really clever spin-off on one of my all-time favorite Christmas books, The Night Before Christmas. But instead of a family at home asleep, this one is a cowboy who is out on horseback when Santa shows up.

It's a hilarious story, in which Santa gets lassoed before the cowboy recognizes him — and then they "have a nip" and share cowboy stories. The illustrations are really beautiful too — gorgeous realistic pencil drawings with vivid watercolors. I particularly like the realistic images of horses.

iconiconI can't remember when I first read this short story of O. Henry's, but since I was a kid The Gift of the Magi has symbolized to me what Christmas and gift-giving is all about. If you haven't read the story before, you can find the full text here. (There was also a neat editorial about the short story this year, available here.)

But I highly recommend this picture-book version, because of what a beautiful little book it makes. The watercolor illustrations are beautiful and really capture the beauty of the story itself. I am sure that when we do have children, this will be a cherished book — and perhaps the beginnings of a family tradition!

What books are you reading to celebrate Christmas?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

iconiconI actually decided to read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare thanks to my husband, Michael, who is better than I am at staying up-to-date on the newest releases — probably because I write instead of looking at books when we go to the bookstore. However, the subject is one I'm pretty interested in, as an English literature major, so when Michael started talking about it I decided to read it after he finished.

Shakespeare is a pretty short book, which Bryson attributes to how little there is that is actually known about Shakespeare — and he is committed to avoiding any amount of conjecture in his biography of the great man. It turns out that most of what we think we know about Shakespeare is conjecture, so he spends a lot of time discussing why we don't really know what we think we know.

My favorite part of the book was the last chapter, where Bryson roundly thrashes any theory that anyone else might have written Shakespeare's plays — a theory that has always struck me as rather malicious and even a little bit sour grapes. Tearing down the reputation of English literature's greatest writer seems to make a great many people feel better about themselves.

I also really like Bryson's tone, which is delightfully sarcastic in all the right places. It's not often that a book makes me laugh out loud, especially a nonfiction book, but this one definitely did. It is a quick read, but definitely very enjoyable, not to mention illuminating. I highly recommend this one!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

iconiconA few nights ago, I finished The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley.

I was interested in reading some more by McKinley after reading Sunshine a few months ago. I really loved Beauty when I was in high school, so I decided to try another one of her fairy tale retellings.

I ended up liking The Outlaws of Sherwood very much. I like McKinley's writing style, but it does take some getting used to — at the beginning of the book, you notice how long her paragraphs are and how much description there is, but by the end of the book the only thing you notice is how fantastic the description is.

I have to admit I don't know the Robin Hood stories very well — just what Disney ad Hollywood have relayed in their film version — but I enjoyed the book anyway. There were a few recognizable scenes where I could appreciate how McKinley tweaked the normal tellings of the story, but I never felt like I was missing something because I didn't know the myths.

Definitely a fun book. I will have to reread Beauty sometime (as it has been years since I've read that book) and see how it compares!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jinx by Meg Cabot

iconiconI can't remember how I heard about Jinx — that's how long I had it out from the library before finally getting around to reading it — but I had read some Meg Cabot before... Nothing that has been turned into movies, though.

Jinx was a short but entertaining read. The book is about witchcraft, in the spirit of the TV show Charmed and the movie The Craft. However, I liked this take on it much better. It's typical Meg Cabot in that at the end, everything gets tied up in a neat and tidy bow, but it was also very satisfying.

Recommended if you need a short mental vacation for an afternoon or an evening!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

iconiconA few weeks ago, my husband and I watched the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Dayicon, a hysterically funny British film about a middle-aged governess who stumbles into a nightclub singer's relationship crisis, and spends twenty-four hours in a world of parties, nightclubs, drugs, and sex.

After the movie, I watched one of the special features, and discovered the film was based on a book that was published in the late 1930s. The short video had a lot of interesting information on the book's publishing history and the author, who apparently was quite the businesswoman when it came to her writing. (She was quite ambitious about marketing Miss Pettigrew, and sold the movie rights to the book three times during her life.)

I was quite delighted to find the book much the same as the movie — a few differences in characters and scenes, but nothing major. Most importantly, the book had the same quick wit and hilarious dialogue that makes the movie so delightful.

Because so much of this book is dialogue, it is a fairly quick read. This is one of those rare cases where I think watching the movie first was a good thing — the movie is that true to the spirit of the book, and I think the movie is more fun when you don't know what is going to happen next!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson

iconiconI finished this book a couple of weeks ago (or more?) and read a couple others after it, so I'll be blogging about several books this week.

The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson is a young adult dystopia novel set in Scotland in the 1930s... but in a very different world than our own. The book explores how it could have changed our timeline if one event in our history had ended differently: if Napoleon, instead of the Duke of Wellington, had won the battle of Waterloo.

The novel is very cleverly done, because the author drops little hints in the story but doesn't actually say what is going on until partway through. Until then, you can tell that it is our world, but a different version of our world: a version where terrorism is rampant, the whole political makeup of Europe is different, and Scotland does terrible things to young women in the name of patriotism.

The Explosionist is a wonderful dystopia novel that has many implications for our society today. I loved reading this and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys young adult fiction or any good thought-provoking story.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dewey by Vicki Myron

iconiconAre there any cat lovers (or animal lovers in general) who read my blog? If so, you will love Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.

The author, Vicki Myron, tells the story of how she discovered a half-frozen kitten in the library book drop one morning, and how that cat lived for 19 years in her library. The stories are touching, and show how unique this cat was. He was clearly a born library cat.

The stories also remind me a lot of the types of feel-good animal stories you find in Allen and Linda Anderson's books, such as Angel Horses.

In addition, Myron tells stories about her life, and what it was like living and working in a small Midwestern town.

This is an amazing book, and I highly recommend it!

Friday, October 31, 2008

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

iconiconDue to a major deadline I was working toward, I haven't had much reading time in the past couple of weeks. As a result I took a lot longer to read this book than I usually would.

An Infamous Army was written by Georgette Heyer in the 1930s, which I didn't realize until I got it, since I heard about it via NPR. The book has its upsides as well as its downsides, the latter of which also contributed to its taking longer for me to read.

It is true that Heyer painstakingly researched the battle of Waterloo for her novel. Unfortunately, I found that her descriptions of the battle and other historical events were not nearly as interesting as the love story that she invented. I personally feel that while Heyer is a wonderful storyteller, she is not quite so good at retelling real historical events in the same voice.

If you prefer painstakingly accurate historical fiction, I think you will like this book in its entirety. If you can do without long, dry descriptions of historical events, I suggest you do what I did, and skim everything but the love story!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald

iconiconI still haven't gotten back to reading Traffic — I have a stack of library books that has been steadily accumulating, so I thought I had better read a few of those before resuming Traffic.

Laura Fitzgerald's Veil of Roses was a very interesting book, for me, because it did such a good job of demonstrating the cultural differences between Iran and the United States. At the same time, though, I thought it also did a good job of delivering a main character that American readers could find compelling, as well as a story line that satisfies readers with Western cultural values.

Also, although I would technically classify Veil of Roses as chick lit, it was very different from most books in that genre, as it dealt with a young woman from a different culture. Most chick lit, it seems to me, deals primarily with young women in professional jobs, either immersed in or just grazing a more upper-class, sophisticated world than what most of us live in.

The book was a fast read — I took an afternoon off of work to finish it, and ultimately read the entire book in less than 24 hours. Definitely a good choice if you need some light reading as a little diversion!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rodeo Rocky by Jenny Oldfield

iconRodeo Rocky is the second book in the Horses of Half Moon Ranch series for tween girls by Jenny Oldfield. As I noted in my post about the first book, Wild Horses, I actually liked this book better for a few reasons.

It was a little less action-packed than the first book, which took place during a relatively short period of time and had more elements of suspense. I actually thought the differences made Rodeo Rocky more interesting and a little stronger. The action-suspense story probably was appropriate for the debut book, though, I suppose.

One thing that surprised me was how Rodeo Rocky took a stance on some issues, such as the abuse many animals suffer in the rodeo. Within the first few pages, as the main character had started questioning the ways the animals were treated at her first rodeo. Her horror grew and ultimately fueled her and her mom's decision to rescue a wild mustang who had been badly treated in the wild horse races.

The rest of the book continued to impress me as well, as I thought Oldfield did an excellent job of accurately describing Rocky's training and the challenges they faced.

I have to admit that while I liked the first book, and I thought the series would be great for young girls, I wasn't as excited about it from an adult's perspective. Rodeo Rocky, on the other hand, I enjoyed thoroughly, and I plan on checking out the other books as they come out.

I also have to say that after reading the second book, I think even more highly of the series as books for young girls. I like that the descriptions were realistic, for one thing, but I especially like that the series encourages young girls to think about horses as feeling creatures with a right to humane treatment.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wild Horses by Jenny Oldfield

iconA few weeks ago, I was surprised to get an email from a representative of Sourcebooks, a publisher with a new tween series, The Horses of Half Moon Ranch by Jenny Oldfield. She had found me via my Pony Tales Blog, and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing the first two books in the series.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I enjoy children's and young adult books. Plus, like any other horse-crazy girl I read a lot of horse stories when I was younger, so I was interested to see what the girls are reading these days.

I thought Wild Horses was a good debut book for the series, although as you'll see in my next post, I actually liked the second book better.

Wild Horses has all the makings of good juvenile fiction: The main character was a couple years older than the intended readers, the action started quickly, etc. The adults aren't absent, as in many children's and young adult books, but the main character is always the hero of the hour — that is, the adults aren't stepping in to save her. Instead, she's usually getting rid of the adults and saving the day herself.

Of course, the book is fairly short (about 150 pages with larger text and spacing), so it didn't take me long to read — but it was kind of like a little vacation, reminding me of when I was a kid and would devour Black Beauty and The Black Stallion and the other classic horse books in one or two sittings. I'll bet this series is going to make quite a few little horse-crazy girls very, very happy!

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

iconiconI took a break from my current read, Traffic, in order to read this book: Dashiell Hammett's classic murder mystery, The Thin Man, which is the One Book, One Denver selection for 2008.

I was surprised not only by how much I loved this book, but by the fact that I've managed to never read it before. First of all, I love period novels like this, and The Thin Man is rich with 1930s culture. You can almost hear their voices in your head when you read the dialogue; and at least in my head, they sounded just like characters out of an old 1930s movie.

One thing you'll notice in The Thin Man is that they are constantly drinking. The story takes place in New York City during Prohibition, and since it was written by someone who lived in New York City during this time, I guess it's probably a pretty accurate picture of big-city American culture during this period.

Besides being a delightful piece of 1930s culture, The Thin Man is also a very well-written murder mystery. The book is short but compelling, and Hammett ties up all the loose ends quite nicely.

Of course, now I have to watch the movie, which came out the same year (1934). I'm really looking forward to it!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

iconiconWith this post, I am officially caught up with all the books I read during my two-month gap in posting.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is well-researched nonfiction, but it reads similarly to a novel, much like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which I read a couple of months ago. It is the story of a horrible murder — the murder of a 3-year-old child — committed in Victorian England, and the repercussions on all involved (the family and their servants, the detective in charge of the case, etc.).

The story of the murder and the aftermath are well-told. Kate Summerscale does a good job of creating suspense to draw the reader along. The two inserts of pictures — of the family, the house, etc. — also make a nice touch and help to bring the characters to life. There is also a lot of information on the history of detective work and how this case impacted the detective fiction that came afterward.

The book requires careful attention in many places, and therefore (like The Devil in the White City) makes for slow going at times, but is well worth the effort!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stable Smarts by Heather Smith Thomas

iconiconI picked up this book on impulse the other day, when I saw it at Barnes & Noble: Stable Smarts, by Heather Smith Thomas.

The book is a really useful collection of all kinds of horse advice, from building fences and taking care of leather, to treating wounds and warding away flies. Honestly, of all the horse books I owned and have read, this one is probably the only one that was actually worth spending the money on. I'm even considering buying another one to keep at the barn — they ought to make a really durable (i.e. spiral bound and laminated covers) edition just for that purpose, since at the barn is where most people's copies will probably be kept!

Please also check out the more in-depth review of this book on my horse blog!

What Horses Say by Anna Clemence Mews and Julie Dicker

iconiconI got interested in learning more about horse communication after reading several stories that mentioned it in Angel Horses. Partly because of the connection I seemed to have with my horse (a rescue) and his mother (who was euthanized in front of me that day) from the very beginning, I decided to look up more information on the subject.

What Horses Say is one of several books on horse communication that I got out from the library. The book is written by Anna Clemence Mews and a horse communicator, Julie Dicker. There were some really fantastic stories about how horse communication has helped Julie's clients' horses, but I was a little disappointed in the lack of insight in how to actually communicate with horses.

If you read this book, I would suggest reading it primarily for the stories, and only secondarily for information about horse communication. It's more of a "See how great horse communication is" memoir than a how-to on how to do it. Even so, the stories are wonderful and the advice — to be patient and listen to your horses — is sound, whether you're "listening" telepathically or simply paying attention to body language!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rumors by Anna Godbersen

iconiconNote: The image links to a bargain book on B&N's website, where you can get the hardback for $5.38.  This isn't likely to be available for long, so get it while you can!

Again, I'm not positive in what order I read some of these, but I know at some point here I read Rumors by Anna Godbersen.

This book is the second in a trilogy that started with The Luxe, which I read back in March. The third book, Envy, is due out in early 2009, according to Anna's MySpace blog.

I am a big fan of YA fiction, even being all grown up. And I have to say, I think Godbersen's books are an excellent cross between YA and adult fiction. A lot of teenage girls who wouldn't normally be caught dead reading YA would absolutely love The Luxe and Rumors.

My biggest complaint is the cliffhanger ending Rumors leaves us with. I read the entire book in a day because I wanted to find out what happens — only to discover that now I have to wait six months to find out! Sheesh!

No, but seriously, Godbersen's books are highly addictive — particularly Rumors. I only recommend them if you can afford to get so wrapped up in them that you, say, forget to do your homework or stay up all night reading!

A la Cart by Hillary Carlip

iconiconWhen I first heard about Hillary Carlip's A la Cart on NPR, I wasn't sure what to think — but the idea sounded really interesting, so I decided to give the book a shot.

I was a little surprised when I got the book how short it was. The essays about each character are only a couple of pages long; the book is printed on thick, photo-quality paper to make it look thicker.

Still, though, it's an amusing book for an afternoon or evening read. The important thing to remember is that it's all about the idea, not the writing — what's interesting about it is reading the grocery lists and seeing the pictures of Carlip dressed up as the characters she created from them. The essays themselves are, as far as I'm concerned, fairly unimportant when you consider how she came up with each character. It's the process that's important in this one!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Angel Horses by Allen and Linda Anderson

iconiconAt this point I start forgetting again which book I read next, but I'm pretty sure it was Angel Horses by Allen and Linda Anderson. At any rate, I read it somewhere around this point.

Anyway, I heard about this book several months ago, when a fellow writer sent me information on the Andersons' next anthology writing contest. Their previous books are listed on their website. I remember making a note of the Angel Horses book, but I forgot about it (and the contest) until I saw the book at Tattered Cover a few weeks ago.

Seeing the book reminded me not only that I was interested in reading it, but also that I wanted to enter the writing contest. The book is technically "research" as it demonstrates what they like to see in submissions, but it was also a learning experience in other ways. For instance, I learned that I am not the only one who has felt like they communicated wordlessly with a horse — and that there is actually a whole industry for horse communication and animal communication.

Wish me luck in the writing contest!

Monday, September 8, 2008

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

iconiconI'm a little shaky on what order I read some of these books in, but I believe Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion came next. In any case, I know I was on an extended YA lit kick, and I read it at about the same time as the others.

When I first picked up this book, I wasn't sure I could get into it, but my husband had read it and really liked it. It's a classic theme in YA lit — a dystopian fantasy — but it's better done than most of the ones I've read.

The book is set in a world where there is essentially no morals — clones are created and raised as organ donors, and people's brains are destroyed to justify making slaves out of them. In the midst of this, one little boy — a clone — is being raised with his brain intact, enabling him eventually to rebel against it.

The House of the Scorpion is an award-winner, and it's easy to see why. Besides its unique story, it is also very well-planned and a compelling read. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

iconiconThirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is another book that I heard about on NPR. (See a pattern here?...) It was in the same column as Before I Die, listed as a book to interest teens who dislike reading.

Thirteen Reasons Why was a very suspenseful story about a teenage boy who gets a set of cassette tapes from his former crush, who just recently committed suicide. She blames a number of her classmates for basically ruining her life and leaving her no other option, and makes these cassettes to tell them all why.

The story is a mixture of the boy's narration, and embedded in that, the girl's narration on the tapes. It's a beautifully done narrative, and an intensely compelling story with a surprising lesson learned.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

iconiconWhen I told my husband the premise of Jenny Downham's Before I Die — that it was about a girl with terminal leukemia who was trying to get through a list of things before she died — he commented, "That sounds depressing."

I guess to someone who's not reading the book — or to someone who doesn't know and understand the YA lit genre — it probably does sound depressing. But I found the book to be absolutely captivating.

In a way, I thought the book was also rather uplifting. Yes, the main character acted out and did crazy stuff as she was dealing with dying. But she also made a commitment to doing a bunch of things and trying to enjoy what was left of her life.

I also have to say that I think Downham perfectly and very realistically captured the inner turmoil of what a teenage girl dying of leukemia might go through.

As with many of the books I read, I heard about Before I Die on NPR. It's a good book and a quick read, though you will probably need to have a box of tissues handy at the very end.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

iconiconI honestly cannot remember what book I read after Sunshine, but I do know that it was not long afterward that I tried reading Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place. Since it was recommended in the same radio story on NPR that got me hooked on Sunshine, I thought maybe it would be just as good.

I was disappointed on this one. I read the first 30 or 40 pages, and just couldn't seem to get into it. The book has a rather schizophrenic narrative style, jumping back and forth, and I just couldn't find the rhythm — or even sometimes the connection — between the different scenes and chapters.

I don't often give up reading a book once I've started it — I like to see them through to the end, even if I'm not totally sold on the writing style or the story. The Thin Place, though, I just couldn't do, so I guess this one goes into the short list of books that I don't recommend.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

iconiconAfter reading Garden Spells, I read Sunshine by Robin McKinley. I heard about the book on NPR, and immediately recognized the author as the one who wrote my favorite books in high school: Beauty. So of course, I couldn't pass up Sunshine!

And I have to say, I was not disappointed. I love vampire books like the ones written by Anne Rice — darkly sensual stories with lots of detail and the kinds of characters you can fall in love with. And although Sunshine is kind of a different take on vampire fiction — it's about magic and defeating vampires, albeit with a vampire sidekick — it was just as alluring as Anne Rice's best.

Maybe even more so.

Whether or not you are a big fan of vampire fiction, I highly recommend Sunshine. (In fact, I plan on reading it again sometime soon — perhaps when the new edition comes out next month!) As the NPR story indicates, Sunshine is the kind of vampire books that anyone can enjoy — whether or not they are normally a fan of such stories.

Playing catch-up

I forgot to mention before publishing the last post that I am playing catch-up over the next week or two. Although it's been a while since I last blogged about my current read, I have been reading as voraciously as always, so I have about a dozen books to blog about.

Stay tuned — I'll try to post something every day or so until I'm caught up!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

iconiconCompared to what I usually read, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen was pretty light reading. It was definitely enjoyable, though. A sweet story about sisters in a "different" sort of family, it reminded me a little of the movie Practical Magic.

Unfortunately, I read this book so long ago now that I don't remember many of the finer points of what I wanted to blog about. So suffice it to say that it was a great lighthearted read, and that I recommend it if you have an evening (or two) that you need to fill with a good diversion!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Case for Make-Believe by Susan Linn

iconiconI heard about this book, The Case for Make-Believe by Susan Linn, via an article about children's play on USAToday.com. Since I have a background in teaching preschool and after school programs, and since I've always believed myself that creative play is important for children's development, I was particularly interested in what Susan Linn had to say about it.

As it happens, Linn's book completely supports my own viewpoints on creative play versus video games and TV. She comes down pretty hard on baby and toddler videos such as Baby Einstein, setting the record straight about its benefits (watching TV that young has a detrimental impact on development) and exposing its misleading marketing (no, listening to Mozart does not make your baby smarter).

She also comes down hard on the state of kids' toys these days. For one thing, most toys aren't very open-ended, as they are often electronic and only have a limited purpose. For instance, a baby doll that cries or asks for Mama is only good for that, and as a result kids end up making it cry and say "Mama" over and over, rather than playing pretend games with it like they would with a regular baby doll. One thing she says that I really like is, "A good toy is 90 percent child and only 10 percent toy."

And of course, she talks about the awful impact that TV, video games, and computer games are having on children's development. Linn takes the position that make-believe gives kids a chance to play out things that might be bothering them — so when you plunk kids down in front of even a mildly violent cartoon, you are giving them more things to be bothered about and less opportunity to play it out and relieve that bother. Linn advocates delaying a young child's first introduction to TV and video games as long as humanly possible, and I totally agree.

This is an excellent book to read if you are expecting a child or planning to start trying for one, because it encourages you to think about your own approach to parenting before you have the child. However, I also recommend it for those who are already parents, because it's never too late to encourage your child to play!