Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Good books, June/July 2009

What Makes Me Happy? by Catherine and Laurence Anholt, 1994, 28 pages.

This picture book has a cute cast of little children who answer questions like “What makes me happy?” or “What makes me jealous?” (I liked the “jealous” one –- it’s answered by twins who point at each other and say, “Her!”) It would be a fun book to read with children and ask, “What about you? When do you feel this way?”

The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations with Seven Works of Art by Bob Raczka, 2009, 32 pages.

What a great art appreciation book! The author takes 7 paintings by Vermeer and holds imaginary conversations with the people in them, exploring the details and the story behind each one. Not only do you learn a lot about these paintings, but it’s a great technique to teach children (and adults) to use when studying a work of art. Anyone interested in art would get something out of this book, from preschoolers to adults.

Extra Credit by Andrew Clements, 2009, 183 pages.

Whenever a new book by Andrew Clements comes out, we rush to the computer to put it on hold at the library. He does a great job of writing interesting, plausible stories about children in the upper elementary grades. A., M., and I all enjoy his books and have read most of them. This new one is about Abby, who needs to do an extra credit assignment to pull her grades up, and Sadeed, the boy in Afghanistan who ends up as her pen pal. Actually, Sadeed’s sister is chosen by the village to be the official pen pal, since it’s deemed inappropriate for a boy to be writing to a girl, but Sadeed is asked to help his sister and ends up reaching out to Abby himself. It’s a short but meaningful story about the connection two people can have even when their cultures and countries are a world apart. I liked that the ending was realistic and yet positive.

Slathbog’s Gold by M. L. Forman, 2009, 432 pages.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s about a boy, Alex, who sees a sign in a shop window: “Adventurers Wanted.” He goes inside and before he knows it, he’s recruited to help with an epic quest to slay a dragon and retrieve its treasure. His companions are the usual fantasy mix of elves, dwarves, and warriors; in fact, not only the characters but a lot of the plot and settings are pretty much right out of The Hobbit and other such fantasies. That’s what bothered me most, the lack of originality. Also, the characters don't have much depth to them. But the target audience is probably 8 to 12 years old, and I think the book succeeds very well for that age range. A. loved it so much that she read the whole thing, re-read all her favorite parts, and is planning to read it again as soon as the library gets it back in. She told T. about it, and even though he didn't read it, T. started writing an adventure story of his own (which, coincidentally, borrows a lot from what she told him, but we'll work on originality before he's ready to publish!). I would recommend this book for reluctant readers and young people who might just want a clean, easily read fantasy.

The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin, 2009, 244 pages.

This is the second in a series aimed at ages 9 to 12. I haven’t read the first one, but this one was quite good. Winston, who loves solving puzzles, is asked to lead a team in a puzzle contest to win money for his school. They soon find out that someone is trying to sabotage the other teams, so not only do they have to solve the official puzzles, they have to solve the mystery. The contest puzzles and many others are given in the book for the reader to try to solve. Some are a lot harder than others, but if you don’t feel like solving them, you can just move on with the story. This looks like a fun series that I hope will continue.

Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, 1999, 272 pages.

Both M. and I loved this Newbery Medal winner. It’s set in the 1930s and is about Bud, an orphan who becomes convinced that his long-lost father is Herman Calloway, a famous jazz musician. He escapes a foster home, travels to Grand Rapids, and finds Calloway less than pleased to meet him –- and much too old to be his father. Calloway’s band members take him in, however, and his life begins to change. There are some very funny scenes. It’s a book well worth reading and would probably be interesting for ages 10 and up.

Special Edward by Eric Walters, 2009, 112 pages.

This is a short little book, written for young adults but easy to read. I was pleasantly surprised that I liked it (since a lot of contemporary “easy reader” young adult books aren’t interesting, coherent, or clean). Edward doesn’t like school, except for P.E. He never studies and barely does well enough to scrape by. His parents are upset about his grades. One day he notices that a kid in his class gets extra time to take tests. He asks about it and finds out that this kid has special permission because of a learning disability. Edward decides that if he pretends he has a learning disability too, he’ll get special treatment and get better grades without having to do any work. He quickly finds out that it’s a lot of work to pretend –- and he also discovers some things about special education students and himself. It’s a good message in a fun package.

The Seven Towers by Patricia C. Wrede, 1984, 336 pages.

We’ve enjoyed Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons series, so I was interested to read this book she wrote earlier. It’s a fantasy adventure with a princess who’s not sure if she wants to marry the prince, an exiled advisor who’s trying to save the kingdom, an annoying sorceress who is smarter than she seems, and quite a few other colorful characters. It’s a pretty good young adult book.

Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace, 1950, 304 pages.

I saw this book recommended on Melissa Wiley’s wonderful blog, and I’m so glad I checked it out. It begins with Emily graduating from high school. All her friends are going off to college, something Emily would love to do, but she lives with and takes care of her grandfather and feels she can’t leave him. Depressed and a little resentful, she goes through several weeks of stagnation before realizing that it’s up to her to move on. She starts a study group, finds some people who need her help, and basically makes the very most of her circumstances. It’s a beautiful book with a great message about lifelong learning and self-education. I definitely want my daughters to read it during their teen years.

Why? Powerful Reasons and Practical Answers for Living LDS Standards by John Hilton III and Anthony Sweat, 2009, 368 pages.

Some teens question why gospel standards are important. Some agree they’re important, but couldn’t really tell you why. For both groups, this book gives concrete answers to some serious questions like “Why should I keep the Sabbath day holy?” “Why shouldn’t I steady date in high school?” “Why does it matter who my friends are?” “Why can’t I watch whatever I want?” Each 4 to 6 page chapter focuses on one question and gives quotes from scripture and Church leaders, stories, and statistics to answer “why.” There are lots of pictures and graphics and a lot of humor, but the material is solid. The discussion is frank, even on more sensitive subjects, so this isn’t a book for younger children, but for teens and even pre-teens (sadly enough, they have to know about hard issues too) I think it’s a valuable book.

The Route by Gale Sears, 2009, 182 pages.

I loved this book about a lady who takes on a meals-on-wheels route for the elderly and disabled. On the first day, meeting the various people and seeing their challenges, she isn’t sure if she can handle it. But she persists, and gradually finds out some of their stories. There was enough humor to keep the tone light, but enough serious issues to keep it realistic. It’s well-written, too. I will have to try some other books by this author.

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman, 1966, 208 pages (first in a series).

During several hard weeks recently I wanted some light reading for a mental rest, so I re-read all 14 books of the Mrs. Pollifax series. This isn’t as huge a feat as it sounds, because they’re not very long and not difficult to read, but it reminded me why Mrs. Pollifax is one of my favorite characters in literature. Picture a nice, grandmotherly lady with flowers on her hat and a big purse. Now picture her in an Albanian prison, or hiding from the police in a Turkish graveyard, or following an assassin in Zambia, ready to use her brown-belt karate on him. In the first book, Mrs. Pollifax goes to the CIA to volunteer for work as a spy, something she’s always wished she could do. Through a fortuitous mixup, she’s hired to do a “routine courier job” in Mexico. All she has to do is pose as a tourist for a week or two, then visit a particular shop on a particular day. Of course the routine job turns into an escapade involving Communists and a flight to Albania, and Mrs. Pollifax has to use her creativity to find a way out. One thing I like about the series is that each book is set in a foreign country, and the author does a good job of describing what it’s like to be there. I like to read these books with a big atlas nearby!

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely? ed. by Mick O’Hare, 2009, 240 pages.

This is the newest in a series of entertaining books about science. It’s full of questions people have asked about all kinds of subjects and the best answers that others have sent in. “How much force would be required to stop the world spinning?” “Do horses get travel sick?” (Yes, they can, especially on boats.) “Why do fizzy drinks taste so much better than the same liquid once it goes flat?” Not only are the questions and answers fun and educational to read, but it’s an easy book to pick up and read in snatches of time. One warning –- this series is written for adults, and there are usually a few questions or answers in each book that I wouldn’t want my younger children reading. When M. reads the books, I remind her to skip inappropriate things, and she’s able to enjoy the rest.

The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, 2009, 210 pages.

In a very readable way, the authors teach some basic strategies for making sense of numbers we read about or come across. I liked the images used in each chapter, like the “white rainbow” to help you remember that averages don’t always give you an accurate idea of the whole. One of the most memorable for me was the image of a man walking his dog on a long leash up a hill in the dark. The dog has a glow-in-the-dark collar, so that’s all you see. The man is steadily proceeding up the hill, but if you watch for a little while, you may not realize that, because the dog is going back and forth and all around. The authors relate this to financial trends and other ups and downs in things we measure, and they suggest we keep in mind: “Am I seeing the man or just the dog?”

Ben-Hur by Lew. Wallace, 1880, 558 pages.

I’ve heard about this book most of my life, or at least about the movie. (All I really knew was that there’s a famous chariot race. And in Anne of Green Gables I remember Anne getting in trouble for reading it in class instead of her textbook.) I was surprised to find that it begins with the three wise men traveling to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus. Somehow I’d never realized the book had anything to do with Christ. The first 100 pages or so were very difficult to get through, with a lot of lengthy description and background. But then the story took off, and the rest of the book was easier to read, especially the last half. Ben-Hur (a young man named Judah who is a descendant of Hur) lives in Jerusalem during the years before the Savior begins his ministry. Through an accident he and his mother and sister are arrested. Ben-Hur becomes a galley slave, then ends up free and part of a Roman household, but he is intent on finding his mother and sister and getting revenge. When he hears the story of one of the wise men, he is sure that this King who was born is destined to overthrow Rome. The author obviously did a lot of research, probably excellent research for the time, to make the details seem authentic. It was worth reading this book at least once, if only to know the story, improve my cultural literacy, and be reminded once again of how amazing and loving Jesus Christ is.

Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, film by Ken Burns, 2003.

Imagine driving across the United States in 1903. No interstate highways, no automatic transmission, no signs telling you how many miles to the next gas station. Horatio Nelson Jackson did it, with a friend and a dog, to prove it could be done. A lot of the narration is from Horatio’s letters home, read by Tom Hanks. It’s a fascinating film and well worth watching!


Deborah Raymond said...

Yay! I love your book reviews! How in the world do you get through so many books so fast?

Tamary said...

1. Taking a book everywhere I go in case there's waiting time.
2. Reading in the evening instead of watching TV.
3. Ignoring the housework far more often than I should! (not recommended)