Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Good books, October/November 2009

The End by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Richard Egielski, 2007, 40 pages (age 4 and up).

What a fun picture book! It starts, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Then each new page tells you what happened before the previous one. It feels like you’re reading a story backwards. When I finished I had to read it again to see the whole thing in perspective. The pictures are worth examining to see all the details. This is going on my list of picture books to buy as gifts.

How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World by Faith McNulty, illustrated by Marc Simont, 1979, 32 pages (age 5 and up).

This is a wonderful picture book that introduces kids to the structure of the earth. From the down-to-basics beginning (“Find a soft place. Take a shovel and start to dig a hole.”), the book explains what you would encounter if you really dug a hole through the earth. It’s written in an engaging way directly to the reader. My children have all loved it and read it multiple times.

Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man by David A. Adler, illustrated by Terry Widener, 1997, 32 pages (age 6 and up).

This picture book gives a short summary of Lou Gehrig’s life, beginning with his childhood and his baseball career, then focusing especially on the time after he began to show symptoms of his disease. It’s simple and moving. My children all enjoyed it and were impressed by Gehrig’s example of courage.

Walter the Giant Storyteller’s Giant Book of Giant Stories by Walter M. Mayes, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, 2005, 46 pages (age 7 and up).

Walter is shipwrecked and wakes up tied to the ground by tiny people. They accuse him of causing mayhem in their land, and he tries to defend himself and giants in general by telling them stories of good giants: What really happened with Jack and the beanstalk. How Atlas finally got out of his job of holding up the heavens. The adventure Finn M’Cool had with the help of some smaller yet talented men. Finn’s story is not for tiny children (there’s a scary witch whose arm gets ripped out of its socket, for one thing) but those who can handle Grimm’s fairy tales would be fine with this. One of the best things about this book is the illustrations, which change style depending on the story being told.

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka, 2009, 208 pages (age 9 and up).

Peter, a young orphan in a big city, is told by a fortune-teller that an elephant will lead him to his lost sister. From there, a series of unlikely events happens to Peter as well as several other characters, leading to a strange yet satisfying conclusion. This book is charming and was fun to read. I liked it better than the author’s The Tale of Despereaux.

Forest Born by Shannon Hale, 2009, 400 pages (age 12 and up).

Although it could be read alone, this is the fourth book in the Bayern series that started with The Goose Girl. This one focuses on Razo’s little sister Rin. Like some of the other female characters in the series, Rin has strange abilities. As she struggles to accept and control them, she ends up accompanying the queen and two other gifted women on a quest to rescue the queen’s son. There are some great discussion points about finding and developing your talents, how corruption begins, and how power can be used for good or evil. I also like the way Rin gets support and direction from her brother and from strong, virtuous female friends.

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck, 2009, 176 pages (age 14 and up).

One of my favorite young adult books is Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago, so I was excited to see another book about Grandma Dowdel. This time, instead of her grandchildren, the neighbor boy is the one who encounters the eccentric and hilarious old lady. Bob, whose father is a Methodist minister trying to get a congregation started, has some trouble adjusting to this new town they’ve moved to, but Grandma Dowdel is a good person to have on your side. If you're looking for some light reading that will make you laugh and think, read A Long Way from Chicago first, then A Year Down Yonder, and finish with this book.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling, 1901, 320 pages (age 14 and up).

When I started The Game (see below), I had to pause when the author mentioned Kim. I realized that I’d never read Kim and would probably get a lot more out of The Game if I read Kim first. My only experience with Kipling was from The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, so I had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Kim is an orphan in India who has grown up on the streets despite his British ancestry, and is therefore a perfect choice when the British secret agents need a messenger. He eventually trains to become an agent himself, part of the “Great Game” of espionage, and has some exciting adventures. Kipling’s prose takes a little getting used to, but once you’re past that, it’s not too hard to read, and the story is a classic.

The Game by Laurie R. King, 2004, 384 pages (adult).
Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King, 2005, 488 pages (adult).

I’ve been reading through the Mary Russell series (which starts with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) and I have mixed feelings about it. The writing is brilliant and the concept (an older Sherlock Holmes with a young female apprentice/wife) is intriguing. There is some profanity, though, and in some of the sequels there are characters with lifestyles I’d rather not read about, making me reluctant to recommend those particular books. But these two volumes I read recently were more enjoyable and could easily be read separately from the rest of the series.

The Game takes place in India, where Holmes and Russell have been asked to find out the whereabouts of Kimball O’Hara (the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, now older and an experienced British agent). They travel in disguise, survive danger, and infiltrate a suspicious palace. The detailed description of India in the 1920s is interesting, and I’ve always loved books that use fictional characters from other books as if they were real people.

Locked Rooms takes place directly after The Game. Holmes and Russell have sailed from India to San Francisco, where Russell’s family used to live and where she has some business to clear up, including disposing of her family home there. Some frightening dreams and strange memories lead her to realize that her parents’ and brother’s deaths long ago might not have been an accident after all. Holmes, meanwhile, forms a partnership with the detective Dashiell Hammett to try to keep his wife safe. Not only does the reader get a feel for 1920s San Francisco, but the investigation of past events gives a fascinating picture of the 1906 earthquake there. And it’s fun to see Hammett, who in real life was the author of classic detective novels, working with the fictional Sherlock Holmes.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith, 2009, 224 pages (adult).

I love the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and this 10th book is just as enjoyable as the others. This time Mma Ramotswe is asked to investigate a football (soccer) team, and Mma Makutsi is worried because her fiance has hired a conniving girl she knows. Really, though, the events are secondary to the tone and feel of the book. After reading one of these books, you feel like you've had a little glimpse of Botswana. You feel like you’ve spent a quiet hour sitting with Mma Ramotswe as she unhurriedly drinks her bush tea. I also have to put in a plug for the audiobooks narrated by Lisette Lecat. Her unhurried and precise way of speaking matches the tone of the books exactly, making the audiobooks wonderful stress relievers while driving!

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, 2006, 349 pages (adult).

This is not only an amazing true story, but it’s fascinating to read. In 1993, Greg tried to climb K2 and failed. Separated from the others of his team during the descent, he stumbled into a small village in Pakistan. The people there helped him recover, and when he learned that they had no school, he promised to return and build one for them. The rest of the book is the story of what that promise led to. It’s inspiring to see how this man persevered despite mistakes and obstacles and made a real difference in thousands of lives.

Plays read, then watched on DVD (mostly with M. for her discussion group)

Like The Winter’s Tale, this story has a startling amount of tragedy. Pericles’ narrow escape from an evil king and princess leads to his return home, then his voluntary exile, marriage, and loss of his wife in a storm at sea. Later his daughter is kidnapped by pirates after her life is threatened by a trusted guardian. There are lessons about virtue and family amidst all the peril.

Julius Caesar
This is a classic story of political intrigue, as Cassius prods Brutus to head up the group who will assassinate Julius Caesar before he can take kingship upon himself. This has become one of my favorite plays. It has many great speeches and well-known lines, and Shakespeare has captured some basic human qualities, good and bad, in the characters. It’s also interesting to think about the political situation in the play and to wonder who was right and what should have been done.

Love’s Labour’s Lost
A king and his three friends make a vow to devote themselves to their studies for three years, giving up fine food, entertainment, and the company of women. Almost immediately all four of them fall in love with a visiting princess and her ladies-in-waiting. There’s a funny scene where each man in turn enters the stage, reads a letter or poem he’s written for the lady he admires, then hides when he sees the next one coming. The ladies, naturally, are skeptical of these men who so easily break their vows, and decide to test them. This play felt light and fluffy after the previous two, and it was fun to read.

Henry VIII
I read this for one of my own discussion groups, not aloud with M. like the others. It was a little confusing on the first reading, but watching it on DVD helped a lot with understanding what was happening. It’s interesting to see Henry portrayed in such a positive way. But the real hero is Katherine, who keeps her dignity and self-control when the king decides to divorce her after 20 years of marriage. This play is definitely more interesting when you read more about the background of the people it’s based on and learn about the history of the play itself.

1 comment:

Harmony said...

Have you read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, also by Kate DiCamillio? I thought it was a light book that promotes deep thoughts.