Travel Notes: Lake Norman State Park, Wet and Wild

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This time I’m traveling a little bit closer to home. To North Carolina. To Lake Norman State Park, a park built around the state’s largest man-made lake, and a point almost exactly halfway between my home and my sister’s new home. Not too far at all off of Route 77, the trip takes you through the town of Troutman, North Carolina, which has a downtown corner I wouldn’t mind stopping to admire one time.

A quick drive down State Park Road deadends at the park gate, but the road continues on and winds through the forest down to a welcome center, with information, facilities for those in need, an air-conditioned lobby, a shaded porch with rocking chairs overlooking the lake, and canoe and pedal boat rentals.

My sister and I had planned on a beach day. We piled into a car together and continued on down the road till we saw signs pointing us towards swimming. There’s plenty of parking behind the shelter—where are more bathrooms and outdoor showers to rinse off the sand. Five dollars would have gotten us all day access to the waters—and had we paid it or had rented a boat (also only five dollars per hour) those would have been the only fee the park asked of us—but we’d intended to lay on the sand.

Within maybe fifteen minutes of sitting down in the warm, yellow sand and admiring the view out over the lake waters to the far shore, we were all sent off of the beach and away from the roll of thunder.

IMG_0409We lay down in the grass at the top of the hill overlooking the lake for a bit, but with not sure how long the ban would last, we decided to head back to the welcome center and find some trails.

We did. We hiked around Park Lake, a little more pond-sized lake connected by channels and creeks to the larger body of water downstream.

We followed a sign for a heron shelter, which was really more of picnic area, then back into the woods, sort of chasing a small dam and viewing platform visible from the welcome center side of the lake. Then we struck out the other direction, setting our sights on a bridge visible from there. I’m not sure that the trail that we followed wasn’t a deer run, but we made it to the bridge, which turned out to be one we’d earlier driven over, much wider and a bit less picturesque than I’d thought, though the view over the lake on either side was a good one.

We went to the welcome center, and I asked what trail we should most enjoy before leaving. So armed with expert, local knowledge, we headed back towards the swimming area, turning just a bit before onto Shortleaf Drive, to find the trail hugging the edge of the lake.

IMG_0411We weren’t long on the trail before it started to rain, and not long after, the rain became torrential with wind howling for a while through the trees overhead, thunder booming in the sky, white caps on the lake, and waves crashing against the shore.

IMG_0414It was honestly kind of thrilling.

IMG_0416IMG_0418And then we were wet. Very wet. And for a while the displeasure of sopping clothes clinging to me and the one cold trickle of rainwater running all the way along my spine won out, and story research was my mantra, but then we moved past being able to become any wetter, and the trails looked more like something that I’d expect to find in an Amazonian rainforest than central North Carolina, with deep puddles marking the trail, dense greenery keeping us from going too far to dodge the puddles, and the occasional trickle of water and mud coming down the hill along the trail. And we were never overheated, dehydrated, or sunburnt.

We met a doe on the lonesome trail who must have let us get within maybe three feet before she dashed away. For a while we kept back maybe four feet and watched her, but when it seemed clear that she didn’t intend to leave, and we didn’t intend to turn back the other way, we moved off to the other side of the trail and forward, and she did eventually bound a yard or so farther into the woods.

I like to think that she came back to the bush she had been stripping before we rounded the corner. She didn’t go all that far from us.

When we could—when we found it, my sister and I fully agreed to take the short cut path (which made the hike 3.2 miles instead of five) back to the car. I didn’t get at all out of breath till those last few yards of the hill to the parking lot.

We laid down towels on the seats, drove back to the welcome center to change and dry off a bit, then opened up the trunk of her car and ate our picnic dinner there. By the time we were done, the rain had abated and steam was curling off of the blacktop, we were a bit drier, the roads were hopefully a little safer (though I found some more torrential downpours on my trip north), and our bellies were full.

Pictures by me.  In the words of Patrick Rothfuss, “Click to embiggen.”

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Book Reviews: Picture Book Roundup June 2016: Father’s Day, Animal Friends, and Books About Being a Protagonist

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Father’s Day Specials

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Grandpa Loves You by Helen Foster James and illustrated by Petra Brown. Sleeping Bear, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 0-6, Grade 1.

This is one of those saccharine picture books meant to read as a love letter from the adult reading to the child. The characters are adorable, fluffy bunnies. I liked the grandpa bunny’s big, bushy eyebrows. They add a touch of character and help to make the grandpa more expressive. The rhyming text relies maybe a little too heavily on pet names. This hardcover version includes a place for Grandpa to write a letter to his little honey-bunny.

**

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Monster & Son by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Joey Chou. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

Each page features of a different monster and its offspring doing the things that monsters do but twisting the action to make it seem benign and akin to a daily activity that a father might do with his son: like tucking the little one into bed, playing ball, or piggybacking him while approaching a city. Upset humans pout as they are caught in the tempest of the monsters’ fun, but seem unhurt. I would actually have preferred following a single monster family rather than visiting a new one each page—but because I personally like following a character, not because its a structural flaw or in picture books, and because the text indicates no switch between characters as its written in a first person narration (the father) to a second person (you, the son). This story is saccharine too (and I think that’s going to be the word of the post), but it relies less on pet names to make it so; the rhymes and story seem less forced than in Grandpa Loves You.

***

9780803737174 When Dads Don’t Grow Up by Marjorie Blain Parker and illustrated by R. W. Alley. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Perhaps because I read this one right after reading the wonderfully rhymed and rhythmic Giraffes Can’t Dance I stumbled all over the rhyme-less, unmetered text that was broken too in odd places sometimes I thought. This one pokes fun at dads and at adults, even going so far as to point out the possibility of a bald father. It claims we’ll know a dad who never grew up by the things that he does or does not do. A dad who has never grown up knows has to have fun, can’t sit still, watches cartoons, remembers how scary basements can be and that shopping carts are for racing. I would suggest it only for dads who can live up to the standard demonstrated here, but the story could backfire on a bland, grown-up dad. The illustrations of dads having fun with their kids are pretty heartwarming and goofy but the soft pastels keep the story gentle rather than raucous.

**

9780385388955Dad School by Rebecca Van Slyke and illustrated by Priscilla Burris. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

There’s a lot of similarities between this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up in that they both poke fun lovingly at Dad (and I capitalize it here because in both stories it is the stereotyped idea of Dad rather than a character particularly). In this one, the child (presumably the white, brunet son from the cover and common in the first few illustrations, though his classmates and his dad’s classmates are of various races) hypothesizes that his dad must have gone to Dad School to learn how to be a dad—to make huge snacks, to throw you up high but never drop you, to fix and mend things, and multitask—but suggests that he must have skipped school on the days when they learnt to clean bathrooms and match clothes and brush hair. Comparing the two books—this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up­—actually gives you a fairly interesting study of the conceptual Dad. But I think I digress; I’m supposed to be reviewing a kids book not critique societal constructs. This book reads more easily than did When Dads Grow Up, but it also came before rather than after Giraffes Can’t Dance. It too could backfire on a dad who does not do these things or conversely who does do the things that it is suggested by the text that a dad should not do.

***

Animal Friends

9780439287197_default_pdpGiraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard-Hachette, 2001. First published 1999. Intended audience: Ages 5-7, Grades PreK-2.

I first read this book in March 2013 and according to Goodreads I haven’t read it again since, though I’m not sure if I believe that and I know I’ve handed it to many customers since. I read this among a wealth of Father’s Day themed books. Perhaps it stood out because of that, but I think it was more than that. This is a good story, carefully metered and well-rhymed with a bit of poetry to the prose. There’s a lot of raw emotion from the giraffe, ridiculed and told that he can’t, and an important moral about being able and being different and being okay. I’d grabbed it that day when I was otherwise reading books about dads because the kids were getting antsy, and I thought that this might be a dance-along book, and I maybe could have made it so, but I got wrapped up in the story myself and we never danced. Parker-Rees’ illustrations are jewel-bright and just a delight, awash with detail and vibrancy.

*****

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When Your Elephant Comes to Play by Ale Barba. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This story was a bit more lackluster than I’d hoped it might be. There’s a lot that you can’t do with an elephant and still have fun yourself—like going swimming in the pool or eating cake—but elephants are excellent huggers. There’s a lot of color and line in the illustrations—almost like a more concrete Kandinsky, and while that feels fresh, it’s also almost distracting; the illustrations take work to grasp and dissect and made it at times difficult to find the text.

***

extremely-cute-animals-operating-heavy-machinery-9781416924418_hrExtremely Cute Animals Operating Heavy Machinery by David Gordon. Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

I had heard some so-so reviews of this book before I actually got around to reading it and so was rather pleased with the story. Karen—an extremely cute but unidentifiable animal (maybe a kangaroo?)—wants to build a sand castle, but the playground bullies won’t allow it. They destroy her castle, but she and a few friends build a new castle, bigger and better. That too is destroyed, and the friends rebuild, bigger and better. After a third time, the extremely cute animals get extremely mad, and they haul away the whole playground with a helicopter and come in with steel beams and welding guns and create a walled and gated theme park where no bullies are allowed. And I would have been upset if that had been the end, but Karen cracks open the door to invite the momentarily exiled bullies into the park, where they seem very contrite as they are led around the park and shown kindness by the extremely cute animals, who have not forgotten to build something for even those who like to destroy—a replica of Karen’s original castle this time meant to be destroyed (and presumably rebuilt and destroyed again). The cotton-candy quality of the illustrations and the title’s description of the protagonists as cute did not particularly bleed into the text itself, which was more realistic and hard-hitting than a lot of picture books that I’ve read recently. The bullies’ speeches seemed particularly realistic—not cleaned up, not made cute or trite, just down in the dirt mean. And I appreciated that kind of unmade-up depiction of bullies. I’ve not read a lot of picture books talking about how to deal with bullies. There’re Peanut Butter & Cupcake and I suppose Giraffes Can’t Dance too, where the characters who exclude Peanut Butter and Giraffe could be classified as bullies but never are, and there’s Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, where the rhyming text sort of diminishes the roughness and the ending makes it seem like Bully Goat is reformed by one time-out. I do dislike that extremely cute and good and kind seem to be equated and—while I understand it as part of the repetition of a picture book text—the part of me that writes novels and has been trained in school to write essays disliked that repetition of the weak word “extremely.” That these cute, good protagonists are allowed to get mad, and that their anger is siphoned constructively I do like.

****

9780312498603 Bright Baby Touch and Feel: Perfect Pets by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2006. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grade PreK.

I was pleasantly surprised by this board book. Each spread takes a moment to name an animal—no, actually give the pet a name—and describe an action associated with that animal. The pages are touch-and-feel but the text does not always prompt the reader to describe the texture. A solid background color behind the photographed illustration could let this book be used as a color primer too. But there is more story here and certainly more characters than I’ve grown to expect from primers because of the names, because of the actions; I welcome that.

****

eleph_pig_party_cover_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: I Am Invited to a Party! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2007. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me. Even though it is one of the older stories (the third written in the series), it had never been in my hands. I love it. Piggie is invited to a party, but doesn’t want to go alone. Gerald agrees to go with her, because he knows parties. Gerald prepares for every eventuality and their outfits become more and more ridiculous as they prepare for a fancy pool costume party. In the end, Gerald has worried just enough to make them prepared. Everyone looks ridiculous in their outfits for the fancy-pool-costume party. I had fun trying to pick out the costumes from the final illustration. Also, what a great time to break out paper dolls!

*****

elephants_cannot_dance_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Piggie is excited about dance class and wants to teach Gerald to dance, but Elephants cannot dance; it’s in the handbook. Trust Piggie to find the loophole. So Gerald tries to dance, but Willems takes a bit of time to play with opposites. When Piggie says up, Gerald goes down. When Piggie tells him to do the robot walk, he wiggles and waggles. Just when Gerald is ready to give up, along come two squirrels who want to learn the Elephant dance, teaching that just because you feel like you’re failing does not mean that you are failing and different is not wrong or bad.

****

e_and_p_should_i_share_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Elephant and Piggie story I’d read before, but apparently never reviewed. Gerald buys an ice cream cone and in his excitement only realizes later that maybe he should have bought Piggie one too. Gerald talks himself into and out of sharing his ice cream with his best friend and while he waffles on what is right, the ice cream melts away, leaving neither of them with a tasty treat. Luckily, Piggie has his back, and appears with an ice cream cone of her own to share with Gerald and to cheer him up after Gerald has upset himself by wasting the ice cream cone that neither he nor Piggie enjoyed.

****

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Let’s Go for a Drive! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me! Gerald wants to go for a drive with Piggie, but in typical Gerald style, Gerald worries, and wants to be prepared for any type of weather and for everything that could go wrong on their drive. Piggie is a prepared pig. She has everything Gerald requests: a map, sunglasses, umbrellas, bags to pack it all in—everything except a car. That is when the pattern of the text breaks too. Piggie saves the day again though by coming up with an alternative idea. The two make a pirate ship out of all the things that they’ve collected for their drive, and have fun anyway. Willems uses a road map for his illustrations of the map, making this an example of mixed media illustration, if most of the illustrations adhere to his usual drawing style. This would be a story better told while standing, so that the reader can act out the celebratory dancing. While sitting, the celebratory singing just didn’t have the same effect. Now I know.

****

Hero of Your Own Story 9781454916086_jkt.inddWhose Story Is This, Anyway? by Mike Flaherty and illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Sterling, 2016.

I read this alongside of Monster & Son, When Your Elephant Comes to Play, and Hoot and Peep, and this was declared the favorite by the little boy at story time whom I polled. This is the story of a boy who wants to tell a story about himself—with a cameo by his cat, Emperor Falafel—but the story keeps getting interrupted by pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens. He shouts them all away, but realizes that the audience for his story actually prefers a story with pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens and rewrites his story to include them all. The competing voices in the story are what I think make this so much fun: a deep growling voice of “arr” and “yar” and “ye” for the pirate, Salty Pete; a proper, clipped voice for Sir Knightly; a sort of dopey voice with lots of rounded tones that I gave the dinosaur; and a sort of shrill, nasal voice for the boy. Now, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that a story about an ordinary boy and his cat is dull and yawn-inducing, but the idea that a story is better with friends and with characters I can get behind. I think it would be a fun story to use when talking about story writing.

****

9780679805274Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1990.

I read this to a group that consisted primarily of kids under 7 and one that was maybe 10 at my best guess. It is Dr. Seuss. Everyone loves Seuss. I expected it to be fine. I expected them to like it. It was too long for all of them, and the 10 year old thought it was a bit too dark and depressing. This is of course a classic. I know it. You probably know it too. And we can probably both quote it. It’s a tale about life, that assures the reader that she is ready and able to take on the world, that she knows what she needs to know and has the gumption to get things done and to go to great places, but also warns that life doesn’t always go the way that it should, that there will be bad paths to avoid, dark places she’ll end up even if she’s done everything right, slumps and waiting. The message is inspiring, but apparently, it really is better for those high school and college graduates if they’re willing at that age to give it a read.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Shelfie with Cat

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IMG_0423While I don’t generally approve of my cat making her way onto this second shelf–from which I fear she can reach the things that we’ve moved to the third shelf to keep them out of her reach–I had to admit that she looked too classy and too photo-worthy sitting there, so I snapped a picture or two (in the first she was looking at the camera but blurrier than she and the books are here).  This photo just deserved to be shared here.  So here’s a shelfie.  Enjoy perusing the titles.

This photo has me thinking of perhaps adding a new feature to this blog.  Who would enjoy a Shelfie Saturday maybe that is just a post with a pretty picture of books–my books or the books that I work with or maybe even the book that I am writing?  There might be occasional cameos from my cat, but I’d never promise them every week.  What do you think, loyal readers?  Like the post if you think I should do the thing?

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Book Review: Just a Bit about Demigods & Magicians

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Spoilers in white. Highlight to view.

Demigods and Magicians collects in a hardcover volume three stories released as e-books and as short stories in paperback editions of some of Rick Riordan’s longer books. These stories marry two of his stories: Percy Jackson’s (which is found in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus, and now continues in The Trials of Apollo) and the Kanes’ (from The Kane Chronicles). The first story, “The Son of Sobek,” I had read before in my paperback of The Serpent’s Shadow. That short story was every bit as exciting and well written as Riordan’s longer works. In it, Carter Kane hunts a monster in the swamps of a Long Island park. Percy Jackson hunts the same monster. The two need to team up and fight the monster together to defeat it. The end of the story promises a time when the two will need one another again.

And I waited on that second story for a long time. “The Staff of Serapis” where Annabeth Chase meets Sadie Kane was released in the paperback of The Mark of Athena, but I already had a hardcover copy of that book and could never justify creasing the spine of a paperback that I hadn’t purchased just to read the next short story. And I still don’t own an e-reader nor have I downloaded any app that would allow me to read e-books on my computer; judge me. Ditto to The House of Hades, the paperback version of which hid the final crossover story, “The Crown of Ptolemy.”

The first story is told from Carter’s first person. The second switches to a third person limited from Annabeth’s POV. The last is in Percy’s first person. Since the release of The Red Pyramid, the first book to veer from Percy’s close first person narration, I’ve admired that Riordan is a risk-taker; he does not confine himself to a single style, but tries something new with each series (or did so through the first three; The Trials of Apollo returns to close first person): the Percy Jackson series are close first person, The Kane Chronicles are two first person narrations done as audio transcripts, The Heroes of Olympus are several close third narrators. This is the first of his books to combine the first and the third person narrations, and it feels almost seamless (anything that involves Sadie Kane is going to strike with a bit of a bang; she has that effect).

I was further impressed that Riordan was able to rationalize the fun that he was having with a crossover story. He found an enemy that could not be defeated without a crossover; most crossovers that I’ve ever read (or written) have had no justification other than fun, no plot reason for the crossover (and most have been fan-written rather than canon). He not only found a reason to connect the two stories, but found a way to make this story a continuation of the Kanes’ story in particular, the ultimate baddie being a character from their past, someone they worried about leaving loose in the world.

I realize that there’s not a lot of substance to this review, but suffice it to say that I finished this story on May 27. I began it again the other day.

Sometimes I need the slight commitment of a short story. The three stories together are a mere 212 pages. From Riordan especially, whose characters and humorous but dramatic and action-filled writing I often miss, I appreciate having short stories. 212 pages is so much less of a commitment to make than any one of his novels, none of which I easily read only a part.

****

Riordan, Rick. Demigods & Magicians: Percy and Annabeth Meet the Kanes. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Hyperion Books, Disney Book Group, or Rick Riordan.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Difficult Characters and Prose Hide a Wicked Twist in The Hidden Oracle

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1484736672Spoilers have been written in white.  Highlight the white space to view.

Rick Riordan has begun his fifth series, The Trials of Apollo, a sequel to The Heroes of Olympus which is itself a sequel to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. For those keeping score at home, this makes The Hidden Oracle, first in this series, the eleventh story to follow in Percy Jackson’s story in an easy chronological fashion (several side stories exist including The Demigod Files, The Demigod Diaries, and Demigods and Magicians, which are harder to place). Percy is not our hero this time, but he and his friends from The Heroes of Olympus—particularly Nico di Angelo, are perhaps more heroic than the hero—the god Apollo, punished by his father Zeus for the third time by being made a mortal. This time though his mortal body is young and scrawny and saggy and pimply. He is, as Apollo puts it, average.

We’ve met Apollo in his godly state on numerous occasions throughout Percy’s story. Interestingly, Apollo first appears in The Titan’s Curse, which is the book that introduces us to Nico too. There he is confident and boastful and full of really awful haikus.

When we last spoke to Apollo in The Blood of Olympus he and his twin sister Artemis were trapped on the island of Delos because it was the one place where they remained unaffected by the paralyzing confusion of being torn between their Greek and Roman personalities—a confusion that incapacitated most of the Olympians.

Flung into the garbage when he falls from Olympus, Apollo is promptly accosted by two bullies and rescued by a young girl clad in bright, mismatched clothes and spectacles. Meg at Apollo’s behest takes him to Manhattan, where we first meet up again with Percy Jackson and we learn that there is a new Blofis on the way. Riordan takes time in this book to create a reunion between the Heroes of Olympus and the readers, to check in on everyone by word of mouth or in the flesh. In some ways the attention given to old friends detracts from the new story. That may be reader error, but I looked forward to seeing them almost more than I did learning about whatever new danger awaited Apollo and Meg. That being said, Riordan does a good job working the old characters into the new plot—for the most part. That Percy needed to return to defeat the Colossus seemed a bit… I don’t know, pander-y. We can’t have a new expert fighter rising from the ranks of campers? Leo and Calypso I was happy to see and because they came only at the very end—after the action—it seemed less obtrusive—that, and I won’t mind a little Team Leo time in the coming books. I was going to be seriously upset if Nico was not involved in this story with his boyfriend, Apollo’s son Will, but while I got a few cute lines of banter, I didn’t get a lot of growth from their relationship; it sort of seems like Riordan skips to the part where they are comfortable and perfectly at ease with one another and the other campers with them—even though the very idea of coming out to just one modern demigod and one god of Love who already knew was making Nico leak death shadow not but two books ago (less than two months ago?).

Another reason I may have looked forward to the reunions more than the driving plot was because both protagonists of this book—Apollo and Meg—are kind of obnoxious in their own way—Meg I think mostly because she was never developed in a way that I found particularly compelling and Apollo because he is self-centered and narcissistic (that was far less annoying when it was a few pages of dialogue with other more honorable characters and Apollo had the godhood to back it up). Apollo’s voice—the whole book is of course first person narration by Apollo—is short and clipped and riddled with references to pop culture that will be dated soon or are dated now. I won’t say that those pop culture references did not make me laugh because they did because they are relevant now but it speaks to Riordan’s either lack of interest in creating a book with staying power or disregard for creating such a book. This book will I think feel like a time capsule in maybe even 5 years.

The true worth of this book comes at the end as the plot itself is really taking off and the quest such as it is (having stumbled their way to Greece, the action actually all takes place within the parameters of Camp Half-Blood—a first for Riordan) is beginning. Really I only felt like the book came to fruition when the villain appeared in the flesh. That climax I loved. I look forward to reading the resolution in coming books. The climax connects this book to the others and gives extra weight to past books—which I wasn’t really sure was possible. For that I like it. I like adding a more human element to the villainy I’ve already lived through, because fighting a god, well that’s the stuff of legends, but fighting a megalomaniac with too much power—that’s the kind of fight to which I can relate. Getting to the climax, to the quest—getting Apollo to move away from whining to heroism—that… dragged more than I wanted it too. I can’t say it was slow, because the tone doesn’t allow it to be slow, but there was just not much happening.

Overall, this is not Riordan’s greatest work—not for me. I wanted to like Apollo’s voice; I was excited for Apollo’s voice. I was glad to see the haikus as chapter titles because that has been the most memorable thing about Apollo in previous works. But this was just… too much narcissism. And after the depth to which Riordan plunged with The Heroes of Olympus, this whole book, like Apollo’s worldview, seemed shallow. But I will stick with the series and see what happens.

***1/2

Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo, Book One: The Hidden Oracle. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Hyperion Books, Disney Book Group, or Rick Riordan.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: May 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Cute Animals, a Piano, a Problem, and a Chinese Folk Tale

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biscuitBiscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperCollins, 2009. First published 1996.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

So here is a confession: I had never read the original Biscuit book. I read some of the sequels, and just… the covers… of course I love Biscuit, but I’d never read the original. I didn’t realize that it was a bedtime story. Two rambunctious little story time visitors asked me for a puppy story, and I wanted something fast because their attention wasn’t holding, and because they asked for it after we’d given up on the story that I had picked out for story time, I needed something pre-vetted, something I knew without looking long in the shelves. The story is adorable. The little puppy, whimsically drawn by Schories, does all that he can—all that kids do every night—to delay bedtime: he asks for a snack, he asks for a drink, he asks for story, he asks for a nightlight, he asks to be tucked in, he asks for hugs and kisses, and ultimately after his little girl has gone to bed in her own room for more hugs and kisses—which leads to him sleeping beside her bed on the floor on a blanket that he’s pawed off of the bed. It’s just precious. The interjection of “Woof! Woof!” after every sentence is… a bit much. While barking like a little puppy is fun, it’s a lot, and I admit I skipped a few lines. That’s really my one complaint about the book though.

****

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Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and illustrated Taeeun Yoo. Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I sort of doomed this one all on my own. For months I’d wanted to read it for story time, and this month I was finally able to do so, but the hype that I’d built up around what I imagined this book could be from skimming it was greater than the book itself seemed to me to be. Yoo’s illustrations are still amazing, just the sort of illustrations you coo over with the little elephant in its red scarf, matching its boy’s, and being carried by the little boy over the cracks in the sidewalk. There’s a plethora of creative and colorful creatures on the last pages, and we took a few moments to point and name them: an armadillo, a giraffe, a bat, a hedgehog, a penguin, a narwhal…. There were POC. Though the primary protagonist is, of course, white, the secondary protagonist—his first friend and the only other person with a speaking role—is African American and female. POC and white children, boys and girls were in both the friendly and unfriendly—the accepting and the rejecting—groups. This was a simple introduction to exclusion and inclusion and racism and prejudice. It says a lot for a simple book with not a lot of text. What disappointed me, though, was the text—and again, I say that that is no one’s fault but my own. There were some gems to be sure—the little elephant afraid of cracks, then later never minding the cracks—but I didn’t like the blunt didacticism of the “that’s what friends do:” phrases. The ending felt lackluster to me as well, though I think I see what Mantchev was going for: an invitation to the reader to join in this accepting club. Mantchev’s written quite a few books, but I think this was her first for such a young audience.

****

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My Dog’s a Chicken by Susan McElroy Montanari and illustrated by Anne Wildorf. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This is a cute, atmospheric book. Lula Mae wants a dog, but her mother says no; they can’t afford a dog. But Lula Mae doesn’t get upset by her denied request or her poverty. Instead she chooses a spotted chicken and decides that that chicken will be her dog, Pookie. Pookie is not just any dog, though, she is a multi-talented dog: a show dog, herding dog, a watchdog, a search-and-rescue dog. It is only after Pookie proves herself in this last field—finding the missing Baby Berry, who has toddled off—that Lula Mae’s mother relents and allows Pookie to come inside the house—and even sleep at the foot of Lula Mae’s bed. This book was not at all what I expected, but it was a good story. It might be an avenue to talk about poverty with little kids too—a more realistic, more modern version of poverty—though there’s something ironic about a $16.99 hardcover about poverty—and I wish that that vision of poverty came without some of the Southern stereotypes; I’ve never once down here met anyone called Tater—but on the whole, I think Montanari did a decent job avoiding overly stereotyping the South or in any way demeaning her characters. Really this wasn’t so much a story about poverty as a story about creativity and imagination and a chicken with characters who just happen to be poor.

****

9780807530757_GrumpyPants-BD-512x512Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer. Albert Whitman, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book caught my attention early in the month, but only late this month did I bring it out for story time. This penguin is grumpy, and he doesn’t know why. He strips off his clothes piece by piece, thinking that one less piece will make him feel less grumpy, but it’s no good, even when he’s down to just his underpants. So he takes off his underpants, takes a deep breath, counts to three, and dives into the bathtub, where at last he is able to wash off the last of his grumpiness by splashing and making a bubble beard. He puts on his favorite clothes and feels even better and goes to sleep.

This would be a great book for little ones: bedtime, bath time, clothes primer, a reassurance that sometimes you get grumpy without any reason and that’s okay. Plus, it’s hard to feel grumpy while this penguin pulls off with his beak his very colorful clothes; this penguin dresses only a bit more conservatively than Dobby the house-elf.

I worried a little about showing the penguin sans clothes, but none of the parents said anything—and it’s more natural—isn’t it?—to see a penguin without clothes than in them, so I didn’t feel as if I was showing the kids anything too racy.

*****

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If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a sequel to If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! That first book was better. This one felt… well, like a sequel, piggybacking off of the success of the first but unable to capture the same uniqueness and unexpectedness that made the first book memorable. Magnolia brings a full-size upright piano to the beach. Her mother warns her not to lose it, “keep it neat and clean” and “push it to the beach.” Well, you just know, every one of those promises is going to be broken. They get broken in surprising, more and more outlandish ways. Brownie points for a multiracial family: white, Asian, and African American with potentially just a single mother. There’s a lesson here about our love affair with stuff: The piano is replaced in Magnolia’s heart and affections by a shell that she can use as a boat, a shovel, and a Frisbee.

***

e_and_p_thank_you_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: The Thank You Book by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This book fell flat for me too—and maybe because of the hype, maybe because of the awesomeness of all of its sequels—maybe simply because of what it was. The books problem is that Piggie wants to thank everyone—and that leads to a reunion with every minor character who has ever appeared in an Elephant and Piggie book—including the Pigeon. Gerald is sure that she will forget someone. Piggie is sure that she won’t. It seems as though Gerald thinks that she will forget him—and maybe that’s a reflection on me, making that assumption—but she’s only saving him for last because of course she’s not forgotten her best friend. The person she does forget is the reader, the audience. And she leans forward at the end to thank us, breaking the 4th wall in the same way that once won my heart. Though I think Piggie forgot one more person; I was really rooting for an appearance by Mo himself. There was no lesson here and I think that’s what threw me off, really—not that I think books need to be moralistic, but I think it’s hard for them to exist solely for the sake of existing as this one does. The whole purpose of the book is to thank the reader for reading the book(s), and that’s a bit meta even for me. I think it also suffered from saccharine sentimentality. Further, it does not really standalone. Really grasping the plot requires reading at least 9 other stories (I say at least because there are a few of the 26 I have not yet read and I did not recognize all of the characters thanked and because we were thanking even the flies who flew around the slop it’s possible I just forgot about some characters). Overall, I’m sad that this is the last Elephant and Piggie book because it’s the last Elephant and Piggie book, but it is not the book I wanted—and it’s not one that I will add to my collection, should I ever actually begin amassing these—and I’ve thought about doing so even in the absence of any foreseeable children.

***

28863341 What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom. Compendium, 2016.

This is a companion book to Yamada’s first picture book for kids, What Do You Do with an Idea? The same character returns. This time he has a problem, and it feels like it will never go away, and he can’t run away, and it seems to get bigger and bigger, until he confronts the problem head on and finds the yellow sunlight of opportunity that the cloud hides inside. Well timed for graduations, this book appeals to a broad audience. Marketed for children, it nevertheless speaks maybe even more to me as an adult, where my problems are bigger, and there are fewer “adultier adults” to turn to for help. Again it’s Besom’s illustrations that really make this book shine for me. The text itself is fairly and I believe intentionally nondescript so that the “problem” can be any problem a person faces and the person can be any reader.

****

1103447 The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Kam Mak. HarperCollins, 1997.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Kam Mak’s illustrations for this Chinese Beauty and the Beast type story are stunning. This book is worth it for the photographic realism and vibrant jewel tones of the illustrations alone, but, well, I’m a sucker for folk tales, but I enjoy this one. I especially enjoy this one because Seven is not asked to fall in love with the Beast (or Dragon). She is asked to marry him, yes, but her kindness not her love—no true love’s kiss—gives him reason to choose to present as a handsome male prince. The prince here too is not some previously wicked and now cursed soul, but a man who makes his own choices and goes on his own quest for a wife. He is given agency—a lot of agency, so much more than de Beaumont’s or Disney’s Beasts. He searches for his wife when he begins to suspect that her wicked sister is not his beloved wife as she pretends; Seven believes her prince is unable to distinguish her from her sister and takes this as proof that he does not love her, so she has not sought him but rather found a new life for herself through her own skills. I’ve read this story several times—the first time in 2011 for a class taught by Brian Attebery on gender identity in fantasy and science-fiction. I still enjoy it.

*****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Review: Atmosphere and Subtlety and Poetry in The Scorpio Races

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I was a horse fanatic who grew up reading all of Marguerite Henry’s books, My Friend Flicka, National Velvet, The Pony Pals, and dabbling in The Saddle Club. Pretty much since the introduction of Harry Potter to my life, I’ve read fewer horse books and more fantasy books and epic quests. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races combined these two genres and gave me more than either in some ways. This story takes place on the fictional island of Thisby at an indeterminate time (though because of the mention of women’s suffrage movement I can place it probably somewhere between the early 1800s and early 1900s presumably off the coast of the U.K. for the capaill uisce are a British myth and the name is borrowed from the Irish. The capaill uisce or water horses are sea creatures that can come on land and take on more equine features and natures when they do, but they are believed to be faster and are more vicious, eating flesh and blood instead of hay and oats. Iron and red ribbons and bells and knots in their manes can all be used to curb some of the capaill uisces’ power and make them less menacing and more manageable, but none of these is all-powerful, and a capall uisce will always be dangerous.

Every autumn the bravest of the men of Thisby capture, train, and race the water horses along the beach, where the siren song of the ocean is loudest and the capaill uisce are most unpredictable and dangerous. This year—driven by poverty and a belief that running in or winning the race may change her circumstances—Kate “Puck” Connolly has entered as the first woman and on the first land horse to ever race among the capaill uisce.

Ostensibly this is a story about the races but it is more the story of the islanders and particularly the racers—particularly Kate and Sean Kendrick. Sean is the four-time returning champion who trains thoroughbreds and water horses to race and loves the mount from which his father once fell while racing. Corr did not eat Sean’s father, but he couldn’t save him either. Sean needs to win to be able to buy Corr and to leave the service of the stable owner Malvern.

Kate is a woman in a man’s role, but she sacrifices none of her femininity, none of herself in order to race.

In Kate, I believe Sean sees some of himself, the same love and understanding of horses, the same bravery. He reaches out to her, and the two form an unlikely partnership.

I have been feeling overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of romance in especially teen literature of late, and Stiefvater here snuck in a budding romance so subtle and so sweet and so understated that I forgave her and even rooted for the pairing. I don’t think that’s a spoiler only because of the pervasiveness of romance in teen literature which seems to dictate that if there is a male and a female protagonist in the same story they will inevitably get together. There’s a kiss, but gratefully there’s nothing more to make me reluctant to recommend this to younger readers. This will be a book I’m putting in the hands of the middle schoolers who are reading at a higher level without fearing the wrath of the (almost) most conservative parents.

Stiefvater pulled me in with her poetic prose, her love and understanding of horses, which for me was nostalgic—not only for the literature that I grew up on but also for my own childhood, much of which was spent horseback, loving and learning to understand horses.

Stiefvater relates to Thisby itself as a character and it’s hard to argue with her on that point; The Scorpio Races is an atmospheric book, one that makes you a part of the circles and relationships of its characters. It’s a difficult thing to describe if you’ve never experienced that sort of embrace and envelopment from a book. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and a sense that is ignored or overlooked or slacked off by many writers. It was something my high school English teacher discussed in reference to Thomas Hardy and Return of the Native (which is not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it seems worth mentioning if only because this is the level of prowess I sense in Stiefvater—and if I didn’t enjoy my fling with Hardy it makes him no less revered).

I recognize that perhaps a great deal of this book’s appeal to me is nostalgic and personal, but it is nonetheless something different, something magical, and something subtle.  I’ve already picked up another book of hers to see if that magic extends beyond what is nostalgic–and I’m hopeful that it will.

*****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic, 2013. First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Depth and Darkness Beneath the Fluff in Once Upon A Marigold

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157055Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris is a story of family, friendship, love, magic, and fate. For months now my roommate whenever I’ve said that I need something lighthearted and fluffy has thrust this book at me, and several times now I’ve ignored her. This time, it came to mind when I was looking for such a book, and I requested it from her.

Once Upon a Marigold plays with fairy tale and fantasy character tropes but maybe not with gender as much as I would like. As trope-bent fairy tales go, it is more original than many if still fairly predictable, and that I greatly appreciated.

The protagonist is a young boy found by a bachelor troll in the woods, who tricks that troll into keeping him rather than returning him to his overbearing family and rule-dominated childhood. Chris grows up into a clever, helpful, inventive teen, who begins to realize that there is much of the world that he has not seen and is especially interested in the royal family upon which he spies through his telescope. He is especially interested in the bookish, brunette princess who lives under the curse of being able to read the thoughts of anyone who touches her—so that most people avoid doing so.

He strikes up a burgeoning friendship with the princess via carrier pigeon, but this only increases his desire for interaction with other humans. He leaves his adoptive father for the castle in search of a human experience, where he encounters both the best and worst of humanity and uncovers a dastardly plot that he feels that he—as a good friend—must foil.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this is a story of improbable happy endings—that are still fairly predictable, because this is not the type of story that I ever worried would end unhappily—and I think that would have been true even if it hadn’t been touted to me as lighthearted and fluffy.

There’s enough intrigue and enough danger here to keep me interested, enough that is difficult—marriage arrangements and broken families—that I would avoid giving reading it to a very young child, but it might be a good book for those on the cusp of middle school, just beginning to explore what is more dangerous and what is more disturbing but unwilling yet to relinquish princesses and magic and happily ever afters. Whether or not such children exist, I’m not sure.

This is the first in a series, but neither my roommate nor I yet have the second. The story stands fairly well on its own, only the prologue leaving the spiderthreads of a new story loose and grabbing.

****

Ferris, Jean. Once Upon a Marigold. New York: Harcourt, 2004. First published 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Jean Ferris or Harcourt, Inc or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Binary (381 words)

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Dread is bubblegum and hot pink. It spews from big lips and big eyes and big breasts. It cinches like an impossibly narrow waist. It smells like fake tans and cosmetic. It’s heavy on shoulders I can’t bare because it will be a distraction to the boys in school, because men will use my bare shoulders as an excuse to touch and to catcall and to chase and to capture and to smother and to crush and to tear. These are facts I’ve understood if I haven’t been able to vocalize them since I was old enough to have these blonde haired models splay their legs to sit horseback bare-butted because tight dresses wouldn’t let them ride. Their legs don’t spread wide enough and they never came with pants; they were meant to stand tall and straight and pretty on feet bent unnaturally by high heels that I’ve lost in corners and under the bed. These dolls were never meant to act. They were never meant to do.

There’s the lesson. Stand straight, wear heels, wear lipstick and eye shadow and eyeliner and mascara. We’ll tell you that you can be anything, but you can do nothing, and you need to remember it.

To do anything is unnatural.

Know your limits.

Know your place.

Know your worth.

$9.99 the package says.

That price tag is like a ball and chain around legs that must sting from the bite of a razor because a manufacturer needs more money and they say that my natural hair is ugly, is unkempt, is unsanitary. It hobbles legs that shouldn’t touch one another at the thighs but do, that chafe beneath skirts that are mandatory for formal occasions.

There are no choices in this aisle. There are only limits and boundaries.

This, it says, is girl. This is feminine. The next aisle over—the aisle of blue and trucks and heroes and weapons and tool kits—is not for you. Those are what you cannot be. And here is what you are and what you cannot do.

Stand straight, wear heels, cover up your face, eat less, bend and break your bones, pinch your body till it fits in the plastic mold and you can stand with pride beside these dolls on the shelves, an example.

This week I challenged my friends to join me in the muddy, bloodied waters of gender conformity and nonconformity because it is a topic that’s been thrust into the limelight of late and it’s been on my mind. This was not really the piece I intended to write. I intended to explain how I think gender is a man-made problem and any adherence to a binary is foolish. Instead what you got was an imagined walk down a fictional but too realistic aisle in a toy store—you all know the one—and everything it makes me feel and says to me now. I didn’t want to write this piece because it’s been said before—again and again and again—but I’m still hearing that there are only two choices, defined by blue and pink, by male protagonist and female protagonist. I know things have improved and the aisle that I describe is largely that of my childhood in the 90s, but if people are still toting this binary defined by marketing, apparently, I still need to write and publish this piece.

Good night.

Trebez from Machete Diplomacy joined me in this challenge. Her piece, “Rib to Rib,” is way more subtle. Thanks, Trebez!