Book Reviews: June 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Frustrated Fathers and Anxious Children, But I Promise Happy Endings

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Puzzle Pals: Kiki the Kitten by Egmont. Sandy Creek, 2014. Intended audience: Age 3.

This is an intriguing concept for a book. Pieces of the illustrations are removable and become puzzle pieces to form when put together a complete image of the title character, Kiki the Kitten. Kiki is never named except for in the title. She is not much of a character, but perhaps a fairly stereotypical cat. The story—call it that—is exceedingly short, having only four pages of text, and each page having only a sentence, maybe two. I found the cover sadly pink and “feminine.” In our gender polarized world, it’s hard to imagine most boys wanting such a book, though there is nothing inherently feminine about a cat, even if it is a female cat. While I am impressed by the ingenuity of the illustrations, that’s about all I can really give this book.

*

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Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grades PreK.

I knew very little about this book before its release. We had signs up at the store that displayed the cover, but gave no description. Honestly, I expected something very different—and I was glad to hear from a coworker that I wasn’t the only one. I thought not of the paternal pet name when seeing “DADA” but of the modernist art movement. I expected a book lauding Dadaism. Instead I was given a book of adult (presumably paternal) animals pleadingly or with frustration saying “dada” only to have their children blithely answer with their stereotypical animal sound (“moo” for a cow, for example). At the end all of the children look mischievously at one another and cry aloud, together “dada!” I can be impressed by Ordóñez’s expressive illustrations, though I’m not sure that I like the association with frustration (which expresses itself fairly like anger) and fathers, however accurate the emotion may be when trying to get a child to say a specific word. Ordóñez also uses good, pastel colors, which I believe are still recommended for the very young, especially as being soothing around bedtime. I may have liked this book better without the hype, without the chance to expect a book on Dadaism. On the whole though, it’s an animal sounds primer, and nothing much special beyond that. It’s hard to be outstanding with a primer.

**

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is a classic to be sure, and as such, one I really feel incapable of fairly rating. This duo has had incredible staying power, most of their collaborations surviving today, being reprinted in numerous formats, still selling well, and being displayed prominently. This, I believe, was one of their earlier collaborations, maybe the first, and one that started a series of similar books that can serve as primers for animals. This one doubles as a color primer as well. Some of the animals are their natural colors. Some like the blue horse and purple cat are less so. Carle’s illustrations are fairly realistic, and yet his style is unique and recognizable. The story ends with the goldfish seeing the teacher and the teacher seeing the children and the children seeing all of the animals that had been previously mentioned, so there is the repetition of the lesson to help cement the words in the mind as well a crack in the fourth wall, of which I am always a fan. Carle includes children of many races, which was probably particularly radical in the 1960s, but we still need that diversity.

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It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr. Little Brown-Hachette, 2014.

I discovered this book—as honestly I do most of these books—by pure accident. Most of them I find while cleaning up after customers. This one was in a section that I know to be less frequented (the parenting section just outside of the children’s section), and I would if I could, move it to a more prominent location. I think I might even move it out of the children’s section altogether. Though marketed for the very young, I feel as if I have more insecurity as an adult about making the mistakes given as examples in this book than I ever did as a child—maybe because as an adult I feel the pressure to succeed and to conform more than I did as a child, and I know that my consequences may be more devastating in that they may result in losing a job and being unable to pay my rent or feed myself rather than being kicked off an extracurricular team or being called to talk to the teacher. How many children care if they put on mismatching socks? How many adults worry that a manager or potential employer will notice their mismatched socks and think less of them because of they grabbed the wrong clothes in the dark, rushing out the door to be on time? The other examples given in the book are more universal across the ages. It’s always important to know that you don’t have to know the answer. It’s always good to be reminded that you might discover something new by trying something different. Honestly, I think I would sell more copies of this during graduation season alongside Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! than during any other time or to any parents of smaller children. I actually think that this book would go nicely just beside Bradley Trevor Greive’s in my room—books to read when feeling discouraged.

I’ve read several of Todd Parr’s books, and I find him enchanting. His colors are beyond Crayola vibrant. His vibrant colors create a universality that leaps across racial barriers and his childlike drawings sometimes surpass gender barriers besides. Animal characters also help to create a universality of reader. Parr leans towards second person text, directly addressing the reader, again lending a more universal feel to the story.

The illustrations are fairly simple, his faces being noseless, little more than smiley or frowny faces. The characters, figures, and backgrounds are all fairly blocky with a few lines to illustrate movement when necessary.

Parr ends his books with a brief summary of his idea and his “Love, Todd” signature.

****

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Hector’s Shell by Thomas Radcliffe. Little Bee-Bonnier, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Hector misplaces his shell while playing at the beach and goes in search of a new one, coming up with many creative solutions, including an origami shell, which turns mushy and leaves smudges of ink all over his body. It was enjoyable turning the page to see what new idea Hector would try and how it would inevitably go wrong. There was a lot of text in this book, making it better for an older reader. In Hector’s joy at finding his shell, there was a touch of a message about positive body image. After the fantastic build up, [SPOILER] it was a little bit anticlimactic for Hector to find his shell in the place that he’d left it. [END SPOILER]

*** 0763675954

Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett. Templar-Candlewick, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

Orion is scared of a lot of things—but especially of the dark. Fed up one night he yells at the dark, and the dark descends in a humanoid shape to show Orion why he shouldn’t be afraid of the dark and how much fun can be had in the dark. There’s even more text in this book than there is in Hector’s Shell. As with Hector’s Shell, a lot of the text is outside the story thread. For example, the sounds that Orion hears in the dark are written out. Examples of Orion’s fears and his ideas to escape the dark are also written into the illustrations. One of the cleverer aspects of the book is several pages where a flap is pressed towards the previous page to create a different image and reveal the text of the page. One page like this makes Dark shake Orion’s hand. A later page allows Dark to wrap his arm around Orion. It is a touching effect. The book is gentle and gently humorous, laughing at Dark’s fears of Dad’s snore and elbowing adults with references to the stars of Orion’s Belt. A Booklist review rightly compares the illustrations with Oliver Jeffers, who ranks among my favorite illustrator-authors. Emma Yarlett may become another illustrator for whom I watch when shelving new picture books.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: A Dance with Dragons: The Plot is Dark and Full of Terrors

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I’d forgotten how involved I become in George R. R. Martin’s very vast and deep world of Westeros and its surrounding countries. When I picked up A Dance with Dragons, fifth and latest in A Song of Ice and Fire, it had been almost a year and a half since I’d finished Book 4: A Feast for Crows. I fell right back into the world, if I was glad to have the dramatis personae with brief descriptions of each character in the back of the book—especially for minor characters who’d died or only been seen several books back.

The main story threads are these: [If it needs to be said: SPOILERS!] Tyrion Lannister is on the run across the Narrow Sea. Daenerys Targaryen is queen of Mereen, and Mereen is at war and under siege. A bunch of characters (Tyrion, Victarion Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell) are racing to her side. Jon Snow is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and his radical decisions are destroying his men’s trust in him. Bran Stark finds his three-eyed raven, but he is neither what Bran expected nor are the raven’s powers what he expected. Cersei Lannister is a prisoner of the High Septon, Asha Greyjoy of Stannis Baratheon, and Theon Greyjoy of the Bastard of Bolton, who has been named trueborn and is on the road for lordship. Another long-lost Targaryen, with a better claim to the throne than Dany, moves on Southeastern Westeros. Arya Stark is still in Braavos, on the path to becoming a servant of the Many-Faced God (Death). Jamie Lannister has nearly finished negotiating the surrender of the Riverlands to the Iron Throne. Westeros is still embattled. The king on the Iron Throne is still the young Tommen, but the tales in this story concern him very little. [END SPOILERS]

I include all the last names because one of my friends helped me recognize that this series is not a series about characters in the way that most series are about characters. Even Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most epic of the series that I’ve ever read, tells the story of the Fellowship, the defenders of all that is good in this world, more than it does the story of Ring or of the world, I would argue. Perhaps I have this sense because the Fellowship feels safer and more protected than any character in A Song of Ice and Fire. The focal point of A Song of Ice and Fire is the Iron Throne of Westeros, and the characters are only the hustle and bustle around this one stationary point, the only seemingly sure thing being that at the end of this all the Iron Throne will be there, the world will be there (though I really wouldn’t put it past Martin to tear down both before this story reaches its conclusion, to have this story end in true apocalypse, the destruction of mankind or of the sun or some such). The story actually really does look a lot as Sesame Street depicts it, the chair not moving and everyone else circling.

Having this revelation early in my read-through put a perhaps different spin on the story for me, and while I was upset by the surprises that Martin left for me, I was not as upset as I might have been because I realized that characters—however much I care for them—and I do care about some of them quite a lot—are not Martin’s story, that they weren’t what I am supposed to be watching most closely as I read the book series. It gave me some distance—and by distance, I mean emotional padding.

This story more than any of the others, I think, is dark. Each book has been dark, but in this, more primary characters than not have been imprisoned or besieged. The one character who through the book is at no time either imprisoned or besieged—Jon—feels enslaved to the Wall and to the vows that he took as a Night’s Watchman, and so he remains stationary. Schemes in prior books have been towards a goal, and much of that scheming has been on some level successful. Much of the scheming in this book has been away from failure instead, desperate grasping to hold onto past successes at best. Jon, again the outlier, moves towards a goal—peace in the North—but his peace is upset by the schemes of others. Bran Stark actually reaches his goal, but doing so grounds him, makes him stationary, and prevents him from yet intervening in others’ plots.

I realize that I said that the wider story is not the characters’ but the Throne’s and that I’ve yet said very little about the Iron Throne in my discussion of the book’s plot. The Throne is the goal of almost all of the characters in the book, whether it’s sitting on the Throne him- or herself or seeing the right person or the right family sitting on the Throne.

The possible exception is the Night’s Watchmen, who have sworn to take no sides. The Night’s Watch has problems in the North that drive their attention away from King’s Landing and the Iron Throne, but even so they are drawn in this book deeply into alliance with Stannis Baratheon, a claimant of the Throne, and into the struggle for Northern dominance among the Northmen of Westeros.

I spoke of a true apocalypse. If that apocalypse comes, it will come from the North, Beyond the Wall, and that is why the Night’s Watch’s story is still relevant to the story of the Iron Throne. The threats that they face are the only ones that could interrupt the game of thrones. And if no one defends the Throne from those threats, then apocalypse will come unheralded. And that may be the threat of the next book, The Winds of Winter. But let’s leave supposition there. I’ve done enough of it in this post.

****

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Books, or Random House Publishing Group, or Penguin Random House, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: My Goldfish Ran Away Today (153 words)

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Mommy says my goldfish ran away today. He was gone when I came back from preschool. Mommy says a goldfish circus came to the house, and they thought Freddie was the best swimmer they’d ever seen. They wanted Freddie to join their circus and give him all the food flakes he could eat. Freddie jumped into the potty to join them. Mommy kept looking at the potty when she told me. He really wanted all the food flakes he could eat, she says. And he loves swimming. He swims all the time.  He’s the best I’ve ever seen too.

Mommy may think that a goldfish circus took Freddie away, but I know she’s wrong. Goldfish don’t jump into the toilet to join the circus.

They go to visit the ocean and swim with whales!

I hope Freddie meets a nice whale.

Maybe Freddie will bring the whale back with him to visit me!

Mine was the stolen line this week.  I’ve been fiddling with the idea myself for a while.  This is the best that’s yet come out of it.

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Mad Science,” and it is adorable and clever.  Go read it.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Big Girl” (823 words).  It is also adorable and clever.  I have adorable and clever friends.

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Vanishing Trick,” a much more serious story.

Check back later for some posts by more thieves.

First Lines: A Study: Part 2: The Most Memorable Lines

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Well, I did that first study, and I thought to myself, These books may merit five stars, but some of these first lines do not, so it seems only fair to remedy this with a post of five-star first lines.

I’ve decided to exclude from this study any first lines from texts meant to be experienced orally because those are intended to be memorized, seeming to give them an advantage over those meant to be read in print.

Excluding those mediums, five first lines of fiction I have memorized or all but memorized. These seemed to merit highlighting here. If I of doubtful memory can retain a first line verbatim or even near verbatim, the author has probably struck some heartstring. It is possible though that these books have the advantage of being among some of my favorites and of having been reread. I have read every book the first line of which is on this list at least twice.

This makes me suspect that this study is less objective than I usually hope that I am with book reviews or as I was able to be when my lines came from the merit of the books as a whole. I went through my shelves and read and rated first lines of each book that I’d read and that I owned. There were some certainly that deserved honorable mention, but I could not rate them as highly as those that I had memorized; they just did not have the same pull upon me.

My roommate, Eileen, owns a mug from the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild of “Great Literary Openings.” These will be on my mug:

This line introduces a character and begs a question, creating a hook.

The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

What awful things has the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb done to deserve such a name? Read on to find out, or put down the book and never know. Talk about a hook. We’re also introduced to our opinionated narrator. A narrator’s voice isn’t discussed enough in creative writing classes.

This hook introduces characters and hints at setting.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.

“ ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

I’m hoping that the unnecessary comma here is merely the symptom of the post-publication editing that occurred to compile all five books together for my edition of the sequence. (It’s also possible that in 1973 when this text was first published, this was still an acceptable comma.) Grammar aside, this line leaps the reader into a conversation between the speaker and another character, sets us near a building, and begs the reader to question as Will does in the next line, too many “What?” That question will lead the reader into the conversation, and the conversation into the relationships between the characters, and through the relationships, into the stakes of the novel.

This one gives us characters and setting, but we’re told a lot with just a little. Specificity can be helpful.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.

“Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

We are introduced to married characters, the Dursleys, male and female. We sense the sort of stuck up, feather-ruffled personalities that accompany the Dursleys’ normality from the “thank you very much” and from the “proud,” maybe even from “perfectly.” We are further dropped into a setting: number four, Privet Drive. We are not told where (yet) to find Privet Drive, but we can make some guesses as to the sort of neighborhood where we might be. Privet is a type of hedge used often to create boundaries between neighbors and—as its name may suggest—to create privacy screens. Number four has neither a whimsical or a grand and an ancient name associated with it, but does have a standalone address (not an apartment number), giving us both a notion of the Dursleys’ middling status and their displeasure for whimsy. Another clue to the middle class status is that they are not ashamed to own the address. The “thank you very much” is a brief dip into second person that helps to draw the reader in. The reader herself has offended the Dursleys by suggesting that they might be anything other than normal or suggesting that they would wish to be anything but normal.

This one is a promise of future action and drama, gives us genre, and hints at least at setting.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

“The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.”

This sentence forecasts an exciting, climactic event that promises us adventure and gives us reason to tolerate the backstory that opens the story. Riordan’s works are always fast-paced adventure, and by his fifth book, I think he knew that his readers expected and wanted that fast pace. He was able to more gently ease himself into the action, spending a little more time on relationships between the characters, by appeasing us with this promise. This model should be used with care. One can give away too much of one’s story in a promise. This being the last book, the series having been building towards an epic battle, we knew to expect apocalypse, or at least the possibility of an apocalypse. Later books in The Heroes of Olympus series use similarly modeled sentences (“Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day” (Book 1: The Lost Hero)) to forecast the first conflict of the novel, usually a struggle that happens within the chapter and even within pages of the first line. Some forecast an event that happens within paragraphs. This one from Book 4: The House of Hades drops us right into the action by citing the “third attack”: “During the third attack, Hazel almost ate a boulder.” Breaking the line from The Last Olympian down farther, the “car” puts us in a modern setting (20th century or later). “Car” further is the American word, “auto” being the British. “Pegasus” lets us know that this is a fantasy novel. In modern fantasy, the pegasus as a magical creature has become more pervasive, but it has its origins in Western and specifically Greek mythology. This series of course happens to be about Greek mythology specifically, but I would hesitate from the isolated line, at this point in literary history, to suggest that that might be the case. Putting both “car” and “pegasus” together tells us this is low fantasy, fantasy set in our world.

This also may be a promise, but more certainly is a “universal” statement that refuses to be denied.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Comma usage was different in Austen’s day, I think, marking a breath instead of following a rigid set of rules. In some ways, this famous first line also forecasts later events: We are promised that at some point this will become the story of a man wanting a wife. I say this, of course, with over 100 years of 20/20 hindsight. We all know now that this novel is about the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy, and so when I say that we are promised a man of good fortune seeking his wife, it may be that I just know this as certainly as I know the novel from which this first line comes. The line itself however, more objectively, accepts no challengers. Let’s talk about the narrator’s voice here. We are forbidden from denying the truth of her statement about men. There is strength in these words.

Honorable Mentions

Having reread with a mind towards this study all the first lines of the books that I own and have read, these in particular stuck with me, even though I don’t have them memorized:

This line gives us a character, makes us sympathetic towards her, and gives us setting.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz.

“On the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

A promise of what’s to come, a character with a full name, a setting (an American outhouse), and an attitude of defiance that I think likely to make most readers sympathetic to Maud immediately—as if being locked in an outhouse were not enough to do so. Still, the singing transforms my sympathy from “Poor Maud” to “Rock on, Maud!” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an American song, more widely known now, I’m sure, but it hints at an American setting, and tells us that we are post-1800. The chorus as we know it developed around 1850 and the lyrics as they are best known in 1862. It is a markedly Christian song. Look at all that detail!

This line is sneaky second person, a hook, and humor.

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor.

“‘DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.’”

This is a sneaky, sneaky use of the second person to capture the reader, because you find out shortly after that this first line comes from a pamphlet being read by a third person character. Readers are of course encouraged to ask what were the circumstances of this death. There’s an element of dark humor here too in the exam question that pertains to “my” death. And one wonders how it is possible to answer questions pertaining to one’s own death.

This line gives us character, setting, and the character’s physical state—and makes use of poetic technique besides. (This last book I haven’t actually read, but it is among the books that I’ve bought based on their first few pages (I am one of the readers that cause editors to suggest a first five pages hook). I have recommended this book, this series, and this author almost solely on the strength of this line and its following first few pages.)

Beyonders, Book 1: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull.

“The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep.”

The poetry! The alliteration! The pain. So there’s a character, a prince—a male from a monarchal society and the highest socioeconomic class then—who is chained in darkness (presumably in a dungeon—presumably in an ancient dungeon if the manacles within it are ancient, so there’s our setting), trying to sleep, so maybe it’s night, or maybe he has nothing else to do, or maybe he’s exhausted from previous acts. We also get the character’s physical state: in pain, aching, possibly exhausted. Then of course the question, why is this man in the dungeon? Who’s holding him?

From this study we might actually be able to draw some conclusions: The best lines are ones that multitask. A line like “Elizabeth was a beautiful princess” or “It was night again,” while succinct enough to be memorized are not of the type that one feels compelled to memorize. Many of these memorable first lines include a hook: either a question posed or drama promised. Several of them use second person cues to help to draw in the reader, but I’m not sure that I would recommend this; such use of the second person has always seemed a bit of a cheat to me, much like using first person; I like a challenge. Many of these too include memorable details, and it’s probably those details that make anchors in my memory, helping me to recall the line later.

There are, of course, no real rules. What works on me won’t necessarily work on all readers, as perhaps is proved by the fact there is only one line that overlaps between my survey and the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild’s. The previous study proves too that the best books do not necessarily have the best first lines.

Still here are some examples to consider when trying to craft the best sentence, wherever it might appear in whatever you’re working on.

What first lines do you have memorized?

Book Review: A Wizard of Mars: My Argument for the BroTP

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By the ninth book in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the young wizards aren’t so young anymore. I’m not sure that I wholly approve of the latest sign that Kit and Nita are growing older. For at least seven of the previous eight books if not all eight, these two characters have fought within the text against the worlds’ supposition that any male-female partnership has to be sexual if not romantic, and I was all aboard their ship—their BroTP ship. Yet in this most recent book, A Wizard of Mars, the two of them are becoming more romantically attracted to one another. If this pair becomes an OTP, I may just have to jump overboard and head for the nearest desert isle, not because Kit and Nita (Kita? Nit?) are a terrible or even unlikely pairing, but because I was happy thinking that somewhere in the sea of teen fiction there was a ship that did not need a heart-shaped sail.

The world—our world—the literary world has too many romances and too few male-female friendships untroubled by romance. We do not celebrate singleness, and we over-romanticize romance to the detriment of friendship. By doing so we undermine friendships. I have noticed in my interactions with boys, in my friends’ interactions with boys, in boys’ interactions with me and with my friends that we are damaged by this pervasive idealization of love. There are obstacles put in front of male-female friendships unnecessarily. It ought to be as uncomplicated for me to have male-female friendships as it is for me to have female-female friendships, but it is not. We ought not to have to second-guess every action or word when interacting with the opposite sex. We ought not to feel pressured to feel things toward one another that we may not, and we ought not to believe that any positive feeling towards a member of the opposite sex is romantic.

In a world where too early and too incessantly we are bombarded by the ideals of marriage, true love, romance, and sex and our bodies are sexualized too often and too early, Young Wizards’ male-female BroTP was a breath of fresh air—and a very much needed one.

That all being said, this does not feel like a forced romance and if a romance had to be introduced, I think Duane did so skillfully here. It made sense within the context of the novel, paralleling as it did with a Romeo-Juliet (or Oma-Shu) romance that was important to the action of the plot, so that the romance did not seem jarring. The characters’ thoughts about one another seem… realistic and… earthy. Kit surprises himself when he notices that Nita is “hot.” Nita notices Kit noticing other girls. She has touches of jealousy and general confusion as her feelings towards him begin to shift from platonic to romantic. These thoughts follow gender stereotypes that may have at least some basis in our reality—and by that I mean the reality created by eons of societal expectations. I am glad that there were eight books of a male-female friendship without any stirrings of romance, not only because it provides an example of healthy male-female friendship, but because this romance, if I must now live with it, comes then not from a lightning strike, love-at-first-sight cliché, but a real back and forth, friendship, and slow engendering of greater attachment and attraction. At least then, if romance this must be, it is a more realistic romance than some of the fluff pumped into bookshelves.

Diane Duane I have always admired both for her prose and her blending of science and magic and word. In speaking to a coworker about why she was unable to get into the series, I commented that sometimes I feel like I need an understanding of basic physics to understand this series. If you enter into the series thinking it’s a straight fantasy, as she did, it will be jarring. Reading this book, I noticed, having finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons just prior, that I had to look up more words used by Duane than Martin. Some of those were scientific jargon, but the majority of words that sent me to a dictionary were not. The vocabulary level in these books is high, and I say that more to their credit than their denouncement. I appreciate authors who push readers, particularly their child readers, because too often that audience is underestimated, if not in fiction, then in the world at large.

This is the first of the books I would hesitate on some level to recommend to a younger child—not because I think them unable to handle the content or the language but because I think Duane’s intended audience is now teens. She all but says so in the final pages of the book when one of the Senior Wizards explains to the gathered young wizards the shift in wizardry and in the manifestation of the Lone One that comes with maturity—and explains that they’ve just faced one of these more mature trials. This being said, there is nothing in this book any more explicit or complicated than is in the fourth Harry Potter book or any of the later books in that series, so if your child is ready for Goblet of Fire, they’re ready for A Wizard of Mars.

****

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars. New York: Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: April and May 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2007. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I missed this one, I think, in my childhood. A boy writes to the zoo for a pet, and the zoo obliges. A box arrives. Opening it reveals an elephant. He is too big, so the child sends him back. The zoo then sends a giraffe, but the giraffe is too tall. It continues like this, until the zoo thinks very hard and sends the child a perfect puppy. The animals are never actually named, so it’s a primer for a more advanced toddler, one who’s already learnt all the animals’ names. Or this can be a read-aloud book where the reader names the animals for the child. Precious. And a perfect use of lift-the-flaps.

****

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Follow the Little Fish by Olivier Latyk. Sandy Creek-Sterling, 2015. First published 2013 by Templar. Intended audience: 2 years.

This was a surprisingly fun bargain book. The foil fish on the cover caught my eye. The book is rife with onomatopoeias. The fish jumps from one unlikely body of water to another (a pool, a glass of water), and ultimately ends up in a drainage pipe, then in the ocean. The foil does not remain past the cover, but the colors are bright, maybe even a little too loud. With the onomatopoeias especially, this would be a lot of fun to read aloud.

***

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Hi! by Ethan Long. Appleseed-Abrams, 2015.

This is a board book primer of animal sounds (though some of these are less readily associated with their animals like “yak” and “slurp”) and two basic English words: “hi” and “good-bye.” The animals’ sounds are in rhyming pairs, so I suppose it makes sense to have the final pages be the human “hi” and “good-bye” but the switch to human seems abrupt after all the pages of nonsensical animal sounds. Had the book opened with the “hi,” the animals’ sounds would have seemed like responses. Pairing the animals with images of day and night might have implied a “hi” and “good-bye” meaning to the sounds. Most of the images are set during daytime with each animal in its natural setting. Each animal waves to the one on the opposing page. Perhaps they were all meant to be saying hello (that was my first assumption), or maybe they are paired hellos and goodbyes. Because there is a page with all the animals and the boy opposite and finally the boy’s “hi” and the mom’s “good-bye” to the reader, perhaps the context is meant to be the animals’ greeting one another training the boy to greet his mother in his own tongue, but that’s hazy at best. There’s just no way to know the meaning behind the sounds, and that disappoints me, but the colors are bright and the illustrations welcoming.

**

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Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

The illustrator, Holly Clifton-Brown, deserves especial commendation for this book. I like to think that the author was in on the wonderful diversity that the illustrator slipped into the background of the story, but I have no proof. Diverse ethnicities and diverse family situations are slipped quietly rather than obtrusively into the story, making it a more enjoyable read, and making the diversity seem less of an issue to be dealt with, as can happen when an author is too “preachy,” and more “normal” and acceptable.  Though an issue book, this did not read as one.

The story focuses on Stella and her two fathers. Minor characters include a boy with two mothers of two races and a boy raised by his grandmother while his mother is away at war, as well as families of a mom and a dad. The students are all of varying ethnicities. I’m glad the publishing world was ready for this book.

Using the dilemma of whom a girl with two dads should invite to a class Mother’s Day party, Schiffer discusses the normality of a family of two dads, how there’s still someone to kiss boo-boos and read bedtime stories and pack lunches and all the rest. Stella does not feel badly for having no mother in her life. She realizes that she has a wide family who act as her mother. Her solution, suggested by a friend, is to invite her whole family to the party, since they all act as her mother.

The story leaves an opening for continuation with the mention of Father’s Day and in the background of Stella’s happiness the boy with two mothers beginning to wonder whom he will invite to that party.

*****

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Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2003. First published 1959.

I have found the source of that oft quoted, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Pop-ups add a spark of extra fun and excitement to this board book. This is a book really meant to be gifted and really only meant to be read once a year, and that is a sad thing, because it would be an inspiring anthem any day of the year. I appreciate this book more when separated from its title. The board book is abridged and less often mentions the festivities as birthday celebrations and makes it more universal; I actually prefer the abridged book over the original for its universality. Dr. Seuss’ rhymes always elicit a smile.

Maybe it’s not fair to rate Dr. Seuss (I couldn’t possibly give him a poor rating), but I feel as if this abridgement and pop-up deserves at least:

****

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Uh-Oh Octopus! by Elle van Lieshout and Erik van Os and illustrated by Mies van Hout. Lemniscaat USA, 2014.

The illustrations caught me on this one. Every page is beautiful and bright with rare realism. Every review I’ve read and even the descriptions posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble highlight the illustrations over the story.

I happened to flip the book open first to the last page, which got my feminist hackles up. So then I naturally had to read the story to see if my rage would be justified. Was it? I wasn’t entirely soothed, but I think it more just an odd little story than divisive propaganda. The story is this: The little octopus has a sweet pad in the reef, but one day comes home to find a too-big invader, its powerful, scaled tail sticking out of the entrance and its head hidden inside of Octopus’ home. The octopus runs away and asks all of the sea creatures for advice on getting rid of the invader, but Octopus is not comfortable taking any of the advice that they give. Ultimately, after he hears a mysterious voice asking what he would do, he goes to politely ask the invader to leave his home. The invader explains that it’s been stuck in the octopus’ cave for some time and asks for help freeing itself. Octopus again begs the help of the other sea creatures, and they free the invader, who turns out to be a classically beautiful mermaid. “‘Oh,’ Octopus blushe[s]. ‘If I’d only known you were a lady!  That’s different!’”  I don’t think the author intends to say that women or that beautiful women or that anyone to whom you’re attracted ought to be treated differently–certainly that’s not the book’s primary moral–but those messages could be found in that line.  Interspecies relationships are less taboo in picture books, but it still struck me as an odd ending and poorly worded as it did elicit that spark of feminist fury when read out of context. As a Dutch import, I am a little more willing to be lenient as well, expecting the book to either have been translated from its original language (and so putting the fault on the translator) or having been written in the author’s second language.

The illustrations deserve at least four stars. The story itself… maybe two, so:

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

First Lines: A Study: Part 1: The Five-Star Books

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Gwen and Neekers recently posted on Apprentice, Never Master a challenge where each tried to guess a book from its first line alone. I was intrigued by this challenge and inspired to study the first lines of my favorites. Only “favorite” is not very quantifiable, so in the interest of science, I am naming my favorites only those that have received a five-star rating on this blog—though there are others that are favorites even while I recognize that they do not objectively deserve five stars. I think it best to exclude primers because of the nature of their text. The books in this study must have a first line that is in fact a complete sentence. To narrow the list further I’ve just grabbed the titles from 2014.

Some lines establish setting:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”

The time of year is established in this sentence. It’s possible to guess that we are on Earth, in a culture that uses the Julian calendar.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

“It was night again.”

Rothfuss, man, you’ve let me down. “I demand poetry, and when I want it, and I want it now” (A Knight’s Tale). I suppose this line does establish the time of day.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book 1: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

“Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”

This first sentence begins to draw a map. We are in Linderwall. It is a kingdom, so a monarchal government and probably a patriarchal society, though sadly, I think most of us would be a touch confused if a writer chose to establish a “queendom.” Word’s dictionary does not even recognize “queendom.” So either this is a patriarchal society or we as readers are limited by our patriarchal language. Linderwall is large as kingdoms go. It has mountains to its east. Does the sun rise in the east over Linderwall? Is this why the mountains are called Morning? Learning and wisdom and particularly those who question conventions are valued in Linderwall. The number five is fashionable. We do not know why. In fact, I’d not noticed this tidbit before and now want to reread the series looking for instances of “five.” Of these three examples, this sentence probably works hardest.

Some lines introduce a character:

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch.

“Elizabeth was a beautiful princess.”

Elizabeth is female, a princess, and beautiful. We’re given a character, her name, her title, her status, and a little bit about her physical appearance, though most of that is left to our imagination. She is from a monarchal country, and of the royal line. We can assume something of her family and upbringing, though we might later be corrected about our notions.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

“Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body.”

A male character, Bon Agornin, is dying, probably in pain, and he has wings! So again, a character, a name, a little bit of a physical description, and now too the character’s present health (or lack thereof).

This is dialogue (and in fact the book contains nothing but dialogue), and so establishes the existence of two characters, but tells us very little about either. (For the purposes of this study, pretend there are no illustrations.)

Waiting is Not Easy: An Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems.

“GERALD!”

Here is the speaker and Gerald, presumably male because of the history of the name Gerald.

Some pull double-duty. This one establishes a character and a setting:

The Kiss That Missed by David Melling.

“Once upon a Tuesday, the king was in a hurry as usual.”

We are in another monarchal society. This time the king is the acting character. He is in a hurry. This is a usual occurrence for him, so we can reason that either he keeps a busy schedule or is perpetually late or both—or he may just be one of those people who always hurries, never stopping to enjoy life. It is Tuesday, so we also get a day of the week, and again, the impression of a Julian calendar. There’s also an echo of the fairy tale opening “once upon a time” that hints at genre.

This one opens on an event, but also introduces a character:

Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon.

“One day, Penguin found a curious object.”

The character, Penguin, finds… something. That something piques his curiosity.

The second person narrator is weird. She speaks directly to the audience.

Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman.

“I wanted you more than you will ever know, so I sent love to follow wherever you go.”

This sentence, though, establishes the narrator’s feeling towards the audience, and then personifies love giving it mobility beyond its usual ability. There may then be a touch of magical realism to this story. Also it rhymes, and in the book is printed:

            “I wanted you more

            than you will ever know,

            so I sent love to follow

            wherever you go.”

My sample here is really too small to draw any conclusions, but we have done a short survey of some of the openings that authors employ, and let us content ourselves with pondering on that.

Thoughts? What’re some of the opening lines of your favorite books? Share in comments below! I’d be interested.

Book Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things: When a Story is Not a Story

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Patrick Rothfuss prefaces The Slow Regard of Silent Things by saying that this is not the third book in The Kingkiller Chronicles, that it’s not like his other books, and that “this book might not be for you.” He ends it by confessing his fears that this book would not be well received, that he thought this story would be unwanted by readers and editors

I didn’t jump on this book when it was first published (I unwisely thought that, having just finished Wise Man’s Fear a month earlier, I could patiently wait till the price dropped). I had friends to recommend the book to me before I bought it, and the criticism I was hearing about this book was primarily that it was not what the reader had expected (which usually I attribute to reader error more than author error—but having read the book, maybe just this once, it was at least partially the book’s fault).

This book was not what I expected because as Rothfuss himself says it’s not what you expect of a story; it has none of the framework that we’ve been taught to call “story.” As I read it, I kept waiting for it to become what I expected. It did not. The story is not cohesive. It does not have an arc. It is only loosely held together by an idea in Auri’s mind that she must find gifts for Kvothe before he next comes. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a collection of vignettes more than anything perhaps and a tour of a world below the surface of the series that I’ve come to love.  This is exploration.

But it wasn’t the plots of The Kingkiller Chronicles books that caught me either, and the same wordsmith is here to tangle words together in creative new ways—now with a very different puppet. Kvothe (POV character of The Kingkiller Chronicles) is careful. Each word is weighed and measured and planned and meant to provoke a certain emotion and scene and image. He is, as he’ll remind you, Edema Ruh first, and the Ruh are performers and storytellers. I think Auri is actually the more reliable narrator. Maybe partially because Auri in this story has an audience she cannot manipulate. The silent universe judges her every move. She feels that judgment, knows when something is amiss, and she knows how to fix it, but she cannot put on a false face for the universe.

We’re told Auri is half-mad, but the method behind the madness, revealed when she becomes here a narrator, makes more sense than a lot of other worldviews. Auri moves through the universe sensing when things are off-balance and seeking to fix the imbalances, and to that purpose she seeks to lose self to All Else.

Rothfuss says that as he let friends and later others read the story, the feedback often amounted to “I don’t know what other people will think. They probably won’t like it. But I like it” (158). Rothfuss marvels at this and cites his empathy with her as the root of his fondness for Auri. “I cannot help but wonder how many of us walk through our lives, day after day, feeling slightly broken and alone, surrounded all the time by others who feel exactly the same way” (158). In some ways, this first reading, the endnote to this book made me feel more than did the book itself because it made all the rest make sense, and it was a rare glimpse into a writer’s fears and doubts.

Knowing now what this story is and is not, I’m looking forward to a second reading.

Read this story for the language, read it to ease a sense of loneliness, read it for a new perspective. Read it for meaning if you like but don’t expect to have the lessons handed to you Dumbledore-style. Expect to have to work for your meaning by examining one object and one sentence for several slow minutes and then letting it all flow together into a greater whole. Don’t read it as you read any other story. Don’t read it for plot. Don’t look for humor. Don’t expect a usual experience, and maybe you won’t be disappointed.

****

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Illus. Nate Taylor. New York: DAW-Penguin, 2014.

This review is not endorsed by Patrick Rothfuss, Nate Taylor, DAW Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: When All Else Fails (322 words)

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Oranges meant vitamin C, and vitamin C meant a swifter recovery. She wasn’t sure if that logic really ought to apply to orange-flavored tea or orange cake, but even so she felt a little better with a bite of spongy cake in her mouth and the fragrance of the tea wafting from her mug. The placebo effect, she knew, but belief was a powerful thing, and it meant an excuse to eat cake and drink tea. She even wore orange blossom perfume on her wrists, hoping that carrying the essence with her would help. It was probably more the perfume than the orange blossom fragrance that helped her feel more awake, more put together, healthier.

Illness was a funny thing. Sure it was physical. There was definitely something amiss when her glands swelled and each swallow seemed to drag sharp claws along her throat and when her nose clogged with yellow mucus. But the battle—that was mental—or could be.

It was all about feeling better. Feel better, and the being better would come.

Besides, there was nothing else to do about a cold. A cold would run its course and run you over if you let it, and no amount of medications could do anything but mask the pain and misery.

Those medications might as well be tea and cake.

The line stolen this week was mine, and the line itself might tell you why the piece didn’t get written ahead of time.  This week when I meant to be writing the distractions were vast.

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Beacon Heights, Linville, NC.

And many.

My sister's robe not mine.

My sister’s robe not mine.

So my apologies that this piece is short and perhaps not all I dreamed it to be.

My dutiful and wonderful thieves are:

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Invention” (748 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad, who wrote “Bolstering Immunities.”

and Trebez at Machete Diplomacy, who wrote “Bedside Manner.”