Monday, June 18, 2007


Do you ever read a book that seems to be written just for your child? I don't mean a personalized book with your kid's name and birthday in it. I mean a storybook with a character just like your child, who reacts exactly the way your child would. And if the book is also illustrated in a style that your child loves, it seems like it is meant for your child.

I feel this way about "Dahlia", by Barbara McClintock. I blogged a few days ago about "Adele & Simon" a wonderful book by this author. On the back cover it mentioned that her previous book, Dahlia, had won several awards, so we checked it out of the library.

Dahlia appears to take place in the late 19th century. The illustrations reminded me of the pictures from my old Louisa May Alcott favorites. Charlotte is found at the beginning of the book with dirt all over her pinafore, making mud pies with her teddy bear, Bruno. She is less than thrilled to be called indoors to receive a package from her aunt. Inside is a doll, a prim-faced, frilly-dressed doll. Charlotte does not want a doll, and tells the doll that there will be no staying indoors and having tea parties. This doll, soon dubbed Dahlia, will have to learn to dig in the dirt and climb trees. But what will happen when Charlotte's aunt sees the doll after her outdoor adventures?

My daughter is not a tomboy. Her favorite colors are pink and purple, and she went through a loooong princess phase. However, she is the kind of girl who would wear a pink floral twirly dress to climb trees and dig for worms. She has some dolls, but is fairly uninterested in changing their outfits. Instead, they tend to spend a lot of time tied to jump ropes and being lowered over the banisters. Her dolls go on adventures with her, just as Dahlia goes with Charlotte. But she feels affection for them. When her doll, Sally, broke one of her china legs, I ended up sculpting a new one out of clay so Sally could be "healed". I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but let's just say that Dahlia also needs some TLC at one point in the story, and Charlotte is ready to provide it.

Even if your daughter (or son) isn't like Charlotte, I think they will enjoy this story about a child full of curiosity, compassion, and spunk. Be warned, however, that any child looking at Charlotte's bedroom full of bird's nests, shells, mushrooms, insects, plants and snakes may soon be begging to make their own room look the same. We were already well on our way, but we still need to add some bird's nests.

Chaos on my library book shelf

I have a shelf in my kitchen where I store my library books. I noticed that I have a rather odd collection this week:

Stalin: A Biography

Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-shirt

You Are Your Choices: 50 Ways to Live the Good Life

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, A Backstage Journey Through Rock's Most Debauched Decade

Now guess which book I've already read? Yup, Generation T. If you can count looking at pictures and muttering, "maybe if I was 25 years old and lived in Williamsburg Brooklyn and wanted a shirt to wear clubbing..." as reading. My favorite part? Directions on making your own wedding dress out of seven large t-shirts.

I've read a few pages each of Planet Rock and You Are Your Choices, but so far they aren't doing much for me. I just picked up Stalin, so I haven't had a chance to dive into that 700+ page tome yet. I may need to sit on a beach with a mojito to get in the mood for that one.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale

I loved "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield, which I read for my book group. I probably shouldn't be surprised that I liked it, because I am the person who suggested it to the group. It is a Gothic tale about a strange, mysterious family. It involves a manor house, twins, faithful servants, abandoned children, old book dealers, fires, and other wonderful, spooky things.
Personally, all you have to do is set a story in a dark, mysterious house on a moor and I'm there. "The Moonstone", "The Woman in White", "Jane Eyre", anything by Daphne du Maurier ("Rebecca") or Phyllis A. Whitney - it's all good. But everyone else in the book club who read it loved it too, so I can safely recommend it to almost everyone. It is a well-written story that pulls you in.
It starts with a young woman who has written some rather obscure literary biographies. She receives a letter from a old woman who is one of the world's most popular authors. The author says that she has been lying about her past for years in interviews, but she is ready to tell the truth at last. She is willing to have only one person write her authorized biography.
Off goes the young woman to the mysterious manor house in the middle of the moor. There is a cryptic servant, protective of her mistress. There is the author herself, elderly and ill, but seemingly ready to tell her true life story. But is it really the truth? How does she convince the young woman to stay and hear her story?
I refuse to give any more of the plot away. Read the book yourself! I must admit the final ending was a tiny bit disappointing, but I think this is mostly because the journey was so enjoyable that it would be hard to end it in a way that would truly be satisfying and make the reader happy to come to the end.
We discussed this book in book club, and then we talked about a lot of other things. I can't tell you about that, because what happens in book club, stays in book club. If I told you, I'd have to kill you, etc. etc. Let's just say it was a lively discussion!

The Tail of Emily Windsnap

My daughter's 7th birthday party had a mermaid theme, so not surprisingly she received several books about mermaids, fairies, and unicorns. "The Tail of Emily Windsnap" by Liz Kessler was one of the books that we enjoyed reading. I have to confess that after strictly telling my daughter, "Only one chapter per night!" I would sneak a peek at the first page or two of the next chapter when she wasn't looking. Hey, if she wants to cheat too, she's just going to have to learn to read!
Emily Windsnap is a 7th grader with a secret. When she is immersed in water, her legs turn into a tail and she turns into a mermaid. She just discovered this, because her mother has a phobia about water and just gave in to years of requests for swimming lessons. And yet, despite her mother's water phobia, they live on a boat. In a marina. Obviously, there is more going on than Emily can understand, at least at the beginning of the book.
Despite my daughter's love of mermaids, I worried for a few chapters that this book was too mature for her. What does a first grader know about the social cliques of 7th graders? How can she understand the angst of a child who has never met her father? But she liked the book and never seemed bored by the parts that I thought might go over her head. It amazes me sometimes, the gap between the level of books she can read, and the level of books she can understand. No wonder she hates trying to read. If her choice is spending 20 minutes stumbling through "Hop on Pop" or 20 minutes listening to her mom reading "Emily Windsnap", should I be surprised that she would rather just listen?
Anyway, Emily eventually discovers all kinds of interesting things about herself and her parents. She makes a friend and has several opportunities to be brave, creative and persistent. Despite seeming aimed at slightly older readers, there was nothing in this book that I found inappropriate for a 7-year-old. Emily sneaks out at night and tries to write a fake note to her school, but the story has enough fantasy that I doubt my daughter will be emulating Emily anytime soon. All in all, a fun read for all 16 nights. Recommended for all lovers of mermaids.

Adele & Simon

I bought "Adele & Simon" by Barbara McClintock for my daughter as a Christmas present, after seeing a good review in the New York Times. Sometimes I do well with gift books, other times I fail miserably. This book was a big hit.
Adele & Simon is a charming picture book about a brother and sister in Paris. Adele picks up her little brother at school, and he has his hat, gloves, scarf, sweater, coat, knapsack, books, crayons, and a drawing of a cat. In each two-page spread that follows, Simon loses one of his belongings. Don't worry, there is a happy ending when everything shows up again.
The pictures are what really make this book wonderful, and worth reading over and over. You have to search each detailed page to find the missing item, and there are lots of other things to find. For example, when Simon loses his books in the park, there is a line of little schoolgirls with hats who look suspiciously like Madeline and her fellow students (and why not, they live in Paris too!). The illustrations have the old-fashioned look of Kate Greenaway, who I loved as a child.
After the story, McClintock gives a description of the Paris location of each illustration, complete with historical information. We haven't read that part yet -- maybe when my daughter is a bit older she'll be interested. What she does love is the book's endpapers, which are a map of Paris with each scene from the book marked so you can follow Adele and Simon's journey.
At our house, stories about older sisters and little brothers are generally a hit (hello, Max and Ruby!) but I think many children ages 4-9 would love this book as much as we do.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Strife is O'er, The Battle is Won...

...but instead of singing "Hallelujah" I'm thinking, "Eh, is that it?"
Previously I blogged about Sara Douglass's fantasy series, The Wayfarer Redemption. At that point I was reading the first trilogy, about an epic battle between good and evil, shaped by prophecy, and acted out by larger-than-life characters. It was a bit predictable, but still an interesting read.
I might not have picked up more books by this author, but since Paul had already bought them, I kept reading. The second trilogy begins in a quite promising way. Forty years after the epic battles of the first trilogy, the land is now ruled by the children of the characters in the first series. Instead of prophecy, the issues are about sibling rivalry, taxes, and competition for power. The archetypal heroes of the first trilogy turned out to be pretty mediocre parents after the battles were over, leaving their children ill-equipped to deal with the continual stresses of governance.
I was pleased by the direction the new series was taking. I had high hopes for it being a very different kind of story than the last series. But, guess what? All that prophecy in the first series was really just intended to set things up for the next series. Before long, demons are scourging the earth and everyone has forgotten about tax policy. The details have changed, but really this series didn't seem much different than the last.
And the ending? Well, apparently Sara Douglass is also a fan of the Narnia books, since her ending seems cribbed from The Last Battle (by C.S. Lewis). Except, I never really liked the ending of that book either. So I was also disappointed by the ending of this series. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but when it was over I just wondered why I had spent so many hours with it. Not bad books, but certainly something I would never re-read. I'd give them a B-.