Archive for May, 2010

Review of Oh, Daddy! by Bob Shea

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Oh, Daddy!

by Bob Shea

Balzer & Bray (HarperCollinsPublishers), 2010. 32 pages.
Starred Review

Just in time for Father’s Day comes this book about a boy (hippo?) and his dad that I would love to read to toddlers any time of year. Alas! I am losing my job, so will not be doing any toddler storytimes any time soon, so I have to settle for urging others to try it. Of course, the very best pair for this book would be a father and child, acting it out as they read, especially the hug at the end.

The book opens up with the boy telling us, “I may be little, but I’m as smart as two eight-year-olds! I’m so smart, I even show my dad how to do things — and he’s a grown-up!”

Then he gives examples. When he’s getting dressed, Daddy asks him “Is this how you get dressed?” with underwear on his head, oven mitts on his hands, and a pail and a boot on his feet. The smart boy then shows him how it should be done.

Silly Daddy can’t seem to get anything right! Any toddler will enjoy Daddy’s completely silly attempts.

But there’s another level to the book for the adult reader, and probably for the child as he gets older and wiser. In each successive episode, the boy isn’t exactly on task. But when Daddy asks his silly questions, like asking if you should get in the car by climbing through the window, the boy quickly focuses to show Daddy how it’s done.

The progression is delightful and playful, including an example where the boy teases Daddy back. And it all ends up with Daddy’s multiple gyrations in the attempt to give himself a big hug — where he definitely needs his son’s help.

This book reminds me of William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza, because like that book, it begs to be acted out by a loving parent-child pair. However, I do think it would work well in a toddler storytime, where you could encourage the toddlers to shout “No!” at Daddy’s silly attempts. I would like to try this on a child to see at what age they catch on to Daddy’s cleverness in motivating his son.

Great fun and delightfully silly!

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Picture_Books/oh_daddy.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Ice, by Sarah Beth Durst

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Ice

by Sarah Beth Durst

Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), New York, 2009. 308 pages.
Starred Review

When Cassie was small, when her Dad was away from the station, Gram would tell her a fairy tale:

“Once upon a time, the North Wind said to the Polar Bear King, ‘Steal me a daughter, and when she grows, she will be your bride.’…

“And so, the Polar Bear King kidnapped a human child and brought her to the North Wind, and she was raised with the North Wind as her father and the West, South, and East Winds as her uncles….

“When the Polar Bear King came to claim his bride, she refused him. Her heart, she said belonged to another….

“Knowing the power of a magic promise, the North Wind’s daughter sought to counter it with her own bargain. ‘Then I will make a promise to you,’ the North Wind’s daughter replied. ‘Bring me to my love and hide us from my father, and when I have a daughter, she will be your bride.’ And so, the Bear carried the North Wind’s daughter to her human husband and hid them in the ice and snow….

“In time, the woman had a child. Passing by, the West Wind heard the birth and hurried to tell the North Wind where his daughter could be found. With the strength of a thousand blizzards, the North Wind swooped down onto the house that held his daughter, her husband, and their newborn baby. He would have torn the house to shreds, but the woman ran outside. ‘Take me,’ she cried, ‘but leave my loved ones alone!’

“The North Wind blew her as far as he could — as far as the castle beyond the ends of the world. There, she fell to the ground and was captured by trolls.” Cassie heard the bed creak as Gram stood. Her rich voice was softer now. “It is said that when the wind howls from the north, it is for his lost daughter.”

Cassie blinked her eyes open. “And Mommy is still there?”

Gram was a shadow in the doorway. “Yes.”

After this surprising prologue, the book opens the day before Cassie’s eighteenth birthday. Cassie remembers Gram’s story when she tracks down the biggest polar bear she’s ever seen. She smiles to think that if the Polar Bear King existed, this is what he’d look like. She loads her tranquilizer gun so she can tag and measure him.

And then he disappears.

She stays out late trying to figure out how she missed his trail, and is ready for a scolding from her father, back at the Arctic research station. What she isn’t prepared for is his reaction to her story of the giant disappearing polar bear. He tells her she must leave the station right away, fly to Fairbanks to stay with her grandmother. He says the station can no longer be her home.

When she wakes at three a.m. to the sound of the plane that’s come to take her away, she realizes how serious her father is. Gram is on the plane and she tells Cassie the fairy tale was Gram’s way of telling Cassie the truth. Her mother was the daughter of the North Wind. She bargained with the Polar Bear King, and now, on her eighteenth birthday, he’s coming for Cassie.

Cassie is incredulous, but also feels hurt and betrayed that either her father or her grandmother didn’t tell her the truth. She doesn’t want to leave her home. When Gram gives her time to get ready for the flight, Cassie goes outside and calls the Polar Bear King. He comes.

Now Cassie makes a bargain with the Polar Bear King. If he frees her mother from the trolls, she will marry him.

So begins this striking and original retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” I’ve already read two novelized versions that I loved: East, by Edith Pattou, and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George. This one is very different, because it sets the story in the modern day.

I loved the way every chapter begins with Cassie’s GPS readings. They go haywire when the Polar Bear King brings her to his castle a mile north of the North Pole.

Bear is a munaqsri with the task of transferring and transporting the souls of polar bears who die into polar bears who are born. His heart breaks when he is not fast enough to be present at a polar bear birth, and the baby is stillborn.

I was delighted that Cassie comes up with a job, a way she can help, using data from the research station. This is not a heroine who is happy to sit alone in a magical castle! She finds a way to work side by side with Bear.

But what I loved most about the book was how it showed Cassie falling in love with Bear. She teases him and cares about him and sees his love for the polar bears. We can see her love for him blossoming on the page.

As in the fairy tale, he comes to her in the shape of a man at night, and on the first night, Cassie swings an ax at him! But as she comes to care about him, she allows him to sleep in the room, and then later she kisses him. Finally, she gives him a wedding night.

And my paragraph there is just about as explicit as the book gets. It’s beautifully romantic without having to go into detail. As in the fairy tale, though, her husband only comes to her in the shape of a man at night, and doesn’t want her to see his face.

When she breaks that taboo, tragedy strikes.

Cassie has grown up on the Arctic research station, so we believe that she is capable of surviving when she sets out to rescue her husband from the troll castle east of the sun and west of the moon.

This is another book I’d like to get into the hands of teens who love the romance in Twilight, because here, too, we have a story of One True Love. We have a heroine who is devastated by the loss of her beloved and is willing to do anything to bring them back together.

Back when the Harry Potter books were at the height of their popularity, my husband had the insight to say that he believed it was so popular because of the aspect of the chosen child. Everyone would like to be told: Here is your destiny. This is what you were born to do.

I think Twilight‘s popularity is similar. We wish that True Love were as simple as the “imprinting” Stephenie Meyer’s werewolves experience. I think that girls, at least, long to experience love that they feel is their destiny, to find their One True Love. And, take it from me, there’s a real satisfaction to calling the rival who steals away their husband, the Troll Queen!

I admit that I always love novelizations of fairy tales. I honestly thought that I’d read too many versions of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” to be impressed by another, but I loved this. Beautiful writing and a beautiful story. A wonderfully romantic tale of True Love you would go past the ends of the earth for.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/ice.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Love and War, by John and Stasi Eldredge

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Love & War

Finding the Marriage You’ve Dreamed Of

by John and Stasi Eldredge

Doubleday Religion, New York, 2009. 222 pages.
Starred Review

I recently filed for divorce, more than four years after my husband abandoned me. Why would I torment myself by reading a book on marriage?

I have a few reasons: First, is that I want to know what went wrong so I don’t repeat the same mistakes. I still believe that God told me that some day our marriage would be restored, and I would want that marriage to be a harmonious partnership before God. It’s inspiring to read about how that can happen.

Actually, I picked up the book ready to quickly turn it back in if I found the contents painful or not applying at all. But I avidly read the whole book, liking it more and more the further I read.

I like everything I’ve already read by John & Stasi Eldredge, particularly Captivating, and The Sacred Romance. I like their way of taking the big picture when talking about the Christian life. They see the Christian life as a grand fairy tale, and I love that approach, as is evidenced by the fact that I’m also reading secular books talking about what fairy tales teach us about life, such as Once Upon a Midlife, by Allan B. Chinen, and Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

The authors tie into that concept right away. In the introduction, Stasi describes watching her husband John conduct a wedding ceremony.

“No matter how many weddings I attend, there is something inexplicably stirring about all this — the ceremony, the making of vows, the great cloud of witnesses, something about this remarkable act feels — how does one describe it? Mythic.”

She gives some of John’s message to the crowd:

“‘Dearly Beloved, you see before you a man and a woman. But there is more here than meets the eye. God gave to us this passion play to reenact, right here and now, the story of the ages. This is the story of mankind, the one story we have been telling ourselves over and over again, in every great myth and legend and poem and song. It is a love story, set in the midst of desperate times, set in the midst of war. It is a story of a shared quest. It is a story of romance. Daniel and Megan are playing out before you now the deepest and most mythic reality in the world. This is the story of God’s romance with mankind.’

“I’m curious what the audience is thinking. When John speaks of love and marriage as deeper than fairy tale, what does our heart say in reply? I know the young women listening just said in their hearts, Oh I hope that is true! I long for that to be true! The young men are wondering, If that is true, what is this going to require of me? The older women filter this through the years of our actual marital experience; they are thinking, Hmmm. (It is a mixture of Yes, I once longed for that, and, Perhaps it will come true for her; I wonder if it still might come true for me.) And the older men sitting here now are simply thinking, I wonder if the reception will have an open bar.

“‘You don’t believe me,’ John says. ‘But that’s because we don’t understand fairy tales and we don’t understand the Gospel which they are trying to remind us of. They are stories of danger; they are stories where evil is very, very real. They are stories which require immense courage and sacrifice. A boy and a girl thrown together in some desperate journey. If we believed it, if we actually saw what was taking place right here, right now, we would cross ourselves. We would say desperate prayers, earnest prayers. We would salute them both and we would hold our breath for what happens next.'”

I love John’s charge to the couple:

“Daniel, Megan, in choosing marriage you have chosen an assignment at the frontlines in this epic battle for the human heart. You will face hardship, you will face suffering, you will face opposition, and you will face a lie. The scariest thing a woman ever offers is to believe that she is worth pursuing, to open her heart up to pursuit, to continue to open up her heart and offer the beauty she holds inside, all the while fearing it will not be enough. The scariest thing a man ever chooses is to offer his strength without knowing how things will turn out. To take the risk of playing the man before the outcome is decided. To offer his heart of strength while fearing it will not be enough.

“A lie is going to come to both of you, starting very soon, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It can’t be done. It’s too hard. We had unrealistic expectations. It isn’t worth it. The lie to you, Megan, will be, ‘You are nothing more than a disappointment.’ And the lie to you, Daniel, will be, ‘You are not really man enough for this.’ And so, I have two words for you today. Words that I want you to keep close in your hearts as you go forward: You are. Megan, you are radiant, you shimmer, you shine, you are a treasure of a woman, a gem, you are. Daniel, you are a man, you are strong, and you are valiant. You have what it takes. Hold this close to your hearts. It can be done. And it is worth it.”

Early on in this ordeal of my marriage falling apart, I found help and encouragement from rejoiceministries.org. One helpful lesson they taught me right from the start is that my spouse is not my enemy. Instead Satan himself is the enemy of our marriage. John and Stasi Eldredge echo that message. The “War” in the title is the battle that a man and his wife do together against the Enemy of their marriage.

Right away, they give us tips about how that battle is carried out, with lies. A wife starts believing the lie that she is not valuable, and so she gets petty about wanting her husband to do more around the house, to show that he values her. Then her husband, in turn, doesn’t feel like his wife thinks he is an adequate man, and resentment builds up on both sides.

This isn’t a book about communication techniques or about how to get your spouse to treat you right. This is a book with stories to explain how you can see marriage as a team effort against a mutual enemy. John and Stasi give stories from their own marriage to show how this can play out — both failures and successes.

Love & War is a wonderful book for romantics. It tells you that a great marriage is indeed possible. It gives you a lofty vision and inspires you to work with your spouse to go after it.

And don’t we all start out in marriage as romantics?

Read the book! I won’t try to summarize each chapter, since I would have too much to say. I’ll finish the review with some inspiring words from the authors at the end of Chapter One:

“Because marriage is hard, sometimes painfully hard, your first Great Battle is not to lose heart. That begins with recovering desire — the desire for the love that is written on your heart. Let desire return. Let it remind you of all that you wanted, all that you were created for.

“And then consider this — what if God could bring you your heart’s desire? It’s not too late. It isn’t too hard. You are not too far along nor are you and your spouse too set in your ways. God is the God of all hope. He is, after all, the God of the Resurrection. Nothing is impossible for him. So give your heart’s desire some room to breathe.

“What if the two of you could find your way to something beautiful?

“That would be worth fighting for.”

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/love_and_war.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Friday, May 14th, 2010

One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

Amistad (HarperCollins), 2010. 218 pages.
Starred Review

Delphine is looking after her sisters as they make their way on an airplane ride across the country to see their mother who abandoned them when Delphine was four years old.

“All the way to the airport, Pa had tried to act like he was dropping off three sacks of wash at the Laundromat. I’d seen through Pa. He’s no Vonetta, putting on performances. He has only one or two faces, nothing hidden, nothing exaggerated. Even though it had been his idea that we fly out to Oakland to see Cecile, Pa’d never once said how exciting our trip would be. He just said that seeing Cecile was something whose time had come. That it had to be done. Just because he decided it was time for us to see her didn’t mean he wanted us to go.

“My sisters and I had stayed up practically all night California dreaming about what seemed like the other side of the world. We saw ourselves riding wild waves on surfboards, picking oranges and apples off fruit trees, filling our autograph books with signatures from movie stars we’d see in soda shops. Even better, we saw ourselves going to Disneyland.”

Rita Williams-Garcia had me hooked right there, because I remembered when I was a bit younger than eleven-year-old Delphine when we moved to California in 1970 (two years later than this story is set), and the number one thing I was excited about was going to Disneyland.

I eventually had my dream come true, but not Delphine. Her mother lives in Oakland, far north of Disneyland, and she keeps saying that she didn’t send for them.

Delphine quickly figures out some things.

“I didn’t want to say Big Ma was right. Cecile was no kind of mother. Cecile didn’t want us. Cecile was crazy. I didn’t have to.”

Delphine still needs to look after her sisters, because Cecile is not doing it. As the third of thirteen siblings, my heart went out to her. It wrenches my heart to hear of kids being forced to take on the responsibilities of a parent when they should just be a kid.

But this book goes farther than that, goes much deeper than three kids with a neglectful mother. Cecile is a poet, and the Black Panthers are using her printing press. She doesn’t want to be disturbed by Delphine, Vonetta and Fern during the day, so she sends them to People’s Center to get breakfast and then stay for the program. The People’s Center is run by the Black Panthers.

So begins Delphine’s crazy summer. She’s in California, finding out what her crazy mother is really like, and looking after her little sisters. I like the way Rita Williams-Garcia shows each girl’s personality by their actions and words. Delphine is steady and reliable. Vonetta always wants to be the center of attention. And little Fern always holds onto her beloved Miss Patty Cake and observes the world. But what will happen to them if they stay involved with the Black Panthers and the rally they’re planning?

This novel is richly woven, warm and deep. We get a rich perspective on California in the late sixties, from the perspective of three colored girls. Delphine’s worried about the militancy of the Black Panthers. But on the other hand, she and her sisters count the number of colored people on television and don’t come up with much. They see people staring at them, expecting trouble. They are fascinated by Hirohito, a boy at the center whose father was arrested when the police burst into his family’s home. They begin to adopt the slogans they are taught, “Power to the People.”

I hope this book gets some Newbery attention this year. It’s got all the hallmarks of a winner: A powerful story; round, believable characters we come to love; insight into a period of history from a perspective we probably haven’t heard before; expert and beautiful use of language; consistent and distinct ways of talking that help us understand each character as an individual; and (my favorite) a story that leaves you warmed and smiling, with deepened understanding and with things to think about. This is a book that will stick with you.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/one_crazy_summer.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Pout-Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen and Dan Hanna

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The Pout-Pout Fish

by Deborah Diesen
Pictures by Dan Hanna

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2008. 32 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a picture book that’s absolutely perfect for reading aloud to preschoolers, particularly ones young enough to still like kisses.

The Pout-Pout Fish has a big, clownlike frown with puckered, pouty lips. He’s also got a refrain. When the other fish and sea creatures ask him to cheer up in their own rhymed and jazzy ways, the Pout-Pout Fish replies,

“I’m a pout-pout fish
With a pout-pout face,
So I spread the dreary-wearies
All over the place.

BLUB
BLUUUUB
BLUUUUUB”

This scenario repeats with a variety of sea creatures, when along comes a girl fish who shows him that puckered lips have a much better use than pouting! So the book finishes up with our friend singing his song in a modified version, now declaring himself a kiss-kiss fish.

I read this book at a storytime with very young preschoolers, and got them making pouty faces and singing the fish’s song along with me. We all had a delightful time.

This wonderful book is delightfully silly and naturally interactive. A fantastic Storytime stand-by.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Picture_Books/pout_pout_fish.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Firstlight, by Sue Monk Kidd

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Firstlight

The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd

GuidepostsBooks, New York, 2006. 227 pages.

Sue Monk Kidd got her start writing for Guideposts. She wrote many inspirational pieces for them and for other publications for many years.

Firstlight is a collection of some of her early writings. They make an inspiring, uplifting collection. I made a habit of reading a section or two in the morning during my devotional time.

I think her philosophy is summed up by these words:

“I believe in stories. The world has enough dogma. It’s stories we need more of, stories that reverence the still, small voice that sings our life. As Anthony de Mello observed, “The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.” Jesus, himself, told stories about the most common things in the world: a lost sheep, a seed that falls on rocky ground, a woman who sweeps her house in search of a coin, a man whose son runs away from home.

“All personal theology should begin with the words: Let me tell you a story.

Sue Monk Kidd writes her devotionals as stories — stories that illustrate the hand of God, or perhaps a lesson about life, or perhaps a reminder of joy.

This book will give you something to smile about as you start your day.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/firstlight.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, read by Alan Cumming

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Leviathan

by Scott Westerfeld

read by Alan Cumming

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2009. 7 CDs. 8.5 hours.
Starred Review.

I blame this book for making me late to a meeting last week. I set off in my car, popped the next CD in the player, and got enthralled in the story. I was halfway to my usual workplace when I realized I should have driven to the government center!

I was reluctant to read this book. Even though I liked the series that began with Uglies, and respected the level of the writing and world-building, I’d gotten rather tired of them. It only took a few minutes of listening to Leviathan to realize that this book had an altogether different flavor and that I wouldn’t get tired of it any time soon.

Leviathan is in the relatively new steampunk genre, which, as the author explains in a note at the end, combines a vision of the future with an alternate version of the past.

The book tackles the beginning of World War I from the perspectives of a boy in Austria and a girl in Britain. But events unfold very differently than they did in our world.

The boy is Aleksandar, the fictional son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death sparked the Great War. The book opens with a loyal count and a small company escaping with Alek after his parents’ death, because now he is heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and the people who killed his father want him dead.

They make their escape in a giant Stormwalker, a powerful war machine created by the German-speaking powers in this alternate world where they had an advanced understanding of technology. Alek had been wanting to learn to pilot one, but he never imagined learning to steer one at night, and in secrecy.

Meanwhile, in England, commoner Deryn Sharp from Glasgow is pretending to be a boy so she can enlist in the Air Corps. However, in her world Darwin changed everything, by not only discovering evolution, but also unlocking the secrets of DNA. Deryn lives in a world of fabricated beasts, living machines that can do anything you can imagine, but that also manufacture their own fuel (using digestion) and heal themselves.

On Deryn’s first day in the service, on her solo flight, she gets caught in a storm and manages to save her own neck, but gets picked up by the great airbeast Leviathan. The Leviathan has a crew of hundreds and is a cross between a whale and many other species, with innards that breathe hydrogen to keep it afloat.

The Leviathan is headed for a secret mission in Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire. But war breaks out around them, and Deryn’s path crosses with Alek. Can Darwinists work with Clankers to save both sets of lives?

This audiobook is full of exciting escapes and adventures from start to finish. As you would expect in a book involving a world at war, there are many different accents involved, and Alan Cumming does a superb job differentiating the characters by their accents and voices. I found myself starting to exclaim “Barking Spiders!” like Deryn after listening to this book for awhile.

And Scott Westerfeld has a complicated and strange world to present, but he pulls it off beautifully, never letting the action lull as he lets the characters describe their new experiences, such as Deryn flying over a London swarming with fabricated beasts and Alek learning to make a Stormwalker run. Alan Cumming manages to keep the excitement in his voice for the entire audiobook, as there are almost always exciting things going on. I hope he took lots of breaks while recording!

The one thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is definitely not a stand-alone story. It ends when they’ve gotten out of one narrow escape and have revealed some of the secrets, but the story and the war are definitely just beginning. And who knows how long it will be before the next installment comes out? Not fair!

One thing’s for sure, when the next book is published, I will want to read it just as soon as it comes out. This one was excellent on audio, but if the audio version doesn’t come out the same time as the print version, I may not be able to wait.

Leviathan made fantastic commuting-time listening, except for being too interesting to listen to when I wanted to go somewhere other than my normal workplace. It also was one of those books that made me want to sit in the car in my parking place until I got to a good stopping place — but a good stopping place never came.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/leviathan.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Reading Like a Writer

A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them

by Francine Prose

HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006. 273 pages.

Francine Prose begins her book like this:

“Can Creative Writing be taught?

“It’s a reasonable question, but no matter how often I’ve been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

“What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I’ve been committing criminal fraud.”

She goes on to admit:

“Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books….

“In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls ‘putting every word on trial for its life’: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

“I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.”

This book opened my eyes to things about the writing process that had gone right past me before. She talks about and gives examples of writers who chose just the right word, then goes on to talk about beautiful sentence-level writing, and then the way writers construct paragraphs. She talks about narration and dialogue, and creating characters. She talks about telling details and gestures.

I must admit this book reads a bit like a college textbook. I took it very slowly, only tackling a chapter at a time, if that. But it would be a textbook for a fascinating, enlightening college class, and I couldn’t help but be jealous of her students.

With this book, Francine Prose equips the reader to better appreciate — and therefore emulate — the fine art of writing beautiful and powerful fiction.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/reading_like_a_writer.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The Boy Next Door

by Meg Cabot

Avon Books (HarperCollins), 2002. 379 pages.

I’m a little embarrassed that when I was shelving books in the Romance section, I actually picked one up, checked it out, read it in one sitting, and thoroughly enjoyed it. To be fair, at least it doesn’t have a picture of anyone’s bare chest on the cover. I was in the mood for something light and fluffy and fun after reading some heavier books, and light and fluffy and fun was exactly what I got.

The story is told through e-mails, and that’s actually carried off well. Fortunately, they don’t use the annoying text message shorthand and it comes out as a fun and believable way people would talk about the madcap adventures of a slightly ditzy but good-hearted co-worker like Mel.

We first meet Mel Fuller in a series of e-mails from her co-workers wondering why she is so late to work. Especially amusing is the one from Human Resources urging counseling if she has serious personal problems causing her excessive tardiness.

It turns out that Mel was late because she found her elderly neighbor had been attacked in her apartment. So she didn’t think to call her employer. In fact, she took care of feeding her neighbor’s cats and walking her Great Dane before she came to work. Isn’t that what anyone would do?

So begins some time where caring and thoughtful Mel takes care of the enormous dog Paco while Mrs. Friedlander is in a coma. Her work does not appreciate her continued tardiness. When Mel finally manages to track down Mrs. Friedlander’s nephew, a notorious womanizer, photographer Max Friedlander, and sends him an e-mail, he’s off at an island with a celebrity model, and doesn’t want to be bothered by a little thing like his aunt’s attack. But neither does he want his aunt to cut him out of her will.

So Max e-mails an old college friend, John Trent, calls in an old favor, and asks John to go to his aunt’s apartment, pretending to be Max Friedlander. John can take care of the dog until Mrs. Friedlander gets out of the coma, and Max’s aunt will never know that her nephew couldn’t be bothered to come to her bedside.

It all might have gone well, if Mel hadn’t found “Max Friedlander” so different from what his reputation suggested. And if John hadn’t had a thing for redheads, combined with never before having known a girl who wasn’t more interested in his money than in him. But you know there’s going to be trouble with a relationship that began with lies.

Reading the flirting, the gossipy e-mails, and the funny misunderstandings is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for fluff, and this book hit me right when that’s exactly the mood I was in. There are a couple of sex scenes, but they are also kept pretty light, and at least it doesn’t have a steamy cover! There’s even a mystery along the way: Who attacked old Mrs. Friedlander? Is their apartment building safe?

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/boy_next_door.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation, by Thomas Siddell

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Gunnerkrigg Court

Volume One

Orientation

by Tom Siddell

Archaia Studios Press, 2007.

I heard about Gunnerkrigg Court at a Youth Services meeting for library staff. Another librarian was urging us to try out graphic novels. Kids love them and they are a fantastic way to pull kids into a love of books. She recommended Gunnerkrigg Court as a particularly interesting example.

Gunnerkrigg Court is based on a web comic, www.gunnerkrigg.com. The first volume, Orientation covers the first year heroine Antimony Carter spends at the strange school called Gunnerkrigg Court.

I found the whole volume strange, but strangely compelling at the same time. The illustrations are very well done, and add to the pull of the story.

I still haven’t figured out what kind of a world Gunnerkrigg Court is supposed to exist in. There are gods, sentient robots and shadows, robotic bird sentinels, a demon stuffed animal, and kids that turn into birds. All the teachers knew Antimony’s parents and seem to understand more of what is going on (What is going on?) than Antimony, but they aren’t sharing their knowledge with her.

Here’s the text on the first page:

“Gunnerkrigg Court does not look much like a school at all.
It closer resembles a large industrial complex than a place of learning.
Within the first week of attendance, I began noticing a number of strange occurrences.
The most prevalent of these oddities being the fact that I seemed to have obtained a second shadow.”

That first page is one of the more normal and straightforward pages!

However, besides being strange, the book is also strangely compelling. I think I am going to begin following the webcomic to find out what happens next and to see if they start making sense of the whole world and what kind of cause Antimony’s parents were involved in.

I don’t think of myself as a graphic novel fan, but by pointing me to a good one, my colleague may have begun changing that.

Buy from Amazon.com

Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/gunnerkrigg_court.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.