Review of The Thief audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner


The Thief

by Megan Whalen Turner

Performed by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 1997.  7 CDs, 7.25 hours.

Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

(My library had this book on CD, but Amazon only lists the cassette version.  I recommend finding it from your library!)

This is now approximately the fifth time I’ve read The Thief, and I enjoy it more every time.  Listening to it on CD was a good excuse to review it again, since I’ve already reviewed the print version as an Old Favorite.

I remembered why the book was a little hard to read aloud — Gen is a bit whiny and sarcastic at the beginning, and it’s a challenge to keep it up in your voice.  Jeff Woodman rose to the challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it.

The Thief is a book where your perspective on everything changes toward the end of the book.  So it’s tremendous fun, on rereading, to see how the author planted all kinds of information all along the way, but you didn’t see any of it, because you were looking from a different viewpoint.

I really would like to see this fabulous book get checked out more often.  All year, I kept suggesting it as a selection for the Homeschoolers’ Book Club.  Well, May is our last meeting, so this time I didn’t suggest!  I simply informed them that we’d be reading The Thief.  The one who has already finished it was enthralled.  I will bring the two sequels, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia to the meeting so they can check them out and read on.  Naturally, I am eagerly waiting to get a copy of The Queen of Attolia in audiobook form.  I definitely have to read the whole series again.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, since I don’t want to give anything away.  Gen has boasted that he can steal anything, and it landed him in the king’s prison.  But now the king’s Magus has gotten him out of prison to take him on a mission to steal a long-lost, ancient treasure.

The book is set in a world very similar to ancient Greece, and along the journey the travelers tell tales of their world’s gods.  Technically, this book should probably be categorized as fantasy, but I put it under “historical,” because it gives such a feel of what it would have been like to live at that time, including political considerations.  No one does any magic, though they do encounter the work of the gods.

I have a hard time convincing people to read this book, because I don’t want to say too much.  So I end up simply raving about how clever the author is and how good the book is and begging you to try it!  I think with every rereading this book goes higher on my mental list of favorites.  Truly a magnificent book.

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Review of Bull Run, by Paul Fleischman


Bull Run

by Paul Fleischman

Various narrators

Recorded Books, 1995.  2 cassettes.  2 hours.

While I was toting carloads of my possessions to a new home just a few miles from Bull Run and Manassas Battlefield National Park, this book seemed an appropriate one to listen to.  Indeed, it was exceedingly strange to realize that these events happened only a few miles from where I was driving.

Paul Fleischman tells the story of the first battle of the Civil War by using monologues from all sorts of people somehow involved — some from the South, some from the North, men and women, white and black, young and old.  The Recorded Books version uses sixteen different narrators for the different characters who give their stories.

This book expressed so many aspects of the start of the war that I never thought about before.  All the points of view are so different.  Since it’s about war, naturally the story is not pleasant, but it is truly fascinating.

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Review of Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller


Miss Spitfire

Reaching Helen Keller

by Sarah Miller

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2007.  208 pages.

Starred review.

Here’s the novelized story of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher.  Sarah Miller does a magnificent job making us feel what it must have been like for a poor orphan to come miles to teach a spoiled, passionate blind and deaf child, who showed an ability for clever imitation, but didn’t show glimmers of understanding.

Annie taught Helen discipline, and then gave her the power of words.  But she might never have persevered if she hadn’t been a spitfire herself.

This book carries the reader into a compelling piece of history, and gives us a window into the mind of someone whose sheer stubbornness was responsible for a miracle.  But how amazing that she didn’t give up before that wonderful day came!

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Review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Dial Press (Random House), New York, 2008.  278 pages.

Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Fiction

I heard about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society from library customers, and was completely delighted with it.

Initially, the book reminded me of 84 Charing Cross Road, since it was also a book of letters.  These letters, since fictional, had even more variety and spice.

Author Julia Ashton begins a correspondence with the people of the island of Guernsey (in the English Channel) when she receives a letter that begins like this:

Dear Miss Ashton,

My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey.  I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you — the Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb.  Your name and address were written inside the front cover.

I will speak plain — I love Charles Lamb.  My own book says Selected, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from?  These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren’t any bookshops left on Guernsey.

I want to ask a kindness of you.  Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London?  I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post.  I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me?  For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr. Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.

Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb….

Who could resist answering such a letter?  Set shortly after World War II, as Julia inquires more about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, she learns about their extraordinary lives during the German occupation of the island.  Since she was looking for a topic for her next book, she ends up visiting the island and the islanders quickly gain a place in her heart.

They will gain a place in the reader’s heart, too.

Yes, there are some awful stories from the war, but the overall tone of the book is uplifting, heartwarming, and delightful.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive — all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

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Review of The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt


The Wednesday Wars

by Gary D. Schmidt

Review written February 23, 2008.
Clarion Books, New York, 2007.  264 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #2, Children’s Fiction

“Of all the kids in the seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun.


Holling Hoodhood knows that the teacher has it in for him because he’s the only kid in his class who doesn’t spend Wednesday afternoon either at Hebrew School or Catechism at the Catholic church.  Instead, Holling is stuck with Mrs. Baker, and Mrs. Baker is stuck with him.

This book reminds me of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Both books look at the difficulties, dramas and dilemmas of student life with a large dose of humor.  Mind you, Holling’s difficulties are not as dire as those of Junior in the Absolutely True Diary.  However, he has some notable challenges, perhaps slightly on the bizarre side—involving rats, cream puffs, a fairy, baseballs, and William Shakespeare.

I love the scene where Holling meets the principal, because it sounds so true to what a principal would say:

I had to wait outside the door.  That was to make me nervous.
Mr. Guareschi’s long ambition had been to become dictator of a small country.  Danny Hupfer said that he had been waiting for the CIA to get rid of Fidel Castro and then send him down to Cuba, which Mr. Guareschi would then rename Guareschiland.  Meryl Lee said that he was probably holding out for something in Eastern Europe.  Maybe he was.  But while he waited for his promotion, he kept the job of principal at Camillo Junior High and tested out his dictator-of-a-small-country techniques on us.
He stayed sitting behind his desk in a chair a lot higher than mine when I was finally called in.
“Holling Hood,” he said.  His voice was high-pitched and a little bit shrill, like he had spent a lot of time standing on balconies screaming speeches through bad P.A. systems at the multitudes down below who feared him.
“Hoodhood,” I said.
“It says ‘Holling Hood’ on this form I’m holding.”
“It says ‘Holling Hoodhood’ on my birth certificate.”
Mr. Guareschi smiled his principal smile.  “Let’s not get off on the wrong foot here, Holling.  Forms are how we organize this school, and forms are never wrong, are they?”
That’s one of those dictator-of-a-small-country techniques at work, in case you missed it.
“Holling Hood,” I said.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Guareschi.

Set against the backdrop of the Sixties, this is an entertaining and touching story about being a kid and finding your way in life.

I like the way Mrs. Baker sums up Shakespeare:

“Shakespeare did not write for your ease of reading,” she said.
No kidding, I thought.
“He wrote to express something about what it means to be a human being in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written.”
“So in
Macbeth, when he wasn’t trying to find names that sound alike, what did he want to express in words more beautiful than had ever yet been written?”
Mrs. Baker looked at me for a long moment.  Then she went and sat back down at her desk.  “That we are made for more than power,” she said softly.  “That we are made for more than our desires.   That pride combined with stubbornness can be disaster.  And that compared with love, malice is a small and petty thing.”

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Review of The Handmaid and the Carpenter, by Elizabeth Berg


The Handmaid and the Carpenter

by Elizabeth Berg

Random House, New York, 2006.  153 pages.

I’ve been reading Christmas novels, so here’s a novel about the original Christmas.

There was a time when I couldn’t really enjoy novelizations of Bible stories — I would get upset over quibbles where they didn’t quite line it up with the Bible text, or the characters would not act as I had imagined them to act.  But perhaps I’ve outgrown that.  I’m quite sure this is not how I would imagine Mary and Joseph, but I did enjoy these characters.

What would it have been like to give birth to the Son of God?  And how would your betrothed react?  Elizabeth Berg does pull us into the story, in all its wonder, yet with a nod to the reality of dirty straw and a long journey and a village reacting to the story of an angel announcement.

This isn’t a dramatically in-depth novelization, but it gives you a taste of what that first Christmas might have been like.  Definitely good holiday reading.

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Review of Anahita’s Woven Riddle, by Meghan Nuttall Sayres


Anahita’s Woven Riddle

by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Amulet Books (Harry N. Abrams), New York, 2006.  352 pages.

Set in 1880s Iran, Anahita’s Woven Riddle tells the story of a girl of a nomadic tribe who loves the land, loves their annual migration, and loves to put the colors of native plants, along with her own dreams, into her weaving.

When the local khan seeks to marry Anahita, she is not happy.  He has already buried three wives, and he does not seem to be a kind man.  She wants to marry someone who loves riddles as she does, so she requests that her father offer a contest.  She will weave a riddle into her wedding carpet, and she will marry the man who can solve her riddle.

This book gets off to a slow start, and I wasn’t impressed at first with the writing, jumping into the perspectives of various people.  However, by the end I was quite absorbed in learning Anahita’s fate.  I ended up liking that the author presented the viewpoints of more than one suitor whom Anahita could be happy with.

I did learn lots about the history of Iran and the nomadic peoples of Persia.  The author conveyed Anahita’s love for her land and her tribe.  She learns from the dyemaster how to make dyes from plants she finds along the path of their migration, and scorns the new chemical dyes available in shops in the city.

This book has a meditative quality, including poetry by the Persian poet Rumi.  The story does draw you in and leaves you feeling you’ve caught a glimpse of the heart of old Iran.

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Review of The Empty Kingdom, by Elizabeth E. Wein


The Empty Kingdom

The Mark of Solomon, Book Two

by Elizabeth E. Wein

Viking, 2008.  215 pages.

The Empty Kingdom is a sequel to The Lion Hunter, which follows The Sunbird.  In The Empty Kingdom, Telemakos, grandson of Artos of Britain, begins to grow into his heritage.

He is still living in Himyar, still knowing the state secrets he discovered in the last book.  How can he warn the emperor of Aksum?  And if he is caught, what terrible things would happen to him?

The Empty Kingdom includes more intrigue, more danger, and more exploits by Telemakos’ feisty little sister Athena.

The books Elizabeth Wein writes began with The Winter Prince, a story of King Arthur’s sons.  The rest are set in old Ethiopia and south Arabia, where one of those sons, and his sister, ended up.

Telemakos, the hero of these last three books, has the light hair of his British father but the dark skin of his Aksumite mother.  He has an amazing talent for learning secrets, and seems to be drawn to a fateful destiny.

Elizabeth Wein’s characters have amazing depth.  At the end of the book, I caught myself wondering who was good and who was bad.  How like life that is.

I hope there will be more stories of Telemakos and his sister Athena, as well as the lands of Aksum, Himyar, and post-Arthurian Britain.

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Review of A Death in Vienna, by Frank Tallis


A Death in Vienna

by Frank Tallis

Grove Press, New York, 2005.  458 pages. 

Here’s a murder mystery with a fascinating historical setting.  The hero of the book is Max Liebermann, a doctor proficient in the new science of psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century, a friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud.

Liebermann’s friend Oskar Rheinhardt, a police detective, is presented with an especially perplexing case.  A woman is found dead in a locked room, clearly dead by a bullet wound, yet there is no bullet found in her body.  The woman was a practitioner of the occult and a regular leader of seances.  Could she have offended the spirits?

Max Liebermann reads people well, understanding Freudian slips at a time before the general populace knew about them.  His perceptive analysis of people makes him an ideal assistant to his friend the detective.

This book was a perfect break for me in between volumes of the much more emotional Twilight series.  A Death in Vienna appeals on a more cerebral level, with a challenging puzzle and an intriguing historical background, when the practice of treating psychological ailments was far different than it is today.

A big thank you to the library customer who told me about this book!

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Review of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi


Persepolis:  The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

Pantheon, New York, 2003.  Orginally published in France in 2000.  153 pages.

Here is a biography told in comic book form.  The story is absorbing, and the black and white illustrations convey much emotion.

Marjane Satrapi was ten years old in 1980 in Iran, when girls at her school were required to wear the veil.  I love the picture of all the little girls horsing around with the veils they did not want to wear.

The book outlines a difficult period of upheaval, from her perspective as a girl just wanting to enjoy life.  We see the rise and fall of political heroes as well as the rise and fall of the family’s hopes.

At the Fairfax County Library, the book is shelved as an adult biography, but it’s also recommended for older teens.  There are some heavy themes of war and death and even bargaining with God.

This book holds a powerful story that will stick with you.

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