Review of The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castelluci and Jim Rugg


The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Minx Books, New York, 2007.

We’ve all read books where the main character has to start at a new school.  Even books where she has to start a new high school six weeks after the start of the year.  But Jane’s reason for moving is a little unusual.  At her old neighborhood in Metro City, she was in the middle of a terrorist attack.

Now her parents have moved their family out to the suburbs, where they feel safer.  Jane hates having to leave the city.  When she sits in the cafeteria at the table for rejects, she learns that the other three girls sitting there are all named Jane.

After the terrorist attack, Jane found a sketchbook with words on the cover, “Art Saves.”  Can this be true in the suburbs as well as in the city?  She convinces the other Janes to carry out some “Art Attacks.”  They sign their work P.L.A.I.N.—People Loving Art in Neighborhoods.

But the authorities don’t take kindly to any kind of attack – artistic or not.

Here’s an engaging and artistic graphic novel about surviving, pressing on, and making a difference.

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Review of Scaredy Squirrel, by Melanie Watt


Scaredy Squirrel, by Melanie Watt

Kids Can Press, Tonawanda, NY, 2006.  36 pages.

“WARNING:  Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone wash their hands with antibacterial soap before reading this book.”

Scaredy Squirrel is afraid of many things out in the unknown, things like green Martians, killer bees, tarantulas, poison ivy, germs, and sharks.  Fortunately, Scaredy Squirrel knows how to cope with his fears.  He never leaves his nut tree.

What’s more, Scaredy Squirrel is fully equipped with an emergency kit and an escape plan.

Still, sometimes things don’t go exactly according to plan….

I was completely charmed by Scaredy Squirrel.  This delightful picture book is a fun way to discuss dealing with fears — but mostly it’s a lot of silly fun.

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Review of Italian Lessons, by Peter Pezzelli


Italian Lessons, by Peter Pezzelli

Kensington Books, New York, 2007.  346 pages.

This is the second book by Peter Pezzelli that I’ve read.  I found both books warm and wonderful.  With both, I felt transported back to Italy.

In Italian Lessons, Carter Quinn, newly graduated from college, has fallen in love with a girl who lives in a village in Italy.  He can’t stop thinking about her.  So he decides to spend his summer learning Italian and then go to find her.

Carter learns that a music professor often gives private Italian lessons.  This professor, Giancarlo Rosa, has not been back to his childhood home in Italy for decades.

Italian Lessons covers the summer’s lessons together, what Carter learns about Italy and about life, and then what he finds in Italy — and how his discoveries touch Professor Rosa permanently, and allow him to finally make peace with his past.

This is a feel-good novel that is also thought-provoking, covering issues of life like forgiveness and destiny and opportunities.

I definitely need to look for more of Peter Pezzelli’s novels.  So far, they always leave me with a smile.

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Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

HarperCollins, New York, 2007.  370 pages.

Starred Review.

Barbara Kingsolver has a marvellous ability to make you think.  She has a way with words, coupled with ideas that challenge today’s society.

In Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Barbara Kingsolver and her family became locavores –attempting to eat food that comes from the local area, rather than food that had been shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to reach them.

Along the way, she tells us about the journey, drawing us into her story as only Barbara Kingsolver can.

Her daughter provides the book with recipes, and her husband provides sidebars of information about such things as the food industry’s dependence on petroleum.

She sets up the book going through each month of a year, beginning in late March, ready for asparagus.  The whole concept of certain foods being available in certain seasons is one that I, along with most American consumers, am not used to.  She writes about their garden and farm adventures in each season of the year, and her daughter provides recipes to go with each month’s particular abundance.

Barbara Kingsolver can make thought-provoking entertainment about anything, from locking your house to make sure no one gives you zucchini to breeding turkeys.  (Are there any turkeys left that know how to sit on a nest?  They don’t need to in modern America, where they are bred to be hatched from incubators and sit in a small, enclosed space.)

It was unfortunate reading this book in the winter, because I, unlike the Kingsolvers, had not stored up fresh food to tide me over.  However, in April the local farmer’s market will start up, every week right next to my workplace.  I will look at the food being offered with
completely new eyes.  In fact, reading this book opened my eyes to the small labels in my grocery store produce section, telling which foods come a relatively short distance.

Most of all, this book made me hungry!  All the descriptions of fresh food, grown without pesticides and not shipped thousands of miles convinced me to think about trying this approach not as some sort of noble sacrifice to help the environment, but to partake in some of the deliciousness described.

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Review of The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean, by Alexander McCall Smith


The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean, by Alexander McCall Smith

Performed by Charlotte Parry

Recorded Books, New York, 2007.  1 compact disc.  1.25 hours.

It’s always fun to listen to a British narrator, and it was a treat to listen to Charlotte Parry talking about the exploits of Harriet’s detective aunts, Aunt Thessalonika and Aunt Japonica.  In this book, Harriet learns that she has a sixth aunt she hadn’t known about, Aunt Formica.  Aunt Formica grew up on a ranch in America, and is a skilled cowgirl, but she has asked her detective sisters for help, and Harriet gets to come along.

The story is fun, reminding me of a traditional tall tale.  I love Alexander McCall Smith’s stories, but do think he does a little better when he writes about places where he has lived.  This story set in the American West struck me as highly stereotypical.  I certainly hope none of his readers would ever try to deal with a rattlesnake in the way that happens here!

All the same, this is a fun story and a quick read (or listen).  This could be an excellent choice for a child just ready to read chapter books on their own.  It’s not too long and daunting, but does have some excitement, as Harriet and her capable aunts deal with rustlers.

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Review of Laika, by Nick Abadzis


Laika, by Nick Abadzis

First Second, New York, 2007.  205 pages.

This acclaimed graphic novel tells the story of Laika, a special little dog chosen to be the first living creature in space.

Laika’s life intertwines with many people — A former prisoner of the gulag who was promoted to Chief Designer in the space program, a little girl who loved the dog with the curly tail at birth, a boy who didn’t want responsibility for a puppy, a dogcatcher who resented the dog’s independent spirit, and an animal trainer who talked to the dogs at night before she went home.

The book tells a sad story.  It also makes you think.  When is it right to sacrifice the life of a dog — for science, for country, for glory?

I’m beginning to get used to graphic novels.  This is a high-quality one and is a nice choice to begin learning the form and how it can tell a story.

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Review of The Silver Donkey, by Sonya Hartnett


The Silver Donkey, by Sonya Hartnett

Candlewick Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006.  First published in Australia in 2004.  266 pages.

“One cool spring morning in the woods close to the sea, two girls found a man curled up in the shade and, immediately guessing he must be dead, ran away shrieking delightedly, clutching each other’s hands.”

In fact, it turns out the man is not dead.  He is an enemy soldier, having run away from the war.  He cannot see.  His eyes got tired of seeing the horrors of war, and his vision clouded over.

He tells the girls not to tell anyone he is there.  But how can they help him find his way home, across the Channel?  His younger brother is very ill.  “The doctors don’t think he has long to live.  My mother wrote saying that he wakes at night with a fever, calling out for me.  She wrote that I should hurry home.”

Marcelle and Coco want to help their soldier.  But how can two girls help a blind soldier?  They start by bringing him food. 

The soldier has a good-luck charm, a small shining silver donkey.  He repays their kindness by telling them stories, stories of donkeys, which, though humble, turn out to be surprisingly noble.

This book is mythic and powerful.  It tells of the horrors of war, but also of the nobility that shines through in difficult times.  And the wonder of friendship, across cultures.

The library copy is in a wonderful binding with high-quality pages, silver decoration on the cover, and a silver ribbon bookmark.  Illustrations by Don Powers grace its pages, with a special border on the pages of the stories the soldier tells.

A simple and beautiful tale.

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Review of Our Singular Strengths, by Michael Gorman


Our Singular Strengths:  Meditations for Librarians, by Michael Gorman

American Library Association, Chicago, 1998.  196 pages.

ISBN: 0-8389-0724-5

Here’s a great book for a new librarian, excited about beginning a profession and a calling — in fact, for someone like me!

Michael Gorman, with forty years’ experience working in libraries, tells us about these meditations:  “My aim is to present a topic, thought, or story that encapsulates some aspect of libraries and learning as an aid to understanding or reassessment.  Beyond that I wish to provide aid and comfort to my colleagues in this profession that is often besieged — financially, psychologically, and in many other ways.”

His introduction summarizes nicely the beliefs expressed in this book:

“I believe passionately in libraries — in their social and cultural value, their redemptive power, and their centrality to learning and civilization.  I believe in the intelligent use of technology to enhance the services and programs of libraries and to enable us to fulfill our historic mission.  I believe in real, not virtual, libraries.  I believe in our core values of service, intellectual freedom, and the right of all to equal and full library services.  I believe that reading is a vital component of human progress and that we do no more important things than giving the habit of reading to children and encouraging ever-increasing literacy in adults.  I believe in public service and the public good and in the profession of librarianship, which has made so many contributions to both.  I believe that all libraries and librarians share a common purpose and that solidarity and mutual assistance should be among our guiding professional lights.  If this book, in expressing these beliefs, can make some contribution to librarianship and individual library lives, it will have been well worth the writing.”

Here are more quotations I thought worth collecting:

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Review of Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy


Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

Performed by Rupert Degas

Harper Audio, 2007.  7 1/2 hours.  6 compact discs.

I would love to meet a well-dressed detective with a voice like Skulduggery Pleasant.  The narrator does a magnificent job of making him sound tough and reliable and a hero to turn to when young Stephanie Edgely needs saving from deathly peril.  His Irish accent is irresistible.  When he turns out to be a living skeleton, we find we still want him on our side.

Stephanie is plunged into a world of magic and ancient evil after her uncle’s death.  She comes close to death countless times as she finds herself working with Skulduggery to try to save the world.

This book is full of action and narrow escapes.  The banter between Stephanie and Skulduggery is full of fun, wit, and affection.

The magic world Derek Landy creates — the one that ordinary people don’t know about but goes on around us — is much darker and more sinister than Harry Potter’s.  The villains here are truly evil, and there are some gruesome deaths.

But most of all, this is a fun and captivating adventure yarn.  The narration is completely magnificent, and found me wanting to linger in my car even after I’d reached my destination.

The things that happen to people (in the past of the story and its present) are horrible and gruesome enough that I would save this book for teens and up.  But for those who don’t mind a little grit in the story, I highly recommend this book.  Better yet, listen to the audio version and enjoy the Irish accents!

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Review of Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man, by Scott Wetzler


Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man:  Coping with this frustrating miscommunication between women and men, by Scott Wetzler, Ph.D.

Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992.  207 pages.

ISBN:  0-671-76791-7

My husband used to freely admit to being passive-aggressive.  In fact, I wasn’t very familiar with the term until he used it more than once to describe himself.

Reading this book has been tremendously helpful in helping me understand how his wanting a divorce could have so completely blind-sided me.  With hindsight, I can see the anger sitting below the surface.  At the time, I believed the coverups.

It also helps me keep from feeling jealous about any new relationships he might form:  They will still have to deal with passive-aggression.  A new woman won’t make it go away.

And, best of all, it helps me know what to expect in my dealings with my husband as the divorce happens, and gives me the strength to opt out of any passive-aggressive games.  This book is empowering.

The author tells why he has written a book about passive aggression:

“The answer is simple:  passive-aggressive behavior fractures relationships that would otherwise thrive….

“This book is for women like you, who deal with, live with, have been hurt by and have hope for this unique character: the passive-aggressive man.  If you love such a man, then you know him as someone who never seems to love you back fully; he promises but rarely delivers.  He sees himself as a casualty of recurrent misunderstandings, a bundle of intricately overlapping layers of behaviors no one can penetrate.  What makes his personality confusing is that he’s passive, coaxing, elusive, but also aggressively resistant to you, to intimacy, to responsibility and reason.

“Right now, confused by his behavior, you may be doubting yourself, not him….  But passive-aggression is an understandable psychological pattern — anger its driving force, and fear its hidden secret.  As you read this book and recognize the pattern, you will be less confused by the passive-aggressive men in your life and the games they play.  The ultimate success or failure of your relationship will be how the two of you willingly deal with his — and your — problems.

“As you gain some perspective on the passive-aggressive personality, you can laugh about his games and loop-the-loop logic.  You can take him or leave him, and decide what’s best for yourself.”

Dr. Wetzler helps you understand what’s going on and helps you have the ability to opt out of the games. 

He also talks about what kind of women fall for passive-aggressive men, particularly Victims, Managers, and Rescuers.  His explanation of our behavior is convicting and eye-opening, and he has ideas for stopping the cycle of behavior that feeds passive-aggression in the one we love.  Not that we are responsible for this behavior — but he helps us see how we inadvertently feed it.

I do like the author’s summary of what you most need to understand:

“– A passive-aggressive man is responsible for how he feels, no matter how persuasively he denies those feelings rather than accepting them.

“– A passive-aggressive man is in charge of the choices he makes, good and bad.  The same is true for you.

“– You must be clear about your expectations in a relationship with a passive-aggressive man, communicate them, enforce whatever limits you set and get out, if necessary.”

Dr. Wetzler also reminds us:  “Throughout, I’ve spoken in great detail about the feelings and attitudes that comprise passive-aggression.  I wanted to help you understand, too, that even though you care about him, you’re not responsible for a passive-aggressive man’s problems or how he reacts to you.  Most of all, I wanted to confirm that you are not responsible for getting him to change.  While your emotional support is important, getting him to understand his behavior and make changes are the jobs of a therapist.”

A helpful, enlightening, and empowering book.

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