Review of Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock


Princess Ben

Being a Wholly Truthful Account of Her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of Her Recollection, in Four Parts

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008.  344 pages.

Starred Review.

I dearly loved Princess Ben!  This is exactly my favorite sort of book — an original fairy tale, with princes and princesses and magic and danger and enchantments and adventure and romance.

Princess Ben is no damsel in distress who waits around to be saved by the prince!  (In fact, there’s a delightful fairy tale reversal toward the end.  I dare say no more!)

At the start, Princess Benevolence’s parents meet a dreadful fate, with circumstances pointing to assassination at the order of the neighboring, or rather surrounding kingdom of Drachensbett.  As in so many other princess tales, Ben must now learn to be a proper princess, under the stern direction of her aunt the Queen.

Naturally, there are also plans to marry Ben off in the service of diplomacy.  However, matters get complicated when Ben discovers a secret passageway to a magic room and a book of magic.  She begins learning how to perform magic and use it to serve her own purposes, like get some decent food.

But as in any fairy tale, before the end the fate of the kingdom lies in Princess Ben’s hands.  The reader can’t help but root for things to end Happily Ever After.

Ben’s a delightful character, a princess with spunk and a weight problem.  The plot is nicely twisted to keep things interesting.  Utterly charming and a whole lot of fun.  Not a book that’s easy to stop reading.

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Review of The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett


The Uncommon Reader

by Alan Bennett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007.  120 pages.

It was the dogs’ fault.  The Queen of England’s dogs lost control of themselves and ran into the City of Westminster travelling library.  Once there, the Queen felt obligated to borrow a book.  Once she had the book, the Queen started reading it.  Once she started reading, she finished it.

“That was the way one was brought up.  Books, bread and butter, mashed potato — one finishes what’s on one’s plate.  That’s always been my philosophy.”

One book leads to another, and another. . . .  The Queen learns all kinds of places and times she can fit reading into her life.

“She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds.  The duke didn’t like it one bit, of course, but goodness it helped.”

Unfortunately, the Queen’s new habit causes great consternation among her staff.  Then drastic changes in her habits, her conversations, and even her outlook on life.

This book was chosen as the All Fairfax Reads selection for 2008.  It celebrates the joys of reading and the way reading can change a life.  The book is short and humorous and good fun.  Some food for thought as well!

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Review of Lion Boy Audiobook



by Zizou Corder

read by Simon Jones

Audio Adventures.  8 1/4 hours on 7 compact discs.

I reviewed the print version of Lion Boy years ago at

Unfortunately, I did not go straight on to read the next two volumes of the story — so I completely lost the thread of what was happening.  When Lion Boy was a selection for the Fairfax County summer reading program, it seemed like the perfect time to refresh my memory, so I listened to the book on CDs.  (And I’m happy to report that I have already begun the second book, so I am not going to let it go this time.)

How to say this without sounding derogatory?  I’m finding audiobooks perfect for the sort of light-hearted book that doesn’t absorb me quite enough to keep me reading late into the night.  Yes, the book is very interesting, but since I generally only get to listen in fifteen-minute stretches, audiobooks work well with a book that keeps me mildly interested over a long period of time.  I’m not sure I defined it exactly right, but I never did get around to reading the Lion Boy sequels, but I found myself eager to listen to them.  I’m finding there’s a certain type of reading that I enjoy more as listening.

And again (as with all the audiobooks I’m reviewing lately), the narration was marvellous.  The book had songs with music inserted in the text, and of course the audio version included these.

This is another good family story that would make great listening for a family vacation.  The hero is a kid, but he gets into some tight places, and the whole family will find themselves hoping Charlie finds a way to save his parents, and his friends the lions.

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Review of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke


An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.  303 pages.

Sam Pulsifer is a bumbler.  He’s a lovable bumbler, but he’s undeniably a bumbler.

Sam spent ten years of his life in prison because when he was eighteen, he accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House and killed two people.

While he was in prison, people wrote to him, asking him to burn down other writers’ houses for them.  His father saved the letters in a shoebox.

When he gets out, he’s on his way to a happy life, with a career, a beautiful wife and two children.  But circumstances come against him, and Sam inevitably bumbles his reactions.

This book is humorous, but in a deeply sad way.  This is not the typical feel-good novel I read, and I almost didn’t finish it.  Readers with a cynical bent will find the book quite hilarious.  I found it terribly sad.  If I had known one of the issues it deals with is marital happiness and unfaithfulness, I probably never would have picked it up.  Overall, it has an exceedingly pessimistic outlook on life, and love, and literature.

In the end, I finished the book because I cared about Sam Pulsifer.  Yes, he’s a bumbler, but he has a good, noble heart.  I still find myself hoping that, after the book finishes, perhaps events in his life will, somehow, take a turn for the better.

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Review of Mozart’s Ghost, by Julia Cameron


Mozart’s Ghost

by Julia Cameron

Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2008.  278 pages.

Starred Review.

When a writer has written fabulous books about writing (The Right to Write is one of Julia Cameron’s that I’ve read.), one always hopes that their own fiction is something you’d want to emulate.  Can they practice what they preach?

Julia Cameron can.  Mozart’s Ghost is a light and delightful love story, with quirky characters you enjoy spending your time with.

All her life, Anna has seen and talked to ghosts.  Now, as a single adult, she lives in New York City and makes her living — well, supplements her substitute teaching income — as a medium.  She lets people know what their loved ones who have gone before want to say to them.

But now a classical pianist named Edward has moved into Anna’s building.  In the first place, his constant practicing is tremendously distracting.  She can’t properly hear the ghosts.  In the second place, there’s a ghost hanging around him, trying to reach the musician through Anna.  This ghost thinks himself tremendously important and wants to help Edward so that his own music will be properly appreciated.  Anna is not impressed.

But Edward finds a place in her heart despite all her resistance.  However, she has no intention of telling him her real job, since she finds most men can’t handle dating a medium.

The course of their romance is comically beset with obstacles, like Anna’s complete lack of appreciation for Edward’s playing, her twin brother’s interference, and even the ghost’s interference.  We feel for Anna and her desire to live a normal life, which simply doesn’t seem to be in the cards for her.

This novel is tremendous fun, and peopled with quirky characters who seem like people you might just meet if you happened to knock on an apartment door in New York City.

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Review of Millie Waits for the Mail, by Alexander Steffensmeier


Millie Waits for the Mail

by Alexander Steffensmeier

Walker & Company, New York, 2007. 

First published in Germany in 2006.

Starred Review.

This book was originally written in German, under the title, Liselotte Lauert.  I want a copy!  This udderly (sorry) silly book was my absolute favorite of the Picture Books chosen for the Summer Reading Program.

Millie the cow waits every morning for her favorite time of day.

Because there was something Millie loved more than anything else —

Scaring the mail carrier. . .  and chasing him off the farm.

Millie spends each morning looking for a new hiding place.  The poor mail carrier has nightmares every night.  The poor farmer has all her packages arrive broken.

Millie must be stopped.

The wonderful silliness of this book (How on earth did Alexander Steffensmeier think of writing a book about a cow scaring the mail carrier?) is especially evident in the illustrations.  The look in Millie’s eye as she scours the farmyard for hiding places is priceless.  The page where Millie first jumps out and scares the mail carrier got a big reaction from the kids every time I showed it to them.  A big reaction from the adults in the room, too.

What can I say?  This book makes me laugh every time I look at it.  It doesn’t promote good, noble purposes.  But it is absolutely, delightfully, wonderfully Silly.

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Review of Ask Me No Questions, by Marina Budhos


Ask Me No Questions,

by Marina Budhos

Simon Pulse, 2007.  First published in 2006.  162 pages.

Fourteen-year-old Nadira is from Bangladesh, but she has grown up in America.  Her father’s visa has expired, and they tried to get legal residency, but their money was taken by a lawyer running scams.  It didn’t seem to matter — everyone else seemed to be in the same situation.

Then September 11th happened.  The INS was cracking down.  Rumors were flying. 

Nadira’s older sister, Aisha, is a senior in high school and the star of the debate team and every teacher’s favorite student.  She has applications in to prestigious schools, but she can’t apply for financial aid unless their legal status changes. 

They hear a reliable (they think) rumor that they should go to Canada and apply for asylum.  The result is disaster.  The Canadians do not let them cross the border, and they are promptly detained.  Nadira’s father, Abba, is arrested and held in a detention center.  They have no idea how long he will be held or if the whole family will be deported.

Nadira and Aisha have no choice but to go back home to New York and go back to school.  They will stay with their cousin.  Aisha doesn’t have a license, but she drives them back.  Ma must stay at the border to try to get Abba’s case heard.

So begins Ask Me No Questions.  Can Nadira and Aisha help in any way to get their father’s case heard?  How can they go on with ordinary high school life?  How can Aisha focus on tests and college interviews?

Nadira says:

Tuesday morning Aisha and I are back at Flushing High as if nothing happened.

We’re not the only illegals at our school.  We’re everywhere.  You just have to look.  A lot of the kids here were born elsewhere — Korea, China, India, the Dominican Republic.  You can’t tell which ones aren’t legal.  We try to get lost in the landscape of backpacks and book reports.  To find us you have to pick up the signals.  It might be in class when a teacher asks a personal question, and a kid gets this funny, pinched look in his eyes.  Or some girl doesn’t want to give her address to the counselor.  We all agree not to notice.

I remember when I was little, crouching in a corner of the playground and hearing a group of girls chant:  Ask me no questions.  Tell me no lies.  That’s the policy of at school.  Ask me no questions, we say silently.  And the teachers don’t.  “We’re not the INS,” I once heard one of them say.  “We’re here to teach.”  But sometimes I feel like shaking their sleeves and blurting out, Ask me.  Please.

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Review of Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama


Dreams from My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance,

by Barack Obama

Crown Publishers, New York, 2004.  First published in 1995.  442 pages.

My Auntie Sue wanted me to read this book so much, she sent me a copy.  Thank you, Auntie Sue!

And I admit, it was down low in my pile of books to read for quite awhile.  Once I did finally open it up and look inside, I was quickly hooked.  Whatever else you might say about Barack Obama, he does have a way with words.

This book was written before Senator Obama started his political career, so it’s not a story about politics.  Instead, it’s a story of growing up as someone who felt like an outsider.  He was naturally forced to think deeply about questions of race and questions of belonging.

Barack Obama was brought up by his white mother and her parents, in Hawaii.  His father was an international student from Kenya.  The father went to study at Harvard, but didn’t have the money to bring his family with him, and ended up going back to Kenya on his own.

Later, Barack’s mother married an Indonesian, so he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, and went to college in California.

This book covers those growing up years, his years working as a community organizer in Chicago, and then a trip to Kenya where he met family members on his father’s side and learned about the father he only met when he was ten years old.

As a child growing up in a white family with brothers and sisters from Africa, as an American who spent several formative years living in Indonesia, Barack Obama is in a unique position to reflect on race in America, on community and belonging, as well as on attitudes about poverty that have similarities worldwide.

This is fascinating and thought-provoking reading.  Now I will try to get my hands on his later book, The Audacity of Hope.

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Review of The Complete Peanuts, 1967 to 1968


The Complete Peanuts:  1967 to 1968:  Dailies and Sundays:  The Definitive Collection of Charles M. Schulz’s Comic Strip Masterpiece

by Charles M. Schulz

introduction by John Waters

Fantagraphics Books, 2008.  325 pages.

Hooray for Fantagraphics Books!  This is now the ninth volume of The Complete Peanuts series, publishing every single comic strip from Peanuts, from the day it began in 1950.

In the 1967 to 1968 volume, we’re getting into the classic Peanuts that I knew and loved as a little girl.

There’s a strip that I think epitomizes this golden age of Peanuts:  Franklin comes into the neighborhood, looking for Charlie Brown.  He meets Lucy in her psychiatrist booth and Snoopy wearing his Red Baron goggles.  When Linus tries to tell him about the Great Pumpkin, that’s the last straw.  Franklin can’t handle it.  As Franklin tells this to Charlie Brown, Schroeder comes up and says, “Hi!  Did you guys know there are only sixty more days until Beethoven’s birthday?”  Franklin’s comment is “Like, wow!”  (Remember, this is the Sixties.)

Yes, in this period, each character was fully into his own neuroses.

I was also surprised to discover, in this volume, a strip about military musicians.  Naturally, it’s between Lucy and Schroeder:

Lucy says, “In a way, you’re quite lucky Schroeder..  If you ever go into the army, they won’t put you in the front lines…  You could play the piano for the officers while they eat!”

Schroeder’s reaction?  AAUGH!

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Review of Ever, by Gail Carson Levine



by Gail Carson Levine

HarperCollins, 2008.  244 pages.

Starred Review.

Hooray!  A new book by Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted and Fairest.  In Ever, the author takes us to a different sort of world.  Instead of magic and fairies, this world is inhabited by gods and goddesses.

Olus is a youthful god, the god of the winds.  He is curious about mortals, and so travels far from his own country and disguises himself as a mortal, a herder of goats.  He finds himself fascinated by the family of his landlord, especially Kezi, who makes beautiful weavings and beautiful dances.

Then, because of an unfortunate vow, Kezi’s life is to be sacrificed.  Can Olus find a way to save her?  Perhaps he can make her immortal like himself.  Only this will mean both of them undergoing a terrible ordeal.

Here is an enchanting story about love and fate, about uncertainty and awareness.

As with her other books, Gail Carson Levine again achieves a mythic quality to her story that I love so much.  We have a simple story with undercurrents of Truth.  Delightful!

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