Review of Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows

Dreaming in Chinese

Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language

by Deborah Fallows

Walker & Co., New York, 2010. 205 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve always loved books about the cross-cultural experience of living in another country. Deborah Fallows has a PhD in Linguistics, and makes her story even more interesting by reflecting on aspects of the Mandarin language and the ways they are reflected in the Chinese people and culture.

She and her husband lived in China for three years, and this book is a fascinating look at her experiences. Don’t tell, but I’m already plannning to give a copy to my nephew for his birthday — He just spent two semesters studying in China. I wonder if he will have noticed some of these same things.

The author explains why the language lens worked so well for her:

“The language paid me back in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated. It was my lifeline to our everyday survival in China. My language foibles, many of which I have recounted in this book, taught me as much as my rare and random successes. The language also unexpectedly became my way of making some sense of China, my telescope into the country. Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China’s art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.

“As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works — its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. I often found a connection between some point of the language — a particular word or the use of a phrase, for example — and how that point could elucidate something very “Chinese” I would encounter in my everyday life in China. The language helped me understand what I saw on the streets or on our travels around the country — how people made their livings, their habits, their behavior toward each other, how they dealt with adversity, and how they celebrated.

“This book is the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China.”

Her result is completely fascinating. You will enjoy this book if you are at all curious about people and language.

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

Battle of the Kids’ Books Round Two Round-Up

I’ve been sick, so you won’t see as many of my comments in the Round Two of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. However, I simply had to check and see how my favorites had done in Round Two. And Surprise, Surprise! This time ALL my picks won! (This is the advantage to picking after the first round finishes. The picks I made on Eric Carpenter’s blog before the tournament have mostly all fallen out of the competition.)

As always, there’s some brilliant analysis from the celebrity author judges. I don’t have to revise my opinion that I gave last week. My favorite in the top half is The Cardturner, with Keeper close behind, so I won’t be too sad if Keeper wins, while rooting for The Cardturner.

My favorite in the bottom half is The Ring of Solomon. I haven’t read Trash yet, but I definitely plan to. There’s some talk that The Ring of Solomon didn’t get its due this year. To some extent I agree, because it’s a brilliant, clever, well-crafted novel. However, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy was such a towering work of genius, it makes The Ring of Solomon less impressive by comparison. Still excellent, though!

Great stuff! If you enjoy kids’ books at all, I highly recommend following the Battle of the Kids’ Books!

2010 Reviews All Posted!

Don’t laugh, but tonight I finished posting the last review of all the books I read in 2010, or at least the ones I decided to review. I like making a clean break between the years, because I choose my Sonderbooks Stand-outs from all the books I read in a calendar year.

I did cheat and already posted a review of one book I read in 2011, A True Princess, so I could post in time for Diane Zahler’s blog tour. But other than that one book, the reviews of books that will be candidates for the 2011 Sonderbooks Stand-outs will begin now.

And, yeah, okay, I’m three months behind. I’m actually hopeful of catching up. Now that I have Filezilla, posting the reviews on goes much faster. I’ve started separating posting the reviews from writing the reviews. On a given day, I’m posting one review, but some days I can get two or three new reviews written. I’m going to make a goal of catching up by the weekend of Mother Reader’s 48-Hour Reading Challenge, which usually happens the first weekend in June — at least having the reviews written.

And I’ve read some FANTASTIC books already in 2011, so I’m looking forward to sharing them with you! I really should just reduce the number of books I review — but I hate to let good books go by, unmentioned.

So I’m looking forward to another year of reading! This August will actually mark my TENTH anniversary of writing Sonderbooks! I am loving sharing great books with people.

Review of Balancing Act, by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Balancing Act

by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), New York, 2010. 32 pages.

Ellen Stoll Walsh is brilliant at explaining basic concepts to the very youngest readers. Her earlier book Mouse Paint is justifiably called “a modern classic,” demonstrating mice mixing colors in a simple, easily understandable way.

Balancing Act shows how balancing works in a way that even toddlers will be able to absorb. First, two mice balance on opposite ends of a stick. Then a lizard joins them, throwing off the balance — but when the lizard’s friend comes, balance is restored. Then comes a frog, and a friend.

When a big, heavy bird comes, it looks like their game is done — until all the other creatures get on the other side. That works great — until the stick breaks.

There are only a few words on each page, used in a way to captivate readers (“Uh-oh! A frog.”), so this book will work with the very youngest children, just beginning to understand that books tell a story.

Balance is a Math concept and a Science concept, but learning this concept is disguised in a lovely story with fun use of language that preschoolers will simply enjoy. A definite win!

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

Review of Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson

Toads and Diamonds

by Heather Tomlinson

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010. 278 pages.

Toads and Diamonds is a beautiful twist on the Charles Perrault fairy tale, with the story set in India.

As in the fairy tale, one stepsister has precious gems and flowers fall out of her mouth whenever she talks, and the other has snakes and toads come out of her mouth. However, in this book, the stepsisters love each other dearly, and it’s not so clear which is the gift and which is the curse.

And both girls must leave their beloved home. They each have a long journey ahead of them to learn their destiny.

This book is full of beautiful writing and an intriguing story. Both girls have adventures and learn about themselves before they are reunited again. The Indian setting makes this quite different from most fairy tale retellings. You can’t help but like both sisters and hope that they both overcome the challenges they’re faced with.

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Source: This review is based on an ARC I got at ALA Annual Conference.

Review of Clementine, Friend of the Week, by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine, Friend of the Week

by Sara Pennypacker
pictures by Marla Frazee

Disney Hyperion Books, New York, 2010. 161 pages.
Starred Review

I love Clementine! By reading Clementine, Friend of the Week, I’ve finally caught up to read the most recent brilliant addition to the books about Clementine. I enjoyed this one very much. The books, besides being clever and funny, are gaining in some depth. There were several plot threads, all related to friendship, that all twined together in this book, even though the storyline is quite simple.

These books are shortish chapter books with plenty of pictures, but there’s so much there. Clementine reveals so much in her speeches, and the wonderful pictures give you a more realistic — and funny — perspective on what’s going on. Taken together, this book is an absolute delight.

Right at the start of the book, Clementine announces that she’s been chosen for Friend of the Week. Margaret, who’s a whole year older, knows all about that, and has plenty of ideas for getting people to write nice things in Clementine’s booklet. The trouble is, when Clementine goes to Margaret’s apartment to see her booklet, something happens that makes Margaret mad, and all of sudden they aren’t friends any more.

Clementine spends the whole week trying to think of ideas, but then her kitten, Moisturizer (Clementine names pets from words she finds in the bathroom.), gets lost and she can’t think of anything else. The story threads get woven together and Clementine finds out what true friendship is all about.

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

Battle of the Kids’ Books Second Round Begins

I admit that I pay absolutely no attention to basketball. For me, March is the time of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, a tournament where celebrity children’s book authors judge between sixteen outstanding titles from the previous year.

I’ve already discussed my first round picks, and the winners of the first half of the first round.

Now the first round has been completed. Because my prediction rate is so dismal (3 out of 8 this year — still much better than last year!), I like to wait to name my second round picks until the first round is done. It’s just as well I did, since my favorite in the top half of the brackets, A Conspiracy of Kings, and my favorite in the bottom half of the brackets, One Crazy Summer, have both already been knocked out.

The second round began today in a match judged by Laura Amy Schlitz. Her analysis is absolutely brilliant, and she explains so much better than I why The Cardturner is such a wonderful book. I was very happy about that result. One match picked correctly in the second round!

The second half of the first round went better for me than the first half, though I have to admit I wasn’t as passionate about this set of books — except One Crazy Summer, which lost.

Matches Six and Seven did go as I hoped/predicted, won by The Ring of Solomon and A Tale Dark and Grimm. Match Eight did not go as I predicted, but I didn’t feel strongly, and Mitali Perkins’ judging convinced me that I will definitely have to read the winner, Trash.

For the second half of Round Two, here are my hopes, though I admit with my favorites out of the running, I’m less invested in the outcomes. (Though the judges’ critiques seem particularly outstanding this year, and I know I will enjoy reading the rest of the Battle action.)

Match 3: The Odyssey, by Gareth Hinds
vs. The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud
judged by Patricia Reilly Giff

My hold for The Odyssey still hasn’t come in, and I wouldn’t mind if it won, but my prediction here is The Ring of Solomon. It’s not as incredibly good as the Bartimaeus Trilogy, but it’s still wonderfully crafted and a great read.

Match 4: A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz
vs. Trash, by Andrew Mulligan
judged by Pete Hautman

I’m looking forward to what Pete Hautman has to say about these books. I’m currently almost finished reading A Tale Dark and Grimm, but my hold hasn’t yet come in for Trash. However, based on what’s been said about Trash, I think I’m going to pick it.

To borrow from Susan Patron, my “inner librarian” likes A Tale Dark and Grimm more than my “inner me” does. I think it will be a fantastic book to recommend for kids who have read all the Goosebumps books and want to go on to something a little longer. As for me, it did remind me of reading fairy tales when I was a kid, but bottom line I enjoy the actual fairy tales more. And I never was crazy about the gory and grim part of the fairy tales, which is what’s emphasized here.

But it’s going to be fun to read what Pete Hautman has to say about them.

To sum up, my favorite in the top half of the brackets out of the remaining books is now The Cardturner, with Keeper as a close second. My favorite in the bottom half is The Ring of Solomon. I am still fondly hoping that A Conspiracy of Kings will come back from the dead to win it all.

However things turn out, it’s going to be fun to watch.

Review of The Day-Glo Brothers, by Chris Barton

The Day-Glo Brothers

The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors

by Chris Barton
illustrated by Tony Persiani

Charlesbridge, 2009. 44 pages.
2010 Sibert Honor Book

Here’s a picture book biography that will engage the reader. It’s accessible and interesting for kids, but also offers information that adults will find interesting.

The brothers Bob and Joe Switzer had plans to be a medical doctor and a magician. But when Bob was laid up after an accident, the two brothers were playing and experimenting with ultraviolet light. One of the chemicals in their dad’s drugstore gave off a yellow glow.

“That glow lit up the Switzers’ imaginations. They brought home lots of books from the library and began learning how to use different chemicals to make glow-in-the-dark paints. In regular light they looked plain, but under the ultraviolet light they radiated bright, attention getting colors.

“Bob thought they could use the paint for more than just Joe’s magic act. They could sell it for use in store-window displays and make a little money to help cover Bob’s medical bills.”

Their fluorescent paint was indeed a big hit, and found many popular uses. But their business really took off when they discovered a way to make the colors glow even in the daylight.

The pictures in this book magnificently illustrate the story. A retro, cartoony style is used throughout. At the start, the pictures of their early life are done in black and white. When they invent the fluorescent paint that glows in the dark, that’s done with light fluorescent colors. Then, after they develop the Day-Glo colors, entire pages are covered with the eye-popping colors.

The book tells the many ways their product ended up being used, including on safety equipment during the war. I like the author’s summing up:

“When they were growing up, Bob and Joe Switzer wanted different things. Bob wanted to make his fortune by becoming a doctor, and Joe wanted to make his mark on the world through magic. At first it may seem that neither brother ended up where he wanted to be. But in that darkened basement, the Switzer brothers began to look at the world in a different light.

“One brother wanted to save lives. The other brother wanted to dazzle crowds. With Day-Glo, they did both.”

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Source: This review is based on a a book purchased at ALA and signed by the author.

Review of The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair

by Josephine Tey

Scribner Paperback Fiction (Simon & Schuster), 1998. First published in 1949. 300 pages.
Starred Review

After discovering Josephine Tey’s mysteries with her classic The Daughter of Time, I’ve been reading all the other Josephine Tey books I can find. If you like cozy mysteries, these remind me of Agatha Christie’s, but seem more unpredictable, much less uniform.

The Franchise Affair is a mystery completely different from any other I’ve ever read. The crime is not a perplexing murder this time. No, a woman and her elderly mother have been accused of a crime. Marion, the woman, asks country lawyer Robert Blair for help when Scotland Yard shows up at her house. They have a sixteen-year-old girl with them who claims that Marion and her mother abducted the girl and kept her locked up in their house for two weeks, treating her like a slave and abusing her. Marion has never seen the girl before in her life, but the girl has descriptions she couldn’t have come up with if she hadn’t been in the house — could she?

The case is unusual and definitely intriguing. If Robert believes Marion, how can he find out what really happened? How did the girl come up with such plausible testimony? And where was she really for those two weeks?

Josephine Tey presents the case beautifully and even throws in a bit of romance. An ingenious and delightful mystery. If you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned cozy that yet isn’t quite like any other, I highly recommend The Franchise Affair.

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

Review of Violet Wings, by Victoria Hanley

Violet Wings

by Victoria Hanley

Egmont USA, New York, 2009. 357 pages.

The story Zaria tells about her life reads like that of a normal teenager ready to try her wings — except that Zaria really has wings. She’s a fairy, living in Tirfeyne. She has a fascination with humans and earth, because that’s where her parents and brother were when they never returned.

“We had all been forced to wait until every member of our class reached the age of fourteen before a single one of us could go to Oberon City. Dreadful, stupid law, but like all the laws of Feyland, strictly enforced. We’d been stuck in Galena — the land of babies, toddlers, and children — until I, Zaria Tourmaline, youngest in our class of fifty, turned fourteen.”

Now that they are fourteen, Zaria and her friends will find out how much magical power they have and how strong. When Zaria and her best friend Leona end up more powerful than any fairies in a generation, they suddenly get some unwelcome attention from the powers-that-be. When she follows Leona on a forbidden trip to Earth, the consequences may be bigger than they can handle.

This book has an elaborate and imaginative world that’s communicated to us smoothly. Sinister plots unfold, and Zaria has plenty of challenges to overcome. We still haven’t found out what happened to her parents, but I hope further books will be coming.

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Source: This review is based on a book I got at ALA Annual Conference.