Review of Down Girl and Sit: Smarter Than Squirrels, by Lucy Nolan

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Girl and Sit

Smarter Than Squirrels

by Lucy Nolan

illustrated by Mike Reed

Marshall Cavendish, New York, 2004.  64 pages.

http://www.marshallcavendish.com/

http://www.mikereedillustration.com/

With four chapters, lots of pictures, and lots of implied humor, here’s a book perfect for a child ready to read chapter books on his or her own.

Down Girl, a busy dog, narrates this book.  She and the dog next door, Sit, have an important job. 

Down Girl says,

“It is up to us to keep the world safe.  Sometimes Sit and I wish we had help, but we’ve gotten used to doing the job alone.

“The secret to our success is simple.  We are smarter than squirrels.

I don’t think people realize how many birds and squirrels are out here.  If they did, they’d never leave their houses.

Birds and squirrels steal almost everything in sight.  What they don’t steal, they eat.  They are very clever, but they are not as clever as we are.  Guess where we chase them.  We chase them up trees!

“You never see a dog in a tree, do you?  That’s because dogs are smart.  We know it would hurt to fall out.

“Birds and squirrels never remember this.  It’s easy to keep the world safe from birds and squirrels.”

Down Girl’s master is named Rruff.  It is obvious that Rruff loves Down Girl, since he shouts her name so often.

When a new creature comes to the neighborhood named Here Kitty Kitty, the dogs know their job has gotten more challenging.  Fortunately, Down Girl and Sit cleverly rise to the challenge.

A look at life from a dog’s point of view.  Lots of fun!

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Review of A Death in Vienna, by Frank Tallis

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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 Lionboy: The Chase, by Zizou Corder

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Lionboy:  The Chase

Book Two in the LionBoy Trilogy

by Zizou Corder

Read by Simon Jones

HighBridge, Minneapolis, 2004.  7.5 hours on 6 compact discs.

This time, instead of stopping in the middle of Charlie Ashanti’s story, as I did the first time I read Lionboy, I made sure I continued on.

I’m finding that when I listen to books on CD, I enjoy very different books than the ones I like to read.  Although I enjoyed the first book of the trilogy the first time I read it, I didn’t find it gripping, the sort of book that keeps me up all night reading.  So I never found myself compelled to pick up the second book in the trilogy.

Listening to the audio version of the book is a different situation.  Because I only live ten minutes from my workplace, I enjoy a diverting, entertaining story.  One that pulls me in, but that I don’t mind stopping after ten minutes.  The audio books I’m enjoying, this one among them, are an entirely different category of books than my usual choices.  Although I loved listening to some print favorites, such as Enna Burning and Fairest, I almost found it annoying that I couldn’t gobble up the story quickly, I liked it so much.  With a lighter book, like Lionboy, or comedies like those by P. G. Wodehouse, the way listening takes so much longer than reading is part of the fun.  I’m finding that listening to the audiobook is the perfect way to get around to reading a book that I couldn’t quite get myself to pick up and read with my eyes.  After all, I’m just entertaining myself while driving!

Most of Lionboy: The Chase took place in Venice — a future Venice where much of the city has finally fallen into the sea.  Still, the parts still standing are the same as they have been for hundreds of years, the same Venice I fell in love with myself, so I enjoyed vicariously spending time there while reading this book.

Charlie has gotten the circus lions away from the circus and away from Paris.  In this book, he needs to get them away from what he thought was their safe haven, a palazzo in Venice.  He still doesn’t know where his parents have been taken, and now there’s a reward offered for finding him and the lions.

The plot in this story did include some unbelievable coincidences, but mostly it was an entertaining adventure yarn to listen to.  How will Charlie, who can talk to cats and lions, save his friends the lions, and himself?  How will he find his parents?  How will he escape Raffi, who continues to go after him?

Charlie grows in this book, faces tough challenges, and overcomes.

I appreciated that this book did not end in the middle of things.  In fact, if they didn’t tell us in the epilogue that things are about to get much worse, I would have thought it was a nice, happy ending.  I like trilogies better when they consist of self-contained books, and this one at least finished the saga of the first two books.

The narrator is excellent, maintaining a nice variety of voices, including distinct voices for lions and cats.  Of course, I’m always a sucker for a British accent, and can listen to such a speaker all day long!

I intend to listen to Book Three while I am still thinking about the story.

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Review of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, by Mitali Perkins

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First Daughter

Extreme American Makeover

by Mitali Perkins

Dutton Children’s Books, 2007.  278 pages.

www.penguin.com/youngreaders

http://www.mitaliperkins.com/

http://www.sparrowblog.com/

Sameera Righton’s father is running for President of the United States.  She’s leaving her international high school in Brussels to join him for the last several months of his campaign.

Right from the start, his campaign staff are planning changes for Sameera, starting with her name.  Her family has always called her Sparrow, but the campaign manager thinks that “Sammy” sounds “more American.”  Sparrow was born in Pakistan and adopted when she was three years old, so she doesn’t look like her parents.  Are the American people ready for that?

What’s more, Sparrow, who’s long prided herself in her thoughtful blog posts for a small circle of friends, is now asked to let a supposedly media-savvy campaigner write her official blog.  “SammySez” ends up sounding like a mindless shopping-crazed TV addict.

Sparrow tries to keep a semblance of normal life during the crazy campaign months.  She does her usual summer trip to her grandparents’ farm, and tries to take some of the load off of her recuperating grandma.  At least until the press finds her.  I love her strategy for sneaking out of their Washington, DC, hotel in a salwar kameez.  I think it would work!

This book is fun reading, and perfect for this summer before the election.  Mitali Perkins has posted a real blog for Sparrow at http://www.sparrowblog.com/.  On it, she keeps track of news stories about the children of the real-life presidential hopefuls.  I wonder how much their experiences are similar to Sparrow’s.

I do like the way Mitali Perkins weaves in some tasteful discussions about faith into her work.  I met her nine years ago at a writer’s conference in Paris, and she mentioned that her faith was an important part of her writing.  Her characters express that faith is important, but don’t claim to have all the answers.

I also liked the international flavor to the book.  Sameera grew up overseas, as her parents were an ambassador to NATO and a human-rights activist.  Having met Mitali in Paris when she was living in Asia, I wasn’t surprised to read that she was born in India and lived in many different countries growing up.  The part of the book dealing with international relations definitely had an authentic ring.

This is a good book about a teenager thrust into the limelight, and it also gets the reader thinking.  What makes a person American?

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Review of I Will Surprise My Friend! by Mo Willems

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I Will Surprise My Friend!

by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 2008.  57 pages.

Oh, I do love Mo Willems’ books!  I Will Surprise My Friend! is another easy reader about two friends, Elephant (named Gerald) and Piggie.  As with the Pigeon books, Mo Willems manages to convey all kinds of emotions with simple line drawings.  Adding a raised eyebrow here and a pointed toe there tell the readers exactly what the characters are feeling.

I’d like to try this book in a storytime, but it’s particularly suited for a child learning to read.  There are a few words on each page, and the pictures will give the child delight at deciphering exactly what is happening, and they will find it tremendous fun.

To start out, Gerald and Piggie see a squirrel hide behind a rock and surprise his friend.  The two squirrels are delighted.  This gives Gerald a great idea — they can surprise each other at the big rock.

Gerald and Piggie are both fully engaged in the fun of the planned surprise.  But when two people are both hiding, who’s around to get surprised?  There’s plenty of visual humor in this story, and of course the fun of seeing behind the scenes when both friends get surprised in a way they didn’t expect.

Hmm.  Describing it takes more words than are in the book!  I want to find a beginning reader to read this story to me.

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Review of Flirting with Pride and Prejudice

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Flirting with Pride & Prejudice

Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece

edited by Jennifer Crusie

Benbella Books, Dallas, Texas, 2005.  230 pages.

Starred Review.

Ah, tremendous fun!  This book talks about Pride and Prejudice, plays with Pride and Prejudice, and reveals that other people have their little foibles and weaknesses about Pride and Prejudice, just as I do.  (And what an amazing number of people have a crush on Colin Firth!)

The authors who contributed cover a wide range, with Chick Lit writers particularly well-represented.  Some of the essays are even written by men!  (Well, two.)

I recently bought and viewed Becoming Jane, and my sister-in-law gave me the Collector’s Edition of Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth) and I found myself quite taken in by the accompanying book of behind the scenes stories of making the movie.  So I was definitely in the mood for this book.

Of course, I have my own stories about my love of Jane Austen.  I did my Sophomore English Literature paper on her and ended up using the time to read every one of her books — and then wrote the paper staying up all night the night before.

I confess that I regularly reread her books.  I was recently captivated by a photo-illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice put out by Dorling Kindersley, which I found in the library and couldn’t resist.  I’m planning to watch Becoming Jane all over again, with commentary, which isn’t something I normally do.

So — I definitely enjoyed reading other people’s musings on the subject of Jane Austen and her immortal characters.  What is it about Mr. Darcy that enchants us?  How about Elizabeth?  And do we think that Charlotte Lucas was a sell-out, or just practical-minded?

There are a wide variety of offerings here, from discussions to confessions to playful rewritings to new stories.  I liked the story Mercedes Lackey wrote about what might have happened if one of her own characters had gone to a party at Pemberley hosted by Elizabeth Darcy.  Jennifer Coburn compared Pride and Prejudice with Fiddler on the Roof.  Several discussed the implications of capturing the book on film.  I enjoyed Laura Resnick’s essay on Bollywood’s wonderful musical Bride and Prejudice, and what things translated well and what things didn’t.  Of course, there were several discussions of Mr. Darcy.  Teresa Medeiros’ title said it well:  “My Darling Mr. Darcy:  Why is the Unattainable so Irresistible?”  I also enjoyed Jill Winters’ take on the passionate secret life Mary Bennett was living behind the scenes.

I don’t need to say any more.  Those who are as enchanted with all things Austen as I am will want to read it just as soon as they find out the book exists.  Enjoy!

Thinner thighs and darker chocolate may not always be within our grasp, but thanks to Jane Austen, a brooding Englishman with an inscrutable gaze and good teeth will always remain just at our fingertips. — Teresa Medeiros

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Review of New Moon, by Stephenie Meyer

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New Moon

by Stephenie Meyer

Megan Tingley Books (Little, Brown and Company), New York, 2006.  563 pages.

Starred Review.

Oh, these books are so bad to read if you’re planning to get any sleep!  I was good the first night, and stopped after about a hundred pages.  But the second night, I kept reading and reading, and by the time I’d finished the book, it was not so early in the morning.  And I had to go to work, too!  Yikes!

Stephenie Meyer is good with feelings.  Mind you, she’s got a nice complicated situation — Bella’s in love with a vampire who has an especially powerful thirst for her blood, but resists that urge because he loves her.  In New Moon, Edward faces the “reality” that he is not good for Bella, and Bella is not good for him.  So he leaves her.

Stephenie Meyer captures well how it feels to be left by the love of your life.  The unbelievable shock of seeing hard coldness on his face when he says he’s leaving.  The utter numbness that follows, wondering how to go on, how to face ordinary, day-to-day life.

I wouldn’t give this to a teenager going through a rough break up!  For that matter, it’s a bit hard on a woman in her 40’s going through a divorce!  But the author does capture the emotions involved, and you do feel with Bella and understand her.

Bella does find a friend who can help her escape her numbness and face life again.  His feelings for Bella are going beyond friendship, but he means a lot to her, so maybe that’s okay?  Now, there’s an added complication:  Back in the first book he’s the one who told Bella about legends of vampires, along with the legend that his tribe had a way of dealing with them, that his tribe and vampires are mortal enemies, who had worked out a temporary truce.

Bella’s not good at “moving on,” but how do you “move on” from the love of your life?

This passage gives you the feel of what Bella has to deal with in New Moon:

I thought about Juliet some more.

I wondered what she would have done if Romeo had left her, not because he was banished, but because he lost interest?  What if Rosalind had given him the time of day, and he’d changed his mind?  What if, instead of marrying Juliet, he’d just disappeared?

I thought I knew how Juliet would feel.

She wouldn’t go back to her old life, not really.  She wouldn’t ever have moved on, I was sure of that.  Even if she’d lived until she was old and gray, every time she closed her eyes, it would have been Romeo’s face she saw behind her lids.  She would have accepted that, eventually.

I wondered if she would have married Paris in the end, just to please her parents, to keep the peace.  No, probably not, I decided.  But then, the story didn’t say much about Paris.  He was just a stick figure — a placeholder, a threat, a deadline to force her hand.

What if there were more to Paris?

What if Paris had been Juliet’s friend?  Her very best friend?  What if he was the only one she could confide in about the whole devastating thing with Romeo?  The one person who really understood her and made her feel halfway human again?  What if he was patient and kind?  What if he took care of her?  What if Juliet knew she couldn’t survive without him?  What if he really loved her, and wanted her to be happy?

And . . . what if she loved Paris?  Not like Romeo.  Nothing like that, of course.  But enough that she wanted him to be happy, too? . . .

If Romeo was really gone, never coming back, would it have mattered whether or not Juliet had taken Paris up on his offer?  Maybe she should have tried to settle into the leftover scraps of life that were left behind.  Maybe that would have been as close to happiness as she could get.

I sighed, and then groaned when the sigh scraped my throat.  I was reading too much into the story.  Romeo wouldn’t change his mind.  That’s why people still remembered his name, always twined with hers:  Romeo and Juliet.  That’s why it was a good story.  “Juliet gets dumped and ends up with Paris” would have never been a hit.

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Review of Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

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Twilight

by Stephenie Meyer

Megan Tingley Books (Little, Brown), New York, 2005.  498 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008:  #4, Fantasy Teen Fiction.

I took a Resources for Young Adults class last quarter.  As part of the class, I signed up for a Listserv on which librarians serving teens discuss good books.  That’s where I heard about Twilight, as well as some of my classmates mentioning it as the best vampire novel they’d ever read.  I read an extensive article about the author, Stephenie Meyer, and I was intrigued.  She’s a Mormon, and promised that she would not include graphic sex in her novels.  It sounds like her values are similar to mine.  I was intrigued, so I put myself on the wait list for Twilight.

I have to say that the only thing I didn’t like about Twilight was how late it kept me reading!  I thought I’d read one chapter before going to sleep–and finally managed to close the book hours later.  But I have to admit, I like it when a book engages me that thoroughly.

Bella, the heroine, is everygirl.  She was easy to identify with, and I felt sympathy with her from the start.  Stephenie Meyer keeps you reading by not answering every question.  We wonder, along with Bella, why that handsome Edward seems so angry with her, after meeting her eyes once, that he stays away from school for a week, and she can’t help but feel it’s to avoid her.  Then, how does he move with superhuman speed, but deny it?  Why does he say he’s bad for her? 

I’m not giving anything away by saying this is a vampire novel, since it’s on the cover of the book and in any reviews.  But even knowing that, Stephenie Meyer manages to keep you guessing as to how Bella will find out and what, exactly, that means. 

I’ve never been a big vampire novel fan, but this book doesn’t have the usual feel of a vampire book.  Instead, it’s a powerful, sensual love story.  Since Edward has to be careful not to get to close to Bella, so as not to be tempted to taste her blood, the tension between them is extreme.  Today’s TV writers would do well to learn a lesson from this book.  Sometimes less is more when it comes to describing romance.  This is good clean fiction that packs a punch.

Twilight is hugely popular with teen girls, and I can see why.  43-year-old abandoned housewives find it wonderful, too!

My only complaint is that the vampires are a little too perfect.  They are more beautiful than ordinary mortals, have superhuman speed and strength, don’t have to sleep or breathe, and live forever.  Edward’s group has found a way to get around drinking human blood.  So what’s not to like?  I don’t see any compelling reason why Bella shouldn’t just become a vampire, too.  Sure, it would be tough explaining it to her parents at first….

I can’t wait to read the next two books!  In fact, I liked this book so much, instead of getting on the library’s hold list, I ordered the next two books from Amazon.  I have a feeling I’m going to be reading these books more than once.

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Review of Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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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

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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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