Friday, February 26, 2010

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

"Boppo" and "Mimi" gave up their easy retirement life in a minute - the very minute their daughter Amy suddenly dropped dead. Immediately, the couple pares their life down to a spare bedroom in Amy's home, and raising her family.

Even though it's a book about grief and survivorship, this is actually very positive, funny tale. The family gets through their grief with warmth, love and companionship. I wished I had known Amy, and readers will long to be a part of her family.

Long Past Stopping by Oran Canfield

I picked up this book because I'm always interested in a good memoir - especially if there's a hook: here, the author offers a demented childhood and drug-addled youth. Oh, and his dad wrote all those "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books.

But it's a pretty common kind of drug tale, and honestly it's been told better in other places. The whole thing is so outrageous that it reads like bad fiction - you'd like to tell the author to edit out some of the stuff, or nobody will believe him ... Abandoned in a commune? Circus-trained children? Drug-addict noise musicians? Rehab? Too, too much.

Except he lived it.

The Empty Mirror by J. Sydney Jones

Vienna is in the midst of a terror - one the newspapers are calling a local Jack the Ripper, who has left a body in the park approximately every two weeks for months. The latest victim: a model, which implicates her employer in the string of murders - none other than the legendary artist Gustav Klimt.

This murder mystery set in 1898 has an unmistakable Sherlock Holmes vibe. It follows a fictional lawyer/detective as he partners with the real-life father of criminology, Hans Gross, to try to clear the painter. Once their client is released, the tenacious investigators decide to continue working the case, mostly out of morbid curiosity and grim boredom.

If you enjoy period dramas and historical mystery, this one will be right up your alley. The descriptions of Vienna put you right on the streets - if you've ever visited Austria, I'm sure you'll recognize the landmarks and scenes.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

Have you ever read a book and thought maybe you weren't smart enough to "get" the subtext? That's how I felt about this one.

At face value, it's a story of a rat who's too smart for his own good. Born in a bookstore basement, Firmin begins chewing on the edges of books. Soon, he's reading the books - consuming them in a different manner.

On a deeper level, I'm sure this book is really an ode to the desperation of our own lives and the denegration of popular culture. But it makes my head hurt to consider it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Heart is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall

Do you ever look at really clever artwork and think, "Wow, how do people come up with stuff like this?" This is one of those times.

Every animal in the book is made of hearts: the one, single shape overlapped, stacked, and spun into a yak, a fox, a beaver, a clam, and much much more. Each animal is beautiful, and easily recognizable despite the simplicity. The bright, rhyming text is just the right amount of goofy.

(I think there's a quilt lurking in this book for me ... I just can't stop thinking about the basic shape and it's amazing results.)

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School by Laurie Halse Anderson

Three cheers for a girl with outta-control hair! Hair that's so wild it actually has a mind of its own! Tame it? HA! Not a chance.

In kindergarten, Zoe's teacher let her wild red hair help out around the classroom, erasing the board and preparing snacks. Now, in first grade, Ms. Trisk is an enforcer - and Zoe's hair MUST BE TAMED. But no hat, scrunchie or braid can contain this amazing mane.

Know a kid with uncontrollable hair? They'll love this book (I know this rambunctiously curly-haired adult did!). Some people just don't understand that you can't always make your hair behave - but Zoe does.

Birds by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek

I'm always interested to see authors, illustrators, artists and other creators discuss their process and inspiration, so about a month ago I went to see this pair discuss their collaboration at a local library. Henkes is famous and celebrated for his self-illustrated works, but it was interesting to see how he partnered with his wife, a painter, for this book.

The text is spare - a dozen or fewer words per page - and the artwork is comparably restrained, with bright blocks of color and many white backgrounds. It's a book to talk about, to savor and to create your own spaces between the lines. Different, and poetic.

Robot Zot by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon

What a power couple! We bought this book sight-unseen, based solely on the the authors, and we weren't disappointed in the least.

Zot is an alien, who comes to conquer the Earth Army. But he's a little confused. And small.

After battling a whole kitchen's worth of inanimate appliances, he conquers the TV ... then falls madly in love with the Queen of all Earth (a toy cell phone).

Zot's awkward dialog is hilarious, and his alien misconceptions about how earth households run will be giggle-worthy for everyone.

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Reclaiming wasted spaces is big on my mind these days, and that's the real heart of this incredibly illustrated new picture book.

One day Liam finds stairs leading up to the abandoned railroad tracks and just can't help himself - he has to explore. His imagination is captured by the weeds and plants growing wild there, and he decides to give them a boost. His project grows and grows (literally!) until the whole city is blooming.

Brown's illustration style has a sci-fi surrealistic 1960s look to me, and the pictures are so detailed that kids and adults will find things to look at on each re-read.

A Soup Opera

by Jim Gill

I actually read this in December, and thought it had already been blogged. This wonderful new picture book comes with a CD, so that readers can potentially enjoy the story in operatic form. I came across this book by accident and spontaneously added it to a story time. This is a very silly story that older readers will really love. Young children in story time thought the opera music was silly, and so were the pictures, but the adults and older siblings were really giggling over all the people trying to solve the drama centered around a bowl of soup. If you read this aloud, I suggest really hamming it up when you sing (yes, sing) the line, "I can't eat the soup!" over and over again. Enjoy the repetition, and remember that it helps to build a child's skills with prediction.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cat the cat who is that?

by Mo Willems

Meet the newest character in Willems' repetoire of great children's books. For kids who have begun reading on their own, this is a great way to keep going with a fun author/illustrator who is probably already a family favorite. This book has simple repetitive text. It's also a nice story about friendship. Cat the cat already has many friends, but what should she do when she meets someone new?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

Dr. Peter Brown is getting mugged in the first sentence of the book. Within seconds, he has neutralized the threat, hilariously taught us about human anatomy, and nearly killed the mugger. "The oath says FIRST do no harm," he explains. "I think we're past that now." Then, he heads off to work, where his day just gets worse. But that's very good news for us.

This book is furiously fast-paced, f*'n foul, and absolutely fantastic! I laughed, I cringed, and I enjoyed every single minute of this audiobook: the action happens so fast, I didn't have time to figure out what would happen next - twice, I was left with my mouth actually hanging open as the story revealed a new twist. WOW!

(Not for the squeamish or those of sensitive disposition :) The rest of you will enjoy, though!)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just one of the guys

by Kristan Higgins

It is a well known fact that whatever I might say to trash a certain holiday surrounded by hearts and flowers, I am an avid reader of romance novels. My latest guilty pleasure is Just one of the Guys by Kristan Higgins.

Chastity is the youngest child, and only girl, in a family of firefighters. To top it off, she's just a little squeamish around blood. In her quest to be a "true O'Neill" she decides it is high time to take the training course to be an EMT. That, along with her life as a talented journalist on the receiving end of a stalker's attention creates some balance to the concept of finding one's true love.

She has spent the majority of her life in love with Trevor, family friend, and another of the multitude of firefighters in her life. To start the book, she gets dumped, and hit on by a woman in the same night. Lucky for her the only person to witness both is Trevor, and later in the book, you'll find out just how good he is at keeping secrets. On the heels of her embarrassment, Chastity decides it is high time to get over the man who'll always love her family more than he cares for her. Quickly, she finds herself in a serious relationship with a man who fits all the criteria little girls and parents dream about. Ryan is a surgeon. Chastity is content, but which one will she choose?

"It All Changed In An Instant" - More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure

The premise is simple: six words. Tell a story, summarize your life, or make a statement - in no more than six words.

Word geeks and those with lively imaginations will enjoy any of the books in this series (this is the third collection). Some of the pieces are heartbreaking, some funny, a few are cryptic. All in just six words.

I guarantee, it will get you thinking. Teachers have begun to use the form to instruct on storytelling and brevity. What will yours say?

Monday, February 8, 2010

The lion and the mouse

by Jerry Pinkney

I picked this one up after it won the Caldecott award. For those readers who are not librarians or teachers, this is the American Library Association's annual award for the best illustrations in a children's book. When our copy arrived in the library, I immediately decided this retelling of Aesop's fable fit mildly into the story time theme "teeth".

Pinkney uses very few words to describe the story. He allows the images he has created do most of the work. The ferocious lion and timid mouse have faces filled with expression. When Pinkney does use words, he tailors the font to fit the emotion. At one point when the lion roars the letters start out strong and sharp then taper down to softened edges as his emotions move from angry to frightened. Even children that have never heard the story are easily able to interpret the drawings and build their narrative skills.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Local News by Miriam Gershow

I place holds on so many books that I don't always remember why I requested a specific book by the time it shows up. This was one of those books.

At first, I thought maybe it was a mystery - the story begins with sophomore Lydia Pasternak, whose senior brother has disappeared. Quickly though, I realized this was a much more interesting story about a family - and a girl - unraveling under stress.

Lydia's doing the best she can, given the situation. Her parents (who never worried about her because she was the smart, responsible one) have all but abandoned Lydia in the depths of their own grief and bewilderment. Sophomore year is made even more awkward by all the unwanted attention cast her direction by the tragedy.

So Lydia throws herself into projects: researching leads to "help" the private investigator, experimenting with alcohol to numb the pain, and making friends to mask her loneliness.

I kept wanting someone to really SEE Lydia and understand what she was going through. But much like real life, everybody's dealing with their own drama and doesn't notice hers.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

You could say this book is about the tragedy at Columbine High School and it would be accurate. But it's about so, so much more. Actually, it took me nearly 6 weeks to get through this audiobook - so you can see that it's not "simply" about anything.

Both Caelum and his wife work at Columbine, but only Maureen was at school that day. The events of that single day reverberates through their lives in ways both big and small, forever. This book deals with something like four generations of Caelum's family history, Maureen's trauma, the couple's starting over, their network of friends and family ... I'm just not sure I can summarize it.

The characters and the meadering storylines are well drawn and very interesting - would I stick with them for 6 weeks if I hadn't bought into it? Worth it, but WOW! What a behemoth.

Who Shot Rock & Roll by Gail Buckland

When you think about John Lennon, what image do you see in your mind: The New York t-shirt? Or lying in bed with Yoko? The black leather coat, just before they got famous?

Do you know who took any of those photo? Probably not - most of the best images of rock have been hijacked over the years and used without credit to their creator. But how many of us look for the photographer's name, even if it IS present?

This new book contains some of the most iconic photos taken of rock stars from 1955 to the present day, and info about the photographers. The collection of images is amazing. I spent probably an hour and a half just looking and admiring the compilation.

But I didn't think the bio information on the photographers was great: it's inconsistent, and hard to follow. Some people are scattered in multiple places, while others have barely one paragraph. And when there's too much text for the page, it jumps to the back of the book instead of the next page. Yuk.

Chicken Cheeks (the beginning of the ends)

by Michael Ian Black

If you like borderline inappropriate picture books, you'll love Chicken Cheeks. In short, rhyming text, the author roles through a list of animals by naming their rear ends. You and the children you read this with will laugh hysterically at the variety of creatures stacked one upon the other as they try to reach a sweet treat. One of my favorites is the image of a guinea pig holding up a deer. Pick up this book and just try to read about "turkey tushy" and "flamingo fanny" with a straight face.

Into the wild nerd yonder

by Julie Halpern

As I started this book I kept thinking, "I don't know if I can stand this teen life story." However, I kept with it and things progressed beyond crummy ex-friends and into a view of high school that is about as comfortable as anyone feels during that part of life. The main character, Jessie, doesn't realize how cool and comfortable she appears in others' eyes. She's an admirable young woman to be sure. An absolute pro at pre-calculus, she impresses a new friend by helping him study. Jessie also happens to be a phenomenal seamstress (she sews her own quirky skirts), a self-taught punk drummer and throughout the book manages to learn to play Dungeons and Dragons very successfully. This is a book for anyone who has ever downplayed their own talents in order to fit in.