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December 2013

Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8



The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea: 12/31/13

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The Whale by Philip Hoare is a nonfiction that probably gives catalogers a headache. By it's title — it's a book about whales but there are many many different ways to write about whales: whale anatomy, the history of marine biology, whaling and with a stretch — the author who made a career out of writing about sailing and whaling.

Hoare tries to do all of that in The Whale. The book begins with the author's childhood fascination with whales during trips to see whale models. That opening sounds like it will be a history of how those models came to be and how our understanding of marine biology has expanded and improved in the last two hundred years. Or maybe he'll go down the list of the major species of whales.

No. Instead, he tosses into the mix his love of Moby-Dick as well as a biography of Herman Melville. The biography further distracts the narrative flow with discussions of how Manhattan has changed over the years, as well as descriptions of Nantucket and other whaling towns.

Somewhere along the line the book gets stuck on the homoerotic aspects of Melville's writing. While fascinating and amusing, it's not exactly on topic.

Whale is about all things whale but it is disorganized. The book contains information on whale biology, the history of whale biology, whaling, whale as cultural icon and length passages on the homoerotic aspects of Moby Dick as well as Herman Melville's biography. It's all smashed together with no real rhyme or reason. With better organization, this would be a great book.

Three stars

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For the Love of Autumn: 12/30/13

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Since our 2011 adoption of a stray kitten, my daughter has been devouring picture books about kittens and cats. One book that captured her attention and earned many re-reads in the three weeks she had it from the library is For the Love of Autumn by Patricia Polacco.

Danielle is a young teacher, newly moved into a cottage by the sea. A kitten, whom she names Autumn comes into her life. Everything seems perfect until one stormy night, Autumn runs away.

A missing pet, as we learned about six months after reading For the Love of Autumn, is an opportunity to get to know your neighbors. For Danielle, Autumn brings her together with a young man, who had found the cat after the storm.

It's a sweet, somewhat saccharine book about a cat, a girl and a boy. My daughter LOVED it every time she read it and has been requesting another check out for a re-read.

Five stars

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I'm a Shark: 12/29/13

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I'm a Shark by Bob Shea has the same visual appeal as Banana! by Ed Vere. It has an exaggerated character, bold lines and a simple palette of colors.

The main character, as you can imagine from the title, is a shark. He's a large, proud, boastful shark. He's the sort of shark that even the dark is afraid of.

Except, he has a secret and I'm a Shark reveals what it is. There's one thing — one itty bitty thing — that scares the fins right off him.

For my kids, shark's one fear, was the winning element. See, their fathe, shares shark's fear. And when those little pests come into the house, it's up to me to dispatch them.

Four stars

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Fuddles: 12/28/13

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Fuddles by Frans Vischer is about a black and white house cat who longs to go outside. He has a pampered life — getting to eat gourmet foods, getting the spa treatment and so forth. But he's a cat and he wants out. Except once he does get out, he desperately wants to get home! Outside is bigger, scarier and more dangerous than he had thought.

Vischer works as an animator for Disney and that shows in his illustrations. There's a certain Disney flair to the way Fuddles is drawn.

Reviews I've read point at the moral being "pay attention to mother" but my daughter saw the book more literally as being about taking care of a house cat. The book didn't strike her as especially realistic — especially the pampering parts. She just couldn't understand how any cat would put up with sitting under a blowdryer.

In December, the sequel, A Very Fuddles Christmas was released. It is a hilarious follow up which my daughter and I both loved. I will be posting a full review of it later.

Three stars

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The Power of Thinking Differently: 12/27/13

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It's confession time again. I have never been prompt about reading and posting reviews of ARCs and review copies. I am more inclined read library books or my own books than crank out pitched reviews. I've tried reviewing egalleys but that has become impossible due to a series of technology failures. We're all now sharing one reliable computer and I just can't hog the computer just to read (nor do i want to). Now I'm slowly getting back into taking printed ARCs (a very, VERY, limited number).

The Power of Thinking Differently by Javy W. Galindo falls into the category of "thought reviewed but not" from my first round of accepting ARCs (in the days before unemployment, library school, and part time employment). It's a shame too because I really loved the book. The book is one of those business improvement books that tries to get the reader to think "outside the box" to improve productivity and innovation.

The book uses allegory to drive home ideas. The author asks us to imagine an island where there are only pickles and doughnuts. Sounds pretty limiting, doesn't it? Through a series of exercises he shows just how much wiggle room such a narrowly realized scenario can actually have.

Four stars.

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Drive: 12/26/13

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As a Californian, cars for good or bad, have been a big part of my life. When I was a child, my father used to spend his free time and money on restoring old cars — Studebakers, Buick touring cars, etc. We would go to classic car shows (the Fallbrook Vintage Car Club annual car show, for example), classic car drives, and sometimes even had our car in the Coronado 4th of July parade. I am not a classic car aficionado like my father but I do still have a soft spot for them.

From my grandmother, I got the photography bug. Whenever we go on car trips and I'm not driving, I'm in the passenger seat, snapping photographs of the scenery we're passing. Sometimes I snap a photograph of an interesting automobile.

So it was the combination of old cars and photography that drew me to Drive by Andrew Bush. If you don't want to track down a copy of the book (or purchase one), his photographs are online in a collection called 66 Drives.

In the 1990s Andrew Bush took photographs of people in their cars as he drove around different places: Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, for example. The photographs Bush selected have a reto feel to them — the cars are pre-1990s (many from the 1960s-1970s). The people driving also tend to be wearing retro clothing.

It's so easy to just stare at each photograph and make up a half dozen possible stories about the car, the people and that captured moment in their drive.

Five stars

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The Floating Girl: 12/25/13

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The Floating Girl by Sujata Massey is the fourth book of the Rei Shimura mystery series. Rei, an antiques dealer in Japan, is working part time at a magazine published for foreigners living in Tokyo. The owner decides there isn't enough of a market, choosing to jump into the manga market.

While reeling from the news, Rei starts researching the connection between older styles of Japanese artwork and the modern day manga phenomena. As she's learning all about manga (and for someone living in Tokyo, she seems woefully ignorant), she comes across an independent group of mangakas — who seem to be a mixture of locally born and foreign talent.

When one of them turns up dead with apparent yakuza connections, Rei can't help but investigate and see things to their logical conclusion. Rei's mixture of cultural naiveté and genuine interest gives her the ability to cut through the assumptions the police and neighbors are making.

Rei Shimura seems to have odd jobs in the same way that Goldy Schulz specializes in new types of cooking in each mystery. Sure, these are a way to introduce the protagonist to a new situation to explore a different aspect of Japanese culture (or catering).

The problem here is that manga (or as she calls them Japanese comics) isn't an unheard of thing in the United States. By 2000 when this book was published, it was getting pretty easy to buy imported and translated manga from the big booksellers. It's not too far a stretch to say that a mystery lover interested in Japan might also be a manga reader or an anime watcher. Therefore Rei's near complete ignorance on the subject while living and working in Tokyo is completely unbelievable. It would be like a person boarder town with Mexico not knowing about the existence of tele-novellas.

If Rei had been given some expertise in manga, or at least been a manga reader, it would have been possible to do so much more with the story than having to fall back on the very hackneyed Yakuza excuse. At least the Yakuza in the book were annoyed with that assumption too.

Three stars

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A King's Ransom: 12/24/13

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Last year as I was turning 39, I decided to read through the original 39 Clues series. I listened to them on audio, performed by David Pittu. When the original series wrapped up, I decided to keep going to get current with the spin-off series. So now I'm working my way through The Cahills vs Vespers series.

A King's Ransom is the second of the series. In it, Amy and Dan travel from Florence, Italy, through Lucerne, Switzerland to Prague in the Czech Republic. They are following Vesper One's instructions — to find the de Virga mappa mundi. The problem — it was last seen in the 1930s before the outbreak of WWII.

We also learn that Vesper One isn't just tracking them via cellphone GPS. He's also got a pair of spies, the Wyoming twins: Cheyenne and Casper. They're dangerous but not exactly the sharpest members of the team. If anything, they are loose cannons. Their erratic behavior ended up being a bit of a distraction, because I was constantly reminded of two comedic criminals from Bacanno, namely Isaac and Miriam.

click to download a larger version by Alboroto

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City of Thieves: 12/23/13

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City of Thieves by David Benioff is set during the siege of Leningrad. Lev Beniov, a young boy, is arrested for looting and placed in the same cell as a deserter named Kolya. A Soviet colonel gives them an impossible mission — locate a dozen eggs for his daughter's birthday cake — in a time when people are eating binding paste because there is nothing else available!

Though the book covers many difficult subjects — war, violence, starvation, cannibalism, sex slavery — the young narrator (even when voiced Ron Perlman) and the book's short length (7 discs or roughly 8.5 hours) means that it reads like a YA. Formally, though, it's adult fiction, but I can see it working well in a high school setting.

Four stars

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Amy and Roger's Epic Detour: 12/22/13

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In the introduction to Worlds Reborn, William L. Siemens says that the hero with the most influence on the novels of the new world is Odysseus. Any long journey — regardless of purpose — is called an odyssey. I agree with Siemens's thesis and will add, that in the United States, there is a subgenre of odyssey born out of the wide expanses of the American landscape — the road trip.

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson is a YA road trip novel. Roger, a distant friend of the family, has been recruited by Amy's mother to help her drive the family car from California to Connecticut. They are moving there after the unexpected death of Amy's father. How and when he died is slowly revealed as Amy makes her way back East.

As the title includes "epic detour," Amy and Roger don't follow her mother's carefully crafted itinerary. They don't make the first stop even — detouring instead to Yosemite. Although they manage to keep their detour a secret for the first day or so, the truth comes out soon enough. Although there will be consequences when they finally arrive — Amy and Roger know they can't be stopped from taking the trip they need to take on their own terms.

Peppered in with the chapters describing their trip, are playlists, receipts, and touristy ephemera. I loved these added details and listened to a number of the playlists suggested at the start of each chapter. Most of the playlists are Roger's as it's his problems that are dealt with first. As Amy comes out of her shell, her personality begins to affect the trip and the associated ephemera.

While it's not EPIC in terms of adventure or danger, it is a very American novel — and I think relatable to a wide range of readers.

Five stars

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Firestorm: 12/21/13

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Firestorm by Nevada Barr is the fourth of the Anna Pigeon mysteries. This one takes place near the author's childhood home, in the mountains of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Anna is on loan from Mesa Verde (the site of book three, Ill Wind) to help fight the Jackknife fire. It was started, they believe, by a careless camper. His body (and his dog's body) are found at the point of origin.

Things start going awry and one of Anna's team is injured during a flareup. In trying to save him, Anna and the others are trapped in a freak snow storm. She has do everything she can to both survive and solve not one, but two murders.

Now Lassen's one of the volanic mountains that dots the edge of the inland valley that runs northwards through Oregon and Washington. Even in the middle of summer, it has snow at its peak. The snowy season runs from November to April. The California fire season runs from summer through the first rains or snows of mid autumn. It's in that overlap that this book takes place.

I've mentioned before that Anna's attitude gets on my nerves sometimes. When left with nothing to do, she wallows in self pity (over her husband's death) and self medicates with alcohol. She also seems to attract the worst of men — especially in coworkers she's bound to be stuck in the wilderness with. Here, as Anna is literally stuck in a very small piece of the mountain, trapped both by fire and snow, there is plenty of time for Anna to wallow and for the men she's with to become the JERKs that drive these mysteries.

To further slow things down, this mystery has a second point of view — that of Anna's potential boyfriend, Frederick. He works on the research half of the mystery, while Anna tries to collect the evidence (while staying alive despite the poor weather, injuries, and the fire). This split narrative approach did not work. Had I been reading a print version, I would have skipped the parts with Frederick. Unfortunately I was listening to an audio with very long tracks so skipping wasn't easy.

Three stars

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Beating the Lunch Box Blues: 12/20/13

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Beating the Lunch Box Blues by J.M. Hirsch is a cook book focused on offering alternatives to the typical lunch box lunches. I was intrigued by the premise because I have two school aged children who aren't interested in the typical sandwiches.

The book has three main parts: recipes for dinner that can be repurposed for lunches, lunches for adults, and lunches for children. Each recipe comes with beautiful photographs and suggestions for mix and match items.

The recipes though will work best for people who like to spend their weekends cooking a week's worth of meals. They also will be expected to buy ingredients in bulk and to use a large number of pre-made ingredients. Those on a tight budgets or living in homes with galley kitchens will probably want to pass on this book.

Two stars

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Soulless: The Manga, Vol. 2: 12/19/13

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Soulless: The Manga, Vol. 2 by Gail Carriger covers the same material as Changeless. Alexia follows her husband to Scotland to investigate whatever is forcing normalcy on the paranormals.

Reviewers of the manga adaptation seem split on Rem's artistic interpretation of Carriger's characters. As it's marketed as a managa, I think they are spot on. Besides Alexia's husband, my other favorite is the foppishly debonaire Lord Akeldama. Even before I knew that a manga version was in the works, that's how I pictured him.

I especially think the adventure on the dirigible is better suited for manga. There is a lot of derring-do aboard ship. In reading the paperback, there were scenes — like Alexia nearly tumbling to her death — that I had to re-read. I just couldn't wrap my head around the descriptions and how events played out.

I liked seeing how Rem put all of that silliness to a visual form. She turned something bizarre into something hilarious. She clearly has a better grasp on the world of the Parasol Protectorate than I do.

Although I wasn't thrilled by book three, Blameless, I am eager to read the manga adaptation.

Five stars

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Saints: 12/18/13

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Saints by Gene Luen Yang is a companion piece / follow up / second volume to Boxers. Most reviews online review the two together. I only had the chance to read the second of the two as an egalley.

An unwanted daughter, dubbed Four-girl, leaves her home and takes on the name Vibiana as she converts to Christianity. Unfortunately it's on the eve of the Boxer rebellion in China and Christianity is a dangerous thing to practice.

Mixed with with Vibiana's story of rejection and conversions is a parallel story of Joan of Arc. Vibiana believes she is being visited by the French saint and is being guided in her new life as a Christian.

Throughout all of this, I never really connected with Vibiana. She's using Christianity as a means of revenge as much as escape. I suppose part of that is her abusive childhood. She's ripe for being taken advantage of by zealots.

Taken together, Boxers and Saints could be used to discuss this piece of Chinese / British history in a high school or even college classroom.

Three stars

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As Simple as it Seems: 12/17/13

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Sarah Weeks is one of those authors whose books I purchase on impulse. I enjoy her writing, no matter how odd the premise. She writes interesting characters in extraordinary situations.

As Simple as it Seems is a coming of age story about a girl learning that her life story isn't quite what she thinks it is. Verbena Colter, while preparing for a school event (and wishing above all that she and her mother didn't have to wear matching outfits), she discovers a card addressed to a woman she's never heard of. In asking her mother about the card she learns a whopper of a family secret and she doesn't take it well.

It seems that in stories where the protagonist is hit with the fact that his or her childhood memories are essentially lies, that the main character will do one of two things: blithely accept it or go off the rails. Verbena for most of the book, choses the latter.

But this isn't just about teenage angst. It's also about an unusual friendship and some cosplay. OK, cospay might not be the right term. But Verbena, for her own amusement and to prank her new next door neighbor, pretends to be the ghost of drowned girl for a while. As silly as that sounds, Weeks makes it work.

Four stars

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The Accidental Law Librarian: 12/16/13

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Libraries take many forms and serve many different kinds of users. The typical two are public and academic. The next two are school and law.

The Accidental Law Librarian by Anthony Aycock is a handbook for librarians who find themselves working for a law library or working a reference desk that handles a high volume of law related questions.

The book is divided into different kinds of law resources with explanations of what the standard resources are, how they came to be, and how to use them. I personally haven't come across a situation where I've need to use the book yet, but I'm still very new to my library career. I can see it being a helpful resource in the future.

I received a copy for review through LibraryThing's early reader's program.

Four stars

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Tina's Mouth: 12/15/13

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Tina's Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap is a YA graphic novel about being a teenage American Indian girl in Southern California. It's presented in a comic book / diary fashion similar to Doodlebug by Karen Romano Young, or the Emily the Strange books by Rob Reger.

Tina records her thoughts on life over six months (eight, counting the epilog). Originally the diary is an assignment for her existentialism class but it mutates into something more. Throughout she begins each entry with "Dear Mr. Sartre..."

Tina's life unfolds through these entries. We learn of her trouble trying find herself. She is a native Californian of Indian descent. She enjoys her cultural roots but they aren't as solid as they are for her immigrant parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. She doesn't look like the native Californian that she feels like inside. Somehow she needs to find a balance between the internal and external.

It's a relatively quick and entertaining read, even for adults who have long since gone through those awkward teenage years. The book was nominated for a 2012 CYBILS award.

Five stars

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The Many Faces of George Washington: 12/14/13

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The Many Faces of George Washington by Carla Killough McClafferty is more literal than figurative. It opens with the observation that many people might only know Washington from his portrait on the dollar bill (or the quarter) and therefore not know the real Washington. From there, though, it's more a history of the making of three Washington mannequins for Mount Vernon.

The three ages picked for the project were 19, 43, and 57. McClafferty describes the challenges each age presented and the research that had to be done to make the models. These contextual pieces, though, are all focused around those specific ages.

As Washington's dentures are about as well known as he is (meaning, mis-remembered), there's a heavy amount of discussion on his actual dentures. There are notes on how the were made, how uncomfortable they probably were to wear and how his deteriorating jaw affected his appearance.

Thus the book is more about the recreation of history for education than it is about the historical figure in question. It's not a stand alone book. It needs to read in conjunction with more thorough books about George Washington and his presidency.

Three stars

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Along a Long Road: 12/13/13

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Along a Long Road by Frank Viva was the debut picture book by the New Yorker cover artist. It is a rhyming book about a man's long bike ride through his town and surrounds.

The illustrations for the book are actually one mural sized piece, conceived of and executed in Adobe Illustrator. The sheer magnitude of the work helps to explain the small number of colors used and the rather retro looking style.

Four stars

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The Man with the Violin: 12/12/13

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The Man with the Violin by Kathy Stinson is based on the performance Joshua Bell gave in the Washington D.C. subway. Of the thousand or so people who rushed by, only seven stopped to listen.

Stinson uses those seven people as a stepping off point. In her story, a young child wants to stop to listen but his mother is too focused on all the things she has to do.

The subway station and the crowds are rendered in a monochromatic scheme. The music floats through the scenes on rainbow waves. It's beautifully and stylistically affective.

So my question to you, dear reader, do you stop to listen when there's live music in the subway station?

Five stars

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The Bride's Kimono: 12/11/13

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The Bride's Kimono by Sujata Massey is the fifth Rei Shimura mystery, and, as my luck oft plays out with series, the first one I've read. Rei Shimura, antiques dealer in Japan, is called back to the United States as a courier, carrying a priceless collection of Edo period kimono.

Of course as soon as she steps foot on the plane, things start to go wrong. She's forced to move out of First Class. Then when she arrives, not all the kimono are inventoried at the museum and she is forced to keep them in her hotel. Before she can even get them locked up properly, one of them is stolen. In the middle of all that chaos, someone is murdered — and Shimura feels compelled to solve the mysteries.

What makes the mystery work is Massey's attention to detail. She includes observations on Japanese culture, history and language (although Shimura struggles to read kanji) and the difficulties of being a Japanese-American living and working in Japan. Since she looks Japanese — she is expected to be Japanese and is more harshly criticized than a full blooded foreigner would be for any slip ups she makes.

Although the setting is modern day Washington D.C. and surrounds, the mystery with its various shady characters working at cross purposes reminded me most of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Despite being able to figure out who was behind the mayhem, I was still wrapped up in the story.

Five stars

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Between Shades of Gray: 12/10/13

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Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is the story of a girl and her family and their fight to survive as they are taken into custody by the Soviets.

Lina, the protagonist, tries to make sense of their uprooting and to stay sane through her artwork. She doodles in the dust of the train. She doodles on scraps on paper and later on a note book she's given. Later she tries to use her drawings to send messages of their whereabouts to their father — who has been imprisoned as an enemy of the state.

This is another audio I wish I had read in print. With so many novels narrated by young female protagonists, the audios so often end up with overly chipper readers. Between Shades of Gray suffers from too upbeat a reading even as Lina is describing atrocity after atrocity.

Three stars

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Wind Song: 12/09/13

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My knowledge of poetry is woefully limited and filled mostly with children's poets. It's one of subjects that wasn't covered much in school — beyond the rhyming and syllabic patterns of certain types of poetry. Nor was it a subject (beyond reading translations of Greek epic poetry) I took in college.

Carl Sandburg, though he did write poetry for both children and adults, was off my radar until I was well into my adulthood. I discovered him after moving to the San Francisco Bay area. An oft quoted poem of his is "Fog" because we do get a lot of it.

A librarian friend of mine (well before I became one myself) was looking for homes for her favorite but recently culled books. She had a stack of Sanburg poetry collections and sent them to me. I was by then in the middle of caring for my infant daughter, so the books got stuffed in the back of a very high shelf. Now, though, I am at a point where I can (and want to) take the time to read through my books.

Wind Song by Carl Sandburg is the poet's second collection of children's poetry. Most of the poems were published originally in the 1930s but he wrote sixteen new ones to flesh out the book.

The book is divided into thematic sections: new poems, little people, little album, corn belt, night, blossom themes, and, wind, sea and sky. Each section has a pen and ink illustration by William A. Smith. It's a good combination between Sandburg's gentle words and Smith's sketches of nature.

Sandburg's poetry tends to be short and tends to be easy to read. It's written to be read aloud. I suppose that's true of most poetry but his I can easily hear in my head as I'm reading.

My favorite poem from the collection is "Arithmetic." It's a humorous musing on numbers and mathematics. It ends with this question: "If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is better in arithmetic, you or your mother?"

Five stars

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Everything but the Horse: 12/08/13

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Everything but the Horse by Holly Hobbie is a picture book memoir about when she and her parents moved to a farm. Although she had never ridden a horse, she was quickly taken with them, and spent her free time drawing the neighbors' horses (as well as other animals). Her hope of hopes is to own a horse of her own, but her parents have a different idea. Although it wasn't the gift she wanted, she fell in love with it and named it "Beauty", the name she had selected for her dream horse.

The book features Hobbie's lovely water colors. The book reads well both from a children's perspective (the adventure of moving, the excitement over a gift, the farm animals) and from a parent's point of view (the compromise over the wanted gift and the practical gift, and the nostalgia).

I have mentioned before my fond memories of Holly Hobbie — the fictional character — and my delight at rediscovering the author/illustrator through her recently published children's books. It really is difficult for me to separate fictional Holly from author / illustrator Holly. As a child, I spent hours and hours drawing Holly Hobbie and her friends, either by copying them from my books or coloring books, or drawing them from memory.

Five stars

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Claude Monet: The Painter Who Stopped the Trains: 12/07/13

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Claude Monet: The Painter Who Stopped the Trains by P.I. Maltbie is a picture book about Monet's series of trains painted at the Saint-Lazare Train Station.

These are images, that even if you haven't seen them in person, you'll recognize them when they are described as they have inspired (and continue to inspire) other artists. For instance, Mewsette's arrival into Paris in Gay Purr-ee (Chuck Jones, 1964) is an animated homage to Monet. More recently, Christopher Moore spends an entire chapter on their painting in Sacré Bleu

Now in Moore's version, the magical blue paint he was using allowed him to slow down the passage of time in order to paint an entire series without much disruption to the day to day traffic at Gar Saint-Lazare. In reality, Monet convinced the station master to slow the trains, claiming (rightfully as it turned out) that the paintings would be good publicity.

At the end of the book there are additional notes about Monet, as well as a bibliography. My favorite part, though, is the artist's statement. He explains how he illustrated the book and points out some Easter eggs (including a self portrait).

La gare Saint-Lazare
La gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet, 1877.

Five stars

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Birds of a Feather: 12/06/13

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We recently made our second trip to Portland, Oregon. As a family of bibliophiles, it's impossible to go there and not visit Powell's City of Books. Although that location takes up an entire block and multiple levels, the two times we've been there, we've spent our entire time in the Rose Room. That's where Powell's puts its children's books. With two children and two adults who enjoy tween and YA fiction, it's a natural location to haunt.

The last time we were there (2008), neither child was old enough to be left to his or her own devices. That meant our chances of truly exploring the Rose Room where rather limited. Powell's, though large, is also VERY crowded. With an infant just learning how to walk and a kid not quite in kindergarten, made for some hair raising moments.

This time, though, the kids are second and sixth graders. So while trading off on who watched the second grader, we had a chance to scour. The result of us heading off in four directions, meant we came home with a suitcase worth of books.

One of the gems my daughter (the second grader) found was a Chronicle Books import, Birds of a Feather (2012) by Francisco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais. It was originally published in France as Oxiseau.

The book is a massive folio with a delightful mixture of lift-the-flap interactions. Each section teaches children about a different avian aspect — like body types, eggs, silhouettes, and so forth. One section has a mix and match, where you can either build the correct birds listed, or make something new. As the pictures come pre-scrambled, you have to work to get the correct birds sorted.

Although the book is short in over all terms of text and page count, it's still a gorgeous and delightful read. There is a companion book, Out of Sight (originally published as Axinanmu).

Five stars

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Binky the Space Cat: 12/05/13

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Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires is the first of the Binky the cat series. Binky is a house cat who lives with his human family and his favorite toy mouse. He believes his home is actually a space station and the outside world is outer space. Bugs are dangerous aliens.

To protect himself and his family, Binky is learning how to be a space cat, a member of F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel). Much of the book then, is his training, which takes common house cat tasks and puts them in an extra terrestrial perspective.

The Binky books are short graphic novels aimed at the lower elementary grades. Although Binky's character design doesn't quite make him look like a cat (the ears bother me). But for anyone who lives with cats — especially house cats, will laugh at Binky as he prepares for space.

Five stars

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A Dog's Heart: 12/04/13

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Собачье сердце by Mikhail Bulgakov is usually translated as Heart of a Dog, but the audio I listened to, went with A Dog's Heart. The book was banned from publishing in the Soviet Union until 1987.

The book opens with a stray dog being burned and hiding in an alley to die. Except he's rescued by a doctor who has unethical plans for him. The dog is given new life and the testicles and pituitary gland of a recently deceased criminal.

The human body parts have a transformative effect on the dog. Soon he's more human than dog. He also becomes the ultimate communist. The only way for the doctor to continue living his posh life without trouble from the authorities is to do away with his creation by transforming him back into a dog.

While the story is full of political satire, I must admit that I got caught up in the performance of the book. The narrator did a perfect voice for the dog.

Four stars

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Devil May Care: 12/03/13

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Devil May Care by Elizabeth Peters is a stand alone Gothic mystery set in Virginia. It's also one of those books that makes it obvious that Elizabeth Peters was also Barbara Michaels as it rehashes many of the same themes and situations from Ammie, Come Home (Barbara Michaels, 1968).

Ellie and her fiance will be watching her aunt's estate (and menagerie of pets) for a couple of weeks. The fiance is essentially looking for a trophy wife — something made crystal clear from the opening chapter from his point of view. Ellie, though, isn't as easy prey as he thinks and these two weeks will be enlightening for her.

Along the way Ellie picks up a used book about the history of the area and its founding families. It seems to stir up the local ghosts and Ellie is visited by a variety of them.

In the Georgetown books, the hauntings and possessions are brought on from tension between the sexes. Modern day people falling into the same gender roles as their predecessors makes them vulnerable to reliving the bad experiences of the past. Here, the hauntings are less tied to some age old battle of the sexes. Instead it's a prank awaking an unexpected evil.

Five stars

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Lettice the Flying Rabbit: 12/02/13

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Lettice the Flying Rabbit by Mandy Stanley is the second from the series of books about a little rabbit who likes to explore and do things her way. This time Lettice wishes she could fly but her bunny friends and family want her to keep her wishes grounded in reality.

Lettice gets a surprise though, when a toy airplane scoops her up and takes her on an adventure that might be more than she can handle! Before she can get home she needs to find out where she is and how she really got there.

There are ten books in total in the Lettice series. Although she has numerous adventures, many which involve dancing, she always returns home for a snuggle with her parents and siblings. The author's website explains the origins of Lettice and how she got her name.

Three stars

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The Dogma of Cats for Kids: 12/01/13

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The Dogma of Cats for Kids by Debra Snyder uses cats to illustrate some life lessons for children. Their guide is a black cat with fetching green eyes.

Animals in picture book have a long tradition of being used as moral or philosophical guides. There's Aesop's fables, of course. Some recent favorites of mine are the Zen books staring Stillwater Panda, written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth.

Snyder's book reminds me most of Bark Up the Right Tree by Jessie Tschuden, and Choosing to Be by Kat Tansey. Both are adult books with similar life lessons presented by animals.

What was lacking for me, though, was the artwork. It's stylistically inconsistent. It looks like clip art. With a redesign in the book's layout and in the illustrations, The Dogma of Cats for Kids could be something special.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars

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