The Port Chicago 50: 02/28/14
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin is a young adult nonfiction history of the Port Chicago explosion and its aftermath.
Port Chicago, California, near Martinez along the southern coast of Suisun Bay, was a navy base and town that served as the shipping point for live munitions during WWII. Black men who wanted to serve their country were stationed at places like this, doing jobs their white counterparts were too scared to perform.
On July 17, 1944 a massive explosion killed 300 people and leveled a large portion of naval yard. Among the survivors, 244 men, decided working conditions were too unsafe and they refused to return to work. Fifty of those men were singled out and charged with mutiny.
The Port Chicago 50 covers an important piece of domestic WWII, and early Civil Rights history. It's a piece that has been overlooked and ignored in history books and shouldn't be.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search Part 2: 02/27/14
There's something about serial fiction that always manages to throw a spanner in my works. I either end up reading things out of order or I think I've written the next review and just as I'm set to write the last one, I find that I never did get around to writing the previous review. And yet if I try to review an entire series, even a trilogy, as a single thing, I feel like I'm leaving something out or that I'm rushing through my thoughts.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search, Part 2 by Gene Luen Yang is the most recent series book to fall through the cracks of my brain. Here's the thing. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Avatar series, both the original one and The Legend of Korra. After reading the omnibus of Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise, I went ahead and preordered the three pieces of The Search, released over the course of 2013.
Part 2, is told in a mixture of flashbacks (rendered in sepia tones) and present day sleuthing by Zuko, Aang, Katara, Sokka, and the unpredictable Azula. They've arrived at Ursa's home village but rumors have it she and her original boyfriend disappeared into the nearby Forgetful Valley.
There are three questions that prompt the search for Zuko and Azula's mother. Part 1 answers the first question: Where did she go? Part 2 answers the second: Why did she go? Part 3: answers the final one: What became of her?
Along the way, Zuko and Azula's rocky family situation is expanded and given context. While Ozai isn't completely cleared for his behavior during the war, it is explained. He wasn't the monster we were led to believe, though he was clearly a very troubled individual.
Maggie and the Pirate: 02/25/14
Maggie and the Pirate by Ezra Jack Keats, like his Clementina's Cactus, is a departure from his usual urban based picture books.
Maggie lives in an undisclosed tropical place. It could Florida, Southern California, Hawaii or somewhere else. To me, with the green skies, it looks like Florida. Maggie has a pet cricket, Niki. But she and her pet are being stocked by a mysterious bully who calls himself "the pirate."
Niki is taken and Maggie in her quest to rescue her pet learns more about the Pirate. And he, in turns, learns about Maggie. But poor Niki. Somehow out of all of this, the Pirate learns about friendship and Maggie has the maturity to forgive.
The Journey of Tunuri and the Blue Deer: 02/24/14
A friend posted a photograph of a beautiful quilt — white with stylized figures, animals and plants. Give what I know about her family, I took a guess and decided to limit my search to indigenous groups in the south western corner of North America.
The closet thing I found was the yarn paintings of the Huichol people. They live in the Sierra Madre mountain region of Mexico and their sacred imagery has been an influence on Mexican arts and crafts. I don't know if my friend's quilt is also from the area; nor do I know if she ever did find an expert to properly appraise her quilt.
But in the process of trying to learn what I could about the quilt, I came across The Journey of Tunuri and the Blue Deer by James Endredy. It's the story of a young boy who is separated from his family and the spirit journey he ends up taking.
Tunuri on realizing he's no longer with his family begins to panic. It's then that a beautiful blue deer meets him and offers to take him back to his family. Along the way the deer introduces him to the various nature spirits that are part of Huichol way.
The illustrations were done by two Huichol artists. They worked eight to ten hours a day until every piece was complete. The finished pieces are actually for sale.
Tatty Ratty: 02/23/14
There's an old photograph of me — a bald headed baby with a big grin. I'm sitting with a lamb stuffed animal. Apparently it was my all time favorite snuggly toy, and one I took with me everywhere. Sometime on the way to my grandmother's house on a hot day and the windows rolled down in the car (it was the 1970s and our car either didn't have AC) I either tossed the lamb out or it fell out as we rounded the block.
Anyway, by the time we were at grandmother's the lamb was gone and I was distraught. My family took turns retracing the route they had taken, to no avail. So they did the next best thing, they bought me as close a copy to the one I had lost.
So you can understand why I have a fondness for stories about lost toys — Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems and now Tatty Ratty by Helen Cooper. Like Knuffle Bunny, Tatty Ratty is a beloved stuffed rabbit. And Molly loses him on the way home.
As Molly and her father search for Tatty Ratty, they begin to think of all the adventures the rabbit must be having. Each new piece of the adventure changes how Molly imagines Tatty looking.
So when it becomes apparent that Tatty Ratty won't be found, they had to the toy store for a replacement rabbit. While the father is hoping to find a close replacement, Tatty Ratty has transformed into something different in Molly's imagination. The toy she picks ends up reflecting this new imagined identity.
It's a charming story that blends an ordinary, relatable story that parents and children have probably experienced, with the whimsy of imagination. As they are heading to the store, Tatty is having one crazy adventure after another.
The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck: 02/22/14
The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck by Emily Fairlie is about an old school struggling to stay open and two children who help make that possible. Bud and Laurie are thrust together when they're put in charge of two "flesh eating" gerbils. As they are on one of many chases through the old school halls to capture the escape artist gerbils, they stumble upon the first clue to the Tuckernuck treasure hunt.
The treasure hunt, it turns out, was started in the early days of the school. It was supposed to be annual event but for one reason or another, that didn't come to pass. In that time, the original treasure (whatever it was) hasn't been found. Except now Bud and Laurie think they can if the clues haven't accidentally been destroyed or sold off in the last many decades!
The relationship between Bud and Laurie is a lot like the that of Dan and Amy Cahill from the earliest books in the 39 Clues series. Except, these two aren't siblings, and the stakes aren't as high. Also since the treasure is squirreled away in only one location (an old school), there's more time to explore and really get to learn about Tuckernuck's unique history.
The One and Only Ivan: 02/21/14
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate earned the 2013 Newbery award. Narrated by a lowland gorilla, Ivan, it's the story of how he helps save a baby elephant from a life of captivity in a strip mall circus.
Applegate, best known for the Animorphs series, gives Ivan a simple, matter of fact way of speaking that brings to mind the recorded sign language conversations of Koko the gorilla. He recounts both his childhood and as well as the present time, where Ruby arrives.
Together with Ivan's narration, there are beautiful illustrations by Patricia Castelao. ALthough there is an audio book, I opted for print this time because the book is just crying out for pictures and text together. As the book is so short and so heavily illustrated, it would do well as a class read along.
The book would also make an excellent animated film. In that regard, children who enjoyed Curious George 2: Follow that Monkey! will enjoy this book.
On Stranger Tides: 02/20/14
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers shares its title with the third of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies but inspired (helped fill in the gaps) the basic mechanics of the Curse of the Black Pearl (the first film). That said, the book has about as much to do with its cinematic spawn as The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte does with The Ninth Gate.
In place of Elizabeth Swann, Will Turner, and Cap'n Jack Sparrow, there is puppet-maker John Chandagnac. If he has any movie equivalent he'd take the place of Bootstrap Turner in the often spoken about backstory.
Along the crossing of the ocean, John Chandagnac's ship is attacked by pirates. Turns out these pirates are cursed and are now ZOMBIES. So this is basically the story of how John takes inventory of his life and decides being part of a cursed pirate ship might be more rewarding that working with puppets.
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi: 02/19/14
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg was the author/illustrator's debut picture book. It follows a boy named Alan who is put in charge of Miss Hester's annoying dog, Fritz. The dog gets lose during a walk and rushes into a magician's topiary garden. Per the magician's threat, the dog is transformed into a poorly behaved duck. The duck gets away and takes Alan's hat too.
Allsburg's black and white drawings (charcoal pencil) are the lure for me. Even without words they convey the narrative and emotions of the book. I wish, though, that the topiary animals had played more of a part in the book — but I guess that would be getting into The Shining territory.
Blue Sky: 02/18/14
For about the first nine years of being a parent, the Wood family (Audrey, Don, and Bruce) were the authors and illustrators of most of my children's favorite books (along with Ezra Jack Keats, Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, Eric Carle, and Lois Ehlert). Although they have grown to have new favorites, I still like to read their old favorites.
Blue Sky by Audrey Wood is aimed at two to five year olds who are either learning the names of things or are beginning to read on their own. It is all about the sky, done mostly with colorful illustrations, and a two word description for each page spread.
Each page spread explores a different state of the sky. There is the blue sky, stormy sky, night sky sunset, and so forth. It's a simple but pleasurable read. It goes well with Stars by Mary Lyn Ray.
Tiger Trek: 02/17/14
Tiger Trek by Ted Lewin is a gorgeous book about a mother tiger and her family. Lewin's illustration career began in adventure magazines (per his biography) and that attention to detail — photorealism — shines through in this book's stunning water color illustrations.
Picture books often gloss over or avoid completely the more violent aspects of predatory animals — namely their hunting and eating of prey. Tiger Trek doesn't, nor does it make a feature out of it. It is there as part of a mother tiger's need to survive and to feed her offspring.
Recommended by the Castro Valley public library
Country Road ABC: 02/16/14
Author and artist, Arthur Geiser, took a massive upset in his life and turned it into a gorgeous children's book that celebrates his new home. His book is Country Road ABC and it introduces children (and adults) to Bernard, Iowa, population 98.
Geiser uses etched copper plates to make his own very intricate prints. He then paints them. The amount of details are amazing. Read once to learn the ABCs of farm life (M is milking, Z is for Z clamps). Then read it again to take in the artwork.
If you want to know where Bernard is, check out the spread for the letter X. I'm including the Google Map zoomed in on the town. Get the book out and compare the details. They really are spot on with the satellite image.
The Bumper Book of Nature: A User's Guide to the Great Outdoors: 02/15/14
The Bumper Book of Nature: A User's Guide to the Great Outdoors by Stepehen Moss offers to help children and parents rediscover the great outdoors. And while it does offer some beautifully illustrated suggestions, the book is not the be-all and end-all to juvenile outdoor activities you might be looking for.
My problem here two fold — the intended audience and the (unintentional?) smugness to the text. The book contains, not one, but two letters of introduction. The first is addressed to concerned parents and grandparents who worry about their children's Nature Deficit Disorder. The second is to children who might not know what to do out in nature (condescending, much?). The introduction also includes a trip down memory lane to the author's own suburban childhood and all the adventures he had between houses and the bit of scrub behind the houses.
With the audience question — the book as a "handbook" seems to offer a promise of helping any child with limited access to nature make the most of what little access there is. There are also different types of animals, birds, plants, and flowers lovingly rendered in full color. The book is further divided into things to do during different seasons.
Now stop and think for a moment what the different seasons mean where you live — they may not line up with the book. Now think about the types of flora and fauna around your home. Things just didn't seem to add up to me.
So I started keeping a tally of what things would work in the natural surrounds of the San Francisco East Bay. I also counted the number of represented animals, birds, flowers and trees. For each section, there was on average — one relevant, doable thing — or one plant, or one flower, or one bird, and a couple animals.
That got me thinking about other parts of North America. I looked for things relevant to kids growing up in desert areas, or tropical places, or urban areas (think New York City, San Francisco, etc.) and found a similar lack of on-topic, relevant (meaning possible) things to do.
So although I love the artistry of the line drawings and the water colors, I can not recommend this book with any sort of enthusiasm to anyone living in an area that doesn't match the author's own childhood. It is very Eastern Seaboard centric in its outlook, and more specifically, very upper middle class, suburban oriented. If you or the child you are thinking of doesn't fit that description, move on to another book.
A Very Fuddles Christmas: 02/14/14
A Very Fuddles Christmas by Frans Vischer is the sequel to Fuddles (2011). Fuddles has embraced being a pampered indoor cat after a brief adventure outside. Now, though, there's something new to occupy his attention — Christmas.
Two years ago we took a stray kitten in, a couple months before Christmas. Her first Christmas for us meant decorating the tree with only soft (foam mostly) ornaments that could survive repeated attacks.
Fuddles who is used to pampering and a lot of different kinds of human food takes Christmas much to heart. Nothing is safe from him. Anyone who has lived with a cat and tried to set up for a party will nod and laugh at this book.
Fool Moon: 02/13/14
Fool Moon by Jim Butcher is the is the second of the Dresden Files series. I listened to the audio, read again by James Marsters.
Dresden is called on to help solve a series of ghastly murders. This time they appear to be some mixture of mob kills and werewolf huts.
The problem is that Dresden doesn't know much about werewolves. He also doesn't see how, based on his limited knowledge, these people could be werewolves. Their pattern of killing doesn't exactly follow the moon.
There are many more complicated rules to how werewolves work. And there's more than one type And to make things even worse for Dresden, someone has found a way to break the rules to his or her own advantage.
Bigger Than a Bread Box: 02/12/14
Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder is the story of a teenager trying to put her family together again before her parents decide to get a divorce. Her only tool is a breadbox that seems capable of granting wishes.
Rebecca, her mother, and much younger brother have moved temporarily to Atlanta, to her grandmother's home. Her father hasn't been able to find work and the stress is just too much for her mother.
Up in the attic Rebecca finds a breadbox and while fiddling around with it, she realizes it can make small things appear. But her wishes have to be tangible, real world, and small enough to fit inside.
As you can imagine, a magic box with no instructions can easily get out of hand. Rebecca soon has the consequences of her wishes to reckon with on top of her family trouble.
It's a short, emotionally charged and thoroughly magical novel. The climax took me completely by surprise, turning an otherwise heartwarming tale with a moral into something boarding on horror; I love horror.
Domestic Manners of the Americans: 02/11/14
I take book suggestions from all sorts of sources. In the case of Domestic Manners of the Americans by Fanny Trollope, the recommendation came tucked into The Cat Who Robbed a Bank by Lilian Jackson Braun. Trollope's book was featured in a game of twenty questions that piqued my interest.
Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony Trollope, and author of twenty-five novels, as well as travelogues, got the writing bug during her stay in the United States with three of her six children. The idea behind the trip was two fold — take a break from marital issues and rebuild some of the waning family fortune.
The Trollops landed in New Orleans and from there traveled north via a commune in Tennessee to Cincinnati and later other urban centers in the area. Throughout her journey she remarked on the people she met, the mode of transportation, the weather, the food and pretty much anything else that either intrigued her or pissed her off.
As this was the early days of United States and things were still pretty damn rural even in the big cities (note her descriptions of pigs as garbage disposal units), she of well established Britain, took her visits as something of an adventure into untamed, barbaric lands.
Her travelog inspired Edmund White to pen Fanny: A Fiction. If I am to keep following the thread of recommendations from Braun to Trollop to White, I suppose I should read his book too. It is now on my wishlist to read as time permits.
A Wounded Name: 02/10/14
A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchinson is a retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It's set in an exclusive boarding school and is told from Ophelia's point of view. It's a stretch but I have enjoyed many other Hamlet inspired novels and thought this one had potential.
The copy I read was an audio provided by Recorded Books via LibraryThing. I think most of my negative reaction stems from the performance. The narrator uses an overly earnest, semi-British accent that my husband calls a "Blue Peter voice." It's an exaggerated performance with overdone enunciation.
But it's not just the performance. Some of the responsibility rides on the text itself. First and foremost, the pacing is SLOW. Yes, Shakespeare leaves enough plot holes to drive a truck through, but A Wounded Name in its attempt to fill them up, manages to make every single scene drag (even with hitting fast forward). The opening funeral of Hamlet Sr., for example, takes the entire first disc (roughly 75 agonizing minutes).
Rust: Secrets of the Cell: 02/09/14
Rust: Secrets of the Cell by Royden Lepp is the second of the Rust graphic novels. As of posting this review, I have not read the first volume — but the second one seems to stand alone just fine.
The book opens after a robot attack on the Taylor farm. Jet, the mysterious farm hand seems to have ties to the old robot wars. While the owner of the farm doesn't seem to mind, others on the farm do.
The artwork is rather monochromatic — appropriate for a dust bowl type story. There's a lot of rust in Rust.
Bad Island: 02/08/14
Bad Island by Doug TenNapel is typical TenNapel — a family crisis combined with weird events. Here the crisis is a child feeling the need to run away from home.
In space, a warrior's son runs for reasons explained later. On Earth, a father takes his family on a boating trip to keep his children close. Their boat, though, is damaged in a storm and they are shipwrecked.
Much of Bad Island is spent on the family trying to figure out where they are and the secrets behind the island. Meanwhile, the reader is trying to figure out how the island story meshes with the story of the young space warrior.
If you like complex, parallel plots in a graphic novel format, you will like Bad Island. If you prefer something more straight forward, give this one a pass.
Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth: 02/07/14
Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth by Jon Chad has a long title and a long adventure — one that goes right through the center of Earth! Jon Chad mixes science fiction and science fact to create a memorable tween graphic novel.
Leo Geo has a giant drill and he plans to ride it through to the center of the earth. Along the way he'll point out the sites. He'll see unusual formations, magma and some unexpected residents!
As this is a book about digging, the reader is asked to turn the book on its side after the introduction. Thus most of the book is read like a flip book, making it awkward but fun to read.
In terms of artistic style and whimsy Chad's artwork reminds me of Windsor McCay (Little Nemo). He uses a bold line and intricate details to flesh out the subterranean worlds.
Code Talker: 02/06/14
Code Talker by Chester Nez is a recounting of the Navajo Nation's invaluable contribution to the WWII war effort in the Pacific theater by the only living member of the original 29 Code Talkers. His recollections were then transcribed by co-author Judith Schiess Avila.
Before getting to the development of the code, Nez describes his childhood, his time in a boarding school — back in the unfortunate days when English was enforced and the speaking of Navajo resulted in punishment. Named Betoli by his family, it was at the boarding school that he was forcefully renamed Chester Nez.
Nez's emersion in English, though gave him a valuable skill when he and twenty-eight other Navajo men joined the Marines. They were brought together to create a double encrypted code that could be spoken over the radio from one Navajo trained in the code to another. By making a spoken code back in the days before computer encryption, the time needed to relay a message was slashed to mere minutes (instead of hours). The accuracy of the message went up and the ability of the Japanese (or anyone else listening) to decode it was impossible. As Nez reminds readers in every interview transcript I've read, a Navajo speaker not trained in the code wouldn't understand the message any better than anyone else hearing it.
Although I've been fascinated with Navajo culture — and the language — since 1990, this is the first time I've read anything about the Code Talkers. What drew me to the book is, of course, Chester Nez's firsthand account. Now, that he was one of the creators of the code is a special bonus. But it should be noted that all 400 Code Talkers had important parts to play. The code was also expanded over time by later speakers.
The copy I read came from my wonderful local library, but I would like to own a copy. It's something I want to re-read.
Flight by Sherman Alexie is about Zits, a half Caucasian, half Native American teenager, trying to make his mark on the world as he's bumped from home to home in the Seattle foster care system. Feeling he has no where else to turn, he finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery where he is shot.
Flight could have been about a life wasted — a look back on what went wrong for Zits. But it isn't. Instead, Zit's in that moment where his life flashes before his eyes, is given a chance to travel through time, experiencing crucial moments of Native American history.
It's a short book — part science fiction, part coming of age. Although the language and situations are for older readers, it reminded me of Holes and Small Steps by Louis Sachar (review coming).
Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty: 02/04/14
Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty by Tonya Bolden takes a fresh look at the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the immediate aftermath. Included in this examination is a closer, more skeptical look at Lincoln's beliefs and political motivations.
When I was in school in the 1980s, Lincoln, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Kennedy were the presidents who could do no wrong. They were presented in our history lessons as HEROES, no questions asked. They were above reproach.
Bolden's book, though, doesn't begin with the same assumptions. Lincoln is taken in the context of what his actions meant for African Americans (whether free or enslaved) before and during the Civil War, and the repercussions of those actions. The end of slavery is framed as more a means to an end (a very welcomed end) but not the main purpose of Lincoln's political machinations.
It was refreshing to see Lincoln's political career scrutinized. Certainly he had a ton of influence but no historical figure should be exempted from closer analysis.
How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend: 02/03/14
How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend by Gary Ghislain would make a good double header with Stuck on Earth by David Klass. Both take troubled teenagers who have stories about being aliens. Rather than making their claims a metaphor for deeper feelings of not fitting, the plot plays out straight up.
David Gershwin's father is a psychologist. His current patient is a trouble teenager, Zelda, who claims to be a warrior from space, genetically programmed to procreate with a single human male — Johnny Depp. Yep — Johnny Depp. There are a couple problems — she's in France and he could be anywhere in the world, depending on his filming schedule.
David ends up on the run with Zelda, for a madcap adventure through France. It's as wacky an adventure as The Fifth Element but for tween readers. It's a short, fun read. I enjoyed every single page. It was one of the rare books that I was actually sad to see end.
The Sacramento, River of Gold: 02/02/14
I live about four miles from the San Francisco Bay, a body of water that connects the California delta to the Pacific Ocean. Father east, a scenic hour drive, the Sacramento River ends at the Delta.
The Sacramento River has been a recurring location for family trips. As a child we house-boated through the Delta, brushing up against the Sacramento. Trips to Sutter's Fort and Sutter's Mill and the state capitol all involved drives along the river. Now when we go the train museum in Old Sacramento, we always walk along the river. Most recently, we've added trips to Redding, which is divided by the Sacramento.
So you can see why a discarded library book on the history of the Sacramento River and how it affected California's statehood caught my attention. The book is one of the Rivers of America Series and time permitting, I might track down more from it.
The Sacramento, River of Gold by Julian Dana covers the history of the river from the first inhabitants, through Spanish, Mexican, and American settlement, ending with a brief discussion of the first decades of the 20th century (the book was published in the 1930s).
The book's strength's lie in its recent history, namely the events leading up to and through the Gold Rush. Many of the people involved loaned their names to area cities and landmarks. These sections were a bit like reading a California themed Hetalia. They were also a good backdrop to the Cats and Curios series by Rebecca Hale that I've been enjoying.
The book's weakest part is its opening section on the early history of the river. It has a rather disheartening overview of the original people who had settled the area. The book is full of cringe-worthy descriptions, describing them as less cultured, childlike, and (of course) waiting to be saved and educated by Western society.
The book ends with a fascinating bit of "current" history, namely the building of the Shasta Dam. There is a history of the town that was ultimately abandoned and flooded by the lake's creation.
So while the book has its flaws, it was still an interesting read. It just could have been so much better.
Natural History: 02/01/14
Natural History by Justina Robson was the May 2010 reading selection on the Calico Reaction blog. While I didn't get a chance to participate, I was intrigued by the description of the book.
Voyager Isol, a Forged ship / human discovers a piece of alien technology that allows for near instantaneous space travel. Her discovery opens up a can of worms as the Forged see this technology as a chance to finally have their own home-world away from the humans who created them.
Robson's book reexamines what it means to be human and humanity's history of slavery. The social commentary aspects of Natural History were fascinating. But the story's construction — writing from numerous points of views with little explanation or context — got in the way of the overarching plot.