Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Kiss Goodbye: Audrey Penn & Barbara L. Gibson

Another volume in the Chester Raccoon series, A Kiss Goodbye illustrates the challenges of moving to a new home. Any kid who has had to leave their home, friends, and school, knows how hard it is to get comfortable with change.

Chester announces that he's not moving. He wants to stay in his tree with his friends, where he's always lived. When Chester's mother encourages him to think of it as an adventure, Chester recounts the many adventures he's had that did not go well. When Chester continues to resist, his mother points out that their home tree and many of the surrounding trees have been marked to be cut down for wood, and if Chester stays, he will be all alone because the other animals are leaving, too. When Chester begrudgingly agrees to move with his mother and Ronny, he spends some time saying goodbye to his home. At their new home, Chester meets someone new to befriend, proving that moving really can be an adventure.

I was so hopeful for this story. Penn dances around the issue of clear-cutting and the devastation that deforestation leaves behind. I know that this story is about the adventure of leaving home, and not a social criticism, but I felt like there was so much potential for this lovable forest animal to do a little more teaching.

I was also disappointed in Gibson's art this time. The illustrations felt a little more cartoonish than the other Chester books. They're still very bright and colorful, but I just wasn't in love with the art this time.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères: Marie Le Tourneau with Danielle Reed Baty

I have a love of all things French, so when I had the chance to read about a family of mice who run a French Bistro, I didn't have to think twice. Besides--just look at the illustrations!

Perfectly translated, Marie Le Tourneau's storybook is about the mice of the Seven Brothers Bistro. Among bright, full-page illustrations, the story of a family of mice unravels, describing the role of each mouse. Chef Marcel is renowned for his Award-Winning cheese soup, which he makes with the assistance of his seven sons. When it comes time to make the award-winning soup for the annual competition again, Chef Marcel must run an errand to purchase the Secret Ingredient, leaving his sons in the kitchen to start cooking the cheese soup without him. When Marcel doesn't make it back in time, the youngest mouse--and only girl--Michelle, quietly walks to the stove and finishes the soup with her own ingredients. The result is a Happy Ending and the renaming of the bistro to Le Bistrot des Sept Frères et une Sœur (The Seven Brothers and One Sister Bistro).

The story of these minuscule chefs is darling, but the real joy in this book comes from the illustrations. Inspired by the French Art Nouveau, The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères is filled with beautifully detailed line drawings. It's also incredibly charming to come across bilingual children's books. Le Tourneau has included a glossary of French pronunciations for her young readers.

Whether your little ones can read or not, they will enjoy searching through the illustrations to find the details. This would be a great picture book for early readers.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Kissing Hand: Audrey Penn & Ruth E. Harper & Nancy M. Leak

Having read the sequel, I was compelled to go back and read the first book in the Chester series, The Kissing Hand. This is the book that started it all...

Chester the raccoon is nervous. He has never been to school and he's scared. He would much rather stay home with his mother. Chester's kind, compassionate, and understanding mother gently encourages him, telling Chester that he will love school once he gets started. She gives Chester something very special to take with him so that he never forgets how much he's loved. Chester's mother gives him a kiss right in the middle of his palm, and tells him that when he puts it to his cheek, he will be able to hear her whisper "Mommy loves you." Chester is so happy to have his mother's reassurance that he is able to dance off to school.

Penn's storybooks about Chester are so sweet! Chester is such a sweet little raccoon with such human emotions that we can all relate to. Everyone has had to face something new that they may have been nervous or scared about, and children are no exception. Chester is an example of the kind of love and support that every child needs, but unfortunately, not every child receives. Something as simply magical as a kiss on the palm can instill confidence and encourage a child to face their day, knowing they are loved.

I have to say, having read the sequel, A Pocketful of Kisses first, I am sorry to report that the illustrations in The Kissing Hand are nice, but not quite as wonderful. Chester and his mother make for very tender drawings, but the forest didn't seem as vibrant as it is in Pocketful.

Rating: $$.5

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

A Pocket Full of Kisses: Audrey Penn & Barbara Leonard Gibson

This is only one in a series of books about a raccoon named Chester that I will read and review. A Pocketful of Kisses is the sequel to The Kissing Hand, which I haven't had the pleasure of reading, however, I see no reason why this tale can't stand on its own.

Chester is a very very good little raccoon whose family has just expanded to include a baby brother. Chester asks his mother if they can send him back, but his mother says it's simply not possible to send a baby back. To reassure him, Chester's mother gives him a special kiss on the palm of his hand that lights up his heart. Chester is filled with his mother's love, until he watches mother give the same kind of kiss to his baby brother, Ronny. What a racket Chester makes! In his saddest voice, he asks if his mother doesn't love him anymore. Mother quickly seizes her opportunity to teach both of her children about how much love a mother has. She tells the story of the sun, that touches every star with it's rays, lighting up each and every star, even when we can't see them. Chester's mom let's him know that she has enough love for him and his brother, but she also acknowledges that maybe he deserves a little something extra for being the big brother. So Chester receives a special kiss that he can put in his pocket, to carry with him.

I absolutely loved this storybook! It is so true that mothers have a special kind of love that seems bottomless. A mother can give her love to all of her children and never run out. And dear Chester is a familiar character to anyone with siblings--or anyone who has ever felt jealousy! We so often want to feel that the love we receive is special and more meaningful. I am sure that children learning how to be a big brother or sister would benefit from hearing this story.

As for the illustrations, I am in love. Gibson has such a talented hand, and has brought this little raccoon family alive. Except she doesn't just draw the raccoons, she also illustrates the wilderness they live in, with other animals, trees, and plants. The picture of the night sky over the valley, with the geese flying across the sunset is absolutely breathtaking. I would own this book as adult, if only for the illustrations!

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Tanglewood

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lost Hero: Rick Riordan

I am convinced that everything Rick Riordan touches, turns to gold. Which is a funny sentiment to start off this review, considering King Midas makes an appearance in Riordan's newest series, The Heroes of Olympus. The first book in this series, The Lost Hero, picks up where the Percy Jackson series left off, and takes us to a whole new side of mythology--Rome.

Jason wakes up on a school field trip, but has no idea what school, where he's headed, or even who he is. A kid named Leo claims to be his friend, and the pretty girl holding his hand, Piper, claims to be his girlfriend. When the bus arrives at the Grand Canyon, field trip leader Coach Gleeson keeps a careful watch on Jason, which comes in handy when they group is attacked by wind spirits--also known as venti. It turns out that Coach Gleeson is a satyr who has been watching Leo and Piper, demigods not unlike Percy and Annabeth. When Jason's arrival attracts the venti, all three kids are whisked away to Camp Half-Blood to learn about their parents. It turns out that Leo is a fiery son of Hephaestus, Piper a smooth-talking daughter of Aphrodite, and Jason... Well, Jason is a son of Jupiter, which is the confusing basis for the Heroes of Olympus series in which Greek and Roman mythology begin to mingle.

With his usual enigmatic writing style, Riordan throws Percy Jackson fans a curve ball by introducing a new cast of characters who have ties to the Roman gods, offering brand new gods, myths, and monsters to navigate. However, while the Heroes of Olympus series is based on new characters, there are some familiar faces, including Annabeth and Chiron. Fans will find the story familiar; a little touch of magic, some daring battles, and some really terrifying monsters, as well as some lustful teenage glances. While some might find Riordan formulaic, I think he's still got a few tricks up his sleeve to surprise us.

I am easily hooked and looking forward to joining Jason, Leo, and Piper on their adventures. I love how Riordan manages to take his readers on wild adventures, and still manage to sneak in some education.

Rating: $$$

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Desperation: Rock Mofina

As much as I love crime-fighting movies and television shows, I am rarely intrigued by books of the same genre. I suppose that's because visual entertainment still pales in comparison to an active imagination. However, for whatever reason, Rick Mofina's action-packed novel caught my attention and demanded I give it my time.

Single mother Cora and her daughter Tilly are spending a quiet evening at home when two men posing as police officers arrive and kidnap Tilly. Cora is left with the daunting message that if her boyfriend, Lyle Galviera doesn't return the five million dollars he stole from Norte Cartel--the largest Mexican drug cartel--then Tilly will die. Of course Lyle is nowhere to be found, and with the threat of her daughter's life on the line, Cora calls her reporter brother, Jack, rather than contacting the police. Cora and Jack have been estranged for twenty years, causing layers of guilt and doubt to complicate their situation. Once Jack convinces Cora to involve the police, things start unfolding. In Desperation takes place over five excruciating days, while Tilly's life hangs in the balance. The Norte Cartel are closing in on Lyle Galviera and have dispatched a notorious assassin to get rid of him as well as Tilly. Meanwhile, Cora is holding back a secret that may explain how the cartel became involved with the Gannon family in the first place.

I dragged my feet through this novel. I was interested in the storyline, but Cora frustrated me to no end. I had the feeling that if I were faced with her, I'd slap her. It's a fairly graphic novel, detailing the ways that drug cartels handle vengeance, but that also makes it an exciting story, filled with action and heart-pounding chapters, making this a page-turner.

Rating: $$

ARC received courtesy of MIRA Imprint

Monday, March 21, 2011

Head Over Heel: Chris Harrison

I love to travel. I'm not sure when it started, but for as long as I can remember, I have felt the urge to wander the world. While I have seen a great many wonderful places, there is always somewhere new to experience for the first time. Since I can't actually afford to spend my money on travel, I read about it instead. Head Over Heel: Seduced By Southern Italy took me to one of the places I have longed to see, and am now more eager than ever to visit.

Chris Harrison met Daniela in a pub while both were vacationing in Ireland. It seems ludicrous to imagine that such a meeting could result in true love, but Head Over Heel is Harrison's love story. It's hard to say whether Italy is the backdrop for this romance, or if the romance is the setting for Italy. Chris does the unimaginable by leaving his Australian life to be with Daniela in Italy. What seems like a doomed idea from the very beginning, turns out to be a wild adventure filled with colorful landscapes and characters. Chris narrates his adventures in Italy, from the exciting newness of the small, seaside town of Andrano, to the dull days spent working in Milan. As Chris learns the complicated processes of becoming an Australian living in Italy, his love for the country waxes and wans, while his love for Daniela pushes him to pursue a future with her.

Having moved to another country for a short time, I am well acquainted with the challenges of learning a new country, trying to make it your own. Something as simple as buying a loaf of bread or finding an ATM can be exhausting and result in a complete meltdown. Harrison easily describes the challenges without reserve, illustrating the often humorous situations that foreigners find themselves in. There is so much comedy in error that the humor of this story is inherent. Even if you've never left your hometown, it's hard to deny a giggle when Chris describes his future mother-in-law, scolding him for owning underpants in any color other than white. The absurdity of Italy's many law keepers and their failure to protect Italy's many ridiculous laws, are described as a joke to Italians, and by the end of this book, I sympathized. 

Harrison brought his story to life in such a way that I also fell in and out of love with Italy. The foods, the people, the climate, the silly laws and superstitions, the dirty politicians, the helpful communities... Everything that Harrison describes is stimulating and exciting. I can't imagine reading this book and not wanting to see Southern Italy.

Rating: $$$

ARC received courtesy of Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Book Blog!

The Reader's Book Blog is 2 years old today! I've had ups and downs over the last year, not only in my personal life, but also in my reading and blogging life. This book blogging thing comes with it's own life lessons; Thank you for learning with me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Daisy Miller: Henry James

Ahhh, Henry James, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways... I couldn't possibly name all the things I love about James' works. Each has its own place in my heart for all different reasons. It's so hard to find writing that good anymore. And yet, I had somehow missed Daisy Miller. The young American girl for whom the book is named is one of the most alluded-to characters in fiction. On a bit of a whim I decided to pick up the slim novella that I purchased at a book sale some months back.

Henry James is a master at saying things without saying things, if you know what I mean. In Daisy Miller, James tells the short story of a young American woman who makes the acquaintance of a fellow American traveler, while in Vevey, Switzerland. The gentleman is Winterbourne who is introduced to Daisy by her young brother, Randolph. Winterbourne seems to be immediately taken with the beautiful young lady, despite his aunt. Winterbourne's aunt is one of a staple type of character in these old social commentary stories; Old, stolid, and wealthy, believing that the caste system is alive and well and ought to remain so. Winterbourne's aunt calls Daisy and her family every impoverished name in the book, thereby discouraging Winterbourne from making any advancements. And if that were the entire story, it would be a dull and predictable one without any real moral ending. However, we learn that it's not just dear old Aunty who is influencing Winterbourne, but Daisy herself. The innocent American girl turns out to be quite a flirt, balking at all the societally accepted norms regarding courtships. Daisy's brash dating habits and overt flirtatiousness give Winterbourne pause. And now I have to tell you  ***SPOILER***  that Henry James rarely ends a short story with "...and they all lived happily ever after" and this one is no different. Ultimately, Daisy stays out one evening while in Rome with a charming Roman man, who makes Winterbourne a tad bit jealous. Daisy falls ill and dies before Winterbourne can make his move. She dies unmarried, and he never gets to tell her how much he loves her. Lose-lose.

This novella is fully titled Daisy Miller: A Study which is an appropriate title, no matter how you look at it. It is a study of the outgoing nature of innocent American Daisy Miller who gets herself into all kinds of trouble. She is the epitome of innocence in every description, but Daisy's actions are those of a woman loosing her wiles on every man in the vicinity. She makes for a perfect study of the American girl, caught between the stuffy, wealth-centric European society and the poor, working class American culture. I imagine my favorite ol' college English professor would have asked the obvious question--is Daisy truly innocent?

Daisy Miller may also be a study of romance. Things would have ended so differently if Winterbourne had only been a man of action. He lusted after her, but since it wasn't "proper", he attempted to court her in the traditional way. Courting Daisy seems like a waste of time. She's a fun-time kind of gal who just wants all the attention one can possibly lavish upon her. Winterbourne was either a weak man for listening to his aunt's advice, or he was a smart man who saw a flirt and chose not to engage her. Henry James doesn't give Witnerbourne any tags like "innocent", so it's hard to know what exactly we're supposed to think about him. For my two cents, I wanted him to take Daisy in his arms, tell her to stop behaving foolishly, and make her his wife. That probably says more about me than the book...

Bottom line? I still love love love Henry James. I do not, however, love these characters. I didn't find myself giving a fig about what happened to Daisy, and Winterbourne was such a milquetoast that I couldn't care about his future, either. I could write about all the things Henry James did right, but in light of this singular novel, I will simply say that I enjoyed Daisy Miller, but don't feel compelled to read it again.

Rating: $$

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Help: Kathryn Stockett

I lost count of how many people recommended this book to me. It was a best-seller and every book blogger was reading it. I bought it, and then let it collect some dust on my bookshelf while I read some other things. I finally decided to pick up The Help and see what all the fuss was about. Now that I've finished reading, I can safely say that it was worth all the hype.

The Help is narrated by three women-- Skeeter, the liberal white woman who doesn't quite fit the conservative mold that her mother is pushing; Aibileen, the backbone of the black maid community who has raised more white children than black; and Minny, the sassy young maid who has had the most trouble with the privileged white ladies of Jackson, Mississippi. Each of the narrators takes their turn moving the story forward, from the beginning when we learn that Aibileen is a servant in the home of Miss Leefolt, through to the publication of Miss Skeeter's controversial book. The Help is the story of Skeeter's efforts to interview working black women to write a book about the servants who create the homes of her friends. She is inspired to write their stories because of her curiosity about the mysterious disappearance of her own maid, Constantine. With the assistance of Aibileen, Skeeter gathers the heartwarming--and sometimes heart-wrenching--stories of black servants in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. Through the narrations we learn about the women as individuals as well as the culture and society they live in.

To deduce this novel's characters to just three women is misleading. There are dozens of characters in this novel, each with his or her own personality, and a few fantastic one-liners. Each woman that Skeeter interviews is an important individual with an enlightening story to tell. Even the husbands of the affluent women that the maids serve, play an important role to illustrate the make up of the average home. The very servants who were considered less than human, were the people who kept the children dressed and fed, and the house running smoothly.

Writing this review was daunting because there is no easy way to describe it; The Help is harsh, emotional, uplifting, hopeful, frightening, sweet, and politically charged. It is a contemporary novel, but it's also a very important piece of historical fiction, well-suited to any American History classroom. There are things I could nitpick over, but it would be a disservice to this well-crafted debut from Kathryn Stockett.

Rating: $$$