Friday, August 31, 2012

"The Giant and How He Humbugged America" by Jim Murphy


*This review was based on a galley. Book will be released 10/1/2012.

Age: Young Adult, 10-14
Genre: Non-fiction, Historical

In 1869 in the farmland of Cardiff, New York, a rare and exciting discovery was unearthed from the property of William “Stub” Newell. While several men helped Newell dig a new well, they hit upon what they believed to be a large stone. Upon further investigation, the stone resembled an oversized human foot. With some more help, the men were able to unearth the entire body of what appeared to be a giant man who had been petrified (turned to stone).  Local Native American legends had told of a group called the Onondaga, who were stone giants that had terrorized the area long ago. Could this petrified man be a lost member of the Onondaga? Or was he proof of the existence of giants mentioned in the Bible? Either way, Stub Newell had a sensation on his hands with the discovery of what was called the “Cardiff Giant.”

He began charging people to come see this find, and as newspapers covered the story, more and more spectators came. The author believes the crowds were especially drawn to the news of the giant because of the dark times they were living indeaths in the civil war, the assassination of President Lincoln, and a massive economic depression. Murphy writes, “The Cardiff Giant offered readers something positive and inspiring to think about, something to distract them from more troubling news.” It may have been because of their thirst for good and interesting news that few people questioned the authenticity of the giant. Scientists examined it and some proclaimed it “positively absurd to consider this a fossil man,” while others called it “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country, and … deserving of the attention of archeologists.” The debate itself drew more attention to the giantand more money to Newell’s pockets. So was it a hoax, or was the giant truly a fossilized man? After much research, the author is able to proclaim the truth behind the mystery, leaving the reader to question the science and the people of a more na├»ve time.

In this book, Murphy has presented a true story many are probably unfamiliar with, and he has presented it well. Murphy seems to have used every resource at his disposal to gather facts from all sides of the story of the Cardiff Giant, as evidenced by his extensive bibliography of interviews, books, newspaper clippings, and photographs. I found it interesting to follow the story of the giant and its creators and to wonder about how so many people could have been so easily fooled. The photographs and replications of posters add greatly to the text and should help the young reader to better understand the goings-on and mood of the time. However, I am left wondering if young readers will be interested enough in this story to want to read it in the first place. It is aimed at ages 10-14 (grades 5-9), and the writing style seems to that level, but there is not a lot to draw a young reader in to the book. They have likely never heard of the subject, and unless they have a particular interest in oddities or hoaxes, probably wouldn’t want to read a whole 112-page book on it. The subject of the Cardiff Giant may have been better suited to a chapter in a book on oddities instead of carrying a text by itself.

Technical Note: I read this book as an electronic edition on a Nook e-reader, and it did not translate appropriately to the smaller format. The photos didn’t line up with their photo boxes and captions, often appearing on different pages entirely. Also, because of the column format, the text size was either very large or too small to read with no in between. However the appearance was fine on my computer screen.

Bibliographical Information:
Murphy, Jim. The Giant and How He Humbugged America. New York: Scholastic Press, 2012.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No, I didn't read all of these books this week

Just in case anyone is wondering why I have so many posts in such a short amount of time, I have a lot of backlogged book reviews that I have written over the last few years. I am trying to get them all onto this blog, so for awhile there will be more than seem humanly possible to read and review in the amount of time that has passed since the last blog post.

Also, at the end of each blog post I have placed a link to the book on Barnes and Noble's website since I'm unsure if I can use the cover art images in my blog. That way you can see what the book looks like and order a copy if you are so inclined.

"Get Well Soon" by Julie Halpern

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction

Having never been in a mental institution, I don't know exactly what they're like. However, having suffered through depression and considered going to a mental institution, "get well soon" describes it much as I imagined. At least the main character's experiences and feelings are much how I imagine I would feel in the same position.

Teenager Anna's parents send her to a mental institution after she can't make it through a class without a panic attack and so stops going to school. She is admitted as a "PSI II - Possible Self-Injury Level II," which she describes as "meaning I could kill myself at any moment, so someone has to watch me constantly." After a rough start, Anna soon finds a bunch of misfit teens to befriend and help her survive her healing time. Though she starts to feel better, she holds the very real concern, will I still be okay when I leave this place?

Julie Halpern has created a likable character in Anna, who keeps a good sense of humor throughout her ordeal and genuinely seems like the type of person you'd want to befriend. This story could appeal to anyone who is wondering what it's like to feel depressed, as well as to any teen looking for an underdog tale where the ignored become popular and personalities trump outward looks.


Get Well Soon on bn.com

"How to Be a Happy Hippo" by Jonathan Shipton

Age: Picture Book (3+)
Genre: Fiction

I read this story to a class of two-year-olds today, and not only did it not hold their interest, but I found it an incredibly bad use of anthropomorphism. Right from the beginning, you can tell the author has a lesson for parents. The whole book is a lesson. It's like the song "Cats in the Cradle," but with hippos. Where does a hippo go to "work" all day? The hippos are in their natural habitat, not even pretending to be people in clothes. We see the father scurry off to somewhere in the grasslands with nothing in sight. Something keeps him occupied all day, but who knows what? This story is obviously meant to remind the parent reader to spend time with their children and not meant to entertain the child. I child may relate to the story of the hippo, but if this were the author's intent, it would have been better done with human characters.

How to Be a Happy Hippo on bn.com

"The Cats of Mrs. Calamari" by John Stadler

Age: Picture Book (3+)
Genre: Fiction

I read this book to a class of four and five-year-olds, and they loved looking at the illustrations. Stadler dresses the cats up in funny costumes throughout the book, and so much is happening in the illustrations that you can find something new every time you look at them. My audience loved pointing out different cats in each scene and what silly business each was up to. The story is also good as it teaches tolerance, but not by beating it over the reader's head. I think it would open up a good discussion about blind discrimination. As a teacher and cat lover, I recommend this book.

The Cats of Mrs. Calamari on bn.com

"The Fourth Bear (Nursery Crime Series #2)" by Jasper Fforde

Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction

A slow start to this story had me almost giving up before I'd gotten through the first 50 of 378 pages. The main problem I had with the start was the scenes were jumping around a lot, so a bunch of characters and locations were introduced in a short amount of time and it was difficult to figure out what and who were important and needed to be remembered. Eventually the story began to stabilize and focus, so I was able to get into it more. It ended up being a creative story with bits of nursery rhymes and other literature thrown in, but overall the story was a bit hard to follow. I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters involved and maneuvering the turns of the mystery. People who enjoy light-hearted mysteries may enjoy this read, however.

The Fourth Bear on bn.com

"Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting" by Lucy J. Puryear

Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction

As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for over ten years, I was excited to find this book while looking for insight during my first pregnancy. I wanted to know how to tell my pregnancy moodiness from depression symptoms, what medications are okay to take, and how and when to seek help. This book answered all these questions, as well as providing information and first-hand accounts on what to expect emotionally during each trimester, when giving birth, and throughout the first few months of motherhood. The author explains how to tell the difference between regular "baby blues," which are very common, and the more serious postpartum depression and even postpartum psychosis. She even includes self tests to help you determine if you need to seek help or are just experiencing the highs and lows of hormones.

Throughout the book, I found the author's tone very comforting and her advice reassuring. She validates all feelings and makes me feel like whatever emotions I might encounter during and after pregnancy, I am not the only one to feel this way. I recommend this book to all pregnant women, but especially to those who have had a history of depression and are worried about how it will affect their pregnancies. I only wish the author lived in my area so I could seek her help personally if needed. That is how comfortable I felt with her after reading this book.


Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting on bn.com

"Preschool Day Hooray!" by Linda Leopold Strauss

Age: Picture book (1-3 years)
Genre: Fiction

As a preschool teacher, I can say that this book is a great one to share with your class (or your kids at home who go to daycare). I read it to my class of toddlers often and it covered everything we do during the day, so it was nice to be able to point out to them familiar activities. The text is simple and the pictures are colorful so it is appropriate for even very young children. An excellent addition to any preschool or daycare classroom.

Preschool Day Hooray! on bn.com

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" By Cheryl Strayed

Age: Adult
Genre: Autobiography


As a woman, a hiker, and a native to the Pacific Northwest, the first time I heard about this book I knew I had to read it. After all, it is about a woman hiker who spends at least part of her time in the Pacific Northwest. So I figured it was up my alley and I was right. But Wild is so much more than a woman’s book, or a hiker’s book, or a Northwesterners book: it is a story of survival. Not just survival in the wild, but survival of life and everything it throws at us.

In Wild, Cheryl writes the story of how she grew up poor and spent most of her life living away from civilization with her mother, stepfather, and siblings in Minnesota. She married young to a man named Paul and they were happy. Then Cheryl’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and the author’s whole world stopped. She details throughout the book what it was like watching her mother die and then dealing with the emotions that followedone might say plaguedher for many years. Her mother’s death was what eventually led the author to divorce her husband and set out to accomplish something big: hike the Pacific Crest Trail, solo. It was during this journey that she finally could face her emotions and come to terms with life as it is, not as she wanted it to be.

Throughout the narrative, the author goes back and forth through time, flashing between her childhood, college years, time leading up to the hike, and the hike itself. This allows the reader to get only bits and pieces of the author’s story at once, so we are left hanging at times and surprised with what we discover at others. The story is not chronological (except for the hiking portion), but it makes sense, and as we learn more about Cheryl, we want to keep reading to find out what happens to her. Herein lies the author’s greatest success: the reader cares about Cheryl and wants to see her overcome not only every hiccup on the trail, but life itself.

But this book should not only appeal to those looking for a woman’s story of recovery. Anyone who has ever backpacked could find themselves in some aspect of Cheryl’s hiking stories. Whether it’s packing too much (she calls her pack “Monster” due to its size), blisters, pumping water, craving “real food,” or meeting others on the trail, the author covers the terrain, if you will, rather well. My favorite passage in the whole book is this one because it resonated with me as a lover of the outdoors:

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. [p 212-213]

Readers should find not only deep thoughts and sorrowful, meaningful stories in this book, however. They will also find laugh-out-loud tidbits and heartwarming encounters between the author and her fellow hikers. This is a story not only of Cheryl, but of the world and people around herand around us all. Readers, prepares yourself for a journey that is at times fun, twisting, frightening, tearful, and most of all, enjoyable.

"Replication" by Jill Williamson

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction


A boy labeled J:3:3, nicknamed “Martyr,” has lived in an underground compound for his entire seventeen years. This whole time a team of doctors have raised him and the other “J’s” (short for “Jason”), and the doctors have told them the air above is toxic. They are part of a project to help save those who live on the Earth’s surface, and they must “expire” at age 18 to fulfill their lives’ purposes. It is almost Martyr’s time to expire, but he doesn’t want to die without seeing something he has heard about called the “sky.” He steals security badges and sneaks out of the compound, called “Jason Farms,” stowing away in a doctor’s truck. Martyr soon realizes the air is not toxic and, with the help of a girl he meets named Abby, discovers the true nature of Jason Farms and why he and the other Jasons are there.

Replication is a multi-faceted story that covers topics including incurable disease, human drug testing, cloning, and dating violence. As Martyr and Abby delve into the secrets of Jason Farms, the mystery keeps the reader turning pages, hoping to discover why such a place exists and how the scientists keep their research secret from everyone. However the story is not all darkness and science fiction. The reader also gets to see Abby, a new girl in town, develop friendships with those around her, including Martyr, and teach others about her faith in God and Jesus Christ.  Though Abby struggles with the death of her mother, she still prays to see “how God made beauty from ashes.” She trusts “that God would take care of Marty [her name for Martyr] and the other clones” and she uses prayer to get through every challenge she faces. She tells Martyr about God and does her best to answer his questions and even helps him confess his sins and ask God to come into his life. Abby makes talking to God and telling others about him seem realistic, and her example may help the reader see ways to share his or her faith with others in life.

Between the suspense, mystery, science fiction, and teen romance, Replication has something to keep any teenage reader turning pages.

"Petronella & The Trogot" By Cheryl Bentley

*This review is based on a galley. Book will be released 10/1/2012.

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction


Let me start by saying that I rarely give up on a book without completing it. However, after getting a third of the way through Petronella & The Trogot by Cheryl Bentley, I have had enough. It was a bit torturous to even read that far due to the poor writing and incredibly annoying language of some of the characters.

The book centers on Petronella, a character who is described as having green skin, a big humped nose, and yellowish, uneven teeththe standard witch. However, Petronella is not a witch, though she is treated as one by the community due to her looks. We are never told how old Petronella is, a detail which I feel is important for imagining and understanding the character. There is a big difference between her being an old woman, a teenager, or middle-aged, but we are left guessing. Petronella’s cat, unfortunately named Maalox, has some magical properties and is her only companion. One day Maalox digs up some bones in a nearby farmer’s field and inadvertently brings back to life some long-buried citizens of the town.  These people, called Strincas, speak in an old-fashioned language the author has created that makes them sound like a mix between Shakespearean characters and pirates. I found the language so distracting that it became annoying very quickly. Just because someone is from a different time doesn’t mean you have to add “th” to the end of every other word. For example, the author writes, “Giveth me the chance to telleth ye exactly what ye can doth to helpeth the civilisation of the Strincas.” Imagine this going on for long threads of conversation and you may understand my annoyance. Soon the Hooded Horseman appears to tell Petronella that she is the only one who can control the Strincas, and she is left with the responsibility of determining who should stay in the present time and who needs to go back to being dead.

I guess I will never know what Petronella decides because I don’t care enough to finish reading the book. I don’t want to read any more of the overwriting, the incorrect punctuation usage, and the “th” language. While reading Petronella, I kept wondering if this book was self-published because it seemed so poorly edited. I looked up the publisher and they are not a vanity press, which I was surprised to see due to the quality of the writing. Others may find this story engrossing and entertaining, but I simply do not. I’m going to read something else instead. 

"Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid" by H.P. Newquist

Age: Chapter Books
Genre: Non-fiction


Have you ever wondered about the tentacled beasts that hide beneath the waves of the oceans? Have you heard of the Kraken, but not known what it was? Have you spent nights awake trying to determine the difference between the giant and colossal squids? If so, then Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid by HP Newquist is the book for you. The book begins with a look at the legends of the Kraken and giant squid as recorded by fishermen, whalers, and sailors throughout history and around the world. The author collects all these legends into one place and includes photographs and written accounts when available, making for a well-researched presentation. He then follows scientific investigations and discoveries, opening up the truth behind the legends. With thorough research, eye-catching photographs and drawings, and dark stories from long ago, the author should draw in interested young readers who are looking to find out more about these razor-suckered, ghostly monsters. This book should appeal to readers aged third grade and up.



"Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame" By L.L. Samson

Age: Middle Grade
Genre: Fiction


If you were stuck with your aunt and uncle while your parents were off on an adventure, what would you do? Well, have an adventure of your own, of course! Fourteen-year-old twins Ophelia and Linus Easterday are left with their quirky Aunt Portia and Uncle Augustus Sandwich when their parents, Drs. Antonia and Ron Easterday, PhD, run off to study four-winged insects on a newly-discovered island for five whole years. As you can tell, the Easterdays are not the greatest parents. The twins find their aunt and uncle much more interesting, if not a little crazy, what with their costume parties and the book store they run, not to mention the secret attic the teens find in the Sandwich’s house. Ophelia and Linus make discoveries of their own in the attic, including what appear to be potions and magic books from one of the house’s former residents, a Cato Grubbs, who simply disappeared one day. There is also a circle painted on the floor that leads to the greatest adventure of all when one morning who should emerge from the circle but Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame—which just happens to be the book Ophelia is currently reading and which she had left inside the circle. With their friend Walter, Ophelia and Linus must find a way to protect Quasimodo from his master, Deacon Frollo, who also appears from book world and is bent on taking “Quasi” back to his slavish life in the novel from which he came.

The author has created an interesting magical device with the portal that transports fictional characters to real life, and the reader may enjoy getting to know the classic character of Quasimodo a bit better (or at least the author’s imagining of him). By focusing on literary characters, the author has presented two stories in one: we get to follow Ophelia, Linus, and Walter while also learning the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  After finishing this book, the reader could be interested in reading the classic Hunchback novel.

Though the story is enjoyable, it has its problems. In the beginning of the story, many characters are introduced at once and I found myself having a difficult time keeping track of names and relations. In fact I went back and reread the beginning after finishing the book just to straighten out the backstory in my mind. I think the author might have better served the readers by working the story presented in the prologue into the book in a natural way. Another problem in the text was the unnecessary use of the narrator, Bartholomew Inkster. His asides do not add to the story and his connection with the characters is never explained. Young readers may find his definitions of words helpful, but I felt they interrupted the story by adding an intrusive voice that seemed to be dumbing things down. Really, the author could have easily gotten by with no narrator and the story would be more focused. The final problem I noticed was the presence of the special camp in the book and the rainstorm that breaks the dam. Neither of these seem terribly relevant to the story and could be removed without affecting the plot.

Despite the changes that I would make to the book, I still enjoyed it. The author has certainly created characters and a storyline that could work across a whole series of books, each exploring a different classic text. Books like this could help young readers gain an interest in the classics of literature.





"The Storm in the Barn" By Matt Phelan

Age: Middle Grade/Young Adult
Genre: Graphic Novel (Historical)


In Kansas in 1937 there wasn’t much left of the once-hearty croplands except dry soil. The soil was so dry that it blew around in the wind, giving the area the nickname the “Dust Bowl.” People had to abandon their farmland and homes and travel west in hopes of finding work, food, and a better life. The dust was choking the life out of them and all they knew. Into this setting, author/illustrator Matt Phelan places eleven-year-old Jack Clark in the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn. One of Jack’s sisters is sick with a terrible cough the doctor calls “dust pneumonia” and believes Jack may have “dust dementia” due to his rash actions. Jack starts to believe the doctor when he sees a man-like being with a face like rain in the neighbor’s abandoned barn. Jack is scared of what he sees, but he must face his fear if he hopes to save his family and everyone else from the all-encompassing dust.

The story itself is a great mystery and a hero’s tale of a young boy who gets beaten down by bullies yet has the strength to face the unknown. But the story is not the best part of this book. Phelan’s illustrations are simply amazing. The pencil sketches are beautiful, portraying the dust in sweeping strokes and the characters’ faces in expressive simplicity. Phelan can show so much with so few marks on the page. It is because of the illustrations that this book caught my eye and kept me turning pages. The silence hits you across the drawings, across the pages, so you feel like you are in that dry wasteland with nothing but the wind swirling around you. It doesn’t matter if the reader is interested in the Great Depression or not—he or she will be engrossed by this awesome book. Readers who enjoyed Brian Selznick’s works The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck could love this book as well.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sharing my book reviews, all in one place

Hello readers! I have never had a blog before, but I have been writing a lot of book reviews lately and decided that the best way to keep them all in one place was to start a blog. I posted most of these reviews previously on sites such as Amazon, Barnesandnoble, and Goodreads.

As an avid reader since childhood (the first book I remember reading by myself was Mickey Mouse's Picnic by Jane Werner), I have read many books over the years. In the past few years, I have come to enjoy not only reading books but writing reviews of them as well. This desire to review books came from my former job at a subsidy publisher, where one of my duties was to write summaries and provide brief commentary on submitted manuscripts. I liked analyzing the texts, which probably stemmed from my years studying English and creative writing at Seattle University (where I earned a BA) and writing for children and adolescents at Chatham University in Pittsburgh (where I earned an MFA). So now I try to write some sort of review for every book I read, be it a children's picture book or an adult novel. You will find a wide variety of books on my blog because I like to read all kinds of works. For those of you only interested in reviews of a specific genre or age group, I will put a header on each review specifying such information.

In addition to book reviews, I will also include the occasional piece on current events in reading and writing or pieces I have written myself. I am an aspiring children's book writer, so most of my focus will be on that genre.

I hope you enjoy my reviews and find inspiration to read some of the books yourself!

Sincerely,

Jean