Friday, September 21, 2012

“Lucretia and the Kroons” by Victor LaValle

Age: Middle Grade
Genre: Fiction, fantasy/horror

Lucretia Gardner and her best friend, Zhao Hun Soong, have a lot in common. Both girls are twelve years old and have nicknames (Lucretia is “Loochie” and Zhao is “Sunny”). They go to the same school and live in the same building in Flushing, Queens – in fact Loochie’s apartment is directly below Sunny’s. But there’s one thing they don’t share: only Sunny has cancer. Loochie wants to celebrate her birthday with Sunny, but this is impossible because Sunny is out of the state getting yet another treatment. When Sunny finally does return to Queens, she is so sickly that Loochie has to beg to spend time with her. The day they are supposed to hang out, Sunny disappears and a very creepy, deformed person comes to lead Loochie to her best friend – but it means going into apartment 6D, which is supposedly haunted by the shells of former crackheads. What Loochie finds in 6D can only be described as a horrifying nightmare, but she must fight through it to save her friend.

Author Victor LaValle has certainly created a dark world for his preteen characters to inhabit. LaValle does an excellent job portraying the strained friendship between Loochie and Sunny as well as the girls’ emotions regarding cancer and death. I can see readers who have watched a friend suffer through any serious disease relate to Loochie and her desire for her friend’s healing and for things to just go back to how they were before. But when the story turned more towards fantasy with the Kroons in apartment 6D, it got too dark and nightmarish for me.

I did enjoy the author’s writing. He used some good descriptive phrases, such as describing the cool girls at school as “clumped together like socks that had just come out of the dryer.” I also liked the idea he proposed of hell and heaven as places we could access from earth. He has Loochie wonder about hell and ask, “why couldn’t [it] be located in a sixth-floor apartment […]?” And he presents heaven as a baseball stadium. Sunny describes it like this: “Everyone who makes it inside is at peace. It’s bright and warm all day. You can take a seat in the stands or run around with other kids down on the field. There’s no pain in there. No need for hospital visits. Doesn’t that sound nice?” This passage is particularly heart-wrenching coming from Sunny and seeing what her life has degraded into due to her cancer. For her, heaven is simply living a normal childhood. And the author’s descriptions of the horrors Loochie encounters are truly the things of nightmares, with a playground full of abandoned toys left by vanished children, people with slack faces and no jawbones chasing after her, and mud so thick and deep that she nearly drowns in it.

I guess that was the author’s point in writing the story – to scare the reader – but I didn’t enjoy that part of the story. That doesn’t mean the intended audience won’t like it, but hopefully they will be prepared for the darkness they are getting into when reading this novella. I would definitely recommend it for the older middle-grade reader due to the subject matter.

Bibliographic Information:
LaValle, Victor. Lucretia and the Kroons. New York: Spiegel & Grau (Random House Publishing Group), 2012.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“A Tale of Two Mommies” and “A Tale of Two Daddies” by Vanita Oelschlager

Age: Picture Book, 1-5 years
Genre: Fiction, gay and lesbian families

The idea of a child having two mommies or daddies instead of one of each could be confusing for the child’s friends, as author Vanita Oelschlager explores in her two picture books, “A Tale of Two Mommies” and “A Tale of Two Daddies.” Each book portrays a young child being questioned by his or her playmates about which mom or dad helps with various tasks, such as baking a cake, looking for a lost kitty, or coaching T-ball. The child answers each question with one of two names for his or her parents (Momma and Mommy or Poppa and Daddy), or sometimes the answer is “neither” or “both.” Whatever the answer, the child proves he or she is taken care of no matter what the situation. With bright, colorful illustrations and a positive message, children with gay or lesbian parents could easily enjoy these books. Since there are still few books available for this market, simply by writing these books the author is helping reach out to children who are searching for a family like theirs portrayed in what they read. These books do not get into the more serious problems, such as teasing, that a child of gay or lesbian parents may face, but that’s okay because that is not the author’s aim. By focusing on everyday activities, loving parents, and playing with friends, these books are tailored for a young audience simply looking for a life like theirs. Though the publisher recommends these books for ages 4-8, they are better suited to ages five and under due to the picture book format and simple text.

I only had two problems with these books:
1. The parents are only shown from the waist down. I guess this was to give a child’s-eye view, but any child focuses on his parents’ faces and it makes the story seem incomplete without being able to visualize the whole family.
2. Each book ends abruptly. Since these are not really stories, just a series of questions, there is nowhere for the books to go, and maybe that’s why the author seems to just stop the books without real endings.

I would recommend these books for the non-traditional families they portray, not for their writing, which is simple rhymes and lacks creativity. These books could be shared with any child to help introduce lessons on different family structures and the idea of acceptance.

Bibliographic Information:
Oelschlager, Vanita. A Tale of Two Daddies. Vanita Books, 2010.
Oelschlager, Vanita. A Tale of Two Mommies. Vanita Books, 2011.

Monday, September 10, 2012

“Painting the Corners, Volume I: A Collection of Off-Centre Baseball Stories” by Bob Weintraub

Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction, short stories, baseball

An eighty-three year old is signed to a major league team just to bunt. The hitter and catcher of a homerun ball stay mysteriously connected throughout their lives. A little league coach’s players don’t follow his signs but still win the game. All these are subjects in Bob Weintraub’s collection of fictional baseball stories.  In the eleven stories, the author displays a deep knowledge of baseball: how the game is played, players, scouting, fans, management, etc.  He presents scenarios that seem as if they are real, but adds something that puts them just a little out of reach. He creates characters that the reader will probably find likable, and his stories are creative, though sometimes get a bit heavy on the baseball jargon.

If I am reading a sports story, it is because I hope to be able to talk to my husband or friends about it. See, in my current circle of friends, I am the only one who doesn’t know the sports commentators by name, voluntary watch televised games, or visit on a daily basis. You could say I am a casual fan and am mostly interested because those around me are. So when I saw a book of baseball stories, I thought it might be interesting and maybe I would learn something I could share with my friends. However, I realized shortly after starting the first story that this collection was obviously fiction and would provide me with no interesting facts or anecdotes to discuss. I read the first five stories, but my interest waned and I simply stopped. It is to the author’s credit that a non-sports fan such as me got that far in the book and was able to mostly follow the jargon and explanations of happenings in the game. That proves the author wasn’t writing only to hardcore fans. However, being a casual baseball fan only, five stories was the limit of my attention span, and I decided to hang it up and find something more engrossing. Short stories (and essay collections, for that matter) are always a bit of a hard sell because without the continuous narrative there is little to keep the reader turning the pages. Collections are more suited to being read piece by piece, so the reader must truly enjoy each story and be drawn in by the voice of the author to want to continue on. For me, this book and this author did not draw me in. A real baseball fan may find the collection more enjoyable, but I cannot speak for such a person. Hopefully the author can find the right audience for this book. Perhaps one of my friends would like it.

Bibliographic Information:
Weintraub, Bob. Painting the Corners, Volume I: A Collection of Off-Centre Baseball Stories. Toronto, ON, Canada: Iguana Books, 2011.

Monday, September 3, 2012

"Sketchy Behavior" by Erynn Mangum

Age: Young Adult
Genre: Fiction, suspense

Sixteen-year-old Kate Carter feels her life in the small town of South Woodhaven Falls is anything but exciting. She’s not involved in any groups at school or otherwise and she’s sworn off dating following an experience she labels “Do Not Speak of Ever Ever Ever.” When she’s not doing homework, she spends her free time drawing in her sketchbook and watching the E! channel with her best (and really only) friend, Maddy. But something is bound to happen to throw some excitement into her life, and it comes from an unexpected assignment for her art class.  A guest talks to the class about the career of Forensic Sketching, and he describes a criminal to the class. Kate uses the details the guest detective provides to compose a sketch of the criminal, only to find out later that she has drawn a very accurate portrait of a serial killer on the loose. When the killer is caught thanks to her sketch, Kate becomes a local celebrity, but she finds that attention can also bring danger. She’s soon under house arrest and followed constantly by police, who are trying to protect her from any accomplices of the now-locked-up killer. But will the police presence be enough to keep her safe? Kate begins to question what happens after death as she fears for her life, helping guide her to church for the first time in ages. In Erynn Mangum’s new book, Sketchy Behavior, the reader follows along with Kate as her life goes from boring to frightening in all too short a time.

This is the first YA Christian novel I have ever read, despite growing up Christian. I found Kate’s character to be funny and easy to relate to. She never did anything that seemed out of character for her, so I believed her as a person. I liked that the cultural references were modern and I think teens will easily relate to the language. I was expecting this book to be preachy, being unfamiliar with the genre, but was pleasantly surprised to find it was not so. The Christian elements were woven into the story and didn’t seem tacked-on. They caught me by surprise at first, however, because I’m not used to any mention of God in my fiction reading. I think this book could appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike since it’s a story of a girl searching for meaning and explanation in her life. The story moves along well and the drama should keep the reader interested. Non-Christians could relate to Kate’s search for answers while Christians may see the need to talk to others about Christ to help guide them. After all, it is through those around her being truthful about their beliefs and inviting towards Kate that she grows in closer relationship with God.

Bibliographical Information:
Mangum, Erynn. Sketchy Behavior. Zondervan, 2011.

"Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" by Steve Almond

Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction, food & humor

When I saw the title of this book, I knew I had to read it because it sounded as if it could be my autobiography. I especially related to part three of "Some things you should know about the author," which reads "The author has between three and seven pounds of candy in his house at all times." I immediately catalogued my candy after reading that line and found it to be, perhaps sadly, true of myself. Almond's stories of insatiable cravings, failed attempts to eat baker's chocolate, and pining for long-gone candies (Mr. Melons anyone?) certainly seemed as if they could come from my own sugar-fueled journals. However, after a while Almond's book changes from his memoirs to detailed accounts of every candy factory he ever visited. Sure, these stories are kind of fun, but after the third or fourth one, I lost interest. I was hoping for more autobiography, less Food Network, I guess. I can respect that he wants to bring attention to the little guys in the candy world, but writing an entire book that focuses on candy factories starts to become a bit redundant. Towards the end, Almond describes what his intention for the book was when he writes, "I told him it was about candy bars. But I didn't know if I could explain what I was really getting at: that candy had been my only dependable succor as a child, that it had, in a sense, saved my life, that I hoped to draw a link between my personal nostalgia and the cultural yearning for a simpler age, but that, in the end, the laws of the candy world were the laws of the broader world: the strong survived, the weak struggled, people sought pleasure to endure pain." He succeeded in sharing these points, however he simply rambled on too long. This book could have been about 150 pages shorter and the message would have been more effective.

Bibliographical Information:
Almond, Steve. Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. Harvest Books, 2005.

Book on

"Waffles: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Meal" by Tara Duggan

Age: Adult
Genre: Non-fiction, Cookbook

As a lover of all breakfast foods, the title Waffles: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Meal caught my eye and rumbled my tummy. As I browsed through the cookbook’s delicious-sounding recipes and drool-inducing photographs, I learned there are many variations on the standard waffle I have always enjoyed. The cookbook is divided up into five sections: All About Waffles, Breakfast and Brunch, Lunch and Dinner, Dessert, and Basic Recipes. In “All About Waffles,” the reader is given in-depth information on ingredients, equipment, tips and tricks, and even some waffle trivia. It is in this section that I learned how to properly prepare waffle batter to get the tastiest result, as well as how to reheat old waffles from the refrigerator (which comes in handy when you’ve made a large batch). Next come the recipes. “Breakfast and Brunch” waffles include Sour Cream-Orange, Lemon-Poppy Seed, and Yogurt with Honey Cream. The Lunch and Dinner Waffles reach to the savory side, with combinations like Zucchini-Asiago or Multigrain with Avocado and Tomato-Almond Pesto. The dessert section features such creations as S’mores, Coconut-Rice Waffles with Mangoes and Lime Cream, and Pineapple Waffles with Raw Sugar. Finally, the “Basic Recipes” section includes just what it states with nothing fancy required.

With so many options to choose from, I decided to try the recipe for Vanilla Bean Belgian Waffles with Whipped Cream and Strawberries. The directions were easy to follow and I only had to look up one word (macerate: it means “steep”). The ingredients were mostly ones I already had around the house, except for vanilla beans, which I had to get at a whole foods store. This particular recipe took a while to prepare because it required letting ingredients macerate (see, there’s my new word) for 30-60 minutes before cooking, so I would not recommend it for quick morning preparation. However, the waffles had a nice, vanilla taste that I enjoyed. I look forward to trying other recipes in the book as I explore the wonderful world of waffles. Though the savory waffles don’t appeal to me (I am a sweets kind of person and like my waffles that way), others may find the recipes give them some good ideas for enjoying waffles in a different style. I recommend this book for anyone who loves waffles and wants to get creative with preparing them.

Technical Note: I read this book as an electronic edition on a Nook Simple Touch e-reader, but the ingredients lists did not format correctly. Numbers for measurements appeared on different lines than the items being measured, making it impossible to correctly prepare the recipe from the e-reader screen.  The photos were also in black and white on my screen, making them less attractive. However, the electronic edition appeared fine on my computer screen with no layout problems and in full-color. I used the Adobe Digital Editions program to read the file, but was unable to print pages, so I had to retype the recipe to prevent myself from running back and forth from the computer to the kitchen while cooking.

Bibliographical Information:
Duggan, Tara. Waffles: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Every Meal. San Francisco: Weldon Owen, 2011.