Monday, February 28, 2011

MG BOOK REVIEW: The Mother-Daughter Book Club #1 and #4

Heather Vogel Frederick has written a wonderful series of books for middle grade/young teen girls.

I bought the first book in the series, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, for my daughter a few years ago. I confess that when I saw it in the store I was smitten with the idea of the title. Part of me hoped that my daughter would fall for it and we would be trotting off to a mother-daughter book club of our own. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. Nevertheless, I was happy with the outcome of the purchase: she loved the book. (We were going through a phase where books I suggested were dismissed out of hand.) Now, she was telling me to read the book!

It went on my pile, but, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t immediately follow through on her endorsement. (Like daughter like mother.) Even though she eagerly read each new instalment, it took awhile for me to pick up book number one. But I did get to it.

The Mother-Daughter Book Club is a delightful story following the trials and tribulations of four girls and their mothers during a middle school year. Although not all the best of friends at the start, they grow on one another, bound together by the book club and their discussions of Little Women. The references to that classic were interesting and didn’t overwhelm the modern day tale. Each of the girls had social and/or home problems that girls today can relate to. There was a "mean" girl they had to struggle against and eventually find a way to accommodate. In short, it was a strongly written contemporary tween girl friendship book with a nice literary twist.

I can appreciate the appeal of these books and was very pleased that my daughter gobbled up the series, especially because it called her attention to the books "assigned" in the book club. We’d already read Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, but in book 3 of the series, Dear Pen Pal, the girls tackle Daddy-Long-Legs. This was a cherished favorite of my own teen years, and I was thrilled to see my daughter reading it – and loving it. That inspired me to reread it and enjoy it all over again.

Still, I didn’t keep reading the series. I’m not the target audience; my daughter is. Although I appreciate the writing, the characters, and a story well-told, at my stage in life, there is only so much fictional contemporary teen angst I can empathize with.

Until we come to the latest book in the series: Pies and Prejudice. The book club members are growing up. It is now their first year in high school. They each have adjustments to make. The greatest change is that Emma and her family will be spending a year in England. In honor of this, the club chooses to read Pride and Prejudice.

After reading this, my daughter wanted to read Austen’s book, so we started it together. I’ve read it before, but it’s been many years, and I’d forgotten just how intricate and beautiful the language is. So much of it is dialogue and the humor sneaks up on you. It is pure pleasure having our own mini book club. And as we read, my daughter told me I should read Pies and Prejudice because the author did such a good job of basing the characters on Darcy and Mr. Collins. So, breaking my hard-and-fast rule about reading series in order, I skipped to book four.

In Pies and Prejudice, Emma’s mother has arranged a house swap with a British family. The two teenage boys who come to live in her home remind the other girls of Darcy and Bingley. In England, Emma meets a boy who is the very image of Mr. Collins. The girls adapt to a whole new set of challenges and enjoy new adventures while learning some Austeneque universal truths.

Once again, I have to praise Heather Vogel Frederick for creating such likable girls to build a story illustrating the power of friendship. Wrapping it all around works like Daddy-Long-Legs or Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful way of introducing young readers to these classics.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

BOOK BLOGGER HOP 2/25-2/28: A name change?

I'm late to the blog hop this week. I've had quite a blog silence lately. There is so much going on in the real world, I've been mesmerized. What will historical novelists of the future have to say about us, I wonder. Wouldn't it be interesting to come back and read about how today's heroes and villains are portrayed?

I have been managing to read some fiction. (For example, I read a friend's manuscript, and WOW. This woman is talented and I really hope she'll be published so that I'll have the chance to blog about her book.)

And I've been working and writing. So, I haven't had as much opportunity to blog as I wanted. But I hope to get some reviews up again next week.

Also, a reminder that the YA giveaway for a chance to win either Jane by April Lindner or Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John ends this Monday. Just fill out the form at the link for your chance to win.

And now for the hop. Hosted by Crazy for Books, the Book Blogger Hop is a great way to meet other bloggers with a passion for reading. This week's question comes from Jen at I Read Banned Books:

"Do you ever wish you had named your blog something different?"

My answer:
No. It isn't the most exciting or eye-catching name, but it has a special (even if kind of silly) meaning for me. Reading is a form of escapism for me, and I'm extraordinarily good at blocking out the world when I read. Not consciously. I don't have to try. When I read, the physical world more or less ceases to exist. (Exceptions being when my babies cried or when my pager goes off.) But now that my kids are older, they know they have to shake me by the shoulder if I'm in "reading world."

When I decided to start a blog, I wanted to join the bloggers who talked about books. So that was entering a different type of reading world. The blog name made sense to me for those reasons. It's a "vanilla" sort of name, but that suits me.

And I wouldn't want to change it because thinking up titles is a bear.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Room by Emma Donoghue

You’ve probably seen the buzz about Room by Emma Donoghue. Although this book is outside my usual reading fare, and despite the fact that Slammerkin was not a favorite of mine, I was intrigued by all the glowing reviews. I just finished it and I have to add my voice to the choir singing its praises—this book is superb!

Room manages to take a profoundly disturbing premise and create a story of innocence and resilience. Using a child’s voice, Donoghue is able to place the reader in a claustrophobic and monotonous circumstance, and yet fill the book with so much dramatic tension I could not put it down.

Jack has just turned five. He has spent his entire life confined to a one-room shed, imprisoned with his mother. Jack sleeps in the wardrobe so that he will not be seen by the scary man, Old Nick, who visits them each night. Until now, Jack has not really understood that he and his mother are prisoners. He only knew that "Room" was real, and thought that everything else was not. When his mother fears she can no longer keep him safe, she decides they must attempt to escape. (She tried before Jack was born; and Old Nick punished and threatened her. With Jack’s birth, she has been focused only on protecting him.)

The harrowing events of the escape attempt are only the beginning of the trials Jack must face.
Donoghue does an extraordinary job capturing the thoughts of a child, but just as effectively, she brings to life the strength and fragility of Jack’s mother. This is a beautifully written, moving book. Have you read it yet? What did you think?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wonderful Wednesdays: Escapism

This week I'm participating in a meme hosted by Sam at Tiny Library called Wonderful Wednesdays.

"Wonderful Wednesdays is a meme about spotlighting and recommending some of our most loved books, even if we haven't read them recently.  Each week will have a different theme or genre of book to focus on.

This week's theme is novels set in another country.

I want to hear about the novels that have inspired you and made you want to travel to an exotic location."

This is somewhat similar to the question of last Friday's blog hop, but I'm thinking of it from a slightly different angle. In the blog hop question, I was inspired to visit the setting of the novel-- time and place. In the perspective of this meme's question, I'm looking at a novel that inspired me to want to visit the location, but not necessarily to insert myself into the book.

The difference is not so subtle when you consider how much of my reading is historical fiction. Most of the "places" I read about are irrevocably gone. I'd love to visit London or southern France, but not necessarily because they're featured in my favorite books. It just wouldn't be the same.

However, there is a place that really was not on my radar at all until I read a novel about it, and now, I want to go there very much: Guernsey.

I realize Guernsey will be different from the place described in The Guernsey Literary and Potatoe Peel Pie Society, one of the most delightful books I've read in a long time (reviewed here.) But that doesn't matter. I still want to visit. Photos of the island are so beautiful. It's steeped in history.  Maybe not exotic, but to me, it sounds like an ideal getaway for a relaxing modern-day vacation.

Anybody else crave a vacation?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

BACK TO THE CLASSICS: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For my Pulitzer Prize winner for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I chose To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don't know why this book did not end up on some assigned reading list during the course of my education. I’m not sure why I haven’t read it before now. I’ve certainly had it on my TBR list for quite some time. My daughter read it in school a couple years ago. Then, my son read it this fall. I knew the time had come. Luckily, I had the challenge for even more motivation. And my efforts were well rewarded!

But what is there left to say about this book in a review?

Scout Finch, a wide-eyed innocent 8-year-old girl, is growing up in depression era Maycomb, Alabama alongside her 12-year-old brother Jem. Her life consists of "running wild" with Jem, reading with her father, Atticus, a lawyer, and taking note of the goings-on in her world. To her frustration, she is unable to observe her reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, about whom all sorts of bizarre, entertaining, and frightening rumors have sprung up. When Scout’s father is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman from the wrong side of the Maycomb tracks, Scout is introduced to the prejudice and injustice in her town. Her eyes are opened and her innocence destroyed. But the trial opens other eyes in Maycomb too, so some good comes out of all the awfulness.

This book really does deserve all the accolades it has received over the years. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. Moreover, the book is timeless. These are lessons we need to hear over and over again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

It's Friday-- time for the Book Blogger Hop hosted by Crazy for Books.

"In the spirit of the Twitter Friday Follow, the Book Blogger Hop is a place just for book bloggers and readers to connect and share our love of the written word!  This weekly BOOK PARTY is an awesome opportunity for book bloggers to connect with other book lovers, make new friends, support each other, and generally just share our love of books!  It will also give blog readers a chance to find other book blogs to read!  So, grab the logo, post about the Hop on your blog, and start HOPPING." Hop over to Crazy for Books and add your blog to the linky link.

Book Blogger Hop

This week's question:

"What are you reading now and why are you reading it?"

I'm reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It's one of the books I've chosen for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And, it's a book I really should have read by now!

I'm also reading Pride and Prejudice because that's the book I'm currently reading with my daughter and The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Prisoner's Dilemma, because that's the book I'm currentlyy reading with my son.

They're very different books and I'm enjoying them all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

GOLDEN OLDIES: The Mysterious History of Columbus by John Noble Wilford

This is a different sort of golden oldie for me- it’s nonfiction. History (actually it’s biography) with a touch of historiography.

Don’t get me wrong—I like history. (I read it more often than I review it.) But to this day, my recollection of how I learned history in school was that each year we would start with the European explorers so that we would be studying pilgrims around Thanksgiving. Then we would march through American history until time ran out at the end of the school year. We’d get through about the gold rush or maybe the Great Depression. I have no recollection of studying the World Wars (although surely we must have?) and anything after that must have been too recent to even be in our text books. (I’m not that old, but maybe our textbooks were.) At any rate, my husband, who is a US historian, is appalled by my lack of knowledge of recent US history. But at least I thought I knew those explorers and pilgrims pretty well.

Turns out—not as well as I thought.

I learned "old school" Columbus—the hero who discovered America. Now, I am aware he did not actually discover anything new. It was already inhabited. I am aware he was not even technically the first European to have set eyes/feet over here. I had heard rumors that he might not have received all the accolades he deserved back in the day. (Something about prison or dying in debt?) And I knew that he unleashed the evil forces of conquest upon the native populations. But other than that, I’ve been living with my grade school knowledge of: 1492- Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.

In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage was recognized. A slew of books came out revisiting Columbus scholarship. And that landmark pretty well passed by with no interest from yours truly. Columbus was not a guy who interested me in the slightest. Still, feeling remiss, here as we near the 520th anniversary, I thought maybe I should learn something about Christopher Columbus the man.

The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy by John Noble Wilford was published in 1991 by Knopf. It is a very readable account of Columbus’s life. Not being either an academic historian or someone who reads much biography, I’ll offer up my two cents worth: this book does a superb job of treading the line between popular history and one of those fact-laden but dry academic tomes.

The book uses primary sources, secondary sources, as well as recent archeological investigations to reconstruct Columbus’s path to America. The author investigates the original idea for the voyage, the pursuit of funding, the mystery surrounding the location of the first landfall, and what all went wrong for Columbus afterward. Wilford also investigates the mystery of the man himself. Who was Columbus really?

This story of Columbus debunks the mythology that has surrounded him. Much of this has been debunked before, but Wilford succinctly explains how the myths started and why they are not true. He is also delightfully frank about how much is completely unknown. Columbus is shrouded in mystery. I picked up this book because I thought I should be more informed about this explorer. I finished it more interested in the man than I ever imagined I would be.

And now you know who really fascinates me? His mistress. Beatriz EnrĂ­quez de Arana.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: February 2-5

It's time for the Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase. I haven't posted the ground rules in awhile, so here they are:

This blog hop is open to blogs that primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion.

How do I know if my blog qualifies as "literary"? Literature has many definitions, but for our purposes your blog qualifies as "literary" if it focuses primarily on texts with aesthetic merit. In other words, texts that show quality not only in narrative but also in the effect of their language and structure. YA literature may fit into this category, but if your blog focuses primarily on non-literary YA, fantasy, romance, paranormal romance, or chick lit, you may prefer to join the blog hop at Crazy-for-books that is open to book blogs of all kinds.
Literary Blog Hop

This week's prompt comes from Robyn:

What setting (time or place) from a book or story would you most like to visit? Eudora Welty said that, "Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it...," so in what location would you most like to hang out?
The place I would most like to visit would be the south of France just before the start of the Albigensian Crusade. A mini-Renaissance was occurring in Occitania, and I would love to have been able to experience the courts, hear the troubadours, etc. However, I don't know how long I could manage to hang out there. Even if I were lucky enough to be wealthy and had noblewomen for tourguides, the culture shock would be too great.

More specifically, if I were to pick a book setting I wanted to jump into, I would want to go hang out with Laura Ingalls on the prairie. (Only not during The Long Winter.) I could use the lesson in living in the moment. I would drink in the beauty of the setting. I'd take the time to smell the wildflowers and learn their names. I would feel summer's heat or winter's cold against my skin and deal with it without all the grumbling that I do now when there is "no" heat in my office. I would cook from scratch, truly from scratch, and savor every morsel of slow food. And I would listen to people sing and play fiddles, challenge each other to spelling bees, and talk--instead of spending the evenings on the computer or watching TV.

And then after a couple of days of that, desperate for a hot shower and a mocha I'd head on home.

Where/when would you like to go?