Friday, July 23, 2010

56. The Firefly Letters - Margarita Engle

A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba
Henry Holt & Co. 2010
HC - $16.99
library 813.54 En35f
151 pages, with resources
Rating: 4

Written in verse form - and from four different points-of-view, we learn of Fredrika Bremer, the Swedish socialite that decided, in the mid-1800's, to travel the world and learn about women's rights in those different places. She is in Cuba for this story, staying with a rich family and being accompanied by a young female slave because Cecilia has a head for languages and can translate.

Cecelia is a slave, sold by her father and far from her African homeland, now 15, married, and pregnant. She is a valuable commodity because of her language skills, but she has "lung disease" and we never find out how she and her baby survive.

Elena is the daughter of the rich Cuban landowner, also a slave in a way, for she can never leave her house...having no freedom at all in her own land.

Frederika loves the beauty of Cuba but hates the oppression of slavery and women.

We hear these voices. We see this firefly-laden country, which all three women seem to love. This book gives us some insight into Cuba, and makes us look at slavery, realizing that its oppressive wings spread even more far and wide than we'd like to realize. And it introduces us to a woman that I'd like to learn more about, Fredrika Bremer. However, I kept waiting for the story to grab me, pull me in. For some reason I was never really pulled in. Maybe it was the mood I was in when I read it....for it's short and I read it in one big swallow. If there's more talk about it, and there's been a bit of talk, I'll read it again in another few months.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

MOVIE - Cyrus

Nowhere as good as expected
Released 6-8-10
R (1:32)
7/22/10 at El Con by myself
RT: 81 cag: 6 6
Director: Jay Duplass
Marissa Tomei, John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill

A very lonely divorced man is thrilled and surprised to begin a love affair with an attractive woman, then discovers she has a manipulating post-teenage son.

I had really high expectations for this movie. There was something off for me. I expected it to be more of a comedy - but it wasn't really very funny. Just sort of sad. I love all three actors, but this didn't seem to be a great vehicle for any of them. The movie got a lot of good reviews, what's wrong with me?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

55. Eleven - Patricia Reilly Giff

Audio read by Staci Snell
Random House Audio, 2008
5:30, 5 unabridged cds
Rating: 4.4
176 pgs.

While looking in the attic for hidden gifts for his 11th birthday, Sam comes across a locked box with a newspaper article sticking out of it. Hampered by an enormous reading disability, he needs someone to help him decipher what the papers in the box say, so he makes friends with the new girl in his fifth grade class. Caroline warns him that she will not be in the town long, her father is an artist that moves the family many times each year. However, they become great friends and solve Sam's story together.

Sam has been raised by his grandfather, Mack, in a three-apartment complex that sits above three stores. These are Sam's family, the people who have raised him. After he starts thinking about his past he begins to have nightmares about a boat, a children's home, a storm, a mean lady. He begins to wonder whether he IS Mack's grandson. His reading disability makes him feel stupid, but his exceptional gift of woodworking, so like his grandfather's, helps him feel better about do the things facts he discovers about his background.

There are many layers to this story. They work together beautifully. I'm glad I discovered this book. The narrator was excellent, and I was sorry when it ended.

Monday, July 19, 2010

MOVIE - Bounty Hunter

Stupid, predictable, fun to watch
Released 3-19-10
PG-13 (1:50)
RT: 7 cag: 55
Directed by Andy Tennant
Gerard Butler, Jennifer Aniston, (Siobhan Fallon does a great job with a small part as the bail bond secretary.)

I've waited too long to review this, I've seen too many movies since. Gerard Butler has become a bounty hunter and is out to find his ex-wife for a silly violation. She is an investigative reporter working on a lead that is dangerous. At least that's the outline of what I remember. The stpry is silly, but entertaining.

54. Reaching for Sun - Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Bloomsbury, 2007
HC $15.99/Public Library
181 pgs.
For: Middle Grades (one site shows ages 8-12, one says grade 7 up, though I'm not sure why)
Rating: 4

Josie Wyatt has cerebral palsy, which affects her left hand and arm as well as her speech. However, she just wants to ignore it. People think she's a "retard", but only because she has to work to speak well and because of her physical shortcomings. But she's really, really bright and knows a huge amount about nature and gardening. She is being raised by her single mom and her single grandma. Her mom is rarely home, she's working on a double major and is very job-oriented. It's her grandmother that has taught her about the world.

The farm the Wyatt's live on has been slowly surrounded by massive homes as developers take over much of the land. A new boy, one who happens to be in her class in school, moves into one of the mansions just behind her. He is a naturalist, a scientist, and the two hit it off immediately. This, of course, will change her life.

This is a quick read, but written in lovely verse form:

Kingdom of Imaginary Worlds

An oily stink
blows in again from the bulldozers---
those metal monster dinosaurs
that scar the landscape
behind our old farm.
The tornadoes of dust they kick up
as they move closer each season
leave the porch cushions
and our teeth
dusted with a grimy film.
The echoes
of early-morning hammering
wake me
even on Saturday mornings.
And though I hate
what they've done
to my kingdom of imaginary worlds---
fairy towns and factories
the summer camp for ogres
shut down,
a homeless shelter for gnomes
with chin on knees
I can't help but study the men,
busy as bugs,
not satisfied until they
block another tree
from me.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

MOVIE - Grown Ups

A hilarious movie
Released June 25, 2010
PG-13 (1:42)
7/18/2010 at Oro Valley Marketplace
RT: 10% cag: MUCH MORE:
Director: Dennis Dugan

Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider

Don't go by the reviews - or even the trailers - for this one. It is lots better than either will tell you. I expected a stupid movie, and this is not at all what this movie is. Sure, it's got it's "stupid" parts. But those are few and far between the hilarious antics these five old friends (and their families) go through. I laughed out loud. A lot. Over and over.

These five guys have been closest of friends in a small New England community since childhood. They have all gone their ways, but still have a strong bond. The glue that holds them together is the big basketball championship they won when they were 12, and the coach they all adored. Upon his death thirty years later, they all converge at the funeral with their respective families. They continue from the funeral to a cabin on a lake in the same area where they grew up, spending a week together....spouses, kids, and even a spare mother-in-law and family dog.

It's fun and funny, heartwarming and thoughtful. You really believe that these guys are friends, that the wives and kids bond with each other, and you wish you were one of them, along for the ride. Loved it.

Yosemite National Park

On Tuesday, July 13th, I left Novato, California to head home to Tucson. I wanted to go down 395, through the Sierra Nevadas. To do this, the only way I could get across them was to go through Yosemite National Park.


I'd been to Yosemite once before, for three or four days during the summer of 2002, visiting a friend who lives there, and she'd taken me to all the wonderful natural destinations. This time I was to get to drive across CA-120, which is only open for 4 or 5 months of the year. This is also called the Tioga Road, which passes through Tuolumne Meadows. It's so breathtakingly beautiful that it's practically indescribable. It didn't hurt that the day was absolutely gorgeous. I took this picture myself!

Location: 195 miles from San Francisco, 315 miles from LA. 1169 square miles in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Visitor's Center: To get here, you must drive six miles on the 12-mile, one-way loop through Yosemite Valley, park, and take a short shuttle. There were a lot of people, but virtually no waiting. The Visitor's Center was busy, informative, and interesting. The movie was okay....I wanted more information than I actually I can only say it was "okay."

Bookstore: This was a very nice bookstore, but a lot smaller than I expected. The children's section, where I always gravitate, was more than adequate but again, nothing special.

I especially enjoyed: The views. This vista, nearing the end of the Tioga Road, was one that I didn't want to leave. It's the backside, where I suspect many visitors never get to see.

I wish that I'd had more than just an afternoon there. Next time I'll stay overnight (probably in a bed, not in a tent, though the campsgrounds looked pretty tempting) and take a tour or two. And no, I won't be climbing Half Dome. At least not in this lifetime. Big sigh. Wish I could!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

53. The Scent of Rain and Lightning - Nancy Pickard

Ballantine Books, 2010
HC $25.00
for: Adults
319 pages
Rating: 5

The story begins in 2009 with 26-year-old English teacher, Jody Linder. Her three much-loved uncles arrive to tell her that Billy Crosby, the man convicted of murdering her parents 23 years earlier, has been let out of jail. However, after these first few pages it flips back to 1986 and explains how she was orphaned one fateful, stormy night when she was only three. But it leaves off before finding out what really happened.

The second part flips ahead again, to 2009 and Crosby's re-entry into the town of Rose, Kansas, where the Linder family is honored and admired and the entire town is up-in-arms...literally. We learn more about Billy's son, Collin, who was seven when his father was sent to prison. Through the years Collin and Jody have been weirdly attracted to each other, and as the rest of the story unfolds, their connection becomes even more powerful.

This is an excellent piece of storytelling. Even though I did a lot of guessing about what "really" happened, in some ways I was close and in some ways I wasn't. I couldn't wait to finish it. I enjoyed my trip through Kansas two summers ago, and now I want to return and check out some of the small towns, the cattle farms, and the COWBOYS!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Seven for a Secret - Laurence Anholt

Illustrated by Jim Coplestone
Frances Lincoln Children's Books (London), 2006
24 pages (the last two open out to a quadruple page)
Rating: 4
Front endpapers: Scenes from the city
Back endpapers: Scenes from the country (both include a mail deliverer on a bicycle

This lovely story is told entirely in letters sent back and forth between a child in the city and her grandfather in the country. It is also based on a poem/saying called "The Magpie Song," of which I am unfamiliar. Perhaps it is British, as this book seems to be...

1 for Sorrow,
2 for Joy,
3 gor a Girl,
4 for a Boy,
5 for Silver,
6 for Gold,
7 for a Secret never to be told.

The girl's father worries about money, especially with a new baby on the way, and you can see that the grandfather's health is deteriorating. Eventually, Ruby frets because she hasn't heard from her grandfather. At the end of the book, you see Ruby and her family living happily in the grandfather's country home - without him. There's also a secret (#7 of the poem) that is answered at the very end.

This is a story for kids to figure out. It is a gentle way to discuss and/or show the end of life, especially of a loved one. Good book. Lovely, with the letters superimposed atop the illustrations that completely cover the pages.

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink - Jane Yolen & Heidi E. Y. Stemple

Illustrated by Anne-Sophie Languetin
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010
ages 3-6
32 pages
Endpapers: gold

Written by the prolific Jane Yolen and her daughter, the story is told in rhyming couplets. We see many, many girls - none wearing pink - but all wearing sparkly crowns.

"Some princesses break their nails
planting flowers into pails,
driving dump trucks, moving dirt,
dressed in an extra-large hand-me-down shirt.

......and a sparkly crown."

Bright, full page illustrations with no white and a particularly nice font (called Family Cat). However, I don't care for the cover. Does that scream "pick me up?" Not for me.

I wonder how many books Jane Yolen will write or cowrite in 2010?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

52. Jekel Loves Hyde - Beth Fantaskey

Harcourt, 2010
HC $17.00
282 pgs.
For: YA
Rating: 3

I had such high hopes for this novel, Fantaskey's second, because I really enjoyed her first, Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side. However, it didn't quite meet up to my expectations. The story is about two young people who go through some incredible experiences together - and they are fun, crazy, surreal experiences - but the way they deal with them and the way they don't trust each other...or themselves...enough to really talk to each other doesn't seem real to me at all. I guess that's what bothered me, half the time their relationship Also, there were a number of situations that were never explained....

Jill Jekel's father has been murdered and her mother has had a breakdown. Tristen Hyde, a handsome classmate, comes to the funeral (it is never explained why) and assures her that eveything will be all right. She is quite drawn to him, as he is to her. They are both brilliant chemistry students, and both have secrets attached to their ancestry and Robert Louis Stevenson's book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde. They decide to try to recreate the formula that created Mr. Hyde, and of course, they do. Tristen has always had a "monster" within him that he wants to slay.

So with this mix of fantasy, reality, and a touch of Robert Louis Stevenson, the tale emerges. It IS better than yet another vampire book, and the scientific/comparison to the novel part of it was quite interesting to mull over. But even as I write this, more unanswered questions that took place within the plot are emerging. Hmmmm.

MOVIE - The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Really quite well done, and better than the book!
Released June 30, 2010
July 4, 2010 at El Con
PG-13 (2:04)
RT: 73% cag 89%
Director: David Slade

This was a pretty decent movie. I didn't like the was much too long, repetetive, gloomy. But the movie took the extra couple of hundred pages the book didn't need and threw them to the wind. There were even a few pretty decent laughs in the movie, which did an outstanding job of following the book, taking all the best bits. I'd been looking forward to the retelling of Rosalie, Jasper, and the third wife's stories, which were done (not overdone, thank goodness) in quick flashbacks. Nice.

I think I enjoyed this the best of all three so far. I still don't get what attracts these two young men so powerfully to Bella, but that's just me, I guess. And Edward's lips didn't look overly lipsticked this time, I didn't focus on them at all like I did in the first movie. So, all in all, a positive experience!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

51. Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

Penguin, 2007
HC $16.99
paperback at $9.99 will be out on Oct. 1, 2010
288 pages
for: YA
Rating: 5

This was an extraordinary, powerful book. It was also written in an extremely interesting -- and different -- way.

Two weeks after Hannah Baker commits suicide, Clay Jensen receives an anonymous shoebox in the mail with 13 cassette tapes inside. When he listens to the first tape, he discovers that these are recordings that Hannah made just before her death, and the tapes are being sent to the 13 people who played a part in her decision.

The book is told in two voices, but they are intertwined with each other. The words that Sarah is saying on the tapes are in italics. The words that Clay is thinking or saying, as he listens, are in regular font:

"I slide across the bench to the aisle, then stand up in the moving bus.

The first to drop out was Alex. We were friendly when we saw each other int he halls, but it never went beyond that.
At least, with me it didn't.

Bracing my hands against the backrests, I make my way to the front of the shifting bus.

Now down to the two of us, Jessica and me, the whole thing changed pretty fast. The talks became chitchat and not much more.

"When's the next stop?" I ask. I feel the words leave my throat, but they're barely whispers above Hannah's voice and the engine.
The driver looks at me in the rearview mirror.

Then Jessica stopped going, and though I went to Monet's a few more times hoping one of them might wander in, eventually I stopped going, too.

It's a heartbreaking story. I can't imagine a reader not shedding at least one silent tear here or there. But it's a powerful one, and extremely interesting. I started it this afternoon and read nonstop until I was finished. I haven't done that in one heck of a long time. Wow.

MOVIE - Just Wright

Predictable romantic comedy with the wonderful Queen Latifah
Released 5-14-10
PG (1 hr. 51 min.)
July 2. 2010 at the Cheap movies on Kolb (not cheap popcorn and soda, though)
RT: 49% cag; 72%
Director: Sanaa Hamei
Queen Latifah
Common - a rapper from Chicago, he's been in a couple of movies including Date Night. Beautiful man.

Queen Latifah's plays Leslie Wright, a physical therapist who works in NYC, lives in NJ, has bought a fixer-upper that her adoring father (played wonderfully by the head doctor on Grey's Anatomy, James Pickens Jr.) helps her fix up (well, sort of), drives a clanking, old, dented pale yellow Mustang, and is a huge basketball fan. She "bumps into" the handsome star basketball player of the New Jersey Jets at a gas station, who ends up asking her to his birthday party. Mmm Hmm. Enter her gorgeous godsister, who is a player, and who sets out immediately to get her man.

Well, there's not one surprise in the plot. You know exactly what's going to happen, but you enjoy it anyway. This was a super way to spend a very hot Friday afternoon. I'd watch Queen Latifah in anything!

city dog, country frog - Mo Willems

Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Hyperion Books for Children, 2010
56 pages
"ages 4-7"
Rating: 5
Endpapers: Green watercolor splash in front, orange and blue on two back papers.

Ok. Cool book. When I was in Maine, Bren and I , after reading Dory Story, talked a lot about the web of life and life cycles. I'd love to read this to him and hear the clever thoughts and connections his inquisitive five-year-old mind would come up with.

This story goes through all the seasons, beginning with spring and ending with spring again. City dog has never been able to run without a leash, and since his move to the country he can run freely. In spring, he makes friends with a frog. They continue to be friends through the seasons. We see the seasons change, and we know what eventually happens to the frog.

This is a gentle reminder of the cycle of life, oh so creatively presented.

I'm really glad that Mo Willems didn't illustrate this. Jon Muth's illustrations are stunning watercolors. This is an outstanding book.

And.......I cannot believe this is my 700th blog.

We Planted a Tree - Diane Muldrow

Illustrated by Bob Staake
A Golden Book (Random House) 2010
32 pages
Rating: 4.5
Endpapers: white with stick ad circle trees of different colors

Quote on the copyright page: "When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope." -- Dr. Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Two families plant trees - one in a city (very close to a major bridge) and one in a desert habitat in a very different part of the world. These two families reappear throughout the book as we see trees growing all over the world - Japan, Paris, New England, Central Park, Africa - and watch the families change and grow as the trees do.

The illustrations are cool, somewhat cartoonish and filled with hints of the setting...great to examine closely.

Excellent book.

The Earth Book - Todd Parr

Little Brown & Co., 2010
32 pages - one is a folded poster that can be detached
ages 2-5
Thick cardboard cover with cut-out circle in the center
"Printed on recycled paper with nontoxic soy inks"

I really enjoy Todd Parr's simple messages and trademark drawings that somewhat remind me of Keith Haring's art. This book tells of the many ways each and every one of us can do our part ot help protect the earth. It's the perfect way to share this now-common knowledge with little ones. And it's a great reminder for us "bigger"ones that we really can do our part. Shut off the water, bring our own bags to the store, ride bikes, turn off the lights, recycle...and even write on both sides of the paper.

His dedication:
"To my mom and dad, for putting me on earth.
To Liz and Gerry for going to Las Vegas and to Megan for asking me if I had ever though about writing children's books." (Wouldn't you love to know what the Las Vegas refers to?)

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Spider Weaver - Margaret Musgrove

A Legend of Kente Cloth
Illustrated by Julia Cairns
Blue Sky Press, 2001
32 pages
Rating: 5
Endpapers: 9 patches - kente cloth in two patterns and the black and yellow spider

This gorgeous book, painted with greens, yellows, and blues of every hue, tells the legend of how seventeenth century Ghanan weavers discovered a spider's web so beautifully woven that they sought to recreate it.

So yes, the illustrations are lovely. And so is the writing. Musgrove tells the story simply, but uses word choices and literary elements that are wonderful models for writers. For example: dashes: "And everyone -- from the kings of the Ashanti people to the lowliest apprentice -- wore it." And similes: "The light from his lantern had fallen on an amazing sight, glowing like moonbeams agains the midnight sky" (and note the great verbs!).

held fast
crumpled in my hands
the beginnings of a new masterpiece
stood still in admiration
in the blink of an eye

Early the next morning
Past the tall silk cottons and papaya trees
On this night
In no time
In time

Also included are an interesting afterward and a prnunciation guide.

50. Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay

Audio read by Polly Stone (who did a beautiful job with the French accents)
BBC Audiobooks America, 2008
(book published in 2007)
8 unabridged cds
10 hours
293 pages
Rating: 3

The last cd started skipping, so I read the last tenth of the book.

The story is told from two points-of-view. Sarah Starzynski, an 11-year old girl who, in June of 1942, is rounded up with other Jewish families in Paris and taken to the Vel' d'Hiv, then to a camp that is the prelude to Auschwitz; and Julia Jarmand, an American journalist living in Paris who is investigating the horrible crimes committed during the roundup to Vel' d'Hiv. She discovers a close tie to the tragedy when she finds that her husband's family has lived in Sarah's apartment since that fateful time in 1942 and she begins searching for more information, particularly Sarah's fate.

This is a tragic Holocaust story. I like the way it shows clearly how crimes of the past have their own repurcussions in the present and future. The whole story about Sarah is well written, poignant, meaningful. But the contemporary part didn't sit completely well with me. Julia's charming, narcisistic husband, Bertrand, for one. And we're to believe that after fifteen years of marriage, she is told confidential information by her father-in-law, whom she has never particularly gotten along with? And then there's a pregnancy....some of this part of the story seemed unreal to me. Reactions. Feelings. Some were too intense and some were missing. Maybe its the way the story was read...though I thoroughly enjoyed the narrator's rendition. There was just too much about Julia and her family that was "off" or missing or something.....

The Mini-Time Museum of Miniatures

Live in or near Tucson, Arizona? Planning to visit? This museum is a magical place. Collected from all over the world and now in one large, beautiful building, are miniatures. "Doll" houses. Rooms. Villages. Fairylands. Antique and contemporary. What a place! The facility is brand new, sparkling clean, cleverly arranged, and a delight in itself. The first thing you notice when entering the HUGE front doors, is that to the left of the door is a miniature facsimile of the door.

The docent/fee collector was pleasant and informative. I picked up a scavenger hunt and a pencil and started my self-tour. This week's hunt was through some of the miniatures of Europe (it looks like, for the summer at least, that every two weeks the scavenger hunt changes.) It was fun to focus intently on things I would have missed otherwise. However, it's almost too much to take in in one visit. A membership costs only $30 (or it's $7 for adults for one visit, with the option to come back later in the day if you'd like) Since I'd love to come back to focus on a smaller amount of items, the membership certainly fit the bill. The Christmas village -- set into the floor and covered with plexiglass -- would fascinate enough without setting foot anywhere else in the building! And check out all the miniature lighting....I could go on and on.

There are also programs going on. In another week, a miniaturist that works with tiny sea shells will be there, and it sounds like people can try it out themselves. Count me in! It also appears that there's a day camp of some sort for kids.

So, people of Tucson, check this place out. Their magical website is which will give you all the particulars. And the website itself is quite cool, too!

MOVIE - Knight and Day

Funny and action-packed
Released 6-23-10
PG-13 (2:10)
June 30, 2010 at ElCon with Sheila
RT: 53% cag: 85%
Director: James Mangold
Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz (really cute together) and Peter Sarsgaard

Tom Cruise plays Roy Miller, a spy/CIA type extraordinaire. Nothing stops him, and he's a one-man killing machine. Enter June Havens, played by Cameron Diaz, a bright, cute car mechanic from the midwest, now living in Boston. The two hour plus movie flies by as you wonder what shenanigans these two will get into next. Miller is being chased by two different groups of good guy/bad guys who are trying to get their hands on a super new power battery, created by a young adult named Simon Feck (played by the mute brother in Little Miss Sunshine). Miller is also trying to protect Simon from the bad guys. Throughout the movie June is very drawn to Roy - infatuated, actually, but she always wonders if HE is the good guy or bad guy. Okay, there's nothing new or special in the plot, the setting skips around the world a bit, which is fun, but the reparte between the two leads is really a blast. I enjoyed every moment of the movie. It's refreshing to see something that isn't sappy, isn't deep, just fun and funny. A perfect first-date movie!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

49. The Birthday Ball - Lois Lowry

Illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010
HC $16.00
186 pages
for: Middle grades
Lexile: 870L
Ages 8-12
Rating: 4

This is a very cute fairy tale, written craftily with all sorts of word play and a great deal of alliteration.

Princess Patricia Priscilla is worried about her 16th birthday the next week when she'll have to chose a husband, one of three horrid choices. Counts who are conjoined twins who argue incessantly, a fat, ugly, rotten-toothed Duke who spits whenever he speaks, and an oily-haired narcisist whose dandruff is dusted away by men hired for only that job. And she's bored. So she decides to spend the next week as just plain "Pat," sneaking out of the castle to attend the local school incognito. There she meets the school teacher, a kind young man, and befriends all the village children.

It's a typical story told in a descriptive, jolly way, leaving us all, naturally, cheering in the end when all it's wrapped up tightly and well. A quick, fun read.

I've never been particularly fond of Jules Feiffer's illustrations, and I didn't like them in this book. They don't help the picture in my mind at all, they make it much more comical than the imaginative reality that I like.