Monday, September 29, 2008

One of those books you can't put down

Every once in a while, a reader finds a book that fills every ounce of one's being and is simply impossible to put down. I just finished one of those books: Sun and moon, snow and ice by Jessica Day George. It is a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. The main character, Pika (this drove me crazy because the author said pika meant girl in old Norse but in current Swedish, pojke (said poy-ka, just close enough in pronunciation) means boy but I don't think it would bother any other reader than this one) is the last child of a poor family, so despised by her mother that she didn't even name the child, hence her being called Pika. The girl is warm and compassionate, also very curious and determined to help solve everyone's problems. Pika is especially close to her oldest brother, recently returned from time as a merchant marine, who has become a loner, unwilling to communicate with others save for his sister, whom he calls Lass. Pika is taken from her family by a polar bear who says she must stay with him for a year and a day but is unwilling to explain why. Pika goes with him to the ice palace where he lives and is served by a variety of servants--a faun, a gargoyle, a selkie, lizards and more. In her own "helpful" way, Pika tries to help all inhabitants of the castle to gain their freedom with unhappy results. The rest of the story will be told to you when you read the book.

I really enjoyed the minor characters: the cheerful lizards who cook the exquisite meals served to Pika, the faun who waits on Pika at her meals, the wolf/dog devoted to Pika, the vain and silly dwarf princess--all added so much to the story. I enjoyed every moment in their company.

Another delightful retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon is East by Edith Pattou. It has fewer magical elements but a very compelling storyline. You won't feel like you're reading the same book over again if you read both books.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pure bliss

Devoted Anglophile that I am, you can imagine my joy when The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory showed up on my desk this week. It is about Mary, Queen of Scots imprisonment (though, of course, Queen Elizabeth I and her advisors never referred to it as that) under the care and supervision of Bess of Hardwicke and her husband George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary, Bess and George share the narration and each narrator is distinct and easily identifiable. It is my by-the-bed book so I love crawling into bed at the end of the day.

I've had a very soft spot in my heart for Mary, Queen of Scots since reading Antonia Fraser's book back in the 1980s. I had chills running down my back when I got to visit the room, at Holyroodhouse (the royal palace in Edinburgh), where David Riccio was murdered. And I was very impressed by Mary's tomb (funded by her son James I) in Westminster Abbey which is far grander than Elizabeth I's (she has to share her final resting place with her sister Mary...I'm sure they are eternally happy together).

My favorite historical period is Tudor England and I've read a ton of novels about Henry and his various and sundry wives as well as Mary (aka Bloody Mary) and Elizabeth. Philippa Gregory's are absolutely the best. Rich in period detail and full of gossip and intrigue, they grab your attention and your emotions from the first page to the last. My favorite is The other Boleyn Girl
(which last year's absolutely dreadful movie was supposed to be based on...ugh). It is about Mary Boleyn who was Henry VIII's mistress and bore him a son and a daughter during their time together. I also enjoyed The Boleyn inheritance, the story of Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, wives number 4 and 5 of the horrible Henry (last time I was in England, I stood by Henry's effigy in the chapel at Windsor Castle and whispered, "I spit on you" in his ear!).

It fascinates me and appalls me that daughters were so poorly treated by the upper classes in England (all of Europe, actually). They were strictly to be used as political and social pawns, meant to advance the cause of their families. And they bore the blame for every daughter born (those poor wives of Henry VIII who lost their lives when it was, genetically all his fault) and had no rights to property or expressing themselves. Outspoken and independent soul that I am, why am I so taken by that kind of life?

If you love historical fiction, please try Philippa Gregory...and let me know if you like her.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

yum yum, baking books

Yesterday, after dutifully doing a load of laundry, I treated myself to a trip to the Mall of America. With coupons in purse, I was a woman with a mission. First, I bought (oh, the shock of it all!) athletic shoes (with a $10 off coupon) in preparation for joining the workout crowd at Snap Fitness. To recover from the experience, I headed for Barnes & Noble and, again with a coupon (an extra 15% off), I bought Nick Malgieri's The Modern Baker: time-saving techniques for breads, tarts, pies, cakes and cookies. Nick Malgieri's books are always fun, beautifully illustrated with color pictures and, best of all, each recipe has an explanation of the recipe's history and more. I look forward to many happy hours reading and baking with Nick.

I'm going to try my first recipe (Caramel Cashew Rice Krispie Bars) from America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book for a work party on Monday (library people are notorious party people and enjoy eating everything but especially sweets). I devotedly watch America's Test Kitchen programs on PBS and subscribe to their magazine Cook's Country (the everyday cooking version of their magazine) so I trust their recipes. How can you not trust a kitchen under the supervision of a man in a bowtie?

I love, love, love to curl up with a cookbook, happily rocking in my glider. My favorite reading cookbook (for now) is Heirloom baking with the Brass Sisters: more than 100 years of recipes deiscovered from family cookbooks, original journals, scraps of paper, and grandmother's kitchen. This is full of the recipes my mom (an amazing baker) used to make and is a real stroll down memory lane. The layout is gorgeous (looking like something from the 1920s - 1940s) and each recipe includes its history. Grab a mug of hot chocolate (with marshmallows), grab an afghan and curl up with this book--I promise you'll enjoy it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

a surprise mystery recommendation

Normally, I don't like books that take beloved characters on from their original literary home. There are exceptions. I have just started The matters at Mansfield, or, the Crawford Affair by Carrie Bebris, a continuation of the married life of Elizabeth and her beloved Darcy (who in my mind looks exactly like Colin Firth). The Darcys have a rich and varied social life, paying extended visits to friends and relatives all over England (the custom in the early 1800s--can you imagine having 10 or more friends descend on your home for se'nnight or a fortnight? Worse yet, imagine being a servant in that house.) Wherever they go, murder follows (I ask myself, "Why would anyone want to invite company into their home when death is sure to follow?"). Elizabeth is the prime crimesolver but Darcy is always there to support her and do the legwork.

Ms. Bebris has each chapter start with a quote from one of Jane Austen's books, used to set one's expectations for what is to come. Her characters are a combination of well-known and well-loved character from Miss Austen's books and characters from her own imagination. The odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh is prominently featured in The Matters at Mansfield and she is just as obnoxious in this incarnation.

I'm not a huge fan of mysteries (I really love the chase but am very rarely satisfied with the solution, often asking, "Is that all I get?") but these are great fun since they include so much period detail and a wonderful use of language. And spending more time with the handsome Darcy is a very welcome diversion.

The other titles in the series (all variations on an actual Austen title) are: Pride and Prescience, or, a truth universally acknowledged; Suspense and Sensibility, or , First impressions, revisited; and North by Northanger, or, the shades of Pemberley.

As the old Alka Seltzer commercials said, "Try it, you'll like it."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

he's a keeper

I was snuggled up on the sofa last night with a pile of children's nonfiction, ready to lose myself for an hour when, of course, the phone rang. I was sociable and conversational but I really wanted to get back on the sofa and read, after all I was in the middle of Steve Jenkins' newest book Sisters & Brothers: sibling relationships in the animal world.

Steve Jenkins is my children's nonfiction author hero. His books are full of odd little bits and pieces of information, are beautifully illustrated with torn paper illustrations and kids love them!
I can always get the curious child to take a Steve Jenkins book once they're seen the cover. His artwork is very simple but has a lifelike feel--his animals have expression and vigor, you want to get to know them.

I was first introduced to him with What do you do with a tail like this? I loved the book so I thought I would try it in 4*5*6 storytime. I had a group of 4 and 5 year olds hanging on every word and not letting me turn the page until each picture had been examined in minute detail. A winner for sure.

My other favorites are:
Dogs and cats
Living color (colorful illustrations set my little quilting heart aflutter)
Actual Size
Prehistoric Actual Size (T. rex's claw in real life is more than a bit intimidating)

Check out his website and check out his books, too.

Monday, September 8, 2008

all quiet on the blogging front

I've been playing catch-up at the library after a 12 day vacation. While I was away, I had my sewing room painted (it is hibiscus pink and the room of my dreams: all of my fabrics, quilting supplies, magazines, etc. are neatly stored on shelves and easily found. I just stand in the door and grin, it makes me so happy.) and spent several days trying to get it sorted out. Sad to say, I didn't spend a lot of time reading...until I got the flu and couldn't move my body off of the sofa.

I read children's nonfiction for two days and these are the books that really got to me:

Black and white airmen: their true history by John Fleischman. Herb Heilbrun and John Leahr were in the same 3rd grade class, a rarity in the 1920s since Herb was white and John black. They both dreamed of flying and they both worked in an airplane factory with Herb testing equipment and John on the production line. With World War II being fought, Herb enlisted in the new Air Force division of the Army and John was, after much persuasion and a little "help" on his medical tests, taken into the Tuskegee Airmen. They were both assigned to air bases in Italy and even flew a mission together--Herb as a bomber pilot, John flying the escort plane. They did not know (or remember) each other at any point of their parallel careers. Fast forward to a Tuskegee Airmen reunion where Herb crashed the party in order to thank the black pilots who had protected him and his plane on so many missions during the war. He and John met and became friends and now do presentations about their flying days throughout the country.

We are the ship: the story of Negro League baseball by Kadir Nelson (has stunning illustrations). Told in nine innings (chapters) with an extra innings (epilogue), Nelson talks bluntly about the professional baseball (American and National leagues) feeling that Negroes were not smart enough or physically talented enough to play ball. Well, the black players and owners thought differently so they started their own baseball leagues and barnstormed across the country, picking up games wherever they could. The Negro Leagues were where Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige (one of the most colorful characters in all of baseball) and so many other players got their start, many of them now enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Both of these books just knocked me between the eyes. From the vantagepoint of my lifetime, it just shocks me that segregation ever existed or was allowed to exist. That the color of a person's skin was more important that their mind, heart, talent, etc. angers me and makes me very embarrassed. A big thumbs up on both of these books.

On a slightly less intense note, Independent Dames: what you never knew about the women and girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Halse Anderson was great fun. It is filled with brightly colored and highly detailed illustrations with lots of side bars and personal stories and a time line across the bottom. It talks about women who helped the cause on the American side and on the British side as well as telling the stories of some women who did some nasty and underhanded things that helped nobody. I learned a lot, laughed a little and thoroughly enjoyed the book. But I've always liked Ms. Anderson's young adult fiction so I trust her as an author.

I'm looking ahead to a few more nonfiction days since I have a great stack of books waiting for me by the reading chair in my living room. I'll snuggle up under my Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer blanket (a gift from my niece Julie) and be absolutely content. Sounds like heaven, doesn't it?