Tag Archives: reading

As Cute as a Kitten

Kitten’s Autumn by Eugenie Fernandes (Kids Can Press; 22 pages; $14.95)

Leaves tumble, Kitten mews.   Porcupine snacks, Chipmunk chews.   Hummingbird sips, Caterpillar munches.   Rabbit nibbles, Squirrel crunches.   Fish gulps, Bear licks.   Deer grazes, Raccoon picks.   Beaver chomps, Frog zaps.   Skunk slurps, Turtle snaps.   Supper waits, Fireside greets.   Door opens, Kitten eats.

This would make a perfect first reader for just about any child.   In Kitten’s Autumn, we accompany a Calico kitten on her very first trip through nature’s wonders during the season known as Autumn.   She discovers other animals, both friendly and fearsome, all of whom are feasting on whatever it is they eat.   This kitten observes them all before returning to her home for warmth and a good meal.

Each double page is meant to illustrate a single sentence in a poem, and children will come to absorb the lesson that there’s a difference between being outside with nature and being inside one’s own home-sweet-home.   The text and illustrations by Eugenie Fernandes (author of Kitten’s Spring) are both cute and charming.   This one’s a winner, by all accounts – especially for curious cats and kids!

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   This book is recommended for children between the ages of 4 and 8.

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Rocket Dog

How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills (Schwartz & Wade; $17.99; 40 pages)

Rocket is the doggie version of a busy child.   He’s eager and energetic with a good amount of curiosity when it comes to a story about Buster the dog and the mystery of where a tasty bone was buried.   Rocket is gently enticed into learning how to read by a very chipper little yellow bird, whose attitude is very much like this reviewer’s first grade teacher, Miss Thom.   The little bird sets up an outdoor classroom for Rocket and he begins with learning the alphabet.

This delightful children’s book demonstrates the value of building knowledge and practicing spelling.   Rocket endures a cold, snowy winter by practicing his letters in the snow when the little bird instructor migrates south.   Come spring they are back together in the outdoor classroom.   Rocket proves himself to be an excellent student and he’ s rewarded with the great joy of reading book after book.   His favorite about Buster is read again and again and again.   (Joy, joy.)

Well recommended.   Woof!

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her grandchild.   How Rocket Learned to Read is primarily targeted for children between the ages of 3 and 8.   (Consider it as a special Christmas present for a little one!)

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Hang On Sloopy

Woof: A Love Story by Sarah Weeks; Illustrated by Holly Berry (HarperCollins, $16.99, 32 pages).   Age range: 4 to 8.

A dog is a dog/ and a cat is a cat/ And most of the time/ it’s as simple as that/ Or is it?

Young children’s literature is alive and well!   The dynamic duo of author Sarah Weeks and illustrator Holly Berry have teamed up to create a colorful, delightful and endearing picture book.   Woof is the story of a dog who, at first glance, becomes smitten with a lovely white kitty.   His tale is set forth in rhyming verses guaranteed to delight both the listener and the reader.   The illustrations are created using an imaginative combination of original woodcuts and photographic images.   The effect is just eye-catching enough to enliven the story without being jarring.

Woof is big enough for the reader to hold it while allowing the listener to easily turn the pages.   Although the story line is a bit improbable (it involves a buried trombone ), it sets the stage for a dialogue about ways of communicating that can take place between the person reading the book and his or her young listener.   Clearly, woof and meow are not the only way for the two characters to share their feelings.   Music is the key to their understanding of each other.  

Delightful – 5 Woofs (or Meows).   Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   “This humorous and heartfelt story is about the power of love and the power of music, told through the eyes of a lovelorn dog and the cat he adores.”   HarperCollins

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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There I’ve Said It Again

How to Buy a Love of Reading: A Novel by Tanya Egan Gibson (Plume; $15.00; 400 pages)

Two highbrow writers and several low brow nouveau riche folks who reside in a community ruled by excess and one-upmanship are skewered with wicked satire in this irresistible debut novel by Tanya Egan Gibson.   Rest assured, Ms. Gibson takes the time, and she has the talent, to fully develop her characters.   Everyone from the protagonist, Carley Wells, to the object of her affection, Hunter Cay, takes their turn in the spotlight.

This is far from the usual ugly duckling or misfit gone berserk story.   Rather, the reader is permitted to delve into the complexities of what appears to be a very “simple” girl.   Carley is the vulnerable 16-year-old daughter of a brassiere mogul.   She does not fit in size-wise or intellectually with her prep school classmates.   Moreover, Carly has not encountered a book that she likes.   This is problematic as she is expected to earn a passing grade in prep school literature and go on to college.   To make matters worse, her harridan of a mother, Gretchen, lacks even a smidgen of empathy or love for anyone but herself.

Hunter Cay is a brilliant writer and obscenely beautiful fellow who is one year Carley’s senior.   He and Carley formed an unusual friendship when he and his mother became part of the wealthy community following his mother’s divorce from his billionaire father.   Carley loves him unconditionally and proves it by her willingness to accept whatever attention and caring he gives her.   She dotes on him and is also a first-class enabler of his vices.

There are parties galore to celebrate birthdays, literature and Hunter’s mother’s engagement.   The descriptions of the elaborate decorations, clothing and food for these events are spot on for a wealthy enclave, which makes this reviewer think that Ms. Gibson may have attended a few such parties in her own lifetime.   Carley’s birthday party has the craziness reminiscent of the masquerade ball in the classic film “The Pink Panther.”

All of this foolishness aside, there is much more to this book than a satirical plot.   The theme explores the idea of growing up into who you need to be to allow yourself to lead a meaningful life.   There are casualties along the way – the notion of the value of extreme wealth being one of them.   Even with billions, some of the characters are hard pressed to escape their personal fears and demons.   By the end of the tale, the reader will have a deeper understanding of human frailties and an expanded sense of compassion.

Highly recommended.   The trade paper version was recently released.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Someone Saved My Life Tonight

On Reading – A Book That Changed My Life

I read The Language of Trees not long after it was first published this past summer.   The massive review in the local paper promised it would be a good read, and it did seem to be right along the lines of something I would normally pick off the shelf.

I came to learn rather quickly that Ilie Ruby has a wonderful way of carrying you through a story, pulling you deeper and deeper and then when you least expect it, WHAM, she hits you with an emotional truth that is so deep and profound that it sends you sprawling, gasping for something to hang onto.   This happened to me in the process of reading this book.   I would go from a relaxed reading position, to sitting straight up, to leaning on the edge of my seat, to standing, to pacing, to talking to myself and holding my forehead, wondering how she could possibly know such detailed things about ME.   It was unnerving and fascinating in a way that only a magnificently written novel can be.

There was a movie in the 80’s called The Neverending Story, about a little boy who steals a book from an old bookshop and has the sense as he hides away in an old attic reading by candlelight that the people in the book are aware of him.   The old book-keeper had warned him that this book wasn’t safe for him to read, it wasn’t like other books, because the old man knew that those who delved into the pages of that book became part of the story.   There was a point as the boy was reading that the characters talk about him as if he is there with him.   They say they were there with him as he entered the bookstore and took the book with the oren symbol on the cover and they are with him as he reads the book.

“But that’s impossible, it’s not real,” he says to himself, looking up from the book disturbed and confused, “they can’t be talking about me, it’s just a story.”   But it wasn’t just a story.   It was a book that forced the little boy to confront fears, to take a good long hard look at himself, and ultimately gave him courage and power.

I found myself thinking and feeling the same thing as I read The Language of Trees and its characters continued to speak to me.   “How,” I asked myself out loud, looking at the book as if could look back at me, “how does she know these things about me?”   “It’s not real, it’s just a story.”   But as it wasn’t just a story in the movie, it wasn’t just a story for me.   It forced me to confront fears, to look deeply into myself, and when it was over, I had found courage, comfort and healing.

A book filled with forgiveness and the hope of second chances and healing, it’s a compilation of love stories, old ones and new ones, reborn ones and healing ones.   It’s about Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell and whether or not they can heal and find the love they lost all those years ago.   It’s a ghost story about little Luke Ellis who was lost in the waters of Canandaigua Lake many years before, and who now haunts the people on the lake out of love for his sister Melanie who has recently vanished without a trace.   It’s a book full of secrets, secrets kept by Clarisse Mellon who knows the truth needs to come out or Melanie Ellis will never be found and things will never be right.

It’s a book about facing fears and finding yourself and allowing yourself to reach out a lonely hand, trusting someone else in the process.   As Clarisse Mellon says, “A full life, a life where she captures her heart’s desire, requires that chances be taken.”

This book is full of hope, and in a day where people seem to lose their hopes and forget their dreams, this book is a welcome respite, a place where the desires of the heart are encouraged to fly.   Read this book, allow it to take you on its journey, find the truths in its pages and open yourself up to the infinite possibilities it offers.

“You must go alone,” the movie says of the journey, if you’re willing to take it.   “You must leave all your weapons behind.   It will be very dangerous.”   It’s true, looking inside ones self with no walls and no weapons can be very dangerous, for those willing to make the journey.   It took me many years to find that “Neverending Story” experience and it changed my life.   The Language of Trees changed my life.

“Show no fear, for it may fade away, in your hands, the birth of a new day.”   No, it’s definitely not just a story.

 

The Language of Trees: A Novel by Ilie Ruby has been published by Avon ($14.99). 

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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How to Contact Us

If you ever need to e-mail me with comments or questions, the e-mail address is the same as the one we use for book giveaway contests:  Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   Also, you can follow us – formally or informally – by visiting our related Twitter site:  http://twitter.com/josephsreviews .   Twitter members can send me a direct message there, and Munchy certainly appreciates it when Twitter members sign up to follow our Tweets.   (Although Munchy would prefer it if they were called Meows.)  

When you sign up as a follower of Joseph’s Reviews on Twitter, not only will you know when new book reviews and reading-related posts go up on this site, you’ll also have the chance to check out interesting book reviews from a number of fine sources.  

Joseph

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Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

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