Author Archives: SHK

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #42-52: Board book extravaganza!

When I signed up for the Cannonball Read, I waffled between doing a half-cannonball, and the full deal. See, when I signed on, I was a month away from having my first child. So the question of whether or not I would be able to read 52 books, much less review them, was a very real concern. And now, here we are. It’s 2012. I have successfully read and reviewed 41 books for me. In a shameless attempt to make up the remaining 11 books, I am going to tell you all about our favorite board books. You can give me grief and tell me they don’t count if you want, but my counterargument is that, if I’ve read a book upwards of 25 times, and can probably recite it for you from memory, it bloody well ought to count. So there.

Plus, there are Pajiblettes on the way! And so, in honor, and for the benefit of, our own Courtney and TK (and any other expectant Pajibans!), here are some of the K__ family’s favorite board books.

Sheep in a Jeep (and any of the Sheep books), Nancy E. Shaw and Margot Apple
The Sheep books are so much fun. Less is more, and the simple stories, paired with the right amount of cleverness and perfectly straightforward rhymes never get boring. I think I might like these more than my daughter does.
Hop on Pop (and any Seuss), Dr. Seuss
Do I really need to justify Dr. Seuss to you? No, I didn’t think so. Hop on Pop gets requested daily in our house, usually more than once.
But Not the Hippopotamus (and any Boynton), Sandra Boynton
Boynton is another person who just kills the rhyme. Her books aren’t stories so much as little poems, similar to much of Seuss, I guess. Seuss tends to carry on a little bit, though, while Boynton knows just when to stop.
CAT, Matthew Van Fleet and Brian Stanton
This was a Christmas gift, but I’m pretty sure both my husband and myself have read it at least twice a day since then, and the little girl will look at it without us, too. It’s pretty much just photos of a wide variety of cats in various poses and with props, and there are some pop-up type features, and what can I say? The kid likes cats.
Goodnight Gorilla, Peggy Rathmann
This is a bedtime book for us, and it’s been in the rotation all along. Very simple, but with fun animals!
Bunny and Me, Adele Greenspun and Joanie Schwarz
Kind of a strange little book, but we get a kick out of it. It’s sort of artistically half-photographed/half-illustrated, and while my husband finds the image of a stricken baby who’s lost her friend somewhat disconcerting, it totally cracks the little girl up. Also allows for a little bit of interaction in the form of questions.
Yum Yum, Dim Sum (and any World Snacks), Amy Wilson Sanger
It’s a book all about dim sum! There’s a sushi one, and an Indian one, and a Jewish one … these are seriously adorable, but may serve to strengthen your dependency on take-out in the first year or so.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (and any Eric Carle), Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle
Another classic. The repetition definitely wears on parents after a while, but the kids will love it regardless. You can also graduate up to a slide book later on.
The Paper Bag Princess, Robert N. Munsch and Michael Martchenko
We have a board book version of an apparently longer story, and it is AWESOME. It’s about a princess who doesn’t care about fancy clothes who goes out and outsmarts/defeats the fierce dragon who burned down her castle. Princess Elizabeth. Accept no other princesses.
Mama, Baby, & Other First Words (and other Art from the Start books), Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober
We don’t actually have any of the other books in this series, but we ought to get some. There’s no story, just the presentation of easy-to-learn words paired with famous works of art. Seriously cool.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury
This one is maybe a little sappy, but the illustrations are darling, and I’m not sure you can start ’em too young on the message that we’re all the same, really.

There you go! All Baby Girl approved. See?

All done! See you for Cannonball IV! I have learned my lesson, and will only be endeavoring to account for 26 books this year. Cheers!



Filed under Uncategorized

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #41: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

On Goodreads, the comment that pops up most often with regard to this book is that it’s very similar (in concept, my caveat) to the X-Men. That’s fair, I suppose: it’s about a home designed for the education/protection of unusual people, after all. I think that’s largely where the similarity ends, however. What Mr. Riggs is trying to do with his novel is slightly more character-driven, if perhaps a bit sloppier in the final result.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is narrated by Jacob, a supremely “normal” young man who is thrown into turmoil after the somewhat mysterious death of his grandfather. Said grandfather, a Polish refugee and World War II veteran, used to tell young Jacob fantastical stories about the island home he was sent to as a teenager, and about the “monsters” he had to fight against. These stories are interpreted as metaphors for the horrors of the Nazi invasion and the war, but Jacob comes to learn of the truth behind them, as well as the truth behind his own seeming normalcy. Soon, he must make the decision to leave his mundane life behind, and continue his grandfather’s fight.

This book is very imaginatively and beautifully laid out. The backbone of the story is formed by real photographs of “freaks,” around whom the characters of Miss Peregrine’s charges are developed. Throw in the backdrop of a Welsh island and World War II, add some interesting ideas about time travel, stir in a pinch of pretty good monsters, and you’ve got a story. Despite all of that, the writing is where the novel fell down for me. Given that the narrator is a boy very much from the present day, the modern tone is appropriate, but somehow doesn’t entirely fit, and well, can I be honest? There is one instance of an improperly spelled idiom (learn your homonyms, people!), and some typos, which, I’m sorry, just makes me insane. Do people use editors anymore? Anyway, I know most people wouldn’t notice that stuff, but I do (professional hazard) and it drives me crazy. I mean, you never see that in older books. It’s not so much about those minor details as the fact that this is Mr. Riggs first novel, and I guess I feel like it shows a little bit. It’s a great, imaginative story, with good pacing. The characters are reasonably well-developed. The writing’s just a little clunky. Some of the stories’ pieces seemed really obvious to me but took the characters a long time to figure out, which is annoying. Taken singly, these flaws are forgivable, but then the ending is so incredibly abrupt, and not even really an ending (there’s a sequel in the works, of course) that one feels rather unsatisfied when finished. I think there must be a certain skill to finishing a book without finishing the story so that the reader doesn’t feel brought up short, and maybe Mr. Riggs just hasn’t learned it yet.

Clearly, I had a lot of nitpicky issues with this book, although I do think that the story itself is very interesting and engaging. I might even be interested enough to look into the sequel, if it doesn’t come out five years from now. High praise, indeed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #40: Matilda, by Roald Dahl

Despite being a big fan of children’s books, I somehow managed to miss most of Roald Dahl’s ouvre, so I’m fixing that, slowly but surely. Dahl is fascinating in that he’s writing for children, but not really sugar-coating things. He deals with a lot of fantastical ideas, like witches or telepathy, but somehow presents them in a mainly realistic context. The most interesting thing about Roald Dahl, though, is that he’s writing for children, yet he often writes about things that are really, really unpleasant. Not necessarily scary or gory or horrific, but just … really bad. I think that in a society that so often tries to protect children from the bad things in the world, it’s refreshing and somehow respectful of him to have presented things to children, in their own terms, without trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

Matilda is an extraordinarily gifted little girl. She’s reading her way through Dickens and other classics at the age of four. When she shows up at school for the first time, she can already multiply large numbers in her head. She’s a prodigy. And yet, she is completely shunned at home. Her parents not only neglect and ignore her, they seem to flat-out despise her! Her father is a crooked used-car salesman, and her mother seems to spend most of her time playing bingo. They only eat TV dinners while glued to the set watching soap operas, when they’re not saying horribly mean things to their daughter. Matilda, being smarter than everyone else, gets her own back by playing clever tricks on her family. But the real trouble starts when she goes to school and finds herself caught up in circumstances surrounding the evil headmistress and her lovely and appreciative teacher.

This is vintage Dahl. It’s mostly a fun little read, but maybe I’m getting soft, because I found the parents’ treatment of their daughter amazingly sad. The headmistress, in the more starring villain role, was easier to stomach, but I guess it’s just that I’m a parent now myself. As I said, Dahl really knows how to present things to children in a way that they will understand. The notion of horrid parents who don’t appreciate their fantastic child is certainly something a kid will buy into, especially if they’re mad at their folks. For an adult reader, the lack of any sort of background to explain WHY the parents are that way is a little weird, but ultimately it doesn’t take much away from the story. The theme of knowledge and learning over a more passive and non-intellectual existence is a great message, I think, and I’ll be interested to see what my daughter makes of the story in a few years. Apparently, the story of Matilda is currently wowing audiences in the West End as a blockbuster musical, too, which means that Dahl’s stories really are timeless classics. Pick one up today!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #39: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir

Yuck, history. British history, at that! Before you completely dismiss me, though, hear me out. 1. The Tudors were fascinating. 2. Television producers these days only wish they could make this stuff up. 3. I can’t decide if I am sad or grateful that politics these days are not remotely this effed up. 4. Alison Weir is an awesome writer.

I normally assume that everyone else is as into British history as I am, but just in case you’re not, here’s the background. King Henry VIII of England had, as most people seem to know, six wives. The book I just read focused on the second wife, Anne Boleyn, who I figure is probably the most well-known of said wives, because she met a rather dramatic end: she was beheaded. Weir’s book is not a biography of Anne Boleyn, per se, as it deals with the events directly related and leading up to her demise. Anne Boleyn was convicted, along with five men of various rank, one of whom was her brother George, of treason and adultery (and incest). Modern-day scholarship seems to indicate that these charges were largely trumped up by Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s closest advisors, in order to remove Anne and her faction from power. There were lots of reasons for it: Anne and Cromwell were political enemies, Anne was unpopular, Henry was concerned about the succession (he didn’t have much luck with having sons), he wanted to get married again. Whatever the truth of the whole matter was, Anne was stripped of all her power and beheaded at the Tower of London on May 19, 1536. Anne’s ultimate triumph, incidentally, would be that her daughter, Elizabeth, survived political turmoil and persecution to become one of the greatest monarchs of England.

As I said, Alison Weir is a really good writer. I’ve previously read her biography of Elizabeth I (whom she obviously loves), and she manages to make history read like a solid novel. Admittedly, those crazy Tudors give her good material to work with, what with all their intrigues and affairs and what-not, but still. Making history fun to read seems like an impressive talent to me. The Lady in the Tower is definitely intriguing, if a little hard to follow at times. The contemporary documentation is fragmented, and it’s hard to keep all the names and titles of the British nobility straight. Still, if you’re into that sort of thing, you could do a lot worse than Weir. I think she does a good job of using the factual information available to her, not making too many assumptions about the motives or feelings of the people she’s writing about, and interpreting events through a broader understanding of the customs, etc. of the period. Ultimately, she makes a compelling argument for Anne’s innocence, based largely on the purported dates of the alleged encounters with her “lovers” and how they stack up against the other events in Anne’s life, and against the social structure of the day. There’s also a fun appendix at the end about legends and ghost stories associated with Anne. Enjoyable, if “serious,” reading.


Filed under Uncategorized

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #38: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

I don’t normally love science fiction. I was always more of a fantasy girl, and having read all that sort of stuff for a large part of my life, I think I’ve outgrown it at this point. Still, I do love “classic” literature, and I enjoy Victorian works, so H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine seemed like a shoo-in. Wells is often called “the father of science fiction,” and after reading this short novel, it’s easy to see why.

The Time Machine tells the story of a gentleman inventor who purports to have built the titular device. The story is partially narrated by a peer of “the Time Traveller” (we never learn his name), who is understandably skeptical of his friend’s accomplishment, until he and other members of their circle encounter the Time Traveller in a state of difficulty, and with a remarkable tale to tell.

It is that tale which comprises the bulk of the story, and which shows off Wells’ imaginative creation of a future Earth.The Time Traveller describes a human society far in the future that is exemplified by a divided race: the Eloi are beautiful, gentle, and stupid; spending their days frolicking outdoors. The Morlocks are shriveled, ugly, and monstrous. They live underground and seem to keep things running by mysterious means. As the Time Traveller delves deeper into the mysteries of this new society, his impressions of the order and function of the different races alters several times until he realizes the horrible truth, and escapes back to his own time.

The amazing (and creepy) thing about good science fiction is how it manages to depict a future that is believable, and Wells is a very good writer. The Time Traveller’s theories about how human society has gotten to the point at which he encounters it is, sadly, a cautionary tale for our present day. Consider the division of American society: celebrities are beautiful and often inane, and seem to spend all their time at the beach, while the rest of us hunch over computer screens in order to eke out a living. It’s easy to see us moving toward Wells’ future in another few generations. Even more disturbing are the Time Traveller’s descriptions of a further future in which the human race has seemingly become extinct. Some of Wells’ images are still with me, even though I read the book a month or so ago. That’s good writing.

Truly, if you haven’t read this classic, you absolutely should. I know it’s “old,” but it’s reasonably short and much easier to read than some of Wells’ Victorian counterparts. Even if you’re not a big sci-fi person, The Time Traveller is worthwhile for its beautiful and imaginative descriptions of a possible “future.” And, you know, if you should choose to take Wells’ warning to heart as well, that might not be a bad thing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #37: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

I don’t like scary stuff. I don’t watch scary movies, or even “scary” movies; I just can’t handle suspense or gore. The main reason people enjoy scary movies, books, etc. is that they actually enjoy being scared. That’s not me. But, when a book is billed as a “Victorian ghost story,” well, that’s different. I loves me some Victorian (or Victorian-style) literature. And so, a good friend gave me Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for All Hallows’ Read.

The book, published in 2002, is set sometime in the nineteenth century, and is more or less written in the style of that time period as well. It is narrated by Arthur Kipps, an older man who is recounting the tragic events surrounding his early adventures as a solicitor. As a young professional, he is sent to Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Drablow, and to tidy up her papers for his firm. What he encounters are fearful townspeople, a strange landscape, frightening sounds in the fog, and the mysterious woman in black. In his youthful desire to find the mundane explanation for a series of strange events, he unwittingly becomes enmeshed in an older story that brings terrible loss to any who encounter it.

The Woman in Black, I’m very sorry to say, was a disappointment across the board. It’s obviously intended to be written in the style of greats like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but it falls somewhat short of the mark. The language is similar, and Hill manages to recreate the exacting descriptions of landscapes and architecture, but the overall tone is still modern in inflection and feeling. The story itself is fine, if a bit slow to build. Since we know it’s a ghost story from the outset, it’s hard not to feel impatient after about four chapters with nothing more than a lot of broad hints as to the nature of the terrifying experience our narrator has undergone. Once the real action begins, there are definitely some effective, creepy scenes, and the mystery of the story is not one that can be figured out at a glance, so it’s got that going for it. Overall, though, I found it a little lackluster, and that’s coming from someone who’s pretty much a wimp when it comes to scary stuff. For my money, if you want something somewhat spooky that reads like a Victorian novel, your best bet is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Or, you know, something actually written in the nineteenth century, preferably by Wilkie Collins.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Samantha’s CBRIII Review #36: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

Sometimes, you just need a good YA read. And if it’s based upon a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale (in this case, The Snow Queen), well, so much the better. If this sounds like a win-win situation, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Anne Ursu.

I first came upon Ms. Ursu because she used to write a very excellent blog about my husband’s (and my) baseball team. It was hilarious and quirky, and above all, well-written. When I learned that she was, in fact, a published author, I immediately hit the library to check out her books. They’re quite excellent: the novels The Disapparation of James and Spilling Clarence, and the YA series The Cronus Chronicles are all worth a try. And now, her latest book, Breadcrumbs, advertised for “middle grades,” somehow combines the whimsy and storytelling of her YA fiction with the gravitas of her adult novels.

Hazel is “different.” She likes to read and imagine, and daydream during school hours. Her only friend is Jack, who has the enviable skill of being able to be both “normal” and “different” at the same time. Still, nobody’s life is perfect, and Jack’s home life leaves much to be desired, as does Hazel’s own. One day, thanks to a mischievous goblin and a magic mirror, Jack suddenly turns cold, and disappears. It is Hazel who must gather all her knowledge of heroes and quests and set out to find her best friend so that she can remind him who he is, and bring him home.

Storytelling is what Ursu does best. She has a unique perspective that is at once sad and humorous. Hazel’s experiences, both in the mundane world and in the forest where she seeks Jack, are quietly, yet intensely drawn. The dark environs of the forest are particularly vivid and even a little disturbing, especially considering the age group the book is intended for. Ursu draws on a variety of other stories and references to bring her fantasy world to life, and in so doing, invites her audience along on Hazel’s journey by re-introducing us to characters and events that we’ve all encountered on our own literary travels.

Where Breadcrumbs fails (but only a little bit) is in the characterizations. Everyone is fairly broadly drawn, and while there is some growth for Hazel and Jack, it’s not presented strongly enough to make it really stick. It’s all about the story, here, and the characters are merely conduits. Ursu’s narrative voice has such a lively personality that one almost doesn’t mind the characters’ lack of any real spark, but I could’ve wished for a little bit more from Hazel. I’m having trouble thinking of a good example, so maybe this is where the intended audience comes into play. I can well imagine that a child close to Hazel’s age would see much more of herself in the character, and would probably identify with her much more than I.

If you are a fan of of classic kid’s fantasy, you definitely need to give Breadcrumbs a read. The beautiful writing is reason enough, all on its own. There are no surprises, since we know the source material, but the application of modern themes of childhood really strikes a chord, and the delicate language is a joy to spend time with. If you try it and enjoy it, I strongly recommend that you look into Ms. Ursu’s other work as well. I look forward to whatever comes next from her.


Filed under Uncategorized