Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and only IvanThe One and Only Ivan
By Katherine Applegate
Harper, 2012
Genre: Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)

Once upon a time, I was the one who fed books to The Eight-Year-Old. “Mommyo, she would ask, “I need a new book. Can you find one for me?”

“Sure,” I’d say, handing her a Hardy Boys mystery, one of Thornton Burgess’ animal stories, a new collection of fairy tales, or an adaptation of fairy tales like the Dragon Chronicles by Patricia Wrede or Valiant by Sarah McGuire. “Try this,” I’d say. “Let me know what you think.”

Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking her. “The Eight-Year-Old,” I’ll ask. “I need a book. Do you have any good ones I can read?”

“Sure, Mommyo!” And then The Eight-Year-Old will run off to her room at cheetah speed and come back bearing whatever book has struck her fancy that week. That’s how I came to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Dragon in the Sock Drawer, and Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time!

The last time The Eight-Year-Old and I had this conversation, she had just finished reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Continue reading

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Book Review: The Doublecross by Jackson Pearce

The Doublecross

The Doublecross (And Other Skills I Learned as a Superspy)
Jackson Pearce
Bloomsbury USA Children’s (July 2015)
Genre: Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)

Twelve-year-old Hale Jordan has always wanted to grow up to be a superspy like his parents. But while he’s inherited their intelligence and resourcefulness, he’s inherited none of their physical abilities. His younger sister appears to have gotten all of that.

Hale is completely focused on figuring out how to pass the physical tests to become a junior field agent of the Sub-Rosa Society (SRS). That is, until the day his parents don’t come home for dinner.

Hale’s parents ALWAYS come home for dinner. Even when they’ve been sent on one of those super-tough top-secret field missions. Clearly, they’re in deep trouble.

But no one in the SRS seems to care. Whatever trouble his parents have gotten themselves into this time, it looks like it will be up to Hale to get them out of it.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a marvelous blend of humor and intrigue, fast-paced action, surprising plot twists, and a modest, yet resourceful hero whose kindness and quick-thinking save the day. Even better, the ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel.

This book is an excellent addition to any middle grade reader’s library.

Disclosure: I received a free kindle copy of The Doublecross via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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Book Review: Valiant by Sarah McGuire

By Sarah McGuire
Egmont Publishing, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)

I first heard of Valiant back in February when Cuddlebuggery hosted a blog hop to celebrate (and mourn) Egmont Publishing’s last list. Although I was ultimately assigned to review Anne Bustard’s Anything but Paradise as part of that blog hop, I was so intrigued by Valiant’s premise that I requested an advance copy of it from NetGalley anyway.

Aimed at Middle Grade readers, Valiant reworks the story of the Brave Little Tailor from the perspective of a teenage daughter who despises sewing, but is forced to take over her father’s business to keep from starving after her father suffers a debilitating stroke. Women are not allowed to act as tailors, so Saville cuts her hair, and becomes Avi, Tailor to the King. Continue reading

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Breakfast with Jane Austen

In case you like me, feel the need to bake something that starts with about a pound of butter this weekend, here’s a recipe for Jane Austen’s pound cake from The Guardian.

Equal parts (by weight) butter, sugar, flour, and eggs, this pound cake is dense and moist. And, at least for me, gains a great deal of flavor from the knowledge that this is what Jane herself would eat in the mornings, along with a cup of tea, of course.


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Writing Tips from Muriel Spark

KensingtonSparkA Far Cry From Kensington
By Muriel Spark
Original Publication: Constable & Company, 1988
Reprint: Virago Modern Classics, 2013

For much of the year, I have been eagerly awaiting last April’s planned trip to London. We were going to stay at a fabulous hotel in Kensington. Daddyo, The Eight-Year-Old, and I spent weeks making detailed plans for how we were going to spend every minute of every single day.

Sadly, due to circumstances beyond our control, we had to cancel the trip. By the time what The Eight-Year-Old refers to as the Great Nurses Rebellion of 2015 got sorted out, it was too late.

I found this book while browsing through my local Powell’s on a lazy afternoon during the week when we should have been in London. At the time, The Eight-Year-Old was knee-deep in a debate with her soccer coach about the relative merits of toe-kicks and side-kicks. I could tell that was going to take a while, so I picked up Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. What can I say? The title spoke to me.

The book tells the story of Mrs. Hawkins, a publishing professional who makes the mistake of telling the aspiring author boyfriend of an already established publishing rock-star that he is a “pisseur de copie” who “urinates frightful prose.”

The fallout from that diplomatic failure and Mrs. Hawkins’ subsequent refusal to retract it costs her two jobs in publishing. It also has dire repercussions for one of her boarding house mates, who gets caught up in a swirl of anonymous letters, quack remedies, and inevitably, blackmail threats.

The book itself is a lovely mix of the absurd and mysterious. It’s also a surprisingly rich source of advice on the craft of writing.

The first dollop of crafty deliciousness comes shortly after Mrs. Hawkins throws the pisseur de copie out of her office on page 84.

“Now, it fell to me to give advice to many authors which in at least two cases bore fruit. So I will repeat it here, free of charge. It proved helpful to the type of writer who has some imagination and wants to write a novel but doesn’t know how to start.

‘You are writing a letter to a friend,’ was the sort of thing I used to say. ‘And this is a dear and close friend, real – or better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you. Now, you are not writing about the relationship between your friend and yourself; you take that for granted. You are only confiding an experience that you think only he will enjoy reading. What you have to say will come out more spontaneously and honestly than if you are thinking of numerous readers. Before starting the letter, rehearse in your mind what you are going to tell; something interesting, your story. But don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along, especially if you write to a special friend, man or woman, to make them smile or laugh or cry, or anything you like so long as you know it will interest. Remember not to think of the reading public, it will put you off.'”

The other piece of advice addresses the question of how writers can achieve the necessary concentration.

“‘For concentration,’ I said, ‘you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?’

‘Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.’

So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

Canelo and I are pleased to report that this latter piece of advice works great. That is, until the cat does something like this.


(Photo: Shala Howell)


That never ends well.

(Photo: Shala Howell)

(Photo: Shala Howell)

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a random act of poetry, courtesy of e.e. cummings

(Photo: Michael Howell)

(Photo: Michael Howell)

Lately, my eight-year-old daughter and I have been playing a game on our walks to school. How many different sorts of flowers are blooming right now? Today, we counted 22. Over the weekend, it was only 19. Who knows, maybe tomorrow we’ll see as many as 25. It’s that time of year. Finally.

The principal of my daughter’s school closed a recent email with this poem by e.e. cummings. It seems wildly appropriate, so I thought I’d share it with you. Continue reading

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3 dialogue tips I picked up from reading Hottentot Venus

Hottentot Venus: A NovelHottentot Venus: A Novel 
By Barbara Chase-Riboud
Anchor, 2004

I picked this book up a very long time ago at a bookstore that is now defunct. Chase-Riboud’s novel tells the story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in London and Paris in the early 1800s. I knew going in that this book was not going to be a fun read, and my expectations were fulfilled.

Sarah’s story is every bit as painful, horrifying, and gut wrenching as I feared it would be. But it also comes with a surprisingly hefty side dish of dull. I found myself skipping entire passages not because they were too gruesome to read, but because they were simply boring.

Other reviewers have commented that it was difficult to follow the dialogue in this book. In fact, as I reflect on my experience reading the book, much of the trouble I had with this book can be traced to the dialogue. It was the weakest aspect of the narrative.

I’m not judging: dialogue is hard for me too. Which is probably why I paid so much attention to it while reading this book.

Here’s what I learned. Continue reading

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6 setting tricks I learned from reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife

MrEmersonWifeMr. Emerson’s Wife
By Amy Belding Brown
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005

Recently, I picked up my copy of Mr. Emerson’s Wife, hoping for a relaxing companion on a lazy, snowy Sunday afternoon. Instead I found a master’s course in using setting to shape your story.

Briefly, Mr. Emerson’s Wife tells the story of Lydia Jackson, who catches the eye of Ralph Waldo Emerson when she attends one of his lectures in her hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The two engage in a lively conversation. Three weeks later, Emerson surprises Lydia by proposing marriage.  The majority of the book focuses on the consequences of Lydia’s choice to marry Emerson. For example, Emerson changes her name almost immediately after she accepts his proposal to Lidian, on the grounds that Lydia was not suitable.

That conversation aptly captures the power imbalance between the couple. Emerson views his wife proprietarily — as a woman possessed of an unusual mind to be sure, but in the end, still an imperfect human being whom it is his duty to perfect. She views him almost as a god — at least at first. Continue reading

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

This picture has not been photoshopped. (Photo: Shala Howell)

This picture has not been photoshopped. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Every year, Chicago dyes its river green in conjunction with its St. Patrick’s Day parade. The tradition dates back to 1962, when Mayor Richard J. Daley and his childhood buddy Stephen M. Bailey decided it would be a bit of a lark to dye the river green to mark the holiday.

This year, they dyed the river on Saturday, so of course, the Seven-Year-Old, her Daddyo, her Uncle Cullen, and I trekked to downtown to check it out.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Book Review: Anywhere but Paradise by Anne Bustard

last-list_blog-hop-300x300As I mentioned a week or two ago, in January, EgmontUSA announced that they were going out of business, and that this spring’s list would be their last. I signed up to participate in Cuddlebuggery’s Last List Blog Hop in hopes of offering at least one of the affected writers a little bit of free publicity. 

This review is part of that blog hop. Continue reading

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