Friday, August 16, 2013

{Review} Roald Dahl doubleheader! Revolting Rhymes & George's Marvelous Medicine

Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
Published by Bantam Skylark (first published 1982)
Softcover, 54 pages
ISBN 0553153617
Genres: children's fiction, classics, fairy tales, fantasy, humor, magic, poetry, YA

3/5 stars: The little guy and I read this together in just a couple of sittings, the poetry being a nice change of pace from the prose we've been reading. Gabriel loved all of the big, full-color pictures, once again by the irresistible Quentin Blake. I had to do a little editing of... unpleasant words. Not as much as in The Twits, though there were a couple instances of the word "hag" and once of "slut". I certainly wasn't expecting the latter and am mildly irritated to have encountered it in a children's book, even one by Roald Dahl. All in all, though, nothing to get too worked up about. The stories themselves are amusing versions of the classic fairy tales Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood. They have highly original twists (just wait til you meet Little Red) and were a fun and extra-bloodthirsty departure from the traditional stories. While the poems are entertaining and Gabriel and I enjoyed them, we both still prefer Dahl's entirely original books. There is a flair about the latter that any traditional tale is not going to be able to touch no matter how flamboyant the version. Revolting Rhymes is only fifty-some pages, so if you're a hardcore fan of Dahl or any of these tales, take an hour and read it! If you're not, skip it and go read The Witches instead.

Published by Puffin
Softcover, 96 pages
ISBN 0140346414
Genres: children's fiction, classics, fantasy, humor, magic, YA

4/5 stars: George Kranky is a young boy who lives on a nice but boring farm with his nice but boring parents. It seems nothing exciting ever happens and to make matters worse, his grandmother, who lives with them, is insufferable. Whenever George's parents are gone it's up to him to take care of her, and on this particular lonely Saturday morning, he has had enough. After being bossed around, instructed on how to grow down instead of up (as those who grow up become increasingly stupid) and on the merits of eating lots of slimy insects ("Caterpillars give you brains"), George begins to formulate a plan to get back at his grandmother. He will mix up the weirdest, most magical medicine he can muster and give it to her in place of her real medicine. The results are quite unexpected, though definitely magical, and have the added bonus of the Krankys quite possibly being rid of the old grouch forever (at least George hopes so after his parents swiftly help him resolve any ethical issues he has). This was so much fun to read and with all of the medicine mixing and stirring, there were lots of opportunities for miming the actions and keeping a small kid highly entertained. Gabriel is still talking about this story and really likes George, who is indeed a very sweet and imaginative character. As always, this book is complemented with the talents of Quentin Blake, though there are even more illustrations than usual. This made Gabriel extra happy because George is featured on almost every page. George's Marvelous Medicine is perfect for reading out loud because while the narration is already wonderful throughout, there are extra bits of humor tossed in specifically for the adult reader that make it hilarious. I'm sure Gabriel would agree that if you enjoy Roald Dahl, this is not a book to miss.

Mary Beth

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

{Review} The League of Frightened Men (Nero Wolfe #2) by Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men (Nero Wolfe #2) by Rex Stout
Published by Crimeline (first published 1935)
Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN 0553259334
Genres: adult fiction, classics, detective fiction, mystery

4/5 stars: This is the second installment in the Nero Wolfe series and equals the first, Fer-de-Lance, in wit and charm. The plot is perhaps not as fast-paced and the ending feels a tad anti-climactic, but it is certainly original, clever and worth reading. Once again Rex Stout proves his skill in managing large numbers of characters as this story involves a group of thirty men convinced two of their number have been murdered, the rest are in mortal danger, and that they know who the man responsible is. Wolfe and Archie must investigate the two suspicious months-old deaths, keep tabs on their suspect, and attempt to minimize the inevitable hysteria. These seem like simple tasks compared with making sure no one else is mysteriously bumped off, and Archie, along with Fred, Orrie and Saul, part-time legmen of Wolfe's, are led on a wild goose chase when another of the men disappears. I am pleased to say the reader becomes much more acquainted with Archie in this volume, and perhaps the part I enjoyed the most is when he, proud as always of his independent and ultra-masculine attitude, unashamedly exposes some of his vulnerabilities. To see such an unusual and unexpected side of a character is always fascinating, but in this case it is truly heartwarming (read: I wanted to give Archie a giant hug). Wolfe's response is admirable and indicates a familial and touching relationship between them that is not often actively demonstrated. While the mystery itself is unique and interesting, the exploration into Archie and Wolfe's characters alone makes reading The League of Frightened Men worthwhile.

Mary Beth

Sunday, August 11, 2013

{Review} The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl
Published by Scholastic, Inc. (first published 1983)
Softcover, 208 pages
ISBN 0590032496
Genres: children's fiction, classics, fantasy, humor, magic, YA

5/5 stars: As I've mentioned before, the wee one and I have started reading chapter books together before sleepytimes. I always give him the choice between 2 or 3 books and this is the very first one he chose. He has a long-standing fascination with witches, magic and all things deliciously "spooky". This was perfect. A little creepy, a little subversive, always wickedly good fun.

"A REAL WITCH gets the same pleasure from squelching a child as you get from eating a plateful of strawberries and thick cream.
"She reckons on doing away with one child a week. Anything less than that and she becomes grumpy.
"One child a week is fifty-two a year.
"Squish them and squiggle them and make them disappear.
"That is the motto of all witches."

After which comes a description of a typical child-entrapment with a helpful illustration by Quentin Blake. The characters are so much fun, my favorites, of course, being the little boy who narrates and his Grandmamma. They are spunky and charming and very memorable. While I don't want to give anything away, The Witches has perhaps the absolute sweetest ending I have ever encountered, and it made me just a little teary. I'm pretty sure Gabriel's favorite characters would be the witches themselves, and believe me, they were something. As it turns out, a witch has claws instead of fingernails, forcing her to always wear gloves. She is bald, meaning she must always wear a scritchy-scratchy wig (and oh! the things it does to her scalp!). She has extra-large nostrils with which to smell out children. The center of her eyes will change color and dance with fire and ice. She has no toes and has to force her squared feet into feminine pointy shoes. Her spit is "blue as a bilberry", Grandmamma explains. And The Grand High Witch? She can do powerful dark magic, frizzle witches whom she is annoyed with, transform her face with a flesh-like mask, and come up with a "giganticus plan for getting rrrid of every single child in the whole of Inkland!" Gabriel was in heaven the whole time we read this book, cuddling up even closer when the story got particularly spooky. We have been reading some fantastic children's literature, but none of it has quite measured up to The Witches. Both I and the wee one very highly recommend it!

Mary Beth

Friday, August 9, 2013

Happy National Book Lovers' Day!

Happy National Book Lovers' Day, everyone!

First up, random bookish things I've found that I think are the cat's pajamas:

Princess Bride poster, 8x10 Art Print
by Happy Landings

Reading Astronauts Silkscreen Print
by Aquaboy

Vintage 1950s Cateye Reading Glasses
by seven devils

Art Deco Nude Bookend
by some space for me

Vintage 5' tall Revolving Bookcase
by plain and elegant antiques

Next up, just a few of my favorite books we own!

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? by Dr. Seuss

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Magyk (Septimus Heap #1) by Angie Sage

A few books from my wishlist:

Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles #1) by Anne Rice

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #1)
by Maryrose Wood
Reading goals.
1. To read at least 50 books this year. I should be able to surpass this pretty easily but with as busy as this year has been, I'm playing it safe!
2. I want to read every book we own before moving onto library books or buying more books from our local awesome (and oh-so-tempting) used bookstores. There will probably be a few exceptions to the latter part of this due to rounding out series and our collection of certain authors' books (like Roald Dahl), but I plan to strictly stick to this plan for the most part.

I'm trying to keep things simple so that pretty much sums up my goals. I typically sabotage myself and my efforts when I get too detailed and fancy so simple is best. What are some awesome bookish things you've found recently? What are favorite books on your shelves and what is on your wishlist? I'd also love to hear about your reading goals! Thank you for dropping in and your thoughts are always welcome! :)

Mary Beth

Thursday, August 8, 2013

{Review} Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe #1) by Rex Stout

Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe #1) by Rex Stout
Published by Bantam, first published 1934
Paperback, 199 pages
ISBN 0553249185
Genres: adult fiction, classics, detective fiction, mystery

5/5 stars: I was introduced to Nero Wolfe when A&E premiered its fantastic 2000-2002 television series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin. It is fun, quirky, has great period costumes, makeup and sets, and (most importantly) employs intelligence and witty humor. It was only a few years later when I read my first Nero Wolfe mystery that I realized how perfectly the cast and scriptwriters have captured the spirit of the books. And what's more awesome? As great as the show is (if you haven't seen it, it's worth finding!) the books are even better. Fer-de-Lance, the first in a series of 47, does not feel like a debut in the least. The characters are fully realized and the plot is interesting, clever, and wrapped up with an original and unpredictable resolution. If mystery series are a regular part of your reading routine, you'll know this is pretty unusual. The first in a series has the responsibility of setting the scenes, establishing typical character behavior, habits and manners of thinking, as well as methodology in the solving of the crimes. Rex Stout does this seemingly effortlessly and while avoiding overloading the reader with information. Fer-de-Lance has an interesting array of characters, quite a few, in fact. With Rex Stout's great narration and descriptions, however, it's not difficult to keep everyone's identities sorted out and each one plays an essential role. Nero Wolfe and legman Archie Goodwin immediately take center stage and never leave it, their bantering, detecting and Wolfe's occasional philosophizing entertaining the reader from start to finish. They possess huge personalities, Wolfe so much larger than life that the reader finds it impossible not to be fascinated and more than a little jealous of his pertinacity and brimming repertoire of experiences and knowledge. Archie is full of life and energy and makes the perfect narrator, being the practical one, perhaps, whose often cynical approach to life balances Wolfe's unfailing confidence (which often awakens the urge in Archie to knock something heavy over Wolfe's very large head). In short, they complement each other perfectly, and each is indispensable. While it is perfectly believable that at one time they conducted their lives independently, as far as the reader is concerned there is no Wolfe without Archie and vice versa. It feels heretical to admit this, but honestly, I enjoy reading Rex Stout's mysteries even more than Agatha Christie's, and I've been a huge fan of hers since junior high. I adore Monsieur Poirot and Captain Hastings, Miss Marple and her various companions, but they really can't compare with the absolute uniqueness and perfection of Wolfe and Archie. If you are at all interested in reading a great detective novel, I highly recommend Fer-de-Lance or any other Nero Wolfe mystery, for that matter. While I haven't read the whole series (my goal!), I have read quite a few and have never been disappointed.

Mary Beth

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

{Review} The Color Purple by Alice Walker

"I think it pisses God off if you walk by
the color purple in a field somewhere
and don't notice it."
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Published by Pocket, first published 1982
Paperback, 295 pages
ISBN 0671727796
Genres: adult fiction, African-American literature, classics, feminism, historical fiction, literary fiction

5/5 stars: I read The Color Purple a few years ago and was stunned. I had never read a book quite like this one. It is brutal to the senses and brutally honest. The characters are so very human. There is both a universality regarding the human experience and human development, and yet a very specific message regarding the experiences of African-Americans and Africans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Recently I decided to clean out my tbr shelf and read my own book collection in its entirety before moving on to outside sources. The Color Purple was in the top left corner of my living room bookcase and seemed a logical place to start. I thought I remembered a lot but to be honest, it was like reading it for the first time. There is no preparing yourself for Celie's narration. You just start reading, frequently reread portions, and keep going. One of the most amazing aspects of Alice Walker's writing, and I have noticed this in The Color Purple, By The Light Of My Father's Smile, and Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, is that it's apparent nothing in her books is intended for superficial shock effect. Honestly, I don't know how she does it. Perhaps it is because of the strong introspection that takes place throughout all of her narration, I'm not sure. But however this is achieved, the characters develop organically and, most importantly, honestly allowing the dark aspects of their lives and souls to be revealed to the reader without confusion as to intent. Additionally, if the reader feels horror at Celie's memories and experiences (and one often does), it is a mere echo of what Celie herself thinks and feels. From the start she takes on the aspect of a historical figure, not a fictional character. It is very apparent that even though Celie specifically is not "real", she, as well as Sophia, Shug, and Netty to name a few, directly represent entire generations who did live in similar circumstances. This realization makes the story even more poignant and worth reading and rereading. The Color Purple is most recognized for discussing race relations and equal civil rights and treatment, and rightfully so. Sophia's experiences perhaps illustrate this the most clearly. It also has very strong feminist, spiritualist, and imperialist themes as well as an emphasis on social reform, which create a richer narrative in less than 300 pages than most authors can squeeze into 600. This is one of the most fantastic, thought-provoking and ethically-significant books I have ever read, and if you haven't read The Color Purple at all or it's been a while, I strongly recommend sending it to the top of your to-read list.

Mary Beth

Monday, August 5, 2013

{Review} Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Published by HarperCollins, 2002
Softcover, 162 pages
ISBN 0439576881
Genres: adventure, children's fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, science fiction, YA

2/5: The movie Coraline has been a favorite of ours ever since it was in theaters. The Mr took me, pregnant at the time with Gabriel, to see it on Valentine's Day and it was great fun. Now the wee one loves it as well for its "spookiness", as he says, and awesomely quirky characters. It has just the right proportions of action, drama, dialogue and story progression, and the animation! Absolutely stunning and so very interesting you can't tear your eyes away. Needless to say, Gabriel and I were very excited to pick up a copy of Coraline at our favorite used bookstore and start reading it as soon as we finished Dahl's The Witches. We would have been disappointed anyway, but right on the heels of a hilarious and imaginative Roald Dahl book? With Quentin Blake illustrations?? I'm not sure it's possible to have moved on to a more anticlimactic selection than Gaiman's Coraline. It plods along, as flat and colorless as the Other Mother's misty landscape, with an awkward storyline in which developments feel haphazard, superficially planned, and make little sense. The characters promise a lot but, once again, lack any real uniqueness with which to interest the reader, much less charm or entertain. Coraline is well written, and therefore mechanically a very good piece. However, that cannot whatsoever make up for the tepid nature of the content. Gabriel and I were very glad to finish this book and return to the marvelous Dahl and Blake. While it wasn't a terrible reading experience, I can't recommend Coraline very highly. This is, in fact, a rare time I would suggest simply enjoying the movie.

Mary Beth

Sunday, August 4, 2013

{Update} A New Baby! & {Review} Roald Dahl's The Twits

Welcome back! So much has happened this year and it is unbelievable August is here yet again. First of all, after our losses and much grief I am currently 29 weeks pregnant! Baby Iris is due in October and we couldn't be happier. Gabriel, who has recently turned four (I'm still feeling flabbergasted by this), is thrilled at the prospect of a baby sister and can't wait for her arrival.

My wee devil and I have always read picture books together, though recently we have begun to enjoy chapter books before sleepy-times as well. The other day we finished Roald Dahl's The Twits and here is what we thought...

The Twits by Roald Dahl
Published by Puffin Books, 1980
Softcover, 76 pages
ISBN 0141318309
Genres: animals, children's fiction, classics, fantasy, humor, YA

4/5 stars: Wickedly funny. The kiddo, who just turned 4, and I read this together and, as always, Dahl's quirky and utterly original narration combined with Quentin Blake's whimsical illustrations were a hit. Between Mrs. Twit's balloon-fueled flight into the sky, the talking monkey Muggle-Wump and his family, and their delicious revenge on the Twits, culminating in lots of upside-downness and THE DREADED SHRINKS, we're going to be hearing about this book for a long, long time. I did do a little light editing throughout the book as Mr. Dahl has a certain affection for the word "hag", which I don't want my child adding to his vocabulary at any point, and a few other phrases that a 4 year old might find a little too tempting to use in a not-so-joking manner. This wasn't a big issue, though, and certainly didn't affect how awesomely fun The Twits was to read aloud. Highly recommended by both myself and my wee devil!

Roald Dahl has become a fast favorite of my son's and I expect to enjoy many more rather wicked stories with him (and Iris!) in future. I am looking forward to this so very much. I thank you heartily for dropping in and hope the rest of your weekend is fabulous!

Mary Beth