July 2015 Book Reviews

It seems I am finally getting some reading done this month, although the majority of it is picture books as I’ve been reading up a storm to my son, averaging about 20 books checked out at a time. In actuality, I’m rather behind on reviews (as per usual) and have included some I read a couple months ago, but forgot to review. I’m re-reading The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin for book club this month (here is my original review for it, under the adult section). I’ve been devouring Outlander books and will probably start reading #6: A Breath of Snow and Ashes soonI also started reading Diana Gabaldon’s spin-off series about Lord John Grey as I was always pretty curious about him in the original series. I’m now listening to Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, which is book #2 in the series, again narrated by the fabulous Jeff Woodman. She has written a bunch of novellas, and I’ve read 0.5, 1, and 1.5 in the series as well (reviews to follow next month).  Plus there’s always the possibility of getting to know a bit more about Jamie Fraser, with him being Lord John Grey’s obsession. I’ve been getting a little burned out on ARCs of late, but have just started a new one, Lamp Black, Wolf Grey by Paula Brackston, which I am enjoying.

On to the book reviews. I rate books from 1-5 stars, 1 being the lowest. I will include illustrations from the children’s books I enjoyed.


Quack and Count written and illustrated by Keith Baker

I picked up this cute counting book as part of a Toddler Duck Storytime. It is unique in that instead of just counting 1-7, it actually does a little simple addition as we follow the seven little ducks playing and finally flying off together. Recommended for ages 2-5, 4 stars.

Little Monkey Says Good Night written by Ann Whitford Paul, illustrated by David Walker

Little Monkey Says Good Night

I picked this story for my Toddler Storytime on Circuses. My son loved this book, which is all about a little monkey who won’t go to bed until he’s said goodnight to the whole circus. This includes the ringmaster, the strong man, the elephant , a horse, the clowns and a lion. Then he says goodnight to his momma and agrees to go to bed after saying goodnight to himself. Recommended for ages 2-5, 3 stars.

1-2-3 Va-Va-Vroom!: A Counting Book written by Sarah Lynn, illustrated by Daniel Griffe

Ok I really read this book awhile back, as I bought it for my son at one his daycare’s book sales. He dug it out today while we were sorting out library books to bring back to the library and we sat down and read it. If there was a slightly larger book, it would be great for storytime. The counting is from the laps around the race track and the race is between three friends in rhyming text. I’m glad the little girl won, though all three of them share in the celebration. Va-va-vroom is the refrain and one my son and I like to say together. Recommended for ages 2-5, 4 stars.

Duck Dunks written and illustrated by Lynne Berry

Another book I used for my Toddler Duck Storytime, this was a fun little book, though a bit long for the toddlers. In rhyming text, it tells the story of a family of small ducks who go to the beach and play and swim and have a great time. Recommended for ages 2-6, 3 stars.

Dinosoaring written by Deb Lund, illustrated by Howard Fine

My son is obsessed with this rhyming book about flying dinosaurs. We’ve read it pretty much every other day for two weeks now. The book, another in the series of dinosaur adventures, is about nine dinosaurs who all manage to squeeze into what I think is a C-130 Hercules (the biggest transport plane there is). They can’t seem to get it off the ground, but after a few tries, manage to do so. They are in the air when they see that an Air Show is going on, so they start doing tricks like hanging from a trapeeze and dancing on the wings. Everything is great until the plane goes into a spin and the dinosaurs must parachute to safety. They vow never to be so reckless again, and try out tame things like sports, reading and cooking. That is until they find something new to do. Recommended for ages 2-6, 4 stars.

An Octopus Followed Me Home written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

A book I plan on using for a Pet Toddler Storytime and an Octopus DiscoveryTime for Preschoolers, this is a cute take on pets. A young girl brings an octopus home and wants it to become her pet, but her father says no. She has already brought home a literal zoo full of animals and her father can’t take anymore pets. So she must say goodbye to her octopus, and they are both sad. It is fun to do the dad’s voice, which kind of sounds and looks like a 1950s dad with pipe and slippers. Recommended for ages 2-6, 4 stars.

Goodnight Already! written by Jory John and illustrated by Benji Davies

Goodnight Already

Immediately when I first discovered this book at the library, I thought it sounded like my husband and I when my son refuses to go to sleep, so naturally I had to bring it home. Bear just wants to go to sleep, but his neighbor Duck is wide awake and wants to talk with him. Bear keeps trying to sleep and Duck keeps popping up, scaring him and keeping him awake until he finally goes back to his house and falls asleep. Bear on the other hand, is now wide awake. I absolutely love the illustrations as well. Recommended for ages 3-7, 4 stars.

Olivia Goes to Venice written and illustrated by Ian Falconer

I didn’t think I would like this book because it is set in Venice and I have a sort of aversion to that place, but it was cute. Olivia and her family go on a vacation to Venice, and spend the whole time eating a lot of gelato, trying to hide from the billions of pigeons in St Marks Square and trying to stay afloat in gondolas. Recommended for ages 3-7, 3 stars.

Olivia and the Missing Toy written and illustrated by Ian Falconer

Olivia and the Missing Toy

This was my son’s favorite Olivia book so far, and I think it’s because it was a little creepy and he could sympathize with Olivia’s predicament. Olivia has to get ready for soccer practice, but hates her green uniform. She wants a red one and asks her mom to create one for her. She does and Olivia has to wait for it to be finished. After waiting forever, she realizes that her favorite toy is missing. She goes shouting to her brothers asking after it and looks under everything but can’t find it. Then one dark and stormy night, she hears a strange noise and realizes that her dog Perry has chewed it all up. She is of course devastated, but decides to fix it even though her daddy promises to buy her a new one (much to her mother’s consternation). She decides she doesn’t want a story about dogs that night, but she can’t stay mad at Perry forever, and he ends up sleeping in her bed that night. Recommended for ages 3-7, 3 stars.

Olivia Forms a Band written and illustrated by Ian Falconer

Olivia and her family are going to go to a fireworks show, and Olivia decides that there should be a band there. She tries to get her family involved, but no one is interested, and so she creates a one-pig band to accompany the fireworks. The funniest part about this book is how she gets the instruments and all the sound effects for the instruments themselves. Recommended for ages 3-7, 3 stars.

Olivia Becomes a Vet written by Alex Harvey, illustrations by Jared Osterhold

An easy-reader spinoff of the Olivia TV show, in this volume Olivia goes with her friend Julian to the Veterinarian’s office to see what is wrong with his pet lizard. After the visit, she decides that it would be cool to be a Vet and tries to practice on her own dog. Recommended for ages 3-6, 3 stars.

Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku written by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Won Ton and Chopstick

Won Ton is the only pet in the house until one day his adversary arrives in the form of a puppy, which the kids call Chopstick. They do not get along and the puppy just annoys him as Won Ton keeps getting blamed for the puppy’s mistakes and his boy does not want to spend as much time with him. After awhile though, they warm up to each other and Won Ton realizes that Chopstick isn’t that bad, Then Chopstick reveals his true name. My son loved this one as much as the first, probably more because it had a dog in it, which he can identify with because we have one at home. I just love that he will sit through a poetry book with me, plus its a cute story. Recommended for ages 3-7, 4 stars.

The Paddington Treasury for the Very Young written by Michael Bond, illustrated by R.W. Alley


After watching the Paddington movie that came out this year, and because my son and I loved it so much, I decided it would be good if I could find a Paddington collection of books to read. This one was perfect for my son as the illustrations were huge and not very much text for him to get bored with. The series is so stereotypically British but with a fun kid twist. Paddington is a Peruvian bear whose elderly aunt can no longer take care of him and ships him to England to be cared for. He arrives at Paddington station, which is how he gets his name, and is adopted by the Brown family. He has an affinity for marmalade, and can usually be seen with his nose in a jar of the stuff. He is always getting into trouble for simply misunderstanding the situation. The book features 6 classic picture books: Paddington, Paddington at the Palace, Paddington at the Zoo, Paddington in the Garden, Paddington and the Marmalade Maze, and Paddington the Artist. My favorites were the original story of Paddington, Paddington at the Palace and Paddington the Artist. The illustrations were fabulous, this artist being one of two who have illustrated the series. Highly recommended for ages 3-7, 5 stars.

Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree written and illustrated by Naoko Stoop

Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree

Red Knit Cap Girl and her friend White Bunny are reading in the forest when their friend Squirrel says she has something to show them. She shows them a hollow tree and Red Knit Cap Girl decides this would be the perfect place for a reading nook. She and her animal friends gather together some books to add to the nook, her friend Beaver adds a bookshelf and soon they are all sharing books together. Soon it is a great place for everyone to gather and read! Owl makes a sign for it, and it becomes a library. Great book for sharing at a Books and Reading storytime! Once again, there is an adorable story and even better illustrations done on wood by the fabulous Ms. Stoop! Recommended for ages 3-7, 5 stars.

Edmund Unravels written and illustrated by Andrew Kolb

Edmund Unravels

Oh my goodness! This book is so freaking cute. It’s about a ball of yarn named Edmund who starts off small and has to constantly be wound back up into himself by his parents. But he yearns to explore the world outside, and eventually grows old enough to do so. He visits all sorts of places and does all sorts of things that his parents would be surprised about, but eventually finds himself missing home. Soon thereafter, he is pulled back up “three very familiar steps” and back into the embraces of his family who put him back together again (figuratively and literally). It is such a great book about family and needing to unravel and recharge every now and then. Plus the most adorable illustrations ever! Highly recommended for ages 3-7, 5 stars.

Big Words for Little People written by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell

I figured this would be a cute book that would teach kids important words and it did in a way, but not as effectively as I thought it would. I did like the upbeat attitude of the book though, but my son just didn’t connect to it. It teaches kids about words like cooperate, respect, patience, and being considerate. Recommended for ages 4-7, 2 stars.


Young Adult

The Stranger by Albert Camus

About a Girl (Metamorphoses #3) by Sarah McCarry

Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson



To Have and Have Not and Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Drums of Autumn (Outlander #4) by Diana Gabaldon

After landing in Georgia at the end of Voyager, Jamie, Claire, their nephew Ian and the crew make their way to North Carolina to Jamie’s uncle’s house, after witnessing one of the Ardsmuir prisoners being hanged in Charleston. They rescue an escaped prisoner named Stephen Bonnet. Jamie and Claire end up dining with the Governor of North Carolina, William Tryon and he offers them land in exchange for services later. Bonnet and a group of pirates later robs Jamie and Claire on the boat ride down the river to Jamie’s uncle’s plantation River Run, taking Claire’s gold ring (the one from Frank) and the gemstones they liberated from Geillis Duncan in Voyager. They make it to River Run, only to find out that Jamie’s uncle has died and his blind wife Jocasta is running things. They stay there for awhile until Jocasta tries to make Jamie the heir to the plantation, which precipitates them leaving to find the land promised by Governor Tryon. They find a likely spot up in the mountains and begin creating a home there with the help of local Indians. Jamie asks one of his former crewman Duncan Innes to go find as many of the former Ardsmuir prisoners and their family who had re-located to the colonies and invite them to the newly established “Fraser’s Ridge” community. Fergus, Marsali and their family settle there as well.

In the modern world of 1969, Brianna has discovered information on Jamie and Claire’s death in 1776 and time-travels back to Scotland in 1769 to try to save them. She of course doesn’t tell Roger this and he finds out after the fact and immediately tries to find her in the past. He ends up taking a boat piloted by Captain Stephen Bonnet, and inadvertantly meets and saves his ancestors, the wife and child of William Buccleigh MacKenzie (illegitimate child of Douglal MacKenzie and Geillis Duncan). Brianna and Roger eventually make their way to North Carolina, and meet up to consummate their relationship and have a hand-fasting ceremony, which temporarily marries them to each other. Then they have a huge row and get separated. She discovers the man who has her mother’s ring and goes on a quest to find it, getting herself raped in the process. She finally manages to find Jaimie, who brings her home to Claire and they spend some time bonding and getting to know each other. Roger eventually makes his way to Fraser’s Ridge, where Jamie tries to beat him up for knocking up his daughter and sells him to the Indians. Once Brianna finds this out, she is very pissed at her dad, who says he will go rescue him, but they lose Ian to the Mohawks in the process. Eventually Roger comes back and promises to raise Brianna’s son as his own, no matter who the father is. 3-1/2 stars.

Frankly I thought the beginning part of this book was a little tedious, though being attacked by a guy you helped save was an interesting touch. For some reason, when I was reading the part about Roger taking the boat led by by Stephen Bonnet I totally missed the connection until much later after the rape. Lord John had an interesting role in this book, and one that led me to try out his spin-off series of books. I was so glad that Brianna and Jaimie finally got to meet, as it was so sad that Jaimie has all these kids he can never see. Although, I will say that I found Brianna to be pretty annoying in this book as she’s so flighty, makes stupid mistakes that she should know better about as a “modern” woman, and is kind of a dick to Roger (who bless his heart has been so bloody patient about everything). Roger I felt bad for, especially in regards to getting beaten up by Jamie and then held prisoner by the Mohawks. I will be interested to know more about him in the next book.

The Fiery Cross (Outlander #5) by Diana Gabaldon

The book starts where Drums of Autumn left off, at the Gathering at Mount Helicon in the fall, with Brianna Fraser preparing to officially wed Roger MacKenzie and Jocasta Cameron (Jamie’s aunt) about to marry his friend Duncan Innes. Only Brianna and Roger’s wedding ends up happening due to some political reason to do with Jocasta Cameron, and Jamie also makes sure to have Brianna’s son Jeremiah baptized. Everyone returns to Fraser’s Ridge and Jamie goes home with a letter from William Tryon that he must set up a militia to combat the Regulators, a group of men not obeying King George of England’s laws (think of them as the precursors to the American Revolution). Luckily they end up not having to fight anyone and head back home rather quickly. In the spring of the following year, Jamie, Claire and the family head to River Run to finally celebrate the wedding of Jocasta and Duncan, though that almost doesn’t happens as well as someone tries to sabotage it. Jocasta reveals the truth about what she knows about “the Frenchman’s gold”, the money King Louis XV sent to Charles Stuart that never arrived to save the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, which both Jamie and Claire had been part of. A few months after the wedding, the militia is summoned again by Governor Tryon and this time a battle does occur between the King’s forces and militia and the Regulators at Alamance. Jamie and Roger have been tracking Stephen Bonnet so they can entrap him, and they almost get him at the end of this book. Jamie is almost killed by a boar (seriously Gabaldon?!?) and Ian returns in time to save him. 4 stars.

Roger sure got the rough end of the stick in this book. We learn more about him and his parents, but he is almost killed at the Battle of Alamance, and I was a bit mad when I thought he might never sing or talk again. It seems all MacKenzies, with the exception of Morag and Roger, are conniving backstabbers. Brianna is less annoying in this book, just a regular mother complaining about her child and not getting to spend enough time with her husband (the plight of all young mothers really). Ian finally came back, yay!! And he brought back with him the journal of Robert Springer, known as Otter Tooth in the 18th century, who was a Native American time-traveler (who we first heard about in Drums of Autumn).  The whole thing with Jamie, Claire and the poisonous snake was seriously bad-ass! I can’t believe the nerve of Phillip Wylie, when he tries to put moves on Claire and Jamie actually though she encouraged him. The demise of Stephen Bonnet is deliberately hazy, so guess we’ll have to figure out if he actually did die in the next book. Definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series after I finish a few others first.

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cummings

I have always liked Alan Cummings as an actor, and I had heard that this book was coming out and was good, so I decided to give it a go. Not even counting that the cover has a ringing endorsement from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. It was a bit hard to read as Cummings’ father was very abusive to his sons and wife, and basically treated them like crap while he went around with many women during the course of his marriage to Alan’s mother. The narrative switched back and forth between the present (2010) and Alan’s childhood. Naturally because of the abuse, Alan and his father did not have a very good relationship. So after not speaking to each other for sixteen years, his father drops the bombshell that he may not be his father and that his mother had an affair, which set the stage for his father’s indiscretions. Also in the present, Alan is on this show called Who Do You Think You Are?, which is a genealogical show which investigates an ancestor. He wants to know the truth about his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, who mysteriously shot himself in Malaysia in the 1950s. The conclusion to the book was a bit surprising, and there were many twists and turns in the story to keep the reader interested. Reading about Mr. Cumming made me watch more of his shows, and this is what got me hooked on my current favorite show, The Good Wife. 4 stars.

The book had some great quotes, like this one on pg 124 where he describes what it means to be child-like, which I get described myself a lot like so I could identify, “Child-like, I realized, tends to mean open, joyous, maybe a bit mischievous, and I am happy to have all those qualities.” He played a drag queen in the 1970s in South Africa for the show Any Day Now, and afterwards had this to say about women on pg 182: “For yes, being a woman, even one with a penis and for the purposes of drama, really made me feel that women have been coerced into a way of presenting themselves that is basically a form of bondage. Their shoes, their skirts, even their nails seem designed to stop them from being able to escape whilst at the same time drawing attention to their sexual and secondary sexual characteristics.” Also, any person who has had to go through emotional or physical abuse should check out the letter he sent to his father the last time they spoke sixteen years before, on pgs 186-187, as they do (I think) accurately describe the pain he felt.


1957 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner

The Stranger

The Stranger by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward, narrated by Jonathan Davis

Originally published 1942, translation done in 1989

Albert Camus (pronounced “Alber Camu”)was born on November 7, 1913 in Mondavi, French Algeria. He grew up poor with his mother in Algiers after his father died during World War I. He attended the University of Algiers and studied philosophy, which is what he got his undergraduate and graduate degrees in. It was during his college years that he joined the Communist party and later the French Anarchist movement. It was during WWII, in his work with the French Resistance, that he met Jean Paul Satre, who also wrote political commentary on the war. According to Biography.com, “In 1945, he was one of the few Allied journalists to condemn the American use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. He was also an outspoken critic of communist theory, eventually leading to a rift with Sartre.” Camus’s work was rife with absurdism, aka the belief that human beings exist in a purposeless, chaotic universe. He preferred not to call it existentialism, as that is what he felt Sartre dealt with instead. Camus was married and divorced twice, and seemed to dislike marriage as a whole. He died January 4, 1960 in Burgundy, France.

The actual story is about a young Algerian man named Mersault who is ambivalent about everything. His mother dies in the very beginning of the book and he goes to the funeral but is bored by it. When he returns home the next day, he continues with his life by starting an affair with a woman named Marie from his office and they go to see a comedy. She asks him later on if he loves her and he responds “Probably not,” but they still agree to get married. He becomes friends with Raymond, an upstairs neighbor and even vouches for the man as a witness with the police he abuses his girlfriend for cheating on him. In a way, hanging out with Raymond leads to his downfall. Raymond’s now ex-girlfriend’s Arab brother and the brother’s friends have started fights with Raymond, one of which Mersault was involved with. He and Raymond are at the beach that day, and later on as he is walking down the beach and the sun is beating down on him, Mersault sees the Arab brother and shoots him five times killing him. He is of course arrested and a trial ensues. The prosecution manages to convey that he is a heartless individual based on the way he handled his mother’s funeral and his subsequent actions. He is sentenced to death by guillotine. Recommended for ages 15+, 3 stars.

I was not sure at all how to review this book as I wasn’t 100% sure that I understood the complexities that Camus was trying to convey with this seemingly simple short book. At first glance it seems to be talking about the absurdity of life and humans in general, and how we’re all going to die anyways so we might as well be happy, but I’m sure people have read/taught it many times probably think it is way more. As this reviewer has said: “Digesting the content will certainly take much longer [than the afternoon it takes to read it] as this little novel raises serious questions about morality, society, justice, religion, and individuality.” The one part I did enjoy about the book was at the very end as he is awaiting his execution and has the encounter with the priest. As this article says, “His only advantage, if any, is that he knows that he does not know anything except the succession of events that was his life. This certainty he cannot betray. That is why he revolts so violently against the priest who comes to console him. Consolation would mean substituting something else for the bare truth.” “

1954 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner


These are books for my Nobel Prize Challenge. My first review was Toni Morrison’s Sulaand now my current review will be on Ernest Hemingway and his 1937 book To Have and Have Not and his 1952 novella The Old Man and the Sea. 

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, 1944

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, 1944

I honestly picked To Have and Have Not because of the 1944 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I haven’t seen all of it, but the scenes I have seen between them were smoking, so I figured why not give it a try as it sounded pretty good. Only problem is the film is set during World War II and is about getting away from Nazis, whereas the book is set in Depression era Key West and is about early Cuban revolutionaries. Hemingway originally wrote the book as a 2 short stories and a novella, and really only came about because of a contractual agreement with his publisher. I always thought of Hemingway as a man’s man, because he is almost always pictured shooting large game on a safari or bullfighting, and he worked as a foreign war correspondant for a newspaper before he became a writer. He was married four times, suffered from depression in later life and eventually committed suicide.

There are flashes of brilliance in the writing, but it is overshadowed by the tangintial storyline with rambles on and on. The whole book seems really disjointed because it starts out with Harry Morgan’s story, which was kind of fascinating, but then kept jumping into secondary stories like Richard Gordon, his wife, and the Professor who broke up their marriage. As Andrew Blackman said in his review of the book, “The main problem with the book is that it is schizophrenic. It’s a cross between an adolescent high-seas adventure story and a social analysis of the effects of the Great Depression. The writing style, too, is schizophrenic, lurching from first person to third person, from one character’s point of view to another’s.” Ok, I realize that this book was written in 1937 and being racist back in the day was considered socially acceptable, but it is kind of hard to read in the 21st century. Literally for the first five minutes of the audiobook, all the narrator said was the N-word. There are other racist episodes, which include more uses of the “N-word” and derogatory terms for Chinese and Cubans. Hemingway is also generally sexist towards women as well in the text, regarding them as frivilous and stupid.

To Have and Have Not

On to the actual storyline of To Have and Have Not. Harry Morgan is a down-on-his-luck fisherman who takes rich folks deep sea fishing off the Florida Keys. After his last pickup broke one his fishing poles and then skipped out on paying for it, and seeing as he has a wife and three daughters to support at home, he decides to take some illegal work, including ferrying Chinese workers to Cuba, smuggling liquor, and providing a getaway for Cuban gangsters who have stolen money from Key West to fund the revolution in Cuba. It becomes pretty obvious, early on, that Harry and his “rummy” (alcoholic) crew-members are part of the “have-not” crowd who have to struggle to survive, while the rich white men he takes out fishing or that stay in their yachts in the harbor are the “haves”.  The book is pretty dismal and sad, although I was never quite sure if I should root for Harry or not, as most of the trouble he got into was his own fault. One thing I did really like about the book is the relationship between Harry and his wife. Though obviously not a looker, Marie Morgan tries her best and keeps her bleached blonde look up for her husband. They seem to have a tender loving relationship, despite his prickly exterior and attitude to everything else. She is completely devastated at the end of the book when Harry’s actions ultimately lead to his death. 2-1/2 stars.

Old man and the sea

I decided that maybe I should read something a bit better from Hemingway, as he seems to actually be a good writer, but I may have picked his worst book. So I decided to read Old Man and the Sea to get a different perspective on Hemingway as a writer. Ok, I will admit that after reading the book, I am still not a Hemingway fan. I just couldn’t get into it. The story is about a decrepit old man who has been a fisherman all his life. He used to have a little boy who helped him but since his luck has run out, the boy is working for someone else. The old man has not caught any fish for eighty-four days (equals out to about 2-1/2 months, which if fishing is your livelihood, is a bloody long time). The boy trys to take care of him and make sure he is fed. The old man goes out in the morning, determined to get a fish today and he ends up battling the father of all swordfish for about 3 days before he finally manages to skewer it. Only problem is that because it is bleeding, this attracts three sharks that eat it before he can make it to land. By the time he does, only the head and skeleton are attached to the old man’s boat. You want the old man to succeed because he has had such a hard time of it and battling this enormous fish for three days, and also slowly going a bit crazy. But at the same time, you know he is doomed to failure. It was a depressing and sad book. Recommended for ages 14+, 2-1/2 stars.

June 2015 Book Reviews

I’ve been reading a lot of really long books lately, and so haven’t read as much as I usually do. In fact, according to Goodreads, I’m constantly about 9 books behind schedule for the year. I apologize in advance for all the book titles in bold, I’m having a bit of a formatting issue on this post and this was the only way to really make them show up. I am currently reading Drums of Autumn (Outlander #4) by Diana Gabaldon, which was a little slow in the beginning but is finally starting to pick up a bit. I have really been enjoying that particular author’s books, but the first one was the shortest at over 550 pages and I think this one is 1000.  I started going to a book club last month which a work colleague originally started a few months before and enjoyed it, so I look forward to reading more books for it. I am listening to Albert Camus’s The Stranger on audiobook, which is really odd so far.

I also have restarted my Nobel Prize Challenge, which I started back in Sept 2014. Basically it just means that I have to choose one book/poem/play written by a Nobel Prize for Literature winner, read it and write a review of it. I had previously read only 5 books from  111 winners, plus 1 poem from another winner, so I have a lot to read. I decided to do it as I didn’t know most of the winners and I thought it would be fascinating. This will take me a long time, but I’m okay with that. This month I have managed to get through two more, and working on a third.

On to the book reviews. I rate books from 1-5 stars, 1 being the lowest. I will include illustrations from the children’s books I enjoyed.


Freddie & Gingersnap Find a Cloud to Keep written and illustrated by Vincent X. Hirsch

Freddie and Gingersnap Find a Cloud to Keep

This was a bit of an unusual book but I enjoyed it and so did my son. Freddie is a dinosaur and Gingersnap is a dragon, and they are both flying looking for a cloud for Freddie. Gingersnap keeps explaining that it is impossible. They happen upon two children, a boy and girl in a hot air zepplin who are singing about home. They’ve never seen a dragon and a dinosaur before and so have a billion questions. The kids decide to show them a little magic and suddenly they are all in a lightning storm. They sing until the storm disappears and they find their way back to their homes. Freddie sings their song after they go. The words/lyrics/music are written by the author and included in the back of the book. Recommended for ages 4-7, 3 stars.

Today I Will Fly! written and illustrated by Mo Willems

Piggie is determined to fly, even though Gerald doesn’t believe she can do it. She starts by getting a dog to chase her, but only succeeds in jumping really high (as pointed out by Gerald of course). But it was a very high jump. After Gerald leaves, Piggie decides she needs help and enlists a bird (I’m guessing a pelican) to help her. Soon floating underneath the bird, tied to a string and Gerald is convinced she is flying. Now he wants to try it himself. Recommended for ages 3-6, 3 stars.

Watch Me Throw the Ball! written and illustrated by Mo Willems

Watch Me Throw the Ball

Gerald is way too serious about learning to throw the ball, whereas Piggie is just there to have fun. She throws the ball and it ends up going behind her and she thinks she is the greatest thrower ever and keeps making up all these things like calling herself “Super Pig” and making up little chants. It is up to Gerald to break the news to her gently.But she doesn’t care, she had a lot of fun doing it. Gerald me think of adults and how we tend to take things too seriously. Then of course, Gerald wants to have a little fun himself. Recommended for ages 3-6, 4 stars.

Big Plans written by Bob Shea, illustrated by Lane Smith

I discovered this book on a website while trying to come up with some new books to check out in the children’s area. Honestly most of the appeal for me where the Lane Smith illustrations. I thought it was pretty cute, but it does go on for way too long. It’s all about this little boy who is always getting in trouble. While in his latest punishment in the classroom, he declares that he “has plans, big plans I say!” and that continues to be his mantra for the rest of the book. He means business, and puts on his dad’s shiniest tie and pointiest shoes for emphasis. He recruits a mynah bird to join him in his endeavors. He takes over a corporate board meeting and all the big-wigs listen to him because he speaks with such authority. He takes their helicopter, driven by the mynah bird, and heads over to the local football game to help the team beat the out-of-towners. Then he flies to the moon and puts his mantra there for the whole world to see when he flies back. Recommended for ages 5-8, 3 stars.

Chu’s Day at the Beach written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex Chus-Day-at-the-Beach-internal-shot-2

I love the Chu books, although this one didn’t have as much pizzazz as the other two books in the series. However, the illustrations by Adam Rex were still awesome, cute and hilarious. Chu and his parents are going to the beach, and everything is going alright until the inevitable happens and he sneezes. He does it so hard that he literally breaks the ocean, parting it in two and the fish and other marine life (including merpandas!) are trapped on both sides unable to get through. The beach goers need to make him sneeze again so that everything can be put right, but for the first time ever, Chu can’t seem to sneeze. It’s not until Tiny the snail suggests that the bright sunlight might help him, and Chu takes off his sunglasses and immediately sneezes. Everything is relatively back to normal, or as normal as it can be with the hurricane force sneeze that flips everything around (my favorite is his parents who have actually switched bathing suits). Chu still has the best day ever. My son loved this book. Recommended for ages 3-6, 4 stars.

Rules of Summer written and illustrated by Shaun Tan

I had seen this book on the Guardian’s children books readers had read for April or May 2015, and hoped that we had a copy at our library. We did, so I grabbed it for me to read to my son. I love Shaun Tan’s work usually, but this one just didn’t grab me the way he others have in the past. The book gave rules that two boys learned during one summer, and shows an event and the the effect of that event. For example, they boys go to catch some shooting stars and one of the boys drops his jar, and the text says “Never drop your jar”. The pictures got darker the further the story went. I think my son enjoyed it more than me. Recommended for ages 5-8, 3 stars

I Am Albert Einstein (Ordinary People Change the World) written by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos I Am Albert Einstein

I also found this book while browsing children’s review websites. I fell in love with the illustrations before I even read it, but they were even more adorable once you got into the story especially as they showed Einstein as a baby with white hair and a mustache. I loved that the first major thing he says is “My hair is awesome!” and other people mention it throughout the book. It was a basic biography of the scientist, but a nice introduction for children who may have not heard of him and what he did to change the world. Einstein thought in pictures instead of words (which made him take a very long time to speak his mind) and his fascination with a compass his father gave him plus music kept his curiosity alive throughout his life and wanting to keep asking questions. I loved the Einstein quote at the end of the book. Recommended for ages 6-10, 5 stars.

Children and Young Adult

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Young Adult

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck


The Bones of You by Debbie Howells

The Book of Speculation written and illustrated by Erika Swyler

Yes Please! by Amy Poehler

This book was the first book I read for the new all-female book club I recently joined with a colleague from work. It wasn’t so much of a memoir as a stream-of-consciousness glimpse into Ms. Poehler’s life and career as a comedienne. Plus a lot of name-dropping. I honestly knew next to nothing about her other than she was on SNL and also that show Parks and Recreation, which I didn’t find all that funny. The only things I could latch onto with this book was a quote she made early in the book on page 20, about being a plain girl and learning to accept that, and her sentiments regarding her kids and being a mom. 2 stars.

The Exile: An Outlander Graphic Novel (Outlander #1.5) written by Diana Gabaldon, illustrated by Hoang Nguyen DG_exile_spread

This was supposed to be Outlander from Jamie’s perspective instead of Claire’s, but it ended up basically just being that book in graphic novel form. That in and of itself is interesting, but I privately call it the “big boobs” graphic novel as that is pretty much all you get out of Claire (you can see what I mean in the pic above). It was touted as 1.5 in the series, in-between Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, and that would’ve actually been more intriguing as book 2 was rather long and way too slow until the end. 2-1/2 stars.

Voyager (Outlander #3) by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager takes place twenty years after Claire went through the stones, pregnant with Jamie’s daughter Brianna. She gives birth to her back in the 1940s and stays married to Frank, who doesn’t believe her story, but wants to take care of Brianna. So they live together for twenty years until he dies and she goes to Scotland with her daughter to try to tell her the truth about her real father. While there, she enlists the help of Roger Wakefield, Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son (who was a small boy in Outlander) and is now a full-grown Oxford historian taking care of the Reverend’s personal effects after his death. He falls hard for Brianna and agrees to help them. They find out that Jamie survived and decides to go through the stones to find him in Edinburgh, where he has set himself up as a printer/smuggler. After a smuggling operation goes bad and his nephew Ian is abducted by pirates, Jamie and Claire set off in one of his cousin Jared’s boats from France to the West Indies to find Ian. Will they be able to live together after so long a separation? Will they be able to find Ian? To find out, read this amazing third book in the series.

Ok yeah, I was pretty pissed off when I thought the author killed off Jamie at the end of the second book, and she was vindicated when it turns out that he survived after Culloden. I actually liked this book slightly better than Outlander because Claire was less whiny (despite the crazy situations her and Jamie always seem to get into, and there are a lot) and a bit less sure of herself as it has been so long since they’ve seen each other. But they fell right back into trouble and had no problem with the long separation. For some reason, older Jamie seems so much more appealing than younger Jamie. I’m sure he’s hotter, although I’m not sure how that’s possible. Geillis Duncan made a very surprising appearance at the end of the book and I’m still not 100% sure if she is actually dead, although I’m sure she’ll pop up in the story again at some point. I found the meeting between Lord John Grey and Claire fascinating, and I’m sure he’ll pop up in the next book as his feelings for Jamie were definitely evident in books 2 and 3. I adored the pledge that Jamie makes at the end of the book to always be with Claire, le sigh. The only thing I did think was a little weird was that she was able to bring back items from the future into the past, other than her clothes, i.e. photos and medicine.

1962 Nobel Prize for Literature winner

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, 1942 – audiobook version narrated by Gary Sinise

I had first read Steinbeck when I was about 11 or 12. We had to read The Pearl (1947) in middle school, and I remember enjoying it. So when I found out he had won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, I jumped at the chance to read another one of his books. I had heard from many people that Of Mice and Men was one of his best works, so I decided to give it a chance. I know most American teenagers probably read it in high school. According to the National Steinbeck Center, “Despite its long-term popularity, Of Mice and Men was banned in many schools and libraries for vulgarity and what some consider offensive and racist language. The novella appears on the American Library Association’s Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century.” It is also interesting to note that 90% of teenagers in Britain have to read it as well because it is “Short, comprising only six chapters, and its themes continue to be considered relevant to 21st Century society.” I’m beginning to think it is a conspiracy that the Nobel committee only chooses authors who write depressing books, or at least that is what I feel like so far in this reading challenge. Maybe it is just from the subject matter they pick to write about, and yes I know it is based off their own person experiences as well. I will make an exception for Pablo Neruda, who while he does have some sad poems, most of his poems are joyous.

US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968).   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John Steinbeck seemed to have a relatively comfortable childhood around Salinas, California (where at least four of his books are based) and had some of a college education. After publishing his first seven or so books, Steinbeck, like Ernest Hemmingway, was also a war correspondant. Steinbeck during World War II and Hemingway with WWI and the Spanish-American War. It is interesting to note that he wrote the screenplay for the movie Lifeboat in 1944, for director Alfred Hitchcock, only to have it drastically changed after he finished it. He tried unsuccessfully to remove his name from the credits. He also wrote the screenplay for Viva Zapata in 1952, about the life of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, which starred Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn. He wrote the book East of Eden, one of his most famous works, which was later turned into the film that starred a young James Dean.

The book Of Mice and Men is about two migrant farm workers named George Milton and Lenny Small in California during the Great Depression. They couldn’t be more different. George is short, quick-thinking, and in charge of the two. Lenny is a big gentle man who has the mentality of a small child. He cannnot fend for himself, and so must travel around California with his friend George. Both men dream of getting a small farm together where they can grow their own food, tend their own animals and “live off the fat of the land”. Lenny is particularly fixated on getting to tend the rabbits. According to the National Steinbeck Center, “A strong desire for the stability and refuge of companionship motivates most of the action in the novella, and the break of the strong homosocial bond between George and Lennie constitutes the work’s closing tragedy. The close friendship between the two men and the simplicity and tenderness of their dream makes Of Mice and Men a compelling psychological glimpse into the lives of migrant field workers, setting the novella apart from Steinbeck’s later, far more encompassing work, The Grapes of Wrath.”

George and Lenny have to quickly leave their last job after a misunderstanding between Lenny and a little girl. They are heading towards a new job in Salinas, California where they will be harvesting grain. We soon meet the other men that work at the ranch. Slim, the foreman, is the leader of their work team and one that everyone respects. Candy is an old man with an even older dog who lost his hand in an accident and is constantly worrying that he will get fired because of his age. Carlson is one of the ranch hands that hates Candy’s dog because of its smell and volunteers to shoot it to put it out of its misery (which of course Candy resents him for). Curley is short, claims he is a prizefighter and is always trying to pick fights with the other men on the ranch because he thinks everyone is messing with his wife. He is the ranch owner’s son, and is married to a young girl who all the men call a tramp, but is really lonely and desires companionship. Crooks is the black stable hand who feels slighted by the other men because of the color of his skin. Candy asks George and Lenny if he can join them on their farm as he has money for a down payment and they agree to have him along to do odd jobs. Slim’s dog has a litter of puppies and Lenny begs for one, and later Slim has to send Lenny away from the barn for petting it too much. Curley takes a dislike to Lenny from the beginning because he is large and tries to pick a fight with him after failing to start one with Slim for hanging around his woman, which gets his hand accidentally crushed by Lenny. Slim tells Curley not to tell the boss about what Lenny did to him and try to get George or Lenny fired, or he will become the laughingstock of the entire ranch for getting his hand crushed by a simpleton. The next night all but Lenny, Candy and Crooks go to a brothel in town. Lenny wanders into Crooks’ room on the side of the barn and talks to him about his dream of living on the farm and tending rabbits, and Crooks foreshadows the end of the book by telling him that he’s heard many men over the years with the same dream who never make it. Candy comes in and convinces Crooks that what Lenny has told them is true. Crooks asks to join them, but they are interrupted by Curley’s wife. She leaves after learning that all the men have gone to the brothel. Alone in the barn the next day, George accidentally shakes his puppy to death after it bites him. He is a bit traumatized by it and frantic because he doesn’t want Lenny to not let him take care of the rabbits on their imagined farm. Curly’s wife walks in and tries to flirt with Lenny, who of course doesn’t really want to talk to her because of George’s previous warnings to stay away from her. He tells her he likes soft things and she offers her silky hair for him to touch. After a short time, she thinks he is messing up her curls and yells at him to stop. He panics, holds on tighter and then puts a hand over her mouth to quiet her down. In their struggle, he accidentally breaks her neck. He is again devastated at his actions because he fears George taking away his rabbit tending rights, and runs away to cover his tracks. George quickly finds out what he has done, and he tells Candy to tell the others. Once Curley finds out, he plots revenge and wants to shoot George in punishment. Lenny manages to get their first and does what he feels is right. Recommended for ages 16+, 4 stars.

I liked George and Lenny’s relationship, which was definitely not the most traditional but it worked for them. Each of them needed companionship and the other filled that role. Lenny could not survive without George and despite George’s objections, I don’t think he wants to live without Lenny. I always feel drawn to characters like Lenny who have mental disabilities as I had a cousin that I was close to growing up that was the same way and I never saw her as different and always treated her the same as everyone else. I liked Slim, who seems to be the only one who has sense. There was a fair amount of cursing, but considering that nearly all of the characters were men and given their profession and lack of education, it is not surprising. Unlike Hemingway, whose book To Have and Have Not was written about the same time (four years earlier) and had similar terminology relating to racism and sexism, and set during the Great Depression, I thought the language was way better in this book. It was actually a joy to read, aside from the depressing storyline. I will admit that I teared up at the end of the book, sitting in my car in the dark to finish it up before I came inside my house last night. I look forward to reading more Steinbeck in the future, and it’s looking like I might try to read East of Eden as two people have recommended it to me.