Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World
By Francisco X. Stork
Published 2009 by Arthur A. Levine Books
Audiobook read by Lincoln Hoppe

This book came highly recommended to me by a number of people, as well as being well-reviewed in a number of sources. This book is fantastically interesting - Marcelo, a teenage with Autism Spectrum Disorder, wants nothing more than to spend his summer taking care of the ponies at the school he's attended his whole life. But his father has other plans. Refusing to believe that Marcelo can't function in the real world if he wanted to, he has lined up a different summer job for Marcelo - working in his law office. Everything about this book is perfectly done. Marcelo is a wonderfully complex character and the secondary characters that surround him are equally well-executed and interesting. The plot is perfectly paced and keeps you wondering what will happen next. The story was a really wonderful look into Marcelo's world.

My only problems with this were due to the format. Because of Marcelo's condition, he often speaks in the third person and doesn't use personal pronouns. This made it very difficult to distinguish dialogue from description while listening to the audiobook. Other than that, though, this was a wonderful read that I think would appeal to many different readers because there is a little bit of something for everyone.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: Before I Fall

Before I Fall
By Lauren Oliver
Published 2010 by HarperCollins

Audiobook read by Sarah Drew


I don't know why I have such a hard time reviewing audiobooks lately. I guess maybe it's because there are a lot of little things I don't notice when I'm listening that I might if I was reading. However, listening adds a new dimension to the story and brings its own issues to one's experience of the book. I have to start by saying that this was a book I heard a lot about before I got around the reading it. As Oliver's debut novel, it was widely praised. It has a very interesting premise and one with great general appeal - Samantha Kingston gets to relive her last day on Earth seven times, each time trying to understand and right the wrongs. People everywhere are intrigued by death and the great unknown that comes after it, and books such as these appeal widely for that very reason. Oliver handles this premise extremely well - it is easy to believe that this is really happening to Sam. One especially interesting piece to this is that Sam doesn't initially try to make everything better. It takes her a couple days to see that her death is part of something bigger and that something bigger is what she should be focusing on in these extra chances she's been given. Sam is initially a pretty bland character - popular, pretty, mean girl, etc. - but she actually grows over the course of this experience. Oliver may have stretched this growth to its limit - sometimes I found it a bit hard to believe that Sam would fall in love with the guy whose always been there, realize how much she appreciates her family and friends, and try to make things right with an unpopular victim of her teasing all while trying to process the extraordinary circumstance she finds herself in. I think Oliver handled all these different aspects quite well, though - Sam doesn't really get anything exactly right the first time she tries to change it. I was also pretty disappointed with the end - after this miraculous week, she just dies? This was the part I felt deserved more explanation - not the fact that she got to relive her last day again and again.

In terms of the audio version itself, the reader sounds almost exactly like Mandy Moore. Now, I love Mandy Moore, but I found this a bit distracting. All I could picture was Mandy Moore in my head and I don't think that's exactly what the character was supposed to be like. Other than that, though, the reader did a very nice job.She was wonderful about using inflection to represent different characters rather than trying to totally alter her voice.It was subtle but really effective. Other than that, I wouldn't say the audio changed my experience of the book too much. Overall, I enjoyed it. It makes you think about how to live and the value and experience of life.

Review: Manfish

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau
By Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Eric Puybaret
Published 2008 by Chronicle Books

There is something about biography right now that is calling to me and I'm not sure why. I wonder if I'm particularly interested in looking at picture book biographies because they often provide the most interesting details and information in the most concise format. Either way, this was a very well-done biography. The illustrations are perfect for the text they accompany - dreamy with a lovely oceanic palette. I just wanted to look at them all day. I had no idea that Cousteau invented the aqualung, though of course it makes sense. This is a very simple and lovely story of Jacques' love of the ocean and how he developed that into success. It touches briefly on his efforts to make people aware of how pollution was harming the underwater world he so treasured. There is an excellent author's note/for further information at the back. I really enjoyed this one!

Review: Orangutans are Ticklish

Orangutans are Ticklish: Fun Facts from an Animal Photographer
By Jill Davis, photography by Steve Grubman
Published 2010 by Schwartz & Wade

I promise you that non-fiction picture books are not the only things I read! They are just very easy to finish in 15 minutes during slow times at the elementary school. But soon, I will have lots of time on my hands and I can get back to reading many different children's books! So, back to this one, the photos are very lovely and the book is filled with interesting facts but I think it's a little deceptive. The photographer is clearly not the one providing all the factoids about the animals - in fact, it's pretty clear that he only has one little tidbit on each page about how he photographed them. I think this book could have been really fun if Grubman had provided more details about working with and photographing the animals and then saving the science-y facts for the back part of the book. I don't know if maybe they thought information like that wouldn't appeal to kids, but I have a feeling it would. Lots of kids love animals and think they want to work with them when they grow up, so providing some first-hand knowledge of actual experiences working with animals would be great for them. Additionally, this book lacks a list of sources and doesn't really explain where the "fun facts" come from. The photos are great, but I expected this to be better.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: This is Just to Say

This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness
By Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Published 2007 by Houghton Mifflin

This book is lovely, but it fooled me. I had no idea that this was a fictional anthology until I just looked up the publication information! I just assumed Sidman had edited it. But, alas, she is the actual author of this wonderful mixture of types of poetry. Taking the William Carlos Williams poem that shares its title as its basis, Sidman present a fictional class that is asked to pen poems of apology to anyone they feel they have wronged. The recipients of these apology poems are then given a chance to respond (poetically, of course) in the second half of the anthology. Some of the poems deal with some heavy topics but all are beautifully written. The illustrations are absolutely perfect for the tone of this book and just very pleasant to look at. My only criticism here is that I think I would have liked the layout to have the apology poem and the response poem on opposing pages. I think they are best read in conjunction and it's a bit annoying to flip back and forth through the pages to see them alongside each other. But, very enjoyable.

Review: How to Clean a Hippopotamus

How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships
By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Published 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

It's quite obvious that I'm on a non-fiction kick right now. I just love how these picture books take the chance to introduce such interesting concepts or people to young children. It's never too early to get kids interested in learning things! This book is perfect for kids - in general, kids love learning about animals and this focuses on a really specific kind of relationship in the wild that I think is particularly fascinating to children. Jenkins and Page look at symbiosis in the wild and give many examples of it throughout the animal kingdom. I would say the great majority of them were even new to me, so I think this is a wonderful non-fiction title for kids. Jenkins illustrations are beautiful as usual. This is another title that is a little lengthy with concepts and words that might be more difficult for young kids but you could certainly use bits and pieces of it for children of a variety of ages. Very enjoyable.

Review: Queen of the Falls

Queen of the Falls
By Chris Van Allsburg
Published 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

This book was absolutely wonderful. You know, for some reason, I always feel like I have less to say about a book I really loved than a book I really hated. Obviously, it's easy to point out critiques of something that didn't work for you, but it seems much harder for me to highlight the reasons I loved something. I'm not sure why that is, but I really need to try to remedy this. No one is going to care (especially a kid or teen) if I loved a book if I can't explain to them why. Part of the reason this book is so wonderful is simply because it's written and illustrated by Van Allsburg, who I just think is a genius. Another thing that I really love about this book is that Van Allsburg has taken a little known story from history (and an incredibly fascinating one at that) and crafted it into a beautiful picture book. In this, he tells the story of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel. The story is easy to read, though it is lengthy, so this might not be the best choice for younger children. Van Allsburg weaves quite an enchanting story about this interesting woman and her daring adventure. Perhaps the most wonderful thing, for me, were the illustrations. As always, Van Allsburg has illustrated this story in his traditional style, which I find quite beautiful. Additionally, he provides an author's note at the end of the book, highlighting some other folks who took the plunge, how he decided to write this story, and further resources for information on Taylor. A very lovely book.