Thursday, February 26, 2009

Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of age in China during the Cultural Revolution by Moying Li

I recommend this book for:  middle and high school

This memoir covers moments in the life of Moying Li, from the time that she was 4 years old until she left China as a university student.  The Cultural Revolution was a time of upheaval and uncertainty in China, and life was spent trying to conform to the standards demanded by the government so as not to be labeled an enemy of the people.  It didn't seem to take much to deserve that label - long hair or the wrong style of clothes could put you under suspicion, not to mention fondness for Western literature or joking about the wrong things.  Some of the details she shares are absolutely appalling - family members hauled off to labor camps, persecution of teachers by their own students, people driven to suicide, near starvation.  Among all these ugly events, Li was able to get a good education and commit small rebellions against the madness.  

This book would make a good introduction to this period of history for middle or high school students (or adults for that matter!), as it uses a young person's perspective.  Li shares essential historical  background for understanding this period, and the details really bring it to life.  A sad but fascinating story - and ultimately, a hopeful one.  

Cat and Mouse by Ian Schoenherr

I recommend this book for: preschool

So cute! This book combines 3 nursery rhymes (I love little kitty, Hickory Dickory Dock, and Eeny Meeny Miney Mo) and illustrates them with the antics of a very quick mouse and a generally stressed out cat. The pictures have lots of motion and dominate the pages, which would make it great for preschool storytime, and the cat's facial expressions are priceless. The fact that the rhymes are well known (2 of them, anyway) also makes this a good read aloud. Fun fun fun!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The 3 Bears and Goldilocks by Margaret Willey

I recommend this book for: age 4-6

A kind of bland retelling. Not enough is different from the traditional tale to make it stand out, and there isn't much sense of place (other than the first page stating that she lived "in the farthest reaches of the far north"). The pictures do a lot to characterize Goldilocks - for example, she's always losing things and helpful forest creatures are cleaning up after her. However, some of the illustrations are confusing - the one where she flees the bear's house features 6 bears, 4 little girls, and two of the same bird carrying her scarf. The bear's house is relatively interesting - less humanized than one might expect from bears who eat porridge, the floor is covered in fish bones and the beds are made of pine needles and feathers covered in a blanket. Far from wanting to eat Goldilocks, they are angry at the meddling in their home but feel sorry for the furless, clawless creature they find asleep in Baby Bear's bed. That doesn't stop her from running home as fast as she can! The moral of this version seems to be "listen to your parents", but I'm not sure kids would grasp it.  Overall, it seems to be lacking in kid-appeal, which means it only gets a so-so rating from me.  

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chalice by Robin McKinley

I recommend this book for: grade 7 and up

A totally engrossing fantasy for the right reader. Mirasol is a simple beekeeper in the Willowlands who has just been named Chalice - a leader second only to the Master of the land, responsible for keeping balance. Her job is complicated by her complete lack of training to be Chalice (she simply has to listen to the earthlines and do what feels right), the turmoil in the land after the excesses and violent death of the previous master, and the upheaval of a new one taking power. The new Master is the brother of the previous one, but he has been away for years studying to become a priest of elemental fire - and as such, is no longer quite human. The people fear him, and there is even a plot to remove him from power and replace him with an outlander - which would have disastrous consequences for the land.

This is definitely a book for sophisticated readers - not because of content, but because of structure. There are frequent flashbacks, and there are no epic battles to move the plot along. There is intrigue and romance, but they are quiet. There is magic, but it is related more to listening to the earth than saying the right spell. There is a great deal of ceremony, and a lot of character and world-building. The result is a fascinating place where people and land are so tied together that political upsets can cause natural disasters. I say it's a winner, but those who prefer their fantasy with a hearty helping of dragons or wand-waving may not be as interested.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Sovay by Celia Rees

I really really wanted to like this book. The cover is beautiful (let's face it, we all judge by that, right?), and the storyline sounded fantastic. Unfortunately, the execution was mostly ridiculous.

Sovay is a rich and privileged young woman living in England while the Reign of Terror rages in France. She dresses as a highwayman and holds up a carriage to get revenge on her unfaithful fiance, and continues to do it for kicks. The game turns serious when she finds papers calling for the arrest of her father, a sympathizer with the French revolution, among her takings.

Sovay is beautiful and independent, both qualities which get her into and out of all sorts of scrapes as she travels to London and beyond to try to save her father. The plot is complicated by various men who fall madly in love with her but are perfect gentlemen about it (even when invited not to be), a villain who seemed to be a combination of Inspector Javert and Dr. Frankenstein, a brothel full of boys, and intrigue at every turn.

In the end, I only finished this one because I wanted to see how bad it would get. Some fans of historical fiction and spunky heroines might receive this one better - particularly if they don't mind extremely awkward dialogue. Anyone else should probably skip it.

No professional reviews on Amazon, but there are some rather mixed ones from customers.

You should probably also avoid this book if you object to content that includes: (begin invisible text here) boys who work as prostitutes, a secret society whose initiation includes sexual acts (neither aspect described in detail), or a scene where a girl practically asks a highwayman to sleep with her - he refuses. (End invisible text here.) But really, the most offensive part was probably the awkward dialogue and narration.