Monday, August 26, 2013

Ballet Shoes (The Shoe Books #1) by Noel Streatfeild


I first heard of "the shoe books" when Meg Ryan's character mentioned them in You've Got Mail. I sort of had them in the back of my mind as an option for Isabelle, so I was pleased when she picked out this book all on her own at the library.

The whole set-up seems a bit contrived, but somehow, the author pulled it off.

I think the draw of the book is summed up in the very last line, when Petrova says, "I wonder... if other girls had to be one of us, which of us they'd choose to be?"

Would a little girl reading the book want to be Pauline, a beautiful actress with talent enough for stage and screen, but who, when it comes down to it, is not irreplaceable in her work? Someone who knows what she wants, but sacrifices it for the sake of her sister? (Granted, her sacrifice comes with the kind of opportunity dreams are made of, and you get the feeling she's going to be just fine.)

Or, would a reader choose to be Posy, a ballet prodigy whose talent was so remarkable that self-aggrandizing statements did not even come across as conceitedness because they were actually true? (I was intrigued by Petrova's ability to make that observation without quite being able to explain it, on page 140 of my paperback edition.)

Or, would a reader more often identify with Petrova, perhaps not with her fascination of motorcars and aeroplanes, but with her struggle to do what was expected of her, even though it did not interest her, while putting off her own dreams?

For me, I liked Petrova best. She did what she had to do to help her family, and even though she disliked it, she diligently did her work so that she became "technically one of the most proficient pupils in her class" (page 143). Still, she never lost sight of her true passions, and she optimistically held onto the possibility that one day she could do what she wanted for herself. Also, I liked that Petrova was smart and thoughtful and showed concern for others.

Throughout the book, I did wonder if - despite all the passages about hard work and long hours of practice - it might be glorifying show business? Petrova certainly provided a counterpoint to Pauline and Posy's talents and successes, but was it enough to let readers know that being a star isn't everything? I found it interesting, then, when Pauline said, towards the end of the book, "Film stars and dancers are nice things to be, but they aren't important." (page 231)

I liked that the girls were not perfect angels, and when they seriously misbehaved, they got dressed down for it. I also thought Pauline and Petrova were good role models in that they shared what little money they earned, and after putting some into savings, they were adamant about using what was left to help out with household expenses.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to give this book 4 or 5 stars, which is why I settled on 4 1/2 stars. It didn't jump out at me as a 5-star book, and yet, I really couldn't think of a good reason why it shouldn't be. Maybe I hoped the ending would be a bit less abrupt - everything was wrapped up nicely, but it was done awfully quick.

As it happened, Isabelle read this book and the first few Betsy-Tacy books around the same time. She gave the Betsy-Tacy books 4 stars, and Ballet Shoes 5 stars. But why? Is it because the girls in Ballet Shoes have special talents? Does she find the show business aspect fascinating? Is it because Ballet Shoes is more contemporary? More exciting? Or simply because the Fossil sisters are older than Betsy and Tacy so far in the books we've read? I don't know! It's interesting to see Isabelle's preferences and wonder what drives them.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill (Betsy-Tacy #3) by Maud Hart Lovelace


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

Isabelle continues to give each Betsy-Tacy book 4 stars. She can't really articulate, and I can't really figure out, why 4 and not 5.

I am REALLY glad I read the first few chapters of this book with Isabelle. Early on, the three girls are talking about a boy who is "horrid" because he called a Syrian a "dago". To be honest, I had to look up the word. Apparently, it is an ethnic slur for a person from Italy, Spain, or Portugal. (So, actually, the boy isn't even using the word correctly!) I'm sure the word probably wasn't as taboo when the book was written, but we ended up with an unexpected learning moment. I brought to Isabelle's attention a previous unexpected learning moment we had had, when Ken and Isabelle read Little Town on the Prairie together and we had a bit of a discussion about the use of the word "darkie". In this case, it is clear that the word "dago" is meant to be derogatory, and the girls seem to know it's a bad word, so it's not exactly the same as the Little Town example. But, it was similar in that the book introduced an offensive word that I would not have chosen to teach my child, and I wanted to make clear that these days, it is not at all acceptable to use such a word.

So, overlooking the bad word (which is basically why I didn't give this book 5 stars), most of the rest of book was as delightful as the previous two books. I found it particularly amusing that even before there were boy bands and movie stars, little girls always had it in them to create fan clubs and crush on celebrities!

There is an incident of truly malicious bullying, and I actually thought it was very well-written. Though I'm not sure it's wise to put yourself physically in harm's way, the girls certainly did the right thing by trying to help, and I like the anti-bullying message that young readers can take away.

I was also impressed with the way the book handled Little Syria. The author did a great job showing how the Syrian immigrants were different, but that "different" does not at all mean "bad", and in fact, the girls found it fascinating and fun to meet new people and learn new things. Especially considering that the book was written in 1942, I liked the positive representation of immigrants and a foreign culture.

It was interesting to come across the term "Mohammedans". It was another learning opportunity, and I talked with Isabelle a bit about Islam and how we now call followers of Islam "Muslims".

I thought the big "quarrel" was a true-to-life depiction of the feelings and behaviors commonly involved in a quarrel among girls, especially sisters. I even felt a bit of apprehension, really wanting the girls to work everything out! Happily, the resolution was beautifully executed.

The book ends with a heavy dose of patriotism, and young readers might realize that being American shouldn't be taken for granted. Others - particularly immigrants - consider it an honor just to be an American! In that respect, I was reminded of In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, another great read.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Ragnarök Conspiracy by Erec Stebbins


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

I picked this book off our home bookshelf. I don't usually read thrillers - so I am certainly not the target audience for this book - but since it was written by a childhood friend of Ken's, I figured I'd give it a shot.

Mostly, reading this book felt just like watching an action movie. Everything that transpired was easily envisioned on a big screen, and the book even included what I consider the superfluous yet obligatory romance between the male lead and a supporting female character.

Just like a Hollywood movie, we are treated to a number of clichés. The investigative team included such stereotypical characters as an imposing ex-Marine, a computer science nerd, and a flaky yet intuitively intelligent woman. The evil mastermind is wealthy, powerful, and polished. The romance is revealed in a dramatic rain-soaked scene, and important people who want things done want them done "yesterday!".

I was occasionally put off by what seemed like excessive explanation. For example, when Jordan tries to barricade himself into a room, he "grabbed several crowbars and wedged them inside the metal handle and across the divider beside the door. It worked like a barricade in an old castle - as the door was pushed forward (or pulled from the outside), the bars caught on the metal handle and the wall, preventing further movement." (Pg. 324) Seems like the author could have simply written, "He barred the door with several crowbars."

At other times, I found myself confused about the lack of explanation. When Jordan is working a mission, he finds himself betrayed, the other person screaming, "You think I have no way to send message?" (Pg. 160) But, how did the guy send a message? Maybe I missed it, but when every other development in the book was so well-explained, it was all that much harder to blindly accept a gap in the chain without knowing how it got there. Also, I never did understand why all the higher-ups were so slow to accept the evidence that seemed to point pretty obviously to Savas's conclusions. With all the evidence, the push-back Savas received seemed like manufactured drama.

Most disappointing, though, was the de-evolution of Rebecca Cohen. She started out as the sharpest, most intelligent member of the team. But, once she was in a relationship with Savas, she became a helpless victim, internally calling out, "John, please, help me..." (Pg. 289) rather than trying to help herself in some way. In the dramatic climax full of action, every man had an active role to play, except Rebecca, who is only there to be saved.

So, all that aside, I'm still giving this book an "I like it" rating because, well, I did enjoy reading it. It's a good read. It was well-paced with developments that continuously drove the plot forward. There is a whole slew of interesting, named characters who play only supporting or minor roles at best; that kind of over-complication usually annoys me, but in this case, I feel the author did a really good job introducing characters, setting up their contexts, and integrating them into the story. Most chapters were relatively short, which made for good reading for me because, with two small children, I can usually only read for 5-20 minutes at a time. And, given the complexities of religion and Savas's personal history with it, I liked that his struggle with religion was not blithely reconciled in the end.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Betsy-Tacy and Tib (Betsy-Tacy #2) by Maud Hart Lovelace


A nice follow-up to Betsy-Tacy, though a bit less believable.

In the beginning, the author acknowledges that many grown-ups think, "Two little girls often do play nicely, but just let a third one come around... then the trouble begins!" Yet, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib never quarrel, and it's not exactly clear why not, except that they must be the three most good-natured girls ever to live in the same neighborhood!

Two years have passed since the girls first met, and they are now 8 years old. Isabelle will be 8 next month, so it was fun to read this book together about girls who are just her age. But while we did enjoy the stories and found them amusing, they just didn't sound like adventures Isabelle and her friends would have. Betsy, Tacy, and Tib's antics seemed more like activities that today's 5- or 6-year-olds might engage in. I don't know if kids today are exposed to more knowledge earlier, and so they are truly less innocent at younger ages? Whatever the case, whenever I asked Isabelle if she might have fun doing something similar to what we were reading about, she always answered, "No! It's just a story, it's all made up." She definitely "knows better" than to try to fly or to cut anyone's hair.

Anyway. As with the first book, I really liked the way this book takes you back in time. Diphtheria is not uncommon, and Aunt Dolly has "morning dresses" and "afternoon dresses".

Definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy #1) by Maud Hart Lovelace


A very sweet story of two little girls growing up in a simpler time. In this day and age of social media and online games, it was refreshingly quaint to read about a time when ladies went calling, milk was delivered in horse-drawn wagons, and children's play was limited only by the scope of their own imaginations. Betsy and Tacy, both five years old, play games and explore their neighborhood with their mothers' permission but without adult supervision.

The author takes Betsy and Tacy through several big life events, including the first day of school, the birth of a baby sister, and even the death of a baby sister. The situations are not treated lightly, but they convey the innocence of a child's perspective. I love that the girls show compassion and take care of each other in difficult times.

I also like that young children reading this book will probably encounter new vocabulary, even if the reading level is appropriate. First published in 1940 and presumably set it in the late 1800's or early 1900's, many frequently used words from that time are now less common. When the Kelly family moves in, Betsy sees a moving "dray", not a moving truck, and their houses have "parlors", not living rooms or family rooms.

The edition I read included some fun facts about the author and where she got her inspiration for writing the book, plus a delightful little map of the girls' neighborhood.

I think this will be a fun series to follow, and I'm looking forward to the next book.

Isabelle read this book on her own and gave it 4 stars. I couldn't get her to elaborate on why 4 and not 5. She never seems to want to talk about books that she reads on her own, and she gets annoyed when I ask her questions. Maybe I'll see if she wants to read the next one together.