BOOK REVIEW: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager, decides he must solve the murder of his next-door neighbor’s dog, Wellington. Boone is extremely bright, but nearly dysfunctional in high-stimulation environments. He displays a number of the characteristics common among those on the Autistic Spectrum, including: constructing an exacting routine and set of rituals for living, the inability to tolerate deviations from said routines and rituals, and challenges in dealing with emotions and physical contact. The book isn’t really the murder mystery or Sherlock-style crime fiction it sounds like (though it does play on those genres and references Sherlock, a character that appeals to Christopher,) but, ultimately, the book is about the humor and drama of family life as both are impacted by the presence of a special needs child.

The book is humorous, and if you’ve seen TV shows like “Young Sheldon” or Netflix’s “Atypical” you’ll be familiar with the kind of humor – i.e. the humor of the disconnect between how neuro-atypical characters experience / perceive the world as opposed to how “neuro-typical” characters do so. Where this book does a better job than those shows is in its comfort of going just a bit further with the math and science jokes and references, presumably recognizing that readers are likely to follow the thinking a bit better than the average tv viewer. In fact, the book uses diagrams and even the rare equation to distinguish how Christopher sees the world.

What I think this book does best is putting the reader into Christopher’s shoes so that when he is doing something that most of us would consider a routine act of living, e.g. taking the subway, we are as on the edge of our seat as we would be in any hero’s journey that featured monsters and mayhem.

I’d highly recommend this book for all fiction readers. It’s highly readable, engrossing, funny, and, at times, heartrending.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst

The Storyteller's HandbookThe Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

This is a book, but not one that one reads but rather one that one writes. It contains more than 50 imaginative and fantastical artworks intended to help creative parents build their own stories, while helping their children learn to become storytellers. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman (who has worked with the artist on previous occasions) and an introduction by Hurst, but otherwise there’s almost no text.

The animate subjects of the book are children and animals, but not just any animals. They are mis-sized, misplaced, mythical, imaginary, anthropomorphized, and extinct creatures in search of a clever explanation for their existence and behaviors. The usual suspects of our beloved stories are most well-represented: bears, lions, foxes, rabbits, birds, and fish – for example. But there are also less well-known creatures: mollusks, a mantis, kangaroo, koala, and armadillo. The settings are also designed to fuel the imagination: oceans, hot air balloons, impossibly floating places of all sorts, cities of gothic and fantastical architecture.

If you’re looking for a storybook where you have a graphic prompt to trigger your own story, this is a beautifully illustrated example of such a work.


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BOOK REVIEW: How to Live Like the Little Prince by Stéphane Garnier

How to Live Like the Little Prince: A Grown-Up's Guide to Rediscovering Imagination, Adventure, and AweHow to Live Like the Little Prince: A Grown-Up’s Guide to Rediscovering Imagination, Adventure, and Awe by Stéphane Garnier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: April 12, 2022

Given my reading of this book, I’m clearly a huge fan of Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince,” and yet I had lukewarm regard for this book and found it a slog to read – despite its short page count and readable style. Don’t get me wrong; the writing is fine and the book raises some interesting points, but still I came away unsure that this book has a reason to exist. Ultimately, I figured out what bothered me is that it’s a little bit like going to hear your favorite comedian and then spending twice as long listening to someone else explain and elaborate upon their jokes. “The Little Prince” is brilliant, but it’s a simple book with a simple theme and simple lessons, and I don’t know what value is added by even a skillfully crafted self-help elaboration upon the book. As far as stars go, I give the book the benefit of the doubt based on the fact [full disclosure] that I almost never like self-help books, and exceptions to that rule only come about if the book can teach me something about which I had no idea or if it is in itself so clever or beautiful of language that I’m moved.

If you liked “The Little Prince” (and, note: you’ll have to have read it for the references in the book to make much sense,) and you like self-help books, this will probably be right up your alley. But if you like “The Little Prince” and aren’t a self-help fan, then just read the original story again.


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BOOK REVIEW: Basho’s Haiku Journeys by Freeman Ng

Basho's Haiku JourneysBasho’s Haiku Journeys by Freeman Ng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

The first thing a prospective reader should be clear about is that these aren’t Basho’s haiku. Basho wrote travelogues in haibun (a spare form of prose typically matched with one or more haiku,) and so one might expect the poems to be from them. On a related note, while all of the poetry is haiku in form, not all of it is haiku in substance. That is to say, it’s all presented in a three-line 5 – 7 – 5 syllable format, but some of it reads like a prose description of events chopped up into 5 – 7 – 5 syllable bit-sized pieces. That’s not to say that there aren’t many poems that do have the feel of true haiku, presenting spare natural imagery juxtaposed but not explained, analyzed, or judgement-laden. It seemed like the further into the book I got, the more of the poems felt like proper haiku.

It is a children’s book, so I don’t think it’s a major concern that it focuses on the most rudimentary elements of haiku (i.e. syllable count and nature imagery) at the expense of subtler elements. The Zen nature of Basho’s haiku might be challenging for a young reader. I addition to the colorful and whimsical artwork, showing prominent places from Basho’s travels, there is a single page explanation of haiku to help get kids writing their own.

If you’re looking for a book to get a child interested in nature, haiku, or travel, you should give this one a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Frank Pe’s Little Nemo by Frank Pé

Frank Pe's Little NemoFrank Pe’s Little Nemo by Frank Pé
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a comic strip character / concept redux of material created in the early 20th century by Winsor McCay. It features surreal scenes from the dreamworld of an imaginative and sleepy boy. The artwork of Frank Pé’s revisitation of Nemo’s dreams is stunningly beautiful and brilliantly creative. But…

I would argue that it’s not a good children’s book for two reasons. First, there are a few panels that are likely to prompt questions / conversations that most parents probably don’t want to deal with during story-time. In particular, there’s some prominent cigarette and smoking imagery. It does contribute to the book’s retro feel. When the original strip came out in 1905, there was probably lots of smoking in it (maybe even some product placement advertising by tobacco companies,) but by today’s standards it’s conspicuous and controversial. I won’t get into the few other questionable frames, but they exist. (Though most of it is perfectly kid-friendly.)

Second, there is a segment or two that use vocabulary that will send many parents to the dictionary just to be able to decipher the speaker’s comments for their child. This is a shame because it’s not this way throughout the book. As with the questionable art, most of the book is perfectly manageable as a children’s book. I’m not sure whether Pé was seeking to be true to the original, or whether he thought it was fitting for a children’s book, but with relatively few edits I think it would be much more suitable for children.

For adults who are interested comic strips (historically or artistically,) I’d highly recommend this book. For those considering it as a book for a child, I’d consider whether some grandiloquent vocabulary and a provocative frame or two are troubling, and decide accordingly.

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BOOK REVIEW: 1000 Storms by Tony Sandoval

1000 Storms #11000 Storms #1 by Tony Sandoval
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 10, 2021

As in A Wrinkle in Time, a girl whose father disappeared under mysterious circumstances travels through a portal to a strange and menacing world of adventure. The art is beautiful and – where applicable – simultaneously grotesque, and I found the surreal aesthetic compelling. The protagonist is well-developed and interesting, being a seemingly orphaned girl, living with relatives, who likes to go off on her own adventures, and whose solitary nature encourages a reputation for oddity among her peers. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time, the protagonist’s motivation (other than getting out of the house and collecting peculiar things) is not so clear, and so the story feels like it stumbles toward an ex machina resolution. There’s plenty of engrossing action, but little sense of motivation or agency. It’s a coming-of-age story split between the real world and a kind of fairy story demon realm.

It’s a tad darker than the average down-the-rabbit-hole children’s story, but except for a couple frames it would be unobjectionable for the youth market. [That said, given what seems to be the youthful age of the characters, these frames (involving sexual exploration) seem awkward and out-of-place – though they definitely separate this graphic novel from Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time, or other stories that share its subgenre and themes.]

This is an intriguing adventure story with a pleasing aesthetic, but I felt it could have been driven by the protagonist’s goals to a greater degree, rather than reacting to events unfolding around her. Though it’s occurred to me that what I really might have been missing was a greater sense of what her “opposition” was after.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Physics of Fun by Carla Mooney

The Physics of FunThe Physics of Fun by Carla Mooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: September 15, 2021

This book uses skateboarding, snowboarding, trampolining, music concerts, and video games as a vehicle to teach (middle school-aged) kids some basic physics concepts. I’m not sure why this isn’t the usual textbook approach, teaching lessons via what is of greatest interest to students, but it certainly wasn’t the mode when I was a kid.

While I’m no expert on middle school science curricula, I suspect this book wouldn’t work as a primary classroom text because it doesn’t systematically cover the subject. The chapters on skateboarding, snowboarding, and trampolining explain many terms and concepts of mechanics, but not necessarily everything taught in science class. The penultimate chapter is about waves, both sound and light, and uses the idea of music and laser light shows to elaborate on the topic. The final chapter uses video games as a way to introduce the fundamentals of electricity and circuits.

I think this book is at its best when it is breaking down the physics of tricks in the first few chapters. That’s where it separates itself from the usual dry textbook approach, and any improvement in the book would be seen following that line. Granted, some topics are more amenable than others.

The book has a glossary and each chapter ends with hands on exercises students can do to improve their understanding of the material considered. The graphics are widespread and include cartoons, diagrams, and photos.

If you’re looking for a book to get a child excited about science, give this one a look – particularly if the child is interested in extreme sports.


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BOOK REVIEW: Hansel and Greta by Jeanette Winterson

Hansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale RevolutionHansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale Revolution by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This story takes a green twist on the similarly named Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Being such a beloved classic, it seems like it would be hard to mess up an environmentally friendly re-telling, and yet it succeeds [in messing it up.] It’s true to its subtitle, “A Fairy Tale Revolution,” being – in part – fairy tale and – in part – the kind of vitriolic villainization of out-group members that one sees in the diatribes of political revolutionaries.

In one of the only non-rant departures from the original story, the witch is made a good character. This might be viewed as a progressive and charitable turn of the story were it not for the fact that the author just – unconsciously or consciously – shifts villainization over to another group: fat people. In the story, fat characters not only consume more food, they are in every way materialistic, gluttonous, and environmentally hateful — as opposed to the skinny in-group who aren’t at all part of the problem. This us-them tribalization is particularly unproductive in dealing with environmental problems because we are all part of the problem, and we all need to be engaged.

I don’t know whether Winterson got caught up in her own ideological anger, or whether she thought young readers need to have the issue oversimplified and the villains made over-the-top. It seems to me like reading Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” results in kids wanting to plant trees and be more aware of how they use natural resources. Reading this book is more likely to make the child want to slap food out of a fat kid’s hands and shame him for his gluttony.

I can’t really recommend this book for kids. It’s more for parents who want their kids to know how to virtue signal than to be thoughtful about using resources.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Whenever someone spouts the platitude, “the original is always better than the sequel,” this is one counter-example that could definitely be shoved in his or her face. That’s not to disparage “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but this book, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is the better and more profound story. [Lest you think that’s just my opinion, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who holds a contrary view.]

The book begins with Huck Finn in a comfort zone that has become stifling and boring, but is – basically – a pretty good life. Huck has more money in the bank than he could hope to spend, owing to his past adventures with Tom Sawyer, and he’s being put up by the widow Douglas, a kindly old woman who struggles to make Finn a more genteel and educated variety of boy. While Huck appreciates the widow, he’s becoming antsy and perpetually feels his failings to take to the moral lessons being taught to him. Huck’s internal moral conflict is central to the story, particularly the recurring conflict between what he has been taught is the proper thing to do with respect to runaway slaves, and what he feels is the right thing vis-à-vis his friendship with the escaped slave, Jim.

The trigger that sends Huck into adventure mode from this status quo is the return of his drunken and abusive father, a man who has come to town solely because he heard about the money Huck has sitting in the bank and who wants to get his hands on it to keep himself in booze. Before Huck’s father can get to him and clear out his bank account, Huck sells his stake in the money for a dollar to a prestigious townsman who’s been looking out for him. This draws out the affair, and for a time Huck is living under the thumb of his alcoholic father. When this becomes untenable, Huck fakes his own death and strikes out on the river. On an uninhabited island, he meets up with Jim, a slave who has runaway after hearing that his owner, Miss Watson, has been looking into selling him down the river (literally.)

This leads to Huck and Jim traveling together down the Mississippi River by night (to avoid the risk of Jim being seen and attracting undue attention.) They intend to come to come ashore at Cairo, Illinois being a free state where Jim might have a shot of restarting life. The problems is that running the river at night is dangerous (and sometimes foggy) and it’s easy to miss what one is looking for to stumble into something one doesn’t want. For example, their raft was run into by a steamboat, leading to Huck finding himself washed ashore in the middle of territory where a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud is playing out. And Jim and Huck do “miss their exit” and end up further down river than they would have liked – and that is safe for Jim.

There is an extended period during which a pair of con-men end up traveling with Huck and Jim, putting on shows that are not entertaining, but which they trick people into coming to in large numbers. These two men, who claim to be a Duke and a King, run various cons from town to town, the most extensive (and despicable) one involving making a claim to being the next-of-kin of a deceased man they find out about while traveling. Huck’s moral sensibilities come into play here, as well, as he can no longer tolerate the two men’s con when he sees it will seriously hurt good people. (As opposed to mildly cheating a mixed crowd of the good, the bad, and the ugly.) When one of the men sells out Jim, resulting in the runaway’s capture, Huck goes out to try to free Jim.

In what is the story’s biggest leap, it turns out that the household that has taken possession of Jim are relatives of Tom Sawyer, and they mistake Huck for Tom, who has been due to arrive any day. Of course, Huck doesn’t know who he’s been mistaken for when he arrives, and this creates some comedic gold. When the real Tom arrives, Huck intercepts him and they join together in a scam where Huck continues to be Tom and Tom pretends to be Sid (after pranking his aunt.)

Huck and Tom (“Tom” and “Sid”) take to building a plan to free Jim (despite the fact that Tom knows that Jim was already freed in Miss Watson’s will, when she passed away recently.) The challenge is that Tom insists on going all boy-Don Quixote and developing elaborate plans based on his reading of adventure stories that do not make sense, given the circumstance they face. (i.e. Preparing to extract a knight from the dungeon of a castle, instead of trying to break a man out of a little shack with nothing but a pad-lock and a chain wrapped around the cot leg – such that it could be removed by lifting the corner of the cot up.) This results in Tom gaslighting not only Jim, but also his aunt and uncle, as well as inflicting all sorts of suffering and needless tasks upon Jim. The biggest criticism of the book is probably that this gag goes on way too long, and its comedic value ultimately dwindles as it becomes painful to witness the degree to which it is torturous for Jim and other parties. Huck plays the straight-man, trying to convince Tom to give up on the more ridiculous aspects of his plans, but he fallaciously takes Tom to be his intellectual superior and thus accepts that some things may need to be tolerated. [More than that, he’s steamrolled by Tom’s domineering personality.] It’s an interesting point that Huck is dismayed that Tom is willing to help him free Jim, because Huck thinks Tom should be morally virtuous enough not to help a slave escape (Huck doesn’t know Jim has been freed, only Tom knows that.) Huck has written himself off as an immoral creature, but by any reasonable standard he is the more virtuous of the pair, by far.

It’s worth noting by way of a trigger warning, the book uses the n-word like a million times, and – while the recurring theme revolves around Huck seeing Jim’s humanity through all the indoctrination, he receives to the contrary – the boy nonetheless makes a lot of offensive comments [not to mention those by individuals who are far less evolved on the issue of race.]

This is definitely one of the best specimens of American literature. It has hilarious lines and happenings, shows how exposure to people can help one see humanity where one is being indoctrinated not to, and it has tense moments of adventure. Its dialectic first-person narration doesn’t prevent it from being readable, but makes is more fun to read as well as helps one get into the story and Huck’s character. This is definitely a must read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds

Children's Literature: A Very Short IntroductionChildren’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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To make an ineloquent (and possibly disturbing) comparison, what’s been said to be true of pornography is also true of children’s literature – i.e. we take for granted that we’ll know it when we see it, but trying to define its boundaries runs into difficulties at every turn. One imagines an illustrated book, simple of language and subject matter, featuring a child as protagonist, and avoiding the most traumatic or shocking subjects and themes, but none of those conditions has proven necessary and / or sufficient. Reynolds presents a landscape of children’s literature (and the debates swirling about it) through history, one that keeps in mind that the subject is slippery.

The book consists of six chapters and some ancillary matter. The first chapter sketches an overview of the history of children’s literature [restricted to English language books.] Here we see the changing face of kid’s lit over time, and learn how children’s literature only gradually became a distinct field, moving from the earliest English translation of “Aesop’s Fables” in the 15th century to the multimedia literary experiences of today.

Chapter 2 is the longest chapter and it investigates the many ways children’s books have been studied, and to what ends. As with adult literature, there are many different perspectives by which literary works can be analyzed, and many that apply to adult books are also seen here with their own child-oriented considerations: e.g. psychoanalytical, gender-centric, linguistic, stylistic, and historical. There are also some uniquely child-applicable considerations that are presented as well, such as how well adults can write in ways which optimally resonate with kids.

Chapter 3 investigates how the field has moved beyond the book to convey stories – old and new – in ways that might be more effective in reaching a diverse body of children. Emphasis is given to how the story experience can be more interactive and flexible to the needs of a broad audience.

The fourth chapter is about genre. In one sense, children’s books are considered a genre, but then there are many cross-genre books such as science fiction or fantasy books directed at a youthful readership. Special focus is given to the family story. The advantage of the family story genre is that it’s one area in which the child can be expected to have some level of experience. [Even orphans will have some sense of interpersonal dynamics by which they can relate.]

The penultimate chapter is about children’s literature as a means to prepare children for a future, from personal level considerations of mortality to societal level issues like ecological tragedy. Children’s fiction that looks to the future has become an increasing trend in the modern era.

The final chapter is where Reynolds gets to the most controversial aspect of children’s literature, which is whether (and, if so, how) subject matter should (or shouldn’t) be limited. One worrying concern is that children’s stories can become thinly-veiled means of indoctrination into political or religious (or anti-religious) dogma. It’s not just a matter of adults having greater discernment, but also that they have greater freedom to choose what books are available to them. The other major issue is to what degree children should be protected from traumatic, complex, or controversial subject matter, e.g. sex, suicide, etc.

The ancillary matter mostly consists of graphics (often historic art / artifacts of relevance) as well as a references / further reading section that is arranged by chapter.

If you’re looking for a concise overview of children’s literature and the debates and challenges that exist around it, this book provides a quick outline of the subject which references many exemplary works that can be looked into for more in-depth investigation.


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