Title: Gronk: A Monster Story Vol. 1
Author/Illustrator: Katie Cook
ISBN: 9781632290885
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Action Lab, c2010…

Gronk is a monster who runs away from the rest of the monsters in the woods and meets up with Dale. Dale brings Gronk home to live with her cat Kitty and her large dog Harli. That’s the entire plot of this very slim, episodic comic derived from a weekly online comic. Even the author jokes on the back cover it “will look great hanging from a magazine rack in your bathroom or as a nice, glossy coaster for your favorite frosty beverage.” That’s basically all it’s good for. Yes the drawings are adorable, and there are some sly geek references, but the jokes fall flat and there is no plot or character development. Almost 25% of the book is guest strips from other artists, making me wonder if Cook should have waited until she had more material to put out a published version of her work. As we used to tell my un-trainable terrier, “You’re lucky you’re cute, because that’s all you’ve got going for you.” It’s the same with this book.

West of the Moon

West of the MoonTitle: West of the Moon
Author: Margi Preus
ISBN: 9781419708961
Pages: 216 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, c2014.

<blockquote>”Astri!” Aunt yells up the stairs. “Don’t dawdle!”
I kiss the top of Greta’s head and place my hand on her face for just a moment—all I dare, or risk a broken heart.
Down the ladder I go to stand by the door, my bundle under my arm. I can’t help but notice there are now two shiny coins glinting on the table, along with a large, lumpy package. My cousins are eyeing the coins with the same intensity that the dog is sniffing the package. Now I know how much I’m worth: not as much as Jesus, who I’m told was sold for thirty pieces of silver. I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.
Uncle comes and tucks a wisp of hair behind my ear, almost tenderly. “I’m sorry Astri,” he says. “It can’t be helped.”
That’s all there is for a good-bye, and then out the door I go. (6-7) </blockquote>

Thirteen-year-old Astri is sold by her aunt to the humped-back, filthy, ill-mannered and equally ill-tempered goat herder. Astri is intent on getting back to her aunt’s house, not out of kindness or love of her aunt, but concern for her little sister Greta who is still there. Her escape plan involves getting on a ship bound for America and meeting up with her father, who left some time ago and she hasn’t heard from since. In their escape attempt over the Norwegian mountains, they pick up among other things a book of dark magic and a silent Spinning Girl, blurring the lines of reality and fairy tale in the process.

Inspired by an entry in an ancestor’s diary, Margi Preus builds an entire story around farmer girl Astri. Karen Cushman said it best in her back cover blurb when she describes it as “an astounding blend of fiction and folklore that celebrates the important things in life—loyalty, devotion, courage, and the magic of stories.” Elizabeth Bird’s review is also extremely coherent and cohesive, probably much more so than mine ever could be.

It’s the blending that of fiction and folklore that Cushman mentions that is done so seamlessly and that captures the imagination, making you wonder if the collection of coins is really a troll’s stolen treasure, or if the hairbrush really is magic or just a clever con. I’m reminded of the movie Big Fish or Oh Brother Where Art Thou, to give a comparison of how effortless the stories within the story, featuring giant bears and magic and hope, meld and shift within the book’s central plot of Astri’s more realistic and painfully brutal world of childhood brides (and all that implies/entails), running away to an unknown country, and discovering that money doesn’t ever buy as much as you need or want. Do the spells and prayers work to keep the rain and Death away, or was it just time that was finally allowed to work a magic of its own? The world Astri lives in is interchangeable with the fairy tales, just as the beliefs are interchangeable between the “old ways” of keeping a rowan twig in your pocket for protection and quoting the Bible. Maybe that fluidity between customs and beliefs makes the fantastical elements of the story all the more believable, even if they can be easily explained as unremarkable. Readers will recognize at least some of the mixed-up fairy tales Astri mentions and makes her own, like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the seven-league boots, and may be intrigued by mentions of the lesser known ones to seek out the rest, which Preus helpfully provides in her Author’s Note.

Overall, Astri and Greta’s journey is somewhat fantastical, when you think of all they are able to accomplish, especially by themselves. Readers find themselves just as conflicted as the two girls when they are forced to steal their way to their destination. There is no ambiguity that what they are doing is wrong, as Astri identifies herself as a thief and a liar and a host of other things. However, there is some ambiguity in if these acts are ever justified, and what punishment will befall upon you if you are the only one who knows how much of your “sinning nature” you are responsible for. When she makes a slightly fantastical promise, she wholeheartedly believes that if she finishes her part of the deal, the other half will follow. (I don’t want to give too much away by saying what or who the deal involved, because it happens towards the end of the novel.)

It all ends happily for the girls, but just like in fairy tales you are left wondering about the minor characters briefly mentioned but never seen again after the “happily ever after”. Hopefully neither girl will lose that ability to see the magic in the world while keeping the street smarts they seemed to have gained through their Cinderella-like upbringing.

Drum City

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Drum CityTitle: Drum City
Author: Thea Guidone
Illustrator: Vanessa Newton
ISBN: 9781582463483
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Tricycle Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., c2010.

Boy in the yard
drumming so hard,
calling all kids
to come drum in the yard.
Drum on some kettles and cans!
Here they come!
They run to the beat of the drum. (unpaged)

The rhyme and rhythm are like nothing I’ve ever encountered. It reminds me of rap or spoken word, and it could be read as part of a drum circle “keep the beat” activity. Just practice a few times first. Starting with one boy in his yard, he’s quickly joined by a diverse group of children (although no disabilities are visibly represented, there is a female sewer worker), they all march downtown in a percussion parade. Rather than silenced or stopped, the adults join in, eventually encircling the globe. The book ends by inviting readers to “Let’s drum” with a curly-haired kid raising a beckoning arm as if you could jump in and follow like the rest of the characters did. Bright and bold Photoshoped graphics seem to incorporate collaged bits in places. You can easily identify the definition of “Inspire” on one page, and I hope it does just that.

Interstellar Cinderella

Interstellar CinderellaTitle: Interstellar Cinderella
Author: Deborah Underwood
Illustrator: Meg Hunt
ISBN: 9781452125329
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books, c2015.

Once upon a planetoid,
amid her tools and sprockets,
a girl named Cinderella dreamed
of fixing fancy rockets. (unpaged)

This space themed spin on the Cinderella tale has all the components of the classic, including the step-family, the helpful mouse, and a fairy godmother (although in robotic form). Promoting STEM based feminism and diversity without a single overt mention of racism, feminism, or prejudices, everyone following the “We Need Diverse Books” publicity should take note: this is how it should be done. In perhaps a subtle nod to the importance of education, pink-haired, freckled, and fresh-faced Cinderella spends her evenings studying ship repair. She would be self-sufficient, except her step-family steals the tools, forcing her to rely on the help of a fairy godrobot. The robot doesn’t fix the ship for her though, but instead produces the tools Cinderella needs to do the job herself. Her obscured identity is explained by a helmeted spacesuit and goggles, and she doesn’t accept a marriage proposal from the dark-skinned prince but instead negotiates a job offer to become his chief mechanic.

The primarily humanoid looking bodies of the alien species are probably the only stereotypical thing about the story, but there is some variety in the number of limbs, heads, and eyes, with some resembling species of Earth animals. I also would have fixed the Prince’s hair, which streams behind him in a cross between a mohawk and a mullet, but that is a very minor personal quibble, especially considering Cinderella’s beautifully and realistically portrayed practical bun, which I love with the fly-away wisps. The sing-song verse reads well (just make sure “family’s” three syllables, not two when reading aloud), and Cinderella shines like the star she is in every scene. Where can I get my own robotic mouse? Better yet, when can we get a sequel?

Listen, Slowly

Listen SlowlyTitle: Listen, Slowly
Author: Thanhha Lai
ISBN: 9780062229182
Pages: 260 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

Dad is waiting for me to turn toward him. Yeah right. One little glance would encourage another diatribe about connecting with my roots. They’re his roots, not mine. I’m a Laguna Beach girl who can paddleboard one-legged and live on fish tacos and mango smoothies. My parents should be thanking the Buddha for a daughter like me: a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab who is team leader in track, science, and chess. I should at least be able to spend the summer resting my brain at the beach. Instead, I get shoved on this predawn flight.
My parents slapped me with the news just last night when I was floaty and happy because sixth grade was finally over. I was thinking summer vacation, sunsets, bonfires. But noooo, with buggy eyes and stretchy smiles, they cooed out the news that I “get to” escort Ba, Dad’s mom, back to Vietnam for six whole weeks. (1-2)

Twelve-year-old Mai (known as Mia at school) is being forced to fly halfway around the world to help her grandmother Ba come to terms with their grandfather’s disappearance during the Vietnam War. Never mind that it happened years ago, and that Mai had plans for this summer, that she doesn’t understand the language, and that her own father isn’t staying with them due to previously scheduled charity work. The detective is struggling for specifics, so in the meantime Mai meets her many, many cousins, including Anh Minh who learned English with a Texas accent at an American boarding school, and Ut, a reluctant tour guide who is more interested in caring for her frog than her newfound family member. The culture shock is incredible, resulting in a misunderstanding about thongs and powerful smelling herbal remedies for lice and stomach aches. But as time passes, Mai begins to see the beauty in this alternate way of life, discovering that it might be up to her to re-acquaint her grandmother with seeing the good things of today instead of focusing on the past.

The details in the book are incredible. You can feel the heat, you can smell the medicines, and you can experience a world that probably few readers would ever consider visiting before reading this book. Mai’s changing moods, spoiled nature and trepidations, but also her awe of this whole new environment, are convincingly displayed.

Away from the airport, it’s green and more green rice paddies. This doesn’t seem right. The documentary showed the airport was right in the middle of the city. Ba stirs, reaches inside her bag, and [… her] other hand twists a knob in the air. Dad agrees, of course. The air conditioner, which makes her even more carsick, goes off. Windows down. Invisible flames whip into the taxi. I feel like on of those desserts Mom blows a torch on. […]
I stick my head out. No it doesn’t feel any cooler. Then I can’t believe it–right on the roadside, not behind a fence or anything, stands a real live water buffalo. Chewing on grass, mud on its back, nostrils the size of golf balls, mega croissants for horns. […]
“Stop, Dad, tell him to stop. STOP!”[…]
“This is so cool!”(15-16)

I am slightly unsure about the portrayal of some of the older Vietnamese ignorance about modern-day conveniences, but it seems like it’s plausible based on details presented in the book, such as the lack of reliable and widespread Internet. It does however show that there are some benefits behind traditional ways, which I think balances out those portrayals. I learned quite a bit about Vietnamese language and history, as Mai and her cousins exchange vocabulary lessons. I’m not attempting to duplicate those symbols and lessons here because I wouldn’t know how. Conversations in Vietnamese are designated by italics, and translated into English with more frequency as the book progresses. While the contextual clues make it clear what is being said, I do wish a glossary and/or author’s note had been included for quick reference and further information.

The final reveal of the truth of Mai’s grandfather’s whereabouts and life during the war is something that will pull at people’s heart-strings. Mai’s turn around is convenient but appropriate after spending so much time among her Vietnamese family. This is a coming of age story for sure, but also a story of coming home and coming to terms with your past. Highly recommended.

A Handful of Stars

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Handful of StarsTitle: A Handful of Stars
Author: Cynthia Lord
ISBN: 9780545700276
Pages: 184 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

The only reason I ever spoke to Salma Santiago was because my dog ate her lunch. (1)

Lily’s runaway blind dog Lucky is stopped not by frantic pleas, but by migrant worker Salma’s peanut butter sandwich. Lily and Salma develop a fast friendship over their mutual love for dogs, with Salma even helping Lily fundraise to fix Lucky’s eyes. Lily can repay the favor by helping Salma prepare for the local Blueberry Queen pageant, and hopefully winning the scholarship prize. But no migrant workers have ever entered, and Lily isn’t blind to the fact that change is hard. Will either girl get what they want, or will they help each other (as the saying goes) “accept the things they cannot change”? Peppered with blueberry facts, Lord presents a story of a minor migrant worker. Didactic but not overly so due to an unexpected turn of events leading to the inevitable happy ending, it’s a simple friendship story that’s light on the details, making for a fast read.

Got Milked?

Got MilkedTitle: Got Milked?: The Great Dairy Deception and Why You’ll Thrive Without Milk
Author: Alissa Hamilton
ISBN: 9780062362056
Pages: 319 pages
Publisher/Date: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

Upon closer examination, the North American preoccupation with milk as vital betrays something more worrisome than a mere buy-in to dairy industry advertising. It signals a nationwide surrendering to fuzzy logic. (3) […]

True, milk is convenient. It’s everywhere. You won’t find bushels of kale or broccoli at the corner Stop n’ Go. You are guaranteed to find cartons of milk, from nonfat to full fat, from strawberry to chocolate flavored, from single-serve chugs to gallon-size jugs. True, milk is high in calcium, but it’s also high in sugar, cholesterol, calories, and saturated fat. Just because milk is readily available, just because you can get it anywhere, doesn’t mean you should. What we don’t hear so much about is that milk is one of the most allergenic foods; the majority of American adults can’t digest it; animal studies have shown that the major type of protein in milk, casein, also promotes cancer; and lactose, the sugar in milk, breaks down during digestion into the highly inflammatory sugar, D-galactose, which has been proven to promote aging and disease in mice. Even milk’s high calcium content, a seemingly incontrovertible good, may not in fact be doing our bodies good. (6-7)

It’s obvious that author Hamilton is going to milk the misconceptions about milk for as long as possible, She does a relatively thorough job of disproving it’s importance both in the food industry and in our diets. The JD mentioned in her jacket author biography shows in her methodical evaluation of claims made by the milk industry, sometimes reading like closing arguments as she puts milk on trial. Chapters include comparisons of the minerals in other foods to those claimed to be in milk (I say claimed because Hamilton argues they are misrepresented), the ineffectiveness of the minerals and vitamins milk actually does have due to the processing, the prevalence of an inability to digest milk in the general population, and the prominence of publicity and marketing efforts by not only the industry but also the government and food associations to convince the public otherwise.

As you can see by the summary, even though it’s surprisingly coherent for the lay person to understand,  it’s a dense read due to the amount of specifics and concepts that are being thrown at one time to readers. For instant, when discussing the nutritional benefits of calcium substitutes, she writes “My 300-gram bag of black, organic chia seeds says each 2-tablespoon serving contains 77 calories; 15 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for calcium, which equals 150 milligrams; and 24 percent of the DV for magnesium, which equals 96 milligrams.” (182) Whole paragraphs are devoted to this kind of language, which is important to prove the point but also makes for a circuitous and detailed read. It’s made even more taxing as she bounces between units from multiple measuring systems, possibly in an attempt to make it understandable for both Canadian and American readers.

Almost 100 pages of the book is devoted to four days of recipes, a detailed list of references, and an index. Hamilton takes great pains to stress that the nutritional information is based on estimates and not lab-tested. It’s also strikes me as somewhat odd that after spending almost an entire chapter on the sugar content in milks, the amount of sugar in the recipes isn’t mentioned. Throughout the book she digresses into waxing poetically over kale, seeds, and other food alternatives. However, the directions are broken down into easy to understand steps, to the point where she explains how to bake a potato, which will help beginning chefs. I haven’t had an opportunity to test the recipes, but they sound good, if a little overly seasoned/spiced compared to my normal cooking routine. Overall, it’s an eye-opening assessment of the world’s adoration of milk, which after reading Hamilton’s book you might think it doesn’t deserve.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


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