Monday, February 10, 2014

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case (A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers), by Alexander McCall Smith (illustrated by Iain McIntosh)

The Great Cake Mystery: 
Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case 
Series: A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Illustrator: Iain McIntosh
Publisher: Anchor
Publication Date: April 3, 2012

Source: local library (digital)
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Author's website
Illustrator's website

Originally published in the UK
by Polygon
on February 1, 2012
with the title "Precious and the Monkeys"

Magda and I read this in one sitting. It's absolutely delightful! It's based on the character from The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, except it's her as a little girl, solving her first case. She's logical and adorable! My daughter and I were thoroughly charmed.

I admit that I've never read the Alexander McCall Smith series, though it's not for lack of trying. I must have started one or more of his books at least six different times, but I could never get into them for some reason. I'm not sure why. But I did love (LOVELOVELOVELOVE) the BBC/HBO production based on the books, starring Jill Scott as Mma Precious Ramotswe. I know I shouldn't admit that I liked the TV show better than the books but oh my god, you guys, it's sooooo good. The acting, the location, the theme music, the opening's a nearly perfect show. I only wish they had made more than just seven episodes.

So it was the TV show that I had in mind when I was reading this book with my daughter. But with the illustrations, the simple story with the satisfying and humourous ending, and the memorable (read: awesome) characters, it definitively ticked all the boxes for me. It was exactly how I hoped a children's version of a Mma Precious Ramotswe story would be.

The book was originally published as Precious and the Monkeys in the UK with this cover:

And if you haven't seen the BBC/HBO show, check out these credits. Honestly I could just watch that opening sequence over and over and over.

He has HOW many? Celebrity Memoir Review: Dad is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan

Dad is Fat
Author: Jim Gaffigan
Publisher: Crown Archetype
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
Source: local library
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Author's website

Jim Gaffigan is a comedian. I've seen him on TV loads of times. He's the Hot Pockets guy. He was the other half of Pale Force with Conan O'Brien. I feel like I know him. And yet he and his wife have five kids under the age of 8 and live in a two bedroom apartment in New York City. They don't have a car. I feel like I don't know anything anymore.

I have so many questions. How do you--? Where do you--? But what about when you want to--? In Dad is Fat, Gaffigan answers many of those questions, complete with maps and layouts of his tiny apartment and its various sleeping arrangements (is that a baby in the kitchen?), along with a few "None of your business, you pervert!" responses. I guess he gets the same questions a lot.

At its core, Dad is Fat is relentlessly endearing. Gaffigan is a dad. That's his true identity. He loves it, is overwhelmed by it, is annoyed by it, and is completely at the mercy of his love for his children and his love of being a dad. And I get that, because I'm lucky enough to live with a man who feels exactly the same way about being a dad.

And the title? Oh that was written by one of his kids. In fact it was the first full sentence that his son Jack ever wrote. He proudly displayed it to his father, beaming at his accomplishment. Gaffigan includes a photo of the original sentence with the explanation, "This was written by my former son."

I've already gotten this book out from the library so I don't need any more convincing to go out and get it. But if I did, this "Book Chat" with the Gaffigan kids would certainly do the trick. I want Marre Gaffigan to have her own show!

Magda's Review: Bud and Gabby, by Anne Davis

Bud and Gabby
Author/Illustrator: Anne Davis
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: August 1, 2006

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Source: bought from library sale

"Mommy, can I review this book?"

We must have read Anne Davis' Bud and Gabby at least fifty times since we bought it at a library sale a year ago (or was it two?) but this time Magda wanted to review it. I think it was because she had a cold at the time and the book is about two cats and the worry one goes through when the other one gets sick. It spoke to her this time.

Magda's review:
"In between the silly part and the all together part, there's a sick part. I didn't like that because I don't like being sick. But mostly it's a happy book. Even in the sick part, there's a silly part where Bud the orange cat makes a mess with the toilet paper. I like that it's a silly book and a nice book. I also like being an author and a writer so I'm going to do that."

So there you go. Magda's first review as a four-year-old (she just had her birthday last week). Bud and Gabby is a nice book, and a silly book, but there's a sick part in the middle that can get kind of tense. Don't worry. It all works out in the end.

Don't Push the Button! by Bill Cotter

Don't Push the Button!
Author: Bill Cotter
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Publication Date: November 1, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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So fun! This reminds me of The Monster at the End of This Book or Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, both silly classics that can't help but make kids giggle. In this one, the instruction is clear: don't push the button! But of course, who can help it? Every time the "button" is pressed (or the page is turned) something unexpected happens. The "monster" in the book (named Larry) changes colour, or gains stripes, or multiplies. Of course there isn't a real button, just a picture of one, but that's half the fun. On the other hand, my daughter and I did happen to receive a digital review copy of this book which we read on the computer, so there sort of was a button to press. Like I said, SO FUN!

The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year, by Linda Raedisch

The Old Magic of Christmas:
Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year
Author: Linda Raedisch
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
Publication Date: October 8, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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The two things I find most interesting about this book is that author Linda Raedisch freely acknowledges that the relationship between Christian traditions and pagan ones is a two-way street--in other words, that there are just as many pagan practices that owe their origins to Christianity as there are Christian practices with pagan roots--and her assertion that Christmas is a time for children...that is for scaring the pants off of children. In the spirit of both of those claims, this book is filled with dozens of stories of ghosts and spirits that haunt the Christmas season, most of whom are up to no good. She brings in examples from around the world, some variations of stories I had heard before but most of them new to me, and paints a picture of Christmas as a time for holding your loved ones close while keeping a watchful eye on the things that go bump in the night. As someone who has always felt that December is the best time to read murder mysteries and ghost stories, I absolutely adored it.

For those so inclined, she even includes some ideas for holiday decorations and craft ideas to help you honour the spirits, elves, sprites and snow queens that come with the "darkest days" of season.

Odd, Weird, and Little, by Patrick Jennings

Odd, Weird and Little
Author: Patrick Jennings
Publisher: Egmont USA
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source: Edelweiss
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Usually I get my daughter to help me review children's books but I haven't read this one to her yet because it might be a little too old for her (it's about the new kid in school and my daughter doesn't start school until next year). So I read this on my own. Having said that, I LOVED IT! The "new kid" who is, as promised, "odd, weird and little," has a bit of a secret. He's not like the other kids. He's little, very little. But he has huge eyes, a sharp nose and a penchant for eating mice. And he says "who?" a lot. Or is it "hoo"?

This book is just the right amount of bizarre. It's a fun read and an adorable mystery for elementary-aged readers (I'm guessing ages 9-13, but probably younger as well).

A Tale of Two Mommies, by Vanita Oelschlager (illustrated by Mike Blanc)

A Tale of Two Mommies
Author: Vanita Oelschlager
Illustrator: Mike Blanc
Publisher: VanitaBooks
Publication Date: September 1, 2011
Source: NetGalley
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I LOVE these books! I previously read A Tale of Two Daddies with my daughter Magda and this one follows a similar format. A little kid with two moms (or in the previous book, two dads) is playing with his friends while they ask him questions about what it's like to have two moms. The questions are all about regular, every day kid stuff, like "Who do you go to when you want to fly a kite or when your toys are broken?" After both books, my daughter then played the same game with her own parents' roles. "Who do I go to when I want pancakes? Daddy!" "Who makes my birthday cake? Mommy!" Who helps me fly a kite? Both my parents!" And I think that's where the book really succeeds. The whole point is that every family is different, but we all have a lot of similarities too.

The Alphabet Parade, by Charles Ghigna (illustrated by Agnieszka Jatkowska)

The Alphabet Parade
Series: Learning Parade
Author: Charles Ghigna
Illustrator: Agnieszka Jatkowska
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Publisher: Capstone Young Readers/Picture Window Books
Publication Date: September 2, 2013
Source: NetGalley

It's pretty standard circus-themed animal alphabet fare with not a whole lot of surprises, although I was pleased to see a kinkajou instead of a kangaroo for 'K' and a unicorn for 'U' (I'd like to see THAT circus!). And the illustration of the X-shaped xylophone is quite neat. I was disappointed to see 'Q' for queen because I thought it was kind of a cop out. No quail? Or quetzal maybe? Not even a quokka? Oh well.

Magda's favourite part: The unicorn! It's imaginary? I didn't know that!

My favourite part: It's bright and colourful and I really do like that xylophone. But honestly there are a lot of books just like it on the market already.

The Man With the Violin, by Kathy Stinson (illustrated by Dušan Petričić)

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Source: NetGalley

The Man with the Violin
Author: Kathy Stinson
Illustrator: Dušan Petričić
Postscript by Joshua Bell
Publisher: Annick Press
Publication Date: July 4, 2013

What a beautiful story about a real life event. Renowned American violinist Joshua Bell took to the subways of Washington, D.C., to give a free concert. Although hundreds of commuters rushed by him, none stopped to listen. Bell later noted that there were several children who strained to hear the music from his violin but were pulled along by busy parents intent on catching their trains. This book, illustrated by the incomparable Dušan Petričić (illustrator of the anniversary edition of Robert Munsch's Mud Puddle and--one of my favourites--Andrew Larsen's In the Tree House) perfectly captures both the story of that day and the music that inspired it. The drawings almost dance off the page.

I read this to my daughter Magda, who was a bit annoyed by the book because she knows all too well the frustration of being pulled away by busy parents when she's trying to enjoy something interesting. So I think it brought up old wounds for her. Alas.

50 Below Zero Board Book, by Robert Munsch (illustrated by Michael Martchenko)

50 Below Zero Board Book
Author: Robert Munsch
Illustrator: Michael Martchenko
Publisher: Annick Press
Publication Date: June 13, 2013
(Originally Published in 1986)
Source: NetGalley
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I'm a huge fan of all of Robert Munsch's books and I've always enjoyed reading them to my daughter as well as to daycare classes. Having said that, I've never like the abridged board book versions nearly as much, even when reading them to very young children. A big part of the charm of Robert Munsch's books is in the repetition of phrases, the predictability of the format, and the general silliness of the noises and expressions. And a lot of that is lost in the board book versions. I tried reading the board book of The Paper Bag Princess to my daughter Magda and I got so frustrated I went back to the original. I felt the same way with this one. Too much is lost in the abridged version.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (A Flavia DeLuce Mystery), by Alan Bradley

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
A Flavia de Luce Mystery
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia de Luce
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 14, 2014
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Source: NetGalley

I'm not sure if these books are considered YA or not (I don't think so, but I'm not sure) so I wasn't sure whether or not to include this review on The Bookish Elf. But I love this series so much that I like any excuse to talk about it!

There are few things that excite me more than seeing a new Flavia DeLuce mystery by Alan Bradley. With the familiar cover art it's easy to spot them right away, and when I saw The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches on NetGalley I literally squealed. Quite loudly in fact.

I read the entire book in the first twenty-four hours I had it, partly because it's a short book and partly because I couldn't put it down.

This is Book #6 in the series and it--more than any of the previous novels--is not a stand alone story. It picks up where the cliffhanger ending of the last book (Speaking From Among the Bones) left off. In fact it's the last book in the original story arc that Alan Bradley had planned, though apparently there will be at least four more books after it.

I don't know how to talk about this book without giving away too much because nearly everything that happens in it is crucial to the characters' lives. If you haven't read it yet, or if you haven't read the previous books, I don't want to reveal anything that might be better left a secret.

I will say this. The conclusion of this six book story arc was not entirely satisfying to me. There were answers given to things that I didn't realize were even questions. Mysteries about the DeLuce family were solved that I didn't realize needed solving. In some ways it made me feel like the past four years that I have spent at Buckshaw in Bishop's Lacey were all just a dream, and one that I am not happy to have just been woken from. For the first time I'm a little nervous about the next Flavia DeLuce novel because I simply do not know what to expect.

A note about the advance review copies: My review of this book and the previous one, Speaking From Among the Bones, were based on the advanced digital review copies I got from the publisher. I'm not sure, but I suspect these copies may have been abridged. Both are rather short (around 225 pages) even though the finished books are usually around 350. I can't be certain with The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches because the finished edition won't be available for months, but I am currently re-reading Speaking From Among the Bones (a hardcover copy from my local library) to see if I can notice any differences between it and the copy that I originally reviewed.

The Cow in Patrick O'Shanahan's Kitchen, by Diana Prichard (illustrated by Heather Devlin Knopf)

The Cow in Patrick O'Shanahan's Kitchen
Author: Diana Prichard
Illustrator: Heather Devlin Knopf
Publisher: Little Pickle Press
Publication Date: November 25, 2013
Source: NetGalley, Edelweiss
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Patrick O'Shanahan wakes up one morning to find his father making French toast. Except instead of milk, eggs and syrup, he finds a cow, some hens and a maple tree in his kitchen. He has to gather the ingredients straight from the source!

I think this book is a case of a great idea not taken far enough. I would have liked more hijinks (a la "If You Give a Pig a Pancake") or a silly cumulative rhyme (a la "The House That Jack Built"), maybe involving Patrick O'Shanahan's name. Why give the character such a great name if it's not going to factor into the story at all?

And at the end (spoiler alert!) Patrick wakes up to find a pig in his kitchen and the smell of bacon. But unlike getting milk from a cow, sap from a tree or eggs from a hen, this means that Patrick is supposed to slaughter a pig in his kitchen! The book ends and (obviously) doesn't show it, but it made for a down note at the end, not the funny ending I think the author may have been going for.

Magda's take: How do farmers actually kill pigs for bacon? It's not in the kitchen, is it? Also, I didn't know you could make your own syrup from trees! That's so interesting!

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? And Hundreds More Big Questions From Little People Answered By Experts, by Gemma Elwin Harris

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am?
And Hundreds More Big Questions From Little People Answered By Experts 
Author: Gemma Elwin Harris
Contributors: Sir David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Miranda Hart, Bear Grylls, Quentin Blake, and more
Introduction by: Alexander Armstrong
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication Date: October 3, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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Such a great idea for a book! It's no secret that I'm a sucker for these types of books of weird facts aimed at ten-year-olds, and have been since I was a ten-year-old myself. This one is particularly great because the authors enlisted the help of actual kids (from schools across England, mostly 9-11 year olds) to submit questions they most wanted answered, then they approached various celebrity experts to answer them. The experts range from chef Heston Blumenthal to illustrator Quentin Blake, with a lot of TV doctors and hosts of science shows thrown in.

And the answer to the titular question (which was not, I was disappointed to learn, the first in the book but instead buried mid-way)? Does your goldfish know who you are? Well sort of. It probably has a longer memory than the oft-quoted three seconds, and evne small fish can remember when and where they get their food, but it likely can't recognize your face.

My favourite question in the book? "Why are Quentin Blake's drawings so messy?" To which Quentin Blake replies, "They are not messy! It takes ages to get the lines exactly as I want them!"

Are You Sleeping Little One?, by Hans-Christian Schmidt and Cynthia Vance (illustrated by Andrea Nemet, translated by Laura Lindgren)

Are You Sleeping Little One?
Authors: Hans-Christian Schmidt and Cynthia Vance
Illustrator: Andrea Nemet
Translator: Laura Lindgren
Publisher: Abbeville Press
Publication Date: August 14, 2012
Source: NetGalley
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This is a fairly typical bedtime story about animals snuggling with their parents before bed. In other words, your toddler will probably love it. Having said that, there are a lot of books just like it so you'll forgive me if they start to all blend together after a while. I know, I know, that's not even a proper criticism because it isn't that I disliked the book. And I didn't dislike it. In fact, it's perfectly lovely. I just feel like I've read so many of these books lately, so it's hard to tell them apart.

Actually, when I first saw this book I thought it was that one that inspired the parody Go the F**k to Sleep. But it turns out that was probably inspired by It's Time to Sleep, My Love, illustrated by Nancy Tillman. See what I mean? There are a lot of them.

This book is lovely and sweet and beautifully illustrated. It's just that after a while, it takes more than that to distinguish one bedtime book from another.

Magda's Take: Awww that's sweet that all the mommies are snuggling their babies to go to sleep. Even the fish! I don't think fish actually do that, do they? And why is there a mommy caterpillar? Are there mommy caterpillars? That one is bigger than the other one, so maybe it's the mommy, but aren't mommy caterpillars just butterflies? Hmmm...

My Brief History: A Memoir, by Stephen Hawking

My Brief History: A Memoir
Author: Stephen Hawking
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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I thought I knew a little bit about Stephen Hawking but after reading his brief autobiography (it really is brief, he's not just saying that as a play on his most famous book, A Brief History of Time) I realized I hadn't known anything about him. First of all, I thought he had cerebral palsy and had been wheelchair bound since childhood. Not so. He has ALS, a degenerative disorder that didn't present symptoms until he was in his early twenties. He was on the rowing team in university! (Though he was the person who does the shouting and no actual rowing. What's that called? I literally just read it. Oh I forget.)

I also learned that Stephen Hawking is twice divorced (the first divorce was particularly complicated and sad) and that he has written a series of science books for children with the help of his daughter, Lucy. I also learned that A Brief History of Time was meant to be a populist book to explain astrophysics to the everyday person. After four failed attempts at reading it, I question whether or not I qualify as an everyday person. But at least now I can say I finished a book by Stephen Hawking!

Duck, Duck, Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Ducks and Geese, Both Wild and Domesticated, by Hank Shaw

Duck, Duck, Goose:
Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Ducks and Geese, both Wild and Domesticated
Author: Hank Shaw
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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As the title promises, Duck, Duck, Goose is a cookbook with recipes for--you guessed it--duck and goose. It's a great idea, as I love duck and I've always wanted to try cooking goose. What's not indicated by the title is just how intense the author is about fowl. Hint: The answer is REALLY FREAKING INTENSE.

Here are some of the things Hank Shaw says in his introduction:

"Cooking a duck or a goose in today's world is an act of expression. It is a way to find that forgotten feast we Americans once enjoyed, to free ourselves from the Tyranny of the Chicken and shake our fists at the notion that fat is our enemy."

"Cooking a duck or goose--a whole bird, from bill to feet--is real cooking. True, honest cooking."

"Perfectly cooked duck breast has the meatiness of a steak with an additional cloak of fatty, crispy skin."

"Cooking a duck properly is not rocket science, though it does require some specialized knowledge."

"And i am certain that either your or someone you know has his or her Great Goose Disaster story."

"Taste it. Savor it. You will see. A perfect duck breast is a revelation, a life-changing event. There will be no turning back."


Ack! I've never been intimidated by cooking duck in my life but apparently I've been doing it wrong. Here I thought it was one of the easiest birds in the world to cook, harder to mess up than it is to make delicious. It's my go-to protein for fancy meals and I've never had a bad experience. Then again, I've also never encountered Hank Shaw's level of alarmist passion.

As for goose, I'm actually comforted by the fact that Shaw paints such a harrowing picture of goose-cooking disasters. It makes me think that, as with duck, the opposite may in fact be true. Maybe this year I'll try goose for Christmas. And hey! I've got a whole book of recipes to draw from!

Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science, by Claire Eamer (illustrated by Sa Boothroyd)

Before the World Was Ready:
Stories of Daring Genius in Science
Author: Claire Eamer
Illustrator: Sa Boothroyd
Publisher: Annick Press
Publication Date: July 4, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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This is another fantastic children's non-fiction book from Annick Press by Claire Eamer, whom I've previously reviewed for The World in Your Lunch Box. It's sort of the YA answer to Mario Livio's hit book Brilliant Blunders. Of course, in Livio's book he was talking about discoveries that were made after great thinkers made mistakes (sort of), whereas Eamer is talking about scientists who were right all along but were met with more than a little skepticism. That, of course, is a very long list so Eamer chose a few notable ones and presented their stories in ways that are fun and informative for older kids as well as adults. Plus, the silly drawings by Sa Boothroyd really add to the fun!

The Solar System Through Infographics, by Nadia Higgins (illustrated by Lisa Waananen)

The Solar System Through Infographics
Series: Super Science Infographics
Author: Nadia Higgins
Illustrator: Lisa Waananen
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication Date: November 1, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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If social media has taught us anything, it's that everybody loves infographics. Everybody. They're irresistible. They distill complex information into beautiful and easy-to-understand posters. They're awesome! The Solar System Through Infographics is exactly what it sounds like: a book of infographics that visually explain some basic concepts of the universe as well as some fun ideas. For instance, how much would your dog weigh on each of the planets? Or what does the inside of the sun look like?

It's not a long book but it's visually stunning. I think any child who is interested in space exploration would love to have it on their shelf.

Snatchabook, by Helen Docherty (illustrated by Thomas Docherty)

Author: Helen Docherty
Illustrator: Thomas Docherty
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
Source: NetGalley
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One dark, dark night in Burrow Down, a rabbit named Eliza Brown found a book and settled down...

In every house, in every bed, a bedtime book was being read...

The wind blew wild across the sky. The smallest squirrel heard a cry. "What's that?" she whispered to her dad.

But then--and this was really bad--before they'd had a chance to look, she'd lost her favourite book.

This is one of my top twenty favourite new children's books I've read this year. It's about an irresistibly adorable creature called a Snatchabook who keeps stealing bedtime stories, but only because he doesn't have anyone to read to him. It's like if the tale of the Huffalump in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories was written by librarians. I love it!

The rhyme is positively enchanting. I think the grownups in my household read it even more than the kids did. And I love the character of Eliza Brown, the rabbit who stands up to the book thief and then saves the day for everyone (including the Snatchabook). It's a book you'll read to your grandkids someday. (Or if you have grandchildren now, for heaven's sake go out and get them this book.)

The White Dress in Color: Wedding Inspirations for the Modern Bride, by Beth Lindsay Chapman, Candice Dowling Coppola and Carla Ten Eyck

The White Dress in Color:
Wedding Inspirations for the Modern Bride
Authors: Beth Lindsay Chapman, Candice Dowling Coppola and Carla Ten Eyck
Publisher: Schiffer
Publication Date: October 28, 2013
Source: NetGalley

I have a confession to make: I hate weddings. It's true, I do. I don't have any lingering childhood dreams about my ideal wedding day. The thought of planning such a thing practically makes me break out in hives. I've been to many weddings and I'm always thrilled to be a part of my friends' big days, but I don't actually enjoy weddings themselves. I love being a mother too, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed giving birth.

So why am I reviewing a book about wedding dresses? Why did I even pick it up? Well one thing I do love is pretty dresses. That and gorgeous photography. I'm a sucker for high-res artsy photos of ladies in fancy dresses with complicated hair. Pinterest is a g.d. nightmare for me. I could waste hours staring at pictures of elaborate braids and bejewelled gowns before I emerge in a stupor to wonder where the day went.

This book definitely satisfied that second urge. It's filled with gorgeous--gorgeous--photos of women in fancy gowns with complicated hair. My favourite! It did stress me out a little because it's very "wedding-y" but I'm assuming that if you're interested in this book the "weddingy-ness" of it won't bother you.

One thing that did surprise me, though, was the fact that every single dress shown was a very traditional white dress. Every single one. With a title like "The White Dress in Color" I was honestly expecting that some of these dresses would be colourful twists on traditional dresses, or that there would at least be some unusual, modern variations. Not so. Every single wedding dress (and a few of the bridesmaids dresses) is a traditional white floor-length (or nearly floor-length) gown. Weird.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some complicated braids to drool at on Pinterest.

Yes, Let's, by Galen Goodwin Longstreth (illustrated by Maris Wicks)

Yes, Let's
Author: Galen Goodwin Longstreth
Illustrator: Maris Wicks
Publisher: Tanglewood Press
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
Source: NetGalley

If ever there were an aptly named book, it's this. This fun children's book about a family of five (plus a dog) who make a plan for their day that includes a road trip, a hike in the woods, a picnic by the beach and milkshakes on the way home makes me want to do ALL OF THOSE THINGS RIGHT NOW. Yes, Let's indeed! Of course the downside is that my daughter Magda completely agreed with me and also wants to do all of those things right now, so now I guess I'm going to have to actually plan a day trip to the woods now. Well, as long as there's milkshakes...

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Col. Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth:
What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
Author: Col. Chris Hadfield
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: October 29, 2013
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Source: NetGalley

Chris Hadfield knew he wanted to be an astronaut when he was nine years old. In fact, he remembers the exact moment he knew. It was late in the evening on July 20, 1969. That's when his entire family, spending the summer in Stag Island, Ontario, "traipsed across the clearing" to their neighbour's cottage so they could crowd themselves in front of the television and watch the moon landing. "Somehow," he writes, "we felt as if we were up there with Neil Armstrong, changing the world."

Hadfield writes about this early experience--and many, many of the other experiences that have led him to become the world's most recognized astronaut since Armstrong himself--in his new book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.

To say I was excited about this book would be an understatement. When I received an advance digital copy, my first thought was, "Eeeee!!" Have you ever had a book that you were so excited about that it immediately cleared out your entire "to be read" shelf the very moment it became available? As in, those dozens (or hundreds) of other books you've been meaning to read are suddenly unimportant because THIS book is finally in your hands? That's how I felt about An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. Even though I've had it on pre-order since the first day I heard of its existence, I was lucky enough to get an advanced digital copy from Little, Brown and Company through NetGalley, which meant I was able to read it two weeks early! Now considering I've had books on my reading list that have been on there for MONTHS, it may seem unfair that I immediately forgot about all of them and bumped this one to the top of the list. But fairness schmairness, I wanted to read this right away!

I would have read this book a lot faster if I hadn't kept stopping every few pages to run out to tell Mike and Magda (my partner and our daughter) what I'd just read. Magda didn't mind. She asked me to read aloud to her from the book every chance I got. At four, I'd venture to say she knows more about space than most Canadians ten times her age, and we have Colonel Chris Hadfield to thank for that.

His videos from space captured her imagination and mine. Thanks to him, Magda has spent the better part of the year learning everything she can about space exploration and astronauts, and has even composed several songs dedicated to female astronauts she admires ("Julie Payette Rocket" and "You are the Moon, I am the Sun [for Suni Williams]"). I feel like he's introduced us to space exploration in a way no one had before, and that he's introduced us to astronauts as real people. Of course, the internet has helped immensely with that, as has Hadfield's social media genius of a son, Evan. But thanks to them, our whole family knows names like Tom Marshburn, Roman Romanenko, Karen Nyberg, Kevin Ford and Luca Parmitano. Thanks to him, both my daughter and I have new heroes from all over the world.

Magda posing as Karen Nyberg, the astronaut who famously made a toy dinosaur for her son while aboard the International Space Station in 2013

And that's a gift that Chris Hadfield has given to so many of us; he's renewed our sense of wonder. He's inspired us to look at space again in a way most of us hadn't in a long time. He's inspired us to be passionately curious and unabashedly compassionate. He's shown us--through his eyes--what exactly it looks like to all be connected in this world (and off it). He's reminded us what it looks like to be passionate, competent and sincere, without irony or cynicism.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life really is a guide to life. Actually, it makes a pretty good guide to parenting too. Colonel Hadfield offers an insider's look into the life of an astronaut and the steps it takes to become one. It's deeply satisfying for those curious about the past, present and future of the space program, but it's also full of truly excellent advice for those with ambition in any field.

(The video below is Chris Hadfield talking about his top three tips for success in any field.)

For instance, even though Hadfield knew at the age of nine that he wanted to go to space someday, there was not any way for him to do that, at least not in Canada in 1969. We didn't have a space program. But he figured that just one day earlier, seeing a person walk on the moon would have seemed impossible yet that had happened, so you never know what the future might bring. He knew that whatever happened he wanted to be ready for it, so he started preparing himself that day to become the sort of person who would be ready to go to space one day. He worked hard in school, kept his body healthy, and made choices that would best prepare him achieve his goals. He started transforming himself into the person he wanted to be with every choice he made.

And perhaps more important than all of those steps toward space--the healthy diet, the good grades, the time spent as an Air Cadet and then a pilot, the advanced degree in engineering--was the fact that Chris Hadfield made those choices knowing he may never be an astronaut. He made sure to do things with his life that would be satisfying on their own, regardless of whether or not they lead to being an astronaut.

He writes: "I never thought, 'If I don't make it as an astronaut, I'm a failure.' The script would have changed a lot if, instead, I'd moved up in the military or become a university professor or a commercial test pilot, but the result wouldn't have been a horror movie."

I love that. I love the attitude that you don't have to "wait for your life to begin," as so many of us do (I know I have). You can start becoming the person you want to be right away, with the choices you make and the steps you take. And, most importantly, do the things that will make you happy along the way, whether or not you reach your end goal. And in fact the "end goal" may change many times but at least you'll be doing things you love.

Of course when I say it, it sounds like a second-rate inspirational poster, the kind with saccharine poems written over photos of mountain vistas. Yet when Colonel Hadfield says it, it doesn't. It's probably because his "advice" is only a small part of the book, and is really only given in terms of his own life story ("this is what worked for me").

Chris Hadfield, Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn just after they returned to earth. Chris writes that he and Tom looked (and felt) weak and woozy, while Roman looked like he could go out and play a round of golf. So true. Of course, Chris was trying to keep it together because he had just learned that the Toronto Maple Leafs had lost.

Most of the book is filled with fascinating stories about the life of an astronaut, including many that I had never heard before. He relates stories of things that have gone wrong in space, most of which are corrected and managed by the quick thinking of astronauts, cosmonauts and mission control. He talks about the sadness he and his wife felt upon hearing that his good friend Rick Husband had been killed aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. He explains the detailed "death plans" that all astronauts make before they go into space, deciding in detail exactly what would happen if they were killed in space (right down to who exactly would tell their family and who would accompany their spouse to the funeral). It's an inside look into an experience only around 500 people in history have ever had: preparing for and achieving space travel.

I could say so much more about this book but I'm afraid it would just turn into me giving another page-by-page account of everything in it, much like I did with Magda and Mike all week. What I can say is that I was even more inspired by the book than I already was by Colonel Hadfield himself, which is pretty darn inspired.

Here are some things my four-year-old had to say about it:

Magda's Take:
"At first I thought that I wanted to be an astronaut. But then as I learned a little more about it, I realized that sometimes people feel a little bit sick in space. I don't like feeling sick so now I'm not so sure I want to be an astronaut, now that I'm older. So I guess I would say that between the ages of two and three, I really wanted to be an astronaut. But between the ages of four and five, I learned more about it and realized I'll probably be something else. Now I think I'll be a lot of things, so many things that I might now have time to be an astronaut.

"But I loved the book and I loved hearing my mom read it to me. I hope she reads it to me again and this time I hope she reads all of it to me. I should find out if it's a library book because I'm going to want to read it again and again. Maybe I can ask for it for Christmas and then it'll be mine, and when I grow up I can read it to my children."

Commander Hadfield on Magda's space poster

Heartfelt Letters From Santa (2-book set), by Veronica Steck

My Letters from Santa Through the Years
(Child's Book from Heartfelt Letters from Santa)
Heartfelt Letters from Santa To You
(Parent's Guide from Heartfelt Letters from Santa)

Author: Veronica Steck
Publisher: St. Nick's Publishing
Publication Date: October 13, 2013
Source: NetGalley

This book does not seem to be available on Amazon but you can visit the book's website for more information.

I'm sure Veronica Steck is a perfectly lovely person. In fact I'm sure her house is very neat and always smells like cookies. And I bet Christmas at the Stecks' house is AMAZING. Christmas carols and cookies and little personalized gift boxes that would make Martha Stewart herself develop a case of Pinterest-envy.

Which is exactly why she must be stopped.

Who is Veronica Steck, you may be asking yourself, and why has she upset me so? Well I'll tell you, she's the author of a new Christmas book set called Heartfelt Letters from Santa to You and My Letters from Santa Through the Years. The two-book set is a how-to guide for parents to emulate Veronica's Christmas tradition of writing personalized letters at Christmas to each of her children from Santa. Then she keeps them in a beautiful keepsake book so the kids can have them forever.

Ahem. Let me respond in the form of a gif:

I know, I know, you're probably thinking, "But wait! That's a lovely idea! I should do that! We all should!" If you are thinking that then you're already part of the problem. Stop raising the bar for Christmas, people! The bar is already too high--WAY too high. I can barely remember to help my kid write a letter TO Santa, let alone sit down and write one BACK to her. I'd do it once and then I'd forget and then my daughter would spend the whole year wondering why Santa isn't talking to her anymore. It's madness!

Of course, if you are one of those parents who is so organized that you can start new Christmas traditions all over the place, like "write letters from Santa" and "don't leave baskets of clean laundry next to the Christmas tree when you're taking pictures" (don't judge me--at least it's not dirty laundry) then have at it.

Just, whatever you do, don't let your child compare notes with my child (also, nobody tell my kid about Pinterest--she'll want me to start making things in mason jars for her next).

Lego Space: Building the Future, by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard

Lego Space
Building the Future
Authors: Peter Reid and Tim Goddard
Publisher: No Starch Press
Publication Date: November 4, 2013
View on Amazon

Publisher's website
Source: NetGalley

Lego Space: Building the Future starts out so well. It's a book of pictures and stories about space exploration, Lego-style, complete with instructions about how to make your own space ships. It talks about the lunar landing and probes. It even shows you how to make your own Lego Sputnik, which is awesome.

But then it takes a turn into fantasy land. Instead of continuing on with the real space program, it goes straight into imaginary "mid 21st century Federation ships." While I can see the appeal of this, it feels like the authors missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on the world's renewed interest in space exploration by making a Lego Soyuz or a Lego International Space Station. That would have been amazing!

Can't you just picture a mustachioed Lego Chris Hadfield? Or a bald Lego Luca Parmitano? Or a Lego Karen Nyberg with detachable toy space dinosaur? Oh I want all of those!

If you'll excuse me I'm going to go make my own Lego Canadarm2.