Friday, June 29, 2007

Have you ever dreamed of living in a library?

Wouldn't it be fun, all surrounded by books, with cosy armchairs and maybe a fireplace to read beside? And cats, of course. I enjoyed reading about this library in lovely Chester, Nova Scotia, run by a couple who live and work there. And they have a cat who lives and works there, too. What's not to like? If it weren't for the perpetual lack of funding (which unfortunately plagues way too many libraries), what a wonderful job it would be (especially given those library hours!).

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why I am not in a book club

It's funny, but as much as I read, and as much as I like to talk about books, I am not, nor have I ever been, in a book club. I like the idea - it sounds like fun. But I don't know...there's just something about having to read a particular book and having a deadline to finish it in. Maybe it's because I was an English major in college, and there were always so many books to read, and never enough time to relax and enjoy them.

One of my favorite things is when I've finished a book, and it's time to choose a new one. What do I feel like reading? Am I in a mystery mood, or do I feel more like reading a fantasy, or a memoir, or a nonfiction book? For children, adults, or young adults? Is it time to pick up a book in a series I'm enjoying? Or should I try something completely new? There are always so many choices, between my stack of library books and ones I've picked up here and there, waiting on my bookshelves.

There's something about having to read a book that makes me feel like not reading it. That makes the other books in my book piles so much more attractive and alluring. I want the book I'm reading to be the book I want to be reading. Not a chore or an obstacle. Reading a book at the wrong time can totally ruin the experience. There are books that I have tried to read but could not get through, but when I gave them a shot years later, I was unable to understand what the problem was the first time around. I think that for me, having to read books increases the likelihood of "right book, wrong time" syndrome. And I think I'm just kind of ornery about the whole thing.

A few years ago, I transferred my "books I want to read" list from my notebook to the computer. And as I added books from time to time, the list grew from a single page to many 2-columned pages. One day it struck me that it is highly unlikely that I will live to finish all these books I've put on that list. Not that I'm that old, but there are just so many books on it, and I read lots of other books besides. It made me more determined than ever to make these books I really want to read a true priority.

At times, though, I do feel a bit wistful. If I had a group of friends with similar reading tastes to mine, would I consider it? I don't know. Maybe. If good food were involved, that would be a definite plus! But then I finish a book, and there's the delightful which-book-should-I-read-now time, and know that if I had a mandatory book to read, I'd be feeling cranky about it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bloomin' bad listening

When I listen to an audio book, it becomes difficult to separate the reader from the book. When the reader is especially good, it makes the book even better than it would have been had I read it on my own. I haven't often had a reader who made the book worse, but it happened with this audio book.

I have to say that this is my least favorite Sharon Creech novel I've read so far - and I've really enjoyed all the other ones I've read, particularly Granny Torelli Makes Soup, Walk Two Moons, and Ruby Holler. The story is about 13-year-old Dinnie, who has lived in dozens of places. Her father is constantly on the lookout for a new "opportunity," which invariably involves moving on to a new town. All this moving begins to take its toll on her family. Her brother keeps getting into trouble, finally ending up in jail; her older sister elopes at eighteen, and find that she's pregnant while her Marine husband is sent overseas.

Dinnie's uncle is hired to be headmaster at an international school in Switzerland, and Dinnie suddenly finds herself whisked away from her home to live with her aunt and uncle while she attends the school. This is a huge "opportunity" for her, only she isn't so sure she wants any part of it. The novel is a coming-of-age story, of sorts, but it kind of left me with an "eh" kind of feeling at the end. I didn't feel like I knew any of the characters very well; none of them stood out for me, particularly, so I didn't feel very connected to the book. Dinnie, as first-person narrator, had a way of talking that didn't sound at all like a teenager. She said things like, "He sported a gold watch." Sported? On what planet would a 13-year-old say that?

The reader the publisher chose to narrate this particular audio book did not help matters. It wasn't that she didn't read well - she was fine. But her voice seemed, to me, at least, better suited to reading adult novels - it was just too old for the voice of the narrator to ring true. It also seemed bizarre to me that, for a novel set in Lugano, where Italian is spoken, they wouldn't get a narrator who could speak the language well enough not to completely mangle it every time an Italian word was used. The students at the international school come from all over, but somehow Dinnie's Japanese, Italian and Spanish friends all spoke with Russian accents. Russian, with a hint of Romanian vampire - so that I kept expecting one of them to say, "I don't drink -- wine."

If you'd like to try something by Sharon Creech, I'd opt for one of her other books.

Bloomability by Sharon Creech (Listening Library 2000)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Why you should definitely read this massive, 800-page book

First of all, because it is Dickens' best book. Yes, it's over 800 pages long, and it does start out with a deathly dull chapter about the legal system (as you read it, it kind of makes you live through how excruciatingly slowly a case would grind through that system). But keep going! It will be worth it. I read this book once in high school and once in college, but I think this time I enjoyed it the most.

The story is told from two points of view: the third-person, omniscient narrator, who relates things in the present tense, and the first-person point of view of Esther Summerson, a young girl with a mysterious background and a severe, unhappy childhood. The plot is dense and complex, and there are so many characters that it is astonishing to see how deftly Dickens weaves them all into the storyline, so that each and every one of them becomes essential. And the characters are just wonderful - even the ones you only meet occasionally become memorable. The man is a master at bringing them to life in just a few sentences. By the end of the novel you will feel you've known them all your life.

There are a billion places you can go to for a plot synopsis of the book, so let me just say that the novel involves an interminable lawsuit, romance, murder, mistaken identity, dark secrets, a suspicious wife, a crazy old lady, a prodigal son, a venomous maid, blackmail, and many other delightful things. One of the first police detective characters ever to appear in fiction, the intrepid, intelligent and delightful Mr. Bucket, is here – and he was based on a detective who was a friend of Dickens’. For more information on the real-life Mr. Bucket and the novel, check out the Wikipedia entries.

This book was written, as were many of Dickens' novels, as a serial. So readers read and lived the story, a little bit at a time, for over a year before it was finally concluded. For readers back then, it must have been what The Sopranos and other such shows are for people today - they discuss them with friends and coworkers, feel like they know the characters, feel as though they've lived the story along with them. (Although, from what I understand, the end of Bleak House is much more satisfying than the end of The Sopranos!)

It took me about a week and a half to get through the book, and it made me wonder how it would have changed my experience had I read it in installments, spaced out over months, the way it originally appeared. Would I have been able to keep track of all the characters? Maybe people at the time would re-read the previous episode right before the next one came out, the way I like to reread the last Harry Potter book in order to refresh my memory for the new one.

In fact, I was just talking with Virginia Gal about how sad it is going to be when we finally read the final Harry Potter novel. We have journeyed with him for years, sharing life at Hogwart's, friendships, adventures and rivalries. It is fun that we are still experiencing the same kinds of feelings as readers did in Dickens' time.

Usually the novels by Dickens that most people read are the shorter ones (teachers probably are attempting to avoid outright mutiny while still hoping to expose students to Dickens' work), which usually means Oliver Twist or A Tale of Two Cities. Maybe David Copperfield. They aren't bad, but they really can't compare to Bleak House. It's as though all the strengths from his other books combine to shine in this one: characterization, pacing, dialog, plot, imagery - along with his usual biting criticism of society's ills. It is wonderful that he may have influenced the subsequent massive reform of the legal system, but it is also discouraging that so many of the other social issues he wrote about (spouse abuse, child abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.) are still so very prevalent today.

I wish my version of the book contained the original illustrations. It seems that when work goes into the public domain, it is printed the cheapest way possible, with the tiniest font size, the thinnest paper, and the poorest binding. But still, the pictures in my mind were incredibly vivid - some of the scenes were downright cinematic.

Dickens is truly the master - so many things that other wonderful writers are doing, even today, were born with him. Do yourself a favor and experience the master at the top of his form. You won't regret it.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Modern Library, 2002; originally published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853)

Also reviewed at:

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Adventures only happen to people in capes

At least that's what Stuart thinks. He has moved to a new town, and things aren't going so well. For starters, he put his box of special stuff by the curb for the movers, and the garbage truck carried it off instead. School is starting in a few days, he doesn't know anybody, and he's worried. What if he's the shortest kid in his class? What if he can't find the bathroom? What if he finds the bathroom, but gets locked inside? What if he doesn't make any friends? Stuart is very good at worrying.

Plus he's bored. He wants to have an adventure. It suddenly occurs to him that adventures only happen to people in capes, and he doesn't have one. His mother thinks it's nonsense. "People can have adventures in dresses, or nice, warm, sweaters," she says. But when pressed, neither she nor his father can come up with a single person in a nice, warm sweater who's actually had a real adventure.

Then Stuart discovers an old box labeled "Stuff from Great Uncle Nestor's Magic Act." Inside is some old junk his family's going to throw out, including a bunch of of old ties. Stuart takes the ties and staples them into a magnificent cape - and the adventures begin.

He is visited by a gorilla, a horse and a dinosaur, discovers he can fly (sort of), grows toast, learns about the magic of trading places - and realizes that along with capes come responsibilities. This is a charming book, full of humor and the unexpected. Every page comes with an illustration, so this is a great book for kids transitioning from easy readers to longer chapter books - and for any kid who enjoys quirky adventure stories. This is my first book by Sara Pennypacker, and my children and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We are looking forward to reading the sequel, Stuart Goes to School, but in the meantime we've started Clementine, which already had us giggling by the second page.

Stuart's Cape by Sara Pennypacker; illustrated by Martin Matje (Orchard Books, 2002)

Publisher recommends for ages 4 - 8.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

You'd probably have to be a total library geek to appreciate this, but...

I had to laugh at this imaginative way of sorting books! I particularly liked the one about Picasso. My kids appreciated the one about the sharks.

Now all I have to do is figure out how I can make this into a fun book display at my library, tee hee.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

At last, another installment in the Anita Blake saga

Laurell Hamilton's books are definitely addictive. I've been reading them since the first Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novel (Guilty Pleasures) came out in 1994. And even before then I was reading her fantasy novels. She has honed her craft over the years, creating intricate worlds and fascinating characters who develop and grow through the course of the series.

Anita is a vampire executioner in a world in which vampires not only exist, but are slowly being given legal status in society. So now, instead of just killing vampires on sight, there are licensed executioners who must have a death warrant in order to kill a vampire. Vampires must follow specific laws; if not, they forfeit their rights.

But in her "day job," Anita raises the dead. I know, it sounds beyond belief, but trust me - Hamilton will suck you into her world, and it will all make perfect sense. Anita is able to call the dead from the grave - which is very helpful when, for example, someone dies without a will, or no one can find the will, or there are other important unanswered questions. The issue of her necromancy gains importance because, after all, vampires are technically dead, right?

In the early series books, the plot usually involves a mystery to be solved, or a big bad guy to be vanquished, somehow, against all odds. As the series progresses, Anita is drawn into the world of the "monsters" - forming friendships and romantic relationships with people she had thought were monsters, but suddenly she isn't so sure. Her beliefs about herself, her faith, her relationships, things she was taught growing up, her job - these are all challenged every step of the way.

The books grow increasingly serious, dark, and violent. But at the same time, they maintain a fun sense of humor, and always a love of life. Anita is forced into difficult situations over and over again, and she fights to maintain her humanity in a world that seems determined to take it from her.

Hamilton is a master of creating suspense. Many of the books describe a period of only a day or two, but with action packed in every moment. I find myself reading, thinking, I'll stop at the end of this chapter, or section, or scene; but somehow the narrative momentum just won't let up, and I find myself up way too late reading and reading and reading. Only to be so disappointed that it's over when I get to the end.

The Harlequin is an excellent installment in the series. But if you were to pick it up without reading the others, it would be very confusing. This is one series that absolutely needs to be read in order. Each book is like a chapter in a longer book, and starting with this one would be like opening a book in the middle and reading from there. I highly recommend this series - as well as the Merry Gentry series (which must also be read in order). But they are definitely not for the squeamish!

Books in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series:
1. Guilty Pleasures
2. The Laughing Corpse

3. Circus of the Damned

4. The Lunatic Cafe
5. Bloody Bones

6. The Killing Dance

7. Burnt Offerings

8. Blue Moon

9. Obsidian Butterfly

10. Narcissus in Chains

11. Cerulean Sins
12. Incubus Dreams

13. Micah
14. Danse Macabre

The Harlequin
16. Blood Noir

17. Skin Trade

The Harlequin by Laurell K. Hamilton (Penguin Group, 2007)

Monday, June 18, 2007

An alphabet/counting book that doesn't make you want to hit yourself over the head with it by the time you get to the letter N

This book is not for children who are just learning their letters and numbers, although they might enjoy it. It is for the kids who have read dozens of alphabet books and already think they know just what to expect. This one is going to foil their expectations and make them laugh!

The book is clearly an homage to Dr. Seuss (the dedication, which is in rhyme, is in memory of "Good Doctor Ted" as well as Edward Lear), and it is engaging, silly and irreverent. The narrator (a young author/illustrator with glasses), introduces the book, calling it "an alphabet book of creachlings," but says it won't teach you ABC because none of it makes sense. The "creachlings" are intersting beasts, from the Angry Ack that eats dirty clothes (his favorite snack is stinky socks with jam packed in the toes) and the Evil Eeog (with hateful horrid breath that leaks onto the following page), all the way to the Zanderiffic Zibble Zook.

I coudn't help but think of On Beyond Zebra! as I read this with my children, but the comparison only increased rather than lessened my enjoyment because it is such a celebration of Dr. Seuss's style of writing. The creatures are fun and interesting, the rhymes are not contrived, and the narrator as a character ties everything together, creating a narrative within the simple advancing of letters and numbers.

The homage to Seuss is particularly evident in the G-is-for-the-Grand-Gzonk entry, which not only has the gzonk balancing a host of objects on his nose, one of which appears to be a goldfish in a bowl - get it? - but, we are told, it is actually a piranha. Check out the shadow made by the tower of objects - does it remind you of anyone?

G is for One Gzonk! An Alpha-Number-Bet Book by Tiny DiTerlooney (aka Tony DiTerlizzi) (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2006)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A read-it-yourself adventure story

Barney is stuck in bed with the chicken pox, and the itches are driving him crazy. Luckily his Grandpa knows lots of stories, stories that are so exciting that they make the itches go away - at least till it's time for a new story.

In this third installment of the easy-reader series, Barney's grandmother wants him to take a nap before Dr. Storkmeyer comes. Grandpa is clearly itching (pardon the pun) to tell him a story about the time Dr. Storkmeyer got his head shrunk. But no, Grandma says he must mow the lawn while Barney takes his nap. Off Grandma goes in her pickup truck, and Grandpa cleverly finds a way to take care of yard work as well as tell Barney his exciting adventure story.

The story is funny and action packed, involving poison arrows, a creepily funny jungle queen, and a head-shrinking potion made from triple-sour lemonade and cranberry juice. To add to the fun, there are comic-book speech bubbles to complement the text.

This is a treat for children who are fairly proficient readers but are still daunted by huge blocks of text unbroken by illustrations. The vocabulary is challenging but not too difficult - in fact, it is categorized as I Can Read level 2, "reading with help." (But levels vary from publisher to publisher, so don't trust the number -- always look at the text to see if it the right kind of book for your young reader.) Best of all, it's an interesting story, fun and exciting and enjoyable to read.

One criticism of this series that I've heard is that, with the chicken pox vaccine and fewer children getting the virus, the premise is obsolete. Not in our family! One of my children had the vaccine and still got chicken pox - twice! Regardless, any child can certainly identify with being uncomfortable and stuck in bed, and the stories are so fun that I find myself hoping it will take quite a while before poor Barney gets better!

The Shrunken Head: Grandpa Spanielson's Chicken Pox Stories # 3 by Denys Cazet (HarperCollins, 2007)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ooh, this makes me very, very angry.

It's this article that did it.

Where do you even start with something like this? For those of you who might not feel like reading the article, it's about a public library that canceled their entire summer reading program (for which, if it's anything like my library's, many people spent months of time preparing and organizing) because a church threatened to march in protest of some of the program's content. The library didn't want small children to be frightened of having to cross through a picket line to come into the library - which, after all, is supposed to be a warm, fuzzy, happy safe place.

The objectionable content included tarot cards and palmistry, which was evidently a minor part of the scheduled events of a program. The theme involved suspense and mystery, and was called "You Never Know It at Your Library." Other activities included urban legends, tie-dying t-shirts, yoga, zen gardens, ghost stories and scrapbooking. These were all things that the kids had been requesting, things they were interested in.

The summer reading program is voluntary. There is no one at the library insisting that children must attend everything or go home. Parents can decide which programs their children attend. They can oversee which program-related books children check out and take home. Why can't it be enough for families to make their own choices in these matters? If this were a library run by that Baptist church, then fine - but this is a public library program, a program for the entire community, which, last time I checked, can actually be composed of people with different beliefs.

Here's a quote from the minister: "We weren't against the reading program itself at all," Gallamore said. "We just take the stand that we don't live life by chance or by looking at the signs, but that our life is in God's hands and he is in charge of what takes place." He is entitled to take that stand, but one might think that taking that stand could actually involve allowing god to take charge of what takes place. And not bullying the library into cowtowing to one's personal beliefs, perhaps?

As a result of the criticism and threats, everything has been canceled except the end-of-program pizza party.

What a great metaphor for what happens when censorship is allowed to stand. When everything that could possibly be objectionable to everyone is removed, reducing things to the lowest common denominator, what remains? Nothing interesting or controversial, that's for sure. No sushi. No Thai food. Nothing spicy. Definitely no carpaccio. Here kids - have some pizza. Plain, of course.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Books to movies

What's your favorite film that is based on a book? Did you read the book first, or see the movie first? How does that impact your impression of the movie?

It's amazing to me that a book, which takes hours, if not days - possibly weeks - to get through, can be distilled into a 2-hour production that at all resembles the original work. Yet we are so critical of the results.

Some of my favorites off the top of my head - ones where I enjoyed the book/story and the movie version equally - are The Third Man, Because of Winn-Dixie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Thief Lord, Blade Runner, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Holes, The Three Musketeers, Howl's Moving Castle, The Last Unicorn - oh, and of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Wow, the more I think about it, the more I think of. I may have to add some more later!

What about the ones you just hated? The huge disappointments? The one that immediately springs to my mind is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I doubt any movie could do that book justice, but that version was just awful. And I didn't much care for Interview with the Vampire, either.

Here is an interesting list of favorite books-to-films. And here is a great website for books, short stories and plays that have been made into movies.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A werewolf tale

Kern is a shapeshifter, sometimes human, sometimes wolf - but always on the run. He doesn't know why he changes, only that he can, and that when people discover the truth about him, he's on the run again. The book opens with Kern fleeing for his life from a feragh, a hellish creature created by the dark magic of a harper. He barely escapes, and his battered, severely injured body is discovered miles downriver by Ainsy, an attractive young innkeeper, and her brother.

Kern becomes friends with Ainsy and her friends and family members, and they invite him to stay for the winter. He is sorely tempted, even though he knows that sooner or later his secret will come out. For the first time in his life, it seems he has a chance of attaining his heart's desire, especially as Ainsy seems to return his feelings. But when word of a harper reaches them, one whose songs are said to be "magically" wonderful, Kern realizes that trouble has followed him once again.

I'm puzzled why my library has categorized this book as a young adult novel. The protagonists are in their twenties, and the first young adult novel de Lint wrote came years later, with The Dreaming Place. Maybe because of its shorter length? It might appeal to young adults, but so would many other fantasy novels.

This book is a departure from de Lint's Newford, urban-fantasy stories. This is set in a rather generic fantasy world, and the story is rather plain and straightforward compared with de Lint's longer, more complex later novels. But the characters spring to life, telling a story that is simple and lyrical as a ballad.

Wolf Moon by Charles de Lint (Firebird, 1988)

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The conclusion of the Trickster story

It is interesting to think about how reading a book compares to listening to the audio version. I have read many books by Tamora Pierce, but this one and Trickster's Choice are the first ones of hers I've ever listened to. Of course, the reader makes a huge difference when it's an audio version. For these books the reader was actress Trini Alvarado, and she did a marvellous job, using different voices, accents and intonations. The books were very exciting, and often I would sit in my car when I got to my destination, reluctant to turn off the engine because I wanted to hear what was going to happen next.

The book opens as Aly and the Balitang family return from their exile to the capital city of Rajmuat. There the kingdom is now ruled by the regents of the child king, and they govern with a cruel, paranoid hand. Aly, chosen by the trickster god Kyprioth to help bring about the downfall of the present ruling family and put a "twice-royal" queen (the eldest Balitang daughter) on the throne, has her work cut out for her. The plot unfolds rapidly, throwing Aly headlong into court intrigue, rebel plots, deception, romance, and murder.

Aly is an excellent heroine. She is strong, feisty, intelligent, and fiercely loyal. Her tendency toward over-self-confidence does lead to mistakes. When these mistakes happen, though, she doesn't succumb to self-pity or discouragement -- she picks herself up and keeps on going, and takes to heart any lesson she can learn from them.

This is a wonderful two-book story, with memorable characters and surprising plot twists. I was sorry when it ended, and now I'm thinking of listening to some of my old favorites by Pierce, just to visit her wonderful world again.
Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce (Listening Library, 2004)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

May Bird's underworld journey continues

I was surprised to see how short this sequel to May Bird and the Ever After is. It made me wonder whether the two volumes had originally been a single book, which the publishers had divided into two (so it wouldn't be so long), as sometimes happens. Together with the first book, it does form a single narrative arc - so I'm glad I read it while the first one was still fresh in my mind.

May continues her perilous journey. She is determined to return home to her mother (and in this book we get some snippets from her mother's point of view, which adds to the depth and tension), even though May is supposed to be the one who can deliver the Ever After from the evil clutches of Bo Cleevil. She is developing close friendships (the first in her life) with her ghostly compatriots, which makes her more and more torn between going home and trying to save them. She would be more determined to stay if only she had more self-confidence that she might actually be the warrior everyone seems to think she is. When she finally meets the Lady of the North, she is told that the very qualities that have made her an outsider are the strengths that will help her in the Ever After. If only she could believe it!

Somber Kitty is as fun and heroic as in the first book - and he's still my favorite character. I didn't much care for the picture of him on the cover, though - it makes him look like a grumpy old man. I found a better picture, which I'm posting below. :-)

While this series deals with death, ghouls, specters, and other dark matters, there are a lot of silly, whimsical touches that keep it from being overly grim and spooky. A third book in this series is scheduled to be released in September 2007, called May Bird, Warrior Princess.

May Bird Among the Stars by Jodi Lynn Anderson (Aladdin, 2007)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A nearsighted woman plants a most unusual garden

Miss Jaster lives in a lovely house in a garden near the sea. In the corner of that same garden lives Hedgie, a gentle hedgehog who occasionally meets Miss Jaster just after sunset, when they both enjoy strolling through the garden. Kind Miss Jaster offers Hedgie saucers of milk, but because she can't see very well, she has difficulty telling his head from his tail. Sometimes she sets the bowl of milk at the wrong end of the little hedgehog. When this happens, Hedgie politely dips his tale into the milk and pretends to drink, so he won't hurt her feelings. Hedgie enjoys listening to Miss Jaster play the piano in the evenings. It is a satisfying, peaceful life for them both.

Miss Jaster loves to garden. One day Hedgie is napping in the garden bed, and when Miss Jaster rakes the bed, sprinkles the seeds, and showers it with her watering can, Hedgie is right there in the middle being raked, sprinkled, and watered. The flowers that sprout from Miss Jaster's garden lead Hedgie on a sweet and surprising adventure.

This book has gorgeous illustrations that remind me of Edward Gorey's work (if you can picture an untwisted, cheerful, colorful version of his work, that is - something that might stretch the imagination a tad). Bodecker is also the illustrator of Edward Eager's wonderful books Half Magic and Knight's Castle. Miss Jaster's Garden has a timeless quality to it, so that although the book is from 1972, it does not seem at all dated. I love the map of the garden at on the front and back inside covers - I used to enjoy poring over such maps when I was a girl - and my own children did just that after we read the book together, tracing the locations of the story's events with their fingers.

This book appears to be out of print; we got our copy from the library. And you should, too.

Awards: New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book

Miss Jaster's Garden
by N. M. Bodecker (Golden Books, 1972)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A psychic detective mystery

The cute, chick-lit-esque covers of this series promise fun, light mysteries, so I thought I'd try the first one for a little (nearly) summer reading. And mostly, it delivered.

Abby Cooper is a skilled psychic whose best friend/business partner is moving away. Abby is also recovering from a difficult break-up, but knows it's time to get back in there. Her blind date goes great - until she discusses her psychic abilities with him, referring to a kidnapping story she saw on the news, and reveals details that are intimate to the case. Unfortunately, her hot date turns out to be a cop -- one who is extremely skeptical of her psychic skills.

The sudden death of one of her clients draws Abby into a complex and dangerous situation, made even more difficult by the intense guilt Abby feels for not having been able to prevent the death in the first place. Soon it becomes evident that she is the murderer's next target. Now she must work with a man she's physically attracted to, but who can't seem to take her profession seriously.

This book was fun and had a fairly gripping plot, but every so often it would jar me out of the story with prose that needed some serious editing. I know I'm probably pickier about grammar than lots of people - I'm right there with Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves) when she's out with her permanent marker adding missing apostrophes to signs - but honestly, when someone misuses language it diminishes their authority for me. Take this sentence, for example: "I sealed the envelopes, then closed my eyes, and began swirling them round and round the tabletop..." I had to go back and reread that one a few times, because I pictured her swirling her eyeballs around the table. Things like that kind of ruin the moment - but they were nothing that a good editor shouldn't have caught. I think the days when writers had careful editors are long gone, which is a shame. Every writer, no matter how accomplished, can benefit from a fresh set of eyes (as long as they're not swirling around the table top).

At any rate, I still enjoyed the book - it had great insight into the way psychics perceive the world, and when I got to the end of the book and read the author bio, I learned that the author is actually a clairvoyant and police psychic. It was a fun twist on a mystery to see how the author was able to ratchet up the tension by playing on the limits of the protagonist's psychic abilities. I look forward to reading the next installment in the Psychic Eye series.

Abby Cooper: Psychic Eye by Victoria Laurie (Signet reissue edition, 2004)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Don't you hate when English teachers tell you what a book is supposed to mean?

Remember reading Fahrenheit 451 in high school? Or other books like it? And then having to write a paper about What It All Meant, which usually entailed taking what the teacher said and finding things in the text to (kind of) support it?

Well, it turns out that Bradbury wasn't writing about government censorship when he wrote the book. Nor was it a response to McCarthyism. It was, Bradbury says, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature. Who knew?

I know, I know, the reader brings her or his interpretation of the story, and the writer puts things in unconsciously blah blah blah. And that is fine - I don't disagree with that. But writers do write things on purpose, and they certainly have the final say as to their intent. Plus I have a sneaking suspicion that most English teachers would have frowned on that interpretation of the book in a student paper prior to Bradbury stating his intent. If you want to know more, you can read this article, which appeared in the LA Weekly - and for the info straight from the horse's mouth, you can watch the videos from Bradbury's website.

I remember a story my French teacher told me in high school. She said that Robert Frost had come to visit her university, and after he gave his speech, he was walking around in the gardens, where students could approach him with questions and comments. One of my teacher's friends ran up to him and said, "Mr. Frost! When you wrote 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,' and you wrote about the snow, the snow meant death, right?" And Frost smiled and said, "Actually, I wrote about the snow because it was snowing."

A living girl in the land of the dead

May Bird lives in an isolated house on the edge of the woods -- not far from an abandoned town from which residents mysteriously disappeared many years earlier. Her mother worries about her, because she'd rather be alone in the woods than with children her own age. May does try to fit in at school, practicing smiles in front of the mirror to make them look less like the grimaces they are. She does this to make her mother feel better, but also because May is trying desperately to convince her not to send her to a private boarding school in New York.

May Bird loves exploring the woods with her strange little hairless Rex named Somber Kitty. Somber Kitty is, in fact, my personal favorite character in this book. He is not a talking cat, but there are sections from his point of view, and his dry outlook on life is just wonderful. One day May, exploring the old abandoned buildings, discovers a letter in the ruined post office, dated from before she was born -- and is astonished to find it is addressed to her. In it is a plea for help - someone needs her, and that unusual circumstance leads May to explore the woods farther than she's ever gone -- all the way to the lake.

She falls in the lake, and finds herself being pulled down, down, and when she wakes up, she's in the Ever After. A land populated by ghosts, specters, ghouls, and the confused spirits of the newly dead. She is relieved to find that she's not dead, but only until she learns that live people are not allowed in the Ever After. Somber Kitty follows her, and in his search for May he is captured by the ghosts of ancient Egyptians bent on worshiping -- and sacrificing -- him. May is on the run, wanting only to get back home to her mother and her cat (who she believes is safe at home), but also aware that the letter writer awaits her far to the north, and she is the only one that can save the people there from a fate that is -- literally worse than death.

May Bird and the Ever After by Jodi Lynn Anderson (Atheneum 2005)