Thursday, September 27, 2007

A funny tribute to Oscar Wilde

Morty and Ray are enthralled by an old black-and-white film they watch one afternoon. Fans of the old 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray will recognize the theme (if not the actual events) of the film, which illustrator Jack E. Davis depicts in wonderful monochrome images. In Pinkwater’s version of the film, the handsome villain’s wicked deeds include squirting people with a trick buttonhole flower and handing out hot pepper bubblegum. Every time the villain does something mean, his portrait gets a little uglier, while he remains young and handsome.

Morty and Ray think this is the coolest movie they’ve ever seen. When the portrait of the villain (which has been hidden away throughout the film) is finally revealed, the boys could not be more delighted. “It is gruesome! It is gross! It is ugly! It is awful and disgusting!” And off they go to paint a portrait of themselves...and conduct their own movie-inspired experiment.

“Now we have to do rotten things and see if the picture gets uglier,” says Ray. And they do. At school they spit their chewing gum into the water fountains; they clog up the toilet with lots of toilet paper, and they call people nasty names (including Lard Head, Bubble Butt, and Garbage Breath). When they find their picture has indeed become uglier, they are overjoyed -- and they head back to school to wreak more mayhem.

But then they take things a bit too far, with the help of some pickle juice, and really hurt a friend’s feelings. Can the two boys manage to salvage the friendship and set things right?

Pinkwater's irreverent text and Davis's humorous illustrations will have kids demanding this one again and again. And really, what better introduction to Oscar Wilde could there be?

The Picture of Morty and Ray by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jack E. Davis (HarperCollins, 2003)

Publisher recommends for ages 9 - 12.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A complex tale of wizardry

In this eighth book in Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" series, the youngest wizards are left to fend for themselves. Their ancient enemy has orchestrated a cataclysmic event that is causing the universe to expand exponentially more rapidly, which is affecting not only the wizards and their powers, but the rest of the nonmagical population as well. As objects in the universe move farther away from each other, people move farther away emotionally, becoming easily angered and paranoid - which exacerbates an already difficult global political situation. The older, more experienced wizards inform Nita and Kit that shortly the the older wizards will lose their powers completely - and they will eventually forget that wizardry even exists.

Nita, Kit, and their other talented young wizardly friends (several from other planets) quickly realize that while the increased expansion of universe is alarming, fighting the symptom will not help. They must understand the cause. Their search takes them across the universe to hostile worlds where they must act on their own, without any guidance from their mentors. The stakes are high, but the wizards are committed and willing to make enormous sacrifices in their war against their dark enemy.

This series, which began with So You Want to Be a Wizard, is one I've been enjoying from the very beginning. The characters change and grow with each book, and there is very little recapping of previous books, so it is especially important to read this series in order. My library shelves this in the juvenile fiction section, but the vocabulary and complexity of the story would be difficult for elementary-age children (phrases like "inimical atmosphere" and "dark matter aggregates" might be a bit off-putting to some readers). But I like that Duane doesn't pull any punches. She has a story to tell, and she's going to tell it in the words that best suit it.

The space travel and alien worlds hold appeal to fans of science fiction, and fantasy readers will enjoy the complicated spells and wizardry. These elements, combined with complex personal relationships and insight into alien (and our own) minds make for an exciting, compelling read where much is at stake - and so much is worth fighting for.

1. So You Want to Be a Wizard
2. Deep Wizardry
3. High Wizardry
4. A Wizard Abroad
5. The Wizard's Dilemma
6. A Wizard Alone
7. A Wizard's Holiday Book
8. Wizards at War

Wizards at War by Diane Duane (Magic Carpet Books, 2007)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A cool library post

When I saw this post on Carl V's blog (make sure you look at the whole post and scroll down to see the amazing photos) of the artwork on the walls of Kansas City's Central Public Library, I knew I had to link it here, as a sort of companion to my cool bookstores post. Because libraries are way better and cooler than bookstores. :-)

The above photo gives you an idea of what to expect. But be sure to check out Carl's post for more wonderful inside and outside photos.

Franny K. - the little mad scientist

Franny lives in a pretty pink house with purple shutters on Daffodil street, a bright and cheery house - all except for the upstairs bedroom with the tiny round window. That room would be Franny's room, and she likes to keep it dark and spooky, despite the best efforts of her mother, who keeps redecorating with daisies, lilacs, and pictures of beautiful horses. Yuck, thinks Franny. And in no time it is back to its wonderful, spooky, dungeon-like self, complete with bats and giant spiders. Just the way she likes it. Why, wonders Franny, would anyone want daisies and lilacs when they can have poison ivy and Venus flytraps?

Franny and her family have just moved to Daffodil Street, and Franny is excited to start her first day at school. She loves to learn, and she loves Miss Shelly (get it?), her new teacher. And she's excited about meeting the other kids and making new friends. But there's a little problem when it comes to making friends - the other kids (for some reason) think she's bizarre. They have no idea what to make of her. In fact, she is so very different from them that they are actually afraid of her. Luckily, Miss Shelly is an astute teacher, and she notices what is going on.

She and Franny have a little talk, and she tells Franny that she is so smart, she's sure to figure out how to make friends. Franny isn't so sure...until Miss Shelly says the magic words: "Think of it as an experiment."

Franny attacks her "experiment" with zeal and enthusiasm. She observes the other children, records what they play with (they don't use snakes for jumping rope, for example) and what they have for lunch (they don't eat crab ravioli in pumpkin sauce - they eat something strange called sandwiches). And Franny sets to changing things so they will no longer be afraid of her - so she will be just like them.

But...there are certain advantages to being friends with a mad scientist. And when a threat arises that is so awful no one - not even the wonderful Miss Shelly - knows what to do, what will happen if that terribly talented mad scientist has turned into nothing more than a normal little girl?

This is a funny, sweet book about individuality - and sure, it's a bit predictable as far as the theme goes, but the story unfolds in a funny, surprising way. This book is great for children who are moving from longer picture books and easy readers into chapter books, because there are pictures on every single page (funny, entertaining pictures) and no long, intimidating blocks of unbroken text. This is the first book in a very fun series. Fans of Captain Underpants will be sure to enjoy it (even though it lacks the potty humor).

I love Jim Benton's website (he offers insight into how the books are made, including what he uses for the artwork, showing how sketches become full-blown illustrations and how the cover art changes as different decisions are made. And what better recommendation for Franny could there possibly be than that she was among The National Enquirer's Top Ten Hotties of the Year?

Lunch Walks Among Us (Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist, #1) by Jim Benton (Aladdin Paperbacks, 2003)

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Internet: Is there anything it can't do? (To paraphrase Homer)

(Homer Simpson, that is.)

I love the Internet. I might be addicted. I get the shakes when I'm cut off for too long. I take my laptop on vacation and hang out at free WiFi places to get my fix. I love being able to check the weather when I need to know, rather than sitting in front to the TV or radio to finally hear what it is. I love watching movies and going to imdb to see who's in the movie and what movie I've seen them in (especially when it's an actor I'm going crazy trying to place - or a voice in an animated film). And of course I love stopping by friends' blogs to see what they've been up to and what they've been reading. I just love having access to information at my fingertips - and I love helping people find information when they need it.

I once read something - can't remember where - that said "librarians have an almost undeniable need to locate information and pass it on to people." And I thought, yep, that's me. I guess I'm in the right job!

Anyway, I just came across this most excellent post about where to find archival information on the Internet. It covers so many wonderful resources, from 5,000+ movie reviews at The Balcony Archive and NASA's astronomy picture-of-the-day archive to The Archive's Moving Images library of free movies, films, and videos - and the Calvin and Hobbes archive.

Note to Devinoni at Bracing for the Zombie Apocalypse (and all other zombie fans - I believe Stephanie is among them?): You absolutely must check out the spotlighted movie at the Moving Images library.

Changing seasons

This simple, sweet book is among those picture books that have appeal for very small children as well as younger elementary-age kids. The spare text and bold ink-and-watercolor illustrations combine to tell a story with a theme that all readers will have personally experienced.

Bear is in his first year - so everything is new to him. All is going well, until he sees an orange leaf fall from a tree. "Are you okay?" he wonders. More and more leaves fall, all over his island, and he is very concerned about this new development. He gathers up the leaves and tries to reattach them to the branches (spearing them on the ends of the twigs, which made my daughters giggle) - "But it was not the same."
He watches them come down and down, finally sitting down and glumly giving up on it all, and then he feels sleepy. So he takes the leaves, packs them into a hole all nice and comfy, and settles in for the winter. The readers see the winter come, but bear is snugly asleep in the hole, unaware of the snow drifting outside, and of it melting away as spring draws near. Watching him wake up so joyfully to the spring made us all smile. This would be a great book for preschoolers learning about seasons, but it also has appeal for older children, who can empathize with the difficulties of learning about the way things work the first time around, as well as with dealing with the inevitability of change.

Leaves by David Ezra Stein (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007)

Publisher recommends for ages 4 - 8.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

So, this is a little creepy

The next time I'm on an airplane and someone asks me what I'm reading, I think I'm going to feel a little bit suspicious. Why? Read this.

I don't know why this should surprise me, but I guess I'm just a bit too optimistic. And you'd kind of think that they might have something better to do, a more productive way to occupy their time. Without breaking the law, maybe? Sheesh.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dogs: a reader's best friend

This isn't the first time I've read of programs like these, and I just love the idea! What a great way for kids not only to practice reading, but to associate reading with good things, with fun and comfort, not stress and worry.

And yes, that is a picture of my dog. She likes to hang out nearby when the kids and I read to each other - and she never points out if any of us makes a mistake!

And if you or anyone you know would like to try reading to a receptive dog listener, may I recommend this book:

It's called Three Stories You Can Read to Your Dog by Sarah Swan Miller. Any dog would be thrilled to hear one of the stories from this book!

A very darlin' Clementine

My 3rd grader read this to me and her little (1st-grade) sister, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. Clementine (also a 3rd grader) is such a funny, creative free-thinker. However, she's having a pretty tough day as the book opens. She is has been sent to the principal's office after a hair cutting "incident" with her friend, which is not entirely Clementine's fault (although her own good intentions were definitely involved). When Clementine says, in the third paragraph of the book, "Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal's office, if that's a rule," I knew I was going to like the book.

Clementine's life has its ups and downs. She terribly misses her cat, Polka Dottie, who died before the book begins. Her relationship with her friend Margaret runs hot and cold, as friendships occasionally do. Clementine resents being named "after a fruit" and refuses to call her little brother anything but vegetable names, from Asparagus to Zucchini.

Clementine sometimes wishes her bedroom looked like a bedroom in a magazine, like her friend Margaret's (although she's not allowed to touch anything in there) and that her artist mother were more like other people's mother's, instead of working in the living room in paint-splattered overalls. When she mentions this, and she and her mother try to picture how her mother would look going to work, dressed like Margaret's mother (who works in a bank), they both burst out laughing, and suddenly things seem pretty good just the way they are.

It is hard to talk about Clementine without comparing her to Ramona and Junie B. Jones, two characters who are definitely her soul sisters. But she certainly stands on her own as a character in her own right. There is a depth to the characterization and themes of Clementine that makes this perfect for children who are ready to move on from Junie B. but sad to leave her behind. Clementine is irrepressible, good-hearted, trouble-prone and very entertaining! We are all looking forward to reading the sequel, The Talented Clementine.

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Hyperion Books for Children, 2006)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Gemma Doyle is back

Gemma, heroine of Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty, returns in this sequel, Rebel Angels. I didn't reread the first one, but discussing it with Cool Motorcycle Dudette at work refreshed my memory enough that, along with the short recap of events at the beginning of the book, I didn't feel I was missing anything. I will do my best to review this book without any spoilers for either of the two books.

The novel starts out at Spence Academy, the boarding school that was the setting for the first novel. Gemma has not returned to the realms since the end of the first book because she is afraid of what she will find there - and because she now realizes what is at stake. It is no longer a game, and events that happen in the realms can have tragic consequences in the "real" world. Her friends, Felicity and Ann, feel resentful because Gemma is the only one who has the magic that can open the door to the other realms. It is only in the realms that they experience power that is all too lacking in their lives as Victorian-era schoolgirls. A new teacher arrives, and there is something about her that doesn't seem quite right.

Kartik, the handsome, mysterious Indian boy returns, telling Gemma that she must go back to the realms and bind the magic that has been set loose. The wild magic is dangerous because there are frightening creatures that can use it in dark ways - including breaking through the barrier between the worlds. We soon learn, however, that Kartik has his own agenda and orders from the Rakshana, which aren't necessarily to Gemma's benefit.

During Christmas vacation the girls head to London for dances, theater outings, and teas - along with trips to the realms to search for the mysterious temple that is said to be the source of the magic Gemma must bind. But Circe is determined to bind the magic for herself, and it appears she will do anything to achieve her ends. Gemma's search for the truth takes her to Bethlehem Hospital (otherwise known as the Bedlam insane asylum) and opium dens in the worst part of London, and along the way she meets handsome, imminently eligible Simon Middleton, who seems as attracted to her as she is to him. But what if he knew the truth about her, Gemma wonders?

This was a suspenseful, exciting book, and the flowed seamlessly from the first one and gave greater insight into the characters. I did find it a rather stressful reading experience, though. Gemma was so alone, and she could never tell whom to trust. Even her closest friends had their own agendas, and I could never feel any faith that they would stick by her when it mattered. And Gemma made a bunch of really terrible decisions - things that in retrospect she would think, oh, that was stupid. But it wouldn't prevent her from making another stupid choice in the next chapter, and she just sort of blundered around throughout most of the book. It kept me on the edge of losing sympathy for her - any victories she had seemed almost to be by mistake. She was like the characters in the fairy tales that are told, whatever you do, don't do this or that, and she'd go right along and do it anyway. But still, I enjoyed the book and it had an exciting and satisfying ending.

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte Press, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Sleep. Eat. Read: "Bray's writing is smart, funny, engaging and imaginative. A good mix of gothic suspense and whimsical imagination make Bray's books a great read."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A wombat you just want to hug

I find myself checking this book out of my library again and again. My children get a giggle out of it every time - and so do I!

The premise is simple: it follows a most adorable wombat's day-to-day life. At first things are fairly routine:

Morning: Slept. Afternoon: Slept.
Evening: Ate grass. Scratched
Night: Ate grass. Slept

Each of these is events is illustrated by a drawing of the wombat sleeping, eating, and scratching. Eventually he decides that a steady diet of grass is a bit boring.

But things change when the wombat gets some new neighbors (the human kind). He helps them out by fighting a "major battle" with a "flat, hairy creature" (it is, in reality, a doormat). He demands a reward for his bravery and is given a carrot (insert soundtrack of the Hallelujah Chorus here). It is delicious! But how to get more?

The book continues in this simple diary format with delightful accompanying illustrations. Children will love that they understand what is going on when the wombat hasn't a clue (he stays in because "it's raining" - and the illustration shows a lawn sprinkler is the real cause), and they will laugh as they view the world from a wombat's point of view.

I highly recommend this one for readers of all ages. Leave it lying around when your friends come over - I guarantee they will pick it up, read it through, and laugh.Awards: ALA Notable Book, 2004; Young Australian Readers Award (2003); KOALA award for best picture book (2003) - among many others.

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley (Clarion Books, 2003)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Faeries and vampires win!

Faeries and vampires took the lead in the final day of the poll about readers' favorite supernatural characters, with 7 votes each. Closely behind them were dragons, witches and ghosts, in a three-way tie with 5 votes each. The werewolves had only four, and there was one vote for a supernatural creature I neglected to put on the ballot. I'd love to know what it was!

In the end, of course, the characters are less important to me than the writer's skill - there are certain writers I'd read even if their characters were dust bunnies or frying pans.

Stay tuned for the next poll (as soon as I think one up). And thanks to all who voted!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

An interesting form of censorship

Here's an idea: if you are horrified by the contents of a book at your local library, check it out - and keep it. Refuse to give it back. Heck, if there's more than one copy, take them all! And keep them. That's what this woman did, in the name of taking the offending books out of circulation.

I don't know why things like this perpetually astonish me. I don't have a problem with a library patron challenging a book in a library's collection. All libraries have (or should have) a policy in place for dealing with challenges, for taking a close look at a book and seeing if it is truly deserving of a place in the library's collection.

But I guess if you don't want any sort of dialog or discussion, it's better just to take the book and keep it.

Why I became a librarian

Although the moth men are kind of tame compared to some of the people who come into my library!

Monday, September 17, 2007

How do you keep track of the books you read?

Or (shocking to me as it might be to me) maybe you don't bother keeping track at all?

I had a notebook where I used to write down books that I read, starting back in 1988 (if that was before you were born, gentle reader, there is no need to mention that little fact :-D) . I later found a list I made that dated from 1980 (yes, being retentive starts early I suppose), so I added that, too. But as my notebook filled up, and my list grew longer and longer, I found it more and more difficult to find titles I was trying to locate (especially to see which book I was supposed to read next in a series).

So one day I sat down and transferred everything into a Word document. Now if I want to see all the books I've read by an author, I can just do "edit, find" by the author's name, and it takes me right down the list. It would be kind of fun to make a database out of it, but right now I just don't have the time (although the geek in me is delighted at the prospect). I also have a very complex system I use so I know if the book was a winner: I put a little happy face next to it. Yes, bleeding edge technology, I know - but I can still do a search and see what my favorite books are - which comes in very handy when I don't know what I feel like reading next, because I can bring up favorites and then head over to Amazon to see if the authors have published anything recently.

One unexpected benefit to being a retentive list maker is that, when I look through the list of books I've read, it brings back that time in my life quite forcefully. I remember reading this book while I was stuck in an airport in Denver, that book on the beach in Hawaii, this one when I was nursing my first child, etc. Kind of a cool time portal.

What about you? How do you keep track, if you do at all? If you don't, why not? Have you ever wished you did? Here is an interesting article about someone creating a virtual library through Google's new virtual library service. This service is similar to Library Thing, but includes book searches via Google's Book Search capabilities.

That whole idea is very appealing to me. I've noticed that since I began blogging about the books I read, they remain fresher in my mind, and I think that taking time to really think about them and write a short review about them enhances my reading experience. It makes me read more attentively. I don't know that I have the time right now to invest in taking advantage of putting together a virtual library. But I'd sure like to!

A vampire manga

Okay, so I'm not completely off the vampire kick yet. I saw this series on the shelf at the library and couldn't resist taking a look. The premise is fun: there is a day class and a night class at a private school called Cross Academy. The day class is comprised of normal school kids in their cute little uniforms. These kids love to hang around after school to see the night class arrive. The night class is comprised of incredibly hot kids that all the day kids have huge crushes on. Little do they know the deep, dark secret of the school: the night class students are all vampires.

Enter students Yuki Cross (the adopted daughter of the headmaster) and Zero Kiryu. They are the Guardians of the school, whose duty it is to keep the day class from learning about the vampires - and also to keep them safe. How two teenagers are supposed to protect one half of the school from the other half, who are vampires, is never completely explained. The headmaster's vision is a world in which vampires and humans can coexist peacefully, without violence (the night class students subsist on "blood tablets," for example).

There is a bit of a love triangle going on between Yuki, Zero, and the sexy vampire/student president of the night class, Kaname Kuran. Kaname saved Yuki's life from rogue vampires when she was a little girl, and he's been her hero ever since. Zero believes that all vampires are little more than beasts and refuses to trust any of them.

For the most part, this was an interesting beginning to a series. Because it appeared in serial form in magazines, there is a bit too much recapping of the story with each chapter, though. And there was a scene that I found a bit disturbing. At one point the headmaster offers his blood to a desperate vampire student, and in the next frame there's a little circle that says "gay" on the headmaster, and the student slugs him, saying it is sexual harassment. In the following frame, there's a thought cloud over the student that says, ambiguously, "He's been sexually harassed before?" So I was left to wonder what sort of school this was, and what the headmaster's true motives were. Or if it was a mean-spirited comment about homosexuality. Or was it meant to be funny? I'm not sure - the scene was a weird departure from the rest of the story, where the headmaster was portrayed as a sort of inscrutable but wise administrator with a noble agenda. Maybe I'm missing something?

It's hard to judge a manga series from the first volume - there is (I hope) still a lot more character development to come. The second volume is usually the one that determines whether or not I'll keep reading. We'll see how volume 2 goes - I'll keep you posted.

Vampire Knight, Vol. 1 by Matsuri Hino (VIZ Media, 2007)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

I love this idea!

I was reading Jen's blog the other day and found a great post. It talks about children's book writer and illustrator Grace Lin, whose husband, Robert Mercer, recently died of cancer. Apparently, after Robert was diagnosed with cancer, Grace began an incredibly imaginative fundraiser called Robert's Snow, the benefits of which go, in their entirety, to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The fundrasier involved wooden snowflakes that were painted and decorated by many talented children's book authors, then auctioned online.

Please read this post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast if you are at all interested in learning how you and your blog can support this year's effort. You can sign up to host a children's book illustrator on your blog and link your post about that illustrator (and his or her snowflake for this year) to the auction. If you'd like to help, contact Jules.

I love the idea of the blogging community coming together for this initiative, each of us contributing in a small way that, coordinated with other bloggers, can make a big difference. It illustrates the snowflake metaphor beautifully - one snowflake is a single, lovely, temporary thing - but many snowflakes together can form a blizzard, a force powerful enough to knock people off their feet. Let's hope this project will gather that kind of momentum.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A change of pace

All right already - enough vampires for now. I took a break and returned to Holly Black's gritty world, in which the darker aspects of human society meld with those of faerie. This book, while set in the same world as Tithe, is a standalone novel that has barely anything to do with characters and events from Tithe. But that was okay with me - after a few pages, I was hooked. Although I'd still like to read more about Kaye and Roiben, I found Val's story just as compelling - and I'd now like to read more about her!

The story begins as Val discovers something shocking, something that makes her feel sick and betrayed by the people closest to her. Angry yet cushioned by complete and utter shock, she takes the train from her New Jersey hometown into Manhattan. And while, in the back of her mind, she expects to go back home at some point, somehow she just doesn't. She hooks up with a couple strange but fascinating street kids, who take her through dark, wet subway tunnels to their "home," an abandoned subway station that is filthy and smelly, but relatively safe. One of the boys, Luis, can see creatures from faerie, or so he claims. Val, struck by the very strong desire to know the truth (an understandable reaction, given the sense of betrayal she's feeling), barges into a situation that she knows very little about, and finds herself beholden to a very real creature of faerie.

Val's journey is not an easy one, and she makes some terrible decisions along the way. The mom in me was shocked and upset by some of the events in this book, but at the same time the darkness and grittiness fit well with the plot and theme. In the end it was an honest novel about a very hurt and betrayed girl learning to trust herself and stand on her own two feet. So, no complaints here, worried mom voice or no!

The book is also a murder mystery - someone is poisoning creatures of faerie, and this mystery entwines itself around the lives of Val and her friends. I enjoyed the melding of the fantasy and mystery genres - it was a very fun mix. The next book in Black's "Modern Faerie Tale" world is Ironside, which continues the storyline of Tithe. I'm excited about that, but I do hope someday we will get to read more about Val and her friends.

Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie by Holly Black (Simon Pulse, 2005)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

ANOTHER vampire novel?

I didn't plan it that way. I just got to talking with a library patron about what we'd been reading lately, and she recommended this one. It sounded good, so I put it on hold. And I was glad I did!

I don't want to say too much about this novel, because one of the things I most enjoyed about it was the way it unfolded, with lots of very fun surprises along the way. There is a lot of back story that comes out, little by little, as the book progresses. But I will tell you how it starts out, since you'll learn that in the first few pages anyway.

Cassie Palmer returns from a lunch break at work to find an obituary - her obituary, displayed on her computer screen. She realizes that she has to flee immediately - her past has caught up with her. She has been in hiding from Tony - a mobster who also happens to be a very powerful vampire. Cassie has the Sight, and someone with her abilities is a useful tool in Tony's organization. But then, Cassie has no interest in being a useful tool. She flees, and from there on out her life becomes progressively more complicated and dangerous.

Vampires, werewolves, gypsy curses, fey, time travel, dungeons, assassins, witches - sit back and enjoy the ride, because you'll never be able to tell where the book will take you next. I was delighted to learn that there is a sequel, Claimed by Shadow - and that the third book, Embrace the Night, will be published in April, 2008.

Touch the Dark by Karen Chance (Roc, 2006)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Gardella Vampire Chronicles continues

This second installment in the series continues the story of Regency-era vampire hunter Victoria Gardella, who travels to Italy in an attempt to ferret out and thwart a dire plot that, if it succeeds, could kill thousands of people.

This book is a bit darker than the first. Victoria is no longer a self-centered debutante; she has suffered loss, and she fully understands what is at stake. However, she is still young, headstrong and impulsive, and (luckily for us) those characteristics tend to get her into all kinds of trouble.

Fellow venator Max has apparently disappeared, which worries Victoria's Aunt Eustacia rather more than it does Victoria, who doesn't miss his judgmental, overbearing manner. But when she must travel incognito to Italy, she does feel rather alone - especially when she must infiltrate a secret organization of human vampire servants all by herself.

Sexy Sebastian Vioget enters the scene, and he is just as attractive to Victoria as he was in the last book - but as much as she is drawn to him, Victoria is fully aware he cannot be trusted. When she finally does meet up with Max, she is surprised and taken aback by his behavior - and he makes it very clear that her presence in Rome is unwelcome. Still, Victoria has a job to do, and she's not one to let anyone get in her way.

This book was an enjoyable, suspenseful continuation of Victoria's story, and I particularly liked getting to meet Dr. Polidori at the house party in the beginning of the book, as well as being able to take a closer look into the the history and society of the venators. Visiting 19th-century Italy was fun, too - I only wish an editor who spoke Italian could have proofread the Italian phrases sprinkled throughout the text.

Victoria Gardella has come a long way from her first foray against the undead at her coming-out party, and I'm looking forward to seeing where her journey will take her in the third volume, The Bleeding Dusk, due to be published in February, 2008.

Books in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles:
1. The Rest Falls Away
2. Rises the Night
3. The Bleeding Dusk
4. When Twilight Burns
5. As Shadows Fade

Rises the Night by Colleen Gleason (Signet Eclipse, 2007)

Monday, September 10, 2007

I'll miss you, Madeleine

I suppose the news shouldn't have been a huge surprise, since it was no secret that Madeleine L'Engle was elderly and not in the best of health. But I was still unprepared for the impact when I heard she had died.

My third-grade teacher read us A Wrinkle in Time, and from that moment I was hooked on her books. I will never forget the creepiness I felt when my teacher read us the scene on the planet Camazotz, when all the children come out of their houses, bouncing balls in unison. Yikes! And the terrifying villain, IT, haunted my dreams for years after that.

My favorite of her children's books, though, are the ones that feature Vicky Austin and the Austin family, and my very favorite of those is A Ring of Endless Light. As I child I loved to lose myself in stories about the Austin family because it was the kind of family I longed to have, and those books were a safe but stimulating place to think and learn about life. I wished I could be Vicky! Now, as an adult, when I reread those books I wish I could be like Vicky's mother - and I try to create that same sort of loving, inspiring family dynamic for my own family. (Of course, my children will probably be reading books about some other family and wishing they could have that one instead!)

I loved discovering L'Engle's books for adults, after growing up reading her books for kids. My favorite of her novels for adults is A Severed Wasp, and my very favorite of her nonfiction books is A Circle of Quiet. I read that book every two or three years, just to keep my head on straight and make sure I'm headed in the right direction. Her writing has had that kind of impact on my life, and on my own writing, as well. Her words never fail to wake up my mind and make me look at things in a new light, from a new perspective, especially when I've been going through a difficult time.

I am comforted by the fact that, even though she won't be writing any more books, we still have all the ones she did write, and I know I will turn to them again and again for a long time to come.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotations by Madeleine L'Engle. It's from her book Walking on Water:

"When I am grappling with ideas which are radical enough to upset grown-ups, then I am likely to put these ideas into a story which will be marketed for children, because children understand what their parents have rejected and forgotten."

The two Nanas go to Tokyo

In this second volume of the Nana manga series, the two Nanas find themselves bound for Tokyo, and they end up sitting next to each other on the train. Unfortunately it is snowing, and the train is chugging along at a snail's pace, adding hours onto their trip. Irrepressible Nana Komatsu's excitement runs unabated, however, and she chats away at the more introverted Nana Osaki, who seems to find her endearing in spite of herself.

The same lighthearted, humorous tone of the first volume is also present here, along with the more serious themes of women making life decisions and trying to realize their dreams. I particularly enjoyed watching the Nanas' friendship develop - it reminded me of those odd friendships that manage to happen even when you appear to have nothing at all in common with the other person - there's something there that clicks, and you become friends all the same.

I continue to get the feeling that the stage is still being set for what is to come. The players are moving into their places, and the plot is thickening. I'm looking forward to seeing the story continue in the next volume.

Nana, Vol. 2 by Ai Yazawa (VIZ Media, 1999)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Collector of Words

Max's big brother Benjamin has an enormous stamp collection, full of wondrous, colorful postage stamps. "May I have one?" asks Max. "No," says Benjamin.

Max's other big brother, Karl, has a huge collection of coins, in many different sizes and values, from all over the world. "May I have one?" asks Max. "No," says Karl.

Max wants to have a collection, too, but he isn't sure what to collect. Finally he decides, to his brothers' amusement, to collect words. He starts with small words, like "the," "its" and "who," cutting them out of magazines and newspapers, then moves on with larger, more interesting words like "alligator," and "hissed," and words that make him feel good, like "baseball," "dogs," and "hugs." The words spread across his desk in colorful shapes, each one illustrating the word it depicts (the H in Hugs has arms that hug each other, for example, and the word Park is cut from hedges, as seen from above, with tiny people walking around among them).

Soon Max's brothers grow interested in his collection in spite of themselves. Max can arrange his word in different ways, and they form different things (like "A blue crocodile ate the green iguana"). But when Karl and Benjamin rearrange their collections, it doesn't make much difference at all. Max can even arrange his words into a story -- a fun, exciting story that grabs his brothers' attention and soon has them participating as well.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable picture book about the wonder and versatility of language, the power of storytelling - and the ingenuity of younger siblings.

Max's Words by Kate Banks, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Frances Foster Books, 2006)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Now HERE are some very cool bookstores!

This one was converted from an opera house (and the stage is the cafe). And this one used to be a movie theater! I like the idea of books creeping into non-book-intended spaces and taking over...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thief, Liar, Gentleman?

Montmorency is a prisoner in Victorian London with an unusual status. When the police were chasing him prior to his arrest in a burglary, he fell through a glass roof and sustained such terrible injuries that he would have certainly died were it not for the skillful administrations of Dr. Farcett. The brilliant doctor makes quite a name for himself when he is able to restore Montmorency's health. He exhibits Montmorency at London's Scientific Society, showcasing his medical methods and achievements. Montmorency feels uncomfortable being offered up as a living medical specimen, having total strangers run their hands over his scars and sutures, but he learns many interesting things during these sojourns from prison.

One lecture he hears during the course of an evening is by Joseph Bazalgette, who explains to an admiring crowd about the new sewage system he has created for London, a system that will decrease disease and stench throughout the city. Montmorency, criminal mastermind that he is, immediately thinks of the uses to which he might put such a system. The sewage tunnels would be the perfect way for a thief to arrive unobserved - and, of course, to make a clean, mysterious getaway.

Prison life is difficult, due to the fact that the other prisoners dislike and distrust him, openly abusing him because of his "special" status and frequent absences. He would like to have a partner to work with once he gets out, but he doesn't dare to confide in anyone, not even his one cell mate, who is an incredible mimic and teaches Montmorency some of his skills. When Montmorency finally does get out, he realizes that, in order to survive and succeed in his plan, he can trust no one. He will have to become two different people - a lower-class man (to move through the sewers), and a gentleman (to fence his ill-gotten gains). Can he pull it off? What of the psychological implications of living a double life? It surprises him when, in his gentleman's role, he begins to feel guilt about his actions and their consequences. And when he is given an opportunity to utilize his skills in a way that can help his country, which of his two selves will reign in making that choice, the self-serving thief, or the newly created gentleman?

This was a fascinating, exciting novel written by an author with in-depth knowledge of the historical time period. I enjoyed the psychological nature of the theme, as well as the fear of discovery and thrill of the chase as Montmorency pursues his double life. It was a bit puzzling to me why this is classified as a young-adult novel, because the protagonist appears to be an adult - there are no adolescent issues here. But I think the story certainly has teen appeal - and adult appeal as well. This is the first book of a series about Montmorency's adventures, and I am definitely curious to read more about this interesting character.

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanore Updale (Scholastic, 2003)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Here's something sad and bizarre

Molly sent me this link to a sad, strange story about a bookstore in Kansas City burning books in protest because they couldn't get anyone to take the surplus books off their hands. The story and the accompanying video are rather vague about the situation, so I'm not sure what the real point is. When you think about it, isn't it irresponsible to collect so many books that you can't get rid of, and then expect people to take them off your hands when you don't want them anymore?

I agree with the owners that the decline in reading in the U.S. is deplorable, but I fail to see how burning books is going to "spark a conversation" about it (sorry about the pun, but I was quoting!), especially a productive one. Chris recently posted about the topic after he read an article about the lack of reading today, and there was a more productive conversation in the reader comments section than I imagine could be garnered by burning a bunch of books. Maybe it was the cheapest way they could think of to get rid of them - disguised as a protest? I'd hate to believe that.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Two girls called Nana

Valentina recommended this manga series in her comments to my review of xxxHOLIC #9 a few weeks ago, and I thought I'd check it out. When I read in the end notes of the book that Nana is "the all-time best-selling shojo title from Japanese publishing giant Shueisha," I was curious to see what all the fuss was about

I think I will need to read a few more in the series to get a real feel for this one. This book is divided into two sections, each about a girl named Nana. The first Nana, Nana Komatsu, is just graduating from high school. She is the sort of girl who falls in love with anyone with a handsome face, no matter how unrealistic the idea of a relationship might be: the video store guy, the pizza delivery guy, a teacher at school, a kind but married man. She hilariously blames her bad luck at love to being cursed by "the Demon King."

The disastrous ending to her last relationship has made her determined to try actually becoming friends with a boy before entering into a romantic partnership with him. So, although she thinks Shoji is a total hottie, she is determined to keep him at a distance - even though it quickly becomes clear that they are crazy about each other. But can their relationship withstand Nana's determination to be just friends? I particularly liked Nana's relationship with her best friend, Junko, whose wisdom and caustic wit help keep Nana on the right track. This story was an interesting look at the way girls, especially (but unfortunately not limited to) teens, tend to define themselves according to the boy they are with. I appreciated Nana's attempts to break away from this mentality.

The second Nana story follows Nana Osaki, singer in a popular band in her town. She is romantically involved with sexy fellow band member Ren, and they appear to have a strong, positive relationship. The problem is that Ren has been asked to join a band in Tokyo that has just signed on with a record label, but there is no need for a singer, so Nana is going to stay behind, still hoping for her big break. What kind of future, if any, can she hope to have with Ren? Again, it was interesting to watch this Nana struggle with those decisions that many women must face about which dreams they want to follow.

My reading tastes tend to run to the fantastical and otherworldly (and manga series like XXXholic and Cardcaptor Sakura), but I do occasionally enjoy something a bit more realistic (like Mars by Fuyumi Soriyo). Nana has an interesting depth of theme and characterization that have piqued my interest and made me want to read about the further adventures of Nana and Nana.

Nana, Vol. 1 by Ai Yazawa (Viz Media. 1999)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Some geeky library humor

So here is a link to some funny error messages librarians wish they could use in their online catalog systems! I had to laugh. (The above comic has nothing to do with it - I just thought it was funny!)

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Black Jewels trilogy continues...

Often I find the the second volume of a trilogy is a bit of a letdown. It's often nothing more than a bridge between the first and third volumes, without enough of a narrative arc to make the book truly satisfying. I'm pleased to report that this is not the case with Anne Bishop's Heir to the Shadows.

If you are reading this and haven't read the first volume in this excellent (so far, for me) trilogy, beware that there may be spoilers to the first one. If you would like to know a little about Daughter of the Blood, volume one in the trilogy, click here.

Heir picks up where Daughter of the Blood ended, more or less. The fate of Jaenelle is up in the air, and all those who love her and support her are helpless to do anything to bring her back to the world of the living. Daemon is missing; Lucivar, his half-brother, is tricked into believing Daemon brutally raped and murdered Jaenelle, so when Daemon comes to him for help, Lucivar refuses. Meanwhile Heketah, the villain who so nearly destroyed Jaenelle in the first volume, has hatched a dastardly plot to get the witch she fears, whose power she craves to control, under her thumb, once and for all.

These books are tightly plotted, with deft point-of-view shifts that ratchet up the tension and move the story forward at a gripping pace. At the same time, Bishop creates characters with depth and emotional complexity. The complicated world that was only seen in bits and pieces in the first book is more fully revealed in this one, leaving the reader with a true sense of wonder - and of dread. One thing that made these books so compelling for me is that Bishop never pulls any punches. Truly horrific things happen, and they can happen to characters you care about, so you can never feel complacent or safe. And when the most dastardly characters get their comeuppance, it is often in such a brutal way that you almost (but not quite, because the villains are really villainous) feel pity for them.

This book stands on its own, in a plot sense - it doesn't leave the reader hanging at the end. Yet there is definitely the sense of more to come, with characters that have moved into position for the start of a final confrontation. Judging from the first two volumes of this trilogy, it's going to be very satisfying conclusion.

Heir to the Shadows by Anne Bishop (Roc, 1999)