Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Don't worry - it's just your magic nation

When Abby O’Malley was a little child, she experienced colorful visions and feelings that were often confusing to her. When she asked her teacher about them, she was told not to worry: “It’s just your magic nation.” So Abby thought everyone saw and felt these odd sensations, and didn’t think too much about it. Now that she's twelve, she realizes the teacher had probably been saying, “It’s just your imagination.” And that most people probably don't experience these things. At least, not normal people.

And Abby desperately would like to be normal. But events in her life are beyond her control, and her parents’ divorce, the move from her beloved old house, and the fact that her mother has a distinctly un-normal job – she’s a private detective, for crying out loud! – do not make for a normal life.

She finds her mother's belief that they are descended from a line of witches unsettling, too. Abby does her best to ignore the occasional unusual images and sensations she gets when she holds something that belongs to someone else - that is, until she picks up a locket belonging to a six-year-old girl who has been kidnapped and has a vision of the girl's location. How can she save the girl without a rational explanation for what she knows?

This was an exciting book with vividly drawn characters and events. I'm not sure I totally bought Abby's aversion to her psychic abilities - sure, it's not "normal," but her desire for normalcy simply didn't seem rooted in anything strong enough to explain her unwillingness. That said, I love Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books, and she is such a wonderful storyteller that I'm willing to go along for the ride. It's always worth it!

The Magic Nation Thing by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Delacorte Press, 2005)

Monday, July 30, 2007

A depression-era childhood

When Lloyd Alexander died last May, I decided to read one of his books that I'd never read before, just to spend a little more time with him. Cool Motorcycle Dudette, the excellent children's librarian I work with, recommended this one, and it has sat on my book pile since then, I'm ashamed to say.

I'm afraid being in a post-Potter-funk may have colored my reading of this one a little bit. It was a good book, but not the sort of novel that lurks in the back or your mind at all times, urging you to get back to it and keep reading at all costs. Having only read Alexander's fantasy novels, I suppose I was expecting something fantastical and otherworldly. What I got was a sweet novel that read almost like a memoir. I have not yet researched it, but the details of a 1930s boyhood feel autobiographical, and I know that Alexander was from Philadelphia, where the novel is set.

Our hero is David, an 11-year-old who calls himself the "invisible boy" - no one in his family seems to notice him, except when there are chores to be done. The one exception to his feeling of invisibility is when he's with his ancient Aunt Annie, a former schoolteacher whose eyes seem to see right through him. When David nearly dies of pneumonia, the doctor decrees he should not go back to school - he needs rest, light exercise, and plenty of fresh air. This sounds marvelous to David, who hates school anyway, but then he finds himself sent to be tutored by Aunt Annie, called a "proper Gorgon" (mispronounced "Gawgon" by David's Aunt Rosie).

His trepidation about his elderly aunt soon vanishes, however (although in his mind he still calls her The Gawgon), when he discovers she is a fascinating person who has traveled all over the world, and who has that rare gift in teachers: she fires his imagination and makes learning exciting and interesting.

Interspersed in the narrative are stories that David invents and illustrates, based on characters and events that he is learning about, in which he and The Gawgon are the heroes. They meet Sherlock Holmes, Napoleon, Polydectes and Perseus. Personally, I found the stories to be an unwelcome interruption to the narrative as a whole, but I think a younger reader might not only enjoy the humorous detours but also become encouraged to learn more about the people and events in the stories. It would have been nice had the publisher included the pictures "drawn" by David.

I particularly enjoyed the details specific to the 1930s that made the narrative ring so true. For example, when David first uses The Gawgon's ink to write an assignment, he is pleased and surprised to find it holds nothing but ink. At school, the inkwells were "usually jammed with chewing gum, spitballs, dead flies, and unrecognizable foreign objects." I'd never thought of that before, but it makes perfect sense - of course that's how school ink bottles would be! And when he is invited for a glass of lemonade at a neighbor's house, he marvels at the cubes of ice in his glass, instead of slivers, which meant it came from one of the new electric refrigerators, rather than being chipped off a large block of ice, like at his house.

I definitely enjoyed this sweet coming-of-age story.

Awards: ALA Notable Book, 2002

The Gawgon and the Boy by Lloyd Alexander (Dutton Children's Books, 2001)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Move over, Wilbur!

I am a big fan of Kate DiCamillo's books, particularly Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux. So two summers ago, when I saw the first installment in her new Mercy Watson series (Mercy Watson to the Rescue), I was delighted! These books are excellent transitional books - great for beginning readers who are ready to leave easy readers behind but find longer chapter books a bit too daunting. The pictures are large, bright, and amusing, and there are very few long, uninterrupted blocks of text to put off reluctant readers.

The premise behind the series is that Mr. and Mrs. Watson have a beloved pet pig, Mercy, who, in their words, is a "porcine wonder." Mercy is motivated by one thing: food, particularly toast with a great deal of butter on it - but her fond owners firmly believe she is intelligent, capable, and heroic. Mercy's exploits typically involve a search for food that leads to hilarious trouble, but Mercy somehow comes out looking like a hero and smelling like a rose (much to the dismay of grumpy neighbor Eugenia Lincoln, who has many opinions, including one that says pigs should not be kept as pets.

In this fourth book in the series, Mercy submits to wearing an uncomfortably snug princess costume for Halloween, because she likes the sound of "treat" in trick-or-treating. Chaos ensues when Mercy meets Eugenia's new pet cat, General Washington, which involves an impromptu Halloween parade through the neighborhood, the calling of the fire department, and, of course, toast with a great deal of butter on it. The story is fun, and Van Dusen's whimsical pictures complement the text beautifully, ensuring extra laughs.

Find some kids and read this book to them. Read the whole series! You'll grin the whole way through, guaranteed.

Books in the Mercy Watson series:
1. Mercy Watson to the Rescue
2. Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride
3. Mercy Watson Fights Crime
4.
Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise
5. Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig
6. Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes

Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press, 2007)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Thirteeen mysterious little envelopes

17-year-old Ginny is about to embark on the adventure of her life. The thing is, she has no idea where the adventure is going to take her - or exactly what it entails.

Her beloved Aunt Peg was an artist and the most interesting person Ginny knew. And what's more, she had the ability to make plain, ordinary Ginny's plain, ordinary life seem interesting, too. When they spent time together, life abounded with limitless possibilities. They played imaginary travel games, exploring countries by visiting art galleries, restaurants and museums.

But then her aunt suddenly took off for Europe, leaving Ginny and her family without a word for months on end, and then, before they even saw her again, came the news that Aunt Peg had died.

Ginny is experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions: anger with her aunt about leaving so abruptly, sadness at losing her, disbelief that such a thing could have happened at all. Then she receives a letter from her aunt, written when she realized she would not be seeing Ginny again, along with $1000 in cash. Her aunt invites her to play one last travel game, only this one won’t be imaginary – she is to book a one-way ticket to London. Further instructions will follow.

Exactly where she’s going, Ginny doesn’t know. She is to follow the rules of the game, which include no guidebooks, no extra money beyond what her aunt will provide, and no electronic crutches (no laptop, no cell phone, no iPod, etc.). Instead of a map or guidebook, Aunt Peg has given Ginny thirteen little blue envelopes. She can only open one at a time, and she must follow the instructions completely before she can open the next one. Ginny embarks on an adventure that will lead her through Europe, opening one envelope after the next, trying to understand exactly what it is that her aunt is trying to teach her as she goes.

Ginny's adventures make for fun reading, with action, romance, and the solving of little mysteries about her aunt every stop of the way. Following Aunt Peg's bizarre instructions, Ginny finds herself learning things in a way she never would have if she were traveling in a more conventional way. My only issue was that I found it hard to believe that the parents of a 17-year-old would allow their daughter to travel alone to Europe with no cell phone, no way of knowing where she was or how to contact her. But although those thoughts were in the back of my mind as I read, I still enjoyed traveling along on Ginny's voyage of discovery.

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson (HarperTeen, 2006)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I, apparently, rock. Is that cool or what?


So this is very exciting. Stephanie from Confessions of a Bookaholic and Dolce Bellezza have both nominated me as a Rockin' Girl Blogger. How cool is that? Bellezza actually did it first, but I am kind of slow and did not realize that I, in turn, am supposed to nominate four other special bloggers (duh).

So I'd like to thank Stephanie and Bellezza, who are both guilty of turning me into a blog addict with their excellent book reviews and fun, interesting blogs. I only started my blog journey in April, and I have been having a blast, thanks to bloggers like them and the many others whose blogs I have discovered through their sites.

And for my nominations:

Redheaded Rover and Virginia Gal, first and foremost, because they are the ones who slowly lured me into this wonderful blogosphere. I especially love how they get angry about injustice and other ills of our society and rant and rave and make me feel I'm not alone, and that the world is a better place with people like them in it who care and feel so much. Plus they make me laugh.

I would also like to nominate Rebekka, because she is a fellow avid Diana Wynne Jones fan, and whose blog I love to visit because she is an excellent writer with hilarious posts that make me laugh out loud. I love when she rants about Australian politics because, even though I am American-ly clueless about what she is talking about, she's indignant about all the right things. And have I mentioned that she's funny?

And last, I'd like to nominate Biscuit Girl, another blogger who inspired me to start blogging. If you like to eat, her blog is the place to go. If there's anything I love as much as books, it's food, and she shares recipes, cooking tips, and wonderful photos of food that make me sooo hungry. Plus she has links to many other wonderful food and cooking blogs that are a definite shot in the arm whenever I get in a cooking rut.

Thanks for your wonderful blogs!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A mysterious death in a country manor house

The Mystery Maven, an avid mystery reader at my library, recommended this Regency-era mystery series, so I thought I'd try the first installment. I enjoy mysteries, but the caveat is that there must be more there than just the unraveling of the puzzle: compelling characters (and substantial character development), an interesting setting, events that leave the characters altered in a meaningful way at the end of the book. I am especially fond of historical mysteries - like those of Anne Perry, Laurie R., King and Lindsey Davis. And this one is definitely going on the list.

This first installment in the Julian Kestral series has an intriguing beginning. A young man of a noble, respected English family agrees to marry the daughter of a man who is wealthy but of a "common" background. Such marriages are not unheard of, particularly when the noble family is in financial straits. But the Fontclair family is prosperous, and the proposed marriage is clearly unwelcome to its members, who are proud of their family's noble past, which can be traced back to before the Battle of Hastings. What does wealthy tradesman Mark Craddock hold over their heads? This mystery is intriguing, but it is soon overshadowed by the death of a young, anonymous woman whose body is discovered tucked neatly in the bed in a guest room of their manor house just weeks before the wedding.

Our sleuth, Julian Kestral, reminds me of a young Jarndyce from Bleak House. At first glance he appears to be a superficial young man, out gaming and drinking with other well-dressed gentlemen. But it quickly becomes clear that he has kind and generous heart, although he dislikes it immensely if anyone calls attention to it. His manservant, Dipper, is an ex-pickpocket (and the story of how he became a servant is a wonderful illustration of Julian's kindhearted nature) and a wonderful character. Unfortunately, suspicion of the crime falls upon Dipper, and in order to clear his name, Julian must become involved in solving a mystery that is likely to tear apart the Fontclair family.

I enjoyed this mystery novel and will definitely read the next one in the series. It was full of lots of intriguing twists and turns, and, as with all good mysteries, in retrospect it came together and made perfect sense. I enjoyed the characters, and I will be curious to see which, if any, make appearances in future books in the series.

After I finished this book I learned that Kate Ross died 1n 1998 at the age of 42, and there are only four books in this series. How sad! Click here for a list of the books in the Julian Kestral series and for more information about the author.

Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross (Penguin, 1994)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Farewell, Harry! I'll miss your adventures.

I thoroughly enjoyed this final installment in the series. Harry is turning seventeen in this book, and as he comes of age he faces evil with no protection from anyone else. The stakes are higher than ever, and Rowling makes this irrefutably clear from the beginning of the book, when Harry immediately loses two loved ones in an attack by Voldemort's Death Eaters.

Yet despite the grim turn of events, Harry is not alone. He is supported by Ron and Hermione, as well as Ron's family and the many friends he has made since he first came to Hogwarts. Rowling maintains a deft balance between a constant sense of peril and lighthearted moments shared by the friends, with dialogue that had me laughing out loud.

I often hear people comment - complain, even - that the books become so dark as the series progresses. I think that is fitting. If no lives were sacrificed in the fight against Voldemort, it would be too easy; the fight would be meaningless. As Harry grows older, the protections around him - from his parents, his godfather, his headmaster - gradually fall away. The books become darker as Harry grows stronger and more able to face the evil that is Lord Voldemort. He is no longer a child, and the book is no longer a children's book. Harry must stand up for himself, alone. Horrible things happen to innocent people, and these things are a constant reminder of what is at stake, why Voldemort must be stopped at all costs. And the costs are many.

I particularly enjoyed the complexity of the characters. We come to know Dumbledore in this book, and Harry must come to terms with the fact that adults are people, not constructs that spring to life in a fixed, adult form. Dumbledore was once young, he made mistakes, and it becomes increasingly difficult for Harry to reconcile his new knowledge of Dumbledore with the man he thought he knew. And finally we learn what it was that made Dumbledore so confident about Snape. Although it was all so sad, I almost regretted learning about it.

This is a gripping book - it was almost impossible to put down, especially during the last third or so. I was hoping we would return to Hogwarts, and Rowling did not disappoint me. The book sailed through to the inevitable conflict at the end, and the climax was exciting and fitting. My only complaint is that it ended so very quickly. I would have enjoyed a longer scene in which we got to spend a little more time with these characters I've loved for so many years. But still, I honestly could not have asked for a more satisfying conclusion.

It is bittersweet to have come to the end of the series at last. I will miss you, Harry.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder what Rowling will write next. It couldn't possibly be as compelling as this series...could it? Talk about a tough act to follow! She has definitely honed her craft with these books, each one better than the last. Whatever it is, I will be waiting to read it. I only hope we won't have to wait too long...

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, 2007)

Friday, July 20, 2007

My favorite Rapunzel story

This is one of those books that we kept checking out of the library so often that I finally just went out and bought a copy.

I love the idea of illustrating a story with paintings inspired by the Italian Renaissance masters – as well as setting the story in Italy, with rich details of Italian architecture and the Italian countryside. I first picked up the book because of the illustrations, but when I sat down with my children and actually read it to them, I was delighted with the text as well. It is a clear, well-written retelling of the Rapunzel story that explores ideas and themes that most versions of the story either gloss over or completely ignore.

Zelinsky researched the origins of the fairytale and incorporated elements from its precursors, a Neapolitan story called “Petrosinella,” and a seventeeth-century French version, among others, which give his telling a depth that many others lack. For example, the sorceress doesn’t lock Rapunzel in the tower because she’s evil or mean; it appears, instead, a misguided attempt to keep Rapunzel safe, to shelter her from the dangerous outside world. She treats Rapunzel well, and the tower is magically bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside, so despite her imprisonment, Rapunzel at least has plenty of room to move around.

The Renaissance-style illustrations, paired with the text, give the book an otherworldly fairytale feel that keep us coming back to it again and again. This one definitely has a place in any fairytale collection.

Awards: Caldecott Medal, ALA Notable Book, Horn Book Fanfare - 1998

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton Children's Books, 1997)

Publisher recommends for ages 4 - 8

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A few questions after rereading the Half-Blood Prince

Like many other Harry Potter fans, I've just reread the sixth book so it will be fresh in my mind for the seventh and final installment in the series.

I enjoyed this one because it gives us further insight into many characters, particularly Snape and Dumbledore, and the romantic relationships were so much fun! I particularly loved the part where Luna is the commentator for the Quidditch match - she is a wonderful character. I enjoyed the way Bill and Fleur's relationship played out, and how Harry is finally permitted to take a more active role in fight against Voldemort (not that he hasn't played an active role in previous books, but here the adults are no longer trying to protect him by keeping him in the dark). Much is at stake now, and Rowling isn't pulling any punches.

Some questions came to mind as I was reading:

How on earth did Hagrid get wrongly accused in the Chamber-of Secrets matter back when he was a student, given the existence of veritaserum? Couldn't they have just used that to see what actually happened? In fact, wouldn't that have worked at the inquest when the Ministry of Magic tried to have Harry expelled from Hogwarts in the Order of the Phoenix?

Also, the existence of the time turners creates other questions - if characters can go back in time and change things, is anything that happens fixed and immutable?

And of course, there is the question that everyone's been asking since this book first came out - what on earth did Dumbledore know that made him trust Snape so implicitly? Was he just flat out wrong? He does say to Harry at one point that because he (Dumbledore) is cleverer than most, the mistakes he makes tend to be fairly colossal. Or is there something yet to be revealed?

Well, we'll find out some of these answers, maybe, in a few days...

For further reading on this subject, and for some well-thought-out conjectures on events in the last book, check out Nymeth's excellent reveiw of this same book, which she posted today, too!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, 2005)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Unsupervised children


This post began as a comment on Redheaded Rover's post about the irresponsibility of parents who do not properly supervise their children. She mentions a recent negative experience at the movies, where she couldn't enjoy the film because she was so concerned about the welfare of some very young children who were running all over the place, unwatched by their parents. And also a sad story about a child who was abducted because her parents left her (and her 2-year-old twin siblings) alone and unsupervised in an UNLOCKED vacation apartment while they went out to dinner.

These stories, sadly, neither shock nor surprise me these days. I work in a relatively small community library, and I'm sure what happens at my library is small potatoes compared with larger libraries. But still, it is distressing to see how many parents leave their young children unattended, often for hours - and it's not as though we can really make sure they are safe. I'm not always at my desk - I'm often in the stacks helping people. Then there are the parents who sit at the Internet station for two or three hours - seriously - while their little children, bored out of their skulls, are strapped in strollers or wandering around on their own, completely unsupervised. Anyone could easily walk off with these kids; who knows how long it would be before the parent noticed?

I'd feel more sympathy for these Internet parents if they were working on resumes or searching for jobs or apartments or something. But they are playing computer games, doing Internet quizzes, looking at celebrity and fashion websites. And they come almost every night. One little boy often comes over to the reference desk to show me a drawing he's made on scrap paper, or ask me to find a book for him. He is clearly yearning for attention, and I do what I can, but often I'm busy and there's not much I can do. He sits and reads books, and at the end of the night he always begs his mother to let him check one out. I know she has a library card - she uses it to get on the Internet. But she never lets him check out a book. Tonight he cried because he wanted one so badly - it was heartbreaking when she dragged him out, after he'd sat there so quietly for such a long time - she wouldn't even take the book and read it to him at home.

It is sad and frustrating.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Creepy, quirky, fun

Lucy hears noises in the walls of her house, and she just knows there are wolves living inside, watching them, waiting to come out. But no one believes her - it is apparently too terrifying to even contemplate, because, as her father says, "When the wolves come out of the walls, it is all over." So it must be bats, or mice - anything but wolves.

But then the wolves come out one night and take over the house, leaving Lucy and her family to sleep out in the garden. Worst of all, Lucy has left her beloved pig puppet behind. Her family is befuddled, anxious, directionless - but Lucy, with the gumption of a true heroine, takes matters into her hands, determined to reclaim her house - and, more importantly, her dear pig puppet.

This is a very unusual book – the illustrations are a collage that mixes drawing, painting and photographs. The characters have faces that are eerie and often expressionless, with empty black dots for eyes. And the storyline itself is creepy – the thought of wolves living in the walls is stuff of nightmares, but at the same time the story has an edge of silliness and absurdity – especially at the end. The wolves are funny and creepy at the same time, too – they are drawn with bold black strokes and frightening features, but are depicted doing silly things, like snoring sleeping upside down on the bed wearing Lucy’s socks.

I love this book, and my children do, too -- but I can see that it is not the sort of book that everyone would enjoy. It is eerie and unsettling, but funny and exciting, too – I particularly like that Lucy is a strong, brave character who solves her own problems. I would recommend this book to older children – definitely not preschoolers! – with a taste for scary stories. This would also be a good choice for readers who enjoy graphic novels.

Awards: New York Times Best Illustrated Book, 2003

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiaman, illustrated by Dave McKean (HarperCollins, 2003)

Also reviewed at:
Melody's Reading Corner

Sunday, July 15, 2007

"I don't have time to read," part two

Yes, I'm still on my crusade to make people realize they do have time to read - more time than they think. They get through dozens if not scores of emails per day, right? What if one of those emails were a short installment of a book they'd always wanted to read but hadn't gotten around to yet?

Check out this cool site: www.dailylit.com

For now the books are limited to what is in the public domain (or available under Creative Commons licenses). I am new to the site and am still familiarizing myself with all it offers, but apparently the books are available via email or RSS feed, work with many electronic devices, and it is all free. Each book has its own discussion forum, but you must register to access the forums. Email delivery, etc., is available without registration.

There are lots of alluring choices, despite copyright limitations, from E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle and Kipling's Kim (two of my personal favorites) to Virgil's Aeneid, Defoe's Moll Flanders, Bronte's Wuthering Heights and the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe.

It might take a few months to get through a book, depending on how many installments you get through per day, but still, it's better than not getting through the book at all, right? And I'd be willing to bet that at a certain point, readers might just go pick up the book and tear through the rest of it, too impatient to wait to find out how it all turns out. I'm going to pick one, just for fun, to see how I like it. The hardest part will be deciding which one to start out with!

(You can find part 1 of my "I don't have time to read" high-horse rant here.)

A lesson in dealing with change, for preschoolers (also helpful for adults)

Little Bear loves his little boat. He floats all around Huckleberry Lake in it, fishing from it, dreaming in it – and he's happy.

What Little Bear doesn't realize is that one day his little boat is going to be too small for him. And when that day comes, and Little Bear (now Big Bear) capsizes and ends up in the pond, his mother explains things to him: “It is a little bear's destiny to grow and grow till he is a BIG BEAR,” she says. “It is a little boat's destiny to stay the same size.”

Big Bear is sad, thinking about his little boat without a bear to sit in it, or fish from it, or dream in it. “It is a little boat's destiny,” he decides, “to keep sailing on a blue, blue lake.” So Big Bear ponders his dilemma, comes to a decision, and sets out to make matters right.

What makes Big Bear so endearing is that he doesn't sit down and whine about being unable to fit into his boat – he worries, instead, about his boat not having someone to love it the way he feels it deserves to be loved. He solves his problem through persistence and ingenuity, and finds a way to make himself happy without his little boat, too.

Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations, done in pen and ink with digital media, maintain a sharp focus on Bear and the story. The simple drawings lend the book an old-fashioned atmosphere that is an excellent accompaniment for the simple text. Together they create a sensitive, engaging story about growing up, letting go of beloved things and discovering new and exciting ones – a story that preschoolers (and their parents!) will be sure to identify with.

Awards: Christopher Award, 2004

Little Bear’s Little Boat
by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Clarion Books, 2003)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A tantalizing fantasy novella

In the introduction to the book, Phyllis Eisenstein writes that Walker Between the Worlds is an excerpt from the first volume of a trilogy-in-progress that is called The Masks of Power: "It is the tale of the long-dead DragonKing, who had made human folk into slaves, and of a Lady of Air and Darkness, who holds the balance of power among the New Gods who ended the reign of the dragons."

The book opens with the Eleanor, the Lady of Masks, out hunting on dragonback with her guardsmen when she discovers a naked man on the cold hillside. He is from another world (our earth, it seems), but he wears a medallion around his neck that bears the symbol of the Lady. He has no memory - not even of his own name, but Eleanor recognizes him as an apparent descendant of a man she was in love with years earlier, before she became immortal, a man who is long dead. She pulls a wraith - a sort of spirit semblance - from the man and takes him with her. The true man she leaves behind, to awaken alone, cold, and bewildered.

The book alternates between the points of view of Eleanor, the man the hillside, and Rob, a young peasant boy who lives on a nearby farm. The tale woven by these three points of view is fascinating, with tantalizing glimpses into the connections between the characters and the strange ways of this world.

My only problem with the book was that it was just what the author said it was - an excerpt from a longer trilogy. And I want the trilogy now. While the novella does have a narrative arc and won't leave you hanging in the middle of an exciting moment, the stage is clearly being set for something complex and intriguing, and I'm looking forward to learning more about these compelling characters and this world where dragons have turned from masters into servants.

If you are not familiar with Phyllis Eistenstein's novels, you are in for a treat. And if you don't believe me, here are a few words from George R. R. Martin:

"Phyllis Eisenstein does it all: hard sf, soft sf, fantasy, horror, time travel, space opera, even the occasional western. What's even more remarkable is that Phyllis does it all well...which makes every Phyllis Eisenstein story an event, and every Phyllis Eisenstein book a treasure. Whether she is writing about Alaric the teleporting minstrel or Wyatt Earp, Phyllis is always entertaining and frequently extraordinary. If you haven't read her stuff, you missed a lot. "

A friend of mine brought me this book back from a Fantasy/sf convention in Kansas City, where Phyllis was the writer guest of honor - it appears that the novella is unavailable through Amazon, but it can be ordered from KaCSFFS Press by emailing the publisher at SolarWind1@aol.com. And it's a nicely made book as well, with lovely thick pages and a beautiful, sturdy spine. Plus the art on the cover by Ed Emshwiller, my favorite vintage sf artist, is a special added bonus.

Walker Between the Worlds by Phyllis Eisenstein (KaCSFFS Press, 2007)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I am so lame.

My kids are both reading now. And they both love to read, which is great. They love to come to the library and choose books, and they almost always enjoy the books I bring back for them when I come home from work. They participated in the library's summer reading program, finishing the required number of books within just a few days. I'm so pleased that they have become true readers.

But...

My younger daughter just finished reading a chapter book all by herself, one I haven't even read before. And while I was extremely proud of her, I also felt a sense of loss. I'd been looking forward to reading that book with her. Instead, she handed it to me when she was finished and said, "You should read this - it's really funny." It made me feel delighted and depressed all at the same time.

My older daughter will now become engrossed in a book and disappear up to her room with it. I spent most of my own childhood holed up in my room with books. I remember how cozy and peaceful it was reading up there in bed, propped up on my pillows, and I'm pleased that she's discovering that particular joy, too. But at the same time I want to run up and bring her back downstairs to sit on the sofa and read to me, the way we always have.

I know it's inevitable that they will keep growing as readers, and that will mean growing away from me and my husband and the glorious times we've had reading together. And I realize that it is a slow process, and that we still will have many more hours of enjoying and sharing books read out loud. But I'm certain I won't be ready for it when that time comes -- when our reading-together days will be behind us, leaving only the occasional inquiry into what we are reading, or maybe a recommendation of a book or two. I know that is how it goes, and we are lucky they enjoy books so much, but it still makes me sad.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ancient Egyptian curses, a dark and dusty old museum, and secret societies

Theodosia Throckmorton spends way too much time in the museum where her parents work. Her mother is in Egypt on an archaeological dig, and her father is so absorbed in his work that he not only forgets meals (for himself and his daughter), but often he forgets all about going home at the end of the day, leaving Theo to sleep, of all places, in a sarcophagus. She doesn't really mind it - she is an Egyptian scholar in her own right, despite her young age, and she loves the museum and its fascinating artifacts. But still, her father never seems to notice anything she does - in his eyes, she is just a child, and if she calls too much attention to herself, he might even remember that she should have gone back to that horrible boarding school months ago.

Theo's main trouble is that she is the only one who appears to notice all the curses on the artifacts her parents bring back from Egypt. She has learned through her research how to make protective amulets and such, but her her parents simply find them quaint and amusing and refuse to wear them. But one of the curators appears just a little too interested in the items with the worst curses, and Theo suspects he is up to something. When Theo's mom returns from Egypt with an impressive array cursed artifacts, including the supremely cursed Heart of Egypt, which suddenly turns up missing, Theo realizes that there is more to the disappearance than meets the eye. And as usual, no one believes her. Little does she know the entire fate of England rests in her hands...

This is the kind of book that, when I was a kid, would have sent me running straight to the library to check out books on mummies, ancient Egypt, Egyptian artifacts, pharaohs, gods and goddesses. It's exciting, with a feisty, resourceful protagonist who is intellectual and courageous. I hope there are more tales of Theo's adventures to come.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L LaFevers; illustrated by Yoko Tanaka (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Poems from a Middle-Eastern perspective

This poetry collection was inspired by the events of September 11, but it also includes some of Nye's work from earlier collections. The poems focus on the lives of Arab-Americans and Arabs living in Middle Eastern countries, friends and family members of the author, and people from her imagination.

I love that this book of poetry turns people (who are so often reduced to statistics in the news) into real, living human beings that readers will empathize with, whatever their cultural background. The poems are written in free verse with extremely effective sensory imagery. The language is informal and personal, simple, accessible and evocative. I think that teens (or older readers, for that matter) will find that they will feel differently when they hear news of the Middle East after reading this book.

Nye imagines her grandmother (long dead) telling her, in the wake of September 11th, as the news media presents such negative images of Muslim culture: "Say this is not who we are." And Nye does say it, beautifully.

Awards: ALA Notable Book, 2003; ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2003; National Book Award Honor Book, 2002; YALSA Ten Best Book for Young Adults, 2003

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shiab Nye (Greenwillow Books, 2002)


Monday, July 9, 2007

A Harry Potter theme park?


Yes, a Harry Potter theme park. At Universal studios, coming in late 2009. According to Warner Bros., as reported in the comingsoon.net article, it will have "immersive rides and interactive attractions, as well as experiential shops and restaurants that will enable guests to sample fare from the wizarding world's best known establishments. Also debuting will be a state-of-the-art attraction that will bring the magic, characters and stories of Harry Potter to life in an exciting way that guests have never before experienced."

Well, I would take issue with the "never before experienced" part of that sentence. When I read, I experience things in my mind that no theme park could ever compete with. Or movie, for that matter. And in my imagination, the Leaky Cauldron is not full of a bunch of muggles with sunburns, cameras, cell phones and shorts. Still, I doubt I'd be able to resist checking it out! I love theme parks, and I love Harry Potter, so I would definitely be among the visiting muggles. (Not sunburned, though - I wear sunscreen.)

An exciting Japanese folktale

This story is about a clever boy from a small Japanese village who is too small to be of any real help working in the fields. So he is sent to a nearby monastery to become a monk. But all he wants to do is draw cats, which annoys the monks when he keeps drawing instead of focusing on his lessons. They finally give up on him, saying that his passion for drawing makes him better suited to be an artist. An old priest sends him on his way with a bit of cryptic advice, and with that, the boy embarks on an unforgettable adventure.

Most folktales involve a hero who wins through being kind and good. What made this one particularly interesting to me was that the boy is true to his passion, and he listens to (and remembers) advice, and that is what saves him in the end. He survives because of his talent, not through being good or kind. The illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the text – they are Japanese in style, using watercolor, cut paper, and an airbrush. With a few simple strokes, Sogabe captures the emotions of the boy in the story.

Hodges cites the source for her story: it was originally published as a pamphlet in Tokyo by Takejiro Hasegawa, and she adapted it from a 1918 publication of Japanese Fairy Tales by Lafcadio Hearn. A note in the back of the book talks about the history of the story and the life of Lafcadio Hearn, who collected and retold folktales and legends from Japan. The book makes for an exciting read-aloud, with evocative language and pictures that complement the tone and style of the text.


The Boy Who Drew Cats by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Aki Sogabe (Holiday House, 2002)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Stephanie Plum is back

I'm always delighted when a new Janet Evanovich book comes out. When I get my copy, I drop whatever I'm reading and dive right in. Lean Mean Thirteen is, as the title suggests, the thirteenth one in the series. This is a series that is definitely best read in order - and that's easy to do because it starts with One for the Money and moves on in numerical order from there.

In the first book, Stephanie loses her job and stumbles into a new profession as a bounty hunter. She is not what you'd call the bounty-hunter type - she is a Jersey girl who is afraid of the gun she's issued (she keeps it in her cookie jar), and she manages to total (in a hilariously creative variety of ways) every car she ever drives. But the money's good - many of the FTAs (people who fail to appear for their court date) have simply forgotten about it, and they willingly go with her to reschedule. But the ones that don't want to be caught? That's where the fun begins.

I remember reading the second book in this series on a plane, and I just couldn't stop laughing. The more I tried to be quiet about it, the funnier it all seemed, and I giggled the whole way to my destination. When we were all waiting to get off the plane, about five people came over to ask what I'd been reading - I hope they found Evanovich as funny as I do!

In this installment, Stephanie's ex-husband disappears not long after she has a heated argument with him at his office. Her alibi for the time of his disappearance is a bit shaky, and when partners from his law firm start turning up dead, she worries that she's going to find herself arrested for his murder. She pairs up with sexy Ranger to look for her ex, while Morelli, her hot cop boyfriend, is stuck taking care of a police witness, unable to help. As usual Stephanie leaves massive destruction in her wake, as she navigates the perils of exploding stuffed animals, bombs, and flamethrower-wielding psychopaths, not to mention scary muscle men intent on her capture. She is tough and resourceful, pigheaded and impetuous, and she and ex-ho Lula - as well as her outspoken Grandma - make a wonderful team that will keep you laughing.

This is a lighthearted, face-paced series with memorable characters, unexpected plot twists, and a nice touch of romance, and Lean Mean Thirteen delivers the goods. Definitely the perfect beach, pool or plane read.

Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's Press, 2007)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

I'd love to curl up in this cave with a good book.


And I wish our library could afford to incorporate a few of these into our collection. What a cozy way to hang out in the library - private, but still part of the library community. And the designer, Sakura Adachi, even makes a smaller one for children - and one for pets, too!


If you want to know more, here's the New York Times article.

Friday, July 6, 2007

"A Cautionary Tale" - it's just too funny!

This book cracks me up. It's the story of Trixie, a toddler who accompanies her father to the laundromat to "help" him wash the clothes. She brings her lovey with her - a stuffed rabbit called Knuffle Bunny. Trixie has a great time walking through the city with her dad - and the illustrations are wonderful - sepia-toned photographs with cartoon-style characters superimposed on them They give a true flavor of city life, while the clean lines of the drawings keep young readers focused on the action of the story.

At the laundromat, Trixie has a grand time helping her father, and the careful reader will notice poor Knuffle Bunny accidentally stuffed into the washing machine. It takes Trixie a while to notice her buddy is missing, but when she does, it is difficult for the preverbal child to communicate the situation to her father. The man doesn't have a clue. He becomes annoyed with what appears to be a senseless tantrum and all but drags the poor child home. It's only when Trixie's mom opens the door, coolly assesses the situation and asks, "Where's Knuffle Bunny?" that he realizes what has happened. The expression of dawning realization on his face is priceless -- as is the expression on Trixie's when they all run back, frantically retracing their steps as they try to recover poor lost Knuffle Bunny:


The juxtaposition of the understated text and the wonderfully expressive illustrations is brilliant. When I read books like these I am reminded of the old Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin's dad is so sick of reading the same book over and over again to Calvin (I believe it was Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie - and why I can remember that but never the crucial item on a grocery list, I will never know). Books like these are intended for adults as well as children, and they are fun to read - even over and over again. Kids love the fun pictures, and the just-right number of words on each page, so the story moves quickly enough for their attention spans. They will feel proud of themselves when they are able to spot the missing bunny before anyone else. And we can all cheer enthusiastically with Trixie when her valiant Dad saves the day.

I have read this one at many children's storytimes, and honestly, the adults are just as riveted as the children. I love it! And if you like this one, check out Mo Willems' other books, such as Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Very funny.

Awards: 2005 ALA Notable Book; BELA (Notable Book of the English Languag Arts); Caldecott Honor Book; Charlotte Zolotow Honor; Horn Book Fanfare

Mo Willems - Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Hyperion Books for Children, 2004)

Publisher recommends for ages 4 - 8.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

ANOTHER princess picture book?

There are tons of them out there - princesses are apparently enjoying a huge following among preschool and elementary-age girls (and have been for some time). The main reason I picked up this one was the author: Cornelia Funke, whose work I always enjoy. Plus the illustrations are cheerful and cartoony in the sort of style that tends to appeal to my children.

The theme is nothing new: a princess becomes sick and tired of having everything done for her and never being able to do anything herself. Princess Isabella's footman blows her nose for her; her ladies-in-waiting curl her hair (which takes forever), and she's made to stand smiling sweetly for hours on end. One day Isabella has had enough. She throws a fit, tossing her crown into the fishpond. "Being a princess is boring!" she cries. She refuses to retrieve her crown, even when her father the king commands her to. So he sentences her to work in the kitchen until she decides to change her mind. But instead of finding kitchen work a punishment, Isabella discovers that it's fun and interesting. She learns things she never knew before, and when her father finally sends for her, she fills him in on them. "Did you know that cream is made from milk?" she asks. No, he didn't. And when he asks her to fetch her crown and she again refuses, it's off to the pigsty for her. And of course, the pigsty is a fun and interesting place, too!

The end of the book is very sweet - the king's love for his daughter and desire for her to be happy reign. Funke has taken a common theme and presented it in a compelling, heartwarming way, which is nicely complemented by Kerstin Meyer's whimsical illustrations. Princess Isabella is feisty, courageous, and a hard worker - not a bad role model, especially for a storybook princess.

Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer, translated by Chantal Wright (Chicken House: 2007)