Monday, December 26, 2011

The Twenty-Four Days of Christmas

I remember reading this picture book/novella to my children quite a few years ago. We'd checked it out from the library, and it was old and battered and clearly nearing the end of its days.  Now my library no longer holds any copies of this book at any of its branches.  When I saw it offered as an ebook for just a few dollars recently, I immediately purchased it.  It was a charming, nostalgic read, revisiting the Austins, one of my very favorite literary families, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them during their 1950s New England holiday season.

This story predates the first book of the Austin Family series, Meet the Austins.  Here Vicki is seven years old, and she is very excited because she has been chosen to play the part of the angel in the Christmas pageant.  Unfortunately, she overhears an unkind remark made by the adults directing the play, commenting on the fact that she is awkward and clumsy, not the best choice for the part after all.  While Vicki is crushed, she turns to her parents for help, and she works very hard to improve her performance. Just as things seem to be looking up, the alarming possibility occurs to her that her mother, who is nearing the end of her pregnancy, might not be able to see the pageant if the baby comes.  She might not even be home for Christmas!  As Vicki thinks about all the ways in which Christmas is only Christmas if the entire family is together, she becomes more and more worried about what might happen if the baby comes early.

The Austin family's Christmas is likely a much simpler affair than most children today experience.  Every day they do something together to prepare and celebrate the advent season.  They put out the figures from the nativity set one day, and they make a Christmas mobile from recycled tin cans the next.  There isn't any mention made, really, of gifts and presents and what Vicki would like to receive for Christmas - it's about being together and enjoying holiday traditions, and I liked that.  I think younger readers would enjoy the story as well, and they would definitely relate to Vicki's hopes and anxieties.  Their eyes might not mist up as mine always do at the end of this story, but they'll be sure to enjoy it all the same.

Source: Purchased ebook

Books in the Austin Family Chronicles:
1. Meet the Austins
2. The Moon by Night
3. The Young Unicorns
4. A Ring of Endless Light
5. Troubling a Star

The Twenty-Four Days of Christmas by Madeleine L'Engle; illustrations by Jill Weber (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1964)

Reviews of other books by L'Engle:
A Wrinkle in Time
The Joys of Love

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

It's a scrapbook.  It's a diary.  It's a novel.  What's not to like?

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt tells the story of a girl growing up in New Hampshire in the 1920s.  She is a bright girl, but her family doesn't have much money since her father died, so when she is accepted at Vassar College with a partial scholarship, she turns it down, knowing what a financial burden it would be on her mother, who works as a night nurse, to pay the rest of her tuition.  However, events conspire to enable her to accept the scholarship, following a most disappointing experience in love, and she sets off to gain an education and follow her dream of becoming a writer.

The story is told through text, photographs, old-time advertisements and magazine clippings, and is filled with authentic memorabilia such as ticket stubs, menus, greeting and post cards, and photographs. Throughout the book Frankie's strong and honest voice shines through.  She makes mistakes, suffers disappointments, celebrates victories,documenting everything faithfully in the pages of her colorful scrapbook.

This book would make an excellent gift for anyone who enjoys scrap-booking, and it's also a wonderful look at life in the U.S. and Paris during the 20s.  I'd recommend this to teens as well - it's a great coming-of-age story, and the historical details are fascinating. The list of clothing required for girls at Vassar College, for example, was hilarious. My grandmother lived and went to college during this time period, and it was fun to imagine her having some of these same experiences as Frankie. Although it made me wish I'd asked her more questions about that time in her life.

At any rate, this is a delightful story that is told in a unique way, and I highly recommend it.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston (HarperCollins, 2011)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Maya is recovering from an unimaginable loss - her very best friend has died, and her family has just moved from Idaho to Oregon, hoping that a change of scene will help Maya to move on and focus on new things, instead of on all the things that remind her of her friend. Maya is doing her best to move forward with her life, but it is of course not easy. When a fairy flies through her open window one evening, followed by an unusual encounter with a strange boy at school in which something scary, wonderful and inexplicably strange happens, Maya's life becomes much more interesting and bearable.  As she comes to know the kids who live at the mysterious Janus House apartments across the street, entire worlds open up for her - literally.

This story for younger readers may lack some of the intense complexity and bizarre quirkiness of her Hoffman's books for teens and adults, but it is immensely enjoyable nonetheless.  Maya is a tough, likable character, and the magical concepts that underlie the book are fresh and intriguing. As always with Hoffman's books, there is more than meets the eye to the characters and their situations, and she never relies on cliches or stereotypes in her storytelling.  I recommend this one to tweens and younger teens (Maya attends middle school) who enjoy thoughtful and exciting magical tales.

Books in the Magic Next Door series:
1. Thresholds
2. Meeting

Thresholds (#1 in the Magic Next Door series) by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Viking, 2010)

Other reviews of books by this author:
A Stir of Bones
Hoffman, Nina Kiriki - Fall of Light
Past the Size of Dreaming 
Red Heart of Memories
Spirits That Walk in Shadow
The Thread That Binds the Bones 

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Orphan's Tales, Vol. 2: In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Despite the fact that over a year had passed since I read the first volume of these interconnected short stories, I was sucked right back into the evocative world of the tale-telling orphan who lives, alone and neglected, in the lush wilderness that is the sultan's garden.  This second volume begins a new cycle of interconnected stories, but it continues the events in the lives of the storyteller and her ardent listener, picking up where the first volume left off.  If you love intricate stories with a fairy tale flavor - tales that pull no punches, contain soaring flights of fancy and veer into dark and disturbing realms, I advise that you pick up The Orphan's Tales, Vol. 1: In the Night Garden immediately.

There is not much to say that I did not mention in my review of the first volume in this series.  I continue to enjoy Valente's deft and lyrical prose, and I was once again caught up in the fantastical stories told by the orphan. This story cycle takes the reader to the City of Marrow, a ghost town that will forever eclipse all ghost towns in my mind, as well as to the Lake of the Dead.  There are firebirds and manticores, stars and spiders, poisoners and sentient shoes with an agenda.  And throughout the stories is the sense that the orphan's own story is about to come to a surprising conclusion, somehow connected to the characters and events that have been so mysteriously inked onto her skin.  I highly recommend these two volumes of unforgettable stories within stories within stories.

Also reviewed by Catherynne Valente:
The Orphan's Tales, Vol. 1: In the Night Garden

The Orphan's Tales, Vol. 2: In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Books, 2007)

Friday, December 9, 2011


Charlotte Usher is a marginalized teen who fantasizes about dating the most popular boy in school.  She has big plans and schemes, but one day, in school, she chokes on a gummy bear and dies.  She finds that the afterlife is just as difficult to deal with as her life was, as she still has a strange version of afterlife "school" she must attend.  Her fellow dead students are just as hard to take as the live ones were, and she still finds herself obsessing about her crush, Damen Dylan.  She finds a way to interact with the living, despite the fact that she is warned against such methods, and despite the fact that her fellow ghosts are in dire need of her help. She slowly comes to understand that she has people counting on her, but all that really matters to her is Damen and her "popularity plan."

The packaging on this book was what first caught my eye - the sequel arrived at my library, so I put this first one one hold to check out.  It appeared to have many elements that I enjoy - an intriguing version of the afterlife, interactions between the living and the dead, a humorous take on a dismal situation, etc.  But I found Charlotte to be so very self involved and superficial that I could not really care what happened to her.  Plus I have very little patience (ahem, Bella!) with characters who only define themselves based on their relationships with boys.  I find "You complete me" to be a creepy, suffocating and unhealthy sentiment.  At first I thought the book was going to be funny and satirical - choking on a gummy bear, for instance, seemed to indicate that the story was headed in that direction.  But it felt as though the story wavered between taking itself very seriously and not taking itself seriously enough, if that makes any sense.  Either give me a character to care about in a situation with consequences that make sense, or give me a story that is clever and funny enough that I don't care if I connect very well with the characters. This one was right in between, and I guess that's why it didn't work well for me.  Teens at my library seem to love the series, though, if the books' dilapidated condition is any indication, and this may just be one of those novels that younger readers will enjoy on levels that adults(at least this adult) just don't get.

Ghostgirl by Tonya Hurley (Little, Brown and Co., 2008)

Monday, December 5, 2011

The True Meaning of Smekday

This was my family's favorite audio book from last summer, and I'm ashamed that it's taken me until now to write about it!  I had heard good things about this book and love Adam Rex's sense of humor (Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich is one of my favorite poetry collections and never fails to make me giggle - particularly the ones about the Phantom of the Opera, who can't compose because he has "It's a Small World" stuck in his head).  When I learned that The True Meaning of Smekday had won the ALA's Odyssey Award (for excellence in audio book production), I checked it out from our library's collection.  After about an hour or two of listening to it, I knew my children would love it, so I started all over again and listened with them.  And I was right - they adored it.

I hesitate to say too much about this delightful novel.  It is set in the near future and is told from the point of view of young Gratuitiy Tucci, as an entry in an essay contest in which school children are asked to write about "The True Meaning of Smekday," i.e. the day in which the alien Boov invaded the earth, which, coincidentally, happened on Christmas Day.  Gratuity tells her story with humor and honesty, and we learn about the day her mother was abducted by aliens and go on an unforgettable road trip with Gratuity and an alien Boov named J. Lo.  During their cross-country trek in Slushious, a floating car, Gratuity learns things from J. Lo that no other humans understand, which puts her in a unique position when the invasion shifts into a new and alarming situation.  Unfortunately none of the adults think that a young girl could possibly have anything useful to contribute, so Gratuity and J. Lo have some quick thinking to do.

I love, love, loved this book.  It is funny and moving, exciting and thoughtful.  The audio production is a delight - narrator Bahni Turpin does an excellent job with voices and accents, particularly the aliens, and really brings the story to a whole new level.  There are a few small sections of the story that are written (by J. Lo) in comic book format, and while they are described perfectly in the audio version, I of course had to see the pictures.  So I checked the hard copy out from the library so we could read those sections ourselves.  It would be nice if audio books contained pdf files of images and such so readers could see them, or even a link to the publisher's website with a code to access them, or something like that.  This book should be appealing to male and female readers, and would make an excellent book club read - there are lots of interesting ideas and concepts here, and my kids and I found a whole lot to talk about as we listened together.

At any rate, I highly recommend this book!

Also by Adam Rex:  Pssst!

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex; narrated by Bahni Turpin (Listening Library, 2010)

Friday, December 2, 2011


Sixteen-year-old Jill lives and breathes fencing, and she has her eye on an Olympic gold medal one day in her future.  But when she suffers a defeat by being one half of one second too slow, she finds her confidence and ambitions are shaken.  Her parents whisk her off to the Caribbean for a change of scene they hope will improve her state of mind, but Jill still finds herself mulling over the defeat. Then when she is walking along the beach one day, she comes across an old rusty bit of metal washed up on the shore.  Most people would probably stepped right over it and walked on, but Jill immediately recognizes it for what it is - the tip of an ancient rapier.   The sword tip has a a connection to the past that is so strong that it transports Jill back to the time it was once a shiny, sharp blade.  When she finds herself aboard a pirate ship, her previous worries seem small and unimportant.

This is a fun piratical romp, full of swashbuckling adventure, with strong female characters, a touch of romance, and a bit of enchantment.  At the beginning I found Jill to be a bit too self-involved and whiny, and she makes some incredibly scatterbrained decisions along the way, but she does come to terms with her situation so that by the end I found myself rooting for her.  I passed this one to my 12-year-old daughter, who has expressed an interest in learning fencing, and she enjoyed it but also found that she did not connect with the main character as much as she would have liked.  Still, it was a fun read, and teenage fans of piratical adventure will be sure to enjoy it.

Steel by Carrie Vaughn (HarperTeen, 2011)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Something Deadly This Way Comes

This third book in the Madison Avery series features a teen who, in the first book, dies and becomes a reaper, one of a group of supernatural beings that fight over human souls.  Madison has been stirring things up a bit because she does not believe that they way things have always been done is necessarily the right way to do things.  In the second book, she was able to win over some unlikely allies to help as she tries to prove herself.  Her life is complicated by her relationship with Josh, a human boy who actually knows what's going on in her life and isn't completely freaked out by it all. When she finally discovers an opportunity to get her body back, which would enable her to go back to being a normal, teenage girl again,  Madison has some serious decisions to make.  But when she catches a glimpse into the future and sees flames and destruction - and the potential demise of a soul - she needs to focus on the here and now.  This continues to be an entertaining series.  I would personally prefer a little more depth to the characters, as with Harrison's Hollows series, but I think teens will be sure to enjoy the action-packed pace and interesting fantastical premise.

Books in the Madison Avery series:
1. Once Dead, Twice Shy
2. Early to Death, Early to Rise
3. Something Deadly This Way Comes 

Something Deadly This Way Comes (#3 in the Madison Avery series) by Kim Harrison (Harper, 2011)