Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review of Ash by Malinda Lo

Lo, Malinda. Ash. Little, Brown, 2009.

After Aisling's mother dies, her father remarries, and his new wife and her two daughters come to live with them. But then her father dies, and Ash, as Aisling is called, must move with her stepmother and stepsisters to their estate in the south, where she must work as a servant to pay off her father's alleged debts.

Brought up on tales of fairies, Ash goes looking for them in the Woods - and finds Sidhean, a pale, ethereally handsome, and very slightly emo male fairy. Their platonic relationship lasts for years, with Sidhean seeming to want to take her to the fairy realm but insisting that Ash isn't ready yet. Ash, hating her life, is raring to experience the fairy world despite its dangers.

In the meantime, however, Ash meets the King's Huntress Kaisa, by whom she is fascinated. Kaisa is interested in Ash, as well, befriending her and teaching her to ride a horse. They fall in love - but the timing is terrible, as Ash has just bound herself into a contract with Sidhean. Will human love prevail over fairy magic?

What I liked about Ash was, above all, the love between Ash and Kaisa. Lesbian relationships are incredibly rare in fantasy, even for adults, although gay love between men is relatively common (I'm thinking Sherwood Smith's Inda books, as one example). Ash and Kaisa's love feels both inevitable and absolutely right, and far superior to a magical life spent with chilly, translucent fairy folk. Kaisa is brave, competent, dresses in warm and comfortable clothes, and won't wear a mask at a masked ball; no wonder Ash falls in love. This is a lovely romance that will take any reader's breath away.

I was a wee bit disappointed with Ash, however. It could be blamed on my reading while in bed with the flu, but I think it has more to do with a rather standard plot and a serviceable yet far uninspired writing style. Yes, this is a riff on the classic Cinderella story, but that is no excuse to use cliches, such as the stepmother's face darkening with anger or Sidhean's skin being pale as snow. There is a stiffness to the writing that kept me from being immersed entirely in the plot. Many of the characters are similarly stiff; in particular, the stepmother and stepsisters never become three-dimensional people but remain fairy-tale types, and are thus uninteresting.

Still, I read this novel to the end despite my weary, blurry eyes. And I feel much better today, testament to the healing power of fantasy! For ages 13 and up.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

An overdose of historical fiction?

I've read four historical novels in a row, and now I've got the flu (or a sore throat, aches, and a slight fever, anyway). Could there be a connection? I suspect that I'll start feeling better the moment I start reading fantasy, which will happen after this post, at which point I'll crawl back into bed with Melinda Lo's Ash.

The Brothers Story by Katherine Sturtevant:
Although the jacket art depicts a lad who looks like a 70s California Boy, this novel about a teen who leaves his "simple" twin brother behind in their impoverished village to seek a better life in London plunged me right into the desperately cold winter of 1683. I sensed no anachronisms - even Kit's mindset and attitude (about sex and women, about religion, about a person's rightful station, about fairness) were clearly far from modern. There has always been a place in my heart for stories about roughing it in London Town, and this is a good 'un. For ages 13 and up.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine:
12-year-old Dit is thoroughly bummed when his tiny Alabama town's new postmaster doesn't have a boy his age but rather a daughter named Emma. Not only that, she's black - and in 1917, this can have ramifications. Tensions lead to a horrible situation - and it is Dit and Emma who manage to patch up the fallout. Although that sounds grim, the book's overall tone is easy-going. Dit is just a boy who wants to play baseball, do okay in school, and do the right thing. Emma, luckily, can help him with the last two, even if she's somewhat lacking in baseball skills. Fine novel (even if Dit's use of the word "gross" jarred me a bit. Did they say that in 1917?) for ages 9 to 13.

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino:
The title is long but the book is short. This is a slice of life from 1969 New Jersey, told from the point of view of a literal-minded girl named Tammy who just can't stand that her best friend is gone and and in her place (fostered by the same woman) is a little runt who tells huge whoppers. That this boy (Douglas, but known by Tammy's sarcastic nickname Muscle Man) must have a sad story to be in foster care, and that he is pretty darn nice guy despite his lies, doesn't occur to Tammy; she is unrelentingly intolerant and unforgiving of him, all the way through a 13 to 1 game of kickball (the sacred game in Tammy's neighborhood, which Muscle Man swore he could beat them all at single-handed). It's hard to understand why Tammy is so thick-headed - but still, this book is a quick and well-written read for ages 8 to 12.

Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata:
13-year-old Shelby's family is anything but traditional - she lives with her gorgeous, beauty-obsessed, commitment-phobic mom and her three sisters, all of whom have different dads. When Shelby's mom is in a terrible car accident, the sisters all get shipped out to their four dads, and all they can think about is getting back together again. Kadohata can do know wrong as far as I'm concerned - this is a quirky, funny, touching look at family. None of the characters are perfect (far from it!), but we get to know them through Shelby's increasingly understanding eyes. I listened to this as an audiobook and adored Sue Jean Kim's narration. For ages 11 and up. (My 18-year-old daughter loved it, too).
Oh, and it takes place in 1983, which qualifies as Olden Days.

So there you have it. Let it not be said that I never read anything but SFF. But now I'm weak and feverish again. Definitely time for some fantasy - the best medicine.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Better get cracking...

Thanks to American Libraries Direct for this video, produced to introduce the VALA Conference and Exhibition in Australia.

Thank goodness this digital native has a book on her lap!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review of The Magician of Hoad by Margaret Mahy

Mahy, Margaret. The Magician of Hoad. McElderry Books, 2009.

12-year-old Heriot Tarbas does not want to leave his large, extended family and the farm to serve the king as a magician, so he runs away. But after a few short and dangerous adventures, his fate catches up to him - and for a decade, he remains by the king's side, using his magical talents to ascertain motives and thoughts of possible friends and enemies and to conjure court entertainments.

As in any court, there are intrigues, and in this court it is the king's oldest son who wants to disrupt his father's fragile peace, while the middle son wants to vanquish the king's Hero to become Hero himself. The youngest son, Dysart, who is Heriot's friend, simply wants to marry his childhood sweetheart Linnet. When the oldest prince's plot springs to life, Heriot and others become pawns - until young Cayley, a mysterious and talented street urchin turned warrior, who rescues them all.

Like many of Mahy's books, there is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating mixture of straightforward narration and dreamy musing in this tale. There is much that is left unsaid and many questions unanswered. The main question for me is: what is the source and nature of Heriot's magic? He doesn't ever seem to need to "learn" it and it seems to have no limits except those imposed by his own old mental/emotional traumas. Surely, with powers like his, he would be one of the most reviled and feared people in the land - and yet, he is treated like an amiable and quite useful tool.

Much is touched on - the customs and history of the land, for example - but not explored in any way, almost as if the reader were a native of the land and was expected to know all this stuff. Although I'm usually eager to know small details of how everything works, I managed to put my curiosity aside and enjoy the story.

The strange personalities of the princely brothers are presented as opaque mysteries, and so we don't get to know them. Even Dysart, who starts off being a strong and fascinating character, gets left by the wayside as he grows older. Instead, we get to know Heriot, who remains just an ordinary guy even as he realizes just how very powerful and dangerous he is. His young friend Cayley, although more mysterious than anyone, is the person we know most about in the end, and the person we care most about. Cayley's story is the pivot around which the whole book turns, but we don't realize it until almost the very end.

I do wish the jacket art didn't make Heriot look like Harry Potter. Yes, Heriot wears glasses (which feels like an anachronism but does make him lovably flawed) - but do they have to be pictured as round? And where are his trademark long and numerous braids? Heriot is described as being copper-colored, and I suppose his skin does glow - but he just looks like Harry Potter with a tan. The upper frame of autumn leaves is a nice touch, though. And check out the New Zealand jacket art to the right. The braids are nicely done, but everything else? Yech!

Although this fantasy was not quite satisfying due to my yearning to know more (why didn't Heriot visit his family more often or have them come to court? how could he be happy so long in his somewhat dorky job?), it's still a rousing read that I would recommend to most fantasy fans, particularly those who enjoy Tamora Pierce. For ages 13 and up.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hamsters - Born to be Wild

Orlando, our first dwarf hamster, flung himself off all surfaces with wild abandon and loved the feeling of our slick table so much that he'd slide himself across it on his stomach. His sudden early and inexplicable death (or, given his love of an adrenalin-fueled lifestyle, maybe not so surprising) threw my younger daughter and me into a short but intense period of mourning.

Theo, our second dwarf hamster, was happiest when we let her run down the hall and explore every room in the house (except the kitchen, where hamsters tend to hide under large, heavy appliances and stuff themselves silly with crumbs) - she lived to be almost 2 1/2 years old, truly ancient for a hamster.

And Valentine, our newest baby dwarf hamster, escaped from his cage mere days after we brought him home. Although usually escaped hamsters make themselves known by scuttling like hairy cockroaches across the middle of the floor while I'm drinking my morning coffee, Valentine didn't make an appearance. After nearly a week, we figured he was a goner.

But wait! This morning, faint but wild scritching noises behind the washing machine alerted us to his presence. Although I couldn't budge the washing machine, I managed to haul out the dryer enough for my younger daughter to climb behind it - and there Valentine was, standing on his hind legs as if begging to be rescued.

We're so glad to have him back! He's the most sociable hamster we've had yet, and as crammed with personality as all the others. It's no wonder that the Humphrey and Freddy books are so popular - hamsters really do have a sassy yet sweet style all their own. Don't believe me? Check out my favorite new graphic novel for younger readers - Colleen Venable's Hamster and Cheese, book 1 of the Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye series.

Geeking out with March Madness

For all you who followed last year's SLJ Battle of the Kids' Books with a fanaticism bordering on insanity - IT'S BACK! Or it will be in less than a week. Woot! Here's Betsy Bird with the official announcement (yes, with obligatory sock puppets).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mini-review of The Problem with the Puddles by Kate Feiffer

The Puddle family - Mrs. Puddle, Mr. Puddle, Tom, and Baby (aka Emily or Ferdinanda) - leave their summer cottage for the city, but in the chaos they leave their two dogs behind and don't notice until two hours into their eight-hour car ride. In the meantime, the two dogs - a teacup Chihuahua and a Great Dane, both named Sally - decide to walk to the city themselves.

The Puddle Family dynamic is dominated by the parents, who never ever agree on anything. Tom, the son, is something of a nonentity and wouldn't be missed if he were to disappear from the book. Baby, the daughter whose strange assortment of names arose from her parents' failure to agree on one, is the most normal person in the family. All in all, I found the family and the eccentric folks they meet to be so quirky and unreal as to be quite uninteresting.

However, the two Sallys are another matter altogether! I loved every moment with these two dogs, who (in contrast to Mr. and Mrs. Puddle) demonstrate the best way to run a relationship - with plenty of respect, affection, and willingness to compromise. Even when they have a small spat, they make up quickly, and their easy banter will remind readers of similar conversations they've had with best friends. Here are the Sallys talking about which dog breeds the Puddles remind them of. Little Sally has just compared Baby to a pug.

"Have you ever noticed that she likes to have her neck scratched and pulled? How pug is that?"

"I know what you mean," said big Sally "I kind of think Tom acts like a chocolate Lab. Don't you?"

"Totally, or when he plays catch, he's such a Lab-Portuguese water dog mix...What about Mrs. Puddle?"

"Come on. She's a Lhasa apso if I ever met one."

"I know it! The way she sometimes snarls for no reason at all is so Lhasa."

And so on. Mr. Puddle, by the way, is "the best kind of mutt." I love these dogs!

The illustrations by Tusa were whimsical but not entirely successful - they kept showing the two Sallys being way closer in size than a Great Dane and a teacup Chihuahua would be. And both dogs wear the oddest little bows. But that's just a quibble.

This is a diverting and slightly surreal read whose canine characters steal the show from the muddled human ones. Recommended for ages 8 to 11.

2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalists

The LA Times has posted its finalists here 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalists

As usual, I find the list both esoteric and baffling, if also somewhat intriguing. Where do they find these books? I'm fairly well read, but I haven't heard of many of these books, even in the fiction category. Luckily, I am familiar with the Young Adult books, even though I've only read three of them. Lots and lots of nonfiction, as usual, including in the Young Adult category.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A cup of tea, a slice of pie... and a book

This is one of the few times of the year that makes Sarah Stewart's The Gardener feel personal. But as despite the fact that the tulips, daffodils, and pink jasmine are all blooming at the same time, it was the sight below that made my heart glow this afternoon. Sarah Stewart's The Library will always reflect my soul best.

Friday, February 19, 2010

If I didn't have to work today...

If my desk didn't look like a tornado had hit it and if my to-do list would ever shrink instead of lengthen, I'd leave work after lunch today to hear Susan Patron and Roger Sutton talk about "What Makes a Good Banned Book" at Pitzer College.

Things are terrifying but thrilling around here. Our library system is losing lots of staff - and positions - to early retirement and the budget crisis, which is both unsettling and an opportunity for making much-needed changes and trying new things. I haven't had a dull moment in weeks and I'm loving it. Thank goodness for coffee (and especially my Friday treat - a grande skinny caramel latte with soy milk).

Amidst all the excitement, I almost forgot that I'm running for the 2012 Newbery Committee. Polls open March 16 and close April 23rd. Here's the full slate of ALSC candidates. This is my third - and hopefully charmed - attempt at running for the Newbery Committee - if you're an ALSC member, please help make my dream come true!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review of The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence

Lawrence, Iain. The Giant-Slayer. Delacorte Press, 2009.

In 1955, 11-year-old Laurie's best and only friend, 8-year-old Dickie, is stricken with polio and put into an iron lung at the hospital. As she has made up stories all her life and has told stories to and with Dickie since she's known him, Laurie naturally begins to tell a story to him and the two other kids on the iron lung ward.

This is truly an ode to the power of Story. Trapped and immobile as they are, these three very ill kids do not only listen intently - they put their entire souls into the story as it is told, dreaming about it, seeing themselves in various characters, and feeling as if the story might even parallel their own lives and fates. And when Laurie is unable to continue the story, the three even take up the tale and finish it themselves.

And the story Laurie tells? It's about a very small lad named Jimmy, son of a greedy and dishonest innkeeper named Fingal, whose destiny it is (according to the swamp witch) to kill a truly nasty giant. Besides the swamp witch and the giant, there are unicorns and hydras and gnomes and a host of other mythical beasts, as well as a dense and magical wood, some gypsies, and much more. It's small wonder the kids in the iron lungs, as well as the more mobile children on the polio ward, become so entranced.

Meanwhile, the reader becomes entranced with existence on the polio ward. The daily indignities, boredom, and terror of life in an iron lung is described in a matter-of-fact way, and even the narration isn't from Laurie's point of view, the tone is simple, nonjudgmental, and compassionate without ever being soppy. By the end of the book, each child, his or her head the only part sticking out of each huge metal barrel, are integral parts of both stories, real and imaginary.

Although the 50s slang of the children occasionally sounds a little forced, the old-fashioned, open tone of the book reinforces the period feel. This will be an eye-opener to kids (as it was to me) who simply can't imagine being paralyzed or killed by swimming in a pool or playing in a river. For both its masterful narration and its fascinating topic, this is highly recommended for kids in grades 4 to 6.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nope, no snow here!

Today, a couple family members and I hiked along the Mishe Mokwa trail to Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains at 3,111 feet.

Temperatures were in the 70s and, thanks to recent rainstorms, the landscape was as lush as it gets up on the ridge. It was near perfect.

At one point, a man and his kids came up the trail toward us. "You're a librarian, I take it," he said to me.

As I nodded, dumbstruck (is it SO OBVIOUS? Wait, he must be a patron at one of the libraries I've worked...), he said, "I like your shirt."

Oh, right! Forgot I was wearing my " librarian senses are tingling" shirt.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cooler than thou

In her recent post "The Problem With Cool" on the YALSA blog, Sarah Ludwig points out that it isn't "coolness" that is important in working with teens, but rather being genuine and welcoming.

While both the children's librarians and YA librarians in my library system come in all types, shapes, ages, colors, and styles, it always seemed to me that we children's librarians, as a group, tended to be a bit more warm and fuzzy than those edgy, stylish YA librarians. I mean, you've got to admire YA librarians - they work with teens! They sometimes color their hair outrageous colors or wear ironic-hip clothing! My most essential fashion item as a children's librarian was always Interesting Socks, which kids at storytime never failed to comment on.

I always figured that all a children's librarian needed, besides an encyclopedic knowledge of children's books, was to be a kind person who likes and respects kids. I've seen young children's librarians and old ones, wildly outgoing ones and quiet ones, warm ones and elegant ones - and the best ones are genuinely nice.

But don't teens expect something more? I know that when I was a teen myself, I always felt that I fell well below the mark set by my cohorts - one of the big reasons, of course, why I didn't become a YA librarian. I remember being looked at and Found Wanting. Or so I thought at the time. Anyway, isn't it possible that teens do indeed expect coolness, or at least someone they can recognize as a person and not a faceless adult, in their YA librarian?

I asked my daughters, ages 15 and 18, what qualities they'd want in their YA librarian. Both of them almost immediately said, "To be nice." They also felt that a young librarian would a plus, but when I posed the scenario of a middle-aged person in sensible tweed pants and sweater (someone like, say, myself) offering his or her services, they said that this would be perfectly fine, as long as this person had a good knowledge and understanding of their library and literature needs.

I didn't really go to the library as a teen. My mother was a librarian and brought me home plenty of books, and occasionally I took the bus down to the Central Library where I now work to browse the science fiction paperback racks or do research assignments. But I interacted as little as possible with librarians (or anyone - out of shyness, mostly) and would never have joined a teen library program or club, even had one been offered. So it's hard for me to understand the motivation of kids that do - clearly they are very different teens from the one I once was.

But judging by the two teens in my family, coolness is not an essential feature of YA librarians. Sarah Ludwig is right - it seems that being genuine and welcoming is most important. And surely a respect for teens and a genuine appreciation (or at least thorough knowledge) of their literature and culture is essential as well.

So thankfully, pink hair is not a prerequisite! But on other hand, it can't hurt. Unless you are witheringly deemed to be trying too hard. Oh heck - as a children's librarian, I knew I couldn't lose if I was wearing my bright orange bumblebee socks and striped bee earrings!

Well, if one cannot be cool, one can be kind.

Cybils winners announced!

Check out the winners in all categories here - and don't forget that the shortlists (announced on January 1) are a fine way to catch up on excellent 2009 titles.

I'd stand behind any of my middle-grade SFF panel's picks, but I'm particularly happy to see that Dreamdark: Silksinger is the finalist. That is some fine, rich fantasy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

N.D. Wilson - and 5 of his biggest inspirations!

I'm proud to host Day 4 of N.D. Wilson's blog tour to celebrate the publication of The Chestnut King (my review)! Many thanks to Random House for giving me this opportunity - and for giving all of us a peek not only into Mr. Wilson's writing life but into one of the never-before-explored cupboards. And thanks especially to N.D. Wilson.

The 100 Cupboards series is brimming with a particularly large, talented, far-flung yet close-knit family. It's no surprise, then, that N.D. Wilson has a large family of his own. Here is what he has to say about them:

I have five kids. Yes. Five. The oldest is seven. The youngest is fresh and pink, barely more than one month old. At this very moment (even though I now have my own office—a recent development), she is sleeping at my feet. Two others have snuck in here as well and have begun stealing printer paper. (And now they’re drawing in the corner). One is downstairs working on Math homework. Another is downstairs arranging an epic conflict between cars and knights on the coffee table.When it comes to writing for children, I cheat. I am surrounded by a small assortment of children at all times. My eyes are attached to theirs as they discover the world, as they swarm the front window to watch the squirrel wars, or to the back window to watch the evil neighbor cat hunt sparrows. Thunder and lightning—always potent, no matter your age—are even more so when they make sleeping in the attic impossible, and wide eyes and giggles and screams and quick dives beneath blankets are the order of the night. (Those are the best nights for stories: school in the morning or not, we have to spin tales together to the booming soundtrack of rumbling thunder and the quick lash of lightning on the ridgeline visible from the attic windows.)

And I don’t just cheat by stealing perspective from my kids. I steal their words, too, their very thoughts.

Like many writers, I have notebooks full of lines and ideas and characters and openings. But mine aren’t only full of thoughts original to me. Stolen bread is sweet, as Solomon would say.

Yesterday, while playing a solemn game of pirates with a three year-old, I discovered his inability to say Jolly Roger (combined with a constant need to try). To him, it is the Dodgy Roger. Those words are now preserved at my desk, waiting for use. Is Dodgy Roger a character? A particularly questionable child at school? A dodge-ball legend? Is it a game? (Fancy a game of Dodgy Roger? I like.) Is it the name of a particular childhood con? It’s something—I know that much—it’s wonderful, and I never would have thunk it up myself.

Of course, I steal from my younger self as well. Leepike Ridge was inspired by a Styrofoam floating adventure of my own (shared with a friend). 100 Cupboards pulled from my own stint living in my grandparents’ attic. But Dandelion Fire was (in part) provoked by watching my oldest son, then much younger, harvest vast quantities of fuzzy seed heads, carry them to the fence, and blow them into the neighbor’s garden, where I am sure they were appreciated. He triggered much pondering and meditation on the subject of dandelions (I even wrote a poem about it), and was the primary reason why I began to think of them as a force for good and not for evil.

My daughters are different creatures, with different eyes, desires, and inspirations, different fears and different angers. I love them, I try to swallow them with love, and they are still forever foreign. I have stood in my sons’ shoes. I have been in their heads and made their choices. But these girls, these daughters, these little sisters of mine, they do more than show me a new way to see characters, they change me, my self, the narrator of all that I write. When a man has a daughter, doors are thrown open, his life is remodeled, there is a new wing in his emotional and psychological house. “Here,” a smiling two year-old with pigtails says. “Here,” says the sleeping newborn in pink. “Feel this. Are your bones shaking? Do you ache with inadequacy, with a new terrified, aggressive, protective love? Has your heart slopped out your shoes?”

I nod.

“Good,” they say. “It will only get worse.”

I write books about kids. I put them in terrible positions. I take away their parents and challenge them to rise, to conquer, to overcome. So much of the innocence of childhood fades. A book cannot end without growth, without characters walking through shadows and back into the light, one step closer to becoming adults. And after exploring worlds of children in trouble, of children lost, of father’s removed, I need to be recharged. When I finish my day, hammering on glossy, worn keys in my attic loft, there is nothing more beautiful than descending down into a world of laughter and jokes and shouted tales of playground woe. As the table is set, napkins and forks and glasses all arranged according to some mysterious protocol of childhood, and my wife, my lovely, the mother of my children smiles, I flop onto the floor.The cry goes up. The hounds bay. Mere moments pass, and I am buried in a tangle of legs and arms, a giggling, groaning pile of noses and fingers. And futures.

And now for something completely different - a glimpse at Richard's later explorations of one of those mysterious cupboards! This proves that Richard is nothing if not intrepid...

Anastasia, last night, dining with your family, I expected you to notice the changes in me. Perhaps you can’t easily recognize the traces left by adventure, but it didn’t even seem as you were trying. Your cousins were just as blind.

There is a scrape four inches long on my right ankle. In all the madness of my journeys, I can’t even name the cause—perhaps a bone as I raced through the labyrinth. My ear is still red and slightly swollen from being pinched by the terrible man in the first cupboard. And, as I banged my face inside that same cupboard on my return, there is a small bruise on my right cheek (I’m sure it’s noticeable).

If you had taken the time to look, your opinion of me would have changed. Would you have felt sympathy? Admiration? Maybe. When lunging out of the labyrinth, I rug-burned my wrists on your grandfather’s carpet. Unhealed, they sting and stick to the paper as I write.

This morning, as I returned to this carcass of a farmhouse, I am even more committed to adventure, to danger. Perhaps, when we see each other again, there will be a gouge halving my eyebrow. Or maybe I will lose an eye entirely. If my half-blindness and a velvet eye patch is what is required to get you to see Richard Hutchins for what he is, so be it.

Disappointment. I will admit it. I have sworn not to lie to you. I was expecting treasure in this new cupboard. Ghosts of crusaders the journal said (though I haven’t any idea what a crusader is).

I got stuck. The cupboard connected to a hidden panel in a ceiling. As soon as I began to make my way through, I felt something pull me forward. But it wasn’t pulling me forward, it was pulling me down, and it wasn’t something, it was gravity (as your world calls it).

My head and shoulders and arms swung suddenly out of a ceiling, dangling awkwardly six or seven feet above the floor in an empty room. I just managed to spread my legs in time (still horizontal in the farmhouse cupboard), and I barely caught myself.

I couldn’t worm back in (my arms wouldn’t fit—the sides were too tight), and my head began to feel as if it would explode with blood. And my hands turned purple. Hours, yes, hours I dangled there, and I won’t tell you that I didn’t cry. Tears dotted the dusty floor beneath me.

To make matters worse, one small window let in the clattering sounds of danger. Men were shouting, horns were blowing, drums were beating. I could hear steel on steel, and horses screaming in rage and death and injury. The sounds rose and fell all day. They traveled. I was a misplaced and entirely vulnerable gargoyle, just waiting for someone with a sharp object to do me in.

You might think that I should have let myself fall the rest of the way through. But think of it, Anastasia, how could I have returned through a door in the ceiling? There were no chairs and no tables to boost me back up. Should I have run outside, into a massacre, and asked someone for a ladder? I made the wise choice. I dangled, and I waited.

I think I was asleep, or simply dazed, when the door opened. The scream is what roused me, and then the chattering of an angry old woman with rings in her wrinkled and pore-pocked nose. She beat me with a broom, Anastasia, like I was that brightly colored hollow donkey full of candied sugars at your last birthday celebration.

At the first, I covered my head with my arms and writhed and begged her to stop. But the blows stung, and the stinging woke my courage. I caught the broom (though it raked my knuckles), and I tore it from her. The tide had turned and I struck! Yelling like Fat Frank in one of his fits, I smacked that old woman in the ear, and she rushed back out the door.

Well, now I had a broom didn’t I? That was something. I looked around. The ceiling had beams (I had tried to reach them before). The broom handle was just long enough to slide above two of them. A brace! Something to push against! I slid upward, backward, just far enough to catch myself when the handle snapped.

I must hurry back to Hylfing now. Someone must have missed me, but my legs are still tortured with the prickles—the departing needles of numbness—and so I will rest on the floor and choose tomorrow’s cupboard (see, I am not deterred). Here is your great-grandfather’s description, and your grandfather’s odd addition at the end:

#63. Collected 1905. Small vertical rectangle. Six-pointed star keyhole. Petrified maple? Alder? First report: Egyptian merchant told the story of a small stone-wood box that sank his ship. First purchased from an Indian astrologer who claimed to see a younger sun through its keyhole. When opened, the box revealed an elevated perspective of a harbor. The box was lost at sea when huge quantities of shattered stone emptied from its mouth, rupturing the hull of the merchant’s small vessel, and sinking the craft entirely. Acquired at great expense. Retained merchant as guide and hired ten local sponge divers for twenty-six days before success.

[Lighthouse/Alex/Alt pres]

Goodnight, sweet A. I hobble back toward the world we share.

Be sure to check out yesterday's amazing post at The Reading Zone and check in tomorrow with Fireside Musings for the last installment.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review of the Chestnut King by N.D. Wilson

Wilson, N.D. The Chestnut King (100 Cupboards). Random House, 2010.

I read and loved 100 Cupboards back in early 2008, and was lucky enough to get to review Dandelion Fire for School Library Journal in Janury 2009. When I received The Chestnut King last month, however, I was a bit worried. Given the complicated nature of the plot and Henry's numerous far-flung family members, would I remember enough of the first two books - or would I have to re-read the first two?

Happily, The Chestnut King sucked me right into the thick of the action. Within pages, all the details of Henry's Hylfing and Kansas aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, came back to me, along with the horrible peril in which they and their world find themselves, thanks to immortal witch Nimiane.

In the city of Dumarre, Nimiane has used her magic to influence the emperor, who is now thoroughly under her sway, and to imprison one of the emperor's sons in a truly foul manner. Her fingerlings, strong warriors mind-enslaved through fingers implanted at the back of their skulls, search for Henry and his family in order to bring them to Dumarre. Within hours, Henry's family has been broken into pieces - his father Mordecai and uncle Caleb have gone to find the witch, mistakenly thinking her to be in the dead land of Endor, other family members have been captured and put in chains aboard a ship bound for Dumarre, and still others end up in the court of the Chestnut King. Meanwhile, Henry bounces via his cupboards from Kansas to Endor to the Chestnut King's court to Dumarre, always just one step ahead from the fingerlings.

Readers of fantasy fiction will feel familiar with many of the situations Henry faces. A seemingly invincible villain intent bringing unspeakable evil to the world, a final battle between good and evil, unusual alliances, and a young hero who yearns more than anything to just live a normal life - all these are time-honored fantasy traditions. However, they feel fresh and newly important in The Chestnut King, in large part due to the simple yet masterful writing. Take this small moment, when Henry is running for his life from fingerlings and suddenly sees his surroundings with his "shifted" magical vision for a moment, and then must run again.

"Henry turned and looked up the rocky slope, through the roaring life of trees and the mumbling of stone. He wished that he could learn every detail, smell every leaf, slap every boulder, that he could catch more of the thundering waterfall in the small bucket that was his body."

What a wonderful, subtle way to describe Henry's longing to fully absorb, engulf, love, and understand the world and life around him. Other passages are visceral, full of sights, smells, and textures. Particularly horrifying are the descriptions of the wound on Henry's jaw, scored by the witch's blood. It oozes, pulses, flakes, aches with a stony cold - and Henry's special vision can see the gray death threads that twist out of the scar and lead back to the witch. It's completely horrifying, and the reader will understand why Henry's fingers keep going to his jaw like a tongue to a decayed tooth.

Most of the characters, many of whom are down-home folks tinged with greatness, are quirky enough to be memorable yet real enough to be believable. In particular, fierce Henrietta, laconic Uncle Frank, and feisty Frank the Faerie stand out as fascinating folks whom we get to know very well throughout the three books. And of course there is Henry, who starts out as a sheltered and hesitant boy and grows into a person who is a reluctant hero, but all the more forthright and committed for that realization. He is both a dreamer and a person of action, a rare and difficult combination but in this case a successful one.

The end of this book takes us back to Kansas, where it all began for Henry, and where another chapter of his life is clearly about to begin. It's a satisfying end to an outstanding trilogy. Dare I hope that we'll hear more about Henry and his amazing family?

Recommended for all fans of the first two books in the 100 Cupboards series.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's a week of 100 Cupboards Madness!

All fans of N.D. Wilson, and especially those who are passionate about the 100 Cupboards series, which includes 100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, and the just-published The Chestnut King, simply must hop aboard his blog tour this week. You'll find reviews, interviews with and essays by N.D. Wilson, and special, never-before-published "explorations" of some of those mysterious cupboards.

First stop - Mundie Moms, with an excellent in-depth interview of Mr. Wilson and an exploration of cupboard #31.

Check back here all week long and especially on Thursday, when N.D. Wilson will be making an appearance at Eva's Book Addiction!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Review of The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean

McCaughrean, Geraldine. The Death-Defying Pepper Roux. Harper, 2010.

When he was born, Pepper Roux's aunt had a visitation from Saint Constance, who said Pepper wouldn't live past 14 years of age. For some reason, everyone decided to take this pronouncement as the gospel truth, and as a result Pepper has lived his first 14 years with death hanging over him, ready to pounce at every moment.

Small wonder, then, that Pepper decides, when the opportunity presents itself, to walk away from his own life into that of his father's, the captain of a merchant ship. Strangely, no one questions the appearance of a suddenly diminutive, baby-faced captain with his coat hanging off him - and thus begins Pepper's odd life as a chameleon, taking off and then shedding identities in order to cheat the fates out of his death. What allows him to do this is not only his ability to breezily step into any role but also the fact that people see what they expect to see. The one person that Pepper doesn't fool is his father's steward, a man whose sense of responsibility toward Pepper, not to mention his common sense, finally shakes the smell of imminent death out of Pepper's nose.

This story has a setting - France - but it doesn't have a sense of time. Clearly it isn't the modern day - there are no cell phones or computers, and the merchant ship is from a bygone area. But cars are mentioned, and motorcycles, so perhaps it's safe to assume that Pepper lives in the early 20th century. What Pepper's France reminds me of is the not-quite-real fantasy world of Moulin Rouge, an off-kilter place that is part medieval, part 19th century, and a very tiny part now, where folks seem at once modern and archaic.

Partly because of this, partly because of Pepper's constant bouncing from one unpaid "job" to another, and partly because of the jouncing, clever, slightly unsettling narrative style, I never quite became immersed in this book. It won my mind but not my heart - except for the steward Achille Duchesse, whose penchant for extravagant attire and loving soul make him a vivid and lovable character, no one seemed real. And let's face it, even Duchesse wouldn't get away with wearing a kimono or a red satin dress on board ship as he does in this book. The bizarre satirical quality that permeates the story distanced me from the characters, so that in the end, I was vaguely happy for the eventual good fortune of Pepper but not at all sad to leave him behind.

I'd happily recommend this to folks who want a fast-moving tall tale of a gutsy lad surviving on his own - it's just that it didn't grab me in quite the right way. For grades 5 - 8.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Review of The Museum of Mary Child by Cassandra Golds

Heloise lives with her beautiful but stern and cold godmother and a dour housekeeper. She knows has no memories of any other life but this - reading a censored version of the bible, doing chores, lessons, and needlework, and taking a short daily walk. Heloise has no friends, talks to no one besides her godmother and housekeeper, and knows almost nothing about the world. Beauty, love, and laughter are forbidden.

Next door to the cottage where she lives is a grand house - The Museum of Mary Child. Heloise's godmother takes paying visitors on tours of this museum, which is how she earns her living. Heloise has no idea what is inside this museum.

Naturally enough, Heloise longs for beauty and love, so when she finds a doll under the floorboards of her room, her world is altered. Whenthe doll is discovered, Heloise runs away to the city rather than give her up - and among the many people she meets , one imprisoned young man has a story that is mysteriously entwined with her own.

This is one of those books that is impossible to categorize. Although it at first seems meant for children, as Heloise is clearly a child, some of the almost spiritual or metaphysical themes of the story would fly way over a child's head - and as Heloise grows older, so do these themes rise to the forefront of the story. The Society of Caged Birds is a charming and fascinating idea that will appeal to children - but the Christ-like prisoner and the themes of love, sacrifice, and redemption require some maturity to appreciate. The tone of the narration is calm and measured for the most part, with a restrained yet hugely appealing sedateness that is on rare occasions (mostly when Heloise is speaking with the prisoner) broken by overwrought and perplexing dialogue.

Readers will certainly guess some of the fascinating twists and turns of the story before they occur, but that does not lessen their magic. The underlying themes - the magic of love and the necessity of letting go of control in order to get and give love - are presented in a truly magical and compelling way. I know I will be haunted for a long time by Mary Child, by those amazing caged birds, by the singing orphans and their choir leader Old Mother, and especially by Heloise.

I don't know to whom I should recommend this atmospheric, understated fantasy. Kids? Teens? Adults? I was swept away. Hopefully you will be as well.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chomper and Clomper

For a chuckle, read The Onion's gloriously dry report on this picture book exploitation scandal. Thanks to PW Children's Bookshelf for the link.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Review of The Secret of Zoom by Lynne Jonell

Jonell, Lynne. The Secret of Zoom. Holt, 2009.

Christina's scientist mom died in an explosion when she was a baby, and ever since she has lived an overprotected life with her loving but distant and awkward dad, who is a scientist with Loompski Labs. In fact, Christina is barely allowed outside her house, let alone off the property. Nevertheless, she not only manages to meet a boy named Taft who lives in the nearby orphanage, but she discovers secret tunnels, a mini airplane whose fuel is a substance called Zoom, and a truly nasty conspiracy that uses fearful and expendable orphans to mine Zoom.

I was ready to really like this book, having enjoyed the quirkiness of Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat and its sequel, Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls, not to mention their pro-rat stance, a rare quality indeed. But although Zoom was fast-paced, with plenty of adventure and danger, it left me rather cold.

The problem for me was that while there were plenty of standard characters (sheltered yet plucky heroine, dead mom, distant dad, prickly yet vulnerable boy, orphans in danger, truly awful villains), none of them felt real. There wasn't much of a heart to the story, making it hard to see the characters - even Christina - as real people one should care about. And maybe it shouldn't matter, as this is a light fantasy, but that makes it all the more jarring that some orphans actually die pretty terrible deaths, skimmed over as they are. The villains are one-dimensional and uninteresting, as are Christina's parents. Luckily she and Taft manage to carry the story quite capably through to the end, but they weren't enough for me.

Actually, one character did appeal to me - old Mrs. Lisowsky of the fuzzy red hair, who is the only one in the book who manages to be both sly and unpredictable. Her part in the story is tiny but key, and she steals the show.

As for the plot - well, it is both complicated and far-fetched, but it does speed the reader along. The idea of this strange substance Zoom as both a fuel and an explosive device that is triggered by sound waves and controlled by thoughts just didn't work for me - but man, do I crave a thought-controlled little airplane.

Although I would recommend the Emmy books to kids first, this will be fine for kids who love books about vulnerable kids triumphing over evil, powerful grown-ups. Best for kids in grades 3 to 5.

Monday, February 1, 2010

And for those crazed artist/fans...

Another revelation is deviantart. Because I had Peanuts on the brain, I went to Fan Art and then typed in Peanuts comic. I found Schroeder's Nightmare and an anime Lucy and much more.

Brave new world!

The joy of having readers for your writing

My 15-year-old daughter danced into my bedroom the other night, glowing with joy. "I've gotten three comments on my story and I only just put it up!" she said. "And they're all really positive!"

The background - Nadia has been an avid reader for at least a year, following the best fanfic authors of her favorite manga/anime/game series. (See this post for her early attempts at educating me in the ways of fanfiction) She's been writing stories since she was 7 years old, although in recent years most of the creative activity has been going on in her mind, with little actually getting written down.

But a week ago, Nadia finally got a free account with, allowing her to make comments on stories and, most importantly, to upload her own stories. And she did, getting feedback right away. Can there be a more luscious feeling for a writer? People read her stories - people who care very strongly about the universe she writes about - and liked them! This is pure ambrosia.

I went on myself for the first time recently. What a revelation! When I was a kid, I used to imagine writing about all the Peanuts characters, inserting myself into their world - so of course I looked in the Comics section. Sure enough, there are 121 stories currently posted, positing Linus/Sally ("Lally") or Charlie Brown/Peppermint Patty romantic pairings, philosophical discussions between characters, and more. Woah! It was all I could do to keep from reading every single ficlet and drabble.

Then I looked up Books. Oh. My. Freaking. God. Whether your thing is The Forest of Hands of Teeth or The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew or Saddle Club, you'll find fans who were compelled to write stories based on them. Obsessive, addicted, creative, possibly insane - these crazed writers are My People.

Nadia writes and reads about the Kingdom Hearts universe, by the way. Which are manga/anime based on games. Why a fantasy-reading kid writes about this when she could be writing stories based in, say, the Song of Ice and Fire world, I don't know. But she is completely motivated to write more stories. And that ROCKS!

I am VERY tempted to try a Peanuts fanfic. But I can't put myself in - that is apparently gauche. So - perhaps Charlie Brown will finally fly his kite successfully, kick that football, and ride a convertible into the sunset.