Friday, December 31, 2010

Review of The Shadow Hunt by Katherine Langrish

Langrish, Katherine. The Shadow Hunt. Harper, 2010.

Almost immediately after young Wolf runs away from the monastery where he has been under the thumb of awful Brother Thomas, he has a confusing and scary encounter with a wolf hunt led by a local lord, culminating in the discovery of a small child hiding in a deep cave.

Certain that this is an Elf child, Lord Hugo orders that the child be brought back to his castle. Wolf tags along and is happily absorbed into the busy life of the castle, with the admonition that he must teach Elfgift (as the child is named) to speak before Christmas. Lord Hugo is certain that his wife did not die and go to heaven years ago, but rather went to the realm of the Elves, and he wants Elfgift to give him information about her.

Despite this seemingly impossible task (Elfgift, a feral child, starts to understand language but shows no signs of ever saying a word), life at the castle suits Wolf fine, especially as he befriends Lord Hugo's daughter Nest and a traveling jester named Halewyn. But with Christmas comes not only Lord Hugo's dreaded deadline, but also Nest's long-planned marriage to a lord she's only met once - and when he arrives with his entourage, long-simmering tensions suddenly explode.

There's something about daily life in a busy, drafty, rustic medieval castle that always intrigues me, with its eccentric characters, volatile lord, and ever-present hounds, chickens, and pigs. Throw in a hob who lives in the hearth, a female spirit who haunts the courtyard, and of course little Elfgift, and I'm happy as a clam. Except - there are dangers inside and outside the castle walls, and one person in particular is not who he seems. Elfland, as it turns out, is terrifyingly, appallingly real. This is a world filled with danger, both human and supernatural. Children are abandoned by their parents, the Crusades are unholy in their brutality, and the Elf Lord may claim you for his own awful kingdom.

Langrish is a fine storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing, and she balances with ease the various elements of this tale - supernatural and down-to earth, chilling and humorous. A sure sign of a story's success is an unwillingness on the part of the reader to let these characters go. I would dearly love to read about the further adventures of Wolf, Nest, and Elfgift.

Highly recommended for fantasy readers, but also for those who enjoy stories set in the Middle Ages. For ages 9 to 13.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Berlin day 6

I'm writing this several days, a major holiday, and thousands of miles later, but day 6 remains fresh in my mind despite the hazy, miserable state I was in thanks to those allergies.

Nadia was out of commission the whole day and stayed in the hotel room, so I lurched out on my own, determined to visit the Museum of Childhood and Youth and the Berliner Dom.

The Museum of Childhood and Youth is located on the top floor of a fairly generic building and consists of a long hallway lined with exhibit-filled cabinets and 5 rooms exploring such childhood themes as toys, clothing, and most of all school. One whole room featured schooling in East Germany, with lots of pictures of Young Pioneers in neckerchiefs looking very much like Boy and Girl Scouts.

I was the only one in the museum, so after giving me time to wander through all the rooms on my own, the kind docent on duty gave me a tutorial on writing with a feather and a steel nib pen, then taught me to play an old fashioned game with a peg top (set in motion with a string on a stick, and then you whip at the top with the string to keep it spinning). She takes school groups through on a regular basis, and spoke in a slow, calm, and enthusiastic voice that was soothing to my fevered brain.

Reluctantly, I plunged back out into the elements. It truly was dismal weather, still cold but without either the snow or the blue sky that had graced the previous days. The sky, a soggy, misty grayish yellow, seemed much too close to the ground. Rather daunted but unwilling to return to the hotel, I set off for the Berliner Dom, snapping this photo of it on the way.

The Berliner Dom was built around 1900 and is a baroque-style cathedral featuring an enormous, elaborately decorated dome. The lovely thing about churches and cathedrals is that they have lots and lots of seating, and so I sat in a pew for a loooooong time, listening to the soporific tones coming through the headset on my audioguide and letting my feet thaw out. The place is absolutely gorgeous, but what I liked best, besides the dozens of coffins in the basement filled with Prussian royalty dating back to the 1600s, was the little coffee shop on the property, where I had an extremely satisfying cheese sandwich and some peppermint tea.

Berlin, like every German city I've been to, has bakeries (and sometimes two or three) on every street, or so it seems. Most are franchises of big chains, and while the pastries are rather disappointing, the bread and rolls are always SO good, and I've never been disappointed by a simple cheese sandwich from even the sketchiest of subway station snack stands. Which is a good thing, because bread, cheese, chocolate, and coffee were pretty much what Nadia and I lived on. How I miss those breakfast rolls spread with jam or Nutella...

It was 4 pm and already dark by the time I left the Dom, so I decided to skip the last thing on my agenda (the Holocaust Memorial) and head back. And that pretty much concludes day 6.

Thursday, December 23 was our travel day back to L.A., and we were so lucky - our two flights were on time and went smoothly. Customs at LAX took 2 hours due to "technical difficulties," but at least we were home!

Since being back, I've finished Catherine Fisher's Sapphique and Katherine Langrish's The Shadow Hunt - more on those soon.

Back to work tomorrow, when I'll hopefully learn who all our former adult librarians/new children's or YA librarians are at LAPL. Lots of training ahead for the Youth Services department! And ALA is coming up, with the first meeting of the 2012 Newbery committee and a great YALSA institute as conference highlights, and I'll be teaching Library Programs and Services for Children at UCLA's library school this quarter, starting Jan. 3.

I'm convinced that 2011 can't be as bad as 2010 was - but it's showing every sign of being just as busy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Berlin day 5

What is the difference between a cold and allergies? Obviously one is caused by a virus and is contagious, while the other is caused by an over-active immune system and is not contagious - but sometimes it's hard to tell what has caused one's nasty symptoms. Nadia has had a cold for several days, so I assumed I caught it - but according to Dr. Internet, my plugged-up head, itchy throat, and burning-lumps-of-coal eyeballs are all allergy-induced. Apparently the color of one's nasal mucus is a good indicator...

Germy or just allergic, I did slow down a bit on day 5. Left Nadia sleeping and took a streetcar to the Friedrichshain Park, where the Fairy Tale Fountain (Maerchenbrunnen) is located. Obviously the fountain wouldn't be running in this weather, but I was still hoping to see cunning statues like this one, based on Grimm fairy tales:But because of the extra-cold weather, all the statues were sheltering inside cozy little boxes:

To thaw out and get over that nasty disappointment, I headed over to the Alexa mall at Alexanderplatz, where I spent an unknown amount of time wandering through the heavy pre-Christmas crowds. Normally, this would be my idea of hell, but it was just so darn WARM in there - plus my head felt like a helium balloon just barely tethered to my body, which strangely enhanced the whole mall experience. I stood in front of the Sheepworld shelves in one store for at least 20 minutes, swaying gently and happily (see the picture above for an example of Sheepworld products). When allergies hit me, they hit me hard...

However, it did seem wasteful to spend so much of my Berlin trip in an American-style mall, so I headed back to the hotel, swooped up Nadia, and... went to see the movie Tangled at the Sony Center. In English. I know, I know - but we were both feeling too sick to do anything else. There was a group of loud American teenage girls sitting right behind us, and Nadia did recover enough to wax scathing about them. There is nobody more judgmental about teenage girls than other teenage girls. "I bet they're from Indiana," she seethed, after yet another bout of shrieking and giggling from the row behind us. Meow!

Another bout of insomnia, this one absolutely allergy-induced, allowed me to finish two books:
The White Horse Trick by Kate Thompson
This last installment of an Irish fantasy trilogy that includes The New Policeman and The Last of the High Kings is a bit disturbing, featuring as it does the destruction of human civilization, thanks to global warming. This is clearly a trend in YA literature - think of Carbon Diaries 2015, Raiders' Ransom, Ship Breaker, and many others. At least in The White Horse Trick, there is T'ir na n'Og to escape to. This is rather a bleak book nevertheless, although it does possess the glimmering bits of down-to-earth humor that make Thompson's books so enjoyable. The Adam and Eve ending is quite disappointing for its blatant wink/nudge aspect, but otherwise this is a fine wrap-up to the trilogy.

Real Live Boyfriends by e. lockhart
Ah, Ruby. We love you and your self-doubting, self-criticizing, self-destructive ways - but enough already! Actually, it's her therapist, the redoubtable Doctor Z, whom I wanted to shake. Enough with the wise silences and the repeating of Ruby's words back to her - just tell her that overthinking everything, though not necessarily healthy, doesn't mean you're bonkers. There's more Guy Trouble, though of a more garden-variety nature this time - and by the end of this slim book, Ruby is actually on the road to maturity. Hurray! Nothing special or new here, but of course a must for Ruby Oliver fans. (small quibble - why is Ruby never wearing her glasses in the jacket art for this series?)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Berlin day 4

I'm sprinkling this post with Scenes of Bitter Cold - you'll find both the view from our 5th floor room and from the bridge crossing the Spree River at Warschauer St (note the ice chunks). Brr...
Nadia and I marched forth regardless, and finally visited the East Side Gallery, a stretch of Wall painted in 1990 (a year after its fall) by over 100 international artists. It's only a block from our hotel, so we can visit it again. Again - the bizarre happiness of seeing murals painted on the EAST side of the Wall!

We spent an eclectic afternoon eating visiting a secondhand store with a better selection of shoes than I have ever seen at a thrift store, browsing through the Museum of Things (which consisted of exhibits of everyday objects from Germany of 1900 on, arranged by various themes), and eating veggie burgers. At this point, Nadia was ready for her book and quiet hotel room, so I brought her back and then set off on my own.

After much brisk walking through the cold and dark down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor (meh - maybe this would have thrilled me more if it had been 40 or 50 degrees warmer), I headed over to the Jewish Museum of Berlin. The fabulous thing about this museum, besides its zig-zaggy architecture, is the way it focuses on more than a thousand years of Jewish life in Germany, and not just on the decades of horror in this century, and while it doesn't gloss over the persecution that has always existed, it gives a full and vibrant view of Jewish life. My only quibble is that it was very hushed - more color and most particularly lots of music would give the place more life and make it not quite so elegiac. After all, Jewish culture still exists all around the world, and even in Germany (one exhibit briefly presents Jews who chose to live in Germany after WWII, or who are living there today).

Books finished:
Matched by Allie Condie
How perfect to be in the former East Germany reading a book about a future in which the State (called the Society) controls all aspects of human existence, and quells all signs of disobedience or independence. The Stasi would have really appreciated having a red pill they could make folks take when necessary. There are similarities to Lois Lowry's The Giver, but I loved this romance about a teenage girl named Cassia who decides that she will not "go gentle" into the constricted future her Society has fashioned for her. It's a compelling, fast-moving novel that doesn't have to have a sequel to be satisfying and thought-provoking - but luckily there will be one.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Berlin day 3

It snowed all morning, which made a picturesque backdrop to our cozy all-you-can-eat brunch buffet but was not such good weather for exploring. I dragged a reluctant Nadia onto the streetcar and over to Kollwitzplatz, where I'd heard about an organic, all-natural Christmas Market, and sure enough, there were plenty of objects for sale along the lines of little hand-knit animals made from hand-dyed wool from the humanely raised and sheered sheep of the seller's sister.

Although Nadia had been moaning about her frozen feet before we reached the market, a cup of organic Gluehwein soon put her to rights (though I did NOT let her have a shot of rum in it). Here she is, post-wine.Nadia spent the afternoon in the hotel while I visited both the Kathe Kollwitz museum (amazing and powerful) and the Story of Berlin museum (where I got a tour of a real nuclear bunker, one of 16 in Berlin, built in 1974). Between museums, my timing was excellent, as a Christmas parade was heading down the Ku'damm. But tackily, it was sponsored by Coca-Cola and included free cans of coke handed to the crowds. Sigh...I'll take hokey Christmas markets any day.

Every once in a while, such as today on the streetcar, it will dawn on me again how strange it is to be able to travel through what used to be East Berlin, and back and forth over what used to be a heavily controlled border. Our hotel is in East Berlin, for goodness' sake! My last visit, in 1981, was during such a different time.

This city is starting to feel very comfortable to me, even if I can't quite get the knack of tipping. My German tutor back in Venice is from Berlin, and so the accent is familiar and understandable. Folks are pleasant and courteous, and are clearly ready to enjoy the holiday Stimmung despite the weather. And the public transportation is a dream - oh, how envious I am!

My Euro-style twin bed awaits, as does Matched by Allie Condie (only a few more pages to go and then on to The White Horse Trick by Kate Thompson).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Berlin day 2

Today wasn't quite as buzzing with activity as I had planned. I got another late start today, thanks to an hours-long bout of insomnia in the wee hours (on the positive side, I got lots of reading done). Nadia decided to stay in the hotel and power-sleep her way through a cold, and anyway, she had no desire to accompany me to the Charlottenburg Schloss. Above is a photo of the palace, with a picturesque part of yet another extensive Christmas market next to it. In addition to dozens of wooden huts selling all manner of food and handicrafts, there were at least 12 little huts selling Gluehwein, and those Germans, especially the older ones with cold bones, were definitely partaking. I decided that 1 pm was a bit early for wine, even the warm and spicy variety, so I settled for a hot cup of Chai.

The Charlottenburg Schloss reminded me of a poor cousin of the Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna - it's quite a bit smaller and was heavily damaged in WW2. Although it's been restored, most of the original furniture is no longer there. Still, it's a fascinating look at the Prussian monarchy and at an unimaginable way of life. I spent hours shivering my way from one ornate room to another (the rooms seemed to be heated to all of 55 degrees).

It was a clear and gorgeous day in the early 20s (Fahrenheit) today, and it's supposed to be the same or a bit colder tomorrow. Definitely a museum day, so it's a good thing Nadia has another Robin Hobb book to read. Now, if I can just get her to wear her hat, gloves, and scarf all at the same time (she always seems to think at least one of them ruins her look; no wonder she has a cold).

Thanks to all that insomnia, I've almost finished reading Matched by Ally Condie, which is fabulous. Such a relief to get lost in a book after my lukewarm response to the last two books I read.

Tomorrow - a few flea markets, Kollwitzplatz, and maybe the Museum Island (yes - an island in the middle of the Spree River simply bristling with museums. Bliss!).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Berlin day 1

After an exhausting journey that included a grueling 4 hour layover at Heathrow and a stumbling, snowy late-night slog via bus and U-bahn from the airport, Nadia and I finally made it to our hotel room, which is spare and clean in that particularly German way.

We slept through breakfast, finally leaving the hotel at noon today. It snowed most of the day, so we chose indoor, Nadia-friendly venues for the most part - the Alexa shopping center at Alexanderplatz (where we found some comfortable chairs to read - Nadia read Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb and I read a Berlin guidebook), the Fernsehturm (where I gawked at the snowy 360 degree view of Berlin view while Nadia read Fool's Errand), and the KaDeWe department store (the largest in Europe), where we were so overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place that we had to replenish ourselves with bean soup (me) and Fool's Errand (Nadia).

It's the season for Weihnachtsmaerkte, and we inspected the one at Alexanderplatz (that's Nadia in the photo), one of many I plan to visit in the search for nifty handmade presents. And Gluehwein - plenty of Gluehwein (hot mulled wine) to ward off the winter chill!

Books read on the journey so far:
Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Two teens who have never met lead each other on a romantic scavenger hunt through NYC during the holiday season.This was a light and charming read, but it lacked the heart of Nick and Norah's Ultimate Playlist, being an uneasy mix of teenage earnestness and slapsticky rom/com (culminating in Dash and Lily getting thrown in jail). It starts really well but just gets more and more unlikely. I kept seeing it as a cute movie (a 2010, teen version of When Harry Met Sally). Left ARC on the LAX/London plane.
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Caitlyn, an 11-year-old girl with Asperger's Syndrome, tries to deal with the death of her older brother, the sadness of her dad, and the bewildering world of people and their emotions. It's written from Caitlyn's point of view, which worked fine for me - but I have to say that this wasn't a book I loved. Parts of it felt very grown-uppy and contrived, such as the search for Closure. It won the the National Book Award and may very well win the Newbery, so feel free to take my reaction to it with a grain of salt. Left ARC on the London/Berlin plane.

Tomorrow we tackle the Charlottenburg Palace, Kollwitzplatz, and much, much more!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ich steh' auf Berlin

I'm leaving for Berlin in a few days, a city I last visited in 1981. The Wall is gone, and in fact I'll be staying in what used to be gloomy East Berlin.

The most recent book I read with a Berlin setting was Kathryn Lasky's Ashes, and of course Christopher Isherwood's tales of Berlin in the 30's and 40's loom large in my imagination.

However, it is two books I read while a teen living in Germany in 1980/1981 that have created the image of Berlin currently inhabiting my mind. Both were written by Germans in the 1970s, using a casual slangy kind of language that I found much easier to read than Goethe or even Thomas Mann.

Ulrich Plenzdorf's Die Neuen Leiden des Jungen W (The New Sorrows of Young W) is written from the point of view of a rather feckless young East German named Edgar Wibeau who takes off for Berlin and promptly falls for a pretty and married young Kindergarten teacher named Charlotte. He riffs on all manner of topics, from what "real blue jeans" consist of to the odious ubiquity of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings - and eventually he comes to a tragic and ridiculous end. Edgar's complete self-absorption is absolutely spot-on - even as a 16-year-old, I could recognize a certain type.

Christiane F's Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children from Bahnhof Zoo) was a whole other kettle of fish, depicting a West Berlin full of young heroin addicts who lived in depressing high-rise apartments and prostitute themselves to support their habits. I spent my year in Germany living in two different small towns, surrounded by rural countryside, and so this view of modern German urban life was an eye-opener. Even had I been inclined to be a bad girl, this book would have cured me of any belief that drug use was cool or sophisticated. The movie came out while I was in Germany, featuring David Bowie as the soundtrack to all the geilen Wahnsinn.

I went to Berlin with other exchange students and our host brothers and sisters, and while we did go to a few discos, we also gamely trouped around various museums and spent a day in East Berlin, being terrified to so much as throw a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, for fear we'd be dragged away and interrogated. Compared to the glitter and glitz of West Berlin, the East was gray and depressing.

It's going to be interesting experiencing Berlin as a middle-aged mom. Accompanying me will be my 16-year-old daughter, who finds the concept of a divided Berlin to be quaint and ancient history. But I hope she finds the city as captivating as I did both in books and in reality.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review of Boneshaker by Kate Milford

Milford, Kate. The Boneshaker. Clarion, 2010.

I watched the movie The Polar Express for the first time just a couple of days ago and was astonished at its general eeriness. Quite apart from the motion capture animation technique, which created some odd facial expressions, there was a creepy, sinister feeling to the whole movie that I didn't expect. One scene, in which three children wander through an apparently deserted North Pole town, accompanied only by piped-in tinny Christmas music coming from invisible speakers, reminded me of the early 90s video game Myst. The children seemed to be in mortal peril throughout the film, and I think it would have terrified me as a child.

Boneshaker's creepiness was likewise a surprise to me; the illustrations, the 1914 Missouri setting, and the whole Medicine Show aura led me to expect a more folksy sort of fantasy, with the bad guys being perhaps a bit goofy.

But no! The men - or whatever they are - who come to Arcane, Missouri and set up Dr. Jake Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show are truly evil creatures, with malice and mayhem on their minds. And there are other dodgy characters peopling Arcane as well, including a walking dead man (or something like that) who happens to be the town's richest inhabitant. And oh yes - there are demons, and while one of them is a bit comic, the other means business.

At the heart of the story is 13-year-old Natalie Minks, whose father is a mechanic and whose ill mother has a secret. Natalie doesn't trust Dr. Limberleg and the four "paragons" who help him run his medicine show, and she discovers that all is not as it seems. Somehow these "healers" are actually spreading a horrible disease instead, and only Natalie can stop them before they destroy her town - and maybe the whole world.

The Medicine show, with its tents and lights and strange steampunky contraptions and sinister inhabitants, is most of the important action takes place, and it's a terrifying place to be. As in Polar Express and Myst, it is a surreal setting, strangely silent and still except for unsettling jagged pieces of sound (jingling bells, clashing cymbals) and the feeling that something bad is about to happen.

The explanation of this scary medicine show, and much else besides, comes in fits and starts - mostly by overheard conversations and also by strange "memories" that Natalie experiences, a symptom of her emerging magical gift. This technique drags down the pace somewhat but doesn't detract from a story that becomes more creepy the more it unwinds. There are indeed some folksy bits - an ancient black man who tangled with the devil and managed to best him, for instance - and somehow the juxtaposition of these with the scalp-crawling elements make the whole thing even creepier.

It doesn't all hang together. The point of Natalie's unusual bicycle and the other mechanical elements is unclear to me, and the walking dead man's tale, which I'm betting is intriguing indeed, will apparently be told in a sequel (or at least it better be). The pacing is uneven and the role of Natalie's fellow townspeople is somewhat vague - what they know and how they know it isn't made clear.

Nevertheless, this is a fine and unique example of an American-style tale of the Devil, with our folk hero Clever Jack playing a cameo role. It's not something I'd hand to just any kid, as it's a complicated and scary tale, but it's quite a meaty and satisfying read. I'm looking forward to reading more about the strange town of Arcane, Missouri. For ages 11 to 14.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Just cluckin' away ("book book")

I was glad to see that Io9's post on Geeky Gifts for Kids included plenty of fine books, and that same fine site also pointed me to 5 Sci-Fi Children's Books (which aren't real but maybe should be for the jacket art alone - check out Goodnight Dune and Kirk and Spock Are Friends).

Although Betsy Bird's reports on publishers' librarian previews are always fun, I was particularly taken with her description of one book in the Simon and Schuster spring 2011 line-up, which uses the phrase, "I hear you cluckin', Big Chicken." I can't quite imagine uttering that to any of my bosses, but surely just thinking it will improve the day.

Even if you don't use bookplates (and I don't, since I mostly read library books), you may well be tempted to purchase some of these desirable Etsy creations, as chosen by Carolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy.

I've been going back and forth about whether to buy an e-reader. An upcoming trip abroad had me considering the benefits of being able to carry travel books, a German/English dictionary, and any number of novels on one slim, light device. But on the other hand, I want to catch up on all the great children's and YA novels I've been stockpiling, and what better opportunity than that long, long flight? Better yet, I've been saving my ARCS, which I can leave behind as I read them (leaving room in my suitcase for souvenirs).

I'm sure I'll buy an e-reader sooner rather than later, though. A Kindle seems like the best bet, but it's frustrating that I won't be able to read Google books, much less library e-books. I'm telling ya, I'm used to getting my books for free! Anyway, I'm grateful that Bookshelves of Doom recently addressed the question of which e-reader to buy - check out the extremely helpful comments on her post.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

pointy teeth

It brightened my morning to come across an interview with David Shannon in the Los Angeles Times. Although I disagree with the statement that "...Shannon bears little resemblance to the pointy-toothed, pug-faced troublemaker at the center of his much-loved series..." I kinda think he DOES look like that naughty David. See what I mean? (And check out the cake below)

It also gladdened my heart to read Amy (Ask Amy) Dickinson's suggestion that families start a new holiday tradition by leaving children wrapped books on their beds on Christmas morning or on any holiday. She's calling this campaign A Book On Every Bed.

Now if we can just get every influential person out there to delivery a similar message about the importance and joy of sharing books with children, the world will be a better place.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review of Northward to the Moon by Polly Horvath

Horvath, Polly. Northward to the Moon. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2010.

This is the sequel to My One Hundred Adventures, which was one of my favorite books of 2008. Jane is now 13 years old or so, and is at the tail-end of a so-so year up in Canada, where her step-dad Ned has just been fired from his job as a French teacher (it took the school almost an entire school year to figure out that Ned can't speak any French) and in general, no one is very happy.

Therefore, it's excellent timing when Ned gets a phone call from some folks he knew for a brief time 20 years ago, setting the family off on a road trip that leads them to a mysterious bag of money and then to Ned's mom's horse ranch in Nevada. After Ned's mom has an accident, a bunch of Ned's sisters descend upon the ranch as well, and soon Jane is happily surrounded by new and strange relatives - and one alluring, if elusive, ranch hand named Ben.

Although it starts out as a road trip novel, the real meat of the story occurs at the ranch and is mostly about the mysterious and ever-fascinating nature of people and relationships. There is the frustrating riddle of her sister Maya's depression, the intriguing puzzle of how Ned's family functions (or doesn't), and of course the engrossing question of what goes on in Ben's mind and heart - since Ben doesn't ever say a word to Jane or even seem to notice her, Jane's imagination has full rein in this case.

Some main characters stay in the background (like Jane's mom and her two little brothers), while others receive much avid attention, and I think this reflects who Jane herself is thinking about. For example, her feelings about her step-dad keep changing as she goes from feeling like his side-kick (because they both love adventures) to feeling patronized and belittled when Ned offhandedly reveals Jane's feelings to Ben - and so we hear lots about Ned. Ned's sisters and mother are mostly vividly portrayed, and of course Jane worries quite a bit about her difficult sister Maya.

Although this didn't resonate with me in the same strong way that My One Hundred Adventures did, the strong writing, the novel but not too offbeat situation, and the imperfect, cranky, unpredictable characters make this book a pleasure to read.

And though none of Jane's questions (most notably who her father is) get answered, no matter. There will be a third book, as the last two sentences make clear. Jubilation!

Friday, December 3, 2010

My very favorite part of the Star Wars movies

I'm saving the very top of my holiday list for this most fabulous of geeky toys (thanks to io9 for the post). And do observe the similarity to the Walkers from the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Find more illustrations from the series here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Swords and Swans

I went to see LA Opera's production of Lohengrin last Sunday, and I liked it quite a bit, despite its daunting length (over 4 hours) and the fact that Ben Heppner portrayed a hefty and weary-looking old Lohengrin, and not a young and dashing hero.

The music was gorgeous (and I did not know beforehand that "Here Comes the Bride..." comes from this opera), but it was the story that drew me in and kept me mesmerized. It was both too simple and too convoluted in that usual opera way, and altogether silly. And yet, at its heart it was a fantasy pure and simple - and you know how I love a fantasy. The costumes may have been blood-stained WWI uniforms, but the setting was a castle by the sea, and I could well imagine armor and gowns.

Lohengrin is based on Arthurian legends - apparently, he is the son of Parsifal, Knight of the Round Table and Keeper of the Holy Grail. (For a synopsis of the opera, which will tie my fingers in knots if I repeat it all for you here, see the Metropolitan Opera's succinct summary.) Arthurian legends are fascinating for the way they mix paganism and Christianity, magic and holiness. The Holy Grail itself makes for quite a wild story - even if you ignore all the Celtic/Arthurian bits, you've still got this magical cup, given to Joseph of Arimathea by Jesus, that provided Joseph with food and drink for 42 years! This reminds me of certain magical kettles, bags, and tablecloths that provide never-ending feasts.

Although Elsa is annoyingly passive and Lohengrin doesn't exhibit many heroic qualities (we have to take it on faith that he is a hero), Ortrud (played by the fabulous Dolora Zajick) is a vivid and fascinating character. She's a witch who, having finagled a marriage with Count Telramund of Brabant, is determined that her pagan gods (Wotan, Freya, et al) must once again come to power in Brabant and overthrow that wussy upstart religion called Christianity. Yes, she uses deceit and magic in her schemes - and yet, if this were a Norse myth, Ortrud would be a heroine of the first order. The world of her gods is disappearing fast and so she's desperately, bravely fighting back.

And she does score a victory of a sort. Lohengrin will only agree to marry Elsa and save Brabant from the invading Hungarians if Elsa will swear never to ask him who he is and where he comes from. Even his name is forbidden to her. Where have we heard this kind of ultimatum before? Don't ask me my name! Don't go into that room! Don't look behind you! For if you do, all is lost. Well, Ortrud manages to infect Elsa with enough niggling doubt ("what if this mysterious man isn't sent from God but is a sorcerer instead? I mean, he arrived on a swan-driven boat, for goodness' sake!") that Elsa can't even get through her marriage night without breaking down and begging Lohengrin to reveal his secrets.

Lohengrin reveals all but then departs back to his mystical heavenly realm, leaving behind some folks who are hugely irritated with the all-too-fallible Elsa. If only she could have trusted her man, had a little faith - because that's what those ultimatums are all about. And it's true that faith is necessary for both relationships and religion - but did Lohengrin give Elsa any real reason to trust him so utterly? She dreamed about him and he arrives, and everyone assumes he is there to rescue them and so are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Elsa has to bear the full brunt of trust - and of course she ends up dying.

I don't think that Ortrud dies - but she doesn't get control of Brabant, either (because Elsa's brother, the heir to Brabant, is rescued by Lohengrin from his enchanted form. Yes, he was the swan!!). I like to think that Ortrud lives on to scheme on behalf of her beloved gods, against all odds.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

clank and hiss

It's always lovely to have another good list of steampunk titles, like this one from Heather M. Campbell in the December School Library Journal.