Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Man and Superman - George Bernard Shaw

One of the weirder tangents my thesis has taken me on is the depiction of Satan in 20th-century literature... not a topic I feel entirely at ease with, but needs must, and it has led me in the direction of some intriguing texts.  Most entertaining was George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman (1903) - which helpfully ticks off one of the tricky years at the beginning of A Century of Books.


Although I've read a few Shaw plays, I don't think I've ever seen one performed.  This one would be great fun to watch, although it is apparently rarely performed in its entirety.  There are four acts - Acts 1, 2, and 4 are set in upper-class society with Shauvian topics of marriage and left-wing morals.  Act 3, normally excised, is... set in hell.  As you do.  But I won't jump the gun - let's rewind back to Act 1.

Ann has recently lost her father, and is waiting to hear whom her father appointed her guardian (for, although her mother is still alive, she seems fairly useless).  Most likely candidate is Roebuck Ramsden, a no-nonsense, traditional sort of chap, whose chief horror is the spectre of Socialism.  Said spectre is represented by Tanner, something of a pessimist but rather a wordy, witty one.  To Ramsden's horror, Tanner and he have been chosen to be co-guardians.  Tanner sees through Ann's guise of unworldly innocence, to the determined young woman inside:
She'll commit every crime a respectable woman can; and she'll justify every one of them by saying that it was the wish of her guardians. She'll put everything on us; and we shall have no more control over her than a couple of mice over a cat.
A man who certainly does not see through this guise is poor hapless Octavius.  He's very sweet, but utterly besotted with Ann and incapable of seeing her faults, even when Tanner points them out to him.  Especially then.  And we're all set up for a lovely comedy of manners, with some handy dichotomies thrown in: right-wing/left-wing, conventional/'advanced', romantic/cynical, serious/playful.  Being Shaw, it's not quite as insouciantly blithe as it would be in the hands of some playwrights.  He gets his politics in - gently, in the first two acts, in the linguistic tussles of Ramsden and Tanner, which are great fun.

The big moral quandary comes in with Ann's sister Violet, who (we find out) is pregnant.  Ramsden and Octavius are horrified, while Tanner congratulates her on her progressive nature.  All is not quite what it seems, and it's a rather clever bit of playing with a common early-20th century dilemma.

Then Act 3.  Which is set in Hell, and features Don Juan, a statue, and the Devil (amongst others).  This act is almost invariably omitted from productions of Man and Superman, and one can see why.  Shaw intends to draw parallels between these characters and those of the play proper - indeed, the play started in response to the challenge to write one in the tradition of Don Juan - but it's all a little heavy-handed (as Shaw can be) and probably rather costly to stage.  The Devil is not an unsympathetic character, and has very advanced views on warfare, considering this is pre-WW1:
In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and explosive shells until one boy runs away, when the others chase the fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly.  And this, the chronicle concludes, shews the greatness and majesty of empires, and the littleness of the vanquished. Over such battles the people run about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their governments on to spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk.
On and on this act goes, until eventually - with an intellectually improved audience, I daresay, but also a rather bored and confused one - we return to the characters we know and love, and witty wordplay becomes, once more, the order of the way.



And Shaw is witty!  He doesn't specialise in those twisty, meaningless bon mots of Oscar Wilde, which are so clever and a little wearing (except in the incomparable Importance of Being Earnest) but a more extended pattern to his writing.  Wilde relies on the epigrammatic individual line; Shaw's paragraphs flow, with ingenious pacing and regulated logic, and produce humour that way.  Just as an example, here are Tanner's thoughts on marriage:

Marriage is to me apostasy, profanation of the sanctuary of my soul, violation of my manhood, sale of my birthright, shameful surrender, ignominious capitulation, acceptance of defeat. I shall decay like a thing that has served its purpose and is done with; I shall change from a man with a future to a man with a past; I shall see in the greasy eyes of all the other husbands their relief at the arrival of a new prisoner to share their ignominy.
Man and Superman ended up not being useful for my chapter, but it was great fun to read.  I think I might return to Shaw's plays in December, if the 1900s and 1910s are still proving tricky years to fill...

And what happened to Ramsden, Ann, Violet, Tanner, Octavius and all?  I bet you can guess at least one outcome...


Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Jewel of Kalderash by Marie Rutkoski-


Rutkoski, Marie, The Jewel of Kalderash. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011. Pgs. 320. Language: G, Violence: PG, Sexual Content: G

In the previous book, The Celestial Globe, readers are left with the knowledge that Petra’s father has been turned into a Grey Man, Prince Rodolfo’s blood-seeking creatures. We find the main characters, Petra and her friends Neel, Astrophil the tin spider, and Tomik, on board the gypsy ship, Pacolet, and are on their way to Vatra, the Roma’s stronghold. Using the Celestial Globes to travel faster, the four friends find themselves the center of attention, good and bad. To make things more interesting, when they arrive, Neel discovers that he is the rightful heir to the Vatra throne and his estranged mother is dying. As he takes over the throne, he gets word from Bohemia that his sister, Sadie, is in danger and he himself is also the victim of some death threats. To make matters worse, Prince Rodolfo is making plans to conquer his father’s empire and use his Gray Men to inflict untold horrors. The four friends’ only hope to save their families is to go back to Bohemia on a life or death mission back to Bohemia to not only find the cure for Petra’s father, but also to stop Rodolfo. With war becoming more and more the only way to stop the evil prince, can Petra and her friends save her father? Will Neel be able to figure out who is trying to kill him as well as save his distance-estranged sister? Will the four be able to save the empire?

 A complex, engrossing adventure. Although there are parts of the book that drag on, the action is entertaining and the mystery is intriguing. Although the characters only minimally grow in comparison to what the reader would expect, they are enjoyable and still fairly well-developed from the previous books. Readers who like fantasy, adventure, magic, and good versus evil books will enjoy reading this final book in the series. EL (4-6), MS. ADVISABLE. Reviewer: Kira M, Youth Services Libraran, WHI Public Library.

Pretty Princss Stories and True Love Stories by Laura Bergen-ESSENTIAL

Bergen, Laura, Pretty Princess Puzzles and True Love Stories. Disney Press, 2012. PICTURE BOOK.

This puzzle book contains 7 24-piece puzzles. Each beautifully done puzzle is accompanied by a well-written one page version of that princess’ story. Although more suited for homes and classrooms, this book is sure to entertain all little princesses as they read and learn about true love. PreK, EL (K-3). ESSENTIAL. Reviewer: Jessica Moody, Library Media Specialist, Olympus Jr. High.

5 Minute Disny Pixar Stories by Disney Enterprises-ESSENTIAL

Disney Enterprises, 5 Minute Disney Pixar Stories. Disney Press, 2012. PICTURE BOOK.

These 12 short bedtime stories are sure to thrill boys and girls alike. They illustrate children’s favorite Disney/Pixar characters in bright vibrant detail. The stories are the right length for readin gout loud. Each adventure will have little ones begging for more. PreK, EL(K-3). ESSENTIAL. Reviewer: Jessica Moody, Olympus Jr. High, Library Media Specialist.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Agent Game

You may not remember this, but this is not the first time we've queried. Our first attempt was nearly a year ago and it did not go well. We've rewritten a lot of our manuscript since then, and hopefully that will help this time around, but aside from that we've realized we need something else. Something different. A Query Strategy.

The Agent is a wily opponent. A powerful opponent. They can destroy our queries with the touch of a button. They can destroy our manuscripts with a shrug. And they can destroy our dreams with a yawn.

They also know kung-fu.
It would be stupid to go up against The Agents without a strategy. That's what we did last time, and we got our asses handed to us. So this time, we have one. And here it is.

One of the biggest mistakes we made last time was that in hindsight, our choice of agents had a complete lack of diversification.

That didn't make any sense, did it? Let me explain.


In the world of finance (which is, unfortunately, my day job), diversification is extremely important when putting together an investment portfolio. The idea is that you don't want to put all your money in one stock, because that stock could all of a sudden go into the crapper and you'd be left destitute (cough, RIM, cough).

Diversification means you spread your money around into unrelated stocks so that if something bad happens to one, you're not totally boned. "Unrelated" is important here. Spreading money around into GM, Ford, and Chrysler doesn't help, because if one company goes down, it's likely the others will as well.

Still with me? Cool.

Here's who we queried last time: Janet Reid. Suzie Townsend. Steve Barr. Kathleen Ortiz And Sarah Heller.

All of them are already established. All of them already have famous clients, with best sellers. All of them are already big names.

And another thing, something that's not obvious from just staring at their names. Half of them know each other. Janet, Suzie, and Kathleen are friends. And because they're friends, they probably have similar tastes in books. So if you think about it, if one person rejects us, likely the other two will as well. Which is exactly what happened.

So the answer? Diversity!

Thanks, Benetton. Your message hides the fact that this picture makes no sense.
I've written previously about how great the Twitter machine is, but a nasty side effect of Twitter is that you end up finding people who all know each other. Hence, there's a danger that the agents you find tend to have similar tastes.

So this time around, for each round of queries we send out, we're going to build the lists using two criteria:
   1) Agents must like different types of books.
   2) Only half will be established agents. The other half need to be relatively new.

That second point is important. Our manuscript is, to say the least, a little bit risky. It is, after all, a story about a fifteen year old girl who keeps dying in horrific ways, over and over again. I have a feeling we'll need agents who are newer. Agents who don't already have a huge portfolio of best-selling authors. Agents who are willing to take a chance on something weird.



So that's our strategy. How about you? Do you have a querying strategy?

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Gallico Giveaway!

The lovely people at Bloomsbury have got in touch with me: they have eights sets of Mrs. Harris MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow to give away, and decided that the wonderful readers of Stuck-in-a-Book were the right types to receive them!  Trâm-Anh knew that I loved Gallico's novels Coronation and Love of Seven Dolls, and though somehow I've only just started Mrs. Harris series (halfway through Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris and loving it), it was always more in the way of saving-something-brilliant than uncertain-I'll-enjoy.

So, if you live in the UK and fancy the chance to win those two books (pictured below, in situ in Bloomsbury's offices - aren't they striking and gorgeous?) just leave a comment with the place you'd most like to visit, but have yet to see.  (Mine, by the way, is vague - Scandinavia.)


I know that quite a few people have trouble commenting here - if you want to enter but can't comment, email me simondavidthomas[at]yahoo.co.uk and I'll put you in the draw.

In about a week's time, I'll do a draw.  Good luck!  With eight sets of two to win, your chances are pretty good... do feel free to spread the word :)

The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan - ESSENTIAL


Riordan, Rick  The Serpent’s Shadow, 406 p. Disney/Hyperion, 2012. $20.  Content: PG (LOTS of danger). 

The Kane siblings are in trouble.  Not only is Aphosis determined to plunge the entire world into darkness, but there is major dissension among the House of Life magicians – in fact, there may be treason.  The siblings best bet, besides their trustworthy friends, is a ancient, evil magician, who has ulterior motives for helping them.  And we can’t forget, Sadie Kane is faced with major heartbreak – no matter whether she chooses the god or the boy, someone will probably get hurt.  The Kanes have TWO days to save the world.  Riordan manages to weave danger, suspense and humor together into a rollicking ride.  My favorite is the giant hippo tossing, however, I snorted out loud many times during the reading.  Sadie is not nearly as insufferable as she was at the beginning and there are lots of great surprises. 

EL, MS, HS – ESSENTIAL. Cindy, Library Teacher

P.J. Night - ADVISABLE


Night, P.J. Best Friends Forever, 144 p.  Simon, 2012.  $6.  Content: G.  Amy feels left behind when her best friend moves across the country.  Whitney, the new girl in town, seems eager to be friends, however and the girls start spending time together.  Whitney, however, seems to be overly fond of her old doll collection – and overly possessive of Amy’s time and friendship.  Maybe Amy should get far away – or maybe Whitney has other plans.  Ok – I thought this one was truly creepy!  I had a hard time finishing it – that creepy! EL – ESSENTIAL; MS – ADVISABLE. Cindy, Library Teacher

Night, P.J. Is She For Real?  141 p. Simon, 2012.  $6.  Content: PG (creepy, not bloody).  Even moving to a new town, Bethany’s life is pretty perfect.  She has a new 7th grade crowd, she has a boyfriend and Nate, the boy, has even given her a beautiful old ruby ring.  But there is a mysterious evil in Warwick and it seems to have attached itself to the ring – and to Bethany.  Who will ultimately be in control?  Night’s books are delightfully creepy!  EL – ESSENTIAL; MS – ADVISABLE. Cindy, Library Teacher

Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis - OPTIONAL


Burgis, Stephanie Kat, Incorrigible, 295 p. Atheneum (Simon), 2011.  $7.  Content: G.   
Now that she knows she has magical powers, Kat, 12, is determined to use them.  Her sisters seem equally determined to keep her from learning.  Her eldest sister is betrothed to a thoroughly despicable old man, in a society that sees absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Kat’s new, yet to be mastered powers may save the day, but make some enemies and imperil the family name.  I wanted to love Kat, really I did, but it just didn’t come together for me.  The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards magic and the Victorian manner-isms just grated on my nerves.   

EL – OPTIONAL.  Cindy, Library Teacher

From Bad to Cursed by Katie Alender - OPTIONAL


Alender, Katie From Bad to Cursed, 442 p. Disney/Hyperion, 2011 p.  Language: PG, Violence: PG-13.   

You would think Alexis would know better.  She just managed to save her little sister Kasey from an evil ghost.  Now Kasey is part of a club of girls who seem to have unnatural beauty and popularity.  When Alexis joins the club in order to investigate, she promptly forgets her purpose, being manipulated by an evil spirit – one who has been around for generations.  This one pushes all of my boundaries – ordinary girls channeling evil spirits with spells and such makes me very uncomfortable.  Plus I was really angry with Alexis for being dragged right back into a supernatural mess again and thinking she can brave it on her own.  It just makes her look stupid in my eyes.  This one is much more personal and evil than the first.   

HS - OPTIONAL.  Cindy, Library Teacher

The Great Molasses Flood by Deborah Kops - OPTIONAL


Kops, Deborah The Great Molasses Flood, 97 p. Charlesbridge, 2012.  $19.  Content: G (some historical violence).   

Boston, 1919 – things are looking up after the Spanish Influenza and the Red Sox had won a pennant.  Life on the waterfront becomes mayhem, however, when what sounds like a explosion bursts forth on the quiet day and 2.3 million gallons of molasses (used in making rum) are unleashed upon people, buildings and streets.   

Years ago I read Joshua’s Song by Joan Harlow and thought this an interesting anecdote in history.  I loved that someone has now written a thoughtful, well-researched juvenile non-fiction book on the subject.  I am sure this will be popular with schools in Massachusetts, but I am definitely buying one for our non-fiction projects here.   

EL, MS – OPTIONAL.  Cindy, Library Teacher

Somebody Please Tell Me Who I Am by Harry Mazer - ADVISABLE


Mazer, Harry and Peter Lerangis Somebody Please Tell Me Who I Am, 148 p.  Language: PG-13 (22 swears, 0 ‘f’); Mature Content: PG-13 Violence: PG.  Simon and Schuster, 2012.  $16. 

Ben Bright has a sparkling future in front of him, but in his heart he wants to join the military and defend freedom around the world.  Leaving his family, his fiancée and his friends behind, he walks into the Middle East and a roadside bomb attack.  Now everyone who knows Ben must figure out how to pickup the pieces of their hearts left behind, as the Ben who comes back to them resembles the Ben who left only superficially.   

Mazer and Lerangis have done an excellent job of crafting a book that shows absolutely normal people in an awful situation.  They strike a delicate balance of presenting harsh honesty without resorting gratuitous violence, swearing or mature content.  For example, while it mentions the presence of internet porn, it does not describe anything.  This would be  excellent paired with Ruth Emerson White’s The Road Home, too.   

HS – ADVISABLE.  Cindy, Library Teacher

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Diviners by Libba Bray –PUBLIC ONLY


Bray, Libba The Diviners  608 pgs. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012 (Sept). $12.82.  (Rating: PG-13: Swear Count: 0)
Evie O'Neill has been getting into trouble, so she has to go live with her Uncle Will in New York City. She couldn’t be happier, it’s the 1920’s and NYC is a happening place to be. Her Uncle runs a creepy museum, and coincidentally creepy stuff starts to happen in the city. In fact, Evie herself seems to have an usual gift. When the police come to her Uncle with help solving an occult murder mystery- Evie is determined to get involved. But to do so, would put her right in the killer’s path, and he might be supernatural.
I am not going to say that this book was not entertaining, despite being over 600 pages, I found the pages flying. The setting feels authentic and it’s stuffed with interesting characters. But it’s gruesome, overly full of foreshadowing of doom (at least 25% of this book is made of these ridiculous passages!), and there is so much drinking that I felt half-drunk myself ugh! I think that all adds up to a book that’s not so great for a school library but perfect for a public library.
HS –PUBLIC ONLY/ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Diva (The Flappers Book #3) by Jillian Larkin –ADVISABLE


Larkin, Jillian Diva (The Flappers Book #3)  320 pgs. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2012 . $12.23.  (Rating: PG-13: Swear Count: 1b)
Set in the 1920’s of prohibition, speakeasies, and glamour –this is the story of three female flappers whose live intertwine. Clara and Lorraine are both in love with Marcus. But Marcus is marrying someone else. Although the women hate each other, they must work together to stop Marcus from making a horrible mistake. Because Gloria defended her fiancé, Jerome, she had been in jail. To get out, she must act as a spy, finding out more about the rich and handsome Forrest Hamilton. But Forrest is a dangerous guy. Jerome has his own problems, his future father in law has threatened to ruin his career in music if he should seek out Gloria.
This book was downright over the top cheesy –but still somehow very entertaining and likeable. This is the final book in a series, and halfway functions as a stand-alone. I think students will enjoy reading about the mischief that the 1920’s had to offer.
HS –ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

The Girl is Trouble (Book 2) by Kathryn Miller Haines –ADVISABLE


Haines, Kathryn Miller The Girl is Trouble (Book 2)  160 pgs. Simon Spotlight, 2012. $10.98.  (Rating: PG)
Iris is finally getting to help her Pop out with his investigations! She has a case of her own –the Jewish students at her school are being harassed. When some photo’s of her mother’s dead body stir up her questions about her death, Iris has another case to solve. Things seem to be pretty bad when she suspects her best friend, Pearl in the first mystery, and her Uncle Adam in the second. Complicating matters is her crush on rebel Benny and her Pop’s dangerous investigation.
I am LOVING this series! (see my review of  Book#1 in thisseries: The Girl is Murder). I love the historical setting (1950ish), and the characters are memorable and fun. The plots are interested and complex without being confusing. Students will have a great time following Iris’s investigations!
MS, HS -ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Racing the Moon by Alan Armstrong –NOT RECOMMENDED


Armstrong, Alan and Illustrated by Jessell, Tim Racing the Moon 224 pgs. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012. $11.98.  (Rating: PG)
Set in the 1940’s –this is the story of a pair of siblings who love space. Alexis idolizes her older brother Chuck, who has a loose sense of responsibility and doesn’t follow the rules. When a new neighbor reveals she is part of the US space program, she offers to help them in the pursuit of their interest in space travel. Captain Ebbs wants to bring out the best in the children, and has some adventures in mind that will allow to take their experience with space up a notch. But Alex and Chuck are used to making their own way, and soon take off on a dangerous journey.
The characters in this book are well rewarded for stealing, disobeying rules, and putting themselves in danger. The same could be said for the Harry Potter books, but this book fails to justify it. I just couldn’t buy in, everything was too coincidental, and there is no way a helpful neighbor keep trying to connect with these kids, when they are determined to undermine her. There was also the introduction of a German space scientist, with suggested Nazi connections -who visits their home. Since this is poorly explained, students will find very confusing. 
EL - NOT RECOMMENDED Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Love, Amalia by Alma Flor Ada and Gabriel Zubizarreta –OPTIONAL


Ada, Alma Flor and Zubizarreta, Gabriel M. Love, Amalia 144 pgs. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012. $12.47.  (Rating: G)
Amalia has a close relationship with her grandmother, and she learns so much from her: from cooking, family stories, and life advice. A situation arises when it’s up to Amalia to help bring the family together and she falls back on her time with her grandmother, and her amazing box of family letters.
This is a complex and wonderful book, but it’s going to take a teacher to help tease out the best from this book for students. I highly recommend as an in-class reading assignment, where the cultural references, themes, and plot elements can be better understood by students.
ELEMENTARY–OPTIONAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Magic Treehouse #48: A Perfect Time for Pandas by Mary Pope Osborne –ADVISABLE


Osborne, Mary Pope  Magic Treehouse #48: A Perfect Time for Pandas 128 pgs. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012. $9.35.  (Rating: G)
Jack and Annie need to collect a final object to help save Merlin’s penguin. They are sent off to China, with clues to guide them. They find themselves at a Panda reserve. After they spent a wonderful day volunteering, they decide to get back to their search. But an earthquake derails those plans, and Jack and Annie are frantic with worry about the Pandas. They have to decide if they should go back and help or continue with their quest.
Companion Fact Tracker Book: Pandas and other Endangered Species: Offers information on Pandas, and other species that need our help!
Although this book was part of a larger adventure (Merlin Mission), it easily functioned as a stand-alone. The plot line was based on real-life events. The book was creative and wonderfully crafted. I really enjoyed this book, and I am willing to be students will too!
EL - ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle –OPTIONAL


Engle, Margarita The Wild Book 144 pgs. Harcourt Children's Books, 2012. $12.74.  (Rating: G)
Fefa has trouble reading and writing, “word-blindness’, in fact she is downright afraid of it. Her mother knows better, and gives Fefa a blank book –called the Wild Book. It takes a bit of time, but Fefa finally gets the courage to start writing. There is danger in her part of Cuba, children are being kidnapped, and held for ransom. Fefa’s Wild Book might be more important than Fefa could have imagined.
I think this would be difficult sell for students to read by choice.  The entire story is told in poetry format, each page with its own title. The lyrical format, cultural references, and time-setting elements require either an advanced student or teacher directed learning. I really like the books by this author, but I think it an adult reader to fully appreciate her skill. I recommend this be used for in-class, teacher directed, reading.
ELEMENTARY–OPTIONAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Secrets from the Sleeping Bag (Series) by Rose Cooper –ADVISABLE


Cooper, Rose Secrets from the Sleeping Bag (Series) 208 pgs. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2012. $7.21.  (Rating: G)
Sofia and her best friend Nona are off to summer camp –Camp Krakatow. When they end up in separate cabins, Sofia must deal with an evil counselor, grumpy fellow campers, and a giant prank contest between cabins. 
This book is in an illustrated journal format, but the main character frequently refers to her blog. Its quirky and silly, and a was an incredibly fun read. Students will love this book, and I intend to purchase the series.
ELEMENTARY–ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Alexis Cool as a Cupcake (Cupcake Diaries Book 8) by Coco Simon –ADVISABLE


Simon, Coco Alexis Cool as a Cupcake (Cupcake Diaries Book 8) 160 pgs. Simon Spotlight, 2012. $5.99.  (Rating: G)
Alexis is the brains behind the Cupcake Club, and she is tired of being the only who cares about their success. She does the paperwork, organization, and finances. The other girls are too busy planning costumes and dates for a parade. Will Alexis find the nerve to ask her crush to the parade? The girls better learn to appreciate Alexis, before Cupcake Club is making cupcakes for free!  
I reviewed the first couple books in this series, and really liked them. I can’t believe the series is already on book 8, and at this point the books aren’t functioning well as read-alones. I think still tudents will love this wholesome series with distinct characters and fun age appropriate adventures. These books always make me hungry for cupcakes.
ELEMENTARY–ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Sailing to Freedom by Martha Bennett Stiles -ADVISABLE


Stiles, Martha Bennett Sailing to Freedom256 pgs. Henry Holt and Co, 2012. $10.19.  (Rating: G)
Ray wants nothing more than to go to sea with his father. But instead his dad gives him a monkey, Allie, and goes to sea without him. Ray ends up getting his wish anyway, sailing with his Uncle Thad’s crew. When Ray finds out that the ship is carrying a stowaway, he wants to help but knows they are all in danger. In the meantime a young slave boy named Ogun and his mother are escaping by land, trying to find freedom. The two stories eventually meet up in a wonderful way.
This book has a very authentic historical fiction feel, including complex language. At time I had a hard time following Ogun’s story part of the time because of this. So I think that might make this book a better read for older elementary students. I loved the character of Allie the monkey, she made the story as far as I am concerned! Not a pirate story, but will appeal to those students interested in that genre.
ELEMENTARY–ADISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Can I Bring Woolly to the Library, Ms. Reeder? by Lois Grambling - ESSENTIAL


Grambling, Lois G., Can I Bring Woolly to the Library, Ms. Reeder?, Charlesbridge, 2012. $16.95. Content: G. PICTURE BOOK.  A boy wants to bring a Woolly Mammoth to the Library.  He tells the Librarian that Woolly has the potential to be a great library helper because he’s familiar with all the library rules and he can reach the high shelves with no problem but fitting between shelves could be a big problem! I really enjoyed this book.  I loved how the story told how the Woolly Mammoth could be a great library helper but it was the artwork that showed what would REALLY happen if a Woolly Mammoth came to the library! It would be a great book to open a discussion with children about perspective and also a great introduction to library etiquettes. I can see this being a #1 choice for summer reading time. Pre-K, EL(K-3),EL-ESSENTIAL. Reviewer: MJB

Nikki & Deja: Wedding Drama (Series) by Karen English -ADVISABLE


English, Karen and Illustrated by Freeman, Laura Nikki & Deja: Wedding Drama (Series) 112 pgs. Clarion Books, 2012. $11.69.  (Rating: G)
All the girls in Nikki and Deja’s third grade class have wedding fever after they find out that their teacher, Ms. Shelby, is getting married. They even form teams and make wedding planning a competition. Deja isn’t sure she can attend the wedding since her Aunt has been laid off from her job. But Nikki won’t stop talking about the wedding, which causes a rift in their friendship.
I really like this series. The plots always revolve around a realistic school environment, but the author includes the two girl’s home lives, as well as life lessons like friendship. They are a simple read, and very appropriate for school libraries. I think 2-3rd graders will enjoy reading about Nikki and Deja lives.
EL, ELEMENTARY–ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Muskrat for Supper by Kenny Salwey -OPTIONAL


Salwey, Kenny Muskrat for Supper 160 pgs. Scholastic Press, 2012. $11.01.  (Rating: G)
River Rat, Kenny Salwey offers his advice and opinions regarding living with and exploring nature. He talks about his experiences and promotes preserving wild spaces. He makes suggestions such as keeping a nature journal.
I loved this book, because I am a nature lover and appreciate the knowledge that the author is recording.  Here’s the part I am dreading: this book is just not appealing for students. The cover and black and white photographs look dated. I think even a student who was interested in nature would be bored, like listening to a lecture by a grandparent. But I would be willing to bet that students would go nuts over this author as a guest speaker though!
ELEMENTARY – OPTIONAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen - OPTIONAL


Hellisen, Cat When the Sea is Rising Red, 296 p. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2012.  $17.  Language: R (10 ‘f’, 40 other); Mature Content: PG-13 (implied and light description).  Felicita’s family has enjoyed a position of privilege, even among the society of a city which is dying.  As a girl, however, she is subject to the orders of her oldest male relative – in this case, her very much absent brother.  When her best friend Ilven throws herself off a cliff to escape an arranged marriage, things in the town literally turn for the worst, as an ancient evil comes to exact a price.  Felicita chooses to follow her friend’s example, faking her death and hiding among the poorest in the town.  Layers upon layers shift and twine as Felicita tries to figure out to save both herself and her town.  While this book was pretty good, it is also very dark.  I have a feeling there will be a sequel if it sells well enough.  HS – OPTIONAL.  Cindy, Library Teacher

Troubletwisters: The Magic (Book 1) by Garth Nix and Sean Williams -OPTIONAL


Nix, Garth and Williams, Sean Troubletwisters: The Magic (Book 1) 304 pgs.Scholastic Press, 2011. $12.62.  (Rating: G)
When Jaide and Jack move in with their mysterious Grandmother X, their lives take an interesting turn. They find out that things aren’t always what they seem, and that they have some magical abilities. When an evil force threatens them both (with its scary use of taking over the bodies of bugs, birds, and more), they must experiment with their newfound abilities, talk to cats, and find a creative solution.
This starts out pretty intriguing but quickly falls into that magical trap of ‘anything can happen’, which makes it difficult to connect to caring about the characters, since you know ‘something magical will happen’ to save them –no matter what. There was a ton of foreshadowing, which started to get annoying. I am a sucker for Garth Nix but come on, (Spoiler Alert), “The Evil” seriously? You couldn't get more creative than that!!? That all being said, I think students will like this series since magical powers books are still so popular. I am willing to give the next book in the series a trial run!
ELEMENTARY – OPTIONAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

One White Dolphin by Gill Lewis -ESSENTIAL


Lewis, Gill and Illustrated by Aparicio, Raquel One White Dolphin352 pgs. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012. $9.43.  (Rating: G)
Kara’s life has been in upheaval for the past year; her mother has gone missing, her dad might lose his job, and they are selling their beloved family boat. Worst of all- the ocean by her house, and its reef, something her marine biologist mom was passionate about preserving, is in danger. When Kara finds an injured white dolphin, the community takes notice. When she makes a new friend named Felix, together, with the help of the dolphin, they start to rally the community to protect the reef.
I love this author (see my review of Wild Wings)! This was an excellent, multifaceted book that is both realistic and inspiring. The save the environment theme is popular and necessary. I really like how the characters use technology to aid in their campaign. I like the inclusion of a disabled character, Felix, who has cerebral palsy, being shown accomplishing his goals and making a difference. Students will love to read about how much power they actually have to affect change. I am excitedly anticipating future books from this author.
ELEMENTARY – ESSENTIAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

The Templeton Twins (Book 1) by Ellis Weiner -ADVISABLE


Weiner, Ellis and Illustrated by Holmes, Jeremy The Templeton Twins: Have an Idea (Book 1) 232 pgs. Chronicle Books, 2012 (Aug). $9.43.  (Rating: G)
When John and Abigail’s father, a professor, is accused of stealing an invention idea –they are really mad. The accuser, some guy named Dean D. Dean, is a real creep, and he keeps coming around. When Dean kidnaps the twins, they get creative and work together to escape and prove their fathers innocence.
That description sounds boring –when this is actually a really creative and quirky book. It is the strongest example of the Intrusive Narrator that I have ever come across. At first it was distracting, even annoying, but eventually it was just silly and fun. The unique illustrations and ‘questions for review’, are pretty funny. I was blown away by the inclusion of a full recipe for meatloaf –so so hilarious. I think students will love this book, and I intend to follow the series closely.
ELEMENTARY – ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Dusty Answer - Rosamond Lehmann

Despite packing and moving and all sorts, I have managed (just in time) to finish Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, and thus I am participating in Florence's Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week!  I also realise I've been spelling it 'Rosamund' up until now.  Sorry, Ros.

I bought Dusty Answer (1927) eight years ago, and it's been on holiday with me a couple of times, and yet I hadn't read it (or any Rosamond Lehmann novels) until this week.  I had intended to read a different Lehmann novel, but then decided to start at the beginning, with the novel Lehmann had published when she was 26, the same age I am.  I'm glad I did.  Dusty Answer is brilliant, and fulfilled all the expectations I've been building up in my head over the past eight years.

The papier-mache dog (Pastey) was made by my friend Mel's boyfriend...
Mel insisted that he make an appearance.
The novel concerns Judith Earle, an only-child who is mostly solitary, but who becomes friendly with the children who visit next door - and who end up figuring hugely in her life.  They are Mariella, Roddy, Julian, Charlie, and Martin - mostly cousins, but Julian and Charlie are brothers - and have a busy, high-spirited life which Judith joins in nervously but so very whole-heartedly.  They are her life, for a summer or two - and ice-skating a while later - and have a huge significance in her otherwise lonely upbringing.   It takes a talented writer to write about childhood without the novel feeling like a children's book, and Lehmann achieves this wonderfully.  The cast is well-drawn - foolish but amiable Martin, above-it-all Julian, unusual Roddy, beautiful Charlie, and self-conscious Mariella.  Lehmann captures childhood, and the fleeting but all-absorbing interaction with other children, even when it lasts only a little while.  Although nothing exceptional happens in these chapters, the atmosphere is consumingly beautiful.  Part of me wishes the whole of Dusty Answer dealt with their childhood, from the subjective but astute gaze of Judith.  It would have been enough.

But, we learn in the first page or two, Charlie is killed.  The children grow up and don't see each other.  Judith must start to make a life for her own - which she does, as a student at Cambridge.  This was the section I liked least.  The character who looms largest in Judith's life at this point is Jennifer - they bond over insulting a chubby, ugly girl behind her back; they are essentially horrified by a lack of beauty.  This was where I lost a bit of sympathy for Judith.  But a novel - even one which looks through the eyes of one character - doesn't fail or succeed on the sympathetic qualities of its protagonist.  Lehmann still writes engagingly and Cambridge life, but I missed the cousins.  I wanted them back.  That group was what gave the novel vitality for me.  And, luckily... they came back!  I shan't spoil any more, but things get increasingly complex...

Dusty Answer spans Judith's life from childhood to her early twenties (I think) and Lehmann is convincing at the subtle ways she changes as she ages - and the same for all the children as they become adults (except poor Charlie, of course.)  Only Julian and Roddy got rather confused in my mind, and we might be able to lay the blame at the door of the hot weather this week.  As a central character, Judith is convincing in her thoughts and responses, irksome in her self-consciousness and occasional hysteria, and an odd (but believable) mix of concern for the lives of others and intense introspection.  Perhaps common traits of the only-child with distant parents.  One character sums up her approach to life rather well:
Have you ever been happy?  No.  Whenever you come near to being, you start thinking: "Now I am happy.  How interesting... Am I really happy?"
Yet, although she has a few off-putting qualities, these only serve to make her more interesting and rounded as a focal pair of eyes for the novel.  She seems to have been based on Lehmann herself.  None of the characters are saints or sinners; the good do not end happily and the bad unhappily - Lehmann's novel reflects the highs and lows, obsessions and irritations of life itself - albeit rather heightened at times.

But the reason I loved Dusty Answer was Lehmann's writing, especially in the first section.  It's another of those novels which starts with a little bit of prolepsis (starting with some information, then skipping back into the past) but it worked well here, because we are going back to Judith's childhood.  The effect lends an air of added nostalgia to the early chapters.  It actually reminded me of a couplet written by Miss Hargreaves (!) - her poetry is usually nonsensical, but there was a definite sense at the beginning of Dusty Answer of 'Halcyon, halcyon, halcyon days / Wrapped in high summer's indigenous haze.'    And Lehmann writes so, so beautifully.  As with Sybille Bedford, it's difficult to pinpoint sections which are especially brilliant, because all of it flows exquisitely.  Karen (whose review is here) wrote on the LibraryThing discussion of Rosamond Lehmann: 'What beautiful, dreamy, atmospheric prose she writes!'  And she's spot on.  As I say, picking out an excerpt is tricky - indeed, it somehow seems rather like purple prose in isolation, which it never does in context, but I thought I'd better not write a whole review without any quotations...
Into the deep blue translucent shell of night.  The air parted lightly as the car plunged through it, washing away in waves that smelt of roses and syringa and all green leaves.  The moon struggled with clouds.  She wore a faint and gentle face.

"I shouldn't be surprised if there was rain before daybreak," said Martin; and, reaching at length the wan straight high road, accelerated with a sigh of satisfaction.

"Faster, Martin, faster."

Faster and faster he went.  She settled herself close against him, and through half-shut eyes saw the hawthorn and wild-rose hedges stream backward on either hand.  The night air was a drug from whose sweet insinuating caress she prayed never to wake.  Soon, through one leafy roadway after another, the headlights pierced a tunnel of green gloom.  The lanes were full of white scuts and little paws, paralysed; and then, as Martin painstakingly slowed down, dipping and twinkling into the banks.  Moths flickered bright-winged an instant in the lamplight before being dashed to their fried and ashy death.  Once or twice came human beings, objects of mean and foolish design, incongruous in the night's cast grandeur; and here and there, under the trees, upon the stiles, in the grass, a couple of them, locked face to face, disquietingly still, gleamed and vanished.  She observed them with distaste: passion was all ugliness and vulgar imbecility.
But I think the only way to see whether or not you'd like Dusty Answer is to pick up a copy and start reading.  Since it was on my shelf for eight years, you'll have gathered that a synopsis alone doesn't sell it as a must-read.  But if, like me, you've somehow gone through your life without reading any of Rosamond Lehmann's output, then - hie thee to a library!

Thanks so much, Florence, for running Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week and for making me finally read this novel.  It's so, so good!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith -ADVISABLE


Smith, Greg Leitich and Illustrated by Henry, Blake Chronal Engine 192 pgs. Clarion Books, 2012. $12.13.  (Rating: G)
Max and his twin siblings Kyle and Emma are sent to live with their Grandfather that they hardly know. When their Grandfather has a heart attack, they find out about a time machine in the basement. When Emma is kidnapped by another time traveler, the boys and a new friend Petra, must use the time machine to find her. They end up in the very distant past –full of the dangers of Dinosaurs. The kids have a lot on their plate, and must survive while they problem solve.
Students that love dinosaurs will hands down love this book. I thought it was intriguing and fun. Some of the Dino names are a challenge, they are well described and interesting. While some of the time travel parts get confusing, I think students will still really enjoy this read.
ELEMENTARY–ADVISABLE Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Escape from Zobadak by Brad Gallagher –OPTIONAL


Gallagher,Brad Escape from Zobadak 332 pgs. Mackinac Island Press, 2011. $13.22.  (Rating: G)
Billy and his sister Sophie are upset when they find out that their favorite Uncle Gary has disappeared. When a nightstand from his Uncles house makes some strange noises, Billy finds out that it’s a secret entrance to a vast building that stores world treasures. Billy hopes that his Uncle might be hiding in there, so Billy, Sophie, and their friends start their search. In the meantime, some strange men come searching for his Uncle, and kidnap Billy & Sophie's parents!
Being a fan of secret lands in furniture, I was pretty excited about this book. The characters are great, and the plot starts out being incredibly intriguing. But it takes some funky and strange turns, that I think students will have a hard time following and they won’t like the limited explanations. The ‘bad guys’ are really bizarre and not explained well at all –they keep referring to John Wayne, a person who a majority of today’s students won’t relate to at all.  
ELEMENTARY -OPTIONAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

A Favourite of the Gods - Sybille Bedford

Let's take a moment, before I begin, to praise how beautiful this book is - the book-as-object, I mean.  Well, you can only see the picture - sadly, you can't feel it.  It is beautiful to read.  The cover flips closed with a beautiful soft clunk; the pages slip beautifully together.  It is a little soft to the touch.  It's delightful.  This is why I love books, not just reading.  This is why I won't get an e-reader.

But, thankfully, it didn't end there.  A Favourite of the Gods (1963) is also a really good novel, which Daunt Books kindly sent me a few weeks ago, along with the sequel A Compass Error, which I've yet to read.  You might already have spotted Rachel's enthusiastic review of the books - and I'm jumping on the same bandwagon, because I think Sybille Bedford might be something rather special.

A Favourite of the Gods concerns three generations of women - Anna, Constanza, and Flavia - over several decades, dealing with Italian and English society, living lives governed by different moral systems, yet somehow inextricably bound together, even when understanding each other least.

The novel opens with Constanza and her daughter Flavia on a train to Paris, intending to meet Constanza's fiancée.  Everything goes rather awry when the train stops and Constanza realises she has lost her ruby ring... they get off the train and stay locally for a while.  And then we leap back to the beginning of the story... as with Wise Children, this technique irked me a bit, but I'll let them get on with the show...

Since the plot is the least important part of the novel, I'm going to whizz through part of it... Backtrack to 1870s American Anna - who heads off to Rome and falls in love with an Italian Prince, as you do.  Marriage and a baby girl, Constanza, swiftly follow.  Some years later, Anna discovers something that makes her whisk Constanza away to England, forbidding to let her ever see her father again.  When Constanza becomes of age, she resolves to see him anyway, now she is no longer under her mother's well-meaning but possessive control - only, war is declared.

Right, that's as far as I'll go - but, obviously, somewhere along the way Constanza's daughter Flavia appears...

Thinking back over the novel, there are a few significant moments, but for the most part the events don't particularly matter.  Bedford writes, instead, about relationships between mother and daughter; how people come to understand the world around them, while relating their new-found understanding to their upbringing; how children grow to see their parents as people, and not simply parents; how events affecting the whole of Europe can equally affect tiny family units.  And, throughout all this, Bedford has an astonishingly subtlety.  Nothing is overstated; a lot is barely stated.  Bedford depends upon her fine character drawings, rather than exclamatory narrative interjections.  Anna is dignified and calm, but very proud; Constanza is more rebellious, but ultimately loyal.  Their mother/daughter has a thousand shades in it, and is wholly believable.  I loved how Bedford managed to convey this with tiny linguistic decisions.  For example...
Constanza said: "There hasn't been one word of marriage; and there won't be."

"But dearest girl, why?"

"One doesn't marry like that," said Constanza, "just like that.  For a bit of love."

Anna chose to laugh.  "You don't know yet, my dear, what one marries for."
I think the 'chose' is really clever there.  A lesser novelist would elaborate about Anna's shock and discouragement, and her decision to put a brave face on matters - but Bedford captures it all in a word.

It must be so difficult not simply to show how these characters are and interact, but how they change over the years.  We see Constanza growing from a baby to a mother, and Bedford writes her life without a false step or unbelievable move.  Often characters seem the same from cradle to grave, but Bedford is cleverer than that.  Here is Constanza as an adult, and a passage about change:
She had learnt to travel light.  In her youth she had looked at fate as the bolt from the clear sky, now she recognized it in the iron rule of time on all human affairs.  Today is not like yesterday; the second chance is not the first.  Whatever turning-points are taken or are missed, it is the length of the passage, the length of the road that counts.  She realized that she would never again entirely belong, but also that a large part of her belonged nowhere else.  Once more she basked, volatile and melancholy: the sun, the fruit, the colour of the stones were her inheritance as well as the sad pagan creed of carpe diem and stoicism for the rest.
In terms of her writing, Bedford belongs (to my mind) with the small and disparate group - as diverse as George Orwell and Elizabeth Taylor - whose style does not clamour and shout, but has a rich beauty in its consistent balance and measure.  It is difficult to point out a phrase which is exceptionally brilliant, or a piece of wit which ought to be repeated - but she is a subtle prose stylist par excellence all the same.

The best novels are the most difficult to write about, I find, especially where the novelist is not highly stylised - there are no grotesques or eccentrics in Bedford's writing, however welcome these features may be in the hands of other novelists - so I don't think any review could quite convey the feeling of reading A Favourite of the Gods any more than I can make you understand how it feels to hold the book.  But I hope I've encouraged you to seek out this book.  We've heard a lot this year about how Elizabeth Taylor is a Well Kept Secret and a dazzling writer.  Well, I think it's time that Sybille Bedford stepped out onto the stage.