Thursday, November 30, 2006

Today I read GOLDEN by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

An upfront disclaimer of sorts: I "know" the author, who has her own blog over at Live Journal. And she's a doll. But that in no way affects my opinion that this book rocks. Let's take a quick look at what it has to offer, shall we?

1. Great voice
2. Cool MC who must face moving to a new town and heinous almost-cousins
3. Supernatural powers
4. Cutest younger sister character ever. Or at least almost-ever, since I'm still pretty keen on
"Boots" from the Gregor the Overlander books. We'll call it a draw.
5. Cool new best friend
6. Cool old best friends
7. Cool Dylan
8. Cool antagonists, and how often do you get to say that?
9. Wicked cool Grandmother ("READ!")

When this book arrived at my house many months ago, I did the dance of joy and intended to read it right away. I was thwarted in this, however, by the diabolical thievery of S, my older daughter, who snatched it away to the great abyss that is her bedroom. I only recently managed to stage a rescue, and boy am I glad I did.

In this oh-my-god-what-happens-next-no-I-don't-want-to-look-nevermind-yes-I-so-do story, Lissy and her family move from California to Oklahoma after Lissy's mother runs into some difficulties with the folks in Cali. Lissy is a Seer, who can see what colors people's auras are. More than that, she can see how they react and interact with the auras of others. It sounds like it'd be sort of cool, except that you can readily see how distracting it is because the book is told from Lissy's viewpoint, and sometimes she has a hard time following conversations because she's trying to juggle what people are saying with what their auras are doing. Compounding her uneasiness at being the new girl in school are all these whirling auras, and the "Goldens," a group of really popular kids, some of whom are linked to Lissy by almost-marriage.

Lissy is particular disturbed by an aura she calls "Garn," which is either a really horrific color or a visible absence of aura -- either way, it's BAD. And her math teacher is totally Garn. Not. good. Fortunately Lissy has her new friend Dylan who is willing to assist her, in no small part because of the intervention of the cutest little sister ever, Lexie. Let's just say that things ramp up to pretty disastrous proportions before the end of the story.

The only down-side to this story, if it is one, is that it is unputdownable. You've been warned. If you start it late at night, you won't be able to go to bed without finishing it. Fortunately, I started it this morning at the orthodontist's office, so I was, well, GOLDEN.
Today I read Carnival of the Animals: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns' Music, edited by Judith Chernaik, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.

The poems are all based on the "zoological fantasy" that is Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals. Trivia alert for music lovers: during his life-time, Saint-Saëns refused to allow a performance of the completed work, and only its most famous movement, "The Swan," was performed in public. The entire musical composition is included on a CD that accompanies the book, as are spoken performances of the poems in the book.

The poems in this book are the sort of poetry for children that I really enjoy: smart, thoughtful poems that are not "dumbed down" for an underaged audience. Many of them work on multiple levels -- "Personages with Long Ears" by Gerard Benson comes to mind in this category. On its surface, it's about donkeys attending a concert. Given the description of these particular donkeys, however, I believe it's also a sly criticism of critics everywhere, whether at a concert, at the theatre, or in print.

I also particularly enjoyed "Tortoise" by Judith Chernaik, which was short but sweet. It reflects the pulsing beat of the movement in the Carnival of the Animals opens with these lines:

Under the mottled shell of the old tortoise
beats the heart of young dancer.

The accompanying illustration shows tortoises dancing on oval platforms. The tortoises aren't truly anthropomorphised -- they look like tortoises standing on their hind legs. And yet how happy they look.

Another of my favorite poems was "Elephant Eternity" by Adrian Mitchell, in part for its imagery and in part for its repetitive use of the word elephants, as in "elephants elephants walking like time," and "elephants elephants bathing like happiness."

Although by the same artist, the illustrations, like the poems, are in varied styles to reflect the feel of the poem -- or is it to reflect the feel of the music? Similarly, the fonts used for the poems varies as well. "The Swan" is in a flowing script; "Lion" in a jagged-edged type.

A lovely book full of rich language and images, this one would be a perfect choice for young music fans as well as those who love poetry.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Today, I've been reading Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by one of my favorite poetry editors, Paul B. Janeczko. Why is he one of my favorites? Because he likes it all, all of the poems, whether they are concrete poems or free verse, haiku or sonnets, rhymed couplets or found poems.

Why I like this book: It is a marvel. It includes letters and poems from thirty-two renowned poets. Each poet has written a letter to the budding young poets who are the intended audience for this book. And then, each poet has provided (or had chosen for them, I'm not sure) one to three poems of theirs. Not poems about writing poetry, either. Poems that show them at their finest, singing stories and sharing experience with their readers.

And the best news of all?

This book came out in paperback earlier this year, with a slightly modified cover. I believe I will buy myself a copy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

So. This morning I read The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.

All I can say is "Where has this book been all my life?" Because seriously? Someone should have shoved it in my hot little hands back in 1974 when it first hit the U.S. I would've read it. And read it again. And then, I'd have read the rest of the books. And again. Of course, this is the same sort of comment I have about Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, although really that's slightly premature of me since thus far I've only read A Wrinkle in Time (twice) and A Wind in the Door. But I so loved them that I can't imagine the other two being bad. They are safely stowed somewhere in the aforementioned gigantic pile of books to be read. But I digress.

If, like me, you are a complete nincompoop who somehow managed not to read Cooper's The Dark is Rising yet, then you must immediately smack yourself soundly in the forehead with the nearest book run out and get a copy. I got mine from the local library, bearing the original cover, btw, which is no longer visible on most websites. Of course, I didn't realize at the time that it was, in fact, the SECOND book in the five-book Dark Is Rising Sequence. I will be returning it to the library today, and then finding Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book, so I can learn more about one of my favorite characters from The Dark is Rising, Merriam, since I understand that the first book is about him.

The Dark Is Rising tells the story of a young boy named Will Stanton, who lives in Buckhinghamshire, England in the early 1970s with his large family. We meet Will on Mid-Winter's Eve, the day before his eleventh birthday, just as Will begins to notice that odd things are afoot. The animals are all weirded out, and a tramp has been following Will, and even some of the local folks that Will has known for years are acting strangely and offering ominous advice.

When Will wakes to a different world on Mid-Winter's Day, he begins to learn his own story. Although still fairly young, Will is one of the Old Ones -- immortals who exist in order to keep the world out of the clutches of the Darkness. (And no, I'm not talking about The Darkness.) Will has about 2-1/2 weeks to learn all he can about who he is, and to collect Six Signs to help ward off the Darkness, which is set on preventing his success.

Fantastic, in both senses of the word. And to think, the only reason I picked it up is because of this post by J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends, coupled with The Mighty Dotificus's excitement over Susan Cooper being at the upcoming SCBWI conference in NYC. And now I so understand her excitement. I may even have to attend, just to hear Susan Cooper for myself. And to meet the Mighty Dotificus, of course.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Looking for holiday presents for boys and girls? Check out these two books!

For boys

MANGA CLAUS: Honor*Loyalty*Tinsel: The Blade of Kringle by Nathaniel Marunas, artwork by Erik Craddock.

That's right, folks, Santa has some seriously ripped abs under the suit. And with his training as a samurai more than a century and a half ago and the Miuaguchi Daisho, two swords given to him from a knowledgeable sensei, well, Santa's ready to respond when things go wrong.

In this episode, which I will assume will be the first in a series, Fritz, a disgruntled elf, decides to use some magic to turn a robot-like nutcracker into a ninja. His goal? To cause a bit of fuss that will allow him to showcase his mad magic skillz and save the day. Maybe his plan would've worked, too, if things hadn't gone horribly wrong. When nutcracker-robot-ninja falls into a furnace and coals spew into the nearby teddy bears . . . well, let's just say it's not pretty.

When Santa is first alerted that there's a problem, he decides to find out "what in the name of the Big Benevolent Buddha is going on around here." The comedy doesn't stop there, as Santa guesses that the ninja bears are on their way to the power plant, saying "that's where I'd go if I were a deranged ninja teddy bear." Will Fritz arrive in a bin full of elf knickers in time to deliver the samurai weapons to Santa? Will Santa be able to deliver the toys in time for Christmas, leaving from the Clement C. Moore Sleighport? I'll never tell. Er, unless you've already sorted it out.

The humor in this one is genius, from the map of the North Pole facilities inside the front cover to the black-and-white-and-red all over illustrations to the really funny text and asides, this is one bit of manga that you've gotta see. It's got a hard cover, and reads in the way of a usual book in English, making it an easy entrée into manga for the uninitiated.

I leave you with a shortened version of the copy from the back cover:

A disgruntled elf, dark magic, and a horde of possessed ninja teddy bears threaten to put an end to the holidays . . . To battle the evil teddies, Santa himself must break out his ancient samurai swords, imbued with the spirit of the season, and become MANGA CLAUS, guardian of giving and protector of presents! Santa's blades are swift and his bujitsu unmateched, but will they be enough to save Christmas?

And for girls?

While on vacation in D.C. with my hubby, I finished reading Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller. And now I am wishing more than ever that I could have fully realized my own plans to be a teenage sleuth/spy with amazing technology at my disposal, because it would have been so much fun. And apparently, it would have rewarded me with interesting confederates, pulse-pounding adventure, and riches. I knew it, and yet I did nothing. Le sigh.

The true MC of the book is not the fabulously glamorous title character, Kiki Strike, but rather the narrator, Ananka Fishbein. Her development throughout the course of the novel is the encouraging, empowering stuff that every young girl needs to read. Not just her flab-to-fab physical transformation in middle school, but also her mental accuity and her sense of self-confidence. Holler it with me, ladies (and men, too, but please use full voice and not falsetto here): GIRL POWER!!

Ananka first notices Kiki Strike at the private school that Ananka attends in New York city. Nobody else seems to notice Kiki at all, really, but Ananka tries to sort out who she is and, more importantly, figure out what she's up to. When the Princess (who is really a princess, we're told, and not just your everyday upperclass Ms. Snooty-pants) accuses Annanka of stealing a valuable ring, things really get interesting -- for the reader, as well as for Annanka, who now gets to know the elusive Ms. Strike a bit, as well as meeting a handful of other interesting young girls, each with their own particular sets of skills. One is already a master chemist; another is a master of disguise; yet another is the queen of forgery (particularly documents, but she's knowledgeable about quite a few art objects, etc., as well), and another girl who is an incredible engineer. Kiki turns out to be an excellent sleuth and a black-belt in karate, as well as having many, many secrets (none of which will you learn here).

Pick this book up for its rollicking good plot. But what will sell you on it isn't the fun plot and all the gadgets and cool clothes -- it's the narrator's voice and her journey that will sweep you up and carry you along. And you will be glad you went for the ride.

Coincidentally, BIG A little a posted a review of Kiki Strike over at her blog the other day. I agree with her age recommendation for the book, btw. It's marketed as YA, but because the book starts with Ananka being 12 and ends with her being 14, I really think this one is fine for girls age 9 and up who are independent readers. The girls who read The Lightning Thief and wish that Percy Jackson were a girl will adore Kiki Strike. And so will you.

P.S. - This one's on the CYBILS list for middle grade fiction, which is where I agree it belongs.

Friday, November 17, 2006

An update

I continue posting over at my other blog of the same name Writing and Ruminating, including several recent book reviews and Poetry Friday posts.

In other news, I'm pleased to be one of the judges for the Poetry category in the 2006 CYBILS Awards, short-hand for the 2006 Children's and YA Bloggers' Literary Awards. I hope you'll stop over before November 20th to nominate your favorite books in each of the categories. To be clear, that's one book per category. And do check first to be sure it's not already mentioned.