Thursday, April 01, 2010

But I Did Like It

I used the above title because I can recall years ago reading long, long reviews that went on for a column and a half before the reviewer began to say anything about the book. Ah, those were the good old days, when newsprint was cheap and a reviewer could drone on and on, showing the world how clever she was.

Anyway, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld--To cut to the chase, it's set in an alternative, steampunk just barely pre-WWI world in which the German-type folks, or Clankers, are into machines like no machines the German-type folks of that real era ever knew,and the British-type folks, known as Darwinists, are into "fabricated animals" that do all kinds of things for them, including serving as dirigibles. (Fabricating animals to function as machines seems like a great deal of work to me, but then science was never my strong suit. I am, in fact, still waiting to find my strong suit.)

The New York Times, where I used to read a lot of those long-winded reviews I was talking about earlier, carried a review for Leviathan in which the reviewer said there was "something a little mechanical (or bioengineered?)" about the two main characters. I would go further and say there was something a little mechanical about the whole book. You've got one storyline about Aleck, the classic royal refugee on the run with loyal retainers. You've got Deryn the classic girl disguised as a boy so she can follow her bliss in a line of work not open to women in the Victorian era. Deryn's bliss is flying on those fabricated beasties the Darwinists use to get around on, much as Matt in Airborn (another steampunk novel) is into gadding about on dirigibles. You've got a character here, Dr. Barlow, who reminded me of Europe in Monster Blood Tattoo. In fact, you have illustrations in this book that reminded me of those in Monster Blood Tattoo.

The book seemed to be manufactured of parts that would be recognizable to someone who had done much reading. It's well done, nonetheless. And less experienced readers won't have read a lot of books about girls going undercover as boys and royalty having to run for their lives. Leviathan won't sound as familiar to them. And I did like it--until I got twenty or thirty pages from the end, when I realized that this story wasn't going to be wrapped up in this volume and that I was reading a hardcore serial. Then I began to feel a little testy.

Scott Westerfeld has redone his website with a Leviathan theme. I thought the Leviathan trailer looked as if it was made by the same folks who did the trailer for Monster Blood Tattoo. Leviathan's had a neat ending, though. "Do you oil your war machines or do you feed them?"

And since steampunk deals with technology, this seems like a good time to refer you to Science Fiction and the Frame of Technology by Paul Woodlin, which I found a while back through Cynsations.

Plot Project: I almost forgot about the plotting project, in which I'm supposed to determine whether or not a plot was generated by a character wanting something and the author creating obstacles to the character getting it. Well, one thing I'm learning from thinking about the plots of the books I read is that you can't read authors' minds. You can only guess how a plot came about. I'm also becoming less and less entranced with the "find out what your character wants and then keep her from getting it" plot plan. If you go to Holly Lisle's Create Your Professional Plot Outline (thank you Procrastinating Writers), you'll see that she says you can develop a plot starting from a number of points, including world building. My guess is that even if a book like Leviathan began with its two traditional characters who can take off from traditional jumping off points--prince escaping, girl disguising herself as boy in order to gain entry into a male world--because it is steampunk, the world building would be crucial to plot development. It seems as if a lot of world building would have to come before the writer could do much with the plot. But that's just speculation.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Hey, Man! Kosher!

So Punk Rock by Micol Ostow with illustrations by David Ostow may be, when all is said and done, a bit of a generic, "Let's start a band!" book. Main character wants to be cool, pulls a group of kids together, finds a little success, has the big gig, realizes that the things he thought he wanted are not what he wanted at all. What makes the book different is that it is so...Jewish. And if you're not Jewish, it is such a pleasure to read about a contemporary real teen world you don't know a whole lot about.

If there are dozens of YA books out there about the teenage Jewish punk rock scene, please let me know. I'm sure not aware of them.

Our narrator, Ari Abramson, has a very laid back, dry wit. He is into irony. He's a junior at Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School where around sixty-four percent of the student body is "religious enough to find ourselves in a school where learning Hebrew, Torah, and Rabbinics is valued as much as learning English, history, and math--but not, you know, hard core about it." Since something similar can be said about the Christian church I sort of attend ("We're Christians, but let's not get ridiculous about it."), I definitely felt some common ground with this boy.

I don't see a lot of kids' or YA books that recognize the fact that many, many young people are involved in religious practice. I'm not even talking about what kids believe, just the fact that they attend services, receive religious instruction, etc. I found that here in a book with the words "Punk Rock" in the title.

While I enjoyed the graphic elements, I didn't pick up on their significance (a character was creating them), until the end. I may have stumbled with my reading (which has happened before) or they may not have been integrated into the story as well as they might have been.

Nonetheless, an enjoyable read.

Check out an interview with the author and illustrator at Cynsations.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Something More Specific Regarding Archetype And Stereotype

Today, folks, we will be discussing Soulless by Gail Carriger, for two reasons.

1. It is one of the 2010 Alex Award winners. That means it is a book written for adults that has special appeal to young adults, twelve through eighteen years of age. Once again, I just don't get this. This is a paranormal romance, mainly, about a twenty-six-year-old spinster living in a steampunk Victorian London who is warm for the form of a much, much older Scottish werewolf. What we have here is essentially a Georgette Heyer novel with vampires and werewolves and lots and lots of hot, steamy almost sex. Sure, plenty of teenagers will like it, just as I liked Georgette Heyer novels when I was a teenager. But I don't see how there's anything here that is of particular interest to teen readers. (Except for the almost sex.) No adolescent characters. No adolescent themes.

The people I think will really like this book are the adult women who've been reading the Twilight books for the sexual frustration. The sexual frustration in Twilight is really lame compared to what they'll find in Soulless.

2. Leila at bookshelves of doom brought up the familiarity of the characters. I, too, thought of the Amelia Peabody books in the opening chapters of Soulless. Both Amelia and Alexia, the main character in Soulless, are powerful Victorian outsiders partnered with powerful, highly cranky, if not close to violent, men with insatiable sex drives, and both women even carry umbrellas they use as weapons. But Leila's bringing up the characters in Soulless as "types" reminded me of my archetype vs. stereotype musings earlier this month. Is Gail Corriger merely tossing off some stereotypes in Soulless or is she messing with archetype? While Alexia- and Lord Maccon-type characters appear in plenty of Heyer and Heyer-type novels, is placing them in a steampunk werewolf story playing with the archetype or just plodding along with the stereotype? And while Lord Akeldama is a very stereotypical gay character, isn't he also the aristocratic fop from any number of Regency romances cranked up a great deal?

As J.L. Bell said in a comment, "Readers have different experiences, tastes, temperaments." Meaning that whether a character is viewed as a archetype or stereotype is subjective on the part of the reader. Or, as I said, "tomato/tomahto."

I don't know if I'll be reading any of the Soulless sequels because I don't know how long I will enjoy the male-lover-dripping-testosterone scenario. It seems like something that will get old really fast to me. (The same goes with the Amelia Peabody books.) However, I know one hairdresser who will be getting Soulless for Christmas this year.

Plot Project: Oh, definitely, this is a plot all about woman wanting werewolf. All the evil goings on are the obstacles to her getting him.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Eternity Stinks

I picked up Night Road at the library for one reason--A.M. Jenkins wrote it. Jenkins is the author of Repossessed, a book I liked a great deal.

Night Road is terrific, too. It involves a hemovore named Cole. Hemovores are humans--and Cole does consider himself a human--who live on blood. Though Cole looks like a teenager and always will, he is worn down by life experience. Lots of it. He's been walking the Earth for over a hundred years. He's pretty much a broken man, burdened by the knowledge of what he failed to do for his brother over a century ago and what he did to the woman he loved a few decades back.

Think some kind of lone noir hero, adhering to a code that keeps him alive but not really living.

Cole is contacted by the leader of the hemovore community because a new heme was "accidentally" created by the funny, kind Sandor. Sandor and Cole take the newby, a real teenager, out on a road trip to help him acclimate to his new existence. If the kid can't make the transition, Cole is charged with seeing to it that he meets a fate that Cole believes will be worse than death since he believes people like them can't be killed.

The journey provides Cole for a chance at redemption, a redemption he wasn't looking for.

This is a great book, but, as often happens with me, I don't see why it's YA. Cole may look like a teenager, but he sure isn't one. This guy is world weary. He isn't trying to separate himself from family. He isn't trying to determine his path in life. This poor guy isn't trying to do anything when we first meet him. In my post on Repossessed, I said that while that book was definitely YA (imho), it could just as easily have been an adult book if the devil had been placed in an adult body. With Night Road if Cole had become a heme at twenty-five or thirty or thirty-five get my drift...the book could have worked just as well without changing anything.

The Plot Project: Is this a book that's plot was generated by a character wanting something and meeting obstacles to getting it? I don't think so, because Cole doesn't seem to want anything at the beginning of the book. Yes, he seems to have moved on to a better situation by the end, but it wasn't one he was seeking. This book might have begun with a situation--the classic road trip on which older characters guide a younger one. As with any situation, the author would then have to decide which character her book would be about. It sure isn't the real teenager who truly does have something he wants--to go back to his old life.

A marvelous book, whatever it is.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

So Is Starting School Like Dying?

I'm going to admit that I sometimes have trouble grasping what's really going on in books. Sometimes I think too much while I'm reading. Sometimes I don't think enough.

I think I get Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole. I think it's about fear--everybody's scared. I was just left feeling, Well, okay. And?

Garmann is a six-year-old boy who will be starting school soon. The coming event frightens him. Three extremely elderly aunts, who, as illustrated, would probably be his great-great aunts, come to visit. Garmann asks them if they're afraid of anything. He also asks his parents. Each adult is afraid of something. Grown-ups, too, feel fear, and I guess that's supposed to be comforting.

But one of the aunts, it turns out, is afraid of dying, and Mom is afraid Garmann will be hit by a car while crossing the road. And, you know, those fears just aren't on the same level with being afraid of starting school. Okay, maybe I'm not taking Garmann's fears seriously enough. But I think a fear is serious even if it isn't as big a fear as the fear of death. It doesn't have to be on a par with death to be important.

For a much more positive response, check out Fuse #8's review.

I'm guessing the plot for this book began with premise--the idea of a child fearing the unknown of starting school.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Lot To Think About

I know that a lot of blog writers like to write about books they love. I have to say I'm at least as interested in books like Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught. I can't say I loved it, but there's a lot to think about here, making the book worthy of attention.

I have a lot of trouble reading books about boyfriends and shopping. When a book starts out with the female main character getting together with her girlfriends to go shopping and talk about boyfriends, I have to throw in the towel right away. I know YA is for YAs, and if YA girls, God love them, want to read about boyfriends and shopping, they should most definitely do it. I, however, should most definitely not do it. I have only so many reading years left, and I need to ration them carefully.

Big Fat Manifesto starts out with shopping and a boyfriend, but I got excited about it because there was something more there. Jamie, our female main character, is fat. (Her term, not mine. I definitely prefer obese, which she rejects as too clinicial.) Three hundred plus pounds fat, and she doesn't care who knows it. The shopping trip that begins the book is an undercover operation to research shopping problems for people of weight, research she will use in her column for her high school paper. The column is called Fat Girl, and in it she speaks for all fat girls and fat boys for that matter. Now, as a general rule, devices like letters, journals, newspaper columns, seem sort of forced in books. However, the logic behind this one works. Jamie wants to submit these columns to an agency that awards scholarships.

Jamie/Fat Girl comes across as very strident, one of those people who see weight as a political or social issue. And that was interesting. But I found it sort of odd that this is a book about the hardships faced by the quite seriously obese, but it also maintains some of the boyfriend and shopping stereotypes you find in teen books about...well, boyfriends and shopping. Jamie is part of a three-girlfriend set, which is the mandatory friendship circle in YA, and she is torn between two lovers, which appears so often in books that it must be some kind of fundamental fantasy among human females. I can see why author Vaught wanted to create a set-up in which the so-called fat girl has a normal teenage life. (Yeah, I know. All normal teenage girls have two guys panting after them.) But the basic point of this book is that this girl doesn't have a normal teenage life. She has trouble buying clothes, traveling, even getting her blood pressure taken. I don't think the she's-normal/she's-not-normal thing quite worked.

What's more, I kept wondering why Jamie never tried to lose weight. Toward the end of the book we finally learn that she had tried in the past, but why her attempts all failed was never addressed. I understood why she's heavy. Overeating is part of her family's culture. But I never understood why another character, Burke, was so heavy that he was considered a candidate for bariatric surgery. How did he get into that shape, and why didn't his affluent, highly educated, loving parents try other options for weight loss before allowing him to subject himself to surgery?

The end of the book was a little problematic for me, too. We're told there's a change in Jamie's character, which is always a good thing in a book...dynamic character and all that... But it's hard to see how that character change is going to make any real difference.

I may have been thinking way too much while I was reading this thing, but I wondered if some people would consider Big Fat Manifesto a "problem" novel, one of those how-do-I-deal-with-this-situation books. Did I feel that way about it? If so, are problem books far more readable if you have a dog in the race, so to speak? Because while I have always been within spitting distance of a normal weight, myself, I come from a family that has been marked by obesity and the many, many, many problems that accompany it for four generations. Probably more, but my memory only goes back to the great-aunts and uncle. I will spare you the details, but I could go on at quite some length on the subject.

Thus, while I suspect some readers might find Jamie's Fat Girl columns to be something of a soapbox, I was glued to them. I had to skim the boyfriend sections of the book because, as a general rule, adolescent romance is lost on me. But bring out the fitness discussion, whether I agree with what's said or not, and I am there.

All in all, I'd have to say that for those readers who like their boyfriend and shopping stories to have something a bit more thought provoking going for them, Big Fat Manifesto has quite a bit to offer.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

At Last, The Chrestomanci Post

Okay, here it is, that Chrestomanci post I've been talking about.

Chrestomanci is a title held by a character named Christopher Chant who appears in six books and four short stories by Diana Wynne Jones. The universe of the book is made up of multiple worlds in which magic may or may not exist to varying degrees. The person who holds the title Chrestomanci is always an enchanter with nine lives, and his function is to "police" the use of magic. He's a government employee, actually.

The novels are available these days in three volumes, each containing two books. The short stories, I believe, are out of print. I got a copy from a library and then bought a beautiful paperback from an on-line dealer.

I have to admit, I found some technical glitches with these books:

Some may find this nitpicky, but I noticed from the very first book that Wynne Jones uses a noticable number of "echoes." Echoes occur when an author uses a word two or more times within a couple of sentences, making the second word strikingly noticeable to the reader. Echoes break flow, unlike parallel construction, which sort of forces flow to follow a certain flow. (Echo!) Echoes are usually caught by copy editors, which is why I know about them. Copy editors have caught (most) of the ones I've made in the past.

Chrestomanci is one of those Pimpernel/Wimsey like characters who appear to be far less powerful than they are. In Chrestomanci's case, he is often described as looking vague or appearing to be vague. That is a sign, for the people who know him, that he is on top of his game. The word "vague" is used to describe him so frequently that it becomes an annoying mannerism--like when a character is constantly adjusting her glasses or rolling his eyes. I also sometimes wondered if it really described anything. What the heck does vague mean in this context?

Some people might think that some of the boy main characters--Cat, young Christopher, and the Italian kid whose name I can't remember--seemed a bit alike. And some of the books include explanation scenes at the end, sort of like when the detective explains everything at the end of a mystery novel.

But as I said, those are all technical things. What is interesting and attention-grabbing about these books might be described as their more conceptual aspects.

Chrestomanci is a charismatic, adult character in a children's book. However, in most of his books, he is not the main character. The main characters are always children who are discovering who they really are. In fact, in the only book in which he is the main character, Chrestomanci is a child. What's more, though Chrestomanci appears to fix problems related to magic, he usually cannot do so without the assistance of child characters. He is not a grown-up who simply waves a magic wand and makes everything okay. There is no doubt whatsoever that these are kids' books, in spite of his presence.

Though these books always involve child characters discovering that they have magical abilities, and though there is a recurring adult character, the books are very different. Yes, the world building is the same, but the storylines are different, and the settings are often much different.

Chrestomanci is used differently in different books and stories. In one book, the young Christopher Chant is the main character. In another, the adolescent Christopher Chant is important, but not the first-person narrator. (I believe that was the only book with a first-person narrator.) In other books the adult Chrestomanci is a major player. In some he doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book. In one of the short stories, he doesn't appear at all--he is mentioned twice. As a writer, I love the idea of using the same character in different ways. I love trying out a first-person narrator after having used a third for so many books.

These six books are not a serial, meaning we're not talking one giant story told over six books, which must be read in a particular order or nothing makes sense. Though Wynne Jones is supposed to have suggested an order for reading the books, and they are available now as Volumes I, II, and III, suggesting an order, I actually read the most recently written book first, then Volumes II, I, and one of the books in Volume III. I can't remember at what point I read the short stories. My point (echo!) being, a reader can truly just enter this world and move about in it because the stories are each unique.

Power is not related to beauty in these books. Though Chrestomanci, himself, is an attractive man, his love interest is a plain girl (and then woman) who is a very powerful enchantress. She is very necessary to him. The children they have together are not traditionally physically attractive children. I love this.

As a reader who came late to fantasy and still, as a general rule, doesn't care for what's termed high fantasy, I'd have to say that reading these books was educational. These books aren't just a hodge podge of fantastical gimmicks. Character, plot, and setting, elements that are important to all fiction, really need to be seriously addressed in a fantasy novel. And it seems to me that they are here.

On the other hand, these were my comfort books, and perhaps I just want to think well of them.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010


A few years back, I read about a woman who had self-published a couple of books about her experiences as a wife and mother. She said that she was careful to put only short amounts of text on each page because she wrote for women, and women were busy and didn't have time to read much.

I have a hard time coming up with the words to describe how I felt about that.

I kept thinking of that woman as I read Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson. The pieces in this book (the structural layout is a little odd, in that things seem run together though they aren't) are just so well done. You never get the feeling that Jackson considered her readers--whomever they ended up being--too busy to consume good writing. She writes of experiences common to women, and she gives mending and going shopping with the kids the attention and style those tasks deserve.

I believe Jackson to have been a writer who was very interested in women's lives. You see it in her short stories, and again in Savages. Her work reflects the period in which she lived. In Savages, for instance, Jackson smokes during pregnancy and appears to have thought nothing of it.

You don't see a lot of Jackson the writer in Life Among the Savages, and when you do, it's in a heartbreaking passage in which she describes being admitted into the maternity ward. When asked her occupation by a clerk,

"Writer," I said.

"Housewife," she said.

"Writer," I said.

"I'll just put down housewife," she said.

Jackson doesn't comment on the exchange, but I don't think she has to.

About those savages--they are piece of works. Jackson, as she appears in this work, clearly loves them. But those kids are...difficult to describe. They have fantasy lives at a time when fantasy lives may not have been all that desirable. They are outspoken with one another and with everyone else. In the last pages the three older ones are introduced to their new baby brother, whom they refer to as "it." These are not Mother's Day greeting card children by a long shot.

As I've often said, I was a big Jackson fan when I was a teenager, and I suspect I read this book back then. I probably found those kids funny, but I couldn't possibly have understood all that was going on here. This is a book for adults (male and female) who don't give a damn about how much they have to read in order to share an experience with a writer.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Comfort Books

The Gauthiers suffered through a rough half year, and things were particularly bad since the middle of November. One day last fall I was supposed to just leave some books off at the library and then race out of the building because I had so many things I needed to do related to sick family members. But I stayed to hunt for something that would divert me from the reality of my life. A book. Preferably part of a series so that I could read and read and stay plenty diverted.

I found nada that day, but later in the year I was in another library where I stumbled upon the second volume of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones. I'll be discussing the Chrestomanci series in a later post, but for now it's enough to say that I found my diversion.

I bought Volume I of The Chronicles because I had to have it right away. The Pinhoe Egg is part of this series, and even though I'd read it before, with mixed feelings, I read it again. I read a book of short stories about Chrestomanci. I bought Volume III, even though by that point I'd read one of the two books it contains.

In fact, I bought everything Chrestomanci, whether I'd just read library editions or not, because I was afraid that some day I would need them again, and what if I couldn't get them because they were out of print? What if some day I wanted to give them to someone?

Last week, when things went from bad to worse here, I picked up one of the books, just a couple of months after having finished it, and started reading it again. Okay, it wasn't quite the escape it was the first time, but there was nothing else in the house that was better. I went to the library today and picked up a few things, but if they don't do it for me, I'll stick with Chrestomanci.

Chrestomanci is a figure in a magical world whose function is to control magic. He comes when people call him, and he fixes things. (Though I'll have more to say about that another time.) You don't have to be the psychological equivalent of a rocket scientist to see why someone experiencing bad times would be attracted to him.

We had a family member reading multiple volumes of Fox Trot last week. Another recalled during an earlier loss reading issue after issue of National Geographic. Clearly, when it comes to comfort, each goes his or her own way.

Feel free to suggest your favorite comfort book.


Monday, January 04, 2010

My Wolfie Boyfriend

If left to my own devices, I will avoid reading romances. I think this is because they generally all end the same way, and how girl gets boy isn't all that compelling a storyline for me. So under normal conditions I would never have picked up Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater because it's a paranormal romance. However, last summer I stumbled upon the trailer for Shiver, thought it was lovely, and picked up the book when I happened upon it at the library.

I am not the first person to notice the similarities between Shiver and Twilight--star-crossed paranormal boyfriend and teenage girl, paranormal boyfriend drives teenage girl to school, paranormal boyfriend watches teenage girl do homework, paranormal boyfriend spends chaste nights with teenage girl in her bedroom. Shiver just does a lot of things better than Twilight.

Basic story: A few years before the start of our story, our main character, Grace, was dragged from her tire swing by a pack of wolves who were seriously hungry. She notices one particular wolf, who also notices her, and ends up saving her. In the intervening years, he often shows up at the back of her yard where they watch each other, developing a relationship, so to speak. Then, sure enough, you guessed it, he turns up one day on her deck as a real, naked boyfriend! And then you go on from there. Will Grace or won't Grace get to keep Sam in her life?

Grace in Shiver is a far more dynamic character than Bella in Twilight. She does things, she helps others, she directs the action at various points. She even has a sense of humor. Once you accept the werewolf thing, Sam is a far more realistic character than what's his name...oh, yeah. Edward. He is far from a picture of male perfection. Grace and Sam are a balanced couple, one partner doesn't have all the power. This book is not as sexually charged as the original Twilight, but the sex is more realistic and dignified than in the Twilight series overall. (I'm still cringing over the begging-for-sex scene in one of the later books.)

I have to say I still found some of the love scenes a little long. I felt as if I were just treading water while waiting for more wolves to show up. But, still, Stiefvater does some intriguing things here. She makes stereotypical nasty rich kids more interesting without actually making them nicer. We've got an intense father/son relationship. The readers in this story work particularly well. For me, characters in books who love books usually don't work. There's something fake or maybe improving about them. But in Shiver the readers are tragic because they won't always have reading in their lives. I like tragic much more than I like improving.

Thematically, Shiver works very well as a YA book. It explores these teenagers' places within their "families" as well as their movement away from their families. And then, of course, there's the whole human transforming into wolves in a werewolf story just as children transform into adults during adolescence. What will the kids in Shiver end up being?

I was actually sorry to learn there will be a sequel to Shiver. Why mess with a good thing? Is there really more to say about this situation? Well, I'll probably find out.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Thanks For Getting The Second Book In A Series"

I rather liked the first volume of Jellaby by Kean Soo. Well, except for the part about the book not having an ending, of course. But I try to be open-minded about the whole serial thing. I do understand that once the serial is completed, a reader can go through every volume and have a complete reading experience.

But you really do have to have access to every volume in order to get that experience. Jellaby: Monster in the City, begins with Chapter Six, the first five chapters appearing in the first volume. Even I, who had liked that first book, had trouble getting into the story and the characters again. I had trouble seeing how the actual monster carrying-on in this book was related to the first book. And I can't tell if this book is the end of the story. The first book ended right in the middle of some action. This one ends at a point that could be an ending or could be a calm between storms.

How might someone who is being exposed to this serial for the first time with the second book respond? "Thanks for getting the second book in a series," was what I heard from a family member who read Monster in the City after finding it here at Chez Gauthier. Read that "Thanks" as meaning "What were you thinking?"

While I do understand the attraction of a completed serial, as a writer I still have a lot of trouble understanding why I would want to intentionally write a book that won't be accessible to many readers as an individual work. Even once the serial is completed, so many libraries don't carry all the volumes of a series. You often can't find them all in bookstores. I want to communicate with readers. I want to be understood. A real serial puts up so many obstacles that can prevent that happening.

I will say, though, that Jellaby: Monster in the City had a cool twist on the Puff the Magic Dragon storyline. Think Puff the Magic Dragon meets Fringe or The X-Files. But you have to make your way through half the book to get there.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Less Canoodling, More Dogging

It is Cybil season, and while I am not cybilizing, myself, I am fondly recalling days when I was. Thus, when I stumbled upon Bloodhound: Beka Cooper, Book Two by Tamora Pierce, I jumped right on it because I liked the first book in the series, Terrier, which was nominated for a Cybil...oh, I don't know. Back the year I was a panelist for scifi/fantasy.

The Beka Cooper books have a lot of things going against them as far as I'm concerned--made up worlds and words and names and societies. (No fairies or dragons so far, thank God.) What makes them so very readable for me is that they are police procedurals. Beka and her companions are "dogs," her society's equivalent of police officers, with crimes to solve. In this world, the dogs and the rats (or criminals) are sometimes not that different. But you see that in police procedurals of all kinds.

Bloodhound wasn't as strong a book for me as Terrier for two reasons: 1. Beka is given a love interest, and 2. I noticed a lot more attention to details.

The love interest seemed like a diversion that took away from the plot. Yes, we don't know if the love interest is a good guy or a bad guy but that wasn't enough to keep me from wondering when we were going to get away from Dale touching Beka here and there so we could move back to the story.

That story also kept stopping so we could get descriptions of clothing and jewelry--how many earrings this guy wore in his right earlobe versus how many and what kind he wore in his left, what kind of brocade was on this or that tunic. Sure, detail enriches a piece of writing, but there is a tipping point after which the reader is just buried in the stuff.

We also got more talk about who was sleeping with whom than I think we needed. I didn't think it supported the story or moved it along. Okay, this is a world that is cool with sex. I got that early on. I wanted to move on to the crime!!

Now, I was also a little put off by a bit of discussion of gender issues, as in some talk on the place of women. I like a world where women crack skulls and no one talks about whether or not they should be doing it. But evidently these Beka Cooper books are part of an extended world that Pierce has created, and in this world's future things will be different for women. Pierce discusses the "Cult of the Gentle Mother" in an interview at The Torch Online.

Clearly, I found this outing with Beka a little disappointing, but not so much so that I won't be looking for Mastiff, the final book in this trilogy, which will come out sometime next year.

Bloodhound has been nominated for a Cybil this year.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Sweet Natured Little Devil

I have to say that if I had a gun pointed to my head and was told to choose a book from any book award list, I'd choose something from the Printz. I've had a lot more luck with finding enjoyable reads from those winners and honor books than with any other award.

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins was a Printz Honor Book in 2008. It's marvelously witty but also very moral. In fact, at some points the book teeters on becoming a bit instructive--"girls with big butts are worthy of love," for instance. I think the sophistication of the moral issues saves it from going over the edge into preachiness. The book is too serious--in a funny way--to be a sermon.

Repossessed is the story of a demon who has had all he can take of hell for a while and steps into the body of a teenage boy who was about to step in front of a truck and buy the farm, as we used to say back in college. The kid wasn't going to have a use for the body in a couple of minutes, so our demonic friend, Kiriel, hasn't really done any harm. He's hell bent on experiencing material life, though he doesn't think he's going to get to do it for very long. He will be missed.

But not by the Creator, who has never noticed him. Kiriel clearly is suffering--or at least has an attitude--because of his separation from God. For those of us who taught Sunday school for years and years...and years...this suffering because of separation from God will sound very familiar. Jenkins is dealing with what appears to me to be a very Christian concept. (Though I can't guarantee it doesn't occur in other faiths, too.)

Hell is interesting in Repossessed. The damneds' eternal torment is due to the guilt they, themselves, feel for their human behavior.

One of the many things I liked about this book was the treatment of Jason, the younger brother of the boy Kiriel has replaced. Jason clearly has ADHD, but the term is never used. ADHD books often involve some of that instructive stuff I was talking about earlier, so that we all know what's going on. In this one we're just shown this poor boy whose behavioral problems have led him to a sad, solitary life.

A thought I had while reading this book--This is definitely YA, dealing with the theme of what will I do with myself? (Kiriel wants to make a difference, wants to have a hand in shaping things, which is what led to his becoming a fallen angel in the first place.) But if Jenkins had placed her demon in an adult's body and given him adult concerns, she could have easily turned this into an adult book. Not that I'm saying she should have. It was just something I thought about as I was reading.

You can catch an interview and question and answer session (in the comments) with A.M. Jenkins at YA Authors Cafe and another interview at Cynsations.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Are Formulas Important For Some Reason?

You may have noticed that I'm on a little graphic novel kick this fall. That's why I picked up Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi.

What really struck me about this book is how incredibly formulaic it is. The word "rigidly" might apply. In a prelude, a child sees her parent killed. At the real story opening, the rest of the family is heading off to a creepy new home (new homes are always bad news) that has been in the family for years. (As I was reading this today, I thought about how these days, old family homes are probably sold to create new subdivisions.) Immediately, the kids find a of jewelry, are led into a strange world, and have to start a quest to save their surviving parent. (Did she seem just a little bit bitchie to anyone else?) A mysterious and brilliant ancestor figures into the story. (I'm not sure if that last part is original to this formula or if I just saw it in The Spiderwick Chronicles movie.) Some cute characters are thrown in as helpers.

Maybe there is some reason why adhering to formulas like this are important in children's literature. Isn't repetition of words and sounds supposed to help them learn to read? Maybe reading the same formula/pattern/storyline over and over again assists them in some way I've just never heard about.

As luck would have it, David Elzey has just reviewed the second book in this series at The Excelsior File. He liked it a great deal more than I liked the first one. In fact, if you do just a little bit of digging around on the Internet, you'll find that this is quite a well-regarded series.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

More Graphic Novels

I was in my favorite library last week, and what do I see on their new book shelf, but another Ottoline. I thought, What the heck, Gail. Give the series another shot. And that's how I came to read Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell. I liked this Ottoline better than the first. It has a little more substance, what with Ottoline being attracted to a new friend and Mr. Munroe (whatever he is) feeling left out. The new friend is interesting because she is both upper class snotty and sympathetic at the same time.

The Ottoline books, this one in particular, use a lot of oddball names and situations, which always annoy me in a children's book. This one is so lovely looking, though, and the basic story good enough, that I was able to turn a blind eye toward all the Orvillises and Wilburtas. Plus, Riddell is British, and I should try to show compassion toward the British because no doubt they are still suffering from all those years of Monty Python's influence. That can't be a good thing.

I've also just read To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, which is not a novel at all but a memoir by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Because To Dance is a graphic...I hate to say "novel" when it so clearly isn't...written for young readers, I was able to read it quickly. And reading it quickly made me feel immersed in Cherson Siegel's young life as a ballet student. It definitely made me feel that having such a strong vocation so young must be very special. Maybe it's not, of course. Maybe a lot of kids lose their youths to studying for a vocation. But that's not the feeling I came away with from To Dance.

Cherson Siegel writes about reading A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz. I wondered if her own book would end up being another generation's A Very Young Dancer?

I have only one reservation about this book. Though not a ballet fan, by any means, I recognize many of the dance names of the period when Cherson Siegel was studying ballet--Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, etc. I think it's unlikely child readers will know those names, and I'm not sure how that will affect their enjoyment of the book. On the other hand, the fact that dance is visual and this memoir is written in a graphic format may mean that child readers can see who these people were and having previous knowledge of them won't matter.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quick! I Have Books Due At The Library!

I did a little graphic novel reading this fall, and I can't renew the books at the library again, so I guess I'd better blog about them, if I'm going to.

First, I read a couple of the Babymouse books by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. I think what makes these books work is that they are graphic novels. While the stories are fine, the basic plots of the two I read, Skater Girl and Puppy Love, weren't particularly unique. But joining those plots with the graphics and the mouse, definitely elevated them.

I found it a little unusual that the books sometimes use a third-person narrator who speaks directly to Babymouse and wondered if kids found that confusing. Presumably not, since there are a lot of Babymouse titles.

Our library classifies Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell as a graphic novel, though I think I'd describe it as more of a heavily illustrated novel for younger readers. It's a beautiful looking book with an interesting basic story, though I could have done without the Cousin It-like character, myself. Readers frequently have to stop reading to study the illustrations, which do, indeed, sometimes tell part of the story. (Though sometimes they're just illustrations.) I wondered if young readers would find that frustrating. On the other hand, a young, not-very-enthusiastic reader might find it a relief to stop and enjoy the scenery.

If you go to the Original Artwork From Children's Book Illustrators site, be sure to watch the slideshow of Riddell's Illustrations to Unwritten Books. It's very clever. Among my favorites...Hot Comfort Farm and Wuthering Tights. But there's lots of good stuff there.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Even Better With Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith is just terrific. It's funny but not so overwhelmed by the running zombie joke as to make the story pointless.

I know there's nothing people hate quite so much as a woman getting all feminist political, but, nonetheless, I'm going to go forward and say that the zombie menace seemed to work very well in the context of the original Pride and Prejudice story because in Austen World the hunt for a husband is life and death, much like encounters with zombies. As I once read elsewhere (no idea where), as foolish as Mrs. Bennet is, with her obsession on marrying off her girls, she is also correct. Life without a man will be very grim for her daughters. Yet, once the hunting is done, and an Austen woman is married, life is pretty much over for her. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Bennet daughters, like many other upper class Britons, have all trained in the martial arts in order to fight for the Crown against the zombie menace. They have pledged to serve His Majesty until they "are dead, lame, or married."

And marriage, remember, is the good fate for women.

I wondered if this Pride and Prejudice and zombie mash-up wouldn't bring more readers to Austen. (We like to believe that that this is a classic read by teenagers, but I suspect many of them rent one of the movie versions.) Sure, Austen's portrayal of romance within a rigid world order isn't to everyone's taste. But who doesn't love zombies? Unfortunately, if you're already Austen-adverse, the zombies, no matter how endearing, may not be enough to win you over.

I suggested to my computer guy that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might be just the trick to get him to finally read...sort of...the Austen classic. He said that zombies didn't do it for him. "Now, if they'd worked it in with Star Trek..."

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Possible Crossover Book

You know, lots of times I'll hear some book has won an award. I go ahead and read it and am left thinking, Gee, was nothing else published that year? That's not the case with the truly terrific The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, which won the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award in 2007. Anything that could have beaten it would have had to be incredible.

Imagine a noncriminal Artemis Fowl in a book with an intellectually vigorous style similar to that of Octavian Nothing that is set in an English village that you might find in one of Dame Agatha's 1950's era novels. And then imagine that that the book you're talking about is very well-written on top of all that.

You're beginning to get the picture.

The Sweetness at the Bottome of the Pie is an adult mystery novel with an eleven-year-old main character, Flavia de Luce. She is one serious piece of work, the youngest child of what seems to be a depressed, country gentleman/stamp collector and his late, lamented wife who disappeared in the mountains years before. She has two older sisters, Ophelia, who plays the piano (classical music, of course) and Daphne who reads Dickens, with whom she is at constant war. They all live in a house the family has inhabited for generations, and Flavia has taken over an ancestor's personal laboratory. She is seriously into chemistry. She is extremely witty in a dark, brittle sort of way. And, yet, she is also innocent.

A body turns up in the cucumber patch. You can take it from there.

Setting this book in 1950 was a stroke of genius. Flavia is a bit over-the-top. Oh, hell, she's a lot of over-the-top, which is what makes her so marvelous. But no one could begin to believe she could exist in the twenty-first century. Her extensive knowledge of...all kinds of things...could only be acquired in a world without TV, malls, dance lessons, sports, and, it would seem, traditional schooling. (School is never mentioned.) And, for me, a big stumbling block with child mysteries is the fact that kids can't get around places on their own. But Flavia's always jumping on her old bike and pedaling off all over the place. It's believable in a pre-suburban world. I have ridden my bike to the library and even a church tag sale, but it's a huge undertaking, taking a big chunk out of my day. Traffic being what it is, I'm taking my life in my hands every time I do it. But in Flavia's world, it works.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the beginning of series. While I'd be delighted to spend more time with Flavia, I've often been disappointed with follow-up mysteries. She may be able to pull this off, though.

This series could definitely have crossover potential for sophisticated teen readers who enjoy literary humor.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Since We Were Talking About Nonfiction A Couple Of Days Ago...

...this might be a good time to mention The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton with illustrations by Tony Persiani.

Disclaimer: First I want to mention that I kind of know Chris Barton in that bizarre way you know people on the Internet you've never met in the flesh and have never been anywhere near because you live in different parts of the country. Which is to say that we've left comments on each other's blogs, which is like knowing someone, but barely.

The Day-Glo Brothers is a picture book describing how Bob and Joe Switzer created Day-Glo paint. This is a really impressive book for three reasons:

1. It truly is written for the age group to whom it is marketed. I've seen a number of beautiful nonfiction picture books that included way too much text for grade schoolers and text that was way too sophisticated for grade schoolers. Usually both at the same time. They were very fine books, but they were really for adults.

2. The "story line" makes sense. Barton does a good job of finding something about each brother that explains why he did what he did. Even traditional, adult biographies sometimes fail to do that for their subjects.

3. The art work is simple and easy to take in. It's not of a "fine art" type. Hey, I like fine art as much as the next person. But it's sometimes too complex to help carry a story, as art needs to do in a picture book. The art work in The Day-Glo Brothers is also reminiscent of 'fifties and 'sixties film strips and brochures. It fits the period during which the Switzer brothers lived and worked.

I've been talking about this book for days.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bad Vikings! Bad, Bad, Vikings!

I picked up The Humming of Numbers when I saw it on the library shelf for one reason and one reason alone--I recognized the author, Joni Sensel's name from The Spectacle. Her book is a well-written historical romance with fantasy elements.

Aidan, an Irish monk-in-training, runs into Lana, the illegitimate daughter of the local lord, at his monastery where she's been sent to shape up. Though Aidan tries to conform to monastic life because he really wants to work there as a scribe, he has this little problem with what he calls hearing numbers--he associates numbers with people and things. Lana, on the other hand, doesn't make much of an attempt to conform to early Christianity. She's a sort of woods witch.

Aidan, of course, is seriously tempted by her. He manages to put her out of his mind much of the time because the day after they meet, Vikings arrive to do their raping and pillaging thing at the monastery and the surrounding villages.

Two things struck me about this story:

1. I found myself...ah...responding strongly to those freaking Vikings. I started thinking of them as Dark Age Nazis. I've read that Vikings raided because of economic need and that, eventually, many of them gave up taking slaves and robbing and settled in Ireland and northern France. What? It took them generations to think of emigration?

Vikings destroying an Irish monastary is kind of a classic situation if you've ever done any research on the tenth century. (Which I have, many years ago, for a book that's on life support somewhere here in the office.) They really seemed to love those places. So, for me the basic situation in The Humming of Numbers was very realistic.

2. One problem I have with romantic thrillers is that it's hard for me to believe that individuals would think of romance while they're running for their lives or dealing with death and dismemberment, etc. While The Humming of Numbers doesn't involve the kind of eroticism you find in Twilight, I did feel that Aidan's feelings for Lana were beyond his control and inconvenient. Thus, the romance here worked better for me than it does in many books.

I think The Humming of Numbers is stronger as a historical novel than it is as a fantasy. That's fine for me, since I prefer historical fiction to fantasy. I don't know if fantasy readers might be a bit disappointed, though.

Suggestion: This might be a good addition to a middle school/high school library that needs historical fiction to accompany classes.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Plotting A Serial--How?

Every once in a while, I receive an arc from a certain editor. (Since this isn't a review site, every once in a while is about as often as I want to receive arcs.) I do get a little thrill when I find a package at the P.O. box, but when that package contains an arc as well as a paperback edition of an earlier book, I feel forewarned that what I'm looking at is a serial and that the editor is worried that I won't be able to figure out what's going on with the arc without having read another book first.

That was the case a few weeks ago when I found the arc for Trail of Fate the second volume in The Youngest Templar serial by Michael P. Spradlin waiting for me at the post office. The Youngest Templar is a hardcore serial set in the twelfth century. (I usually see serials set in fantasy worlds, so I thought the setting was interesting). The individual volumes are not traditional novels in the sense of a completed story line with a climax and resolution. In fact, the first book has no ending at all. The final words are "to be continued..." The second book has no beginning or ending, concluding with another "to be continued..."

Now, I've come to understand serials and that they are a different kind of reading experience, one that might be described as merging episodic television with reading. Though I must say that if I were really into a serial I would prefer to read it after the writer has completed the whole thing, the way many people prefer to watch a TV series on DVD rather than over the course of a television season.

But that aside, my question about serials is, as it was two and a half years ago, how do authors decide that they have so much story/plot that it requires more than one book to tell? Trail of Fate seemed a little padded to me. The bad guy from Keeper of the Grail was back, which made sense, but then another bad guy who was an awful lot like the first one appeared. And then we get a bad queen, too. A rather neat female character is introduced in book one and comes back in book two. Again, that made sense. But then a new female character who seemed a lot like the first one, in the sense of being a spunky, woman warrior type, shows up. It seemed as if they were just...taking up space in the plot. I felt as if I was killing time. If those characters and the events surrounding them had been left out, could the story have moved on in a faster and tighter fashion toward its finale--whatever that's going to be?

Plotting is a pain in the butt, anyway, and trying to do it over multiple volumes has got to be an ordeal. For instance, in the first book, Keeper of the Grail, the grail doesn't show up until the halfway point. And a couple of major characters come in even later. In a traditional book, those would be major flaws. However, when you're talking about a plot that's being stretched over several books, the halfway point of the first one is probably still early days.

But how does the author decide?

Given how much I hate plotting, I can't see myself writing a serial any time soon.

Trail of Fate will be published next month.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

One For The Grown-ups?

I enjoy reading about the nineteenth century, and I'm definitely interested in the science/religion conflict from that period. My interests as a history geek lean toward how people lived rather than wars, too. So Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith had a lot to offer me. As I read it, though, I wondered if it had a lot to offer younger readers.

The publisher describes it as being marketed to readers thirteen and up. I think most older teens will have moved on to adult biography, and I just don't know if a book about a nineteenth century marriage is going to be that fascinating for younger teens. The Darwins were already thirty when they married (after Charles's voyage on The Beagle, so that is only referred to in the past), and they move right along into a sickly middle age. (Particularly Charles.) Parental grief over the death of children as well as the passing of one elderly relative after another are probably of more interest to adults than kids. There are a few subtle references to sex from Darwin's notebooks and letters that may produce an "Eww" reaction. The material on how Darwin worked out his theory doesn't add a lot of plot or adventure because essentially the guy seems to have sat in his library and thought. For years. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's damn good work, if you can get it. But it doesn't create much in the way of natural narrative drive.

Charles and Emma is very highly regarded, and that's just fine. But I kept wishing that it were either a kids' historical novel from the point of view of one of the Darwin children or an even more sophisticated adult work.

Hey, what was with so many members of this family being sick all the time, anyway? I know there's been some work done about women and sickness in the nineteenth century, and some of the children were picking up serious contagious diseases. But what about Charles?

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Great Character, But...

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork is the third autism novel I've read. A few years ago, Anonymous and I had a brief discussion on how many books on the same subject you needed to create a genre. Is autism getting there?

I loved Marcelo, himself, but I may be the only reader of this well-starred book who wasn't all that taken with the story. It seemed heavy on lesson for my taste. All the good characters work for the poor and sick, and all the bad characters are corporate lawyers or their secretaries. (Okay, okay. You're going to say that's just like real life, aren't you?) As I read this book, I felt as if I was supposed to be learning to do good.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to teach readers to do good, of course. I'm just one of those who believe that in fiction, you need to be really subtle about it.

I also didn't get the side trip to Vermont to visit the coarse, beer-swilling farmers. And why include a coarse, beer-swilling farmer with Alzheimer's? If it was necessary to get Marcelo to Vermont so he could be exposed to the restorative aspects of nature or something, it would have kept the story more on task to somehow send him to the Weston Priory. Marcelo did have a special interest in theology, after all, which included a desire to say the rosary. Instead of being friendly with a rabbi, Marcelo could have been friendly with a monk.

Maybe there will be a sequel.

Marcelo in the Real World has a lovely cover, which Blogger won't let me upload for some reason.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Transcendentalism For The Picture Book Crowd

I discovered Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Builds a Cabin, written and illustrated by D.B. Johnson, when I read about the first title at our local library's blog. (See, blogs do encourage reading.) They are both wonders and what makes them so wonderful is that they are truly picture books for little readers that really do express something about the adult historical figure that inspired them.

The "Henry" in these books is a bear, but he's modeled on Henry David Thoreau and these books clearly draw on Thoreau's Walden, which I just happen to be rereading this year. (I say "this year" because at the rate of a few pages a couple of times a week it appears that it's going to take me that long to finish it.) Sounds kind of adult philosophical, does it not?

The illustrations for Johnson's books are lovely and all kid with plenty of focus on the bear characters. And the text is limited to one or two simple lines per page. What's amazing is that those few words tap so well into my understanding of Thoreau and Walden.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg illustrates what I think was Thoreau's contention that we become enslaved to jobs to buy ourselves things when we could live fuller lives by doing with less. In this case, Henry's friend puts in a great deal of time working at jobs to earn the money to pay for a train ticket to Fitchburg, while Henry just makes the trip on foot.

"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" Thoreau said in Walden. In case he hadn't made his point, he added, "Simplify, simplify." Henry Builds a Cabin certainly illustrates that as Henry Bear points out to his bear friends, Emerson and Alcott, the areas outdoors that will serve as his dining room, library, and ballroom.

I couldn't find a passage in Walden that stated that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott lent a hand, but Thoreau does say, "At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my house. No man was ever more honored in the character of his raisers than I. They are destined, I trust, to assist at the raising of loftier structures one day." He also says he moved in on the 4th of July, just as Henry Bear did.

I think these picture books do a great job bringing a philosophy to child readers.

Johnson has written and illustrated three more Henry books.

Training Report: All was quiet with the injured and worn family elders last week, and I had a fantastic few days of work. We're back to what has become normal at Chez Gauthier--medical appointments, research, and e-mails to relatives. And, seriously, we don't even have anyone with a crisis.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

A Good Book To Give Kids Making Their First Train Trips

Jump the Cracks by Stacy DeKeyser has what I think is an intriguing premise--a fifteen-year-old girl on the train from Hartford to New York sees a toddler she believes to be in danger. So she takes him. What starts out as a responsible act turns into a sort of kidnapping. Victoria and her young charge end up on the lam, heading down the east coast while Victoria tries to negotiate the little one's safe return over the phone in calls to her own father who had been expecting to meet her at the station in New York and the police officer assigned to her case.

DeKeyser shows a lot of control of her material and her plot. As I was reading, I'd think, Why doesn't Victoria do X? Sure enough, she did. Why doesn't Y happen? And it did. Victoria almost spends too much time dwelling on her dad's failings, but her angst over her parents' divorce and her father's absence from her life is motivation for some of her action.

A better adjusted teenager from an intact family might have left that poor little boy on the train.

For a long time Jump the Cracks walks a fine line between thriller and unique problem novel. Some readers might feel let down with the ending. Others will find themselves a step closer to experiencing adult mainstream fiction.

Jump the Cracks is published by Flux, which has a blog called Eye On Flux. That's got to be a play on Aeon Flux, don't ya think?

Training Report: I'm plugging away on agent research. I love research because it's like working but different. Here's something I didn't need to know about, though.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Modeling Writing

In my former life as a professional mom, I was often perplexed by how little nonfiction of the essay and memoir variety my kids read in elementary school. This was a big problem in my mind because they were frequently asked to write essays and sometimes even about themselves. Yet as far as I could tell, they had nothing to model their writing upon. Connecticut had standardized testing before anyone had ever heard of No Child Left Behind, and the writing portion of those tests didn't involve novels, it involved multiple paragraph essays. The Gauthier kids' teachers scrambled to provide instruction, but how much easier it would have been for them "to get it" if they ever read examples of what it was they were supposed "to get."

I used to spend my time hunting for essays for my kids to read. By the time they were in sixth grade, I was passing them some of Joel Stein's Time Magazine essays. You know, his "self-focused humor column". Come on. He used thesis statements and topic sentences.

What I really wanted was Jon Scieszka's Knucklehead. But it wasn't available then. Scieszka's memoir of "Growing Up Scieszka" is filled with short, readable chapters about his life as a child. (I'm not going to make much of the fact that he was a boy child, because I think girls will enjoy this book, too.) And while I didn't notice much in the way of thesis statements and topic sentences, I did see a lot of material that could make child readers think, "Hey! I could do this! I could write about the strange books I have to read at school. I could write about my grandparents. I could write about Halloween, my siblings' injuries, things I've bought, games I've played" and about thirty-one other subjects since Scieszka includes thirty-eight chapters.

Coming up with material is hard for a lot of kids. Knucklehead could provide inspiration for some of them. After all, learning to write will come a whole lot easier if you have something to write about.

Training Report: You haven't seen one of these in a long time, have you? At the beginning of the week I found a journal to which I could submit the essay I spent so much time on this summer. And I submitted it.

Essays, which we were discussing in this post, anyway, are kind of problematic. You feel this overwhelming need to express yourself about something that has happened to you that you think has some connection to the greater world, to humankind, and then what do you do with it? It's not easy to find potential markets for some of these personal essays. For instance, earlier this week I did a rough draft of what might be called a flash essay about washing windows. What am I going to do with that?

A writer could, of course, write essays that publications are actually looking for. I just read today that Drunken Boat is looking for 1000 word or less "nonfiction perspectives from around the world on the effect of the global economic crisis." The writing prompt becomes more specific, and I'm sure someone could do a personal essay with it. But the phrase "global economic crisis" is freaking me out.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Lost Week

Because I'm incredibly insensitive, I spent a little time working at home on Monday while a family member was going under the knife. (Come on. It wasn't brain surgery, and one of our nicer relatives was at the hospital with her.) Otherwise, I've been sharing post-surgical elder care this past week, including an overnight last night. I didn't get any other work done, but during those moments when I wasn't becoming incredibly friendly with a large number of residents of a senior housing complex, I did manage to do a little reading.

Among the books I completed was this year's Siebert Medal winner, We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, which was written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The images are eye-poppingly beautiful, and the unnamed first-person narrator who sounds like a player from the era makes this historical work very readable. And the book uses endnotes! I can never say enough about how much I love nonfiction that includes citations.

I am not a fan of baseball. Reading about it is one hundred percent better, as far as I'm concerned, when there is a historical element.

This book is deserving of every good thing that's been written about it. I do wonder, though, as I always wonder when I read these beautiful nonfiction books published in a picture-book format, who will read them? The text is way too sophisticated and lengthy for traditional picture book readers. We Are The Ship's publisher is marketing it to ages 8 and up, but will, say, intermediate and middle school teachers accept their students reading and reporting on it? Will the adults who might be very taken with it find it in the kids' section of libraries and bookstores?

Do books like this find their readers?

A exhibit of the original art work for We Are The Ship will arrive at the Eric Carle Museum in 2012. I hope I remember.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Catching Up With Picture Book Biographies

Yesterday was the first Tuesday in over a month when I didn't have family duties. Since in the preceding forty-eight hours I'd decided to get started on three new projects, while continuing with two I was already working on, I was most excited about having a few extra hours for work. So what did I do? I locked myself out of my house. After depositing some perishable groceries with a family member twenty minutes away, I hunkered down at the library for an hour, hoping I could do something there.

What I did was read four picture books. Two of them just happened to be picture book biographies, one of which I found far more successful than the other.

Boys of Steel by Marc Tyler Nobleman with illustrations by Ross MacDonald tells the story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman during the Depression. It ends with Superman becoming successful. Information at the end of the book tells how Siegel and Shuster lost the rights to Superman and struggled to make a living, but the actual picture book story is one of teen misfits who create something different ("The other heroes Jerry and Joe read about were regular humans in strange places. This hero would be a stranger in a regular place.") and lasting. Siegel and Shuster actually do something.

That doesn't seem to be the case in What To Do About Alice?, a picture book biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Barbara Kerley (who also wrote The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins), with illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham. The book covers Longworth's youth, when she was still just Alice Roosevelt (Teddy's oldest girl), and she comes off sounding like the Paris Hilton of her day. There is an over-the-top character here, but not a lot of story because from everything I've ever heard about Roosevelt Longworth, she didn't actually do anything, the way Siegel and Shuster did. In What To Do About Alice? she's much more of a celebrity, someone who's famous for being famous.

A celebrity tale just doesn't have the natural narrative arc you find in stories about real achievers.

What To Do About Alice? was named a Siebert Honor Book this year.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Where's The Dancing Candlestick?

Last week, we were talking about fairy tales (or I was, anyway), which was far more appropriate than any of you knew because last week I also read Beastly by Alex Finn. Beastly is a modern take on Beauty and the Beast with the beast starting out as a stereotypical, handsome teen s.o.b. who is turned into a beast as punishment for being a stereotypical, handsome teen s.o.b..

Beastly is a very interesting book because it's filled with stereotypical characters, and, as I said, it's Beauty and the Beast. If you know the story--and presumably readers are expected to, since the book includes "Ever wonder what it was like for the Beast?" on the cover--you know what's going to happen. And, yet, it's an engaging read. If nothing else, you can have fun trying to figure out the fairy tale references. And while poor old Kyle, prebeast, is a stereotypically awful teen stud, he does end up getting more sympathetic treatment here than his type usually does in YA novels. Or anywhere else, for that matter. (Dairy Queen and its sequel also provides us with a more rounded teen heartbreaker.)

Someone at one of my listservs brought to our attention that Beastly is going to be a movie. Mary-Kate Olsen has joined the cast (as the witch, I've heard), as has Neil Patrick Harris (as the tutor, according to my source). Hey, we hear everything first on the kidlit listservs!

If you like these modern interpretations of fairy tales, you can check out a whole page of modern versions of Beauty and the Beast.

Training Report: Two segments! Essay work! E-mails! Research!

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Not A Bad Sequel, But Still...

I am a big fan of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen. I wasn't that excited when I heard there was going to be a sequel, though. Dairy Queen seemed so complete. What more was there to say?

The Off Season still has D.J. Schwenk's marvelous voice. But the story seems a lot less focused this time around. D.J. just seems to be going from thing to thing here. While an argument can be made that that's life, I missed the narrative drive of the first novel.

This isn't a bad book, by any means. D.J.'s fans will still enjoy it. It's just not Dairy Queen.

According to the author's website, a third D.J. book is in the works.

Training Report: Not my worst day. Worked on an essay and did two 365 Story Project segments. I felt as if I was beginning to get into a flow-like thing, but it will be shot tomorrow when I am back to doing good works.

I'm not very good at doing good works. It's a struggle, let me tell you.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

A Lovely Little Find

I was in the library earlier this week, looking at all the special powers books on the new books' shelf in the children's area. By which I mean books about kids learning they have special powers or having special powers and going to special schools to develop them or kids in some kind of fantasy world full of special powers. I understand that children enjoy reading the same kinds of things over and over, and I respect their desire to do that. But, man, it's hard for an adult working in kidlit not to keel over from the sameness of it all.

So imagine my delight when I saw a book about something so mundane as writing thank you notes. Really, we have gotten to a point in children's literature where the mundane is unusual.

Some people might think that Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes by Peggy Gifford is a little gimmicky. The chapters are short with titles that sort of bleed into them. Take Chapter 25, for instance:

Chapter 25

In Which Mark Says No


Plus, young Moxy falls asleep at odd times. And the book uses a third-person narrator who sometimes intrudes into the story.

Other people might point out a couple of stereotypes, like the odd little sister and the divorced dad who makes plan to see his kids but never carries through with them.

However, Moxy Maxwell isn't trying to be Anna Karenina (which, to be perfectly honest, I've never been able to get through). Moxy Maxwell is trying to be a light, clever, amusing story about a girl who is close to over-the-top but in a funny way that doesn't have time to get annoying because the book is so short. And it does that very well.

There's a real storyline here about poor Moxy, who must finish writing her Christmas thank you notes before heading to California with her brother to finally visit their father, a former soap opera actor who is out in Hollywood hunting for a Big Deal. We're not talking random jokes or actions, which is what you sometimes find in books for this age group. But what's most admirable about this book is that it's a funny story for younger kids that treats its readers with respect. The author doesn't assume that child readers only laugh at toilet humor and funny sounds. This is lightish entertainment that a kid doesn't have to feel embarrassed about having read.

And a word about the illustrations, which are photographs by Valerie Fisher--the pictures are supposed to be taken by Moxy's brother as the story is taking place. What we have is a little mixed media going here, and it works better than some more sophisticated attempts that I've seen.

I read a paperback edition, which would be perfect for tucking into a camp trunk this summer, or bringing along for a family vacation.

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