Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Tale of Hilltop Farm

As I've mentioned, I love mysteries, and I love children's books, so I've been wanting to read Susan Wittig Albert's Cottage Tales for a while. I finally bought the first one this weekend and read the whole thing yesterday morning.
If you aren't familiar with this series, Beatrix Potter is one of the main characters (thus the children's lit connection). Other characters include her pets, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle the hedge-hog, Josey & Mopsy the rabbits & Tom Thumb the mouse, and the local cats & dogs. The setting is Near Sawrey, England, where, in this first in the series, Miss Potter has just purchased Hilltop Farm. Upon arriving in Near Sawrey to inspect her new purchase, Miss Potter find the local lady she was to stay with has died rather suddenly, and the villagers are speculating about the cause of death. Add to this a missing parish registry, a stolen envelope of money and some very disgruntled tenants and Miss Potter is quickly disabused of her visions of tranquil village life.
A wonderfully fun cozy mystery, this will have very little appeal to teens, but great appeal to fans of mysteries or of Beatrix Potter. Like so many of the other popular series with "real" detectives, this is a great combination of historical fact - Potter really did buy Hilltop Farm in 1905 and eventually moved there - and fun fancy. I'm making a trip to the local library for the next volume in the series tonight!

What I'm Reading: The Trouble With Magic by Madelyn Alt
On My Bookshelf: The Tale of Holly How by Susan Wittig Albert (or it will be after I get to the library...)

Summer Reading

I guess this is sort of a disclaimer message. After a scorching hot Memorial Day weekend full of yard work and cookouts, I'm mentally on summer vacation. I still have three weeks of work yet, but, mentally, I'm done. So, this is my summer reading disclaimer.
I read a lot in the summer, especially during summers like this one, when we don't have any vacation plans. My vacation is rather short, though, by school standards. I'm back to work August 1, so it's only about six weeks.
During the summer, I tend to read a wider variety of books. In other words, I'm not as focused on YA titles. I still read a lot of YA, but I also catch up on the adult fiction & nonfiction and children's titles that I've been wanting to read.
I also have a couple of summer reading "projects." These projects continue from summer to summer, probably indefinitely. The first is to read a biography of every president and, when available, every first lady. I've been working on this for about three years and I've only made it as far as Thomas Jefferson. This isn't as bad as it sounds - I'm fascinated by Jefferson, so I've read about five different books on him. I also (finally!) found a bio on Martha Washington, published last summer, which I read right away. I also read a bio of Ben Franklin - not a president, but an important historical & political figure who seemed to deserve a place on my list, and on Lewis & Clark (ties with Jefferson, historical significance, etc.). I'll probably read the new one on Alexander Hamilton this summer for the same reasons. I have to admit, I'm pretty fascinated by the colonial period, so I may get hung up here for a while. I'm even contemplating another bio on Washington, since I wasn't fond of the one I read, and I still need to read one on Abigail Adams. Speaking of which, here are the ones I've read so far in my "project" - which, now that I think about it, seems to have become more about American history than just about presidents. But, the presidents will remain my main goal:
  • Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York : Anchor Books, 2002.
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. New York : Henry Holt & Co., 1997.
  • Brady, Patricia. Martha Washington: An American Life. New York : Viking, 2005.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York : H. Holt, 1993.
  • Halliday, E. M. Understanding Thomas Jefferson. New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
  • McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. New York : H. Holt, c1988.
  • Leepson, Marc. Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built. New York : Free Press, 2001.
  • Lanier, Shannon & Jane Feldman. Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family. New York : Random House, c2000.
  • Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York : Simon & Schuster, c1996.

So that's one project, and one type of book that I'll be reading this summer. I've got my bio on Madison all ready to go, if I decide I'm ready to move on. Of course, there's also a great looking new book out on the Pilgrims by Nathaniel Philbrick that's on my list...

My second project is to read all the Newbery and Caldecott Medal books. I want to work my way through the medal winners, then the honor books. I won't list the ones I've read, but it will suffice to say that I have a ways to go. I also usually try to catch up on some of the other popular children's books from the last year.

My third project this summer (I know, where will I find the time? But I have the rest of my life to complete the other two - this one I'm shooting for this summer) concerns the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I have the two graphic novels, and have just ordered the companions written by Jess Nevin. My goal is to read all the major works associated with the League's characters:

  • King Solomon's Mines by Rider Haggard (Allan Quartermain)
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker (Mina Harker)
  • The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (Hawley Griffin)
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Captain Nemo)
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson (Jekyll/Hyde)

I also intend to toss in the "supplementary" Complete Sherlock Holmes, since I've never read all of Holmes & I'm a mystery fan.

For a complete League of Extraordinary Gentlemen list, check out this one on Amazon.com. I'll work my way through what I can, but my main goal is the major works.

The other thing I read a lot of during the summer is mystery novels. I've just picked up a couple of new ones, so you'll be seeing some posts about those in the next few days.

What I'm Reading: The Trouble With Magic by Madelyn Alt

On My Bookshelf: Stacks of summer reading...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's a bird! It's a plane!

Let me start this off by saying that I'm definitely not knowledgeable about super heroes, and most particularly about Superman. I don't even know where to begin to start with him, and I don't think I want to make a project of it - it would be a big project. So, I've just been reading the Superman GNs that we have (which is only a few).
The one I started with is not really a Superman story. It's not about the character of Superman, anyway. It's a Bird by Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen is the story of one man's quest to connect with the Man of Steel. The narrator writes comic books, but is not a Superman fan. When he's asked to write Superman - the most coveted assignment in the industry - his first instinct is to say no. His editor persists, though, until he agrees to consider it. He spends the next several days trying to make sense of his own life, dealing with his father's sudden disappearance, his break-up with his girlfriend, and his fear of a hereditary disease that is wasting his family members. Through all this, he tries to find a way to connect with Superman, wondering how someone human who is simply a scared man can relate to Superman.
I picked this one up because it was recommended at a workshop as a great look at the creative process, something that could be used in the classroom. It's true that it explores creativity, but I'm not sure kids will relate to it that well. The narrator's issues are mostly adult issues, and I think kids might find him a whiney wimp. I liked the story, but I didn't particularly care for the artwork in this one.
Superman: Infinite City has more traditional comic art work and an interesting if rather forgettable story line. Intrigued by an unusual weapon confiscated from a criminal, Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigate the manufacturer. What at first seems to be a run down cafe in Infinite City turns out to be a portal into a place in between dimensions - which Lois promptly stumbles through, of course. She is whisked off by the inhabitants to quarantine, so by the time Clark follows, she has disappeared. Clark is welcomed to this nexus of realities by the Warden, a man with powers that seem to be similar to Superman's. Trying to keep his identity (actually, both of them) a secret, Clark provides a false name, but quickly becomes involved in a conflict, attempting to back up the Warden. Superman's powers seem a bit impaired by the unfamiliar conditions, but his uniqueness is noted and he is taken to see the Mayor of Infinite City. The adventure that follows - Superman attempting to find and rescue Lois and save Infinite City & Earth from destruction, contains little that is unexpected. The artwork for this one, however, is pretty interesting - I love Lois's hair.
The best of the three, in my humble-and-not-so-knowledgeable opinion, is Birthright: The Origin of the Man of Steel, written by Mark Waid. It's the story of how Clark Kent came to be Superman, the story of Clark's search for his identity and the creation of the first super hero. The story starts at the beginning, when Kal-El is sent to Earth from a doomed planet by his loving parents, then jumps ahead to Clark as a young man on a journalism assignment in Africa. Well-traveled, Clark has witnessed violence, crime and injustice around the world, but the events that occur on this assignment are enough to convince him he must use his powers to make a difference. And so Superman is born. This one is a great place to start.

Seagel, Steven. Teddy Kristiansen, artist. It's a Bird. New York: Vertigo, 2004.

Kennedy, Mike. Carlos Meglia, artist. Superman: Infinite City. New York: DC Comics, 2005.

Waid, Mark. Leinil Francis Yu, penciller. Gerry Alanguilan, inker. Dave McCaig, colorist. Birthright: The Origin of the Man of Steel. New York: DC Comics, 2004.

What I'm Reading: Nothing, at this point. I just can't seem to get into anything! I think I'm putting aside Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea (good but too depressing for me right now), but I don't know what I'm replacing it with.
On My Bookshelf: Well, the same as before, with the addition of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and Peter Moore's Caught in the Act.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

"I know this is going to sound strange, but will you be my girlfriend for five minutes?

I answer by putting my hand around his neck and pulling his face down to mine."

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan are both well known in the world of teen literature. Cohn's novel Gingerbread and its sequel, Shrimp, are on several of the "Best" lists compiled by ALA and educators, and Levithan has won awards and accolades for his books Boy Meets Boy; The Realm Possibility and Are We There Yet? So, when these two friends joined together to write Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, expectations from their fans were high.
Cohn and Levithan don't disappoint. Written from alternating points of view (Cohn writes Norah while Levithan writes Nick), Nick and Norah is the story of an accidental meeting that turns into a date, a night spent together, and, maybe, a real relationship. Trying to escape his ex, Nick asks Norah, a stranger, to pose as his girlfriend. Hoping to score a ride home for her drunk friend, Norah agrees. What starts out as something of a business transaction becomes something more when both notice the chemistry between them. Soon they find themselves on a date (arranged by his friends, unbeknownst to Nick), taking in a burlesque show and a secret performance by their favorite band. But both are packing baggage from their exes, and jumping into a new relationship - or even a one-night stand - might be more than either is ready for.
Nick and Norah will have appeal for teens, but it's a mature book that will also find an audience among college students and other twenty-somethings. Full of quick music and pop culture references, set in some of the trendiest clubs in NYC, Nick & Norah is a great night out on the town.

Cohn, Rachel and David Levithan. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 2006.

What I'm Reading: Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea
On My Bookshelf: Chicks With Sticks; Johnny Hazzard, Maya Running

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Carnet De Voyage

The guy at the local comic shop recommended this one to me when he discovered I liked Craig Thompson's Blankets. Carnet de Voyage is Thompson's travel diary - comic style - of his two month European trip in 2004.
I like Thompson's style - it's b&w but very expressive. I particularly like his drawings of women; they seem more expressive than his men. This is often a beautiful book, containing Thompson's images of the many sights and people he sees. And it is often a funny book - Thompson's drawings of his - err- stomach troubles are quite fun (to look at- not to have). The two almost don't seem to go together. But Thompson is honest about his trip; he burns out on sight-seeing, gets tired of signing books at promotions and giving away free portraits when he draws in the streets. He's kind of whiney - how many of us would give anything to have our publishers pay for an extended trip to Europe, even if it did involve public promotions & book signings (heck, how many of us would be thrilled to have a book to sign right here in the good old USA?). Still, I bet almost every one of us would also feel like Thompson - alone and homesick when the shine wore off the travel.
This isn't one that will be of great interest to teens, but it's definitely a different twist on the typical travel account.

Thompson, Craig. Carnet de Voyage. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004.

What I'm Reading: Nick & Norah

On My Bookshelf: Johnny Hazard, Blood Red Horse, and so many more - not sure what's next...

King Dork

I've been anxiously awaiting this one after reading much about it. Several members of YALSA-BK are already putting it on their best of 2006 list, which is always a good sign.
It took me several days to get through the book, but not because I wasn't enjoying it (busy, busy, busy!). It is long - 300+ pages, including the bandography & glossary - but Tom Henderson is a great character. He really is a dork - a kid who is awkward, picked on, geeky. He doesn't have any great redeeming talent, and his slights aren't only in his own head - the other kids really think he's a dork. But Tom's smart, even if he doesn't show it much in school, and - like many dorks, I would guess - is pretty cool if you get to know him.
It's the beginning of Tom's sophomore year, and everything is about to change. The year starts out as usual - he's "in a band" with his alphabetical friend Sam Hellerman (for these two "in a band" is more about band names & album covers than actual music), his mom is still in some kind of prolonged mourning for his dead father; his hippie step-dad is just as clueless as ever, and he doesn't expect to learn anything new in school. But this year will be different. This is a year of "mysteries involving dead people, naked people, fake people, ESP, blood, guitars, monks, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, the Crusades, a devil head and rock and roll."
It all starts when he finds his dad's copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Tom's not a member of the Catcher cult - he's definitely not a wanna be Holden Caufield - but the book was his dad's, and that alone makes it interesting.
But wait - maybe it started before that, with the party - and Fiona?
Or maybe Sam Hellerman had it planned all along...
Author Frank Portman. aka Dr Frank, is the frontman for the pop-punk band the Mr T Experience (MTX), and the music and literary references are part of what makes King Dork fun. If you can't follow Tom Henderson's music & literary references, Portman has helped out by posting the King Dork Discography & the Supplementary Reading List on his web site. Check it out for the full King Dork experience.

This is a great romp that takes twists and turns when you least expect it, and where you end up is surely not where you thought you'd be. But Tom is a great tour guide.

Portman, Frank. King Dork. New York: Delecorte Press, 2006.

What I'm Reading: Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
On My Bookshelf: Not sure yet...to many to choose from

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Marly's Ghost

A romantic treat for Valentine's Day (or any other day of the year, if you're a romantic at heart), David Levithan's Marly's Ghost is a "remix" of A Christmas Carol with a Valentine's setting. Ben's girlfriend Marly is dead, and he's being quite a "Scrooge" about Valentine's Day this year. Heartbroken at his loss, Ben has isolated himself from his friends and has become bitter about love. He wants only to be left alone to remember Marly and their time together. But his tight grip on the past is preventing Marly from moving on. Her visit to him (weighted down by her charm bracelet filled with tokens of their love) is the first in a series of spiritual visits that will convince Ben that he can risk loving again.
While the Victorian language of Marly's ghost seems a bit much (I think normal teen-talk would have been more fitting, but that's just me), this remix is loads of fun. Kids who aren't familiar with the original tale & its Victorian setting might think some of the language, etc a bit strange, but that won't interfere with their enjoyment of the story. While Levithan has kept many of the original trappings of the story, there are some fun changes, such as Tiny and Tim, a young gay couple flush with new love, who are on the receiving end of Ben's Valentine's Day humbug - and first in line to receive his newfound Valentine's Day cheer.

Levithan, David. Marly's Ghost. New York: Dial Books, 2006.

What I'm Reading: Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty
On My Bookshelf: King Dork by Frank Portman