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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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1. Assessing March on the resolution scale

March was a really weird month. I had a plan for what I wanted to get done and then everything was tossed out the window when I heard from the State of Alaska Library, Archives and Museum. I worked with them last year to develop the new aviation exhibit and early last month they contacted me with the outline and request for labels. As the labels are very specific, and very specific word counts, and the whole thing had to be done by the end of the month, it ate up a lot of my time. I’m thrilled to be co-curating this project so I was happy to do whatever was necessary (and the paycheck is nice too). But it pushed everything else I was planning right off the table.

1. I did submit reviews for Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us and Edward Hogan’s The Messengers to Locus. Look for those in a couple of months.

2. I had several pieces run in AK Dispatch News – most notably an article on the dangerous history of commercial use of aircraft for spotting in the herring fishing industry.

3. One review turned into Booklist and two books read (though I didn’t get to the reviews on those until this month).

4. I spent several days exchanging emails with an online longform journalism site discussing a pitch I submitted about Alaska. It went back and forth, the editor was very cool, but eventually it was clear that it was impossible for me to accomplish what they wanted. (Especially the suggestion of travel to the bush which is crazy expensive.) The time and energy this ate up made me reevaluate what I should be pitching and where, which is an ongoing process. I think I’ve finally got it figured out….here’s hoping.

And that was it. Not much accomplished on the genealogy front which is frustrating. I did send a couple of emails to family members asking them questions but I need to sit down and figure out a few things so I can get some letters in the mail. I also need to find a map of New York City for the late 1800s/early 1900s as I have some addresses but don’t have context for where those neighborhoods were.

A lot more has happened in April, but more on that in a few weeks!

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2. The Modern Ark project


From Audubon a look at photographer Joel Sartore’s plan to capture close-up images of every captive species on Earth:

Sartore finds comfort in the species that have thus far been rescued from the brink: giant pandas, black-footed ferrets, California Condors, Whooping Cranes. Those animals’ populations remain alarmingly low—in the mere hundreds—but they might have disappeared altogether if not for publicity, their natural charisma, and determined efforts to save them. “It’s tough to get people to pay attention, because it just doesn’t affect their daily lives. They figure, Why should I care if a rabbit or a frog goes extinct? Is it going to affect what I make at work? Or is it going to affect my love life? Not in the short term. But I tell you, it’s really folly to think that you can doom everything else to extinction and not have it come back to bite us hard.”

Go the main website and see the pictures – they are truly stunning.

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3. The library’s Hell section


From a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine on the rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade and a visit with his modern descendant, Count Hugues de Sade:

The family’s embrace of their ancestor is such that Hugues named his eldest son, now 39, Donatien, a first in generations. “We’re proud of the marquis,” Hugues said. “And why not? Today, he is considered a great philosopher. His works are published by the most prestigious publishing house in France, Gallimard. There are conferences about him at the Sorbonne. He is the subject of university theses, and is studied by high-school students in the baccalauréat.”

As we spoke, Hugues pulled down from his bookshelf an array of distinctive heirlooms passed down from the attic trove—the marquis’ church prayer book, original plays (with notes in the margins), his annotated copy of Petrarch (the 14th-century Italian poet’s great love, Laura, may have been a member of the ancient Sade clan)—as well as an enormous rare volume of erotic Salvador Dali drawings inspired by Sade’s novels. As a parting gesture, he produced a bottle of Sade red wine named after one of the marquis’ most famous heroines, Justine, who suffers bloodcurdling abuse as she travels the world. Sade’s novel Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, goes far beyond Voltaire’s Candide in its desire to show humanity’s inherently evil nature.

“Some of his writing is too extreme even for me,” Hugues said. “It is work of total delusion.”

I will confess I am one of those people who did not realize that de Sade was a historical figure – he seemed like someone created in fiction to symbolize all the depravity in the world. I have never read any of his works but was really intrigued by the fact that they have been held in the so-called Hell section of the National Library in Paris.

As interesting as the changing attitude about de Sade is, I find something like a forbidden library more appealing. I imagine in the very modern looking library it is more of a temperature controlled storeroom than the sort of cave it ought to be.

In The Allure of the Archives, historian Arlette Farge unexpectedly discovered de Sade in her usual haunt, the judicial records from the Archives of the Bastille. Apparently, after a slight altercation between two carriages, de Sade stepped out of his and stabbed one of the opposing horses (it lived). Farge writes:

In this situation the marquis acted in the way that made his reputation: gratuitous violence, a sword sunk into the belly of a defenseless horse. This insignificant account confirms so well what we have heard about the vile character of this man that I find myself almost doubting this surprising coincidence; the find is almost too perfect.

All of us engaged in research dream of an unexpected archive discovery although most will be about people and places far less dramatic as de Sade. I’m hoping to find something personal about someone who most of the world knows nothing about, although I hope to write something rather dramatic about him. I don’t plan to look in any “hell” sections for my long overlooked historical figure but I wouldn’t pass up the chance to stroll through one if I could.

Wouldn’t we all like to say we went to hell by visiting the local library? Talk about a middle school dream come true…..

[Post pic via reuters of Guatemala police archives.]

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4. Needing to know where I come from

Catherine, Jimmy, Agnes & Jackie Lennon circa 1925Sometimes I feel like my need to know more about my ancestors is impossible to explain. I am sure that while much of my extended family enjoys reading the revelations about our previous generations, they are somewhat mystified by my dogged determination to learn more.

I am currently writing an essay about my father for a contest and struggling against the urge to dive into his French Canadian past of which little is known beyond the most basic of names and dates. But I know I’ll go crazy if I don’t stay focused my mother’s family which is already proving to be more mysterious than I ever imagined. (This is what keeps me going back for more, I think. My inner teen detective can’t let all these mysteries go.)

But there is also the need to know about all of them so I can know more about myself. In that type of search, I am not alone. From Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder on her struggle as an adoptee to find her true story:

Genealogy allows us to construct our identities from our own myths and legends, to know who we are, and where we have come from. Or we can use the stories as a starting point for where we might like to go, a legacy to be built on or rebelled against. Sara Maitland describes the tradition of storytelling as a ‘very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats “narrative loss”—the inability to construct the story of one’s own life—as a loss of identity or personhood.’ The stories I had inherited were fascinating, but they weren’t mine. I had never met anyone who shared my blood, or who looked like me. There was no genetic starting point from which I could begin my narrative. I didn’t even know my nationality.

My narrative begins with these people who I still know so little about. In finding their stories, I am able to write more about my own. It’s an obsession perhaps, but I think a worthy one.
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[Post pics: Top picture – my grandmother on left, her sister Agnes & brothers Jimmy & Jackie, circa 1925. Bottom pic is 1935 – my grandmother on the far right, great grandmother standing center. The boys are all her brothers, the girls include my great aunt Irma and some friends.]

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5. Hobby Buddies


From Mental Floss:

It’s only appropriate that “Hobby Buddies,” an amusing and innovative photography series that captures various quirky clubs and strange societies in traditional portrait format, was created by its very own pair of so-called “hobby buddies,” the professional duo of Ursula Sprecher and Andi Cortellini. From kites to chess, plants to poodles, the Swiss photographers lovingly render their “buddies” and their interests into creative and smart tableaus, proving that partnership and collaboration are sometimes the very best part of even the most offbeat endeavor.

The magazine has six other photos from the book but when I looked online, I found the Star Wars one, it just made me smile. But then I kept looking and loved this one:

We should all embrace opportunities to wear hats!


The movie “Contact” made me want to become a ham radio enthusiast. I have, alas, never followed up on that dream but love that these folks have.

Children’s Theater Club – stunning!

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6. The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

The Year of Reading Dangerously is the sort of smart indulgent reading that is very nearly impossible for me to resist. Andy Miller, who works for a publisher in London, decides to improve his reading habits and tackle a list of books that he has long claimed to have read but actually didn’t. His impetus for the project is a harsh look at what he is reading now and it’s not pretty. As he put it, “an audit of my current week’s reading would look something like this”:

200 emails (approx.)
Discarded copies of Metro
The NME and month music magazines
Excel spreadsheets
The review pages of Sunday newspapers
Business proposals
Bills, banks statements, junk mail, etc.
CD liner notes
Crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, etc.
Ready-meal heating guidelines
The occasional postcard
And a lot of piddling about on the Internet

He pretty much had me at “emails” but he nailed it with “bills” and that bit about “piddling about on the Internet.” (I’m not proud, I’m just honest!)

First he decides to read a dozen books and then does so well he goes onto tackle a full list of 50. He loves some, has a love/hate relationship with others and actually loathes a few. But mostly Miller is just funny and honest and a totally enjoyable narrator. He’s doesn’t talk to readers, or suggest ever that just because he is reading a lot of big hefty classics and we are reading about someone reading those classics, that he is better than us. More than once he considers that he might be a little crazy for doing this but quitting would be even worse. So he hangs in there and as readers, we all get to cheer him on.

I have not read many of the books on Miller’s list. I can not find enough sympathy to sustain me through Anna Karenina, I only got through the graphic novel adaptations of Moby Dick and Lord of the Flies and Jane Eyre….well, I’ve given up trying to make it to the end of Jane Eyre. (I have tried and tried and tried!!!)

But it’s okay – you don’t need to have read every book on the list to enjoy reading about Miller tackling the list. And he has Margaret Atwood and Dodie Smith and Henry James and Kerouac as well; it’s actually a very eclectic set of books to consider. So sit back and let Miller guide you through his year. Readers should all be so determined to dive into challenging titles and get beyond the inanity that most of us fill our days with!

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7. Fish spotting for Alaska’s commercial herring fleet

ScottD_070403_5928b
I have an article up at ADN about the history of fish spotting for commercial fishermen in Alaska. It has been, and continues to be to a certain extent, extremely dangerous. Here’s a bit:

In 1984, at the opening of herring season, there was a fatal crash over Togiak, a mid-air collision under a low overcast cloud layer that killed the occupants of both aircraft. According to the NTSB report, witnesses described the flight activity as “frantic,” “chaotic” and “insane.”

In 1991, a mid-air collision near Tatitlek resulted in the death of one of the pilots, while the other was able to land. At the time of the accident, witnesses told the NTSB there were about 50 aircraft circling Boulder Bay waiting for herring season to open.

In 1995 near Naknek a Piper Super Cub and Cessna 172 collided while fish-spotting at about 400 feet over the water and both pilots were killed.

In 1997 the surviving pilot from the Tatitlek accident was involved in another mid-air while flying a Cessna 185 on floats near Galena Bay, along with a spotter, while waiting for the opening of herring season. That plane collided with another pilot and spotter in a Bellanca, which then crashed in the bay, killing both aboard. No one was injured in the Cessna.

In each of these accidents and many others that occurred in the 1980s and ‘90s, the probable cause was determined to be inadequate visual lookout, diverted attention or failure to see and avoid.

[Post pic by Scott Dickerson – see several more fish spotting pics with my article.]

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8. A stunning documentary: “New Year Baby”


The other night I downloaded and watched New Year Baby, Socheata Poeuv’s documentary about uncovering her family’s story in Cambodia. This movie…..this movie is something amazing.

Poeuv was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. She was called the “lucky one” as her parents, two sisters and brother were all subjected to life under the genocidal government and lived in labor camps until the country was liberated by the Vietnamese. Eventually, they all emigrated to the US and settled in Texas.

As she explains in the movie’s opening minutes, when she was twenty-five Poeuv went home for Christmas and her mother gathered the family together to reveal to their youngest child the big secret about how they were all really related. Her parents then decided to travel to Cambodia for a visit and Poeuv and her brother joined them with camera crew in tow. The trip became a way for Poeuv to learn about what happened to extended family members in the four years under the regime, how many relatives they lost* and how they were all able to get out of the country.

This is all incredibly emotional and inspiring (you will cry, trust me), but equally fascinating is the story of how Cambodians have buried their history in an almost national attempt to forget what happened. None of them can forget though (of course) so the official Cambodia versus the personal one are locked in a quiet and continuous battle of “let’s just not talk about it.” This is made brutally clear in the film when Poeuv’s local guide unexpectedly comes face to face with the former member of the Khmer Rouge who ran the hospital where his mother and sister died. He can not stop himself from asking what happened and his face as her utter incompetence comes through….well, his face is pretty unforgettable.

After making the movie, Socheata Poeuv founded an organization called Khmer Legacies which collects testimonies, stored at Yale University, from survivors of the Khmer Rouge. The project is set up to help preserve Cambodian history, a critical need. From the website:

…there has been no collective outlet to remember and heal for ordinary Cambodians. In fact, in Cambodia today, the history is often not taught in schools and some in the younger generation grow up believing that the genocide did not happen at all.

New Year’s Baby
is family history at its best; not only did the film maker learn her family’s own true story but she is now working to preserve an entire nation’s. We all should accomplish so much in our lifetimes. I can’t recommend this film enough.

*Approximately two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge.

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9. Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings

There are few things in life as delightful as a perfect picture book. Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings is especially delightful, a perfect combination of subject and illustration that includes a design that works with the playful nature of the poet’s words.

There is a lot going on here, (with plenty of shout outs to interesting people and places), as author Matthew Burgess covers his subject’s life. He focuses a lot on Cummings’ childhood, education and lifelong love of words while illustrator Kris Di Giacomo presents those words as leaping off the page along with subtle washed backgrounds that keep E.E. (Edward Estlin) and his words as the center of the action.

All in all it’s a lovely thing to see and quite inviting. Take a peek at this inside spread:

There are a couple of particularly interesting points from Cummings’s life presented here such as the fact that his most influential teacher was also the first African-American principal in New England and he was mistaken for a spy while working as an ambulance driver during WW1. (He later wrote about this in The Enormous Room.)

But mostly the author focuses on how much Cummings loved words from the earliest age (dictating his first poem at age 3) and how he liked to play with words on the page so their appearance could make them sound (or read) differently. As Burgess explains this, Di Giacomo shows it, bringing the poet’s method home to even young readers.

Enormous Smallness is a truly lovely book and one that I think is going to find its way onto several award lists. It’s due out next month; be sure to get it on your radars.

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10. The Center of Things

From Jenny McPhee's novel about a tabloid reporter (Marie) who is given the assignment of a lifetime--to prepare the obituary for dying film star Nora Mars, someone Marie has idolized her entire life:

Marie's excitement, however, was accompanied by an equally charged sense of dread. If she wrote the article, using a story that might well not be true, she would effectively transform a national female icon into a megalomaniacal baby killer. She imagined Brewster winking a Morse code message: "How bad do you want it, Marie?" What was "it"? she asked herself. Fame, fortune, immortality, or simply a decent raise and a promotion after ten years on the job?

As Marie tracks the mysteries behind Nora's tangled life, she is forced time and again to decide what matters in a life story, what is the right story to tell, and whose story is the one that is true. At the same time she is deeply involved in mysteries about her own life and missing her long estranged brother and completing a philosophy of science paper she has been working on for fifteen years, ever since she left graduate school.

Basically, Marie is a bit of a hot mess in several ways, but a very smart mess who realizes she is at a personal fork in the road that Nora Mars has just happened to drop down into through virtue of her impending death.

None of this sounds like a lot to make a book around and yet again (this is the second time I've read it), I really enjoyed the heck out of The Center of Things. There is a lot of old movie trivia (which I love) and a lot of general science talk (also love) and time spent in a library, natural history museum, Impala convertible, and at a desk, writing furiously. There is also a family mystery which never gets old, some investigative reporting (shades of Lois Lane!) and the brainiest romance I have ever come across in fiction.

Find a copy if you can, this one is a treat.

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11. The Center of Things

From Jenny McPhee’s novel about a tabloid reporter (Marie) who is given the assignment of a lifetime–to prepare the obituary for dying film star Nora Mars, someone Marie has idolized her entire life:

Marie’s excitement, however, was accompanied by an equally charged sense of dread. If she wrote the article, using a story that might well not be true, she would effectively transform a national female icon into a megalomaniacal baby killer. She imagined Brewster winking a Morse code message: “How bad do you want it, Marie?” What was “it”? she asked herself. Fame, fortune, immortality, or simply a decent raise and a promotion after ten years on the job?

As Marie tracks the mysteries behind Nora’s tangled life, she is forced time and again to decide what matters in a life story, what is the right story to tell, and whose story is the one that is true. At the same time she is deeply involved in mysteries about her own life and missing her long estranged brother and completing a philosophy of science paper she has been working on for fifteen years, ever since she left graduate school.

Basically, Marie is a bit of a hot mess in several ways, but a very smart mess who realizes she is at a personal fork in the road that Nora Mars has just happened to drop down into through virtue of her impending death.

None of this sounds like a lot to make a book around and yet again (this is the second time I’ve read it), I really enjoyed the heck out of The Center of Things. There is a lot of old movie trivia (which I love) and a lot of general science talk (also love) and time spent in a library, natural history museum, Impala convertible, and at a desk, writing furiously. There is also a family mystery which never gets old, some investigative reporting (shades of Lois Lane!) and the brainiest romance I have ever come across in fiction.

Find a copy if you can, this one is a treat.

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12. Assessing February on the Resolution Scale

mine.jpg

We're through February so here's a belated look at how I did keeping my work resolutions for the year.

1. Reviewed two books for Booklist, one on the Iraq War and one on how income inequality in the U.S. affects children. This was a slower month but after January (where I reviewed 8), it was welcome.

2. No books read for Locus, but did submit the list for the next several months, made several requests and received a couple of books.

3. Six articles in the Bush Pilot blog including one on winter survival that generated some angry comments but is something I'm rather proud of.

4. The essay I submitted was rejected with a form letter response. I think there is another way to write it that would improve it and I think I got too personal. I'm not crushed by this rejection at all; mostly I'm just happy that I wrote it and submitted it all in one month.

5. I wrote a piece on a science series for teens that I've been trying to place. I sent out some queries to lit sites that have gotten me nowhere (I wrote about this last week), so now I'm trying to send it out to science sites which might end up being a much better fit anyway.

6. Conducted a couple of interviews I needed to do for some Alaska work and sent out a list of questions for some other pieces I have planned. All of that is in the works this month.

7. Did a ton of research on places to submit too. In a lot of ways this is the toughest part of writing (maybe even harder than writing itself). Now I know what I'm writing and where I'm sending out to (first try, second try, third try), which makes me feel like I'm in a lot more control of my writing life.

February was okay for me. I didn't make a big strides forward, but didn't fall back either. One lapse was my failure to get the Alaskan profile done that I planned to write. I don't know how I failed on that one. March has been better - I'm only halfway through but I think it's going to be a more successful month for me which is important.

Now, I just need to get my photo albums back on track......

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13. Assessing February on the Resolution Scale

mine.jpg

We’re through February so here’s a belated look at how I did keeping my work resolutions for the year.

1. Reviewed two books for Booklist, one on the Iraq War and one on how income inequality in the U.S. affects children. This was a slower month but after January (where I reviewed 8), it was welcome.

2. No books read for Locus, but did submit the list for the next several months, made several requests and received a couple of books.

3. Six articles in the Bush Pilot blog including one on winter survival that generated some angry comments but is something I’m rather proud of.

4. The essay I submitted was rejected with a form letter response. I think there is another way to write it that would improve it and I think I got too personal. I’m not crushed by this rejection at all; mostly I’m just happy that I wrote it and submitted it all in one month.

5. I wrote a piece on a science series for teens that I’ve been trying to place. I sent out some queries to lit sites that have gotten me nowhere (I wrote about this last week), so now I’m trying to send it out to science sites which might end up being a much better fit anyway.

6. Conducted a couple of interviews I needed to do for some Alaska work and sent out a list of questions for some other pieces I have planned. All of that is in the works this month.

7. Did a ton of research on places to submit too. In a lot of ways this is the toughest part of writing (maybe even harder than writing itself). Now I know what I’m writing and where I’m sending out to (first try, second try, third try), which makes me feel like I’m in a lot more control of my writing life.

February was okay for me. I didn’t make a big strides forward, but didn’t fall back either. One lapse was my failure to get the Alaskan profile done that I planned to write. I don’t know how I failed on that one. March has been better – I’m only halfway through but I think it’s going to be a more successful month for me which is important.

Now, I just need to get my photo albums back on track……

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14. Literary web sites, YA books & snobbery

While attending a large literary conference last year I approached a table for a popular lit site* and asked to speak with someone about submitting reviews. I was pointed in the direction of a nearby friendly editor who I introduced myself to and explained that I was a reviewer for Booklist and also the longtime YA columnist for Bookslut. "I would like to submit a review of some YA books with crossover appeal to your site," I explained, "and wondered if there was a specific person to whom I should direct my email."

"Oh, we don't run any teen book reviews," she replied. "Our readers aren't interested in those books. You can always submit to our general site email though and take a chance. Thanks for stopping by!"

And then she turned her back and starting speaking to someone else and I realized I was having one of those moments where someone dismisses you in a way that is acceptably rude but certainly feels lousy.

In the months after that interaction, I spent some time looking for lit sites that might be open to new YA submissions. I was picked up by LARB for a piece last fall and am now doing regular reviews for Locus (in print). Last month I finished a piece I've been wanting to write for a while about a YA series of NF science books though and emailed a query letter to another big lit site. The response was very polite, the editor was actually interested in the books for his kids, but again I was told that their readers are not interested in "these kinds of books". And that's when I got serious about seeing just what kind of books lit sites are reviewing.

There have been a zillion articles written about whether or not adults read YA; enough of them that I don't need to tackle that subject again. One thing no one does dispute is that people who visit lit sites are book readers and book lovers and while there have been no big surveys about whether or not these folks have children, I think it is safe to assume that a decent sized segment of the reading population are in fact parents and probably inclined to buy books for their kids.

I don't think I'm going far out on a limb when I suggest that perhaps these parents might want to know about a great book every now and again that might be enjoyed by their kids (or their nieces, nephews, cousins, godchildren or other young people in their lives). The assumption that appears to be widely made by the lit sites however is that their readers would prefer to find those type of book reviews (and the books themselves) elsewhere. I have no idea why they have come to this conclusion.

I suppose some site administrators do survey the specific post stats and can say that a YA book review receives fewer visitors than a comparable adult literary review. But honestly, that kind of analysis doesn't really impress me much as a reader. Stats can be driven by so many strange things (like controversy) and quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

In other words, 1,000 people might blow through a post, not read past the first few paragraphs and never think of the book again while 200 readers might read another post and all go out and buy the book or check it out from the library or mention it on social media. It's really tough to quantify the value of one visitor over another.

None of that is the point though as I don't think that potential stats are what drive the decision for lit sites to pass on YA book reviews. I think it is a lot more about not wanting to be perceived as a teen site or be associated with people who read or want or care about teen books. Lit sites want to be about certain books and the people who they think read those and all the rest, well, those are books for other kinds of readers.

Yeah, this is that dismissive part again.

While I am not a fan of casting a derisive eye on genre reading either, (I love a good fantasy, mystery or romance as much as anyone), the refusal to include at least occasional YA book reviews seems particularly shortsighted to me. It smacks of superiority, of more of that "serious readers vs everybody else" attitude that seems to lurk at the corners of far too many online literary conversations. It's like standing in a room with people who claim they were reading Dostoyevsky at age 12 as opposed to the likes of Harry Potter.

I never believe those people. (And honestly if it's true, it's deeply strange.)

The other day my 13 year old son finished reading the two Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud and raved about them, insisting I give them a shot. I read both books, enjoyed the heck out of them, (great characters, wonderful world building, just the right dose of creepy mystery), and promptly emailed a cousin to suggest them for his son. I also made a note to buy them for my niece in a couple of years (she's a little young) and will be mentioning them to a sister-in-law for my nephew to read.

My son accomplished with his review exactly what lit sites are supposed to be about--to share good books with as many potential readers as possible. I'm not sure that most literary sites believe that anymore or rather, that they have narrowed their definitions of potential readers to a size that makes it too small for general readers (and book buyers) like me to feel welcome.

I'm going to send some queries out to a few science sites for the piece I have on those YA nonfiction books. I'm hoping it will have a better reception there.


*Nope, I'm not going to name names because then this becomes a big me vs them post and I just don't have the energy for that level of online dramarama right now.

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15. Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo


Half a Man is a small square illustrated book with limited text that has been published for middle grade readers. It tells the story, from young Michael's perspective, of his relationship with his divorced grandfather who was badly burned when his merchant ship was torpedoed during WWII.

While growing up, visits were stilted and uncomfortable and full of nervousness that he might stare at his grandfather's scars, after being told repeatedly by his mother that he must not. The two slowly began to connect only when Michael was sent alone to spend part of his summer holiday with his grandfather (who lived on the distant Scilly Isles) It is only after high school that Michael finally hear the story of what happened during the war and in the years afterwards when his grandparents split up. It is all as tragic as readers might expect and made all the more so by how everything went sadly wrong when the survivor, so horribly scarred, both physically and emotionally, returned home.

I read the book in minutes--there's not much to it after all--and was struck both by the gorgeous and scorching honesty of Morpurgo's story and the truly lovely accompanying illustrations by Gemma O'Callaghan. It's all such an elegant package and I really really love it but....I don't for a second think this is a book for kids 8-12 years-old.

It is not that the subject matter is too intense; kids read about horrible things all the time and there is nothing portrayed in a graphic manner (either through words or images) in Half a Man. But what the book is really about--compassion, empathy, becoming a man and sharing emotional honesty with those you love--well, I can't help but think it is all too much for the average tween. Are there some who will get it? Yes, yes, I'm sure they are out there. But this is a book that I believe requires the reader have more life experience then most middle graders bring to the table. I just don't think they have lived enough to get what Murpurgo is sharing and while Half a Man might not appear to be the sort of book that teens (and adults) should be reading I think they are the ones who will appreciate it the most.

(I have a very smart 9 year-old niece and I am 100% certain she would read this book, tell me it was sad and then move on without a backward glance after turning the last page. It's too much to expect her to get this one right now and a waste of time to try.)

Half a Man is an amazing book and I hope that it finds readers who will appreciate every single word.

[Interior spread via Candlewick Press.]

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16. Literary web sites, YA books & snobbery

While attending a large literary conference last year I approached a table for a popular lit site* and asked to speak with someone about submitting reviews. I was pointed in the direction of a nearby friendly editor who I introduced myself to and explained that I was a reviewer for Booklist and also the longtime YA columnist for Bookslut. “I would like to submit a review of some YA books with crossover appeal to your site,” I explained, “and wondered if there was a specific person to whom I should direct my email.”

“Oh, we don’t run any teen book reviews,” she replied. “Our readers aren’t interested in those books. You can always submit to our general site email though and take a chance. Thanks for stopping by!”

And then she turned her back and starting speaking to someone else and I realized I was having one of those moments where someone dismisses you in a way that is acceptably rude but certainly feels lousy.

In the months after that interaction, I spent some time looking for lit sites that might be open to new YA submissions. I was picked up by LARB for a piece last fall and am now doing regular reviews for Locus (in print). Last month I finished a piece I’ve been wanting to write for a while about a YA series of NF science books though and emailed a query letter to another big lit site. The response was very polite, the editor was actually interested in the books for his kids, but again I was told that their readers are not interested in “these kinds of books”. And that’s when I got serious about seeing just what kind of books lit sites are reviewing.

There have been a zillion articles written about whether or not adults read YA; enough of them that I don’t need to tackle that subject again. One thing no one does dispute is that people who visit lit sites are book readers and book lovers and while there have been no big surveys about whether or not these folks have children, I think it is safe to assume that a decent sized segment of the reading population are in fact parents and probably inclined to buy books for their kids.

I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb when I suggest that perhaps these parents might want to know about a great book every now and again that might be enjoyed by their kids (or their nieces, nephews, cousins, godchildren or other young people in their lives). The assumption that appears to be widely made by the lit sites however is that their readers would prefer to find those type of book reviews (and the books themselves) elsewhere. I have no idea why they have come to this conclusion.

I suppose some site administrators do survey the specific post stats and can say that a YA book review receives fewer visitors than a comparable adult literary review. But honestly, that kind of analysis doesn’t really impress me much as a reader. Stats can be driven by so many strange things (like controversy) and quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

In other words, 1,000 people might blow through a post, not read past the first few paragraphs and never think of the book again while 200 readers might read another post and all go out and buy the book or check it out from the library or mention it on social media. It’s really tough to quantify the value of one visitor over another.

None of that is the point though as I don’t think that potential stats are what drive the decision for lit sites to pass on YA book reviews. I think it is a lot more about not wanting to be perceived as a teen site or be associated with people who read or want or care about teen books. Lit sites want to be about certain books and the people who they think read those and all the rest, well, those are books for other kinds of readers.

Yeah, this is that dismissive part again.

While I am not a fan of casting a derisive eye on genre reading either, (I love a good fantasy, mystery or romance as much as anyone), the refusal to include at least occasional YA book reviews seems particularly shortsighted to me. It smacks of superiority, of more of that “serious readers vs everybody else” attitude that seems to lurk at the corners of far too many online literary conversations. It’s like standing in a room with people who claim they were reading Dostoyevsky at age 12 as opposed to the likes of Harry Potter.

I never believe those people. (And honestly if it’s true, it’s deeply strange.)

The other day my 13 year old son finished reading the two Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud and raved about them, insisting I give them a shot. I read both books, enjoyed the heck out of them, (great characters, wonderful world building, just the right dose of creepy mystery), and promptly emailed a cousin to suggest them for his son. I also made a note to buy them for my niece in a couple of years (she’s a little young) and will be mentioning them to a sister-in-law for my nephew to read.

My son accomplished with his review exactly what lit sites are supposed to be about–to share good books with as many potential readers as possible. I’m not sure that most literary sites believe that anymore or rather, that they have narrowed their definitions of potential readers to a size that makes it too small for general readers (and book buyers) like me to feel welcome.

I’m going to send some queries out to a few science sites for the piece I have on those YA nonfiction books. I’m hoping it will have a better reception there.

*Nope, I’m not going to name names because then this becomes a big me vs them post and I just don’t have the energy for that level of online dramarama right now.

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17. Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Half a Man is a small square illustrated book with limited text that has been published for middle grade readers. It tells the story, from young Michael’s perspective, of his relationship with his divorced grandfather who was badly burned when his merchant ship was torpedoed during WWII.

While growing up, visits were stilted and uncomfortable and full of nervousness that he might stare at his grandfather’s scars, after being told repeatedly by his mother that he must not. The two slowly began to connect only when Michael was sent alone to spend part of his summer holiday with his grandfather (who lived on the distant Scilly Isles) It is only after high school that Michael finally hear the story of what happened during the war and in the years afterwards when his grandparents split up. It is all as tragic as readers might expect and made all the more so by how everything went sadly wrong when the survivor, so horribly scarred, both physically and emotionally, returned home.

I read the book in minutes–there’s not much to it after all–and was struck both by the gorgeous and scorching honesty of Morpurgo’s story and the truly lovely accompanying illustrations by Gemma O’Callaghan. It’s all such an elegant package and I really really love it but….I don’t for a second think this is a book for kids 8-12 years-old.

It is not that the subject matter is too intense; kids read about horrible things all the time and there is nothing portrayed in a graphic manner (either through words or images) in Half a Man. But what the book is really about–compassion, empathy, becoming a man and sharing emotional honesty with those you love–well, I can’t help but think it is all too much for the average tween. Are there some who will get it? Yes, yes, I’m sure they are out there. But this is a book that I believe requires the reader have more life experience then most middle graders bring to the table. I just don’t think they have lived enough to get what Murpurgo is sharing and while Half a Man might not appear to be the sort of book that teens (and adults) should be reading I think they are the ones who will appreciate it the most.

(I have a very smart 9 year-old niece and I am 100% certain she would read this book, tell me it was sad and then move on without a backward glance after turning the last page. It’s too much to expect her to get this one right now and a waste of time to try.)

Half a Man is an amazing book and I hope that it finds readers who will appreciate every single word.

[Interior spread via Candlewick Press.]

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18. The book you write when you find out your great great grandmother is a ghost

Now this is a book on family history you don't find to often! Hannah Nordhaus has roots that go far back in New Mexico history and her great great grandparents owned one of the finer homes in Santa Fe. Now a hotel (and out of the family's hands), the hotel has been famously haunted for decades supposedly by Nordhaus's gg grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab who died in 1896. American Ghost is the story of how the author went looking for Julia, both her ghost and her truth.

German Jews who relocate to Santa Fe is a pretty interesting family history without much added to it, but Nordhaus finds out a lot more as she looks for the reasons why Julia left Germany. Because the Staab family was so prominent in New Mexico history, newspaper coverage is abundant and there are also letters, diary entries and some personal histories along with general records that Nordhaus is able to mine for information. She also goes in a different direction as well and tries to communicate with Julia's ghost.

At first, the "ghostbusting" chapters seemed odd to me, like the author was padding the narrative. But slowly she makes it clear that her attempts to reach out to the ghost, (and find out of there even is a ghost), are also a bit about finding herself or perhaps finding how she feels about her ancestors. These chapters also provide a bit humor which is welcome as Julia's life has some truly tragic downturns and, as expected, not all of the family left Germany so there is some enormous sadness found there.

I have read several books about finding your family but this is the first one where a family member is a famous ghost which is really fairly outrageous when you think about it. I will admit I am envious of Nordhaus however--she has so much family history to fall back on, such a solid place to start from and I have only the tiniest shreds in comparison. But that envy did not reduce my ability to enjoy American Ghost a lot or glean some tips from her search.

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19. Ships on ice

larsen.jpg
From Gizmodo:

Three U.S. Navy icebreakers pushing an iceberg out to sea to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 29th December 1965. The ships are, left to right: the USS Burton, USS Atka and USS Glacier.


I am endlessly fascinated by ships and ice - no idea why but it explains why I loved that Polar Literature course in college so much. (Follow the link for more wicked cool pics!)

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20. "An aristocratic family, a high-society scandal and an extraordinary legacy"

Because I continue to have an unquenchable attraction to big sweeping biographies of dysfunctional British families (I have no idea where this came from), I was delighted to have The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff arrive at my door. (How in the heck Harper Collins knew I would want this book I will never know.)

Set in the period between the wars and forward (although there is some discussion of WWI as well), The Mad Boy tells the story of Lord Berners, one of those spectacularly unusual Brits (they dyed the birds at his estate in pastels as decorations!!!!) of a certain era who happened to be gay and fell hard for Robert Heber-Percy, a younger aristocrat who liked both men and women, lived life in a crazy near-suicidal way and was really really good looking.

And then there's Jennifer, who married Robert, promplty had his child and all of them lived (for a time*) at Berner's estate. Together. While all of English society wondered what the heck was going on.

It's not as salacious as you think (no wild orgies!) but more complicated and full of parties and marriages and divorces and things suspected but left unsaid and parties. LOTS OF PARTIES.

Here's what gets me about England and why I find so many aspects of its society so unbelievable:

The rules of primogeniture has kept together the huge fortunes of English lords; it has also formed the class system. It is the great distinction between the English aristocracy and any other; whereas abroad every member of a noble family is noble, in England non is except the head of the family. The sons and daughters may enjoy courtesy titles but as a rule the younger offspring of even the richest lords receive comparatively little money. Younger sons have thus habitually been left without money, property or title, often without the skills to acquire them and, above all, without belonging to the place they care most about. As clergymen, soldiers, sailors and resentful ne'er-do-wells, these high-born outcasts litter the pages of nineteenth-century English novels, with their hopeless attempts to make a way in the unfriendly world and their irresponsible sprees of adventuring.

So, while the The Mad Boy is a lot about people of the upper class having a certain life before WW2 and that how much that changed after WW2, it's also about a lot of people who weren't the first-born sons who were cast out of the lives they had known, the homes the loved and the lifestyles they were born to enjoy. It's.....well, it's crazy. You literally can never go home again and yet you also aren't supposed to (or prepared to) go get a job somewhere either.

Plus, you had parties with dyed birds because that kind of thing is just what you do!!

Zinovieff has done an enormous amount of research for this book and for all that there are a zillion names dropped, (visitors included all the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí and on and on), she keeps it well organized and easily sucks you in. (The pictures are stunning!!!) Consider it a guilty pleasure maybe, but a real eye-opener as well.

*Shockingly, the marriage did not last but Jennifer went on to marry Alex Ross and then live for a while in a cult before she really settled down.

For more see The Guardian review.

[Photo from the book cover, taken by Cecil Beaton. L-R, Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy holding daughter Victoria, wife Jennifer on right.]

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21. The Eterna Files

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author who I find both wildly appealing and sometimes frustrating. I read and enjoyed very much one of her previous series which began with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Her gaslamp fantasies excel at world building and have beguiling characters placed in intriguing and challenging situations. Sometimes though, I feel overwhelmed by so many people and so many things going on. It's not that the plots are dense but rather somewhat frenetic. This is not a bad thing but can be exasperating (at least for me). But it doesn't keep me from going back for more from Hieber and so I was quite pleased to dive into her latest book, The Eterna Files.

In the wake of President Lincoln's assassination, Clara Templeton sets in motion events to find the secret to immortality. Flash forward 17 years and the American team pursuing this goal is mysteriously (almost magically) killed. Clara seeks to find out what happened but soon finds herself in a race against the British who are looking for their own answers as their competing team has also been killed.

Hieber splits the narrative primarily between Clara in New York City. and Harold Spire and Rose Everhart in London. Each side with their own trusted Scooby squads, they follow clues and try to find out what happened, all the while suspecting each other of the nefarious deeds. Of course (of course!!) there is more to it than that, but I'm sure Hieber will bring the groups together in the next installment and hopefully they will join forces sooner rather than later.

All the characters are good, especially Clara and Rose, who are smart and talented on their own while also realistically dealing with the gender politics of the day. Everyone else is quirky as all get out which makes sense as Hieber excels at quirky. There's all kinds of paranormal bits going on from mediums and clairvoyants to Voodoo. There are also class differences, a few jerks and some PTSD from lots of childhood trauma. So far, no romance but hints of some to come which would fit well in the layers of this mystery/thriller/drama.

So yeah, The Eterna Files is off to a bang-up start and shows Hieber doing what she does best yet again. I'll be back for the sequel; I just can't manage to stay away.

Add a Comment
22. The book you write when you find out your great great grandmother is a ghost

Now this is a book on family history you don’t find too often! Hannah Nordhaus has roots that go far back in New Mexico history and her great great grandparents owned one of the finer homes in Santa Fe. Now a hotel (and out of the family’s hands), the hotel has been famously haunted for decades supposedly by Nordhaus’s gg grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab who died in 1896. American Ghost is the story of how the author went looking for Julia, both her ghost and her truth.

German Jews who relocate to Santa Fe is a pretty interesting family history without much added to it, but Nordhaus finds out a lot more as she looks for the reasons why Julia left Germany. Because the Staab family was so prominent in New Mexico history, newspaper coverage is abundant and there are also letters, diary entries and some personal histories along with general records that Nordhaus is able to mine for information. She also goes in a different direction as well and tries to communicate with Julia’s ghost.

At first, the “ghostbusting” chapters seemed odd to me, like the author was padding the narrative. But slowly she makes it clear that her attempts to reach out to the ghost, (and find out of there even is a ghost), are also a bit about finding herself or perhaps finding how she feels about her ancestors. These chapters also provide a bit humor which is welcome as Julia’s life has some truly tragic downturns and, as expected, not all of the family left Germany so there is some enormous sadness found there.

I have read several books about finding your family but this is the first one where a family member is a famous ghost which is really fairly outrageous when you think about it. I will admit I am envious of Nordhaus however–she has so much family history to fall back on, such a solid place to start from and I have only the tiniest shreds in comparison. But that envy did not reduce my ability to enjoy American Ghost a lot or glean some tips from her search.

Add a Comment
23. The Eterna Files

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author who I find both wildly appealing and sometimes frustrating. I read and enjoyed very much one of her previous series which began with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Her gaslamp fantasies excel at world building and have beguiling characters placed in intriguing and challenging situations. Sometimes though, I feel overwhelmed by so many people and so many things going on. It’s not that the plots are dense but rather somewhat frenetic. This is not a bad thing but can be exasperating (at least for me). But it doesn’t keep me from going back for more from Hieber and so I was quite pleased to dive into her latest book, The Eterna Files.

In the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination, Clara Templeton sets in motion events to find the secret to immortality. Flash forward 17 years and the American team pursuing this goal is mysteriously (almost magically) killed. Clara seeks to find out what happened but soon finds herself in a race against the British who are looking for their own answers as their competing team has also been killed.

Hieber splits the narrative primarily between Clara in New York City. and Harold Spire and Rose Everhart in London. Each side with their own trusted Scooby squads, they follow clues and try to find out what happened, all the while suspecting each other of the nefarious deeds. Of course (of course!!) there is more to it than that, but I’m sure Hieber will bring the groups together in the next installment and hopefully they will join forces sooner rather than later.

All the characters are good, especially Clara and Rose, who are smart and talented on their own while also realistically dealing with the gender politics of the day. Everyone else is quirky as all get out which makes sense as Hieber excels at quirky. There’s all kinds of paranormal bits going on from mediums and clairvoyants to Voodoo. There are also class differences, a few jerks and some PTSD from lots of childhood trauma. So far, no romance but hints of some to come which would fit well in the layers of this mystery/thriller/drama.

So yeah, The Eterna Files is off to a bang-up start and shows Hieber doing what she does best yet again. I’ll be back for the sequel; I just can’t manage to stay away.

Add a Comment
24. “An aristocratic family, a high-society scandal and an extraordinary legacy”

Because I continue to have an unquenchable attraction to big sweeping biographies of dysfunctional British families (I have no idea where this came from), I was delighted to have The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff arrive at my door. (How in the heck Harper Collins knew I would want this book I will never know.)

Set in the period between the wars and forward (although there is some discussion of WWI as well), The Mad Boy tells the story of Lord Berners, one of those spectacularly unusual Brits (they dyed the birds at his estate in pastels as decorations!!!!) of a certain era who happened to be gay and fell hard for Robert Heber-Percy, a younger aristocrat who liked both men and women, lived life in a crazy near-suicidal way and was really really good looking.

And then there’s Jennifer, who married Robert, promplty had his child and all of them lived (for a time*) at Berner’s estate. Together. While all of English society wondered what the heck was going on.

It’s not as salacious as you think (no wild orgies!) but more complicated and full of parties and marriages and divorces and things suspected but left unsaid and parties. LOTS OF PARTIES.

Here’s what gets me about England and why I find so many aspects of its society so unbelievable:

The rules of primogeniture has kept together the huge fortunes of English lords; it has also formed the class system. It is the great distinction between the English aristocracy and any other; whereas abroad every member of a noble family is noble, in England non is except the head of the family. The sons and daughters may enjoy courtesy titles but as a rule the younger offspring of even the richest lords receive comparatively little money. Younger sons have thus habitually been left without money, property or title, often without the skills to acquire them and, above all, without belonging to the place they care most about. As clergymen, soldiers, sailors and resentful ne’er-do-wells, these high-born outcasts litter the pages of nineteenth-century English novels, with their hopeless attempts to make a way in the unfriendly world and their irresponsible sprees of adventuring.

So, while the The Mad Boy is a lot about people of the upper class having a certain life before WW2 and that how much that changed after WW2, it’s also about a lot of people who weren’t the first-born sons who were cast out of the lives they had known, the homes the loved and the lifestyles they were born to enjoy. It’s…..well, it’s crazy. You literally can never go home again and yet you also aren’t supposed to (or prepared to) go get a job somewhere either.

Plus, you had parties with dyed birds because that kind of thing is just what you do!!

Zinovieff has done an enormous amount of research for this book and for all that there are a zillion names dropped, (visitors included all the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí and on and on), she keeps it well organized and easily sucks you in. (The pictures are stunning!!!) Consider it a guilty pleasure maybe, but a real eye-opener as well.

*Shockingly, the marriage did not last but Jennifer went on to marry Alex Ross and then live for a while in a cult before she really settled down.

For more see The Guardian review.

[Photo from the book cover, taken by Cecil Beaton. L-R, Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy holding daughter Victoria, wife Jennifer on right.]

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25. Ships on ice

larsen.jpg

From Gizmodo:

Three U.S. Navy icebreakers pushing an iceberg out to sea to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 29th December 1965. The ships are, left to right: the USS Burton, USS Atka and USS Glacier.

I am endlessly fascinated by ships and ice – no idea why but it explains why I loved that Polar Literature course in college so much. (Follow the link for more wicked cool pics!)

Add a Comment

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