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Thanksgiving laziness came upon me early. No not laziness exactly because I have managed to finish two books I was in the middle of and get to the halfway mark of another book I had not even begun until Wednesday and that I need to finish by Sunday so I can return it to the library Monday. Plus there has been a couple inches of snow to shovel and the coldest Thanksgiving in 29 years to eat my way through. And Waldo and Dickens have been piling on top of me and oh, the mean looks they shoot at me should I dare to move! But enough excuses, let’s get to one of those books I finished reading.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel has been getting lots of buzz in the U.S. and in blogland. As a post-apocalypse novel it falls into the genre of science fiction which made it the first science fiction novel to make it to the shortlist of the National Book Awards. It didn’t win, but that’s ok.
To say that Station Eleven is a post-apocalypse novel will likely give you some immediate assumptions. While civilization as we know it has come to an end due to a global epidemic of a highly contagious and fast acting strain of swine flu that kills around 90% of the world’s population, this is no doom and gloom story. It is not The Road or Oryx and Crake or Mad Max. It is a more hopeful book than that and in some ways feels truer because of it, though it could only be wishful thinking on my part.
The focus of the book is on the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel in a horse-drawn caravan along a fairly regular route on the coast of Lake Michigan in what used to be the state of Michigan. On the lead caravan is painted a quote from Star Trek Voyager: “Because survival is insufficient.” It is the Symphony’s motto and it keeps them going through the worst of times. Along with the music, the actors perform Shakespeare plays. Early on they had tried to perform other plays but everywhere they went people preferred Shakespeare so now that is all they do. The world, however, is not completely safe. The Symphony travels armed, with scouts fore and aft, and sets guards around their camp in the evenings.
The book begins in an undated present with the famous actor Arthur Leander playing Lear on stage in Toronto. In the second half of the play he collapses and dies on stage from a heart attack. There were three young girls in the play acting as hallucinatory visions of Lear’s daughters are children. One of those girls, Kirsten aged eight, had befriended Arthur. She survives the flu epidemic and ends up with the Symphony. Much of the post-flu story belongs to Kirsten, but other stories are woven in as well.
Pre-flu, the story belongs mostly to Arthur Leander, his acting career, his three wives, his best friend Clark. It is Arthur and the lives he touched that spin out the story both pre and post flu. The book moves back and forth in time between Arthur pre-epidemic and Kirsten twenty years after the epidemic as well as a couple other characters that flesh things out and add additional angles and dimensions. The transitions are beautifully fluid and nearly seamless. The plotting intricate and detailed. A story like this could so easily feel forced and fake as the author directs all the various elements to fit together no matter what, but there was hardly a clunker to be found.
I loved that the story makes some wonderful observations and asks some interesting questions. Since it is now twenty years after the epidemic there are an interesting mix of people, older adults who remember everything that has been lost, adults who were children at the time like Kirsten who have fading memories of electricity and cars and flying in airplanes but didn’t know quite enough of the world to feel that they had lost so very much. And now there are children who have been born in the aftermath, who know nothing of what the world was except from the stories the adults tell and from pictures in books. At one point someone questions whether they should even teach the children about what the world was like before. His young daughter is upset and angry upon learning that lifespans were so much longer before due to all the medical technology and medicines available and is devastated by the unfairness of it all.
There are terrifying moments of watching the world come to an end. Jeevan and his brother Frank are holed up in Frank’s Toronto apartment. Jeevan, getting a tip from a doctor friend at the hospital just as the flu hit Toronto, had time to buy shopping carts full of supplies and haul them to his brother’s high rise building and from the windows they watch the world fall apart:
On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. no one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no on removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.
The title of the book comes from the title of a comic book in the story, Station Eleven. Station Eleven is a space station designed as a planet. The station/planet has been badly damaged from a wormhole and the inhabitants of the station are fighting to survive and find a way to get back home. This comic plays an important role in the novel but it doesn’t become completely clear until the end.
As scary and realistic as the book’s premise is, this is not a depressing dystopian kind of book. Bad things happen in it but it ends on a hopeful note. If you are not a general fan of science fiction or post-apocalyptic novels this one is different enough that you just might enjoy it. And if you are a fan of this sort of book, well, it’s a real treat and a breath of fresh air in what is generally a genre composed of a pile-up of horrors.
For a bit of background on the book from the author, be sure to read her short interview with the National Book Foundation.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Emily St. John Mandel
Joyeux Turkey Day, my fellows! Between bites of sweet potato and rolls, perhaps it might do the soul good to listen to a l’il ole podcast that’s actually a bit perfect for the day. The “original” Thanksgiving was between Pilgrims and Native Americans, or so we were taught in grade school, yes? Well perhaps we should do away with the myths and listen to some American Indians today in one of my Children’s Literary Salons. Normally they’re not recorded but Cheryl Klein and her husband James Monohan turned one such Salon into a podcast. Here’s Cheryl’s description of it:
In happier news, the recording of the Native American Young Adult literature panel at the New York Public Library is now available here: http://www.thenarrativebreakdown.com/archives/698. Joseph Bruchac (author of KILLER OF ENEMIES), Stacy Whitman, Eric Gansworth (author of IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE), and I had a terrific conversation (moderated by Betsy Ramsey Bird) about finding Native authors, the editor-author relationship across cultural lines, creating authentic covers, and the many pleasures of Native YA books. Please listen! #Weneeddiversebooks
Go! Enjoy! You’ll feel happy you did. They were an impressive crew and kept me on my toes.
By: Brian A. Klems,
Blog: Writer's Digest Questions and Quandaries
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BY LIZ CRAIN
GIVEAWAY: Liz is excited to give away a free copy of the second edition of her just released book, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in the US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.
The summers that I was 6 and 7 years old in early ’80s, I went to a day camp in the woods maybe 30 minutes or so from the suburbs of Cincinnati where I grew up. There were a lot of memorable things about that camp, as there tend to be, but without a doubt the most memorable was Mr. Brady—the camp nature guide whose office was the old barn across the way from the open-air dining hall—and his resident alligators. The seven or eight alligators ranging in age from a couple years to several years lived in a large, maybe 10-foot diameter, round metal trough topped with a piece of plywood.
One day, every summer, Mr. Brady would take the youngest, or maybe just the most docile, alligator out of the trough, put it in the bed of his old beat-up blue pick-up truck and drive it down the hill behind the barn to the creek, where 15 or so of us would be waiting with our counselor. What happened next is not a dream. I am still friends with one of the campers and can verify that Mr. Brady—longish white beard, rubber pants and suspenders, boots—would then spend the next 40 minutes or so of our nature session wrestling with the alligator in the murky creek. Our task: watch. And in the process scream, laugh and hug each other tightly.
I’m sure there were some teachable moments that I’m missing that occurred during the alligator wrestling. There might have been words about habitat and behavior in the wild and maybe even a little bit about how humans are not typically a part of the alligator diet. Of course, all I remember, and all I am sure that most campers remember, is an old man wrestling an alligator in the creek. By choice. He seemed to have no fear, and he seemed to genuinely love doing it.
Although I have changed the names and some identifying details of the alligators what follows is my own story of wrestling with alligators, except that the alligators are humans and the wrestling is being done with writing.
When I first started freelance food writing shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon, in my mid-20s, I said yes to just about anything work-wise that came my way, including waiting tables, nannying and working in a Montessori after-school program. I also covered a lot of writing territory. I wrote a corporate fitness manual without ever having worked in an office, smoking cigarettes and drinking most nights of the week and never setting foot in a gym. Clearly I was an expert. I also wrote website copy for a few hotel and hospitality companies, health and fitness articles for a smaller circulation magazine in Arizona and movie reviews for an online art and culture startup in New York.
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I tried my hand at a lot of different types of writing and, in doing so, did the opposite of what most writing manuals tell you to do—write what you know. Instead, apropos of an ambitious 20-something-year-old, I wrote more often what I did not know.
I always brought my limited life experience and subjectivity to the page, of course, and I researched and dug as deep as my usually too-fast-approaching deadline would allow, but let’s just say I was in all of these writing endeavors far from an expert. And that lack of expertise led directly to lack of confidence. That first year of freelancing I spent a lot of time researching and educating myself, but my primary motivator was a little off. I wanted to know the right things that, in my 20-something year old mind, translated to all of the things that would make me not sound stupid.
Nobody likes a snoop and that’s exactly what I was that first year of freelancing. My regular gig was ghostwriting food and drink pieces for AOL Online. For that, I’d visit restaurants, bars, clubs and markets in and around Portland and then write short profiles of each. I took copious amounts of notes about menus, inventory, décor and service in my tiny black refillable notebook, and if I ever caught whiff that someone was on to me I’d commit the remaining visit to memory as best I could sacrificing any more documentation to save face.
I would only ask one or two questions per visit, and then only if I thought I could get away with it without revealing anything personal. I’d avoid eye contact. My heart would race and my palms would sweat as I took ridiculous notes under the table about things such as the microgreens topping my scallops (“What are the little purpley-green spade-like micros? Mustard?”). If you kicked all that fear-built subterfuge down, I wasn’t being Ruth Reichl-like, in disguise in order to maintain journalistic integrity. I just didn’t want to have a real conversation with anyone that might reveal all that I did not know. Instead, I would go home after dinner and suffer through mind-numbing Google searches of microgreens until I settled on the variety that looked the most similar before ultimately deciding not to use it in the profile anyway. No time wasted at all!
On those rare occasions when I did find myself face-to-face and engaged with folks who I was interviewing or meeting with for some sort of professional reason, I showcased what I knew as best I could and tried to hide what I didn’t know. In other words, I was a bit like 20-year-old Ira Glass in his early interviews with members of the cast of MASH, which he talks about on the “Cringe” episode of This American Life. The worst is when Glass asks Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter, a series of needling questions about why he’s never been the lead on any show. So painful.
This sort of bravado is inherently juvenile, but we’ve all done it. Here’s how I got rid of being scared of not knowing: I stopped using my tiny black notebook to take notes in in public and I got a big notebook. I stopped sneaking away to the bathroom to take notes—I’m sure that a few waiters had me pegged as incontinent—and started writing them openly. I stopped muzzling my curiosity and ended more sentences with question marks. I had more and more face-to-face interviews that I needed to conduct for seasonal food stories with weekly deadlines that I was writing—more projects in general. I no longer had time to digest the latest study just enough so that I’d sound smart, to make obscure references that were only tenuously related to the subject at hand (references I’d secretly hope no one would actually try to turn into a real conversation). All of these things that we do from time to time to puff our feathers when we feel intimidated or unconfident, and as a result, hide our truer selves.
After a year of freelancing, I was too busy with assignments to keep up appearances anymore. The real, vulnerable, curious and often ignorant me stepped out into plain view. It turns out that first year of freelancing I’d wasted a whole lot of time getting in my own way. I simply got out of my way and the decade since I’ve been more than willing to often be the fool or even, from time to time, when it seems helpful to the interview and subject at hand, play the fool.
In general, people love to be asked questions—personally and professionally. Ask away. Be brazenly curious. Be proud of not knowing. The less you know means the more you have to learn and that’s a big part of what’s most fulfilling, fun and interesting about writing—the learning. Don’t be a bore and always try to prove yourself and outwit others. No one is impressed and it’s tiresome. Show how ignorant you are—we all are!—and you’ll have a lot more fun and be a much better writer as a result. The best writers are the most curious risk-takers who want to burn and learn and live
life to the fullest. Stop being scared and be one of them. In other words, wrestle those alligators in the creek. By choice. See, I knew I could bring it back to the alligators.
*No alligators were harmed in the writing of this essay.
Liz Crain is a fiction writer as well as the author of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland and Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. A longtime writer on Pacific Northwest food and drink, her writing has appeared in Cooking Light, Budget Travel, VIA Magazine, The Sun Magazine, The Progressive, The Guardian and The Oregonian. She is also editor and publicity director at Hawthorne Books as well as co-organizer of the annual Portland Fermentation Festival.
You can find more from Liz Crain on Twitter (@foodloverPDX) and her website, lizcrain.com.
By: Roger Sutton
Blog: Read Roger - The Horn Book editor's rants and raves
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Nuts to You
by Lynne Rae Perkins; illus. by the author
Intermediate Greenwillow 260 pp.
8/14 978-0-06-009275-7 $16.99
e-book ed. 978-0-06-226220-2 $8.99
Jed the squirrel’s odyssey begins dramatically when he is captured by a hawk and carried far away from his community. Using an “ancient squirrel defensive martial art,” he escapes and so begins his journey home. Meanwhile, his two best friends Chai and TsTs set off to find him. In the course of these two (eventually converging) adventures, our heroes meet some helpful hillbillyish red squirrels, a threatening owl, a hungry bobcat, and a group of humans who are cutting brush and trees for power-line clearance, thus threatening the squirrels’ habitat. The three make it safely home only to face their biggest challenge: convincing their conservative community to relocate before the humans destroy their homes. Part satire, part environmental fable, and all playful, energetic hilarity, this story takes us deep into squirrel culture: their names (“‘Brk’ is pronounced just as it’s spelled, except the r is rolled. It means ‘moustache’ in Croatian but in squirrel, it’s just a name”); their games (Splatwhistle); and their wisdom (“Live for the moment…but bury a lot of nuts”). Perkins uses language like the best toy ever. The storm “howled and pelted, whirled and whined; it spit and sprayed and showered. Its winds were fierce. Its wetness was inescapable.” The book begs to be read aloud, except that you’d miss the wacky digressions, the goofy footnotes, and the black-and-white illustrations with their built-in micro-plots. Another completely original and exceptional package from Perkins.
From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
The post Review of Nuts to You appeared first on The Horn Book.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands
By Katherine Roy
David Macaulay Studio – Roaring Brook (Macmillan)
On shelves now.
When you’re a librarian buying for your system, you come to understand that certain nonfiction topics are perennial favorites. You accept that no matter how many copies you buy, you will never have enough train or joke or magic books. And the king daddy topic to beat them all, the one that leaves a continual gaping hole in the Dewey Decimal area of 597.3 or so, is sharks. Kids can’t get enough of them. Heck, adults can’t get enough of them. Between Shark Week and movies like Sharknado, sharks haven’t been this pop culturally relevant since the good old days of JAWS. And sure, we’ve plenty of truly decent shark books on our shelves already. What we don’t really have are books that combine the blood and the facts with the beauty of full-color, wholly accurate paintings. We’ve never truly had a shark book that’s as accomplished and stunning as Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks. It’s crazy to contemplate that though shark books are never unpopular, only now did someone take the time and effort to give them a publication worthy of their terror and wonder.
A single great white shark cuts through the waters surrounding San Francisco’s Farallon Islands “just 30 miles from the city”. Prey comes in the form of a fine fat seal and before the mammal realizes what’s happening the shark attacks. What makes a shark the perfect killer? Consider its weapons. Note the body, covered in “skin teeth”, capable of acting like a warm-blooded fish. Observe its high-definition vision and five rows of teeth. Did you know that a shark’s jaws aren’t fused to the skull, so that they can actually be projected forward to bite something? Or the method by which you would go about actually tagging this kind of creature? With candor and cleverness, author/artist Katherine Roy brings these silent killers to breathtaking life. You may never desire to set foot into the ocean again.
It’s hard to imagine a book on sharks that has art that can compete with all those shark books laden with cool photographic images. Roy’s advantage here then is the freedom that comes with the art of illustration. She’s not beholden to a single real shark making a real kill. With her brush she can set up a typical situation in which a great white shark attacks a northern elephant seal. The looming threat of the inevitable attack and the almost Hitchcockian way she sets up her shots (so to speak) give the book a tension wholly missing from photo-based shark books. What’s more, it makes the book easy to booktalk (booktalk: a technique used by librarians to intrigue potential readers about titles – not dissimilar to movie trailers, only with books). There’s not a librarian alive who wouldn’t get a kick out of revealing that wordless two-page seal attack scene in all its horror and glory.
The remarkable thing? Even as she’s showing an eviscerated seal, Roy keeps the imagery fairly kid friendly. Plumes of red blood are far more esoteric and even (dare I say it) lovely than a creature bleeding out on land. You never see the shark’s teeth pierce the seal, since Roy obscures the most gory details in action and waves. There are even callbacks. Late in the book we see a shark attacking a faux seal, lured there by researchers that want to study the shark. Without having seen the previous attack this subsequent wordless image would lose much of its punch. And lest we forget, these images are downright lovely. Roy’s paintbrush contrasts the grey sea and grey shark with a whirling swirling red. You could lose yourself in these pictures.
Yet while Roy is capable of true beauty in her art, it’s the original ways in which she’s capable of conveying scientific information about sharks that truly won my heart. She’s the queen of the clever diagram. Early in the book we see an image of a shark’s torpedo-shaped body. Yet the image equates the shark with an airplane, overlaying its fins and tail with the wings and tail of a typical jet plane. Seeing this and the arrows that indicate airflow / how water flows, the picture does more to convey an idea than a thousand words ever could. I found myself poring over diagrams of how a shark can let in cold water and convert it in an internal heat exchange into something that can warm its blood. It’s magnificent. The close-up shot of how a shark’s five rows of teeth tilt and the shot that will haunt my dreams until I die of projectile jaws will easily satiate any bloodthirsty young shark lover hoping for a few new facts.
The projectile jaws, actually, are an excellent example of the tons of information Roy includes here that feels original and beautifully written. Roy is consistently child-friendly in this book, never drowning her text in jargon that would float over a kiddo’s head. Using the framing sequence of a shark attacking a seal, she’s able to work in facts about the creatures and their environment in such a way as to feel natural to the book. Neighborhood Sharks is one of the first books in the David Macaulay Studio imprint and like Mr. Macaulay, Ms. Roy is capable of artistic prowess and great grand factual writing all at once. The backmatter consisting of additional information, a word or two on why she decided not to do a spread on smell, Selected Sources, Further Reading, and a map of The Farallons is worth the price of admission alone.
The book is called “Neighborhood Sharks” for a reason. When we think of big predators we think of remote locations. We don’t think of them swimming along, so very close to places like the Golden Gate Bridge. Plenty of adults would be horrified by the notion that they might run into an unexpected shark somewhere. Kids, however, might see the prospect as exciting. Neighborhood Sharks has the potential to both satisfy those kids that have already read every single book on sharks in their local library and also convert those that haven’t already made sharks their favorite predator of all time. Remarkably beautiful even (or especially) in the face of straightforward shark attacks, this is a book that sets itself apart from the pack. If you read only one children’s shark book in all your livelong days, read this one. Disgusting. Delicious. Delightful.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
New educational app Jump See Farm (JUMPSEEWOW, October 2014) introduces preschool and primary-age kids to life on several independent rural farms as well as an urban apiary (Best Bees, right here in Boston!).
From the main menu, tap on an icon to explore one of six subjects: pig, sheep, dairy cow, chicken, tractor, and bees. Each subject has its own “landing page” featuring a friendly, naive-style illustration with a couple of interactive animations.
Tap on select objects or animals in the illustration to access brief documentary videos (up to four on each subject, for a total of more than 30 minutes), narrated by a mix of farm-working adults, kids, and teen 4-H members. These videos detail the animals’ jobs on the farm, their care and feeding, attributes of the specific breeds being raised, and how milk, cheese, honey, etc., are produced, all with cheery bluegrass music (composed for the app by Tomas Murmis) in the background.
The videos also highlight the different species’ personalities. According to one teen girl, Tamworth pigs (a “heritage” breed) “act like dogs. My pig last year would come up to me and she would sleep on me. I just like them because they’re really social and they’re really loving.” Dairy cows, apparently, are curious but “mellow creatures.”
While it’s obvious that these are working animals valuable for their usefulness, their human caretakers clearly do feel plenty of affection for them. One young girl says, “I have a lot of favorite things about chickens, but one of my favorite things is when they take dirt baths.” A teen gives her pig a pat and tells him she loves him. Occasionally the narration gets a little cutesy — as when a beekeeper points out a brand-new bee emerging from her cell in the honeycomb and exclaims, “It’s her birthday!… How special is this?” But kids likely won’t mind, and the information communicated with this warmth and enthusiasm will intrigue them. A list of recommended resources on farm animals and farm living is available at JUMPSEEWOW’s website.
Available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (requires iOS 6.0 or later) and for the Kindle Fire; $2.99. Recommended for preschool and primary users.
The post Jump See Farm app review appeared first on The Horn Book.
Summary: Mortal Heart is the final book (SAD FACE) in Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin trilogy (Book 1 reviewed here; Book 2 reviewed here). The books take place in medieval Brittany and France, a setting which the author has obviously researched... Read the rest of this post
I was thrilled to learn that Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which I reviewed here.
Also, since she won a lifetime achievement award and won the night with her speech, here’s my review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Catwings series, a family favorite.
I am not linking to my review of A Series of Unfortunate Events, because though I did write one once, many years ago, that guy didn’t win anything and isn’t the story and isn’t important. What matters (to me) is that two people I really admire got some recognition. We don’t need to concern ourselves with unfortunate events.
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By: Sherrie Petersen
Blog: Write About Now
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When he was little, one of my husband’s favorite Christmas movies was “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” I laughed out loud the first time he told me the title, sure he was making it up. But no, it’s a real movie starring a young Pia Zadora as a martian child. The acting is terrible, the […]
Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.
Here's what's on my mind today:
- Horrible Internet Connection My internet has only been working when it feels like it, so getting online has been sporadic at best. If you are waiting to hear from me, I apologize. I'm trying to get this fixed today, but you know how that goes with phone companies. If I'm delayed in responding to comments or commenting on your blog, you know why.
- January Feature on Megan McDade's Blog The very awesome Megan McDade is going to feature me on her blog in January and is asking people to comment on her post right now with questions you'd like me to answer. So I'd love it if you dropped by Megan's blog to leave me a question. You can find her blog here.
- Editing I finished a revision on my latest Ashelyn Drake manuscript, so I'm back in editing mode and working on client edits this week.
- Remodeling We finally finished painting the addition we put on the house. The countertop people are coming Tuesday (after canceling on us last week). Next up is flooring upstairs. We're getting close!
- Catching Up on My Reading I'm all caught up on reading the books I promised to review. Yay! Most recently, I finished An Absence of Light by Meradeth Houston and Rite of Rejection by Sarah Negovetich. Both were amazing!
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?
When kids and teachers ask me for a book that's a twist on the Cinderella story, I offer them Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix and the companion novel, Palace of Mirrors. These books are royally good, and I strongly recommend them to fans of Shannon Hale.
In Just Ella, we met 15-year-old Ella after the big ball we're all familiar with - but it turns out the story everyone has heard isn't exactly true. Instead of getting glass slippers from a fairy godmother, Ella won them in a wager with a glassblower. Instead of having a pumpkin transformed into a carriage, Ella got a ride from a kind (and human) coachman. Instead of relying on magic, Ella uses her brain and her bravery to make her dreams into reality.
When the book begins, Ella is already engaged to Prince Charming. But being a princess isn't all it is cracked up to be. Conversations with the prince prove that, although he's nice, he's really not for her. After learning more about the war that's taking place beyond the palace gates, Ella becomes even more disenchanted with her royal life and yearns to do something that will help those suffering. When she tries to break the engagement, evil steps in and Ella is physically removed to a dungeon.
But the villains should have known that even dungeon bars can't stop Ella. She must use the same smarts and determination that got her to that famous ball in the first place to get out and to help her country. Ella is a selfless, intelligent leading lady, and Just Ella is a very neat adaptation.
In Palace of Mirrors, we follow a 14-year-old peasant girl named Cecilia. Raised by Nanny and educated and protected by Sir Stephen, Cecilia likes the evening best of all, for that is when she has lessons - "And for me it's the moment that divides my day as hardworking, ragged peasant girl from my evening as secret princess poring over gilded texts." (Page 22) She goes on to say, "The studying is no easier than the chores, but it's more promising."
But Cecilia isn't the peasant girl she pretends to be. She's a princess. When she was little, her parents were murdered. Cecilia was whisked away and a decoy (Desmia) was put on the throne. Cecilia can't tell any of her friends about it, not even her life-long best friend Harper. Meanwhile, Desmia, the decoy, thinks she's the real princess.
Then Cecilia's village is threatened, and she decides to reclaim the throne. Enter 11 other girls and knights. Each and every one of these girls thinks SHE's the real princess - and so do their knights. Their stories are all the same, and each girl was given a royal object as proof of her royalty.
Like Ella, Cecilia isn't afraid to get dirty, to walk barefoot through sludge, to bloody her fingers when trying to get out of a locked room. She doesn't yearn for the power or the fame or the riches or the ballgowns; she wants to bring peace to the kingdoms and make her slain parents, her ancestors, and her beloved caretakers proud.
Who reigns supreme in the end? You'll have to read the books to find out.
Palace of Mirrors takes place in the same world as Just Ella, with Ella herself making an appearance. Spoilers: Highlight to view - [ Ella is now engaged to Jed, who is the head of the delegation trying to end the war between Suala and Fridesia. Harper's dad died in that war, and though Harper's mom trained him to play the harp, he really wants to be a soldier.) And guess who has been working for the past year as the medical officer in a refuge camp near "the worst battlefield of the Sualan War" and wants to become a doctor after the war is over... ]
The third book in the line, Palace of Lies, will be released in April 2015.
Follow your own truth.
Find your truth in yourself, not in others.
Do what is right for you.
Word of the day:
Munificent - to be extremely generous or liberal
Ella uses this word to describe Desmia.
The novel Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman starts with a prank. Readers quickly learn that these characters aim to do things that will make people stop and think, to consider what's happening - no whoopee cushions or silly hacks, but rather, something that means something, that makes a statement.
The bet is to get someone into Harvard that wouldn't get in otherwise. Not a prank, Max clarifies, but a hack. Forget the kid stuff they've done before - this will be something huge, powerful, meaningful. Schwarz doesn't want to get expelled. Eric doesn't want to do something immoral. They find out that this is a bet Max made with the Bongo Bums. Named after Richard Feynman, a prankster and bongo player, they are two juniors from Boston Latin High School who make bets and do things for bragging rights, and want a rivalry with the other boys, who'd rather be left alone and do their own thing. Max pretends the bet is for $100 but the amount increases throughout the book.
"We're going to take the biggest loser we can find - the least ambitious, least intelligent, least motivated, most delinquent and drugged-up slacker we can get our hands on - and we're going to sucker this school into letting him in." At least, that's what is shared with the readers on page 46. Our players are not so forthcoming with the full details. Readers learn more about the terms and the payout as the book goes on.
It's not about sabotaging the other party's candidate but getting your own candidate IN. They get a tough guy named Clay who beat Eric up as a kid, when Eric tried to stand up for other kids and ended up as the punching bag.
Also along for the ride is Alexandra Talese. Wanting a name that is a little daring and edgy, she has decided to go by Lex in college. She takes the name out on trial run during her first in-depth conversation with Eric, after the SATs.
Lex wants to go to Harvard of her own choosing, not for the sake of "superficial, society-imprinted, consumerist non-entities," not legacy, but because she wants it, because she thinks it's the best school to attend, the result of her extensive college research:
"I had made my pro/con charts, carefully weighed all the options, and chosen a winner. There was a reason Harvard had a reputation for being the best, I'd decided, and the reputation was self-fulfilling, because it meant Harvard got the best -- the best students, the best professors, the best resources -- which I meant I wanted it to get me. I wanted to get lost in the country's biggest library; I wanted to learn Shakespeare from a grand master while staring up at a ceiling carved hundreds of years before. [...] I wanted to be in awe of the school, the teachers, the history, the legacy -- I wanted to be terrified I wouldn't measure up. I wanted to prove that I could." - Page 83
Lex reveals that she uses knowledge to her advantage - not just her book smarts, but the things she knows about certain people. She doesn't sabotage them in a physical or evil way, but she casually (or otherwise) lets people's secrets slip out so that she is picked over them: running for sixth grade president, talking the other girl out of joining the newspaper staff in ninth grade, then holding her position on the yearbook staff - this girl's theme song should be Use What I Got by Lucy Woodward!(1)
So why would an overachiever team up with the bums? Because although she had great grades, community service, leadership positions, and school staff positions, she felt like there was nothing outstanding about her, nothing that set her apart. No national awards or anything unique, outstanding, international, or amazing. She was not one-of-a-kind, she was not a special snowflake, she was merely one of many smart fishes in the sea: "Nothing set me apart. Nothing to make me special." - Page 213
Throughout the story, Eric is the voice of reason. He considers himself a realist, and he normally abides by the honor system, doing the right thing because it's right, so he really struggles with the bet. Eric is Jewish and says that instead of doing good deeds in life in order to earn a wonderful afterlife in an eternal paradise, "Judaism isn't about what happens next. It's about what happens here, in this life. You don't necessarily get rewarded for doing the right thing; you don't get punished for doing the wrong thing. You're supposed to be a good person just because that's the right thing to do. Doing the right thing -- that's the reward." - Page 170
Max Kim is a legacy, with his father and two older sisters all Harvard grads. Max likes to sell 80s items on eBay and thinks things should have a 500% profit. He's in this not just for his father or Harvard, but because of what they've been told: "It's about all the (nonsense) they've been feeding us since preschool: Do your homework, be good, fall in line, do what we say, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll get the golden ticket. We're supposed to act like the only thing that matters is getting into college -- getting into this college - and so most of the people who do get in are the ones who buy into the (nonsense) so completely that they've never done anything for any other reason. It doesn't matter what they want, what they like, what they care about, who they are -- they don't even know anymore, because they're trying so (darn) hard to be the people Harvard wants them to be. In the end they're not even real people anymore. They're zombies." - Page 47 (Yes, I replaced the swear words for the sake of my younger readers. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks.)
Let's not forget Schwarz: geeky fellow, camera peeping got him out of their high school and homeschooled for two years. Now 16 and a Harvard freshman, this 96-pound weakling prefers numbers and photographs to real-life people, as humans are inherently flawed and photographs trap beauty on the page. Schwarz is eloquent. He doesn't necessarily use huge words, but he always uses full sentences and sometimes sounds a little antiquated ("I was not doing anything of any importance") as he actively avoids swearing and contractions (he tends to say "it is" rather that "it's"). He is awed by beautiful college girl named Stephanie who whines to him about her dates and breakups. He would be right at home in an 80s movie - and Max would then sell the movie poster on eBay.
The book also closes like a classic teen movie, providing information on what happened to all of the major players after high school - what colleges they attended, what career paths they followed, et cetera. There's also a disclaimer from the author asking readers not to hack in because it would be wrong, illegal, and dumb, and it's clear that she has both compassion for rising seniors dealing with college applications and total respect for admissions officers.
Wasserman is great at creating characters who are fueled by their goals and intentions, be they good or bad, selfish or selfless. The following speech is particularly awesome:
"Imagine there was something you really wanted. Not something petty, like knee-high leather boots or a new boyfriend, but something major. Something so significant that it would change your life forever. And imagine that you wanted that thing the way a child wants, without perspective, a wholehearted longing that consumed your entire being with the certainty that life would not, could not continue without it. Imagine that, like a child, you had no control over getting your heart's desire. You couldn't do anything other than lie awake at night and wish, furiously, desperately, hopelessly -- because, not actually being a child, you would know that wishing was useless. You would know that there are no magic wishes, no fairy godmothers descending with a wink and a want. Still, useless or not, you would dutifully squeeze your eyes shut every night, curl your hands into fists, listen to your heart thus, and, like a child, let yourself believe that someone was listening when you whispered: I wish. Now imagine that your wish was granted." - Pages 205-206
The book is mostly told in third person with first person woven in at the start, making readers curious about the narrator's identity until it is revealed - and it totally works.
Enjoy the book - but don't get any ideas, okay?
(1) Use What I Got by Lucy Woodward is an amazing song I have been known to listen to/belt out in order to pump myself up before a big event. I had the opportunity to sing it at an audition once - and I booked the gig.
Related posts at Bildungsroman
Interview: Robin Wasserman
Playlist: Seven Deadly Sins by Robin Wasserman
In the novel Breathing by Cheryl Renee Herbsman, a young woman named Savannah - named after the tornado that was passing through and being announced on the radio when her mother was in labor - struggles to find her strength. Troubled by her severe asthma, she is one point of her three-person family, alongside her younger brother Dog (Dogwood) and her single mother, who can't hold job due to Savannah's frequent hospitalizations and emergencies. Her father left when she was three - and the asthma started the day he left. Meanwhile, her mother won't tell her employers about her daughter's condition due to pride. (See the quotes below the review - I include part of her speech from pages 211-212.)
Savannah has a summer job at the public library, where she works alongside a librarian called Miss Patsy. Her main task is re-shelving books. She also runs storytime sometimes, and some days it's a headache, but some days the kids are attentive.
Then Savannah meets Jackson. She hopes it's something more than summer love, and it seems to be, as Jackson supports her through hospital stays and other worries. But when Jackson has to leave, Savannah must live for herself, to fight her fragile trappings and find strength.
Meanwhile, Savannah's English teacher, Mrs. Avery, put Savannah's name in for the Program for Promising High School Students, a semester-long college experience for tenth graders in Blue Ridge Mountains. Only 50 kids from both Carolinas can go. She filled out apps even though she knew they couldn't afford it. This, more that anything else, struck a chord in me because my family had to let opportunities go because we couldn't afford them. And goodness, how that hurt. If you've been there, you get it.
Now comes the part of the review where I inundate you with quotes from the book. Read them and weep.
It may sound dorky, but I love books - the feel of the paper, the old, musty smell, and especially the way the words roll over you and take you somewhere altogether different. They've been my escape long as I can remember. Whether I need a break from schoolwork or my brother or just life in general, there's always a book that can take me someplace far away. - Page 7
"And one of my feelings comes over me -- one of those itty bitty moments when time seems to freeze -- just for a breath. And I get the feeling that this moment fits, matches somehow, with something from the future. And I know this ain't the last I'm going to see of Jackson Channing." - Page 80
Mama to Savannah: "When you love somebody, you got to set 'em free. If they love you, they'll come back."
"Daddy didn't come back," I whisper.
"No, he didn't," she says real quiet. "And maybe that was for the best." - Page 125
Denny Caterpillar, DC - You'll get it when you read the book.
I go hide in my room and read through some printouts I made at the library about course choices for that program in the mountains. I know it's only dreaming. But I reckon if you go on and act like something is real, sometimes it just believes you. Next thing you know, there it is staring you in the face. - Page 173
Savannah's mother gives a great speech on pages 211-212 about not wanting handouts from others. The speech includes her not wanting to have to thank "those same folks whose faces, full of pity, I'd been forced to thank for their broken games all those years. [... I] promised myself we wouldn't never take a handout or let nobody drown us in their pity ever again, not so long as there's air in my lungs."
The book has some really nice chapter closures, such as:
Suddenly, I feel so happy, it seems like I got the opposite of asthma, like I got more air in my lungs than I know what to do with. - Page 222
"You hold my dream. I hold yours." - Jackson to Savannah, Page 244 - "You got to know that you can breathe all on your own."</i>
Spoilers - Highlight to read - [ Savannah ultimately realizes she has to find out if she can breathe on her own and be her own cure, not wait for somebody to come and rescue her like her mom waited for her dad for 12 long years.
Here are the final lines of the book.
Then up out of nowhere comes one of my too-true feelings. Even though everything is going all right, the sense I get is that what's on the way is even better. I imagine me and Jackson strolling down the beach together when I get home. Only the me in my mind has changed somehow -- in a way only I can discern. It's in the way I hold myself, in the tilt of my head, in the easy swell of my lungs, 'cause what's different is who I am inside. That new me there has a knowing this me here doesn't quite have a grasp on yet, a knowing that comes from scaling my own mountain, a knowing that comes from breathing -- all on my own. - Page 262 ] - Here endeth the spoilers.
If you're a Sarah Dessen fan, you should read Breathing by Cheryl Renee Herbsman. Now.
By: Jeanne Lyet Gassman,
Thin Air Magazine is reading submissions from now until Dec 15 for our Spring 2015 issue and our Web Features.
Founded in 1994, Thin Air is a nonprofit operating at an altitude of 6,910 ft, on the mountain of Flagstaff, Arizona, a popular stop along Route 66. The magazine is managed and edited entirely by Northern Arizona University graduate students on a volunteer basis, with faculty support from Nicole Walker.
Thin Air is published in print once a year and on the web on an ongoing basis. We seek work that represent the forefront of contemporary American prose and poetry, work that tear up our hearts, and work that matter. We care about sharp aesthetics, cultural relevance, artistic cohesion, and are especially excited about writings that bend rules and surprise readers while sneakily winking at tradition.
We are supportive of emerging writers and diverse voices, and aim to represent a wide range of talent in every issue we publish. We encourage submissions from writers of non-dominant, traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.
Looking for something fun to read this weekend? Pick up Normally, This Would be Cause for Concern: Tales of Calamity and Unrelenting Awkwardness by Danielle Fishel. This delightful memoir is in the same vein of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling: lighthearted, funny, and honest.
Normally, This Would be Cause for Concern is packed with anecdotes. Some are related to the entertainment industry (including my favorite bit, which I'll quote in the footnotes) and if you've followed Danielle's career from Boy Meets World to Girl Meets World, you definitely need this book, but you don't have to be a lifelong/diehard fan of hers to enjoy this memoir. Most of her stories are about finding the humor and joy in life. There's a chapter dealing with life as a klutz. She talks about balancing school with work when she was a kid, then going back to school and enrolling in college in her late twenties. She details job interviews, both in casting offices and retail stores, and the perils of dating and dealing with social media. No matter what she's discussing, Fishel's love for her family (including her parents, her husband, and their dogs) and her appreciation for her friends, teachers, mentors, and fans is clear.
My favorite Fishel anecdote deals with an audition which includes the line, "Can't you see I want to do more than pour cold milk on your head?" Danielle told this story at Worst Audition Ever, a live event which you may watch online via YouTube. I dare you to watch that and not say the line the same way she does...over and over again. It's hilarious.
Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales: The Pied Piper of Hamelin
By Russell Brand
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster)
On shelves now.
If there is a trend to be spotted amongst the celebrity children’s books being released these days then I think it boils down to a general perception on their part that books for kids aren’t subversive enough. This is a bit of a change of pace from the days when Madonna would go about claiming there weren’t any good books for kids out there. Celebrities are a bit savvier on that count, possibly because the sheer number of books they publish has leapt with every passing year. Now their focus has changed. Where once they pooh-poohed the classics, now they’re under the impression that in spite of masters like Shel Silverstein, Jon Scieszka, Tomi Ungerer, and the like, books for kids are just a little too sweet. Time to shake things up a bit. At least that’s the only reason I can think of to justify what Russell Brand has done here. When I heard that he had a new series out called Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales I admit that I was intrigued. Tricksters! What’s not to love there? Plus the man has talent and imagination. This kind of thing would really work. Add in the art of Chris Riddell and you might have something clever and worth reading on your shelf. I probably could have continued thinking in this manner if I hadn’t made the mistake of going so far as to actually read the book. Oh me oh my oh me oh my. In this, the first book in his series, Brand goes headlong in the wrong direction. Needlessly violent, humorlessly scatological, with really weird messages about disability and feminism thrown in for no particular reason, you can say lots of things about Brand’s foray in to the world of children. One thing you cannot say is that it’s actually for kids.
You think you know the story of The Pied Piper? Think again. In the town of Hamelin, the children are the future. Which is to say, the pretty children are the future. Kids like Sam, a child born with a withered leg, are ostracized and have to avoid being chased by the other kids’ zombie roadkill robots and such. The adults are little better with their misspent love of physical perfection and money. To this sordid town comes a hoard of nasty rats, each worse than the last and within a short amount of time they take over everything. As you might imagine, when a mysterious Piper arrives offering to do away with the hoard the townspeople agree immediately. He does but when he comes for his payment the town turns on him, rejecting his price. In response he takes away the kids, all but Sam, who is allowed to stay because he’s a different kind of kid. A good one.
Before any specific objections can be lobbed in the book’s general direction, I think the important thing to note from the start is that this isn’t actually a book for kids. It’s not published by a children’s book publisher (Atria Books is a division of Simon & Schuster, and does not generally do books for kids). Its author is not a children’s book author. And the writing is clearly for adults. When I read the review in Kirkus of this book I saw that it called it, “A smart, funny, iconoclastic take on an old classic,” and recommended it for kids between the ages of 8-12. Now look here. I like books that use high vocabularies and complex wordplay for children. You betcha. I also like subversive literature and titles that push the envelope. That’s not what this book is. In this book, Brand is basically just throwing out whatever comes to mind, hoping that it’ll stick. Here’s a description of the leader of the rats: “Even though they called themselves an anarcho-egalitarian rat collective (that means there’s no rules and no one’s in charge), in reality Casper was in charge . . . In his constant attendance were a pair of ratty twins – Gianna and Paul – who were both his wives. In anarcho-egalitarian rat-collectives, polygamy (more than one wife) is common. It’s not as common for one of the wives to be male but these rats were real badasses.” It’s not just the content but the tone of this. Brand is speaking directly to an adult audience. He does not appear to care one jot about children.
Of course when Brand decides to remember that he is writing a children’s book, that’s when he makes the story all about poop. Huge heaping helpfuls of it. There’s a desperation to his use of it, as if he doesn’t trust that a story about disgusting rats infesting a town is going to be interesting to kids unless it’s drowning in excrement as well. Now poop, when done well, is freakin’ hilarious. Whether we’re talking about Captain Underpants or The Qwikpick Adventure Society, poop rules. But as the authors of those books knew all too well, a little goes a long way. Fill your book with too much poop and it’s like writing a book filled with profanity. After very little time the shock of it just goes away and you’re left feeling a bit bored.
Other reasons that this ain’t a book for kids? Well, there’s the Mayor for one. Brand attempts to curtail criticism of his view of this woman by creating a fellow by the name of Sexist Bob. See, kids? Bob is sexist so obviously Brand can’t be. Not even when he has the Mayor crying every other minute, being described as a spinster who was mayor “a high-status job that made her feel better about her knees and lack of husband.” Then there’s the world’s weirdest message about disability. Our hero is Sam, the sole child left in the city of Hamelin after the children are whisked away. He’s the one described as having a “gammy leg all withered like a sparrow’s”. Which is fine and all, but once you get to the story’s end you find that Sam gets to have a happy ending where he’s grows up to become Hamelin’s mayor and his disability is pretty much just reduced a slight limp. So if you’re a good person, kiddos, that nasty physical problem you suffered from will go away. Better be good then. Sheesh.
Now Chris Riddell’s a funny case here. He’s a great artist, first and foremost. Always has been. Though I feel like he’s never been properly appreciated here in America, every book he’s done he puts his all into. Riddell doesn’t phone it in. So when he commits to a book like The Pied Piper then he commits, by gum. For better or for worse. Honestly, Brand must have thought he died and went to heaven when they handed him an artist willing to not only portray drops of blood dripping from a child’s pierced nipple but robot gore-dripping animal corpses and sheer amounts of poo. In this book he really got into his work and I began to wonder how much of a direct hand Brand had. Did Brand tell Riddell to make the Piper look like a member of the film version of A Clockwork Orange? No idea. Whatever the case, Riddell is as much to blame for some aspects of the book (the Mayor’s mascara comes to mind) as Brand, but he also is able to put in little moments of actual emotion. There’s a shot of Sam hugged by his mother early in the book that’s far and away one of the most touching little images you ever will see. Just the sweetest thing. Like a little light bobbing in the darkness.
The kicker is that beneath the lamentably long page count and gross-out factors, there might have been a book worth reading here. Playing the old “blame the editor” game is never fair, though. Editors of celebrity children’s books are, by and large, consigned there because they performed some act of carnage in a previous life and must now pay penance. No one goes into the business saying to themselves, “But what I’d really like to do is edit a picture book by Howard Stern’s wife about a fat white cat.” And so we cannot know how much input the editor of this book was allowed to give. Perhaps Brand took every note he was handed and hammered and sawed this book into its current state. Or maybe he was never handed a single suggestion and what he handed in is what we see here. No idea. But it’s difficult not to read the book and wonder at what might have been.
It’s more ambitious than your average celebrity children’s book, I’ll grant you that. And yet it feels like nothing so much as a mash-up of Roald Dahl and Andy Griffiths for adults. Lacking is the kid-appeal, the tight editing, and the reason why we the readers should really care. Our hero Sam is the hero because he’s essentially passive and doesn’t much act or react to the events going on in the tale. The Piper is there to teach a town a lesson, does so, and the story’s over. Brand would rather luxuriate in nasty kids, adults, and rats then take all that much time with his rare decent characters. As a result, it’s a book that might have been quite interesting and could even have been for actual children but in the end, isn’t. Here’s hoping Mr. Brand’s future forays in storytelling don’t forget who the true audience really is.
By Nicholas Eskey
All New Captain America #1
Written By Rick Remender
Art & Cover By Stuart Immonen
Following with Marvel’s drastic revamping of some of their well-known comic franchises, Captain America is also getting a total face lift. The “All New Captain America,” which is also the name of the comic itself, has a brand spanking new character at the helm. Well, not really new. Described in the very first page spread over six panels, it is explained how Steve Rogers is no longer able to hold the title of Captain America. The role, along with the iconic shield, is passed on to Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon.
I’m going to be very blunt in saying that this is a bold move for Marvel and writer Rick Remender. Captain America was originally created amidst WWII as a sort of propaganda comic, on how the lowly Stever Rogers came to become a mighty man who defended truth, liberty, and justice. In essence, it was to show how powerful America was, and how it could kick any foreign butts. Though delving into Captain America history, there was a timeline where it was revealed that the super soldier serum was first tested on African American soldiers, before it was deemed usable for their actual choices. So technically, the first Captain America was black, as shown in The Truth mini series by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.
Steve Rogers chose Sam Wilson as his replacement, they being long colleagues and friends. But where the new Captain America lacks in super soldier serum, he makes up for with large wings he can use to fly and fight with. And that’s not the only difference. Sam Wilson’s background is that of his father being a righteous Baptist preacher, always calling on those to do good by his words and his deeds. His father is killed, with his mother following suite shortly thereafter, leaving Sam to raise his younger siblings. All the while, the words of his father kept with him, and helped to shape him.
With the total change in appearances, their reasons for being Captain America are also drastically different. Steve Rogers wanted to serve his country, and thus chose to become the Captain. Sam Wilson was forced to face harsh realities early in life, and thus chooses now to fight for himself and the memory of his father.
The idea of giving Captain America a change for a new generation I think is a nice idea, the unimaginative name aside. And Sam Wilson is definitely qualified to be a hero on the same level. Though I do personally have an issue with Sam Wilson being Captain America; it just looks like they took the stars and stripes, and slapped it on the Falcon along with Captain’s shield. And viola, he’s the new Captain America. I really do think there needs to be more than just passing of costume if he’s really going to be Captain America.
Definitely read for yourself though and draw your own conclusions. I just hope the series doesn’t read as a “Falcon” comic with nothing but a “Captain America” dust jacket. “All New Captain America” is available now at your local comic shop.
Lately the Internet has been all abuzz about what an author should do about terrible reviews on GoodReads, blogs, Amazon, etc. (Answer: nothing. Even if the reviewer aggresively tweets links of said review to the author.)
But what I think is even more painful is to know that your book is going to be reviewed in a newpaper or magazine, one with hundreds of thousands of readers, and then have the "critic" decide he or she had better live up to the title.
When Richard Ford didn't like a New York Times review written by Alice Hoffman, he and his wife took turns shooting her book and then mailing it to her. (The two shared a publisher). Years later, when Alice Hoffman didn't like a reviewer's take in the Boston Globe, she tweeted the reviewer's home phone number and encouraged her followers to contact the reviewer.
A friend's first book just got a bad review in a big newspaper. A bad review for a first book. God, that hurts the worst. It's your first born, it's perfect, and then someone drags that baby out of your arms, and drop kicks it. That's about how it feels.
How my first book made a reviewer homicidal
When my first book came out in 1999, I remember my publicist telling me excitedly that it was going to be reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. This was pre-Internet. I enlisted an old friend from high school to fax me a copy of the review the morning it appeared. (Good Lord, this was all so long ago. I might as well say she used Pony Express to send me some chiseled tablets.)
I waited excitedly by the fax machine. The cover sheet had a single word scrawled on it. "Critics!"
I began to sense this might not go my way.
The review sucked. I had blocked it out of my mind, but thanks to some digging today, I was able to find it again. It contained words and phrases such as "dreary," "barely credible," "less-than-brilliant," "irritating gimmick," as well as the memorable "made me homicidal."
Yes, my mystery actually made the reviewer feel like commiting murder.
Three other facts to note: 1). The reviewer loved a book where the mystery was solved by cats. 2). The reviewer died a year later from cancer, and had probably been undergoing treatment when the review was written. They left behind a son about the age of my daugher. 3). The book was also a Booksense pick, and a finalist for both the Agatha and the Anthony awards. It also came close to being made into a movie.
So a review is just one person's opion, whether that person is on Good Reads or the New York Times. I say that as a person who occasionally posts reviews on Good Reads and for the Oregonian. But because I know something of the blood, sweat and often literal tears that go into a book, I always try to give a balanced view.
When the publisher offered to send me a copy of The Writer’s Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors by Jackie Bennett, how could I possibly say no? When the large-format book arrived with a full-color glossy cover I thought, uh-oh, it’s just going to be all photos. So I was pleasantly surprised to open the book and discover good text too.
The gardens in the book belong to the likes of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling and more. In all, twenty writers and nineteen gardens are represented and what glorious gardens they are. Some of the writers were themselves avid gardeners. George Bernard Shaw died at the age of ninety-four after falling while out in the garden pruning a tree. Of course, Beatrix Potter was a very hands-on gardener and sometimes it is hard to tell which parts of her stories were inspired by her garden and which features in her garden were reproduced from her stories. Thomas Hardy, who grew up farming, was also very hands-on as was Robert Burns who would work on his farm and garden all day composing poems in his head which he would then write down in the evenings.
There were plenty of writers who had beautiful gardens but hired other people to take care of them. Henry James knew absolutely nothing about gardening when he moved to Lamb House. While he eventually learned the names of flowers and trees, he left the actual work to someone else.
Walter Scott knew plenty about gardening, he designed his house and most of his extensive gardens, but other than lending a hand planting trees and doing a few other chores now and then, he left the actual work to his hired gardeners.
A common theme among many of these writers whose gardens were all at minimum an acre and often larger than that, is some sort of shed/hut/cottage/house located somewhere in the garden, usually amidst the trees, where they would go and escape the house to write. Roald Dahl had an actual Gypsy caravan that he bought and installed in his garden. For the few writers who did not have a writing hut, they all had studies, generally on the second floor of the house, that looked out over a part of the garden.
Some of the gardens were purely ornamental, but a good many included large kitchen gardens that helped feed the household. Most of the gardens also had orchards as well with apple, pear, cherry and plum trees. All of the writers had woods, either as part of the garden or, for the smaller estates, wooded common areas just over the fence that provided quiet, shady walks.
I found myself supremely jealous of all these gorgeous gardens. When I finished the book it seemed that writing and gardening went hand in hand that one could not possibly be a writer without garden acreage. No wonder I am not an author, I only have a small city lot and there is no chance of a writing hut. I might be able to build a small closet big enough for a chair but I would not be willing to give up even that small spot of soil. I do have a room with a window that looks out onto the garden but the cats get the window and me and my desk are left facing the wall. All of the gardens in The Writer’s Garden are in the UK so I also suffered from a bit of envy over what could be grown in some of the gardens that I could never grow in my own.
The book itself is beautiful. The pages are thick and glossy and the photos are all in color. For each writer there is a list of the books written while in residence at the particular house/garden and Bennett is kind enough to provide an update to the current state of the garden. Many of them are now owned by the National Trust but not all. At the end of the book is information on how to visit most of the gardens as well as a short list of further reading.
The holidays are fast approaching and this book would make a wonderful gift for the reader-gardener in your life. Or perhaps it might be one you yourself should put on your list for Santa. I’ll be keeping my copy handy to browse through in the winter months when my eyes need bright color and my spirit needs to imagine itself in a snug writing hut beneath the leafy green trees.
Filed under: Books
Summary: In the interests of full disclosure (and a little bit of self-satisfied squee-ing), I met Karen Sandler in person at this year's KidLitCon in October, and was able to get my copy signed and chat with the author. How awesome is that? Anyway,... Read the rest of this post
I’m not sure how much of a write-up I can give you of Kathryn Schulz’s marvelous book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error since, if you recall, I borrowed it as an ebook from my library and was reading it on my Kindle when it decided to no longer highlight things. And frankly, if you can’t use either the highlight or bookmark function for ebooks, you’re screwed when you finish and try to write about them. There is no going back skimming the pages for a memory refresh nor is there a collection of passages to pull interesting tidbits from. That my Kindle crapped out while I was reading Being Wrong makes me giggle though it also makes me growl because I loved this book and wish I could share all the fascinating stuff I learned with you. I did eventually manage to get Kindle to highlight again but by then it was far too late because I was almost at the end of the book. Oh well.
Not only is Being Wrong a fascinating book with tours into human behavior, memory, biology, psychology and culture, it is also quite literary. Schulz flings out the literary references with wild abandon — Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Don Quioxte and so many more. She makes these references in such a way that it is obvious she is a reader and familiar with the books and characters in a way that someone who only mines them for relevant quotes is not. Also, she’s really funny.
Who among us doesn’t like being right? Who among us isn’t usually certain that we are right and everyone else is wrong? Who hasn’t made up excuses or reasons when discovered being wrong? Schulz sets out to examine why we are so certain about things and why we hate being wrong. In the process she looks at some spectacular instances of being wrong — Alan Greenspan anyone? In another less public example she goes over the case of a woman who was raped, identified her assailant, was instrumental in the man’s conviction and found out eighteen years later that it was not him but another man who looked very similar who had raped several women before her and several more after. How do you get over being so wrong and causing someone else to spend eighteen years of his life in prison?
But it’s not just the big errors, it’s the small things too. Schulz talks about how she and her friends, none of them physicists, were sitting around one day discussing string theory as though they were all experts. They had a good laugh at themselves and invented an imaginary magazine called Modern Jackass. Thereafter they would chide each other when someone was insisting on their rightness on a topic they really knew nothing about saying things like, oh you should write that up and submit it to the science section of Modern Jackass. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way and we all hold forth like experts on things like the economy, medicine, the weather, life, the universe and everything. And if you are saying to yourself right now, I never do that, I am too humble and never make such assumptions. To you my friend I say, you are WRONG. No one is immune.
Schulz discusses the many reasons we like to be right and why we are so afraid to be wrong. At the same time she talks about how being wrong is necessary in order to make creative leaps in art and science and our general everyday understanding of who we are and what the heck this thing called life is all about. She wishes more than once that we could find a way to be nicer to ourselves and others about being wrong. After all, to err is human and all that.
One of the especially fascinating sections of the book is when Schulz discusses belief and what happens when a belief we have held that is integral in how we see ourselves and navigate in the world is suddenly wrong. She tells the story of one young woman who was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. She moved to New York, met a man who was an atheist who became her boyfriend, and then she found herself going from believing in God to not believing in God. When she and her boyfriend broke up a few years later she was left adrift when she realized that she wasn’t an atheist but neither could she believe in the fundamentalist Christian teachings she was raised in. Schulz talks about the uncomfortable place something like this brings us to, feelings of being unmoored and adrift, not knowing who we are now or who we want to be tomorrow. It’s really fascinating stuff!
While reading and since I have finished the book, I have been more aware of my own rightness about things and noticed how quickly I get defensive when challenged. Sometimes I am able to catch myself, to back off, to not insist that I am right but instead actually listen to the other person and really consider what they are saying. And let me say, it is a weird feeling when I manage to do this. Not a bad feeling, just unfamiliar, a sort of limbo of not knowing that is hard to stay in because darn it, I want to be right. But I think if we could all become more comfortable with this limbo state at least some of the time, it sure would make for some interesting possibilities.
So, in summary, good book. You should totally read it. You can’t go wrong.
Filed under: Books
The all important reading lamp
Let’s talk about illumination. As in reading lights. When I was a kid my mom always accused me of reading in the dark and insisted I would ruin my eyes. I can’t read in the dark, but I did prefer to read in dim, indirect light to cut down on the glare bouncing off the white pages of my book. I just scoffed at my mom the way kids do. I am happy to report that reading in dim light did not ruin my eyes so my mom has never been able to say, “I told you so” on that topic anyway. I still enjoy reading in dim light, though I never think of it as dim at all. It frustrates Bookman who will come home from work to find me sitting next to the window reading as the sun rapidly sinks below the horizon. He declares that I am going to ruin my eyes reading in the dark. Well, he used to do that. These days he just sighs heavily as he takes up the burden of trying to save my eyes by turning on a light.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good reading light, oh I do, believe me. It does eventually get too dark for me to read comfortably and when that happens I turn on a light. I have, as yet, been unable to achieve any kind of see-in-the-dark superpower. I’ll keep trying though. I used to have a banker’s lamp for years that I adored and then the chain broke in such a way that it could not be repaired. I was heartbroken. For the last several years I just had a plain, utilitarian lamp that gets the job done. But a few weeks ago it began marching toward a slow death, the switch on it becoming increasingly difficult to turn. I was dreading the day it ceased to work and would send me into a frenzy searching for a new reading lamp. In spite of my continuing attempts to ruin my eyes by reading in the dark, I am very picky about my reading lamps and a satisfactory one is so very hard to find. Is this the case for you too or I am just weird?
I don’t know what I did to make the reading gods so very happy, but they smiled upon me. Last week I received a fortuitous email from the folks at OttLite wanting to know if I would be interested in reviewing a reading lamp. You crafters out there might be familiar with Ottlite already as their lighting for craftmaking has a fabulous reputation. My reading lamp was dying so I had nothing to lose and said, sure, send me a lamp.
I’ve been using it for a number of days now and I must say I am quite pleased. At first I thought, uh-oh a 15 watt compact
Golly that’s bright!
fluorescent bulb? How is that going to be even close to bright enough? Was I ever pleasantly surprised when I turned the lamp on! Wow, it practically lights up my whole living room! Even better it has a flexible neck so I can shine the light exactly how I want it for hours of comfortable reading after the sun goes down, which is pretty early these days and getting even earlier. Soon I will begin to forget what the sun even looks like.
The lamp itself is small and takes up hardly any space. If you have a little reading table, nightstand, or even desk, this lamp will fit there and leave room to pile up books beside it. The lamp has a nice “tulip” shape, simple and pleasing. As I said, there is a flexible neck, but it not only bends, but the length can be adjusted too. You can even push the neck all
For the ambient light lovers
the way down into the lamp and use it as a torchiere for diffused room lighting. I’ve not used it this way, when I have a lamp on I’m generally sitting under it reading or writing or knitting or doing something else I need light for, I’m not one of those ambient light people; it’s all or nothing for me.
I’m really happy with the light and very thankful to the OttLite folks for sending it to me and sparing me the frustrations of a lamp shopping frenzy. Bookman is grateful too. He tells me I have no excuse for reading in the dark. Silly Bookman, as soon as the days begin to grow longer many months from now, I will again be trying your patience and smiling at your sighs as you switch on the light to keep me from ruining my eyes.
Now here’s how nice the OttLite people are, not only did they give me a lamp, they will give one of you lucky readers a lamp too. Unfortunately, you have to have a U.S. address. If you are interested in a Tulip Desk Lamp of your very own, please leave a comment saying as much. I will draw a name on Saturday morning. Good luck!
Oh, I almost forgot! The lamp comes with a wonderful accessory if you have cats:
A little something for everybody at my house.
Filed under: Reading
By David Nieves
As humongous and “earth shattering” as event comics can be they usually aren’t the endgame a publisher has in mind. The payoff usually lies in what comes after, whether it’s in the form of another event or a new series. Unfortunately for Marvel the pattern that’s developed is a stale event followed by a great series; one example that comes to mind was Dark Avengers coming after the Secret Invasion event. Marvel’s latest case, AXIS, while convoluted at times, has set the stage for Tom Taylor to play on the other side of the big two field with Superior Iron Man.
Taylor never did get to write a nice Superman for DC, and it appears that he won’t get a chance to pen stand-up Tony Stark either. That’s far from a bad thing. Superior Iron Man is about exploring an ultra narcissistic Tony Stark after his personality turn in the pages of AXIS. Stark’s new found god complex has him release a new version of Extremis on the population of San Francisco. This shell head isn’t out for philanthropy; instead he’s set to capitalize on the public’s newfound seduction with perfection. Once you see who Tony is put on a collision course with at the end of the book you’ll definitely want to keep this on your must read list. New readers worried about having missed Iron Man’s turn in the pages of AXIS have two paths about their dilemma. We’re told at the beginning of the book that Tony Stark’s personality was altered by the battle with Red Onslaught. If you can accept that fact at face value there’s no need to go back and read AXIS because it has very little to do with the progression in these pages. However, it’s easy to see why some will want to go back and see the events that led up to Stark’s turn.
Another face making his Marvel debut is artist Yildiray Cinar. He brings his hardline realism to the pages of the book just as poignantly as he did for DC. It’s minimalistic and guides the story to that strength by using a small number of panels on the pages that don’t feature Stark and then ramping up when Tony hits the scene. You won’t see tons of hyper detail found in Iron Man stories of this modern era, but Cinar manages to illustrate the unique dark tone of Superior Iron Man on a solid level.
Superior Iron Man is a fantastic start. Tom Taylor shows he’s a master at plotting a story and hooking readers from the get go. This series looks to explore a Tony Stark unbound by the chains of ethics. If you were worried this would be some kind of carbon copy of Superior Spider-Man’s narrative, rest assured it isn’t. Instead of a villains journey; we’re on a ride to explore the existential struggle of not Tony’s demons of insecurity but his super ego gone astray, which could prove to be more dangerous for everyone. In a week full of great comics, Superior Iron Man stands out as a must read.
By: Lizzy Burns
Blog: A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy
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A Little Something Different: Fourteen Viewpoints, One Love Story by Sandy Hall. Swoon Reads, an imprint of Feiwel and Friends. 2014. Review copy from publisher.The Plot
: Lea and Gabe meet in creative writing class. It's going to take more than sharing a college class to get these two together, even though they sit side by side.
What's keeping them apart? And what will it take to get them together? Well, Lea and Gabe won't tell you, but their friends, family, and others around them, from the bus drive to the waitress, will.The Good
: I just loved the narrative device of fourteen people (including those who don't like Lea and Gabe, as well as a squirrel and a bench) telling the romance of Lea and Gabe.
I loved this -- both because I've always been a fan of large casts and multiple viewpoints, and because it strengthens this particular story. While we don't see what Lea sees or Gabe sees, we see what those around them do, and it's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We see more of their world than they do.
Admittedly, fourteen voices is a lot to keep track of, as a reader, even when some are as unique as 'Squirrel!" The book design helps make this easier for those who, unlike me, don't keep a notebook with a running list of characters as they read. Instead of simply saying "Casey" or "Danny" or "Bob," it always says "Casey (Gabe's friend)" or "Danny (Lea's friend)" or "Bob (a bus driver)". It's just that little bit extra to help keep track of who is who.
I've written before (both when talking about New Adult
and just in general) that when I was in high school I looked for books set in college out of curiosity about what college would be like; and when I was in college, I wanted books with a college setting to reflect the reality I was living. A Little Something Different
meets that reading need, because it's not just about Lea and Gabe's slow road to romance; it's also about the things, small and big, that make up college life: parties, cafeteria food, overlapping friends, ordering take-out.
I would call this New Adult; but -- in part because of who is telling the story, and because it does take a while for Lea and Gabe together -- this isn't a sexytimes romance. What it is a sweet, funny glimpse into the lives of Lea and Gabe and those around them. This is more for those whose search for New Adult is more about setting than romance -- but the romance is so great! It's just not a hot and heavy romance, it's a slow burn of missed opportunities by two of the shyest people on the planet.
Another thing I liked about A Little Something Different
is how Hall wove in diversity into the narrative. For example, Lea's friend Danny is gay; the creative writing professor is a woman married to another woman; Lea is Chinese-American. Gabe had been in a car accident the year before, and it -- and the physical after effects of the accident -- are something he doesn't easily share (it's a bit of a spoiler even saying that here), and those things have an effect on how he interacts with others and how others see him.Note
: Sandy Hall is a fellow New Jersey librarian.Other reviews
: Wondrous Reads reviews
; Good Books & Good Wine
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy