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1. Creativ Magazine

I don’t often talk about magazines here for no other reason than they are not top on my list of reading material I feel compelled to discuss. Oh I read them, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to know how awesome I thought the article on building a solar oven in Mother Earth News was. Still, when I got an email offering me a review copy of a new magazine called Creative, I thought sure, why not?

Creativ aims to share the stories of people who are, well, creative. But lest you think it is all about artists and writers, we are talking creative in a very broad sense. So broad that it includes the stories of people like fourteen-year-old Alyssa Carson who decided at the age of three she wanted to be an astronaut and has proven it to be not just a passing fancy. Now a Mars One Ambassador, she is determined to be one of the first humans on Mars. All of her studies are aimed at this goal. Then there are the Australians, Cedar and Stuart Anderson, who created a new and revolutionary beehive. The Flow hive allows beekeepers to harvest honey without disturbing the hive which means no bees die and the hive is left intact so the bees don’t have to waste energy rebuilding it. And then there is book sculptor Emma Taylor who creates gorgeous art from old books.

The magazine itself is beautiful to look at. Thick, glossy paper and page after page of full-color gorgeous photographs. It is a feast for the senses. My only complaint is the stories are too short, I want more! It is inspiring to see and hear about people from all around the world and the creative things they are doing with their lives. It made me want to be more creative.

Creativ has lots of online content and is trying to build a community where people can share their stories. The magazine is available at bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Chapters, through subscription, and online. Take a look if you are searching for a little inspiration. If you don’t find any I’ll be surprised.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Creativ

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2. Review of Playful Pigs from A to Z

lobel_playful pigsstar2 Playful Pigs from A to Z
by Anita Lobel; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary     Knopf     40 pp.
7/15     978-0-553-50832-1     $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-553-50833-8     $19.99
e-book ed. 978-0-553-50834-5     $10.99

Twenty-six pigs wake up in their pen and decide to explore the countryside, running down the road and finding a field of “magical surprises”: brightly colored, freestanding letters of the alphabet. Lobel’s soft early-morning watercolors give way to bolder pages on which each pig is now clothed and standing upright. The entire alphabet, set in a distinctive condensed typeface, runs along the top and bottom borders while each pig interacts happily with a single tall, thin letterform (all are upper-case but i). Lobel uses a name-verb-letter structure (“Amanda Pig admired an A. Billy Pig balanced on a B”), with rolling hills below and plenty of white space behind the pig and letter. Repeat readers will spot an extra object beginning with the letter in question tucked into a lower corner. Gender roles are satisfyingly relaxed: Greta, a female soldier, guards the G, while on the  opposite page Hugo tenderly hugs an H. By the time Yolanda yawns and Zeke zzzs, evening has arrived and the pigs return to their pen in a mirror image of the opening spreads, once again unclothed and running on all fours. Dinner is followed by bedtime, with all twenty-six snuggled together cozily. This playful treatment creates a humorous, easygoing book that should relieve any anxiety about learning the alphabet.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. Review: The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble With Harryby Katie MacAlister. Sourcebooks Casablanca. 2014. Library copy.


The Plot: Regency England. Lord Harry Rosse thought he'd faced danger as a spy. But that he could handle... what he can't handle is life, now, raising five children alone. What he needs, what he wants, is a wife: someone to love his children, with all their antics and high spirits. Such high spirits he sometimes hides from them...

A wife for company and companionship. Not one of those pretty young things only interested in his title and status, eager for children of her own.

So he places an ad for a wife, leaving out a few details. Like the children. And the title. Or his past as a spy.

Plum sees the advertisement for a wife and thinks its the answer. All she wants is a decent man; the chance to have a child of her own; someone who will be kind to her the niece she's raised; and someone she can respect. She doesn't deliberately leave out details -- like her disastrous elopement twenty years ago, to a man who already had a wife. (She didn't know!! He lied!) Or that book she wrote under an assumed name, the book that helped support her when her family and friends and society shunned her for her involvement with a married man.

The Good: The Trouble with Harry was a lot of fun: it's like a sexytimes Nanny McPhee. The children are terrible, and cause so much problems. I kept giggling as I read it.

This is one of the titles recommended back when I asked about books featuring those 40 and over: Plum is 40, Harry is 45. Each are hiding secrets, and those secrets come create problems for them. But what I liked is that despite those secrets they are keeping from each other, they are honest with each other in what matters: their emotions and their feelings. Both are also frank about their attraction and physical needs and desire for each other. Perhaps more than frank -- let's just say that the book Plum wrote isn't some Jane Austen or Bronte inspired work of art.

Because both are older, Harry and Plum are for the most part secure in who they are. They don't have unrealistic expectations of each other; Harry particularly doesn't want some young wife full of romantic dreams. But that earned dose of reality is what makes their relationship and growing love so romantic and meaningful.

So, thank you very much for the recommendation, and I look forward to reading the others in this series!




Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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4. Harper Lee and Ta-Nehisi Coates Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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5. Sex Criminals, Volume Two

cover artThe first volume of Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky was kind of quirky, fun and original. Jon and Suzie can both stop time when they orgasm. They each think they are the only one. They meet and what fun when they can stop time together. Suzie’s library is being foreclosed on by the bank where Jon works. They decide to “raise” the money by stopping time and robbing the bank. Except it turns out there are sex police, or at least three people who say that’s what they are. The robbery foiled and the police barely evaded, Jon and Suzie find themselves angry and confused.

In Sex Criminals Volume Two, Two Worlds One Cop, Jon and Suzie discover they can be tracked. They become paranoid and pretty much cease having sex. And then their relationship begins to fall apart. Jon sees the head of the sex police at the bank and finds out her real name and address and decides to break into her house. It does not go well. He also discovers one of the other members of the police is a very wealthy man who invests a lot of money through the bank. And suddenly the grace period the bank had given the library is revoked and the bank immediately forecloses and knocks down the library. But they discover another person who can also stop time and has met the “police.” They form a plan. What that plan is we really don’t know because that’s pretty much where this volume ends.

It also ended with me feeling pretty meh about this whole series and doubting that I will even bother with volume three whenever it should be published. After the novelty of the first volume you have to double down and really make an effort to have a good and interesting story because, well, the novelty has worn off. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story all that interesting. I still don’t know who the sex police are or what they are doing since they aren’t really police at all. The story introduces a couple of new characters and tries to do some character development particularly with Jon, but it just didn’t work for me. When the best thing about the book is the “extras” at the end, I have to say the series is no longer that interesting for me.

And how about those extras? The “Sex Tips” were laugh out loud funny and I kept interrupting Bookman to read them to him. Here is one of my favorites:

Shower sex is great because you can fantasize that you’re having sex out in the rain, but the rain is hot because these are the End Times.

Heh.

There’s really nothing else to be said about this one.


Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Chip Zdarsky, Matt Fraction

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6. New Black Lightning Archive: DC, Tony Isabella Reconcile

Black Lightning 4“Dogs and cats, living together!” – that’s what immediately popped into my mind yesterday when I read Tony Isabella praising DC on Facebook for how it was treating him in regard to Black Lightning.I’ve never seen the original contract between DC and Isabella in regard to Black Lightning so I have nothing to say of substance in regard to the property’s legal status, but as anyone who has followed Tony’s online writing over the years can tell you, Isabella’s statements about DC’s treatment of him and his landmark creation have not exactly been complimentary. That changed, however, yesterday, when Isabella called attention to an Amazon listing of the April 2016 release of Black Lightning, volume 1, the first of what could be a series of collections featuring DC’s first African-American superhero to star in an an eponymous book.

According to Isabella, the rapprochement is the result of outreach by Dan Didio and Geoff Johns, and Isabella is confident that DC will treat him fairly in regard to the payment of royalties. He also raised the possibility of doing more work for DC given sufficient reader demand; the prospect of Isabella working with, say, the creators of the revived Milestone line on a multi-generational crossover is particularly intriguing, given certain thematic resonances with Milestone’s nuanced reflections on creative identity.

To say that Isabella’s announcement is the most unexpected Facebook post of the year is an understatement — it’s one of the most dramatic turnarounds I’ve seen in decades of reading about comics-related disputes, and kudos to all involved for bringing about what I hope will be a truly lasting peace in our time.

3 Comments on New Black Lightning Archive: DC, Tony Isabella Reconcile, last added: 7/25/2015
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7. The Buried Giant

cover artThere are times when one should listen to critics and times when one should ignore them completely. Trouble is, it is hard to know what time is which. In the case of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, it got lots of mixed reviews and my general impression ended up being don’t bother reading it because it’s a disappointment. This is mainly because critics accused Ishiguro of attempting to write a fantasy novel and failing at it spectacularly. But thank goodness for the internet and regular readers I trust who defied the critics and loved the book. Now I too can say the critics who panned the book are the ones who spectacularly failed and not Ishiguro.

As a reader who loves a good fantasy novel, I can tell you it is a huge mistake to read The Buried Giant as fantasy. Yes, there is talk of ogres. There is also a dragon. And Sir Gawain plays an integral part in the story. However, the story is more of a fairytale but it’s not even that. Rather, I think it is closer to an allegory, not the kind where you can say the X of the story equals A in real life and Y equals B; it’s not an allegory of equivalents that allows one to draw straight lines, Ishiguro is too good of a writer to do something like that.

The story is set in post-Arthurian Britain but not so long after Arthur that people don’t remember him or what happened. Sir Gawain is elderly but not falling to pieces, just slower and a bit weary. He remains fiercely loyal to Arthur who could do no wrong, which blinds him to the reality of the way things are now. The center of the story is Axl and his wife Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons living in a small village that is kind of like a rabbit warren. There is a mist over everything, a fog that keeps people from remembering the past. Axl and Beatrice have been married for a very long time and are a devoted couple but they cannot recall when or how they met, what their lives were like before they met each other, that sort of thing. Precipitated by a series of events in their village, Axl and Beatrice decide they are going to go visit their son who lives in a village a few day’s journey away. They don’t know the name of the village or even where it is, they don’t even remember why their son lives there, but they believe if they set out in the direction of the village they will eventually find it.

Their journey is eventful and eventually they end up traveling with a Saxon warrior, a Saxon boy who has been mysteriously wounded and exiled from his village, and Sir Gawain. There are secrets and machinations and betrayals. But Axl and Beatrice move throughout as a steady, calm thread held together by their devotion to one another.

Because this is not a fantasy novel there is no vivid world building. The details are just enough to provide a vague sense of place and your imagination has to fill in the rest. The focus is not on the world but on the people, nonetheless, we don’t even really know what the people look like. I am unable to conjure up an image of Axl and Beatrice in my mind. But I can tell you how much they love each other and that Axl always calls Beatrice “Princess” and Beatrice usually walks in front and is always calling back, “Are you still there Axl?” I can also tell you that they are terrified that when it comes time to be questioned by the Boatman he will not take them both across to the island to spend eternity together because they cannot recall their past. Without memories of the life you have built together, no matter how devoted you may be day-to-day, how do you prove to the Boatman you love each other?

The novel is about love and memory and forgetting. The mist has made everyone forget the past and because everyone has forgotten the past the animosity between Britons and Saxons has also been forgotten. There have been years of peace and prosperity. But the novel makes us ask whether the price is worth it on both the large and small scale. Is it truly peace when the fighting stops because no one can remember what the war was about? Is it really love when you can’t remember the kindnesses, the disagreements, the betrayals, the forgiveness, the moments of grace of a long life together? The story is simple but it raises so many questions that turn it into something rich and deep.

The details are spare and the language itself is spare as well. In fact the language and style are so plain the books reads somewhat like a grade school primer. I exaggerate, but only so you don’t pick up the book expecting soaring flights of fancy, lush and lyrical prose. The language here is grounded, earthy, strong Anglo-Saxon English, an appropriate choice given the story.

I loved this book in case you haven’t figured it out. A great, well-told, thinking kind of story with a beautiful heart. It’s a story for grown-ups, quiet, lived, not flashy and turbo-charged. It left me feeling satisfied and maybe just a little teary-eyed. Don’t listen to the naysayers on this one. Ishiguro knows what he is about. And if you need a little extra push, and haven’t done so already, be sure to read the great conversation between Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman at The New Statesman.


Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Kazuo Ishiguro

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8. Critic Creates a Rhyming Review for New Dr. Seuss Book

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9. Review of The Skunk

barnett_skunkstar2 The Skunk
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Patrick McDonnell
Primary     Roaring Brook     32 pp.
4/15     978-1-59643-966-5     $17.99

A skunk shows up on the narrator’s doorstep and begins to tail him. Try as he might, our narrator just can’t seem to shake the skunk — “When I sped up, the skunk sped up. When I slowed, the skunk slowed” — despite dodging in and out of an opera house, a graveyard, and a carnival. Ultimately, however, our narrator does lose his unwelcome shadow, crawling down a manhole in an alley and establishing a new life in a new house in a new part of the city (the heretofore low-toned palette now bursting with blue and yellow). It’s not long, though, before he realizes everything’s not what it’s cracked up to be, and he leaves his own party to go off in search of the skunk, vowing to keep an eye on him to “make sure he does not follow me again.” McDonnell’s graceful and simple cartoonlike illustrations mitigate the notes of paranoia and obsession in Barnett’s deadpan text, particularly in their rendering of the posture, gestures, and expressions of the main characters. Barnett has had the good fortune to collaborate with illustrators — Rex, Santat, Klassen — who share his oftentimes offbeat sense of humor; his pairing with McDonnell seems as natural as any of them.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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10. Brad Thor and Jimmy Carter Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

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11. Review of the Day: Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

MarsEvacueesMars Evacuees
By Sophia McDougall
Harper Collins
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-229399-2
Ages 9-12

I’ve a nasty habit of finishing every children’s book I start, no matter how dull or dire it might be. I am sort of alone in this habit, which you could rightly call unhealthy. After all, most librarians understand that their time on this globe is limited and that if they want to read the greatest number of excellent books in a given year, they need to hold off on spending too much time devouring schlock and just skip to the good stuff. So it is that with my weird predilection for completion I am enormously picky when it comes to what I read. If I’m going to spend time with a book, I want to feel like I’m accomplishing something, not slogging through it. My reasoning is that not all books are good from the get-go. Some take a little time to get going, you know? It might take 50 pages before you’re fully on board, so I always give the book the benefit of the doubt. Some books, however, have the quintessential strong first page. They are books that are so smart and good and worthy that you feel that you are maximizing your time on this globe by merely being in their presence. Such is the case with Mars Evacuees. A sci-fi middle grade novel that encompasses everything from gigantic talking floating goldfish to PG discussions of alien sex, this is one of those books you might easily miss out on. Stellar from the first sentence on.

At first it seemed like a good thing that the aliens had come. When you’ve got a planet nearly decimated by global warming, it doesn’t sound like such a bad deal when aliens start telling you they’ve got a way to cool down the planet. The trouble is, they didn’t STOP cooling it down. Turns out the Morrors are looking for a new home and if it doesn’t quite suit their needs they’ll adapt it until it does. Earth has fought back, of course, and so now we’re all trapped in a huge space battle of epic proportions. Alice Dare’s mother is the high flying hero Captain Dare, killer of aliens everywhere. But all Alice knows is that she’s being shipped off with a load of other kids to Mars. The idea is that they’ll be safe there and will be able to finish their education in space until they’re old enough to become soldiers. And everything seems to be going fine and dandy . . . until the adults all disappear. Now Alice and her friends are in the company of a cheery robot goldfish and must solve a couple mysteries along the way. Things like, where are the adults? What are those space locust-like creatures they’ve found on Mars? And most important of all, what happens when you encounter the enemy and it’s not at all like you thought it would be?

The first sentence of any book is a tricky proposition. You want to intrigue but not give too much away. Too brash and the book can’t live up to it. Too mild and people are snoring before you even get to the period. Here’s what McDougall writes: “When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.” I could not help but be reminded of the first line of M.T. Anderson’s Feed when I read that (“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck”). But it’s not just her first sentence that’s admirable. In a scant nine pages the entire premise of the book is laid out for us. Aliens came. People are fighting them. And now the kids are being evacuated to Mars. Badda bing, badda boom. What I didn’t realize when I was first reading the book, though, was that this chapter is very much indicative of the entire novel. There is a kind of series bloat going on in children’s middle grade novels these days. Books with wild premises and high stakes are naturally assumed to be the first in a series. There’s a bit of a whiff of Ender’s Game and The White Mountains about this book when you look at the plot alone, and so you assume that like so many similar titles it’ll either end on a cliffhanger, or it’ll solve the immediate problem, but save the bigger issue for later on. It was only as I got closer and closer to the end that I realized that McDougall was doing something I almost never encounter in science fiction books these days: She was tying up loose ends. It got to the point where I reached the end of the book and found myself in the rare position of realizing that this was, of all things, a standalone science fiction novel. Do they even make those anymore? I’m not saying you couldn’t write a sequel to this book if you didn’t want to. When McDougall becomes a household name you can bet there will be a push for more adventures of Alice, Carl, Josephine and Thsaaa. But it works all by itself with a neat little beginning, middle, and an end. How novel!

For all that, McDougall cuts through the treacle with her storytelling, I was very admiring of the fact that she never sacrifices character in the process of doing so. Carl, for example, should by all rights be two-dimensional. He’s the wacky kid who doesn’t play by the rules! The trickster with a heart of gold. But in this book McDougall also makes him a big brother. He’s got his bones to pick, just as Josephine (filling in the brainy Hermione-type role with aplomb) has personal issues with the aliens that go beyond the usual you-froze-my-planet grudge. Even the Goldfish, perky robot that he is, seems to have limits on his patience. He’s also American for some reason, a fact I shall choose not to read too much into, except maybe to say that if I were casting this as a film (which considering the success of Home, the adaptation of Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, isn’t as farfetched as you might think) I’d like to hear him voiced by Patton Oswalt. But I digress.

When tallying up the total number of books written for kids between the ages of 9-12 that discuss the intricacies of alien sex, I admit that I stop pretty much at one. This one. And normally that wouldn’t fly in a book for kids but McDougall is so enormously careful and funny that you really couldn’t care less. Her aliens are fantastic, in part because, like humans, there’s a lot of variety amongst them. This is an author who cares about world building but also doesn’t luxuriate in it for long periods of time. She’s not trying to be the Tolkien of space here. She’s trying to tell a good story cleanly and succinctly.

The fact that it’s funny to boot is the real reason it stands out, though. And I don’t mean it’s “funny” in that it’s mildly droll and knows how to make a pun. I mean there are moments when I actually laughed out loud on a New York subway train. How could I not? This is a book that can actually get away with lines like “If you didn’t want me to build flamethrowers you shouldn’t have taught me the basic principles when I was six.” Or “It was a good time in Earth’s history to be a polar bear. Unless the rumors were true about the Morrors eating them.” Or “Luckily I don’t throw up very easily, but it made me feel as if I was being hit lightly but persistently all over with tablespoons.” That’s the kind of writing I enjoy. Silly and with purpose.

So it’s one part Lord of the Flies in space (please explain to me right now why no one has ever written a book called “Space Lord of the Flies”), one part Smekday, and a lot like those 1940s novels where the kids get evacuated during WWII and find a kind of hope and freedom they never would have encountered at home. It’s also the most fun you’ll encounter in a long time. That isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional dark or dreary patch. But once this book starts rolling it’s impossible not to enjoy the ride. For fans of the funny, fans of science fiction, and fans of books that are just darn good to the last drop.

On shelves now.

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Other Blog Reviews: The Book Smugglers

Misc: And since this book is British (did I fail to mention that part?) here’s the cover they came up with over there.

MarsEvacuees

I think I may like ours more, though both passed up the fact to display the goldfish, which I think was a mistake.  Fortunately, the Brits at least have corrected the mistake (though I’m mildly disappointed to see that there is a sequel after all).

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12. Review of Salsa

argueta_salsaSalsa: Un poema para cocinar / A Cooking Poem
by Jorge Argueta; illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh; trans. from the Spanish by Elisa Amado
Primary     Groundwood     32 pp.
3/15     978-1-55498-442-8     $18.95
e-book ed. 978-1-55498-443-5     $16.95

In this latest addition to his series of bilingual cooking poems (Arroz con leche / Rice Pudding; Guacamole), Argueta plays on the multiple meanings of salsa to create a mouth-watering musical recipe. The poem begins with a young boy telling the history of the molcajete and tejolote, the mortar and pestle traditionally made from the volcanic rock that forms from cooled lava and used to grind vegetables and spices. As the boy and his family prepare their weekly salsa roja, the child’s imagination runs wild. Ingredients become instruments — an onion is a maraca, tomatoes are bongos and kettledrums. Argueta’s use of onomatopoeia (prac-presh-rrick-rrick is the sound of the ingredients being ground in the molcajete) and detailed description of ingredients play on the various senses to convey the sounds, flavors, and feelings coming together as the boy’s family dances, sings, and cooks. Tonatiuh’s illustrations, rendered primarily in greens and reds, complement the two types of salsa mentioned in the poem. The earthy tones and Mesoamerican-inspired drawings suit the poem’s combination of the traditional elements of salsa-making with the modern scenes of a family cooking and celebrating. The lack of measurements may leave some readers perplexed (exactly how many tomatoes are needed?), but the more important message of love and family gathering to create something special shines through.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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13. The Bat-Poet

cover artI don’t often read children’s books, I don’t have children of my own nor do I spend time with people who have children. However, when Carl Phillips in The Art of Daring discusses a few poems by Randall Jarrell and mentioned he had written a children’s book called The Bat-Poet, well, I had to check it out. My marvelous public library had a copy and I requested it immediately. Oh happy day when it arrived and I discovered it had illustrations by Maurice Sendak!

First published in 1964, just a year before Jarrell died at the age of 51, this is a little book that will delight everyone no matter what age. It is the story of a little brown bat “the color of coffee with cream in it,” who spends his days sleeping upside down from the roof of a porch snuggled up with the other bats. One day the other bats move into the barn to sleep but the brown bat didn’t want to sleep elsewhere so he stays on the porch alone. And because he is alone without the warmth of his companions, he begins waking up during the day and noticing things.

Like the mockingbird. The mockingbird sings and sings and sings and can imitate other animals and sounds. The bat is enchanted. He tries to sing but quickly discovers that bats can’t, so decides instead to imitate the mockingbird’s words. And the bat composes a poem:

At dawn, the sun shines like a million moons
And all the shadows are as bright as moonlight.
The birds begin to sing with all their might.
The world awakens and forgets the night.

He is so pleased with himself he wants to share his poem and all he has learned about the

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

daytime with the other bats. But the other bats just can’t be bothered. The sun hurts their eyes. They are too tired. Bats aren’t supposed to be awake during the day.

Disappointed, the little brown bat decides he will share one of his poems with the mockingbird. The mockingbird is so full of himself he has a hard time being impressed, but he does not completely discourage the brown bat’s poetic endeavors. So our little bat goes in search of a new audience and discovers the chipmunk. The chipmunk is at first afraid of the bat but eventually agrees to allow the bat to compose a poem about him and then return in a few days to recite it. Are you surprised to hear the chipmunk is delighted and becomes the bat’s best listener and cheerleader?

I won’t tell you more, you have to get a copy of this book and discover the rest of the story for yourself. It’s a lovely, gentle story about poetry, creativity, and being different. But it does not have a slick moral at the end that slaps you in the face. It is a story written by a poet after all. Don’t worry, our little brown bat doesn’t die, nor is he an outcast or anything like that. Winter comes and he does what brown bats do in winter, hibernates in the barn with the rest of the bats. But it is not a giving in to convention and giving up poetry either, because as out little bat falls asleep he is thinking of the poem he composed about bats that he plans on telling them all when they aren’t so sleepy.


Filed under: Books, Children's Books, Reviews Tagged: Randall Jarrell

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14. Ah Monday

Let’s all pause for the collective groan that is Monday.

Feel better? Maybe some book stuff will help.

First, hop over to Bitter Empire and check out my review of a sweet little book called George’s Grand Tour. The book is about George, eighty-three, and his “young” neighbor Charles, seventy-six, who decide to road trip the route of the Tour de France.

And if that isn’t enough, here are some interesting links I have been collecting.

  • What’s the Point of Handwriting? (via LitHub). From the article: “Unlike digital’s precision, writing is blurry individuality under a general system. But in addition to this, we all have our own personalized understanding of arrows, squiggles, double-underlines and so on—little personal codes we develop over time to ‘talk to ourselves.’ To write by hand is to always foreground an inevitable uniqueness, visually marking out an identity in opposition to, say, this font you’re reading right now.” Now that’s an interesting twist! Giving up handwriting for digital text is giving up something that is unique to each of us. Don’t give away your individuality, grab a pen and start writing!
  • Gods and Goddesses help us all, The Millions has a list of the Most Anticipated books of the second half of 2015. Readers, get your TBR lists ready, you’ll be adding gobs of books to it.
  • Before you put your TBR list away, take a look at Neglected Books Revisited, Part 1 at American Scholar. It being a part one implies there will soon be a part two!
  • And while you are adding books, might as well check out a list by novelist Sophie McManus of 7 Great Books Born from “Catastrophes”. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill leads the list and I can attest to it being a pretty great book.
  • On the futility of writing (and writing in spite of it all) (via LitHub). From the article: “Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).” And, might I add, if you are that kind of person, you probably imagine your book will be displayed on a front table as a bestseller.
  • In The World’s Descent Steve King notes that Harold Bloom turned 85 on July 11th and compares what Bloom believes reading should be with what a few other scholarly types are saying these days. I am not a fan of Bloom’s dogmatism and his anti-feminist rants, but nonetheless I respect the man. How can I not respect someone who cares so deeply about literature even if I disagree with him on a number of things?
  • Nicola Griffith writes The Women You Didn’t See: A Letter to Alice Sheldon. You may know Alice Sheldon better under her pen name, James Tiptree, Jr. It’s a lovely, sad letter.

There you are. I hope at least one of them will go a little way to help Monday be not quite so bad.


Filed under: Links, Reviews

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15. Amazon refusing book reviews

Mastering front 100WshadowDid you know that Amazon denies reviewers the ability to post a book review? Has it happened to you? I had no idea that this happens, but apparently one of their famous logarithms will do just that. I learned this because someone tried repeatedly to post a 5-star review of Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling and couldn’t because Amazon decided it was a bogus review.

Amazon ratings mastering-2It's not like I need fake reviews for my book. To the left is the graphic from Amazon on the status of the reviews for Mastering the Craft, and they're all quite legitimate, not a friend among them. They are averaging 4.8 stars.

The first time her review was blocked, she called Amazon and talked to a representative who couldn’t understand why but seemed to get it posted. Then it disappeared.

The reader tried again, and was again denied although she has since been able to post a review for different book on Amazon. So it's not her.

I know all this because this reader is a design client of mine, Cristina White. Independently of our working relationship, she bought my book and thought it was pretty good. Her review is below. Ours is by no means anything other than a professional relationship. Yet her wish to express her professional thoughts about my book were denied.

She told me about all this and has now shared with me the review she tried to post. It’s below, and then I’ll tell you what I think caused this kerfuffle.

5 starsWRITE. READ THIS BOOK. REWRITE.

Ray Rhamey delivers a wealth of writing know-how and editing experience in this smart, funny book about crafting a compelling story. Ray’s style is direct, entertaining, and pragmatic. His chapters on wordcraft, including “Adverbs: Good? Bad? Yes.” And “Don’t get me started” are in themselves worth the price of the book. Ray shines a flashlight on all the verbiage you don’t need, and he covers the essentials you do need to write a novel or memoir that hooks your readers on page one and keeps them turning pages to the end. Whether you’re writing your first or your tenth book, you need Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

Front cover 200WThank you, Cristina, for the kind words. And I believe that it was my words in appreciation of the writing talent that she shows in her memoir, Sex and Soul, that banned her from posting a review. Yes, I think it was me posting this shout-out for her book on FtQ when she published it.

Keep in mind that my only involvement with Cristina was for book design, not editing. There was no quid pro quo for a positive review at either end. My views on her writing were my personal take. Is that illegitimate? I don’t think so.

If you know anyone at Amazon, please pass this along. I understand that they are trying to keep bogus reviews off their site, but they should know that legitimate reviews are also being denied.

Try a review?

If you have read Mastering the Craft and would care to try posting a review, let me know what happens.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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16. Review: Taking The Heat

Taking the Heat (Jackson: Girls' Night Out) by Victoria Dahl. Harlequin. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Taking the HeatThe Plot: Veronica Chandler is "Dear Veronica" for the Jackson, Wyoming local paper, the voice of wisdom offering funny and on-target advice for young and old, on everything from family relationships to sex.

The thing is, she's hiding something -- she feels like a big fake. Yes, she has common sense, a sense of humor, the research skills and writing skills that make "Dear Veronica" such a success. What she doesn't have, well, is the real-life experience everyone thinks she has.

Everyone thinks that she's the local girl who went to New York City and came back full of wisdom and experience. What they don't know is that NYC was nothing like Veronica had dreamed it would be. What they don't know is she came home because she had no where else to go. What they don't know is she's never been in love. What they don't know is she's a 27 year old virgin.

Gabe MacKenzie is the hot new guy in town. He's the new librarian, and while he's originally from New York City he's not a big-city guy. He loves that his new job allows him plenty of time for rock-climbing and hiking. He doesn't love that it's only for a year: family obligations are pulling him back to New York. He's not looking for anything long term or anything serious. And then he meets Veronica.

The Good: This is the most recent book in Dahl's Girls' Night Out series, and it's the third in that series to feature a librarian. Since it's set in a small town (well, small when it's not tourist season) it makes sense that the library is an important place in the lives of the members of the small town.

Familiar characters from the other books make appearances, but this story is all Veronica's. There are many, many things I enjoy about Dahl's books and this one doesn't disappoint. The characters are interesting, real, and complex. Veronica isn't a virgin for reasons of religion, morality, or desire -- it's just that her timing has never been right. In high school and college she was concentrating on grades so that she could get a job in NYC; and then NYC let her down. She returned home to discover that what she wanted in life was what her home town had to offer.

And the sexytimes are terrific, as well as what leads up to it -- Veronica revealing her big secret to Gabe is one of my favorite scenes.

Gabe, as I said, is in Wyoming for a year; Veronica doesn't know that, and I like that the tension between the two of them was Gabe keeping this secret from her. And that his motivations for this were explored -- how his desire to be a "nice guy" by not bringing up a possible conflict was itself problematic. That "protecting" someone by not mentioning something was not protecting at all.

Also good were both Gabe's and Veronica's family situations. As I said, Gabe's family is the reason he has to return to NYC and his situation was believable and sympathetic with a good resolution. Veronica's father is a gruff, distant, and demanding man -- I need to go back and reread Flirting with Disaster (Jackson: Girls' Night Out Book 2)to remind myself of how others saw and interpreted these two. While at times I wanted to throw things at him, I found his actions, and his daughter's reactions, realistic.

Bottom line: It's Victoria Dahl. If you haven't read her books, start now, and honestly you can start anywhere with any title. The books may be interconnected but they are not dependent on each other. The only problem you'll have is the problem I face: the desire to read them all at once balanced against wanting there to always be a new-to-me Dahl book around when I need one.

What else? It's a Favorite Book of 2015, needless to say. And under "readalikes" I think this one may work for New Adult readers. While Victoria is older than most NA heroines, she is negotiating those things that NA is about: trying to establish her career, not sure what to do about career or life, trying to get independence, and love and sex. It's just, for reasons, those things happen a bit later for her; and, again for reasons, people looking at her think she has her act together when she hasn't. Or, rather, she thinks she doesn't have her act together.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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17. Daniel Silva and Ben Mezrich Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

Minions Book (GalleyCat)We’ve collected the books debuting on Indiebound’s Indie Bestseller List for the week ending July 05, 2015–a sneak peek at the books everybody will be talking about next month.

(Debuted at #3 in Hardcover Fiction) The English Spy by Daniel Silva: “Gabriel’s target is Eamon Quinn, a master bomb maker and mercenary of death who sells his services to the highest bidder. Quinn is an elusive man of the shadows—’a whisper in a half-lit chapel, a loose thread at the hem of a discarded garment’—but fortunately Gabriel does not pursue him alone. At his side is Christopher Keller, a British commando turned professional assassin who knows Quinn’s murderous handiwork all too well.” (June 2015)

(Debuted at #9 in Children’s Illustrated) Minions: Long Live King Bob! by Lucy Rosen: “The story of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s Minions begins at the dawn of time. Starting as single-celled yellow organisms, Minions evolve through the ages, perpetually serving the most despicable of masters. Continuously unsuccessful at keeping these masters-from T. rex to Napoleon-the Minions find themselves without someone to serve and fall into a deep depression. But one Minion named Kevin has a plan, and he-alongside teenage rebel Stuart and lovable little Bob-ventures out into the world to find a new evil boss for his brethren to follow.” (May 2015)

(Debuted at #14 in Hardcover Nonfiction) Once Upon a Time in Russia by Ben Mezrich: “Written with the heart-stopping pacing of a thriller—but even more compelling because it is true—this story of amassing obscene wealth and power depicts a rarefied world seldom seen up close. Under Berezovsky’s krysha, Abramovich built one of Russia’s largest oil companies from the ground up and in exchange made cash deliveries—including 491 million dollars in just one year. But their relationship frayed when Berezovsky attacked President Vladimir Putin in the media—and had to flee to the UK. Abramovich continued to prosper. Dead bodies trailed Berezovsky’s footsteps, and threats followed him to London, where an associate of his died painfully and famously of Polonium poisoning. Then Berezovsky himself was later found dead, declared a suicide.” (June 2015)

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18. The Art of Daring

cover artWhy is it the books I love the most are the hardest to write about? It can’t be only because I want you to love them too. I was going to say that maybe it is because they are the rich ones filled with lots of good things to talk about but that isn’t always the case, sometimes a simple book can blow me away. Likely it’s some combination of factors I would have to think long and hard about. Whatever the reasons, I loved The Art of Daring by Carl Phillips so much I have put off writing about it for two weeks hoping that in that time I would be able to figure out what to say about it, how to explain the reasons it is so very good and why I loved it so much. But I am coming up empty. If I leave it any longer I won’t write about it at all and that won’t do. So I just have to tell you about it as best I can and hope you can make sense of it.

The Art of Daring is a small book of several essays. I wrote about the first one already in which Phillips discusses resonance and restlessness. He carries these two ideas into the rest of the essays and adds to them thoughts on desire, resistance, loss, love, mercy, and, of course, daring. Phillips is a poet and his writing tends to the lyrical. I know, lyrical nonfiction, not a common thing. He is meditative and circles round and round an idea, looking at it from different angles and in different lights. And then he layers them up and then he digs back down. He does this across the essays so that while each one can be read separately, they are so intertwined it would be difficult to break them apart.

This is a book of literary criticism but it is unlike nearly all you have ever read. Not entirely unique, but definitely not run-of-the-mill. It is not at all academic. It is meant for the thoughtful, general reader. And while Phillips demonstrates and advances his arguments with analysis of poems, what he says can be expanded out to include more than poetry.

And now I want to give you a sample, a quote, but something short won’t convey the full sense of this book. Something longer then, which means I can’t give you several quotes because your eyes will glaze over or you will just skip them. So one quote, but which one? One about uncertainty? Or maybe one about our fragmented selves? A beautiful one about how a poem is a form and act of love? No, while these all tie into the title they seem unhinged without context, so I give you something that reflects the purpose of the book but does not require context:

The deeper one gets into what eventually amounts to a career, the harder it becomes to incorporate daring and risk into it. As in life, if we’re lucky, we grow more comfortable, successful, and accordingly more aware that there is more to lose. So there’s a resistance to changing what’s in place already. Meanwhile, we’re aware also of there being daily less time left, which can bring fear. This issue of time, it seems to me, should spur us on to live even more adventurously — if not now, then when? — but mostly it doesn’t, or so it seems when I look around me. Why risk what it’s taken all our lives to at last get hold of? Or if we haven’t gotten it by now, why try, why bother? And yet for the artist I think an appetite for a certain recklessness is crucial, if the work is not only to extend itself, but also deepen, and meaningfully complicate itself.

Even though I said this is a book of literary criticism, it struck me a number of times while I was reading that it was also a kind of self-help book as you can pick out from the quote. It’s not the kind that tells you how to get ahead or organize your life or lose ten pounds or find your soulmate, it’s much more subtle than that. Because really, when you exam closely the ideas Phillips discusses and how he talks about them, you start to realize that it is about more than reading poetry and literature, it’s about life and how one might go about it. With Phillips it is definitely an examined life but not the kind of examination that keeps one in place. Instead it is one that creates a restless curiosity, a desire to know, a space for uncertainty, a willingness to dare — dare to be vulnerable, to try something new, to reach out past one’s carefully tended and comfortable borders.

I finished the book not only appreciating a particular aspect of poetry and art and literature in general, but also wanting to be more daring in my own life. Because we all are writing our own stories and when it comes to the end, I want to be able to say Wow! That was good!


Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Carl Phillips, The Art of Series from Graywolf Press

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19. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

cover artWhen I began reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, I did something I usually don’t do. I posted how great the book is and how everyone needed to, right then and there, request a copy from the library or buy one of their own. Now that I have actually finished it, I still stand by that assertion.

The book is a graphic novel like no other I have read (which is more than some and less than a good many). Sure the stories are told with great black and white drawings, some of them very detailed like the visual explanation in the appendix of how the Analytical Engine would have worked if it were ever built. Wait, appendix? A graphic novel with an appendix? Yup. And that is just one way this book is different. It also has footnotes and endnotes. In fact, the graphic part of it is almost beside the point. To be sure, the graphics tell a story, but the real action, where all the fun and humor is, is in the footnotes and endnotes. Crazy!

Padua has clearly done extensive research, she even got a scholarly slam dunk by finding a letter in an obscure archive somewhere that settled a dispute about just how much Ada Lovelace had to do with Babbage and maths and the Analytical Engine and computer programming (a lot!). Booyah! And Padua clearly enjoys her subjects as well, expressing great knowledge and affection for them and all their quirks and foibles.

Since Lovelace died when was 36 and the Analytical Engine was never built, Padua takes liberties with the story, moving the pair to a pocket universe in which Ada lives and the Engine is built. Still, she remains true to certain biographical events, even quoting them directly at times in the stories. When she veers far off course there is a handy footnote to tell us so.

I say stories because that is what these are, short stories in graphic form. So we have a story about the Person from Porlock, one in which Lovelace and Babbage meet Queen Victoria and give her a demonstration of the Analytical Engine. Except the Engine crashes, (even when computers were only theoretical there were provisions for what to do when they crashed) and Ada runs off to fix it and save the day while Babbage bores the Queen with stories about how great he is. The Queen, not understanding why the Engine is a useful thing is losing interest until Lovelace’s programming produces a picture of a cat. Heh. Cats and computers belong together apparently. We meet George Boole whose Boolean logic will be familiar to both computer geeks and librarians. And there are often hilarious run-ins with many other famous personages.

One that a good many of you will be familiar with is George Eliot. She and Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Carlyle and others are summoned for a “mandatory spell-check” of their most recent manuscripts. Lovelace really did theorize that the Analytical Engine should be able to analyze symbols as well as crunch numbers. Eliot’s manuscript gets fed into the Engine but it being her only copy she immediately changes her mind. Thus follows a long pursuit through the workings of the Engine to try and get the manuscript back. But horror of horrors, the Engine uses “destructive analysis” and the manuscript gets ripped to shreds! And then it crashes the Engine. The huge joke at the end of this is that there had been a tussle at the beginning and Eliot and Carlyle got their manuscripts mixed up and it is actually Carlyle’s manuscript on the history of the French Revolution that is destroyed. In real life Carlyle’s manuscript was indeed destroyed. He had given it to his friend John Stewart Mill to read. The only copy. Mill left it sitting out and the servants thought it was waste paper and used it for starting fires. Oops. Carlyle had to rewrite the who book, but personally, from what I have actually read about the incident in other places, it was probably for the best because the rewrite by accounts was better than the original. Still, Carlyle was devastated and I don’t remember if he and Mill continued to be friends afterwards.

Anyway, this is a right fun book. Babbage and Lovelace were real characters even before they were fictionalized in a pocket universe. If you would like a taste of the book including a few stories that didn’t make it in, there is a website! The Science Museum of London also built Babbage’s Difference Engine, the precursor to the Analytical Engine, in 1991 and because of the magic of the internet, you can watch a video demonstration:

Is that thing ever loud!

If you are looking for something fun, geeky, madcap and sometimes just plain silly, you can’t go wrong with The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.


Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, George Eliot, madcap adventures, Thomas Carlyle

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20. Shoo, fly

It seems that the insect-of-the-moment is… the fly (and I don’t know why; maybe butterflies were too pretty). Here are five recent books starring those pests, plus reviews of a few more favorites below. Could that Old Lady who swallowed one have been on to something?

doodler_superfly  edwards_fly  heos_ifly    jonsson_astrid
Super Fly: The World’s Smallest Superhero! by Todd H. Doodler (Bloomsbury, May 2015)
Fly! by Karl Newsom Edwards (Knopf, March 2015)
I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos; illus. by Jennifer Plecas (Holt, March 2015)
The Fly by Petr Horáček (Candlewick, May 2015)
Astrid the Fly by Maria Jönsson (Holiday, May 2015)

arnold_petArnold, Tedd A Pet for Fly Guy
32 pp. Scholastic/Orchard 2014. ISBN 978-0-545-31615-6

(3) K-3 In his first picture book outing, easy-reader star Fly Guy wants his own pet. He and (boy) Buzz are excited, then frustrated, then disappointed when each choice (dog, frog, worm) is unsuitable. The two realize that Fly Guy needs “a pet with a cool name.” Buzz? “YEZZ! BUZZ!” Arnold’s lively illustrations make the most of the characters’ special friendship; the final page is especially satisfying.

cronin_Diary of a fly book coverCronin, Doreen Diary of a Fly
40 pp. HarperCollins/Cotler 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-000156-8
Library binding ISBN 978-0-06-000157-5

(2) K-3 Illustrated by Harry Bliss. Like Diary of a Worm and Diary of a Spider, this book relays real-life information through Cronin’s impeccable comedic timing in a way that makes the facts memorable. Bliss’s illustrations, including additional pictures on the endpapers, incorporate many witty details. The short sentences and visual jokes make this a great selection for listeners and new readers alike.

gravel_flyGravel, Elise The Fly
32 pp. Tundra 2014. ISBN 978-1-77049-636-1
Ebook ISBN 978-1-77049-638-5

(3) K-3 Disgusting Critters series. This humorous, informative volume gives basic facts about the title creature. Cartoon illustrations and speech-bubble text play up the kid-friendly silliness: “The housefly is a member of the Muscidae family. Mom Muscidae, Dad Muscidae…Teenager Muscidae: ‘Yo!'” The familiar subject and friendly presentation give this book broad appeal.

howitt_flyHowitt, Mary The Spider and the Fly
40 pp. Simon 2010. ISBN 978-1-4424-1664-2

(3) K-3 Illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi. New ed., 2002. Inspired by Gorey, Addams, and film noir, DiTerlizzi spins his own stylish version of Howitt’s cautionary 1829 poem. As a debonair spider lures a doe-eyed fly to his lair, ghosts of the spider’s prey flit about. Black-and-white illustrations with a silvery sheen capture the dance with cinematic flair. This paper-over-board edition of the Caldecott Honor Book is notable for its bargain price.

mack_frog-and-flyMack, Jeff Frog and Fly: Six Slurpy Stories
40 pp. Philomel 2012. ISBN 978-0-399-25617-2

(3) PS It’s survival of the cleverest in these six short stories. Laid out in easy-to-read comic-book panels, the simple text focuses on several scenarios between a fly and the hungry frog that wants to slurp him up. Just when you think the fly is doomed every time, the frog gets his comeuppance in the final story and readers get a good laugh. Multi-media cartoons amusingly depict the conflicts.

reynolds_bighairydramaReynolds, Aaron Big Hairy Drama
128 pp. Holt 2010. ISBN 978-0-8050-8243-2
Paperback ISBN 978-0-8050-9110-6

(3) 1-3 Illustrated by Neil Numberman. Joey Fly, Private Eye series. In his second graphic novel, private investigator Joey Fly looks into another crime in the “bug city.” Butterfly actress Greta Divawing has disappeared on the eve of her opening-night performance of Bugliacci; the suspects are other members of the cast. Varied cartoon-panel illustrations feature details of bug life that add interest and humor to the mystery.

rosen_tinylittleflyRosen, Michael Tiny Little Fly
32 pp. Candlewick 2010. ISBN 978-0-7636-4681-3

(2) PS Illustrated by Kevin Waldron. “Tiny Little Fly / sees great big toes… / Tiny Little Fly / sits on Elephant’s nose.” Fly first bugs–then escapes from–Elephant, Hippo, and Tiger, even when they unite. In Waldron’s arresting digitally enhanced gouache and pencil illustrations, bold lines and a vivid palette command attention. With a pesky antihero and catchy repetitive verse, the story will captivate listeners.

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21. Monday Review: I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson

Summary: This one hadn't been on my immediate radar until I signed up to attend the Printz award ceremony at ALA in San Francisco at the end of June—and then I decided I'd better get going on reading the winner of that prestigious honor if I... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Monday Review: I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson as of 7/6/2015 4:14:00 PM
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22. Writer Wednesday: Amazon's New Review Policy

I'm sure most of you have seen or heard about how Amazon is removing reviews and not allowing people to review certain books because they believe the reviewer knows the author. If you haven't seen this yet, here is how the notice to the reviewer begins:
“We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally.”
There's another message that says something to the effect of: You are ineligible to review this book...

Authors and reviewers seem to be in an uproar about this. Today, I want to share my feelings on it. As an author, I love reaching out to readers. I have my FB group, Kelly's Coven, and I interact with readers on my FB author page, FB profile page, Twitter, my website, Goodreads, you name it! So does this mean all those people I interact with will no longer be able to post reviews? I highly doubt Amazon will be able to keep track of them all, but I'm sure the number of reviews I have per book will decrease.

So what does this mean? Personally, I don't plan to change anything. Not one thing, because I LOVE talking to readers. Sure, I want reviews because they are important to a book's success. But more than that, I want to have a genuine relationship with my readers. So if I have to sacrifice reviews to keep my readers happy, I will.

I'm not going to stop interacting with anyone who wants to discuss my books with me. I love you all and talking to you is one of my favorite things about being an author.

What do you think about Amazon's new policy?

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23. Review of the Day: Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

boatsforpapaBoats for Papa
By Jessixa Bagley
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-1626720398
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book’s the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.

Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.

The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.

It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.

Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how ecumenical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.

As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.

Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.

When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.

I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: Be sure to check out this profile of Jessixa Bagley over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

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0 Comments on Review of the Day: Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley as of 7/8/2015 2:36:00 AM
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24. 5 Artists Create Visual Book Reviews for The New York Times

New York Times NYT LogoAccording to the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The New York Times tasked five artists to construct “visual book reviews” for an art-themed issue of the Sunday Book Review.

The following creatives took part in this project: Wangechi Mutu, Joan Jonas, Jacolby Satterwhite, Kader Attia and Ed Ruscha.

Mutu reviewed Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Jonas reviewed John Berger’s Why Look at Animals?, Satterwhite reviewed Andrew Durbin’s Mature Themes, Attia reviewed Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s African Art as Philosophy and Ruscha reviewed Ron Padgett’s Oklahoma Tough.

Each individual chose a book that they found inspiring; all of them wrote one short paragraph to discuss the reason why they chose that book. Click here to view all five pieces.

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25. Thursday Review: LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Summary: I read this a while ago, and I've been terribly neglectful in writing up a review. This was my first experience reading one of Johnson's books, and I had high expectations after what I'd heard about The Summer Prince (reviewed here by... Read the rest of this post

0 Comments on Thursday Review: LOVE IS THE DRUG by Alaya Dawn Johnson as of 7/9/2015 6:12:00 PM
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