Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oh, were I a kid again...

Now Reading: Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady

These are all books that my reaction to was "meh" BUT that I know I would have looooooooooved back when I was a member of the intended age range for the book...

We all know I enjoy books that aren't great literature-- I'm not the most discriminating reader, but there is something about these books that just didn't grab me. Many are books in series and where I didn't flat-out dislike these books, they also didn't compel me to read the books that follow...

Dragon Slayers' Academy: The New Kid at School #1 by Kate McMullen and Bill Basso

So.... Wiglaf is the youngest brother in a large, brutish family. In Cinderella-like fashion, he has to do all the work and is constantly picked on. He decides to go to the Dragon Slayer Academy so he can kill dragons and get the loot to help out his family. But the Academy is run down and out of cash, and leads to madcap adventures and friends...

Although this book didn't grab me, it would have when I was in third grade. As an adult, the plot was predictable and the characters flat. And, despite what Mary Pope Osburne says on the back cover, Wiglaf could not be Harry Potter's little brother-- the series (of now 19 titles) isn't serious enough, it's just slapstick. I did really enjoy the yearbook at the end of the book with information Wiglaf has learned, as well as ads and things for the school.

Camp Princess 1: Born to Rule by Kathryn Lasky suffered many of the same problems-- the plot was horribly predictable but mainly it didn't work-- it's about princess at summer camp. A lot of the things that were supposed to make summer camp special--such as the weather that can go from summer to winter in five minutes-- just don't work. Lasky has written such great work and won so many awards, that the mediocrity disappointed me.

Meet Calliope Day by Steve Haddard is about Calliope who thinks the old lady next door is a witch but has the delightful twist that she thinks this is kinda cool. If she can make friends with the witch, maybe the witch will cast some spells on Calliope's behalf. Of course, the lady next store does not want to be friends with a small girl who runs wild around the neighborhood. Not as good as Ramona, Junie B. , Clementine, or a host of others.

Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson I enjoyed-- it was cute and fun-- but I would have really loved this back in the day. Arriman the Awful needs an heir, so he has to marry. There's a competition and the local witches are all worked up on what evil spell to perform to win his heart. The witches are more hilarious as they trip all each other to prove they're the most evil. Of course, there's the one who really is evil and the one that's actually good, but is trying very, very hard to be a bad witch. Funny and heartwarming, but better when you're 12.

Ok, and here's one I don't think I would have liked even when I was a kid-- I finally broke down and read a Goosebumps book (hey-- it was banned books week). So, I read The Blob That Ate Everyone which was not scary and predictable with an amazingly weak ending. And wow, it really is bad writing.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

In Case My Recommendations Aren't Enough

Now Reading: Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady
Just Finished: Clay, Thumb on a Diamond

Well, in case you need some good recommendations on what to read, may I suggest two most excellent books by Nancy Pearl (aka the Librarian Action Figure )?
Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason and More Book Lust are filled with annotated book lists of books to read and enjoy. Most of my favorites were there and some were missing, but the Ms. Pearl, the rockstar librarian, encourages the rest of us write in with our additions. (Also, check out her book wiki.)

So, these books offer lists with such topics as "Africa: Yesterday and Today" and "Quirky Science" she introduces the topic and writes a sentence or two about the books she lists, giving just enough to make you want to read them.

Read these books with paper and pencil, because your "To Read" list will expand exponentially-- I think I added 9 pages to mine with these books! Despite my innate fear of writing in books, I'm taking a pencil to mine, putting little check marks by the books I've read.

I can't wait for the April release of Book Crush: For Kids and Teens-Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Interest.

PS- Can you believe that no one has yet given me a librarian action figure with automatic shushing action?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Princess School

Now Reading: Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady

Sorry I've been slacking lately. It's been a time and lately, my days have been devoted to a male body part on a dog that gets bitten by a rattlesnake...

Higher Power of Lucky is a good book people. I'll talk more about it later. I'm in a princessy mood today...

So, (Cinder) Ella, Snow (White), (Briar) Rose, and Rapunzel are all in school for good princesses-in-training. Their classmates include such characters as Gretl and Red Riding Hood. It's a sweet, fun series that won't win any prizes for being quality literature, but I thoroughly enjoy it!

I like the characterization of the princesses-- they're still the classic characters we know and love, but they're very likable and real at the same time. They also each have their own personality.

Interestingly enough, consistently throughout this entire series, the subplots are much more interesting and engaging than the main plots-- the main plots have a lot more to do with the classic-twisted-fairy tale aspect, but the subplots are where the girls shine as themselves and relate to each other as real people.

In the first book, If the Shoe Fits,Ella is devastated that her fairy godmother isn't around to work her magic and help her fit in to her new school. She has to walk in the mud and doesn't have a lot of time for homework because she has to do all the work at home... but she quickly makes friends to help her out. And, at school, mean tricks are being played on all the first year students. Could the evil steps be behind them? And who will be crowned at the ball?

Next up is Who's the Fairest?. It's sports day! Princess Style! (They're called the Maiden Games.) And they're competing against the Grimm school, where Snow's evil stepmother is the headmistress. Will Snow be able to compete under Maldora's evil glare? Will she let down all her classmates? The best part of this is the subplot-- Rapunzel is team captain and running those girls ragged and Rose is jealous (gasp!) of Ella's new found popularity.

In Let Down Your Hair, Madame Gothel has found out that Rapunzel's been sneaking out of her tower to go to class. That witch is going through great lengths to keep Rapunzel locked up where she belongs, but her friends are here to help. If only Prince Valiant would be there for Rapunzel and stop fawning over Rose!

Beauty Is A Beast finds Rose sick of being over-protected, sick of everyone fawning over her, and just wanting to rebel or at the least be normal! So, she does just that-- rebel. But is finals week really the time to stop doing your homework? Once again, subplots rule the day with Ella's stepmother holding her responsible for the evil stepsisters exam grades. If Ella's always helping them study, when will she study?

In Princess Charming Rapunzel has taught Val everything he knows about jousting in order to do well in the upcoming Charm School (for Princes-in-training) tournament. But when Val starts running his mouth about how girls can't joust, Rapunzel's off to prove him wrong. But how can she skip so much school without getting caught? How will she find a helmet for all that hair? And what if she wins? Will the Princes be OK with losing to a Princess?

Apple-y Ever After is probably the darkest and most action-packed of the series. Snow's father has come back from being lost at sea, but has no idea who Snow is. In this book, I really enjoyed the main plot. Snow and her friends are trying everything to make him remember, and Maldora (her evil step-mother)is doing everything possible to make sure he doesn't. Snow also is very conflicted-- she loves her father and wants to live with him back in their castle, but can she really leave the dwarfs behind? A bitter-sweet, yet perfect ending.

Thorn In Her Side is the most recent book to come out. The school is doing a play with a touring theatre group! Rose wants to be the bad guy, but ends up playing the perfect Princess (surprise, surprise). She's really intrigued by the fairy that is playing the bad guy and wants to know him better and learn acting skills from him, but he won't talk to her. Rose's past is coming to haunt her and she's going to have to pay for the mistakes made by her parents. This book is actually pretty funny with all of the usual school-play hijinks. Also, Ella's stepsisters make themselves really obnoxious and awful, much to the amusement of all.

So, you don't have to read this series in order, but previous events (and how they ended) are mentioned in the later books.

Also, my favorite plot twist is when Ella's dad reveals the truth about her step-mother, but I can't remember which book that is...

My one question is that there's a teaser ad for a book called Slippery Steps in the back of Thorn in her Side that was supposed to come out in December and Amazon was advertising it for awhile, and now the book seems to have disappeared. What happened?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Fables Catch-up

I reviewed most of the Fables books already, and they're one of my favorite series I discovered in 2006, but I'm three books behind in the series!

First up is Fables: Arabian Nights (and Days) - Volume 7. In this tale, the Arabian Fairy Tale contingent (led by none other than Sinbad!) arrives in Fabletown, seeking asylum. Mowgli, as emissary, has laid a complex groundwork to minimize culture clashes between the Americanized European Fables and the Arabian Fables. But! Now that King Cole is no longer mayor and Charming is, a lot of things have fallen through the cracks-- including all of Mowgli's plans. And Mowgli's not there to pick up the pieces, because he's off searching for Bigby. What's to happen when the Fables find out that their new guests have brought a Djinn? Will Fabletown survive?

This collection also includes a one-off story called "The Ballad of Rodney and June" (which makes me sing "Ballad of Bobby and June" off the A Mighty Wind soundtrack) this is the ill-fated love affair between a member of the Adversary's army and his medic. I'm not a big fan of the one-off stories because I these collection are short enough as it is-- I want PLOT! But that's just me being whiny. They're well written, but it's frustrating because this whole series is so good, and just keeps getting better and you want to know what happens next and you still have a bunch of pages to go, but! ack! Side plot!

The next volume is the amazing and superb Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Framed in as Snow White going to the Arabian Lands to plea for help in the early days of Fabletown. Not used to negotiating with a mere woman, Snow ends up in the Scherazade-like position of telling a story every night to save her head.

What Snow ends up telling are the back stories of our favorite characters-- where Snow gets her strength, how Frau Totenkinder survived Hansel and Gretl, how the Frog Prince escaped without his family, and why Bigby is so cranky and how he first met Snow. These stories allow us a much deeper glimpse into these characters and why they act the way they do once in Fabletown. More exciting than the back story though, is the beautiful renderings of each story by a different artist. I really love the different spin Tara McPherson puts on Snow and Red, but the story of Flycatcher broke my heart. These are the classic fairy tales as only Willingham could tell them-- dark, violent, and rarely with a happy ending. Most excellent and my favorite of the series by far.

Most recently we've gotten Fables Vol. 8: Wolves. I don't want to give too much away, but Mowgli finds Bigby! And there are issues! And it's awesome! We also get a fun short story of Cinderella as Secret Agent. Yes, I know just a few paragraphs ago I was whiny about side plots, BUT! I like them better when they involve characters that are already part of the series.

AND! Coming at the end of the month is... Jack of Fables. I can't wait! (Can you?)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Contemporary Chinese Suprises

So... I will admit I was always a bit skeptical when Amazon recommended Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. I'm not a big fan of "I went to China for a year and now I'm an expert!" books. Because I studied abroad in China and you know what I found out? That there is a loooooooooooooooooooooooong and complicated history at play that is really hard for lao wai to understand, or at least understand well enough to write a book I want to read.

So, imagine my surprise when I picked up (and fell in love with) his second book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present.

Hessler doesn't make sweeping generalizations about China, it's culture or it's people. He doesn't pretend to be an expert. He just tells his story as a freelance reporter based in Beijing and the stories of his Chinese friends as they grapple with a society that is changing faster that most people comprehend.

His observations are poignant and funny and spot on. His prose is engaging and entertaining. Issues are explained will enough to make this a great book for someone with a passing interest in contemporary China, but covered in-depth enough for those with a more scholarly pursuit of information. His explanations and stories of the Shenzhen boom town phenomenon really put something like Candy into context and perspective.

Most importantly, Hessler's up front about his limitations and what he can and cannot know or do, which makes this book one of the most enlightening, and trust worthy, of them all.

After reading Oracle Bones, I immediately bought a copy of River Town, which is waiting patiently for me to read it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Rachel Cohn is my HERO

Ok, so this past year I discovered Rachel Cohn and I am in love. True love.

First off, she wrote Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with David Levithan, and y'all know I'm also in love with him.

So... this is a fun book chronicling the madcap adventures of one night told in alternating points of view. Levithan wrote Nick's chapters and Cohn wrote Norah's. Nick is the only straight member of a queercore band, and sees his fairly recent ex-girlfriend come into a show he's playing with a different guy. In order to pretend it doesn't bother him, he asks Norah to be his girlfriend for 5 minutes.

Norah needs to get her drunk best friend back to New Jersey and figures Nick's good for a ride. She also sees an ex she wouldn't mind pissing off. So she kisses him. And so begins a night of falling in and out of love and running around New York City.

Unshelved also did a great book talk of this.

It's sweet and fun. Cohn and Levithan's writing styles work amazingly well together-- it's hard to tell that the author keeps changing. The characters are fun and although many of them aren't very fleshed out, instead of seeming flat, they appear to be like everyone else you randomly meet one night as you follow Nick and Norah on their non-date. I liked it a lot.

But, I liked Gingerbread even more (and it's one of my top picks for 2006).

I know she would probably hate me when she met me, but I really feel like Cyd Charisse and I could be best friends. I want to be her best friend. (No offense to my current friends-- you'd like her too! Promise! We could all hang out and drink coffee and eat cupcakes!)

So, Cyd just got kicked out of her posh east coast boarding school and sent back to San Fransisco to live with Nancy (her mother) and Sid-dad (her step-father). Storming around the house and generally causing trouble, it's a tense situation. The only things that liven it up are her surfer boyfriend Shrimp, her old lady pal Suger Pie, and Shrimp's brother's coffee house Java the Hut. But then she gets confined to her house for bad behavor and Shrimp thinks they need to go on a break.

Cyd finally goes to New York City to be with her biological father, Frank-dad, and to meet the half-siblings she's never known, Danny and lisBETH.

The beauty of this book is Cyd-- her outlook on life and how she views the people in it. She's cynical and hilariously funny and really, I think she would hate me, but I want to be her best friend. This is a book I couldn't put down and I had already picked up the sequel before I had even finished the first book-- I knew I would want to read it.

Which brings up to... Shrimp Cyd's back in San Fransisco and she and Shrimp have some... issues to work out-- like Cyd's crush on his older brother. But Nancy and Shrimp are starting to get along? Maybe? And Shrimp's parents are back in town, at least for a bit. The best part is that Cyd finally makes some female friends! Helen and Autumn (who Shrimp may or may not have had some fling with while Cyd was in New York) are welcome additions to the cast of characters and...

Lack of Helen was the main flaw in Cupcake which finds Cyd living in New York with her brother Danny. I also really missed her little brother and sister as well as Sid-Dad. The new characters of Mold and Max are great and this book will make you crave cupcakes like NO ONE'S business. I had to make a special batch just to meet my cravings. (FYI-- devils food cupcakes with mocha buttercream frosting? Both from How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food? Simply divine!)

Cohn's other YA novel is Pop Princess. This tells the story of the rise of a pop star one summer and how she deals with the fame and the death of her sister and the strain that caused on her family. This wasn't nearly as good as Gingerbread et al. but was fun. The ending was totally predictable but one I was rooting for anyway.

Cohn also has two books for slightly younger readers. In The Steps Annabel is off to Sydney, Australia. This was not her idea and doesn't sound like fun--she had a perfectly lovely winter break planned in New York, thank you very much. But Annabel's dad has remarried and lives in Australia now with his new wife, two kids from her first marriage, and their new baby. Annabel's mission? To bring her dad back to the US where he belongs. With her. Of course, it doesn't end that way and we have several heart-warming moments about the meaning of family. On the cover of the edition I read, there was a very helpful family tree because there are a lot of crazy relationships!

Two Steps Forward finds everyone in LA for the summer where it turns out that maybe we didn't learn all the necessary lessons last time around. This one's different because every chapter is told from a different point of view, instead of Annabel's not-always-reliable vantage point. I think I liked this one better than the first one.