"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."


Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Police Cloud

The Police Cloud
Author: Christoph Neiman
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
ISBN-10: 0375839631
ISBN-13: 978-0375839634

Illustrator Christoph Niemann`s first book The Police Cloud is both a charming story and a visual treat. It’s a story about a cloud who, since he was a very small puff wanted to be a policeman and help people. When given his chance at his dream job and the big blue hat that comes with it, he finds unexpected obstacles to his chosen career.

The cloud tries so hard to be a good officer and blunders one assignment after another. A thief escapes right through him and his day as a traffic officer is a disaster. When he finally breaks down and cries he finds he is good at something and finds just the right career for him.

The story is touching and sweet. I read this to my grandson and granddaughter, expecting that the boy would love it and the girl might be a little bored (she loves pink and sparkly), but they surprised me. Both were completely entranced and I had to read it again and again and again. We read it four times in an hour and they both loved it. I see it getting pride of place on their bookshelf.

The illustrations are gorgeous and really have the feel of a beautiful blue sky and a very puffy white cloud. The sky is almost another character with the city fading in the background. The Cloud is just about the sweetest character I’ve seen and he just makes you smile. Both children and adults will love the well-meaning little cloud. I love the book’s message that everyone can aspire to be something and even if it’s not what they’re good at, everyone is good at something.

The Police Cloud is very highly recommended and sure to be a long time favorite. I see this becoming one of the classics of children’s literature.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Reviewing the Classics of Kidlit - The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - Reviewed by Elizabeth Lund

The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Author: E.L. Konisburg
Publisher: Atheneum
ISBN-10: 068985322X
ISBN-13: 978-0689853227

When I reread The Mixed-Up Files, I can hardly believe it was written in 1968. Though the amount of Claudia's allowance and the price of The New York Times reveal its age, few books from that era retain such a contemporary feel.

For those who aren't familiar with the book, The Mixed-Up Files is about Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid, two suburban siblings who, fed up with the rest of their family, run away to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The adventure becomes a mystery when they become determined to discover the true origin of a statue named angel, reputed to be the work of Michelangelo. Claudia's careful planning makes their escape and survival plausible. Jamie's practical nature and eye-rolling attitude keep Claudia from getting too romantic. The siblings complement each other and form a partnership that is at first grudging, later affectionate, making this a book with both boy and girl appeal.

I still think this is a nearly perfect premise for a middle-grade novel. It may not grab immediate attention, but in its simple plot, there are elements to appeal to many different segments of child readers: mystery lovers, kids intrigued by the romance of big cities, kids who like art and museums (such kids exist; I was one of them), and the nearly universal appeal of a story about running away.

And yet The Mixed-Up Files is so much more than its plot. Konigsburg works philosophy into these pages: ideas about secrets, learning, our need for comfort, and the isolation of modern life. Most importantly, she explore what make someone an individual rather than a member of a school class, a member of a family, or someone who defined simply by the motions of their daily lives.

Each detail in The Mixed Up Files is carved as carefully as Michelangelo's fictional angel. I remember precisely such images as the strip of white flesh between Jamie's jacket and sagging trousers when he fills his pockets with change, the deep black tub with golden faucets, the meals they eat from the Automat. The language is equally thoughtful. Decades after I first read this book, sentences such as, "Bedtime is the worst time for organized thinking," still ring in my mind.

Far from being outdated, The Mixed Up Files becomes increasingly relevant. Jamie and Claudia are described as siblings who were so busy with activities that they never really spent much time together, a situation that is certainly even more common today than in the sixties. They're suburban. They're consumers, with Claudia's spending of her paltry allowance described as "her biggest adventure each week." And they feel the emptiness of their busy lives. That is why they run away—as Claudia puts it, to "come back different."

By the end, she is different, and so are we.

Dancing to Almendra

Dancing to Almendra

Author: Mayra Montero
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN-10: 0374102775
ISBN-13: 978-0374102777

Dancing to Almendra takes place in Mafia-dominated 1950’s Cuba before Castro takes over. It begins with a bizarre killing of a hippopotamus at the local zoo and young journalist Joaquín Porrata is sent to write up the story. Joaquín usually covers fluff pieces but desperately wants to be a real reporter covering more important things. He stumbles onto something at the zoo where he learns that the killing of the hippo was a warning to mob boss Umberto "Albert" Anastasia, who really was murdered in 1957. Joaquín starts investigating and begins to uncover an incredible story. He is threatened, beaten, warned and scared the hell out of, but he keeps on investigating and uncovering more and more.

As the investigation deepens, Joaquín’s life starts to spin out of control. He travels to New York, meets both Meyer Lansky and George Raft and finds out much more than any person should know about the Mafia.

The characters are all intensely interesting and detailed. Joaquín’s father and brother Santos, his lesbian sister and his tragic martyr of a mother are all fascinating. Yolanda, the ex circus performer, one-armed mulatta lover of Joaquín as well as Santos Trafficante and mother of a trapeze artist is simply too wild and wonderful not to love.

The story is told in Joaquín’s hard-bitten, matter of fact voice with alternating chapters told in a mystical way by Joaquín’s lover Yolanda. The Cuba of the 50’s comes to life with Mayra Montero’s incredible writing. She paints a decadent picture of nightclubs, music and gaudy casinos where an underlying threat of revolution is bubbling to the surface.

Dancing to Almendra
is a gorgeous book about a crazy time and Montero manages to paint both the garish, brightly lit surface as well as the darkness underneath it all with a deft hand.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this weekend, April 28-29, 2007. I look forward to this festival every year and usually go both days. It's a great place to meet up with old friends, meet authors, get your books signed, buy books, hang out and just have fun.

This year I'll be there all day Saturday and am really excited about it. Sunday I'll be there from opening till about 3pm and I'll have the grandkids along so I'm betting I'll be in the storytelling area a lot with the exception of swinging by to meet one of my literary idols Paco Taibo III and buy his new book on Pancho Villa.

If any of you authors, publishers, publicity people are interested in saying hello, shoot me an email and I'll make the time to swing by your booth, panels or maybe we can grab a coffee. Hope to see you all there!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cecilia's Year

Cecilia’s Year
Author: Susan Gonzales Abram and Denise Gonzales Abram
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN-10: 1933693029
ISBN-13: 978-1933693026

Cecilia’s Year covers the life of a 14 year old Mexican-American girl who lives on a ranch in New Mexico during the Depression era.

Cecilia is smart, bookish and determined in her quiet way to follow her dreams. One of those dreams is going to high school instead of marrying and being a stay at home wife and mother as is expected of girls in that era. The book is set up with each chapter dedicated to a different month on the ranch with rich cultural details and a profound sense of community. The family and friends Cecilia has surrounding her are all very definite personalities and each feels real and true.

Cecilia’s Year has a down home feel to it with a strong Mexican flavor. Even though I grew up decades after Cecilia did and in the city, most of the core values, the family she lives with, the dichos (sayings) and food they eat is much like what I grew up with in my Mexican home. Some things always remain the same. The book really resonated with me for those reasons as well as being a great and engrossing story. You just have to love Cecilia and root for her. You hope she gets everything she dreams of and that’s the magic of reading a book like this – you end up really caring about the characters. They become real to you. Cecilia’s story is heartfelt and lovely.

The book is a tribute to the author’s mother and a note at the end tells what happened to the real Cecilia. Sepia toned photos are included as well as a glossary of Spanish dichos.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy

Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy
Author: Jane O’Connor
Illustrator: Robin Preiss Glasser
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN-10: 0060542136
ISBN-13: 978-0060542139
Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy is a completely charming story about a little girl with very fancy ideas. Fancy Nancy’s parents have agreed to get a family dog and Fancy Nancy wants a very special dog. Her very fancy neighbor has a posh (another word for fancy) little papillon dog that is tiny, elegant and perfect in Nancy’s eyes. Her mom has her doubts and so it is up to Nancy to convince her that a papillon is what this family needs.

Nancy soon finds out that elegant, posh dogs aren’t exactly that fun when she dog sits for the papillon and encounters lots of obstacles. When Nancy learns after a long day that a fancy dog just might not be for her, she’s very disappointed and sad – to sad to even get very fancy. Her mom has the bright idea of stopping at the pound to see what dogs are available and Nancy finds one with the fancy name of Frenchie.

Frenchie turns out to be perfect for the family and Nancy learns that there is a lot more to being fancy than just looking the part. Jane O’Connor’s humor and wit make this lovely little story something that both little girls and their mommies will love. I love how she sneaks in those big words for little girls to learn. My granddaughter loved the first book and she’s even crazier about this one. I have had to promise her a visit to the pound to find her own posh puppy.

The illustrations are beautiful and marvelously fancy. I love Nancy’s costumes and her sparkly little face. She steals your heart.

Book Description from the publisher:

Fancy Nancy is back! And when her family decides to get a dog, she's certain she can be fancier than ever. After all, a papillon—a small, delicate, fluffy dog—is the ultimate accessory. But her family wants a large, plain dog. How unglamorous!

With Fancy Nancy's trademark humor and warmth, Nancy discovers that real fanciness does not depend simply on appearance but more on a genuine joie de vivre, which is a fancy phrase for having lots of fun.

About the Author:
Since the publication of Fancy Nancy, Jane O'Connor's closet now boasts so many boas, tiaras, and sparkly ensembles that sometimes friends do not recognize her on the street. She still resides (that's a fancy word for lives) in New York City with her family and their canine companion, Arrow.

About the Illustrator:
Robin Preiss Glasser actually wore tiaras and tutus when she danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet for eleven years. Now she happily spends her days in jeans and glasses, drawing such bestsellers as Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor and America: A Patriotic Primer by Lynne Cheney. Robin lives in Southern California with her husband, Bob, children Sasha and Benjamin, and their puppy, Boo, whom they still love even after she ate the living room sofa.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress

Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress
Author: Tina Ferraro
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
ISBN-10: 0385733682
ISBN-13: 978-0385733687

Nicolette “Nic” Antonovic is going through a lot in her sophomore year. Her mom and dad have split up, Dad’s got more time to devote to Nic’s “replacement” her new stepsister, her mom is in danger of losing her home, the guy she was going to go to prom with dumped her for his ex-girlfriend and she’s stuck with one perfectly lovely vintage prom dress. Her mom is trying to keep her head above water and be cheery at the same time so she comes up with a list, Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress that make up the chapters of this book.

Nic’s life is spinning out of control but she thinks she has a handle on it. She tries to fix things for her mom by asking her Dad for the money for the mortgage and that causes some unexpected problems. Then there’s her friend’s brother she’s starting to have feelings for and that’s causing problems with her best friend who is weirded out by the situation.

Rod, the guy that ditched her last minute for the prom is hitting on her and she’s a little confused about that too. Nic’s a smart girl though and a strong one. I liked her. Even though she has some confusing feelings for Rod, her brain does tell her to back off, to not let him take advantage of her attraction. Nic’s nobody’s fool and she’s real enough to be liked and we all can related to being attracted to the bad boy.

There’s a lot of heart in this book. When I first picked it up, I thought it would be a piece of fluff. Surprisingly, I was caught up right on the first page and it kept my attention till the end. I loved Nic and her way of dealing with things. She’s smart, funny and real. The issues she has with boys, friends, high school, rumors and family problems all ring very true. She’s just a very likeable, normal teenaged girl with her share of problems.

Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress is a smart, funny and down to earth book that teenaged girls are going to love.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Kings in Disguise

Kings in Disguise: A Novel
Author: James Vance
Illustrator: Dan Burr
Introduction: Alan Moore
Publisher: W.W. Norton
ISBN-10: 0393328481
ISBN-13: 978-0393328486

Kings in Disguise takes place in1932, the height of the Depression. It’s the story of the Bloch family, young Frankie in particular. Mr. Bloch has plunged into alcoholic despair and can’t find work anywhere. He’s lost just about all hope. Albert, the older brother has lost all respect for his father while Frankie just gets lost at the movies. Gangster movies are his favorites and he carefully saves bottles so that he can get his dime to see a new movie every week.

It all comes to a head when Albert and Mr. Bloch get into a terrible fight and in the morning, Mr. Bloch has disappeared supposedly looking for work in a new town. Albert and 12-year old Frankie are left on their own. Albert tries to rob someone in order to buy food and is injured, will possibly arrested and thrown in jail. Frankie is left on his own and tries to make it to Detroit to find his father and uncle. Frankie runs into a group of hobos with bad intentions but is saved by another hobo calling himself the King of Spain.

The King of Spain is more than a little crazy and sick to boot but he’s a kindly soul and protects Frankie. The two set off riding the rails for Detroit and they encounter just about every kind of lost soul there is. They also find small kindnesses and worthy people which help keep the hope alive. It’s an incredible story told with humor, pathos and gut wrenching reality.

The black and white illustrations by Burr add not only depth to the story but manage to convey such deep emotion.

This story of a child forced into being a man is touching and painfully beautiful. The Great Depression depicted by this amazing graphic novel is depicted in a very realistic and human way.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fred Patten Reviews Lady Friday

Lady Friday (The Keys to the Kingdom, Book #5)
Author: Garth Nix
Publisher: Scholastic Press
ISBN 10: 0-439-70088-4
ISBN 13: 978-0-439-70088-7

Here is another adventure fantasy that is part of a complex series. Readers are advised to begin with Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, and Sir Thursday in order to understand what is going on in Lady Friday.

Arthur Penhaligon is a sickly adolescent who may be the heir to what is essentially the whole universe; but the seven Trustees (think of fallen archangels) are loath to give up the godlike power that they have been wielding in the Architect’s absence. Arthur has been fighting them individually, to stay alive and protect his human family and friends more than to gain his inheritance.

As he defeats each enemy, Arthur gains another portion of the Architect’s Will; yet each gain transforms him slightly more into a Denizen of the House. If Arthur is forced to claim his full Inheritance (defeat all seven Trustees), he will have become more than mortal and can never return to Earth. By this volume, the action has already moved from Arthur’s normal home and school locale into the supernatural realms within the House.

Lady Friday is divided into two parallel stories. Leaf, Arthur’s mortal school chum, is drawn into the House despite Arthur’s hopes to protect her, when Lady Friday decides that the girl may make a valuable hostage. Arthur has the support of the loyal teen friends he has met previously, Suzy Turquoise Blue and Fred Initial Numbers Gold; but they are now identified as children of the Piper, one of Arthur’s more dangerous adversaries, and possible pawns under his control. Arthur is urged to kill them by all of his other supporters.

The plot and action, full of traps and potential betrayals, are almost incidental to the exotic areas within the House. Leaf explores and tries to escape from Lady Friday’s lair within the huge crater of an extinct volcano, with hundreds of galleries and balconies and walkways surrounding a large central lake.

Arthur and his companions must traverse a snowbound Middle House which is the locale of the Guild of Gilding and Illumination (a castlelike stone fortress), the Guild of Illustration and Augmentation (“and a nastier bunch you’ll never meet, unless you go up to the Top Shelf, where the so-called High Guild of Binding and Restoration laze about. I understand that Lady Friday’s Scriptorium is actually beyond that, on the mountain peak, …”), and the Extremely Grand Canal which flows up the mountainside, with the Paper Pushers (“the Noble and Exalted Association of Waterway Motivators”) who regulate the traffic upon it.

All the novels of The Keys to the Kingdom series are filled with imaginatively bizarre imagery, and Lady Friday adds to the eclectic marvel of the universe-filling House.

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
Publisher: Blue Sky Press
ISBN-10: 043912042X
ISBN-13: 978-0439120425

Winner of the 2001 Pura Belpre Award, Esperanza Rising is a magical riches to rags story of Esperanza Ortega, a young girl growing up in Mexico. Esperanza’s father is a rich landowner and the life she leads is one of privilege unlike her friend Miguel the son of servants.

When Esperanza’s father is killed by bandits her evil and powerful uncles impose themselves on the property and on Esperanza’s mother. They are determined to keep the ranch and try to force Esperanza’s mother to marry one of the uncles. When she refuses, they set fire to the family home endangering everyone and forcing Esperanza and her mother to flee with the servants. They leave everything behind and start anew in the farm camps of the United States during the Depression.

While her mother handles her changed circumstances with dignity and grace, Esperanza has a hard time adjusting. The work in camps is hard, her life is so different and it’s hard for her to take. The other girls in the camp think she is spoiled but she does manage to make some friends.

Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. It’s an amazing story of grace, honor, determination and hope.

Dragonology: Tracking and Taming Dragons: A Deluxe Book and Model Set

Dragonology: Tracking and Taming Dragons: A Deluxe Book and Model Set
Author: Dr. Ernest Drake
Editor: Dugald Steer
Publisher: Candlewick Press

The latest in the Dragonolgy series, Tracking and Taming Dragons has a wonderful little guide that has all you need to know about finding these magical creatures. The model is fun and easy to put together. My grandchildren and I had a blast doing it. The lovely green dragon with golden scales now hangs proudly in my bedroom so that when they come over it’s the first thing they see.

The accompanying handbook is wonderfully illustrated and as usual packed with interesting facts about dragons. We loved the section that showed how to make casts of dragon footprints. I’m sure it will prove very useful in our jaunts to the park. I had to promise to buy the stuff and I expect we’ll be spending some time making casts of the various neighborhood dog and cat paw prints this summer.

I think this set is very educational, whimsical and fun as well as a wonderful addition to the Ologies series.

The Wizardology Handbook

The Wizardology Handbook
Authors: Dugald Steer
Illustrator: Anne Yvonne Gilbert/Helen Ward /John Howe/Tomislav Tomic
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN-10: 0763634018
ISBN-13: 978-0763634018

The Wizardology Handbook
is a companion book to Wizardology and belongs to that wonderful series of Ology books by Candlewick Press. Like all the Ology books, it’s packed with information and illustrations. It even has a section in the back where young wizard apprentices can write their own spells and results as well as some colorful stickers.

The book is set up as a lesson book divided by the seasons. It includes lessons on Western Wizards, A Wizard’s Robes, Wizard Familiars and many more. The book also includes a glossary of magical terms.

I always am amazed by the quality of Candlewick’s books, especially the Ologies. There’s so much attention to detail, paper quality, the little embellishments that make turning the pages a joy. I’m as big a fan as are my grandkids and children. Each of my four children as the whole library of Ologies and unashamedly say they belong to them, not their children. The kids have their own copies. Wizardology in particular is a favorite of my middle son Phillip, a big strapping 24 year old with a brown belt in karate and he loved this companion book. I bought Egyptology for his daughter Isis when she was born (how could I not with a name like Isis?) and it is Phillip that reads it to her every night even long after she’s fast asleep.

I found the book to be completely fun and a perfect addition to the rest of the series. These books are so much fun for kids! A perfect gift for any child who loves fanciful things.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thank you Liz B and all you wonderful contributors!

About a month ago I posted a Call for Guest Bloggers on AmoxCalli to review and recommend those wonderful old books we grew up with, books I consider classics of kidlit. I got some responses and lists of books people wanted to review which were fantastic. I knew of most, some I had never heard of and I'm looking forward to finding out more. I'm pretty excited about this new series, The Classics of Kidlit.

A couple of days ago, Liz B posted a link on her blog, A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy (one of my favorites) to my Call for Guest Bloggers post and already I've recieved some lovely comments and responses with even more lists of great books. Today, another lovely comment from Becky at Farm School Blog as well as a post on her site about the series.

To all of you who responded to my call, to Liz for nudging it along, to all you wonderful bloggers, librarians, homeschoolers and everyone that loves YA and Kidlit, thank you, thank you, thank you! It's been a dream of mine to do this and I so appreciate everyone's contribution to that dream. I'm so looking forward to your wisdom, your insight, your wonderful ways of seeing things in books and most of all, sharing those great books and your thoughts about them.

If I missed anything or anyone, let me know.

This is going to be so much fun!


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Forged in the Fire

Forged in the Fire
Author: Ann Turnbull
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN-10: 0763631442
ISBN-13: 978-0763631444

In this thrilling sequel to No Shame, No Fear, Will and his beloved Susanna have trials aplenty to go through. It’s London in the year 1655 and Will has been disowned by his father for becoming a Quaker. Will travels to London to seek his fortune, make enough money to be able to marry Susanna and bring her to live with him. Susanna stays behind to work and wait for letters from Will, in particular the one that will tell her he’s coming for her. The letter comes but Will doesn’t and Susanna isn’t the type of girl to sit and wait when she’s worried about someone she loves.

Will’s been thrown into jail for his beliefs and is sitting in Newgate prison where the plague has struck. He eventually is taken out of the prison and sent to recover from a non-plague related illness at the home of rich Friends. When he is lucid, he finds out that his job in the bookshop where he was working no longer exists as the owner and his family all died of the plague.

Half the story is told in Will’s viewpoint, the other half in Susanna’s and I have to say I was completely captivated by this historical star crossed lover’s tale. I got caught up in the history and the horror of living in the times of the plague. There’s this scene where people are killing all the cats because they believe they carry the plague and Will’s roommate Nat sneaks in a kitten to save it.

I always love books that have great history in them, especially history I know little about. The story of Quakers in England, their persecution and trials is definitely something I now want to learn more of after reading this.

The letters are wonderful and are written with such grace and beauty of language. Here are a couple of samples of Will writing to Susanna.

"Dear heart, I write this in the evening, after work, and try to picture thee also in thy room in London, perhaps with Nat, eating hot pies from Pudding Lane (for I remember what thou told me of thy habits). As long as I hold thy image in my mind, I can believe thee safe and in good health. I know thou dare not write to me. We receive few letters now, and there are fewer travelers on the road to bring us news, but we know the pestilence still rages and has begun to spread into the country..."

"Love, don't fear if thou hear nothing from me for a while. The authorities may restrict the post -- and even if they do not, I may hesitate to write to thee for fear the carrier should be infected. Take care to steam any letters from London over boiling vinegar; we are assured it is a preventative..."

I heartily recommend Forged in the Fire and hope for another in this wonderfully different series.

At the Firefly Gate

At the Firefly Gate
Author: Linda Newbery
Publisher: David Fickling Books
ISBN-10: 0385751133
ISBN-13: 978-0385751131

At the Firefly Gate is a lovely story of friendship, love, loss and simple courage. Henry and his parents move to a quiet Suffolk village near an old World War II airfield. Henry is upset about the move and misses his friends in the city very much. He has the usual dread of a new school, making new friends, getting made fun of. Henry is a small child and very shy. On his first night in his new home, he looks out the window and sees a man smoking at the gate with sparkling lights around him. This frightens Henry and adds to his feeling that he shouldn’t be living there.

As the days pass, Henry makes friends with the neighbor’s old aunt Dottie. Henry reminds Dottie of her fiancé (also named Henry), an RAF navigator who disappeared in the war. Henry and Dottie seem to have a deep bond while Dottie’s great niece lives to torment him.

Things start to get really interesting when Henry starts hearing the sound of WW2 planes flying overhead at night. Henry gets the feeling of being in someone else’s body and he starts to see visions of another time. He dreams of a life as an RAF navigator and starts to believe there’s a ghost out there that needs him to do something. He sees the guy from his gate as a young air force pilot talking to a girl at a restaurant. Henry begins to investigate the time by asking old-timers.

The book is well-written and tells it’s tale with a quiet and gentle force. The book almost reads as if it were written in the era Henry dreams about which was a pleasant surprise. There’s modern touches well that depict Henry’s present day life like the flight simulation game he plays that shows him more of RAF Henry’s mystery. The descriptions of the Suffolk town where Henry lives in are just wonderful. You feel you're there.
I love the courage Henry shows, the friendship and the kindness he shows to an elderly and dying woman. The book is so quietly emotional and real that you will find it moves you profoundly.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Reviewing the Classics of Kidlit - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

*Cover of my personal book that I've had since I was eight.

When I started AmoxCalli a couple of years ago my main goal was to get classic children’s literature in front of a new audience. I’m always surprised and dismayed when I talk to people about books that I think everyone grew up with and I get blank stares. It breaks my heart.

There is so much out there. I love all the new books that are coming out, books I’ve reviewed and recommended like Octavian Nothing, Hattie Big Sky, Anahita’s Woven Riddle, The Lighthouse Land, etc but I have a special place in my heart for the books that made me a lifelong reader, the ones that moved me and introduced me to new worlds. Because AmoxCalli is a book recommendation site (you won’t find any bad reviews here – if I don’t like it, I don’t post it), what better to recommend than those wonderful old books? I’ve been so busy reviewing the new stuff (not complaining, I love it) that I recently realized that I’ve not done what I set out to do with the blog – get people informed and interested in those old classics.

I put out a call for submissions and got a couple of responses from people who were just as excited as I am about showcasing those wonderful books. Look forward to seeing an eclectic and wonderful series of reviews from guest bloggers in the near future. If there’s a book that makes your heart go pitty-pat, that you remember fondly and want mentioned on the site, shoot me an email. If you’re interested in writing your own review of the books you love, email me and I’ll post it. The more of those books on this blog, the better.

For my first in the Reviewing the Classics of Kidlit posts, I’m choosing a personal favorite, Little Women not just because I love it so much but because I’ve bought so many copies of it to give out to young women I know – nieces, daughters of friends, girls I meet in the library or at bookstores, goddaughters, granddaughters. Each one has always come back to me amazed at how much they loved that book. They laughed, they cried, they learned something and each has their favorite part that they read over and over. One young girl in particular, the daughter of a dear friend who hated reading, refused to read it till I sat with her one day and read the first chapter aloud while she sat pouting. I finished the chapter and set the book down, went about my business and came back in to see her completely engrossed in the book an hour later.

Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publisher: various but I chose this illustrated edition by Gramercy
ISBN-10: 0517221160
ISBN-13: 978-0517221167

Louisa May Alcott wrote many books but this is my all-time favorite of hers and one that I read over and over. Little Women tells the tale of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March who are growing up in Civil War era North America. Their father, a minister is away at war as an army chaplain and their mother works very hard to keep her little family fed and clothed while still managing to do good charity works in the community. The Marches were once very rich, but because of bad investments, they have lost their money and are very poor.

Despite having very little money, worrying about their father and having to work very hard, the girls are good, cheerful, honest and strong willed young women. While they have their moments of jealousy and envy of others, they always manage to choose the right in the end and rise above their trials. Each of them is very human and very different from the other.

Jo is the tomboy writer with a nasty temper and hasty mouth that often gets her into trouble. Her more feminine and decorous older sister Meg is usually at her wits end trying to get Jo to be more ladylike. Meg is very sweet and gentle and always the voice of reason. Third child Beth is the most gentle of the girls. Beth is musical, tender and very, very shy. Amy, the youngest is an artist and just a bit affected. She’s always trying to use big words and ends up saying the wrong thing. Jo and Beth are the closest to each other, while Amy and Meg seem to understand each other the most. Jo and Amy often battle it out as their personalities really clash. Alcott’s characters are very, very human and real. Any girl can relate to fighting with her sister.

Next door to the girls lives rich Mr. James Laurence a gruff old man with a hidden soft heart. His grandson Theodore “Laurie” Laurence is handsome, friendly and lonely. He becomes friend to the girls after Jo throws a snowball into his window. The friendship is equal between the poor girls who bring love and family to him while he brings material things that they wouldn’t normally have.

There’s also the wonderfully nasty Aunt March who always has something to say about everything.

There is so much to say about this wonderful book which tells the story of growing up, lessons learned about life, love, duty, charity and caring that I can’t possibly sum it all up. It’s a book every young girl should have in her library and read with her mother. There are some strong lessons here that are defy time and will always be relevant. The lessons on strength, wisdom, love, patience and quiet service apply to us all.

Penny from Heaven

Penny from Heaven
Author: Jennifer Holm
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
ISBN-10: 037583687X
ISBN-13: 978-0375836879

Penny from Heaven is the story of 12-year old Penny Falucci, an Italian-American girl growing up in the 1950’s. Her father has died under mysterious circumstances when Penny was very little. She and her mother live with her slightly eccentric maternal grandparents. The grandmother, Me-Me is a horrible cook, Pop-Pop, the grandfather is constantly working on the plumbing and causing leaks, Penny’s mother works very hard and is struggling to make a life for herself. Penny also has this huge, extended Italian family with one favorite cousin, a gaggle of aunts and uncles that are devoted to her as well as her Italian grandparents that adore her. For some reason, the two families do not get along.

Penny’s not lacking in love. What she is lacking in is knowledge of her father. Nobody speaks of him, no one will tell her how he died.

This summer begins like any other with Penny and her favorite cousin Frankie playing baseball, delivering meat from their uncle’s butcher shop and hanging out. For her birthday, her Uncle Dominic has bought her Dodgers (Dem Bums) tickets for her birthday. It’s her very first game so she’s understandably excited and wiggles out of her mother’s birthday celebration for her. It conveys both Penny’s excitement and her mother’s quiet resignation and hurt.

Penny’s mother starts dating the milkman, Mr. Mulligan and Penny goes nuts. She’s hurt, she’s jealous, she doesn’t give Mr. Mulligan or her mother a chance. Things start to escalate and then something happens to Penny that turns both families upside down and bring them closer. Old secrets are disclosed and a shameful history of the country is exposed.

The cast of characters in this book is completely amazing. Each one of the characters is very detailed, well-defined and multi-layered. The former dancer, Aunt Gina and her battles with Nonny, the Italian grandmother were very realistic. It sounded just like my grandmother Ruth and her disapproval of one of my aunts.

The post-war 1950’s are portrayed so vividly that you feel you’re in that time period. Everything is so real. There’s a lot of history woven into this book and I think boys will like it just as much as girls. The real fans however are going to be adults that remember that era fondly.

Penny from Heaven is a completely remarkable book and it has something for everyone. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After

The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After
Authors: Patricia C. Wrede, Caroline Stevermer
Publisher: Harcourt Children’s Books
ISBN-10: 0152055487
ISBN-13: 978-0152055486

The Mislaid Magician
is the third in a series about two letter writing cousins who live in an alternate England where magic, magicians and wizards exist. There’s even a Royal College of Magicians. The other two books in the series are Sorcery and Cecilia and The Grand Tour. This book is ten years after the honeymoon and both cousins now have families of their own.

The story begins with Cecilia’s husband being called by the Duke of Wellington to investigate the disappearance of an engineer/magician. Cecilia leaves her children with Kate and Thomas and sets off with her husband to help find the missing magician. The mystery deepens as they discover something wrong with the ley lines in the area.

The story is told via correspondence between Kate and Cecilia as well as Thomas and James (the husbands).

The children figure into this story as well. Edward gets kidnapped when investigating a mysterious gypsy caravan on their property. Kate and Thomas rescue him and find another child, a silent, seemingly very well off girl named Drina.

The Mislaid Magician is a charming story with lots of mystery. There’s several to solve and the epistolary way it is told is very original.

Anahita's Woven Riddle

Anahita’s Woven Riddle
Author: Meghan Nuttall Sayres
Publisher: Amulet
ISBN-10: 0810954818
ISBN-13: 978-0810954816

Anahita is a nomad teen aged girl living in early 20th century Iran who loves riddles. She’s also just a little too independent and innovative for her time and culture which causes dissent and trouble within her tribe. One day her father tells her that the Khan, an older man who’s had three wives all of whom have died under mysterious circumstances. Anahita is horrified and has absolutely no interest in marrying this man, but her father is under pressure by the Khan.

Anahita manages to convince her father and the mullah of the tribe to allow her to have a contest in which she will weave a riddle into her wedding carpet. The man to guess the riddle will have her as his bride. This causes more trouble within the tribe as well as jealousy. Why does Anahita get to choose her husband? Why is she so willful? The angry and overbearing Khan is determined to have Anahita and threatens the tribe with one thing after another, even going so far as to block their water which they desperately need. Anahita’s contest goes on however and the suitors start trying for her hand. There are three interesting men in particular vying for Anahita’s hand in marriage – a schoolteacher, a shepherd, and a prince.

Anahita’s Woven Riddle
is an incredibly beautiful story rich with Persian culture. The descriptions of Anahita’s everyday life are so detailed and colorful. You can feel yourself on those mountains and hillsides, see the carpet she is weaving, smell the sheep and feel the wind.

I’m fascinated by the art of weaving so I loved the descriptions of her traveling with a caravan into the markets and picking out dyes for the dyemaster of her tribe.

Anahita’s Woven Riddle is a completely engrossing, different and fantastic tale. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in expanding their world, learning about the history and culture of another land or anyone who just loves a good story.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Wildwood Dancing

Wildwood Dancing
Author: Juliet Mariller
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN-10: 0375833641
ISBN-13: 978-0375833649

Recommended for grades 8 and up

Wildwood Dancing is the amazing and spellbinding tale of five Transylvanian sisters that sneak out of their old Romanian castle – the Piscul Draculi on the full moon to go dance in the world of fairy. They dance the night away with trolls, giants, dwarves and other fantastic creatures.

It’s an interesting twist of two classic fairytales – The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Frog Prince.

16 year old Jenica is the sensible sister who’s beloved pet frog Gogo sits on her shoulder and goes with her everywhere. It is Jena who narrates the tale and her voice is captivating. From the first page she captures you and brings you into the two worlds – hers and that of the fairy.

When the girls were very young, their father bought Piscul Draculi and set about restoring it. Jena and her sisters by accident found the portal that leads to the other world and for nine years they have come and gone with no one being the wiser.

This time however, something is different. They find that the Night People have come to dance and these scary people are very vampiric and monstrous. Jena immediately worries for her sisters but one of them Tati, is already in love with one of them, a sad eyed man named Sorrow. Jena is determined to keep her sisters safe and contemplates not letting them attend on the next full moon.

At home, not everything is as it should be either. Jena’s father is ill and must go away for the winter to warmer climes on doctor’s order. Capable Jena is left to run things with her cousin Cezar to help. Immediately upon her father’s departure, Cezar begins to try and dominate. He’s really a creep. He’s completely overbearing, chauvinistic and pushy. Jena is thwarted at every turn as he insidiously tries to take over.

Wildwood Dancing is a captivating read. Every page pulls you in and you care desperately for Jena and her sisters. I was on the edge of my seat all through the book dying to know what would happen while not wanting it to end. I loved the descriptions of the wild wood, the Night People, and the fairy dances. The story is one of intrigue, love and so much more. There’s a mystery to solve as well and I got so caught up in that. Nothing in this book is as it seems and everything is wonderful.

La Perdida

La Perdida
Author: Jessica Abel
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN-10: 0375423656
ISBN-13: 978-0375423659

La Perdida
is the story of Carla Olivares, a Mexican-American woman who decides to live in Mexico knowing virtually nothing about the real Mexico. She doesn’t speak Spanish and she has the romantic view that Mexico is somehow perfect. Like a lot of us Chicanas here she sees Mexico as her homeland and as something very different than what it really is.

Carla crashes at the apartment of her ex-boyfriend, a wealthy WASP till things get so bad he throws her out. Her time is spent visiting Frida Kahlo’s house, the pyramids and other monuments that she feels will help get her in touch with her Mexican side. She meets up with a bad group of people and some of the choices she makes are horrendous. I felt for Carla but was exasperated by her at the same time. Her treatment of people who are just trying to be her friends is apalling but understandable. I get why she's being such a bitch even while I'm cringing at her behavior.

The people Carla decides are her friends are petty criminals posing as revolutionaries. They play on Carla’s American guilt expertly, calling her conquistadora, a conquerer. To be a Chicana and to be called a conquistadora really hits home and these guys know how to play it up. Carla gets deeper and deeper, more and more sucked in, keeps making these incredibly stupid choices and Mexico becomes a dangerous nightmare. It’s an incredibly riveting story.

I know so many people like Carla (without the poor choices) so its easy to understand her. I get why Memo and Oscar give her such a hard time too. Jessica Abel writes so convincingly and it all rings very, very true.

The art just makes it even more incredible. Jessica Abel has such a commanding way of drawing characters. She manages to speak volumes with the way she draws a shoulder, an expression, the way people move. There are some great illustrations of the city that bring Mexico to life. I love the jacaranda trees that line the streets. They're so beautiful that I can almost smell them and feel their velvety purple blossoms.

Chicanos and Chicanas or pochos as they call us that grew up here longing for our homeland. It’s easy to glorify Mexico and its culture. It’s something we grew up lacking. Still, we are privileged here like it or not and when we go into Mexico, we’re perceived as American however much we see ourselves as Mexican. I’ve lived both in Mexico and here and even though for the most part I’ve fit in, there’s always been this sense of otherness that doesn’t quite fit.

La Perdida does a fantastic job of showing the angst felt by Mexican-Americans, our wanting to belong to our homeland while feeling cut off from it. It shows how much we love our culture and how different real Mexican life is from what we percieve it to be. The graphic novel medium adds incredible depth and intensity to the already riveting story.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Books for Young Learners

Usually I write reviews of books that I’ve liked and wanted to recommend but today I have a whole series of books to recommend – Books for Young Learners by Richard C. Owens Publishers. This is also the publisher of the marvelous Meet the Author series (see full reviews on three of them on this site).

I have it on good authority, my grandchildren that these books are absolutely wonderful. Jasmine carries hers in her little book bag all the time and is never without her favorites, Perlitas, Mama Cut My Hair, Play Ball and The Changing Caterpillar. Aiden loves Poco’s Garden, a charming tale of a little boy, his grandmother and the garden they are working on.

The books are small for little hands, colorful and bright and the stories are simple and upbeat. Highly recommended!

Description from the publisher:

This ever expanding collection currently contains 168 titles in English in and 82 titles in Spanish. Each year we will publish additional titles in English and titles in Spanish. Books for Young Learners in Spanish are authentic adaptations from English. The English/Spanish Companion Sets, provide the same book in English and Spanish so Spanish-speaking parents can read along as their children learn to read. They are ideal for ESL, LEP and bilingual programs.

The Books for Young Learners collection is a broad literacy frameworkfor developing readers and writers who think critically and communicateeffectively. The collection comprises stand-alone books that increase incomplexity and concepts and complement each other. The individual titlesin the Books for Young Learners collection support teachers in developingthe five essential components for effective reading under Reading First guidelines, as identified by the National Reading Pane.
Books for Young Learners are charming valuable books, appropriate for instructional use with emergent, early, and fluent readers in primary grades.The Books for Young Learners Teacher Resource by Margaret Mooney offersa wealth of information on the unique features of each book. Sample questionsand prompts help teachers introduce and support students through some of the content and some of the skills and understandings that they need whenreading for meaning. Before publishing a book is first trialed in a black and white version with teachers and children in American schools. Results of the trialing lead to refinement in text and illustrations.

The trialing also provides data used to level each book for shared, guided, and independent reading. That information is reflected in the teacher friendlyleveling bar on the back of each book and in the levels and approaches chart.For more detailed information about each book in the collection see the Levels and Approaches Chart. Books for Young Learners offers variety of trim size and formats across many genres of writing. The books are uniformly high quality exploration of topics of interest to young children worldwide. Each month we will include the full text and illustrations of one of our books. Go to the Feature Book Showcase for the sample of our work. Although most of the Books for Young Learners are written by North American authors and illustrated by North American artists, we welcome manuscripts from authors everywhere. See the guidelines for submission before sending manuscripts.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Lighthouse Land

The Lighthouse Land
Author: Adrian McKinty
Publisher: Amulet Books
ISBN-10: 081095480X
ISBN-13: 978-0810954809

Jamie O’Neill and his mother have it rough. Jamie’s lost his arm to bone cancer and since the amputation isn’t speaking. His parents divorced while he was sick and now he and his mother live in a leaky apartment in Harlem. Things couldn’t get much worse for them but somehow Jamie and his mom are making things work.

Jamie has a friend, Thaddeus an older gentleman that he plays chess with who seems to understand his need to be silent. He’s also become quite adept at duct taping the windows to keep the snow out. Then one day a letter changes their lives. Jamie’s mother has inherited a house in Ireland along with the island it’s on and money to maintain it.

So off they go to Ireland and Thaddeus gifts him with a tablet laptop to help him communicate. Once they get to the coast of Ireland and their new home, they find that there’s also an old tower, a lighthouse on their land and that Jaime is descended from a line of Irish kings. Turns out Jamie gets a title as well, Laid Ui Neill, Lord of the Muck, Guardian of the Passage…yeah, Lord of the Muck. I thought that was hysterical.

Jamie quickly makes friends with Ramsey, a clever and mathematically brilliant boy of his own age. Together they discover a secret room in the tower and an object that takes them hurtling through a portal and into another world where they find an alien girl named Wishaway. Wishaway thinks that Jamie is the Ui Neill come to save her people from the Alkhavans, an evil pirating people who will enslave her race.

The Alkhavans travel the seas on ships made of ice that look like glaciers. It turns out that Jamie’s ancestors had saved her people before. Jamie. mysteriously in this world has both his voice and his lost arm. Now it is up to him and Ramsay to save the world and its people from destruction.

The Lighthouse Land is an astonishing tale of fantasy, sci-fi and ordinary life. I fell in love with McKinty’s writing from the very first two paragraphs. I fell in love with his way of writing a sentence. His use of language is gorgeous and lush while starkly simple.

“Through the window is the uncoiled arm of the Milky Way and the moon the color of narcissus.”

Isn’t that a great sentence? I can eat it, it’s so delicious!

The Lighthouse Land
is the first in a planned trilogy and I for one, can’t wait till the next.

About the author:
Adrian McKinty, now a U.S. citizen, was born and grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Educated at Oxford University, he then immigrated to New York City, where he lived in Harlem for five years, working in bars and on construction crews, and enjoying a stint as a bookseller. The author of highly acclaimed crime novels that have earned starred reviews and universal praise, he currently lives in Denver, where he teaches high school.

Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting
Author: Linda Medley
Publisher: Fantagraphics
ISBN-10: 1560977477
ISBN-13: 978-1560977476

This wonderful graphic novel brings together the first twelve issues of the Eisner Award winning comic. It opens with Brambly Hedge, a tale of a Sleeping Beauty with a twist. After Sleeping Beauty leaves with the prince the castle is left waiting. Her three ladies in waiting stay there and open it to people in need. The castle is infested with hobgoblins and is a little beat up but it welcomes the needy with open arms.

Among its inhabitants are a pregnant woman on the run, Sir Destrier, a horse-headed knight who wants a place to rest between adventures; and Sister Peace, a bearded nun with a wild past. The women of the castle seem to love telling the stories of their lives and it is these stories that are the meat of Castle Waiting.

Linda Medley has created a masterpiece of fantasy, fairytale and just plain good storytelling. Castle Waiting is light-hearted, fun and different. The stories within stories are wonderful and the characters are multi-faceted and interesting. For me, Jain’s story was the most interesting. Jain was the pregnant woman on the run from an abusive nobleman husband and her tale was riveting and so different from the typical fairy tale.

The artwork is as light-hearted and fun as the story. The bearded nuns are a riot and really made me smile. Through the whole book with the intersecting stories is a thread of kindness and caring that really makes me smile. I love that Sleeping Beauty’s left behind castle is used to help those in need. I love the fact the women who remain have so much love to give to those who show up at the castle door and are willing to share whatever they have. I would have loved this book anyway but that just made it so much more special. Highly recommended.


Author: Frank Miller
Colorist: Lynn Varley
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
ISBN-10: 1569714029
ISBN-13: 978-1569714027

The Battle of Thermopylae is one of history’s most important battles. In 481-480 B.C, the Spartan King Leonidas and his army of 300 met the huge army (more than 100,000 strong) of the Persian Emperor Xerxes and were annihilated. Still, it gave the Greeks time to gather enough force to defeat the Persians. For three days those 300 men stood against that incredible army. How they managed it just defies imagination.

Frank Miller knows how to tell a hell of a story. While his account isn’t historically accurate, it’s a darned good tale and adds to the incredible story it already is. The art is astounding; the battle scenes are just the most intense, bloody and violent as only Frank Miller can make them. No one does blood and guts like Frank Miller.

In 300, Miller focuses on King Leonidas, the young foot soldier Stelios, and the storyteller Dilios. His portrayal of the Spartans makes them human, makes them so much more than just unbelievable historical shadow figures, at least for me. His characters embody the strength they must have had to stand up against that massive army of Persians. Their faces are almost carved of stone they are so chiseled, so rugged, so raw. The hands and fingers are almost square blocks and they are huge.

I love how Frank Miller’s sparse but deeply telling text accompanies his astounding art. His 300 will ignite a whole new group of people to research the history of the Battle of Thermopylae. How great is that? I see kids at the library asking about books on Sparta and I wonder – did you see 300? Did you read the graphic novel? What has you asking about it? I bet some of them are in there because of Frank Miller. Highly recommended but keep the younger kids away – this is graphically violent.

Fred Patten Reviews Walt Kelly's Our Gang Volume 1, 1942-1943

Walt Kelly’s Our Gang. Vol. 1, 1942-1943

Author: Walt Kelly

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books

ISBN 10: 1-56097753-1

ISBN 13: 978-1-56097753-7

Walt Kelly is famous for his now-classic Pogo newspaper comic strip from 1948 until his death in 1973. Most cartoon fans know that Kelly began as an animator for Walt Disney, and that he wrote and drew funny-animal and fairy-tale comic books from 1941 until 1948. He actually began Pogo in comic-book form in 1941. Much of Kelly’s comic-book art has been reprinted over the last two decades, especially his Disney comics covers showing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in his own art style.

Kelly also wrote and drew a human comic-book series during the 1940s, around the Our Gang children film stars. Movie historian Leonard Maltin describes in an introductory “appreciation” how Dell/Western Publishing licensed in 1942 the rights to produce a comic book featuring all the MGM movie short series like the Tom & Jerry cartoons, and they chose the Our Gang stories to lead off the comic book – and hired cartoonist Kelly to produce them. MGM had bought Our Gang from the Hal Roach Studio in 1938, and by 1942 had lost interest in them, so Kelly had the creative freedom to interpret the kids in his own way. The 8- to 14-page stories in these first eight issues were very close to MGM’s last Our Gang one-reelers, based on publicity stills of the child actors and following the movies’ stereotypes. Maltin, and Kelly collector-historian Steve Thompson in his introduction, promise that later stories of the 59 in the series will show how Kelly evolved, having the movie Gang grow older and be replaced with new characters who were Kelly’s own, with realistic personalities rather than stereotypes.

This collection has several laudable goals: to show that Kelly could create excellent realistic human-character stories as well as funny-animal humor; to restore a missing dimension of the Our Gang works for those movies’ fans; and to present a nostalgic glimpse of children’s lives in America in the 1940s. As Steve Thompson says, “Not for them the over-organized and regimented sports, dance and music activities of today’s youth. In those days before ‘stranger danger’ and almost daily reports of child abductions, in all but the largest cities during summer, kids could disappear after breakfast, possibly return for lunch, and then vanish again until supper, without panicking their parents.” (I can confirm this. I am in my late sixties now, and I grew up in Los Angeles rather than an Eastern small town, but I had the same juvenile freedom to just “mess around” outdoors all day with my playmates as long as we stayed out of trouble.) It may be personal nostalgia for my own youth, but I found Walt Kelly’s Our Gang vol. 1 to be thoroughly delightful.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fall of the Amazing Zalindas

Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars: The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas
Authors: Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin
Illustrator: Greg Ruth
Publisher: Orchard Books
ISBN-10: 0439828368
ISBN-13: 978-0439828369

The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas is the first in the proposed Baker Street Irregulars new series from Scholastic and I think it’s a great start. It begins with three tightrope walkers falling to their deaths in a London Circus and introduces the gang of street urchins that helps the great Sherlock Holmes in his crime solving.

Holmes has another case involving a missing and very valuable book and while he and Watson are solving other leads, the Irregulars, led by Wiggins and Ozzie get down to business with the circus folk.

The boys are all interesting and colorful characters with different stories and strengths. Ozzie in particular has quite a bit of depth and color. He’s the sick one of the bunch and very frail but has a razor sharp memory and an uncanny ability for copying documents. Wiggins is the leader and he’s the protective papa of the bunch always looking out for the others. I expect we'll find out more about the others in future books.

Besides the boys, there is the wonderful character of Pilar whom they meet in the circus. Pilar is a Spanish gypsy girl (fortune-tellers daughter) and seems to be able to genuinely see the future while going into a trance. She adds a dash of spice to the gaggle of boys.

The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas is full of details, reads like a casebook and has fine illustrations which give the book a good flavor. There’s Cockney slang, a glimpse of what life was like for the poor children of that time. It has a old style Victorian feel to it which gives the book a sense of authenticity.

Both boys and girls will love the book for its sense of fun and adventure. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Volume 2 Chapter 3: Lust and Lies

Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Volume 2, Chapter 3: Lust and Lies
Writer: Ron Marz
Artist: Luke Ross
Colorist: Rob Schwager
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

I am astounded by this series and can’t wait for the rest of it. Shiro the samurai has completely captured my heart and imagination.

In Lust and Lies, Shiro and the Arab have washed up on the desert shore. Because Shiro has saved the Arab’s life, he continues to help him as part of repaying his debt. There are again scenes of a loving life with Yoshiko in Japan as Shiro remembers the good times. The two set off to find where Yoshiko has been taken with Shiro determined to get her back at any cost.

Yoshiko is taken to the harem of the pasha and is able to communicate in French with the first wife. She learns that she will spend her life in the harem and is subject to the whims of the pasha. While trying to escape, she runs into Don Miguel who tries to force her to come with him. This is Yoshiko’s chance for revenge and she takes it. She will make Don Miguel pay for what he has done to her and Shiro.

One of the things that makes this series so visually arresting is the contrasts between worlds. On one page you have the burning sun of the desert, on another the cool gardens of Japan overhung with cherry blossoms and on another the inside view of a harem. Of course, the artwork is stunning and so realistic that you feel you’re inside those contrasting worlds.

Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Volume 2 Chaper 2: Land and Sea

Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Volume 2, Chapter 2: Land and Sea
Writer: Ron Marz
Artist: Luke Ross
Colorist: Rob Schwager
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Once again Ron Marz and Luke Ross have created a believable and stunning adventure.

In Land and Sea, the samurai Shiro along with the Arab he has forced into helping him hunt for Don Miguel Ratera and Yoshiko who have boarded a ship bound for Vera Cruz. The two leave Barcelona and board a ship headed for the Americas.

Once they are on board and halfway across the ocean, Shiro finds that the ship Yoshiko was on was captured and the people on it taken to Egypt to be sold. Frustrated at being stuck on a ship with no way out or to Yoshiko, he battles the crew and jumps ship taking the Arab along with him.

Meanwhile Yoshiko is sold to a pasha and taken away to a harem where she will live out her days. Don Miguel is also sold to the same pasha. Will he find a way to the harem?

It’s a marvelous adventure on the high seas and across the blistering desert sands. The art is amazing, especially the scenes on the ocean. I don’t know how they make the sea look so real but it’s fantastic. You get the feel of a stormy sea, big waves and movement. It’s incredible.

Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Volume 2 - Chapter 1: Enemies and Allies

Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Volume 2-Chapter 1: Enemies and Allies
Writer: Ron Marz
Penciller: Luke Ross
Colorist: Rob Schwager
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

In a prior post, I raved about Samurai: Heaven and Earth and this next comic in the series is no disappointment.

The samurai Shiro is back and still hunting for his lost love Yoshiko. In Enemies and Allies, Shiro travels to Spain to find the Arab slavetrader that sold Yoshiko in the first place. He forces the Arab to join him on his quest for revenge against the Spaniard Don Miguel Ratera (funny last name - in Spanish a ratero or ratera is a thief) and in keeping his vow to find Yoshiko. Shiro tells the Arab of his vow that nothing on Heaven or Earth will keep him from her and together they set off to find them. Meanwhile, Don Miguel is keeping Yoshiko captive as they board a ship to Veracruz.

As in the other comics, there are flashbacks to Shiro's and Yoshiko's life in Japan and some of the images are so heartbreakingly lovely that you have to stop and catch your breath.

The artwork is astounding and I can’t say enough about it. The story has you on the edge of your seat and rooting for Shiro while the artwork has you right in the midst of bloody samurai battles, on the ship and in the beautiful gardens of Japan. Stunning, stunning, stunning!

Samurai: Heaven and Earth
is simply magnificent.

Evangeline Mudd and the Golden Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle

Evangeline Mudd and The Golden Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle
Author: David Elliott
Illustrator: Andrea Wesson
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN-10: 0763618764
ISBN-13: 978-0763618766

Recommended for grades 2-4

When I was growing up, one of my favorite characters was Pippi Longstocking. I read all of Astrid Lindgren’s wonderful books over and over and over again. The things I loved so much about Pippi was that she was different, strong and forged her own path all the while being kind, good and caring.

Thank God for Pippi because she taught me to forge my own path, to turn away from what should have been my life and create something that I wanted rather than what I felt I should be stuck with. Evangeline Mudd is just such a character. She’s strong, she’s different, she forges her own path while being a kind and caring soul.

Evangline Mudd’s parents are primotologists (people who study apes and monkeys). They specialize in the Golden Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle. They also have a homey little cottage with a lovely garden back in England. They decide to raise their future child as much like the apes they study as possible. Once decided, Evangline is born right there in the garden. She grows up eating peanut butter sandwiches with her feet, swinging from chandeliers and taking a bath just every so often. She does have some non-ape type training, like learning the piano, wearing diapers and going to school.

Evangline and her parents have the ideal life and a lot of love till the day Dr. Aphrodite Pikkaflee needs the doctors Mudd to go back into the Ikkinasti Jungle on an emergency. Evangline is sent to stay with her father's "second cousin, twice removed" and his wife who was once a prima ballerina. They turn out to be horrible people and Evangeline is miserable and longing for the day her beloved parents will return.

When months go by and they do not, she fears the worst and sets off with the famous Dr. Pikkaflee into the Ikkinasti Jungle to find her parents. They meet up with Dadoo the headhunter, last of his kind who joins them in their quest. They battle an evil villain who just so happens to be Dr. Pikkaflee’s brother and various dangers of the jungle.

Evangeline Mudd and the Golden Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle is a fun and adventurous romp of a book. There’s a strong message about the ecology and saving nature and animals. Evangeline is a character to love. She’s bright and beautiful, clever and strong. Her independence and determination as well as her kindness make her a wonderful role model for any child.

The illustrations are wonderful and remind me of the Pippi books as does the story where the drawings just capture the heart and soul of the characters and environment.

Fred Patten Reviews Dreamscape

Dreamscape Author: Paul Kidd
Publisher: Kitsune Press/Lulu.com
ISBN 10: 1-84753-242-X
ISBN 13: 978-1-84753-242-8

The bookstore grew first one detailed neighbour, and then two: a record store owned by a beautiful creature like a sea snail, and a thing like a shaggy, six-legged Afghan hound that slept lazily beside the bookshop door. The girl called the dog-creature ‘the Floop’, and it thumped its tail against the pavement whenever she came by.

The foxes who ran the bookshop were very much in love.

A whole world – each part of it utterly precious. Each part of it unfolding for her as she walked into the world and cared. There was a beautiful infinity of places waiting to be explored…”

In this s-f novel, a young girl has the power to create a detailed fantasy dreamworld of butterfly-filled flowery meadows, old-fashioned seaside resort towns of friendly funny-animal shopkeepers, of soaring ancient griffin statues. She has the ability to invite other people to share her paradise, to add to it with their own dreams. But strangers begin arriving who are not invited, who do not believe in sharing; they must dominate and hurt others. They are followed by men in grey suits who claim that the dreamworld is their stolen virtual amusement park, manufactured by their patented quantum neural gates, and they have the right to take it back from her.

The young girl, Steel, and her friends including Squeee the unicorn, Liz the lizard-woman warrior, and Silk, the debonair falcon-man, are faced with a dilemma: how do you fight to protect a gentle dreamworld without turning it into a nightmare?

is filled with striking fantasy imagery that cries out to be made into an animated movie. The plot is both simplistic – the young girl and her fantasy companions explore, and later must defend their world -- and confusingly solipsistic.

Is the dreamer a goddess or a ghost creating her own world? A woman locked inside her own imagination? A role-player misusing (or trapped in) Dreamscape, Inc.’s new gaming program? Does Dreamscape have the right to “kill” her to gain control of what they claim is their “intellectual property”; and if they do, will she awaken or die in the “real” world? The climactic battle seems overdone and overly ugly; too close to the Biblical description of Armageddon.

Allegory is fine, but Dreamscape the company has been too strongly established with futuristic computer imagery by this point to switch to a vast horde of demonic archaic warriors for the final assault. Still, the novel right up to the climax depicts a lovely fantasy landscape that any of us could wish to escape to, and it is worth reading for that.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Cobra King of Kathmandu

The Cobra King of Kathmandu
Author: P.B. Kerr
Publisher: Orchard Books
ISBN-10: 0439670233
ISBN-13: 978-0439670234

The third book in the The Children of the Lamp series brings back 12-year old djinn children John and Philippa Gaunt on yet another adventure. This time they are trying to uncover a murderer and protect their friend Dybbuk or Buck as he likes to be called, all the time unaware that their mother, Leila Gaunt has agreed to become the new Blue Djinn of Babylon and will be leaving soon – forever.

The book starts with an exorcism by the children’s cigar smoking Uncle Nimrod on the day the children were born. The story then hurtles forward to the present day when Dybbuk seeks the children’s help as he is hidden on a small island after finding his best friend and his father murdered. As the story progresses, the children find themselves in India on the trail of a creepy cobra cult led by an equally creepy (not to mention gross) evil villain that wants to steal their wisdom teeth and thus control the children for their own evil purposes.

The Cobra King of Kathmandu is a fast-paced and wild adventure written with P.B. Kerr’s usual fascinating style. It doesn’t disappoint or feel stale. If anything, it gets the reader more excited about these amazing children.

Why hasn’t anyone made movies of these books yet? I find them exhilarating, educational and fun, fun, fun.

John and Philippa are great characters. They’re good children, they love their parents, they care enough about their friends (even if their not the best of friends) to try and save them. The other characters - Uncle Nimrod, the one-armed butler Mr. Groanin, Mr. Rakhasas, the Indian djinn with an Irish accent who lives in a bottle, Mr. and Mrs. Gaunt, the other djinn children all are so complex and interesting. They are constantly developing and the reader is finding out more and more about them with each book. I see this as a series of movies in the style of Harry Potter. They just have that feel but are something completely original and wonderful.

The imagery in this book is wonderful as well. I love when John, Philippa and Dybbuk go into Mr. Rakshasas’ bottle and find it to be absolutely huge and very well appointed – complete with an astounding library. I love that the djinn are claustrophobic and have to eat charcoal to help the feeling go away. There’s just so much to love in this series and in this book alone that I could go on for days. The Cobra King of Kathmandu (don’t you just love that title? It’s so fun to say out loud.) is highly recommended for anyone who loves a good mystery and adventure galore.

Fans of The Children of the Lamp series will adore this third installment and newcomers to the series will find that it works very well as a stand alone novel. It will however, infect the newcomer to seek out and read the first two books.

Feels Like Home

Feels Like Home
Author: e.E. Charlton Trujillo
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
ISBN-10: 0385733321
ISBN-13: 978-0385733328

Feels Like Home
is the story of Mickey, a sixteen year old girl living in a small Texas town. He dad has just died in a car accident and her brother Danny, who has been missing since a mysterious accident several years ago has suddenly reappeared. Mickey, hurt because of what she perceives as his desertion of her is grieving, angry and confused.

The story is an interesting and deeply engrossing one with a lot going on. There’s Mickey and the mystery of what happened all those years ago with Danny. There’s the dead dad, who it turns out was an alcoholic who was violent to Danny. Then there’s Danny himself who is trying so hard to live in this town that blames him for his best friends death, trying to be there for Mickey who doesn’t want him around and dealing with his own demons. He’s kind of this sweet, dark tortured character that you want to know more about. I alternated between wanting Mickey to stop being so mean to him (there’s something about Danny that makes you feel protective) and understanding why she was acting out.

Other interesting characters are Christina, Mickey’s best friend who I really like and want to know a lot more about (hint, hint write more about Christina), Johnny Lee, the rich handsome boy that likes Mickey and Uncle Jack, a relative that Mickey and Danny lived with when their father was incapable of taking care of them. Uncle Jack is the voice of reason but he’s also got his demons. There’s a heartbreaking scene in the book where Mickey sees him sitting alone crying for his dead wife. Also acting as a character almost is the classic novel The Outsiders which I thought was a great touch as it was one of my favorite books growing up.

Feels Like Home is a heartbreaking but hopeful novel. Like e.E. Charlton Trujillo’s first book Prizefighter en Mi Casa, it delves bravely into the dark underbelly of people’s lives and somehow manages to make it shine. She’s a damned fine storyteller and knows how to completely grab and keep her readers engaged and interested. The people in the book are so real and so well defined that by the end of the book, you know them and you care. You really care what’s going to happen to them all.

Read an excerpt here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fred Patten Reviews Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination
Author: Neal Gabler
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN; 10: 0-679-43822-X
ISBN; 13: 978-0-679-43822-9

This massive biography – over 600 pages, plus over 200 more of notes, appendices, bibliographies, and index – is advertised as “the definitive portrait of one of the most important in twentieth-century American entertainment and cultural history. […] meticulously researched – Gabler is the first writer to be given complete access to the Disney archives […]”

It probably is definitive. It is notable that where virtually every other Disney biography since his death in 1966 has been heavily criticized by animation experts for gross factual errors and deliberate misrepresentation of his attitudes or motives (such as claiming that Disney was a spy for the FBI, encouraged anti-Semitism, or was really an illegitimate son of a Spanish dancer), the worst that Gabler’s critics have been able to accuse him of are minor errors on the level of whether serious production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs began in September 1936 or several months earlier. These errors may be significant to cinematic historians, but the average reader will find them trivial.

Gabler’s book, with more than 65 photographs from throughout Disney’s life plus other graphics such as a teenage life sketch and his first business card, ought to replace every popularized Disney biography previously written.

There are no big surprises here, and there is much detailed information about events glossed over in previous biographies. For example, every book has told how Disney created Mickey Mouse to replace his earlier cartoon star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit when the latter was stolen from him, but few have told exactly how this happened. Gabler devotes five pages to the event, giving names and dates. Want to know about the notorious but previously vaguely-described Disney studio strike of 1941? Gabler gives it pages 356 to 371, again going into detail. Any questions that a reader may have about Disney’s personal life or his career should be answered in this book.

To a large extent, Disney’s story is the story of the whole American animation industry. Many of the men who became famous at other studios in later years, such as Warner Bros.’ animation director Friz Freleng and music arranger Carl Stalling, got their start among Disney’s first employees.

Gabler notes how many other studios hired away some of Disney’s best men to create cartoons for them during the 1930s, or during the ‘40s made parodies of Disney’s features such as WB’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and A Corny Concerto. It would be an exaggeration to say that Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination can serve as a one-volume history of the animation industry, but it is without doubt an essential read for every animation fan and an essential purchase for every public and academic library.

Fred Patten Reviews The Pinhoe Egg

The Pinhoe Egg: A Chrestomanci Book
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins
ISBN10: 0-06-113124-5
ISBN13: 978-0-06-113124-0

The Pinhoe Egg adds a sixth novel to Jones’ witty Young Adult tales of Chrestomanci, the debonair and unflappable super-enchanter who is a government employee in a Related World where magic exists. It takes place about a year after the events in Charmed Life (1977).

The Pinhoe Egg is set in Chrestomanci Castle and the nearby village of Ulverscote. As is common in centuries-old English small villages, one family has come to predominate. Practically everyone in Ulverscote is a Pinhoe or is married to a Pinhoe. The same situation exists in neighboring Helm St. Mary where the dominant family is the Farleighs.

The adult Pinhoes and the Farleighs are all wizards and witches to some degree, overseen by a male Gaffer and a female Gammer who are the most powerful magicians in their clans, but trying to keep a low profile living so close to Chrestomanci.

The main characters are four pre-teens; Marianne and Joe Pinhoe in Ulverscote, and Eric (Cat) Chant and Chrestomanci’s son Roger who live in the Castle. Marianne is an observer when Gammer Edith, the ancient Pinhoe matriarch, loses her wits and has to be gently locked away.

Unfortunately, she has not lost any of her powers, and she begins casting spells against the Farleighs whom she has never liked. The Farleighs, assuming that all the Pinhoes are attacking them, retaliate. Gammer Edith has previously bespelled the other Pinhoes to keep them from noticing her misuse of magic. Marianne grows increasingly frustrated as her parents and all her uncles and aunts and cousins refuse to believe that their plagues of frogs and other disasters are due to anything more than natural causes.

As the curses grow increasingly life-threatening, Marianne tries to get help from the Castle, but Joe and Roger are too busy inventing magical machines, while Cat is distracted by learning to care for a semi-magical horse, Syracuse, and the baby griffin that hatches from the strange egg that Marianne innocently gives him. Much more is going on at the same time, including some deliberately malicious spellcasting, and it all escalates into a potentially lethal magical muddle (not unlike the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s situation) before Chrestomanci steps forth to put things right and strip the powers from those who have misused their magic.

Those who have read Charmed Life will recognize many of the supporting characters, but The Pinhoe Egg stands nicely on its own as a humorous fantasy-mystery. The old-fashioned English village setting should be attractively exotic to American readers.