Monday, February 23, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: OVER SEA, UNDER STONE by Susan Cooper


Sometimes it's nice to revisit a classic, folks--or in my case to visit it for the first time. Can you believe I have never read this? I mean, it was published 50 years ago (in 1965), so is a bare two years younger than me! And it's not as if I wasn't a major fantasy mini mafioso, either. One of my favorite books from childhood was Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (which I can affirm is just as good when read many decades later.)

So who knows what went wrong? However, I kept seeing The Dark Is Rising sequence in lists put out by other authors when asked about childhood favorites. So it seemed about time for the Don and I to give it a go.

What It's About (description from Amazon): On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. 
This is the first volume of Susan Cooper's brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising. 

Opening Lines: "Where is he?" Barney hopped from one foot to the other as he clambered down from the train, peering in vain through the white-faced crowds flooding eagerly to the St. Austell ticket barrier. "Oh, I can't see him. Is he there?"

Why I Liked It:
1): It was very English. (And, as such, it brought me back to my youth.) The way the children speak is exceedingly dated, but none the worse for that--although I do wonder what a modern child would think. I was reacquainted with words like "swizz" and "rucksack."
2): We get into the action straightaway--and there is plenty of action. The children, at a loose end, start exploring the house and find an ancient map. Chases by land and by sea follow, as well as a kidnapping.
3): The parents are alive (thank goodness, I have middle grade orphan fatigue!), but are conveniently shunted out of the way so that the children can fend for themselves. 
4): Hints of Arthurian legend. I have decided, what with my love of Dianne Salerni's The Eighth Day series, that I am a bit of an Arthurian legend buff. Hey, I might even write a book about it myself, one of these days.[Interestingly, both Cooper and Salerni are brilliant at chase scenes.]

I will definitely read on in the sequence. The Dark Is Rising is next!

About the Author:
Susan Cooper is the author of the classic five-book sequence The Dark is Rising, which won a Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor Award, and two Carnegie Honor Awards. Born in England, she was a reporter and feature writer for the London Sunday Times before coming to live in the United States. Her writing includes books for children and adults, a Broadway play, films, and Emmy-nominated screenplays. Her most recent books for children are King of Shadows and Victory, and for adults a portrait of Revels founder Jack Langstaff called The Magic Maker. In 2012, Susan was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award and in 2013 she received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement. Her children’s novel Ghost Hawk was published in 2013. Susan lives and writes in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Susan Cooper has a nice-looking website, and a Facebook fan page.

Have a great week reading and writing, everyone! Ciao!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE INQUISITOR'S MARK by Dianne K. Salerni

THE INQUISITOR'S MARK by Dianne K. Salerni (HarperCollins, January 27, 2015)

Dianne Salerni is fast becoming one of my favorite middle grade novelists--and I don't just say that because she's a comrade of mine on Project Mayhem (although the Don's all for nepotism.) I adored Dianne's THE EIGHTH DAY, and her sequel was, in some ways, even more gripping. But more on that in a minute!

What It's About: (From Goodreads)
After the all-out Eighth Day war in Mexico, Jax, Riley, and Evangeline have gone into hiding. There are still rogue Transitioners and evil Kin lords who want to use Riley, a descendant of King Arthur, and Evangeline, a powerful wizard with bloodlines to Merlin, to get control over the Eighth Day.

So when Finn Ambrose, a mysterious stranger, contacts Jax claiming to be his uncle, Jax’s defenses go up—especially when Finn tells Jax that he’s holding Jax’s best friend, Billy, hostage. To rescue Billy and keep Riley and Evangeline out of the fray, Jax sneaks off to New York City on his own. But once there, he discovers a surprising truth: Finn is his uncle and Jax is closely related to the Dulacs—a notoriously corrupt and dangerous Transitioner clan who have been dying to get their hands on Riley and Evangeline. And family or not, these people will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Opening Lines:
"Jax Aubrey's phone rang at least once a day, and it was always the same number. Only one person ever called him, wanting to know where he was, what had happened to him, and when he was coming back."

Why I Loved It:
Sequels are hard. You've got to remind readers what happened in Book 1 without bogging down the narrative, and you've got to further the story convincingly. Dianne K. Salerni does a magnificent job on both counts. The narrative is off and running from the start, with Jax's friend Billy trying to contact him, and all sorts of complications set in place as Jax eavesdrops on Riley and hears him say that "Jax has got to go."

Immediately, we are in chapter 2 and in the head of a new character, Dorian Ambrose. Dorian is with his father, watching a prisoner being interrogated. And we learn that Dorian, and his father Finn, are related to Jax! Holy cannoli!!

So that's the set up, and if there's a writer who can write chase scene and battles as well as Dianne Salerni, let me at 'em because they have big shoes to fill. The tension in several scenes (a chase through the New York zoo, and a battle with a magical creature called a wyvern) is truly hair-raising. I defy anyone to put this book down for a second. In fact, I was getting at 5 a.m. to read it before my kids woke to get ready for school.

Then there are Brownies with tunnels. You've got to read this book to find out about all that!

Finally, a shout out to the artist who designs the covers of this series. I'll let the Don have the last word: Bellissimo!

About the Author: (adapted from her website)
Dianne K. Salerni lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania with her husband Bob, her two daughters, Gabrielle and Gina, and her trusty dog, Sorcia. (Plus — new in September 2014 — Luna the kitten!) She taught fourth and fifth grade for 25 years.

Now, instead of teaching, Dianne writes, blogs, and chauffeurs her daughters to their various activities. She spends her free time hanging around creepy cemeteries and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research.

Dianne’s first novel, We Hear the Dead, is a YA historical based on the real story of 19th century teenage spirit mediums Maggie and Kate Fox. Her second novel, another YA historical, The Caged Graves, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and was inspired by two real caged graves in an abandoned Pennsylvania cemetery. Her debut book for children, The Eighth Day, released in 2014 to critical acclaim and is the first in a planned fantasy series. The second book, The Inquisitor’s Mark, is due out in January. (editor's note: And it's here now!)

I loved THE INQUISITOR'S MARK so much that I'm buying my own copy. Which means I have my gently loved ARC to give to one of you good people. Just holler in the comments section and the Don will choose one lucky winner out of his fedora. Ciao!

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Winner... and a Book Birthday!

As you know from my last post, I just loved Mel Ryane's TEACHING WILL. I'm happy to report that did it's thang, and Karen Lee Hallam won a copy. (Karen look for an email from me in your inbox.)

The grooviest happening this week is the book birthday of THE INQUISITOR'S MARK, my Project Mayhem colleague, Dianne Salerni's latest. Publication date is the 27th!

I loved the first book in this series, THE EIGHTH DAY, (see my review and interview with Dianne from last year), and the sequel doesn't disappoint. Dianne is really skillful at creating tension and writing action scenes--and I am zipping through it, but not quite ready to post my review till next week.

Okay, back to reading. (Yikes, Jax and friends are being chased through the New York zoo by guys shooting tranquilizer darts. I can hardly breathe!) Have a great week, mafiosi!

Monday, January 12, 2015


Teaching Will (Mel Ryane, Familius Books 2014)

Sometimes, if you're a really lucky mafioso, you stumble upon a book which makes you believe it was written just for you. Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't is just such a book.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a complete Shakespeare nut. Add to this the fact that I have two children who spend a great portion of their lives on stage (for child #3 it's the basketball court, but you can't win 'em all)--and I was totally enthralled by Mel Ryan's funny, honest, and ultimately touching portrayal about what it's like, without any formal educational training, to start a Shakespeare Club in a lower-income school.

What It's About: (from the back cover blurb) ~ "Power. Revenge. Love. Shakespeare's themes can be found in any schoolyard. And so a naive Mel Ryane volunteers to create The Shakespeare Club at a public school--for kids who have never seen a play, much less acted in one. With a lifetime of theatrical experience but zero classroom skills, Mel throws herself into this rollicking adventure expecting to inspire young lives. Alas, the first lesson: beware of expectations."

Opening Lines: "Did you know him?"
"Oh no, William Shakespeare lived over four hundred and forty years ago."
"Yeah, but did you know him?"
Twelve sets of eyes scope me out as I sit in front of them. Two boys and ten girls from the third, fourth, and fifth grades. Russell Crowe, Colosseum... I get it. These tiny Romans are salivating over my certain death. My mouth trembles as I smile, slapping on a sunny disposition.
"No... sad to say, I've never actually met the man."

Why I Loved It: As you can see from the above opening, Mel Ryan has an engaging writing style. She draws us immediately into the scene, and it's not much longer--while she is being badgered about her acting past by one of the students--that she writes: "God, give it up! I want to scream, but you shouldn't scream at children. That's never a good idea, and certainly not at the very first meeting." When I read that, I knew I was in excellent hands.

I loved the way the book is set out. Ryane begins each chapter with a Shakespearean quotation. Each chapter also has insets, where she quotes from the children s' journals, as well as sharing a thought about what she herself has learned, under "Lesson Plans." Throughout the narrative, Ryan intersperses anecdotes about her early life, conversations with her husband, and memories of her life on the stage and what it means to be an actor.

None of this experience is sugarcoated. The children are challenging, and Ryane is honest about the frustration she experiences. But, as they work towards putting on A Midsummer Night's Dream, they all begin to find the closeness that being cast in an  acting performance brings. As Mel Ryane writes: "During our battles, I never thought the kids would deliver anything beyond an ordinary recitation of the play. I was wrong. These ten kids held hands and climbed a golden mountain... together."

This is a wonderful book, and I recommend it to anyone who loves Shakespeare, who works with kids, and who loves the stage.

I was lucky enough to contact Mel Ryane and ask her my notorious Mafioso questions. Here are her answers:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?

E.B. White (Charlotte's Web), C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Laura Ingalls Wilder (the Little House series). To this day I fantasize of being in Wilder's little snowbound house on the prairie.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro and Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel--or in this case, memoir--and say why you like it:

I especially like Chapter XIV, "War Declared."

The Shakespeare Club meets in the library that week because we've been kicked out of our regular classroom. The kids start a paper fight and I just lose it. In that moment I remember my own seventh-grade self in our school library with our poor librarian completely losing control of chaotic kids. It reminds me that children view their job as gaining power from adults. It's kind of a battle and the adult, being the adult, has to finesse the upper hand. Tough stuff for any teacher, parent or coach.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....

1. cooking
2. sleeping
3. writing
4. teaching

I'm really lousy at a longer list of things, but since you didn't ask….

5) My favorite breakfast is…

Leftovers! I'm not really a fan of traditional breakfast foods but I love spaghetti for breakfast, or a salad with a poached egg on top, or a tuna sandwich. All with strong coffee, of course.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be?

I would love to spend a month in Portugal. There are castles along the Portuguese coastline that have been converted into pensions. I could see myself happily dining on grilled fish and sleeping in castles. (Me too, Ms. Ryane. Me too!)

Ahout the Author:
Following a distinguished career as a classically trained actor onstage and in film and television, Mel Ryane has found a new artistic home in the written word with her memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't.

Mel became a professional actor during her teens in her native Canada, and then followed her career to New York City and to theatres across North America. After applying her skills to coaching actors on major studio and network projects, Mel was accepted into the Directing Workshop for Women at the prestigious American Film Institute. She subsequently wrote a screenplay that advanced to the semifinal round in the Motion Picture Academy's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition.

Mel travels across the country teaching "From Page to Podium: Reading Your Work Aloud," a workshop that helps writers find their public speaking voice. She also offers school workshops introducing Shakespeare to students. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their dog and cat.

I am also delighted to be able to giveaway a copy of this great book, courtesy of Ms. Ryane's publicist, Darlene Chan. All you have to do is leave a comment, telling me what your favorite Shakespeare play is. Ciao!

Monday, January 5, 2015


Here in Mafioso land, we hope you have all been enjoying the "holiday season" and the first few days of the New Year. (The Don and I are actually scratching our heads because, when you are as old as the two of us, you can still remember all the hoopla about Y2K and tend to say things like "was that really 15 years ago?)

But que sera, sera. We are excited for the kids (in the Don's case, the grandkids) to go back to school so that we can have a couple of hours a day dedicated to bringing you all things middle grade. We're excited about all of the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books we hope to feature during the next couple of months--and, being betting men, we are particularly eager to see how the Cybils awards play out.

The Cybils shortlists were announced on New Year's Day, and boy oh boy did they start 2015 off with a bang! I was particularly pleased to see my friend Tara Dairman's novel, ALL FOUR STARS, make the list, as well as Megan Jean Sovern's THE MEANING OF MAGGIE, which I reviewed in May of 2014.

Lots of good books to read! I look forward to visiting blogs old and new this year, and continuing to make meaningful connections with those who love middle grade fiction.


Monday, December 15, 2014

A Million Ways Home by Dianna Dorisi Winget (plus Interview)

A MILLION WAYS HOME by Dianna Dorisi Winget (Scholastic Press, 2014)

What It's About (from Dianna's website): Poppy's life has been turned upside down after her grandma (and guardian) had a stroke and ended up in the hospital. But Poppy is working on a plan to help Grandma Beth so their life together can go back to normal. But when she witnesses an armed robbery, "back to normal" slips even further out of her reach. To keep Poppy safe, the budget-strapped police devise an unusual "witness protection program," wherein Poppy will stay with Detective Brannigan's mother. Soon Poppy is feeling almost at home, even making sort-of friends with a girl named Lizzie and definitely friending Gunner, a beautiful dog with an uncertain fate. But it's still not home. So while she and Lizzie navigate a rocky friendship and plot to save Gunner's life, Poppy also tries to figure out a new plan to save Grandma Beth and their home, all while avoiding a dangerous robber who might be searching for her. But what if Grandma Beth can never come home and the robber is put behind bars? What will happen to Poppy then?

Opening Lines: "I didn't know how to make the little girl stop crying."

Why I Loved it: I love the main character's--Poppy Parker's--voice. It was totally real on so many levels. That enabled me to handle the tough subject matter--Poppy witnesses a murder, lies about recognizing the culprit, and ends up in a very scary chase through the park, with the murderer hot on her heels. I also loved the portrayal of the adults, as well as Gunner, a German Shepherd on death row. There are several sad scenes, which Ms. Winget handles deftly. All in all, a fantastic contemporary middle grade.

I featured Dianna Dorisi Winget's debut, A Smidgen of Sky, in October 2012--a novel which I was very taken with then too. And I got to ask Ms. Winget a few of my patented Mafioso questions:

Who are your favorite (mg) writers? This changes fairly often depending on which book I've most recently fallen in love with, but here are a few current favorites-Ingrid Law, Katherine Applegate, Kirby Larson, Jennifer Nielsen

What's on your nightstand right now?  I don't actually have a nightstand, so I'll tell you what's in my cluttered magazine rack next to my recliner. This is where I do 90 percent of my reading, where I sit, stuffed in between my two dogs, with barely enough room to move.

The Dogs of Winter, by Bobbie Pyron
Dash, by Kirby Larson
The Bridge from Me to You, by Lisa Schroeder
Conviction, by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Choose a favorite scene in your novel, and say why you like it. Ooooh, so tough! One scene I really love is the brief one that takes place shortly after Poppy meets Detective Trey Brannigan. Poppy's tickled to discover several boxes of Twinkies in his kitchen cabinet and threatens to steal all of them. Trey calmly replies that she's not big enough to take his Twinkies. That scene always makes me laugh because it's a fun glimpse into the relationship that develops between them. 

I'm really awesome at... shirking my responsibilities, such as housecleaning, so I have more time to read.

What's your favorite breakfast? I love cereal. My favorite is granola with raspberries/huckleberries on top.

Where in the world would you like to travel? I'm really not much of a traveler, but I'd love to visit Australia and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I'd also like to spend some time in the South--maybe Georgia or Alabama, because my debut, A Smidgen of Sky, as well as the newly released sequel, A Sliver of Sun, are both set in the South, even though I'm a northerner :)

About the Author: You can read all about Dianna on her bio page on her website HERE


Looking forward to a Sliver of Sun, Dianna. Thanks for visiting today, everyone!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE GREAT GREENE HEIST by Varian Johnson

THE GREAT GREENE HEIST (by Varian Johnson, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2014)

What It's About: Saving the school -- one con at a time.

Jackson Greene swears he's given up scheming. Then school bully Keith Sinclair announces he's running for Student Council president, against Jackson's former friend Gaby de la Cruz. Gaby wants Jackson to stay out of it -- but he knows Keith has "connections" to the principal, which could win him the presidency no matter the vote count.

So Jackson assembles a crack team: Hashemi Larijani, tech genius. Victor Cho, bankroll. Megan Feldman, science goddess. Charlie de la Cruz, reporter. Together they devise a plan that will take down Keith, win Gaby's respect, and make sure the election is done right. If they can pull it off, it will be remembered as the school's greatest con ever -- one worthy of the name THE GREAT GREENE HEIST.

Opening Lines: "As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria – his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket – he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking.”

What I Liked: There's been a call lately for #MoreDiverseBooks, and this one definitely fits the bill. As you can see from this eye-catcher of a cover, there is a lot of diversity in this school body.

I really enjoyed Jackson Greene's acumen and intelligence, as he and his crew work to pull off this magnificent con. The author has mentioned one of his inspirations as being Ocean's Eleven, and part of the fun is trying to figure out how this is all going to work. The narrative is fast-paced and I would particularly recommend it to writers studying how to make an omniscient narration work. (As such, you may enjoy Varian Johnson's interview at The Nerdy Book Club where he writes: "I read, and re-read, and re-read again The Westing Game. I studied the mechanics of how author Ellen Raskin slipped in and out of each character’s head;  how she used the narrator’s voice to play with the reader. Her use of omniscient perspective became the blueprint for the novel.")

This novel has gotten a lot of buzz, and I think it is richly deserved. I can see this as being a hit with middle grade readers all across the board!

About the Author (From his website): Varian Johnson is the author of four novels, including The Great Greene Heist, a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014. His novels for older readers include My Life as a Rhombus, named to the Texas Library Association Tayshas High School Reading List and the New York Public Library “Stuff for the Teen Age” list, and Saving Maddie, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book.

Varian was born in Florence, South Carolina, and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a BS in Civil Engineering. He later received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Varian now lives outside of Austin, TX with his family.