Monday, May 7, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: STICKY NOTES by Dianne Touchell

STICKY NOTES by Dianne Touchell (Delacorte Press, 2018)

The latest novel from Australian author, Dianne Touchell. In Australia the title was Forgetting Foster, published by Allen and Unwin in 2016.

What It's About (from Goodreads):
For fans of Counting by 7’s and Fish in a Tree, a touching story about the power of love and family in the face of a parent’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Foster Sumner is ten years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school, and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad’s stories.

But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. Dad would go out for milk and come back with cat food, when the cat had been dead for five years. But then the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.


A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten, as well as the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s and the strong families behind those who suffer from it.

Opening Lines:
"Foster smelled it first. A bitter smell like microwave popcorn popped too long. Except Dad wasn't making popcorn. dad was making bacon sandwiches."

What I Liked About It:
First off, I thought the writing was luminous, at times almost poetic. On every page, there's a fantastic phrase--just the right verb, or pinpoint adjective. Just opening the pages at random I find "Foster would run out back and climb that jacaranda... and sometimes he'd see his dad watching out the kitchen window, his stare rasping just like his walk." (What a lovely and descriptive word rasping is for a stare.)

This is a tough book. Tough subject matter--early onset Alzheimer's in a parent--and tough, unflinching characterizations. It had a fairy tale quality to it, and not just because Foster loves stories with dragons and princesses. Every character has a dark side--Touchell is most definitely not a writer given to sentimentality. She's thrown curve balls at almost everyone: Foster's mom is disfigured from an accident, and struggling just to make it with a spouse who is barely there mentally. Foster's aunt is a complicated character. She provides some balm for Foster, but just as often antagonizes her sister-in-law. Foster himself is angry and petulant at this terrible turn of events, and yet he perversely enjoys the interest of his classmates when he tells them of the "crazy" things his dad has done.

As such, it is difficult to know quite who this book's ideal reader is. Despite the character's young age (seven in the Australian edition, ten in the American), I think it would be a book better savored by older teens or adults. For writers, Touchell's sentences are worth studying, a reminder of the power of a well-chosen word. It makes me think of that quote by Mark Twain: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

About the Author (from Goodreads):
Dianne Touchell is a middle child who feared Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy — and any other stranger who threatened to break into the house at night.


She has worked, amongst other things, as a nightclub singer, a fish and chip shop counter girl, and a bookseller. Dianne would rather talk to her dog than answer the phone.


Dianne's other novels are Creepy and Maud and A Small Madness. I liked her writing so much I have the other books on order!


Monday, April 30, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: RIDERS OF THE REALM:ACROSS THE DARK WATER by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Once again, I'm over at my group blog, Project Mayhem, with a review of this first book in Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's Riders of the Realm series. The Don would be delighted if you went and visited us over there today!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Over at Project Mayhem for a Book Trailer Reveal for RIDERS OF THE REALM


I'm very excited to be writing on Project Mayhem (my middle grade group blog) about Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's new series, RIDERS OF THE REALM. Jennifer's Guardian Herd series was a smash hit, and I'm sure her legions of fans will be very excited for new adventures of the Pegasi.

Head on over to Project Mayhem. If you leave a comment there, you will be entered in the drawing for a signed copy of the new novel. Ciao!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE POPE'S CAT by Jon M. Sweeney

THE POPE'S CAT by Jon M. Sweeney; illustrated by Roy DeLeon (Paraclete Press; 2018)

Full disclosure: the illustrator, Roy DeLeon, is a former colleague of my wife's. He's a delightful man, and a fantastic artist. It was a delight to see his illustrations in this marvelous book.

What It's About (from Amazon):
This is the story of a stray born on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome, how she’s adopted by the Pope, and then “rules” the Vatican from museum to floorboard! First in a new series.

No one has a closer view of what’s happening in the world’s tiniest nation, Vatican City, than Margaret, the Pope’s new cat. But she wasn’t always Margaret, and she wasn’t always the Pope’s cat. She started out as a stray on the streets of Rome, and there are those in the Vatican who wish she’d never been allowed inside.


This fun, adorable new character will appeal to all kids!  Here is a cat who does what she likes regardless of what others, even someone like the Pope, expects of her—even when the Queen of England comes on a state visit!

Opening Lines:
"People walk by Maria's Roma Gelato stand every day without noticing the cat sitting on the cobblestones. Actually, she isn't so much sitting as she is lounging in the shade provided by Maria's trash cans. But the people are too busy."

My Thoughts:
This is more chapter book than middle grade, weighing in at 62 pages. It's a very sweet story about an animal-loving Pope (the front matter claims that 'no historical Pope or Holy Father, past or present, is intended'--but it's difficult not to think of the current Pope as the model.) The plot is simple: during his early morning walk, when the Pope has the Vatican to himself, he comes across a stray cat. He scoops her up, smuggles her into his apartment in the Vatican, and names her Margaret.

Mischievous Margaret sneaks out of the apartment and heads straight for the state dinner with the Queen of England!

The promotional material focuses on a Catholic audience, but I think this story could be savored by those of all faiths as well as none. As a teaching tool, it could lead to discussion of the nature of the papacy, of Rome, and of life in the Vatican, introducing such fixtures as the Swiss Guards. But it is also a simple tale of a man's loves for animals, and for taking in the strays of the world--who are labeled by no less than the mayor of Rome as a "menace to good society," and are targeted and rounded up. Knowing how the real Pope Francis feels about the plight of the world's refugees, it was impossible not to make this larger connection.

The illustrator, Roy DeLeon, is a family friend--and it was delightful to hear of his work on this book, and to have a finished copy in our hands! There will be a second book in the series, coming in October, 2018.

About the Author (adapted from Amazon bio):

Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and author of popular history, spirituality, poetry/mysticism, memoir, and young reader fiction. He is the author of 30 books including many about Francis of Assisi such as When Saint Francis Saved the Church, The Complete Francis of Assisi, and The Enthusiast. HBO optioned the film rights to Sweeney's history about the medieval Celestine V, The Pope Who Quit. Sweeney, a father of four, is married to a congregational rabbi and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


About the illustrator (from the book jacket)
Roy DeLeon is an Oblate of St. Benedict, spiritual director, yoga instructor, graphic designer, and professional visual artist. He is also the author of Praying with the Body. Roy lives in Bothell, Washington, with his wife, Annie.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. Le Guin

THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. Le Guin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1970)

What It's About (from Goodreads):
When young Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away - home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan.


While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs' greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.

Opening Lines:

Prologue
"Come home, Tenar! Come home!"
In the deep valley, in the twilight, the apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star. Down the orchard aisles, in the thick, new, wet grass, a little girl ran for the joy of running; hearing the call she did not come at once, but made a long circle before she turned her face toward home. The mother waiting in the doorway of the hut, with  the firelight behind her, watched the tiny figure running and bobbing like a bit of thistledown blown over the darkening grass beneath the trees."

My Thoughts:
When I was a school boy in England, many moons ago, I read Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. It made a lasting impression on me (as it did Neil Gaiman, as he writes HERE.) But, I had never gone ahead and read the other books in the series. When Le Guin died earlier this year, I decided to put that to rights.

Ged Sparrowhawk, the protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea, makes an appearance in this book, but the main focus is on Tenar, renamed Arha, The Eaten One, when she becomes the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan.

Le Guin's world building is tremendous. Her father was a well-known anthropologist, and his interest in the study of humankind obviously made its way to his daughter. The search for a new priestess upon the death of a preceding one reminded me of the Tibetan belief in reincarnation, and the search for the new child born upon the death of a Dalai Lama. Poignantly, the carefree child with whom the novel opens, is taken at age five for training in a desert compound near the tombs. Her training is severe, and she becomes hardened and hardhearted.

But, even in this dark place, a shard of her former self remains. So, when she spies Ged hunting for the Ring of Erreth-Akbe in the tombs, curiosity gets the better of her. As she gets to know him, she begins to doubt what she has been told about her life as the One Priestess. She and Ged escape.

The theme of the novel might be that of a girl coming into the knowledge of her true power. In an Afterword written forty years after the book was published, Le Guin writes: "Maybe it was the whole primitive, hateful idea of the feminine as dark, blind, weak, and evil that I saw shaking itself to pieces, imploding, crumbling into wreckage on a desert ground. And I rejoiced to see it fall. I still do."

A woman friend of mine told me recently that when she read the Tombs of Atuan when she was twelve, it was transformative.

Ursula Le Guin's writing will do that to you!

About The Author:
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. She published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. A long-time resident of Portland,  Oregon, Le Guin died on January 22nd, 2018.



Monday, February 12, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: FAIRY MOM AND ME by Sophie Kinsella

FAIRY MOM AND ME by Sophie Kinsella (Delacorte Press, January 2018)

Sophie Kinsella is a bestselling author from Britain--if you read adult literature she has a well-known series: Shopaholic. Now she's written her first book for children, and it's a fun and frothy confection starring fairies. Once the mafiosi got past the glaring pink cover, we enjoyed it immensely.

What It's About (from jacket copy):
Ella Brook can't wait to grow up, because one day she will become a fairy and have her own sparkly wings and a teacher on Fairy Tube, just like her mom! Until then, Ella has to watch her mom in action. But sometimes spells go wrong, and Ella's mom can never seem to remember the right magic codes.

A lot of the time it's up to Ella to come to the rescue. Does she have what it takes to be a fairy one day? Or will there be more glitches than glitter?

Filled with Sophie Kinsella's sparkling humor and Marta Kissi's charming illustrations, Fairy Mom and Me is a story about a savvy girl, her imperfect mom, and a little bit of magic.

Opening Lines:
"Hi there. My name is Ella Brook, and I live in a town called Cherrywood. I have blue eyes and brown hair. My best friends at school are Tom and Lenka. My worst enemy is Zoe. She lives next door and she's my Not-Best Friend. She looks mean even when she smiles. You'll meet them all later."

My Thoughts:
This is a rollicking romp, and a great deal of fun. Mom is quite inept at her fairy magic, and every spell she tries ends up in a great big mess (literally!) I love that the modern fairy learns spells off FairyTube, and employs "Computawand V5s." (Grandma, of course, has an old-fashioned wand.)

There's not a huge amount of character development, but that's not the strength of stories like this. It's all in the crazy mayhem that ensues when fairies try to clean house, or get fed up standing in line at the grocery store. Frenemy Zoe is an out-and-out villain, and little brother Ollie is a one-man wrecking machine.

The illustrations are super, and this is a quick read which would be perfect for 2nd-4th graders. The good news: there is a book 2 in the pipeline: Fairy In Waiting! Also, in late January, Lambur Productions announced it had optioned the book for a live-action television series!!! A modern-day Bewitched, maybe?!

(P.s. I received a free copy from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.)

About the Author:
Sophie Kinsella's books for grown-ups have sold over thirty-eight million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than forty languages. They include the Shopoholic series, Can You Keep a Secret?' and The Undomestic Goddess. She is also the author of the YA novel Finding Audrey. The adventures of Ella and Fairy Mom are her first stories for children. She lives in London, England, with her husband and family. WEBSITE


Monday, February 5, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (May, 2002)

This terrific novel is on the Oregon Battle of the Books list. Sadly, my son's team was knocked out in the third round, so we may be moving on to other reading lists. He is doing a project on it, however, in his 5th grade class, the requirement being that the project be on an honor-winning book. Esperanza Rising won the Pura Belpre award in 2002.

What It's About (from Goodreads):
Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico--she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances--Mama's life, and her own, depend on it.

Opening Lines:
"Our land is alive, Esperanza," said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slopes of the vineyard. Leafy green vines draped the arbors and the grapes were ready to drop. Esperanza was six years old and loved to walk with her papa through the winding rows, gazing up at him and watching his eyes dance with love for the land."

My Thoughts:
In some ways, this is a difficult book to read, especially for the tender-hearted reader. My son has some anxiety around the subject of death, and the novel starts with a significant death. We got through that carefully, and then voyaged with Esperanza as she headed north to the United States.

Esperanza is a complicated character. She has been brought up with wealth and servants, and now finds herself working in a camp for Mexican farm workers. She comes across as spoiled and petulant initially, but the experience she undergoes opens her eyes to the concerns of others.

Esperanza Rising is deftly plotted, and the relationships between characters are skilfully drawn. 

(N.b. This novel also put the lie to the adage that boys won't read books with girl main characters. As long as a cover isn't too frou-frou, and the story is one of adventure, we're good to go.)

Words from my son:
I thought the book was touching. I learned that you have to adjust to other people. My favorite quote was "Don't be afraid to start over."

About the Author:
Pam Muñoz Ryan is the author of the New York Times Best Seller, ECHO, a 2016 Newbery Honor Book, and winner of the Kirkus Prize. She has written over forty books for young people—picture books, early readers, and middle grade and young adult novels. She the author recipient of the NEA's Human and Civil Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, the Willa Cather Award, the Pura Belpré medal, the PEN USA award, and many others. Her novels include Esperanza Rising, Riding Freedom, Becoming Naomi León, Paint the Wind, The Dreamer, and Echo. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, holds a bachelor's and master's degree from San Diego State University and lives in north San Diego county with her family. WEBSITE


Monday, January 29, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)


Ursula K. Le Guin died on January the 21st.

The funny thing is, when I first arrived in Portland Oregon in 1990, I neither thought she lived in Oregon or that she was even alive.

Why? Chalk it down to a youthful bias that all writers worth reading were no longer with us. (Don't ask me where I got this silly notion. I was an unsophisticated child.) I had, however, picked up a copy of Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea in the school library in my British boarding school. I think it was one of the first books that made me want to be a writer.

I think this was the cover art on the edition I read as a child...
I was entranced by that story. I fancied myself Ged, the apprentice wizard. The scene where Ged makes a tremendous mistake because of arrogance and envy, costing the life of the Arch-Mage, shook me to my core. It is a scene I have never been able to shake.

Fast forward twenty years. I had moved to a new country and was enjoying the bookish life of Portland. My wife and I attended a fundraiser for the local public radio station and who was one of the presenters? No other than the legendary Le Guin, very much alive. I was too shocked and too shy to speak with her.

I reread the Wizard of Earthsea a number of years ago. It has lost none of its magic.

A few weeks ago, I came across Le Guin's latest, a collection of her blog posts, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. I started to read it, once again thrilled by the tautness of her prose and the expansiveness of her mind. "I'd love to meet her," I told my friend Jared over tea. "Come to my neighborhood," he replied. "She lives there. In fact, I could hit her house with a frisbee."

I never got to visit, or to throw a frisbee at Ursula Le Guin's house. Three days later, while I was reading her reflections on aging, the news came that she was dead at the age of 88.



Here is a piece from the essay 'In Your Spare Time':

"The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.
 An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: I SURVIVED: THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT. ST. HELENS, 1980 by Lauren Tarshis

I SURVIVED THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, 1980 by Lauren Tarshis

I've never read any of the "I Survived" series before, but this one is listed for the 3rd-5th grade Oregon Battle of the Books, so my 5th-grader and I read it together. It was great!

What It's About:
The mountain exploded with the power of ten million tons of dynamite...

Eleven-year-old Jessie Marlowe has grown up with the beautiful Mount St. Helens always in the background.  She's hiked its winding trails, dived into its cold lakes, and fished for trout in its streams.  Just looking at Mount St. Helens out her window made Jess feel calm, like it was watching over her somehow.  Of course, she knew the mountain was a volcano... but not the active kind, not a volcano that could destroy and kill!


Then Mount St. Helens explodes with unimaginable fury.  Jess suddenly finds herself in the middle of the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.  Ash and rock are spewing everywhere.  Can Jess escape in time?

Opening Lines:
"For more than 100 years, Mount St. Helens had been quiet, a beautiful mountain surrounded by forests. Hikers climbed its winding trails. Skiers raced down its snowy slopes. Children splashed in its crystal clear lakes.
Except this peaceful mountain was not a mountain.
It was a dangerous volcano..."
What I Liked:
This is a short and gripping tale. Jessie and her two best friends, twins Eddie and Sam, are like a trio of musketeers--"all for one and one for all." Jess's dad died in a car crash 2 years before, and the twins have been lifesavers for her.

They live near Mt. St. Helens (only 50 miles from where I live) and have a great time in the forest. But the mountain starts to show signs of eruption, and the three of them are caught in the blast.

Tarshis writes really great adventure tales. Short sentences and visual details spur the story along, and I admit I got a bit misty-eyed wondering if the trio would actually survive.

This would be a great book for the so-called "reluctant reader," and Lauren Tarshis admits that the fact that her three sons were not great readers was the impulse to beginning the series in the first place. She thought she'd write three books, and this one is #14!

Thoughts from the 5th-grader:
It was a very entertaining book. However, sometimes things happened which were "convenient" for the characters. For example, they just happen to run into this volcano expert, and Jess just happens to see a helicopter after the eruption and saves her friends. (This didn't bother the Mafioso. I guess I am just better able to suspend disbelief.)

About the Author (in her own words):
"I live in Connecticut with my husband and four children.  My parents, mother-in-law, my brother and sister-in-law and three nieces all live right around us. This makes me very happy.

When I’m not with my family, or working on Storyworks, a great magazine for kids, or writing, I like to be with my friends. I met my two best friends when I was 11 years old, and I still talk to one or the other almost every single day.

As I get older, I try harder and harder to learn new things. Learning to write a novel for young people was a process that took many, many years. This year I learned how to create this web site (which was really fun). I also learned to bake perfect chocolate chip cookies (the secret: put the dough in the fridge for an hour or so before you bake them). And I learned how to hike in the wildneress. My first time, my friend and I got lost and a mysterious old man appeared from nowhere to help us. Otherwise we might still be there. We learned our lesson (bring a compass and good maps.)


I’m still thinking about what to learn next year."  WEBSITE


It's so great to be back in the blogging swing of things. I have been reading nonfiction and adult fiction recently, but my 5th-grader and I are still reading for OBOB, so stay tuned for more middle grade in the year to come. Happy 2018, everyone.