Monday, October 8, 2018

Marvelous COVER REVEAL Monday: Donna Galanti's THE LIGHTNING ROAD series

Donna Galanti is one of the most industrious authors I know. A stalwart of Project Middle Grade Mayhem, she has written middle grade novels and adult paranormal suspense. Her middle grade series, The Lightning Road, has new awesome covers!

Donna talks today about how she loves scary stories and shares an excerpt from Joshua and the Lightning Road.


Plus enter to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card at the end of this post and get the first e-book in Donna’s series, Joshua and the Lightning Road, on sale now through October 15th for just $0.99cents.

Playing on Our Fears
by Donna Galanti
Do you love to be scared? I do, ever since I was a kid, as long as I know it’s safe. Haunted houses. Hayrides. Adventure rides. Cemeteries at night.

And when I write, I return to the magical – and fearful – worlds of my youth, where monsters and faeries roam the land. Through my stories I can become these characters, good and evil, and wield their powers. My favorite stories as a kid were thrillers that made my heart race and my fingers keep turning the page to see if the good guys would win over the bad guys.

I grew up an only child on a mountain with only nature as a playground, so my time was spent roaming the woods with my notebook and pen. I wrote in secret fields and beside hidden ponds. The woods were my home. My favorite room with a view is still one strewn with fields, rock walls, and looming mountains.

So, you can see that I was never scared to be alone and I think we as readers like to see our beloved characters alone to face scary challenges. It makes us wonder – what would I do in that situation if I were all alone without any help? Would I be too terrified to act, or would I face danger head on and conquer it?

And these are the kinds of situations I thrust Joshua into in The Lightning Road series while trying to blend just the right amount of scariness and tension for a children’s book. I love it when an author takes my beloved characters to the edge of no return and gives me that spine-tingling rush of “oh, nooo!” This is what I aim to write in my own books.

I am drawn to stories that play on our fears because I am fascinated by how people act when put in dire circumstances. And I love the challenge of writing a tortured hero. It forces me (and the reader) to step out of our safe world for just a bit and be uncomfortable, while in the safe place of a book.
I love to see how much torment we can pile on a character, how lost they become, how near the brink of desperation they reach, and then redeem them or not. We can relate to their pain because they are flawed, like we are all wonderfully flawed – and this reveals our humanity.

So, in reading scary stories, for a short while we can live among monsters without the fear of facing them in real life. Our heart pumps. Our fingers grip the pages. Then we close the book and go out again in the sunshine.

Do you like reading scary stories? What’s your favorite?

Inky black swallowed me up. I darted my flashlight about, but its small, round light didn’t reveal much. The mustiness of old things hidden away filled my nose. Bo Chez, hurry home. The hair prickled on my forearms as the stairs screeched with each step and the landing loomed in front of me. Could a ghost with an axe be waiting to chop off my head? I took a deep breath, waiting for a blade to fall, but the only thing lying in wait was a dusty bookshelf.
“Finn-man, I know you’re up here.” I flicked the flashlight around the room, its cold metal warming in my sweaty palm. Thunder crashed over my head and my ears popped.
One more step forward.
“Got ya!” Finn jumped up, his shadow against the window. I tripped and landed hard on my butt. My flashlight twirled across the floor.
Then a blue arc of light struck the window. Glass exploded. Finn’s mouth froze in a wide ‘O’. I yelled and reached out to pull him down, but another zap of light blinded me. Finn screamed. Rain splattered my face, stinging with each drop. White dots floated in the air. Something gray billowed past me carrying a familiar, rotten stench that made me gag. A knobby hand grabbed me. I bit it and shoved it away, gagging again, and the hand dropped me back on the floor with the taste of salty dirt on my tongue. An angry howl blasted the air.
Zap. Zap.
Daggers of light shot everywhere as sharp glass cut into me.
“Finn!”
He floated in the shadows. Light erupted all around him, his eyes round with fear. The sky boomed overhead, and a deep laugh bellowed out as if the thunder itself were taunting me.
“Next time it’s you, boy,” a raspy voice said.
Wind shrieked around me in a ferocious wail, pulling me with it. I flattened myself on the floor and clung on tightly to the foot of a chair. The angry wind finally stopped. Rain pelted me through the broken window.
All was quiet. I lifted my head.
Finn was gone.


 WATCH THE JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD BOOK TRAILER!





PRAISE FOR JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD:
 "Vividly imagined characters in a gripping action fantasy that never lets you go until the very last page." —Jenny Nimmo, New York Times bestselling author of the Charlie Bone series.

**$0.99 DEAL!**
Joshua and the Lightning Road is available now through October 15th for just $0.99cents on e-book from these book sellers:
Amazon   Barnes & Noble  Kobo  Apple iBooks

ABOUT JOSHUA AND THE ARROW REALM:
Joshua never thought he’d be called back to the world of Nostos so soon. But when his friend King Apollo needs his help in the Arrow Realm, Joshua braves this dark world once more in order to save him. With Joshua’s loyalties divided between Nostos and Earth, he must rely on his courage and powers to restore magic to this desperate world and to free its people. Abandoned by his friends in his quest, unarmed, and facing great odds, can he survive on instincts alone and not only save those imprisoned—but himself?

PRAISE FOR JOSHUA AND THE ARROW REALM:
“Fast-paced and endlessly inventive, this is a high-stakes romp through a wild world where descendants of the Greek gods walk beside you, beasts abound, and not everything—or everyone—is as it seems.” –Michael Northrop, New York Times bestselling author of the TombQuest series

Joshua and the Arrow Realm is available through these book sellers:
Amazon  Barnes & Noble  Kobo  Apple iBooks

ABOUT DONNA:
Donna Galanti is the author of the bestselling paranormal suspense Element Trilogy and the children’s fantasy adventure Joshua and The Lightning Road series. Donna is a contributing editor for International Thriller Writers the Big Thrill magazine, a writing contest judge at nycmidnight.com, and regularly presents as a guest author at schools and teaches at writing conferences. She’s lived from England as a child, to Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer. Donna also loves teaching writers about building author brand and platform through her free training series at
yourawesomeauthorlife.com. Visit her at donnagalanti.com.




CONNECT WITH DONNA:

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Monday, September 24, 2018

MARVELOUS MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY: THE THIRD MUSHROOM by Jennifer L. Holm

THE THIRD MUSHROOM by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House Children's, September 2018)

What It's About (from Penguin Random House Website):
Ellie’s grandpa Melvin is a world-renowned scientist . . . in the body of a fourteen-year-old boy. His feet stink, and he eats everything in the refrigerator–and Ellie is so happy to have him around. Grandpa may not exactly fit in at middle school, but he certainly keeps things interesting. When he and Ellie team up for the county science fair, no one realizes just how groundbreaking their experiment will be. The formula for eternal youth may be within their reach! And when Ellie’s cat, Jonas Salk, gets sick, the stakes become even higher. But is the key to eternal life really the key to happiness? Sometimes even the most careful experiments yield unexpected–and wonderful–results.

Opening Lines:
"Maybe because I'm an only child, but my parents have always been a little obsessed with my eating. They insist that I try everything on my plate. That I eat what they eat. No chicken tenders off the kids' menu for me. If they have calamari or chicken livers, that's what I have to eat, too."

My Thoughts:
Jennifer L. Holm is such a wonderful writer! Her range--from cowriting the Babymouse series with her brother Matthew, to the wonderful Turtle in Paradise--is tremendous. The Third Mushroom is yet another great addition to her bibliography.

I particularly liked the presentation of the main character, Ellie. It's a pitch perfect point of view--worrying about friendships, being confused about feelings of romance, and loving both science and animals. There's also some magical realism--Ellie's grandfather, also a scientist, who has transformed himself into a 14-year-old boy. (FYI, grandfatherly curmudgeonliness does not feel out of place coming out of the mouth of a 14-year-old.)

One of my pet peeves in middle grade, as any longtime reader of the blog will know, is the dead parent motif. Here, Ellie's parents are divorced, but she gets on well with her stepfather. Holm does a great job of creating parents who are important influences in their child's life, but allow the child (and themselves!) to have lives of their own.

Finally, I really liked all the science in the book, and learned a lot about all the scientists who are mentioned. (There is an appendix which goes into more detail. Did you know that the two scientists who discovered that yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes deliberately allowed an infected mosquito to bite them? They contracted the disease and one of them died.)

Verdict: Jennifer L. Holm's latest is yet another success. It would be a great book to read with 8-12 year olds who like books with heart and humor and are interested in science.

About The Author:
Jennifer L. Holm is a New York Times bestselling children’s author and the recipient of three Newbery Honors for her novels Our Only May Amelia, Penny From Heaven, and Turtle in Paradise. Jennifer collaborates with her brother, Matthew Holm, on two graphic novel series—the Eisner Award-winning Babymouse series and the bestselling Squish series. She lives in California with her husband and two children.  Website



Monday, September 10, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: ARGOS by Ralph Hardy

ARGOS: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog by Ralph Hardy (Harper 2016, paperback edition 2018)

Man, it's been a long time since I posted--and my absence hasn't gone unnoticed by the powers that be. Let me give you a bird's eye view (very topical, since there are a lot of birds in Argos) of what happened when the Don called me into his office earlier this month.

The Don: "Michale, Michale, where you been? I'm paying you the big bucks, and you haven't done any work since, when, June?"

MGM: "Sorry, boss. Things have just been a little busy on the home front..."

The Don: "What, you had another baby? Come on, time to stop with the progeny. You're not young any more."

MGM: "No, not a baby, but..."

The Don: "A dog? You got another dog? Don't you remember me telling you that one pooch was enough? You should get a bird of prey. I hear being a falconer is an impressive job." (Leans forward to pinch my cheek)

MGM: "No, not a dog either, boss. The truth is, the kids were off school, and we all decided to go to England..."

The Don: "England? What's in England? They don't make wine, they can't sing, and believe me, the pasta is terrible. You should have gone to Sicilia instead."

MGM: "Hey, speaking of dogs, look what came in the mail a while back." (Waves copy of Argos in front of his face). "It's about Odysseus' dog! Nice cover, eh? I'll get to my desk right away and review it."

MGM sprints for the door. The last words he hears are "It's Ulysses, not Odysseus. Next thing, you'll be telling me you prefer Zeus to Jupiter."

So, there you have it. We had a busy summer, but now school is back in session, and I can get back to reading and writing. Yay for September!

What It's About:
For twenty years, the great hero Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaka. After ten years beneath the walls of Troy, he begins the long journey back home. He defeats monsters. He outsmarts the Cyclops. He battles the gods. He struggles to survive and do whatever it takes to reunite with his family.


And what of that family—his devoted wife, Penelope; his young son, Telemachos; his dog, Argos? For those twenty years, they wait, unsure if they will ever see Odysseus again. But Argos has found a way to track his master. Any animal who sets foot or wing on Ithaka brings him news of Odysseus’s voyage—and hope that one day his master will return. Meanwhile, Argos watches over his master’s family and protects them from the dangers that surround a throne without its king.

Opening Lines:
"Sometimes a new dog will ask me my lineage, for I look like no other hound on Ithaka, most of which are small and bred to shepherd livestock, if they are bred for any purpose at all. When I am asked, this is the story I tell, if the question is not put to me rudely, as often happens in this age."

My Thoughts:
As a young lad, I loved Greek and Roman mythology, and The Iliad and The Odyssey were some of my favorite tales. I love that Ralph Hardy made the choice to retell the Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus' loyal dog, Argos--because I am also a huge dog fan!

As befits an epic, the tale is dense: Argos is noble as well as loyal, and this nobility is captured in his speech. While Odysseus' travails are reported to him mainly by birds, Argos undergoes his own Odyssey, keeping his territory safe from wolves, helping Odysseus' son Telemachos learn how to hunt boars, taking revenge on the hideous suitors, and falling in love himself.

SPOILER: In keeping with the Odyssey itself, Argos lives long enough to recognize his master, but dies before Odysseus can reveal himself and lay waste to the suitors. The tale is finished by one of Argos' children, Leander.

This would be a great read-aloud in a middle school classroom studying ancient civilizations. Having a dog as a narrator is a great way to open up the world of this epic classic for a modern reader.

About  the Author:
Ralph Hardy graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in English and received his MFA from Columbia College, Chicago. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife and children and a dog named Harvey, who is nothing like Argos. He is the author of THE CHEETAH DIARIES, LEFTY, and a number of short stories.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: DASH by Kirby Larson

DASH by Kirby Larson (Scholastic, 2014)

This novel was in the 3rd-5th grade division in The Oregon Battle of the Books. My 5th grader and I enjoyed reading it together.

What It's About (from Kirby Larson's website):
Although Mitsi Kashino and her family are swept up in the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mitsi never expects to lose her home — or her beloved dog, Dash. But, as World War II rages and people of Japanese descent are forced into incarceration camps, Mitsi is separated from Dash, her classmates, and life as she knows it. The camp is a crowded and unfamiliar place, whose dusty floors, seemingly endless lines, and barbed wire fences begin to unravel the strong Kashino family ties. With the help of a friendly neighbor back home, Mitsi remains connected to Dash in spite of the hard times, holding on to the hope that the war will end soon and life will return to normal. Though they’ve lost their home, will the Kashino family also lose their sense of family? And will Mitsi and Dash ever be reunited?

Opening Lines:
"Mitsi Kashino packed her sketch pad, her binder, and her worry in her book bag. Dash sniffed the straps before flattening himself on top of it, muzzle resting on his front paws. He watched Mitsi with worried brown eyes. She ruffled the scruffy almond-colored fur on his head."

What I Loved:
Kirby Larson is a masterful writer, ast he first paragraph above shows. We immediately know that both the main character and the dog are worried, and we see that dog and girl have a wonderful bond. The paragraph which follows tells us that something has gone terribly wrong in Mitsi's world, but that she is hoping that things have righted themselves at school because time has passed.

Not so. Things are even worse.

The indignities suffered by Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor are a shameful chapter in American history. The fact that these events are seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl ramps up the injustice of it all. We feel for Mitsi as her friends turn against her, as the mean girl at school taunts her, and as she is forced to leave her precious dog behind as her family is sent to an internment camp. Larson has done some great research, and we get all the sights, sounds, (horrible) smells, tastes, and dust from camp life. Throughout, Mitsi shows tremendous resilience, and we get to enjoy the "correspondence" she and Dash have.

This is the sort of novel which leads to great conversations about what can happen if a society falls prey to fear of "the other." And who can fail to love a story about a girl and her dog? Not this Mafioso.

P.s. Has there ever been a cuter cover? Just look at those puppy dog eyes!


About the Author:
Kirby Larson is the acclaimed author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky, a young adult historical novel she wrote inspired by her great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. That book, and encouragement from her mentor, Karen Cushman, gave Kirby the confidence to embrace her passion for historical fiction; she has since written the Dogs of World War II series (Scholastic), which include Duke, Dash (recipient of the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Prize), Liberty and Code Word Courage. Kirby melded her passion for history and mystery in Audacity Jones to the Rescue, and Audacity Jones Steals the Show (nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award).

Kirby lives in Kenmore, Washington with her husband, Neil. When she’s not reading or writing, Kirby can be found beachcombing or bird watching with Winston the Wonder Dog.

Website   Facebook   Twitter

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.