Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Reads of 2011

I have mixed feelings about end-of-year lists, especially as there now seem to be so many of them. I figured, however, what is the point of keeping track of everything one reads in a year without reflecting back on those books?

I set out in 2011 to read the equivalent of one book a week, or 52 books total. I ended up with 79 titles on my list, with books for children, for young adults, and both adult fiction and nonfiction. I did not count picture books because, well, as a children's librarian, 52 picture books would present no challenge at all. Perhaps in 2012 I'll blog about my favorite picture books, too.

Here's how my reading broke down (yes, I really made a pie chart):

And, the real point of this posting, my ten best reads of 2011:

Best Children's Fiction, Fantasy: The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley

Best Children's Fiction, Historical: The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

Best Children's Fiction, Humorous: The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris

Best Children's Fiction, Realistic with a Female Protagonist: Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Best Children's Fiction, Realistic with a Male Protagonist: Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

Best Young Adult Fiction: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Best Young Adult Series Fiction: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Best Adult Fiction, Comedic: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Best Adult Fiction, Dramatic: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Best Adult Nonfiction: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

May the year 2012 bring you many wonderful opportunities for reading discoveries!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Last Reads of 2011, or Books #78 and #79

I finished off the last bit of the year--the busy holiday time!--with two very different reads: a classic mystery (to make up for the nonsense that was the last mystery I read), and a children's graphic novel set in Wonderland post-Alice. Here are some brief details:

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie's classic mystery novels starring Hercule Poirot, Belgian detective extraordinaire. Poor Monsieur Poirot, even a simple trip back home from Persia turns into a murder mystery. When one of the passengers on Poirot's carriage of the Paris-bound Orient Express is murdered, the head of the company insists Poirot investigate. The premise is even more interesting and potentially menacing giving the fact that the train becomes stuck in the snow shortly after the murder is presumed to have been committed--meaning the murderer is likely still on the train. This limited set makes for a perfect backdrop to both Poirot's deductive investigative style and Christie's wonderfully adept mystery writing.

Wonderland, originally a series of comics written by Tommy Kovac and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is the graphic novel story of Mary Ann, the White Rabbit's housemaid, and the nonsensical and head-threatening situations she and her employer get into some time after the "Monster Alice" visited Wonderland. Mary Ann is something of a neat freak, and the White Rabbit is a bit irrational and twitchy, and the rest of the characters from Lewis Carroll's original tales are also present in a form slightly diluted from their originals. What seems like a totally pointless story ends up being a bit of a political commentary, though, which surprised me as I was reading--and I'm wondering if maybe that makes this graphic novel not a children's book after all, despite its being published by Disney. The art is really fun, however, with Liew paying homage to John Tenniel's well-loved illustrations. Not the best book to end the year with, but not a total loss for an Alice fan, either.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book #77: Death Comes to Pemberley

I love Jane Austen.

I hate this book.

I read and heard so many really positive reviews of P. D. James's murder mystery Pride and Prejudice sequel Death Comes to Pemberley--there was so much positivity, in fact, that a mass-market-reviews skeptic like me ought to have expected disappointment. Supposedly the novel is a lovely cross between a true-to-the-oeuvre P&P sequel and Clue. Except that P&P is beautifully and ingeniously written, and Clue is funny; this book is neither.

I read this book on my Kindle, and I highlighted passages that bugged me--many made me yell out in frustration (this is true; ask my coworkers). Perhaps don't read this list of a) you plan to read the book, or b) you read it and enjoyed it. You've been warned.

The shades of Pemberley are thus polluted:

  1. Everyone seems to drink coffee. Tea was the fashionable drink in the Regency period, especially in aristocratic private homes.
  2. There are dopey, suck-up-to-Jane-Austen moments like this one, where Elizabeth reflects on the incredibly short courtship between herself and Mr. Darcy--that period between his proposals: "If this were fiction [it is!], could even the most brilliant novelist [brown-noser!] contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome [yes a novelist could! and let's state the obvious!]?"
  3. Not only are we, the readers, privy to conversations exclusively between men, we are availed of the goings-on among servants with no reference to their employers. Jane Austen only wrote what she knew, and so we never get these perspectives--conversations about which she would have had no first-hand knowledge. Except, apparently, here we do.
  4. Jane Bingley talks more in one paragraph than Jane Bennett did in the entirety of P&P.
  5. The servants answer direct yes-or-no questions from their employers with unnecessarily wordy answers. Since when do the servants turn into Whit Stillman characters and qualify all of their answers?
  6. Really? Mrs. Elizabeth Bennett feels some pangs of emotion for "the handsome agreeable and gallant George Wickham"? "Gallant" definitely took that bit too far.
  7. It is entirely unnecessary to work in contemporary mechanical developments, for example the Darcys' inclusion of a water closet at Pemberley. It is even more unnecessary to go on to say how said developments have "caused much ribald interest in the neighbourhood."
  8. It is never necessary to know the name of a character's horse. Ever.
  9. Lots of these characters have really stupid names. Joseph Joseph? Obadiah? Jeremiah? Really? You do know P&P is in the polite society of Regency England, right?
  10. I may be mistaken, but I was under the impression that folks in England stopped calling America "the New World" well before 1804.
  11. Mr. Darcy "could not speak but the joy which brought a tear to his eyes suffused his face..." Mr. Darcy does. Not. Cry.
  12. And the worst possible offense, in my opinion: the crossing over of characters from other of Austen's novels. In an effort to provide some back story as to what the Wickhams have been up to over the past few years, the reader learns that the pair spent some time in the company/employ of Sir Walter Elliot. Lydia flirted with Sir Walter, Mr. Wickham flirted with Elizabeth Elliot; this idea in and of itself is mildly amusing as a character interpretation. But then there is the mention of a former Miss Anne Elliot, now married for several years to navy man Frederick Wentworth, recently made an admiral. Death Comes to Pemberley is set in 1803-04, and the Wickhams would have been around the Elliots in 1802. According to the FIRST PAGE of Persuasion, Anne Elliot was born in 1787. She would have been 15 at the time of the events in which she is mentioned, which is a full four years before she ever met her apparently promoted-before-he-joined-the-navy husband. Then, in a desperate bid to resolve a bit of bastardization at the end of the novel, we hear of these kind folks in a place called Highbury; Mr. and Mrs. Martin want to take in a baby, and Mr. and Mrs. Knightly of Donwell Abbey pledge their emotional and financial support for the arrangement. Austen's Emma--the Mrs. Knightly in question--would have been 7 at this time. That was too young even for French monarchs to wed, and given how much the English disliked the French at this time (James does at least mention Napoleon), 7 was definitely too young for well-bred English ladies to be married. Strange chronological discrepancies aside, it is still entirely out of the realm of the Austen oeuvre for these characters to be moving amongst one anothers' spheres, especially given they aren't related to one another. Austen's novels are largely set in small country villages and towns, where the social circles are small. These characters may each have dined with four and twenty families, but the chances of them ever coming into contact with one another, especially given their substantial geographical distances, are negligible at best and preposterous in effect. After enough Austen story lines intersect, one half expects mention of a Mr. Kevin Bacon.
I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; I am not averse to retellings and reimaginings of Jane Austen novels. But this? This felt sloppy and clunky and simply uninteresting, even as a straight up historical mystery. And that's all in addition to the infuriating bits. Overall: badly done, indeed.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Books #75 & #76

Despite a seemingly accelerating programming agenda, my reading has not slowed as of late. I recently finished two books, each by one of my entertainment favorites:

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde - It is no secret that I love love love Jasper Fforde. In fact, I love his writing so much that I happily special ordered the most recent book in the Last Dragonslayer series from the UK. The novel, meant for a juvenile audience, did by no means disappoint. The story picks up where the first book left off. Foundling Jennifer Strange is still acting manager of Kazam, a house of magic-for-hire, although things haven't drastically improved for the motley assortment of sorcerers despite the recent Big Magic. Jennifer and her assistant Tiger Prawns must seek to protect their establishment, use their sorcerers' powers for good, and prevent an all-too-gullible royal household and public from letting themselves be overtaken by the conniving, malevolent, and flat-out mean competition. Throw in a few particularly disgruntled sorceresses and the threat of Quarkbeast-induced localized singularities and you've got a thrilling good story. (Don't understand a word of that description? That's because you haven't read it yet. Jasper Fforde is so funny and fanciful, and it all makes sense in the end.)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is the recent memoir by that hilarious customer service rep lady on The Office, Mindy Kaling. Kaling tells the tales of how she got to be the normal, average woman who lives the crazy cool Hollywood comedy life that she leads today. There were so many times in this book when I laughed out loud--Kaling really has a talent for finding the complete humor in situations that are universal in growing up, pursuing your dreams, and dealing with the day-to-day nuttiness that is life. I love how over-dramatic she is--and that she fully realizes she is being over dramatic! This book is worth reading, if for no other reason, for its sensational one-liners peppered throughout the text. Geez, that funny lady is perceptive!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Books #73 and #74: For a Mock Newbery Discussion

All of the children's librarians in the library district at which are work are busy reading what have been called Newbery Medal contenders for this year. In an effort to all be aware of some of the best titles to come out for kids this year, at our December meeting we'll share with the group the details and our thoughts about these books. My two follow.

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris is a really laugh-out-loud funny retelling of the classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lots of folks read SG&tGK in high school or college, and for that very reason we tend to forget that the story itself is perfect for elementary school kids. After all, the Arthurian tales originated as oral stories--why not tell them in a way that not only is accessible to children but appeals to them as well? The author takes us with Sir Gawain in the year preceding his fateful meeting with the Green Knight, and along the way we meet the somewhat incompetent other Knights of the Round Table, some odd characters throughout the kingdom, and the idiosyncratic Sir Gawain himself. The tale is true to the traditional telling with the added benefit of the type of humor kids love. I can't wait to use this as a read-aloud at some sort of school-age program.

The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm is something completely different. This historical fiction sequel to the Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia is definitely funny in its own way--after all, children being terrorized outside their school house by a bull wrongly-named Friendly is a humorous situation. But the depth of May Amelia's character makes for a really compelling read. Being a part of an immigrant Finnish community in the Pacific Northwest is struggle enough, but when misfortune seems to settle on May Amelia's family, we're left to wonder if her spirit can be enough to see everything through. This novel displays some wonderful historical background, moving family dynamics, and a flat-out good story of a really likable heroine. I'll definitely be recommending these books for readers asking for something historical besides American Girl and Dear America.

Have you read anything this year meant for juvenile readers through grade 6 that you think might be in the running for a Newbery? Please share!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book #72: The Language of Flowers

I heard about The Language of Flowers this summer when I attended a book preview lunch at ALA in New Orleans. During that hour session, I heard about a number of forthcoming books, mostly fiction, that would hit bookstores and libraries this autumn. I was lucky enough to get to bring some advanced reading copies home with me, but not every book the publishing staff book talked was available. I had to wait, just like everyone else, for The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. After finishing it last night, I can attest that it was well worth the wait.

The story opens with Victoria, a lifelong ward of the state, about to age out of her group home placement. Finally eighteen, she will now be emancipated and truly subject to only her own decisions. Victoria was always a somewhat difficult child, but her behavior stemmed only from what her upbringing was steeped in: abandonment, abuse, and dashed hopes. When Victoria steps out on her own for the first time, all she has is a backpack of a few belongings, an emotional mess of guilt and misanthropy, and a particular talent for flowers.

The Language of Flowers is told mostly in chapters alternating between Victoria's present and her time, ages 9-11, with a foster mother with whom she thought she could finally stay. This span of her childhood is the root of her guilt but also the budding of her love and talent for flowers. Her foster mother taught her the Victorian meanings of flowers--how gentlemen would express their feelings for ladies through deliberate selection of particular flowers. Victoria takes this skill, along with her natural proclivity for arranging flowers, into her new adult life. After a stint of homelessness, she finds work with a florist. She feels competent, if not completely comfortable, arranging bouquets for customers with desires for very specific emotions in their lives, and she becomes known for creating beautiful arrangements that express the customers' feelings.

Victoria can speak the language of flowers, and she feels pride and happily alone in her ability to convey messages through blooms without anyone else's knowledge. Then she meets a man at the flower market; his focus on her immediately puts her on edge, but she is even more taken aback when he begins to give her single flowers that convey messages to her. It turns out that Victoria is not as pleasantly alone as she thought. Suddenly this man causes her present and her past to collide, and for the first time Victoria must confront her own feelings, both about her past and herself.

The Language of Flowers is a beautiful piece of storytelling. The characters are very well developed, and it is difficult not to feel for them--especially Victoria, even though she does some truly awful things. The use of the Victorian language of flowers adds a beautiful and slightly mysterious, ethereal element to the novel--can we really communicate and influences lives with flowers? There is a lot to talk about in this book: flowers, the foster care system, family, personal guilt. I would suggest this book to readers who enjoy complex characters, beautiful descriptions, and themes of forgiveness.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Read-aloud Tales for School Children, or Books #70 and 71

We tend to think of reading to kids in public libraries as something specific to pre-readers; once a child can read for him/herself, they don't need to be read to, right? Wrong. It doesn't matter how old you are, how strong a reader you are--everyone loves and benefits from listening to stories. If you're looking for shorter, strange, and sometimes mysterious tales to read, either to yourself or a group of school children, give these two books a try.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was just released not too long ago. It is in immediate response to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book published in the eighties. Mysteries was comprised of 14 strange illustrations, each with a cryptic title and caption from its unpublished story counterpart. The story goes that Harris Burdick was a man who stopped into a publisher to show these 14 illustrations and give just a taste of the stories that accompanied them. He left these bits with the publisher along with a promise to return the next day with the full narratives, but he never returned. So intrigued was this publisher that he published Mysteries, and ever since folks have been wondering what the true tales behind the images might be. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a long-awaited answer to those wonderings. While Harris Burdick never did reappear (is he real?), 14 talented children's authors each chose a picture, title, and caption set and crafted a story to fit it. The result is a book of 14 wonderfully strange stories well befitting the mystery of the original picture book.

The Troll with No Heart in His Body is a likewise intriguing anthology. It contains various stories of trolls from Norse mythology, some familiar and some not. It includes the Three Billy Goats Gruff, but it also includes such fun and beautiful tales as the Eating Competition and the Boy and the North Wind. Like all good folktales, they tell the reader/listener something about life--the moral--as well as about the culture from which the tale originated. I would love to use these stories in a program and then make guesses as to why trolls were the national monster of Norway, and we could make trolls out of random craft supplies as well. Regardless of whether you read these tales alone, tell them to others, or make them part of a larger event, they are very much tales worth reading.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New meal: Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter over Pasta

I read a lot of food blogs. My favorites are still the same ones I fell in love with while working on my food thesis in college; time may pass, but those blogs still offer consistently great suggestions. I shouldn't be surprised, then, that a recipe found on not one but two of my favorite blogs turned out to be absolutely stupendous.

I know that the whole Italian argument is that "it's not about the sauce, it's about the pasta," but sometimes a really great sauce is just wonderful. Cue Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, a simple concoction that tastes so much more complex than its component parts would suggest. All you need is a can of plum tomatoes, some butter, a peeled-and-halved onion, and some salt, and about 45 minutes later you've got the most perfect simple tomato sauce. I've been eating it over Trader Joe's pesto tortellini, and I am confident that it would be just as wonderful over plain pasta. I can say with confidence that I will be testing that statement in the near future--this sauce is that simple and that rewarding to make.

Book #69: The Family Fang

The Fang Family are a strange lot. The parents are artists of the most absurd kind--all of their artwork exists in the reactions of innocent bystanders to their chaotic yet intricately planned "performances." The children, Annie and Buster, were fundamental parts of these pieces from their infancy. In fact, much of the American art world knows them primarily as Child A and Child B, young participants in the Fang madness. All of that strange art could really mess with a child, don't you think?

That's where the present-day of the novel takes place, with Annie and Buster trying to shed their histories and instead live normal lives--at least as normal as a Fang might expect. Annie is now a somewhat famous and talented actress who has a penchant for making very poor personal choices, and Buster is a novelist-turned-struggling-freelance writer who cannot make an emotional investment in anything. Suddenly Annie and Buster, despite their best intentions, find themselves living with their parents again. The elder Fangs take this reunion to mean the four Fangs are back as an absurdist art team, but Annie and Buster don't want a part of that life--they want to be more than just Child A and Child B in their parents' impersonal and emotionally cruel art pieces. Then the Fang parents disappear. Is is kidnapping, or is it art? Annie and Buster are left to sort things out for themselves.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is a fantastically strange, melancholic, and hopeful read. Each chapter is prefaced by a description of some past Fang family art piece--the burning house, the punk band, the theatrical performance--that really fleshes out the psyches of each member of the family. Moments in the books were unbelievably funny, and I found myself laughing out loud quite unexpectedly. Other moments, however, make the reader ponder what is acceptable while in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal. Add on the obvious discussion of what constitutes art and you've got a whole lot of talking points.

I am going to try to get my library to pick up this title for one of its book clubs, but I hope someone I know reads it soon so that we can discuss. I would suggest this book to you to read if you enjoy novels with strange yet somehow extremely endearing characters, fiction looking at relationships between parents and children, or books that provide a lens for thinking about art.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Last of the Mark Twains, or Books #65-68

I finished the last of the twelve Mark Twain Award nominees on Friday, and now I'm left to decide which I think are the best. I'm excited to discuss this topic with kids at my library--they always seem up for a Mark Twain Award discussion. Have I mentioned what a great job I have? Below are my synopses of the final four books.

The Secret of Zoom by Lynn Jonell -- Christina lives with her scientist father in a mansion on the grounds of a mysterious science laboratory. Christina is not allowed out--not even for school--"for her own safety," says her father. Christina knows that some sort of accident at the lab claimed her mother's life, but she still wishes she could get out of the confines of her home and explore. When she befriends a boy who has escaped from the harsh, local orphanage, however, she starts to see that an adventure, although what she wanted, really is as dangerous as she was led to believe.

Storm Chaser by Chris Platt -- Thirteen-year-old Jessie lives with her family on their working cattle and horse ranch. After a fire claims their barn and destroys their supplies for winter, Jessie's family decides to open the ranch to summer vacationers for the first time to bring in extra income. Suddenly Jessie finds herself trying to prove she can train one of the new horses at the ranch while attempting to navigate the challenges that come with playing hostess to folks unused to ranch life.

Captain Nobody by Dean Pitchford -- Young Newt Newman has always felt invisible. His older brother Chris has always been the star of the show at school and on the football field, and Newt has generally been content to blend in. When Chris is left in a coma after The Big Game, however, Newt feels that even his family has forgotten he exists. After a successful Halloween as a self-made superhero called Captain Nobody, Newt finds that he doesn't want to shed his uniform and mask. As Captain Nobody, he gets noticed; he rights wrongs; and he starts to realize his strengths in his family and community. Now if only he could help his brother...

Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor -- Ivy June moved in with her grandparents after her parents' house nearby became too crowded with children. Her family lives in Appalachian Kentucky mining country, and they have the struggles and relative poverty to show for it. When Ivy June is selected for an exchange program that will take her to Lexington for two weeks, not everyone is thrilled that she'll get a taste of a "better life" than she was born into. But Ivy June finds she and her exchange partner, Catherine, really aren't that much different. Through the course of their program, both experience prejudice, family trauma, and severe self-reflection, but their new and unlikely friendship helps them to overcome.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Mark Twain Award Nominees, or Books #61-64

I've been making steady progress through the other Mark Twain Award nominees by reading during my lunch break and in the evenings. Super nice thing about most juvenile literature: it's got all the interest of great fiction with a shorter reading time. This next batch of four novels offers a variety of moods, styles, and appeal factors, so there's sure to be one that appeals to even a tough-to-please young reader.

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry -- The protagonist, called Brother because of his having four older brothers, lives on a working ranch in rural Oregon where military service is a fundamental part of the largely Catholic ranching community. When Brother's father and his Army Reserves unit are deployed to Iraq, Brother suddenly finds himself alone on the ranch with his aging grandparents. Though he's only twelve, Brother earnestly takes it upon himself to ensure everything will be in working order at home for his father when his tour is over. During the course of those long fourteen months, Brother learns about how family, neighbors, and faith can make a vital difference in how one survives difficult times.

The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin -- Middle schooler Winston loves puzzles. He loves them so much, in fact, that after he helps his school decipher a mysterious letter that turns out to be an invitation to a puzzle tournament, he volunteers himself and his closest friends for the event despite its taking place on the first day of summer vacation. The event pits ten middle school teams against one another as they try to solve six consecutive puzzles with clues all around town, but Winston quickly realizes that more gears are in motion than the planned contest. Can Winston solve the potato chip puzzles and the case of a cheater in the competition's midst?

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass -- Amanda is about to turn eleven, and for the first time in her life, she won't be celebrating her birthday with Leo, who was always her best friend. During last year's joint party, Amanda overheard Leo saying some things that she just could not forgive, and so the pair are celebrating separately. Imagine Amanda's surprise when she wakes up the day after turning eleven only to discover that she is reliving that birthday again. Amanda tinkers with her actions and choices every time she relives her birthday, and in the process she discovers what it means to help others, to recognize who she is and be herself, and to be a true friend.

Runaway Twin by Peg Kehret -- Sunny has seen the unsavory sides of the foster care system over the last few years. After her mother and grandmother died when she and her twin sister Starr were three, Starr went to live with one family while Sunny went first to relatives and then, abandoned, into the system. Despite finally finding herself in a stable foster home with a woman who cares about her, Sunny decides to runaway in pursuit of Starr. Throughout this event-heavy first person narrative, Sunny braves a great many things--a tornado, traveling alone, unkind children--in her pursuit of no longer feeling alone in the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New meal: Fish en Papillote

Sometimes, after a long day of work, especially toward the end of the week, it can be tough to get my act together enough to make dinner. There are many reasons for why I have frequently found myself in this scenario in the last few months. Oftentimes I'm running low on groceries by Thursday and so don't have much on hand. Sometimes I've had meetings elsewhere in the county in the afternoon, and my drive home takes me oh-so-conveniently near something easy and tasty, like Bread Co. And, yes, sometimes I just can't be bothered to focus on anything that is going to take me thirty minutes or more. So, yes, I don't end up with a proper dinner. Some days, I'll just eat toast. Other days are much, much worse.

But tonight I finally tried a recipe I'd been saving, and it's going to be my go-to meal for these late-in-the-week, no-advance-menu-plan nights. And it is called "fish en papillote," or fish in parchment paper.

The concept is simple: tear off a decent-sized piece of parchment paper. Right smack dab in the middle, lay a piece of uncooked fish. Either on top of or around the fish, add some veggies cut bite size, some thinly-sliced potatoes or sweet potatoes, perhaps a lemon wedge or two for the bright flavor. Drizzle the whole thing with olive oil and some pepper/salt/herbs, then wrap that baby up so the steam of a 400-degree oven will cook it all to perfection. It takes 20 minutes. Seriously.

The beauty of this meal is manifold. It's delicious, for one. It takes moments to assemble and a mere 20 minutes to cook, and there's something gratifying about opening a present to get to your dinner. Plus I can use up what random bits of veg and potatoes I've got hanging around. My local grocery store has a good fresh fish counter, so I can stop in on my way home from work no problem. It's quick, and it's cheap: 5 minutes in-store and $1.68 for my wild Alaskan cod fillet today. I will be gifting myself this meal many, many times this winter, I can already tell.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

New meal: Pasta with Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Pancetta

I tried Brussels sprouts for the first time last autumn, and I've been a fan ever since. Proof: I worked them into at least one famously-immutable family holiday menu last holiday season. When I saw this recipe for Pasta with Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Pancetta, I was intrigued and bookmarked it. I finally made it this past week--it's prime Brussels sprouts season, after all--and it was very, very tasty. You might think shaved Brussels sprouts is an odd addition to a pasta dish, but the flavor and crunch add perfectly to the pancetta, garlic, and toasted pine nuts in the dish. Please give it a try! It even reheats well in a skillet with a drizzle of olive oil. I highly recommend the sprinkling of parmesan over the top, too.

The first batch of Mark Twain nominees, or Books #57-60

Here in Missouri, there are a fair number of book awards that cover pretty much every age of young reader. In the children's department of my library, there are three main state awards: Building Block Picture Book Awards (read-alouds for preschoolers and other pre-readers); Show Me Awards (first through third grade); and Mark Twain Awards (fourth through sixth grades). I use the Building Block nominees pretty heavily in my story times because they really are fantastic books. Lately, though, I've been trying to get up to speed on all of this year's Mark Twain Award nominees. There are twelve finalists in all, and students in grades four, five, and six in the state will choose a winner in the spring. I've read four so far, and they all have really fantastic qualities. Here are my short synopses and thoughts; give one a try!

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur -- It's the summer before sixth grade, and Aubrey finds herself all alone at her house in Virginia. Her father and younger sister have recently been killed in a car accident, and her mother, unable to deal with the new family situation, leaves town after seemingly forgetting about Aubrey. Aubrey's grandmother shows up unexpectedly to check in on "her girls," and she immediately goes about making sure Aubrey can recover from everything she's experienced in the past few months. The pair return to the grandmother's house in Vermont, when Aubrey makes a friend, starts to take control of her life again, and ponders what "family" means. This book can be something of a tear-jerker, but the themes and character development really make it a moving read.

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta -- Roy loves baseball, and he'd love nothing more than to play it all the time. Unfortunately for him, though, he lives in Moundville, where it hasn't stopped raining in 22 years; rumor has it that the rain is a curse resulting from an old baseball rivalry between Moundville and the Native Americans who had always lived in the area. Shortly after Roy's dad takes in a foster child, the rain suddenly stops. Roy, a catcher, discovers that his new foster brother, Sturgis, is an amazing pitcher, and Moundville decides to make a baseball team to try to break the rivalry curse. This book is very heavy on baseball talk and facts, but the relationship between the two boys and the towns they come from really balances it out.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner -- Gianna's favorite part of school is the cross country team, and unfortunately she needs to bring up her science grade if she wants to compete in the next big cross country tournament. That means doing a fantastic job on her leaf project--the project she forgot about until a week before it was due. Try as she might, Gianna just can't seem to make much progress on her project; something is always making it more difficult, be it the school bully, her perfectionist mom, or her beloved grandmother's growing forgetfulness. This book does a great job of showing the various pressures that even grade schoolers face on a daily basis, and it shows Gianna trying to work through family issues while still performing her best at school both on and off the track.

Million-Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica -- Nate "Brady" Brodie has always been like a football god at his school. As quarterback, he's always been unstoppable. Until this season, that is. Suddenly Nate finds himself feeling a whole new slew of pressures: his parents' growing financial strain, his best friend's rapidly-failing eyesight, and his chance to win a million bucks at halftime on Thanksgiving Day by completing a pretty tough throw into a 20-inch hole from 30 yards. As Nate's life as he's always known it starts to lose direction, so do his throws. The central question in this book is whether Nate can decide what is really important and focus on that in order to get things back to normal. This football-centric book does a great job of showing the complex dynamics of a family struggling with money, the emotional aspects of a close friend's illness, and figuring out what one can and cannot control.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

New meal: Braised French Onion Chicken

One of my favorite kitchen smells has got to be caramelizing onions. There's something so alchemical about tossing a ton of sharp, raw onions into a pan with a little bit of butter and ending up with savoury perfection. I'm a huge fan of anything that involves caramelized onions, really: burgers with caramelized onions on top, French onion soup, this delectable tart... Thus it should come as no surprise that, when I saw a recipe for braised French onion chicken, I would bookmark the recipe and plan to test it out once autumn set in.

I found the recipe for Braised French Onion Chicken with Gruyere on the kitchn, a blog that always has good ideas as far as cooking is concerned. While the recipe did take some time to make--it takes time to get the perfect coloring on your onions, you know--the end result was incredibly worth it. I like the combination of tasty chicken thighs with a hearty, savoury onion glaze and some broth in the bottom of the bowl. I used Emmental cheese instead of Gruyere, and the bit of nuttiness it added to the dish was perfection. I highly recommend taking advantage of autumn temperatures and warming up an afternoon or evening with this dish on your stove. I can't wait for the leftovers at lunch tomorrow.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book #56: Maisie Dobbs

I'm that librarian who will go back to the library for a book club meeting that a) I'm not in charge of and b) takes place on my night off--especially if the book up for discussion is a good one. Enter Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, an historical mystery that even folks who don't generally like mysteries (me!) can enjoy.

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in a series about the titular heroine and her experiences as a private investigator. Set post WWI, Maisie, her associates, and her clients all seem to have some aspect of their lives that ties them permanently and painfully to that conflict. These books take place in England, so the perspective of the Great War is a bit different from what most American readers have likely encountered in much of their reading. I was so captivated and moved by the descriptions of what Maisie's experiences as a Red Cross nurse were like. The author based these passages on the experiences of her own family members, and the truth behind the fiction peeks out in a most compelling way.

This first book in the series begins in 1929 with Maisie setting up her business and getting her first client. Then, a third of the way through the book, we're taken back to Maisie's childhood and the rest of her formative years in a series of chapters that paints a beautiful, if not conventionally cheery, backstory. For the last third of the book, the reader is again in Maisie's present-day 1929 as she wraps up her first case--and in the processes discovers just how affected she and many of her countrymen continue to be since the war.

Maisie Dobbs has rich historical detail, compelling and well-developed characters, moments for considering ideas of class, bravery, and friendship, and enough mystery to keep the reader intrigued and questioning what we know has happened in the story. I'd suggest it for book clubs looking for something historical and/or mystery, or for readers who enjoy books set in WWI, mysteries with female protagonists, and quiet yet powerful mysteries.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Books #44-#55, or, The Rest of A Series of Unfortunate Events

I read the first volume of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events back in library school during my semester of reading all children's and YA things (for credit! being a librarian is awesome!). It was a quick read, and I enjoyed it, but I was so involved in reading a wide variety for that class that I did not continue the rest of the series.

Until last month, that is, when at the bequest of a friend I checked out the rest of the series from the library. This particular friend is something of a Lemony Snicket devotee, a word which here means he will enthusiastically, unabashedly, and charmingly talk about nothing else if you'll let him. He's actually had a phone conversation with Daniel Handler, the only person known to have personally interacted with Mr. Snicket in recent years. Anyway, after I grew weary of not understanding this friend's Lemony Snicket references, I read the rest of the books.

I will say just a few things about the books, as I really don't know that I can characterize them well enough to adequately convey just how intricate and interesting they are. The very basic premise is that the three Baudelaire children, orphaned after their parents' deaths in a fire, are perpetually trying to evade the schemes and clutches of one Count Olaf, a man who desperately wants to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. The first few books in the series focus almost entirely on the escape of the Baudelaires from Count Olaf, but as the books become higher in number, the plot develops most compellingly. Suddenly there is conspiracy, a secret organization, strange and intricate interconnectedness of characters and events, and a great many other things that keep the reader both interested and baffled, including parsley sodas.

If you've read these books, I would love to chat with you about the redeeming qualities of adult characters, the physical setting of this series of events, and the possible backstories of most, if not all, of the characters.

If you haven't read these books, you might consider doing so if you tend to also like books with extremely intricate plots, irreverent narrators, and/or a bit of macabre whimsy. Let me know what you think.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Still reading... Books #42 & #43

Yep, I've still been pretty darn busy. This week I did my first baby program at my new job, and I hosted one of my favorite picture book author/illustrators at my library--while wearing a pink tutu and hair bow, mind you. Both events went incredibly well.

But I've also been reading! I've been reading a whole lot, in fact. I've been reading so much that I'm rather behind in updating you all as to what I've been reading. So today I'm going to talk about two books I finished sometime last week, and then, once I finish this sweeping children's series (of which I finished book 5 last night), I'll talk to you about that. Sound good?

I love Maira Kalman. (The handler [har har] of the author of that sweeping series I mentioned loves Maira Kalman, too!) I loved her illustrations in Strunk and White's Elements of Style, I love having her picture books on display at the library, and I loved The Principles of Uncertainty when I read it a few years ago. Thus you should not be surprised that I loved her newest book, And the Pursuit of Happiness, which was created from her 2009 year-long blog on the NYT website all about topics in American civics. Does that sound boring? Because it's totally not. Each chapter is beautifully illustrated and includes just enough informative and wandering text to really capture some aspect of American history/government/political culture in a whimsical way. Think the crazy hats of founding fathers. Think brief mentions of the cafeteria food available at various sites of federal import. Think uplifting thoughts about what this country has done and can do--a necessary point of view in these times of political vitriol, if you ask me. I love that I can pick up this book, read a chapter, and just feel better about things in this country. I'd suggest it to folks who like art books, who like short, first-person reflections, and who like Kalman's previous projects.

I also just finished Catherine Reef's biography-ish book on Jane Austen, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. While I new a lot of the biographical information about Austen and her family already, I did learn some interesting tidbits about some of the less frequently written-about "characters" from her life. I was disappointed by how many assumptions the author made about Austen's relationships and her personal life similarities to her works, however, and I was surprised that a good portion of the text was actually taken up by the author's own synopses of Austen's novels. Maybe it's just me, but if you want to know about Jane Austen's books, wouldn't it make more sense to read them? I did learn some new things, but I would have to conclude that this book is more of a Cliffs Notes version of Austen and her works than an in-depth, serious scholarly biography. Still, I might suggest it to readers who don't have time or inclination to delve into a more substantial biography or who just want brief synopses of the novels. It's still better than Wikipedia!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What I've Been Reading: Or, Books #39-41

Sorry for the prolonged absences from blogging. I've been reading, I swear! It's just that working full time compounded with not having the best internet connection at home means blogging about what I've been reading isn't as easy as it used to be.

I have been reading, though. Here's a relatively quick synopsis:

First, there's the first two of three graphic novel companions to Joss Whedon's awesome Firefly universe. I got both Serenity: Those Left Behind and Serenity: Better Days from my library--unfortunately they don't have the third volume, which I'm working on getting some other way. When I started watching Firefly and its follow-up film Serenity last month, I went through everything very quickly. I loved the characters, the story, the world Joss Whedon had created... Happily, the graphic novels continue that excellence in every aspect, and I enjoyed getting to find out more about the crew of the ship Serenity. I'd suggest these graphic novels to anyone who is a fan of the original show.

Then I read Ally Condie's Crossed. No, it's not out yet--but I was fortunate enough to get an advanced reader's copy at ALA this past June, and I devoured the book once I had started it. The book picks up a little bit after Matched ended, with Cassia pursuing Ky in his "fighting" exile in the Outer Provinces. After struggling to find one another, the pair test their limits while trying to steer clear of Society Officials and simultaneously attempting to join up with a rebellion whose existence Cassia has just discovered. This volume in the trilogy has chapters narrated alternately by Cassia and Ky, which is a fresh change--it serves the story well to be able to explore what both Cassia and Ky are thinking and feeling. I still think the characters are a bit too much in their own heads, but maybe that's just part of the isolation they feel in their dystopian world. Now I can't wait for the third installment, which doesn't come out until November of 2012. Hopefully I can get my hands on one at next summer's conference.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book #38: Meet Kit: An American Girl

I had forgotten just how enjoyable the American Girl series of books can be. A colleague and I will be hosting an American Girl Club program next week focused on 1930s girl Kit Kittredge, and in preparation I decided to read at least the first book in her series. True to the American Girl formula for books, the first title is Meet Kit: An American Girl, in which the reader becomes acquainted with Kit's life, her friends and family, and the time period in which she is growing up.

The writing style is enjoyable yet simple enough to be accessible to children just starting to read chapter books--and these series make a great introduction to historical fiction (Dear America would be next!). In this particular book, we meet Kit, a school-age child whose family has been fortunate in the Depression up to 1934. When the family's circumstances start to fall, they take in boarders. This event not only allows Kit an opportunity to understand the importance of support and helpfulness in her family, but also a chance to meet some new people who will likely become friends in subsequent books. Up next is Kit Learns a Lesson, the school story of the series. The order and broad subjects of these books may be predictable, but they are still excellent vehicles for interesting and accessible historical information. Plus, the theme of what it means to be an American Girl and a friend are always there. Not too bad for a reader just starting out.

Or for a program, for that matter! We'll be doing an American Girl matching game, talking about the differences between the 1930s and today, decoupage-ing picture frames, watching a Shirley Temple clip, and having snacks: chocolate chip cookies, invented in the 1930s, and black cows, that soda fountain staple. Looks to be a fun time!

I would suggest any of the American Girl series of fiction books for young girl readers with an interest in history, in realistic stories about girls, and series fiction with recurring characters.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book #37: The Egypt Game

I moved to Missouri last week. I've got this pretty fantastic new job, and while everything happened fairly quickly--interview, offer, move, first day of work (thus my lack of recent posts)--I'm getting settled in now quite well. And it wasn't even a bad drive here from Bloomington, where I was last living. The drive was about five hours, otherwise known as prime children's audiobook length.

On my drive over, I listed to Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Newbery Honor Book The Egypt Game. I checked it out on the recommendation of one Pseudonymous Bosch, an intriguing and imaginative children's author. He mentioned The Egypt Game on a summer reading list he compiled for another blog, and after he likened it to A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I knew I had to read it. Or, in my case, listen to it.

The Egypt Game is the story of a handful of children who prefer imaginative games to the more physical ball games of their classmates. They create for themselves a little Egypt behind a mysterious second-hand goods store, and there they act out rituals, histories, and anything else than come up with that corresponds with Ancient Egypt. There's quite a bit of intrigue in the mix--after a girl is murdered in the neighborhood, none of the children are allowed out to play. When "the Egyptians" finally do return to Egypt, things start to seem eerie: their oracle begins to actually work, one of them notices they are being watched, and Egypt might not be as safe or secret as they thought. There's nothing explicitly scary in this book, though--while mystery and suspense are part of the novel, it should still be suitable for most elementary-aged readers.

The author wrote a slew of other books about these children and their games, and I think I'll be looking into them if I have any more long car trips coming up. Until then, I'd suggest this book for readers/listeners who enjoy a bit of imagination, a bit of safe mystery and suspense, and reminders of those elaborate, wonderful games we played as children.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book #36: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

I got David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives after reading a profile on the author in the New Yorker a few weeks back. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, see, and so he regularly looks into how the brain perceives different things. I was particularly drawn to his look at how time and the brain are related, but I was rather intrigued by his book of forty short pieces that explore possibilities for the afterlife, too. So I got the book from the library.

Each of the forty tales about what the afterlife could be like is no more than a few pages. The result is a slim volume of a book, but don't be deceived by that size--there is so, so much to think about in this lovely bit of fiction! On the most surface level, it is quite impressive that Eagleman could come up with forty distinct possibilities for what the afterlife might be; even more so that he can give each scenario weight and viability and rules that work. Just a bit deeper is the beautiful prose that Eagleman uses to paint these various pictures of our lives after death. The language really is marvelous. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the fact that is book is so simple and as a result so philosophical. I could easily have read just one tale per day and pondered it all day long. In fact, I'm thinking I'll actually purchase a copy so that I can do just that--really focus on what these stories can bring to light about human nature, the type of world we live in, and what we believe as subscribers to a variety of belief systems. A really beautiful, thought-provoking book.

I'd suggest Sum to the scientifically-minded with a bit of a philosophical side, to the religious and/or spiritual looking for a secular vehicle for thought and discussion, and to anyone who is a fan on really simple, beautiful stories. I was so impressed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cooking in the Summer

While looking over my blog posts in the past few weeks, I realized that it's been a month and a half since I posted anything cooking related. Rest assured (because I'm sure you were worried): I am still cooking. Quite frequently, actually. The thing is, with the glorious bounty that comes from the farmers' market here in the summer, I haven't been following too many recipes. Mostly I'm cooking vegetables simply and tossing them with pasta--after all, nothing can beat the fresh taste of summer veg!

In case you are lacking your own cooking inspiration, here is a list of some of the things I've been making in my kitchen the last few weeks. Use whatever yummy fruits and veggies you can get where you are to make these things or others just as simple, and do let me know what works for you!

Zucchini Pesto Pasta: Depending upon time, shape of zucchini, and how much I feel in need of some repetitive slicing action, I slice some zucchini into strips using either a julienne peeler or my regular kitchen knife. I saute these strips in a bit of olive oil with some pepper and cayenne sprinkled over the top for extra flavor. Just when the zucchini looks perfectly cooked--a bit caramelized, tending toward translucent, but not falling apart--I add in some pesto. I toss the whole thing with whole grain linguine, grate a bit of cheese on top, and dive in.

Roasted Tomato Pasta: I slice cherry and/or grape tomatoes in half (either red or yellow work, the sweeter the better) and place them, cut side up, in a baking dish. I drizzle some olive oil over the tops, sprinkle on a bit of bread crumbs and grated cheese, add a dash of pepper, and then stick the whole dish in a 400-ish oven until the cheese is melty, the tomatoes are starting to burst, or the bits on the bottom of the dish are tending toward burning. I then gently "pop" the tomatoes to release their juices, which makes a wonderful sauce, then toss with whole grain linguine. Add a bit of grated Parm on the top and it's perfection.

Tabbouleh: After my roommate made tabbouleh with dinner one night, I decided it was a perfectly wonderful way to use fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for a cool dish on a hot day. I sprinkle some crumbled feta on top when serving, and you can also add in some cooked chicken to add protein and make the tabbouleh the main dish and not just a salad. Delicious.

I guess I've been eating rather repetitive dishes in the last few weeks. When the ingredients are so perfectly in season and delicious, though, I don't mind a bit.

Book #35: Shades of Grey

It's no secret that I'm quite a Jasper Fforde fan. I read the Thursday Next series almost obsessively, devoured the Nursery Crime books while abroad last summer, and even special ordered his newest book, a children's book called The Last Dragonslayer, from the UK when it wasn't released in the US last fall. For some reason, though, I just couldn't get into Shades of Grey when I got it from the library last summer (that may be in part due to the fact that I brought in on a vacation that also included five children under age 10).

I just drove a triangular route for visits and interviews this past weekend, though, and as my total trip was going to take something around fifteen hours by the time all was said and done, I decided I'd listen to an audiobook. Cue Shades of Grey--all of Jasper Fforde's creativity and skill combined with John Lee's vocal talents. I thoroughly enjoyed the story now that I was able to actually focus my attention upon it. It's the tale of young Eddie Russett, a red living in a world dictated by a person's ability to see color. Purples are at the top of the spectrum of society, followed by blues, greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and greys. Eddie finds himself in East Carmine, sent to perform a chair census in an effort to gain humility, but things are much stranger in this fringe town than he would have expected. It's a dystopian type of novel, albeit with a totally unique, extremely intricate universe unlike anything I'd yet encountered in reading.

I don't know that I can do any justice in describing the actual plot to you--Fforde's writing is so fantastic, his plots so intricate and hilarious that if I tried I am pretty sure I'd turn you off reading (or listening to!) the book. Suffice it to say that Shades of Grey is chock full of all the amusing characters (both endearing and infuriating), seemingly irrelevant plot points that make total sense in the end, and quiet satire and humor that are standards of Fforde's writing. Now I am very anxiously awaiting the next book in this series. And, when I'm the sort of person who should really be reading more children's literature than anything else, that is saying something.

I'd suggest this book to readers who enjoy Fforde, are looking for something a bit more out of the ordinary in terms of dystopian fiction, and/or are looking for a captivating way to pass 13+ hours. Audiobooks count as reading, remember!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book #34: The Quest of the Warrior Sheep

I picked up The Quest of the Warrior Sheep at ALA as I was wandering the exhibits hall in search of juvenile fiction that might appeal to young, reluctant male readers. I've found a potential success in this novel, which combines humor and the more ludicrous tendencies of a young person's story.

It's a rather madcap plot going on. The main five characters are rare breeds of sheep--one raps, one is extremely superficial, one is unusually smart--who find themselves on a quest after a cell phone, thrown from a hot air balloon high overhead, lands on one of them at home in England. They take this event to mean that Lambad, the evil sheep, is threatening Aries, the supreme good sheep who lives in the North, and only with the return of this strange object can the future of all sheep be secured. (See what I mean about ludicrous tendencies?) All of the human characters are somehow involved in strangeness of their own: the men who threw the cell phone are desperate to get it back since data on it can incriminate them in a bank fraud scheme; the sheep's owners just want their sheep back, but when they go to offer a reward they find their life savings have disappeared from the bank (see above); and some other incidental characters think the falling cell phone may have actually been an UFO, and these sheep are now someone being commanded by alien beings. All the humans end up chasing the sheep on their quest, and a good many other strange, improbable, and goofy things happen along the way.

I think this book could do well for engaging young, reluctant male readers. It has enough zaniness to capture their attention and get them invested in the characters, yet it is episodic enough that they won't feel coerced into reading huge chunks at a time if they don't want. I'd suggest this title to just that sort of audience: young reluctant readers and those with an enjoyment for the odd and goofy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Book #33: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck is the forthcoming prose/illustrated story masterpiece from Brian Selznick, author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret fame. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy at the ALA Annual Conference a week ago (oh, my, the exhibits hall!), and it was the first of the stack of books I brought home from there than I read.

Wonderstruck is a story set around two main characters in two different settings: Ben, a young orphaned boy living in 1970s Minnesota, has his story told through prose; and Rose, a young deaf girl living in 1920s New Jersey has her story told through pictures. Despite the distance between the two main characters both geographical and chronologically, their stories merge together in a very Selznick fashion. I loved how, as the end of the book neared, the prose and pictures interacted so beautifully. A lot of people think this words-and-illustrations storytelling technique odd, but Selznick is truly a master of it.

I'd suggest this book to anyone who enjoys Selznick's work, to readers interested in stories told in varied modes, and to anyone with a love for that spark of wonder so treasured in childhood.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book #32: Notes from the Blender

Notes from the Blender is rather interesting in its construction: it is written by two authors, Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin. I'm sure that co-authorship can be a risky thing. What if things don't flow? What if the authors' visions for the book don't align perfectly? What if they don't use the same voices? Lots can go wrong with a single book penned by more than one author. With Notes from the Blender, though, everything with the co-authorship goes quite right.

The realistic novel is the story of Declan and Neilly and their families, which suddenly combine much to both teenagers' surprise. You see, Declan's dad, widowed after Dec's mother died in his youth, is going to marry Neilly's mom, who is divorced from Neilly's now openly gay father. In true YA novel style, Declan is very not cool, yet Neilly is. The sudden throwing together of their modern blended family, complete with new sibling on the way, is a setting that can really explore a lot of the themes of being a teen in high school: friendship, relationships, parental tension, rebellion, sticking up for oneself, questioning one's beliefs, sexuality... you name it, it's here somehow. And because Cook pens Neilly's sections and Halpin writes Declan's, the voices and tone of the book are so extremely genuine. Dec has real high school boy thoughts, and Neilly has real high school girl thoughts. What could have been just another realistic YA novel trying to capture some faux aspect of growing up suddenly becomes a funny, heart-warming story about real people.

I loved the characters and tone in Notes from the Blender--I'll definitely be keeping this title in mind when discussions of multi-author books come up. And while the cover makes the story seem extremely lighthearted and run-of-the-mill high-school-issues, the story really is a genuinely good and interesting one. I'd suggest it to readers who enjoy YA realistic fiction, subtle explorations of teenage spirituality, and stories about quirky families.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book #31: The Help

Kathryn Stockett's The Help had been on my to-read list for quite a while--probably since I first started hearing people talk about it after it first came out. I hadn't actually read it, thought, because of a combination of factors: the extremely long holds queue at the library, for one, and the fact that it was taking seemingly forever to be released in paperback. But when I started reading it after getting it on my Kindle, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Help is the story of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. It's a place where segregation is very, very institutionalized--practically everything in everyday life is dictated by it. The story follows a relatively small cast of mostly female characters, some of them white, proper society ladies and some of them their black home help. The meat of the book begins when Miss Hilly Hollbrook, a particularly evil brand of society belle, announces her proposed legislation--the Home Help Sanitation Initiative. In other words, she wants for every white household to have a separate, outdoor bathroom for their black help for "sanitation" reasons (the trailer for the forthcoming film version of the book tells you as much). We see this development through the eyes of Aibileen and Minny, two longtime black maids in Jackson, and Skeeter, a white society girl who doesn't feel she can support this type of society. The result is a secretive plan to publish a book from the perspective of the help--written anonymously by Skeeter and filled with the stories of Aibileen, Minny, and many of their friends. It's a dangerous task to undertake, but they feel it is necessary.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book--it's well-written, interesting, thought-provoking, etc.--the potential for exploitation makes me ultimately unsure of how I feel about it. What does it mean that a white author wrote a book that is told from black women's perspectives, some of it in dialect, for more than half of the narration? What about this bit about a lawsuit brought against the author for unpermitted appropriation of character? One of the great book group discussion points for this book is whether Skeeter exploited the maids by writing their stories; has Stockett done a similar thing? I guess these considerations are part of what makes the book so popular among book discussion groups.

I would suggest this book to readers who enjoy reading a single story from various characters' perspectives; who are interested in fictional accounts of mid-1900s race relations in the American South; and specifically to those who plan on seeing the movie when it comes out in August. Always read the book first!

New meal: Chicken Sesame Stir Fry

Finally, a new meal! I've been traveling here and there and working odd shifts to cover colleagues' meal breaks that I haven't really had the time to break out my stockpile of recipes to try and really make something new for myself. Until a few days ago, that is, when I just couldn't stand eating something reheat or cold sandwich any longer.

So I made a chicken sesame stir fry. I always used to think I didn't like food with soy sauce, but I've lately found that is definitely not the case. Maybe the change is due to my roommate and her own diverse cooking repertoire, to my ever-developing taste buds, or just to getting over whatever mental block I may have had about food with soy sauce. Whatever the instigator was, the end result is quite pleasant.

I made this stir fry rather improvisationally, what with not having a specific recipe and being too hungry to search for one. I but a bit of olive oil, low-sodium soy sauce, and sesame oil into a nonstick frying pan, and once that was hot I dumped in the chicken pieces I'd cut up. At the same time, I steamed some broccoli and sugar snap peas so they'd be ready to just jump in the pan. By the time the chicken seemed cooked through, I tossed in the broccoli and sugar snaps peas along with some sweet peppers and mixed the whole thing together over the heat for about five minutes, just to make sure it all melded well. I served it over brown rice, and mmm, was it tasty. Great leftovers, too!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book #30: Entwined

Growing up, I had a beautifully-illustrated picture book version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I found the story completely enchanting, and for years after I stopped having it read to me at bedtime I still could recall the image of the twelve lovely princesses descending the magical staircase in their bedroom on their way to a night of dancing.

When I read a blurb about Heather Dixon's Entwined, I knew I had to give it a try because of my love for the Twelve Dancing Princesses tale. This YA novel is a creative retelling of the familiar story. Azalea and her eleven younger sisters are indeed princesses, and they love to dance. When their mother the queen dies, however, the King--the girls' father--mandates that the whole family shall be in mourning. For the girls this means drab clothing, not being able to venture into the palace gardens, and certainly no dancing. To make matters worse, Azalea and her sisters looked to their mother for all manner of familiar affection; the King seems entirely disinterested in showing them any such feeling.

When the girls figure out how to activate some of the old magic left in their palace home, they discover a magical, beautiful silver world full of fine ladies and gentleman, lovely music, and all the dancing they could want. A man who calls himself only "Keeper" is their escort and guide in this magical place, and he seems only to want for the princesses to enjoy themselves. As time goes on, however, Azalea starts to see that perhaps Keeper isn't so benevolent after all--and that perhaps their dancing will have repercussions worse than they could have imagined. Throw in some romantic intrigue which is creatively written to still fit the traditional story plot and you've got a solid, slightly eerie novel with equal bits of magic, family, love, and personal strength as themes.

I'd suggest this book to readers who were creeped out--in a good way--by the Crooked Man in John Connoly's The Book of Lost Things, who enjoy YA novels with fantasy elements and strong female characters, and who are intrigued by the possibilities offered by creative fairy tale retellings.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Books #27-29: The Hunger Games series

I had put off reading Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy for months. I have a friend's hardback copies sitting next to my desk in the same place I originally set them down sometime in March.

This past Wednesday, I started the first book in the series. I finished the last one less than an hour ago. That's less than four days, people. Four days in which I worked three shifts and drove from home to Bloomington, so my reading time was restricted. I was so captivated by the story, the characters, absolutely everything about the series that I had a very hard time putting it down in order to do normal thinks like shower and do laundry (but I did, don't worry). It's that good.

I don't want to tell you any more about the series because I don't want you to read my description and, thinking you won't like it, not read it. You can find plot synopses and teasers all over the internet. But the main fact is, you need to read these books.

One thing I will say: I was continually surprised and caught off guard by everything that happened in the books. Every time I thought I had figured out a character, a plot line, anything, Collins would take everything a mindblowing step further. As someone who reads a lot and can often spot endings from afar, that's a high compliment. Read The Hunger Games. Please!