This is perfect. Also depressing. Also hilarious!

Today’s xkcd (the best webcomic ever):

The alt text reads: I was going to be a scientist, but that seems silly now. Magical worlds exist. I’ve learned a huge truth about our place in the universe. I’m supposed to care about college? I mean, FUCK.

Click comic for full-size version.

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Review: If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

Title (year): If the Witness Lied (2009)

Genre: Thriller/Suspense

Other important themes: Grief, Loss of a parent, Coming of age, Siblings, Mystery

Age (sex) of main character: Told from POV of 3 siblings, all high-school aged, 1 brother and 2 sisters

Estimated age of intended audience: 13 and above

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic and a little edgy – think “Party of Five” meets Dean Koontz

Narrative POV: Third person subjective, switching between three narrators

Writing quality: If you’ve read Cooney before, you know what her work is like. It’s more about the plot than the characters, but she develops everything so skillfully that the tension and taut pacing keep you racing through the book to the end.

Formulaic or surprising?: Pretty surprising. Several twists that I didn’t see coming.

Comfort food/challenging?: Definitely comfort food. I was on the edge of my seat with suspense, but the book wasn’t putting me through the wringer as some do.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Somewhat in the middle. It’s a thriller so there is the darkness of death and violence and fear, but the characters are in the “real world” so they continue to have options and resources available to them. Dystopian misery, this is not.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Nothing much here, besides maybe children who have had their lives publicized by the media.

Read this if you liked… Any of Cooney’s earlier stuff. I first read The Face on the Milk Carton about ten years ago, and I go in waves of catching up on her prolific output (I can’t handle too much suspense at one time!). Breathe My Name by RA Nelson. Shattering Glass by Gail Giles. Books by Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan, though Cooney’s books are more “thriller set in everyday life” than “serial killer killing off all my friends one by one on a deserted beach.”

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): I don’t normally read thrillers but I enjoy Cooney’s, in part because they arise more out of headlines than nightmares, which keeps them interesting for me. If you enjoy a good, fast-paced YA book, I say give this one a try even if this isn’t your usual genre.

Shelf Discovery

I participated this year in the wonderful Book Blogger Holiday Swap. I had a great time putting together a package for my giftee Cass, of the blog Bonjour, Cass. And, delayed gratification junkie that I am, I put off opening the package I received until it was Chanukah and everyone was opening all their presents. I opened the box eagerly. My face must have split into such a crazy-huge grin, because the next thing I knew my family was shouting, “What is it? What is it? Show us!” And when I finally held it up, everyone agreed it was just about the most perfect present, ever, for me.

It turned out my book swap buddy was Sheila of Journey Through a World of Books, and she had sent me a brand-new copy of Lizzie Skurnick’s new book, Shelf Discovery: The teen classics we never stopped reading. Along with a giant bar of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate, too. (What better way to spend the holidays than curled up with a good book and a bar of chocolate?)

I usually read books from the library, but owning this book is essential, as it’s the kind of thing I’ll want to dip into every few days, reading an essay here and an essay there. And now I have it to enjoy at my leisure!

Julie of Booking Mama loves Shelf Discovery, too, and she’s hosting a book challenge that sounds like a lot of fun! The Shelf Discovery Challenge is to read six of the books written about in the book before April 30, 2010. I thought I’d read a ton of the books in Shelf Discovery, but there are so many new ones I’m intrigued by!

New to me:
The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian Thompson
To Take a Dare by Paul Zindel and Crescent Dragonwagon
The Westing Game by Ellen Rankin

Revisitations:
Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck – I remember reading this one several times from the library while going on to devour everything Peck had written
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken – This is one of those books that I read too late for it to become a seminal part of my childhood, so it didn’t really stick with me. I want to give it another try.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I have read this book so many times I’ve long ago lost count. And seen the movie countless times. Which doesn’t do justice to the book at all. What’s up with that ridiculous ending?

Top Children’s Chapter Books of All Time!

Betsy Bird of Fuse#8 is running a poll to assemble our collective top 100 children’s chapter books (books for kids under 13 who can read chapter books on their own). No YA here, strictly children’s books. Her method is to have everyone submit a hierarchical top ten, which she will weight and combine with scores from everyone else to produce the final list. I am very excited to participate, but of course narrowing it down to ten has been really, really tough.

What makes a book a top book? For me, of course, I need to have read it. Anything I’ve read more than once will probably stand out more than the rest, although there are a few exceptions to this. When I finally had created a list of books that are important and well-loved (definitely longer than ten), I created a hypothetical scenario for myself. A friend is having a baby soon, and she asks me to recommend ten books I think her future kid might enjoy and that are “don’t miss” books to make sure she at least has on hand, even if the kid turns out to be a Captain Underpants type rather than a “great junior classics” type of reader. I don’t know yet if the baby is a boy or a girl, if it will love fantasy or historical fiction or “just like me” stories, but I figure this list of ten is at least worth having around to shove under his or her nose every so often because if Junior does pick it up, it’s guaranteed to be a great and worthwhile read. So here’s the list I’m submitting to Betsy as well as my runners-up and a list of the authors whose whole oeuvre I would tell my friend to gravitate towards on library trips.

  1. The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
  2. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konisburg
  4. Holes by Louis Sachar
  5. The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis (obviously you would start the series with Wardrobe, but this is the best of the series)
  6. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  7. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  8. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  9. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  10. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

There are two books on that list you’ve probably never heard of, The Pink Motel and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. When I was a kid, I decided I would read my way from start to finish through my small library’s entire children’s chapter book section. But I loved some of the books I read so much I would go back and read them over and over again. That’s why so many of my favorite children’s authors are from the beginning of the alphabet!

So yeah, my pick for the top children’s book ever published is one that very few folks have ever heard of, first printed in 1959 and now out of print. But it isn’t nostalgia that makes it my #1 choice. It really is the best. I’m not even going to try to describe why – just read it. Hopefully your library still has a copy! (And hopefully with the original cover. Check out the hideous reprint from 1993. Interestingly, I guess enough people know about and love this book that even that crappy paperback reprint is selling for over 30 bucks now used. Thank goodness I snagged my own copy – with the original cover – on eBay over a decade ago!)

I feel like the books on this list have a good balance of male and female protagonists, all of them complex and interesting enough that kids of any gender and temperament would find something to identify with or at least to intrigue them. I believe the only one on here from the past 30 years is Holes. Obviously my selection pool is going to be biased because I read a lot more kid’s books published during and before the 1980s, when I was a kid, but I do try to keep up with the latest chapter books. The stuff I read now isn’t going to have that same intense emotional impact it did back then, though. (Which shows how amazing Holes is that it had that kind of impact on me at age 25.) I don’t know if Island of the Blue Dolphins would make the list if I read it now among all the other adventure/survival/dystopia books out there today. But back when I read it (again and again) it positively blew my mind with Karana’s incredible degree of self-reliance. I would always read with awe the little paragraph at the end about how it was  based on a true story.

Okay, without further ado, my runners-up for the top ten and my list of authors who have written many great children’s chapter books (these are not in ranked order):

    Half Magic by Edward Eager
    Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
    Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
    The Once and Future King by TH White
    The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
    Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth
    The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
    The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
    A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
    Edward Bloor
    Carol Ryrie Brink
    Frances Hodgson Burnett
    Eleanor Cameron
    Roald Dahl
    Edward Eager
    Nancy Farmer
    Ursula K LeGuin
    CS Lewis
    EL Konisburg
    Robin McKinley
    Farley Mowat
    Richard Peck
    JK Rowling
    EB White

It was something of a relief to put these lists together. It was nice to remember these books I’ve loved so well and read so many times. But even more it was a nice break and palate-cleanser from the generally dark tone YA has taken on these days, whether it’s in the form of grim dystopian worlds, angsty supernatural heartbreak, or no-holds-barred malicious high school gossip.  Hopefully I’ll make friends with some new children’s chapter books when the Top 100 list comes out!

Review: The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams

Title (year): The Golden Hour (2004)

Genre: Adventure

Other important themes: Grief, Death of a parent, Time travel, History, Finding yourself, Siblings

Age (sex) of main character: 13 (male) with a sister, aged 11, and a pair of twin friends, a boy and girl, around 13

Estimated age of intended audience: 10 and up

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Realistic. Feelings are not shied away from, and there is grief and anger and confusion. But there are no extremes for extreme’s sake.

Narrative POV: Third-person subjective from a single POV

Writing quality: Very good. I could not put this book down. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. The basics of the story are fairly straightforward but it’s the quality of the writing that makes this such a page-turner.

Formulaic or surprising?: Definitely kept me wondering what would happen next, with some great twists and turns.

Comfort food/challenging?: Total comfort food, mostly because of the wonderful writing. The story just unfolds and carries you along.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Pretty light. Some bad things happen to the young main characters, but in the end they have support and resources to help them through it.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) The main character is white, but his traveling companions, a twin brother and sister, are described as “brown-skinned” with a Jamaican grandmother, and race is definitely acknowledged in the book. The next two books, The Hour of the Cobra and The Hour of the Outlaw, have the twins as their main characters. The author is herself a woman of color.

There is also a strong sense of the value of adults and particularly elders throughout the book. Adults are fallible like anyone else, but they are portrayed as helpful and supportive. This is not an “us against them,” kids vs. adults type adventure book.

Read this if you liked… I haven’t seen this mentioned in any of the reviews I’ve read, but to me this book was a direct descendent of the classic Edward Eager books from the 1950s such as The Time Garden, Half-Magic, and Knight’s Castle. I loved these books so much I read them again and again and bought them all off eBay so I could have the original illustrations of those early editions I’d read from the library. This book was like having another one of his to read.

Other favorites in this style that come to mind here are The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink and the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. Also A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, or any of her many series. Like L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, this might be a helpful book for someone processing grief, particularly the death of a parent.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): Yes. If you would be at all inclined to read a book with such young characters, I really recommend it. If you never read middle-grade fiction it will probably seem too light, but even if you only liked Harry Potter, you will probably enjoy The Golden Hour!

Reading Challenges for 2010

It’s that time of year… Time to set a lot of probably impossible but definitely inspirational reading goals for myself, egged on by the fellowship and community of my fellow book bloggers!

I’ve organized the challenges by when they are “due.” Some of the challenges I’ll meet with YA books, but I’d like to throw other stuff into the mix as well.

By… the end of 2010 I will have:

Read 2 books that I currently own and have never read for the Read Your Own Books challenge. I am pretty bad at reading books I own. They lose their lustre once they are sitting on my shelf. I’d much rather drool over my library request list online than peruse my own shelves. So reading two in the next year will actually be much more of a personal accomplishment than it sounds!

  1. Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick
    This was my Holiday Book Swap gift and I am actually incredibly psyched to read it
  2. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
    I really went out of my way a few years ago to find a used copy of this because I knew the library borrowing period wouldn’t be enough time for me to get through it, but I’ve never made it past the first chapter.

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Reviewed every book I read in 2010 for the Read ‘n’ Review Challenge. No, wait, that would be insane. I have an active food blog, an active life outside the internet, and a chronic illness. I’ll bargain that down to “every YA book I read in 2010.” And my reviews may be getting quite a bit more concise. (Five-star ratings, anyone?)

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Read 12 books that I’ve been wanting to read for at least 6 months for the TBR Reading Challenge. I’ll decide the books now, with the idea of reading one a month (~ish) by the end of the year. I can also make a list of alternates, in case I am not in the mood for all twelve. Audiobooks count, which is great because that’s my plan for getting through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All those endless Swedish names!

  1. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
  2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  4. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  6. A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin
  7. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  8. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
  9. The Other Wind by Ursula K. LeGuin
  10. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
  11. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
  12. Stiches: A Memoir by David Small

Alternates (all are Best of 2009 YA books I never managed to read in ’09): When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, How To Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.

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Read at least 3 books that people have raved about and I’ve always meant to read but never have for the Raved-About Reads challenge. This is a perpetual challenge, meaning there’s no set end date, but I want to highlight a few particular books I hope I get to by the end of the year. Of course my “really I must read that someday” list is much, much longer than 3! One thing that’s fun about this type of event is looking at other peoples’ “someday” lists and seeing how many I’ve already read! (I’m sure it would be the same if they read mine…)

  1. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
    It was all the insane buzz about this coming out last year that led me to read Hunger Games a few months ago. I definitely enjoyed it – I stayed up all night to finish it, actually – but I am slacking on catching up with the sequel.
  2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  3. I’ve started this once already, but it has been so raved about I want to give it a more concerted effort.

  4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
    My boyfriend’s sister, dad, and mom all love this book. They’ve passed the same copy around, from the Bay Area to Paris to New York and back here. I don’t want to miss out!

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Read at least two books written by women authors that were written and/or published between 1700 and 1900 for the 18th & 19th C. Women Writers challenge. This is where my Jane Austen addiction does me a great disservice. There’s nothing left of hers that I haven’t read at least once. I’ve read quite a bit of the Brontes as well (all they sold in English in St. Petersburg in 1998 were the classics…), so I needed go searching farther afield. I am pretty excited about this challenge. I tend to shy away from books written long ago out of fear that they’ll be dry or hard to get through, but, as the aforementioned Jane Austen addiction shows, this is hardly the case.

  1. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)
  2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

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Read 26 books, one from each letter of the alphabet (either by title or by author name) for the A to Z Challenge. I’m going to be kind of mellow about this one. I like the idea a lot, so I’ll see how far I get with either author names or titles, and sometime around June if it looks like I have a good diversity going, I may deliberately go after some of the missing letters.

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Read 25 books by authors I’ve never read before for the New Authors challenge. This should be no problem for me as most of the books I read are YA I either reserve from the library or pick up off the shelf, so I am constantly checking out new authors. This year I want to be really intentional about noting down which new authors I really like so I can watch for more work from them in the future. (In 2008 I discovered Isabel Hoving. I am still waiting patiently for something, anything new from her!)

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Read 20 books from 10 different categories (2 of each) for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge. For this challenge, each book can only qualify for one category, but I can cross over with other challenges (hurrah!), and I can figure out the books as I go along. The categories and their potential crossovers are:

  1. Young Adult (X-over with everything I already read)
  2. T.B.R. I must own these already. (X-over with Read Your Own Books)
  3. Shiny & New
    This will be nearly impossible. I don’t buy new books. Do cookbooks count?
  4. Bad Bloggers Books I get turned on to by other bloggers. This is one of my goals for the year, to learn about great new YA from other blogs.
  5. Charity Shop Hmm… Unlikely. Unless cookbooks count.
  6. New in 2010 (X-over with Debut Author Challenge)
  7. Older Than You
    (X-over with 18th & 19th C. Women Writers)
  8. Win! Win!
    A couple of books I need to read to fulfill another challenge!
  9. Who Are You Again?
    Totally unknown authors (X-over with Debut Author Challenge)
  10. Up to You!
    I get to determine this category. I want to read two fiction books, preferably YA, with queer central characters, where their queerness isn’t the main theme of the book. If such books exist.(X-over with Lambda Challenge, GLBT Challenge)

Review: The Healer’s Keep by Victoria Hanley

EDIT: Well, this is fascinating. I was going back through my book log, looking for well-loved children’s books to submit to the Top 100 Children’s Fiction Chapter Books Poll, when I came across The Seer and the Sword in my log. Apparently, I read it in 2005, and I liked it a lot as it has one my my rare asterisks next to the title in the log. Well, hmm…

Title (year): The Healer’s Keep (2002)

Sequel? Yes, I was tricked because they refer to it as a “companion book” to 2000’s The Seer and the Sword. But The Healer’s Keep was published second, and the events in it take place after the events in The Seer and the Sword. Sounds like a sequel to me. It’s the type of sequel, however, that takes place in the next generation, and ample backstory is given so the book can stand alone for a new reader.

Genre: Fantasy

Other important themes: Dreams, Magic, Love, Enslavement, Bonds of friendship, Dystopian society, Coming of age, Hero’s journey

Age (sex) of main character: 17 (female) with two more teen boys and a teen girl who also often have POV

Estimated age of intended audience: 12-17

Wholesome/edgy/realistic?: Fantasy, definitely, and very wholesome.

Narrative POV: Third-person subjective for several different characters, including minor characters.

Writing quality: I found the whole story to be kind of… blurry, I guess is how I would put it. I never really sank in anywhere. The constantly shifting point of view killed most of the potential for dramatic tension. The fantasy world has its own, very interesting, complex laws and rules of magic but the reader learns them almost entirely through exposition and explanation, rather than seeing them unfold within the story.

Formulaic or surprising?: Surprising to the extent that I often had no idea what was going on or what would happen next. Formulaic in terms of romance and good guys/bad guys.

Comfort food/challenging?: Definitely on the comfort food end of the spectrum.

Dark or Light? Endless struggle?: Although there is slavery and cruelty, the book is not particularly dark, and the scenes where danger looms are described in a somewhat detached manner so they are practically over before you can get scared or tense.

Identify with: (people of color, disabled folks, respected elders, working class) Nothing of that sort here.

Read this if you liked… If you have enjoy sort of vague YA fantasy with an interesting world but not intensely developed characters… well, this describes too many books to name here, but if this is your thing, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Genre-bender? (recommended to ALL): No. For lovers of YA fantasy only, in my opinion. I should say here, however, that this book won a lot of awards, both from critics and from young readers’ choice, so I might be the only one who doesn’t love it.