Monthly Archives: October 2009

Poetry Friday: Theme in Yellow

Theme in Yellow – by Carl Sandburg

I SPOT the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.

(From Poetry Foundation. Photo © Sarah Klockars-Clauser for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike)

Perfect Witchy Combo

physickwitchchild

Saturday is one of the best nights of the year in my neighborhood: Halloween. It’s the best because my street is one of the premium attractions in the city (in my unbiased opinion) due to the fact that six houses down from us is a full-on Halloween-inspired musical production staged on the front lawn. Each year it’s a different theme, but the show always has lights, sound, costumes, a stage, backdrop and usually a giant screen attached to the front of the second storey of the house. A bunch of families on the street get together to put on the show, so there are kids and adults involved and it’s always hilarious. They do about 4 shows throughout the night and the street is basically shut down to traffic the crowd gets so big. Since we’re so close, we get a lot of trick-or-treaters. A lot. Like 250+ a lot. It’s great. For us it’s pizza and mini chocolate bars on the porch with friends who bring pumpkins so that we end up with a whole bunch glowing up and down our front steps.

Inspired by the year’s spookiest holiday, I present two witchy reads that I delighted in over the summer: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, and Witch Child by Celia Rees. I had read Rees’ book before, and loved it, so this time I thought I’d get the audiobook for something different. Can I tell you how excited I was when I found out that it is narrated by Jennifer Ehle? (If you don’t know why that is exciting, then I’m guessing you’ve never watched this, say, 5 times. Go. Watch). I ended up listening to the one while reading the other, which was perfect, and I highly recommend this approach if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all-things witchy this Halloween.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is an adult title, but I think it has some crossover potential with the right, academically-inclined sort of teen. It has a past/present structure that I often find appealing, when it’s handled well. In the present the story centres around Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin, who is just about to choose a subject for her doctoral dissertation and then spend the summer researching. Her mother asks her to take care of selling her grandmother’s old house close to Salem, and when Connie arrives at the run-down place, she finds herself falling under its spell. She discovers a key hidden in an old Bible and inside the key is a small piece of parchment with a name written across it: Deliverance Dane. Connie begins investigating and as she learns more about this mysterious woman she wonders if there are ties that bind her to Salem in ways she had never imagined. She begins hunting for a book that she believes belonged to Deliverance – a physick book containing secrets, both medical and spiritual, of days long gone. Set against the present day narrative is the story of Deliverance and her family and their struggles as they get caught up in the witch trials of the 1690s.

This is a good book to cosy down with on an afternoon when you don’t have anything to do (because I know we’ve all got lots of afternoons like that, right?), preferably a chilly afternoon involving a couch, a blanket, a cat and a cup of tea. It will draw you in and Howe creates an atmosphere of mystery right from the start. The descriptions of the grandmother’s old house, almost completely closed off from the world by vines and ivy and garden, are especially vivid. I thought it was an interesting and innovative idea to approach this oft-used historical period from the perspective that witchcraft may indeed have been real, just not in exactly the way you might imagine. Two tiny complaints in an otherwise completely enjoyable read. First, the sections of the book set in the 1680s and 90s felt outweighed by the narrative in the present day. At times, I was frustrated that more attention and length wasn’t given to the plot thread in the past, since it was sometimes more compelling than the events with Connie. I found myself flicking ahead to see when the next “past” section was coming up. Also, I felt like it took too long for Connie to find the physick book, almost to the point that the tension dissipated. I can see why Howe might have chosen to delay, but there was some lag in the momentum about 3/4 of the way through the book. Overall, a moody, semi-suspenseful look at a popular historical period, with a new angle that will make you rethink the witch trials.

Witch Child is the perfect teen warm-up for Deliverance Dane, in the way that it presents witchcraft as a real practice, but not a devilish one. Mary Nuttall witnesses her beloved grandmother hung as a witch and then a mysterious and beautiful woman whisks her away from this nightmare to safety. The woman has arranged for Mary to travel to the New World, where she will become a part of a community of Puritans. Too bad those Puritans aren’t any keener on witches than the English folk Mary left behind. It really is too bad, because Mary is a witch. She admits to it. When she arrives in the New World she ends up in Salem and she learns that keeping her power secret is as difficult and important as ever. I found Witch Child to be completely gripping (you might say, bewitching… ha ha). It is in diary format, bringing you right inside Mary’s thoughts and point-of-view and Rees’ writing is evocative. I like it when you find a character in historical fiction who feels somehow contemporary in her perspective and concerns, but who remains true to the period. I suggest reading it and then listening, the way I did. Jennifer Ehle’s performance is exceptional. Too bad she hasn’t recorded the sequel.

There is a sequel to Witch Child, called Sorceress, but I haven’t read it for some time. Maybe I’ll get my hands on it before tomorrow. Perfect reading for when the candy runs out and we close down shop for the night.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is published by Voice. Witch Child is published by Candlewick (paperback edition).

First Light

firstlightThere’s been so much talk over the past few months about Rebecca Stead’s second novel for Middle Grade readers, When You Reach Me. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Awards whispering. I’ve read it and I loved it, just like everyone else. Certainly, When You Reach Me makes book people look at Stead as a writer with many, many books in her future, and it’s the sort of book that should make readers wonder what she’ll write next. I decided to read First Light because I was so impressed by When You Reach Me. As it turns out, Stead’s first book has tremendous merit as well, and is in many ways, as creative and finely wrought as her latest novel.

First Light may be science fiction, but it is a story that is incredibly timely, as the “real world” thread of the narrative focuses on a boy whose scientist father is studying global warming. Peter is thrilled at the chance to travel with his parents to Greenland, where his father will be conducting field work. His mother is also a scientist, who studies mitochondrial DNA. For as long as Peter can remember, she has suffered from terrible, debilitating headaches that seem to shift her whole mood towards a sadness no one can penetrate. As the family is caught up in preparations for their journey, Peter begins to experience more frequent headaches himself, sometimes accompanied by strange visions. He wonders if he has inherited some secret illness from his mother, but neither of his parents ever speak to him about his mother’s headaches, and Peter wonders if there is a something serious that they are keeping from him. He doesn’t realize it, but this trip to Greenland will take him to the heart of the mystery he is only beginning to sense. The second thread of the narrative belongs to Thea, a girl who lives underneath the arctic ice in a community forged by a hunted people, generations before her. Her ancestors came to live in Gracehope, a secret world that they build under the ice, and ever since then, they have feared the outside world. Thea is not afraid, however. Rather she dreams of seeing the sky and the horizon and the constellations she has only read about. She wants to travel to the surface, but to do so, she must act in secret, turning against the wishes of many elders in Gracehope. Peter and Thea are destined to meet, and when they do both find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had.

What’s remarkable about First Light is its potential to appeal to all sorts of different children. Do you like science? Read this. How about arctic adventures or survival fiction? Read this. Realistic family stories? Yep. Unsolved mysteries? OK. Secret worlds? Here you go. With all this going on, you might wonder if Stead has taken on too much. Is she trying to bring together way too many genres and topics? No way. Somehow, everything feels balanced and connected. In creating and describing Gracehope, her world-building is outstanding. Stead pays attention to details and makes sure we can imagine them, from the berry pancakes that Thea eats for breakfast and her fur outerwrap and the seven bracelets on her arm, to the decriptions of the skaters streaming down the Mainway and the vast icy council chamber where the elders meet. All of it is there for us to picture. This makes for a more powerful reading experience, and of course, any science fiction or fantasy fan looks for convincing world building. Continue reading

Crow Call

crowcallCrow Call is Lois Lowry’s first ever picture book. Hard to believe that she’s never ventured into picture books, given that Ms. Lowry has been writing for a long time, and has written to so much acclaim. Number the Stars is among my favourite books ever, and I know many children who would say the same. So I was expected something special in Crow Call, something thoughtful and exquisitely written. Lowry’s first picture book delivers, and deserves a place alongside titles by picture book masters such as Eve Bunting, Cynthia Rylant and Sarah Stewart.

Crow Call is based on a small moment from Lowry’s childhood, a day she spent with her father just after he returned from WWII. There’s a photograph of Lowry as a little girl on the final page of the book. She’s dressed in a hugely oversized plaid shirt, just like the child in her story. The little girl heads out on a hunting trip with her father and the two spend the day together for the first time in a long while.

This is a quiet study of a relationship between a girl and her father, at a moment when both are trying to span the distance created between them after a long absence. If you’re a teacher, this book is made for showing kids what it means to zero in on a small moment, and write that moment with as much detail and emotional richness as possible. Lowry’s words glow: “Grass, frozen after its summer softness, crunches under our feet; the air is sharp and supremely clear, free from the floating pollens of summer, and our words seem etched and breakable on the brittle stillness. I feel the smooth wood of the crow call in my pocket, moving my fingers against it for warmth, memorizing its ridges and shape.” Sigh. There’s nothing fancy or overwrought here. It’s just exactly the right words put just the right way. It’s understated and yet impressive. Speaking of impressive, illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline has created some stunning artwork for Lowry’s story. The muted tones suggest the past, as well as the spirit of the late fall setting. There is one gorgeous double page spread that made my jaw drop. Lois has posted a picture of it at her blog – take a look. Even more impressive in living colour, I assure you. By the way, Lois’s blog is lovely, a real glimpse into her life and her art. Go hang out with her for a while, and go get your own copy of Crow Call, sure to be as much a classic as any other Lowry title.

Crow Call is published by Scholastic Press and is available now.

Nothing but Ghosts

nothingbutghostsAbout one and a half chapters into Beth Kephart’s Nothing but Ghosts I started to get this tingly feeling. Honestly. I’m not kidding. I was standing on the corner on Saturday, waiting for a streetcar to come and reading Beth’s book and I actually stopped reading because I was aware of this tingly feeling. I took a second and stared off down the street and I realized, “Hey, I know this feeling. It’s the “wow this is going to be good” feeling.” Then I put my nose back down into my book and kept on reading. A couple days later and I’m practically still tingling. Nothing but Ghosts is that good. It’s about as beautiful as a book can be.

Since her mother’s death, Katie has been learning to live with this feeling that her mother is gone, but not gone. She can’t wrap her head or her heart around the fact that someone as vibrant as her mother can just vanish, could just be there and then not be there forever. She and her artist dad are trying to keep on living, and salvage something of their family. Katie takes a job working at a local garden estate. The owner of the estate hasn’t been seen for decades. It’s said that she shut herself away more than fifty years ago just after a violent storm ripped through town. Katie becomes fascinated by Miss Martine’s mysterious past, and when Ms. McDermott, the dazzling town librarian, offers Katie the chance to sift through a bunch of boxes of local lore that have recently come to the library, Katie thinks the boxes might get her closer to the real story behind the lost heiress. At the same time, Katie’s dad is working on restoring a strange dark painting that turns out to be linked to the estate mystery. Nothing but Ghosts follows Katie through one summer as she chases ghosts and memories, looking for a way to keep close to those who are gone and find some peace living with loss.

Beth writes characters tremendously well. By the end of chapter one, after only 9 pages, more has been revealed and suggested about Katie and her Dad than many authors could manage in entire novels. (I think that was about where the tingling started). Chapter one was so perfect that I read it a few times before heading on into the rest of the book. Just read how Beth describes Katie’s thoughts about her bike,

“My bike is the ten-speed, thin-wheeled kind, a perfect silver streak. If you were looking down on me and my bike from a cloud above, you’d think we were a zipper. That’s how fast we go, how straight down, all the way to Miss Martine’s.”

I love that. I will now look at speedy bikes and think silver zippers. Beth’s writing will change the way you look at bicycles and it will change the way you think about grieving. She writes,

“…maybe I don’t know how you put regret inside a painting, maybe I can’t figure out Miss Martine, maybe I can’t really save my dad from sadness, but maybe so much time goes by that you start to understand how beauty and sadness can both live in one place.”

I’ve read all of Beth Kephart’s books for Young Adults, and one of the highest compliments I can offer about them is that Beth writes about the quiet miracles of real life. She helps readers to see that ordinary experience, all of it – the trouble and sadness and simple day-to-day joy of it – is worth noticing. Some of my favourite parts in Nothing but Ghosts are the scenes where Katie is just hanging out with her dad, eating with him and doing dishes with him and talking to him. It’s the authenticity of the emotion, and the perfectly placed poetic details that make the story sing. I can’t think of a YA novel about loss that is more worth reading, and that I know I will want to read again, later on in my life.

And the cover? Don’t you think it is just right for a book about memories and vanishing and grief? Perfect. Here is a lovely behind the scenes cover story from Melissa at readergirlz.

A few more reviews:

Bookslut

Presenting Lenore

Book Nut

Things Mean a lot

Em’s Bookshelf

Nothing but Ghosts is published by Harper Teen (every gorgeous word).

TBR: Runemarks

I’ve been eyeing Joanne Harris’s Runemarks for quite a while now. I’ve read great reviews and very lukewarm reviews. Still, today I bought it because it is finally in paperback. I’ve read a couple of Harris’s adult titles, and for me, they are perfect books to read when you just feel like a satisfying story that doesn’t take much out of you and leaves you feeling that all’s well with the world.

Here’s a trailer:

Which cover do you prefer?

runemarks1runemarks2

Funny – totally different designs. I think the paperback (first one) has a lot more kid appeal. Apparently Harris is working on a sequel, Runelight.

If you’ve reviewed the book, drop off a link in the comments and I’ll add it into this post.

Poetry Friday: Bach in the DC Subway

busker

Bach in the DC Subway – by David Lee Garrison

As an experiment,
The Washington Post
asked a concert violinist—
wearing jeans, tennis shoes,
and a baseball cap—
to stand near a trash can
at rush hour in the subway
and play Bach
on a Stradivarius.
Partita No. 2 in D Minor
called out to commuters
like an ocean to waves,
sang to the station
about why we should bother
to live.

A thousand people
streamed by. Seven of them
paused for a minute or so
and thirty-two dollars floated
into the open violin case.
A café hostess who drifted
over to the open door
each time she was free
said later that Bach
gave her peace,
and all the children,
all of them,
waded into the music
as if it were water,
listening until they had to be
rescued by parents
who had somewhere else to go.

(Found at Poetry Foundation. Photo by Dan Dickinson).