Monthly Archives: December 2008

Readergirlz Roundtable on A Northern Light

northern

The fantabulous Little Willow, readergirlz postergirl extraordinaire, put together an awesome roundtable discussion on January’s upcoming featured title at readergirlz: A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly. Postergirlz Little Willow, HipWriterMama, Miss Erin and I were joined by readergirlz divas Lorie Ann Grover, Holly Cupala and Melissa Walker to discuss this wonderful novel. A little background: Interwoven with the experiences of the heroine, Mattie Gokey, is the true story of Grace Brown, a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances in the Adirondacks in 1906. Jennifer Donnelly brings the two threads of story together throughout her novel.

Here is our conversation:

Little Willow: What was your basic impression of the book?

Lorie Ann: I was amazed at the plot arrangement and beautiful literary qualities of the work. I knew this would gain notice and awards, and I’m so pleased it did! When we began rgz, I wanted A Northern Light to be featured.

Holly: I loved how every thread contributed toward Mattie’s final decision – so beautifully, intricately drawn – and Jennifer shows us the light alongside the dark. Nothing is as it seems. Secrets abound. People have been telling me for a long time to read it, and I’m glad I finally did!

Miss Erin: Same here, Holly – I’d had several people rave about it to me, so at last I picked it up. I thought it was beautifully done, pretty much perfectly written, and a book I can definitely see myself reading multiple times.

HipWriterMama: I loved this book. Mattie reminded me of a gentler and more uncertain Jo March. I liked how Mattie was able to see and “accept” the flaws of her family and friends and want more for them. And, for herself. Beautifully written book with excellent use of plot and supporting characters to show Mattie’s growth.

Melissa: The idea of an epic crime as the dark back story for Mattie’s coming of age moments really intrigued me from page one.

Shelf Elf: This is the sort of book that made me sigh happily at the end. It felt old-fashioned to me, in a totally satisfying way. It already reads like a classic story.

LW: Did you like how the narrative flipped back and forth between Mattie working at the time of the murder and the events beforehand?

Lorie Ann: Yes, I thought it was genius! And how she let us know with a word entry if we were back in time or current. I was propelled by several mysteries because of the structure.

Shelf Elf: I’m not always a fan of this type of “then / now” structure, because I’m usually more interested in one thread of the narrative than the other, so I can find it frustrating. In this case though, I thought it helped to increase the tension in the story.

Miss Erin: I definitely agree about it upping the tension. It felt so murky and confusing (not in a bad way) at first, but as I went things became clearer… It was brilliant, really, the way the author tied everything in.

HipWriterMama: I had to read the first few chapters a couple times to get used to the narrative. (Partly because I don’t have the luxury of reading a books straight through, so I was a little confused in the beginning.) But, afterwards, I was impressed with how this narrative worked and helped the story flow. Truly a work of art!

Melissa: I liked this structure a lot. If we’d just seen Mattie at the hotel, we’d have missed so much of her rich past and evolving character. Knowing her through and through — and back and forth — was really compelling. Continue reading

Waiting for Normal

waiting

Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal sure had a lot of build-up by the time the good ol’ Toronto Public Library finally got it in for me months after I’d requested it. I’d read review after glowing review which meant that I started reading with some trepidation. So, did it measure up?

Yes.

If I talk plot, you’ll have a hard time believing that this book is ultimately an uplifting, feel-good story. This is not to say that there aren’t some terribly sad, life-is-not-fair aspects to this narrative that really do put a squeeze on your heart as you’re going along, but overall, this is a story that will leave you feeling (mostly) optimistic about the universe.

Addie has the misfortune of having a mother who is a loser. (I could put it more gently, but why sugar-coat). In the first chapter, we meet Addie and her mom (Mommers to Addie) as they are about to move into their new home. Their new home is a dingy old trailer surrounded by blacktop on a “medium busy corner” in Schenectady. They should be grateful, since Dwight, Addie’s ex-stepfather, is letting them live for free there because they don’t really have anywhere else to go. Since the divorce he’s moved on with his life, along with Addie’s two half-sisters, but he still works hard to be a presence in Addie’s life. Straight off, it’s clear who’s the adult in this mother-daughter relationship, as Addie’s mom does nothing but sulk about the negative aspects of their new arrangement, and when she’s not sulking or smoking or chatting online, she’s completely unpredictable and really doesn’t know how to be a proper mother to Addie.

Addie is pretty-nearly unfailingly optimistic. From time to time this is a bit of stretch in the believability department, but Addie does show her vulnerability just enough that we sense she is barely holding herself together, in spite of her efforts to look for the positive no matter what happens. She befriends a few characters around and about her new neighborhood, and they assume the place in her life that family would if her world was “normal,” the way she dreams it could be.

This is not a story where a lot happens, but it moves along at a great pace. This is because you’re so invested in the character, hoping that she’ll start getting the life and the care that she deserves. The tension comes entirely from the desperation of Addie’s situation as her mother goes off the rails and leaves Addie to fend for herself for increasingly long stretches. I have to say that the idea of this child, trying to make do all alone in this trailer on an empty lot was just awful, so sad and so bleak. There is this moment when Mommers is off on one of her “business trips” and Addie has been alone for several days and she starts checking the cupboards to do an inventory of her remaining food. When she sees that she’s running low, she decides to reassemble the empty macaroni and cheese boxes using glue and then she fills them with push pins so that they rattle around and sound full, just to reassure herself. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful way to communicate to a reader how Addie is strong and vulnerable all mixed together.

This novel is ideal for a book club or for literature circles in the classroom because of the complexity and perilousness of Addie’s situation. Discussion points / themes might be: responsibility, what makes a family, where hope comes from, being grateful for small things and heroism. Waiting for Normal is thought-provoking and written in wonderfully spare language, with a clear, honest, and sometimes funny voice.

Additional blog reviews here:

Fuse #8
Look Books
Welcome to My Tweendom
Read, Read, Read
Abby the Librarian

Waiting for Normal is published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins.

SMART LIST: Heros Undercover

annakiki

I can think of nothing better than settling into a long winter afternoon with a spy story. There’s something particularly delicious about all of that intrigue, undercover drama and, if you’re lucky, the abundance of nifty spy gadgets. Here is a selection of some of my favourite books featuring spies, or at least, some serious sneaking around.

The Spellman Files (Lisa Lutz) – OK, so not strictly a YA title, but teens will love this too. The Spellmans are a family of Private Investigators who are never off the case. Find out what it’s like for Isabel Spellman as she tries to escape the family business. When your parents are P.I.s, you can forget boundaries. Hilarious, quirky and just plain awesome.

Tamar (Mal Peet) – Two friends are resistance fighters in the Netherlands during World War II. They are under constant threat of discovery and they learn that the deepest secrets may be the ones they hold from each other.

I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Ally Carter) – Elite spy school for girls. Need I say more? The Gallagher Academy is not what it seems, and Cammie Morgan, daughter of the school’s headmistress, has a lot to learn – about covert operations, culture and assimilation, and boys. Fun from page one. Oh… and plenty of girly gadgets. A series.

The Plain Janes (Cecil Castellucci) – This isn’t really a spy book, but at the centre of the graphic novel is a group of girls who form a secret society. They plan and conduct a bunch of “art attacks,” so there is an element of conspiracy and a strong sneak-factor. Fresh, thought-provoking and funny, with diverse characters for girl readers to connect to.

Kiki Strike (Kirsten Miller) – The first in the series, Inside the Shadow City, is a girl-power adventure story in which the Irregulars, a group of talented girlfriends, discover a series of tunnels underneath Manhattan. They find that there is a plot in the works that puts the whole city in terrible danger. Good thing Kiki Strike is on the case. There’s great comedy here, and you’ll cheer on the Irregulars as they step out of their ordinary day-to-day lives, heading towards real adventure.

Alex Rider (Anthony Horowitz) – This series is wildly popular with boy readers, but the stories are such page-turners that everyone should read them, just for pure pleasure. After his uncle’s mysterious death, Alex Rider learns that his uncle had more than a few secrets. He was a spy, and now the organization wants Alex to take over the mission. So begins the first of many adventures. The spy toys in these books are particularly inventive (metal-eating Zit cream, for instance). It has also been turned into a great graphic novel.

Young James Bond (Charlie Higson) – Much like the Alex Rider series, here we have James Bond, back when he was just learning to be a super spy. Silverfin is the first in the series, and it has one of the creepiest, goosebump-ifying first chapters of any book I’ve read. (Eels… lots of ‘em. That’s all I need to say).

Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink (MAC) – Anna Smudge has found her calling. She’s a listener. She’s Manhattan’s only eleven-year-old shrink, and she has plenty of business. Anna gets caught up in the nasty schemes of the infamous mastermind, Mr. Who, and she and her friends team up to crush the Who’s evil plans. Funny, clever and packed with action. Kids will love the great comic illustrations too.

Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh) – I hardly need to introduce this one. Curious and smart-as-a-whip, Harriet finds her talent for spying gets her into heaps of trouble when her secret notebook falls into the wrong hands. A classic that remains entirely readable and heart-warming.

Christmas Loot

Santa was very good to me. Here are the literary treats he left in my stocking:

anna

faeries

coventry

atkinson

Needless to say, my stocking was rather heavy. It was sort of tied to the bookshelf.

So… what should I read first?

The Emerald Tablet

emerald

What do you get when you mix together five kids, 3 hidden keys, 2 secret continents and 1 summer camp experience like no other? P.J. Hoover’s debut MG fantasy, The Emerald Tablet. I finished this book yesterday, and it made me wish I had a whole list of ten-year olds to find Christmas presents for, because this book is going to make a lot of ten-year-old bookworms very, very happy.

Happy days indeed, because here’s a story (the first in a trilogy too!) for a kid who loves Harry Potter or Inkheart or the Percy Jackson books and thinks that after those series, there will be no other books that will ever be fun to read, ever again. This is where you become that kid’s hero, because The Emerald Tablet is all about kid power, magic power, evil power, telekenetic power, and the power of friendship. Fear not readers, that The Emerald Tablet is simply a rehashing of stuff we’ve already seen again and again. P.J. Hoover is a lady with oodles of creativity, and she puts a spin on the classic kid fantasy / adventure story that is fresh and engaging.

For starters, our young heroes have extraordinary abilities (it’s not all about wands and spells and broomsticks this time people). These kids are “telegens,” which means they are telepathic and have telekinetic powers and a bunch of other amazing skills too. The story begins when Benjamin and his best friend Andy learn that they’ll be spending their summer vacation at a camp for telegens, which turns out to be located in Lemuria, a hidden, submerged continent. As if that alone wasn’t crazy enough, soon after Benjamin arrives in Lemuria, a mysterious stone known as The Emerald Tablet chooses Benjamin to be its champion, which means he has to, you know, save the world. The rest of the story follows Benjamin as he fulfills his destiny, with a little help from his talented telegen buddies. The adventure rips along, and the world P.J. Hoover creates convinces you and makes you curious all at once. One particular strength of the book is the gadgets that Hoover invents as part of the Lemurian world – the Kinetic Orb (“kind of like a Rubik’s Cube, but for smart people”), telemagnifiers (objects that increase the power and abilities of the wearer’s mind), and a Geodine (a globe the size of a golf ball that contains the entire history of the earth). Aside from the “wow… cool” factor of these creative inventions, they end up playing important roles in the kids’ quest. Hoover is good at plot – she hints at things just enough to make you curious, and to get your wheels turning, but you see how it all fits together in the end.

The Emerald Tablet is packed with kid appeal, and there’s more than enough story to make readers eager for the next installment in the trilogy. If you need any more incentive, here’s the book trailer:

The Emerald Tablet is published by Blooming Tree Press.

Toffee-Crunch Shortbread

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During Thursday’s readergirlz chat with Meg Cabot, I was chatting and baking a giant batch of Toffee-Crunch shortbread to give as gifts. (As you can see, I was forced to sample a few, just for quality control purposes). I promised Holly Cupala that I would share the recipe. So here it is! Perfect for giving (and nibbling).

Toffee-Crunch Shortbread – Yield: about 50 fingers

Adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley

2 1/3 cups all purpose flour
2/3 rice flour (or cornstarch, but not as good for texture as rice flour)
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons superfine sugar
6 tablespoons tightly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup English toffee bits for baking (I think you call them Heath bars south of the border. We call them Skor bars in the Great White North).

Extra butter for pan-greasing

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9×13 inch metal pan. line the bottom and two long sides with parchment paper and leave a good overhang on either side to pull the cookies out of the tin later.
2. Sift the flours (all purpose and rice) and salt and set aside.
3. In a mixer (or by hand if you’re feeling like a pioneer), beat the butter until it’s really smooth. Gradually add the sugars and beat until it’s very light and fluffy. Add vanilla and mix.
4. Add the flour mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating fully before adding the next addition. (But don’t go crazy here. Mix just enough or the cookies will end up a tad tough).
5. At the end, when the last bit of flour is almost mixed in, get in there with your hands and knead the last traces in. Don’t overdo it. It shouldn’t get greasy.
6. Add the chips and the toffee bits and incorporate again using your hands.
7. Do not eat the dough. You will want to. Desperately. Resist.
8. Press the dough into the lined pan and then smooth the surface with the back of a spoon. Prick it all over with a fork (in perfectly-spaced, orderly rows if you’re Type A, like I am). Put in the centre of the oven.
9. Bake for approximately 45 minutes then take it out and prick once again to release trapped air.
10. Return to the oven for 15-30 minutes more. When done, the edges will be light golden and the centre will feel firm when you touch it.
11. Cool for about 8-10 minutes. Time it. You need to cut the fingers before it cools or else you will never be able to do it as it sets up very firm. After the 10 minutes of cooling time, make 2 long cuts in the shortbread, beginning and ending at a short side of the pan. You’re dividing it into three long rectangles. Then go across these long rectangles, cutting 3/4 inch wide fingers from one side to the other. You may need to wipe the knife off as you go to avoid tearing.
12. Let the fingers cool. I like to remove them from the tin to cool, but the recipe says to leave them in the tin to cool. Whatever. Store in airtight containers.

Share. If you can.

(There you go Holly!)

Announcing Moi, readergirlz Postergirl

fireworks

I’m beyond excited to announce that beginning in January 2009, I’ll be joining the fantastic team of postergirlz (Little Willow, Jackie, Miss Erin and Hip Writer Mama) working with and for the ever-fun-and-fabulous readergirlz. Perhaps the fireworks are a shade dramatic, but they are so pretty and pink (just like the readergirlz website) and I feel like celebrating my little piece of happy news.

If you aren’t already in the know about readergirlz, here’s the scoop. Really, the aim of readergirlz is to get readers to “read, reflect and reach out.” It’s about creating a community of readers to discuss the issues and themes and behind-the-scenes-stories of some of the best YA books out there, with some of the coolest authors around. Read the full readergirlz manifesta here. Simple really. You read the featured book for the month, hang out and leave your comments and questions at the readergirlz forum, and then join in on the live chat with the author on the scheduled day for that month. I guarantee it’ll make you think, laugh and love books even more than you already do (and you get to spend time with real live authors and cool/smart/inspiring girlz from all over the place). Also, every month focuses on a particular theme (self-respect, courage, tolerance, risk-taking), and through that theme, the mastermind readergirlz divas link the featured book to an amazing charity or organization that you can get involved in to make change in your community and beyond. The world needs more readers like readergirlz.

So join up. January’s title is one of my favourite reads of the past few years: A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly.

Thank you to the Divas: Holly Cupala, Dia Calhoun, Justina Chen Headley, Lorie Ann Grover, Mitali Perkins and Melissa Walker for inviting me to be a part of the coolest crowd of book-lovers I know.

Poetry Friday: Snow Day

Big snow is coming today. Here is Billy Collins on “big snow”:

Snow Day – by Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both…

For the rest, head to Poetry Foundation. Later today, I’ll head home and release my hound to “porpoise through the drifts.” Love that image.

Author Interview: Susan Runholt

mystery

You’re in luck gang! Another author interview is up today for your reading pleasure. Susan Runholt, author of The Mystery of the Third Lucretia, is here at Shelf Elf to chat about writing, travel, art and inspiration. Welcome Susan!

What inspires you? (People / Places / Food / Music / Works of art…)

In a sense, all those things — people, places, food, music, art — have inspired me in one way or another. And all of them, with the possible exception of food, have had a bearing on the fiction I write. (I am, in real life, a dedicated “foodie,” and one of my great frustrations is that the audience for my books tends to be a great deal less interested in food than I am, limiting my ability to really give scope to what I write about this particular sensory pleasure. Drat!)

But as far as inspiration for fiction is concerned, place is probably first among equals. Here’s an example. My upcoming book, Rescuing Seneca Crane, is about a 15-year-old piano prodigy performing with an orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. I had known for quite some time that the book would involve the kidnapping of that young musician, and I knew who had masterminded her abduction. I knew a three-year-old boy named Parker was going to play a major part in the story’s resolution. Beyond that, I knew very little about the details of the tale I was going to write.

To ensure authenticity and to generate the ideas that would give the narrative texture and excitement, I traveled to Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. In addition to the week I spent in Edinburgh itself, my journey included several days each in Glasgow, Inverness, and on the Isle of Skye. A primary question was where the central character, Seneca Crane, had been taken after she was abducted.

Thanks to the Sunday Philosophy Club books by Alexander McCall Smith, I was familiar with the prominent Scottish name Dalhousie. Traveling by bus on my way back from the Isle of Skye, I had an idea. The name Dalhousie is pronounced very much the way an American might say dollhouse, with the addition of a y at the end. Dollhouse. Dollhouse. Skye. Might a three-year-old hearing these words together mistake them for “dollhouse castle in the sky”?

This idea became central to the work as a whole.

In a couple of months I am off on another trip where I seek inspiration. Book number four in the Kari and Lucas series will be set in Venice during Carnevale. My daughter and I went to Carnevale 12 years ago, and I’ve been to Venice a number of times since then. This time I’m going back in search of inspiration, and I fully expect I will find it, given the lapping of the ocean around (and sometimes on the streets of) the islands, the chill of Venice in winter, the breathtaking architecture, the maze of streets that makes even reputable maps of this mysterious city unreliable, the canals, and the masked figures that appear out of the dark, foggy air during this world-famous pre-Lenten celebration.

I would imagine that plotting is a complex exercise for a mystery writer. Do you outline? Write scenes and then see how they fit together? Just start and see where you end up? What’s your process?

I once read an essay by the late, great mystery writer Robert Campbell that brilliantly described his process, which, as it happens, is similar to my own. He said that for him, setting off on a new book was a lot like beginning a journey. He knew where he was starting and he knew where he was going — who did it and why, and sometimes what would lead to the discovery. He knew a few of the events he would encounter along the way, just as I know, in the book about Kari and Lucas’s safari adventure I am now writing, that there will be a balloon ride, a night safari involving danger, something having to do with lions and possibly one or more hippopotamus, and a few other elements. But he didn’t know what was over the next hill, and wouldn’t know until he got to the top and could see the view beyond.

That’s how it works for me. I often find it inefficient — I routinely find I write a scene and have to scrap it because of something that happens in later pages — but I rather like the opportunities for puzzle and discovery this process offers.

Where do you write?

At my computer. Most often this is in the office in my home — boring, boring — but I occasionally take my computer with me and go away for a weekend to, say, a place with a view of Lake Superior, where I can both write and look out the window. I hope in coming months to be able to reduce the amount of time I spend on my other profession, which is serving as a fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations. When I’m able to do that, I plan to do a great deal more traveling with my trusty computer in my bag. Continue reading

Elf Envy: Random Round Up

Good things discovered lately:

Thanks to Fuse 8 for the link to Authors Now, a site devoted to featuring debut authors for kids and teens. Very cool indeed. Like Class of 2k8 (2k9) only more.

Jen R’s recent list of reviews that made her want the books is particularly juicy this time (and not just because Jen linked to one of my reviews… honest!). I’m eager to look for Wintergirlz.

Over at Reading Rants you’ll find Jen H’s 2008 Top Ten list.

Just to make yourself grin, head over to read Seven Imp’s Interview with Cece Bell. Who couldn’t love a woman who has painted a sock monkey chef on her kitchen cabinets?

I think Emily nailed her review haiku for Graceling.

I’m more than just an eensy bit curious about fellow Torontonian Lesley Livingston’s debut novel, Wondrous Strange. It’s out very soon (December 23/08), it’s very pretty:

wondrous

and Nancy Springer is crazy about it. I want.