The Latest from Neil Gaiman

“Reality is not always probable, or likely.” ― Jorge Luis Borges

Reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is like remembering something that you half-dreamed as a child.  A man goes back to the town he grew up in to attend his father’s funeral.  Escaping his family duties for a few moments, he takes a drive around town, down the streets he once knew.  He stops at an old farm where his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, used to live.  There he is flooded with memories.  (By the way, we never really find out our narrator’s name, but we are told that his father called him “Handsome George” when he was a baby.)

Our narrator was a lonely and bookish child.  He tells us, “I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content.  I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”  His story is set in motion when a lodger from South Africa steals the family car and commits suicide in it.  In the aftermath, the boy is sent to Lettie’s home to shield him from the gruesome death, but he ends up being caught in his own terrible adventure.  His new nanny turns out to be “every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh.”   His own father threatens to drown him.

Gaiman’s writing is dreamlike and surreal.  Things are both true and not true at the same time.  The real and the unreal are collapsed into one.  He presents his story through the eyes of a child, who is just beginning to grasp that our world is often capricious and unfair.  Lettie and her family provide solace, yet they also create the path that pulls him into their whimsical, dangerous world.  (Lettie reminds me of Pippi Longstocking:  though she’s only eleven, she is able to think fast and make her way in the adult world.)  This is a book that will have you thinking about your own childhood.  Its words will come floating back to you long after you’ve finished the last page.


The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry

As you can tell from my previous posts, I’m a big fan of the strong female protagonist.  In The Sheen on the Silk, Anne Perry doesn’t let me down. 

Set in Byzantium in 1273, The Sheen on the Silk tells the story of Anna Zarides, a young widow and doctor, who masquerades as a eunuch to infiltrate the upper echelons of society and prove her twin brother innocent of murder.  The book, however, is so much more than just a who-done-it.  It delves into the definition of gender and what it means to be male and female by examining the role of the eunuch in Byzantine society.  Through the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, it examines the role of organized religion in a person’s relationship with God.   The book is filled with politics, intrigue, and everything a good thriller needs.  Action packed and well written, I bet it would be an amazing read.  However, I listened to it.  And listening to it was like listening to someone read poetry.  I had quite a number of driveway moments where I didn’t want to leave the car until the chapter was over.   Although my usual fare is far from historical mystery, I can’t recommend this book enough.


A Place to Call Home

One of the most important questions to ask today is: what is one willing to give up for the sake of safety?  Since 9/11, we are frequently told that all of the new security measures we see are put in place to secure our safety from terrorists that would intend us harm.  And certainly with all of the people who seem to intend us harm, from the underwear bomber, to the Times Square attempt to the successful Boston Marathon bombers, there are many dangers in the world that we may need to be protected from.  But in our desire to be safe we seem to allow people to infringe upon our liberties in ways that we would never suspect.  And especially given all of the new technology we are allowing into our homes more and more, we never even realize the full cost of this new security.

Cory Doctorow in his previous novel, Little Brother, and now in his follow-up, Homeland, explores the depths to which this new security can take us.  Marcus Yallow, aka “M1k3y” (a previous computer alias that was well known in the computer hacker community), is trying to get his life straight after things have come a bit unraveled following the end of Doctorow’s previous novel Little Brother.  His family has lost their jobs; he can no longer afford college and a bit desperate to find a job himself; and his life seems aimless.  His friends have seemed to go their separate ways, as is true for many a college student, and he needs to find himself.  Thankfully he still has his girlfriend Ange who brings balance to his somewhat chaotic life. 

And while Marcus is trying to have his life get back to something that resembles normalcy, he is sucked back into the quasi nightmare that he had lived through before, with nefarious government agencies after him and he and his group of friends with the ability to expose their corruption.  The only problem now is that the corruption comes from things that society likes and wants.  It may be easy to explain to people that it might not be a good idea to have martial law and government officials setting curfews and harassing citizens in public.  It’s much harder to tell them that they have access to your personal information through the computers that you enjoy or the iPads that you own.  And that not only can they do that but they can watch you through the web cams that you set up through the Skype program that you love so much as it keeps you in contact with family members long distance.

Doctorow does an credible job of trying to explain, to what often seems like an ill-informed public, the possible dangers that can be involved when we let all of these bits of technology into our lives; and that we need to be able to ensure that the government we have is actually serving our needs, and not the self-serving needs of bureaucrats and other government contractors through enabling them to have access to records to which they should not have access.  While sometimes he delves into the weeds of computer technology trying to explain to non-computer savvy people the intricacies of computer technology, he successfully brings home the dangers of a world where a computer is connected in every home, and information is coming at you a million miles a second.  Where the world is readily at your fingertips, questions spring forth.  What is safety?  What is security?  Are you comfortable that someone may be watching you on the end of your computer screen?  And if someone is watching you, who is it?  Would it make a difference if you knew?  These are scary questions to ask; and Homeland suggests that we should be seeking answers.


Memoir of Loss

“Gone.  The saddest word in the language.  In any language.” 
                      ― Mark Slouka, God's Fool
Not often do you come across a book that simultaneously tears you apart and makes you want to keep reading, but Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala does exactly that.  The author and her family were vacationing in her native Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004 when the tsunami hit.  She and her parents, her children and her husband were all swept away and she was the only one to survive.  This is a memoir of her attempt to cope with the terrible loss, to get through day by day, when she doesn’t think she can. 
The first months after the tsunami go by like a dream, or rather a nightmare.  She spends weeks “collapsed on a bed” in her aunt’s house, sometimes drinking to numb her mind, sometimes blaming herself for not doing more to save them (as if that were even possible).   At first she cannot go back to her family’s home in London and when she does, she is often plunged back into her unbearable loss:  “And as the wind gusted against those windows, I saw how, in an instant, I lost my shelter.  This truth had hardly escaped me until then, far from it, but the clarity of that moment was overwhelming.  And I am still shaking.”  Throughout the book, I am amazed at Deraniyagala’s hauntingly beautiful prose, at how she reaches into her pain and allows her writing become a lasting memorial to her husband and her two boys.



I am not generally a Science Fiction or Horror reader, but I have been trying to expand my horizons a bit lately and read more widely than my usual British mystery. A few weeks ago, I heard an obituary for Science Fiction author Richard Matheson on NPR, and the fact that Matheson wrote The Incredible Shrinking Man (and the screenplay, which was a favorite at our house when I was a kid) and a dozen or so classic Twilight Zone episodes like "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Little Girl Lost" piqued my interest.

After hearing how his early novel I am Legend has been made into a movie three different times, I decided to give it a try. I chose the audiobook edition, (also available to download) narrated sonorously by Robertson Dean, and I have to say: It. Is. Awesome.  

Robert Neville is the last man alive – at least the last man for as far as he can travel and still make it back home by sunset. By day, Neville gathers supplies, makes repairs, and, oh yes, kills vampires as they lay slumbering in their daytime coma. At night, his house, now his fortress, is buffeted by dust storms and the calls of the vampires who gather outside, taunting him and calling for him to come outside. The contrast between the mundane details of his daily life in the aftermath of the plague that took his wife and daughter along with the rest of civilization and the tension and horror of Neville’s encounters with the blood-thirsty vampires – some of them his former friends and neighbors – is chilling and exhilarating at the same time. Neville is a well-drawn character, who is fighting for his own survival, but is still able to feel some compassion for the vampires who clearly don’t return the favor.

Next up, I plan on watching all three movies: The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and the more recent I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. I think my time would be better spent reading the book again or reading more Matheson classics, but I like the idea of seeing how this 1950’s novel was interpreted in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and then again in 2008.


Chomp on a Good Book!

Summer Reading Program is in full-swing at the OC Public Library.  Stop by your local branch and check out the available activities.  In addition to programs for kids and teens, many branches also have a program for adults. 
Since this year’s theme is “Reading Is SO Delicious,” I'm recommending several books to help you grow your own delicious food.  I love to garden.  I have a vegetable garden in the backyard and two plots at my local Community Garden.  Gardening is great exercise, promotes a healthier diet, and saves money. Why pay exorbitant prices for organic produce at the supermarket when a little time and effort will yield your own bountiful harvest? Besides, everything tastes better when you grow it yourself.

3 Step Vegetable Gardening is a great resource for the beginner gardener.  The book breaks gardening down into three easy steps: sow, grow and harvest.  Concepts are simply explained, and illustrated by great color photographs. The emphasis on soil preparation is especially helpful, and I like the sections on how to choose the best easy-care vegetable varieties.

How to Grow Food is another great book for beginners.  In addition to vegetables, this book has chapters on growing herbs, fruit trees, nut trees and berry vines.  The fruit you buy at the supermarket was probably picked when it was rock hard. Nothing tastes better than a peach that has been allowed to fully ripen on the tree. 
Interested in gardening, but live on the 4th floor of an apartment complex? The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible is the book for those who don’t have an available yard.  Garden guru Edward C. Smith provides step-by-step advice on selecting containers, potting soils, compost, and the best vegetable varieties that thrive in the container environment.  Containers do have limitations.  You may not have much success with beef steak-sized tomatoes, but smaller-sized tomatoes do pretty well in pots.  Try Sun Gold, a sweet prolific cherry variety with a deep golden color. 

Wondering what to do with your bountiful harvest?  Grow Cook Eat is chock-full of luscious, easy-to-prepare recipes and cooking ideas.  Also helpful is the advice on storing food in a way that maximizes flavor.  Check out the recipe for Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream, and you’ll agree that “Reading Is SO Delicious.”

Gardening can be hard work.  Don't forget to take a break and visit your local branch of OC Public Library.


Ways to Live Forever

I’m a big fan of teen or children’s books which are of interest to adults. These are books which are totally appropriate for children, even written for children, but are books that an adult would find interesting, captivating and unique. One book I recently read which falls into this category is, Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls. This novel is narrated to us by the intelligent and good natured eleven-year old Sam. Dying of leukemia, Sam is takes a writing project assigned to him by his teacher, Mrs. Willis, a step further and decides to write a book. Along with telling us about his life, the book is filled with lists and questions, especially questions that nobody will answer. The questions nobody wants to answer are tough; they range from what happens to people when they die to why people die at all. Sam immediately charms the reader, he is smart, funny, kind and curious, and even though this book discusses a sad and serious topic this is a book you will want to read.

During the story we meet Sam’s parents, his sister Ella, his best-friend Felix, who is also sick. The spirited Felix helps Sam to accomplish some of the things on his “Things I Want to Do” list. From attempting to watch off-limits horror movies to attempting to create the world’s smallest night club the two boys make a serious dent in Sam’s list. They also compile another list of “Ways to Live Forever”, some things on this list are silly and some philosophical. One thing not included in this list is to write a book that keeps your memory alive, which is what Sam ends up doing. This book juxtaposes fun moments and poignant moments. The book can be hard to read in places because of the subject matter but it is also enjoyable to read in other places. Two of the most touching moments to me were when Sam’s mom keeps the children home from school for one last fun day of sledding and when Sam’s father arranges for the family to ride in an airship, one of Sam’s items on his list of things he wants to do.

Books on the topic of grief and dying are tough. Children’s books dealing with this subject are especially tough. The author of this book does a great job of being sweet, poignant, sad and even funny at times. Author Sally Nicholls handles the subject well and gave us a very enjoyable and thought provoking book. This book is sad and beautiful and so well written you think it really is Sam’s book rather than a book of fiction.

Ways to Live Forever was turned into a film and directed by Gustavo Ron. Originally released in Spain in 2010, the film has been nominated for and won numerous awards. Up until now the film wasn’t released in the United States. Well the wait is over!  The film is being released in the United States on July 19th, 2013. I can’t wait to see how this touching book got turned into an award winning film. Check your local listings for the film and check your local library for the book.


Rump : the true story of Rumpelstiltskin

In Rump, rather than following the original premise, Liesl Shurtliff weaves a fractured fairy tale that is pure gold. RUMP starts by setting the stage for the book's protagonist and his life on The Mountain.  Rump never knew his mother, who died in childbirth, nor what she planned to name him. But he knows that Rump is not his complete name, and without it he does not feel whole, nor does he grow.  And names have magical powers and are a person’s destiny.

Young Rump comes across as funny and humble, creating rhymes, and reflecting on his life and surroundings.  Small for his age, he is the butt of jokes. He lives with his Gran in a village where everyone works in the gold mines, trading what little gold dust they find for grain to make their bread. Being small and weak Rump rarely finds anything, and he and Gran never have enough to eat.

Then Rump rescues his mother’s old discarded spinning wheel from the woodpile, and discovers he can spin straw into gold, and trouble begins. Rump goes from self-discovery, to spinning straw for the queen in exchange for her first born child.  Warned by Gran and his friend Red not to spin, Rump soon discovers that magic comes with a price, and often dire consequences. The King, the Miller, and his sons evolve as greedy evil characters, intent on lining their pockets with gold, who think nothing of causing harm to anyone, to get their way. The Miller and his sons attempt to exploit Rump and the Miller’s dimwitted daughter Opal, who marries King Bartholomew, known as King Barf.  Rump attempts to rescue Opal from a dire fate, but not all goes according to his plan.
Seeing the tale through Rump’s eyes, Shurtliff renders stock fairytale characters, like the villainous Miller and his sons, and King Barf, and helpmates with enough detail added to their identities, to make them interesting;  Shurtliff reveals a hero who asks for none of what he's forced to endure. His Gran, and Rump’s often gruff, but loyal friend Red, are sterling supporting characters to this very charming and well-plotted story, as are the bothersome gold-loving pixies, the messenger gnomes, and the loving, but grubby trolls. The book’s ending definitely begs for a sequel, which hopefully, Ms. Shurtliff will provide.


Three Books to Grow On

As this year’s Summer Reading Program theme is “Reading is So Delicious”, I thought I’d share three of my favorite children’s picture books on the topics of vegetable and flower gardening. 
For toddlers, Candace Fleming’s Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! is a lively and easy-to-follow read.  Mr. McGreely has long dreamt of growing delicious vegetables in his backyard.  Finally, one spring, he decides to go for it.  Unfortunately, three hungry rabbits also decide to go for Mr. McGreely’s carrots, peas and tomatoes.  Every night they visit his vegetable garden and eat everything in sight, prompting him to build an ever more elaborate fence/deterrent system.   But those rabbits are creative in their quest to get inside!  The refrain of “Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!” provides a good opportunity for children to join in with the reader, and the repetitive nature of the story helps children work on their predictive skills.  G. Brian Karas’s eye-catching gouache and acrylic with pencil illustrations draw in the viewer with their varied shades of green and brown.  The story is great fun and will provoke lots of smiles. 
A great choice for preschoolers is The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown.  Young Liam lives in a drab industrial city with no trees or plants whatsoever.   Most residents never venture outside.  But curious Liam decides to explore the unused railway tracks above the city.  Once up there he is surprised to see a small cluster of wild plants which could use a gardener’s help.  Despite knowing little about gardening, Liam feels that he can make a difference somehow.   He tries various methods and the plants are soon thriving and spreading throughout the city.  The can-do message of this book is very inspiring without being didactic at all.  Vivid acrylic and gouache illustrations really set the tone, from the muted browns, blacks and grays of the story’s beginning to the bright greens and blues which appear once the garden starts taking off.   Brown does not rush his story, thoroughly engrossing the reader, but also indicating the amount of time which a project such as Liam’s would require.  This would also be a great book for school-age children studying environmental topics.
Children in primary grades will enjoy Allison Wortche’s Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine.   Rosie is a bit bothered by the achievement – and accompanying boastfulness -- of her classmate Violet, who seems to outshine everyone in several areas.   During a class pea plant project,  Rosie’s and Violet’s plants are the first to sprout, but Violet yells out that her own is the first.  The next morning an annoyed Rosie pushes soil on top of Violet’s plant.  But when Violet is out sick for a few days, Rosie has a change of heart and takes care of Violet’s plant along with her own.  Rosie is full of pride when her teacher calls her the “best gardener” she’s ever had.  When Violet returns she surprisingly thanks Rosie, but then loudly boasts to the class that her decorated pot is still the “sparkliest”.  This time, however, Rosie reacts differently to Violet’s behavior, simply exchanging a knowing smile with her teacher.   This book is educational without overdoing it, including mention of the basic requirements for plant growth within the flow of the story.  The dynamics of classroom competition are true-to-life and Rosie’s feelings and personal growth are believable.   Artist Patrice Barton illustrated this story with pencil sketches painted digitally.  Yet there is nothing “computerized” about their feel – they are soft, bright and filled with the movement and energy of an elementary classroom.   Some preschoolers will also enjoy this book, especially when read to one-on-one.
Now go get some seeds, check out these books and start planting with your little ones!


Following the California Young Reader Medal

Each year for me one of the most exciting lists of books to read is the California Young Reader's Medal.  More reflective of the favorites of children than the Newbery or Caldecott or other prestigious awards selected by committees of adults, these are books nominated by librarians, teachers, bookstores, even children and young adults, anyone who works with children, and the books are chosen by the votes of the children themselves.  There are five categories: Primary, Intermediate, Middle School/Junior High, Young Adult, and Picture book for Older Readers.  And there are three books nominated in each category except for the primary which has five.  Nominations open in February of each year, schools and libraries or other organizations with interest in literacy organize voting by ballot, and children who have read all the books in each category may vote in that category.  Winners are announced in April each year.

Following this list over the years has provided me with so many titles of excellent books to recommend to all ages of young readers.  In recent years Hunger Games, Matched and Every Soul a Star which have been reviewed on Book Talk have had early attention on the CYRM nomination lists.  I am currently reading The Giant Slayer which was a 2013 winner and a most compelling book about a lonely young girl's storytelling friendship with a boy in an iron lung and others in his hospital ward during the pre-polio vaccine frightening days of the nineteen-fifities.

Primary and Intermediate nominations this past year include Interrupting Chicken and A Nest for Celeste.  And who can forget past winners and nominees such as Click, Clack, Moo, Cows That Type, Thundercake or Stellaluna.  These are the books that children will love, books that stay popular year after year.

With summer coming, now is the time for kids to read for fun and there is a wealth of ideas with all these lists of books going back to 1976.  So if you don't know what to recommend to children, you might just begin with the CRYM lists found here.