Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Magic Under Glass Controversy

I've been following the cover controversy on Jaclyn Dolamar's first novel, Magic Under Glass for some time now.  I originally heard about it from Bookshelves of Doom, and it's been discussed on several other blogs.  The main character, Nimira, is described as having dark skin, and the model for the cover was Caucasian.  After issuing an apology, the publisher Bloomsbury has redesigned the cover.

The original cover.

The new cover.

What do you think?  On the first cover... the model looks unnaturally slim, and of course, her appearance isn't true to the book, but I liked the corset she's wearing.  The cover (and title!) seem to promise that something magical will happen.  I like the new cover better though.  I like Nimira's thoughtful expression.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wordlessly wonderful

In the Town All Year 'Round
by Rotraut Susanne Berner
Chronicle Books

A fellow librarian turned me on to this marvelous picture book. Mostly wordless, it tells the story of a whole town over the course of a year. Each "chapter" opens with a cast of characters and an invitation to search the pages to find out their story. The next several pages wordlessly show the passage of time over the season. Like most wordless picture books (or nearly wordless, in this case) I think this is a great jumping off point for dialogic reading between caregiver and child.

I would say this book is a marvelous blend somewhere between Richard Scarry's Busytown books and Where's Waldo by Martin Handford, but it's already been called that, by Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, no less. What I love about this book, what I really love, is how the reader is invited to construct their own narrative. There are perhaps five or six main storylines. We see the same characters pop up in this little community and interact with each other in different ways. Elderly Matthew and Isabella begin a romance, Ella and Andrew have lost their pet parrot, a new kindergarten is being built, a birthday party is planned, we see baby Sophie grow up. The level of detail is extraordinary. I've been poring over this picture book for hours, and every time I look, I notice something new.

The oversize folio size and pleasantly busy pages show most of the buildings in a cutaway view. There's a very old-fashioned feel. It's hard to believe that this is such a new book. The town features an apartment building, a tiny farm, a department store, a cultural center and, interestingly enough, a petting zoo, right next to a nunnery, along with a park and a cafe. But, again, little details reveal a more modern story. The new kindergarten is clearly a green building, with solar panels and meadow grass on the roof; a gentleman at the cafe taps away at his laptop while on a cell phone.

Preschoolers, beginning readers and their families will enjoy this book.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A very meta review

I could have sworn that I had heard about this book from one of my favorite new (new-to-me, at least) blogs, Forever Young Adult, but when I double-checked, I don't see Shelf Discovery there after all. Well, thank you, anonymous random blog that recommended this, wherever you are, as I heartily enjoyed it. Children of the 70's, rejoice. This is your book.

Skurnick's reviews cover a very particular range of young adult fiction -- books for girls, most written in the '60's and '70's. The book is rounded out with additional essays by Meg Cabot, Cecily von Ziegesar and Jennifer Weiner among others. The chapters are loosely divided by theme such as; girls living in the wild, afterschool specials, girls with supernatural powers, etc. Reading this felt like the equivalent of picking up an old yearbook and reminiscing about friends.

At first, I wondered if Skurnick might be just a bit older than me. Classics like Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary (1963) seem just before my time. But as I dug in further, I realized that while I had read many of the novels she spotlights, a good number of these novels are exactly the kind of thing I would have avoided like the plague when I was a teen. It's what we call, "problem fiction" about girls coming of age, amidst much turmoil and stress. When I was that age, I wasn't looking for realistic fiction... I wasn't even looking for the juicy voyeuristic thrill of reading about girls who had it much worse than I had. I was looking for escape and adventure and high fantasy. So, Skurnick's explorations of fantasy classics like A Wrinkle in Time and hidden gems like The Girl with Silver Eyes were what resonated with me most.

Skurnick races through many of her reviews, with just a few pages each, adding her own thoughts and personal reactions to the works of Lois Duncan, Madeline L'Engle, Judy Blume, and others. She careens to a giddy finish featuring two (long) reviews of Jean Aeul's Clan of the Cave Bear that really felt like a bit much -- especially because each used the exact same pull quotes from the original novel, the scene where Ayla is raped. I would have liked an additional essay at the end, a postlude of sorts to cap off the book, which instead ends abruptly with a critique of Domestic Arrangements by Norma Klein.

Is this a book for today's teens?  Probably not.  But for librarians, teachers and especially women who grew up reading many of these books, this book will be a treat. So, there we have it. My review of a book of reviews that I picked up on the strength of another review. How meta.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Adorable proto-gothlings

Scarlett & Crimson: Darqstarz Rising
by Allyson Black, illustrated by Patrick Spaziante
Simon & Schuster

Best friends Scarlett and Crimson's adventures at school and at home are detailed in this new series. They both love music and have created their own philosophy called, "Darq" They've decided to be totally comfortable with themselves, aren't trying to be in the popular crowd and are devoted to music and creativity.

To me, the girls style seems to fall squarely under the rubric of Perky Goth, but they reject that label, substituting their own "Darq" sensibility instead. Their main competition are the Leetz, short for "elite" aka, the popular crowd of Queen Bees. Scarlett and Crimson befriend the new cute boy English exchange student, Pepper White, and together with tech-geek Winslow the four of them start a new band to compete in the Battle of the Bands against the Leetz.

I am the first to admit that I'm deliriously unmusical, and a lot of the band practice references went completely over my head. When describing their newest song, Crimson describes it as "Real chunky on the chorus line... then for the verses, I figured on something soft - keyboards making veils of sound to give it a spacey feel." You see? I have no idea what that means.

This book is a perfect confection for undemanding middle-grade readers. Plenty of full-color half-page illustrations feature cheery bobble-headed pre-teens. With several net-speak conversations excerpted from chat logs, this book really zips along. Design-wise this novel doesn't miss a single opportunity to stand out and the edges of the book are stamped in black with print along the edge. Darqstarz Rising ends with a sample chapter of the next book. Oddly, the first chapter of the next book is mainly an info-dump, so what you are actually reading is a quick re-cap of the book you've just read. I'll recommend this to parents of middle-grade students who are looking for something "clean" yet hip looking for their kids.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A New Favorite

by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Sue Heap
Random House

of all, I have to say, I love this book, and if I could, I would marry it. It's ridiculously girly and has such a funny tongue-in-cheek humor. I enjoyed every bit of it, from the acrylic and crayon illustrations to the occasionally hand-lettered font to the heart and star-speckled endpages.

The unnamed blonde little diva who stars in this story involves a cast of characters including her baby sibling, some long-suffering neighborhood children, stuffed animals and the family pets in acting out her pretend wedding fantasy. Yes, this would be a fine book to share with youngsters who are getting ready to attend a family wedding as a flower girl or ring bearer. It does impart plenty of information about many nuptial traditions (sort of). But it also has a rampant sense of silliness that any four or five year old will appreciate. For example, her advice on snaring a mate is as follows, "BASICALLY, NO ONE WILL MARRY YOU IF: *You wear old pajamas and slippers in the middle of the day *You don't EVER take a bath *You don't EVER brush your hair and it looks like a bird's nest back there" For an engagement, she recommends, "Do your best curtsy or bow and kneel down and give them a golden ring or your favorite toy or a bite of your cookie. And that means you're allowed to get married." Invitations must be written in "beautiful Wedding Language."  Later, she pertly informs the reader that during the wedding you could wear a veil, or "a crown, a wig, some ears in case you're marrying a rabbit." Naturally, married people will "Live Happily Ever After THE END"

As you can see, I am having enormous difficulty not quoting the whole entire book.

Fans of Pinkalicious by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann or Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser will go nuts for this whimsical, romantic adventure.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Old Favorite

Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs
by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Lauren Stringer 

Rounded, almost amoebic, acrylic forms float on white pages containing few words of text. Warm, dark colors dominate the center of the pages. The story is similar in aspect to Mary Ann Hoberman’s A House is a House for Me, although perhaps a bit less abstract and more strictly literal.

The opening title pages feature two children and their dog. They busy themselves on a nature walk, reading comics in a “house” made of a cardboard box, playing at an anthill, pointing to a bird’s nest. Most of the scenes are in and around the children’s house. Pine trees are heavily featured in the background of many of the illustrations, and a tree which squirrels scamper upon is clearly the same tree in the children’s yard (complete with idyllic swing hanging from its branches.) The “castle” of the story’s title is a charming little playhouse for the children. The easy rhymes lend a feel of the bedtime story to this book (the same brother and sister featured earlier are cozily tucked into bed by the end of the story.) This book could also find itself well suited as a discussion opener for any pre-school or kindergarten class discussing concepts of nature and homes.

I read these book recently as part of a "Houses and Homes" themed storytime, where it was a big hit. I also included a reading of Whose House? by Barbara Seuling, Stray Dog by Marc Simont, a rendition of "This Old Man" (sung with a puppet), and an action rhyme version of Goldilocks which I originally found on

Sung to the tune of "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear Turn Around"

Goldilocks, Goldilocks, turn around, (turn around)
Goldilocks, Goldilocks, knock on the door, (make knocking motion with hand)
Goldilocks, Goldilocks, eat some porridge, (pretend to eat)
Goldilocks, Goldilocks, have a seat, (sit down)
Goldilocks, Goldilocks, go to sleep, (put cheek on folded hands)
Goldilocks, Goldilocks, run, run, run, (swing arms as if running)

I borrowed this book from the library.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Today Show did a piece on the new Harry Potter themed amusement park.  Looks pretty exciting so far.  I'm smitten with the castle-like architecture.

Monday, February 1, 2010

My brief love affair with the Kindle DX

This past holiday season, my household was gifted with a new Kindle DX.  While I was dubious at first, the usefulness of the device soon won me over.

Things I liked about the Kindle DX

  • I am a voracious reader and frequent traveler.  Having access to dozens of books, a New York Times subscription plus limited web access really put my mind at ease.  I'm constantly afraid of running out of things to read while on a plane, and the Kindle soothed my worries on that score.
  • For some reason, I had not realized that e-books are offered at such a steep discount to their paper counterparts.  This made the initial high price of the device much, much easier to stomach, at least for me.  I know that I don't spend enough on books that getting deals for $9.99 will ever cause the Kindle to pay for itself, but I appreciate the gesture on Amazon's part anyway.
  • Portability.  Easy to carry, not too large or too small.  I find a number of hand-held products appear to be designed for larger, more ham-handed persons than myself.  This one felt just right.  The full keyboard at the bottom of the screen is small, but perfectly useable.  Miraculously light and pleasant to hold.  I loved sitting on an airplane and being able to read a four-hundred page novel without having a heavy book to lug around.
  • Long battery life.  I had been reading from the Kindle for a few hours a day, and did not need to charge it for over a week.  I found the battery life especially satisfactory.  There is an unobtrusive battery life symbol at the upper right-hand corner of the display which I found comforting.  No surprise shut-down while you are in the middle of a sentence.
  • I loved the appearance of the black and white e-ink display.  It has a slightly Etch-a-Sketch quality that I found charming.
  • The read-aloud voice sounds slightly, but not entirely, like Stephen Hawking, which I enjoyed.
  • Finding free books -- those in the public domain -- is a little difficult but not impossible.  I downloaded most of the works of Shakespeare on it for free.
  • I liked some of the screensavers, especially the ones that looked like old-timey woodcuts.  I enjoyed the mild sense of cognitive dissonance I got from seeing antique looking art on the high-tech screen.
  • The area where I thought the Kindle really shines is with newspaper and magazine subscriptions.  I've always hated reading the newspaper, because of the oversize way that it is formatted.  Each sheet is huge and folding it and re-folding it, or even just holding it up to read, can be a full-contact sport, pretty much ensuring that it is impossible to read the newspaper and multi-task.  I'm probably dating myself here, but before the advent of the internet, I preferred to get my news by reading weekly magazines such as Newsweek or Time, rather than the daily newspaper.  The other thing that I dislike about newspapers (and magazines too) is the way that articles are frequently broken up, so that the valuable real-estate on the front page can be shared among as many stories as possible.  I hate having to hunt for an article that is continued on one of the back pages.  With the advent of and, I never looked back.  However, I feel the Kindle is an even superior reading experience than getting news online for several reasons.  Reading New York Times or The Wall Street Journal on the Kindle gave me a sense of completeness that you'll never get from the web.  It gave me the sensation of having read the paper "cover to cover" whereas, on the web, the content may have been shifted around and you're never really sure if you got everything.  No more annoying story breaks, or awkward page turns, as you'd find in a print version.  The magazine size of the Kindle was ideal.  Each newspaper article has a "next article" button at the bottom of the page, accessible by the mini-joystick, so you can easily skip through articles you don't want to read.  The menu option on the newspaper allows you to see each "section" of the paper, Opinion, Sports, Local, Entertainment, etc. and read all articles in that section, or choose articles one by one.  Best of all, NO advertising of any sort.  I can't think of any other format that can boast that.  This is my new, number one, preferred way to access the news.

Now for the bad news.

Things I didn't like about the Kindle DX

  • Page turns seemed a tad slow to me.  I'm a fast reader, and like to read the final sentence on a page right as I'm turning the page.  It took me a good while to get the knack of pressing the "next page" button at just the right time.  Even then, I felt like I was waiting half a second in-between each page for the new one to load.  It's an odd sort of pause that I wouldn't have while reading a normal book.
  • The interface on the home page seems a bit clunky and old-school looking.  That in and of itself wasn't a problem, but it did make finding special features rather difficult.
  • The read-aloud feature isn't available on most things.  As I understand it, Amazon had planned to include it for nearly all content, but was blocked by some publishers who didn't want to hurt audiobook sales.
  • You have to pay for access to blogs.  Ridiculous!  They're available on the internet for free.
  • After fiddling with it for over a week, I still couldn't figure out how to load PDF's on it or sync it with an iPhone.  I'm a pretty tech-saavy person.  I was surprised that this stumped me.
  • Having an iPhone, I'm so used to having a touch screen on a hand-held device.  I kept stupidly touching the screen, before remembering that it's not a touch screen.
  • Again, being so used to reading things online, even though I knew that the e-ink display was designed to be easier on the eyes, I kept finding myself being surprised by having to turn on a reading light or not be able to read the thing in the dark.
  • It took me a little over a week to notice this, but all the fonts are the same.  I'm not such a font-hound that I could name the font the Kindle uses off the top of my head, but it seems like an obscure one.  I kind of missed seeing different typography in different books.
  • It seemed to me that the newer the title, the greater the likelihood of spelling errors and strange formatting mistakes such as spaces in the middle of a word.
  • Unlike real books, you cannot share titles you've purchased with your friends.
  • Annoyingly, I could not figure out how to turn off the screen rotation.  Sometimes, I like to curl up on my side while reading, and the Kindle DX rendered this impossible, as it always wanted to "correct" itself and be read right side up, no matter which way I turned it.
  • Maybe I'm overly sensitive to this just now because of the recent brouhaha over whitewashed covers, but I noticed that out of all of the famous authors featured on the screensavers, none of them were people of color.  I would have loved it if Langston Hughes, Phyllis Wheatley, and other authors had been featured alongside Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson and others.
  • Also!  Once and again, a screensaver would come up that was an ad for Kindle.  Lame, in my opinion.  This kind of advertising goes under the same category as those dancing, wriggling pop-up ads at the bottom of television shows.  Unnecessary and annoying.
  • One more thing bothered me -- and this may be silly, I know.  I was concerned that I felt there was anything about the Kindle to criticize, let alone so many.  My internal critic was telling me, "wah, wah, wah, tell me more about your first world problems."  It's such an amazing thing to have so much reading material in such a slim, easy to carry device.  You know those status reports that Captain Picard reads?  It felt like I was reading one of those.  Like I'm living in the future!  So, I was disappointed in myself, that I found so many faults to pick with it.  

Update: As I was writing this review this weekend, the Kindle DX suddenly died.  At first the screen was frozen on the screensaver.  I assumed that it might need charging up.  When I plugged it in overnight, the screen went white.  After rebooting it, the screen was covered in scratchy lines and garbled half-images of the screensaver.  After rebooting it again, I briefly got it to work again, but it quickly pooped out.  I am so disappointed.  I was just starting to fall in love with it, and now, suddenly it's gone.  At the moment I realized the Kindle wasn't working, it suddenly struck me how many hundreds of unread pages lay trapped inside.  How sad!  Even more concerning, I'm worried that Amazon may play hardball and refuse to replace the broken device.  Check out all the one-star ratings for the Kindle DX on the Amazon website and you'll see what I mean.  Apparently this is a not uncommon problem, which they have been very reluctant to address.  Not cool, Amazon.  Not cool at all.

Initial rating: 3 stars.  I took away one for the minor quibbles I had with it, and another for the high price and proprietary manner in which Amazon lets you access materials.
Final rating:  One star.  For being so flimsy (screen died after only a month), for reputed poor customer service and for breaking my heart.


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