Sunday, July 27, 2014

Magical books

I just finished reading a not very new book called "The Akhentaten Adventure" which is part of the Children of the Lamp series by P. J. Kerr.  I liked the story a lot, which is about twins, John and Phillipa who discover that they are genies, or djinn.  Djinn have a different kind of magical power (one that is depleting to their bodies, so they are instructed to use their powers carefully) and in this book, they spend a lot of time learning about their powers as well as the history of the djinn, both from a historical and a literature perspective.  It got me me thinking about magic as a genre of fiction and why it's so common.

There have been a lot of books about magic in the last few years, most notably Harry Potter, but there have been others like Charlie Bone and Percy Jackson.  The overarching theme to me is most often good versus evil.  I mean it's really cool to be able to do magic and make things happen outside of the world of reality, but if there isn't some compelling reason to do the magic to help others, the books seem a bit pointless.  One of the magical books that didn't get as much play at my school (because I work in an elementary school and this would definitely be a book for bigger kids than mine) was "Hold Me Closer Necromancer" by Lish McBride.  This is another book where the character is unaware that he has magical powers until something silly brings him into contact with the magical world.  In this case, Sam pulls a prank at the fast food restaurant where he works and finds Douglas, a completely evil necromancer who decides he probably ought to destroy Sam.  So Sam has to figure out all his powers, who he should be friends with, who he should tell this big secret to while trying not to get killed by Douglas.  Sound like a familiar plot?  Here's a book trailer about it:

The other magically related book that I read this week was "Thursdays with the Crown" by Jessica Day George.  It's coming out in October.  I really liked the first book in this series called "Tuesdays at the Castles".  It's about a royal family with two brothers and two sisters and the king and the queen living in the Castle Glower.  The castle is actually magical and title refers to the fact that Tuesdays are the day that the King hears petitions from his subjects that day and that castle is often bored and will do things like open a door to allow the sheep to come in from the pasture or lock a visiting (underhanded and evil) dignitary in his room.  In "Tuesdays"  the castle comes under attack and three of the kids have to try to protect the castle and the kingdom (the king and queen are taking the oldest son to magic school and fall under attack).  I missed the Wednesday one, but in the Thursday one, the kids are trying to help heal the castle and there are griffins involved as well as evil magicians and not so evil magicians and apprentices who's loyalties are unclear.  It's complicated but interesting and again... learning powers, trying to figure out who's friends and who's not, good versus evil.  Here's a book trailer for Tuesdays at the Castle.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Books set in England

So I've been on kind of kick lately, for no apparently reason, reading books set in England.  One of my friends recommended one of them to me saying it was kind of a pain to read because the author uses so many English slang words, "Why can't she just write in English?", which is pretty hilarious.  But if you want to feel like you're away, it is sort of like speaking another language and yet it isn't!

The one I just finished is called "Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith.  Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling who is a bit more famous for another series she wrote, also set in England, called Harry Potter.  Cuckoo's Calling could not be further from Harry Potter but I really liked it.  The main character is a private detective named Cormoran Strike.  He is an Afghan war veteran and is currently breaking up with his long time girlfriend.  He comes from a complicated family (rock star dad, groupie mom, many assorted half brothers and sisters) and has had many difficulties but is on the verge of losing his business when a big case comes in.  A lawyer is distraught over the loss of his sister and asks Cormoran to investigate.   All of the characters are well thought out and well described and I especially liked Strike's secretary.  Very fun book to read.

Another one that I read that was recommended by a different friend was called "The House at Riverton" by Kate Norton.  My friend said it had a bit of a slow start but she got to the point where she couldn't put it down and that's exactly how I felt too.  It starts off in modern day with an elderly lady thinking back to a pivotal event in her life.  There are a lot of characters at first but as it goes on, the characters begin to sort themselves out.  If you like Downton Abbey,  it has that kind of feel to it. There is a big mystery that doesn't really sort itself out until the very last few pages.  It was great.

Those two were both grown up kinds of books.  There was also one that my niece recommended called "Best Friends and other Enemies" by Catherine Wilkins.  It's about a girl, Jessica, who is struggling with a new girl in her school.  Her best friend Natalie, has gotten very chummy with Amelia and Amelia is flat out mean to Jessica.  I didn't really get why Natalie would continue to be friends with someone who was so very unkind but my niece (who's 11) really enjoyed it.  I thought the characters were interesting and I think girls would really like this story and maybe identify more with the characters than I did.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical fiction

Oh boy, do I love historical fiction.  I seem to have picked up several this week and all of them about the 1960s.  I read Countdown by Deborah Wiles two years ago and absolutely loved it.  If you haven't read it, it's a chapter book about a girl who is living near a military base in 1961.  Her dad is a military commander and the level of tension because of the political situation is extremely high.  Add to that a crazy uncle (post traumatic stress syndrome, most likely) who is digging bomb shelters, a big sister who is trying to find her way, and boys... it's a complicated story.  What I really like about it is the pictures, and there are a lot of them.  The pictures use graphic images and words from that time period to help you really feel what's going on.  I loved it!  Well, Deborah Wiles has a new book out called "Revolution" and it's also about the 1960s but this one is about the Civil Rights movement and specifically about a community in Alabama that is trying to find it's way through segregation and into integration.  It's told from three different view points, a girl and two boys, each who are struggling in a different way with their community is dealing with integration.  It also has a ton of images and world from the time period, and what I really love about this one is that many of the words are song lyrics.  As I'm reading it, I'm finding that I'm singing along and sometimes it's really hard to get the songs out of my head.  It really made me think about how the songs must have been such an integral part of the civil rights movement.  Here's a link to Deborah Wile's website.

And in the same vein, I also read "The Wednesday Wars" by Gary Schmidt.  It's about a boy starting 7th grade and he has some big issues.  He thinks his teacher hates him, there are issues with girls, and fitting in, bullies, and rats.  It's also set in the 1960s (just like the other two!) except that there's no art work to go with this one and it's not immediately apparent that it's in the 1960s.  It has some great themes (standing up for what you believe is right, sticking it out even when things are hard, how great Shakespeare is) and the characters are very likable.  I can't wait recommend this one to my students.  Here's a book trailer about it.
How's your book a day challenge going?  I think I'm doing all right... a count for tomorrow!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Power of Love

Of course it is a cliche to talk about the power of love, but it's sort of surprising how it comes up as a unifying theme in literature. I read a couple of books this week that made me think about how powerful love is.

The first one was called "Iron Hearted Violet" by Kelly Barnhill.  It's about a princess named Violet who is not at all beautiful.  The storyteller describes how in all the stories, the princess is ALWAYS beautiful.  Since Violet is not beautiful (but IS the only daughter of the king and the queen) she starts to question if she REALLY is a princess.  Exciting and bad things happen and Violet figures out who she really wants to be, all based on the power of love.. the love of her father and mother, the love of her people she serves, the love of her friends.  It's a really great story.   It has some interesting artwork... it's almost anime, which I found a bit distracting.  It didn't seem to match the story to me... the story is sort of old fashioned and, well, fairy tail-ish,  and frankly, this art work seems to modern to me.

To go with this one, I immediately thought of "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeline L'Engle.  If by some tragic mistake you haven't read this already, drop everything immediately, get a copy, and don't do another thing until you've read it.  It's that good.  If you need a reminder about what it's about, it's about a girl named Meg who feels completely alone.  She's not pretty or particularly smart (so she thinks) or athletic and her dad has disappeared which has left her completely adrift.  She and her youngest brother (a genius) and her neighbor, Calvin, (a sensitive athlete) embark on a journey through time to try to save her dad.  It's exciting and mysterious and you can completely identify with Meg for feeling left out, unappreciated, and generally unloved.  However, it's Meg's great love that saves the day.  

I LOVE this 90 second video version of "A Wrinkle in Time"!

And for a different kind of love, I also read "Ottolenghi, the Cookbook" by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.  They both grew up in Israel and have cooked professionally all over the world.  The beginning of the book is all about their philosophy about cooking and eating which is basically that food should above all taste good, be fairly simple to prepare, and celebrate the goodness of the ingredients.  They also believe, as I do, that cooking is an act of love.  Preparing food doesn't have to be stressful or complicated, it should be a celebration of life and love.  So there you have it, the power of love!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Food glorious food

I've been visiting my sister in France this week and we've been thinking a lot about food. Well, we think a lot about a food anyway because I married a chef. We both like to cook and eat A LOT. What you really notice here in France, is that people also like to cook and eat a lot but that they think about food differently than we do. My sister lives in a small town on the side of a mountain just above the city of Geneva. As you look out and admire the gorgeous view, what you immediately notice is the fields. Fields of wheat and corn, fields of sunflowers, and trees full of apricots and walnuts. You can't even drive to the grocery store without passing farms. So if you see food being produced as part of your daily routine, does it make you think differently about your food? Well, in the markets (the open air markets as well as the grocery stores), the food is labeled with its country and sometimes even it's region of origin. So we find that we can taste the different between Spanish apricots and Swiss apricots (from the Valais) and French apricots (from Provence or L'Ardeche). The vendors will often offer you a taste so you can appreciate the differences. If you notice and pay attention to those things, it might make a difference in the ones you buy, the ones you eat, and the ones you enjoy. You might also start to seek out the ones you like the best, like melons from Cavaillon or salt from the Camargue. So to celebrate, we've been trying to appreciate the local produce as much as possible. We've been picking fruit. Cherries are in season. And so are strawberries. And apricots (ok, we didn't pick them, but boy do they make great jam). I hope you get a chance to enjoy something awesome too!.