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Things are still busy, but I have a pleasant (except for the sneezing & itching) lull this morning, and some time to catch up on YA reviews.

These two I definitely enjoyed – and they’re authors I’ll keep an eye on.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, by Robin Brande: This is a solid example of realistic YA fiction, where there are some “issues” but they don’t overpower the story or the characters. I haven’t run into many YA books where the main character is religious, and examines her beliefs over the course of the book in a believable way. Sometimes I wanted her to snap out of her insecurities, but they were believable, too. The plot is surprisingly fun, given all the things Mena is agonizing over, and most of the side characters are three-dimensional and fascinating; I got the sense that Brande had complete back-stories on all of them, even if 99% of that information never made it into the book. Some of Mena’s old friends run the risk of being stock characters – although there is a moment towards the end when we see that one is not. I would love to see the story retold from Casey’s point of view – to learn more about his family and his life, and see Mena from his point of view. Definitely recommended for middle schoolers/teens looking for good characters with a dash of religion and science.

Northlander, by Meg Burden: The set-up reminded me of classic Robin McKinley – a girl in a strange place, plenty of intriguing characters, a hint of magic. There’s an unexpected (to me) shift halfway through the book, and I found myself missing the first half and wondering what on earth was going on, but soon enough the plot revealed itself, and a few more dimensions were added to the story. It’s not super fast paced, but I think it’s pretty accessible for middle school/teen readers (and grownups) who like that slight fantasy with a hint of historical fiction sub-genre. The plot felt like an enjoyable excuse to observe the dynamics between Ellin and the five princes. The characters in general were great – I hope there are more books to come in the series, because I know I’ll enjoy spending more time with them. I’m also curious to see how things work out plot-wise – while things were mostly wrapped up at the end, enough was left hanging for a meaty sequel or two.

These two were companions/sequels, and while they could theoretically stand on their own, I would recommend reading the first ones first.  I enjoyed both, but neither quite lived up to the first.

The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer: This companion to Life as We Knew It is much darker – perhaps because, even though this is set in a different place, the reader knows a little bit about what will happen. And, unlike the narrator in LAWKT, who is allowed to enjoy herself a little before things go downhill (and they always go down hill when the moon is pushed closer to the earth), Alex is thrown immediately into the horror of what has happened. This has the same tension as the first one, or perhaps more, and was just as difficult to put down once I’d start. Recommended to teens (or adults) looking for a gripping story of survival. Warning: a few gruesome scenes, plus reading the story may lead to hoarding of canned goods.

The Last of the High Kings, by Kate Thompson: I enjoyed this sequel to The New Policeman, but for whatever reason it didn’t have quite the same magic. It still had that entertaining blend of Irish mythology and fantasy with real world issues, and the characters were well-drawn, and it had a nice sense of humor in the tone. I was a little distracted by the fact that our main character, JJ, is now in his 40s with several children – I couldn’t help but wonder if children would enjoy that as much as a story told primarily from a child’s point of view. Sections are from the point of view of the children, but JJ is still at the forefront. Overall a fun read, and worth taking a look at if you enjoyed The New Policeman (which I highly recommend), but probably not a good stand-alone.

I’m housesitting, and something is making me sneeze.  Awesome.  Is it the (otherwise awesome) dog?  Theoutdoor cat and her kittens?  The chickens?   Have they been sneaking into the house while I’m at work?

Some people (myself included) might consider it crazy to be housesitting while trying to move.  Of course, I wasn’t thinking about moving when I agreed to it months ago – and I also wasn’t thinking about being busy with a summer internship – and I definitely wasn’t thinking about how wrenching it would be to face a move away from a neighborhood I’ve lived in for over four years (the longest I’ve lived in one place since I left my parents’ house).  I LOVE my neighborhood.  I’m in denial that I’m leaving it (even though the move – in with the family until we all go crazy or I graduate – will save a nice chunk of change).

At any rate, housesitting does have one advantage – I don’t have to think yet about missing Kitri – now ensconced in her very own house – and I don’t have to look the half torn-apart apartment.  And I can get off work and throw sticks for the dog instead of looking at all the things left to pack.  Of course, not much is getting packed since I’m away from home, but…packing is over-rated.

I’ve also been heavy into the escapist literature – not that these books are escapist in and of themselves, but that’s what I’m using them for.  I whipped through Meg Burden’s Northlander – excellent YA with the feel of both historical fiction and fantasy – perfect for readers who enjoy both but are devoted to neither.  I just polished off The Last of the High Kings, sequel to Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman. I’ll do both justice when my brain returns to me (if ever).  I’m also finishing up my reread of The Dark is Rising Sequence by listening to Silver on the Tree – the one about which I remembered the least.  A few things are vaguely familiar, but it mostly feels new (the beauty of a poor memory for plot).  Now I could either start in on The London Eye Mystery (just came in on hold today) or dig a book of William Trevor stories out from under the seat of my car (it seemed like a good place at the time).

What I’m really tempted to do is go retrieve the pint of ice cream from my home freezer.  Why oh why did I leave it there?

Or, Where Librarians and Computer Geeks Overlap

Instructions: after a work scheduling error, too much heat, a multiple encounters with bad drivers, you should come home, fix an iced coffee* with a spoonful of brown sugar, and plop down on the couch to finish Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

It’s the best thing I’ve read in a while, and already on my list of favorite YA novels of the year.  First off, it has a great sense of pace and compelling characters – you’re not going to get anywhere without that.  Second, add in some real drama and plot.  Third, relate that plot to a) current events and politics, in a gripping way and b) issues dear to the hearts of librarians and computer geeks (and some of the rest of you, too) the world over – privacy, censorship and free speech.**  Oh, and don’t forget a healthy dose of humor, a touch of romance, and explanations of technology actually make sense to little ol’ me.  Throw in a few afterwards and an author’s note containing real, practical, optimistic information and plenty of advice for further reading.

You end up with something awesome.  And a much improved mood.

*I blame the book for a lot of my recent coffee cravings.

**I took a class this spring where we discussed a lot of these things – ethics, privacy, free speech, censorship, etc. – basically this book covered all the same information, but with plot.  And no homework.

I grew a potato! Now, it’s no enormous potato, but it IS a potato. There may be more in the garden, but I only excavated the plant that had fallen over and looked dead (isn’t that when you’re supposed to harvest potatoes?) I never realized how easy it is to grow a potato. Here’s the life cycle of my potato: I bought a bag of local, organic small white potatoes at New Seasons. I ate most of them, and the rest of them sprouted before I got around to them (this happens to me constantly – I can never seem to finish my potatoes, no matter what quantity I buy at a time). So I cut them up, leaving a couple of eyes per piece. I left them out on the counter to dry for a few days. They looked hideous. Then I planted 4 or 6 of the least scary-looking ones in our garden bed, not expecting anything to happen. A while later I noticed these strange plants in a corner of the garden. I thought they might be weeds, and was about to pull them out, when I realized they were growing in two rows, just like I’d planted the potatoes. Victory! They’ve slumped pretty quickly – I don’t know if this is normal or not – so today I pulled one up, and voila, one leetle tiny potato.

Also doing well in the garden are sunflowers – the first one just bloomed – and the dill just went to seed. The tomatoes have blossoms, but since I’m moving at the end of the month, I doubt I’ll get to eat any – a pity, since I tried some new varieties this year. I haven’t killed the sage yet, and my succulents are, as always, thriving.

In other news, my bike is back from the repair shop and I can’t wait for some free time to roam the streets. I was walking the Springwater Corridor trail last weekend and envying all the cyclists who whizzed past.

Following on the heels of Kate’s ode to William Carlos Williams, I just happened to get two books of poetry from the library that referenced him. Okay, so I got Joyce Sidman’s This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness purely because of the title – that Naomi Shihab Nye’s Honeybee also mentioned ol’ WCW was a coincidence. I picked up Honeybee based on a review over at 7-Imp (one of my favorite sources of in-depth reviews – and interviews!) – go check out their review (the link will take you straight there).

This is Just to Say was a fun collection – written as though they were class compositions – and I particularly liked the way the response poems related to the original apology poems. My only quibble might be that you could pick it up and be confused about whether they were actually written by kids or by one author…otherwise, a nice idea.

Honeybee was a lovely little collection of poems and prose poems – some hilarious (the raccoon on a leash, the museum story) and some sweet and some moving. I’ve been reluctant to write a review and return it to the library because I’d like to keep dipping back into it. There are so many perfect turns of phrase (turn of phrases?) I loved how the title poem referenced William Carlos Williams:

“You had no idea, did you?
You kept talking about

That wheelbarrow
and chicken…

Out there in the far field
Something has changed but

You don’t know what it is yet
And everything depends

On us”

That “you had no idea, did you?” reminds me of high school English class discussions about “The Red Wheelbarrow” – we certainly tried to put WCW in his place. Nye has done a much better job than we did – while still giving him a nice little nod.

Where oh where have I been?  The thing about an internship, as opposed to online classes, is that it takes me away from the house.  And the computer.  And the ability to procrastinate by blogging.

I just got two new cookbooks, and they’re making me bewail my lack of free time more than ever, because I feel baking-deprived.  I finally used my giftcard and got How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson and the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. I’ve been flipping through both and drooling ever since they arrived in the mail.

I’d heard of Domestic Goddess before but I think I was always put off by the pictures of Nigella Lawson – she doesn’t look like someone I’d want to bake with or eat with. But then Babelbabe (or Babelbake, as I just typoed) recommended it, and I suppose it’s a lesson in not judging a book by the author photo – I adore her tone and the recipes look delicious. My first attempt – and the first recipe in the book – was the Madeira Cake. It’s a simple loaf cake with a hint of lemon and a lovely golden color.  Not too sweet, but a lovely buttery flavor.

She says, “this is baking at its simplest and most elegant. There’s no folderol or fancy footwork: you just feel humble and worthy and brimming with good things.” To which I say, amen. I love to eat baked goods – I could happily live off of them – but it’s just as satisfying, if not more so, to bake. It’s as much about the process and activity as it is about the end result – although Nigella’s right in saying that people are much more impressed by a simple, home-made dessert than a fancy dinner.

And the process is still satisfying even on my most scatterbrained day – I started to add cornstarch instead of baking powder, my lemon wouldn’t zest, there was flour all over my shirt, I almost dumped an egg into the compost instead of the bowl, and my waxed-paper lining smoked like crazy in the oven. Even if the cake had flopped, it was worth it for the sweet, lemony smell of baking filling the house.

The only whole grains I have on hand are whole wheat, cornmeal and amaranth, so I might need to make a trip to Bob’s Red Mill before I try some of the recipes from Whole Grain Baking. I want to make a whole-grain bread, and the cornmeal-blueberry pancakes, and the orange cloud pancakes, and the coconut scones, and and and…I’ve always found my King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion reliable and thorough, so I’m excited to dip into the whole-wheat version. There are a handful of duplicate recipes (like Morning Glory Muffins) but a ton of new ideas and flavor combinations.

Now I just have to pick a recipe for the 4th of July…

July 2008

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