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Given my deep and abiding love for M.T. Anderson’s writing, it’s no surprise that his contribution to SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books is my favorite so far.  In his round, he was forced to choose between Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and EmmaThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Jacqueline Kelly’s .  For the record, I called the match accurately on my bracket, going with my head over my heart.  Whee!  But that takes a back seat to watching a master at work discussing these two fabulous books.  If you’re not already following the Battle of the Books, it’s not too late!  Tuesday is the last match of Round 2, with Round 3 and the Big Kahuna Round left (plus the winner of the undead poll!  My choice is still in the running, but nothing is guaranteed.)

Things that I particularly enjoyed about Anderson’s commentary:

  • Darwin vs. Darwin, or as he puts it: “I’m forced to compare apples to apples: two books about scientific investigation, Darwinism, and large families, both with yellow foolscap covers ornamented with Victorian silhouettes.”  Two books that are, “if not the same species, then at least, er, a case of convergent evolution resulting in paired traits appearing in separate clades.”  What he said.
  • The idea of an Octavian Nothing-shaped topiary.  There should be a whole children’s literature-inspired topiary garden somewhere in the world.
  • He nails what I loved about Calpurnia (as well as what’s potentially problematic – the episodic nature and lack of tension).  I’d forgotten the line about “pitching woo,” a phrase I always associate with Anne (of Green Gables, of course) being outraged at the idea of “pitching and mooning.”
  • The spoiler warnings.  “*** SPOILER *** Charles Darwin died *** END SPOILER AND BOY ARE YOU SORRY YOU MISSED IT ***”
  • His comments on the Darwins’ many children: “After eight pregnancies, I lost track, and started to develop a wearying sense that no sooner did Emma D. stumble out of the borning-room, a new babe delivered into its swaddling clothes, than her husband was lurking in the corridor, crooking a come-hither finger and whispering about the origin of the species.”  Like all great writers, Anderson does that thing of putting into words exactly what you were feeling, but much more articulately.  See, I feel inarticulate just trying to compose that sentence.

Oh, just go read the thing already.  And while you’re at it, don’t miss my other favorite “can’t wait to check in on it every day” event – Fuse #8’s Top 100 Children’s Novels Poll, which is down to #11.

It’s an overcast, chilly morning that just begs for coffee.  And I never thought this would come to pass, but I’m drinking my coffee black.  Yeah, that’s right – no cream (Lent), no fake cream (yuck), no generous helping of sugar to try to make me forget that there’s no cream.  Just a cup of French press.  What next?  What is the world coming to?

I’ve been on a little marathon lately – in between baking squash and roasting beets and concocting the heaven that is pistachio butter and eating avocados like you wouldn’t believe, which I’ll tell you about later.  My marathon has not been exercise (ha) but rereading Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia) in preparation for getting my hands on the new book, A Conspiracy of Kings (released today).

If you’re familiar with these books, you know why I wanted to have just reread them.  If you’re not familiar with them, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?  First of all, they take place in a world of complex political negotiations, tangled personal histories, and complex, real characters (if you met Eugenides on the street (heaven help you) you’d know it was him).  So it’s good to have all that history fresh in your mind – if I hadn’t reread the books, I know I’d be reading the new one and thinking, “wait, what exactly did Gen get that character to do?”  “How was X involved in Y?”  “Who is Z again?”  You get the picture.  Fresh in my memory = greater enjoyment, because I’m awful at remembering plot points.

Second, and just as important, is the fact that I love spending time with these characters.  Sure, it can be difficult and painful, but it’s oh so rewarding.  A new book is just a big excuse to reread one of my favorite series.  Although series is a slightly misleading term for these books.  Each one as a unique flavor, a slightly different point of view.  They aren’t formulaic and they aren’t predictable, and while plot is key in each story, and the setting is handled magnificently, the characters really do grow and change between books and within each book.  I’d forgotten, for example, how Eugenides is basically a kid in the first book, and he starts out the second book like a headstrong teenager, and by the end of The Queen he’s really done a lot of maturing.  I think he finally turns into an adult in the third book.

I initially read the series in a big rush, devouring each book as I got my hands on it.  I reread The King for a class – to practice writing a book review (I was totally going to say book report at first) – and then of course that made me reread the rest of the series.  This time I read them through in order.  As with all rereading, you bring something different to each reading, and as with all good books, the book offers something fresh to readers who are willing to come back again and again.  As I wrote last time,

These are books that bear rereading.  I found myself flipping pages back thinking “she foreshadowed this, didn’t she?” or “wasn’t that an odd comment?  Will it matter…OH.”  Lots of light-bulb moments.  Lots of clever foreshadowing and hints about what the characters aren’t telling you.  In fact, that might be my favorite aspect of the series.  How much the characters keep hidden.  With clues, of course, for the reader.

“‘We might someday attain a relationship of mutual respect,’ [the magus] said softly. First, I thought, I will see gods walking the earth.”

I still get a little chill reading that.

The post title is a quote from The King, and it was a toss-up between that and “I love stupid plans” from The Queen:

“‘This is the stupidest plan I have ever in my career participated in,’ Xenophon said.
‘I love stupid plans,’ said Eugenides.”

Or “What kind of man refers to himself as safely dead?”

And I’ll shut up now if you’ll just go read the books.

Avocado Salad with Ginger and Peanuts

1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoon minced or grated peeled fresh ginger
sprigs of cilantro
2 medium or large avocados, pitted, peeled, and sliced
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts
Watercress, mâche, or other greens
(I might also add some jicama or sliced mango)

Put the vinegar, sugar, a pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the ginger and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, as the dressing bubbles gently and thickens, about 5 minutes. When it gets noticeably syrupy, remove from heat, cool, cover tightly or put in a jar and refrigerate until very cold, at least an hour or so.

To serve, put the greens on a small platter, arrange the avocado on top, and drizzle with dressing. Garnish with chopped cilantro and peanuts.


Beets with Pistachio Butter

4 large or 8 medium beets (about 1.5 pounds), trimmed
1/2 cup neutral oil like grapeseed or corn,
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 cup shelled pistachios
salt and freshly ground black pepper
chopped pistachios for garnish

Bake the beets in foil (over at 400F, wash them, wrap them individually in foil, put on cookie sheet, roast for 45 to 90 minutes, until tender). Meanwhile, put half the oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic and cook for about a minute, then add the pistachios; cook, stirring often for about 3 minutes.

Remove from heat, let cool a bit, and transfer to food processor. Purée until smooth, adding more oil as necessary. The consistency should be thinner than that of peanut butter, just pourable. Taste and adjust seasoning (this can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Slip the skins of the beets and cut them into large chunks. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put in a serving dish and spoon the pistachio butter over the top; garnish with chopped pistachios. Serve hot or at room temperature.

The Callender Papers The Callender Papers by Cynthia Voigt

I was a big Cynthia Voigt fan as a kid – but not her realistic fiction. Homecoming depressed me, although I think I worked my way through the whole thing. I much preferred stories with some mystery or fantasy to them, so The Callender Papers really worked for me then (as did Jackaroo: A Novel of the Kingdom, which I’ve yet to reread). Coming back to it as an adult, I know exactly why I enjoyed it then, but the mystery elements don’t work quite as well because the ending felt obvious.

But here’s why I liked it then: the historical setting adds atmosphere to the story, without being a huge part of the story. There’s a bit of a mystery that involves going through old papers and trying to figure out what really happened a generation back. It features an orphan. There’s some suspense and a sense of danger, but of course a happy ending. Now I’ve got to find time to reread Jackaroo…

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Song for a Dark Queen (Knight Books) Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary Sutcliff

I associate Rosemary Sutcliff with historical fiction that isn’t afraid to be dark and realistically intense – this isn’t historical fiction that necessarily makes you wish you lived long ago, but you end up feeling like you got an honest picture of the time. The characters never feel modern, the endings aren’t necessarily happy, but you feel like you met the real Boudicca.

Told primarily from the point of view of Boudicca’s harpist, the story follows the queen from her childhood. I don’t know what kind of research Sutcliff did, or what her background is, but all the details of her way of life add up to a believable picture of early Britain. Interspersed are letters from a Roman soldier to his mother in Gaul, giving some bigger picture information and providing a fascinating contrast in viewpoints. We understand Boudicca’s reasoning through her harpist, and we see how the Romans viewed this local uprising through the solider’s letters.

A captivating story, but ultimately it was (understandably) difficult to feel much connection to the characters. What can I say, I’m a character-driven reader.

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An embarassing length of time ago, I assigned Smitten Kitchen’s Chewy Granola Bars for a Long Distance Kitchen recipe.  I am finally telling you about them.

I chose the recipe because I wanted a break from toast-with-almond-butter for breakfast.  Delicious as that is, variety is even better.  I was both pleased and disappointed with the results.  Here’s what happened.

You start off by putting your dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls.  For the dry ingredients, you use a lot of oats and then 2-3 cups of whatever combination of fruit and nuts you prefer.  I used pecans, walnuts, unsweetened coconut, dried cherries, and sunflower seeds, although I don’t remember the exact proportions.

I loosely chopped the nuts and cherries in the food processor, although they ended up a little uneven and I might just do it by hand next time.  Then you mix in those liquid ingredients (I used canola oil instead of the butter, but coconut oil would’ve been better if I’d had some around) and add some almond or peanut butter if you like (I used almond).  Then you press the mixture into a pan and bake.

Look, it’s like a little advertisement for my honey suppliers!

Here’s where I may have had some issues.  I doubt myself.  Did I mix things thoroughly enough?  Did I press them firmly into the pan, or did I press half-heartedly?  Should I have let them bake even longer?

Why do I doubt myself?  Because delicious as they were, my granola bars weren’t so much bars as just…granola.

I let them cool completely before I cut into them, but still!  Still the crumbling!  I suppose, now that I reread the recipe, I could’ve tried sticking them in the fridge for a while.  They were tasty, but in no way portable or bar-shaped.  They were also sweeter than I expected, and I think next time I would cut back on the sugar even more than suggested.  Or maybe use a different fruit, or less of it.  Dried apples might be nice.  I’m determined to try again and make this work.  I need a breakfast that I can wrap up in a napkin and take to work if I’m running late, and crumbles just don’t cut it.

Gosh, now I’m ready to try another batch!  Check out Bronwen’s (much neater, less crumbly) version, too.  Hmm, maybe my wet/dry ingredient ratio was off…?  I won’t rest until I find out!  Okay, that’s a lie.

Whom the Gods Love (Julian Kestrel Mysteries, #3) Whom the Gods Love by Kate Ross

The only thing I didn’t like about this third installment in the Julian Kestrel series? Knowing that there’s only ever going to be one more. Authors should never be allowed to die young.

The plot definitely stands alone in each book, but why not read them in order? Start with Cut to the Quick. Julian is something of a mysterious character, and I was relieved to see that Ross includes a few more judicious details about his family and background in this book. I was starting to be afraid that she wouldn’t have gotten around to it in any of the published books. There isn’t as much of Dipper – or his sister – in this book, and I especially wondered what his sister had gotten up to since the last book.

The mystery is nicely complex and satisfying, with a few things that you can figure out along the way and a few more that come as a surprise – just the way I like it. There’s an authentic historical feel, and the whole series is more smart than sensational.

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Sometimes people ask what I did at work today, or what my job involves, or questions along those lines, and some days I end up doing so many different things that it’s hard to remember.  So I thought I’d try to reconstruct my day while it’s fresh in my mind.

  • Arrive at work at 8:30.  Help check in stuff from the bookdrop, get the newspapers from outside, put them out, put away yesterday’s papers.
  • Head downstairs to the children’s department.  Drink coffee.  Make sure all the displays are full – new books, young teen, holiday (St. Patrick’s Day and Easter), graphic novels, picture books (duck and rabbit books to go with the Amy Krouse Rosenthal Duck! Rabbit! wall display).  Check to see the results of today’s round of the Battle of the Kids’ Books, then congratulate self on being two for two on my brackets!  Discuss preschool storytime craft with the coworker doing the morning storytime.  Turn on public computers.
  • Start unpacking the unusually large number of boxes that arrived this morning.  Check against packing lists, put each order on the right person’s shelf.  A few standing orders, a straggler from my February order, a big non-fiction order, some DVDs, and most of my March order – whee!  Check to make sure they all have bib records in the catalog.  Send the ones that don’t to our network office.  Start deciding where to put the ones I ordered – j fiction, scifi/fantasy, mystery, young teen, or graphic novels.
  • 10:00 am – library opens.  Sit at the main desk so I can answer questions while still working on my piles.A few people start trickling in for storytime.  Keep working on the unpacking.  Preschool storytime starts at 10:30.  Put all the extra stools around the craft tables.  Count the number of people at storytime, put out craft supplies.  Stand around looking helpful.  Answer questions about spring break programs.  Keep working on the order that arrived.
  • 12-1:00 – lunch.  Devour The Queen of Attolia along with my food.
  • 1-2:00 – cover adult reference desk so the reference librarian can go to lunch.  Tell people how to get on the internet stations, how to use the internet stations, to please turn down the sound on their headphones because other people can hear it.  Put a few things on hold for people.  Try to find the new Value Line (fail).  Read my work email.
  • Go back to the children’s department.  Sit at the back desk  and double-check the processing that’s been done – right labels, linked to the correct bib record, etc.  Leave out to be covered by aides or volunteers.  Finish up the last of the morning’s new arrivals.  Admire next week’s craft brought in by one of the other librarians.  Discuss upcoming Head Start visits.  Answer a question about How to Train Your Dragon (they had the title messed up).
  • Get ready for bookgroup, which meets at 4:15.  Pencils, paper, lottery drawing for copies of next month’s book, snacks, cups and napkins, table from the storage room, chairs, white board and markers for tallying votes, ballots and bookmarks for the Young Reader’s Choice Award in case any of the kids read enough titles to vote.
  • Bookgroup meets to discuss Code Orange by Caroline Cooney – most late, as usual.  Two finished the book, one more started it, two didn’t read it, and one is new.  Eat cookies and popcorn.  Discuss.  I booktalk three titles for next month – Half-Moon Investigations, Fever 1793, and The True Meaning of Smekday.  The kids get to suggest a few more – they suggest Pendragon, Mister Monday, and Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul.  They vote on slips of paper – #1 gets 3 points, #2 gets 2 points, and #3 gets 1 point.  They take turns tallying the results as I read them aloud.  Thanks to a huge amount of enthusiasm from the one boy who’d already read Smekday (and perhaps the 10 Reasons to Read The True Meaning of Smekday), it won by a relative landslide.  I distribute copies and most of the kids immediately bury their heads in the book.  I rejoice.
  • Clean up, vacuum popcorn from the carpet, check in the extra copies of my other suggestions, put away the table and chairs.  Gather belongings, head home by 5:40.  A pretty tame day, although time tends to fly when there are programs.

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker

Fascinating for anyone interested in colonial history, forensics or archaeology. Plenty of photos, clear explanations, and the whole thing comes together into more of a story than I expected, as the scientists use various clues to piece together information about the bodies they uncover. It was one of those books where I had to keep reading tidbits aloud. Middle school and up.

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The Book of Three (Chronicles of Prydain, #1) The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

It’s always a gamble, rereading childhood favorites. You hope that at least you won’t be disappointed, that at least you’ll recognize why it meant something to you. You tell yourself that it’s okay, some books just appeal more to kids than adults. You cross your fingers and hope that like A Wrinkle in Time or The Giver or Mary Poppins, it exceeds all those expectations and ends up being that rare book that was great as a kid, but is amazing as an adult.

Thanks, Lloyd Alexander. It all came back to me when I listened to the audiobook – Taran’s foolish but earnest personality, Gurgi’s crunchings and munchings, the landscape, the threat of real evil, Fflewddur’s harp strings, Hen Wen running off – and let’s not forget Eilonwy. Fantastically sharp Eilonwy! Did I find her a kindred spirit already or did I try so hard to be like her? I came to the end of the book – always hard to gauge on an audiobook – and I immediately knew it was about to end because I remembered that final barb. Taran stammers along about something “But – I didn’t think -” and Eilonwy replies, “You usually don’t.” Whether she rubbed off on me or not, it turns out I have an abiding affection for that sharp tongue.

Alexander succeeds at so many things, but one more I have to point out – he wrote a kind of fantasy that I haven’t seen recently. It’s fairly high fantasy, with the quests and the evil lords and the magic, but it’s so perfectly suited to a young audience. It’s a series, yes, but the kind of series where the main action wraps up at the end of each book. It’s got adventure and excitement and might be the teensiest bit scary to a very young reader, but it’s short and fresh and approachable and fun all at the same time. It would be, I think, a great fantasy series to cut your teeth on. Or to reread and appreciate as an adult. I’m so looking forward to spending four more books with these characters.

And a word about the audio version – splendid.  Okay, a few more words – this would make a great listen as a family, it’s clear but enthusiastic, and I finally am able to remember the correct pronunciations of all those tricky Welsh names.

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I’m so behind, as usual, on writing up the books I’ve finished. I like having a reference for what I originally thought about a book, but so many details and impressions fade after a week or two has gone by. Oh well. Better late than nothing.
The Uninvited The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones

A suspenseful story, driven by intriguing characters and a well-drawn setting. I was completely absorbed while I read it, partly by the style and partly by trying to figure out where the story was going. This should have a lot of cross-over appeal for adults, and it’s one of those rare young adult novels about college students who are grappling with real issues.

Definitely recommended.

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The Monstrumologist The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

Horror is NOT my thing, but Victorian novels are. And since this is basically a horror story wrapped in Victorian clothing, I was able to stomach the gore and relish the story within a story, the old-fashioned language, and the narrator looking back on his childhood as the assistant to a monstrumologist. Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!

Most of the ick is confined to a few scenes, but it’s often key to the plot. And it’s not supernatural horror – it’s monsters of legend devouring people in very messy ways horror. But oh, I got such a kick out of all the Victorian novel trappings that it made the blood and maggots worthwhile.

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Love is the Higher Law Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Following the lives of three young adults, beginning on September 11, the book is hard to put down. It’s fairly short but packs a punch, and I kept prolonging lunch breaks to read just another page or two. It doesn’t really try to be anything other than a September 11 novel – even the romance takes a back seat to the characters sorting through their feelings about that day – but it succeeds admirably well.

It’s emotional and occasionally wrenching without ever feeling maudlin, and I just realized that even though the teens’ stories are incredibly personal, none of them loses a friend or relative in the attacks. This doesn’t make the story any less emotional, but allows it to focus on loss in a different way than through death. Hmm. Thoughtful and gripping, even though the characters do sometimes talk more like, well, book characters than real teens.

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As part of our on-going recipe exchange, Long Distance Kitchen, Bronwen assigned us Summer Rolls with Peanut Sauce, with a recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  I’d never tried anything like this before, so it was a fun project.

I enlisted some help with chopping and grating and so forth – carrots, cucumber, mint, basil, butter lettuce, green onions.  In the meantime, I prepped a peanut sauce – garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, and turmeric got whizzed together in the food processor (leaving it, after several washes and uses, still yellow).

This was added to some hot oil in a saucepan and cooked for a minute, and then coconut milk, brown sugar, peanut butter, soy sauce and lime juice were added, and the whole thing cooked for a while longer.  It separated a bit, maybe because I was trying to keep it warm until everything else was ready.  The leftovers separated completely in the fridge, but when I reheated it for round two, it came back together in perfect creaminess.

When all the pieces were ready – veggies prepped, sauce warmed, rice noodles softened, it was time to bathe the wrappers in hot tap water.  The recipe called for rice paper, but I found tapioca ones and didn’t feel like making an extra trip to try to find rice paper.  Basically you just soften them in hot tap water for 10 seconds, lay them on a towel one at a time, and layer in your fillings.  The recipe suggested a bunch of other fillings, too, that I either couldn’t find or didn’t care about – cilantro, tofu, etc.  Every time I was ready to wrap up a roll, burrito style, I had this nagging feeling that I was forgetting something.  I’d look over the table – lettuce, check; carrot, check; herbs & onion, check; cucumber, check.  Then I’d think, huh, guess I got everything.  It wasn’t until we’d started eating that I remembered the rice noodles sitting by the sink.  Note to self: trust instincts.  They were still tasty, just less filling and more salady.  The peanut sauce was delicious.

Since I had leftover veggies and peanut sauce – plus all those noodles – we had the same dinner again later in the week.  This time, nothing got left out, plus the whole thing was more photogenic, what with our improved wrapping skills and the creamier peanut sauce.  Yum!  I’ll definitely be pulling out this recipe again – as the name suggests, it would be a perfect light meal/appetizer for a hot summer night.

March 2010

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