Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Slow Breath In

It's 9:45 and I'm home from our summer kids' booktalk at the store.

There's a beer in the fridge, Raising Hope's on tv, and it's still light outside. The drive south down I-5 was beautiful: the blue windows of the skyscrapers reflect the strip of leftover sunlight, white headlights head north like satin Christmas ribbons, and the intimacy of talk radio whispers facts about gentrification into my ear. Dennis is asleep, I'm having some chips and salsa, drinking my beer, and am now trying to decide what to read when I go to bed. The wind is just coming up and dispersing today's mugginess. It's warm and the strip of sky in the far north between the clouds and the mountains is a greenish-aqua-yellowy-peach color.

I seldom have time alone, Tuesday nights, and, as mundane as watching the sky darken can be, watching a tv show, watching it by myself is like a little wrapped gift given for no reason, just because. Nothing special going on but not thinking about anyone else for a bit is pretty great.

Birds of Paradise, Diana Abu-Jaber

Sunrise was at 5:14,Sunset will be at 9:11, -33 seconds less daylight.

Cool, gray, lushly green, our strawberry runners are heading out across the driveway in ropes, and I have actual peas, maybe 12 beautiful peas dangling from the plants! There are still a few blossoms in pink and maroon bobbing in a very slight breeze. There are bees popping out of the berry blossoms and everything needs a serious trimming.

I stayed home sick last Thursday and, like many of you out there, I took a stack of books with me, just in case. I have a king-size bed and there's plenty of room for shoving stuff over and not having it interfere with thrashing limbs and heat, blanket tossing and pillow burying- I wake up sometimes and there are books between Dennis and me, they may lay there for quite awhile, if we don't make up the bed, just toss the covers back and forth covering and uncovering them. I love my bed. Anyway, I took Rotters (see the last posting) and a couple of grown-up books with me that I really wanted to read.

I don't usually pick up everyday adult reading material because I am often so disappointed with the stories- they are just too slow or I just don't find anything to connect with or they are just too ego-centric, too "this was my story, you'll relate to it" and, no, sorry, maybe someone will, just not me, so I take kid's books and science fiction with me whenever I just need to be entertained.

I spent the day reading Rotters and then, when I got to the ER for blurry eyesight (I'm fine, no stroke, seems to have been an "ocular migraine") and had the 3 hour wait to go home, I was very happy to have had 2 good sized, grown-up, books to pull out of my bag: Birds of Paradise, by Diana Abu-Jaber, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

I started Birds of Paradise because I am a HUGE fan of Diana's and I am so glad I did. It was SO GOOD! If you are a bookseller, find a galley and read it now! If you aren't a bookseller, call one of us and order it now! or find a bookseller friend and barter to read the galley.

I don't even want to tell you much about it because the details sound so dull: hurricanes, Florida, housing problems....but those are just the points around which the story turns. It's a family in crisis- one of the children has run away desperate to pay penance for the secret she's held for the past years. She's now 18, and the rest of the family seems to have been holding its breath the 5 years she's been gone.

Avis and Brian are still mourning their daughter's leaving and it takes its toll especially on the days Felice calls to make an appointment to meet with her mother. When she doesn't show up, one more time, after Avis has waited for hours, you can feel Avis' deflation and defeat and Brian's anger at how the women in his family treat each other. And, maybe it's time they don't forget that they have another child, a son who has made his own way, owns his own business, and also mourns his sister's disappearance. Such a beautifully written book about how hard it is to be, to stay, a family as things change, how hard it is to know each other and the secrets that shape a life, maybe even especially the lives that share a home.

There are wonderful descriptions of the lushness of the Miami vegetation, the heat, and gorgeous poetic passages about Avis' baking and confections. This book should be accompanied by chocolate croissants and only the very best coffee. (W. W. Norton. Available September 2011. $25.95.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reading Rotters in the Daylight

Sunrise was at 5:12, Sunset was at 9:11, -18 seconds daylight. It doesn't sound like a lot, does it? but it does mean we're already heading into fall and we haven't even had two days in a row of sun and heat yet.

I called in sick on Thursday with a horribly sore throat. I hate calling in sick, but when my throat gets like this I ALWAYS lose my voice and then I get a nasty cough which then keeps my throat even more sore. I took a benadryl to try and dry everything out and slept until almost noon. Then I read.

I had to keep the window above my head closed so I wouldn't breathe in the cold air but it looked like a pretty nice day, a perfect day to lie in bed and read Rotters, written by Daniel Kraus, in natural daylight.

What an amazing book-A lot of talk about maggots and flies, fetid smells and difficult families but such a good read! It's the story of a boy whose mother dies and he has to go live with a father he never knew who lives in a small town with a small-minded bunch of jocks and bullies. His father is known as the garbage man because he smells so bad and it takes a very long time for our hero and his dad to come to any kind of friendship, much less any kind of family feeling.

Joey finds himself the center of a very special club of men, a group whose ranks formed in the ancient worlds of da Vinci and Shakespeare: grave robbers. His father tries to keep him ignorant of the work he does but when things at school reach boiling points, Joey is inducted into his father's very special life. It turns out that his father is actually the golden boy of grave robbers, the epitome of what one would aspire to as far as this form of work goes. He can read a slide of pebbles, the track of root systems, the way a slip of skin slides off a limb in a coffin and he trains Joey to see the way nature effects the dead and the way humans try to stop the process.

Absolutely fascinating look at the world of embalming and ground scenting at funerals. I loved this society of men who rob graves, their fraternity, their mythology and loneliness, the special words and feelings for their tools. I love the relationships they have with each other, the love and fear they have for their work and that it will soon be a world gone as the men die and no one is further admitted into their ranks.

We are starting a list at work of really great books for young men and this one is pretty darned close to the top of it. Although a number of women "of a certain age" have loved Rotters, it's a book that we think is especially good for those boys heading into manhood, ages 15 and older, a coming of age story as Joey wends his way through high school, family and friendship.

It would be a really good book for all those adults who may be not particularly squeamish who are just looking for a good book to read, an interesting story with fascinating characters, a story with love, lust, jealousy, rat kings, loyalty and interesting facts about death and the funeral business. Ages 14 and up. (Delacorte. $16.99. Available now.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cherub: The Recruit

Sunrise was at 5:12, sunset will be at 9:11, 3 seconds less daytime today.

Cool, gray, not raining, yet. It's supposed to get partly sunny and into the 70's later. I'll believe it when I see it. There are blue jays in the trees and a young squirrel (where do the babies nest?) is investigating the maple. I've seen one hummingbird this spring and only a few bees - lots of bumbles, not so many honey.

On my afternoon walk around the block, I go up to the Windermere building at the edge of the Third Place mall's parking lot and look at their plantings. Yesterday, the small, white-flowered bushes were humming with bees, bees that look like honey bees but their lower abdomens were red! I've never seen that before. The smoke bush had teensy explosions of flowers and they were filled with bees darting in and out, bouncing heavily on the tiny florets. I go there for ideas for plants to put in our garden. We are hoping to become an attractive bee spot.

If you are looking for a good series for boys ages 11 and up, try the CHERUB series, by Robert Muchamore. They've reissued them from a mass market format to a trade paper, I think they are a little more attractive now, but the entire series isn't available in this format, yet. You could probably find some used in the other format and it would be worth buying them all at once because your kids will want to keep going after the first.

I read the first one, The Recruit, over the weekend and I really enjoyed it. It's about a smart troublemaker, James, who is recruited into CHERUB, a group of secret agents, highly trained and talented, and all under the age of 17. No one knows about them, but they are sent into dangerous situations because no one ever thinks that children are spying on them. I am really looking forward to reading the next one. (Simon and Schuster. Available now. $7.99)

Oh, I started this book after seeing Super 8 and I LOVED it. I like science fiction movies and the kids in this are amazing actors. Let me know what you thought of it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solstice and Mo Wren

Sunrise was at 5:11, sunset will be at 9:11!

It's Solstice! The day is 15 hours, 59 minutes and 29seconds long, just 31 seconds short of 16 hours. Is there a chance for some warmth? The moon is a little more than half full right outside the kitchen window where I write. So cool to watch it slip down toward the horizon moment by moment - when I started today it was above the power lines, it's now fallen to just above the Pac Med building on Beacon Hill. The buildings in downtown Seattle reflected the sunset last night at 10:15 while I was on my way home. The sky still yellow and orange at that time, the blue windows shimmering, the streets below dark. It smelled like pine needles, bruised citrus, and there was a feeling of expectation in the air.

Mo Wren, Lost and Found, by Tricia Springstubb, will be out in August! I LOVE Mo Wren! the first book was called What Happened on Fox Street and I am so happy Judy put this galley on my desk. It was like finding a truffle all wrapped in foil- something to save until it could be savored.

This little series is very much along the lines of the Penderwicks, the Elizabeth Enright Saturdays books, and the Ramona Quimby books. They are funny, poignant, stories about growing up. There's a gap in books for middle readers, there are tons of good genre books for the elementary school world, lots of fantasy, mystery, but not a lot of really good books about dealing with every day life. The books that are written for that age just don't seem to be especially well-written, or maybe I'm just not reading the right ones. I'm glad that I've discovered Tricia Springstubb and her hero Mo Wren.

Mo and her little family of dad and sister, Dottie, live on a street called Fox Street, a magical place where she has lived for her whole life, the same neighbors, the same friends, the same dream of someday seeing the fox the street was named after. When the economy begins to head south her neighbors start to sell their houses and theirs may be next. Her dad's job is in peril and there's a developer looking to buy out everyone. What will the people of Fox Street do?

These books deal with real problems children have like changing friendships, loss, family strife, the stresses of just not knowing yet how to make decisions about life and growing up. Mo is sturdy, careful, caring, a good daughter and a good friend. Her little sister, Dottie, is a wild child and Mo's responsibility while her dad works.

In the new book, Mo feels she has lost everything and her anchor in the world has come loose. She's never had to make new friends, she doesn't know every corner on her street, she's angry and unhappy and unsure about her place in the world. As Mo begins to get more involved in helping her dad start a new business and she begins to investigate the neighborhood and to let people be friends with her, her heart starts to mend and she learns new ways to handle her anger and fear of change.

Mo and her sister, Dottie, are great characters and these books are perfect for ages 8 and up. (Balzer and Bray. Both books are in hardcover. $15.99.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lev Grossman and Magicians and Kings

Sunrise was at 5:11, sunset will be at 9:10. It was still light at 10 last night. It's cold, wet (again), gray. My peas have overtopped the little cage they were climbing, I have poles to put in but it's been too rainy to get out to do it. Dennis' planted some hops (Sam and Dave) and they are going great guns, so far. Everything is very green and thick and, across the street, there is one warm orange light shining through the trees and vines. It looks very cozy and welcoming. It's a day for searching out neon and warm, wooded rooms-watching from the inside out.

I LOVED Lev Grossman's Magicians when it came out in 2009. Such a clever mix of real world and fantasy: Quentin, an unlikeable hero- so whiny -is a huge fan of a series of books that take place in two worlds, ours and Fillory, and, like the Narnia series, you get in and out of Fillory by going through doorways.

Quentin is certain that world is real and he is so unhappy that he would give anything to be able to live there. When he is tapped for a special school of magic, he is sure this is his way in. He and a number of other young magicians work together to find their ways there, battling monsters, death and each other. Very adventurous, very exciting, it was hard to care a lot about Quentin but the other people who are with him on this quest are funny and brave and caring. My favorite character is Julia, Quentin's friend from high school, pre-Brakebills, who wasn't admitted into the school, and wants obsessively to be part of the world of magic.

The sequel, Magician King, is every bit as good as the first, maybe even better in some respects. Quentin isn't nearly as whiny but he needs to feel more important than he thinks he is. He wants to be a hero, he wants to really be king, he wants a quest. Magician King again takes place in both Fillory and on Earth and Fillory is literally winding down. Quentin's quest is to keep it going.

In MK we get to find out what happened to Julia during the years her friends were at Brakebills. Julia is an amazing character filled with obsession and need and drive to be a magician and her journey to Fillory is a dark and dangerous one.

Make sure that you reread or scan Magicians again before reading Magician King. I found that the details were dim after two years and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it even more had I read it more recently.

If you have an older teen, 16 and older, maybe especially a boy, try these out on them. The humor is right there for that age and the only reason I recommend older readers is that the sex scenes are sometimes graphic and the violence is pretty violent. (I have to say that as unappealing as Quentin is as a main character, it's pretty refreshing to read a book where you don't always want to identify with that character. Although, who among us isn't whiny or feels we aren't getting our due?)

(Viking. Available August 9, 2011. $s6.95.)

These are the bits of color on my front porch. Aren't they pretty?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Notes from the Blender and Stupid Fast on a(nother) cold, wet day

Sunrise was at 5:11, sunset will be at 9:11. Cloudy, wet, and cool. Our blackberries somehow edged up over a tree branch and have blocked out the view of any of the houses across the street. Lots of blossoms, not so easy to reach, though, when they are ready to pick; they're right out over the cliffside.

I got my hair cut last Friday.

Loan, my stylist, said, "Let's just get rid of this, we don't need to work with this much extra", and grabbed the end of my hair in her fist, shut the blades across it and, snick!, it was gone. She had maybe 10 inches of hair in her hand, held like a fish in her fist. Now, I can reach over my shoulder and touch the bottom of my hair! I used to reach around to my belt line and play with the ends, twirling them into little curls. I am missing almost 2 feet of hair.

Those of you who know me know I don't have very many social skills. I have such a hard time talking to people like stylists or people I only know slightly, and, thankfully, they often spend their time telling me about themselves or asking very simple questions about what I do.

As uncomfortable as I am talking to people, I love listening to their stories; I love the connections that are uncovered when stories are shared, the stories that people need to share with others they don't know. But there's something specifically seductive about the bubble of a salon. Is it because you are looking at each other in the mirror, hands on your body, lips close to ears, that things you would never tell an almost stranger come slipping out from between your teeth?

Notes from the Blender and Stupid Fast are two great and funny new books for young adults that would be great reads for boys.

Notes from the Blender is told in two voices, the girl part is by Trish Cook, the boy part by Brendan Halpin, in alternating chapters. Declan is a death metal music fan, loves violent video games, and Neilly Foster. Neilly is beautiful and popular, the child of parents who love her very much, divorced when her dad realized he was gay. And now Declan's dad and Neilly's mom have found each other and fallen in love (and gotten pregnant). This is especially uncomfortable because now Declan will be living in the same house with Neilly, and her underpants, and he is having enough trouble with being an adolescent. Neilly, as secure as she seems to be in her social metier, is still a teenager and worries about her boyfriend, her place in the world, and how the people she knows are going to react to her dad's upcoming marriage.

I found this book to be absolutely charming and hysterically funny. Neilly and Declan don't really know much about each other, just the surface things you know about people you are in school in. As they deal with parents who are acting like teenagers themselves, moving in together, sharing bathrooms, they find out how much they have in common and how deeply you can feel for someone else.

There are the attendant problems that come with two teenagers living together, especially one who has such a huge crush on the other. There may be a little too much penis talk for some but it feels very real to me. One of the lines that Declan has is something like, "This is what adolescence is: I have a boner and I want to cry." True enough.

Stupid Fast, by Geoff Herback was also hysterically funny and absolutely heartbreaking. Felton has grown up over the summer-his voice dropped, he got tall, hairy and stupid fast. All of a sudden, he is on the football team and can run really fast. He finally feels that school can be salvaged because he can run which gives him a little more recognition, not all of which is good. Unfortunately, everything seems to conspire against him: his mother has become horribly depressed, his brother won't get out of his pirate outfit, his best friend's moved out of the country, and he's falling for the girl who's moved into his friend's house. It's a summer of revelations and secrets and revelations of secrets.

Felton is as awkward as a teenaged boy can be. He has outgrown himself in bits and pieces and, just as he becomes accustomed to one thing, something else needs a work-around. He is funny and deeply caring about his family, wants to find a place where he belongs, and, in trying to keep his family together begins to fray at the ages.

Stupid Fast is good. Readers will find themselves cheering for Fenton and his little brother, hoping that things will get better. Readers will also find themselves mired in Fenton's life; how do you make things right and just keep going on? I loved how we also see how Fenton's little brother deals with his anxieties, what happens to Fenton as the main character doesn't just happen to him. And I really appreciate that when things get really awful, the kids realize that they are just kids! They need an adult! These kinds of problems aren't something they have the experience to even begin to solve or work through.

Absolutely wonderful reads for a summer day (I'm sure we'll have one, eventually). A little laughter (on the bus snorting and chortling), some teary moments, some AARRGGHH shaking of the book moments when people do stupid things- No sentimentality in these books. Just a good story, well-told.

Notes from the Blender: Age 14 (for the sexual talk). Egmont. Hardcover, $16.99.
Stupid Fast: Age 12 and up. Sourcebooks. Paperback, $9.99.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Libba Bray Rocks!

Sunrise was at 5:13, sunset will be at 9:04.

Stormy, trees bouncing, rainy, gray. Kind of cool to have autumn weather with summer foliage.

Libba Bray really does just rock! I spent my morning on the stationary bike, just cycling and reading Beauty Queens for almost two hours. Libba Bray as workout guru!

Beauty Queens is very much a Lord of the Flies meets Miss America mash-up and every girl should rush out and buy one. That's pretty much it, the entire story in a nutshell. It's funny, with a great dose of serious and it's pulled off as only Libba can do. A full-on strip down of the media and advertising, and how manipulated we are by it.

A plane load of beauty queen wannabees crash land on a deserted island and have to use every bit of their courage and wiles to survive, forging new friendships, learning how physics works, using their gowns for water filtration units, completely unaware of the machinations back home of the Queen of Beauty Queens and her plot to take over the world. The island is filled with hidden soldiers who are working with TQOBQs on a new weapon using a female mustache remover. Danger comes ever closer when a ship of Bodacious Pirates is shipwrecked on the island, threatening not only to drive the girls apart, but to use them to fill their own dreams of stardom and fame and lust.

And the added feature, two for the price of one, hurry now and we'll send you the glitter filled Lost Ponies, of the book? It is filled with footnotes, I love footnotes. Value added, indeed.*

Beauty Queens does do a righteous job of telling a really fun story while exposing the nasty side of advertising, media, and gender politics. Kind of a velvet glove. Blue velvet, with spangles. Ages 13 and up. Scholastic. Available now. $18.99.

*See also Jonathan Stroud's Amulet of Samarkand series and John Green's An Abundance of Katherines for more great books with clever footnoting.

U2 on a warm Saturday afternoon

Walking north on first toward Elysian Fields for a beer, Saturday afternoon. Past Safeco where the ball game is in session and is being broadcast out onto the street, across a street that leads toward Qwest field, and suddenly the air is filled with U2's Adam Clayton's deep bass notes. The sound falls to us and thumps in our bellies and I can't help but breathe deeper and stand perfectly still for just a minute. My mood lightens and all I want to do is follow the noise, it beckons me, fishhooks in my brain.

We sat in the bar and had a beer. Outside is the parking lot for Qwest, filled with people waiting to head in for the concert. While we're sitting inside, the bar music is actually playing a U2 song while U2 is warming up with a different song, muddy and warped by the stadium and the walls, but it's U2 and any U2 is good U2. Oh, how I wish I'd thought to get tickets, but there is something really cool about just having been in that place at that time hearing what we heard.

Had The Unwanteds, by Lisa McCann, in my bag, put it on the counter next to my beer (Prometheus IPA, by the way) and did not even open it up. I just sat there, all jumpy and breathy inside my self, silently squealing and squeezing all my muscles tight. Wanting to get up and do big things, the music makes me want to walk with great long strides, swinging my arms, taking up a lot of space as I go.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A visit with Gary Schmidt

We had the best time with Gary Schmidt on May 15 and 16. He and his family came to the store on Sunday evening and he talked about his writing process and his new book, Okay for Now.

If you don't know, Gary is the author of the award-winning books The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and a clutch of other equally wonderful books that you should either buy from us or borrow from your library, school or other. There's a good summer reading list for you! (This photo is of Gary and Judy, our children's book buyer, in The Den.)

Gary completely charmed (and horrified) us all with his descriptions of how and where he writes, and then reading from his book.

He writes in a little shed out back of his house- it has a wood stove, a desk, windows, a typewriter (one that uses paper and RIBBON!), and a dog "for ambience". He types and, when he is unhappy with what he's written, he unrolls it out of the typewriter and then tosses it into the stove. You should have heard the gasps that flew out of the mouths of the audience! People were appalled! Worried! He said something along the lines of: "That's right! There are no copies, no hidden texts, no backups, no bad writing out there to be dredged out of a computer and put out into the world". In our day, everything is photographed and staged, held onto "just in case", parsed and reformed...it is so naughty to think that he just uses his unhappy work as fuel!

He read a piece out of Okay for Now that had most of us angry, furious, with people who take advantage of children, especially those people who are supposed to most love and care for them the most. Okay for Now is an amazing book about a boy dealing with a mostly awful life, a life that could tip one way into despair and growing up into an abusive parent, too, or with the lucky intervention of caring adults and friends, a man who knows how to do what's right.

I got to drive him (!), and his family, to his hotel after the event and it was a joy to hear him talk with and to his kids.

We went to schools the next day and he had the students absolutely riveted with the stories he told. Each ended with a question that pretty much ensured that you wanted to learn more. That point is where stories come from. The photo with the boy in the blue shirt (a library aide for Voyageur Middle School) isn't a good one for showing just exactly how riveted those kids were to his every word.

We sold some books at the schools, not a huge money maker, but the experience the kids had with the author of the books they love, was worth every bit of the time we spent there.

I think we still signed copies of Okay for Now. $16.99.