Sunday, February 27, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday plus our first giveaway

Rinkitink in OZ

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday again, my fourth week of this great idea started by Shannon Whitney Messenger. I am back from Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and decided to focus on one of my favorite books from my childhood. For those interested in the giveaway, details are most of the way down this page.

When I was growing up, my whole family was obsessed with the Wizard of Oz books. Aside from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and a couple of the sequels, it was hard to find these books, mostly published between 1900 and 1920, but my parents searched and discovered many of them. Fortunately for kids today, many have been re-released in the past few years, so it much easier to track them down now than it was forty years ago.

After the first few books had made L. Frank Baum rich and famous, he became increasingly desperate to write something other than Oz books, but his fans were relentless. He compromised by writing outside-of-Oz books which dealt with the wonderful lands outside the Deadly Desert, but which were still filled with the wondrous, magical creatures and people that his young fans demanded.

In my opinion, the very best of these non-Oz Oz books was Rinkitink in OZ (click on image above or this name to find out more ordering choices). A delightful story of a young prince who sets out to rescue his parents with only the help of three magic pearls, a very fat visiting king and a quarrelsome goat, this story has stood the test of time wonderfully. The humor, the adventure and the excitement are as lively today as they were in 1916, and the language is surprisingly fresh and easy for modern children to follow. Those few words which are out of date today are easily understood in context, and the pace is faster than some of the OZ books, and thus more palatable for today's youth than some of the others.

Best of all, this is a book practically begging to be read aloud. It would be perfect for either a classroom or for parents who want to share the story with their children. This is a book not to be missed. Please note that my link above is to the hardcover only because it has the cover I knew as a child. The book is in the public domain, and can be had for free or very little on Kindle, or in low-priced mass paperback from Signet and others. And if you and your kids like this, there are many other Oz books as well. (Hint: After L. Frank Baum died, Ruth Plumly Thompson wrote a few Oz books that are equally excellent.)

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was started by Shannon Whitney Messenger. I don't know yet whether she had a chance to post today, but a few others have taken up the task in recent weeks, including Joanne Fritz at My Brain on Books, Shannon O'Donnell at Book Dreaming, Brooke Favero at somewhere in the middle and Myrna Foster at Night Writer. Sherrie Petersen has an awesome MMGM post with an interview and giveaway bonus. If you watch those blogs today, as well as Shannon's blog, you are likely to find other great middle grade book recommendations.

For those who have patiently read all the way down to here, I am giving away two books that I have reviewed for My Comfy Chair.

Tom Sawyer and the Ghosts of Summer    Grey Griffins: The Clockwork Chronicles #1: The Brimstone Key


To enter the giveaway, make sure you are a follower and post a comment letting me know which of the two books you would prefer. For this giveaway, I am going to request only U.S. or Canadian entries, as I don't know the cost of shipping overseas. If your profile doesn't list an email address, let me know how to contact you for a physical address if you win. Winners will be chosen on Friday, so you have until the end of the day Thursday to enter.

My review of Tom Sawyer and the Ghosts of Summer
My review of The Brimstone Key

Review: Wish by Alexandra Bullen

Wish

Wish, published by Point/Scholastic in Jan. 2010
Author: Alexandra Bullen

I happened on this book almost accidentally, as Amazon had it available for free for Kindle as some sort of a promotion. I downloaded it, and promptly forgot it. I found it again while looking through my Kindle for something to read on my way home from Germany.

Olivia and Violet were twins, but very different. Where Olivia was quiet and studious, Violet was rebellious and exciting. This book starts a few months after Violet dies, with Olivia and her parents struggling to cope with her loss.

After they move across country to San Francisco, Olivia has even more trouble coping with her new school. Shy and withdrawn without her sister, she has trouble connecting with the teens in her new school, especially the ultra-cool ones. Her parents are no help. Her mother has thrown herself into her high-powered work, and her father putters about the house doing endless projects, but neither seems able to focus on Olivia.

A chance visit to a small and highly unusual shop leaves Olivia with an opportunity she cannot pass up. She has the chance to make three wishes come true, and there is no doubt in her mind what her first wish will be.

Unfortunately, there are three wishes, and the latter two are much harder. Therein lies the story, and it is a clever use of the classic three-wishes scenario. Should she wish for the handsome and cool Soren to notice her? Should she wish for something for someone else? Olivia learns a lot about herself and life as she tries to make those decisions without causing disaster.

I found the book charming and compelling, and there might have even been a tear in my eye at the end (but I'm an old softie). It isn't perfect. Some situations are resolved too easily, and I wish the author had developed the side characters more, but I would still strongly recommend this book to teens who like romance. (Parental note: there is some teenage drinking, although it is not celebrated, just realistic.)

Four stars out of five.

Find out more about 'Wish' on Amazon.com
Find out more about 'Wish' on Amazon.co.uk

Friday, February 25, 2011

Following 221 of 217 Crusader blogs

Not sure whether the jet lag from my trip to Germany is getting to me or what, but I seem to be following more Crusader blogs than there really are. Too tired to figure it out, but I assume I am following them all (which is what the first challenge required).. G'night.

Review: The Brimstone Key (Grey Griffins - Clockwork Chronicles Book 1)


Grey Griffins: The Clockwork Chronicles #1: The Brimstone Key

The Brimstone Key, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2010
Authors: Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis

As I have mentioned before, there are so many wonderful books for children that I don't bother to review books here that I can't recommend. That said, there are some I recommend enthusiastically, and some that I have more trouble with.

The Brimstone Key is the first book in a new middle-grade, steampunk-inspired series about the Grey Griffins, Max, Harley, Natalia and Ernie, with a bonus almost-Griffin, Brooke. These are no ordinary kids. Even in elementary school, they have faced monsters and werewolves and demons of one sort an another, and each has some extraordinary ability. Now, they are off to middle school at Iron Bridge Academy, a school with more than a passing resemblance to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books.

At school, things go quickly wrong as changelings like Ernie start to disappear. The Griffins are embroiled in something big, bad and dangerous that seems connected to an adventure they had before getting to the school where they first saw a reference to the Clockwork King.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Crusader Challenge explained (spoilers)

If you haven't read it, you should go to First Crusade Challenge - My Life in Code first, or this will just confuse you to pieces. I will break to down to the requirements:

1. The secret is that I know pi to 26 decimal places. I will leave it to you to figure out why I specifically memorized that many.
2. The lie is in the comment (in green) that I will go back and provide documentation in the code once the code works. Programmers often promise it, but virtually never do it.
3. My quirk is in the whole post, in that I really do tend to think in code (and sometimes have vivid dreams in code - nightmares with infinite loops on occasion).
4. My annoying habit is that if asked an opinion, I tend to go on and on.
5. One of my strongest character traits is a willingness to stretch the boundaries.
6. One of my very favorite things in the world is Pie, and another is math, but particularly Pi. Makes March 14 a real celebration in our household (if you don't know what I mean, think about the date).

And just in case I haven't sealed my identity as too geeky for words, I should point out that I added a couple of tricks into the code as well. For example, the test If Trim(filiguline) = slim_waterfowl fails in code, but is true in the reading.

This was a lot of fun, as were many of the challenges, but probably you learn the most about a person by how they approach the challenge, not the words they use.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

First Crusader Challenge - My Life in Code

As part of Rachel Harrie's Writer's Crusade, which I blogged about recently, we are occasionally issued challenges. I have been busy at my conference, but with only one (of three) presentations left to do, I thought I'd stop and give it a go.

The rules call for no more than 300 words in any format (emphasis mine) that include a secret, a lie, a quirk, an annoying habit, my best character trait, and my favorite thing. To make it more challenging, we must include the words bloviate, fuliguline, rabbit, and blade. What follows is my response in 162 words:

One of my strongest character traits is a willingness to stretch the boundaries, so I am going to take the in any format literally, and write my response in code. LotusScript actually.

Review: Tall Story by Candy Gourlay


Tall Story, published by David Fickling Books in May 2010 (in Feb. 2011 in U.S.)
Author: Candy Gourlay

I was intrigued by Tall Story as soon as I heard of it, because while I am not as tall as Bernardo in the story, I am taller than most (6' 6 1/2", or 2m for you metric folks). Additionally, I am very eager to find books that explore diversity and acceptance in various manifestations.

The story is shared between Andi, a 13 yeaar-old girl who lives in London, and Bernardo, her giant 16 year-old half-brother, who lives in the Philippines with his aunt until the government gives him permission to leave. This wait has dragged on for years. Andi and d Bernardo have pretty much given up hope that he will ever come to live with their mother and her new husband in London.

But just when Andi and Bernardo seem to have settled into their respective lives, Andi playing basketball with a passion and Bernardo learning to cope with his new height, things start happening very quickly. Soon, both are disrupted and stranded in new situations that force them to rethink their views of themselves and others.
This parallel storytelling, with chapters alternating between Andi and Bernardo in first person, is both powerful and a little confusing. While each chapter is clearly labeled, it is easy to forget and be perplexed for a half page about whose perspective you are in. On the other hand, this helps to reinforce the sense that the dislocations in Andi's life are as potent and real to her as Bernardo's are to him. Throughout it all, there is a magic realism that pervades Bernardo's old village, but seems to travel with him around the world.

A fascinating story with clear and appealing characters, I would strongly recommend to both boys and girls. A strong sports theme makes this especially interesting for sports-oriented kids, although most others would like it as well.

Four stars out of five.

Buy 'Tall Story' on Amazon.com
Buy 'Tall Story' on Amazon.co.uk


Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins


Anna and the French Kiss


Anna and the French Kiss, published by Dutton/Penguin in Dec. 2010
Author: Stephanie Perkins

I'm not sure where I first heard of Anna and the French Kiss, but everything I have heard has been positive. Actually, positively glowing would be more like it. While I don't review many YA books for My Comfy Chair, my curiosity was piqued, so I picked up a copy.

At its base structural level, this is pretty standard YA romance fare with heartthrobs and heartbreak and misunderstandings. What raises this book so far above its genre is the sheer appeal of its characters, and the believability of their reactions to the people and situations they face.

Anna Oliphant is looking forward to her senior year of high school in Atlanta, but her newly famous father decides to send her to a boarding school in Paris. Rough life, but Anna isn't happy to leave behind her best friend and familiar life. What follows is a blend of humor and melodrama as Anna falls for the gorgeous Étienne St. Clair with his to-die-for English accent and his very steady girlfriend. He even seems to like her back, but throughout the tumultuous, emotional year, they can't seem to get on the same page.

As I said, standard fare, except that Stephanie Perkins has imbued these characters with all of the anguish, but little of the angst, of real teenagers coming of age and sorting through their feelings for parents, friends and love interests. Instead of rolling your eyes as the latest complication keeps Anna and Étienne apart, you find yourself cheering them on.

There is enough sexual tension that very young teens might be uncomfortable, but not enough that parents need worry. After all, what Anna longs for is indicated in the title. You'll have to read the book to see if she gets it.

I heartily recommend this for teenage girls who will love both the exotic Étienne and the city of Paris which provides a backdrop to the story, although not from a tourist point of view, but a teenager in a strange land point of view. I even think teenage boys might be interested, if only to get a glimpse of what the girls around them are really like. Of course, I couldn't blame any parents who picked this up and couldn't put it down again either. I was supposed to save it for a trip, and couldn't stop reading it.

Five Stars!

Buy this book on Amazon.com
Buy this book on Amazon.co.uk

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Swallows and Amazons


Swallows and Amazons (Godine Storyteller)  Swallowdale (Swallows and Amazons)  Peter Duck: A Treasure Hunt in the Caribbees

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday again, my third week of this great idea started by Shannon Whitney Messenger. I almost didn't make it this week, as I am busy presenting at a technical conference (Lotus Notes Development) in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

My pick for this week is a little less obvious, as the Swallows and Amazons books were published back in the 1930s and 1940s, but they are a wonderful and timeless set of books. There is no magic or fantasy, except for the magic of the children's imaginations. In the first book, the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, have a chance to spend a week at the edge of a lake. With a telegram of permission from Father and the full support of Mother, they take a sailboat and spend the week exploring and adventuring. Their sailboat is the Swallow, and thus they are the Swallows, but they soon meet to do battle with Nancy and Peggy Blackett, the Amazons, and their Uncle, whom they refer to as Captain Flint.

Dreamy and full of innocent imagination, these books may be a little slow paced for some middle graders raised on television and video games, but they are excellent for more quiet and reserved children who will see the excitement of real children making their own adventures. A child may need to look up some of the sailing terms, but most make sense in context.

I grew up on these books, available in Canada even while they were difficult to get in the United States, and it is exciting to see them re-released. Buy the first and share it with your child, and if he or she responds, there are twelve more available which all share the same charm and quiet sense of adventure.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was started by Shannon Whitney Messenger, but it looks like she didn't have a chance to post today. A few others have taken up the task this week, including Joanne Fritz at My Brain on Books, Shannon O'Donnell at Book Dreaming, Brooke Favero at somewhere in the middle and Myrna Foster at Night Writer. Why not head on over to check out these great blogs and show a little love for the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday effort?

Buy the first book, Swallows and Amazons, from Amazon.com
Buy the first book, Swallows and Amazons, from Amazon.co.uk

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time to Read


Anna and the French Kiss  Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail  Grey Griffins: The Clockwork Chronicles #1: The Brimstone Key  Mastering XPages: A Step-by-Step Guide to XPages Application Development and the XSP Language
I'm off on a trip for business, and taking with my a varied set of books, displayed above. The first three are for My Comfy Chair review (and pleasure), while the last is for technical review (and napping).

This rare opportunity to actually have time to read is presented because I have a fifteen hour trip ahead of me. I'd better put it to good use. Now, how to choose? Even better, which would you choose? (That way, I can blame it on you.)

Update: I couldn't wait, and read Anna and the French Kiss before I took off. Review soon, but in the meantime, I got another book to take on my trip. More decisions...


Tall Story

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

WIP Before Wednesday - a new Tuesday feature

While most of my writing here on My Comfy Chair is focused on the wonderful, amazing and fabulous books written by other authors, I decided to spend one day a week focusing on my own adventures in writing.

While I wrote stories as a young boy, I didn't really pick up writing again until 2008, when I joined the writing community at Writing.com. I started writing poetry and flash fiction, with occasional longer stories, and for almost two years, I was satisfied with writing within and for that community.

In October 2009, I heard about a private group within Writing.com called Let's Publish!, and decided to take the plunge. It was and is a great group of critique and support partners, focused on getting stories and poems published. With the helpful, and sometimes scathing, advice of that group, I started submitting poems, and then stories.

I admit it. I went wild. I submitted like crazy, and eventually got the hang of finding more prestigious places and places that paid and so forth. One full year of maniacal submissions, rejections and acceptances.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Enchanted Forest Chronicles


The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Dealing with Dragons / Searching for Dragons / Calling on Dragons / Talking to Dragons


It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday again, my second week of this great idea started by Shannon Whitney Messenger. This week, I wanted to suggest a truly wonderful and magical set of books, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia C. Wrede. This set of four books, and you definitely should buy them as a set, is a favorite in my household. All three of my kids, one girl and two boys, have loved the feisty, fearless heroine, Cimerone, who simply refuses to be a proper Princess.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: A True Princess by Diane Zahler

A True Princess

A True Princess published by HarperCollins in Feb. 2011
Author: Diane Zahler

I love a good fairy tale, and have even had a few of my own published over at the wonderful Enchanted Conversation. Because I care so much about classical fairy tales, I always view modern reinterpretations of older fairy tales with a mix of anticipation and nervousness. Still, the anticipation usually wins out, and I was excited to hear about A True Princess.

A review copy arrived from HarperCollins the day before yesterday, and I can honestly say I was entranced. The book looks even better in hand than it does online, what that wonderful read-me-now quality. Fortunately, this charming and exciting book by Diane Zahler lives up to its promise.

In fairy tale fashion, the story starts with 12-year-old Lilia overhearing her cruel stepmother threatening to send her to work for the away, but things change rapidly as Lilia takes matters into her own hands and runs away first. Like many of the best early fantasy stories, Lilia is a strong and independent girl, though not without her weaknesses. Girls of around this age will love her spirit and smarts, and boys will love the scenes with the Elf King and the dreadful Odin.

While the story uses the core of the Princess and the Pea, which makes certain parts a little predictable, there are different stories woven together, and the romantic entanglements are more complex than they appear at first, although all both satisfying and age-appropriate. Who will get the Prince? How will they vanquish the Elf King? Fortunately, the book is not too long, as kids are likely to beg to stay up and keep reading it.

I would recommend this strongly for girls, and for boys who like mythical adventures and fairy tales. It is aimed well at 9-12 year-olds, although I think it would have a lot of appeal for strong readers who are a little younger as well.

Four stars out of five.

Incidentally, Diane Zahler has written one other fairy tale retelling, The Thirteenth Princess, based loosely on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," which I am now eager to read. Hers is a name to watch for the kind of exciting fairy tale fantasy which so excites young readers.

More about A True Princess on Amazon.com
More about A True Princess on Amazon.co.uk

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: Manolito Four-Eyes by Elvira Lindo

Manolito Four-Eyes

Manolito Four-Eyes published by Marshall Cavendish Children's Books Oct. 2010
Author: Elvira Lindo
Translated by: Joanne Moriarty

His name is Manolito García Moreno, but nobody in his neighborhood would know who that was. Everybody calls him Manolito Four-Eyes, because he has worn glasses since he was five years old. His explanation of his first name, Manolito, gives us our first taste of his unique voice and perspective:
I was named Manolito after my dad's truck, and the truck is named after my dad, whose name is Manolo. My dad was named after his dad, and so on back to the beginning of time. In other words, in case Stephen Spielberg wants to know, the first velociraptor was called Manolo, and that's the way it went right on up until today.
Manolito Four-Eyes lives in a part of Madrid called Carabanchel, and his life is filled with adventures and colorful friends and neighbors. His girlfriend, very briefly, is The One-and-Only Susana, and his best friend, Big Ears López, is also his arch-rival for her affections, until she ignores them both.

In Manolito's eyes, everything that happens is dramatic and earth-shaking. He charges through life getting into and out of trouble with reckless abandon. Besides Big Ears, his favorite companion is his grandfather, as they both seek to avoid getting in trouble with Manolito's mother, a fire breathing dragon of a woman, except when she is not. At one point Manolito says of her:
That's how my mom is-not even the Pope is capable of making her change plans. I'd like to see the Pope try to tell my mom to celebrate a birthday or not. My mom is the maximum authority on the planet; even extraterrestrials like Paquito Medina know that.
It is a funny, wild ride through Manolito's life, and kids will enjoy every minute of it. This is one of those books that the reluctant readers, boys or girls, will probably enjoy the most. Even though Manolito Four-Eyes is a crazy little kid in Madrid, kids will identify with his heart, his style, and his irrepressible nature.

My only problem with the book is that while the translator has done a marvelous job capturing Manolito's voice and style, there are times when expressions or descriptions don't the age group. I don't mean that the language is too complex, which is often a good thing, but that there are jarring turns of speech that don't sound like a kid at all. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend this book, especially for rambunctious or reluctant 4th and 5th graders.

Four out of five stars.

Read more about Manolito Four-Eyes on Amazon.com
Read more about Manolito Four-Eyes on Amazon.co.uk

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Writer On a Crusade (as Part of a Quest)

In most of my posts thus far, I have focused on reviewing books for kids. That is what this blog is all about, and I hope that I can share my findings with the kids, parents, librarians and teachers who all share a common goal - finding a good book to curl up with on your comfy chair (or bed or beach or tree house or magic carpet).

But when I am not busy reading and reviewing great books, I have another passion. I won't talk about it as often, but I want to write my own books. I've published lots of stories and poetry, but I am actively working on a middle grade fantasy with trolls and giants and dragons.

Just as lots of cool books send the hero on a quest, I am on a quest to write and publish books for kids to enjoy. When I heard that Rachael Harrie was starting a Writer's Crusade, I decided that a crusade sounded like a great adventure on my quest, so I am joining today. If you want to know about the Second Writer's Platform-Building Crusade, you can read about it here. If you'd rather read about ghosts and magic, skip to my next post about the magical Eva Ibbotson for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.