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thecontenders_rev-300x285I’m a bit behind this year on BoB contenders, but of the 13 I’ve read so far (everything except A Volcano Beneath the Snow, This One Summer, Egg & Spoon), here are the ones I’d love to see as the winner–or at least a top 3/Undead winner.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Children of the King, El Deafo: I’m always keen to see middle grade books triumph, and these three are incredible. Besides, we haven’t had a MG winner since Okay for Now in 2012.

The Family Romanov, Port Chicago 50: we need more nonfiction winners (the last one was Marching for Freedom in 2010), and both are highly worthy.

Story of Owen: my favorite, by far, of the YA contenders. Why? Because it’s a TRAP!

Review: The Port Chicago 50

PortChicago50While two titles do not qualify as a trend, I’d say Sheinkin has a knack for bringing under-the-radar stories from WWII to life and light. After his scientists-and-spies thriller depicting the race to build or steal the world’s first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin revisits the wartime Forties in The Port Chicago 50, about the Port Chicago explosion (also bomb-related!) and the remarkable fallout that forced the US Navy to confront the systemic racism within its ranks.

To tell the story from the perspectives of the Port Chicago 50, a group of black sailors who boycotted their unsafe and segregated work conditions, Sheinkin trawled through court documents and scores of interviews to stitch together this uniquely personal account.

“We had expectations to go to sea on a big Navy ship,” recalled Spencer Sikes, still a teenager when he enlisted. Instead, to keep the Navy segregated, black sailors ended up at Port Chicago in California, where the officers giving orders were white and the crews handling the bombs were black. Worse, the men were expected to load explosives onto Pacific-bound ships without any prior training; the officers made a game out of betting on which crews could load the fastest. The pressure was so bad, Sikes was convinced he’d perish on the pier and never see his mother again. Continue Reading »

Sequels: they’re everywhere. It seems like half my reading life is consumed by the reading, or consideration of reading, a book that’s part of a series. Sometimes the decision is easy, as I impatiently waited for The Whispering Skull in the wake of The Screaming Staircase. At other times, I didn’t think a sequel was necessary, but I was glad for the chance to plunge back into a familiar world (The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing).

Then there’s my vague confusion when I’m confronted with a sequel whose prequel is just a distant memory, and I’m torn between reading the sequel and hoping the author reminds me of everything I need to know, or giving up altogether and succumbing to reader’s guilt. Case in point: I enjoyed How to Catch a Bogle, but I honestly can’t recall single character’s name at this point. So do I read the newly-released A Plague of Bogles? Or do I use the time for other books, which, given the proliferation of multi-volume series, will probably open the door to another book whose sequel will come out in another year, thereby setting off the conundrum anew.

Surely I can’t be the only one with this problem? To help ease my indecision, I’ve created a flowchart: may it assuage your sequel confusion and free you from the guilt of giving up on certain books.

sequel flowchart

Click to zoom in.

 

The Wolf and Little Red.

The Wolf and Little Red.

Into the woods and down the dell/
The path is straight, I know it well/
Into the woods and who can tell/
What’s waiting on the journey?

These lyrics from Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, summed up my attitude towards the film version of my childhood favorite musical. I grew up watching the original on a worn VHS tape. It was one of my first introductions to musical theater.

For those unfamiliar with its premise, Into the Woods is a fairytale mash-up about a childless Baker and his Wife, their quest to reverse the Witch’s curse that keeps them barren, and their consequent encounters with beanstalk-climbing Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, who’ve also gone into the woods to obtain their wishes. If the first half of the musical is about wish fulfillment, then the second act warns that happy endings come at a price. The musical is structured so that Act II mirrors and foils Act I. Even the opening and closing numbers of each act–and a delightful duet and its reprise–serve as counterbalances for one another.

A solid musical with a funny book and a fantastic score, it’s hard to mess up Into the Woods. I’m partial to the original Broadway cast myself, but I’ve seen amateur productions still entertain. That said, I was curious what kind of movie magic director Rob Marshall would bring to Into the Woods on film. From uncomfortably close close-ups (à la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables) to innovative camera angles to flashbacks, montages, special effects, and who knows what else, there’s a lot of cinematic tricks to play with.

To Marshall’s credit, some of his ideas worked splendidly, like the clever editing during Jack’s big song, Giants in the Sky, which helped to reenact his sky-bound adventures. And the juxtaposition of a banished Rapunzel singing herself to sleep while camped out in a swamp crawling with venomous snakes was a hilarious visual gag. Also, a nice touch: playing a snippet from another Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music, as the background music at the festival. Less successful were Cinderella’s creepy CGI’ed birds; the vertigo-inducing tracking shots during the Witch’s song, Stay With Me, which took attention away from an emoting Meryl Streep; the decision to show the Giant on screen; and the literal interpretation of the song, I Know Things Now, which depicted Little Red being digested by the Wolf in what looked like an esophagus from the Twilight Zone. Continue Reading »

wild thingsReading Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature was the perfect way to cap off 2014. Written by children’s book bloggers Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta (who passed away shortly before the book was published), it offers an insider’s look at the kidlit world in all its absurdity: scandals! book-banning! in-fighting! In short, it’s about how the adults behind the children’s book industry behave like adults, instead of the angelic, bunny-loving writers that many grown-ups imagine them to be.

“With this book we hope to dispel the romanticized image of children’s literature, held by much of the public, of children’s authors writing dainty, instructive stories with a quill pen in hand and woodland creatures curled up at their feet,” says the Wild Things! authors in chapter one.

Having set the ground rules, Bird et al plunge into the juicy anecdotes: the author who killed her mother with cutlery; the bawdy, sexist book written by the Berenstain Bear series authors; Roald Dahl’s years as a British spy–which involved seducing a congresswoman to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Not all the stories are meant to shock. Some, like the backstory of how Jerry Spinelli got his start in writing, are awkwardly hilarious. Others show missed opportunities–like how an editor’s mistake deprived the world of a Maurice Sendak-illustrated version of J.R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In its best moments, reading Wild Things! is like listening to a master storyteller spin tales about storytelling giants. Continue Reading »

Happy Christmas from us to you!

tardis cookies

The cookies came out a bit wonkey. It’s been a rough season on Doctor Who.

Hope you’re having a lovely holiday season! We made cookies in anticipation for Christmas, but not long after they came out of the oven, the Daleks attacked and left no survivors! The poor Tardises didn’t stand a chance.

tardis cookie cutter

Tardis cookie cutter 1.0

We’ll have to make more cookies, preferably after our 3D printed cookie mold is upgraded to increase the definition between ridges and grooves. In the meantime, you can watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special (but no spoilers, please!) and check out BBC radio 4’s radio drama of A Christmas Carol while it lasts. Cheers!

NBC’s Peter Pan Live was certainly filmed live, but whether there was any spark of life to it is debatable. Critics were hoping the production would be one big hate-watch snarkfest in the tradition of last year’s The Sound of Music Live!, and but while NBC’s Peter had its issues, the show wasn’t substantial enough to evoke such strong opinions as much as a general sense of confusion. To borrow a line from the Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods–whose film trailer during the commercial break might have been the high point of the evening for me–what. was. that?

All the actors were perfectly acceptable in their roles, nothing Broadway level (expect, perhaps, Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling; sorry Christian Borle, even though you were amazing as Black ‘Stache in parallel Peter Pan universe), but also nothing to mean-tweet about. Even Christopher Walken, who Christopher Walken-ed his way through every song, dance, and line reading of the three hour broadcast. But when the standouts are Mrs. Darling, Nana the dog, and a creepily psychedelic turquoise man in a crocodile suit, what more is there to say?

Well, we could talk about the generally confusing production, both the source material (which I’d just read recently) and the director’s vision for it. The enduring popularity of J.M. Barrie’s original still baffles me, and I’m not sure why it enchanted audiences in the 1950s as a musical. Was it the flying? Or the fact that it lined up nicely with the gender norms of the time?

For modern day viewers, though, it was just plain weird watching one woman defy gender norms by cross dressing while subjecting another woman to pocket-making and other archaic gender rules. Weirder still to a modern audience is that Wendy–who was written a hundred years ago, mind you–seemed to genuinely enjoy her dual role of mothering and cat-fighting with Tiger Lily. (Was the Victorian era that boring?) Continue Reading »

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