Dear Nahoko Uehashi, Cathy Hirano and Yuko Shimizu,

January 14, 2010

Moribito II:  Guardian of the Darkness – Nahoko Uehashi, trans. Cathy Hirano, illust. Yuko Shimizu – 272 pages

“For many years, through countless fights, Balsa has survived. The evil King Rogsam tried to kill her when she was only six. Eight assassins pursued her in the long flight that followed. But her mentor, Jiguro, protected her until his death, and then Balsa became a bodyguard herself, helping other people survive the challenges they face. When she returns to her native country of Kanbal, she hopes to see Jiguro’s family and her own for the first time in many years. But what should be a simple visit of truth and reconciliation becomes a fight for her life when she learns that King Rogsam framed Jiguro for the deaths of the eight assassins—as well as a crime that threatens the very existence of Kanbal. With the help of two Kanbalese children, Balsa must unwind the conspiracy surrounding Jiguro and the mystery of the Guardians of the Darkness, before it’s too late.”  –from ArthurALevineBooks.com

Ever since I picked up the first Moribito, Balsa has been a personal heroine who remains very close to my heart.  I think part of it is that though Moribito and now Moribito II are definitely YA, Balsa herself is very close to me in age.  She’s a young woman who isn’t old enough to settle down with the childhood friend who loves her, and who still has a lot of journeying to do before she figures out what she’s doing with herself, but she also isn’t young enough to be carefree.  In the first book, she started as a bodyguard to a runaway child prince, and wound up a little more maternal than I think she might have planned; in Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, she must face her past and shoulder the responsibility of redeeming her family and her dead sensei and guardian.  She walks the line between typical YA heroine and grown-up really nicely, in a way I can really identify with.

Anyway, I love Balsa, and I think by writing through a nearing-30-year-old protagonist, you’re capturing a kind of story that wouldn’t necessarily happen otherwise.  I read YA partly because I love stories of teens saving the day and doing things on their own and being capable, but this has a different (and entirely pleasant) feel.  That said, I wonder how Balsa comes off to a teen audience–do they care that she’s almost thirty?  Would someone who isn’t 27 herself not find it different?  I wonder.

This is turning into a very long ramble, but it’s because I really like this book, I love Balsa, and I find the translation really interesting.  I’m sure I’ve said this before, but there’s a certain quality of storytelling in YA I’ve read translated from Japanese that I find different from American YA lit, and I don’t know if it’s just the way any Japanese prose is when translated to English, or if it’s specific to what I’ve read…but it’s always a really different experience, sort of distant but still totally engaging at the same time.  Also, let’s not forget, the art was just as breathtaking in this volume as it was in the first–the whole design of the book is beautiful, and I want to shove it in the faces of everyone who owns a Kindle and say “here, look at this, can you get this on a machine?”

So, without a doubt, five stars again for you three and for Balsa!

Love,

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Dear Jon Stone and Michael Smollin,

January 13, 2010

There’s Another Monster at the End of This Book – Jon Stone, illust. Michael Smollin – 32 pages

“In this vibrantly illustrated sequel to the much-loved The Monster at the End of This Book, Grover, now accompanied by Elmo, has heard that there’s something lurking on the last page of the book. Grover invents all sorts of hilarious ways to stop the reader from turning the pages. But Elmo is curious, and he slips by every wacky barrier in his quest to see what he might find.”  –from RandomHouse.com
As almost any kid will tell you, Grover is impossible to resist.  I’m a big fan of There’s a Monster at the End of This Book, which never fails to make me giggle, and of course you can never have too much of a good thing, which is why I was delighted to see There’s Another Monster at the End of This Book.  As in the original, you’ve got a very meta experience going on here, with Grover trying to convince the reader not to turn the page because the monster might be scary.  This time there’s the added layer of Elmo, adding some mischief and acting as a foil for all Grover’s efforts.

They’re both quite funny, and the text is true to the way they each speak on Sesame Street, though I did find myself thinking that perhaps Elmo’s interference took something away from the experience by the end of the book.  Elmo is cute, and his constant ability to find a way around Grover’s preventative measures is funny, but it removes some of the agency that a reader has in the original book, when it’s just Grover and the reader playing against each other.  With Elmo already sneaking past Grover’s walls of blocks or steel, there’s less satisfaction in actually turning the page and thwarting Grover oneself.  My favorite part of the first book is Grover’s harried state when I, by turning the page, knocked down his brick wall, and he told me I was “very strong.”  That interplay is missing here, I think, and by the end of the book, it’s Grover and Elmo talking to each other, rather than either of them talking to the reader.

Still, it’s fun and sweet, and the illustrations are just as fantastic as the original book, with great lettering and cool visual illusions every time Elmo pulls back the corner of a page, inviting the reader to turn.  Four stars for adorable effort!

Love,

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Dear L. K. Madigan,

January 12, 2010

Flash Burnout – L. K. Madigan – 336 pages

“Fifteen-year-old Blake has a girlfriend and a friend who’s a girl.  One of them loves him; the other one needs him.  When he snapped a picture of a street person for his photography homework, Blake never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom.  Blake’s participation in the ensuing drama opens up a world of trouble, both for him and for Marissa.  He spends the next few months trying to reconcile the conflicting roles of Boyfriend and Friend.  His experiences range from the comic (surviving his dad’s birth control talk) to the tragic (a harrowing after-hours visit to the morgue).  In a tangle of life and death, love and loyalty, Blake will emerge with a more sharply defined snapshot of himself.”  –from HoughtonMifflinBooks.com

Flash Burnout sticks out in my mind as a book I can’t quite decide about.  I picked it up because something about it caught my eye, but then put off reading it for a while because the blurb on the back wasn’t capturing me as much as other things in my pile.  I think I felt the same push and pull while I was reading, too.  There were definitely great moments of humor, and a plotline that took a lot of really exciting turns, but sometimes the prose seemed to drag for me a little.  Still, my overall impression of it was a good one–you captured the dynamic of teens and friends and more-than-friends really well.  Sometimes I felt like the narrator was less a real teenage boy and more a cobbling-together of what a teenage boy is expected to be, but that’s forgivable, and I think what Flash Burnout really needed was just a little bit of sharpening to make a really thrilling plot into a more memorable reading experience.  Still, I read it through, and enjoyed it, so three stars for this one!

Love,

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Dear Heather Henson and David Small,

January 10, 2010

That Book Woman – Heather Henson, illust. David Small – 32 pages

“Cal is not the readin’ type. Living way high up in the Appalachian Mountains, he’d rather help Pap plow or go out after wandering sheep than try some book learning. Nope. Cal does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch. But that Book Woman keeps coming just the same. She comes in the rain. She comes in the snow. She comes right up the side of the mountain, and Cal knows that’s not easy riding. And all just to lend his sister some books. Why, that woman must be plain foolish — or is she braver than he ever thought?”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

When I saw the cover of That Book Woman and recognized that lovely loose artistic style, I just had to pick it up.  Mr. Small, I’m a huge huge fan of your art, which I’m sure I’ve said before, because I’ve reviewed others of your books on this site.  Still, can’t hurt to say it again–your art, particularly the picturebooks, make me giddy with joy and extraordinarily jealous of the way your style makes it look so easy.  I know most good artists make their work look easy, but for some reason the kind of line you have and the way it flows makes me imagine that you just touch pen to paper and suddenly amazing things happen by some sort of crazy magic.

With the fangirling out of the way, now I can get on to what a visual pleasure this book is for me just in its own right.  The composition, full of wide pulled-back shots and extreme close-up foregrounds, keeps every page fresh and makes me really feel the wide open space, the distance from this hilltop cabin to any other kind of civilization.  The colors are understated and used in unexpected ways to great effect, and the overall messy sort of look is really endearing and evocative.  It matches the text, the pleasantly messy dialect, to a T.  (What a weird phrase, to a T.  Where on earth does it come from?  Hmm, I sense internet research in my future.)

Of course, the words are entirely brilliant too, Ms. Henson–it’s fairly rare to see a picturebook that’s written in free verse, when so much poetry for children is rhyming.  I love the measured way you and Cal tell his story, the gentle rocking flow that, in my head, mimics the trusty, steady motion of the Book Woman’s horse.  And what a truly fantastic message!  That books are as necessary for living as food and shelter, that encouraging a reader is worth such effort through hardship and the elements, and that a reader can be made out of anyone, if they only want to try it.  I want to meet the Book Woman, and have her bring books like this one to me.

When this book came up in mock Caldecott discussion with my book club last year, there were a variety of reactions–perhaps it isn’t everyone’s style–but I think it’s lovely and brilliant, and every time I re-read it I’m struck in some way by a detail of the art or by a turn of phrase that makes me glad I have it on my shelf.  Five stars from me, hooray for books!

Love,

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Dear Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean and Todd Klein,

January 10, 2010

Black Orchid – Neil Gaiman, art by Dave McKean, lettering by Todd Klein – 144 pages

“After being viciously murdered, Susan is reborn fully grown as the Black Orchid, a hybrid of plant and human, in order to avenge her own death. Now as this demigoddess attempts to reconcile her human memories and botanical origins, she must also untangle the webs of deception and secrets that led to her murder. Beginning in the cold streets of a heartless metropolis and ending in the lavish heartland of the thriving Amazon, this book takes the reader through a journey of secrets, suffering, and self-rediscovery.”  –from DCComics.com/Vertigo

I picked up a Black Orchid comic quite some time ago because I love female crimefighters, and I find orchids to be both visually pleasing and symbolically appealing, so the combination seemed like the kind of thing I’d enjoy.  When I discovered the Gaiman/McKean version of Black Orchid, I knew I’d hit paydirt.

Mr. Gaiman, anybody who reads this blog knows I’m a huge fan, but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to reading Sandman–so my experience of your writing in comics is limited to graphic novels or guest writing of single arcs in continuous series.  I’ve liked all the graphia of yours that I’ve read, though, and this trade is no exception.  Somehow you managed to write something that captures and keeps my attention, but is so dreamlike that I’ve forgotten what it was about almost as soon as I’ve finished reading it–I’m just left with this really pleasant sense that some kind of fascinating journey has occurred, and I got to go along for the ride.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it’s meant as one.

Part of the dreaminess, though, is the incredible art.  Mr. McKean, I love your work no matter what style you’re using, but this gritty-yet-ethereal sort of photorealism works so well with the strange story, and you do such a lovely job making the orchids seem so alien without being frightening.  The juxtaposition of color palettes, of gray city and red violence versus the orchids and verdant jungles and things…well, it was fantastic.

Also, I don’t know if the excellent placement and coloration of the text boxes and speech bubbles were part of the art or went with the lettering work, but either way, it was brilliant.  Mr. Klein, never let it be said that I don’t appreciate excellent lettering–you make the whole thing readable, and yet it never looked out of place with the art style.  Awesome.

Four enthusiastic stars for Black Orchid!

Love,

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Dear Blog Readers,

January 7, 2010

Happy 2010!  It’s a new year, and that means it’s time for some year-end summation here at Let(t)’er Rip.  Holiday craziness has kept me from catching up with reviews of everything I read in 2009, but this post is a way for me to round up the year’s best, total some statistics, and give you readers a sneak peak at upcoming reviews.

So let’s get started!

First, a round up of my top 9 of ’09 (meaning books that were new in ’09, though I had lots of backlist faves this year too), in no particular order:

Two Parties, One Tux by Steven Goldman (reviewed here)

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The Goblin and the Empty Chair by Mem Fox, illust. Leo & Diane Dillon (reviewed here)

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The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness (reviewed here and here, and I know having two books of a series listed as one entry in my top 9 is sort of cheating, but I don’t care)

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Ash by Malinda Lo (reviewed here)

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When the Moon Forgot by Jimmy Liao (reviewed here)

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Life Size Zoo by Teruyuki Komiya, Toyofumi Fukuda, Makiko Oku and Kristin Earhart (reviewed here)

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The Snow Day by Komako Sakai (reviewed here)

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American Jesus vol. 1: Chosen by Mark Millar & Peter Gross (review to come)

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Big Frog Can’t Fit In by Mo Willems (review to come)

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Now, a little (or big, actually) preview of 2009 reviews to come in the new year:
That Book Woman by Heather Henson, illust. David Small – 32 pages
Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman, art by Dave McKean – 144 pages
Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan – 336 pages
There’s Another Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, illust. Michael Smollin – 32 pages
Moribito II:  Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi, trans. Cathy Hirano – 272 pages
Some of Tim’s Stories by S.E. Hinton – 160 pages
Fade by Lisa McMann – 256 pages
Greenwitch (The Dark is Rising Sequence #3) by Susan Cooper – 148 pages
The Grey King (The Dark is Rising Sequence #4) by Susan Cooper – 224 pages
The Blind Colt by Glen Rounds – 80 pages
The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa – 208 pages
Cat Burglar Black by Richard Sala – 128 pages
American Jesus Vol. 1:  Chosen by Mark Millar & Peter Gross – 72 pages
Adventure of Meno Book 2: Wet Friend! by Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi – 48 pages
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott – 176 pages
Big Frog Can’t Fit In by Mo Willems – 16 pages
Death Note:  L:  Change The World by M – 174 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – 384 pages
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – 400 pages
Blood Song: A Silent Ballad by Eric Drooker – 312 pages
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne – 240 pages
Birches by Robert Frost, illust. Ed Young – 32 pages
The Pet Dragon:  A Story About Adventure, Friendship, and Chinese Characters by Christoph Niemann – 40 pages
The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger – 40 pages
Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman, illust. Charles Vess – 32 pages
A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na – 24 pages
Let’s Go to the Capitol by Bernard Rosenfield, illust. Gustav Schrotter – 45 pages
Prayers from the Ark by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, trans. Rumer Godden, illust. Jean Primrose – 75 pages
Totty by Paola Opal – 24 pages
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illust. Michael Martchenko – 26 pages
Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert – 16 pages
Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats – 32 pages
Fullmetal Alchemist novels 1-5 by Makoto Inoue – 1084 pages total

I’ve also been tearing through tons and tons of manga in the last few months, and since reviewing them volume by volume would take me into 2011, I plan to tackle whole series at once.  Here’s a list of upcoming manga reviews (because you know you love them, or at least, I hope you do, because manga is a misunderstood little piece of amazingness):

Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa – 22 volumes thus far, 4256 pages
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya – 23 volumes, 4850 pages
Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori – 13 volumes thus far, 2536 pages
Hero Tales by Huang Jin Zhou, illust. Hiromu Arakawa – 1 volume thus far, 176 pages
Love Hina by Ken Akamatsu – 14 volumes, 2724 pages
Negima! Magister Negi Magi by Ken Akamatsu – 24 volumes thus far, 4744 pages
Fushigi Yuugi:  Genbu Kaiden by Yuu Watase – 9 volumes thus far, 1752 pages
Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase – 6 volumes, 1192 pages
Otomen by Aya Kanno – 4 volumes thus far, 800 pages

And now, more for my curiosity than anything else, some statistics:

Books read in 2009: 254

Pages read in 2009: 48,672

That’s an average of one book every 34 hours or so.  Geez, when I look at it like that, it sounds crazy.  Some of those are picturebooks, true, which take much less time to read than a novel, and some of them are manga and other graphic stuff, which takes a little less reading time than plain text for me, but even so that’s damn impressive.  Not that it’s any kind of contest.  (Becky, any chance you were keeping track of how many books you read this year?  Though I suspect you’d best me no matter what I do.)

Anyway, stay tuned for some more (and hopefully more frequent) reviews this month, and keep your eyes peeled for a post about the results of mock Caldecott discussion with the book group I frequently talk about.  I’ve got to record our picks before the actual awards are announced, just in case we turn out to have gotten it right!

Love,

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Dear Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont,

December 22, 2009

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed – Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont – 48 pages

“‘It is almost Friday night. Outside, the dark is getting darker,’ and here and there around the city ninety-two men and thirteen women are getting dressed to go to work. First they bathe and put on their underwear. Then they don special black-and-white apparel. Then when the one hundred and five people are completely ready, each takes a musical instrument and travels to midtown. There, at 8:30 tonight, they will work together:  playing.”  -from HarperCollins.com

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed is one of those oldies-but-goodies that I never read as a child, but wish I had, because I adore it so much as an adult.  As a bookseller, I appreciate it because it’s one of my go-to handsells when someone asks for a book about musical instruments (even though it’s not the “this is a cello, this is an oboe, this is a piccolo” sort of musical instruments book, it’s so charming that I always suggest it anyway).  As a reader and a children’s lit enthusiast, I love this book because it’s one of those classics that will never get old.  Unless, you know, hundreds of years from now the NY Philharmonic, or perhaps orchestras in general, have been replaced by robots or maybe just at-home digital/virtual concerts.  Let’s hope, though, that live orchestral music never becomes obsolete.

But I digress (as usual).  Ms. Kuskin, it pains me that I’m a couple of months too late for you to somehow read this, though I’ve no doubt you heard every kind of praise for this book and mine couldn’t possibly be anything new.  That won’t stop me from trying, though!  What’s so special about you, and your work on this book, is the crafted feel of the text.  You’ve written one of those perfect books, the kind that I could read again and again and never find any fault with.  Your prose is simple and spare, giving just enough information without clogging things up, and there’s a really beautifully understated rhythm and flow that just makes me giddy with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because you were also a poet–your skill in carefully choosing and molding words into verse served you equally well in creating exceptionally fine prose that looks easy, but undoubtedly wasn’t.

The other great thing about the text of this book is the story itself–you capture that lovely anticipatory feeling of preparing for a performance (a thrill I always look back on fondly), while also tapping into the natural curiosity of children, and people in general, about the offstage doings of onstage performers.  As if that wasn’t enough appeal, you also satisfy young children’s love of routine with this book–bathing, getting dressed, putting on coats and scarves and gloves, commuting, all things children and their parents do every day, but with the added intrigue of night-time, when most children are getting ready for bed.  How unusual, then, for these characters to be leaving their families at home and heading out into the dark to go to work!

And then, of course, there’s the brilliant art, telling the bits of the story the text doesn’t.  Mr. Simont, I’ve always loved your illustrations, and this book is no exception!  The clever hints of personality you inject into the orchestra members, and the delightful variety you manage to portray among a whole bunch of people all dressing to match each other makes every page something to pore over to catch all the details.  Your style is so fluid and charming, too, and the humor and visual variety of the musicians reminds me pleasantly of 101 Dalmatians and the procession of people who look like their dogs (at 4:52).  Your illustrations are busy without being at all overwhelming, frank and funny in your depiction of diverse bodies, bathing, and the hassles of underclothes, and evocative of the text in a way that makes me convinced your art was the perfect choice for Ms. Kuskin’s words.

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed is a fantastic blend of elements that will never lose it’s appeal for me, and hopefully will never lose it’s appeal for children, either.  You both made something wonderful here, and I’m so glad you did!  Five stars and a standing ovation.

Love,

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Books this year: 101

Pages this year: 20,330