Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Children of Green Knowe

How did I manage to grow up without reading The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston? The only good thing I can say about this omission from childhood reading is I got to discover and appreciate this gem as an adult. The bad thing: I cannot help but wonder what is the best age to read this book. On the one hand, a simple story; but it is sophisticated and I think if a child reads it "too young" they will miss half the wonder of this tale.

The Plot: Toseland (Tolly) is seven and on his way to visit a relative he has never met before, his Great Grandmother Oldknow who lives in an old house named Green Knowe and called Green Noah. Tolly has been living in a boarding school; his father is in Burma with his stepmother. Granny knows just how to entertain a small, lonely boy: animals, stories, adventure, freedom. And then Tolly discovers the other children in the house: Toby (another Toseland), Alexander and Linnet; Granny knows them also, and her stories include tales of these three children. That Toby, Alexander and Linnet died during the Great Plague in the 17th century doesn't bother either Tolly or Granny.

The Good: Are the children of Green Knowe real? Are they ghosts? Or are they imaginations, indulged by a Granny who sees that Tolly needs a sense of connection that Green Knowe and its children give him? This is not so much a book about ghosts as a book about the imagination of a child.

Also good are the stories that Granny tells of the history of the house: some funny, some scary, all that help give Tolly a sense of family and of belonging.

I was delighted to find out that the house is real: Lucy Boston's own home, called The Manor, Hemingford Grey. It was built in the 1130s and you can visit it by appointment.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Buffy Quote of the Week

Andrew: "It's not fair. Spike just killed people and he gets to go."
Buffy: "Spike didn't have free will. You did."
Andrew: "I hate my free will."
Ep: Potential

Monday, July 25, 2005

Confessions of a Closet Catholic

Confessions of a Closet Catholic is Sarah Darer Littman's first book. She tackles a subject many novelists avoid: religion. And she does a wonderful job.

The Plot: Justine Silver is eleven-going-on-twelve; she's the middle child. As she explains it, Mom loves her older sister, Helena, best; Dad loves her younger brother, Jake, best; and oh, yeah, Mom also likes the family dog more than she likes Justine. Justine's family has just moved and Justine is adjusting to the move but luckily has found a new best friend, Mary Catherine "Mac" McAllister. Mac is giving up chocolate for Lent. Justine decides to give up being Jewish. She's not quite sure how to go about being Catholic, like her friend Mac. So Justine practices confession in her closet, giving herself "Hail Mary"s for penance (though she is hesitant about saying the "J word" or "M.O.G." so she skips those parts.)

The Good: A book that treats religion, faith, questioning and belonging with respect, sympathy, honesty and humor. CoaCC weaves together 3 different threads: a search for the spiritual; the appeal of a different family; and the bonds of family.

Jussy's search for the spiritual, for meaning, and for guidance is both amusing (Jussy dresses as a nun for her closet confessionals and has crib notes for the Seven Deadly Sins; she believes she's committed 5 and a half of 7) and touching (her Bubbe is a Holocaust survivor).

Also honest is Justine's falling for for her friend Mac's family. At that age, other people's families can be unintentionally seductive, and Littman portrays this with a perfect touch.

Justine feels the odd person out in her family, and that Bubbe is the only one who understands her.

While this all sounds serious -- and serious issues are addressed -- CoaCC is also very, very funny. This is a great book, with a little of everything.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Top 10 things I liked about Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince:

  1. JKR continues to add dimensions and depth to her fantasy world.
  2. The large cast of characters.
  3. References to things mentioned in earlier books.
  4. It's funny.
  5. It's sad.
  6. There are a ton of things to speculate about for Book 7.
  7. Snape.
  8. Potions class.
  9. Harry, Ron and Hermione.
  10. Names of people and places, such as Slughorn.

I didn't think I could do a top 10 list without a spoiler, but I think I managed!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Buffy Quote of the Week

"Willow! Nice dress. Good to know you've seen the softer side of Sears."
Cordelia, Ep: Welcome to the Hellmouth

Monday, July 18, 2005


While waiting for UPS to deliver Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I had to find something to keep me busy. So first I went to cheer on my sister do her first 5K run and then I came home and watched DVDs.

Saved! was more than a great diversion that kept me from checking the front door every ten minutes. It was a great movie!

The Plot: Mary and Hilary Fay are best friends at a Christian high school. Mary finds out her boyfriend is gay; Mary decides that Jesus wants her to have sex with her boyfriend to stop him from being gay. Not only is the boyfriend still gay; but Mary gets pregnant. This movie is not about Mary's friends excluding her because she is pregnant; rather, it is about Mary having a crisis of faith once she realizes that she is pregnant and that her faith didn't prevent pregnancy and restore her virginity and save her boyfriend. It is about Mary's friends having a hard time dealing with someone who is questioning and looking for answers, rather than accepting without question.

This movie was equal parts funny, warm, and thought provoking. It was not anti-religion or anti-Christian (I understand that the movie has been criticized as both; I thought Saved! was sympathetic, and had some characters who were religious and positively portrayed). If the movie was anything, it was anti-zealotry. It was pro compassion. It was sympathetic to Mary's struggles. Even Hilary Fay -- who wields her faith like a sword to hurt others and protect herself -- is viewed as a whole person, not a typical mean girl lacking feelings and motivation. And it didn't hurt that the new kid in town was played by Patrick Fugit.

As for Half-Blood Prince: it arrived at about 4 p.m. Saturday. I finished it late Sunday night. A review without significant spoilers will be coming soon.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Stargate SG-1

Stargate SG-1 began its ninth season last night. Ben Browder has joined the cast. Yes, Ben Browder.

This is good news because -- well, it's Ben Browder. (And I feel strangely compelled to always use first and last names). He's a good actor; does action well; and is funny, both with one liners and with reactions to others. And he's very easy on the eyes. Ben Browder was on the late, lamented, so good it hurts that its gone Farscape.

Farscape fans are so loyal and dedicated that after cancellation, they rallied, organized and used the Internet, resulting in the creation of a wrap-up movie that was nominated for an Emmy.

Why the casting of Ben Browder (and yes, I am smiling every time I type the name....what was I saying?) Oh yeah. The casting of Ben Browder is brilliant because he is replacing an extremely well loved actor and character on Stargate SG-1 (Richard Dean Anderson), and replacements usually get a lot of grief from fans.

Don't believe me? Just Google some of the Stargate SG-1 fan reaction when Corin Nemec joined the cast. Corin is a good actor. But Ben Browder is not just a good actor: he is someone with a strong fanbase within science fiction watchers.

I have spoken to several people who had stopped watching Stargate SG-1 and will be watching again just because of Ben Browder. Many existing fans either watched Farscape or know enough about Farscape that they already like Ben Browder. I'm not sure the last time a "new guy on the block" in an established TV series got such a warm welcome.

At least, he has a warm welcome from me. For more info about Stargate SG-1's new season, as well as info about other science fiction/ fantasy shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Smallville, check out GateWorld.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Annie, Between The States

Annie, Between The States by L.M. Elliott is a work of historical fiction, set during the American Civil War.

The Plot: Annie, Between The States is set in Virginia during the Civil War. Annie is caught between the forces of the Union and the forces of the Confederacy. Repeatedly, she witnesses battles and tends the wounded. Annie is caught between the two sides in more complicated ways: her family owns slaves, but views it as wrong. They agree with certain arguments made by the Union, but also believe that it is a war not about slavery, but about states rights. Their "country" to which they owe allegiance is Virginia. To make things even more complex, Annie meets a wounded soldier -- a wounded Union soldier. He's supposed to be "the enemy", but she finds out they have much in common.

The Good: This book starts right after the beginning of the Civil War, and ends just before the war ends. All the officers, all the battles, and other historical information is factual. As the war goes on, Annie finds strength she didn't know she had. She also is forced to rethink assumptions, especially assumptions about the "servants" in her house.

Elliott doesn't let the North off the hook: she shows that the Union and its soldiers were not free from prejudice. Elliott also shows that the 19th century had many different prejudices, including ethnic and religious prejudice; much is made about Annie's father "marrying down" when he wed an Irish Catholic.

One difficult thing about any historical fiction is trying to have a character think "of the time" depicted yet at the same time, having the character being modern in sensibility. Elliott manages this balance; I believed that Annie was a person of the mid 19th century.

I love historical fiction. I love being immersed in a different time and learning about how people lived in other places, other times. I am one of those book geeks who love it that authors have started including detailed notes and bibliographies on works of historical fiction because yes, I read the notes, and yes, then I look for additional non-fiction books or documentaries or websites. (And in case you're believing that this is a recent affliction -- I always questioned and wanted more information; its just that now publishers and authors make it so much easier.)

Elliott gives detailed notes, not only discussing her research but also sharing some of the real stories, such as that of Antonia Ford. By providing the "truths", her fiction is all the stronger. It's not made up; its real, even if Annie herself isn't.

Buffy Quote of the Week

"I do remember what I said. The promise. To protect her. If I'd done that...even if I didn't make it, you wouldn't have had to jump. I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of course. But after that. Every night after that. I'd see it all again, do something different. Faster or more cleverer, you know? Dozens of times, lots of different ways. Every night I save you."
Spike, Ep: After Life

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Degrassi: The Next Generation

The most realistic TV show about teens is Degrassi. It's on "The N", Nickelodeon's teen programming site, which starts at 6 p.m. If you have small children who are watching Noggin -- programming for younger kids -- you've probably switched the channel at 6.

Degrassi follows a group of teenagers who attend Degrassi Community School. This is a true ensemble cast with no real "star" and with rotating story lines. For example, Ellie may have a main story for three episodes and then, as Jimmy's story takes focus, Ellie is seen only in the hallway or a classroom.

What makes this so good? The actors are playing kids their own age, give or take a year. Which means that we truly see them grow up on TV: they mature, gain or lose weight, change hairstyles and fashion, etc. It's not 20 somethings playing 14. These teens look like teens.

The rotating story lines are another strength. Instead of having perfect main characters who one week befriend a cutter who is never seen again, and then the next week have a new best friend who is playing with guns, etc., or having a main character who has everything happen to her, the cast is large enough so that while things happen to various people its never overboard and it always stays real. No one character is overburdened.

It helps that the cast is made up of a large group of believable teens and that characterization remains consistent. A bullying story lasted over a year, and showed multiple viewpoints: the kid being bullied, the bullies, the kids who did nothing; and ended in a shooting. No one was painted as perfect, no one depicted as only evil or only good.

The "mean girl" can be brutal to friends and enemies alike; but she is also shown as supportive to her brother, who is gay, so when a classmate came out, "mean girl" was the one who gave her support. These are things that last seasons, not one "very special episode."

Degrassi addresses topical issues without going overboard. One character is a cutter; another struggles with stepparent issues; another with an annoying little brother. While the story lines range from "big drama" to everyday, each story line is treated with equal respect.

If you're thinking the name is familiar, it is. Back in the 1980s, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High and a few related shows (The Kids of Degrassi Street, a wrap up movie, etc.) told the stories of a ensemble cast of teens going to Degrassi. The link to the present show? In original Degrassi, Spike was a young teenager who got pregnant with a daughter, Emma; Emma is one of the cast in present day Degrassi. The teens of Degrassi Junior High are now the teachers and parents of the current teens.

A word of caution: Degrassi is a Canadian show and Canada is at least a half season ahead of the U.S. This means there are spoilers galore out there. It is a bit frustrating, because the the official site has a ton of "extras" including blogs for characters which give additional information, which is cool... except then it gives away the rest of the season.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Stained is Jennifer Richard Jacobson's first young adult novel.

I have been spoiled in my recent reading: first Mary E. Pearson's A Room On Lorelei Street, and now Stained. I've just added a fourth title to my Best Books of 2005 list.

The Plot: It's 1975 and Joss is 16. She's in love with Benny; but there's another boy who is in her life, her next door neighbor, Gabe. Joss & Gabe have known each other for as long as either can remember; their mothers are best friends. Benny is having doubts about his relationship with Joss: doubts about being so involved with a girl while his mother is dying; doubts about a physical relationship and sex; doubts about Joss, a daughter of divorced parents in a very Catholic town. Doubts that may have been planted by Father Warren. Joss is both angry at Father Warren's intrusion into her private life and jealous of Father Warren's closeness with Benny and Gabe. And now Gabe has disappeared.

As the search for Gabe continues, alternating chapters flashback to different times in Joss's life: a shared childhood with Gabe, Joss's father leaving, Joss's & her divorced mother's estrangement from the Church. As Joss looks at her past and her present, she discovers unsettling truths about herself and Gabe.

The Good: This is an honest and sensitive look at a teenage girl's struggle between passivity and action, between defining herself based on others and defining herself based on self. At times, it is an uncomfortable read because Jacobson is brutally truthful in her depiction of a teenager who is struggling with issues of self, of shame, of faith, of love.

This is not a "problem novel" about Catholic priests and teenage boys; yes, Joss discovers that Gabe and Father Warren were involved in a relationship. But this book is much more than just a book about an in-the-headlines issue. It is a book about being lost and looking for answers in another person; and it is a book about faith, and hope, and love.

While the external search in the book is for the missing Gabe, the true search in the book is Joss searching for herself. What is daring about this book is not that it includes the issue of abuse by a Catholic priest; what is daring is that it shows a girl struggling towards autonomy. Jacobson is willing to have her main character be weak and passive because of fear and shame. What is brilliant is how Joss grows, and how she confronts fear and shame and takes action. I have to share this line: "It's been good to realize that even when I can't see my reflection in Benny's eyes, I still exist."

Other good things: Jacobson vividly depicts the outsider status felt by many children of divorced Catholic parents in the 1970s. Also, despite Father Warren, this is very sensitive about Catholic religion and tradition and faith. And as someone who survived the 1970s, this was full of spot-on 1970s culture. (Am I the only one a little scared by MTV's The 70's House?)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Buffy Quote of the Week

Buffy: "It's just, like, nothing's simple. I'm always trying to work it out. Who to hate, or love. Who to trust. It's like the more I know, the more confused I get."
Giles: "I believe that's called growing up."
Buffy: "I'd like to stop, then. OK?"
Ep: Lie To Me

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Norma Johnston

One of my favorite YA writers is Norma Johnston. Every few years, I reread her The Keeping Days series: The Keeping Days, Glory in the Flower, The Sanctuary Tree, A Mustard Seed of Magic, A Nice Girl Like You and Myself and I. Sadly, these books are out of print so to read them you need to search libraries and used book stores. It will be worth the search. I have no idea what is necessary to bring out of print books back into print, but it is a shame that this series, particularly the first four, are no longer available.

It's the turn of the century -- the year 1900! And Tish Sterling wants to be a writer. She thinks she's qualified because she loves to write and she "feels things deeply." The first four books portray life at the turn of the century; they also deal with issues such as prejudice, fear, family, friendship, belief, and love. But most importantly, they deal with Tish becoming a writer. It's not easy - dreamy write in your diary writer writing; Tish has to work at it. Part of the glory of these books is Tish resisting the idea that writing is a craft, requiring discipline. These books show Tish growing as an artist, with all that being an artist means. The first four books cover a two year period. The last two jump forward to the start of World War I; the main characters are those who were born in the first four. In these last two, we see the artist that Tish has become. The last two are also about secrets and honesty (as well as topical issues such as war and women's rights).

For those of us who are total Johnston junkies: Johnston has other historical series, set during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the 1920s; all these families come together in The Carlisle Chronicles Series (books: Carlisle's Hope; To Jess, With Love and Memories; Carlisles All (set in the early 1980s, this family is descended from all these other families; Jess is Tish's great grand niece.))

Other strengths of Johnston: the ability to juggle a huge cast of characters. Showing modern themes in historical settings. Examining the meaning of family, belief, loyalty, love, friendship, dependence and independence.