Friday, May 28, 2010

George Washington

Reviews that originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of the now-gone The Edge of the Forest.

George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen from Both Sides
By Rosalyn Schanzer
Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books (October 1, 2004)
ISBN: 0792273494

George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War
By Thomas B. Allen
Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books (January 1, 2004)
ISBN: 0792251261

Originally appeared at The Edge of the Forest.

The American Revolution is brought to life in two books that use a similar device. On the surface, both George v. George and George Washington, Spymaster are about George Washington; but both are about more than the man.

George v. George compares the two most visible people on each side of the war, both named George: the American George Washington and the English King George III. Schanzer initially focuses on these two individuals, but then expands to compare the American and British views on everything from politics to methods of war. The approach results in a balanced view of the American Revolution, explaining such things as the structure of Colonial government and taxation. Particularly impressive to this American is how Schanzer conveys how the British viewed the American guerilla warfare as dishonorable.

In any conflict, there are two sides to a story. Books that show historical events from one side, painting the other as "them" and "wrong," can lead a child to wonder at how stupid those "others" were to not agree with "us." Schanzer, by providing balance in the arguments, is not looking to persuade the reader to agree with either George; rather, by providing the point of view of the "other," she allows the reader to see the war from a different point of view. This is about understanding another's position.

The color illustrations are reminiscent of 18th century political cartoons; so while original to the text, they convey a time period appropriate feel. At the same time, there is a modern, kid-friendly feel.

As the title indicates, George Washington, Spymaster, uses George Washington to highlight the value of information in war. This isn't a book about the life of George Washington; and it's not a book about the politics and battles of the American Revolution. The focus is what each side needed to know (and didn't want the other side to know) before the battles to try to ensure victory. How many soldiers are in the camp? Are they well fed? Where are they going, and when? What are the battle plans? Who is the commander?

Who was gathering that information? Who was protecting that information? Spies. Allen brings this to life by relating the stories of individual men and women on both sides of the conflict who risked everything to get information. He tells who they are, how information was obtained, and how that information was then sent. It may be in person; it may be by the arrangement of laundry on a line; it may be in secret code.

Because of the secrecy required, many agents (and double agents) were not publicly known; Allen relates exciting stories, including one man who was believed to be a Loyalist and who almost burnt out of his house by angry Americans; it turns out that he was a double agent! Due to the lack of documentation, and the continuing risk to family members even after the war, some individuals went to the grave with the truth about their activities unknown. Allen does a marvelous job of pulling together information from various sources, from original documents, newspaper accounts, and family legends, and weaves them into an exciting story of intrigue.
Allen includes samples of different spy codes used during the American Revolution; sprinkled throughout the book are secret messages for the reader to decode. Like Schanzer, Allen pays attention to the details; even the font used in the book is historically accurate.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Animal Crackers Fly the Coop

Animal Crackers Fly the Coop by Kevin O'Malley. Walker Books for Young Readers, Bloomsbury. 2010.

The Plot: A retelling of the Bremen Town Musicians. Except instead of wanting to be musicians, the animals want to be comedians. Or, in the case of Hen, a comedi-hen.

The Good: Hen just wants to open a comedy club and be a comedi-hen. Because she's concentrating on humor rather than laying eggs, the farmer warns of "Fry-day." Hen runs away, and encounters three other animals, Dog, Cat, and Cow, who ignore their expected jobs and instead tell jokes, riddles, and sing funny songs.

Animal Crackers is full of the jokes and puns of Hen, Dog, Cat and Cow. Illustrations add to the tale; when we encounter Cat, Cat is so caught up in singing songs that mice are jumping all around Cat.

A laugh out loud tale that will work with older readers, especially those who are in the loving puns and jokes stage.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Daydreams of a Solitary Hamster

Daydreams of a Solitary Hamster by Astrid Desbordes. Illustrated by Pauline Martin. Enchanted Lion Books. 2010. Picture Book. Review copy supplied by publisher.

The Plot: The friendship of Hamster, Mole, Snail, and other animals.

The Good: Comic strips make this a picture book with appeal to older readers; which is good, because the humor here will go over the heads of most four year olds.

Hamster is wonderfully, blissfully, egocentric. When he looks at the stars, he doesn't stop with thinking they are beautiful and mysterious; no, the stars must, in turn, look at him and think not just that Hamster is beautiful and mysterious but that "seen from space, a hamster must be a magnificent sight." Hamster not only sleeps outside so that the stars will be happy as they contemplate him; he spells out his name, Hamster, in rocks, so they know who he is from a distance.

And it's philosophical! Here is Hamster mulling his favorite food: "I love waffles so much! The fear of running out of them haunts me. This love will stay with me forever and ever. That's just the way it is." Who hasn't thought that about love?

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Sons of Liberty Guest Post

The Sons of Liberty #1 by Alexander Lagos and Joseph Lagos. Illustrated by Steve Walker (artist) and Oren Kramek (colorist). Random House 2010. Review copy from publisher.

As a brief introduction, I LOVED this graphic novel. Set in Colonial Pennsylvania, two runaway slaves develop superpowers and fight back.

I loved this so much that we are doing something a bit different today. I'm participating in a blog tour about the book (I know!). You'll be getting my review in June, but in the meanwhile, enjoy a guest post by Alexander Lagos and Joseph Lagos. And yes, they are brothers!

From the brothers Lagos:

Creating THE SONS OF LIBERTY was fun and challenging. Our first step was to understand the world in which our heroes, Graham and Brody, would exist. That meant immersing ourselves in Colonial America and the American Revolution.

The process began by creating a historical/fictional timeline that helped us in weaving our characters in and out of famous events. Since we live over 1600 miles apart, the bulk of the work process had to be done through e-mailing the draft back and forth, lengthy phone conversations…and, of course, snail mail.

Once a rough draft was complete, we sent the manuscript to Random House in New York to begin that refinement process that all writers are intimately familiar with-editing.

When the final draft is approved, the copy is forwarded to artist, Steve Walker and Colorist, Oren Kramek so that thumbnails and about a hundred other details may be determined. Like the script, drawing and colors go through a careful approval process and a team of people including the authors examine every detail for accuracy.

The end result, is a book that, we hope, will provide, good quality entertainment and a bit of historical information.

~The Lagos Brothers

Some links about the book, including some terrific extra information:

The book website

The blog the Lagos brothers visited yesterday, the Graphic Classroom

And the blog they will be at tomorrow, Comic Book Galaxy

Interior art provided by the publisher. (Yes! Full color interior!)

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Thief Lord

My review of the film The Thief Lord, which originally appeared in the now-gone May 2006 issue of The Edge of the Forest.

I was surprised to learn that the film version of Cornelia Funke's book The Thief Lord
had been released straight to DVD. This is usually a sign that the movie stinks. The Thief Lord remains my favorite of Funke's books, so it was with no small amount of fear that I sat down to watch the DVD.

It helped that it's been over two years since I read The Thief Lord, so I had few instances of "that wasn't in the book" or "how could they have left out such and such."

My first thought was relief; the young actors playing Prosper, Bo, the Thief Lord and the other children are perfect. The movie was filmed on location in Venice, and the city, with its mix of old and new and with hints of magic everywhere, was beautifully captured. Readers who loved the book will enjoy this film; and viewers who didn't read the book will have no problem following the story.

The film captures the essence of the book: Brothers Prosper and Bo escape the selfish aunt and uncle who send Prosper to an orphanage while keeping the adorable younger brother. Once in Venice, the boys are happy to be together but have run out of money. Luckily for them, they meet the mysterious Thief Lord, Scipio, who looks after them along with several other homeless children. The Thief Lord is infamous, and has been hired to steal a valuable object; the reward would keep his adopted family safe. But the boys' aunt and uncle are hot on their tale and Venice is no longer safe.

In the book, magical realism didn't appear until the end; in the movie, from the start Bo sees things that others don't, letting the viewer know that this isn't just another runaway movie. For the most part, the special effects worked well; but, particularly towards the end, there were a few things that fell flat. (Having adult voices come out of children's sized bodies, for example; and Scipio's horrible hair in the final scenes.) It was also funny how things on the page fell a wee bit flat on the book; the first time The Thief Lord is addressed as "Scip" it sounds like "Skip" the ultimate preppy name. It makes the Thief Lord look silly, rather than cool.

The other children – Hornet, Riccio, and Mosca – were great, but because of the time limitations of film their characters were not fully developed. I was most disappointed in Hornet, or rather, the lack of screen time for Hornet. There are books around, and we do see Hornet reading a book (which IMDB says is Funke's own Inkheart!) but I think more could have been done to show Hornet and her books. And the movie reveals to the viewer Scipio's dual identity sooner than the book did.

I would have loved, loved, loved this movie as a child. It's the same vein as "kids on their own" movies that I adored: Bugsy Malone, Flight of the Doves, Oliver!, Seven Alone.

I'm not quite sure why this wasn’t released in the theatres. It's a nicely done family film; but the cast, while good, is largely unknown. As mentioned above, the special effects at the end are a little flat, especially for audiences used to Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia.

Rated PG.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, The Chicken House; Reprint edition (October 1, 2003), ISBN: 043942089X

The Thief Lord, Rated PG, ASIN: B000CNE07Y

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kirby Larson Interview

This interivew with Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky, originally ran in the March 2007 issue of the now-gone The Edge of the Forest.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson is a story of dreams, survival, and hope; 16 year old Hattie Brooks is an orphan who at sixteen discovers that an unknown uncle has left her his homestead in Montana. It's 1918, and this is no Cinderella story. Hattie has to work hard to "prove up" the land in order to keep it. This book is both a straightforward story of a pioneer; it's also a look at family, as Hattie befriends her neighbors and at prejudice, as anti German sentiment turns to violence.

When I sat in the audience and heard Hattie Big Sky named as a 2007 Newbery Honor book; I jumped out of my seat. Hattie Big Sky is in some ways a perfect book: it works with almost any audience; it has a lot going on; and Hattie as a character stays with you long after the last page. I was also excited because a couple of days before I had met Kirby for the first time in person, and we had chatted over coffee at a Starbucks in Seattle. One of the things we discussed was attending the Youth Media Awards Press Conference, when all the winners and honor books are announced. Kirby also agreed to do an email interview for The Edge of the Forest.

Normally, an email interview is easier than a "real life" interview because you don't have to worry about traveling or time zones or things like that. Kirby lives outside of Seattle, I live in New Jersey. However, Kirby Larson is one busy lady! In addition to visiting Louisiana, she'd also been to a book festival in Missouri and was then heading out to New Zealand.

Sit back; enjoy your cup of tea (or coffee or hot cider, just please, don't spill on your keyboard); and get to know Kirby and Hattie a little bit better.

Liz: Hattie Big Sky, a work of fiction, was inspired by the story of your step great grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright. At what point did you realize that you were going to take Hattie's story and make it into a book?

Kirby: My great-grandmother was about 4'11" and 85 pounds. When I realized that she had indeed successfully proved up on a claim, I knew I had to tell that story. Unfortunately, our family knew very little about her experience-- just that she had homesteaded near Vida, Montana and that she had proved up. It was shortly after learning about her homesteading experience that I knew I had to write this story.

Liz: Did you ever have any conflict as a writer between what was "true" about the real Hattie's story and what was needed to write a work of fiction?

Kirby: Because I had so little information about my great-grandmother's experience on the prairie, I was not constrained in any way by what "really happened." I don't know what "really happened" to Hattie Inez Brooks. But, because of my years of research, I do know what happened to many other homesteaders and I was able to weave these stories into a satisfying adventure in HATTIE BIG SKY.

Liz: Hattie Big Sky was named a Newbery Honor Book. How has your life changed now that that you have the silver medal on your book?

Kirby: The biggest change is in the number of emails I get every day! Honestly, I feel like the same writer as ever, working to write the best story I can.

Liz: Hattie Big Sky is a great "crossover" book; it crosses over age groups, and can be enjoyed by anyone. As soon as I finished it, I thought of a number of adults I wanted to give it to, as well as teens, as well as younger kids. Different aged readers can read it, and get something out of it. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote the book?

Kirby: Please don't take this wrong, but I wasn't thinking at all about readers as I wrote Hattie's story. I was focused on telling her story as honestly as I could. I think the fact that it speaks to readers of varied ages affirms that that is the best tactic to take in writing any story.

Liz: I saw on your blog that you recently visited New Orleans. Could you tell us a little bit about your visit?

Kirby: I had been in Mississippi a year ago, helping with Katrina clean-up. It was good work but weary work because we were primarily mucking out peoples' homes. This time, we were helping to rebuild homes in bayou country, near Houma, Louisiana. It was so rewarding to help people get that much closer to living in their own homes, to get that much closer to moving out of those wretched FEMA trailers. It's a shame that people aren't in their homes yet; and I'm so afraid that one year from now, we'll be seeing the same photos, hearing the same stories, that we are right now; and that we heard this time last

Liz: What are you working on now?

Kirby: Honestly? Being a Newbery Honor award winner. But, after that, I'm working on polishing up a nonfiction picture book inspired by my Mississippi trip, written with my dear friend and writing colleague, Mary Nethery. Walker Books will be bringing out THE TALE OF TWO BOBBIES in August of 2008. I'm also working on a middle grade historical fiction, another YA historical fiction and a contemporary YA novel, the first draft of which was written during November 2006 for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Liz: Wow. We have a lot to look forward too! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with The Edge of the Forest.

Book information: Publishers: Delacorte Books for Young Readers; ISBN 10 0385733135, ISBN 15 978-0385733137

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, May 21, 2010

Stacy Kramer, Summer Blog Blast Tour

Welcome Stacy Kramer to this stop on the Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Stacy Kramer's debut teen novel, coauthored with Valerie Thomas, is Karma Bites, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group, August 2010. Karma Bites website.

Liz B: Can you tell us about KARMA BITES?

Stacy Kramer: The idea came out of a lunch Val (my writing partner) and I had, upon her return from a year in Hawaii learning to surf and taking some time off with her family. I was feeling frustrated and burned out from tv and movies and wanted to try my hand at something different (especially after having had a lot of success with comic magazine pieces with ELLE, VILLAGE VOICE, MARIE CLAIRE, etc).

A television idea, a kid’s cooking show, for Nickelodeon, had ultimately not panned out after several months of work. Val and I discussed the show, our mutual interest in cooking and our love of movies like Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate. The conversation enabled us to hit upon the idea for KARMA BITES. The story of a girl torn between two groups of friends but feeling a part of neither, who finds a magical recipe box in her grandmother’s closet that can change the social dynamics of middle school. We loved the notion of placing real recipes throughout the book. And, after much discussion about our own middle school experiences, came upon the idea of making the girl a border crosser, a role I played in middle school – a person who can move within various cliques with impunity. We also wanted to write a wacky comedy adventure, something in the mold of Freaky Friday, Clueless or Mean Girls. We liked the idea of taking these successful film paradigms and transferring them to a YA book.

Liz B: Two authors, one book! What led you two to work together on KARMA BITES?

Stacy Kramer: After quitting producing Val and I wrote a movie together for Twentieth Century Fox. It was a great working experience. We stopped working together when Val decided to go to Columbia School of Journalism for her Masters. I went on to write movies and tv with other partners but we always hoped to work together again.

Liz B: What is your working style?

Stacy Kramer: Val and I have a great, easy working relationship, which comes out of fifteen years of friendship. We are writing partners, best friends and family friends. Much of our time together, whether it be dinner with our significant others, family vacations or just hanging out the two of us, eventually leads to spitballing new ideas.

In terms of our actual work process, whenever we’re starting a new project, we get together and carefully, intricately plot out the story, beat by beat. Some of our methods are leftover from our years in film, where we learned the art and value of a tightly woven structure. We need to know the beginning, middle and end of a story before getting started. From there, we plot out the beats of the book, as if working on a movie. We are very structurally oriented and often mold our novels into three act. Once we have a secure story in place, with characters we know well, one of us takes the lead and starts writing. The other pulls up the rear. We end up writing as a singular voice as we tend to see the world (and our particular stories) through a very similar lens. We pass the manuscript back and forth and back and forth (and rinse and repeat ad nauseam) until it’s ready to go to WME (our agent Erin Malone at William Morris Endeavor) and a few trusted friends in film, tv and fiction, for notes.

Liz B: Long time readers of TEA COZY know I love all stories – books, film, and television. So when I read that both of you are from the film and television industry and worked on shows and program I love – well. Did you impress me? Oh, yeah. So, why the switch from film and TV to books?

Stacy Kramer: I am still working in film and tv (as well as writing humor pieces for various magazines) all of which helps to feed the YA novel writing. (And Val continues to do some film work with Jonathon Demme). However, after writing our first YA book and recently finishing up our second, the novel is fast becoming our new favorite form.

Ultimately, film and tv are limiting from a plot and character standpoint. Your writing is restricted by the studio’s needs and goals for the moment. The form is also quite confining, artistically. Certain things must happen in both tv and film at very specific intervals in the story. There is a very clear formula in place and deviation is not encouraged. In addition, there are only certain kinds of stories that you can tell based on the targeted demographics of the medium. YA books offer a tremendous amount of freedom for a writer. There is a wealth of inspired, varied storytelling out there. It’s incredibly freeing if you’ve been held back by the tenets of movies and tv.

My re-interest in YA books really began about fourteen years ago, in London. I’ve always been a huge reader, especially for work, where finding books for film is big business but I had really forgotten about my love of YA literature until getting a sneak peak at Harry Potter. My friend (and former boss), David Heyman, who is the producer of all the Harry Potter movies, had just acquired the book for Warner Bros, in manuscript form (this was the late 90’s). I was working in London at the time and he told me about it over dinner. I was intrigued and managed to get an advance copy. From the first sentence I was hooked, and reminded of the power, the clarity and the imaginative genius of YA fiction. I began voraciously reading YA fiction. I was still producing at the time and didn’t take the leap into writing until a few years later.

After my movie, Labor Pains, was produced, I was asked to write a movie for a company called Alloy, the producer of GOSSIP GIRL, among other tv and movies. We met and discussed a few project ideas. I found to my surprise, after learning about their company, that I was far more interested in writing a YA book than working on the movie adaptation for a YA book. It was shortly after that that Val and I met and came up with the idea for KARMA.

Liz B: What is the biggest difference between working in that industry and working in the publishing industry?

Stacy Kramer: As a book writer you have much more control over your material. No one is going to rewrite you, as happens repeatedly in film and tv. Editors, publishers, book agents seem to treat writers with tremendous respect as the book industry is all about the writer. How can it not be? Movies, on the other hand, are about the director. The writer is merely a conduit. So you often end up feeling very removed from your writing, and the process in general. In the end, you can end up with very little to no say over what becomes of your work. Books, by their very definition, are not like that.

Once you sell your book to a publisher, most likely, your book will find it’s way into the hands (and, hopefully, hearts) of readers. When you sell film or tv idea or script to a studio, it may never make it past your executive’s desk. After years of draining rewrites it can go into turn around, never to see the light of day. While I don’t want to minimize the experience of writing for film and tv. It can be incredibly satisfying, exciting and inspiring, it can also be very frustrating to never have your work seen by an audience.

The YA world is a unique place for writers, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever spent time. You can connect with your audience in a visceral and immediate way through blogs, twitter, FB, etc. It’s extremely hard to do that in film or tv, where you’re quite removed from your audience. The YA world is a welcoming, positive, supportive place. Sadly, Hollywood isn’t quite like that. It can be a closed and cliquey community, where you’re only as good as you’re opening weekend.

Liz B: What were some of your favorite YA books back when you were teens? And what are some of your favorites now?

Stacy Kramer: Some writers that particularly influenced us (and who we still reference) in our pre-teen and teen years include, in no particular order: S. E. Hinton, Judy Blume, Scott O’Dell, Mary Rogers, E. L. Konigsberg, William Penn Dubois and, of course, J.D. Salinger.

Louise Rennison and J.K. Rowling were two of our first loves in the middle grade arena. They made us realize that no story is too small (Louise Rennison) or too big (J.K. Rowling) to make you laugh, cry and think. We also love Kate DiCamillo, Rebecca Stead, Susan Patrone, Ellen Potter, Sarah Mylonowski, Trenton Lee Stewart and Meg Cabot. We devoured all of these authors (and many others) before even daring to launch into our first book.

Our next book is an older YA book. It’s HANGOVER set in high school. In order to better prepare for that book, we’ve spent innumerable hours combing the shelves at Barnes and Noble , our favorite indie bookstores and libraries and have fallen in love with the works of David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, Natalie Standiford, Ally Carter, Suzanne Collins, Libba Bray, Simone Elkeles, Elizabeth Scott, E. Lockhart, Lauren Strasnick and Laurie Halse Anderson to name only a few of the fabulous YA talents out there who’ve influenced us. Of particular interest to us was Peter Cameron’s book, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. It was an immensely powerful read that impacted both of us in too many ways to name. We only hope that one day we can produce a work of fiction that is half as good.

Liz B: Stacy, you and I met via Twitter. Twitter! I mean, how does one even explain and understand Twitter, right? How important do you think social media is in today’s entertainment industry?

Stacy Kramer: I am amazed by the reach and power of Twitter. And continually impressed by the wit, intelligence and the insight provided by YA Bloggers. I have gotten to readers, fans, authors and bloggers who have opened their hearts and brains to me, providing tips, feedback, commentary and much needed support. Social media is critical to the YA world and, to its credit, the YA world has mastered social media (film and television people take notes). There’s no better way to reach your audience. Film and television worlds still have a lot to learn about social media. They’re just dipping their toe into it. For years, entertainment execs have just thrown money at publicity and advertising (and continue to do so with mixed results). But, I think, the entertainment world is realizing that in order to reach teens, you need to talk to them, not barrage them with sales pitches.

YA fans/readers are among the most enthusiastic, passionate, interactive readers out there. They make it wildly fun to be a writer. Social media helps you connect with your audience in a real and visceral way. Marketing is limited for teens and tweens (as it can be hard to reach them through more traditional means) but social media has stepped in to fill the void, allowing authors to reach out directly to their audience. We can hear our reader’s comments, thoughts, ideas, directly, without the filter of a producer, a studio or a marketing executive. It impacts how we think about our stories, our characters, our new ideas. It’s been eye opening and enormously helpful. In film and tv it’s all so removed. You go through marketing firms, test screenings, publicity departments, producers. Reactions are always filtered through someone else’s prism so you’re never sure whose agenda you’re getting. The YA world has been refreshing, in the best possible way.

With all this in mind, we’ve teamed up with Jacob Lewis (formerly at THE NEW YORKER), who started Figment Fiction, a YA social media site, in the hopes of taking the next step into this world. We’re planning on serializing our next YA book on Figment. And allowing readers to take part in shaping the book and watching the process as a YA novel goes from idea to publication.

Liz B: Thanks so much!

The rest of today's Summer Blog Blast Tour:

Julia Hoban at Chasing Ray
Nancy Bo Flood at Finding Wonderland
Tara Kelly at Shaken & Stirred
Sarah Kuhn at Little Willow

See the whole roundup, with quotes and direct links, at Chasing Ray.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thursday, Summer Blog Blast Tour

Today's interviews:

Matthew Reinhart at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Jenny Boylan at Fuse Number 8
Lisa Mantchev at Writing & Ruminating
Jess Leader at Shaken & Stirred
Donna Freitas at Little Willow

Go to Chasing Ray for direct links and quotes from interviews.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sarah Darer Littman, Summer Blog Blast Tour

Welcome Sarah Darer Littman to this stop on the Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Sarah Darer Littman is the author of the middle grade and young adult novels: Confessions of a Closet Catholic (Dutton Juvenile, 2005) (my review); Purge (Scholastic, 2009), and the upcoming Life, After (Scholastic, July 2010). Her blog, It's My Life and I'll Bog If I Want To.

Liz B: You have a new book, LIFE, AFTER coming out this July. Can you tell us about LIFE, AFTER?

Sarah Darer Littman: I like to think of LIFE, AFTER as my “phoenix out of the ashes” book – for several reasons. Firstly the concept came about in a convoluted way from another book proposal that was rejected. I started working on it about five or six years ago but I couldn’t get the voice right, so I put it in a drawer, where it might have stayed if I hadn’t met someone who asked me if I’d ever considered writing anything for teens about 9/11 – she’d lost her husband on Flight United 93 and she said there wasn’t much for kids on the subject. I sent her the synopsis I’d written and she told me I should write the book. My editors at Scholastic were on board, and I found that having met Claudette, and listened to her experiences, I was able to connect with my characters better and I returned to the story with renewed passion. Life, After is dedicated to Claudette, because without her encouragement, the story would probably still be sitting in a drawer.

LIFE, AFTER tells the story of Daniela Bensimon, an Argentinean teenager whose family life is crumbling under the weight of the country’s 2001 economic collapse. When they emigrate to the U.S. hoping for a fresh start, Dani finds life in America isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She misses her old friends, her life, Before. In addition, she must deal with an angry, depressed, father who seems more like a stranger every day.

Just when Dani is about to break, she meets a boy named Jon, who isn’t like all the other students. Through him, she becomes friends with Jessica, one of the popular girls, who is harboring a secret of her own. And then there’s Brian Harrison, the boy who makes Dani’s pulse race. In her new life, the one After, Dani learns how to heal and forgive. She finds the courage to say goodbye and allows herself to love and be loved again.

One of the best comments I got from my teenage daughter was when she asked: “How come there are no Brian Harrisons at my school?” I hope other readers like him just as much.

Liz B: In LIFE, AFTER, Dani is an Argentinean immigrant to the United States. What type of research went into creating Dani?

Sarah Darer Littman: I’ve never been to Argentina, so I had to do a LOT of research. I read many, many books – everything from tour guides of Buenos Aires to books about the “disappearances” under the military dictatorship, even though these occurred before the time period of my story.

For my major revision of the first third of the book, my editors asked me for “more color” of life in Buenos Aires. I used Google maps to figure out exactly where Dani lived and what park she went to with Roberto, and then found pictures of those streets and the park so I could visualize them as I did the revision. And how cool is this? The city of Buenos Aires has this database where you can look up exactly what species of trees are on each street! I did take one liberty by putting an Ombu tree in a park where there isn’t one in real life, because I’d fallen in love with that tree in the first draft.

Ironically, while I was in one of the many revisions of LIFE, AFTER, the scandal broke about South Caroline governor Mark Sanford, who disappeared suddenly without notifying his office staff, allegedly for “book research”. It later transpired he was visiting his “soul mate” (a.k.a “mistress”) in Buenos Aires. I was so jealous because I really NEEDED to go to Buenos Aires for book research, but it wasn’t in my budget!

Liz B: CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, your first book, was published in 2005. How has publishing changed in the past five years?

Sarah Darer Littman: Publishers are even more cautious about acquiring new projects. And the publicity dollars for the projects they do take on are tighter. It’s always been a struggle to get your book noticed if you aren’t THE BOOK that the publisher is putting the money behind on the list, but I think these days even more so it’s up to the author to be creative about marketing oneself and one’s books. For a lot of us that doesn’t come naturally, and it takes a mental shift from the type of energy that you need to sit for hours in your basement alone working on a manuscript.

I recently started a part-time job working at the Voracious Reader bookstore in Larchmont, NY. With school budgets being cut, reducing the likelihood of building up a steady stream of school visit income, I’m trying to be realistic about making this all work.

Shannon Hale wrote a great blog post recently describing the challenges of supporting oneself as an author. You read it and think, “Holy C^%^&p! This is SHANNON HALE! If she can’t make a go of it, how the heck am *I* going to survive?” But I spent so many years working in finance that paid way better but where I was the proverbial square peg in a round hole, that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to let me keep writing books and doing the things I’m passionate about. Working in an indie bookstore is great because I see another side of the publishing industry and I’m surrounded by books and people who love them all day. Plus, I just got to sell a customer one of my books and then offer to sign it for her, which was very cool!

Liz B: CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC was one of the first books I reviewed on my blog. It beautifully addresses questions of faith and religion and family. What do you think of how faith is handled in today’s children’s and young adult books?

Sarah Darer Littman: I think it’s great when authors are able to integrate faith into a story without it becoming a didactic, pound kids over the head, THOU SHALT BELIEVE affair. For many young people, faith is an important part of their lives and to be able to identify with characters in a book is empowering. But it’s just as important for kids growing up in more homogeneous communities to be able to read about young people growing up with different beliefs, so that they can develop respect and tolerance.

I did a NY Teen Author Week event in March with Neesha Meminger, who read a passage from her novel Shine, Coconut Moon. There was a turbaned Sikh boy in the audience, and as she read a passage about the prejudice experienced by Sikhs post-9/11, his face lit up because he was hearing a novel that spoke to his experience.

Liz B: Social media is expected of authors today. You’ve been online for years, and your online self reflects you as a whole: you write about politics, about your family, and, of course, about writing. What is your advice to other writers who have, or are encouraged to have, an online persona?

Sarah Darer Littman: First of all, don’t be “encouraged” into doing anything that you don’t feel comfortable with or doesn’t come naturally to you, because it will show - and that will end up defeating the object of having an online persona, i.e. if the one you have appears uncomfortable and stilted, or if you only post to your blog once every three months. Face it, not everyone is a Maureen Johnson or a John Green. You’re better off figuring out your strengths and applying your time and energy in those areas.

Bottom line, everyone needs a good author website, and you should try and keep the content fresh. Here’s a hint: Independent booksellers, who are critical to the success of lesser known authors because they are the ones who get behind our books and hand sell them, get REALLY upset if they go on your author site and you’re linked to Amazon, particularly if you’re asking them to host an event for your book. Seriously, why should they go to all the effort of holding an in-store event for you if you’re directing people to buy from Amazon? Do yourself a favor and set up an affiliate link with IndieBound. (Note to IndieBound people: can you make that link more user friendly? KThnxBai)

I have adjusted my online presence somewhat since I started. I used to blog about everything all on the same blog, but then someone commented that she stopped following me because she didn’t want her followers to be put off by my political views. That gave me pause, and I realized that I didn’t want to alienate potential readers either, so I ended up splitting my blogs. I had a competition to think of the name for the new blog (won by Little Willow) and now I try to keep my political columnist life and my author life as separate as possible. I have even have two twitter feeds, one for author stuff and one for political stuff.

It does get mixed up on Facebook, however. That’s why I just started a new author page on Facebook. I’m having a contest now to try to publicize it. Anyone who blogs or tweets about it gets an entry (2 entries if you blog AND Tweet – just email or DM me with the links). I’ll be giving away two copies of the new PURGE paperback – both of my kids will get to choose randomly from the entries, that way I will avoid WWIII.

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Sarah Darer Littman: I’m doing revisions of my July 2011 novel, WANT TO GO PRIVATE? about a high school freshman who becomes involved with an Internet predator. The research for this book was fascinating and deeply horrifying. I worked with my local FBI office and a contact at Greenwich Police Department and I have tremendous admiration for the people who work in the cyber crimes division. I really don’t know how they do it and stay sane. But I’m very excited about this book and look forward to getting out to speak in schools about Internet Safety.

I’m also about halfway through a first draft of an as yet-untitled new book, about a WASPy kid from Darien who becomes haunted by an elderly Yiddish speaking ghost.

Liz B: What is your writing process?

Sarah Darer Littman: My process has been different for each of my books, but in general I’m more of a “pantser” than a plotter. With some books I read a great deal for research before I write a single word. With others, I dive right in because the voice is speaking so loudly and clearly in my head that I need to start writing right away or risk being carted off to the funny farm. Then I’ll find the characters have lead me to places that require me to do research, so I’ll have to take a break from writing and start doing some intensive reading. That’s what happened with my current WIP. I got struck with this idea and ran with it for about 15-20K words and then found that one of the characters had led me to a place I hadn’t really expected. Now I’m doing some intensive research along that theme which is very exciting, and I’ll let that mull while I do the revisions on WTGP.

One thing that IS consistent about my writing process is that it always involves high octane (85%) dark chocolate. And coffee.

Liz B: What were your favorite books when you were a teen?

Sarah Darer Littman: OMG, I hate favorite book questions. So many books. So many favorites!

I’m so OOOOOOOOOLD, as my teen daughter would say, that there really wasn’t much in the way of YA, so I went straight to adult books. I was a major historical fiction geek. I read all of Jean Plaidy’s books, loved Mila 18 by Leon Uris, went through an Ayn Rand phase ( preferred Atlas Shrugged to The Fountainhead) and enjoyed random stuff like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Oh, and of course I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think teens are really lucky that there are so many great YA books. I love YA because it’s literature without the bull.

Liz B: I LOVED Jean Plaidy as a teen. Note to self: must reread. What are your favorite teen books today?

Sarah Darer Littman: Aaah, more favorite questions! Are you trying to kill me?!

I just finished reading Split by Swati Avasthi and she’s definitely a new writer to watch. It’s a powerful story with fantastic voice about a teen trying to escape, both physically and mentally, from domestic abuse in his family.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was one that I love and recommended to teens and adults alike. (True confessions: I have a major author crush on MZ, both because he’s an amazing writer and because he’s seriously cute. Oh, and the Aussie accent doesn’t hurt, either.)

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti was one that I think didn’t get nearly enough attention. It won the 2009 Sydney Taylor Award for Teens. It’s a beautifully written book telling the story of the relationship between an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy who have never met; their only communication is through the initial letter that Tal, the girl throws into the Gaza Sea and subsequent e-mails. Their search for understanding is powerful and illuminating.

Liz B: Thanks so much!

The rest of today's Summer Blog Blast Tour:

Michael Trinklein at Chasing Ray
Nick Burd at Fuse Number 8
Tom Siddell at Finding Wonderland
Paolo Bacigalupi at Shaken & Stirred

Please go over to Chasing Ray for today's round up of quotes from interviews and links to interviews.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Teaser: The Mockingbirds

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney. Little, Brown. Publication date November 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

Teaser: Alex, a high school junior, wakes up to find herself naked in the bed of a stranger. Turns out, she got drunk the night before and ... well. She's not sure what happened next. She doesn't remember. He says they had sex, twice. He says she wanted it.

Alex's friends say if you cannot remember having sex ... something is wrong. There wasn't consent. It's rape.

Alex doesn't know what to do; who to turn to. Then she finds out about The Mockingbirds. A self appointed group of students who try to ensure justice is done. Can they help her?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, Summer Blog Blast Tour

Today's Summer Blog Blast Tour. Go to Chasing Ray for direct links and interviews.

Mary Jane Beaufrand at The Ya, Ya, Yas
Rita Williams-Garcia at Fuse Number 8
Jennifer Hubbard at Writing & Ruminating
Charise Mericle Harper at Shelf Elf
Holly Schindler at Little Willow

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Other Side of the Mountain

Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray has an article, On The Other Side of the Mountains, in the Anchorage Press.

At Chasing Ray, Mondor says: "This particular chapter of the book, "The Other Side of the Mountains", (slightly altered for length and so it could standalone), is about a real historic event when two of AK's most famous bush pilots were feared lost while en route to Barrow in 1928. I wrote about similarities between that flight and modern times and how insignificant maps can be when you don't know where you are."

I got chills reading it; it's from her manuscript, The Map of My Dead Pilots. An awesome title, and as this excerpt shows, the writing matches the title for awesomeness.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, Summer Blog Blast Tour

Links to today's interviews, along with quotes from interviews, are at Chasing Ray.

Kate Milford at Chasing Ray
Mac Barnett at Fuse Number 8
Hazardous Players at Finding Wonderland
Malinda Lo at Shelf Elf
Barbara Dee at Little Willow

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Summer Blog Blast Tour: May 2010

Ready, Steady, Go!

And get prepared for the Summer Blag Blast Tour, May 2010 Edition. Woo to the hoo!

Why, what is a Blog Blast Tour?

It is the brainchild of Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray. A group of bloggers interview a bunch of authors; all organized and run by the bloggers, not by publicists or publishers. It's not to promote one book or one author; it's to promote books, authors, and blogging.

Here is the full week schedule, via Chasing Ray. Daily, Colleen will post that day's schedule, pulling a quote from each interview to give a teaser of what the full interview is.

Stops here at Tea Cozy are bolded.

Monday, May 17

Kate Milford at Chasing Ray
Mac Barnett at Fuse Number 8
Hazardous Players at Finding Wonderland
Malinda Lo at Shelf Elf
Barbara Dee at Little Willow

Tuesday, May 18

Mary Jane Beaufrand at The Ya, Ya, Yas
Rita Williams-Garcia at Fuse Number 8
Jennifer Hubbard at Writing & Ruminating
Charise Mericle Harper at Shelf Elf
Holly Schindler at Little Willow

Wednesday, May 19

Michael Trinklein at Chasing Ray
Nick Burd at Fuse Number 8
Sarah Darer Littman at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Tom Siddell at Finding Wonderland
Paolo Bacigalupi at Shaken & Stirred

Thursday, May 20

Matthew Reinhart at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Jenny Boylan at Fuse Number 8
Lisa Mantchev at Writing & Ruminating
Jess Leader at Shaken & Stirred
Donna Freitas at Little Willow

Friday May 21

Julia Hoban at Chasing Ray
Stacy Kramer at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Nancy Bo Flood at Finding Wonderland
Tara Kelly at Shaken & Stirred
Sarah Kuhn at Little Willow

I borrowed the above image from Fuse 8 and Finding Wonderland.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, May 14, 2010

We Don't Need Your Stinking Books

And another book banning situation. This time in my home state of New Jersey.

As always, my initial reaction to book banners is "who died and made you god of what other people cannot read?" It's actually scary to think that people live in such a bubble of belief, that they know best for the entire world, including me and you.

As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"The day after members of a Burlington County [New Jersey] conservative group successfully petitioned to have a book on teenage homosexuality labeled obscene and removed from a high school library, organizer Gerry Grabinski was ebullient.

The local chapter of talk-radio and television personality Glenn Beck's nationwide conservative watchdog network, Burlington County 9.12, had won a minor political coup Tuesday night, and Grabinski was hopeful its larger message would gather momentum as a result

The books that will destroy the minds of teenagers:

Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie

Love & Sex, edited by Michael Cart

The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities

All three were challenged; Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology is the one that was pulled from school library shelves. And the group is now expanding its focus to other high schools.

It's almost reassuring, that the group is so obvious in its antiGLBTQ focus, as opposed to other groups that pretend its the "damn" in the book rather than the lesbian best friend that is the reason a book is challenged. At least they are upfront: no GLBTQ books. I am also interested that those who may say, "we want less government interfering in our lives" in other circumstances want to interfere in others lives, using the government (here, the school board) to make that happen.

Here's the thing: you don't want your teens reading "those" books? That's between you and your teen. If they go against your wishes and read them anyway? That's a parenting issue, and the solution isn't to make the books go away.


Over in the UK, the Guardian reports on School ban on gay anthology challenged by US free speech organisations.

The Courier Post report.

Philadelphia Inquirer column, Working to Shelve Students' Book Choices

The Star Ledger report

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Armchair BEA and an Informal Poll

Are you, like me, sad, bitter, and angry because conferences like BEA (Book Expo America) and BBC (Book Blogger Convention) have been planned during the work week and you have to, you know, work?

Some people do more than whine about it on the Internet!

A number of bloggers have organized Armchair BEA! As posted at Blogher by Florinda, the tentative schedule is:

•Tuesday, May 25: BEA-related topic post
•Wednesday, May 26: Blogger interviews/optional BEA topic post
•Thursday, May 27: Giveaway Day/optional BEA topic post
•Friday, May 28: BBCon-related topic post

Emily's Reading Room has a post up explaining it, with a form to register including some ideas of how those of us not traveling to BEA can participate in Armchair BEA. Other bloggers involved: There's A Book; Michelle's Masterful Musings; The 3 Rs Blog. (If I missed someone, just let me know & I'll edit the post.)

Now, for my informal poll.

If you are going to BEA, is it work related? (Work meaning you are not taking vacation to attend, and possibly work is funding you.) To attend, do you have to take vacation time? Are you funding it yourself? What else is making it possible for you to attend?

If you are not going to BEA, why not? Work obligations? Personal obligations? Travel issues? Cost? What else is making it impossible for you to attend?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

48 Hour Book Challenge

Where does the time go?

It's the Fifth Annual 48 Hour Book Challenge! Yes, the original mega reading channel, brought to you by that energizer bunny of bloggers, MotherReader.

Go, read the details at MR's blog. Basically, pick your 48 hours during the weekend of June 4–6, 2010. Read and blog away! Sign up now!

Yes, there is a Twitter hashtag. #48hbc

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Noodle Pie

Noodle Pie by Ruth Starke. Kane Miller. 2010. Review copy from publisher. Book website.

The Plot: Andy, eleven, travels with his father to Vietnam. His father left Vietnam over twenty years before, surviving multiple pirate attacks to arrive, penniless, in Australia. Andy is Australian; not Vietnamese. His father may be "going home," but to Andy, it's a strange country, strange relatives, strange language, strange food. Even his father seems strange in Vietnam, wearing clothes, a gold watch, no longer the frugal man Andy knows.

The Good: This book is a two-fer for American readers. It's a look at modern Vietnam, through the eyes of a child who is a visitor. It's also a look at Australia, with Andy missing such foods as meat pies. Meat pies!! Just as mysterious to most American readers as pho for breakfast is to Andy. (Pho, by the way, is noodle soup.)

I loved the depiction of the emigrant returning home. Andy's father left when he was teenager; it's twenty years later. Much has changed in Hanoi; much remains the same, and the connect / disconnect, familiar but strange experience is conveyed in the places and people Andy and his father visit.

Andy is Australian. He was born in Australia, his name in Andy. He also has a Vietnamese name (Anh) and can speak and understand some Vietnamese (he calls it Vietlish). Both his parents were born in Vietnam. Andy views and understands Vietnam as the foreigner he is; but has his father to explain what is different and strange to Andy.

Because we see things through Andy's eyes, the reader first encounters Vietnam as "the other" and "strange". Here is Andy, observing a street scene: "a skinny woman squatting over a charcoal fire or a few sticks of burning wood -- right there on the roadside, amid all the dust and refuse and traffic fumes. Andy was shocked. Where where the health inspectors?" Andy's thinking is very much that of an eleven year old, especially an eleven year old experiencing culture shock. Andy's attitude softens as he learns more about the cultural and economic differences between Vietnam and Australia. His attitude and reaction is balanced by occasionally seeing things through the eyes of his cousin, Minh. Andy may start by seeing Vietnam as "the other," but as the story progresses he matures past that, just like the reader will.

There is a great balance between what Andy figures out on his own, and what needs to be explained to him. Andy, for example, sees his Vietnamese relatives (and other Vietnamese) as greedy and rude, demanding and expecting money from his "rich Australian" father. Andy knows his father is a gardener, that both of his parents fret over bills. Yes, they have a house, a car, Andy and his sister Mai go to school -- but they aren't rich! How did his father afford this trip, all the presents? And then Andy discovers that for years, his father has been sending money back home to his family. Even though the family owns a successful restaurant!

It takes the book for Andy to realize and come to terms with the good fortune his immediate family has had, by being able to live and work in Australia. To truly understand the different standard of living, expectations, and challenges for those who remained in Vietnam. Some of that understanding comes from his father, explaining that the reason he was able to emigrate to Australia was that those relatives made tremendous sacrifices to come up with the money to pay for his passage and fare. Andy, in turn, learns that his father has misled his Vietnamese family to think he is richer and more successful than he really is. Noodle Pie is, among other things, the eroding of an us/them, good/bad, familiar/strange mentality.

Noodle Pie provides a fascinating look at emigration, at the role of the emigrant in the lives of those who were left behind and those who are part of their new lives. It is set in Vietnam, with tons of details about Vietnam, its history, its culture, woven naturally into the story. But, it could be true of any emigrant, any country, any time.

Andy's Vietnamese relatives own a restaurant. Andy believes it to be, well, a real restaurant; instead, it turns out to be little more than a cafe, where locals buy food and eat quickly. No menus, no napkins, nothing that Andy associates with "restaurant." The food -- the food is so delicious, its descriptions so strong, that I want Vietnamese food and I want it now. The recipes Starke includes in the book makes me that much more hungry. KOTO, a restaurant to help Vietnamese street children become skilled and employable, is mentioned; and so Starke weaves together the realities of street children, food, tourism, business.

Not to give too much of the plot away, but Andy sees his family's "for locals" restaurant and realizes if it was attractive to foreigners who have money to spend, his Vietnamese family would become better off financially. He works to make this happen with his two cousins, Indy (Hien), his age, and Minh, slightly older, combining their talents, knowledge, and cultures. The discussion of economics was particularly insightful. Andy at first thinks the family restaurant must make tons of money. Then he realizes how much is charged. Only later does he realize to factor in the cost of food. And the cost of labor. And what should be the price of the food? Foreigners can afford to pay more, so should they? But the locals cannot afford the higher prices. But, especially for a restaurant, the locals eat quickly and then leave while the foreigners take their time and linger. Should the pricing take that into account, that instead of four or six local seatings there is only one? What is fair? What is just?

The Acknowledgement section in Noodle Pie discusses the research that went into the book, including Starke's multiple trips to Vietnam and her Vietnamese advisers. Starke is Australian, and Noodle Pie was published in Australia in 2008.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy