Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Small Press Month

March is Small Press Month, a celebration of small and independent publishers. There's a lot of exciting work being published by these small presses, some of it mainstream, and some of it work that might never, for one reason or another, see the light of day at the large, profit-oriented media conglomerates that dominate publishing. Small presses keep the pioneer spirit alive: taking chances on new authors and innovative books, experimenting with new technologies, or reaching under-represented audiences. By controlling costs, keeping print runs small, and using creative marketing techniques, small presses can afford to publish books for small niche markets that the "big 6" wouldn't even consider a possibility. Small presses are the "cowboys" of the publishing world.

To celebrate Small Press Month, throughout the month of March I'll be blogging about some excellent kids' and teen's books from the small and independent publishers. I hope that I can help you discover some new books that you otherwise may never have heard of.

For more information about Small Press Month, including "Ten Things to do for Bookstores & Libraries" and "Thirty-One Things to do for Small Presses & Independent Publishers," see the Small Press Month web site:


Monday, February 20, 2006

The City of Ember

The underground city of Ember was built as a refuge where humanity could survive a disaster. Ember was designed to last hundreds of years, and the builders planned for everything - except the possibility that the instructions for getting out of the city and into the world above might be lost. Now, Ember is starting to fall apart. The generator that runs everything, including the lights, is failing, and the storerooms are running out of food. The future of Ember rests in the hands of two twelve-year-old children: Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet. Can Doon and Lina find a way to save Ember before the lights go out forever?

The City of Ember has been on my "to read" list for quite a while. Now I'm sorry I waited! It's an outstanding book - exciting, suspenseful, and intriguing. The city and culture of Ember are vividly drawn, and the characters are engaging. Doon and Lina are two very different characters, who nonetheless find friendship with each other on their quest to do what the adults in the city can't - or won't - do. Young readers will relate to their frustration at trying to get the adults in their lives to take them seriously.

I listened to the audio book from Audible.com and the audio is very well done. The narrator does a good job creating distinctive voices for all the characters, and music and sound effects add the the atmosphere without being overpowering.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ptolemy's Gate

The first time I read The Amulet of Samarkand, I was hooked. I succumbed to the charms of the wise-cracking djinni Bartimaeus, and I adored the book. The Golem's Eye was harder to like. It was still a good story, and the character of Kitty made an interesting addition, but young magician Nathaniel was behaving abominably, and there wasn't enough of the wonderful voice of Bartimaeus.

I had hopes that Ptolemy's Gate would live up to the expectations set in the first book. I'm happy to say that it's everything I'd hoped for - and more!

Several years have passed, and Nathaniel, known to all as John Mandrake, is now on the Council, one of the most important men in the government. But things are spiraling out of control, and between the war, protests by the commoners - and protecting his own position - Nathaniel is kept pretty busy. He fears to release Bartimaeus back to the Other Place for a much needed rest, but the longer Bartimaeus remains in this world, the weaker and less effective he becomes. Meanwhile, Kitty is involved in a plan of her own, a plan that she hopes will solve the problems facing her country. When Bartimaeus and Nathaniel uncover a plot against the government, the three of them - Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty - will be thrown together against unimaginable danger.

Start with an exciting story that'll keep you on the edge of your seat, add in a wisecracking djinni, an idealistic young woman, and an, er, unsympathetic but confused magician, and you've got a winner. But even more than that, Ptolemy's Gate is a powerful and moving story that resonates with choices and consequences, sacrifice and redemption, and the human bonds of love and obligation that even djinni can fall prey to.

Jim Dale reads the classics

Yesterday, my 10 year old son and I were eating lunch together at the mall. We were quiet, each of us lost in our thoughts, when suddenly he exclaimed, "I really like Around the World in 80 Days! It's such a great story!"

As great as Jules Verne's book is, and indeed it's one of my favorites, Mr. Verne can only take partial credit for my son's ardor. The rest of the credit has to go to Jim Dale, whose wonderful narration of the book we have been listening to. Jim Dale, who is best known as the U.S. narrator of the Harry Potter books, has a remarkable voice and an ability to bring any story to life. Athough I have read the book before, I found myself literally holding my breath in unbearable suspense as the members of the Reform Club waited and the clock ticked towards 8:45. (My only criticism of this audio book is the cover, which features a balloon, one mode of transportation that wasn't used by Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Hello?)

We also recently listened to Dale's narration of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and although it's an old favorite that we've read many times, Dale opens up new dimensions to the story with his narration and his voices.

There are so many excellent classics like these that children could benefit from being exposed to. But let's face it, some of the classics are difficult to read because of modern changes in language and writing styles. An excellent reading of these books can make them much more understandable and more vivid to a modern audience. And, I'll bet that a lot of children and adults have listened to these audio books just because it's Jim Dale, thus exposing them to something they may not have read on their own. I hope that Jim Dale will continue to read more of the best classics to help keep them alive for modern audiences.