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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Game is Afoot

Fans were Sherlocked, so to speak, long before Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the "high-functioning sociopath" on the popular BBC show. Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in London in 1887. Since that time legions of mystery aficionados have been captivated by the Baker Street detective and his powers of deduction.

Holmes first appeared on December 1, 1887
At this time I feel that it is only fair to mention that Doyle did not originate the idea of a highly intelligent and observant detective using his powers of deduction to solve a crime. No offense to the esteemed author across the pond, but Edgar Allen Poe invented the modern detective story when he wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Not only was The Murders in the Rue Morgue the first "locked-room" mystery, but Poe's scholarly and analytical detective, C. Augustus Dupin, bares more than a slight resemblance to Sherlock Holmes.

Okay, back to Sherlock because, even though Poe's detective came first, C. Augustus Dupin does not really roll off the tongue like Sherlock Holmes. Also, Poe only wrote three short stories featuring Dupin compared to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon consisting of four novels and fifty-six short stories.

Of course, the notoriety of Sherlock Holmes extends far beyond the original books and stories. You could never read a single word penned by Arthur Conan Doyle and still identify a calabash pipe and deerstalker cap as belonging to Sherlock Holmes. Interesting side note: The calabash pipe (the long, curved bowl kind) and deerstalker cap never appeared in any of the initial Holmes mysteries.

These iconic items may not appear in Doyle's original stories but they do look quite dashing in movies and on television. It is not incredibly surprising that Sherlock Holmes is the most filmed character of all time. The more recent movies starring Robert Downey Jr. as well as the television series, Elementary and Sherlock, depict the famous detective as highly erratic (bordering on insane) and definitely sexier than the the Holmes described by Doyle.

Basil Rathbone
If you want authentic Holmes on the screen, though, no actor can hold a candle to Basil Rathbone who portrayed the detective in 14 films from 1939 to 1946. I am a sucker for old black and white movies and Rathbone is the quintessential Sherlock Holmes

Here is Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson
in what is probably the most famous Holmes mystery,
The Hound of the Baskervilles

I cannot write about Sherlock Holmes movies without bringing up Young Sherlock Holmes which came out in 1985. This was one of my favorite movies growing up and, ooohhh, I thought that Nicholas Rowe was so dreamy in the title role. It may not be the greatest movie ever made but Young Sherlock Holmes is  fun and you can actually watch it with your kids. Well, at least with older kids since there are a few scary moments.

Speaking of a teenage Sherlock Holmes there are several outstanding book series featuring the famous detective during his youth. The most notable is The Young Sherlock Holmes series (unrelated to the film) by Andrew Lane. I have read the first two books in this series, Death Cloud and Rebel Fire, and both were a blast to read with plenty of action to keep tweens and teens entertained. Lane's take on a 14 year old Holmes is a creative and fun introduction to the character for kids not quite ready to tackle Doyle. I happen to love the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle, but it was written over a century ago so it will probably come across as a bit staid and cumbersome to a younger reader.

Currently I am completely enthralled with the Sherlock, Lupin, & Me books by Irene Adler. Ok, if you are familiar at all with Sherlock Holmes (especially the Robert Downey Jr. movies and the show Elementary) you probably recognize Irene Adler as the detective's love interest.  In the original stories Sherlock had no interest in romance. There was an  Irene Adler, but Holmes merely admired her intellect since she actually managed to challenge him in a battle of wits.. Anyways, Sherlock, Lupin, & Me is a juvenile mystery series written by  Pierdomenico Baccalario and Alessandro Gatti from the perspective of the fictional Irene Adler. In the first book, The Dark Lady, 12 year old Irene is vacationing on an island when she befriends a young Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin.

The character Arsene Lupin, the gentlemen thief, was created by Maurice Leblanc in the early 1900s. Leblanc actually wrote a story in which Lupin meets Holmes in the short story, Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late, in 1906.

Naturally, a mystery soon presents itself that the three friends must use their ingenuity and cunning to solve. I am kind of obsessed with this series right now. I am such a book geek, so I love the mash up of the different historical literary characters and the mysteries in them are incredibly clever. The books also include lots of amazing illustrations that look like they were copied straight from a Victorian era magazine.

Ok, this is the last series for kids that I am going to talk about and Sherlock Holmes does not even play a pivotal role. The main character (and detective) is Sherlock's little sister Enola Holmes. The Enola Holmes Mysteries are written by Nancy Springer and are perfect for girls that have graduated from Nancy Drew. It is hard not to root for the precocious and resourceful Enola who is just as clever, if not more so, than her two older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock.

Numerous adult authors have also put their own spin on Sherlock, but until recently none had been approved by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate.  I was incredibly excited when I learned that Anthony Horowitz, the author of the Alex Rider series for teens and multiple books for adults, was the first and only author to be chosen by the Doyle estate to write an original Sherlock Holmes mystery.  The House of Silk was published in 2011 and, just recently, Horowitz's second Sherlock Holmes mystery, Moriarty, was released. As far as the Victorian atmosphere, the characterization, the distinct narration by Watson; Horowitz totally nailed it. However, I couldn't help feel disappointed while I read The House of Silk because the solution to the mystery was so blatantly obvious.  Part of the enjoyment of reading a Sherlock Holmes mystery (or a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple mystery for that matter) is that when it comes time for the big reveal you are completely flabbergasted by the deductive powers of the detective. Having the mystery figured out when you are only halfway through the book spoils all of the fun.

Maybe I am just a prude too, but I didn't like that Horowitz chose a plot line that read more like an episode of Criminal Minds. Not saying that horrendous crimes did not happen during that time period, but they are just not what I associate with Sherlock Holmes. Overall, The House of Silk was wonderfully written, a true homage to Doyle, but the mystery was too simplistic and crude for Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Gather Around the Chuck Wagon

I only watch a few reality television shows with any regularity, and most of them revolve around cooking.  Top Chef? Yes, please!  Chopped?  As often as I can!  Iron Chef?  Don't mind if I do!  I know way too much about celebrity chefs, their restaurants, and even what foods they do and do not like to cook.  If you thought my bluegrass obsession was bad, it's nothing compared to my chef mania!

However, you can't even begin to imagine my excitement when I realized that two-time Chopped contestant Kent Rollins was coming out with a cookbook called A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales from the Trail.  If you've never seen Mr. Rollins then you are missing out!  First featured as a contestant on the Chopped grilling special, he is an actual cowboy, who owns an actual chuck wagon, and cooks for other cowboys.  His food looked delicious, and he just seemed like the nicest dude that you ever could meet.  He was just a rugged, polite, amusing cowboy who tried his darnedest to make his dishes look pretty for the judges.  The book doesn't come out until April 7, but a copy is already on order for the library!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Another Vampire Series

There are many many vampire series out there. Some of them are good, most are bad. Here is one that I have really enjoyed.

Image result for vampire academy booksVampire Academy: Rose, a dhampir* and Lissa, a Moroi** are best friends. They have been forced into hiding because someone is trying to hurt Lissa. However, only Rose and Lissa can see this. They are found and brought back to school where Rose continues her training and Lissa returns to her normal life. Then things start to happen, such as dead cat is found outside Lissa room. As the danger looms closer Rose and Lissa have to discover who is trying to hurt Lissa and why. This book is full of adventure, danger, and humor with a dash of romance. If you like this book you will like the whole series.

*dhampir is a half vampire and half human guardians of vampires.
**Moroi  is a secret vampire breed

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Top 100 Chapter Books-Final Ten!!!!!

It's Happy Dance Time!!!

Yes, I have finally made it to the last 10 books of my Top 100 Children's Chapter Books! I was starting to believe that I would never finish this countdown. Now, if you know me my top ten will probably not be too surprising.  Especially, considering I have tattoos of my favorite two books (for the record both tattoos are visible and in perfectly respectable areas).  Another hint, the use of initials is very popular amongst these 10 authors.

10. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Well, let me start by saying that if my first name was Lyman I would just use the initial too. So are you a Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland fan? Honestly, I went back and forth on which one I liked better.  Both books feature female characters that are transported to strange, magical lands where they meet a variety of fantastic characters.

First and foremost, I decided that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz trumps Alice's Adventures in Wonderland because there is an actual plot.  Dorothy's trek across Oz is a quest during which she makes friends and enemies. In the culmination of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Dorothy must triumph over the villainous Wicked Witch before she can return to Kansas.  Let's be truthful, as much as I adore Alice, her meandering tour through Wonderland is more like a bizarre, drug-induced hallucination than an epic story of adventure. Not saying that Charles Dodgson was a habitual or even recreational drug user, which is a topic of debate, but proven to be unfounded.

Whose idea was this costume?
The second reason that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz deserves to be in the top 10 is Baum went on to write another 13 Oz books and although none of them is quite as good as the first they are wonderful stories. In fact readers were so enamored with Oz that other authors continued on with the series. The most well known of these is Ruth Plumly Thompson who published 19 books about Oz.

It is not possible to talk about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  book without at least mentioning The Wizard of Oz movie starring Judy Garland.  I remember being terrified of the flying monkeys as a kid which were incredibly creepy looking. Also, am I the only one that noticed that Dorothy's pigtails keep changing length during her journey along the yellow brick road? And my husband didn't even believe me when I told him that the scarecrow carries a gun into the spooky forest. Who cares about scary winged monkeys and weird inconsistencies when you have the lollipop guild and Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

Baum in Macatawa
Ok, my final argument for the supremacy of the Oz books is completely biased, but as I have stated before: This is my list so I get to do what I want. After the financial success of Father Goose: His Book, Baum purchased a home in Macatawa Park, Michigan on the coast of Lake Michigan. Supposedly it is here that Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and local legend claims that the Emerald City was even inspired by Castle Park in Holland, Michigan. So there you go, simple Michiganian (or is it Michigander) pride that gives The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that little nudge.
The Sign of the Goose, Macatawa Park, Michigan

The Castle of Castle Park

9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
You had to know that more Roald Dahl was coming, because I have probably stated that he is my personal hero more than a dozen times. How do you entice children? Write an entire book about chocolate, candy, and, wait, MORE CHOCOLATE!!!!  Throw in a main character more sympathetic than a three legged, blind puppy, a wonderfully, wacky setting, and a genius candy maker that is a complete loon and you have a SCRUMDIDDLYUMPTIOUS story (I love that nearly every book by Dahl has made up words thrown in. We can call it Dahlish or Dahlese).

Last year Charlie and the Chocolate Factory celebrated its 50th anniversary and the original book is believed to have sold over 20 million copies! How many children during that half century have fantasized about owning their own chocolate factory complete with oompa loompas and a glass elevator?

Movie adaptations of books are usually sub par, but the 1971 version starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka is one of the most beloved movies of all time. I don't think that there are enough adjectives to describe how spectacular Gene Wilder is as Willy Wonka. Unfortunately, that makes Johnny Depp's peculiar portrayal of Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's remake even more tragic. You have no idea how much it hurts me to say that, because Tim Burton rocks, but my recommendation is stick to the original.
No contest!

8. Holes by Louis Sachar
Prior to reading Holes I always associated Louis Sachar with the light and zany Wayside School books that were popular when I was a kid. As much as I adore Sachar's hilarious books about the 30 story school with one classroom on each floor (except the 19th floor which does not exist) Holes is on a completely different level as far as depth, plot, and inspiration.

The men in the Yelnats family have been cursed for generations and Stanley is just the latest Yelnats to be leading a life fraught with ill fortune. In his latest mishap Stanley is accused of stealing a very famous pair of shoes and as a result ends up in Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center in the middle of a hot and dusty Texas desert.

Stanley's story is brilliantly interwoven with flashbacks of the history of Camp Green Lake and Kissin' Kate Barlow as well as the tale of how the Yelnats family came to be cursed for all time by Madame Zeroni.  It is nothing short of masterful how Sacher takes so many diverging characters and story lines and combines them into one fantastic book that is a perfect mix of mystery, adventure, historical fiction, humor, and dramatic realistic fiction.

The film adaptation of Holes starring Shia LeBeouf, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Henry Winkler, Patricia Arquette, Dule' Hill, and Eartha Kitt is superbly acted (as if you couldn't tell from the names on that list). Is it as good as the book with the same level of detail? Of course not, but it was really well done. Just make sure you do not just watch the movie without reading the book.

7. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Well, I have already talked about Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan so now let's move on to Charlotte's Web which is, without a doubt, the superior of E.B. White's children's novels. The story of Wilbur, the runt pig, who is first rescued from slaughter by Fern and secondly by Charlotte, the talking and spelling spider, so deeply affected my daughter when she was 7 that she refused to eat pork for a year.

As with all of White's books, Charlotte's Web is a perfect marriage of human and animal characters. Each character from the humans like Fern and Avery Arable to the animals such as Charlotte A. Cavatica and Templeton the rat (my personal favorite) has a unique and believable voice. Based on the premise, Charlotte's Web could have been overly sappy and precious, but White does not sugar coat farm life. The almost dry realism mixed with fantasy is what help makes Charlotte's Web a children's classic.

Either my second or third grade teacher read Charlotte's Web aloud to the class and then we watched the animated, musical version of the book. The cartoon came out in 1973 and kids still love it. My favorite part has always been when Templeton is gorging  himself at the fair. 

6.The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Who knew that a madcap adventure in a fantastical world could be so educational. Psst!!! Do not tell your kids that before giving them The Phantom Tollbooth to read. Of course, they may catch on since Milo goes to cities named Digitopolis and Dictionopolis in the Kingdom of Wisdom.

By definition fantasy novels are unrealistic flights of imagination. Even among other books containing fabricated worlds The Phantom Tollbooth stands out as unconventional and there in lies its lasting appeal to readers.

I read The Phantom Tollbooth multiple times as a kid and as an adult I read it to my own children. Juster's writing is just so incredibly smart without ever making the reader feel stupid. Just thinking about Milo driving through the Doldrums in his little red car makes me smile.  And then there are all of the puns. If you have read any of my previous posts you will have realized that I have a penchant for puns (even bad ones).  The Whether Man; Tock, the Watch Dog; Dr. Dischord. the scientist who studies unpleasant sounds; and the Awful Dynne who collects them. I could go on and on.  Did I understand every detail of The Phantom Tollbooth when I first read it as a kid? Probably not, but that made rereading it when I was older all the more fun. You may have to explain some of the words if you read it aloud (first and foremost what a tollbooth is) but trust me, it is worth the effort.

If you do not have time to read it yourself David Hyde Pierce performs the audio version and it is fantastic! Here is just a little snippet.

5. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
There are probably not too many guys jumping up and down about Anne of Green Gables.  However, if you were a young girl who loved reading Anne Shirley was one of your heroes. I actually asked my mother if I could dye my hair red, because I wanted to be like Anne Shirley. That may have had something to do with being completely moony-eyed over Gilbert Blythe. Admit it, you were too and it was torturous waiting until book three for Anne to finally admit that she loved Gilbert back.

In addition to having Gilbert (be still my beating heart) Anne of Green Gables is just beautiful storytelling about a spunky, indomitable heroine. Despite early hardships and living during a time period when young women were not encouraged to be intelligent, ambitious, or outspoken; Anne just barrels ahead with complete confidence in who she is and what she wants.  Over a century later do girls have more freedom and opportunity? Absolutely, but countless young women still struggle with low self-esteem and Anne Shirley can be a tremendous role model.

If you have never watched the PBS miniseries of Anne of Green Gables do so immediately! You can even borrow it for free from the Portland District Library and afterwards you can watch Anne of Avonlea. Because this is a miniseries it is able to include so much more detail than the typical movie based on a book and the casting and acting is beyond perfect. I don't think that I have ever watched a movie based on a book in which the actors were exactly how I imagined them.

4. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
No doubt about it. The Westing Game is the greatest mystery ever written for kids!  I think that one of the things that amazes me most about The Westing Game is that it was published in 1979 and it never comes across as dated. I have read this book at least 30 times (as recently as a year ago) and you would never think while reading it that it was published over 3 decades ago.

When the millionaire, Sam Westing, dies the 16 residents of the recently built Sunset Towers are surprised to discover that they are heirs to his fortune.  There is a catch, though. In order to inherit they must solve the puzzle as to who murdered the the wealthy tycoon. Leading the pack of amateur detectives is 13 year old Tabitha Ruth "Turtle" Wexler who is wickedly smart, a master of the stock market, and quick to kick anyone in the shins who annoys her. Of all the literary characters that I read about as a kid I always felt the most akin to Turtle. Similar to Turtle, I grew up with a sister several years older who was beautiful and popular while I was a book smart, gawky dork. In addition, I had to spend an entire week standing by the wall during recess because I kicked two boys very hard (but I didn't kick them in the shins). Obviously, since we were both ignored little sisters and violent kickers Turtle and I were kindred spirits.

I won't give away any more details about the plot, but The Westing Game is an incredibly clever and funny puzzle. I guarantee that you will never guess the ending!

3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
You are probably wondering why Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is way up here at number three when I have already said that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite book in the Harry Potter series. Well as far as being the top 100 chapter books for kids it is hard not to include the book that first sparked a world-wide mania for everything Harry Potter.

At a time when kids (and adults) were becoming more and more engrossed with technology, Rowling came along and rekindled an interest and excitement about good old fashioned books. Suddenly kids who rarely read for pleasure were willing to wait hours in line to purchase a book. Rowling also inspired countless other children's authors and really breathed new life into the fantasy genre.

It has been nearly 20 years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (oh my God I am old!) and we are still enamored with Hogwarts, Quidditch, Voldemort, and the Boy who Lived.

2. Matilda by Roald Dahl
Ok, I am going to go off on a bit of a tangent, so please stay with me. I promise that there is an actual point and I am not just rambling on and on for no reason. Several years back I was at a youth librarian conference where children's and teen author, Donna Jo Napoli, was one of the keynote speakers. In her speech Napoli was discussing the importance of addressing difficult and even traumatic issues in children's books realistically; i.e. not always having things turn out well for the characters. Specifically, Napoli mentioned the scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn during which Francie is attacked by a child rapist. Napoli went on to say how she had always wished that Francie had not been rescued by her mother, because many young readers do suffer in countless horrible ways and need to know that they are not alone.

First and foremost, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite books so part of me was screaming NOOOOOO! when Napoli talked about wishing the plot was different. It is also an adult book, so I think that in some ways this example was inappropriate. What is okay to publish in an adult or teen book is a far cry from what is in a children's book. That point aside, I completely respect Napoli as an author and I understand some of what she was trying to say. If every book was about perfect characters frolicking happily in a sun drenched meadow with unicorns while eating cotton candy and cupcakes reading would quickly become very boring.

As a child who did experience bad things, though, books for me were an escape from that reality. Did I want to read about other kids suffering what I had? No, I was already living it and that was awful enough.When I read books I wanted hope, fantasy, and to be transported out of my reality. As Matilda says to the local librarian when asked about how she liked a book: "I was flying past the stars on silver wings. It was wonderful."

I honestly do not know if I would have made it through childhood without the books of Roald Dahl, which were always my favorites growing up. Dahl is a genius at taking traumatic events and childhood fears and attacking them with humor and outrageousness.  In Matilda you have a young girl with absolutely atrocious parents who do not love or care for her and unfortunately there are many children in the world who also lack a stable and loving home.  Dahl addresses this issue with a tremendous amount of humor and empowerment. Matilda takes her growth, education, and general happiness into her own hands and she is able to conquer every hardship and fear in her life.

Let's get away from all of the touchy-feely emotional stuff now and talk about how insanely, marvelously funny Matilda is. There is a certain poetic justice in how Matilda gets back at her parents and Miss Trunchbull. Speaking of the wretched headmistress, is there another villain in children's literature that is so deliciously vile? From putting kids in the chokey to stuffing Bruce Bottner with a massive amount of chocolate cake, she is pure brazen nastiness and I love it!

People may be more familiar with Charlie and the Chocolate factory, but I believe that Matilda is Dahl's greatest triumph. Is it hilarious? Yes, but it is also a book about hope, inner strength, and  the magical power of reading.

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
"This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her...A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling in the air.

How many closets did you go in hoping to find a hidden passage to Narnia? Oh, how I dreamed of being Lucy Pevensie so I could have tea with Mr. Tumnus, ride on the back of Aslan, and live in Cair Paravel as a queen. The only change I would make is that I would have stayed in Narnia rather than return to England.

Although chronologically book 2, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first book that Lewis wrote about the fantastical world of  Narnia. In an essay titled It All Began with a Picture Lewis explains that:
"The Lion all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.  This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen.  Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: 'Let's try to make a story about it.'"

Lewis persevered through writer's block, self doubt, and criticism from fellow writers who were so negative about the story that he burnt his first draft. One of these fellow writers was none other than J.R.R. Tolkien who was extremely harsh (how could Tolkien not love Narnia?)  Finally after a full decade, Lewis brought the Pevensies, the magnificent Aslan, the White Witch, Cair Paravel and the countless other extraordinary characters and details that compose Narnia to life.

I love all of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia, but The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the zenith of the entire series. There is adventure, fear, wonder, sorrow, redemption, humor, and hope all perfectly woven together into a masterpiece that is not even 200 pages. Is there a childhood dream that can transcend climbing into a wardrobe and stepping out into an otherworldly, snowy wood and seeing the ethereal glow of a lone lamp post? Not in my opinion.

So, there you have it. My top 100 children's chapter books. Please feel free to share your thoughts since I am quite certain that not everyone will agree with my choices. My hope is that you have found some new books to read and share with your children.