Ichiro by Ryan Inzana

On a visit to Gramps in Japan,

Ichiro hatches a plan:

to catch a tanuki

(it's just a bit spooky)

and spring from his cell Hachiman.

So far this year I've read a number of good books so I'm going to name the best of the lot for you. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is a debut novel worth reading. In many ways it's a traditional high fantasy adventure story but with a setting that evokes the middle east. Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is an aging 'ghul' hunter and while he's grown weary of the fight, he gets drawn back for one last adventure. It's a very good stand-alone fantasy adventure and I really look forward to the author's next book.

I finished the last book in Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, Timeless. I've mentioned the series in a previous entry better than a year ago. It deserves a second mention. If you don't want to take the time to read a novel, try the manga adaption of book one. Vampires, werewolves, steampunk  urban fantasy... What more could one ask for?

I also got sucked into reading a non-genre series, the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich. They are hilarious in their own special way--I've been getting odd looks from both cat and husband at the random bursts of snickering and snorting coming from the couch when I read these. Also, in in the right perspective they really are every bit as much a fantasy as anything else I read, despite being set in New Jersey and being about an incompetent and improbably lucky bounty hunter. The Stephanie Plum books aren't even the popcorn of the book world...they're cotton candy.

Ever since I was little, I've loved houses. I'd page through the Sears catalog and pick out furnishings for my future home. When I started house-hunting for real, I found out that people even ordered houses from Sears!

In some books a house is more than just the setting, it's a main character. After reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, I hope to visit the mansions of Savannah, Georgia, some day.

Merry Hall in England is another grand character. Beverley Nichols details the renovation of this Georgian mansion and its gardens that's fun to read, but I'm glad it's not me doing all that work! Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn complete the trilogy.

Since decorating, like gardening, is a process and that you don't have to finish, I continue to look for inspiration. My current "wish book" is Modern Vintage Style by Emily Chalmers. With scrumptious photos of amazing pattern and color combinations, I fall asleep dreaming of garage sale treasures yet to be found.

Walking by the new book shelf, The New Bespoke: Couture-Inspired Rooms That Seamlessly Combine One-of-a-Kind Objects with Hand-Made Furniture by Frank Roop caught me eye. It's modern vintage at a higher level! Totally out of my league, but I can savor the gorgeous colors and textures in the photos and pretend I'm a kid again, decorating a dream house.

The Princess and the Warrior

While crossing the street one day,
Sissi’s squashed in the usual way,
Though a truck stopped her breathing,
Bodo helped her start wheezing,
Through a straw he found at the cafe.

Librarian vices in no particular order: cookies, curiosity, coffee, and concertos. Luckily for us, and you, we get to celebrate all of these things April 16th from 12-1 pm at Mondays on the Mall. Come and join us for “Café Day” at The Congress Center, SW 5th and Salmon, and chat with a librarian, ask us anything (especially stumpers!), get a free cookie and a coffee, and hear some live music. We’ve compiled some of our favorite pastry and cookie cookbooks, which you can read about below. Hope to see you there!

Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich
Awarded the 2010 IACP Baking Book of the Year, this cookie book is uniquely organized by texture - Flaky, gooey, crispy, chewy, chunky….one of each, please.

One Sweet Cookie: Celebrated Chefs Share Favorite Recipes
by Tracey Zabar
Imagine having a cookie swap party with your favorite chefs. Mario Batali, Todd English, and Daniel Boulud are all represented here, along with many other signature creations.

Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar: 100 Dairy-Free Recipes for Everyone's Favorite Treats
by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero.
THE rock stars of the vegan world, Moskowitz and Romero, apply their expert knowledge and non-preachy attitudes to dairy-free cookies with delicious results.

Gluten-Free Cookies: From Shortbreads to Snickerdoodles, Brownies to Biscotti - 50 Recipes for Cookies You Crave by Luane Kohnke
Need cookie recipes that avoid the G-word? Try these using Kohnke's own flour blend, which was chosen by taste testers as the closest to wheat flour in taste and appearance.

Cutie Pies: 40 Sweet, Savory, and Adorable Recipes by Dani Cone
From the owner of High 5 Pie in Seattle comes this book filled with miniature sweet and savory cutie pies, flipsides (turnovers), pie-jars, pie-pops, and petit-5’s (muffin-tin pies).

The Rosie's Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed, Baking Book
by Judy Rosenberg
In an updated reissue of Rosie’s original book from 1991, you will find not only 300 rich and tasty recipes (40 never before published), but also tons of mouthwatering photos.

One Girl Cookies: Recipes for Cakes, Cupcakes, Whoopie Pies, and Cookies from Brooklyn's Beloved Bakery by Dawn Casale & David Crofton.
The Brooklyn bakery self-described as an “Urban Mayberry” was started by one girl who borrowed from her family’s heirloom recipes, ultimately creating a dessert destination.

The Treats Truck Baking Book: Cookies, Brownies & Goodies Galore! by Kim Ima
Since no Portland booklist would be complete without an entry from a food truck, we’ll include this well-designed one from the Vendy Award winner for Best Dessert Vendor.

Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours by Sarabeth Levine
Legendary NYC master baker delivers the goods with over 100 recipes for re-creating her perfectly buttery, flaky pastries and scrumptious desserts; lots of “technique” photos, too.

Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito
Featured on The Today Show and Martha Stewart, Lewis and Poliafito are hip, cool, and forward-thinking bakers who urge you to try these new-fangled confections.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

Information can come from a drum,
Or encased in a bit that’s quantum,
But in this book Gleick proposes,
It’s communication that drove us,
To the edge of our knowledge kingdom.

Got a *liter-ick of your own you'd like to contribute? Do so in the comments.

*A book review in the form of a limerick.

Did I mention that your very own Multnomah County Library has the best collection of sheet music and other music instruction materials in any public library west of the Mississippi? I have some of it checked out right now, plus lots I’ve bought, but still I can never find ‘that tune’. You know, the one I can’t get out of my head, that tune. You can search for individual tunes in the catalog by putting the title in quotes as a keyword search and limiting to sheet music (More search options > Material Type > Music score). The problem is that not all larger collections of sheet music have the full table of contents in our catalog (for reasons irrelevant here).

There are a number of possible work-arounds. You could use a song index in book form where you can look up songs by title and see which of a finite set of sheet music collections they might be in, and then check to see if we have said collections in our collection. We have reference copies of a number of these that live on the Third Floor of Central Library.  (A keyword search in the catalog for <song index> gives a decidedly over-inclusive result, a subject search for <indexes-songs> an under-inclusive one.) Or you could go to the web sites of some of the bigger publishers of sheet music from whom we buy fake books (say Hal Leonard). I’ve done that and it works OK too.  Or you could go to World Cat (which generally has the full contents) via our website and do a title phrase search for the name of the song and limit it to things we own (thanks to our music librarian for walking me through this process).

Or, you could get frustrated decide to learn to play by ear, take out some of our material on ear training and never have to rely on sheet music again. More work in the short run, bigger pay off in the end. Maybe someday I’ll get my stuff together and actually do this. The music collection certainly does have its quirks, so don’t hesitate to call our Reference Line (503-988-5234) for assistance.

Mothers know the weird duality of being able to sleep at the drop of a blankie combined with the super spidey-sense that allows us to hear four-year-old eyelids popping open at, say, 2:37 a.m. for no discernible reason. I have an interest in sleep which I compare to the interest armchair travelers have in far-off and exotic lands to which they never actually travel. My personal feeling is that parental sleep deprivation is nature's way of attempting to dull or cushion the other body blows children dole out on a daily basis.  

A recent example would be Child the Elder's decision to microwave butter in an orange enameled cast-iron pot. If you're wondering, it takes exactly one minute and thirty-seven seconds to blow a hole through the interior wall of the appliance and this will be accompanied by impressive sound effects and fire. If a younger child is present for the explosion, you will also have much terrified screaming to accompany the wails of "I didn't know it was metal!  It doesn't look like metal!" from the responsible party. The pot itself will emerge completely unscathed--and completely unlike your nerves, despite the sleepiness. A well-rested parent might have noticed the child putting the pot in there in time to intervene, but where's the fun in that?

But enough about parents. James Mollison's book Where Children Sleep is an intriguing photo-essay of the circumstances in which children rest all over the world. A two-page spread is devoted to each individual child with one page containing a portrait and paragraph about the child's life and the other a picture of the place in which that child sleeps. It is a vast and sobering continuum, from the mansion bedroom of a child in New Jersey to a discarded sofa on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The details in each picture speak volumes and add layers to the spare text. In one paragraph we are told that Alyssa's "shabby house" in Kentucky is "falling apart." Indeed, the photo of Alyssa's bedroom shows a missing ceiling with insulation hanging from the rafters above a once regal angel doll, wings battered and drooping and gray with dirt.

If this sort of photography is your cup of tea, I would also highly recommend Material World: A Global Family Portrait and What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets by Peter Menzel and 1000 Families by Uwe Ommer. All of these titles offer fascinating looks at the eye-opening contrasts in circumstances for humanity around the globe. They are enough to wake a person up--no destruction of small appliances required.

I really like Jim Butcher's books, especially the Dresden Files. So, when I saw a new novel, Fated by Benedict Jacka, that has a cover blurb by Jim Butcher reading: "Harry Dresden would like Alex Verus tremendously--and be a little nervous around him. I just added Benedict Jacka to my must-read list." Well, now I'm intrigued. That's obviously the next book for me! After all, I have many long "Cold Days" to wait before the next book of the Dresden Files and I would like to find some great new books between now and then. Benedict Jacka even gives the Dresden Files a nod in this quote from the first chapter: "I've even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under "Wizard", though that's probably an urban legend."

This urban fantasy does an excellent job of setting up the world that Alex Verus inhabits. Set in London, there are many familiar elements for a reader used to urban fantasy: magic is real, but rare and your average mortal overlooks it. There's even a council of the more powerful mages, divided into Light and Dark. But it works! The Dark mages hold a rather Nietzsche-like philosophy of 'might makes right'. The Light mages don't come up that much in this book but they're just *sure* that they can work with the Dark mages. There have been forty odd years of peace after all!  Because trusting that guy who thinks that if you can't stop him from doing whatever he wants it's your own fault for being weak... Yup, that's such a good idea...

Our protagonist, Alex Verus is a diviner. That's all the magic he has. He has no offensive or defense magic except that if he thinks about a question he can know the answer - at least in so far as the human mind can follow the possible branching futures. So, if someone is shooting line of sight bolts of death at him he can see which hiding places let him not die right now. He can use those moments in hiding to see paths which might trick his enemy to the roof's edge. If he needs to see something with more possible branches it might take him hours or days of looking down each path of the future, one path at a time, to see the path that leads to the outcome he wants. He can acquire magic items to help him, he can acquire allies, he even owns a gun but there's no future in which Alex is going to become a more versatile mage. The allies that are introduced in the first book include a minor air elemental and a woman named Luna who is cursed with luck. Bad things never happen to Luna. Bad things happen to anyone she passes by. Actually touching another person isn't a good idea for Luna since she's not evil.

This is the start of a trilogy. The publisher is putting out the next two books over the course of the next several months to try to build up this new author's readership. A lot of the first book is world building, but it's a really interesting world. I wanted nothing more than to see what was around the next corner. I'm really looking forward to Cursed and Taken this spring and summer. One book by this author wasn't nearly enough. I finished this book in a single sitting because I just couldn't put it down.  And having finished the first book in this series I'll say that I can see Harry Dresden and Alex Versus sitting down in a quiet pub for a beer or two and enjoying the company.

The world can be an over-whelming mess of a place sometimes. Trying to deal with sorrow, tragedy and anger can push us to confront pain or flee it. Sometimes being in that place can lead us to do something really big, something that will form a personal mythology - a touchstone for the rest of one's life.

Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail starts with an emotionally strained young woman taking her first steps on a path from the Mojave desert to the Bridge of the Gods.
Four years prior, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died within 7 weeks. As the eldest, she tried without success to keep her family from crumbling under the weight of that loss. A divorce and experimentation with drugs led her further down the rabbit hole.  Not knowing how to cope, Strayed got a big idea. She decided to hike the Pacific Crest trail. She had never backpacked a day in her life.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,663-mile wilderness route stretching from Mexico to the Canada and traversing nine mountain ranges and three states. The first day she sets foot on the trail, Strayed is carrying a backpack the size of a trunk that will open up sores on her body, and wearing boots that will cause her so much discomfort that she will hurl them over a mountain. By the end of the journey she will have found a sense of inner strength that will be a solace to her on other spiritual, psychological and physical journeys. There have been countless re-tellings of this story, but Strayed avoids cliche by presenting the details in such an honest and emotionally compelling way that you feel as though you've earned something just by reading the book.

The story explores many themes: Strayed, a single woman alone in the middle of nowhere, deliberately makes herself vulnerable in order to grow stronger. Those who have taken similar journeys may also recognize that the wilderness of just a decade ago is not the same as today's - when I was young, being in the wild represented both challenge and real danger without the lifelines of technology to come to the rescue. Certainly, there's still danger in undertakings of this kind, but the concept of absolute solitude has gotten that much smaller.

Strayed has been much in the media lately. She made the news when it was announced that she is the author of the Rumpus's online advice column Dear Sugar. You can also listen in on her recent interview on OPB's Think Out Loud. And for the more visual among you, take a peek into Strayed's thoughts about her journey with this slide show.

Our guest blogger is the novelist, humorist and screenwriter Marc Acito. He was the winner of Oregon Book Awards' 2005 Ken Kesey award for Best Novel for How I Paid for College. His latest book is the sequel Attack of the Theater People. This entry was first published in 2009.

I'm a promiscuous library user. At any given time, I've got two dozen books out and as many on hold. I got into the habit when I was poor and couldn't afford books. I probably shouldn't say this, since it's in my best interest that readers buy books, but I never buy a book I haven't read. I figure why own it if I'm only going to read it once?

So I use the library to test drive--promiscuously. If I love something enough that I need to own it, then I buy it, underlining and scrawling marginalia as I re-read.

As a result, I'm a familiar fixture at the Hillsdale Library, my local branch. Yes, it's true. Despite being a gay guy with a trendy haircut, a ready wit and the same waist size I had in junior high, I live in Deepest Suburbia. I prefer to think of it as the Lower West Hills.

Living as I do in the burbs, I’m a huge fan of books about desperate housewives. Reading stories about smart, funny women who are miscast in their lives is like having a marathon phone call with your best girlfriend, assuming your best girlfriend is hilarious, brilliant and completely honest.

A perfect example is the compulsively readable We Are all Fine Here by Mary Guterson, in which a married woman finds herself pregnant after a liaison with her old boyfriend in the bathroom at a friend’s wedding. You know those friends who are constantly screwing up but you secretly enjoy it because it makes you feel better about your own life? That's what reading this book is like.

We Are All Fine Here delivers Hitchcockian suspense without anyone being chased by a crop duster or rappeling off Abe Lincoln’s nose. From page one, questions abound: Who is the baby’s father? Who will the heroine end up with? How much longer can she hide her morning sickness? (announcer voice) These questions and more will be answered As The Stomach Turns.

In contrast to the friend who screws up is the friend who’s got it all together. For that, you must turn to Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. Forget the melodramatic MGM weepie with Greer Garson. This slyly comic story of a well-bred Englishwoman on the eve of World War Two fascinates me with such pressing concerns as how do you find a charwoman on short notice and what do you say at a shooting party?

But Mrs. Miniver’s contentment with her privileged life is tempered by her wry observations, like how she longs to invite the scintillating half of the couples she knows to dinner, then invite the boring ones another night that she could cancel. It’s like Mrs. Dalloway for Dummies.

The best literary friend of all, however, is the narrator of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, who is the perfect synthesis of the first two—a mild screw-up who still has her head screwed on straight. Long before Nora Ephron felt bad about her neck, she wanted to wring the neck of her philandering husband. Because the novel is reportedly based on Ephron’s own calamitous marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than the acerbic author herself in the role, even after Meryl Streep played her in the movie.

This book proves the adage that “Writing well is the best revenge.” The heroine of Heartburn writes cookbooks—which is appropriate given Ephron’s totally edible prose. It’s a delicious book, one you alternately want to gorge on yet savor, and the kind of hilariously wise and well-observed novel that makes readers wish the author were their best friend and makes writers like me contemplate suicide.

While I lead my own life of quiet desperation, however, I depend on these fictional friends they way I do my real ones: for comfort and laughs and inspiration. I take solace in knowing that there are others in the same boat. Especially if that boat is dry-docked in Deepest Suburbia.

With the gift-giving season over, many more people now have ebook readers.  (Amazon sold over 1 million Kindles each week in December 2011.) A friend of mine was reading A Billion Wicked Thoughts (see also: Sex at Dawn; Bonk; Why We Love); she told me about a chapter that revealed that the reading of romances has risen along with the sales of ebook readers.  Not only are more people reading romances, these books are also getting more explicit, and romances are becoming a mainstay of other genres as well.

I have noticed this favorite fluff is fantasy.  The major plot point is now the romance, and the good parts are now >ahem< really good, especially if I stray away from the YA books. I've also noticed there are subgenres to the paranormal romance subgenre, namely, werewolves, vampires, fairies and of all things, medieval Highlanders.  Of course, if you follow a series long enough (and these things always seem to become a book series) many of these sexy creatures show up eventually.

Here's a sampling, some of which are available as downloadable ebooks. However, you may have to wait just as long, or longer, for your ebook to become available, so why not go for it...flaunt your fluff and check out that hard copy of these sexy tales.

The Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
First in series: Halfway to the Grave.
Cat is half-vampire, she hates vampires, and she hunts them.  She's good at it...or so she thinks...until she meets a very old (and of course sexy) vampire. Humorous homages to Buffy the Vampire Slayer throughout, down to the name of her main vamp, Bones.

The Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
First in series: Darkfever
Not quite as full of explicit scenes as her earlier Highlander series, Moning goes darker and more complex with this intrigue full of dark Fae and other creatures.  Her Highlanders make a cameo appearance.

Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
First in series: Dead Until Dark
Who hasn't heard of these?  HBO's True Blood is based on these books. How do I explain the appeal? Yes, there are the steamy vampires who are outed, and attempting to be accepted by humans.  But Sookie, she seems like she could be your next door neighbor, just trying to cope with blocking your thoughts from her head, getting her bills paid, and keeping her house clean.

I recently returned from a trip to the Cape Coral area of Florida. While on Sanibel Island, I spotted a place called Doc Ford's. My sister said, "Oh, Doc Ford is the marine biologist in the novels of Randy Wayne White. I've read a few of his mysteries and enjoyed them."

Since I've come back I've read a couple of his mysteries and want to read more. (I've not read them in order, although, I think that they should be read this way because the characters grow and change and the stories build on one another.)

I picked up Shark River first. It's a story of murder, kidnapping, drugs and revenge. Add a Bahamian woman with a treasure map who claims to be Doc's long lost sister and the stage is set for a wild ride.

Maybe it's the sense of place and wonderful descriptions of sea life, mangrove swamps and the habits of horseshoe crabs; or maybe its the patterns of speech of Doc's Bahamian cousin in Shark River that attracted me. Perhaps it's my experience of a tiny bit of the Florida that he describes.

I saw much bad driving in Florida, but Randy Wayne White describes it best: "We went south on U.S. 41- an illustration of crazed manners and automotive chaos. In South Florida, melting pot driving habits are so unpredictable and dangerous that defensive driving is not enough."

If you want quirky characters, fast action, humor and good writing, give the mysteries of Randy Wayne White a try.

A couple of Sundays ago, the Oregonian ran an opinion piece in its book review section: Listen here: Audio books don't count as reading by K.B. Dixon.  In the piece, Dixon says "Listening to a book is not reading a book. It is a passive enterprise. When we read, we hear a voice in our heads -- it is a voice of our own imagining, an individual translation of the language, of the text, of the writer's stylistic voice. It is cognitively tailored in a way no other voice can be."

While I find this to be true, at the same time I (perhaps an overly active audiobook listener, I listened to over 700 hours of books in 2011) couldn't disagree more.  I believe that when we read to ourselves, we hear our voice in our head.  My particular voice is that of an overeducated, middle-aged, white woman, so I don't hear the voice of a child who has spent his whole life living with his mother in a small Room, I don't hear a 20-something Gen-Xer struggle to raise his 10-year-old brother (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), I don't hear a black family hanging on to their land in Depression- and Jim-Crow era Mississippi (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), I don't even hear Dobby the Elf or Voldemort (Harry Potter series). Or I wouldn't hear these voices were it not for Michal Friedman, Dion Graham, Lynne Thigpen or Jim Dale. (I could go on and on here, and probably will in future posts!)

That's what I most like about audiobooks:  The alternative interpretation of the story, the interpretation that I simply cannot provide.  It's not any more passive than eye-reading is.  I'm thinking; I'm absorbing language, character, setting, plot details.  I'm usually "reading" at a slower pace when I'm listening as well, giving my imagination a greater chance to settle into a book's details.

Sure there's all that multitasking stuff about audiobooks -- listen during a long drive (heck, during a short drive), listen while exercising, gardening, doing housework.  I listen while knitting.  There is no doubt that audiobooks are a great way to get through those things.  But, for me, it always comes back to the voice that is not mine.

For an alternative view of audiobooks, see this article in the online magazine n+1: Listening to Books by Maggie Gram.

If you're looking for a good listen, here's a few things that I've listened to lately (I tried to select those without many holds): Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld, and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

Happy listening!

Seanan McGuire is a new author who I've really been enjoying. Her first book, Rosemary and Rue was published September 2009. She was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer by the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention. Her first series (up to book 5 now) is about a character called October Daye.  In this urban fantasy universe the different types of fae beings may decide to pass as humans, take a human lover and have mixed species children. When the children figure out that that mom or dad really is different the children are given the changeling's choice.  They may go to faerie and leave their human life and parent behind forever or stay human, forget and live out their mortal life with their human parent.  Either way, the changeling loses one parent and the human parent is left wondering why they're suddenly bereft of a partner.

October Daye was still quite young when she had to make the choice and in crying out for her fae mother left her human father behind forever. Now a part of the fae world, where changelings are very distinctly second class citizens, October has to make her own way.  She tries to hide in the human world at first but is forced deeper into fae when an important countess is murdered.  The dead countess binds October to investigate, forcing her to resume her position in Faerie.

Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, has also started a zombie urban fantasy series which isn't to my tastes but got to the final ballot for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel.  That's actually pretty impressive for someone that's only been published for 2 years. The first book in the Newsflesh series is Feed. I'm also really looking forward to the first book in her new series Discount Armageddon: An Incryptid Novel.

Our newest blog contributor is Andrea who says of herself: "I like to read fiction, memoirs, comics, and zines. In my free time I write short fiction and publish zines and minicomics. I also moonlight as a freelance book editor, though I have recently taken a sabbatical from editing to focus on my own work."

“The circus arrives without warning.” So begins Erin Morgenstern’s stunning debut, set in both England and America beginning in 1873. Reading this book feels like curling up by a fireplace while a storm is raging outside and listening to a kindly grandfather tell you stories about the past. Tales of a fantastical circus only open at night, where things are so exquisite, they are almost painful to experience. There are black and white striped tents full of wonders: the ice garden, the cloud maze, the wishing tree. There is a room full of bottled memories you can open and smell. There are delicacies to eat like caramel corn and chocolate mice. And each night too there are the reveurs, self-described circus enthusiasts, wandering the grounds in red scarves as they follow the circus from town to town, aching for a more interesting life. Open to the possibility of magic.

At the heart of The Night Circus is a love story between--you guessed it--two magicians bound in a tense and complicated rivalry from birth. Celia and Marco find they can bend the rules that have been set by their mentors to make the challenge more about love and less about winning. Because to win this magical challenge, one of them has to die. And that will not do for two people in love.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about The Night Circus is it was originally conceived during NANOWRIMO, or National Novel Writing Month. This competition happens each November and encourages its participants to write a novel in one month. I personally have tried--and failed--a few times to complete this very challenge. The fact that the author was able to create such a masterpiece in this time frame is astounding. No doubt there were rounds and rounds of editing. I heard a rumor it took about 5 years start to finish, but the fact that the seeds of this brilliant, moving story were born during such a time of communal, frenzied writing, coupled with the self-doubt that inevitably comes with such a monumental task gives hope for the rest of us who are left behind in the real, boring world and feel the need to find magic of our own making.

For those of you who are already fans of The Night Circus, take a look at the site I09, where Morgenstern will be answering questions about her book from 1-2 p.m. Pacific Time on Monday, February 27th. You can submit your questions now.

I really want to
Hang out with Mindy Kaling.
Or maybe be her?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

In my life, lucky means snagging the last box of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Valentine's Day cards from the Dollar Tree shelf for the child who will have no other kind. Not even the kind with scratch 'n' sniff stickers. (My mind wonders about combining the two--what does the end of a franchise/era/childhood smell like?)

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan has 67 holds, but I managed to find a copy on the Lucky Day shelf. It was exactly what I wanted for Valentine's Day--the perfect love story to pluck from the twee sea of pink and red plush animals with giant eyes, the cheap boxes of drugstore chocolates, the cards that always fall short of the mark.

Set on a Valentine's Day weekend, the story follows Marion and Art Fowler on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary. Jobless, facing foreclosure and with their marriage set to finally implode, they book a bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino for a second honeymoon--and the gamble of their lives with their liquidated savings.

Find a cozy place to sit and break out that heart-shaped box of chocolates. (You know, the battered ones with all the tiny finger-holes in the bottoms from children attempting to locate the caramels. Or maybe that's just my box.) Bet red or black on this game of reading roulette. Either way, you'll win.

While he's written a few books since his debut trilogy I hold a soft spot for Joe Abercrombie's first trilogy: The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings. And given these books when I say soft spot -- well, under the ribs is supposed to be a nice efficient spot to thrust a blade up into a man's heart. The cover of Book One is nicely splattered in blood in fair warning of the story itself.

In many ways this is a very traditional fantasy cast of characters. There's a barbarian berserker, a wise old wizard, a dashing swordsman and so on.  But there's a dark spin on all of them.  Think about it. Would you really want to be traveling with a trained killer of a man that can't tell friend from foe on the battlefield and towers over you?  Logen Ninefingers may be an ally of the moment but he is an unwashed savage killer and dangerous to friend as well as foe.  That wise old wizard?  Well, you've only lived a human lifespan and he's got goals that don't really count the ant-like human lives around him. The dashing swordsman?  Kind of a pathetic little man really. Of all the many characters I found myself feeling the most for the torturer Glokta. The most 'evil' of the main characters actually isn't too bad a least not for someone that is willing to torture people into confessions to support a corrupt institution.

They're off to save the kingdom...or collect a relic that can open a gate to the realm of demons.  Not that the wizard is passing out straight answers.  The series is dark, gritty and in its own way humorous.

Why do I do this to myself? I check out pretty much every animal rescue book and documentary that crosses my path. (And I keep the tissue well stocked.) I think it's because so many of these heartbreaking stories end on a hopeful note, with good people doing good things for animals in need. The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and their Tale of Rescue and Redemption is a perfect example.

Written by Sports Illustrated writer and editor Jim Gorant, The Lost Dogs tells the story of the NFL player's illegal dog-fighting operation and the amazing rescue and recovery efforts that followed the investigation. It's hard to read at times, describing in painful detail the brutality inflicted on these animals at the hands of Vick and his associates. The dogs, considered too "damaged" to be adoptable, were scheduled to be put down.

Ultimately though, cruelty proved no match for the dedication of so many people who tirelessly advocated for saving the dogs and finding them suitable homes. Most of the dogs responded surprisingly well to socialization tests, and there were more happy endings than one might expect. The children's book Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance chronicles one rescued dog's journey from terrified pup to loving pet. The simple text relays a message of compassion and resilience to young readers, and the wonderfully expressive photos are a treat for all ages.