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5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

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Vinegar Hill: 09/30/07

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill is one of the most disturbing books I've read this year. It follows the year or so of Ellen Grier living in her in-laws' home with her children and unemployed husband.

This uncomfortable time in this house uncovers long forgotten family sins and abuse committed in the name of God.

The experience of reading Vinegar Hill has left me split brained on how to review it. A. Manette Ansay wrote these scenes vividly, always managing to chose the right words to set the stage and to build the characters. But these characters are so despicable and Ellen is so slow to react that I come away hating the book but loving the author's story telling enough that I would read another book by Ansay in the future.

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Commander Toad in Space: 09/30/07

Commander Toad in Space

Commander Toad in Space is another of the set we borrowed for our trip to South Pasadena.

In this story the crew go to a watery planet to explore. In true amphibian fashion the crew deploys inflatable lily pads to land on.

What the crew doesn't know is that danger lurks under the surface. Fearing that they will either be stranded or killed, Commander Toad must think of a way to rescue himself and his crew. What he does is rather clever.

While Commander Toad in Space doesn't have as many puns and jokes as the other book in the series but the book makes up for it in terms of good science fiction.

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The Long Valley and Nanowrimo: 09/30/07

The Long Valley

My favorite part of the drive down to Santa Barbara along the 101 is the stretch between Salinas and Kings City, known sometimes as "the long valley." This hour long stretch of road is almost completely straight and is boxed in by mountains that look intimately close even though the valley seems infinitely wide.

For as long as we've lived in the bay area I've had an idea for science fiction story that is set in a much larger version of this valley. The world would be defined by two large cities (Uptown and Downtown), a smaller town in the middle (the Cantina) and would be walled in by impenetrable mountains. A highway and railroad connect these three cities together, running the length of the valley.

What the average valley dweller doesn't know is that there is only one mountain range and one big city. Cutting over the mountains (a rugged and treacherous journey) or going through either massive city will eventually wrap around too. In other words a world that appears flat is of course round but is defined by culture as a linear space.

This summer when I realized I was without ideas for this November's Nanowrimo, I decided to fall back on my Long Valley idea. My first question was: Who would notice that the land was different than what history taught? My answer: a surveyor. To save myself the trouble of last minute cramming, I bought and read two books this summer: The Practical Surveyor and Shooting Polaris.

Among my own collection, I knew I had a copy of The Long Valley by John Steinbeck. While I don't always like his stories for their preachiness, Steinbeck is still the author who has best captured the Salinas area in fiction. Since I will now be trying to do my own version of the valley, I want to read Steinbeck's collection of stories first.

Unfortunately the "book gremlins" have borrowed the book and in three months of looking, I haven't been able to find it. Since I want to read The Long Valley before November, I decided to buy my own personal copy. Rather than get a new paperback probably with those annoying "reader's notes" at the back, I decided to get as old a copy as I could find. Through Alibris I found a well read first edition with a glorious cover and the wonderful aroma of years of reading. At one point my "new copy" was owned by a Mrs. James H. Cullen (1955) and then it became a bookmobile book in Charleston Massachusetts.

So far of what I've read, I've thoroughly enjoyed the book. Regardless of how this year's Nanowrimo turns out, I'll be keeping this book.

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The Graduate: 09/30/07

The Graduate

I love The Graduate (1967) directed by Mike Nichols and scored with the wonderful music from Simon and Garfunkle. Young Dustin Hoffman will forever be Benjamin Braddock just as Anne Bancroft will forever be Mrs. Robinson.

I've had a copy of Charles Webb's book on my shelf for about two years now. I decided it was time to finally read it for the Books to Movies Challenge and I'm glad I did. Reading the book has made me appreciate the film even more. The screenplay is extremely faithful to the book but the cinematography and the music enhance an otherwise dry plot.

I had hoped the novel would give a peek into Benjamin's mind to see what makes him tick. Why does he come home feeling so disillusioned? Why does he decide to lounge around at home for six months when his parents clearly drive him up the wall? Why does he suddenly fall for Elaine (or for that matter, why does she fall for him?) None of those questions are answered in the book. In fact, the bulk of the book is the dialogue of the film with very little else except for a few segue paragraphs between scenes (what in the film become musical montages).

One question that I really wanted answered and wasn't: where does Benjamin's family live? It seems to be close to Los Angeles because there are "business partners" from Los Angeles Yet the drive to Berkeley is described in the book as trivial. Yet later he has to fly down to Santa Barbara for the wedding. My best guess is somewhere near Santa Barbara but I wish I knew for sure. It's a silly thing to get bothered over but the random geography of this book (and therefore the film) bothers me.

The Graduate is the rich-kid-from-the-burbs version of On the Road. There is even a scene in the book (which I don't remember being in the film) where Benjamin hitchhikes up to Redding to put out a forest fire before heading home again having tried to experience what is described in the Kerouac classic.

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Animals that Live in the Sea: 09/29/07

Animals that Live in the Sea

My grandparents signed me up for a subscription to the junior version of National Geographic when I was a child. One of the books that came with the magazine was Animals that Live in the Sea. It was a favorite book of mine then and is now one of Sean's current favorites.

Animals that Live in the Sea takes advantage of National Geographic's amazing photography. Each page is a full color photograph of some under water scene. A few bits of text here and there explain the scene in simple terms that young readers can understand.

Sean's favorite page is the one that explains the cover illustration. A garibaldi fish is picking up a starfish to move it out of its territory. Sean thinks its very silly that fish will pick up other sea creatures to get them out of the way. He compares it to him always shooing Caligula the cat out of his room.

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Japanese Fairy Tales: 09/28/07

Japanese Fairy Tales

Japanese Fairy Tales: Kaguyahime the Moon Princess and Other Stories is an a collection of Japanese stories, translated and adapted by J. Robert Magee. Magee lives and works in Japan and the book was published in Japan with lovely illustrations by Kazumasa Miyamoto and Hiroko Kanzaki.

This short book has eleven stories and a short explanation of various Japanese terms. These stories involve magic, transformations, gifts from various gods and battles with demons. The emphasis though on all of these stories is on the importance of family.

Where extra explanations might be needed, Magee is really good at giving them but he doesn't weigh the stories down with lengthy explanations. He mostly sticks to explaining names that are puns or perhaps some bit of culture that would seem very different to a western audience.

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Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys: 09/27/07

Guide to Guys

Although I've never heard of Dave Barry, I have ended up with two copies of this book<. In the spirit of BookCrossing, I wanted to read it before I released it.

So I came to this short, silly book without expectations. It's a quick romp through history and societal norms as seen through the eyes of a typical "guy." This book is not another men vs. women book. Barry defines his guys as a subset of humanity. They are usually male although women with certain levels of immaturity would qualify too.

This "complete guide" made for the perfect read on a day when both my children were sick with colds. They both needed lots of attention and snuggling and I needed something to do while I was being a big pillow. This book can be read over the course of an afternoon.

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>Mouse Soup: 09/27/07

Mouse Soup

Along with the Commander Toad books, we borrowed Mouse Soup by Arnold Lobel from the library. We are fans of Arnold Lobel's offbeat stories and cute illustrations.

Mouse Soup is a sequel to Mouse Tales (1978). A little mouse who is captured by a weasel to be cooked into soup. To save his life, the mouse (like Shahrazad) tells four stories to teach the weasel how to make the perfect mouse soup.

These four stories are the bulk of the book. They are: "Bees and Mud", "Two Large Stones", "The Crickets" and "The Thorn Bush." Each story has the classic surreal humor of Lobel at his best. Bees try to make their home on a mouse's head, two rocks wonder what things lie beyond the mountain, a group of crickets serenade an unwilling audience and a woman grows a rose bush in her chair.

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In the Spotlight: 09/25/07

In the Spotlight

I picked up In the Spotlight at one of this year's Bookcrossing meetings. I am a sucker for animal stories but this book's focus on animal celebrities wasn't my cup of tea. The book was just too schmaltzy.

As is typical with these types of compilations, the book is divided up by theme. The first section is "Doing Their Best" where animals "devote themselves to reaching their goals." The second is "Close to Home" which pays tribute to "local celebrities." Then comes "Business Partners" which is mostly about animals in show business. "Traveling Companions" covers animals who travel the world with their human companions. Finally it's back to show business for "On Stage."

This collection of stories is best suited to fans of movies and television who have a particular fascination with the various animal stars who crop up from time to time.

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The Dharma Bums: 09/24/07

The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums was published the year after On the Road and like its predecessor is a semi-autobiographical novel. Where On the Road focuses on the city scene and the wild parties Beat Generation, Dharma Bums goes out to the countryside in search of peace, tranquility and enlightenment.

The Dharma Bums has all the charm, irreverence and wackiness of On the Road. It has train hopping, Chinese poetry in Berkeley, Buddhism in the Sierras, enlightenment in the snow and self imposed isolation in the Cascades. Over the course of these adventures, Ray Smith (the stand-in for Kerouac) grows as a character, finding peace in the simple quiet moments of life, preferring to sleep in a gully or live in a shack than partying in the big noisy cities he has fled from.

Except for the long and drawn out going away party for Japhy Ryder (inspired by poet Gary Snyder), I loved the book. The last fifty pages or so drag a bit, as if Kerouac was reluctant to reach the natural end of his story.

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Underground London: 09/24/07

Underground London

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by old buildings, abandoned places and the hidden aspects of city living. Underground London by Stephen Smith covers all of those things in just under 400 pages.

Smith's book is a tour and a history of London as seen by what lies underneath the streets. Smith took a number of tours (some of which are open to the public, and some which aren't) under London. He begins with modern life, looking at what he calls "the vertical city": all the conduits that city needs: phones, power, sewers and so forth.

From there he goes on a tour of the sewers which is one of my favorite chapters in the book. Anyone who has read The Truth by Terry Pratchett, should read "Monster Soup" in Underground London.

From the sewers, Smith goes back through history with the next bunch of chapters. These chapters are interesting but they didn't captivate me as much as the first two did. The exception to this is the one on the plague.

The book, though, ends on a high (or low?) note, covering what probably comes first to a reader's mind: the London Underground. Subways are another favorite subject of mine, so I really enjoyed his history of the tube and his description of his tours of the closed stations.

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Commander Toad and the Space Pirates: 09/23/07

Commander Toad and the Intergalactic Spy

Over the Labor Day holiday we checked out three Commander Toad books from our local library for the trip down to South Pasadena. Commander Toad and the Space Pirates is another of that set.

Space travel can be boring. The crew finds itself between assignments. They've watched all the movies on board, read all the books and are suffering from a serious case of boredom.

Fortunately for the crew, they are attacked by space pirates. Commander Toad is tied up by sword point! Will he and crew survive?

This Commander Toad ends on a humorous twist. I don't want to give it away here. Go read the book and enjoy the silly puns and the delightful ending.

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Commander Toad and the Intergalactic Spy: 09/23/07

Commander Toad and the Intergalactic Spy

Over the Labor Day holiday we checked out three Commander Toad books from our local library for the trip down to South Pasadena. Commander Toad and the Intergalactic Spy is one of that set.

The Space Toad is sent on its most dangerous mission, the rescue of super spy Tip Toad, a master of disguise who happens to be Commander Toad's cousin. It is up to Commander Toad to identify his cousin as he's sure to be in disguise. The crew can't afford to bring on board an enemy spy!

After a few hiccups in their search, Commander Toad comes up with a brilliant test to put all the spies through. Only his cousin will be able to pass it. Does he find the right spy?

For previous Commander Toad reviews, please see:

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Hello Kitty, Hello Numbers! 09/22/07

Hello Kitty, Hello Numbers!

Back in August Sean discovered Hello Kitty. So on a recent trip to Borders we brought home Hello Kitty, Hello Numbers! Sean likes the book because it focuses on counting, is about a birthday party and has the cute Hello Kitty characters. At the end of the book are flash cards that can be removed and used for study. We plan to glue an envelope in the back of the book for the cards but haven't done that yet.

The book teaches counting from 1 to 20. Sean doesn't really need help counting those numbers any more. I think these counting books are more "comfort food" books for him.

I have to agree that the illustrations are cute. I also like the story even as simple as it is. It emphasizes friendship and family. It's basically a very happy book.

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Life on the Mississippi: 09/21/07

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi is one of those books that has stuck with me from the time when I was first discovering my love of books. I first read it in 7th grade (21 years ago). As it was the year before I started my book diary, I can't pinpoint when with any greater accuracy. Rereading the book was like visiting with a long lost friend. I surprised myself at how well I remembered the "good bits."

A vacation tour up the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Paul, detailed in the second half of the book, serves as the inspiration for his memoir about his training and career as a riverboat pilot. Besides his own training, he outlines the history of the river, it's geography, geology and its fickle nature. The piloting and river bits are my favorite parts of the book.

Twain also includes some tall tales and sketches about the people who live and work along the river. There are also essays on the changing political and economic climate along the Mississippi. By themselves, these asides are humorous but they breakup the flow of the book.

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Woo! The Not-So-Scary Ghost: 09/20/07


Halloween books are very popular at Sean's school. Woo! The Not-So-Scary Ghost is the most recent of these books we've borrowed. Like Little Pea, Woo is a story of reversals. Woo teaches the importance of family and of going to school in this cute story of a ghost who runs away from home.

Woo is a ghost and a child. Like most children, Woo wants to be taken seriously and wants to be seen as a big kid. For a ghost, that means being as scary as possible to non-ghosts. And like many children, Woo doesn't want to go school. Woo decides to set out on his own and prove to the world what big ghost he is. Woo runs away after bedtime (sunrise to sunset) and spends the day trying to scare creatures and only manages to befriend a dog.

What really caries this story are the adorable and colorful illustrations. The cover art is a good hint at the cute pictures inside the book.

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The Practical Surveyor: 09/19/07

The Practical Surveyor

I've had an idea bubbling around my head about a surveyor working on a world that is just one long valley walled on the northern and southern ends by a mountain range. I've decided to take my idea and use it for this year's Nanowrimo.

Knowing next to nothing about surveying, I did a quick search on Amazon for books. One that caught my eye, is this reprint of a book first published in 1725, The Practical Surveyor by Samuel Wyld. The book was pieced together from a extant copy in the Boston library and microfiche copy at the Museum of London. Although this book was re-typeset (and not photocopied as some "reprints" are), the font chosen keeps the old style of lettering so that it reads very much as it would have in 1725.

I realize that the technology modern surveyors use has changed since 1725 but the information contained in Wyld's brief manual still gave me an incredible appreciation for the science and mathematics behind surveying and filled my head with lots of ideas for my steam punk Nanowrimo. Although this book is heavy on geometry it still is one of the most interesting books I've read this month and I tore through it in about four hours.

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Bleach Volume 1: 09/18/07

Bleach Volume 1

In Bleach Volume 1, Ichigo Kurosaki, aka "Strawberry" who is an average kid except that he can talk to ghosts. A late night encounter with a hollow introduces Ichigo to Rukia Kuchiki and the Soul Society. Before he knows it, he's a shinigami, enfused with Rukia's power and charged with chasing down Hollows.

I come to Bleach having seen the first few DVDs of the anime series of the same title. It's fun to spend a little more time with the characters and get more involved in the story and in Ichigo's world. We watch the anime with the Japanese language track and I don't always read all the subtitles, so it's nice to read the translated manga.

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Free Food for Millionaires: 09/18/07

Free Food for Millionaires

There are two good things about Free Food for Millionaires: the title (taken from the free lunches offered to investment bankers) and the cover art. That's about it.

The remaining 500 pages drag through endless chapters of Casey and her acquaintances trying to get on with their lives. Some of the characters grow and learn over time but the main character, Casey, doesn't do a damn thing in this book. She's apparently good at investment banking and good at millinery (free food for milliners?) but terrible at making decisions and even worse at running her own life. Although she has a number of people falling over themselves willing to mentor her, she never sticks with a plan long enough to see it to completion and to get some stability in place. Instead she just burns through her friends, mentors and potential employers like the numerous cigarettes she chain smokes throughout the book.

Without a likeable central character, there is very little motivation to suffer through endless pages of product name dropping, lengthy descriptions, and sex scenes that fail to titillate. When I finished the book (and still nothing had happened by the last page), all I could do was give a sigh of relief to move onto something more interesting.

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Slaughterhouse Five: 09/17/07

Slaughterhouse Five

There are many classics and well known books that I haven't read. I'm trying to make amends with that. I can now cross Slaughterhouse Five off my list.

Slaughterhouse Five is two stories in one. There is Vonnegut trying to explain his desire to write the great Dresden bombing book and then there is the story of Billy Pilgrim who is "unstuck" in time and keeps finding himself back in WWII (among other times and places).

Unlike the men in The Time Traveler's Wife and The Man Who Folded Himself, Billy has no control over when he jumps or where he'll end up. Billy doesn't seem to care either that he jumps through time living his life (and death) at random. Billy's philosophy on the absurdity of life (and his life in particular) is summed up repeatedly through the book: and so it goes.

I'm not sure how I feel about Slaughterhouse-Five, having now finished it. I can understand why it's a novel with literary merit but at the same time, it didn't capture my imagination the way The Man Who Folded Himself did.

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Locked Rooms: 09/17/07

Locked Rooms

In The Beekeeper's Apprentice (1994) Mary Russell is introduced as an orphan, fleeing America for Britain to get away from the unpleasant memories of the deaths of her parents and brother. Now in Locked Rooms, having matured by ten years and presented with the opportunity, Russell decides to confront her past head on.

Mary's past is rooted in the San Francisco in the time of the 1906 quake and the months and years following. The clues are still there, buried away in the family home, left untouched for years. The clues are there among the dust and among Mary's own nightmares.

Of the three Mary Russell books I've read this year, Locked Rooms is by far my favorite. King's depiction of San Francisco and the peninsula both during the earthquake and in the 1920s, brought the mystery to life for me.

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Seven Blind Mice: 09/16/07

Seven Blind Mice

The last few months, Sean has been raving about Seven Blind Mice and how much he likes the different ways the mice "saw" the elephant. Recently he borrowed it from school to read it to me and I enjoyed it too.

Seven Blind Mice retells the story of the three blind men who mistake an elephant for a tree, a snake and a rope. There are apparently numerous versions of the story throughout history as it's a perfect way to explain the danger of misconceptions. Ed Young's version seems to follow most closely a Buddhist rendering of the tale which involves nine interpretations of the elephant.

In Ed Young's colorful version, each mouse (represented by a different color) has a go at examining the elephant. They come up with ideas such as: a fan, a pillar, a snake, a shovel, a cliff and and so forth. It's not until the white mouse stops to think about what the others has described that he's able to put the pieces together and come up with "elephant."

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Listen to the Warm: 09/16/07

Listen to the Warm

Listen to the Warm is a slim volume of poetry written by composer and singer Rod McKuen. I'm not familiar with his music but I liked the cheery cover and snatched it up from the Dublin library discard shelf. I read it almost immediately and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The poems cover McKuen's life in New York, his love life over the years and his appreciation for his one true friend, his cat. The poems are often times not much more than mood pieces but they still paint vivid but brief glimpses into life in New York City. It's like looking at the different layers of a cat scan and it's not until all the images are looked at in context can you piece together the person being studied. So it is with Listen to the Warm.

Some of the poems McKuen used as lyrics in his songs. Since I've not heard his songs (to the best of my knowledge) I didn't have the added benefit of being able to sing along but I could still appreciate the rhythm to them. They are more lyrical than the other poems which border on being free verse.

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Riding the Iron Rooster: 09/15/07

Riding the Iron Rooster

I like trains and recently I've had some good luck with reading travel memoirs as part of the Armchair Traveler Challenge but this book was a huge disappointment.

Riding the Iron Rooster chronicles Paul Theroux's train travels from England to and then through China in the late 1980s. Here he is traveling a fascinating route through numerous countries and a constantly changing landscape and all he does is complain. The entire book is one long-winded winge about his passengers, the trains, his schedule, the countries and so forth.

The only interesting item in the entire book is his account of the Chernobyl melt-down as he heard about it while in Mongolia compared to what he heard about upon returning home.

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Sixteen Short Novels: The Reviews: 09/14/07

coverI accomplished my goal of reading all sixteen short novels before the September BookCrossing meeting. I wrote my first review in April and finished writing them in September (although I finished reading the book in August). I am glad I finished the book and read each novella thoroughly enjoy to write reviews for each one but I am also glad to be done with the whole process. I'm also happy to have the book off my shelves as it took up the space of three hard cover novels.


Andrea John O'Hara
The Old Maid Edith Wharton
Tortilla Flat John Steinbeck
Mario and the Magician Thomas Mann
Pudd'nhead Wilson Mark Twain
Ward No. 6 Anton Chekhov
Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Fall Albert Camus
Old Man William Faulkner
Youth Joseph Conrad
The Lesson of the Master Henry James
My Mortal Enemy Willa Cather
The Ghost Writer Philip Roth
The Ebony Tower John Fowles
Catholics Brian Moore
The Blacking Factory Wilfred Shreed

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The Blacking Factory: 09/14/07

Sixteen Short Novels

I have actually finished reading Sixteen Short Novels and I wild released this 1000+ page tome at this month's Bookcrossing meeting in Dublin.

"The Blacking Factory" was written by Wilfred Sheed, the editor of Sixteen Short Novels. Named for Dickens' time working in a blacking factory, Jimmy Bannister sees his enrollment in a tiny English secondary school as his personal "blacking factory."

Jimmy Bannister first strives just to survive in the school, suffering from culture shock. As time passes and he becomes more miserable his plan moves to getting out of there as quickly as possible.

After some of the heavier hitting novellas in the middle of Sixteen Short Novels, "The Blacking Factory" was a rather light hearted ending.

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Hangman's Root: 09/13/07

Hangman's Root

Hangman's Root is the third in the China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert but the only one I've read but I want to read more. It is a cozy mystery in vein of Miss Marple, the Cat Who books and so forth but it manages to avoid being too cute or too depressing.

China Bayles is an ex attorney who has switched careers to run an herb shop in a small town near Austin Texas. Her friend who works at the local university and runs a cattery for strays is accused of murder when a biology professor is found hanged. Besides Dottie, there are a number of suspects who had reason to want to see Harwick dead. Can China help defend her friend and figure out who really committed the crime?

For a short book (only 260 pages), Albert introduces enough red herrings to keep the story interesting. While I had a number of theories on who had committed the murder and why, the actual criminal took me pleasantly by surprise.

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Ganzy Remembers: 09/13/07

Ganzy Remembers

Ganzy Remembers is a book that makes me scratch my head. Most books aimed at a pre-reading and early reading set tend to be silly. They also tend to be heavy on fantasy.

Ganzy though is firmly set in reality with a grandchild taken by her grandmother to see her great-grandmother once a week at the nursing home where she lives. Back in the 1970s, I was that grandchild. The story blends together the present of Ganzy's mundane life in the home with her recollections of life somewhere rural where she rode a horse to school and carried her lunch in a bucket.

I think it's important for children to know that they will some day grow up and grow old and that their parents and other relatives were once children too but this book's view of what it means to be old just seems bleak.

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Children's Books: 09/12/07

Sailaway Home

With two young children who are both as addicted to books as I am, I read a large number of children's books. This year I have been attempting to review every single book I read this year. I'm currently running about two weeks behind in my reviews.

In the next few weeks I'll be reviewing about a dozen children's books on top of the regular books in my back log. At last night's Bookcrossing meeting I was able to pick up a large pile of children's books. Half of them I am keeping for Sean and Harriet and the other half have gone to Sean's school for their very small library. Back at the beginning of summer I was asked to find some books for the library now that the oldest students can read and have read the current selection to death. This is the first month of looking that I've actually been able to find books suitable for the school.

Before sending the books to school with Sean this morning, he and I read through them. I always like to prescreen the books I donate the school. Since I've read them, I figured I might as well review them on top of everything else.

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The Bookman's Promise: 09/12/07

Bookman's Promise

The Bookman's Promise is the third in the Cliff Janeway series but the only one I've read. I picked it up at the start of the year at our local BookCrossing meeting because the premise sounded interesting.

Cliff Janeway, a retired cop turned book collector / book detective is put on the trail of a hidden journal by Francis Burton. In the process of hunting down the book and verifying the story behind it, a person is murdered and Cliff can't help but try to solve the mystery too.

The book didn't grab my attention. The characters seemed wooden and there was too much emphasis put on the minutiae of Cliff's day to day life. Reading through him describing the ins and outs of his days made me feel like the bored child at the back of the car: "Are we there yet?" and never getting a "yes!" from the front. When the mystery was finally solved it was an anticlimactic ending that was obvious from the earliest chapters.

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Little Pea: 09/11/07

Little Pea

Sean has excellent taste in books. Earlier this summer he picked out Little Pea by Amy Krause Rosenthal. This cute little book about a family of peas has already become a family favorite.

Little Pea, the title character, reminds me a lot of Sean. Little Pea every night is forced to eat food he doesn't like (because it's good for him). His exasperated parents ask him to eat five pieces. Little Pea reluctantly does what they ask but pulls the most wonderful faces as he takes his bites. These scenes replay the typical dinner for us. Sean is a picky eater and we often times resort to counting out bites to get him to eat.

Little Pea is the second book by Amy Krause Rosenthal that I've read. I was first introduced to her humorous writing through her autobiography: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Now that we've enjoyed one of her children's books, I will keep her in mind for future book purchases.

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Innocent Traitor: 09/10/07

Innocent Traitor

Take my review of Innocent Traitor with a grain of salt. I am an infrequent reader of historical fiction especially ones based around monarchs. So I came to this book already feeling skeptical.

Innocent Traitor covers the life and death of Lady Jane Grey, known sometimes as the "nine day queen" for her brief reign before Mary. With all the political machinations on the various sides all vying for the throne should make for an interesting novel but throughout the novel I found my attention wandering.

Weir chooses to write both the narrative and dialogue with a stilted and formal way that for me broke the natural flow of the novel. She also allows for a number protagonists which balloons the story to 416 pages. Had it only been written from Jane's point of view, the novel would have been shorter, more suspenseful and more interesting.

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Jane Eyre: 09/09/07

Jane Eyre

After blundering through the Thursday Next series which begins with The Eyre Affair, I thought it best to go back and reread the book that inspired the series. I also read it for the Classics Challenge. My initial thoughts on Jane Eyre are: I loved the book, Jasper Fforde's depiction of Jane doesn't do her justice.

Jane Eyre for the most part reads like a modern novel. I suppose if Charlotte Brontë were publishing now her book would end up with a line drawing of some shoes and a pink cover and put with the chick lit. The story is told in first person by Jane with full commentary on her thoughts and reactions during scenes but done in an actual humorous and ironic fashion.

She breaks her autobiography into three parts with a short coda to tie up loose ends. Part one covers her childhood and education. Part two covers her employment at Thornfield Hall and her romance with Edward Rochester. The final part covers her disgraceful flight from Thornfield and her finding her family and fortunes. The coda then wraps everything up in a nice happy package with the sacrifices being made by Edward rather than Jane (as would be the case if it were a modern chick lit).

Who should read this book? Anyone and everyone. It's a classic and it's well deserving of its status. It's a damn good story!

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Driftwood Whimsy: 09/08/07

Driftwood Whimsy

Driftwood Whimsy is a short book of photographs that artistically cover the driftwood art that had been erected by many anonymous artists from the 1970s until mid 1990s.

The book was published in 1985 and so covers what pieces were present then. It is by no means a retrospective of all the pieces ever built. The book has photographs from 18 different sculptures. The one of King Tut is labeled as being built in 1979 but with most of the other pieces being unsigned it's impossible to judge when they were built.

The photographs done by Douglas Keister use a technique called "painting with light". They were photographed at night with artfully placed colored light sources to bring out the details and personalities of the different pieces.

It's hard to pick a favorite among these whimsical sculptures. They are all so different and so full of personality. My favorite photograph, though, is of "Blue", a gigantic blue angel shot against an orange sunset of typical Golden Gate fog.

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The Game: 09/07/07

The Game

I'm grateful I waited to read this book until this summer because it expects the reader to have a certain knowledge of Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It also helps to have read Peter Hopkirk's Quest for Kim to learn the history and geography of India when it was still part of the British Empire.

If Sherlock Holmes can be a real person and alive and well years after Conan Doyle published his death, then so can so can Kim O'Hara. There's just one problem, Kim O'Hara has been missing for three years just as the Game is hotting up again. Holmes and Russell must don their disguises again and head to India to affect a rescue.

King manages to take a preposterous sounding scenario and make it come to life in a way that is both entertaining and oddly plausible. While the scenes with Jimmy drag a bit, the book was otherwise captivating. One doesn't need to read the previous six in the series (although I recommend them too) to enjoy The Game but one should certainly read Kim first.

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Walt Disney's Pinocchio: 09/06/07

Walt Disney's Pinocchio

It's interesting to read the Disney Golden Book version of Pinocchio right on the heals of original Collodi version. The Golden Book is a pared down version of an already pared down version. In their brevity, they both try to make a coherent story out of Collodi's rambling allegories.

Characters that survive the transition from Collodi to Disney are Pinocchio, Geppetto, the Blue Fairy, the cat and fox (renamed), the puppeteer (now named Stromboli), the cricket (now named Jiminy), and the giant ship eating sea creature (changed from a shark to a whale and named Monstro). Scenes that survive: the carving of Pinocchio, the initial meeting of Jiminy and Pinocchio, the puppet show, Pleasure Island (a new name), the rescue of Geppetto and Pinocchio's transformation.

Frankly I'm still not a fan of either version of Pinocchio. In the original, Pinocchio is unlovable and brings most of the trouble onto himself. In the Disney version, Pinocchio is naive but otherwise likeable. He ends up sacrificing so much of himself just to fit in by way of becoming a "real boy."

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Tomb of the Golden Bird: 09/05/07

Tomb of the Golden Bird

There are very few novel series I read. Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody series is one of two series I follow with any regularity (Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels being the other). Both these series are ones I picked up as a child and have been following on and off since then. With both series having more than a dozen books each, I don't have the time or patience to read them in order. I read them as I find them.

Tomb of the Golden Bird piqued my interest more than any of the recent Amelia Peabody books have because it takes place during the first season after the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. It's a time in history that I've done a fair amount of personal research so I'm familiar with the events and the people involved. When the scenes in this novel focused on Carter, Carnarvon and the tomb, I was riveted. Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz) is an Egyptologist by trade when she's not writing mystery novels. In her more recent novels she seems to be adding levels of detail one won't find in the non-academic books: especially the rivalries between different Egyptologists and perhaps what their modern colleagues think of them. Unfortunately the bulk of the book suffers from the usual plot twists and excessive cameos from previous novels in the series that have ballooned the recent novels from 280 pages to 500 pages.

In an odd bit of synchronicity with my reading, Tomb of the Golden Bird and The Game by Laurie R. King (review coming soon) both build on Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim. Frankly, King's version is more in keeping with the original tone and spirit of Kipling's novel and the more interesting (though still flawed) version. Although Amelia and company do manage to sort out their roles in the Game, their actions are amateurish and their success is due mostly to luck and pigheadedness.

One thing I noticed in this novel that I haven't in the other recent ones, is that Peters seems to have realized her characters have gotten old. Although Amelia never admits that she is old, the glimpses of her from the "Manuscript H" bits show her as an older woman stuck in her ways and out of touch with modern cultural norms. She is still dressing and acting as if she is living in the 1880s when here it is December 1922. Given Peabody's status as a mary-sue type character, it's good to see some chinks in her (perceived) perfection.

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Pinocchio: 09/04/07


Ian's parents took a trip to Italy earlier this year and their travels inspired them to give Sean two different copies of Pinocchio: the original version by Carlo Collodi and illustrated by Roberto Innocenti; and the Golden Book version from the 1940 Disney film.

I've read the Collodi novel once before when I was a teenager and I remember being put off by both by Pinocchio's arrogance and the surrealism of the world in which the marionette lives. Were it not for Roberto Innocenti's gorgeous illustrations I would have set Collodi's story aside without finishing it.

Like so many of the classics from the late 1800s, Pinocchio was serialized in Il Giornale dei Bambini (Children's Journal), starting in 1880. Each installment was a short allegory to teach children how to be independent thinkers (Wiki). Keeping in mind the method of publication and the reason behind it helps to put the disjointed nature of the chapters and the surreal world into perspective. Innocenti's illustrations then bring this world to life.

Read the review at Things Mean A Lot.

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Catholics: 09/02/07

Sixteen Short Novels

I have actually finished reading Sixteen Short Novels and now I just have the reviews to finish writing. The second to last novella in the book is "Catholics" by Brian Moore.

"Catholics" is a near future, sometime after the death of Pope John Paul II, at a time when the Vatican has radically altered the traditions of Catholicism to modernize the religion.

Father James Kinsella is sent by Rome to the island parish off the Kerry coast in Ireland. An abbey there has ignored the edicts from the Holy See and are sticking to the old traditions. Their old fashioned way of holding mass and hearing confessions has drawn huge crowds, whom the Vatican have labeled as pilgrims. Father Kinsella must confront this abbey and bring the monks in line with holy orders.

Kinsella's observations of the old traditions make "Catholics" a fascinating read. In order to gain access to the abbey he must dress and act like an old fashioned priest. He feels out of place in traditional trappings and has a hard time convincing the locals that he is who he says he is. He confronts feelings of pity for the monks, self doubt at his effectiveness on the assignment and relief at being able to return to the real world when he leaves the island.

Catholics ends with a devils advocate type coda, with the monks discussing their next move after Kinsella leaves. Effectively the book ends in a stand-off with both sides convinced of they are doing the right thing.

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Bloodline: 09/01/07


I read Bloodline for the Medical Mystery Madness challenge. The book centers around a pharmaceutical company and the family squabble over control of it after the president dies mysteriously.

The book should be mostly about Elizabeth Roffe, heir to the Roffe and Sons empire, the man who wants to marry her and the person who wants to kill her. Unfortunately the plot is diluted by the backstories of all the other potential heirs to the company and with a lengthy exposition into Elizabeth's childhood, including her brief experimentation with being a lesbian.

Frankly, Elizabeth Roffe would have been a more interesting and sympathetic a protagonist if Sheldon had written her a lesbian all the way through the book. Instead he invents for her a dashing rags-to-riches Welshman named Rhys Williams who has risen through the ranks of the company and right into Elizabeth's heart.

By himself, Rhys Williams is an interesting character. His outsider's view of Roffe and Sons provides a nice counterpoint to Elizabeth's memories of her father. He doesn't need to hook up with Elizabeth to complete the story in a satisfactory fashion.

Finally there is the rest of the Roffe family, the sisters and brothers-in-law of the late president. One of them is out for blood. One of them wants to kill Elizabeth. Who the assassin is drawn out to the very end of the book, making a slow starting thriller, a fast page turner at the end.

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