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The Twilight Year: 12/31/07
The January issue starts off with a dark ages tale called "The Twilight Year" which takes place in England during a freak summer snow storm. McMullen explains that in the mid-530s, Krakatoa erupted and blanketed skies in a twilight for an entire year.
The story is narrated by a bard who makes his living singing of the mythical Arthurian. The bard finds himself in the middle of a land skirmish between a representative of the Roman empire and a group claiming local independence. The bard uses the myth of Arthurian to save his own neck.
When the story first began I was reluctant to read it, afraid I'd be reading another rehash of the Arthurian legend but Sean McMullen's tale is more a historical fiction that explores the power of propaganda than an actual Arthurian tale. Arthur here is secondary to the political machinations of the different factions.
How Big is Your God? 12/30/07
Paul Coutinho, SJ, an Indian Jesuit priest offers in this slim volume ways for Christians to enrich their lives through new understandings of the divine. Coutinho draws on his understanding of Eastern beliefs to expand upon Western practices of religion. As a Jesuit, many of his examples and questions to readers come from the teachings of St. Ignatius.
The central theme of How Big is Your God? is to experience life, rather than strictly following the rules of tradition. He gives examples of the many different ways one can experience God and what can be learned from understanding these different approaches.
What the book never explores is what value is the book to non-Christians or atheists. God is so much a part of the author's life (as can be expected from his calling) that he never seems to step outside his own experience to ask who might be reading his book.
If you're a practicing Christian looking to expand your relationship with God, you will benefit from this book. If you're not, you can still gain insight into some of the founding principles of the religion.
The December issue rounds out with a lovely novelet, "Finisterra" by David Moles. The story takes its inspiration from an illustration done in a Vermeer style by Lara Wells called "The Engineer."
Moles put a lot of work into "Finisterra" an it shows in how much a part of the world his characters are. Sky is more than just an exotic backdrop to his story; it is a fully realized world with history, culture, geography, biology and so forth. To learn more about the process of writing "Finisterra" I highly recommend the interview on John Joseph Adams's blog. I must admit to grinning where Moles described trying to remember his trig to figure out how big Sky had to be because I did the same thing for Hale when working on Tangent for this year's Nanowrimo.
"Finisterra" with its celebration of flight set against a hostile world and pre industrial technology reminds me quite favorably of Bob Shaw's novels The Rugged Astronauts and The Wooden Spaceships.
Buy Jupiter: 12/28/07
Buy Jupiter is a 1975 collection of 24 short stories by Isaac Asimov. Between each story Asimov explains the history of story. Sometimes he offers the reason behind the story and other times he explains the punchline.
Most of the stories are actually shorter than the attached commentary, coming in at two to five pages in length. They are too the point, usually aiming either for a quick moral or a funny pun.
My favorite of the set is Shah Guido G. (1951) which is also one of the longer of the stories. It is also probably the best of the pun stories.
Over all, though, I found Buy Jupiter hard to read at my usual pace. The stories tend to run right into the explanations. It reads like Asimov is sitting in the corner of the room giving a drunken monologue about his story writing process.
Buy Jupiter was my second book for the Jewish Literature Challenge.
Letters from Iceland: 12/27/07
I am rather split brained about Letters From Iceland by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. There were pieces of it that had me roaring with laughter and other pieces where I just had to skip out of boredom or disinterest.
Letters From Iceland is a collection of writings inspire by a trip to Iceland. It was published in 1937 and has been reprinted a number of times. W. H. Auden provided about two-thirds of the pieces including a lengthy (and rather dull) epic poem called a "Letter to Lord Byron." Louis MacNeice provided the remaining third of the text.
My favorite parts of the book were the notes for tourists which includes practical advice on what to pack an who to dress, warnings about the food an transportation. The descriptions of the Icelandic traditions taken from a British point of view made for a humorous comparison with the dwarves in Pratchett's discworld novels; I was constantly reminded of Carrot.
My all time favorite piece of the book was a satiric letter "Hetty to Nancy" by MacNeice. It is an account of a disastrous group camping trip. Hetty recounts the problems of sleeping facing down hill, with sleeping on rocks and with tents in the rain when the tents haven't been properly pitched.
Who Brought Tulips to the Moon? 12/27/07
Here I am a day late on my review. Even though I tore apart the room we're staying in at my parents' home, I didn't find the December issue. My son actually found it for me tonight by accident while he was looking for a change of underwear. Sigh.
That being said, the theme of delay is oddly appropriate for S. L. Gilbow's story "Who Brought Tulips to the Moon." The moon in some undetermined future has become the place where people go to die. The story follows Jack Hudson an his daughter and son-in-law who have brought him to Smooth Passing in Lunacy Park. He's 94, in good health to no fault of his own, and expecting to die in the next day or so.
Jack spends his last day with Susan, another soon to be passing geriatric. They spend the day drinking and talking of tulips. Gilbow uses their conversation and Mr. Hudson's observations to do some subtle world building. Although this story is about euthanasia, it is by no means a rehash of Logan's Run.
I really enjoyed this story and count it one of my favorites of this issue.
The Dante Club: 12/25/07
The Dante Club is Matthew Pearl's 2004 debut novel. It's set in Boston just after the close of the Civil War. A series of bizarre and gruesome murders are hitting the city. A local club of scholars working on an English translation of Dante's Inferno begin to see striking similarities between Dante's vision of hell and these recent murders.
I usually shy away from historical novels, especially mysteries, that have major historical figures as the detectives. They often seem too contrived to hold my suspension of disbelief. Pearl, though, kept my attention with his convincing descriptions of post Civil War Boston, the popular literary culture of the time and with how he managed to keep his historical figures human, interesting and believably flawed.
The grisly murders described in The Dante Club are presented with a detached, cold and frank manner. The matter-of-fact approach makes these scenes both gripping and disturbing to read.
There were a few too many scenes of Dante devotion that get in the way of the mystery. Fans though of Dante will probably enjoy these lengthy passages. Readers who aren't all that familiar with The Inferno will benefit from learning the passages relevant to the mystery.
Having now enjoyed The Dante Club, I am eagerly awaiting my chance in 2008 to read The Poe Shadow also by Pearl.
Don't Ask: 12/24/07
Fourth in the December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a cautionary tale to parents, "Don't Ask" by M. Rickert.
"Don't Ask" is narrated by an unnamed parent of one of the recently returned "lost boys." At first these lost boys brought to mind (quite naturally) the lost boys of Peter Pan. But there is something more sinister happening here than children refusing to grow up.
These lost boys return but they are changed. "Don't Ask" is more about the parents coming to terms with what has happened than the children learning the importance of growing up. "Don't Ask" is a tale about unconditional love.
Tucked away in the Smokehill Mountains is the last remaining refuge of draco australiensis, the largest of the dragon species. Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley is an alternate-Earth novel set in contemporary times. The only main difference is the existence of dragons, although they are endangered.
Dragonhaven is a first person narrative by Jake Mendoza, a native of Smokehill. His story begins shortly after the unfortunate death of his mother when a hike through Smokehill changes his life and the lives of those around him forever. Jake saves the life of a newly born dragon whom he names Lois.
It takes until the discovery of Lois for Jake's narrative to become focused enough to be interesting. The first sixty or so pages are way too chatty. Jake is a rambling narrator. I suppose these early pages are a way to do world building but they can easily be skipped. Likewise, Jake's narrative doesn't seem to end either. The novel has as long a coda as it does an opening.
Despite the rambling start and finish, the work in creating this alternate Earth and in working out the biology of all these different species of dragons made for a fascinating read. I just wish the first and last chapters had been more tightly edited.
Bleach 7: 12/22/07
Bleach 7 takes the series in a new direction. The fallout from Ichigo and Uryû's Hollow competition leads to Rukia's arrest. Can they save her from certain execution?
Most of this volume is a long drawn out fight between Ichigo and Rukia's captors. Lots of sword play and posturing.
Needless to say, Ichigo gets his ass handed to him. In all of this abuse he begins to learn that he might have powers and strength beyond what Rukia has given him. He also learns first hand the prejudices of the Soul Society.
The second half of Volume 7 focuses on the training of Ichigo and his friends. Ichigo's training re-emphasizes the theme of balance from Volume 6. There is a fine line between becoming a Soul Reaper and becoming a Hollow.
The Bone Man: 12/21/07
Third in the December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a ghost story called "The Bone Man" by Frederic S. Durbin.
"The Bone Man" is a grown up version of Ray Bradbury's Halloween Tree. Searching for a bite to eat, Conlin arrives at an idyllic middle of nowhere town just hours before the annual Halloween parade. Although this unnamed town is off the map, it manages to have a steady tourist population, all coming to see the Bone Man.
Not everyone can see the Bone Man and those who can aren't always happy that they can see him. Only the "luckiest" will actually be seen by Bone Man. Conlin, is one of the elite.
Franny and Zooey: 12/20/07
Franny and Zooey made the perfect follow up to Better Than Running at Night. Both books center around young women struggling through a personal crises in the freshman year at college. Franny struggles more than Ellie in melding her personal convictions with her experiences in college.
In "Franny" (published in the New Yorker in 1955), Franny, a member of the Glass family (a family I will revisit when I read and review Nine Stories next year), is introduced as a cheerful and enthusiastic character through a letter that her boyfriend, Lane, carries in his pocket. It has been a while since they last saw each other and the woman who steps of the train is nothing like her letter. She is withdrawn and nervous, a very changed person.
Over the course of a disastrous dinner date, Franny pours out her heart to Lane. She has become enamored with a book of eastern philosophy that she believes has the answers to all her problems. Franny's half of the story ends though before she can elaborate.
It isn't until the much longer Zooey chapter (or story, as originally published in The New Yorker in 1957) that greater details of Franny's problems are revealed. The bulk of her story comes out in a very funny but touching conversation between Zooey and his mother, Bessie Glass.
While the story is still about Franny's depression, Bessie ends up stealing the show. She is so perfectly written in all her quirks to be a fully realized person in these eight or so pages.
I'm very glad I read this book for the Jewish Literature Challenge.
Bleach 6: 12/19/07
Although "Hat and Clogs" is on the cover of Bleach 6, he is waiting in the wings to clean up the mess that Uryû and Ichigo create.
Volume 6 is the breaking point in the current rhythm of the series. It is also the point where the Soul Society's role in the universe is finally explained. They keep the balance of souls between the two worlds. Unfortunately Uryû and Ichigo have thrown that completely off kilter.
Can they put things to rights? Can they work together long enough to fix the mess? And finally, will all of this go unnoticed? Of course not.
FSF: Stray: 12/19/07
"Stray", The second story of the December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is about fitting in, love and acceptance. The protagonist is a fallen immortal named Ivan. He has sent thousands of men to their deaths and is now for reasons unknown stranded in the middle of nowhere at the height of Depression.
His savoir is a woman named Muriel who takes him home in her beat up Model T and welcomes him into her heart no questions asked. Ivan soon finds a happiness he has never had but this bliss is threatened by his own desire to make Muriel happy.
It took me a page or two to get into this short story but I liked the awkward relationship between Ivan and Muriel. There was a certain matter of factness to the story. These things happen and don't require explanation or much in the way of exposition.
Better Than Running at Night: 12/18/07
Better Than Running at Night turns out to be one of the best books I've read this year. This 2002 debut novel by Hillary Frank covers the first year Ladybug (Ellie) Yelinsky spends at the New England Collage of Art and Design.
Each chapter is short, not more than a couple pages. Each one has a funny title, illustrated by a tiny sketch the by the author.
Hillary Frank created a very realistic, likeable and believable character in Ellie. She's naive in the way that so many new adults are but she also has a strong personal code and even when her experiences at NECAD challenge her beliefs she stays true to herself as she adapts.
If you pick up a copy of Better Than Running at Night, I highly recommend reading it to the music of Sam Phillip's 2001 album, Fan Dance. The two complement each other beautifully.
Bleach 5: 12/18/07
As the cover art implies, much of Bleach 5: Right Arm of the Giant is about Chad and his unusual abilities. As Chad is honing his strength we are treated to Uryû Ishida's back story as the last Quincy. Finally there is Orihime who is also coming into her powers.
Although there are the usual fights with Hollows, Bleach 5 is mostly about Ichigo's friends (or soon to be friends). It's about their back stories, their abilities and how they are important to Ichigo. The Hollows here are just to show what Ichigo's friends can do without him.
I like Chad. He's not the typical stupid heavy. He's quiet, embarrassed by his strength but he's smart. He's also very nice, even if he's not the most social of characters.
FSF: Osama Phone Home: 12/17/07
The first story of the December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is a reprint of "Osama Phone Home" by Alaskan author David Marusek. The story originally appeared the March/April 2007 issue of MIT's Technology Review.
"Osama Phone Home" recounts the plans of the American Curling Club to do what the U.S. government has so far failed to do: find Osama bin Laden. They come up with a variety of wild ideas and by the end of the story their plans backfire in humorous ways.
This story is a farcical poke at modern science and venture capital. It's a quick read and a fun way to start off the December issue. I'm glad it was included.
O is for Outlaw: 12/17/07
When the Nattie Challenge blog announced the ">Baby Steps Challenge" of reading three books by the end of the year, I felt ready to tackle a few more of the alphabet series. I'm reading M, N, and O for this challenge.
A phone call from a storage bin bidder brings Kinsey Millhone face to face with the memories of her first husband and their failed marriage. Mickey Magruder is in a coma at the UCLA Medical Center and the Los Angeles police Kinsey had something to do with it.
Rather than leave things alone, Kinsey starts investigating Magruder's shooting pro bono, putting herself and her license at risk. Kinsey is the outlaw in O is for Outlaw.
A huge pile of debt, a seedy bar and a Vietnam war secret are at the heart of this mystery. Unfortunately these are all the elements of a typical ratings sweep episode of Magnum PI. The Vietnam piece of this mystery felt forced. I know that Kinsey is living in the mid to late 1980s but that still puts more than a decade between her present and the tour of duty where the original crime took place.
O is for Outlaw reminded me why I stopped reading this series in the first place. Kinsey's quirky personal life is supposed to make her interesting but she comes off as annoying and oft-times clueless when she's supposed to be a crack detective. She hasn't grown at all as a character in the course of these fifteen books. She's just as stuck in her ways and just as defective as she was in A is for Alibi.
Castro Valley: 12/16/07
The community to the north of us is Castro Valley. It's the place we spent most of our free time and where Sean goes to school. It's the place I look at through my kitchen window when I'm working from home.
So when I heard there was a pictorial history book on Castro Valley, I had to have a copy. Castro Valley by Lucille Lorge, Robert Phelps and Devon Weston is part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing. Although these books are print on demand, I've noticed that Borders has started to stock copies of the books that cover local communities.
Castro Valley, once home to the Ohlone (page 9), began its modern transformation into a thriving community as part of Rancho San Lorenzo. Bad debts eventually resulted in the ranch being broken up into what's now San Lorenzo, Castro Valley and Hayward.
As a parent with an almost school aged child, the story of Castro Valley's first school made me nod and smile. Most of the students lived on the Hayward side of things but the school was in Castro Valley. Unable to afford to build its own school, Hayward residents stole the school in the middle of the night and carted it back on a wagon to the Hayward side of things (page 22). In the unincorporated area of Fairview the school tug of war continues.
Most of the book though is dedicated to the photographic history of the last century when Castro Valley was a thriving hatchery and later booming bedroom community to post WWII families. Castro Valley in it's current form really took shape in the late 1950s, early 1960s when the strip mall and the mini golf course were built (page 117).
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book and have already read it twice cover to cover.
Happy Halloween Stinky Face: 12/15/07
Sean likes Halloween themed books. He has about a dozen of them. He also adores I Love You, Stinky Face, a favorite book to borrow from his school. So when I saw Happy Halloween Stinky Face for sale, I had to get a copy for him.
Stinky Face is getting ready for Halloween and his (or her, it's never made clear) mother has to field a long string of trick-or-treat related questions. As with the first book, Mama always manages a kind and creative answer to Stinky Face's questions. I often wish I could come up with Mama's witty responses when Sean is flinging run-on-sentence questions at me.
Cyd Moore's illustrations bring to life Stinky Face's wild questions and his mother's equally creative answers. I think my favorite illustration is of Stinky Face's sister flying over the neighborhood, unable to trick-or-treat because she is so high in the air.
If you're a fan of the Stinky Face books or have a young one who adores Halloween themed stories as much as mine does, get yourself a copy of I Love You Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt with illustrations by Cyd Moore.
The October/ November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction rounds out issue with "Urdumheim", a creation story by Michael Swanwick.
This creation story is told from the point of view of the would be assassin of King Nimrod to prevent the building of the tower of Babel.
As the Babel myth is one of the quintessential language creation stories, Swanwick uses his thirty page narrative to play with language. Although the protagonist is able to clearly relate his history to us, he has lost the ability to communicate with his kith and kin.
The unnamed winged creatures of Urdumheim want to bring the chaos of the prelanguage days back to the People of King Nimrod. Urdumheim isn't a place, as the narrator explains, it is a state of being. It is also a play on words on the author's own neighborhood. Perhaps Swanwick's monsters won after all and we are all living in Urdumheim.
N is for Noose: 12/14/07
When the Nattie Challenge blog announced the "Baby Steps Challenge" of reading three books by the end of the year, I felt ready to tackle a few more of the alphabet series. I'm reading M, N and O for this challenge.
The unfinished business left by Detective Tom Newquist's untimely death brings Kinsey Millhone out to Nota Lake on a case that will put her life in jeopardy. Kinsey takes on the case of a widow who is convinced her husband died under mysterious circumstances and that the entire town is covering up for the murderer. What Mrs. Newquist and Kinsey don't realize is that the murderer is closer than either would dare suspect but any observant reader will probably realize fairly early on.
I enjoyed N is for Noose, not for the mystery which was one of the most obvious plots I've read in a while, but for the descriptions of Nota Lake County. Anyone who has vacationed along the 395 by Mono Lake or down closer to Mammoth will recognize the areas described as Nota Lake.
Unfortunately by the final third of N is for Noose the scenic descriptions weren't enough to keep me all that interested. The plot was railroaded to such an extent that I knew within pages what had to come to next all the way to the end.
Betrayed by Elmo: 12/14/07
Harriet usually ends her morning by watching Sesame Street before her nap. She knows that when the "Elmo's World" bit of Sesame Street is over, it's her nap time.
Today though, she refused to nap. See, naps are for babies. Elmo told her this. Worse than that, Elmo called a child obviously older than Harriet a baby.
Elmo betrayed Harriet's trust by calling this obvious toddler a baby. This child must have been about 18 months old, so about the youngest of the "younger kids" in Sean's school. These are the big kids that Harriet so looks up to and aspires to be. If they are babies, then Harriet, despite her best efforts, must also be one.
Rather than take her usual nap, Harriet howled from her crib: "I don't want to be a baby! I don't want to take a nap. Big girls don't take naps." Over and over and over again. All day, in fact, did I get to hear her protests.
Watch out Elmo. You're on Harriet's shit list.
Olivia Saves the Circus: 12/13/07
My in laws continue to be a wonderful source of sidesplitting funny children's books for Sean and Harriet. On their recent visit they brought up Olivia (for Sean) and Olivia Saves the Circus (for Harriet) by Ian Falconer.
Olivia Saves the Circus celebrates the power of a child's imagination. Olivia is suppose to share with her class what she and her family did over vacation. Rather than telling the boring details, she paints a fantastic picture where she is one pig circus.
If you believe Olivia's version she single handedly saved the circus when all the performers were out with ear infections. With that premise in mind, Olivia jumps into her story and takes us along.
My in laws continue to be a wonderful source of sidesplitting funny children's books for Sean and Harriet. On their recent visit they brought up Olivia (for Sean) and Olivia Saves the Circus (for Harriet) by Ian Falconer.
Olivia, a Caldecott Honor book, is the first of eight books. It introduces Olivia a young pig who is full of energy.
The book covers a typical day in Olivia's life. She moves the cat around a lot. She moves herself around a lot too. She scares baby brother Ian. She's a typical preschooler (except that she's a pig).
To go with the simple but funny story, Ian Falconer creates full page illustrations in a simple pallet of red, white, black and grays. Olivia, visually, borders on pop art and is just gorgeous to look at. We have enjoyed these two books so much that we've purchased another Olivia book for Sean's school book drive. I think next year we will try to get the entire Olivia collection for our home library.
The penultimate story in October/ November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction goes back to the theme of death and loss but from the perspective of someone left behind.
Author Daryl Gregory's story telling style is one part Rod Sterling and one part Michael Ende. He beautifully blends a widower's sorrow with the magic of childhood imagination.
On a day when he should be cleaning out the house before putting it on the market, the protagonist digs through the attic full of his memories: that of his wife and son who have died and that of his own childhood. At the very back, having dug through the layers of his life he finds his old bike, his chariot into the unexplored lands of imagination.
Cross Bones: 12/11/07
You might remember that I was reading chapters of Cross Bones to Sean last month. I've now finished the book and I'm having mixed feelings about it.
Cross Bones has two distinct parts and two distinct mysteries. The first part takes place in Montreal and centers around the execution style shooting of an antiquities dealer. The second part takes place in Israel and focuses on a 2000 year old corpse who is possibly related St. James Ossuary.
The Montreal bits I tore through. I loved the details of the mystery, the cultural clashes and Temperance's goofy friends (who are similar to but different Bones, the series). This half of the book entertained me enough that I still want to read the other book in the series that I have on my TBR shelf.
Had the book only taken place in Israel I would have tossed it aside unfinished. The pacing is off in this bit of the book. I know Temperance is supposed to have tons of experience traveling around the world doing her special field of forensics but she seemed so out of place in the field. Plus there were all these ridiculous action scenes that left me rolling my eyes.
Good Omens: 12/10/07
Agnes Nutter probably prophesied this but it's still worth celebrating; Good Omens is my 365th review for the year!
Good Omens is the brilliant novel collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett with a guest appearance by Death. See, it's the coming apocalypse and Death is one of the Four Horsemen except that Pestilence has quit in a huff and Pollution is filling in for him.
At the center of the world's destruction is the 12 year old Antichrist. He should be living in the United States but he's apparently not. Can the forces of good and evil find him and set things right before they go completely pear shaped?
Good Omens is an enjoyable book with humor similar to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Gaiman and Pratchett play off of each other well although the pacing of the ending does stutter a bit. I'll forgive the book the last thirty pages since I enjoyed the rest of it so much.
Return of the Indian: 12/09/07
The Return of the Indian is the second of the Indian in the Cupboard series. After a year of keeping the cupboard locked, Omri decides to see Little Bear again.
When Omri brings Little Bear back to life he learns first hand the brutality of war. In an effort to help Little Bear win the war, Omri and his friends interfere first by sending weapons back and then by going back themselves.
See, it's not the cupboard that's magic, it's actually the key. But what and who can go back isn't exactly explained in this sequel. Perhaps later books dig deeper in the magic behind the key.
I enjoyed the darker themes of The Return of the Indian but I still found Omri a rather dull lead character.
Among the Impostors: 12/09/07
Among the Impostors is the second book in the Shadow Children sequence by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In this book, "Shadow Child" Luke Garner takes on a new identity and leaves his home to attend the Hendricks school for boys.
Living out in the open gives him lots to worry about. One slip up and he could lose his life or risk his family's safety. His main worry, two words of advice he was given on the day he started at school: "blend in."
Shadow Children are children born after the allowed two children per family. The themes of the all seeing government make Among the Impostors a good introduction for classics such as 1984 and Brave New World.
Among the Impostors is the only one of the series I've read but I tore through in the course of an afternoon. I would love to read more of the books.
Sleep No More: 12/08/07
John Waters life becomes a living hell shortly after he meets Eve Sumner, the near twin of his long dead girl friend. What's even stranger is Eve claims to be possessed by the spirit of Mallory Chandler. John doesn't believe her at first but she keeps coming up with details an imposter just couldn't know.
By the start of the second act, Sleep No More takes on a decidedly supernatural tone. As Eve's claims of being Mallory (or possessing Mallory) begin to seem plausible, John Waters loses all claim of being an intelligent or likeable protagonist. Mallory claims to be able to travel from body to body during strong orgasms. So what does John do? He cheats on his wife and has a fortnight long affair with Eve until one day he wakes up with her dead next to him in a hotel room!
The final act is John Water's decent into his own personally made Hell. How can he defeat the vengeful spirit of his ex-girl friend while she is possessing him? How can he escape a murder conviction when his DNA will be found at the scene? How can he protect his family?
Pippi Longstocking: 12/08/07
Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim's Daughter Longstocking (or Pippi to her friends) is one of my favorite children's fiction heroines. She was first introduced in Pippi Longstocking. She's stronger anyone, lives alone in a palatial home, has a horse and a monkey, and is the daughter of a pirate. Who could ask for more out of a main character?
For the BookCrossing Literacy Train I treated myself to a reread of Pippi Longstocking before donating my copy to the cause. This initial volume introduces Pippi, her pets and her friends: Tommy and Annika. The chapters are not more than vignettes to put Pippi in comical situations but it is fun to see the mayhem that unfolds.
Pippi isn't a bad child. She's just headstrong and used to being on her own. She's not part of proper society although she does try to be polite. She's not educated in the standard way but has seen the world before settling down albeit briefly at her home, Villa Villekulla.
Island of the Blue Dolphins: 12/07/07
I reread Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell for the BookCrossing Literacy Train. It was nice to go back to this award winner with an adult pair of eyes and experiences to better understand the story. I know it's written for the 9 to 12 set but when I was that age it went right over my head.
When I had to read it for school in fifth or six grade I remember not liking it because it didn't seem real to me. I don't remember if our teacher told us about the history behind the book or not but I couldn't believe that California had islands off the coast.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is still a rather sparse narrative since the bulk of it covers the eighteen years that Karana spends alone. This time however I was able to enjoy the historical setting and the way in which San Nicholas Island is described. As an adult I come to the book a course in Channel island biology, four years of living in Santa Barbara and a whole bunch of other experiences that I hadn't had when I first read the book.
"Fragrant Goddess": 12/06/07
The seventh story in October/ November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is yet another ghost story. The editors call it "an interesting counterpoint to Albert Crowley's tale."
The story starts as a reunion between old lovers. They are older and the narrator is a little beat up with the passage of time. He's wondering if his ex will still be interested in him even though she his married and with a school aged daughter.
During their reunion she mentions finding the recipe for a legendary elixir called "Fragrant Goddess." From there the story spirals back in time to explain the importance of this great find and frankly I started to lose interest.
Eighteen pages just aren't enough time to build as complex a story as Paul Park is attempting here. The story spirals further off center and ends up with a similarly ambiguous ending as "Recreation Room." Except without the prophesies of Madame Lock, the ending here is less fulfilling.
Cats Are Not Peas: 12/06/07
Cats Are Not Peas by Laura Gould is the best explanation of calico cat genetics I have ever read. It is also one of the best science books for non-scientists I have ever read. Heck, it is one of my all time favorite books.
Cats Are Not Peas is a memoir of Laura Gould's journey to discover why her calico cat was different. She like the rest of us had always heard that calico cats are always female but she had a male calico cat (George). She wanted to know why her cat was male.
The reason, she learns, is that orange and black genes are carried on the X chromosome. White is a color that isn't carried on a sex chromosome. So if you have an orange, black and white cat (a calico) or an orange and black cat (a tortoiseshell) then you have to have a cat with two X chromosomes. In other words, you have to have a female cat.
So where does George fit into the equation? Laura had him genetically profiled. Turns out George was a chimera. He was the result of two or more fertilized eggs blending together into one individual. So he had at least two X and at least one Y chromosome. And that's how you get a rare boy calico.
In between speed reading all those books for the BookCrossing Literacy Train, I refreshed myself with the thoroughly enjoyable Jingo by Terry Pratchett.
Jingo looks at the dangers of politics on international policy. Ankh-Morpork finds itself in dispute with Klatch over a tiny island. Assuming the worse, Ankh-Morpork plans to go to war even though the city is broke.
Like in Miss Bianca in the Orient, Klatch is an amalgamation of the old British Empire holdings. Unlike the Margery Sharp book, Klatch is actually described in enough detail that the different cultures are recognizable. While everything is open for parody in Jingo the different cultures are also treated with respect making the book entertaining and thought provoking.
The best part of Jingo though is the alternate reality that opens up when Vimes goes down the wrong leg of the "trousers of time". This alternate reality, shown through his "dis-organizer" shows what would have happened if Vimes hadn't decided to take action contrary to orders and common sense.
Berenstain Bears Accept No Substitutes: 12/05/07
Brother Bear finds himself on the wrong side of a class prank when his class has a long term substitute. Brother Bear expects it to be small pranks like organized pencil dropping and other silly things. The gang has worse things in mind; they want to "break" the substitute.
The Berenstain Bears Accept No Substitutes has two important messages: being respectful to strangers and resisting peer pressure. The story is a little heavy handed at times but it still has the usual Berenstain charm. The Bear family and others seem forever stuck in the late 1960s or early 1970s even though the book was written as recently as 1993.
The Turret: 12/04/07
The Turret is the third book in the series, coming two books before Miss Bianca in the Orient which I reviewed yesterday.
The Turret would have made the perfect ending for a trilogy. Miss Bianca meets her arch enemy again. Only this time, she has to rescue him.
The book is also a turning point for the series. The books through The Turret stay close to home (England) and involve a tight set of characters. It seems with book four onwards, the emphasis moves more towards exotic locations and big adventure style rescues.
Miss Bianca in the Orient: 12/03/07
Miss Bianca in the Orient (1970) is the fifth book in the Miss Bianca books by Margery Sharp. Miss Bianca is taken the the "orient" by her boy and soon finds herself in the middle of a mystery.
Miss Bianca must save the life of a young court page who has somehow insulted the queen. He will be trampled to death under the feet of the royal elephants if Miss Bianca and Bernard can't find him first.
I enjoyed the mystery aspects of the novel. It's not clear until near the end if the boy really exists and the proposed method of execution is chilling. Unfortunately the book is so full of stereotypes and old colonial views of "the orient" to be difficult to read. There are times that the book borders on xenophobia.
"Two Weeks After": 12/03/07
The six story in October/ November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is the fiction debut of M. Ramsey Chapman and I hope it isn't the last. "Two Weeks After" is another ghost story but this one isn't a thinly disguised socialist discourse; it is an entertaining and chilling gothic thriller.
The story follows Jack and April as they return to their loved ones for one last goodbye. Chapman doesn't waste time with explanations. These two just show up and go about spending these two precious hours with their spouses.
As things unfold it becomes clear that these aren't exactly happy reunions. Having set up these reunions, Chapman goes back and begins to pepper the narrative with glimpses of what happened two weeks prior.
I'm not going to say anything more because I don't want to spoil the ending. Get yourself a copy of last month's Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine and enjoy this delightful debut!
Track of the Cat: 12/02/07
Track of the Cat is the first mystery in the Anna Pigeon series. Anna has fled the hustle and bustle of New York City to escape the memories of her late husband. While working as a ranger in south west Texas she stumbles upon the body of another ranger.
The death is ruled accidental with the cause of death listed as mountain lion. Anna who works with mountain lions knows a lion couldn't have done it. Her knowledge pulls her into a mystery investigation that puts her own life at risk.
Overall I enjoyed the story and the mystery was complex enough to be interesting but plotted well enough to be plausible. Barr does an excellent job of describing the mountainous environment during the summer heat. The only weak points in the book come with the pacing at the beginning and end of the book. The novel starts choppily and ends in a similar fashion. I takes about three chapters for Track of the Cat to find its stride and it probably could have used one more chapter to catch its breath at the end.
Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil: 12/01/07
Alison and the surviving friends of the chain letter troubles have moved on with their lives. Some are off to college and others are working locally. Just as things seem to ge going perfectly a new chain letter arrives signed by the Caretaker. How can this be? The person responsible is dead.
Meanwhile, Alison and Tony hit a rough patch in the relationship that started near the end of the first book. Tony doesn't want Alison to go cross country to college. He starts to date a local college girl and this new girl friend is trouble. She convinces Tom that Alison is cheating on him with a young detective.
In the middle of all this lovers angst the new chain letter mayhem turns deadly. Has another friend betrayed the group or is the Caretaker something worse?
As the cover art and subtitle of the book, The Ancient Evil, imply, the Caretaker is something much worse than a jealous friend. The second half of the book takes on a decidedly supernatural tone as Alison and her friends learn of satanic cults, blood sacrifices and other ghoulish stuff.
The ending was a bit too "sunday school" for me but the rest of the story was entertaining enough to forgive the sappy and preachy final pages.