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Witch Week: 02/29/08

Witch Week

Witch Week is the fourth book in the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynn Jones.

This story reminds me of both the Harry Potter series (except that it predates the series by a decade) and Among the Impostors by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

The story opens with a teacher at a boarding school finding a note that says: "someone in this class is a witch." In this alternate earth magic exists but is illegal in Britain. Fear of having an Inquisitor come to the school causes trouble for a number of the students.

Like the Shadow Children of Among the Impostors, the school has been protecting a number of witches, old and young. Under the stress of having the school under such close scrutiny causes a number of magical flare ups. Each of these events allows Jones to drop hints at the historical events that lead to the modern day situation of witches being forced into hiding and witchcraft being an automatic death sentence (by burning, of course).

To tie up the original quartet, the Chrestomanci from the first book makes an appearance to set things straight. His involvement helps to tie this alternate world to the worlds of the previous books and to create a much richer universe than the world Rowling has created for Harry Potter et al.

If you haven't read the other books in the series, it isn't necessary to start at the beginning. Each book can be read as a stand-alone volume.

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Commander Toad and the Voyage Home

Commander Toad and the Voyage Home

Commander Toad and the Voyage Home is the seventh and final book in the Commander Toad series by Jane Yolen. This time the series is parodying the "Lost Planet of the Gods" episode from the original Battlestar Galactica.

Commander Toad and his crew want to go home for some well needed shore leave. Unfortunately when they ask the computer to take them "home" they don't specify earth. The ship's autopilot takes them somewhere very different indeed.

The series ends with the crew of the Star Warts rediscovering their heritage and making some amazing amphibipological discoveries in the process. Of course, Commander Toad in his usual boneheaded fashion has to leave his own mark on the Home.

Of the seven books, Commander Toad and the Voyage Home is my favorite.

Here are the reviews of all the books in the series:

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The Voluntary State: 02/27/08

Science Fiction: The Best of 2004

The second story in Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 is "The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe.

Imagine a modern day Philip K. Dick story set in Tennessee where cars are sentient and everything and everyone requires a license. Now imagine freedom fighters in Kentucky trying to bring down Tennessee. That's the basic idea behind "The Voluntary State."

From reading through reviews online, I gather that the story was very popular when it was published. I personally didn't enjoy it as much as "The Best Christmas Ever." There were just too many off the wall details crammed into this short story for me to parse. I think the story could have worked better if it had been longer, either as a novella or as a full novel.

If you don't want to buy the book, you can read the story online.

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The Enchanted Castle: 02/26/08

The Enchanted Castle

Edith Nesbit's fantasies all seem to follow a similar pattern. A large family of children are left to adventure on their own and find real magic beyond what they can conjure with their imaginations. Usually their dabbling in magic leads to trouble and of course life lessons. The Enchanted Castle falls squarely in this category.

The book follows the misadventures of siblings Jerry, Jimmy and Cathy and their new friend Mable. Mable lives in the enchanted castle but most of the magic happens due to the wishes granted by a troublesome ring.

Like The Five Children and It, the book mostly focuses on the wishes that each character makes and consequences of them. As each character in turn uses the ring to wish (including the unnamed Nanny, known only as Mademoiselle) the wishes become more fantastical and the results more surreal and potentially dangerous.

I read this novel for the 2008 Decades Challenge. The novel was originally published in 1907 and it holds up well.

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The Best Christmas Ever: 02/25/08

Science Fiction: The Best of 2004

Ian received Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 as a Christmas gift last year. I've been slowly reading through it, going through one story on those rare days when I can sneak away to a local coffee shop for some "me time."

The first story in the book is appropriately called "The Best Christmas Ever" and is written by James Patrick Kelley.

Aunty Em is the caretaker of Albert Paul Hopkins, a 56 year old widower. Em wants to give him a Christmas he'll remember and this story chronicles how she brings about the "best Christmas ever."

While following Aunty Em through her chores, Kelley peppers the story with details of a catastrophic disaster mentioned in passing as the "Boston Plague."

I really enjoyed this story. It has the same eerie atmosphere as Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake where things are just too cheery for all the horror that has happened.

If you don't want to buy the book, you can read the story online.

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Olivia Counts: 02/24/08

Olivia Counts

Olivia is one of my children's favorite characters. Olivia Countsis a board book that teaches with the typical humor of the Olivia books counting one to ten.

Of all the Olivia books I've read to Harriet, Olivia Counts is by far her favorite. It is short, cute and heavy on the illustrations.

Harriet's favorite part of the book is where Olivia counts to ten. The page is covered with ten Olivias doing typically silly things and dressed in costumes from previous books.

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How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? 02/24/08

How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms?

Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have collaborated on a number of these How Do Dinosaurs... books. They have the longer format books and some board books. How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? is a board book. It is half the length of the longer books, How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?, for example.

Jane Yolen's humor works perfectly with Mark Teague's illustrations. These books remind me a bit of the old pamphlets and propaganda that came out of the WPA. Imagine an old school reel of "How to Clean Your Room!" but with dinosaurs. That strange disconnect of dinosaurs with a 1930s style how-to book is what makes these series so charming for both children and adults.

My only complaint about How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? is that the rhyming scheme isn't as smooth as it was in How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? The final page especially seems to have the wrong number of syllables which brings an otherwise fun book to a clunky ending.

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A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains: 02/23/08

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

One hundred thirty-two years before Linda Moore set out for the BookCrossing convention in Texas on her bike "Beastie", Isabella Bell set out by ship, train and finally beastie (in this case, horse) for Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains. Like Linda, Isabella wrote about her entire journey in a series of seven letters which were later published in book form, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. Linda blogged about the experience and later published her experience as A Little Twist of Texas.

When I read through the first letter I was afraid I was reading another Riding the Iron Rooster because the first letter is nothing more than a long diatribe about how lousy the second leg of her trip was (San Francisco to Sacramento) and much she regretted leaving Hawaii. But by her second letter I was madly in love with the book. Isabella's letters reflect her mood as well as record the places and people she met along the way. When she is tired she grumbles. When she's well rested, she thrills at her adventure. She even includes passages about the history of the areas she visits and all I could think was: "She's snarfing!"

If you like travelogues and you like history, get yourself a copy A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. Then read A Little Twist of Texas and enjoy a modern version of the adventure.

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Imaginative Still Life: 02/22/08

Imaginative Still Life

Imaginative Still Life (1983) is one of the more upbeat how-to paint books I've read in a while. These books walk a fine line between dot-to-dot instructions and building fundamentals while still allowing room for creative growth.

Moira Huntly places her emphasis on the fun of painting an on creative experimentation. Of course she does include the basics of shading, composition, and color but her tutorials don't expect readers to copy her pieces as part of the learning process. Moira's enthusiasm for art and the still life is infective. Moira, by the way, is still actively painting and seems to still be having fun.

The book's biggest weakness though, is its lack of full color illustrations. Full color printing hasn't really become affordable until recent years so like most older art illustrations, Imaginative Still Life is mostly illustrated in black and white with some limited color prints.

When I showed the book to some non-artist friends, they were taken aback with how ugly the paintings looked in the book. The color plates do not do Moira Huntly's talent justice but this is just a fact of where printing was in 1980. Ignore the plates and enjoy Moira's many pen drawings which are excellent. Pay attention to her words and her enthusiasm. Sure the book isn't as colorful as modern how-to paint books but it is just as valuable a resource.

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Rusty's Train Ride: 02/21/08

Rusty's Train Ride

Rusty is a dog. He belongs to Mrs. Boot and her children and they take him along when they go to visit a local historical steam train. Although Rusty is a good dog, he ends up riding the train by himself. That's the gist of Rusty's Train Ride.

Given that there is an old steam train, there should be more about the workings of the train. By leaving the Boot family while Rusty rides off, the train is basically ignored.

As a lost dog story, it's a mediocre tale. There isn't much drama as everyone knows the train only goes so far before returning. As a train book, it's even less satisfactory, as it teaches almost nothing about trains.

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The Halloween Play: 02/21/08

The Halloween Play

Ten years before Felicia Bond became known for her illustrations of Laura Joffe Numeroff's books (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, for example), Bond wrote and illustrated The Halloween Play.

The story follows the planning and performance of a Halloween play by class of young mice. There's the anticipation of the parents, the nerves of the children and finally the performance and the excitement of a job well done.

The illustrations lack the vibrancy of her newer illustrations but the spirit is there. There are hints of her later successes as an illustrator. If you are a fan of Bond's work and want to round out your collection, get a copy of The Halloween Play.

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The Fattening of America: 02/20/08

The Fattening of America

The Fattening of America looks at the economics behind obesity. It looks at the possible economic causes of obesity, the costs to health care, the costs to businesses and the rise of "wellness programs" as a reaction and what people can do to lose the extra weight they've gained.

The book is full of charts and data and when the focus is on economics, it is a fascinating read. Unfortunately the book tends towards the same chit-chatty approach that is so popular with self-help books. This informal voice strives to make the data more approachable but it just gets in the way of the over-all message of how changing economic conditions may be contributing to rising rates of obesity.

One large focus of the book is also the rising rates of children who are overweight (government speak for obese). While I agree that childhood obesity is something that parents should strive to avoid, I found parenting advice too heavy handed.

I enjoyed reading The Fattening of America but it could have been better. The bits about Uncle Al and all the parenting examples get in the way of an otherwise fascinating economic study.

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Heavens to Betsy: 02/19/08

Heavens to Betsy

Heavens to Betsy was first published in 1955 and is still in print. I think by 1955 most of the "curious sayings" were already falling out of common use and by now this laundry list of sayings seems more like a strange historical document than a current look at popular expressions in day-to-day speech.

Funk's begins the book with an explanation as to why "Heavens to Betsy" inspired the writing of the book. Although he gives no definitive explanation about the history or origin of the saying the process of researching it makes for the only truly interesting read of the entire book.

So many of the "common" expression are ones I've never heard or even seen written outside of this book. Then the ones that Funk asserts are no longer in use are the ones that I personally use on a regular basis or at least hear or see frequently.

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The Dame in the Kimono: 02/18/08

The Dame in the Kimono

Back in the 1920s, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (precursor to today's MPAA ratings board) created the production code, a list of Dos and Don'ts which Hollywood then promptly ignored. By the 1930s, William Hayes with help Joseph Breen forced Hollywood to play along (more or less) for the next twenty years.

The Dame in the Kimono is a brief look at the history and people behind this era of Hollywood filmmaking. For the most part, it is a rather dry biography of Joseph Breen's career. The films chosen are obvious choices and very little in the way of true analysis or ground breaking research is revealed in this book.

For someone looking for an introduction into the subject, The Dame in the Kimono is a decent foundation. More familiar readers can skip the book or spend a couple hours breezing through it.

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Maxine and the Ghost Dog: 02/17/08

Maxine and the Ghost Dog

Maxine is a young and eager dalmatian. She lives at a fire house and wants to ride in the engine with the fire fighters but she's too jumpy to ride along.

Maxine finds mentorship in the ghost of a previous fire house dog who probably died in the line of service. Through a series of lessons, Maxine learns how to harness her enthusiasm to be a trustworthy fire dog.

I liked the ghost story and how it incorporated the history and techniques of fire fighting. As to be expected with this sort of story, Maxine gets to prove herself in dramatic fashion at the close of the book. Although predictable, it is rewarding.

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The Toontown Players Present Chicken Little: 02/16/08


Ten years before Disney decided it would try a CGI film without Pixar's help, they released a little book also about Chicken Little. In The Toontown Players Present Chicken Little, the standard set of Disney characters are cast in the roles of characters from the old fable.

This Chicken Little version is as much about the putting on of the show as the fable itself. Fans of the classic Disney characters will enjoy this children's book.

For everyone else the book is probably still too sugary and cute. It's certainly better than the more recent Disney version but it still suffers from the ever-present Disney stamp on it.

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Murder in the Place of Anubis: 02/14/08

Murder in the Place of Anubis

Murder in the Place of Anubis is the first book in a series of mysteries that take place during the reign of Tutankhamen. The detective-protagonist is named Lord Meren and he reports directly to the pharaoh.

Meren is called to investigate a murder when a corpse is found in the Place of Anubis (where bodies are mummified).

The novel is part period piece and part standard, no frills, murder investigation. Like Lt. Columbo, Lord Meren knows early on who has done it and the likely motive behind the murder but he still needs enough evidence to prove his case.

While I did enjoy the scenes of interaction between Lord Meren and Tutankhamen, I found the rest of the book too bland to interest me in reading any more books in the series.

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Yours Turly, Shirley: 02/14/08

Yours Turly Shirley

Yours Turly, Shirley is the story of Shirley and Jackie. Shirley is learning to cope with her dyslexia and Jackie is trying to fit in as she is newly arrived from Vietnam. Shirley's parents have adopted Jackie and now these very different girls are sisters.

The story would have worked better if Yours Turly, Shirley were longer. Martin is trying to cover so many tricky subjects in the course of a 150 or so pages and ends up glossing over everything.

Then there is Jackie's country of origin. Had it been published in the early 1980s, it would have fit right in with so many of the children of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers being adopted into families at the end of the Vietnam war. But by 1988, the war had been over for 15 years and Jackie is 8. It makes me wonder if Martin polished off an manuscript that had been sitting in her closet for a few years.

Although Jackie is described as being from Vietnam, her mannerisms and language mistakes make her sound Japanese. Her "Engrish" unfortunately paints all people from Asia as being the same and interchangeable. While I'm all for the universality of the human experience, I think Martin missed an opportunity to teach a little bit about Vietnamese culture.

On Shirley's side of the story, there's the dyslexia. She's supposedly been diagnosed a number of years ago and yet now that Jackie has appeared she's just starting extra studies with a counselor to learn how to cope. The dyslexia seemed to be a plot device to make the "competition" between Shirley and Jackie more even as Jackie learns to read and write in English. Otherwise, Shirley's dyslexia is about as convincing as Jackie's back story.

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The Mariah Delany Lending Library Disaster: 02/12/08

Mariah Delany

Mariah Delany always has an idea for making some extra money. She's not especially fond of books even though her parents are bibliophiles. When her mother laments about the local library being closed, Mariah sees her next great venture: turning her parents' collection into a lending library for her school chums. Things, understandably, go down hill from there.

The Mariah Delany Lending Library Disaster is a 1970s vision of BookCrossing gone horribly wrong. In their enthusiasm to finally see their daughter interested in books, Mariah's parents are blind to what she's really doing. I find it baffling that Mariah would end up such an opposite of her parents but perhaps that the personal conceit of being a parent of two budding bibliophiles.

Mariah's parents also haven't ever bothered to tell her about the gems in their collection. So to Mariah, these books are just a resource that is going to waste. The story is built around a family that never communicates.

As this book is aimed at the upper grades of elementary school, Mariah's crash course in the value of books both in monetary terms as sources of information and entertainment is a lesson for children reading the book. Of course, if they're already reading books, they probably don't need this lesson reiterated.

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Down to a Sunless Sea: 02/11/08

Down to a Sunless Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese is a collection of fifteen short stories that represent thirty years of writing. They all deal with the darker sides of life and the human experience.

All of these stories are very short, going immediately for the raw emotions. My favorites are "Herbie", the story of a boy who rises above the abuse of his father to take the shoe shine job he wants, and "Billy's Mirrored Wall", a brief memoir of a boy growing up in poverty.

Each story has its own voice. The narrator of "I'll Make It, I think" reminds me of Jason Taylor (Black Swan Green). "The Chatham Bear" made a nice follow-up on the heals of reading Midnight Sun by Elwood Reid. These stories, painful an difficult as they are sometimes to read hit on universal truths and themes that have been inspiring writers through the centuries.

The entire list of stories included in this slim volume are:

  • Down to a Sunless Sea
  • I'll Make It, I Think
  • The Chatham Bear
  • Herbie
  • Alabaster
  • Juan Peron's Hands
  • Little Errands
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger's Father Was a Nazi
  • Echo
  • Young Man
  • Nicholas
  • Billy's Mirrored Wall
  • Unanswerable
  • For a While, Here, in This Moment
  • Mortise and Tenon

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Dragonite's Christmas: 02/10/08

Dragonite's Christmas

Sean, Harriet and I are Pokémon addicts. I have to admit to watching the series when it was on the Kids WB long before either child was born. I even play the video games.

Back when the first series (Indigo League) was first on the air in the States, a series of board books for the youngest viewers were also translated and offered for sale in the States. Dragonite's Christmas is the eighth in this series.

As far as I can tell, these board books are outside the canon of the series. For example, in the series, Ash et al meet up with Santa. In the series, Santa works with Jynx ("Holiday Hi-Jynx"), not Dragonite. I think the first time Dragonite is mentioned is in the Orange Islands series.

That being said, as alternate fiction, Dragonite's Christmas is a sweet story of Dragonite and some children having a joke on Santa. Of the board books in this series we have, it's Sean's favorite. The illustrations are cute and colorful and the story is engaging enough to warrant multiple reads.

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Ship Fever: 02/09/08

Ship Fever

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett is a collection of eight short stories all based around science or medicine. The title story, "Ship Fever" is the longest of the set, being more of a novella than a short story and it rounds out the book. It was my least favorite.

My favorite of them is "Rare Bird" where two women set out to prove Lineas's theory wrong regarding swallow behavior in the winter. He says they hibernate under the frozen lakes. They believe that they migrate.

The stories included in this volume are:

  • The Behavior of the Hawkweeds
  • The English Pupil
  • The Littoral Zone
  • Rare Bird
  • Soroche
  • Birds with No Feet
  • The Marburg Sisters
  • Ship Fever

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The Winter of the Birds: 02/08/08

The Winter of the Birds

The Winter of the Birds is a weird blend of the diary as novel and science fiction. Imagine a young male protagonist like Christopher John Francis Boone of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Jason Taylor of Black Swan Green in the middle of a Doctor Who type of story.

Edward Flack decides to become a hero. At the same time, Mr. Rudge has a vision of birds that run on wires and are coming to terrorize the the village of St. Savior's. The two team up to protect the village from the threat of these birds and become friends in the process.

There is also the story of Alfred Graves who is saved during a suicide attempt by Patrick Finn, the reluctant taxi driver. Finn and Graves's unlikely friendship comes head to head with Flack and Rudge's quest to save the world from wire birds.

The Winter of the Birds has moments of delightful humor, gothic horror, and outright surrealism. It took me a couple of chapters to get used odd narrative but once I did I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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The City: 02/07/08

The City

Although I don't like living in big cities I am fascinated with them. The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century is a collection of essays on the history and culture of Los Angeles.

The City is one of the most serious books I've read in ages. It was nice to exercise the old brain cells again. Topics covered include a brief history of the city, it's architecture, urbanism, transportation policy, loss of agriculture, metropolitan space, urban art, industrial development, racial issues, and homelessness.

My favorite essay in the book is "The Evolution of Transportation Policy in Los Angeles: Images of Past Policies and Future Prospects." It covers the on-going competition between mass transit (rail and bus) and the automobile. At the time that the book was published, Los Angeles had just completed its first round of subway and light rail construction. Since then the Pasadena Gold Line has opened. While the rail lines aren't back to what they once were there is more careful (although bureaucratic) oversight to the system. This essay explains the flaws of the previous rail system and it proposes ways to avoid those problems in the future.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do: 02/06/08

Monkey See, Monkey Do

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know how important books and reading are to me and my family. So it is with brimming motherly pride that I'm blogging about Monkey See, Monkey Do. It is the very first book that Sean has read to Ian and me without our help!

Monkey See, Monkey Do is written for early readers with lots of repetition with a slow progression towards more difficult sound combinations. The story follows a typical American family as they are visited by an enthusiastic family of monkeys. The book covers a very full day for both humans and monkeys as they head to the beach for a day of fun.

Jacqueline Rogers's excellent illustrations make this early reader book very entertaining. The monkeys and the children are all so cute and full of life.

If you have a child who is learning to read, I recommend Monkey See, Monkey Do.

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Hungry Hill: 02/05/08

Hungry Hill

Hungry Hill covers the time from the death of Betty O'Malley through to Gaunt's graduation from high school. Along the way her father remarried and quickly drank himself to death leaving Carole and her seven brothers in the care of a drug abusing step mother.

Carole throughout these years was left to care for her brothers because the was the girl of the family not because she was the oldest.

Every so often Gaunt gives glimpses of her life as an adult written as scenes from a play. At first these breaks in the memoir were jarring but they are an important part of the memoir. They show that Carole was able to survive her traumatic childhood and go on to lead a normal life. They also explain that the writing of this memoir was part of the healing process.

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If Angels Fight: 02/05/08

FSF February

The final story in February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, "If Angels Fight" by Richard Bowes was the perfect read for Super Tuesday as it is filled with memories of past politics.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who has been sent by Carol Bannon, the heir to a Boston political legacy, to find her brother Mark. Through the reports back of the search for this brother and the memories of him it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary search.

According to a review / interview on John Joseph Adams's blog, Richard Bowes based much of this story on personal memories. The story's details carry the weight of experience. Adams also reports that "Do Angels Fight" will be included as a chapter in an upcoming novel called Dust Devil on Quiet Street.

If you enjoyed "If Angels Fight" then I recommend Sleep No More by Greg Iles.

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Midnight Sun: 02/04/08

Midnight Sun

The economic boom of the oil rush brought Burke and Jack to Fairbanks Alaska. Ready to head home having grown sick of his construction job, Jack is conned into one last job by his friend Burke. The two of them will head into the Alaskan wilderness to bring back Penny at the wish of her dying father.

Coming on the heals of The Blithedale Romance, I can't help but compare Midnight Sun to Hawthorne's tale of communal living gone wrong. The cult commune that Jack and Burke find makes Blithedale look like utopia. I see a Blithedale connection in the way Jack narrates his tale of finding Penny an his time living with her until the ultimate downfall of the commune (a common theme in books like this). He sums up his time after Penny in a way reminiscent of Cloverdale's parting thoughts on Priscilla: "It didn't matter because she'd rescued me and somehow I was going to have to live with the mystery." (Midnight Sun page 270). Cloverdale's confession ends the tragic romance with "...myself ... was in love ... with ... Priscilla." (Blithedale Romance page 445).

Here though is where Jack and Miles differ as narrators: Jack never admits his feelings or emotions to himself or to his audience. He hints throughout at a connection beyond the $10,000 bounty for Penny but the closest he comes to admitting it is in that closing paragraph. Miles Cloverdale does finally come clean at the end of The Blithedale Romance.

For the most part I enjoyed Elwood Reid's style of writing and his descriptions of the Alaskan frontier. His characterization falls a little flat and there were times when Jack's narrative seems to get suck on the mundane details where I found myself either skimming or skipping a few pages. Nonetheless, I do recommend Midnight Sun.

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There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly: 02/03/08

There was an old lady...

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly illustrates the song of the same title. It's a song I learned at a variety of summer camps and is probably all these years later still being taught at summer camp.

The song and story is one of many children's songs that has a cumulative structure (like "The House that Jack Built, for example). The original song was written by Alan Mills and Rose Bonne.

For this book, Pam Adams takes each layer of the song and uses it as a layer of illustration. The book has a hole in the center of each page so that the previous animals are visible along with the growling set of lyrics. It's a bit gory considering that it is illustrating the inside of the old lady as she fills herself up with animals.

My son likes the song but thinks the illustrations are "too silly" and sometimes "too weird." My daughter like the silly and brightly colored illustration. She has fun pointing out the different animals inside the old lady and making the appropriate sounds for each. With my two children in mind, I'd put the age range of this book from about 1 to 4, possibly 5.

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Philologos, Or a Murder in Bistrita: 02/02/08

FSF February

The six story in the February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, "Philologos, Or a Murder in Bistrita" continues the rare book theme of this issue. It's written by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald and although they are a well published pair, it's the first piece by them I've had the pleasure of reading.

Their contribution to the February issue is a light hearted parody of the typical Gothic horror vampire story. Although it is devoid of the usual melodrama it still stays firmly planted in the genre and pulls heavily on Romanian folklore.

Once again a lover of rare books finds himself in the middle of things. Unlike hapless Paul Sanson, William Sharps is able to put what he's learned from books to use. He is not so easily swayed by the supernatural powers of his employer.

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The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers: 02/01/08

Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers

Books are a wonderful tool for teaching children about the world and to give them the tools to survive. That doesn't mean that books need to hit children over the head with these important life lessons.

The Berenstain Bears series of books runs the gamut from entertaining stories of a brother and sister growing up to blatantly obvious and forced lessons. The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers is in the unfortunate obvious and forced end of the spectrum. It's frankly an awful book. It's as bad as those old "After School Specials."

The story focuses around the importance of being wary of strangers and the tricks some adults play to lure children into dangerous situations. The book paints all adult strangers in the same brush, making Sister Bear see monsters in all the adults she meets. The book never once mentions that children are far more likely to be abused by family and friends than complete strangers. This book does a huge disservice to children unfortunate enough to read this story.

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In the Skin of a Lion: 02/01/08

In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje has some scenes that will stick with me but overall it lacked the cohesion of The English Patient. The novel covers the life of a would-be terrorist from his childhood growing up in rural Canada and then moving to Toronto. A depressed economy, unfair labor practices and a number of other factors bring Patrick Lewis bring him to extreme measures.

The novel which takes its title from a line from The Epic of Gilgamesh is in many ways a Canadian Jungle (Upton Sinclair) but written as a historical novel it doesn't have the immediacy of Sinclair's novel.

Readers interested in Toronto's history will enjoy the descriptions of how many of the modern landmarks were built. Fans of The English Patient (1992) will enjoy seeing the first appearance of Hana and Caravaggio.

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