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The Mental Environment: 09/30/08

The Mental Environment (Mostly About Mind Pollution) by Bob Gebelein on the surface looks like an interesting examination of the mind and how outside forces influences the thought process. I was eager to read the book as it is on topic with my senior thesis in college. If only the book lived up to expectations!

The book is divided into five parts: Introduction, The Mind, Mind Pollution, The Camps, and Conclusions. There is also an extensive bibliography that is full of much better written books. The Introduction Gebelein attempts to define his terms and lay the foundation of this book. He talks about social groups and the "brainwashing" that might or might-not be happening.The Mind is mostly Gebelein's personal diary of a lifetime of trying to hear himself think. He has lengthy passages of dream analysis (his of course) and other jotted thoughts from his readings of Freud and Jung.

I have to admit that I lost interest in the third section: Mind Pollution. There is only so much introspection one can take. The Mental Environment may be the result of a lifetime of work and research but it reads like it was written by a twenty-something who hasn't quite recovered from the traumatic teenage years.


Inside Story: 09/30/08

With the October / November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I begin my second year of being a subscriber. It's been a fun year of reading and I'm looking forward to what the remainder of 2008 and then 2009 will have in store!

The issue starts off with "Inside Story" by Albert E. Cowdrey. It's a missing persons case set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The only clues that Detective Inspector Alphonse Fournet has to go on is the report of an extra FEMA trailer showing up and victims sometimes returning miles from where they disappeared with their clothing put on inside out and their ability to speak temporarily impaired (they speak backwards). Can Fournet solve the mystery without becoming a victim himself?

The clues in the mystery were a nice blend of two previous things I've read an enjoyed, "Number 13" by M. R. James (the extra room) and The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen (the backwards clothes).

Other stories by Albert E. Cowdrey I've reviewed:


Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! 09/29/08

Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! by Dr. Seuss was published a year before I was born. I probably had it read to me but beyond the funny dog eared Marvin and the pointing fingers on the cover, that's all I remember from those early years. I'm now reading it to my children.

Like Cat in the Hat, Marvin K. Mooney... uses a limited vocabulary and a rhyming scheme to be easy but fun to read. The book is full of intense emotion and lots of shouting which lends itself to overly theatrical performances when read out loud. The escalating demands put on Marvin to leave reminds me of The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog by Mo Willems (or almost any of his his pigeon books).

Marvin K. Mooney... was written in the same year that the Watergate scandal broke. Although the book wasn't written about Nixon, it did lend itself perfectly to the situation. Heck, now it could be re-titled George W. Bush Will Please Go Now! just as easily. The Washington Post has the rewritten version on line and it's worth a read.

Dr. Seuss Reviews


King of the World: 09/28/08

I've never watched a boxing match but as a child I knew who Muhammad Ali was. Having read The Autobiography of Malcolm X last year King of the World by David Remnick seemed like a logical follow-up.

King of the World chronicles the first few years of Cassius Clay's boxing career, his conversion to Islam, his rocky marriage (and divorce) to Sonji Roi. Remnick divides his time among describing the boxing matches, Clay's personal life, the political atmosphere and his friendship with Malcolm X.

Boxing fans and especially fans of Muhammad Ali will enjoy this book. It's well written and detailed enough on the sports side of things to mentally replay the matches. For non-fans, the boxing doesn't over power the other aspects of this biography.


The Blunder: 09/27/08

Brice Lanning has worked at the same advertising agency for thirty years. When the big presentation is taken away from him he goes on a bender. The Blunder by Joe Kilgore chronicles the fallout from that long day of drinking at his favorite watering hole.

The Blunder is written in a style reminiscent of The Graduate by Charles Webb. Imagine Benjamin Braddock twenty years older and working and living in New York City. Kilgore describes Lanning's thoughts and actions with an air of detachment. He's more like a bystander in Lanning's head rather than actually being Lanning.

The book starts slowly. It took me a while to get used to Kilgore's writing style. It takes until chapter 9, "Persona Non Grata" for the novel to hit its stride. If you follow the fifty-page rule, hold out for page fifty-six.

Once Lanning was left to deal with the fallout of his actions, cut off from his family, his job, his friends and his identity, I was reminded favorably of The Twenty Dollar Bill by Elmore Hammes. Brice Lanning takes the place of the bill and like it, does end up back where he started very much a changed man. His journey also affects the people he leaves behind and the people he meets along the way. Unlike The Twenty Dollar Bill we actually get to see the results of his presence play out.

The Blunder is Joe Kilgore's debut novel. I look forward to see what he writes next. Check out his website.


The Going to Bed Book: 09/26/08

Sandra Boynton has written and illustrated around thirty children's books in her career. The Going to Bed Book is set on an ark (no sign of Noah, though) and follows the animals' bed time routine.

The animals watch the sunset before deciding to go to bed. Along with the usual things of taking a bath and brushing teeth, there is also night time exercise under the light of the moon.

Of course the book has Boynton's unique illustrations. Harriet and Sean enjoy her silly looking animals doing the same sort of things they do before night (except for the moonlight exercises).

Comments (5)

The Copenhagen Connection: 09/25/08

The Copenhagen Connection by Elizabeth Peters is one of her few novels that isn't part of a series. Most of her stand alone mysteries are published under her other nom de plume "Barbara Michaels." Although it was her Amelia Peabody series that first got my attention, it's been her stand alone novels that have kept me reading.

Elizabeth Jones (the closest I've ever seen to Peters writing a Mary-Sue) ends up working for her long time hero, Margaret Rosenberg, an author of historical romances. She's also apparently an archeologist (sound familiar?) with expertise in the life and times of Queen Margaret of Denmark. Unfortunately for Elizabeth (and the reader), Margaret goes missing leaving her stuck with grumpy Christian Rosenberg. What follows is two hundred pages of Elizabeth and Christian traipsing all over Copenhagen trying to find Margaret, bickering all the way. Then comes another hundred pages of them being prisoners and finally seventy five pages (give or take) of a genuinely fun caper.

Coming just after the second Amelia Peabody book, The Curse of the Pharaohs (1981), and a year before the third Vicky Bliss novel, Silhouette in Scarlet, The Copenhagen Connection relies on a shtick she was developing for both series: the strong-willed feisty female protagonist and her equally stubborn pig-headed male counterpart. There is also a hint of things to come with Amelia as the matriarch of a crime fighting / Egyptologist family in the widely eccentric but highly skilled Margaret Rosenberg.

Comments (2)

Idaho Snapshots: 09/24/08

Idaho celebrated its centennial in 1990. As part of that celebration, Rick Just put together a radio series called "Idaho Snaphots" and those episodes were later complied to make the book Idaho Snapshots.

The book has about one hundred "snapshots." Each one is one page long and covers some aspect of Idaho. The book is divided into topics: Symbols, Geology, Natural Resources, Wildlife, Mining, Agriculture, History, General Interest, and Biography.

I started reading Idaho Snapshots knowing only a few basics: where the state is, when it became a state, its primary crops and some basic history. I come away from reading the book wanting to hop into my car for a road trip to the state. We got close to crossing into Idaho on our February trip to Oregon. Had we not been suffering from a stomach bug, we probably would have made it.

The books' bright yellow cover with the titled illustration of a radio snapshot reminds me of one of my favorite products of Idaho: BookCrossing. Although it originated in Boston, the heart and soul of the site is run out of Sandpoint Idaho.

Comments (8)

Hello Piglet! 09/23/08

Every so often I post reviews on the insistence of my children. Hello Piglet! by Muff Singer is one of Harriet's favorite books.

Hello Piglet! is a board book that features a little squeakable pig. Since the book was published in 1993, the pig on our book is a little faded but the squeeking on each page is part of ritual of reading the book.

At the end of each stanza that ends "hello friends" I squeeze the pig to make it squeek. Meanwhile Harriet sings along in a quiet voice: "hello friends." That phrase delights her so much that she calls the book "Hello Friends."

Muff Singer, the auhor, lead an interesting life. She worked in politics before deciding to write children's books. In her career she wrote (or cowrote) thirty-five books. She died the year before Harriet was born.


Some Ether: 09/22/08

Some Ether was Nick Flynn's first book of poetry. It was published in 2000 by Graywolf Press. His current collection is called Blind Huber.

The poems in Some Ether were his way of working through his mother's suicide when he was 22. Although none of the poems are especially graphic, they are all breath taking and emotionally raw.

Many of the poems draw on pop culture from Flynn's childhood and early adulthood. These oddly upbeat phrases counterpoint the heart break of the suicide played out again and again.

Comments (2)

The Twenty Dollar Bill: 09/21/08

I first heard of The Twenty Dollar Bill by Elmore Hammes on Breeni Books back in February. Shortly after adding it to my wishlist, the author was kind enough to offer me a review copy.

The novel follows the two week travels of a twenty dollar bill from the time Claire gives her last twenty to a homeless man on her way to work. The bill changes hands forty-two times and even travels as far south as Mexico before coming full circle.

Although the twenty dollar bill is the main character, Hammes creates unique voices for all his characters. It is easy to forget that the story is about what twenty dollars can mean to a person and the ways in which a single bill can travel when the individual stories are so compelling, even the ones that only take a page or two.

Suffice it to say, I loved the book.


Ookpik: 09/21/08

Ookpik is the Inuktitut word for Snowy owl. It's also the name of the main character in this coming of age book about a young owl learning to live and hunt in his own. It may as well be a nickname for my son Sean. He has been passionate about owls (and snowy ones in particular) since he was 18 months old.

<Ookpik: The Travels of a Snowy Owl by Bruce Hiscock follows Ookpik from hatching and fledging on the tundra and then down south as he makes his first journey. A warm winter and a dry summer has made prey scarce on the tundra. To survive young Ookpik must fly farther than any snowy owl ever has.

Besides introducing children to snowy owls, their biology and habitat, the book illustrates the hardships that animals face in the changes brought on my global warming.

Topics Sean and I discussed:

  • What is the tundra and where is it?
  • What are lemmings?
  • Who are the Inuit and where do they live?
  • Why do birds migrate?
  • How can birds find their way home?
  • What other migratory animals are affected by climate change?


Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding the Alaskan Secession: 09/20/08

I'm taking a break from my reviews of current F&FS stories for one originally published in the July 2004 issue, "Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding the Alaskan Secession" by George Guthridge. From now through October 20, 2008, the magazine's blog is offering a web version of it in light of recent political events.

Like many of my favorite science fiction short stories, this one was inspired by a bet. The author explains at the stories close: "This story was the result of a bet with Bruce Holland Rogers. It had to consist of nine vignettes, each of which had exact attributes, including a specific number of words and an sf idea of its own besides being integral to the story." These constraints help give each vignette its own voice. Some are just scenes, nothing more than a quick description, while others are lengthy explorations of what would have to happen for Alaska to try secession.

In this near future Alaska has a number of problems. The moose population has been depleted, a "Frankenfish" salmon has taken over and the newest totem celebrates beer, pizza and cars.

It's tricky to review this story. Prior to Palin's inclusion on the GOP ticket, Guthridge's story would have read like any number of quirky Alaskan stories. Had I read this in 2004, I would have thought first of Northern Exposure but now it's impossible to think of the story without thinking of Gov. Palin.


Four Seasons in Five Senses: 09/19/08

Old farm
Ripe peach leaps
Kur plop
(p. 98)

I begin my review of Four Seasons in Five Senses with the haiku David Mas Masumoto uses to end his chapter "Sound of a Ripe Peach." It sums up the contemplative nature of this book about running a family farm in California perfectly.

David Mas Masumoto is a third generation peach and raisin farmer in California. His book chronicles his life and work on the farm through the seasons as experienced by each of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

The book is best read outside in a garden or a park where nature can be experienced. It should be read slowly and savored like the peaches and grapes he describes in the book. You may find yourself distracted by day dreams of fresh fruit. I even stopped midway through the book to bake a pie.


Archibald's Swiss Cheese Mountain: 09/18/08

Like American Girls About Town, Archibald's Swiss Cheese Mountain is a charity book. This children's book by Sylvia Lieberman and illustrated by Jeremy Wendell benefits Feed the Children and Variety: The Children's Charity. The book won the "Best Children's Book Award" at the Hollywood Book Festival earlier this year.

The story is about Archibald's adventures in Mr. Hochmeyer's grocery store. At the start of the book he's going out on his first solo trip to forage for food. He has to keep his mother's instructions and warnings in mind. Although Archibald does run into some trouble on his trips to the store the main danger in his life is hunger especially as the number of children in his family grows.

Archibald is aimed at ages 4 - 8 so I read the book with my son. It's 48 pages long with lots of complex words and is certainly over my son's reading comprehension. It works best as a book to read to a child, rather than a book that a child in this age range will read.

With the length of the book and the complexity of the vocabulary I think the basic message of being a hungry child in an impoverished home was lost on my son.

Things we spoke of instead:

  • Why doesn't Archibald have to pay for the food he scrounges?
  • What's a radiator and how does it work?
  • Why does the refrigerator tickle Archibald's feet?
  • What does sauerkraut taste like?
  • How can he hide in the cheese?
  • Why does grease make things slippery?


Night Train to Memphis: 09/17/08

Night Train to Memphis, the fifth Vicky Bliss mystery by Elizabeth Peters was actually the first one I read. When we were moving to Daly City from South Pasadena we got the audio version and listened to it up and down the I5. Having so enjoyed listening to the mystery, I went back and found copies of the previous four which I read through over the next couple of years.

Night Train the Memphis finds Vicky Bliss outside her comfort zone and plopped into the middle of Amelia Peabody Emerson's hunting grounds: Egypt. Yes, the two series exist in the same universe, just separated by a number of decades. Interestingly, Barbara Michaels (another pen name for the author) also exists and is publishing books; Vicky mentions being a fan.

Vicky is sent on a cruise as a lecturer to help the Munich police figure out who among the guests are planning to rob the Cairo Museum. What she isn't expecting is to find her old lover (and well known art thief). Worse of all, he's newly married!

The book has its moments of humor especially when Vicky is trying to feign interest in a subject she's supposed to an expert in when she's bored to tears. Lie the other Vicky Bliss novels, it's much shorter than the newer Amelia Peabody mysteries. Peters books are best when they are short and tightly edited.

On re-visiting the story with better knowledge of John (her thieving lover) I found his actions and motivation especially in the marriage out of character for him. His now obviously odd behavior distracted me from my earlier complete enjoyment of the mystery.

Nonetheless, I am still eager to read the recently released sixth novel Laughter of Dead Kings.

The entire list of books in the series is:

  1. Borrower of the Night (1973)
  2. Street of Five Moons (1978)
  3. Silhouette in Scarlet (1983)
  4. Trojan Gold (1987)
  5. Night Train to Memphis (1994)
  6. Laughter of Dead Kings (2008) (I really want to read this one!)

Comments (2)

Moscow Rules: 09/16/08

Moscow Rules is the eighth book in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. Allon is a art restorer and former Israeli Mossad agent. In this book Allon's attention moves from historical crimes to a present day case involving arms sales to al-Quaeda.

The choice of topic is an interesting follow-up to last week's Booking Through Thursday question. As I stated in my answer, I haven't shied away from books involving modern day terrorists. Nonetheless, Deb's question did sit in the back of my mind as I read Moscow Rules.

Coming into a series eight books in and with a change of direction, it's difficult to gauge the success of the book. The first hundred pages or is so focused on establishing the segue with the last book and setting up the change of direction. The actual plot involving a forged Mary Cassatt and a wife's betrayal of her arms dealing husband doesn't come into play until the halfway point of the novel. A four hundred page mystery shouldn't be one hundred pages of "in the last episode" followed by another hundred pages of teaser for the current plot.

Moscow Rules is a run of the mill international thriller. The second half is tighter and faster paced than the first half. It reminds me at times of a novelization of a James Bond film by someone who had never read the Ian Fleming novels.

The entire list of books in the series is:

  1. The Kill Artist (2000)
  2. The English Assassin (2002)
  3. The Confessor (2003)
  4. A Death in Vienna (2004)
  5. Prince of Fire (2005)
  6. The Messenger (2006)
  7. The Secret Servant (2007)
  8. Moscow Rules (2008)

Comments (2)

Run! Run!: 09/16/08

Cough cough cough cough. I'm still dragging along with the flu. I'm at the coughing non-stop part of the disease.

Anyway, the excellent September issue of F&SF ends on a cautionary tale called "Run! Run!" by John Aikin.

The story starts with a description of unicorn biology and how her grandfather kept a herd of them at the family farm. Mary, the protagonist explains then the circumstances that led to the unicorns having to leave. Basically it came down to a confrontation between theology and the magic that comes from free thinking. Aikin says it's about "family dynamics and religious oppression" in the interview at the magazine's blog.

I enjoyed Aikin's story but found it also a disturbing warning against the extremists who want to force everyone in this country to conform with their view of the world.

Comments (4)

Salad for Two: 09/15/08

Have I told you how much I hate the flu? I'm trying to write this review with a fever of 101° F. I hope the review of "Salad for Two" by Robert Reed turns out coherent. Let me just stay this: I enjoyed it. I am rapidly becoming a Robert Reed fangirl.

The tone and basic plot of "Salad for Two" reminds me a great deal of Philip K. Dick. The story narrated by Gillian, a grocery store clerk who befriends a wealthy man from a high tech firm. On her very last day of work before college he gives her a gift and a prediction for the future: "I'll come for you after the machines take over." (p. 142).

Jason Popper's prediction sets into motion a series of small events that ultimately make Gillian question her memory and seek the truth behind his "salad for two."

Since I mentioned Philip K Dick, I would say the two novels I am most reminded of are Ubik and A Scanner Darkly. Except that Reed's story for all of it's questioning of reality is too coherent to be pure PKD; it's more like PKD-lite.

Read previous reviews of Reed's stories:


Lifeguard: 09/14/08

Lifeguard is a collaboration with James Patterson and Andrew Gross. It's a fast paced thriller that takes place in Boston and Miami and centers around a string of murders and some missing artwork.

Ned Kelly, a part-time lifeguard agrees to help his friends pull of an art heist. His job is simple: create a distraction by setting of a number of house alarms while the real heist goes down. Ned though ends up the number one suspect in a string of gruesome murders when his friends are executed. Can he convince the FBI that he's innocent?

Lifeguard works on the premise that the main character is a lucky idiot. He makes a number of boneheaded moves that only end up working because he has good karma. He also has the support of FBI agent Ellie Shurtleff who specializes in art theft. She puts her career on the line to prove Ned Kelly's innocence.

The book is told from a number of points of view. Most of them are presented in third person except for Ned Kelly's. He tells his part of the story in first person. I found the sudden shift in point of view distracting, although I did eventually get used to it.

Comments (6)

Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!": 09/13/08


Ian and I are both suffering from either a bad cold or a mild flu. It's the downside of him teaching at a new school and of Sean attending a new school. We're bound to catch all those new germs.

So with my brain muddled by a fever, I was delighted to read the very silly epistolary exchange between authors Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn that is "Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity!". Swanwick plays the role of the Chief Creative Officer for the Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia who promises Gunn, the struggling writer, ways to double her productivity and turn her from a struggling writer into a powerhouse of creativity.

Among their emails back and forth are a series of testimonies from previous happy customers. Knowledge of genre authors comes into play here and it's delightful to see how Swanwick sells their transformations from run of the mill writers to the blockbusters they have become.


A Bell for Adano: 09/12/08

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey won the 1945 Pulitzer Price. In it, an American army major, Victor Joppolo is put in place as a temporary administrator during the occupation of Italy near the end of the war. To help the town recover from Fascist rule, Joppolo sets out to find a replacement for the bell that was stolen and melted down.

A Bell for Adano has similar humor to Catch-22 but I found it more accessible than Joseph Heller's novel. Joppolo has to bend the rules to make the Adano run and he has to learn who he can ask for favors to get things done. Besides the military chain of command, Joppolo has to gain the trust of villagers who are suspicious of all authority figures after years of Fascist rule.

On the surface, A Bell for Adano is a simply a glorification of democracy over the evils of fascism. If it were that simple, Joppolo wouldn't have to risk his post disobeying orders that place Adano's citizens at risk. The novel is about the ways that war muddles everything and basic humanity can easily be forgotten.

I read A Bell for Adano for the Classics Challenge being hosted at Classics 2008. As I was reading it, I quickly realized I was actually rereading it. It was an enjoyable reread, like a visit with an old friend.

Comments (6)

The Last Plague: 09/11/08

The Apocalypse series by Glen E. Page begins with The Last Plague. The blurb on the back makes the book sound like a medical thriller and although there is a doctor involved, and a mysterious illness involving blackened ovaries, that's the extent of the medical thriller part of this book.

In fact, the book is more like Christian speculative fiction like the Left Behind series and I would love to see Slacktivist's take on The Last Plague. There is certainly lots of material for analysis as Trin notes in the review posted at Realms of Speculative Fiction.

I finished this book a week ago and I've been struggling with what to post in this review. Were this book not a review copy, I would have followed the fifty page rule and set the book aside. Reading it cover to cover was an experience and not one I'd like to repeat. Put in the blender: The Left Behind series, Coma by Robin Cook, Lamb by Christopher Moore, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. The resulting mess would be The Last Plague which is the first of a planned five book series. I don't plan to read any further.

Comments (2)

The Chinese Orange Mystery: 09/10/08

Over the summer while Sean was taking his swim lessons I read through three Ellery Queen mysteries: The Penthouse Mystery, The Chinese Orange Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

Both The Penthouse Mystery and The Chinese Orange Mystery cover the clashes and misunderstandings between American and Chinese cultures. Although the overall set up of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) is more challenging than The Penthouse Mystery (1941), Ellery Queen is far more ignorant of Chinese culture than he is in the later novel.

The set up is this: a John Doe is found murdered in a private office in the Hotel Chancellor. His clothing has been removed and put on backwards and all the furnishings in the room have been turned around too. How can inspector Richard Queen with the help of his son, Ellery, solve the murder if they don't know his identity?

What bothered me most was the implication early on in the novel that the backwardness of the crime scene was a message to imply the backwardness of Chinese culture. Ellery Queen is usually more worldly than this. Thankfully though he does realize the error of his ways. Although the dead man is tied to China, the reason behind his murder is far more interesting than what Ellery Queen first implies.

Comments (2)

>Picnic at Pentecost: 09/09/08

"Picnic at Pentecost" is the third story by Rand B. Lee this year. It's vastly different than "Litany" and "Bounty." Of these three, Litany remains my favorite with "Picnic" coming in second place.

"Picnic on Pentecost" is both horrific and off beat. Four human explorers decide to go site seeing on a planet with three suns and disaster strikes. The one remaining survivor, if she can be counted as a survivor recounts her experiences on the planet she's called Pentecost.

The story reminds me of Picnic at Hanging Rock< by Joan Lindsay if it had been told from the perspective of the missing girls rather than from the teachers and students left behind. The protagonist's fate is also reminiscent of "Fullbrim's Finding" by Matthew Hughes.


Small Worlds: 09/08/08

American Girls About Town ends on a sad note with "Small Worlds" by Gretchen Laskas. Marnie, depressed over a recent miscarriage has decided to fly to Orlando to have an affair with a man she's met over the internet.

Having never really traveled beyond her own town in West Virginia, the flight to Orlando is both scary and exhilerating. Marnie goes with high expectations for Chad. What she doesn't plan on is the trip causing her to rethink her marriage and for her to realize just how much she values it.

As this is the last story in the book, I'll close with my thoughts on the experience. These fourteen short storties are written by authors I've not read before as I'm not much of a reader of either "women's fiction" or "chick lit." There are some stories I enjoyed enough to want to read more by some of the authors. My favorite stories were by Claire LaZebnik, Adriana Trgiana, Judi Hendricks, Sarah Mlynowski and Jill Smolinski. I'm glad I took the time to read through the stories and the book has for the most part left a positive impression on me.

The stories in the book are: (Click on a title to read reviews).

Comments (2)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey: 09/08/08

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder was the 1928 Pulitzer Prize winner. Set in Peru this historical fiction explores the ways in which the actions of individuals might play together in some great cosmic whole. The novel traces the lives of three of five victims of an Incan rope bridge and the friar who decides to use the tragedy to finally prove God's existence.

The first and final chapters focus on the bridge and friar while the middle three trace the lives of three of the dead: the Marquesa de Monte mayer, Esteban, and Uncle Pio. Although brother Juniper sets out to document every detail of their lives he never learns "the central passion of Doña María's life; nor of Uncle Pio's, not even Esteban's." (p. 7). The randomness of life and the secret driving forces of people is a central theme of The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Although the novel is only 116 pages, being really more of a novella than a novel, it is one that needs to be read slowly and pondered. I reread a number of passages feeling comfortable taking the time to rethink what I'd just read since I wasn't committed to a lengthier work. For its turn of phrase and its location, I was reminded a bit of Isabel Allende's novels.

Comments (2)

The Uncertainty Principle: 09/07/08

I have to admit that I had to reread "The Uncertainty Principle" by Lynda Curnyn because I missed the hook of the story, namely the power outage in New York City. Actually though I really enjoyed this short story.

Trace Spencer telecommutes and doesn't realize the enormity of the situation at first when the power goes out in her apartment. All she can think of is the work she's lost, a caption for an ad that she should have worked on ages ago but hasn't. Instead she's been fretting over the recent breakup with her boyfriend.

It takes Trace the rest of the story to put her lost file and her ex-boyfriend into perspective. She spends much of that time realizing just how cut off she is from the rest of the world with the power out: her cell phone doesn't work, she can't email, she doesn't have batteries for a radio and can't watch the news on her TV. As someone who has been telecommuting I know that sense of isolation especially when something disrupts the normal flow of things. Trace Spencer's experience is more extreme than anything that's happened in my two years but it does bring to mind how much life has changed with the internet.


Arkfall: 09/06/08

The second grand-daughter and grandmother stories tonight is the cover story for September's F&SF, "Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman. Osaji and her grandmother Moti are unexpectedly forced on an exploration of the uncharted oceans of Ben with a surly off-worlder named Jack.

Ben is an ice-locked planet with an active volcanic rift zone that allows for life to thrive in the oceans below the ice. Most of the human population lives in floating organic ships called arks. Some more permanent cities have begun to form and Osaji's family lives in one, except for her grandmother. She has been Osaji's traveling companion but her growing dementia has made life hard for Osaji.

Despite her reluctance to continue traveling with Moti, Osaji agrees at the last minute to book her a berth on the Divernon. Unfortunately a unexpected eruption launches the ark with only Osaji, Moti and Jack on board. They are blown out of the Saltese Sea into uncharted waters where they must learn to cooperate and Osaji must get over her long held traditions of "passive aggressiveness" as Jack calls it in order to survive and make their way home.

"Arkfall" is both a good adventure story and a character study. It reminds me favorably of A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski and The Galactic Pot-Healer by Philip K. Dick.


Eat, Drink and Be Married: 09/06/08

Today's reviews share a common theme: the close bond of a grand-daughter to her grandmother. In Eat, Drink and Be Married by Eve Makis, the grand-daughter is Anna, a first generation Briton in a Greek immigrant family. Her parents want a lavish life for her that's grounded in Greek traditions. Her one ally is her grandmother, Yiayia Annoulla.

Anna spends her time working in her parents fish and chip shop, trying to avoid her mother's marriage plans for her and learning how to divine the future from coffee grounds. Throughout the book Anna includes her grandmother's predictions of the future, noting that Yiayia is always right. Finding out how her predictions play out is a big part of Eat Drink and Be Married.

Eve Makis describes the violence and racism that Anna and her family face. The current threats against the store and Anna's brother help bring the family together.

As the title implies, food is a central motif. Anna describes the way her family uses food to celebrate its traditions and then between chapters there are recipes for the food mentioned in the book. The recipes included are for Kateifi, Macaronia Tou Fournou, Oktapodi Krasato, Avgolemoni and Chirino Me Kolokassi.


Forty Days: 09/05/08

"Forty Days" by Jill Smolinski follows Donna Dawson as she tries to revitalize her dull life in the last forty days of being 39. She is living at home with her parents and her daughter from a failed marriage and worries that she hasn't done enough with her life.

Her plan is simple in concept but exhausting to execute. She vows each day to do something:

  1. She'd never done before
  2. Been afraid to do
  3. was just for herself

Some of the things she does are small things like trying to sell one of her paintings on eBay, going skinny dipping or sleeping in late. Some of them are more complicated like the speed dating she tries.

Her forty day experiment helps her meet a number of interesting eligible men. As with "The Truth About Nigel", Donna comes to realize that "Mr right" isn't always the first pick.

I think "Forty Days" is one of my favorites from the book. Donna comes across as an interesting and believable character. From looking at Jill Smolinski's website, she has a novel out that builds on the same concepts of this short story. I'll have to add The Next Thing List to my wishlist.

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Quondam: 09/04/08

Quondam is the fourth book in the "Ancient Mirrors" series by Jayel Gibson. Cwen and Queen Yávië are pulled through a mirror to the ancient kingdom of Quondam, currently under the iron fist of Queen Karid. Can Cwen survive long enough to fulfill her piece of the prophesy that will free Quondam?

The previous books in the series are Dragon Queen, The Wrekening and Damselflies

I really wanted to enjoy the book more than I did after reading the introduction, "Synergy" where Jayel Gibson describes the research she did at Gold Beach Books. Unfortunately after the strong start with a fiery assassination and the initial scenes in Quondam, the book begins to drag.

The weakest part of the novel is the romance between Cwen and D'raeken. All the political intrigue and the violence of Kalid's army and the nomads and the oppression gets put on hold while Cwen and D'raeken play house on a prison island and go through the motions of a typical situation based romance. This part of the novel is no different than Two Alone by Sandra Dallas save for the fantasy elements involving "magick" and dragons and so forth.

Cwen seems to flop around trying to figure out her role in the book. She's a bit like Colette from the video game Tales of Symphonia and she's every bit as annoying. From other reviews I've read there's apparently a "strong feminist theme" running through the book but I didn't catch that at all. For better examples, check out works by Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeannette Winterson or Margaret Atwood. This book instead felt like an unfortunate mashup of Mirror of Her Dreams, the Pern series and any of the Dragonlance books.

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Search Continues for Elderly Man: 09/04/08

The second story in the September issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, "Search Continues for Elderly Man" is Laura Kasischke's FSF debut. It's a rather dark piece about an old man looking back at the "what-ifs" of his life.

Mr. Rentz begins rethinking his life when he's visited by an oddly familiar boy and dog. The boy asks him if he'll come out to play. As he tries to figure out who the boy and the dog are, he relieves the worst moments of life.

The story is depressing but it ends on a potentially hopeful note. In its exploration of the lost chances of childhood, it reminds me of previous FSF stories:


Just Visiting: 09/03/08

Working my way through American Girls About Town has taken longer than I had planned.

In "Just Visiting" Danni gets caught up in her lies and has ten harrowing days of playing hostess to two young relatives who fully believe the embellished life she has been reporting home.

Throughout the their visit, Danni laments to herself her mother's belief that their stay will do her some good. In the end, it does but not in the way that either her mother or she predicted.

The story is cute but it didn't grab me like some of the others in this collection. The situations Danni gets into should have been sillier for a proper screwball comedy. Instead, Danni is able to squeak by too easily with money she's squirreled away and her ability to charm a local into playing along with her charade.

The stories in the book are: (Click on a title to read reviews).


King, Queen, Knave: 09/02/08

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov is one of his earliest novels, written and published originally in Russian in 1928 as Korol', dama, vale and translated and heavily edited in 1968. I read the English translation.

The novel follows Franz Bubendorf's travels to Berlin to work in his "Uncle's" department store. The uncle, Kurt Dreyer, is actually his mother's cousin. He meets his family on the train into Berlin. Martha (his "aunt") and he are instantly smitten and they quickly start up an affair, taking advantage of Dreyer's late nights at the office.

King, Queen and Knave has some of the same elements that I loved in Lolita (1955) but it lacks the refinement of the later novel. Nabovok uses the urban journey to introduce and define his characters, something he perfects in the road trip in the middle third of Lolita. With the affair taking place under Dreyer's nose, there is also the awkward sexual humor. Of course, as all three members are adults, the affair is nothing compared to the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita.


Templeton Turtle Goes Exploring: 09/02/08

Templeton Turtle Goes Exploring by Ron Pridmore is designed to teach children "the importance of community" as the book follows Templeton's first adventure around the pond.

Templeton Turtle is a hatchling. On his first day out of the shell his mother gives him permission to walk the perimeter of the pond to meet the neighbors. He meets a great blue heron, a snake, a frog and a family of raccoons. Although Mr. Blue (the heron) comes off as a grumpy neighbor, he ends up being one of Templeton's most important friends.

Michele-lee Phelan's ornate illustration helps bring the story to life. It's a nice balance between ornate illustration and realism.

As this is a children's book aimed at ages 4 to 8, I read it with my six year old son. He enjoyed the story but worried throughout that Templeton was going too far from his mother. When Templeton does ultimately run into trouble, Sean's reaction was "I told you so, Templeton."

Templeton Turtle Goes Exploring reminds me most of Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman except without the initial separation anxiety faced by the young chick.

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Peachblossom: 09/01/08

I first learned about Peachblossom by Eleanor Frances Lattimore from Nicola at Back to Books. I love old books and wanted to give this one a try based on her post. Although it's not quite what I expected, I'm glad I read it.

Peachblossom is an orphan living with a woman and her son whom she calls "Auntie" and "Brother" even though she's not related to either. They are the only family she has. War forces the three of them to leave their home with the moon shaped door for a new village away from the soldiers.

Eleanor Lattimore was born in 1904 in Shanghai and was home schooled by them until they moved to California in 1920. There she attended the California School of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley. Her first hand experience of life in China and her training as an artist shows in Peachblossom with her attention to detail in her narrative and in her illustrations.

Peachblossom shows the affects of war on children. There are moments of joy tucked away in this story and it does end on a hopeful note.


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