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Mouse's Halloween: 10/31/08

Most of my children's collection of books can be divided into a handful of categories: Counting and Alphabet books, Owls, Cats, Cartoon Characters, Picture Puzzles and finally Halloween. From the Halloween pile, a current book in our night time rotation is Mouse's Halloween by Alan Baker.

Mouse and his mother are on their way home at twilight to get ready for Halloween. Mouse sees a number of scary monsters along the way but his mother reassures him that he is just imagining them.

The pages at the top are cut in a shape to emphasize what Mouse is seeing. After seeing the monster the following page shows what is really there: usually something mundane like a tree, or another forest animal.

Of course to be a true Halloween story, there has to be a twist. That comes on the very last page is is subtly illustrated. You may not even catch it on the first or second time through the book. When you do spot it, you'll see everything Mouse's mother said along the way home called into question.

My son likes the ambiguity of the ending because he's getting to the age where he prefers a challenging story. My daughter does too but at her age the ending is just magical and the mother mouse just wasn't looking at things the right way.

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The Free Fall of Webster Cummings: 10/30/08

An odd ball group of characters go through a variety of life changing misadventures only to converge on a strange little town in Oregon. The title character's adventure starts when he's sucked out of an airplane and survives without a scratch.

The Free Fall of Webster Cummings is made up of individually well written vignettes but together they don't add up to a coherent or compelling narrative .

I reserve the 50 page rule for extreme situations. This novel tricked me by suddenly but briefly getting interesting on page 54. I stuck with it until page 101 as the interesting bit slowly but steadily degraded back to mind numbingly dull.


Past Perfect Present Tense: 10/29/08

Past Perfect Present Tense is a collection of short stories by Richard Peck for tween readers. Some of the stories are reprints and some were newly written for this collection. The book ends with two how-to essays to encourage creative writing while giving practical advice.

Most of the stories have a supernatural or surreal twist to them. Sometimes the twist is only just a tiny hint at the end of an otherwise ordinary but well written story. For instance in "Priscilla and the Wimps" (1984) the male protagonist recounts how his school was run by Monk Clutter, the school bully. His career comes to an end with the help of an unlikely heroine, Priscilla.

At the other extreme, there are the ghost stories like "Girl at the Window" and "The Most Important Night of Melanie's Life." Both of these are in the vein of The Twilight Zone, with hints dropped throughout for observant readers. These two were my favorite of Past Perfect Present Tense.

Sometimes Peck plays with unexpected characters or unusual points of view. The best examples of this type of story are "Fluffy the Gangbuster" and "The Kiss in the Carry-on Bag." Of those two, I prefer "The Kiss" where the fish out of water is a prince playing hooky from his royal family. "Fluffy", a tale of a tough cat was too much like trying to read a plot into those dogs playing poker paintings.

Richard Peck includes short explanations to about half of his stories in Past Perfect Present Tense. Most of these introductions come with the reprinted stories. They help to give insight into his creative process and to the ways in which his style has evolved over time.

The stories in here are:

  • Priscilla and the Wimps
  • The Electric Summer
  • The Special Powers of Blossom Gulp
  • By Far the Worst Pupil at Long Point School
  • Girl at the Window
  • The Most Important Night of Melanie's Life
  • Waiting for Sebastian
  • Shadows
  • Fluffy the Gangbuster
  • I Go Along
  • The Kiss in the Carry-on Bag
  • The Three-Century Woman

The stories in here are:

  • How to Write a Short Story
  • Five Helpful Hints

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Sheep on a Ship: 10/28/08

Sheep on a Ship is the second book in Nancy E. Shaw's sheep series. Both my children like pirates so this book is their favorite of the series.

In this book, the herd of sheep don pirate hats and take the high seas. They aren't any more competent with sailing as they are with driving and soon find themselves in trouble.

Sheep on a Ship isn't quite as tongue tying as as Sheep on a Jeep but it does have a few tricky moments involving words rhyming with ship. If you're going to read this book out loud to your children, I suggest practicing or read it very slowly the first couple of times to avoid unfortunate slips of the tongue.

The Sheep series includes:

  • Sheep in a Jeep (1986)
  • Sheep on a Ship (1989)
  • Sheep in a Shop (1991)
  • Sheep Out to Eat (1992)
  • Sheep Take a Hike (1994)
  • Sheep Trick or Treat (1987)
  • Sheep Blast Off (2008)

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A Jolly Good Fellow: 10/27/08

A Jolly Good Fellow by Stephen V. Masse is a Christmastime kidnapping caper. It is the Winner of the Silver Medal in the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards Best Fiction — U. S. Northeast Region

More than anything, A Jolly Good Fellow reminds me of an updated version of "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry (1910). In Masse's version, there is only one kidnapper and the boy is actually a sweet kid even if he tries to put on a tough guy act.

The novel centers around Duncan, the kidnapper (and freelance corner Santa), and Gabriel, the boy he has kidnapped. There are a few other minor characters but they are mostly there as window dressing for the unusual friendship that develops between Duncan and Gabriel.

A Jolly Good Fellow is a short (203 pages) and entertaining, off beat novel. It can easily be enjoyed over the course of a weekend or carried along to read in quick bursts.

Visit Stephen V. Masse's website.

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City Colors: 10/26/08

Zoran Milich is a photographer based in Manhattan. He's best known as a black and white photographer of urban scenes but he has a number of children's books all which feature bright and colorful photographs from an urban setting.

I have been a fan of urban photography for a while and now that Sean is taking up photography as a hobby he's also getting interested in how photography can represent human spaces. With this in mind, Sean picked out Milich's City Colors.

City Colors has of outdoor scenes, play grounds, doors, streets and so forth where a single color dominates. That color is then highlighted in the text. The final page brings all those colors together in one last photograph.

The three of us enjoyed this book so much that we read it probably twenty or thirty times before returning it to the library. I will keep my eyes out for his other children's books: The City ABC Book, City Signs, and City 123.

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The Secret Life of Bees: 10/25/08

With the film adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees in theaters right now the internet is awash in reviews of both the book and the film. I swear I didn't plan my review based on current events! Sometimes though, things just work out that way.

With it's 1964 South Carolina setting the novel takes its place with other emotionally charged books: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, and the nonfiction Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. While the book shares similar themes and historical points of interest, Kidd's novel is far more up-beat.

Of course the novel isn't one long happy string of events, how could it be when story centers around a teenage girl trying to find the secret of her mother's life while trying to escape from her abusive father? There is also the on going theme of tolerance in the face of societal bigotry. Despite all of these heavy themes, the three beekeeping sisters: August, June and May and their love for each other as a family and their unconditional welcoming of Lily and Rosaleen, bring a warmth and tenderness to this book and help put human faces on a rough piece of American history.

A still from
Pushing Daisies
: "Bzzzzzzzzz!"

The book isn't though just about the year of the Civil Rights Act. It's also about beekeeping. Each chapter begins with a quote from one of a short list of famous beekeeping references. Of course these snippets play into the human drama. Read the quotes before the chapter begins to get a feel for what is coming next and to learn a thing or two about bees.

As fate would have it, I started the novel the day after the second season of Pushing Daisies aired. The first new episode was called "Bzzzzzzzzz!" and has a bee house (although greatly exaggerated) as Lily describes her bedroom in the opening chapter. With that odd connection in my mind, I was forever picturing the novel in the over done fashion of Pushing Daisies.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the novel start to finish. Even if you have no plans to see the film adaptation, go read the book.

Learn more about Sue Monk Kidd at her website.

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Whoever: 10/24/08

Imagine waking up in a dirty doorway not knowing who you are, where you are or even what language you speak. The only thing you're sure of: you probably wiped your memory on purpose, even if you can't remember what that purpose was. That's what the female protagonist faces in "Whoever" by Carol Emshwiller.

Carol's protagonist narrates the story in a disjointed but orderly stream of consciousness. She also keeps a note book of her thoughts and observations of her new life.

Mostly the story seems to be about making a fresh start. Although the Geraldine (as she names herself) seems happy with her situation, I found the story rather sad. Starting over with next to nothing seems too extreme.

I was also reminded of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. I've known adults Geraldine's age who have wandered off not remembering their names or addresses. It's scary for the family and embarrassing and dangerous for the patient.

Learn more about Carol Emshwiller at her website.

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Lion's Pride: 10/23/08

Lion's Pride by Debbie Jordan is at first glance a murder mystery. A wealthy man is murdered during a hunt for a mountain lion.

Really, though, the investigation is a pretense for a larger character study. Lion's Pride is a look at marriage. There are three marriages on view: the widow whose marriage was rocky at best, the sheriff's marriage to a woman he treats as his equal, and Proctor Hanson's numerous sister-wives.

Lion's Pride is set in Arizona before statehood. A number of different cultures are vying to shape Arizona in its infancy. There is the old Spanish class structure, the native American traditions and finally the polygamous compound, forced to flee Utah when the Latter Day Saints banned polygamy. In the middle of this is Sheriff Paco trying to solve a murder and trying to help a man from Texas rescue his sister and her children from the compound.

For the most part I enjoyed the novel. Paco and his wife are a well written characters. Unfortunately the book suffers from some repetitive typesetting errors. Debbie Jordan likes to use trailing ellipses in her dialogue and the space after the last period makes the quote curl the wrong way. I know it's a common error for programs like Word but it should have been caught before taking the book to print.


December 22, 2012: 10/22/08

"December 22, 2012" is actually the second poem by Sophie M. White I've read. She had one published in last year's December issue but I didn't review it.

December 22, 2012, if you're curious, is a Saturday. It's also a day that the un-named protagonist laments not paying more attention to. She (I'm assuming it's a she for the "climbing roses tattooed" on the spine) was too busy rebelling to pay attention to any warnings.

In sixteen lines Sophie White asks a stumper of a question. What would your reaction be if the world came to an end? How would you feel if the day had been accurately predicted for centuries and you had ignored it?

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A Moveable Feast: 10/21/08

Ernest Hemingway was married to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, his first wife, from 1921 to 1926. They lived in Paris during that time. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway's posthumous memoir covers this time in his life.

This short and fascinating book has two contradictory introductions; one by Hemingway's final wife, Mary and one by Ernest himself. Mary, who edited the book after his death, describes how her husband wrote the book and what is covered in the book. Ernest Hemingway's introduction tells the reader to consider the book a work of fiction!

So which is it? It's probably both. The book covers historical events and real people (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound among others). But it was written from 40 year old memories and comes without footnotes or other documentation. Memories are fleeting and subject to augmentation whether intentional or not. Finally, Mary apparently did a fairly heavy editing job on it, significantly changing the tone of the memoir. Her edits may have turned fact into fiction.

Does A Moveable Feast's dubious status matter? No. It's still a fascinating portrait of the early years of Ernest Hemingway's career. It still shows Hemingway's wit. Hemingway's description of his fellow writers is worth the read just to see them described as actual human beings.

Learn more about Ernest Hemingway at Timeless Hemingway.

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Private Eye: 10/20/08

Viewership is everything on the internet especially if you're trying to make a few bucks. The internet is a great form of voyeurism as the preponderance of porn shows. But there's also Youtube, blogs, Flickr, Twitter and so forth.

In "Private Eye" the male protagonist makes a few extra bucks by being a Private Eye: a living web cam for viewers to watch the peep show he's experiencing but without sound and without touching. The object of his desire, is also his competition. She plays by different rules and her rules are killing his business.

With all this voyeurism and competition can one find good old fashioned love? Of course. It just takes time and creativity.

I really enjoyed this story probably for my own internet career. Yes, the technology behind their sites is where the science fiction comes into play but the rules under which they have work and the fickle nature of their fan base is true to life.

Visit Terry Bisson's website.

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Dandelion Wine: 10/19/08

"Dandelion wine will make you remember
The first days of spring in the middle of December" ("Dandelion Wine" by Tommy Makem w/ Liam Clancy). I start this review with the first two lines of the chorus because it sums up the Ray Bradbury novel so perfectly.

I was about twelve when I first learned the song and read the book so the two are forever linked in my memory of being ten. Bradbury's novel is like so many of his books semi-autobiographical It is an account of the summer of 1928 as experienced in a small Illinois town by twelve year old Douglas Spaulding.

Douglas fears the passage of time. He feels it more deeply than his friends. Tom revels in it, keeping a list of everything he does: how many times he does things or eats things and the firsts of every season.

Meanwhile, the adults of Green Town are trying to recreate their youth through Happiness Machines, Green Machines (an electric car), Time Machines and just hoarding the collected kipple of a life lived.

Time is fickle. It goes by too quickly and is impossible to capture. Time maybe permanent but everyone only has a limited amount of it.

If you like Dandelion Wine, you will also like Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree and The Illustrated Man.

Learn how to make Dandelion Wine.

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The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club: 10/18/08

Laurie Notaro is one of those self printing success stories. After failing to find a publisher for a collection of her humor columns she turned to print on demand. The success of her book caught the eye Random House who offered her a two book deal. She now has seven books.

The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club is Laurie Notaro's first book with Random House. It contains a series of short stories from her life. They can be divided up for the most part into tales about drinking, tales about the effects of drinking, and tales about being repressed about sex. Where are the "tales from a magnificent and clumsy life" promised by the subtitle and illustrated by the delightfully fully cover photograph? I don't know because I didn't see any in the book.

My favorite chapter from this mediocre book is "Dead in a Box." It covers Laurie's cleaning binge of the "scary room." A roommate had left the ashes of a departed loved one in a box under a bed. Then the roommate had left and forgotten the box. How she deals with the situation made me grin.

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Hold Me Tight: 10/17/08

Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson offers seven exercises for couples based on her years of work in EFT (emotionally focused therapy).

EFT works with the same tenets as attachment parenting: emotional security to create stronger relationships and better self esteem for couples.

The seven conversations take up the bulk of the book. While it may be tempting to jump right to the how-to part of the book, I recommend reading the introductory first part. I found the connection between attachment parenting especially enlightening.

The best part of Hold Me Tight is that Dr. Johnson's techniques aren't based on traditional gender stereotypes. It was refreshing to read a book that looks at basic human needs and can be used successfully with any sort of committed relationship.


Going Back in Time: 10/16/08

Time is on my mind today, first with Laurel Winter's story "Going Back in Time, the rather awkward Americanization of Life on Mars and finally Tom Petty's "Flirting With Time" playing on my iTunes.

Laurel Winter's story with most of the words crossed out plays with the relativity of time. As the protagonist explains before he's swept off his feet by Ellie the weather girl: "Only one of those words has meaning." (p. 155). For that reason, most of the title is struck through.

I liked the story. It's only two pages long and comprised of eleven snippets. In the way it is told, I'm reminded of "Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding the Alaskan Secession" by George Guthridge. As it's a time travel story, there's also a hint of The Man Who Folded Himself among others.

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Killing Time: 10/16/08

Caleb Carr is best known for his Victorian era mystery-thrillers. Killing Time is a departure from his usual fare as it's set in the near future and is more a social commentary than a mystery. It was serialized in Time Magazine before being released by Random House in book form. Somewhere in the mix of writing outside his normal genre and the challenge of writing a serial, the story fell apart.

Killing Time's premise is fascinating and earily realivant given the current economic crisis and our invasions of Afgahistan and Iraq. There's also the internet too playing a role, giving everyone too much information and none of it verifiable. Then there's the environment and the missing fish (among other problems). In other words, the world has gone to pot in 2023 and in that mess the protagonist is recruited to do some good.

Malcom Tressalian, his methods and his vessel, stink of Captain Nemo and the Natulus. As I slogged through the middle section of the book I found myself thinking more of Nemo as "eco-terroist" than I was about the book I was supposed to be reading. That's not a good sign!

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The Visionaries: 10/15/08

Robert Reed's story "The Visionaries" takes a look at the science fiction industry and his own career. It's both humorous and mind bending.

The story at first reads much like the early chapters in Stephen King's memoir On Writing with the tales of the ever-growing rejection pile. Reed's stand-in, though, finds a benefactor to purchase his first novella about a man named "Merv."

According to "The Visionaries" a small set of writers are pulled to write about someone near to them in many ways but different in a "thousand other ways." I guess this calling would explain all the Mary-Sues running around in genre fiction.

Although Reed never names names one will probably be reminded of King, Bradbury, Asimov among others.

Reed continues to be one of my favorite regulars in F&SF.

I have also reviewed these stories by Robert Reed:

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Sheep Take a Hike: 10/14/08

Nancy E. Shaw thought up the Sheep series of books during a long car trip. Sheep Take a Hike is the fifth in the series and a current favorite of Harriet.

Sheep Take a Hike follows the sheep as they head out for a day in the woods. As with all their adventures, big and small, good intentions go awry. They soon find themselves lost and bedraggled. Can they use their wits to find their way home?

The book is told in rhymes that border on tongue twisters. They have the same simplicity and humor of the "I Can Read" series of books by Dr. Seuss. It's tempting to read the books quickly but watch out; you might end up tongue tied!

The Sheep books are illustrated by Margot Apple. She brings the sheep to life. It was her illustrations for Sheep in a Jeep (1986) that first caught my attention back in 2003.

The Sheep series includes:

  • Sheep in a Jeep (1986)
  • Sheep on a Ship (1989)
  • Sheep in a Shop (1991)
  • Sheep Out to Eat (1992)
  • Sheep Take a Hike (1994)
  • Sheep Trick or Treat (1987)
  • Sheep Blast Off (2008)

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Red Orc's Rage: 10/13/08

I have no patience for books that are thinly disguised infomercials. The last such abomination I read in this category was Demons Don't Dream by Piers Anthony. Red Orc's Rage was slightly better than Demons but that isn't saying much.

The dedication to, and the Afterword by Dr. A. James Giannini, explains the reason behind this dog's breakfast of a book. Giannini has been using Farmer's Tiers books as therapy since the late 1970s. It's basically a form of role playing. He calls the process "Tiersian therapy" and Farmer got wind of his work.

Rather than smiling politely and moving on, Farmer decided to write a book about a fictional troubled teen who is of course a fan of the Tiers series to begin with so is the perfect candidate for the therapy when he's put in a mental hospital. Of course for him, the journey is real and he gets to have all of his long desired adventures in Farmer's creation.

This wretched thing reads like bad fan fiction. The novel is a complete waste of time. It lacks the edginess of earlier Farmer and it doesn't make up for it with maturity.

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For the Love of Books: 10/12/08

For the Love of Books is a collection of 115 essays on the books that have made life time impressions. They are written by authors asked (and sometimes pestered) by Ronald B. Shwartz to talk on the books that inspired them to become writers.

It's pretty obvious which authors were pestered and which ones responded eagerly. There's a lot of antagonism in many of the authors. I skimmed through most of these reluctant answers.

Among the responses, Dave Barry's was my favorite. He was clearly one of the eager participants. His response also seemed to most genuine. He starts his list of with silly things like the Archie and Batman comics. From there he moves on to other favorites: Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22. From there he and I part ways in our reading tastes but I may have to go back and read his recommendations based the first half of his essay.

In the back of For the Love of Books is an extensive bibliography of the books described by one or more of the authors. Ronald Shwartz estimates the list at five hundred books. Among the most frequently mentioned are the King James Bible, the Torah, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and the works of Charles Dickens.

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Genuine Men: 10/11/08

Genuine Men by Nancy Bruno is the follow-up volume to Beautiful Women (2006), a book I haven't read. The thought behind the book was that "'you can't do for one and not the other.'" (p. xiii).

The book is a series of 35 mini biographies of boys and men from the ages of twelve to ninety-one, accompanied with black and white portraits. Although these are specific men that Bruno chose for this book, their biographies and portraits are presented as ideals for role models rather than as individuals who have become role models.

I enjoyed the photography more than I did the text but I wanted more from both. I wanted to know more about the men in the book and more about why they were chosen. The book would be better with labels beyond the men's names and ages.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread: 10/10/08

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster recounts the tragic results of rash decisions. A widow goes on holiday to Italy and ends up marrying a much younger man of no means. When she dies in child birth, her in laws rush to Italy to claim the child, not out of a sense of love or duty, but to avoid the waggling tongues.

My first thought was to wonder if Marlena De Blasi had read the book before marrying her Italian husband. Of course, A Thousand Days in Venice is a memoir and not tied to dramatic conventions. Rather than rushing in like the fools of Forster's novel, Marlena brought her fiance home first for approval from her children before returning to Italy to wed. And yet I kept picturing Gino as Marlena's "Peter Sellers."

As the novel's mood darkens, I was torn between setting it aside and continuing on with my breath held. I pressed on growing more and more horrified at all the adults in the novel. I'm glad I read it (at my brother-in-law's recommendation) and I know it will be one of those novels that will stick with me. Nonetheless, it's not one I'll want to revisit soon; it's too emotionally draining.

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Dazzle Joins the Screenwriter's Guild: 10/09/08

I am always finding unexpected connections in what I'm reading. Take for instance "Dazzle Joins the Screenwriter's Guild" about a dog trying to write the next big blockbuster. I read it the night after my local independent TV station switched back to its old call letters. One of things they are most known for are their dog videos to display their call letters.

So there's Dazzle the dog, whose life story has been optioned by Sony and he's been brought on board to write the script. He's teamed up with a veteran writer who gives him this sage advice: "Sign the contract, get the bucks, and enjoy the freedom freedom freedom, birdies singing, tra-la-la, la-la-la-laaaah." (p. 122) Frustrated by the writer's lack of effort, Dazzle tries his hand (or paw) at writing and comes down with a serious case of writer's block.

The dog as script writer is what qualifies this story for F&SF. Even without the dog, "Dazzle..." is a broad parody of the business of screenwriting. As an ex film student, I found myself giggling throughout the tale.

Dazzle appears in two other stories. They are included in Scott Bradfield's book Hot Animal Love.

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Turtle Moon: 10/08/08

There is something about Florida that inspires a subset of American literature that is both tragic and comedic in the same breath. It's probably the closest that American literature comes to magical realism.

Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman is a perfect example of a Floridian novel. It is set in the month of May when "girls run away from home, babies cry all night, [and] ficus hedges explode into flame." (p. 3). Set against the oppressive heat and humidity of May in Verity, Florida, Bethany Lee is murdered and the "meanest boy in Verity", a twelve-year-old named Keith becomes the reluctant ward of Bethany's infant daughter. Meanwhile, Keith's mother and an unofficial tracker for the police forge an alliance to clear Keith's name and to find the actual killer.

If this were a thriller there would be car chases, bullets flying in every chapter and villains constantly lurking Yes, there is danger but mostly there is just the heat and the frazzled nerves. Keith and baby Rachel find safety at the home of a woman who knows a thing or two about wayward children.

Although the ending isn't a happy one with all loose strings neatly tied up, it's a satisfying ending. Things work out and unfold in ways, some of which are expected and some which aren't but all of which seem to fit just right.

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Queen for a Day: 10/07/08

Before I start any story in F&SF, I always read the blurb at the top. Sometimes they're silly and sometimes they have useful tidbits. The blurb for "Inside Story" pointed me to the online reprint of "Queen for a Day."

"Queen for a Day" takes place in New Orleans during Carnival. Det. Alphonse Fournet and his partner Det. D. J. Tobin are investigating a series of strangulation murders, starting with a Mrs. Inverness from Philadelphia. All of the deaths have in common a necklace described as "...trash. But good trash..."

This being New Orleans, there's probably voodoo involved. Voodoo stories usually annoy me for coming off as too cliched but Cowdrey's story is humorous and filled with enough other details that only a native could know. It's his perspective that makes "Queen for a Day" better than the average voodoo story.

I would like to see more of Detective Fournet's paranormal cases either as future short stories or as full length novels.

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The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates: 10/07/08

The name Stephen King probably brings to mind long horror novels or perhaps the Dark Tower series but he got his start writing short stories. I personally prefer his short stories and novellas over his longer works. This month's double issue has a "virtually perfectly execution" of a Twilight Zone type of story (page 99).

The story is mostly a long phone call between a husband and a wife. It should have been a typical call: the husband calling to say his plane is landing early. This being Stephen King (and F&SF), it's anything but typical. The plane crashed two days earlier and there were no survivors.

The phone call is one last chance to say good-bye and one last chance for James to protect his wife, Annie. It's also a chance to describe the afterlife in terms of broken down architecture, both familiar and strange at the same time.

Of course it's not enough just to record the phone call. King goes a step further and shows the consequences of their last conversation.

In way the story folds back on itself, I'm reminded of other Stephen King stories, especially The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and "The Langoliers."

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Pharmakon: 10/06/08

The cover of an epic often depicts the founding member of the new dynasty. Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn isn't an epic but it draws on some of the conventions. With that in mind, the cover shows Gray, an African Gray parrot whose unexpected appearance in the mulberry tree at the Friedrich household sets in motion a number of events that will forever change the family.

Of course the parrot isn't the family patriarch. That honor falls to William Friedrich, a psychologist who for personal reasons works in pharmaceuticals, first in R & D at Yale and later as a consultant. William's detachment from everything makes him a rather dry lead. He reminds me a bit of the doctor from The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards.

The novel is written in a disjointed fashion from the perspective of the youngest child, Zach Friedrich. The circumstances of his birth are as unusual as Gray's appearance. He seems like an odd choice for narrator but there's a clue perhaps in the dedication: "In Memory of J. R. Wittenborn, PhD." A quick internet search will bring up enough similarities between the real and fictional for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

So like "The Sleepless Years" by Steven Utley, I will give Pharmakon the benefit of the doubt. I will close by saying the writing struck me as uneven and prone to melodrama. The book had its moments, especially the connection between Jack and Zach, tragic though it is.

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Days of Wonder: 10/05/08

"Days of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman takes artificial chromosomes as its starting point, creating a story based on human-animal hybrids whose bodies contain "Ark genes" to help repopulate the Earth.

Akwa, groom-mate to Leveza narrates this tale of drought, food shortages and flight from the Cats. Akwa and Leveza are Horses with human ancestry. They can walk upright if they want, can talk and make basic tools. Leveza's child, though, who looks more human than any child Akwa can remember is the first hint of the answers hidden away in their genes.

It takes a while for "Days of Wonder" to get going. The primitive language and made up words make for awkward reading. The language is a way to illustrate how much things have changed and how much information has been forgotten but it just never quite works.

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The Mark of Zorro: 10/04/08

Tonight I reach a milestone in my book reviews. The Mark of Zorro is my 1000th review!

Twenty years before Batman started patrolling Gotham City at night, Señor Zorro, the "Curse of Capistrano" was protecting California. He first appeared in the serial The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley in 1919. A year later he burst onto the silver screen, brought to life by Douglas Fairbanks. If you ever have a chance to see the film with live music, do it!

After the success of the film the book was republished in 1924 with the title of the film, The Mark of Zorro. The book came "illustrated with scenes from the photoplay" in the form of three photographs of Douglas Fairbanks: one as Don Diego Vega and two as Zorro. The book has since been republished (as you can see from the cover art) but I was lucky enough to read the 1924 version.

Let's face it, I'm not going to be able to write a dispassionate review this time. I grew up passionate about three superheroes: Zorro, Batman and Superman. Nearest and dearest to my heart is Zorro because he's the only one who's looking out for my home state.

The focus of the novel (more so than the film) is on Lolita Pulido and her search for a husband. Her three options are Captain Ramón, Don Diego Vega and Señor Zorro. What she doesn't know is that Vega and Zorro are the same man. How could she? Vega acts as if "his blood runs with water" whereas Zorro is a man of action. Vega only wears a blade as part of his formal dress while Zorro is a master swordsman and a marksman with his pistol.

The one place where the story is weakest is in Diego's motivation for risking life and limb as a bandito when he is the son of the most influential nobleman in California, one that even the Spanish appointed governor has to curry favor to. Don Diego isn't tragically orphaned by mobsters like Bruce Wayne. Fortunately though the book rarely dwells on this in lieu of the romance and the derring-do. It's only in the last chapter that Don Diego explains himself and his hinting at 10 years of study starting at the age of 15 was later expanded upon by Isabel Allende in her novel aptly called Zorro. While her novel was a noble attempt to fill in the blanks of Don Diego's life, I think she missed the mark.

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Pug Hill: 10/03/08

My across-the-street neighbors had a bunch of pugs when I was a kid. They were the sweetest, nicest dogs. Because of them, I have a soft spot for pugs. I had to therefore give Pug Hill by Alison Pace a read.

By all accounts, I should have enjoyed Pug Hill. It takes place in New York City, it has pugs, heroine Hope McNeil works as an art restorer and yet none of these individually entertaining elements is enough to carry the story.

Hope McNeil's parents are coming up on their 40th wedding anniversary. They want Hope to give a speech but she's terrified of public speaking (of course) and spends the remainder of the book dreading the speech and coming to terms with her commitment to give it. Along the way she has boyfriend trouble and tries to seek meaning to life by watching the pugs of Pug Hill in Central Park.

That's it. That's all there is to this 312 page novel. The best chapter of the entire book is the chapter after she gives the speech. With her new found self confidence she takes charge and strikes up a romance with an old friend. This is where the book should have started from!

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Sleepless Years: 10/03/08

"The Sleepless Years" by Steven Utley at first glance is just another retelling of Frankenstein but from the monster's point of view. In this one, a man has been brought back to life for reasons unknown (to him) to be studied physically and psychologically. He wishes he could sleep (but he can't) and he wishes he could die again (but they won't let him).

As the story progresses, we learn more about our unnamed first person protagonist's life before death. We learn of his life in the South and his straying from his Pentecostal Baptist upbringing. We learn of the tragedies of his life and how he's now visited by the ghosts of his life when he should be sleeping but can't.

Were it not for the dedication at the closing of the story, I would have rated this story lower. As this story is obviously inspired by Utley's own life I can understand the morose tone it has.

I have also reviewed the "400-Million-Year Itch" a more lighthearted story by Steven Utley.

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Horns to Toes and in Between: 10/02/08

Horns to Toes and in Between by Sandra Boynton is one of our collection of her books. The book plays with the "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes" song that preschoolers learn. It's the song if it were being taught to monsters instead of children.

Besides entertaining through the silly interpretation of the song, the book does teach useful things like counting one to ten and basic anatomy (head, tongue, and feet for example).

The illustrations are colorful and done in pastels. The monsters are cute and fuzzy and not at all scary. Harriet's favorite pages are tone one where they show off their belly buttons and where they stick out their tongues.

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Sea Glass: 10/01/08

Over the summer I read a pair of novels by Laurence Yep: Child of the Owl and Sea Glass. Both deal with the Asian-American experience from the point of view of second generation children.

Craig Chin was happy living in San Francisco's China town. Now that his family has moved to Conception, California he's having a hard time fitting in. His father thinks sports are the way for him to prove himself to the other kids but he's just not good enough or interested enough. Chin finds an unlikely mentor with Uncle Quail who has a sea shack.

Although I enjoyed the scenes with Uncle Quail, the scenes between Craig and his father seemed forced. The narrative gets hung up on the endless scenes of Craig failing at yet another athletic endeavor. The heart of the story: Craig's swim lessons at the cove and his awkward truce with the bohemian bully come too late in the novel to make as compelling a story as Child of the Owl.

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