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Raindrop Plop: 12/31/08
It's the very end of the year and it's time to party so I'll make this last review short and sweet.
Raindrop, Plop! by Wendy Cheyette Lewison is a counting book that teaches counting one to ten and back again. The plot centers around a girl trying to go out to play but it's starting to rain. She counts raindrops until it rains too hard to play comfortably any longer. So inside she goes for a hot bath and hot cocoa.
The book is beautifully illustrated and fun to read. The rhyming scheme is easy on the tongue and rather soothing to read. It's a popular book with my kids, especially when they are a little under the weather.
Top 10 Book Lists from 2008: 12/30/08
I actually have one review left for the year (Raindrop, Plop!) which I'll post tomorrow. I've been reading through many year in review lists from my favorite book blogs and thought I'd post a few too. With 474 reviews, it's hard to whittle things down to just ten books. With that in mind, I've made a number of top ten lists. Click on the title of any book to read the review.
Top 10 books I was asked to review (in no particular order):
Top 10 Children's Books for children ages 0-10
Top 10 Books for tweens and teens
Top 10 F&SF Stories
Top 10 Short Stories / Story Collections (from other sources)
Top Science Fiction / Fantasy (novel length)
Brother by James Fredericks is a mystery / thriller centered on two brothers, each (eventually) accused of crimes he did not commit. The two have to work together to clear their names despite amazing odds.
The book is 410 pages long but the plot doesn't really get started until halfway through the book. It is almost as slow with wrapping up its various plot threads leaving the reader lurching along in a book that just can't quite get up to speed or stay in gear.
Individual chapters are well written. The court room sessions with Chase Riordan as the defense attorney who will be framed for the murders he has been defending various clients against are well written and interesting. The courtroom drama of Brother is the novel's strongest point. It is unfortunately competing with the misadventures of Jared (the other brother) and his time in the military and a third plot involving a cigarette manufacturing company.
Imagine if you will, an entire season of Perry Mason where at the end of the season, he's accused of having killed all the people in the previous trials. The imagine if he had a brother who has been in a military hospital and is now on the loose. Finally imagine that a client of his has been slowly masterminding the entire frame up for reasons unknown. It might have worked had the frame up started sooner and had a tighter, quicker ending.
Bunny Modern: 12/29/08
I love it when a science fiction or fantasy novel where the world isn't the point. Bunny Modern by David Bowman with his near future look at New York and New Jersey comes close to accomplishing this goal.
In this day and age where alternative energy is becoming a world wide concern and oil prices are so volatile, Bunny Modern reads like it was published this year rather than last decade.
In Bowman's vision of the future, electricity has stopped working but not because of a lack of oil. It has just stopped. Some speculate a karmic reason but no one has a solid explanation as to why it stopped working. At the same time, the fertility rates have dropped and babies are worth more than gold to parents. The wealthiest families hire gun toting nannies to protect their little bundles.
Bunny Modern is narrated by Dylan, a man who can "Sheldrake " or see into the minds of other people (but only women in his case). He spends most of his time sheldraking the mind of Clare, a nanny now in charge of Soda.
Soda ends up being the key to the entire plot. Dylan knows more than he lets on, making him an unreliable narrator but the way he shares things makes the discovery process about how the near future works more fun for the reader.
If anything, the ending of Bunny Modern is the novel's weakest part. The truth behind Soda and his relationship to the nanny agency that Clare works for is silly and not explained satisfactorily for my tastes. The last couple chapters had me thinking of Baby Herman Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary K. Wolf) and Mom of Mom's Robots Futurama).
Despite the disappointing ending, I enjoyed Bunny Modern .
One Crossed Out: 12/28/08
One Crossed Out by Fanny Howe is the best collection of poetry I've read this year. It tells the life story of a homeless woman named May.
The poems are emotionally charged, rising and falling with May's own emotional state. Some are happy and some are hopeful but most of them are angry and depressed.
From the collection my two favorite are "Plutocracy " and "[Sic] ". The are two of the longest poems in the collection. Their length gives them the time to develop themes and imagery that the shorter ones don't quite have.
"Plutocracy " recounts the affects of Hurricane Andrew where perhaps May lost everything. Or maybe the hurricane is a stand in for the destruction in May's own life. "[Sic] " looks at May's psychology from the inside and the outside. The juxtapositions are jarring but needed to truly understand May.
The Minutemen's Witch: 12/27/08
Charles Coleman Finlay is back with another story from the American revolution. This time it's a battle between the Redcoats and the minutemen in Boston. The story is told from the point of view of Proctor (of good Salem stock, think The Crucible).
He and his mother scry for signs of the battle's outcome. She sees one thing and he another. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth. Throughout the battle his talent asserts itself, sometimes to his benefit and other times, not.
Most of the story was rather ho-hum. It wasn't as interesting as his the alternate history of "We Come Not to Praise Washington " but it had its moments. The final confrontation between Proctor and the Redcoat with the coin hanging at his neck was a nice twist to an otherwise dry story but it came too late.
Lorna Doone: 12/27/08
Back in March I tried to read Lorna Doone but realized too late that my copy was a horribly abridged edition. The book was barely recognizable as the original R. D. Blackmore romance. By July I had found a second, older and complete version and added it to my list for the Classics Challenge. In the meantime, other obligations got in the way and I was forced to leave Lorna Doone to the wire.
Lorna Doone is framed around the Monmouth rebellion but the book isn't a historical fiction. The Doone clan's ties to Monmouth serves as a way to explain their antagonism to John Ridd and his family. It's also a narrative excuse to throw in adventure, danger and derring-do.
In all of this political unrest, Lorna escapes the Doone clan and seeks refuge with Ridd's kith and kin. They had been friends (on and off and in secret) since they were children after a chance meeting at a waterfall. Though no one is pleased with John's plan to help Lorna for fear of retaliation from the Doones, he is supported and Lorna is welcomed into their household.
As so many romances do, Lorna Doone has a nail biting climax. If Blackmore had been writing a tragedy, the ending would have been very different. To the observant reader, the outcome won't be to much of a surprise (but still a relief) for the opening chapters where John, now an old man, is looking back on his life as his grandchildren tease him for his sentimentality.
Had I more time, I would have preferred to go through Lorna Doone in greater detail as I am doing with Don Quixote (next post coming in two weeks). Maybe sometime I will go back and reread Blackmore's novel a third time. Right now, though, I'm planning to walk through Ulysses after I finish with Don Quixote.
The Trumpet of the Swan: 12/26/08
is best known for Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte's Web (1952) but my favorite of his novels is The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). Like the other two, it stars an extraordinary animal, in this case, a mute trumpeter swan, Louis. To survive in the world and to communicate with other swans, Louis learns to play the trumpet.
Louis befriends a number of humans but his first and best friend is Sam, a boy whom he first meets as a cygnet up in Canada. Sam serves as Louis's connection to the human world teaching him basic skills and getting him the things he needs to survive.
The book in its own oddball way teaches about the life of the trumpeter swan while at the same time being a classic fantasy quest except that the hero is a swan. He's not enchanted but he is marked by his lack of a voice. His quest is two fold: earn enough money to pay for the stolen trumpet and to earn the love of the beautiful Serena.
The Trumpet of the Swan is my favorite of the three because it's heartwarming without the goofiness of Stuart Little or the melodrama of Charlotte's Web.
What Makes a Rainbow? 12/25/08
What Makes a Rainbow by Betty Ann Schwartz teaches children about colors and about the basic science of what causes a rainbow to appear and it does it in an engaging way.
A young bunny and his mother are caught in a summer rainstorm. The mother comments that soon there will be a rainbow and her child wants to know why she knows this. She tells him to ask all the other animals "what makes a rainbow? "
Each animal (appropriately colored) answers with a color starting from red and going through to purple. For each color, the page is illustrated in shades of that color so that the robin's page is mostly red: a red bird, a red flower and so forth. Besides seeing the different animals and colors, the child gets to help build a rainbow. At the top of the page there is a ribbon and with each new color comes a new ribbon so by purple, the entire rainbow is stretching across the top of the book.
Both my children love the book though it's more Harriet's favorite than Sean's. She likes naming the colors and the animals and of course the "magic ribbon " at the top.
Divine Freefall: 12/24/08
Divine Freefall (2000) was one of the first books I got through Bookcrossing. It sounded good to me (still does) but the execution of it just doesn't work for me. Maybe if I'd made the time to read it back in 2003 when I first had gotten it, I would have enjoyed it.
Melanie Dow is back at the family farm to settle her mother's estate. She comes across a young man performing a strange nightly ritual in the family barn and leaving daisies in a coffee can for her in the morning. A night of passion with the stranger forever changes Melanie's life.
My first problem I had was Melanie's motivation. She would act and think one way for a bunch of pages and then do an about face for the next couple for no apparent reason. Her friendship with Becka was too strongly based on whatever the ideal female friendship is supposed to be. In other words, Becka is introduced as Melanie's friend for talking about men and sex (or the lack of having any) and painting the nails and all that fluff. That's not real friendship. It's not believable and a terrible introduction for a character who ends up playing such an important role.
My last quibble with the book is purely cosmetic. The book uses some odd spellings and other odd grammatical things. It reads like it was written by someone who had heard the words and phrases but had never seen them written down. The most annoying of these in the novel is "Mam" for "Ma'am. " It's a colloquial version of madam and should be written as "Ma'am."
Smash Trash: 12/24/08
Months before we saw Wall-E (2008) Sean got himself a copy of Smash Trash! by Laura Driscoll. It's a level one readers' retelling of the first twenty minutes or so of the film.
As it's a Level One book, there's not much in the way of text but that's in keeping with the film which has no dialog at first beyond the song from B00005JL1P?p_isbn">Hello Dolly! (1969) that Wall-E is listening to. With creative and repetitive use of "smash " and "trash " Driscoll does a great job of capturing the bleak opening moments of the film.
Typically children's books from films just use screenshots as their illustrations. They are often blurry or pixelated. Smash Trash! has its own illustrations, drawn in a simplistic and bold style reminiscent of the 1950s educational films. The drawings work. They are faithful to the film but carry their own weight. The book doesn't feel slapped together as so many of these sorts of books do.
If you have a child who is learning to read and is a fan of the film, pick up a copy the next time the Scholastic book fair comes to school. That's where we got the book.
Uh-oh, Calico!: 12/23/08
Harriet adores cats and since we have a calico she is especially fond of calicos. Most of her favorite bedtime stories are ones featuring cats. Among those is Uh-oh, Calico! by Karma Wilson.
Calico is a kitten, a calico daughter of a calico mother. She's trying to be a big girl and trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately she's young and clumsy. Her mother, though, is infinitely patient.
The illustrations for Uh-oh, Calico! are bright and cheery. Sometimes Harriet and I just look at the pictures and make up our own story about Calico's adventures. Harriet's stories go like this: "Oh, she's doing.... Uh-oh! What happened? Now she's.... " and so forth.
If your little one is as crazy about cats as mine is, Uh-oh, Calico! would be a good addition to your library.
Dirt: An American Campaign: 12/22/08
In the middle his bid for the presidency, the governor of Maine might have his campaign undone when his son digs robs the grave of his recently departed wife. 1601455720?p_isbn">Dirt: An American Campaign by Mark LaFlamme tries to track all fallout from Calvin Cotton's desperate act.
So far the reviews for Dirt have been positive but I'm going to have to be the dissenting voice. The first six pages, where Calvin enters the tomb and grabs his wife's corpse are riveting. The next fifty or so pages where word leaks out and the experts try to sort out what happened and what will happen is pretty good. The discussion of what will happen to the body is graphic, disgusting and interesting.
By the halfway point there are so many different parties all wanting a piece of the "dirt ", the men tracking Calvin, the reporters from NEWZ looking for a scoop, the governor and his campaign trying to hush everything up, that Calvin's story gets lost in the scrimmage. Calvin is the only character who interested me and I never really got a chance to get inside his head.
By the time the book wraps everything up the explanation for Calvin's actions are tied to a ridiculous and unbelievable cliche worthy of a soap opera. I'm not going to tell you what that twist is. You might actually be in the mood for a dumb twist. The book had far more potential and just failed to live up to it.
If You Give a Cat a Cupcake: 12/21/08
Sean and Harriet both enjoy If You Give a Pig a Pancake (1998) so when I saw If You Give a Cat a Cupcake coming out this year, I had to get a copy for Harriet. For a fan of the series and a lover of cats, the latest Numeroff and Bond collaboration is perfect.
Like the other books, a single act of kindness to an animal character leads to a series of requests and improbable but humorous situations. In this case, it's a cute tuxedo cat who gets a cupcake for a treat. All the best cupcakes come with sprinkles but sprinkles are messy. Clean up is hard work and leads to play time on the beach.
Since the book features a cat, the book is an instant hit with Harriet. Of the two books in the series I've read I have to agree with my daughter. The string of events is so wacky that it's silly and fun. Felicia Bond's illustrations are fresh, bright and colorful. The cat is more cat-like than her pig is pig-like.
For fans of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, the mouse makes guest appearances on a number of pages. Can you spot the mouse?
If You Give a... Series by Laura Numeroff:
How the Day Runs Down: 12/20/08
The last Fantasy & Science Fiction story for 2008 is "How the Day Runs Down " by John Langan. It was first published in The Living Dead earlier this year. The title of the anthology pretty much gives away the subject matter.
Zombies, take them or leave them. They're not an instant win for me. My enjoyment of Langan's story was tainted by a very funny Zero Punctuation! review of Left 4 Dead. Had I not just watched and giggled along to his take on Zombies, I might have enjoyed the story more.
There are two things that save the "How the Day Runs Down " from a negative review: its format and its ending. Langan's choice to write the story as a play with included stage directions. I think this is my first zombie (or eater as the Stage Manager calls them) play. It reminded me a bit of the F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned. If Fitzgerald were to have written a zombie story, it might have been something like "How the Day Runs Down. "
The ending, while not a complete surprise (there are very rarely surprises in zombie stories) is an interesting twist. The ending reveals the truth behind the zombie play and the Stage Manager's role in the play and beyond. Like a good Twilight Zone episode, the ending leaves more questions asked than answered.
"How the Day Runs Down " is one of the best zombie stories I've read but it's sill a zombie story. If I were a fan of zombies, I would have loved the story. As I'm not, it liked the story for Langan's skill in telling it.
Don Quixote: Book 4: End of Part 1: 12/19/08
For most of Part One, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are holed up at the inn (or castle as seen through Quixote-vision). To kill time and pad the book Quixote and Panza listen to the woeful tales of their fellow travelers.
In the hundred pages I read this week, fifty of them are taken up with the "Captive's Tale " about a man who has affected his own escape and the rescue of a man and his daughter from a slave trader. His adventures take him from various points in Italy to captivity by a Turk and by a Moor and time on a slave ship as an oarsman and imprisoning on an island.
The Captive's Tale is the most entertaining of all these overheard tales. It has the most derring-do and reminds me happily of the Dirk Pitt series of books by Clive Cussler. On page 262 the Captive describes: "'One Spanish soldier only, whose name was something de Saavedra happened to be in his good graces....' " Saavedra is of course, the author much in the same way that Dirk Pitt is constantly running into Cussler.
Don Quixote can't stay in the inn forever and he quickly outlives his welcome and is put under arrest for an altercation with the local barber. When it becomes painfully clear that Sr. Quixada is out of his mind, his head still full of the delusions brought forth by years of reading nothing but fantasy they decide to cart him home to recover. Of course to Quixote, he isn't taken home in a cage on the back of an oxcart; he is enchanted and captured by ogres and other demonic creatures.
Part One ends at the physical halfway point of the novel by declaring the death of Don Quixote, his beloved servant Sancho Panza and his noble Dulcinea! What does the dramatic cliffhanger mean? Just the return of sanity for Sr. Quixada. It can't last for long as we still have a big chunk of novel to finish.
I will be taking the next two weeks off for the holidays from my Don Quixote posts. I expect to be finished with the novel by the end of January. In the meantime, You can see the Tony Johannot illustrations that I've scanned on a special page I'm building. A big part of the fun of reading Don Quixote are the illustrations. I update the list of images each time I read the next section.
Sunsets and Shooting Stars: 12/19/08
Since the 1970s, the Seidel family has been spending its summer vacation on Cape Cod. What started as a small annual family vacation to a cabin or two has become a huge but beloved undertaking, bringing together family spread out throughout the United States. Sunsets and Shooting Stars by Rick Seidel is the memoir of those summer trips.
Each chapter is themed around a different memory. It could be place, a person or a tradition. The first chapter starts off logically with "Getting There. " Rick Seidel describes the middle of the night car trip with Dad driving and Mom trying to be the co-pilot (but always falling asleep) and the four Seidel children crammed in the back of the camper shell. He compares that trip to present day journeys where different family members fly in and those that do drive, do so after a leisurely breakfast.
There are chapters on fish, the sport of fishing, the local people, other tourists and finally the building of family memories and traditions. The memoir is almost like a scrap book with each new chapter beautifully introduced with an illustration by Lonna Emerson. The book closes with a lengthy photograph album from the summer trips over the last thirty-five years.
The book is quick and enjoyable. It can either be read all at once or savored, one chapter at a time. I would like to visit some day myself. In the meantime it was nice to travel along with the Seidel family.
Ripley Under Water: 12/18/08
Two and a half years ago I read The Mysterious Mr. Ripley, an omnibus containing the first three Tom Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith. Ripley Under Water is the fifth and final book in the series coming just four years before Highsmith's death in 1995.
When Tom Ripley was first introduced in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he was young, unbalanced and quick to anger. He also had a big ego and no scruples when it came to getting ahead in life.
By Ripley Under Water, he's older and happy with the life he has stolen, killed and lied for. He had a nice wife, a housekeeper and a home in France. He's basically retired. All of that is interrupted by a pair of annoying Americans who begin poking into his life and worse his past! Young Ripley wouldn't have bothered with trying to figure out what the Americans wanted; he would have offed them as a matter of course and then gone about convincing their relatives that he was a long time friend and recently written into their will.
Old Ripley, though, doesn't want to risk things. He doesn't get angry. Instead he travels all over Europe and down to Northern Africa, more scared than anything. I appreciate that people might change or fall into new routines but Ripley's temper and amoral take on life is the main appeal of the series.
Had it just been Ripley's swan-song, I would have enjoyed the book just for closure on a series I have enjoyed (I still need to read book 4: The Boy Who Followed Ripley). Unfortunately, the poor editing got in the way. As the book progresses, Tom's name gets used more and more. I counted one sentence that used his name five times and he was the only person in the scene. "He ", "him " and "himself " would have worked so much better. I don't remember the earlier books having this problem.
Game Widow: 12/17/08
A game widow (or widower) is someone who isn't a gamer but has a significant other who is. Game Widow by Wendy Kays is a handbook to help loved ones understand the lure of gaming.
I am not a game widow. I'm more of a lapsed gamer. I have found other hobbies to fill my time but I still enjoy watching my husband and children play. I'm more of a gaming mentor to my son than an active participant. Since I'm straddling the line between gamer and widow, I was curious about the book.
Kays starts of by describing the appeal of video games. She then looks at video games as an addiction and questions the danger of video game addiction. Her discussion of video games and addiction isn't scare mongering. While her research does point towards some extreme cases of addiction it also shows that the problem correlates with other forms of addiction. Video games by themselves aren't addicting but can be an addiction to someone prone to addiction. Kays also examines the video game industry inside and out. Her conclusion is that the industry is in need of restructuring due to it's own "still in the garage " mentality.
For the game widows and widowers out there, the two most important chapters are the last two. Chapter five, "What can I do? " lays out a strategy for discerning the degree of the problem (if there is one) and ways of coping. She also gives advice for times when it may be time to leave a relationship if the gaming addiction is accompanied by abuse. Of course not all gamers are spouses or lovers; they are also our children. Chapter five also includes parental advice. Chapter six has ways of learning about video game content and ratings without having to play them. While these sites are a starting point, I'd like to see more active participation from parents.
Game Widow is 118 pages long, with a few extra pages of end notes and bibliography. It's a quick, interesting and informative book. It was refreshing to read a recently published non-fiction book with properly documented citations. If you are a gamer or know a gamer, get yourself a copy of Game Widow.
Green is the current buzzword. It is the tent that covers everything from organic, saving the environment, renewable energy, alternate fuel sources and so forth. The eco-thriller Zodiac by Neal Stephenson by predates the current fad by twenty years.
Sangaman Taylor works for GEE (Group of Environmental Extremists) (p.7). His goal is to force the big polluters to clean up no matter how unethical the methods. Taylor spends most of his time describing the poisons in the day to day life. They're in the water, in the air, in the soil, in the furniture, the clothing, the food, the computers, and so on and so forth.
The first couple chapters with all the tangents on the inter-play between chemistry, the environment, technology, politics and business were interesting. After a while though all those details get in the way of the actual plot. Take away the techno-babble and there is maybe a hundred pages of plot (out of 308 pages). I wanted more adventure and less lecture.
We Come Not to Praise Washington: 12/15/08
The facts are these: George Washington was the first president of the United States for two terms from 1789 to 1797. In 1793, President Washington was forced to flee Philadelphia due to a yellow fever epidemic which killed around ten thousand people. On July 11, 1804 Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, thus destroying Washington's Federalist Party.
"We Come Not to Praise Washington " by Charles Coleman Finlay asks the question: what would happen if Washington had died in the 1793 epidemic. Of course, like all good alternate histories, the central thesis isn't presented in a nice, neat package. The characters involved don't know that they are in a history that should not have happened, they are just living it and trying to make the best of a bad situation.
The hero of the story, really more of an anti-hero, is Colonel Aaron Burr. He and his compatriots, Nathaniel and Gabriel, are trying to sneak into Philadelphia to meet not with the first Washington, but the second one. To keep the momentum of the new nation alive despite the death of the new president, his replacement has taken his name and in the process set the nation on a very different path.
Yet history has a way of forcing events even in alternate histories. The duel still happens but for different reasons and under different circumstances. The result of the duel may very well propel the nation into Civil War decades early.
"We Come Not to Praise Washington " is well written but to truly appreciate it, one needs a basic understanding of American history. I read it once, going on my memory of dates and then a second time after having checked my dates. As the story is densely packed with details, I probably would pick up more on a third or forth time through the story.
A Day With My Dad: 12/14/08
Author Lance Waite wanted a way to express the special bond he has as a father to his two daughters. A Day With My Dad follows a father and daughter as they spend a day in hiking in the foothills near their town.
The hardcover is twenty-four pages long and told in rhyme. The text doesn't always break where the rhymes fall so it takes a little while to fall into the correct rhythm. That's a small quibble with an otherwise delightful book.
Since the book is about a little girl going on an adventure, I read the book out loud to my daughter. She enjoyed the story and was completely taken in by the illustrations (done by Manuela Pentangelo) She quickly fell into a game of pointing out the little girl and the daddy. She also liked the picnic, the deer, the hiding in the leaves and seeing the stars come out near the end of the book.
The book is just the right length to keep young children interested but easy enough for slightly older children to read themselves. For a parent reading the book out loud, the book is visually interesting. Be prepared to pause for the kids to talk about all the details in the pictures.
An added bonus to the book for me as an ex-San Diegan, Lance Waite is a San Diegan and the book is published locally in Encinitas. The book itself isn't especially San Diego, going in stead for a midwest feel. I suspect that the sequel A Day With My Dad at the Beach will feel more like San Diego.
Bubbles Betrothed: 12/14/08
Bubbles Betrothed is the fifth of six books in the Bubbles Yablonsky series of books by Sarah Strohmeyer. The book gives the impression of starting right where the last one must have ended. I haven't actually read any of the other books in the series and having wasted my time on this one I have no desire to try any of the others.
The heroine of the book is Bubbles Yablonsky, a former hair dresser turned reporter. She is trying to get the scoop on the murder trial of Jill "Crazy Popeye " Simon. There's just one problem: Popeye is dead after swearing she was innocent. That could have been the start of a decent mystery except for a completely unlikable main character and an incomprehensible plot that illogically jumps from scene to scene.
Bubbles fails as a main character for me for a number of reasons but the main one is her disrespectful attitude. She acts rude and is constantly introducing characters by her own nit-picky critiques of them. Of course a rude or crude character can make an entertaining lead for the right kind of book (Tommy's Tale comes to mind).
The second mark against Bubbles is the constant reminder of just how stupid she is. Characters will say things to her, simple things, and she'll have an aside about not "getting it. " She'll do this two or three times a page. Each time she stops to admit her lack of basic knowledge the plot comes to a screeching halt.
A Skeptical Spirit: 12/13/08
Albert Cowdrey's "A Skeptical Spirit " takes the typical haunted house horror story and turns it on its head. Usually an old home, especially one on a bayou is full of a ghosts or demons needing exorcism. Not this time, though. Albion Merkel's "new-old " home is too quiet and he wants to find out why.
The what (or who) behind the lack of hauntings is very funny. It's of course, a ghost. I don't want to spoil the fun of who the ghost is (or was) or why he's keeping the other spirits out. It's worth reading to find out for yourself.
"A Skeptical Spirit " is the seventh short story by Cowdrey I've read and reviewed. He writes stories I either love or hate. I don't seem to have a middle ground with them. His most recent story goes into the "loved " column. It was short and silly and to the point.
Don Quixote: Book 4: Chapters 28-37: 12/13/08
Here I am in final book of Don Quixote. It takes up the remaining two thirds of the novel's length. As it's so long, I'm reading only ten chapters at a time until I reach the end.
Book One is Sr. Quixada's transformation into Don Quixote. Book Two is funeral of a man who like Quixada had decided to live the fantasy of his books. Book Three finds Quixote face to face with a real knight. Book Four will hopefully bring the themes of the first three books together.
The first ten chapters though are mostly filler. In the previous books the adventure novels Quixada is so much a fan of have only been alluded to. Now nearly fifty of the eighty pages is devoted to excerpts from a romance similar to Romeo and Juliet (1597) but with more couples and more derring-do. Given that the play and the novel are almost contemporaries, it's no surprise to me to see the similarity between the fictional novel and the bard's play.
In the "real world ", news of Quixote's exploits have begun to spread well beyond La Mancha. Along with the news comes unfulfilled promises of fame and fortune. Sancho Panza gets taken in by his own greedy thoughts and Don Quixote has to put him in his place.
That pretty much sums up the first ten chapters of the last book. There's not as much tightly packed substance as the first couple books.
You can see the Tony Johannot illustrations that I've scanned on a special page I'm building. A big part of the fun of reading Don Quixote are the illustrations. I'm only processing images for the section I'm currently reading.
Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille: 12/12/08
Yesterday in my review of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, I mentioned "The Off Season " as a potential starting point for Steven Brust's Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille (1990). Feng's bar and grille is no mere hot dog stand. It's a restaurant that serves the best matzo ball soup anywhere. It also offers traditional Irish folk songs and a haven against nuclear war. It's also a time machine. What's not to love?
My husband and I are at odds over the plot of Cowboy Feng's... We both love the atmosphere of the book and the time travel aspect. That though is where he and I part ways. He says the time travel needs no explanation. The journey to these different future cultures. To him the mystery behind these wars and the reason for the time travel is forced upon an otherwise perfect mood piece.
I on the other hand don't like reading long mood pieces. My patience for mood pieces cuts out at about twenty pages. Fortunately for Cowboy Feng's... the plot kicks in with the first Intermezzo between chapters one and two on page 13. The intermezzos track the building of the restaurant and the reason behind the restaurant and the wars while in the chapters the characters in the present try to figure out the same thing. The book meets in the middle and depending on your tastes will either delight or annoy you.
The Martian Chronicles: 12/11/08
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is "half-cousin to a novel " and "a book of stories pretending to be a novel " Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction by Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce, 2004, p. 111). Those description fit most of Bradbury's books, the one major exception being Farenheit 451 (1953).
The Martian Chronicles has the distinction of being Bradbury's first published book. It is comprised of some previously short stories strong together with other stories to form a coherent future history of the colonization of Mars (or Tyrr as the natives call it).
The timeline goes from January 1999 through October 2026. Along with the rockets to Mars from Earth, there is also the fall of the Tyrrian people to earth borne diseases much as the European small pox was so devistating to the native American groups.
Most of the stories take place on Mars but there are a few glimpses of life (and death) on Earth interspersed with the events on Mars. "The Off Season " (originally published in 1948) reads like the starting point for Steven Brust's Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille (1990) except here it's a hot dog stand and an atomic war. Later on, "There Will Come Soft Rains " (another of the previously published short stories) made me think immediately of Wall-E (Pixar, 2008) except that the robots are all built into a house that has somehow survived the atomic blast in Los Angeles.
Ray Bradbury stories and novels are part of the American psyche. They are taught in schools and have been or referenced so many times it's no wonder that one can see Bradbury's influences in any number of other works.
The New Writer's Handbook 2008: 12/10/08
I'm an aspiring writer. I've been writing fiction for my own entertainment for most of my life. I would like to some day see my work published. Every so often I read through the current advice books to would-be writers. So when I was offered a chance to review The New Writer's Handbook I jumped at it.
According to the back of the book: "This essential collection of readings, the second in a new series, refreshes and upgrades any writer's skills with hands-on advice on literary craft and career development. It features over 60 useful articles ... ideal for fiction and nonfiction writers of all levels seeking professional advancement. " Sounds good, doesn't it? The "advice " is actually sixty or so two or three page thoughts on writing from various people in the industry (authors, editors, and so forth). The essays focus more on pep talks than on practical advice or "hands-on " exercises.
I realize that the publishing industry is in flux. I wasn't expecting a step by step recipe but I was hoping for something more concrete. There are a few useful tips near the end of the book about building a blog with a personal brand, how to create a good business card and other marketing things. This advice comes too late.
Probably the best sources of advice come in the profiles at the end of each essay. These profiles contain the links to blogs. The piece, "Starting " by Lois Lowry (p 218-21) is cobbled together from three blog posts. I am a subscriber to her blog and what is presented here in the book is almost unrecognizable. She tends to write long posts full of advice, enthusiasm and heart. The heart is there in "Starting " but it's presented incoherently.
If you need a pep talk to get your writing started, see if your local library has a copy. If you want a book to add to your personal library, get a copy of On Writing by Stephen King instead.
"The name Margaret derives from the Greek word margaron, which means pearl. ... Margaret has more nicknames than any other female name in the English language. " (p. 60). Margarettown by Garbrielle Zevin takes this fact literarily, in the form of Maggie and her many selves.
Narrated mostly by N. to his daughter Jane, Margarettown is the story of his romance and marriage to a remarkable woman named Margaret Towne. He knew her as Maggie but if her story is to be believed, she is also Old Margaret, Marge, Mia, May and the unfortunate Greta.
Maggie is either from Albany or Margarettown, depending on who you ask. Margarettown is one of those forgotten towns that exists on the periphery of human geography. Like so many places on the back roads, it can only be found by getting lost. In that regard it is on the same map as the Bone Man's town and Spectre (from Big Fish).
Margarettown had my attention from the first paragraph. At first I liked it for Zevin's attention to detail: the stolen university furniture, the two pushed together mattresses and the old pen. Then as Maggie's curse comes into play, I was drawn completely into Margarettown. Somewhere in all the different versions of events presented is the truth. It is a novel to be enjoyed and pondered over and discussed.
Jim the Boy: 12/08/08
Jim the Boy by Tony Earley opens on Jim's tenth birthday. He's at a crossroads in his life, feeling the urge to take on greater responsibilities and the uncertainty that comes with growing up.
Jim is growing up during the Great Depression in Aliceville, North Carolina. Aliceville and he have odd histories. Aliceville is named for a little girl who died and Jim is named for a father who died before he was born.
Like my own family during the Depression, Jim and his mother live with her brothers. The three uncles take the role of his missing father. Though unconventional, they are a tightly knit family.
As Jim grows he begins to question his roots and wants to know more about his father's family, the one thing his mother and uncles seem determined to protect him from. So much of the novel focuses on Jim's internal tug of war between his current life on a small farm with a mother and three bachelor uncles and the life that might have been if his father had lived.
Jim the Boy is a novel that can be savored. It can be read slowly. The chapters work as vignettes. Everything that happens to Jim could just as easily be set against a modern setting.
This year Earley has a sequel to the novel that follows Jim as a seventeen year old. It's called The Blue Star and I'd like to read it sometime.
Memphis: Objects, Furniture & Patterns: 12/07/08
Memphis was a collective of young furniture and product designers based in Milan. Lead by Ettore Sottsass these designers created expensive oddball items that were more for art than utility. The Memphis collective produced from 1981 to 1985.
Memphis: Objects, Furniture & Patterns by Richard Horn was published the year after Memphis disbanded but it's written with an optimism of someone hoping they will come back together. Flipping through the book's colorful photography one can see the excesses of the 1980s.
Horn divides the book up by the different types of objects Memphis designed: lamps, chairs, sofas, tables, storage, and so forth. All of the pieces are gaudy and oddly shaped with clashing choices of pastels and other ugly color combinations. Geometric shapes abound and the whole thing just screams 1980s. The Memphis style does not have the lasting post-modern appeal that Bauhaus does.
Not all the items included in Memphis were actually designed by the Memphis collective. Horn includes examples from competitors who began producing Memphis inspired knock-offs for the general public. They are just as gaudy but they are also functional. Anyone who has lived through the late 1980s and early 1990s will recognize the Memphis influence. My local video store's carpeting is vintage Memphis knock-off.
Despite all this, my children are fascinated with the book. They will fight each other for a chance to lie down on the floor flipping through the book as if it's the latest comic book. They compare favorites and argue the finer points of different things in the book. Among their favorites are the "Casablanca " sideboard (p. 70), the "Ginza " robot dresser/shelving unit (p. 72), and the "Ashoka " lamp (p. 32).
The Alarming Letters from Scottsdale: 12/06/08
To celebrate sixty years in print, Fantasy & Science Fiction is reprinting stories in its new issues. This month's reprint is "The Alarming Letters from Scottsdale " by Warner Law, originally published in the April 1973 issue.
"The Alarming Letters from Scottsdale " is the grand-daddy of "Dazzle Joins the Screenwriter's Guild " by Scott Bradfield except that it has a twist at the end (and it's funnier).
The letters in question are between an author and his publisher and the author's dog, Dash. The author, tired of his long career of writing Home McGrew mysteries has taken in a stray dog and has decided to use the dog as the first person (first canine?) protagonist of a new mystery novel. To prove his point, the author includes snippets typed by Dash.
What really makes this story click are the included bits typed by Dash the dog. They are always in uppercase and full of errors. It's a bit like the now defunct Monkey Shakespeare Simulator. Yet, if you like to puzzle things out, you can actually read the dog's message.
Don Quixote: Book 3: 12/06/08
I took the week of for Thanksgiving. I didn't want to take a two hundred year old book on a five hundred mile car trip just to make a blog post! I'm finding coming back to Don Quixote de la Mancha after the break difficult. I feel like I've lost my momentum.
Book Three is the last of the short books and the longest of them before the massive book four finishes the book. Book four which I will begin to tackle next week is twice as long as the first three books combined.
Book One, as we discussed on November 15, is the part of the story that everyone who has heard of Don Quixote know. Book Two then is the potential tragedy of Quixote's life played out with the funeral of another lover of books, Chrysostom. Book Three then struggles to find its voice being not the clearly parallel story that Book Two is to Book One.
Book Three flounders around at first with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza falling into hard times with their adventuring. Quixote is injured twice, one to the point that he can't walk for the first few chapters and later losing most of his teeth. Sancho Panza then loses his ass and has to ride Rocinante back to Sr. Quixada's estate to seek a new mount.
Near the end of Book Three, Cervantes introduces the tragic story of a knight who failed in battle while trying to defend his lady's honor. Quixote's reaction to the knight's story and the lady's fate will probably play out in Book Four.
Book Three is the lull before the final push to the end. It lacks the humor of the first book and the darkness of the second. It feels rushed with its strung together adventures and disjointed flashbacks.
The Once and Future Celt: 12/05/08
In April of 1971, Bill Watkins set off for England from Scotland on foot. He missed his train and after a run in with a dog ended up with an injured foot in the middle of nowhere. He ended up in the care of a group of Romany (Gypsies). The Once and Future Celt by Bill Watkins covers his time in the Romany camp and his return home as a man changed by his experience.
The Once and Future Celt happens to cover many of the same locations, cultural practices and legends that Molly Dwyer focuses on in Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein. Watkins as a native Briton (of Irish / Welsh ancestry) is able to capture the regional differences with realism, heart and humor. He doesn't feel the need to go into lengthy explanations, relying instead on context and a brief glossary at the start of the memoir. I loved reading his dialogue because I could hear the different personalities and I ended up learning a whole bunch in the process (even though I had to stop every now and then to giggle).
Wakins's most recent memoir is the conclusion of a trilogy of memoirs. The previous two are A Celtic CHildhood and Scotland Is Not for the Squeamish. Having so enjoyed his latest one, I would love to go back and read them.
Welcome to the Monkey House: 12/04/08
Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of short stories written by Kurt Vonnegut in the 1950s and 1960s. The collection was first printed in 1970.
Despite the age of the stories, they hold up remarkably well. Vonnegut's tales are character driven explorations of basic human emotions and needs. Although the collection can be classified as science fiction, not all of the stories have science fiction elements. The science fiction is a means to an end, not a gimmick.
The book's title comes from the fourth story. It is a look at the world in the future, over populated with mostly with people who look forever stuck in their twenties thanks to advances in medicine. To keep the population down, people are forced to take "ethical birth control " and everyone is encouraged to do their part by offing themselves at the local suicide parlor (conveniently located next door to the government run Howard Johnson's). There is something deliciously Futurama about "Welcome to the Monkey House " (1968).
My over all experience with Welcome to the Monkey House was enjoyable but there were some stories that fell short. Among those is "All the Kings Horses " (1953), a chess game played with prisoners of war. It feels out of place with the sillier stories in the collection, "Tom Edison's Shaggy Dog " (1953) for example. The other hit against it, is that I had just finished re-reading Waiting for the Barbarians which has many of the same themes but presented better.
At a time of food shortages, a crashing world economy and recently expensive fuel, Gateway by Frederik Pohl is relevant and contemporary. Told in flashback through a series of conversations between a patient and his psychiatrist, Gateway, is an account of Robinette Broadhead's time on Gateway, an alien outpost.
Gateway captures the feeling of adventure of the classic frontier stories bringing to mind the works of Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Jules Verne. Gateway is both an island of untold mysteries and treasure and port of call for potentially dangerous trips into uncharted space.
The old days of exploration to the "new world " were controlled by governments. Gateway, the profits go to the "Corporation ". Anything that can be charged or taxed is and failure to pay will result in being kicked off Gateway (whether or not a seat on a ship is available). Having worked for a number of venture capital funded, cash-strapped corporations, I found the seedy business side of Gateway very amusing.
Gateway by itself is solid, well told science fiction. Pohl adds more realism to it by including tidbits of fictional ephemera like lines of code from the computerized psychiatrist, rules and regulations posted by the corporation and a large number of classified ads. The classifies were my favorite addition to the novel.
The book is the first novel length story set in the Heechee universe. They were first mentioned in Merchant of Venus. The remaining books in the Heechee book are Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), Annals of the Heechee (1987) and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004). I have the remaining two books of the original trilogy and will be reviewing them early in 2009. If I didn't have other reading commitments, I would be reading and reviewing them now.
A thought for you as I close this review. Don't the ships on 1977 cover look like the Axiom from Wall-E?
At the time that Dean Karnazes was running his fifty marathons in fifty days, Ian and I were preoccupied with new born Harriet. Although he is a local sports celebrity, I have only just heard of him this year promoting his account of those fifty marathons: 50/50.
For the 50/50 challenge, Dean Karnazes ran fifty consecutive marathons, each in a different state. All of the marathons were on official marathon routes, but not all of them were run during the normally scheduled marathons. Those that couldn't be run during the usual marathon were recreated. The recreated runs had different permitting issues and could sometimes only have a dozen or so participants running along with Karnazes.
Karnazes had a team of handlers to take care of the organizational issues of such an undertaking and he had a bus to ride on between the races. It sounds like it was a nightmare to carry off but they did it.
As you can imagine, most of 50/50 is dedicated to the 50 marathons and the 50 different cities visited. Peppered into this runner's geography of the United States are running hints. The hints include training schedules, diet tips and product recommendations.
If you are a runner or know a runner, you will probably enjoy this book. If you're not a runner, you can still enjoy reading about Karnazes's adventure. For the non runners, the book is fairly quick and can be skimmed. There's a lot of repetition as to be expected in a book about fifty marathons.
Peter Hatches an Egg: 12/01/08
Sometimes I think the hardest books to review are the ones I've read multiple times. Peter Hatches an Egg by Louise Bienvenu-Brialmont is one of those book. I was a childhood favorite, one I've had since I was Harriet's age and now I'm reading it to her.
Peter, a bunny, ends up hatching a chicken egg. He is brought to the family farm by a girl named Vivian. As he is so young he's put in the hen house to stay warm. Of course rabbits grow up quickly and he soon wants a place of his own. He digs a warren outside of the coop and that's where the egg hatching happens.
Peter Hatches an Egg was translated by George Smith. I'm guessing it was originally written in French but I can't find much on the author. As a child Peter Hatches an Egg was just one of those magical books. It was on my short list of books I was constantly asking my family to read to me. Others on the list included the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and The Friendly Book. Harriet thinks the book is cute but it's not on her short list.