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Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8




 

 

January in Review: 01/31/09

I went over my quota by four reviews this month. My reading this month was well balanced between science fiction, poetry, nonfiction and children's books. There were a few stinkers but mostly the books were enjoyable.

  1. Acting Class: Take a Seat by Milton Katselas (January 14)
  2. All in Fun by Jerry Oltion (January 17)
  3. The Cat Who Went Up the Creek by Lilian Jackson Braun (January 27)
  4. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans (January 15)
  5. Dance of Shadows by Fred Chappell (January 11)
  6. Diary of a Dead Man by Walter Krumm (January 20)
  7. Earth Odyssey by Mark Hertsgaard (January 4)
  8. eNursery Rhymes by Mother Mouse (January 29)
  9. Ella: A Baby Elephant's Story by Kathleen Duey (January 6)
  10. Emily Waits for Her Family by Carol Zelaya (January 18)
  11. The Exchange by Inga C. Ellzey (January 26)
  12. Festival of Deaths by Jane Haddam (January 3)
  13. For the Love of St. Nick by Garasamo Maccagnone (January 22)
  14. Forgive My Trespassing by Cynthia Blomquist Gustavson (January 8)
  15. A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed by James Fenton (January 9)
  16. The Illusion by Tony Kushner and Pierre Corneille (January 1)
  17. Jimmy Buffet: The Man from Margaritaville Revealed by Steve Eng (January 23)
  18. The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak by Dinah Muloc Craik (January 2)
  19. Mojo Hand by Greg Kihn (January 25)
  20. The Monopoly Man by Barry B. Longyear (January 31)
  21. Nana Volume 2 by Ai Yazawa (January 7)
  22. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss (January 11)
  23. The Perfect Infestation by Carol Emshwiller (January 3)
  24. Rising Waters by Patricia Ferrara (January 24)
  25. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (January 21)
  26. The Sea by John Banville (January 12)
  27. Seafarer's Blood by Albert E. Cowdrey (January 10)
  28. Shadow on the Stones by Moyra Caldecott (January 30)
  29. Signatures of Grace edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston (January 29)
  30. Silence is Golden by Penny Warner (January 13)
  31. "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly" Said the Sloth by Eric Carle (January 5)
  32. The Tall Stones by Moyra Caldecott (January 19)
  33. The Temple of the Sun by Moyra Caldecott (January 28)
  34. Tsunami by Gordon Gumpertz (January 8)
  35. Written on the Knee by Dr. Theodore Electris and Helen Electrie Lindsay (translator) (January 16)

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The Monopoly ManThe Monopoly Man: 01/31/09

I'm finishing up my January reviews with a ghost story by Barry B. Longyear. He's probably best known for the novella "Enemy Mine" which inspired the film of the same name. "The Monopoly Man" is the first story of his I've read, although I have seen the film Enemy Mine.

"The Monopoly Man" follows Cheri, a woman who is hard on her luck. She's just been mugged and expects to die of her injuries. Except, she doesn't. A well to do man, a man she dubs "the Monopoly Man" offers her his warm coat and lets her sleep in safety under his coat as they sit on a bench in Central Park.

When she wakes, she finds herself at a detox center. She is offered a chance to turn her life around but under certain expectations. Cheri turns her life around and as she does she learns more about the Monopoly Man.

Who he is and how he is tied to Cheri and the rehab center is the crux of the story. In tone it's the opposite of "Rising Waters" even though both deal with death. The story is full of love, warmth and hope. Despite it's up beat tone, it avoids being as schmaltzy as The Ghost Whisperer and for that I'm grateful.

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Don Quixote: Disarmed and Dangerous: 01/31/09

As I work my way through Don Quixote I have come to realize just how far reaching the novel's influence has been and continues to be. This week's post comes courtesy of Chicago where a 14 year old boy impersonated a cop for most of a day, and from CSI's most recent episode, "Disarmed and Dangerous."

For this week I read chapters 27 through 34, bringing me up to page 547. Having survived the antics of the wedding stunt and a trip into a cave, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are welcomed into a estate of a duchess and given the treatment as if they were a real knight and squire. Quixote, enjoying experience grows melancholy expecting to be found out at any moment.

And that brings us to "Disarmed and Dangerous" which begins with a 'roid-rage murder of an FBI agent. His surviving partners offer their help to the CSI team and to Las Vegas police. The evidence doesn't add up for the CSI folks.


The two agents meeting with CSI.

To any one who has read Don Quixote, especially an illustrated copy, the staging and facial expressions of Miles and Amanda will pop. They hold themselves tall and proud but their faces betray their fear of being found out.All through the episode, identity (or the lack of it) is a central motif. The dead agent doesn't have finger prints. The agents' guns lack serial numbers. They frequently "go under cover."


The agents and the new CSI agent reflected in the glass.

Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Agents Amanda and Miles spend most of their time watching the professionals do their jobs. They take part when corned into it, like when Jim Brass brings Miles in to threaten their one witness with time in a federal prison. Now although Miles is able to quote an obscure bit of law to prove his non existent credentials, I would argue that it's actually Amanda who is Don Quixote. She is the one who has two names (two identities) where as Miles is just Miles and Sancho Panza is just Sancho Panza. Sancho is at Quixote's side as he dies just as Miles is at the crime scene where Amanda's body is found.


Miles in his street garb, still standing loyal at Amanda / Emma's side even in death.

Watching "Disarmed and Dangerous" twice has made me realize that although the novel is called Don Quixote, the book is more about Sancho Panza the loyal friend and servant than it is about Sr. Quixada who lived out the last few months of his life as Don Quixote, brave knight of La Mancha.

The episode ends with a brief epilogue where Dr. Raymond Langston takes a copy of Don Quixote to Miles to read. I'm not sure this coda is necessary. It feels tacked on but it did make for an obvious post for this week's Don Quixote update for me. Interestingly, Miles speaks of the ending of the novel (and not the ending of part one). He has lived the adventure and survived it but at great personal cost just as Sancho Panza. Langston, though, speaks only of the tilting at windmills, the very first adventure Don Quixote has. The imaginary giants are long forgotten by the time the adventures are done and mortal coil is sprung.

Watch the entire episode online at IMDB.

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Shadow on the StonesShadow on the Stones: 01/30/09

The Guardians of the Stones trilogy by Moyra Caldecott ends with Shadow on the Stones. In it, Isar and Deva, the children of Karne and Fern and Kyra and Khu-ren, take opposing sides on the invasion the followers of Groth. The Temple of the Sun falls under attack. Can it be saved?

With Wardyke dead there's a need for a new antagonist. Rather than make it another stranger, an individual with unknown goals with sinister results, the Groths are presented as a horde of infidels worshiping an evil god.

Where The Temple of the Sun had too little action, Shadow on the Stones has too much. After nearly four hundred pages of meditation and the preaching of tolerance above all, this Lord of the Rings style battle comes out of nowhere.

Besides the battle of good versus evil, there's the prophesied romance between Isar and Deva. From The Temple of the Sun, it is presented as fate and a tragic one at that. The romance tries raise the tension in the narrative but it didn't work for me. It felt forced and ingenuous.

To the book's favor, it doesn't end as predictably as it could have. After a book and a half undoing the free will message of The Tall Stones, the final chapter does a complete U-turn on the predestination thesis of the second and third novels. What could have been a very tight trilogy ends up being a muddle of themes.

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eNursery RhymeseNursery Rhymes: 01/29/09

I can remember when the .com ending for URLs was created and opened up the internet to commercial sites. The internet, though not exactly new technology was new technology to the average person. In college we had access to the sort of connections we now have in our homes, work, hotels and coffee houses. Around the same time, the poems in eNursery Rhymes were first written.

The first computer I had and truly enjoyed using was a Mac Classic. It had a whopping 40 megabyte hard drive. I thought I would never have enough files to fill up that hard drive. The machines back then were clunky and somewhat mystifying.

Then by 1997 when I was trying my had at freelancing I can remember poems like the ones in eNursery Rhymes making the way into my email in box or showing up on the usenet groups I frequented.

The nursery rhymes in this book (and the accompanying illustrations of "Mother Mouse") are dated. They are products of the 1990s. They are a quaint look at the early days of a technology I think many of us now take for granted. Without any new poems involving cell phones, PDAs, L33T speak, blogs, twitter or similar, the poems are stale.

Sometimes in the book the "new" poem will be put side by side with the source poem. The versions picked for many of these source poems are very different form the ones I learned. The poems for the most part are pretty obvious to anyone who is familiar with nursery rhymes. Some are barely changed save for a technical buzz world.

Near the end of the book there's a glossary that would have been useful in the 1990s and might be useful in the future if technical terms fall completely out of use. Right now, though, the glossary is just another sign of how out of date the poetry is.

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Signatures of GraceSignatures of Grace: 01/29/09

Signatures of Grace is a series of essays on the sacraments by Catholic writers. It's outside my normal choice of book but it's a beautifully bound book and I was intrigued. The authors who participated are Murray Bodo, Andre Dubus, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen, Paul Mariani and Katherine Vaz.

My favorite essay is Katherine Vaz's. "Baptism" starts off the book. She speaks of her grandmother and her traditions and her mother who was often at odds with those traditions. Besides enjoying the sentimental autobiography, I felt a connection to her through where she grew up. She grew up in San Lorenzo and Castro Valley, neighborhoods we frequent.

The rest of the book is a blur for me. The remaining essays heavier on the theology than Vaz's essay is. The book ends with a section of short biographies of the contributing authors. Although I didn't especially enjoy Signatures of Grace the book is still finely crafted. It just wasn't for me. It was the wrong book for the wrong time.

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The Temple of the SunThe Temple of the Sun: 01/28/09

Inspiration comes in many forms. For Moyra Caldecott, a trip to Scotland in 1975 was the spark for her trilogy, The Guardians of the Stones. The Temple of the Sun continues the story of Kyra, Karne and Fern. Where The Tall Stones was a mystery/ thriller with elements of magic, this one is more introspective.

This novel suffers from two main problems: pacing and an abundance of flowery language. The first novel was quickly paced to keep the tension building. Here though, the plot comes to a grinding halt, constantly stopping for Kyra to meditate or to learn a new lesson at college. There are also long passages of her vision quests which quickly cease to shock or even interest.

Besides the slow pacing, The Temple of the Sun hits on one of my pet peeves when it comes to Celtic fantasy: the Arthurian legend. Although Arthur isn't mentioned by name, there are enough trappings of the legend to bring it mind. There's a lady of the lake, an king in an unhappy marriage to his queen and the land suffering from it.

The next problem and another of my pet peeve: the return of the defeated antagonist. Wardyke is back for a guest appearance in the last third of the book. He isn't needed and he's just a last minute attempt to get the plot back in line with the first book. There's no reason for him to follow Kyra, Karne and Fern on their journey to the college. He was completely defeated and humiliated by them at the end of the last book. His return cheapens the ending of the last book.

The final nail in the coffin for my enjoyment of the book: predestination. I enjoy books with prophecy especially when the prophecy is a starting point with wiggle room for interpretation. The Tall Stones have a strong free will grown on the foundations of traditions theme. The Temple of the Sun tosses aside this thesis for one of predestination. There is less wiggle room for Kyra and it's frustrating to see her give into those teachings even when they threaten her life and those of her loved ones.

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The Cat Who Went Up the CreekThe Cat Who Went Up the Creek: 01/27/09

The Cat Who Went Up the Creek is the twenty-fourth book in the Cat Who... series by Lilian Jackson Braun. The series started as a trio of books in the late 1960s and then reborn in the late 1980s has the time born inconsistencies that so many long-lived series. Even when just looking at The Cat Who Saw Red (1986) which restarted the series after an eighteen year hiatus, Koko and Yum Yum are still now ancient cats.. I can only assume that Qwilleran and his cats live in the same slow moving world as Kinsey Millhone who is still stuck in the 1980s despite being the lead character in a series that started in 1982.

I picked up the series with The Cat Who Saw Red and stayed loyal to the series until I went to college. The last one I read in order was The Cat Who Lived High (1990). As that was the eleventh in the series, a bucket load has happened since then.

Despite the big gap in the plot from my point of view, the book still follows the tried and true formula for this series. Qwill is still a writer. He still has two Siamese cats. He still lives "400 miles north of every where" in Moose County (state unnamed but possibly Michigan) and he still has a knack for finding himself in the middle of a mystery.

In The Cat Who Went Up the Creek, Qwill is called out to a bed and breakfast and rustic cabin resort that has "bad vibes." The manor house (now bed and breakfast) has a tower and Black Walnut staircase reminiscent of The Crying Child by Barbara Michaels (1973) The house and the bad vibes though are just the plot device to get Qwill and the cats to where they need to be. The remainder of the book is like a mash up of Silence is Golden by Penny Warner and Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn Crumb.

The middle chapters drag a bit as the plot gets distracted with The Pirates of Penzance and the postcards from his friend Polly who is traveling abroad. There's also an odd chapter about moustache cups which was educational but not at all relevant to the mystery. After all that nonsense is done, the plot gets back on the rails and concludes after four tightly written chapters.

Although I found my concentration wandering in the middle (roughly pages 100-180), I enjoyed revisiting a series I haven't read in years. Although I probably won't actively seek out more in the series, I will read any new (to me) ones that cross my path in the future.

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The ExchangeThe Exchange: 01/26/09

Reviews of The Exchange by Inga C. Ellzey seem to be spread across an inverted bell curve; people either hate it or love it. I certainly didn't love it but I don't hate it either. The plot is tight, the locations were interesting and the characters weren't the typical romantic mystery cast. Despite all of these good elements, somehow they don't gel into the enjoyable novel it should be.

Things started to go awry for me at the close of the first chapter. First there is Frances, an author who is going on a cruise to write her final novel. To spice things up and add realism, she has agreed to participate in a smuggling ring. Frances's story got my attention and I wanted to see it play out.

Unfortunately, just as she's asleep on the plane, we flash to Jewelle, the heroine pictured on the cover. She's in the witness protection program, hiding from the mob (of course!) but she's been given the chance at one last moment of freedom and happiness with a month long cruise in the Mediterranean. Her situation seems so implausible that I really wanted her to be Frances's invention. That hope is later dashed when the two women become friends on the ship.

Most of the remainder of the novel is set on the ship and its full of the day to day events during a cruise. I've been on a cruise and frankly the long passages describing the ship quickly became tedious to read. What adds to the tedium is the characters' lengthy dialogue — paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition and goodness knows what else. Sure, I've had to sit through some long one sided conversations but I don't want sit through that in a mystery. Mysteries are supposed to be about the caper and the danger (either real or imagined) to the main characters.

Three quarters through the novel that danger finally arrives. Of course, a trusted friend has ties to Jewelle's enemies. By the time all this finally got rolling, I didn't care except to know that I was almost done.

There were parts I did enjoy. I liked Frances. I wanted to see more of her. She reminded me of a toned down version of Elizabeth Jones (also an author) from The Copenhagen Connection. I liked the unfortunately named lesbian, Randy, who had me singing "Randy, Randy" from the old Electric Company. I even liked Randy's cantankerous mother, Sarah. But all their plots are secondary to Jewelle's escapades even though her part of the novel is the most unbelievable plot line.

Read other reviews at The Curious Reader, Mystery Books News, Mysterious Reviews,

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Mojo HandMojo Hand: 01/25/09

I read Mojo Hand by Greg Kihn based on my enjoyment of Shade of Pale. It had a cool sounding premise: Beau Young, now playing the blues with Oakland Slim discovers a voodoo plot to kill off the remaining blues masters. As it turns out, the novel is the sequel to Big Rock Beat (which I haven't read).

One thing the book excels at is its blues geekery. Greg Kihn's rock background pays off. He knows music and he clearly loves the blues. I'm a fan of the blues but obviously not as much as Kihn. I had to stop a few times to Google details mentioned in the book for historical context.

Like Shade of Pale, the book assumes that magic work. In this case, voodoo. The mojo hand of the title is shriveled remains of a hand that has a life of its own. One of the things it can do is help the bearer absorb all the musical skills of the person it has killed. The vacuuming up of all this blues talent is the reason behind the murders.

The most entertaining piece of the novel, and one I wish Kihn had developed more that of Robert Johnson, living out his life in San Lorenzo. Robert Johnson is the Delta blues guitarist who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to further his musical skills. Johnson died August 16, 1938 but Kihn has a voodoo story that gives him an out from that death. It was really fun to see events play out as Johnson is convinced to do a come back album and tour in 1977!

Greg Kihn provides enough information for Mojo Hand to stand alone as a horror / comedy novel. All the characters, their back stories and other relevant plot information is provided in a timely manner. Beau Young touring with Oakland Slim and proving himself as a blues musician, the murders and their aftermath and the man with the mojo hand feel like three separate novels until near the end of the book. I wanted to see the threads come together quicker. My misgivings with the book have nothing to do with its status as a sequel. What's missing here is the edgy humor and tight pacing that Shade of Pale has.

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Rising Waters: 01/24/09

All in the FunThis week's story, "Rising Waters" by Patricia Ferrara is the January reprint. It was published originally in the July 1987 issue. It was later republished in the Best Horror Stories From the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1989).

"Rising Waters" is atmospheric. Everything centers around the river that had years before the young protagonist was born rising above its banks and taken over the entire flood plain. His grandmother tells stories of being forced to abandon her home and house the waters rose above the roof tops, drowning all the old houses.

One exceptionally hot August the river begins to recede and up rising the murky ghost town. The unnamed boy of the story is hot and curious and his curiosity gets the best of him.

The story works for its creepy atmosphere, the stench of the rising houses, the creaking home that might collapse under the weight of the water at any time and the unmentionables lurking. The horror of it all though, isn't the death and the decay of the river, it's the size of the thing and the limited strength of a boy who has gotten in over his head.

The story brought to mind a number of other floods: the end of O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), the sunken train and the decaying home in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and the episode of Magnum PI where Magnum has to tread water in the ocean until he is rescued and in the process overcomes his fears and the painful memories of his father's death.

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Don Quixote Don Quixote: The La Mancha Story: 01/24/09

As Don Quixote winds its way to the conclusion doesn't have the same obvious divisions in the narrative as the early parts do. For now I'm taking the remainder in 50 page chunks. This section of the book is divided evenly between a farcical wedding and a trip into a cave in which Don Quixote claims to have had amazing adventures.

For this post, I will only focus on the wedding. I'll leave Quixote's "Bogus Adventure" for next week in which I will discuss another favorite duo of mine: Bill and Ted!

Most of this section is centered around a wedding that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza attend. It's set up to be the big society event. Sancho points out that things aren't as cheery as they appear to be. Boy is he right. The bride's husband appears and runs himself through in front of the entire wedding party. As he lays dying he demands that the bride take her vows with him so he can die in peace. Except, he's not dying. Of course her current bridegroom is put off by all the antics and basically washes his hands of her.

Weddings and wedding mishaps are common dramatic fodder. If one or both of the couple dies, it's a tragedy, if they live long enough to fall in love, break up and get back together, then it's a comedy. If there is rude behavior and a strong female lead, it might be a screwball comedy.

That line of reasoning brought me to one of my favorite screwball comedies, The Philadelphia Story (1940). Before the film there was a play of the same name written by Philip Barry. Like Quiteria, Tracy is a lady of means with a past she'd rather forget. Both women have huge weddings planned with everyone who is anyone invited. Big society weddings though tend to bring back unfortunate past lives in the form of former husbands. Now if this were horror, the ex would kidnap the woman or kill off her family one by one. As these weddings are both comedies, though, the ex gets to make an ass of himself and expose the new suitor for the beast he is.

For this wedding escapade, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are guests and observers. They discuss their own superior relationships (Don Quixote's imagined one with Dulcinea and Sancho Panza's actual long-time marriage). I'll be back next week with the next installment. We still have 300 pages to go! I will be updating my Quixote gallery as time permits.

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The Classics: 01/24/09

How to read the classics in four easy steps:

Harold and Kumar1) Scan through my book reviews, you'll see that many of the books I read are older than I am. One of my favorite yearly reading challenges is the Decades Challenge and the only way to complete it is to read a bucket load of classics. If you've been following my blog you know that I'm working my way slowly through Don Quixote De La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. I read about 50 to 100 pages a week and then write my thoughts on the section I finished. In tonight's post I'll be comparing what I've read to The Philadelphia Story. In past posts, I've compared Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to Jay and Silent Bob and Harold and Kumar.

If you've never read a classic but want to, here a few read like modern novels: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, The Pearl of Orr's Island by Harriet Beecher Stowe and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. The first three are American and the final one, British.

Jay and Silent BobI think the mistake that people make when reading classics is that these old books should be treated with an extra level of reverence. There are many different reasons for why these books have lasted so long but remember that in many cases (not all, of course), these authors were contemporary fiction writers. They were popular just like J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, Dean Koontz, Stephen King and so forth are to day. In the same way that you might like or dislike a current popular book, it's okay to feel the same way about the classics. Please just don't lump them all together because you hated (or loved) one.

2) Since I'm currently reading Don Quixote in English (a very old English translation), I pulled out my Spanish version (a University of Mexico City edition from 1960) to see if I could still understand El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. I haven't tried reading Spanish literature since my high school days when I was in AP Spanish. To keep things fair, I read the chapter that comes immediately after what I've just finished. To my pleasant surprise, I could still understand it. I had forgotten how straightforward Cervantes's original text is having gotten used to the flowery translation I've been reading. Without all the extra fanfare of the translation the focus is on the wry humor and the subtle (and not so subtle) puns that make the novel so fun. If you can read in Spanish give Don Quijote a try in its original form!

3)Thankfully I don't have an Aunt Myrtle but if I did, I would suggest she read one of the many books inspired by the classics. One that comes immediately to mind is The Game by Laurie R. King which was inspired by Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

4) It's still early in the week but I like the suggested books by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I tend to like old mysteries so I will keep the suggestions in mind for when I've read through mine.

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Jimmy Buffett: The Man From Margaritaville RevealedJimmy Buffett: The Man From Margaritaville Revealed: 01/23/09

I'm a Jimmy Buffet fan. I won't go so far as call myself a Parrot Head; that's a special breed of fan well beyond my fandom. I've never been to a concert but I grew up on his music. Recently I've discovered his books and fallen in love with him as an author. With all of that in mind, it made sense to read Steve Eng's biography, Jimmy Buffett: The Man from Margaritaville Revealed.

Steve Eng's biography is well researched and well documented. There is a lengthy bibliography and discography and a detailed index. Anyone who wants to know the smallest of details of Jimmy Buffett's life, career, music and everything in between will probably find this book very useful. It does its job as reference material admirably.

On the other hand, it doesn't work for casual reading. The topics jump around a lot and the first few chapters gave me whiplash before I got used to the writing style. Eng might have been trying to emulate Buffett's own quirky style of writing but it didn't work for me.

While I probably learned more over all facts about Jimmy Buffett, I think the book lacks the big picture view. If I hadn't read A Pirate Looks at Fifty, I think I would have had even more trouble following Jimmy Buffet: The Man from Margaritaville Revealed.

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For the Love of St NickFor the Love of St Nick: 01/22/09

After reading so many reviews describing For the Love of St. Nick by Garasamo Maccagnone as heartwarming and a soon to be Christmas classic I'm going to have be the Scrooge in the group. The story of "Tiger" and Johnny and Commander (their father) trying to be a family during the Vietnam war didn't work for me. Tiger's description of growing up first in San Diego and then in northern Michigan reads more like a "what I did for summer vacation" report than the emotionally charged Christmas novella I was expecting.

A number of plot points in St. Nick left me asking why. First there was the boys' closeness to their dead mother. She dies in childbirth with Johnny. Tiger is three at the time. While Tiger might have some vague memories of his mother and he would be closest to his his father, his Nanny, his grandmother (Nana Beth). Johnny wouldn't have any memory of her and it's difficult to pine for someone you've never met.

My next set of questions focus on Johnny's illness. He seems to get sick more to drive the plot than for any believable reason. His weakened immune system is mentioend in passing but if you want me to believe it, give his condition a name. Does he have leukemia? Lupis? Some sort of rare genetic disease? Let me know so I can get into his head. Instead, Johnny's illnesses, especially the final one is set up as a reason for a Christmas miracle.

Finally, there is the family connection that bothers me. It's the Vietnam war and the Commander was some sort of important mission to run. With this commitments to the Navy he's pretty much an absent father. In his place, there is Mrs. Pennington, the nanny but even she seems to be absent enough that Tiger is raising his sickly brother by himself. How exactly is this situation heartwarming? Heartbreaking , yes but again it feels like an artiificial situation set up for the benefit of the whiz bang miracle ending.

Since the story didn't hold my attention and I didn't get absorbed into the world of Tiger and Johnny, I found myself picking up on the errors in the book. I am more willing to forgive errata if the plot keeps me moving along. If the book becomes a chore, I start to pick nits. There are typos both in spelling and with spacing (words running together) and stray puncutation (floating quotes in the middle of a sentence). Then there are the historical gaffs; Tiger has a picture of his mother cut from her "hard plastic" California driver's license. Up through the late 1980s, the licenses were printed on thick paper. I don't think they were even laminated.

If you are looking for a Christmas novella to read, I recommend instead The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans or the old classic, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Read other reviews at Lori's Book Den, Bookfoolery and Babble, The Friendly Book Nook, Cafe of Dreams, and A Lovely Shore Breeze.

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Diary of a Dead ManThe Scarlet Letter: 01/21/09

I first read The Scarlet Letter back in high school. It and "Young Goodman Brown" are the two pieces most often used to teach Nathaniel Hawthorne but they are the most different from his other works. The different ones, or maybe better put, the ones that stand out, seem to be the ones taught. The standouts are often the experiments and therefore the more challenging to read.

By the time I read The Scarlet Letter I was already a Hawthorne fan so I went into the novel determined to like it. Were it the first of his books I had read, I might not have gone back for more. I don't want to scare you off the novel if you haven't read it. Rather, I want to encourage you to use it as a starting point for his other novels.

Much of the analysis of the novel focuses on Hester Prynne and her crime (adultery) and her life of redemption and the punishment both of jail time and of wearing the scarlet letter as a reminder of her crime. I personally find her daughter, Pearl Prynne the most compelling character of the novel. Pearl is born a marked child, a living remember of Hester's crime and the minister's sin. She spends her infancy in jail and her childhood alone except for the company of her mother. She can overhear the other villagers debating whether or not she is a demon child and whether or not she should be removed from her mother's care. She's ultimately not removed from her mother's care because none of the other families wants to risk having her in their homes.

As Hawthorne ends the novel not with a note on Hester's fate but on Pearl's instead clearly the book is more about Pearl, the innocent victim of Puritan society's meddling in private matters.

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Diary of a Dead ManDiary of a Dead Man: 01/20/09

I apologize if tonight's review comes out a little incoherent. I am watching one of the many wonderful news specials about today's inauguration of President Barack Obama and I'm getting swept away in the excitement. I've been grinning ear to ear since I woke up this morning. Despite our current problems, I am more hopeful than I have been in nearly a decade. We actually began celebrating early with a pizza party this weekend (Hawaiian pizza for his ties to Hawaii).

Diary of a Dead Man by Walter Krumm over the weekend as a way to escape from the monotony of having a cold and having not slept well. It was the perfect entertainment for a weekend lie in.

Cameron "Cam" Taylor gets an unsolicited instant message and after many weeks of chatting and exchanging photographs decides to meet his online paramour for an in person for an affair. What he finds instead is the body of his would-be lover lying on the bed of their hotel room. How Cam reacts sets in play a spiral of events that drives the breakneck pace of this thriller.

What sets Diary of a Dead Man apart from other "cyber-thrillers" I've read or even more traditional frame-ups, is Cam's honesty. Throughout the novel he admits to the reader (and himself) his failings and better yet, comes clean early on with his wife. So often thrillers depend on the main characters not talking to each other to keep the plot plodding along. The antagonists: Emily the femme fatale and Dexter her foil do fall into the "no talking" trap.

The one thing that kept me guessing throughout was the relevance of the title. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from Cam's diary and his transformation into a fugitive. There are so many ways for him to become the dead man of the title and frankly the one Krumm chooses for Cam Taylor took me by surprise. I'm not going to tell you because I don't want to spoil it for you.

To learn more about the book and the Walter Krumm, the author, check out his website.

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The Tall StonesThe Tall Stones: 01/19/09

Inspiration comes in many forms. For Moyra Caldecott, a trip to Scotland in 1975 was the spark for her trilogy, The Guardians of the Stones. In The Tall Stones she describes her trip to the Circle of the Standing Stones at Dyce near Aberdeen, Scotland and how it focused the threads of her life into this trilogy.

The Tall Stones is about the balance between tradition and change. The high priest Maal is coming to the end of his life and while most of the village is willing to accept what happens based on their trust in tradition, a brother and sister feel compelled to question the ways of things. Karne recognizes his sister's spiritual power. Together they befriend Maal and he begins to train Kyra in secret.

Change will come Kyra and Karne realize with the passing of Maal While their initial questioning of Maal's ways and his participation in the running of the village is seen as blasphemous when Wardyke, the new priest arrives, their thirst for knowledge becomes the only way to preserve the village's traditions.

Who Mandrake is and what his goal as priest is never fully understood by Maal and his students. As they are working on the verge of society as Wardyke moves the village away from their traditions, there is no way for them to know. Kyra of course becomes his replacement, whether by the Lords of the Sun or by Maal himself or perhaps some other cosmic force. Karne seems to be set up in a leadership position perhaps to take on a role as a village Elder in a future novel. His marriage to Fern, another student of Maal helps to reunite village life to nature.

The Tall Stones though set in the Bronze Age of Britain (somewhere in 2300-600 BC), Caldecott's characters are recognizable with believable motivations and reactions to the problems before them. Wardyke and his Strangers are a hint of things to come for the British Isles. I liked the lack of major historical figures or events. It gave the story the freedom to expand along its own lines rather than being forced along pre-determined lines.

The remaining books in the series include The Temple of the Sun and Shadow on the Stones, both which I will be reviewing in the next couple of weeks. There is also a recent addition to the original trilogy called The Silver Vortex. At this time I don't have a copy so it's not one i'm planning to review. If I enjoy the next two books as much as the first, I might seek out the fourth book to review.

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Emily Waits for Her FamilyEmily Waits for Her Family: 01/18/09

There are many different factors that can make a book review difficult to write. A thirty-two page children's book about a chickadee and her nest should be straightforward. Unfortunately in the case of Emily Waits for Her Family by Carol Zelaya and illustrated by Kristin Metcalf, it isn't.

Let me start with what works. Kristin Metcalf's illustrations are realistic and charming. There's a real sense of a connection between the little girl and the chickadee she's named Emily. The individual stanzas of poetry work too. They're easy to read and teach about the life cycle of the chickadee.

There's just one problem, and I'm sure it's just with my copy: the pages are completely out of order and some are even duplicated. When I first started reading my review copy I thought maybe the early pages were inserted as a coming attraction for the story. Unfortunately though as the book continues, it becomes obvious that my copy suffered a severe printing and binding error.

I think the order of things should be: the name plate, the title, the copyright and dedication, the body of the story and then the author and illustrator bios. Instead, I have the name plate, some story, the copyright and dedication, more story, the author and illustrator bios, the rest of the story, and then the author and illustrator bios again.

The story is just as scrambled as the rest of the pages. It should start with the girl naming Emily, then the building of the nest in the flower box, the laying of the eggs, Emily watching the girl watering her flowers, the hatching of the eggs, Emily feeding caterpillars to her chicks, the empty nest and finally four new Chickadees flying in the garden with Emily. Unfortunately the pages are mixed up and duplicated. For all I know, I might be missing some.

From reading the reviews online, my book's problems seem to be an isolated case. Nonetheless, I can't give it a perfect review since I didn't have a perfect book to read. I can't read the copy I was sent to my children because it doesn't make sense in it's current form. If you're buying a copy make sure to check that the pages are all in order before giving it to your young loved ones.

Read other reviews at: L'eggs Up and Laughing, Metaphorically Speaking, Pro Christo et Libertate, Tara's View on Books, Bobbi's Book Nook, and Bathsheba's Children.

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All in Fun: 01/17/09

My weekly review of a short story from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction qualifies for two challenges this week: the 42 Challenge and The Out of this World Mini Challenge that Carl V. is hosting in conjuction with the Dewey's Books Challenge.

This week's story, "All in Fun" by Jerry Oltion isn't exactly the out of the world type of story that Carl is looking for but it's still science fiction. It's grounded on earth, in Oregon and set on Christmas Day. There are no rocket ships, no planets beyond our own, no aliens, no time travel. Instead, there is magic and the power of wish fulfillment.

Seafarer's BloodToby believes he can have any wish he wants but there's a catch. It will only work if makes it on Christmas Eve as he's falling asleep. In the past he has wished a bully to move away, an exhibitionist to move next door, the Berlin Wall to fall and a peace treaty to be signed. Toby spends all year making notes and thinking of the best possible wish. This year, though, he loses track of his wishes and his last thought before sleep is "'I want to have fun.'" (p. 83)

The powers that be (Toby thinks it's probably Santa and not Jesus going through a rebellious phase) conger up a very strange day for him on Christmas. I'm not going to go into the details of what Toby considers fun but it's along the lines of the sophmoric humor and snarky wishes I've had sometimes myself. The day from start to finish had the dark comedy of Stephen King at his silliest and a few surreal moments that reminded me of Philip K. Dick.

"All in Fun" may not be the out of this world story that Carl had in mind but it does open up the question of just how Toby's wishes could change our world if he set his mind to it. Maybe some year he will end up on another world. Or maybe the world will be forever changed by one of his wishes.

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Don Quixote Don Quixote: Harold and Kumar: 01/17/09

Early on in my reading of Don Quixote this week, Sancho Panza got a serious case of the munchies while Don Quixote was out shooting the breeze with other so called knights errant though they all seem to be as fake as he is. When Sancho is called to duty by his irritated friend he dumps his lunch in the only thing available, Don Quixote's helmet. For most of the rest of this section, Don Quixote is covered with the the dripping remains of Sancho's lunch.

My first thought was, Sancho's pulled a Kumar! Sancho besides being the strong silent type ala Silent Bob, is also a slave to his baser needs: food, drink and greed. On further reflection, I realized that Don Quixote is like the holy grail of the road films.

For Sancho to be Kumar, he needs a Harold to play against. When Sr. Quixada is lucid, he fits the role perfectly. For whatever reason in their third venture from his estate near La Mancha, Sr. Quixada's heart hasn't been in the adventure as much as it was the first two times. Perhaps he is wary of being sent back home or perhaps he is growing bored of all the other fakers out there. Anyway, the sober and sane Sr. Quixada is very much like Harold, finding himself in mishaps mostly caused by his friend. Like Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), the initial adventure is driven by a desire to see a woman. A lot of the misadventures in Part Two directly relate to the fallout of Sancho Panza's scheming.

Meanwhile Don Quixote in moments of weakness for Sr. Quixada is still looking for the perfect knight. He fully believes there is one out there who will take him under his wing and lead him on the adventures that he so desires to experience from his years of reading. In this section of the book, Don Quixote finally gets to meet his knight, Don Diego.

In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Harold spends his time idolizing Neil Patrick Harris, putting him on a much high pedestal that any single person deserves. When Harris makes an appearance, he is the polar opposite of Harold's vision of him. Instead he is like Kumar to the nth power. Despite the reality not matching the fantasy, Harold keeps Harris on that pedestal even if by the second film he's scared and annoyed by him.

While Don Diego isn't as extreme a shock to Sr. Quixada as Neil Patrick Harris is to Harold, he still isn't quite what he expected. For one thing, he doesn't live as humbly as a knight should. He lives in a very nice estate and sees nothing wrong with an excessive show of wealth in terms of wining and dining his guests. He also talks about adventures as crazy sounding as Don Quixote at his worst but Quixada even in his long moments of clarity is willing take all of Don Diego's stories at face value even if he shouldn't.

Where Don Diego and Neil Patrick Harris differ the most is in the inclusion of Don Lorenzo, Diego's son. Lorenzo when present spends his time bouncing between his father and Sr. Quixada trying to defuse any of their craziest ideas before they have a chance to act on them. He keeps them relatively sober and safe in the confines of the family estate. Thankfully the Harold and Kumar films haven't had an NPH Jr. riding along with them saying things like "Gee Dad, I really don't think you should...." Hopefully they stay that way.

I hope you enjoyed my tongue in cheek comparison of Don Quixote to Harold and Kumar. I'll be back next week with the next installment. We still have 300 pages to go! I will be updating my Quixote gallery as time permits.

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Written on the KneeWritten on the Knee: 01/16/09

Helen Electrie Lindsay originally published her father's diary in Greek but was encouraged to translate the diary when she found her mother's collection of letters. Her friend Dru Sweetser served as her editor for the translation and acutely observed that Greece's participation in WWII isn't taught in American schools. The publishing of Dr. Theodore Electris's diary Written on the Knee strives to teach about the Greek experience.

Dr. Electris served a six month tour as a reservist officer in XI B Artillery Division and served on the front line of the Italian / Greek conflict. His diary covers the entire tour from the mundane of meals, weather and homesickness to the brutalities of war: the injuries, the shelling, the fear, pack animals driven to death and so forth.

By itself, Dr. Electris's diary would be a short and deeply personal look at one small piece of WWII. Helen Electric Lindsay fleshes things out with photocopies of letters from her mother and photographs that Dr. Electris took. There are also photographs provided by Hellenistic War Museum and and other sources to bring the diary to life.

After the last entry dated May 4, 1941 in which the doctor has returned home to have his house occupied by German soldiers and all he wants is a return to normalcy but doubts that will ever be possible, the book continues with an Epilogue with new of the house and a poem by an aunt, and then a very informative (but gut wrenching) Appendix. My favorite piece of the book is all the ephemera. There are maps, letters, permits and political cartoons.

Read another review at Breeni Books.

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The Christmas BoxThe Christmas Box: 01/15/09

The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans started life as a written as a personal project: a love letter to his family and a Christmas present. He then self published it in 1993 but it was picked up by Simon & Schuster in 1996. I mention its humble beginnings as another example of why I willingly read and review self published works. Sometimes they thrive well beyond their initial small publishing.

The Christmas Box is a novella; short enough to read in an hour or two. I read my copy at the park. In 83 pages it tells the story of a young family crammed into a one bedroom apartment so small that their 4 year old daughter is still sleeping in a crib. A caretaker job that seeks a young family with children offers them the chance to escape their current cramped situation. For providing meals for Mary, the elderly widow, on her schedule and doing basic upkeep to the home and yard they are given one wing of the house to live in as their own. In the attic of Mary's home they find a Christmas box filled with letters. The nature of the letters and how they are a part of Mary's past helps the Evans family learn some important life lessons.

Richard Paul Evans fills his fiction with emotionally charged moral lessons. Of the two I've read, The Christmas Box and The Locket, he somehow manages to keep the stories interesting and compelling without being preachy. I'm now reading through the sequel, Timepiece which chronicles Mary's life and am enjoying it. I will be reviewing it later this year.

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Acting Class: Take a SeatActing Class: Take a Seat: 01/14/09

Milton Katselas (1933-2008) worked in Hollywood as an acting teacher for thirty years. A number of well known actors studied under him including Gene Hackman, Alec Baldwin, Tom Selleck and Michelle Pfeiffer. He also directed a number of off broadway productions. He also wrote two books: Dreams into Actions (1996) and Acting Class: Take a Seat.

Katselass has the Checklist of ways to approach a scene to help an actor get the most out of his scene. There are some good points that actors or students of acting might benefit from. There is also some discussion of the methods as they were used in different films and stage plays. Unfortunately the book doesn't stay focused on the lesson plans.

The meat of the book comes in the first hundred pages (of 230) pages. The rest of the book is padded with lecture transcripts (written as scripts, of course) with Katselas cast in the leading role. I didn't like these scripted sections. They came off as a smugly written pep talk for the readers of the book.

If you are an aspiring actor, then Acting Class: Take a Seat might be for you. If you're not skip it.

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Silence is GoldenSilence is Golden: 01/13/09

Back in June I stumbled upon a delightful mystery series by Penny Warner. I read and reviewed Blind Side which is midway through the Connor Westphal series. At the same time I had picked up Silence is Golden, the book that follows Blind Side. I hadn't realized it was part of the series; I just liked the cover. Later I realized my good fortune and I had to drop what I had been reading for fun to read Silence is Golden. I have also picked up the other books in the series and hope to get the read and reviewed later this year.

The quiet life at Flat Skunk California has been interrupted by gold fever. Sluice Jackson, the town's oldest living prospector has found a gold nugget and opened up a can of worms in the process. Besides the gold fever mayhem, Penny finds herself in the middle of family dispute between her ex-boyfriend and his wife who are at odds over their daughter's deafness. The hearing wife wants to have the daughter operated on to get a cochlear implant; the husband doesn't. Connor, who is also deaf is torn at seeing this little girl in the tug of war.

Both those plots alone would be enough for an interesting novel but Warner is writing murder mysteries. There are a number bodies in this book. For Sluice, there is the body of an old prospector that might overturn the old town's balance of power. For Connor there is Gail and it looks like her ex boyfriend murdered her to prevent the operation. The aftermath of Gail's murder and what happened to Susie (the daughter) made this mystery more heart wrenching than I had expected but I still enjoyed the novel.

My favorite parts of the book through were the ones that focused on Sluice Jackson, the century old bones and the history of Blind Skunk. I also enjoyed learning more about Connor, sign language and deaf culture. She's an interesting unreliable narrator because the gaps and errors are there because she has either misread someone's lips or had her back turned and couldn't hear what was said. It's a refreshing way of keeping the reader guessing rather than having a protagonist who keeps things secret for personal or under-handed reasons. Connor is the antithesis of Dr. James Sheppard and that's a big part of why I adore her.

The Connor Westphal series so far is as follows:

  • Dead Body Language (1997)
  • Sign of Foul Play (1998)
  • Right to Remain Silent (1999)
  • A Quiet Undertaking (2000)
  • Blind Side (2001)
  • Silence is Golden (2003)
  • Dead Man's Hand (2007)

Learn more about the author by reading her blog.

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The SeaThe Sea: 01/12/09

The Sea (2005 Man Booker winner) by John Banville follows Max Morden as he revisits his wife's last year before she died of cancer. Much of the novel is written as a flash back as the scenery brings back memories. Max's daughter comments near the end of the novel that her father lives only in the past and after a short protest ends up agreeing with her.

The back of the book compares Banville's writing style to Vladimir Nabokov. I've read a number of his books and can see the connection but he isn't the author that first jumped to mind. The two the came immediately to me were Daphne du Maurier for the lingering melancholia that permeates the story and Marilynne Robinson for how environment reflects the protagonists emotional state.

The Sea is light on dialogue and heavy on description. The novel exists mostly in Max's head as he dwells on Anna and the memories of other people in his life. His thoughts are a carefully choreographed portrayal of stream of consciousness but there is a traceable narrative thread from start to finish.

I have to admit that I started The Sea feeling somewhat intimidated. I've only read two other winners, Blind Assassin (didn't like) and The English Patient (loved). When I saw the it didn't have chapters I wasn't sure at first if I would finish The Sea. Then an hour had passed and I was a quarter of the way through the novel. Although it was a challenging book to read it was a rewarding one.

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TDance of ShadowsDance of Shadows: 01/11/09

This month's online reprint at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is "Dance of Shadows" by Fred Chappell. They've posted it because the February 2009 issue has a new story from the same world called "Shadow of the Valley." I will be reviewing it in the near future.

In the meantime, "Dance of Shadows" is a world where shadows are a valuable commodity. They can be used for art and sometimes be art all by themselves. In the middle of this, a shadow stealer hears of a woman who casts no shadow. The rest of this long story is set around figuring out the mystery of the lady.

The ending is cute but it was a chore to get there. I had to re-read a bunch of lines here and there because the story never really grabbed my imagination. I didn't connect with any of the characters either.

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One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue FishOne Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish: 01/11/09

One of the joys of being a parent is sharing old favorites with my children. Harriet and Sean are now discovering Dr. Seuss. We are reading through all of his books and have landed on my all time favorite: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. From the time I was Harriet's age to being in second or third grade, I read this book on an almost daily basis. I really don't know how many times I've read it (either listening to it being read by one of my parents or reading it myself).

One Fish, Two Fish... begins with this little dedication: "From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere." This book revels in the silly. It starts off simply enough with fish of different color and fish of different ages. Then it spirals out of control with fish driving cars and even sillier things.

The book doesn't have a plot. It's a series of tongue twisters presented as short scenes, almost like vaudeville routines. Witnessing these different examples of silly are a boy and a girl (or a Sean and a Harriet as my children see things). They watch creatures run (just for fun), different animals with different feet (and numbers of legs), and they go on a ride with Mr. Gump's Wump. There is Ned and his bed with holes in the most annoying of places. I wonder if he'll ever get a descent night's sleep? There are animals for opening cans, and others for boxing, ones who have hair for brushing and so forth.

In all of this silliness are Dr. Seuss's illustrations. All of the creatures have Seuss's unique style, being somewhat shaggy (even the fish). I can remember sometimes just flipping through the book to enjoy the drawings. My favorites are the pink ink drinking yink, can opening zans, the sleep walking sheep and the hook cook book.

Dr. Seuss Reviews

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Seafarer's BloodSeafarer's Blood: 01/10/09

Albert E. Cowdrey and Robert Reed seem to be in a race to see who can contribute the most stories to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Cowdrey's current story is a departure from his usual New Orleans based ones. The seafarer in the title is a Viking.

The protagonist in Seafarer's Blood is a man named Eric. He's not a Viking but he sees them when he sleeps and sometimes when he's awake. He's convinced that he's a shaman and it's the only positive thing in his messed up life. He's going through a messy divorce and most of his life is spent on his old futon vision questing and reminiscing about the better times in his life.

Then something happens. Something always happens. If it didn't, it would just be a short mood piece. As far as I can tell, Cowdrey doesn't go for mood pieces. Anyway, Eric and his wife manage to patch things up and in the process Eric learns the true identity of his father.

Unfortunately there's a downside to all this bliss, a sinister, otherworldly one. The ending is vague and rather like a good Twilight Zone. I read it through a couple of times and it could go either way depending on what mood you're in.

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Don Quixote Don Quixote: Q and Sancho Panza Strike Back: 01/10/09

Last night while I was reading through Book One of the Part Two of Don Quixote de la Mancha I realized that probably every single literary and cinematic cliche can be found in this very long volume. I'm not suggesting that Cervantes single handedly invented all of these clichés and jokes, just that he has managed to cement them all in his novel for everyone to remember.

The first book of the second half of the book finds Sr. Quxada and Sancho Panza still at home discussing all their adventures. Much to their surprise they have found that their story has been published as a series of popular novels. First they are impressed. Then they are pissed. They must go out again to clear their names (and see how the fair Dulcinea is doing).

In reading through the first eight chapters of this section I was reminded of Space Balls, specially the "now, now" gag with the video tapes but the goofy camaraderie between Sr. Quxada and Sancho Panza brought to mind Jay and Silent Bob (and specifically Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). So much of Don Quixote is just Sr. Quxada dressed as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza hanging out at an Inn (or outside if they have worn out their welcome) talking shit and watching real life happen in front of their eyes.

Since Quixote does 99% of the talking, he's clearly Jay, leaving Sancho Panza as Silent Bob. In chapters four and five, the narrator breaks in to question Sancho's sudden ability to speak eruditely and implies that perhaps Sancho is profiting off his adventures with Sr. Quxada by either writing the novels under a pen name or selling the stories to the Moor who has taken credit for them. Is Sancho Panza directing the show just like Kevin Smith (aka Silent Bob) is?

I hope you enjoyed my tongue in cheek comparison of Don Quixote to Jay and Silent Bob. I'll be back next week with the next installment. We still have 350 pages to go! I will be updating my Quixote gallery as time permits.

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A Garden from a Hundred Packets of SeedA Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed: 01/09/09

James Fenton is an English poet and a gardener. His delightful book A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed offers advice on gardening from just seeds and gives a list of his 100 favorite types of plants to grow from seeds.

I fell in love with the book before I even started reading it. The very first illustration in the book is one of a California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Then in Chapter One: Flowers and their Colors, Fenton includes the California state flower among his favorite flowers that "fire a gun" for their bright colors. Apparently bright colors (oranges and reds) are frowned upon in British gardens. Here in California, the brighter the better: orange, red, yellow, you name it. Of course the poppy grows just about everywhere: along the highways, in sidewalk cracks, in rubble and anywhere else were there is a little dirt, sunshine and a little water.

Fenton clearly loves gardening. He isn't a garden snob, except about soil and the importance of good top soil and lots of it. He thinks anyone and everyone should try gardening even if it's just letting a vine of morning glory climb up a fire escape (as he saw in New York City).

With a limited budget, Sean and I do most of our gardening from seeds. A number of Fenton's suggestions are in our tiny patio garden. We have nasturtiums, sweet peas, California poppies, various sunflowers, basil (though not grown from seed), dill and parsley (which reseeds itself every six months or so).

Fenton's final advice is have fun but follow the planting instructions on the seed packets for best results.

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Forgive My TrespassingForgive My Trespassing: 01/08/09

I want to read more books outside my comfort zone, including more poetry. When I was asked to review a collection of poetry by Cynthia Blomquist Gustavson, I jumped a the chance.

The collection is called Forgive My Trespassing but it doesn't appear to be in print beyond the promotional copies sent out for review. I don't know if there are plans to start selling this collection of poems but I hope there are.

Forgive My Trespassing is really more memoir than poetry collection. The poems cover points in Gustavon's life, the good and the bad, rendered with emotional clarity through her careful selection of words.

The poems don't seek to shock like so many of the collections I recently read do. They do ask the reader to think and to feel but it's a quiet meditation, not a violent cry for attention.

Near the end of the collection there's a poem that really sums up the entire book. It's called "Please Use These Words for Children" and it focuses on the poet's marriage to a pediatrician and the ways they used to protest the Vietnam war by writing a note on their tax return: "Please use this for children / not for war and guns." At the end of the poem she changes her request asking the reader: "Please use these words for children / and never again for war and games ."

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TsunamiTsunami: 01/08/09

California is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a geologically active area of subduction zones, volcanoes, earthquakes and with the Pacific Ocean there: tsunamis. A tsunami is a huge wave of water created by a massive displacement of water by earth movement. California does get hit by tsunamis but so far not the massive three wave monster that Gordon Gumpertz sets upon southern California in his very entertaining natural disaster novel Tsunami.

The most recent tsunami to hit California was back on November 15, 2006. It reached from Santa Cruz up to Crescent City (a place that has been hit by a number of tsunamis). Destructive earthquakes and tsunamis are a risk of living in California. The USC Tsunami Research Center has a downloadable paper (PDF) on the risk of tsunamis both distant and local to California. It reads like the blue print for Gumpertz's book.

The California in Gumpertz's novel is simplified and altered in a number of ways for dramatic license. There is no mention of the Channel Islands (which traditionally get the worst hit for distant tsunamis in southern California) and Camp Pendelton has been scrapped to make way for a new massive housing development. There are other fictional towns up and down the coast where more of the drama of the tsunami plays out.

In ways reminiscent of Condominium, the developers' greed puts into play many of the things that ultimately lead to losses of life and property at the end of the novel. To make them even worse, they are also importing guns through their shipping company.

In the middle of all of this is Leilani Sanches a geologist who has been studying an usually and potentially violent volcano deep below the Pacific Ocean. If her scenario is correct, a devastating 100 to 200 foot tsunami (roughly ten times taller than the largest tsunami waves on record for hitting California) could hit "from Santa Barbara to San Diego" with Oceanside to Los Angeles getting the worst of it.

But that's the fun of a disaster novel. The human drama of a normal sized disaster gets pushed beyond the boundaries of the expected to entertain while slyly educating about the true risks. Tsunami reads like a made for TV movie miniseries back when disasters were such popular topics. I was reminded of Earthquake! (which also takes out Los Angeles) and of course the mini series version of Condominium that started Barbara Eden.

Tsunami rises above the typical natural disaster story by providing memorable and believable characters. The characters demonstrate their individuality with lots of showing and very little telling. They act in understandable ways (both rationally and irrationally) and come to their senses in a human timescale, rather than a dramatic one.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tsunami and would definitely stop to watch it if it ever was turned into a miniseries.

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Nana Volume 2Nana Volume 2: 01/07/09

Back in July I reviewed the first volume of the shojo manga, Nana by Ai Yazawa. I had been interested in it since Amazon had recommended it to me but I didn't start the series until Dewey also recommended it.The series is rapidly becoming one of favorite "guilty pleasures." I plan to review more in the series over the course of 2009.

Nana Volume 2 finds both Nanas on the train to Tokyo. They expect to go their separate ways but fate (or the demon lord if you ask Nana Komatsu) brings them back together in a most unexpected way. They both want the same apartment. It's in an ideal location and though still very expensive, very cheap for Tokyo prices. The only way to get the apartment they both want but can't afford is to share the lease.

Most of volume 2 centers around the apartment and the difficulties they have with it. The apartment is old and they are novices at renting, especially Nana K. There is the lack of power, lack of heat, and the need for cosigners. The other half is divided between Nana K's new job (at an awesome looking retro furniture and clothing store) and the growing friendship between the two Nanas.

Every apartment and now our home has been something we could only afford because it's been old and somewhat funky. I was laughing at the problems the Nanas were having with their new home, the shock of expense of living in the middle of a booming city and all the fiddly bits of setting up a home.

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EllaElla: A Baby Elephant's Story: 01/06/09

Ella: A Baby Elephant's Story is one of a series of books based on current animal research. Each book is designed to teach family relationships while also teaching about the animal and it's environment. In the case of Ella, the story is about an elephant herd and the birth of a new baby.

Until the baby is born to her aunt, Ella is the baby of the herd. Once the baby is born, Ella beings to realize how much she has grown. She takes on the roll of a big sister remembering the lessons her older brothers had taught her before they left the herd to live the bull herd.

By reading Ella, children will learn about the strong matriarchal lines in elephant herds, the importance of family and safety in numbers. Hyenas of course are a danger but Ella has learned from her family how to protect herself and the baby.

The book is illustrated by Lara Gurin. They are somewhere between photo-realistic and impressionistic. The pictures give a good sense of life on the savanna.

Besides the book, there is also a DVD with "carefully edited" BBC footage and a website for online games and videos for children. I am not reviewing the website as it requires me to sign up with demographic information about my children. There is absolutely no reason for them to be collecting such personal information.

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Slowly, Slowly, Slowly Said the Sloth"Slowly, Slowly, Slowly" said the Sloth: 01/05/09

The strange slow creatures of the rainforest have in recent years become cute characters for children. There's Snook from It's a Big, Big, World on PBS and the title character of Eric Carle's "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," said the Sloth.

Eric Carle's book has a foreword by Jane Goodall. In it she talks about her love for the unusual creatures and gives some basic facts about them. There are two species: two-toed and three-toed. They can rotate their heads 270° degrees. They sleep between fifteen and nineteen hours a day. They are threatened now by deforestation and Goodall is hoping Carle's book will help teach future generations to appreciate the sloth and all the rainforest enough to want to protect it.

"Slowly, Slowly, Slowly" said the Sloth has three parts to the story: the day in the life of a sloth, questions for the sloth from other rainforest animals and finally the sloth's answer. In the first part each page begins: "slowly, slowly, slowly." These slow pages are my favorite part of the story. It's restful and soothing while teaching about the sloth and the rainforest.

The second part reads more like Carle's The Very Busy Spider with the same sort of question being asked again and again. The questions all play on the double meaning of sloth. The animals of the forest ask him why he's so slow, so quiet, so boring and so lazy.

The book gets back on track by the final part when the sloth wakes and answers all those questions. He gives a soliloquy on the virtues of being a sloth. After a using a long list of adjectives to describe himself, he ends his speech with: "That's just how I am. I like to do things slowly, slowly, slowly."

As a sort of visual epilogue, Eric Carle includes a two page spread of all the animals who appear in the book. Each one is labeled. Both my kids love looking at the animals on these pages. Sometimes we go back and play find the animal in the story and sometimes we just talk about them.

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Earth OdysseyEarth Odyssey: 01/04/09

We are going through a drought here in Northern California. Since this summer we've been asked to use no more than 100 gallons of water per day. We took the request seriously and let the summer heat kill our patio garden. One hundred gallons still seems like an extravagant amount of water but according Mark Hertsgaard in Earth Odyssey, the typical American household uses 186 gallons a day, nearly twice what we've been asked to cut back to!

In 1991 Mark Hertsgaard traveled around the world to see what people thought of environmental problems. What he found out is people universally find it hard to see beyond their own immediate needs. It doesn't seem to matter if it's a family in a war ravaged Sudan, a Thai family in traffic clogged Bangkok or a family living in the toxic clouds of Beijing, the response was the same: "we're used to it." That didn't mean they were happy, just able to cope. The bigger environmental picture never seemed to play a part in the responses Heartsgaard received.

Heartsgaard sets the stage by describing the environmental crisis each place is facing: famine, heavy metals in the air and water, nuclear waste freely dumped in the rivers and so forth. Then he introduces the people he interviewed and worked with. Earth Odyssey is a surprisingly fast read for all the depressing facts. The book doesn't offer much in the way of solutions for the problems faced by the environment and the specific places Heartsgaard visited.

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Festival of DeathsFestival of Deaths: 01/03/09

If you came tonight expecting another installment of Don Quixote, you will have to wait until next Saturday. I've just returned home from a two week trip and I didn't take the book along. It's old and fragile and really not suited for traveling in a cramped car with boisterous children.

Instead of Don Quixote, I give you Festival of Deaths, one of the Gregor Demarkian series of mysteries by Jane Haddam. I read it on the first half of our trip (before the stomach flu). Despite a clear had and the fact that I was reading it during Hanukkah, I still hated the book. No, hated it probably too strong. I didn't get into the book and didn't give a damn about Gregor Demarkian or the people he was trying to help.

Lotte Goldman, a host of a "controversial TV show" has a slight problem. Someone is killing off her staff. Demarkian is there originally as a guest to discuss: "Sex and the Serial Killer" but soon finds himself needed to solve the murders before he becomes a victim himself.

The book could have been fun but it was mired in a slow plot and populated with characters all trying to out stereotype each other. I actually only made it halfway in the book. First there is an incredibly long prologue. It's 63 pages of the 371 page book. There's also a ten page epilogue at the end, meaning that 20% of the book takes place outside of the actual plot. I would much prefer to either have the prologue labeled as the first chapter or have all that back story peppered into the book as tidbits of information than have to slog through 61 pages before I can start the actual book.

Festival of Deaths is one in a long series of mysteries, all themed around different holidays. Obviously the holiday hook was popular enough with a loyal core of readers to warrant so many books. I am just not part of that core. I will give the rest of the books in the series a pass.

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The Perfect InfestationThe Perfect Infestation: 01/03/09

I'm not a dog person. Carol Emshwiller's story "The Perfect Infestation" gives me extra reason to be lukewarm to "man's best friend." They might be a ploy for taking over the world.

Usually in science fiction if the world is about to be invaded, it's done with an attack on mankind. They are infested or duplicated or otherwise turned into pawns. In "The Perfect Infestation" the young sees are told "don't bother with the opposable-thumb creatures." They are there to give pats and keep the seeds healthy and well cared for but they are not the main target.

The story follows one seed who has landed in a host unfortunately named Pussy Cat. He belongs to an opposable-thumb creature who still lives with his mother and is looking for love. Pussy Cat ignores another cardinal rule: don't feel loyalty you shouldn't feel. Rather than wait for the signal to launch the second wave of the invasion, he spends his time trying to bring happiness and love to his opposable-thumb creatures.

"The Perfect Infestation" is an amusing take on an invasion tale. It's also a sentimental look at life on Earth. There are moments of reflection with questions such as these: "Does any other world have dragonflies? A single moon? Butter? Pine needles? Strawberries? Chickadees?" (p. 59).

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The Little Lame PrinceThe Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak: 01/02/09

Tonight we're home after a two week trip to Southern California. We didn't travel by anything as magical as Prince Dolor's travelling cloak. Instead it was a long drive down and a long drive home. We had rain going and coming and bad traffic twice. We also had a stomach flu attack on today's ride home.

During one of these long drives, I read The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak by Dinah Muloc Craik. I had high expectations for the book. It came with a sentimental recommendation from a dear friend. I was reading an old, well-read copy with delightful illustrations. Despite all these positives, I loathed the story.

Prince Dolor is paralyzed by his nurse, orphaned and locked away in a tower all in the first chapter or two. Before all this tragedy is heaped on Craik manages to create an interesting kingdom rich with traditions but she tosses this all aside to instead create a miserable childhood for her royal protagonist.

I realize that the orphan protagonist is a mainstay of the fairytale and of children's fiction but it took a potentially interesting fantasy story and turned it into just another run of the mill fairytale. The book does eventually redeem itself when the teenage prince confronts his uncle who usurped his throne and imprisoned him in the tower for all those years. His reaction to his imprisonment was interesting and and unexpectedly wise. But this moment of maturity from King Dolor is short-lived and the book goes back to being just another fairytale.

So out of fourteen chapters, it has two brilliant chapters and twelve ho-hum chapters. If you like Victorian fantasy and haven't read it, you should check it out. Harry Potter fans might also like it. Everyone else can take it or leave it.

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The IllusionThe Illusion: 01/01/09

I like to read beyond my comfort level. The play The Illusion by Tony Kushner, an adaptation of the Pierre Corneille metaplay from 1636 fits the bill. It is deceptively short but requires one's full attention.

Unfortunately for me, I chose to read it while I was sick in bed. The first time I read it, I didn't understand it and I hated it. But, the play is short (sixty or so pages) and my initial reaction irritated me. So today with a clear head, I re-read the play and loved it.

The gist of the play is this: a man goes to a wizard to find the son he disowned decades earlier. The man is old and in need of an heir to wrap up his affairs. The wizard shows him his son and a variety of tragic events. Somewhere in all of that lies the truth. Like the father, I didn't get what the wizard was illustrating the first time I read it. The second time, with a clear head, it was obvious and very funny.

I don't want to give away the ending because it's the perfect conclusion to the play. Get yourself a copy and read it or better yet, maybe you'll be lucky enough to see it performed. I suspect the twist will be more obvious when seen live.

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