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

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The Sneakiest Pirates: 05/31/09

I think Dalton James, author of The Sneakiest Pirates and The Heroes of Googley Woogley (review coming) is the youngest self publisher I've had the pleasure of reviewing. He wrote this first book last year at the age of seven and has now written the sequel. I had expected only to review the sequel but was sent both books.

This twenty page picture book (also illustrated by the author) tells the story of a father and son pair of pirates who steal the treasure from Peg Leg Chuck. Chuck by the way actually has a hook for a hand instead of a peg leg. The treasure is ultimately that of an unnamed king.

Much of the book is filled with the sorts of jokes my own son finds funny. For instance, to be clever, Chuck buries his treasure under the letter A because all other pirates use X. Pirates being pirates (even father and son pirates) don't automatically want to share. In the end they do and decide to change careers. Read the book to find out what they do next.

The Sneakiest Pirates isn't the best picture book I've read but it's not the worst either. There's a genuine enthusiasm here and a sense of humor that had me chuckling in places. I think Dalton James has potential.

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"A Wild and Wicked Youth": 05/30/09

Ellen Kushner uses "A Wild and Wicked Youth" to quickly sum up the key events that shaped Richard St. Vier the protagonist of her novel Swordspoint. I haven't read the novel but I want to now that I've read her short story.

Richard strikes me as an unusual fantasy hero in that he comes from a loving home with a strong and well educated mother. Although they don't live with his father it's implied that he's very much alive and that the mother has left him for reasons she doesn't wish to share.

More typical to the genre is Richard's tutor: a traveling beggar man with extraordinary swordsmanship skills. He teaches Richard everything he knows and of course Richard will end up besting him.

Richard spends his childhood learning to sword fight in the belief that some day he will be his best friend's bodyguard. Crispin, the young son of the local lord is amiable with Richard until the time that he inherits the title. He and his mother then trick Richard into betraying their long time friendship.

"A Wild and Wicked Youth" kept my attention by being character focused. The world is clearly well defined in Kushner's mind but she doesn't waste time trying to prove it to me. Instead she puts her efforts into telling Richard's story and therefore leaving me wanting to know more about him! This is all I ever ask of a story or novel.

Throughout the story I had a nagging sense of having read it before but as far as I know I haven't read any of Ellen Kushner's stories or novels. If "A Wild and Wicked Youth" reminds you of a specific story or novel please share about it in the comments section.

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Ulysses: Episode 14: Oxen in the Sun: The Critic in the Cabernet 05/30/09

Stewie on Bones

After I make my Ulysses post for this week I'll have to get started on reading "Circe" for next week. So far the episodes have been between thirty and sixty pages long. "Circe" is 180 pages long! Fortunately it's written in the form of a play so hopefully it will be manageable for reading in a week along with all of my regular reading.

The "Oxen in the Sun" section of The Odyssey is a warning against "tempting fate." Throughout the epic Odysseus is warned not to harm any of the Oxen of the Sun if he wishes to return to Ithaca with his ship and crew intact. Of course despite his warnings and orders, Odysseus can't keep his ship of their island or his crew from killing some of them for food.

Bones wants to be a momIn Ulysses the fate is one of birth. All pregnancies come to an end one way or another. Whether they are successful resulting in a healthy living infant and a tired but healthy mother or whether one or both will die in the process is part of life. Joyce combines the labor of Mina Purefoy and the birth of her child with the artistic labor of writing a novel. He shows this through ten different (one for each month plus the birth) parodies of style that work their ways up through the ages.

Meanwhile Bloom, Stephen and Buck Milligan spend their time drinking. First they drink in the hospital where Mina Purefoy is laboring but they are shooed away by the midwife because their debauchery is disturbing the beautiful moment of a woman giving birth. The episode follows them to the pub where they continue their drinking.

The winneryBefore the scenes with all the drinking I wanted to talk about Stewie Griffin from Family Guy because he's a very loquacious, obnoxious and crude baby. Plus there are a number of episodes that focus on his birth and on him wanting to prevent any future births in the family. Add in all the debauchery on the part of Peter and his friends it seemed perfect. Bones though provided an even better example with "The Critic in the Cabernet" which combines a murder in a winery with lots of talk of having babies. Best of all, Stewie Griffin makes a guest appearance.

In "The Critic in the Cabernet" the tempting fate theme comes to play in two forms. First and foremost there is the vintner who is selling his cheap wine bottled in knock off versions of the much more expensive wine next door. While the average consumer probably can't tell the difference and will pay the extra money by label and reputation alone, a wine critic can tell the difference. Rather than own up to his forgery he temps fate a second time and will eventually be caught.

The love childThe second fate comes in the form of all the baby talk during the episode. First and foremost, Temperance Brennan has decided she wants to be a mother. Since she's not exactly in a relationship she decides to go it alone with help of artificial insemination. She asks Booth to be the doner. He says yes but with reservations, knowing full well from his own experience as a single father of the huge commitment a child is for any parent. Finally there are the two infant children fathered by the late critic who give Brennan a chance to try her hand at mothering and bring back home the motifs of debauchery and labor.

What makes the "Oxen in the Sun" difficult to read is the sheer length of each of these parodies. Most paragraphs are a page long. The sentences are long and rambling. The sentences draw from many different literary sources. There are online resources for fully understanding the ins and outs of "Oxen in the Sun."

Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Fifteen: Circe. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print.

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Father Malachy's Miracle: 05/29/09

In Father Malachy's Miracle by Bruce Marshall an argument between a vicar and a catholic priest over the placement of "The Garden of Eden" dance hall next door to the catholic church results in an unexpected miracle. On the promised date the dance hall and everyone inside somehow vanish and reappear on Bass Rock. The priest is convinced he has won the argument and God is on his side but the miracle causes him more trouble than it solves.

The owners of the Garden of Eden decide to cash in on their misfortune by turning the transplanted dance hall into a fair ground of sorts. The woman who was there becomes a celebrity of sorts. Meanwhile, there is talking of a lawsuit for the unlawful moving of a building and the call for a constable to detain the Holy Ghost for questioning.

Father Malachy's Miracle is a very silly novel. There are lengthy passages of theological debate but done in a very tongue in cheek manner. When I started the novel I wasn't sure what I'd think of it. I half expected to hate it. I ended up loving it and laughing in every chapter.

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Emiko Superstar: 05/28/09

Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Steve Rolston won the YA Graphic Novel category of the Cybils earlier this year.

Emiko is a geeky and awkward teenager who wants to find her place in the world. She's an Asian Canadian growing up in Toronto. The book covers her summer vacation where she is baby sitting for a dysfunctional family and spending her nights as a performance artist in a club that draws its influence from Andy Warhol's Factory.

Emiko Superstar drew me into the story with the very first scene where she arrives home dressed like an escape from the Factory. She's minus a shoe and completely disheveled. She stumbles home and passes out on her messy bed. The rest of novel explains how she got to this point.

The story is about taking risks and the consequences that come with taking the wrong ones. Emiko risks arrest from attending the late night events at the Factory where any number of illegal things are going on. She also risks her personal health from the lech who runs the place. She also risks grounding from her parents if they find out about her late nights.

What the book does well is show a teenager's view of how the world works and the mistakes she makes with her assumptions. She's caught up with the phenomena of being popular and famous but is afraid at first to take the necessary risks to hone her skills. She's also taken in with showy attitude, being swept away with the obnoxious husband's bragging about his toys and possessions instead of seeing how manipulative he's being.

Emiko though isn't a perfect angel in an imperfect world. She gets her moment of fame through lying and stealing. She gets her source material from a diary she had no business reading and certainly no business copying from. The diary though does give the novel the chance to introduce a more adult lesbian story than Skim (also by Mariko Tamaki and also a Cybils nominee). By making the lesbian side plot strictly between two adults, it gives more room to show the risks, consequences and rewards of coming out.

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Blaze: 05/27/09

Pseudonyms are nothing new. Way back when before Stephen King's writing career had taken off he also wrote as Richard Bachman. One of the books he wrote back then (1972-3 per the introduction) was Blaze which mashes together Of Mice and Men and Ransom of Red Chief into a modern day kidnapping tale with a supernatural twist.

Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., (aka "Blaze") the stand-in for Lennie Small kidnaps the six month old son of a local millionaire. He does it with the help of his much smarter friend, George Thomas Rackley. There's just one problem: George is dead but that doesn't stop him from bossing Blaze around.

Blaze flip flips between the present and the past. The present focuses on the plan and execution of the kidnapping and the aftermath of it. The past starts with Blaze's childhood and works its way forward to the point where George dies. These glimpses into Clayton's past help make him a more sympathetic character in the present even if what he does puts the infant in danger.

For the most part, Blaze manages to be a present day or "America, Not All That Long Ago" novel as King puts it (p. 6). There are a few exceptions to this timelessness. The baby formula descriptions are the first big giveaway that the story was first written when I was an infant. Then there is the lack of modern technology: no cell phones, no computers, no ATMs and an abundance of pay phones. While King makes it sound like a bad thing that the book might still have evidence of having been written in the early 1970s, it doesn't bother me at all. If anything, it made the story feel more real to me.

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Zen Shorts: 05/26/09

Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth is a children's book that introduces key concepts of Buddhism and Taoism through the little tales Stillwater tells a trio of siblings. The story of Stillwater's friendship with Addy, Michael, and Karl are beautifully rendered in vibrant watercolors while the "shorts" are done in a style inspired by Sengai Gibbon.

The framing story for Stillwater's shorts is one many children will recognize. A new and unusual neighbor moves in nearby. This neighbor is of a different culture or from somewhere far away and is willing to share stories of his life. In this case, the neighbor is extra special for being a panda while all the other neighbors are human.

One by one the children spend time with Stillwater and their time with him inspire him to tell one of his stories. The three stories he tells are "Uncle Ry and the Moon", "The Farmer's Luck," and "A Heavy Load." They are roughly about the beauty of simplicity (or doing more with less), seeing the good in bad events and the importance of not holding a grudge. These three are good talking points for parents and children.

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Without Sin: 05/25/09

Without Sin is a young adult gay romance by J. M. Snyder writing as J. Thomas. It's a short, fast paced novel that covers the tumultuous first semester at an all boys boarding school.

Jacob is a tough kid who's been through a number of schools for his fighting. The best way to describe him is a young, hot headed and naive "Squash" Bernstein. As Squash explains in Victor Victoria: "...if you didn't want the guys to call you queer, you became a rough tough sonofabitchin' football player." Avery, the boy of his dreams, is older, more discrete and more in control of his emotions. Somehow in the confines of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Boarding School for Boys, these two will become a couple.

The novel is written in the present tense, first from Jacob's point of view and later from Avery's. As this is a romance and one with teens, the focus is almost exclusively on lust, angst and foreplay. Eventually there is sex but it's presented responsibly with thoughts of consequences. What is missing as the review on Rainbow Reviews points out is character development. Jacob and Avery's relationship is really one of convenience and while both profess their deeper commitment to each other and to their parents, there's not enough substance to back them up.

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The Valley of the Giants: 05/24/09

The Valley of the Giants by San Francisco author Peter B. Kyne is set on the edge of Humboldt Bay in the fictional town of Sequoia. It's located roughly where the "day time headlights" section of the 101 stretches between Eureka and Arcata California.

The novel follows the ups and downs of the Cardigan family from the founding of the logging town through the on-going rivalry with Col. Pennington over logging rights and other business matters. While the book starts in 1850, most of the plot is "present day" (roughly 1917-8) and focuses on the romance and rivalry of the second generation: Bryce Cardigan and Shirley Sumner (niece of Col. Pennington).

With a book written by a local author (whose influence is still felt in the Bay Area, all the way out to Tracy) and a setting in an area I know and love, it was hard to just take the fiction as fiction. Like Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series set in a town based on Santa Barbara, Kyne's Sequoia picks and chooses its landmarks on recognizable places. To confuse things though Kyne places his town in proximity to real locations (Arcata being mentioned). He even includes a map page 37 which lost me an hour or so playing with Google maps even though I know the town is made up!

The Valley of the Giants is not exactly a romance. It mostly focuses on the business aspects of running the mill in a time of financial crisis while trying to preserving some of the old growth forest for future generations. The old growth forest is the "Valley of the Giants" that the book takes its name from. It is reminiscent of course of the Avenue of the Giants which runs parallel with 101 in a stretch south of Eureka.

Kyne's novel has been adapted for film four times: in 1919, in 1927, in 1938 and finally very loosely in 1952 as The Big Trees. If you've seen the The Big Trees, Shirley Sumner is first and foremost a business woman. She is not a Quaker there to save the trees. Although she does ultimately help in saving them her reasons are in no way religiously motivated. Of these adaptations, only the 1938 and 1952 versions are readily available. I would personally prefer to see either the 1919 or 1927 versions as they sound like the closest adaptations to the book. The book though is still available in reprint and through Project Gutenberg.

The approximate location of Sequoia

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The Avenger of Love: 05/23/09

"The Avenger of Love" in the April / May issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is dedicated to Harlan Ellison. I haven't read enough of his work to get the connection between Skillingstead's story and Ellison's writing. Despite the gap in my reading I liked the story.

Norman Helmcke an "aging pit bull" of a lawyer realizes one day that he's lost the vital essence of his first love. Rather than accept these gaps in his memory as part of growing old, he goes on a quest to find the thief who is stealing his memories.

The story reminds me most of "Unpossible" by Daryl Gregory which is another FSF story about lost moments in childhood.

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Ulysses: Episode 13: Nausicaä: Petting in the Park: 05/23/09

Pettin in the Park... bad boy! Pettin' in the park... bad girl!

Before I jump into Episode 13, I feel like I should explain the method behind these posts. I do my reading in the middle of the week and before I begin, I go to the Wikipedia article that outlines the key plot points. It helps get my brain into gear. While I read I try to picture the connection between The Odyssey and Ulysses. I also keep notes of whatever films or television shows I'm reminded of as I'm reading. If I come up with more than one, I try to pick the one that has the most points of similarity with Ulysses.

The thirteenth episode of Ulysses called "Nausicaä." As it turns out much of the adventures of the Odyssey are recounted by Odysseus as he is recovering after having been shipwrecked on the beach where Princess Nausicaä was doing laundry with the servants. While his nakedness and the need to borrow some of the laundry could lead to an unfortunate scandal, nothing actually happens between Nausicaä and Odysseus.

In Ulysses the episode takes place at the beach and there is flirtation between a bored young woman named Gerty MacDowell and Bloom who is out there with a wet shirt. Gerty is there acting as a nanny to the other women she's with, watching their young children. She'd rather have a romantic tryst than be stuck with a couple of brats.

A crawling baby leads the camera to these long legsThe combination of flirtation, innuendo and babies made me think of the "Petting in the Park" number from The Gold Diggers of 1933. The number, not to be confused with the cleaned up cartoon version (also by Warner Bros.) revels in the heavy petting that often time happens in public places. It's something to be enjoyed by lovers (young and old) and sometime to be watched.

While the lyrics, dancing and camera work all hint at sex, nothing is actually shown and nothing is explicitly spelled out. The number playfully builds sexual tension and takes time away from the growing love triangle of the main plot.

A can open for the modern day chastity beltSo like the young man and woman in "Petting in the Park", Gerty has needs. Unfortunately for her, she isn't equipped with a can opener to get at the prize she seeks (Bloom). She will have go on day-dreaming of love (or lust) to come rather than actually experiencing it.

I have five episodes left, meaning I'll be finished on June 27th (baring illness or some other disaster). For being 3/4 of the way through the list of episodes, I still have physically half the book to read. I find this fact a bit unnerving!

Below I have included "Petting in the Park" for you to watch. It's seven minute song and dance number with a catchy tune. I'd personally love to hear a punk cover of it.

Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Fourteen: The Oxen of the Sun. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print.

"Petting in the Park" from Gold Diggers of 1933

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Through Endangered Eyes: 05/22/09

Rachel Allen Dillon's book Through Endangered Eyes combines poetry and beautiful acrylic illustrations to teach children about different endangered species. When the book first arrived for review my son snatched up the book and immediately sat down to read it. He has since read it a number of times to himself and to his sister. He has probably read it more thoroughly than I have.

Since the book is aimed at children my son's age, I consider his enthusiasm for it the best review possible. Except for some of the animal names, the poems use words that he can easily read to teach basic concepts about the different animals. The colorful illustrations get him (and his sister) excited and eager to learn something new about a animal.

At the back of the book there is more detailed information for each species. These sections are perfect for me to read with my children. Dillon also includes links to sites for even further reading. Through Endangered Eyes will continue to be a cherished read in our family for the foreseeable future.

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Timepiece: 05/21/09

Timepiece is a full length novel that offers the first of two prequels to the The Christmas Box novella. It's written as a romance that tracks the relationship and marriage of David and Mary Anne Parkins.

Prequels often read like complicated dot-to-dots where the key scenes mentioned in the previous book must be recreated and fleshed out. In Timepiece Evans concentrates more on the motifs than on the dateline: certain clocks, the house, the angel and of course the Christmas Box. The focus on things rather than scenes helps make Timepiece a better than average prequel.

Unfortunately, though, David Parkins develops into a full blooded Marty-Stu. He's perfect in every regard. He's liberal beyond his time: bravely tossing aside racism and willing to take in Mary Anne when she's pregnant by her ex-boyfriend. He's also wealthy, handsome and desired by all the young ladies in town. On the flip side, Mary Anne isn't the perfect woman she presented herself as in The Christmas Box. Her foibles here make her an interesting and believable character.

While I didn't enjoy Timepiece as much as I did The Christmas Box or The Locket, it did give a glimpse at old Salt Lake City and at the history of the old mansion that features so prominently in The Christmas Box. The book suffers (though not as much) from the same problems as many prequels have.

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Three Little Fish and the Big Bad Shark: 05/20/09

From our most recent Scholastic book purchase, 0439719623>The Three Little Fish and the Big Bad Shark by Ken Geist and illustrated by Julia Gorton is our favorite. The book is a cute spoof on the traditional three little pigs story with the pigs replaced by fish and the wolf by a shark.

As the kids are also fans of B0009WIE5C target="_blank">The Storybook Factory which also retells the story with some singing, we sing certain parts of the book to the same music as the LeapFrog video. Sean and Harriet enjoy singing the book so much that they actually do it as a duet now. It's really cute to listen to. If I had a video camera, I'd share them singing it. Instead, I'll share this YouTube video of a boy named Harrison reading the book (see below).

The illustrations for the book are bright and cheery. The shark, while all teeth, isn't a very scary looking shark. Sometimes we stop our singing long enough to admire the details on each page.

The only problem with the book is the lettering. I'm not sure if it's a funky font or hand drawn but the sentences with their randomly changing word size tend to run together. There are a few places where despite having read the book now about fifty times I still get hung up.


Sorcerers of Majipoor: 05/19/09

Sorcerers of Majipoor takes place one thousand years before the start of Lord Valentine's Castle. The traditional passage from Coronal to Pontifax and the choosing of a new Coronal will be challenged when the blood heir of the soon to be Pontifax desires the throne. Though there is no written law against a blood succession it just isn't done. Until now.

What Works:

Majipoor is still an interesting, diverse and complex world. Silverberg has thought about how the country works from the ground up. For my inner political junkie I love to see the scheming and backstabbing. The world is well realized from architecture, geography, entertainment, different cultures, arts and so forth.

What Doesn't:

The plot progression in Sorcerers of Majipoor goes on a geologic scale. I can't complain that the book is "too long" because it's not much longer than any of Silverberg's other books (which I have enjoyed). The problem here is the minutiae. Before anything can happen the current Pontifax has to die except he doesn't, not for first two hundred pages. That's amazing for a man apparently at death's door. It doesn't get any better once he does die because there is the long journey back to Castlemount.

In other words, the very thing I normally adore about Silverberg's writing gets in the way: his world building. The novel is so hung up on the details that there's very little room for the characters to maneuver. Even they seem restless and bored! There are two more novels in the Lord Prestimion (who I keep wanting to call Lord Persimmon) series that I am deciding to skip.

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The Ride: 05/18/09

There is an expected flow to time and the powers that be don't like it when the natural order of things is ignored. Thaddeus A. James gets his chance to break the rules of time and space in the form of a red truck last seen in 1965 before a fatal crash outside of a gift shop in a rural North Carolina town. Thus begins The Ride by Tom Brandner, a horror-thriller that crosses time and the realm between the living and the dead.

A well written horror will have a definite sense of place, a setting that can be rendered as normal, abnormal and terrifying. The Ride has this quality, being firmly set in North Carolina along winding blue highways and back roads and later through distorted, sometimes hellish versions of the familiar landscape.

The Ride had me hooked by the first page, a rare thing for a book. It was a combination of classic cars, a creepy setting, time travel and memorable characters. Brandner doesn't fall into the trap of loving his characters too much. If they need to die to forward the story, he kills them. He establishes this fact early, thus building the sense of danger and suspense as Thaddeus and the other major characters being their perilous drag race.

When I first finished the novel, I got so wrapped up in the story that I had high hopes for a sappy ending. I've since then been ruminating over the ending. Though part of me would still have preferred the tight, romantic conclusion, The Ride isn't a romance. It's a horror novel themed around the bittersweet tragedies of life. With that in mind, the conclusion is as it should be.

If you like books like Michael Marshall, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft or Daphne Du Maurier and have a thing for fast cars, you'll enjoy The Ride.

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Hunger: 05/17/09

I am glad I read The Eighth Day of the Week by Marek Hlasko before reading 0316907197>Hunger by Elise Blackwell because it put me in the right frame of mind. Both are very intimate first hand accounts of the effects of the Second World War. Blackwell's novel covers the siege of Leningrad (September 1941 through January 1944) and focuses on the botanists at the Vavilov Institute who protected their collection of seeds despite the starvation faced by the city.

Hunger like The Eighth Day of the Week is a short novel, only 131 pages. The narrator, a not entirely sympathetic character, shuffles together the brutal truth of his wife's starvation and his affair during the siege with memories of the seed collecting trips, elaborate meals once eaten and the history of Babylon. The combination makes for a thoughtful essay on human nature.

Remarkably Hunger was Elise Blackwell's debut novel. She has two more novels published, neither of which I've had the pleasure to read but want to.

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The Brave Little Toaster: 05/16/09

The classic reprint in the April / May issue is "The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances." This delightful novella was first printed in the August 1980 issue and later reprinted as a 0385230508>children's book in 1986. It was then adapted in 1987 as an B00009YXAW>animated film. The film I've seen an enjoyed many times.

The brave little toaster and his companions live (if that's the right word) in the summer cabin of the master. He hasn't visited them for nearly three years and the little toaster wants to see what's become of him. Thus begins the classic quest with a party of dissimilar but capable companions, expect this time it's being taken by a toaster, a lamp, a radio, an electric blanket and a vacuum cleaner.

As it turns out appliances aren't inanimate and they aren't silent. They can move and talk but they only do it when humans aren't present. To find the master they will have to bend this rule.

Now this novella has a different ending than the film. I haven't read the children's book so I don't know which ending it has. The film ends with a happy reunion with the long lost master. But in the novella the appliances learn that people's needs and priorities change. Rather than resign to their fate at the junkyard, though, the appliances learn the importance of making one's own destiny.

The novella is as charming as the film. Although it's long it's a quick read. It's not as sentimental but the humor is there. It was the perfect read for a hot spring afternoon.

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Caberet... the modern venue of the classic sirenUlysses: Episode 12: The Cyclops: Pick-a-Little: 05/16/09

The twelfth episode of Ulysses called "The Cyclops." In The Odyssey the Polyphemus (which means famous in Greek) was one of the big bads of the epic. In Ulysses though, the cyclops is more a stand in for narrow minded thinking and bigotry.

The entire episode focuses on gossip, often loaded down with stereotypes and. At one point Joyce compares the noisy talking to the sound of chickens. Chickens and gossip? Where else have I seen that? The Music Man of course.

Seductive secretaryThe Music Man (book, music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson) hinges on con man "Harold Hill" being able to convince the local music teacher that his "think system" actually works before she will sign off on his sales pitch and get the parents to buy all his instruments and band uniforms. Unfortunately for Harold Hill he's in a town with a music teacher who's also the local (and well read) librarian. Worst of all, she's wrapped up in some old scandal ("He left River City the Library building.

But he left all the books to her"). I always imagine Marian "the Librarian" Paroo as a gold digger and a little black book even though she plays innocent all the way through the play.

In the case of The Music Man there are two Cyclops, a married pair in fact in the form of Mayor Shinn and Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. While the Mayor usually sends the school board to his dirty work, Mrs. Shinn does her own dirty work. Being played by Hermione Gingold she's the perfect blend of a famous gossip, thus bringing together The Odyssey and Ulysses. She even has a toga for the occasion.

Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Thirteen: Nausicaä. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print.

"Pick-a-Little" / "Good Night Ladies" from The Music Man

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Susan Vreeland: 05/16/09

Weekly Geeks

I grew up in University City, a neighborhood of northern San Diego. It's right at the edge of the city's boundaries before you hit "North County." North County to San Diego is what "The Valley" is to Los Angeles. So I'm basically a San Diego Valley Girl. I don't live in San Diego any longer, haven't really since 1991 when I went away to college.

This week's post though asks us to write about books or authors from our "home town." I can't think of any better example of a "home town" author connection for me than Susan Vreeland. When I was at University City High School (a the time a three year school, grades 10 through 12), Vreeland was the ceramics teacher and she was just starting up a new creative writing program. My best friend took her ceramics class; I took her creative writing class.

Susan Vreeland in 1989I was in high school from 1989 - 1991. So if you do the math, you'll know how old I am. I took Ms. Vreeland's creative writing course in either my junior or senior year. I can't honestly remember. She had just published her first novel, a semi-fictional, semi-biographical romance involving a blind couple called What Love Sees (which was later turned into a television movie on CBS). The process of becoming a published author frustrated her but exhilarated her. I remember her main advice was: get it published in hard back first; the royalties are better.

I've pulled out my old year book to show you Ms. Vreeland as a teacher. She was one of my favorites. Like so many of my favorites she was a bit of a rebel — a non-conformist. While she taught us the rules of writing for different situations, she also taught us how to bend them and skirt them and when we could ignore them while still showing that we did know them.

Before taking her class I wanted to be a published author. After taking her class and certainly all these years later I still do. It's one of my goals for after my husband gets his PhD (next week!). Ms. Vreeland wasn't one of the young geniuses who get published in their late teens or twenties. She worked at it and stuck with it.

From reading her biography her writing career really took off around the time Ian and I were moving up to Bay Area. I had found a career path that I loved and paid the bills (more or less) as a web designer and he was taking time off from graduate school to write at a computer magazine. In other words, we were so wrapped up in getting our own young adult lives up and running that I missed her first big book, The Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

It wasn't until 2003 during a particular bleak part of my adult life when I was newly laid off and without benefits, lots of bills to pay, a young child and my husband back in graduate school that The Girl in Hyacinth Blue landed in my lap. It had come to via BookCrossing as a book ring. I had signed up because I liked the title; I hadn't even paid attention to the author's name. So when the book arrived and I pulled it out of its envelope and I saw Susan Vreeland listed as the author my first thought was: "Not my Ms. Vreeland!"

I'm going to leave you with another snap shot from my year book to show you what San Diego was like from a high school student's point of view in 1989:

San Diego 1989

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Free to Be... You and Me: 05/15/09

I'm as old as Free to Be... You and Me by Marlo Thomas (and friends). The book, record and TV special were some of the inescapable things in my childhood (no matter how hard I tried!) and now the book is back and it landed (uninvited) on my doorstep for review.

As Ms. Thomas explains in the beginning of the book she was inspired to create Free to Be... You and Me when her niece complained about all the books having princesses who need to be rescued. My response would have been: you're reading the wrong the books! What about Alice, Ozma, Dorothy, Anne, Trixie, Nancy, Madeline, Wendy and Mary to name just a few of the many literary heroines from my youth who didn't need princes or rescuing.

Free to Be... You and Me isn't though just trying to be a book to empower young women, it also tries to give boys permission to like things considered "girlie" (dolls and pink and showing emotions). As I pointed out in The Boy Who Wanted to be a Fish by Le Grand, pink for girls is a relatively new thing. A better way of conveying a message (whatever it is) is to show not tell. For boys who like pink, I recommend Pinkalicious and Purplicious for the younger brother in the book who is almost as nuts about pink as his big sister.

The big message of this book is basically this: don't be afraid to do your own thing. Unfortunately the book comes with the conceit that children don't have the will power to think for themselves or push boundaries. That's not been the case with most of the children I've met through my own two.

This reissue comes with sheet music and a CD. The original cartoons are on YouTube if you're inclined to watch them.

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The Books of Magic: 05/14/09

Despite my geekiness, I'm a relatively new reader of graphic novels and manga. This means I missed most of Neil Gaiman's early works and I'm only now catching up. I've read a few reviews of The Books of Magic that suggest reading the 1563892278 target="_blank">Sandman series first but I didn't and that choice didn't seem to inhibit my enjoyment of this four part miniseries.

The Books of Magic is a four part miniseries all written by Neil Gaiman with each volume illustrated by a different artist. They are a tour of the magic characters from the DC universe. Being given this tour is young Timothy Hunter, a British boy with an unhappy family life who wears glasses and has yet to be discovered magical powers. He's basically cut from the same cloth as Harry Potter except that he's likeable and believable. Oh yeah, and he has an owl, made from his yo-yo. Before you think I'm pointing fingers at Rowling (I've read reviews where that happens), I'm not. The ten year old boy with a big destiny is an old story. Harry and Timothy can both give nods to young Arthur Pendragon.

Book I: The Invisible Labyrinth

Illustrated by John Bolton, The Invisible Labyrinth introduces Timothy Hunter and the characters who will help him on his journey to decide between magic or the non-magical world. This book sets the foundations. It defines the rules to magic, introduces Timothy as an understandably skeptic protagonist, and gives a hint at the dangers Timothy will face if he decides to embrace his magical ability.

The best part of this section is how quickly we get a sense of how important Timothy will be. I enjoyed getting to know Timothy and I fell for Yo-Yo the owl. The downside for me was the sheer amount of info-dumping. I know that's part of DC way of doing things but I kept wanting the plot to get started. The Invisible Labyrinth felt more like an extended introduction than the first book.

Book II: The Shadow World

The Shadow World is illustrated by Scott Hampton is a present day (1990) tour of the world as led by John Constantine. This section had a bit of a Neverwhere feel to it with Timothy Hunter and Constantine traveling through the world going from place to place as needed with many short cuts. Timothy begins to see that the magical world while set in places recognizable from the non magical world exist in parallel to the world Timothy has just left.

My favorite part in The Shadow World is the trip to San Francisco. It was the best glimpse at how the people and creatures of the magical world live. Of course living in the Bay Area, I have to be partial to the inclusion of "The City."

Book III: The Land of Summer's Twilight

Charles Vess illustrated the third (and my favorite) book. Here Constantine hands off Timothy to Doctor Occult. Together they cross into Faerie and other fantasy realms. I read this book at the same time I was reading "The Spiral Briar" by Sean McMullen. The two complement each other beautifully. Timothy here learns the importance of knowing the laws of the different magical worlds and the dangers of not following them.

Book IV: The Road to Nowhere

The final book, illustrated by Paul Johnson takes Timothy to the end of time. Unfortunately he's taken there by Mister E who is unstable and dangerous. The ends of days scene has been done many times and it's a logical conclusion to the miniseries. It's also unfortunately tiresome.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed reading The Books of Magic. As an omnibus it's a quick read. I chose to read only one book per day, thus spreading out the experience over four days. It's not my favorite graphic novel that I've read but it's certainly one that will stick with me.

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Recovering Charles: 05/13/09

Recovering Charles by Jason F. Wright is two stories in one novel. The first is the recovery and redemption of an alcoholic widower. The second is the son's quest to find his father in New Orleans the post Katrina aftermath. Charles Millward is the father, finally getting his act together in New Orleans and Luke Millward is his estranged son who is faced with the grim task of tracking down the body of a man he hasn't spoken to in years.

What Works:
Wright's descriptions of New Orleans are vivid, gritty and nuanced. He depicts the city before and after Katrina with an understanding that doesn't fall on the typical stereotypes. The characters who live there seem real and diverse.

The story of the collapse of the Millward family after the tragic death of Mrs. Millward's mother makes Charles's actions understandable. I also liked how Charles was able to find what he needed in New Orleans.

What Doesn't:
Large scale tragedies evoke a numbness in people and Luke's reluctance to come down to New Orleans after receiving the phone call makes sense but after he does finally make the drive he never comes out of that shell.

Luke as the protagonist and narrator of Recovering Charles should be driving the emotions of the novel. Except, he can't because he never seems to feel anything. He's bland, passive and boring. The final strike against Luke is the way he treats his long time girlfriend Jordan. His abandonment turned my disinterest in him to complete dislike.

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Alphabet Rescue: 05/12/09

My children and I love the Charley's Alphabet series by Audrey and Bruce Wood. Alphabet Rescue (2006) is the third and currently final book in the series. The first two are Alphabet Adventure and Alphabet Mystery.

In Alphabet Rescue Charley's alphabet has finished their first year in school with Charley and are heading back to Alphabet City for a well earned summer vacation. While in the city they meet up with the local fire fighting squad and try their "hands" at being fire fighters. Unfortunately the hose gets away from them and they are scolded by Fire Chief F saying that fire fighting is a capital letter's job (they are all lower case).

Charley's alphabet decides to rebuild an old abandoned fire truck and make it their own. As with the previous two books, each letter in the alphabet makes a contribution to the project: the o brings oil, the p brings paint, the y paints the yellow stripe and so forth. The rebuilding of the car invites helps teach vocabulary while being a fun hide and seek game.

Many of the pages also include every single letter of the alphabet, sometimes in upper case, sometimes in lower case and sometimes in both. To make things a little easier both cases are the same color (the I and i are red for example).

The story isn't just about rebuilding a classic car, it's about young letters proving their worth. After doing a number of small rescues (rescuing the letters C A T from a tree and helping M U D wash their car) Charley's alphabet gets the chance to be true heroes.

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Poor, Poor Ophelia: 05/11/09

Sometimes acquiring a book to read is as much an odyssey as the act of reading. KOFY, my favorite local TV station prides itself on showing retro television. My current favorite of their retro series is B000RZIGV8 target="_blank">The Streets of San Francisco which ran from 1972-7. I can remember watching it with my grandparents. I thought the detectives' car was funny because they had to stick the siren on their roof when they needed it.

In rewatching the show I kept noticing a "based on the novel by Carolyn Weston" in the credits. A quick trip to IMDB brought up the title I was looking for, 0394473981 target="_blank">Poor, Poor Ophelia by Carolyn Weston, published the same year that the pilot debuted. As the pilot was ninety minutes long, KOFY has never shown it and while it was fun to read the book that inspired the TV series, I was disappointed that I hadn't seen it (not in the first run since I'm a year too young) and certainly not in rerun. Netflix, though, took care of that problem but first, the book.

The coroner's vanWhile the TV series takes place in the county and city of San Francisco, Weston's novel takes place in Santa Monica. She wrote what she knew, being raised in Hollywood during the Depression. When she started this new series featuring a rookie detective and his grizzled mentor she set it on familiar ground. Unfortunately the location opens up all sorts of complications of jurisdictions from all the tiny cities that exist in the Los Angeles basin. By moving the series north to San Francisco most of that added complexity disappears.

The main characters in Weston's series are Casey Kellog (the native rookie) and Al Krug (the mentor but non-native Californian). These two in series switch roles a bit and improve their names to Steve Keller (the rookie who is now an outsider) and Mike Stone (the San Francisco native and career cop). The mentor really needs those long term ties to the city to make his street smarts all the more concrete. That being said, much of Weston's characterization holds up in their way of dressing, their mannerisms, and basic outlooks on life.

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears. Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia:
The title of course comes from Hamlet. This time though, the girl has not drowned herself of a broken heart but been murdered by a blow to the neck. The victim's name is Holly Jean Berry and her last few days alive are replayed through extensive flashbacks in both the book and the pilot. I love how the opening shots before the credits stage Holly's body to mimic the very groovy cover.

The book introduces a theme that replays many times in the series: the mentor's distrust of the younger generation. The main suspect is a young well groomed (by 1970s standards) lawyer named David Farr. He and the rookie are of the same generation and that adds tension to the investigation. That tension in turn allows them to be distracted by false leads and misguided gut feelings.

Like any good mystery, the clues are there. They are consistent and presented early on. They are there for observant eyes in both the book and the pilot. Not everything will come together until later but the process in entertaining and rewarding. The ending holds up and brings to mind shows like Numb3rs and Criminal Minds and any number of modern police procedural type mystery series.

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The Graveyard Book: 05/10/09

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (with illustrations by Dave McKean) won the Middle Grade Cybils in the Science Fiction and Fantasy category. It's the story of Nobody Owens who is adopted by the "residents" of the next door cemetery when his family is brutally murdered.

Unlike so many recent orphan stories, Bod, as he's known by his friends and adopted family, is a well loved and happy child. His childhood may be unconventional and his schooling spotty by modern standards but he is still a happy and well adjusted child.

At the back of the book Gaiman describes the history behind The Graveyard Book. He points first and foremost to The Jungle Book and yes, it does share many similarities with the two volumes that make up Kipling's best known work. There's the young boy raised by an unlikely family (ghosts and other creatures of the night instead of the animals of India), an assassin disguised as a friend (Shere Kahn vs. Jay Frost), becoming one of the group (by seeing the elephants dance vs. the danse macabre) and so forth.

If you haven't read The Jungle Book you can still enjoy The Graveyard Book. The story is engaging, charming while being creepy and sometimes down right frightening. Key points in the novel are brought to life with Dave McKean's illustrations. There is a portrait of Bod on page 294 at the start of the final chapter that is very close to the author photograph at the back of the book. Gaiman says the story was inspired by his son Mike when he was two (although it took him twenty some years to finish the book!) but it seems that there's a lot of Neil in all his male leads.

Finally, if you do read the book (and I hope you do!), take the time to read the Acknowledgments on pages 311-2. I love it when authors share the methods and stories behind their finished works. Besides learning about the connection between The Jungle Book and The Graveyard Book, you will learn about the people who inspired the book and the others who helped in any number of ways. I did not expect to see (but was delighted to) Audrey Niffenegger and Moby among the long list of friends who helped.

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The Spiral Briar: 05/09/09

At long last I'm current again with my reading of F&SF. Of course the June / July issue is out and I'll still be reading the April/May issue next month.

The first story in the April / May issue is "The Spiral Briar" by Sean McMullen. Like "The Twilight Year" the story is set in England, though in a later century. Sir Gerald seeks revenge at the death of his sister after a failed kidnapping attempt by an elf lord. He seeks to close the portal between the human world and Faerie that lies on the water of the river. His solution is one that involves some steam punk engineering.

"The Spiral Briar" is told in small pieces, each section named for the main character or theme: The Brother, The Armorer, The Blacksmith and so forth. Having just read The Books of Magic by Neil Gaimen I guessed pretty quickly what Sir Gerald's men were instructed to build. There isn't anything remotely steam punk in Gaiman's graphic novel but he describes the basic rules of crossing into Faerie and how to avoid getting trapped. Those rules apply directly to the methods used in building the craft and its ability to shut the portals.

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Ulysses: Episode 11: Sirens: Our Man in Havana: 05/09/09

Caberet... the modern venue of the classic siren

The eleventh episode of Ulysses called "The Sirens" is pretty self explanatory. The sirens on the rocks are among the best known pieces of Greek mythology. They sing from their rocks luring in the ships and then they eat the crew as they lay scattered in their smashed vessels.

In Ulysses the sirens make their appearance as a seductive barmaids at a the hotel restaurant. There is also singing but it is done by Simon Dedalus (Stephen's father) and other drunken patrons at the hotel.

Seductive secretaryThe music and noise of the hotel restaurant is rendered as a strings of lyrics thrown in amongst the dialogue and limited descriptions. The music comes in without explanation and without warning or segue. In that regard, the noisy pub is as much a distraction to the reader as the sirens are to sailors.

With the location of dinner in a noisy, music filled location brought to mind many different scenes I could have used to illustrate Joyce's rendition of the sirens. The best one though is the introduction of the secretary and radio man in Our Man in Havana. Although Beatrice Severn and the radio man don't sing as part of their introductions, they first meet Wormold in the noise of a Havana dinner theater.

Champagne?Beatrice Severn's appearance means trouble for Wormold. After her arrival things hot up in Havana for real and perceived reasons. Her existence ads to the seductive power of being a spy, albeit a bogus one. As a divorce she symbolically has left behind a trail of men (even if it's just one). Wormold, like Odysseus is on an island far from his wife (who in this case, left him for a suitor).

So if Beatrice is a siren, it appears that Stephen's family are some how the sirens (in the sense of being trouble) for Bloom. There are seven more episodes remaining to see how their trouble plays out.

Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Twelve: The Cyclops. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print.

As an added bonus, I want to share my runner up. This is a dream sequence of sirens called the "Lullaby of Broadway" from the 1935 film Gold Diggers of 1935. In it a woman is lured to her death by the sirens call (and dance) at a late night New York dinner theater.

Lullaby of Broadway

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The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint: 05/08/09

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall was inspired by the his wife's ex-boyfriend having his head run over by a mail truck a child. Udall's childhood in a Mormon family in Arizona provide more points of reference for the novel. Despite all the brutality and poverty Edgar Mint faces in his life the novel has an odd sentimental tone to it similar to the recent film adaptation of B001U0HBPQ>The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The novel starts with the accident but gives no clear reason behind how it happened. Of course there's no way for Edgar to remember exactly why he ended up under the wheel of the truck. From there the book divides Edgar's life into four books: Saint Divines (where the miracle happens), Willie Sherman (the boarding school), Richland (where he is sponsored by a Mormon family) and Stony Run (where the miracle draws to a close).

My favorite parts of the novel are the first and final books. My least favorite is Willie Sherman for its length and brutality. I don't doubt the validity of his depiction of the church run school for Apaches. I've read enough nonfiction on the subject to know how bad things are. It like so many boarding school plots just felt too long and repetitive.

The copy I read was a British import and when Edgar leaves the boarding school the edits to make the language more British got in the way of the story. There were little details that just started piling up, like the substitution of Smarties for M&Ms, that poked too many holes in Edgar Mint's world for me.

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Lost: 05/07/09

The central thesis of Lost by Gregory Maguire is that people are haunted not by ghosts, but by themselves and their own failures, stresses and worries for the future. For Winifred Rudge her ghosts are a failed marriage, her stalled writing career and her fears of never writing again.

Winifred Rudge, an author of children's fiction, has gone to London to work on an adult novel that has been rattling around in her head for a while. She plans to stay with an old friend but he's gone missing. In his place she finds superstitious builders trying (and failing) to do a quick remodel on the flat.

While Winifred is there she is the flat begins to manifest strange sounds, foul odors and the pattern of a cross with a zigzag through it. All of these events distract Winifred from her writing. Instead of working she works through a number of theories to figure out what is going on with the flat and more importantly what has happened to her missing friend.

Gregory Maguire starts with a well known story and then writes his own. He's best known for 0060987103 target="_blank">Wicked which tries to imagine the back story for the Wicked Witch of the West. For Lost he starts with A Christmas Carol and creates something that is half chick lit and half Gothic horror. Wicked and Lost are very different in style and form. Everything I wished he had done in Wicked he has done in Lost.

I didn't enjoy Wicked because it was too different in tone and setting from Oz as it was described in the Baum books. Oz was Oz in name only and was entirely disappointing to me having read most of the books numerous times. A Christmas Carol is another book I've read dozens of times but this time the link to Lost is thematic only. Instead of trying to write within Dickens's London and Scrooge's circle of acquaintances, Maguire sets the novel in modern-day London with a fictional family purporting to have a link to Charles Dickens and kinship to a man who may have been the inspiration for Scrooge. By using A Christmas Carol as a starting point, rather than a blueprint, Maguire manages to create a suspenseful Gothic horror with a chick lit facade. This book that I expected to hate ended up being one of the best (and scariest) novels I've this year.

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Harold's Fairy Tale: 05/06/09

The second Harold book by Crockett Johnson is Harold's Fairy Tale. As with the first book, Harold finds himself unable to sleep and decides to go on a little walk to relax before bedtime. This time, though, he walks himself into a fantasy world full of a castle, a king, and a mysterious threat: either a witch or a giant.

Harold's Fairy Tale expands on the magical qualities of the purple crayon. In the first book the crayon's line has unexpected results — wiggly lines become waves and a dropped line becomes a cliff. Here though, Harold knows the crayon's power and takes full advantage of it. For example, when he can't get into the castle he draws a mouse hole for himself, thus making himself now small enough to sneak inside. Once in, he draws stairs just the right height for him to climb up, returning him to the scale of the people inside the castle.

While I enjoy the magic of Harold's Fairy Tale, Harold and the Purple Crayon remains my favorite for its simplistic charm. My kids though love the revelation of the monster attacking the castle. As with all things in the Harold book, it's the crayon that brings the truth to light and ultimately the crayon that saves the day.

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The Elephants of Style: 05/05/09

I picked up The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh because I liked the title, a silly little pun on 0205313426 target="_blank">The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White (1957). The book promises a "trunkload of tips on the big issues and gray areas of contemporary American English."

The book has fourteen elephants covering key points of writing and editing. Walsh starts out with the basic reminder that most modern-day writers probably aren't writing on a typewriter. With word processors it is no longer necessary or desirable to leave two spaces after a period. If you write or blog for the web you'll know that web browsers don't render any extra spaces after the first one unless it's hard coded as a non-breaking space.

From the typewriter advice, Walsh moves onto spelling (and common errors), capitalization, abbreviations, problem pairs (picking the right word), word agreement, plurals and possessives, numbers, punctuation, quibbles about style, plagiarism and finally editing. The Elephants of Style is a good starting point for writing well in American English. It won't make your writing perfect. Walsh also reiterates a number of times that writers should double check his advice against their companies' style guides.

For the most part I enjoyed The Elephants of Style but I think the advice on writing for the web feels dated. I realize that back in the early days of commercialization of the internet, the phrase World Wide Web was coined (that's the www that shows up on most URLs) but the capitalization of "Web" in web site (or more preferable website) or web page (or webpage) stinks of marketing. Techies tend to write the terms as website or webpage and marketing folks tend to go for Web site and Web page.

Now for URLs, if you're writing on the web, don't spell out the URL. Instead, spell out the name of the page and then link to it. Your reader, if interested, will click on it. If you are writing for print, it still looks nicer to have the site's name spelled out (so Yahoo instead of If you want to include the URL, please include it as a footnote or endnote.

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Look at Me: 05/04/09

Look at Me by Anita Brookner is in the "Love" section of the Guardian's 1001 books you must read. I didn't read it because it's on the list. Frankly, I had forgotten it was on the list. I read it simply because I liked the title.

Look at Me (1983) is Brookner's third novel, coming the year before Hotel du Lac (which won the Booker). It's a short, introspective look at a moment of hope turned to disappointment. It's more mood piece than novel, filled with carefully chosen words and phrases.

At the center of the novel is Frances Hinton who hates to be called Fanny, likes to write and works in a medical library. She has had two of her stories published but has set aside her writing, stuck in the routine of her life.

She hopes things will change for the better when she is "adopted" by a well to do couple, Alix and Nick. In many of the reviews I've read, Alix and Nick are compared to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald or any of Fitzgerald's fictional couples. I have to agree and I was most reminded of Anthony and Gloria Patch in 0743451503>The Beautiful and the Damned (1922). Both couples are so focused on having fun and putting on a good show that they can't see how close they are to spiraling out of control even when the spiraling has begun.

Despite enjoying the similarities to Fitzgerald's novels, Frances's bookishness and Brookner's careful turn of phrase, I can't say I loved the book. I wanted to see her grow a little more or see Alix and Nick fall a little farther. That being said, I liked the book enough to want to read another novel by Anita Brookner's

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Life Expectancy: 05/03/09

Jimmy Tock is born on the day of his grandfather's death. Before dying grandpa Tock made predictions about five dates in Jimmy's future. Jimmy's life is forever shaped by those predictions and Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz tracks how they play out.

Jimmy Tock the first person narrator is a chatty fellow. If he were real, he'd be one of those annoying sorts who loves to hear himself talk. Combine his "humorous" asides with the fact that the prophecies all involve a clown seeking revenge and the book flounders.

So maybe Life Expectancy has a twist at the end. No, not really. Any time you have simultaneous births at the start of a story it's only for one reason. And yeah, Koontz goes for the cliché.

While I've never considered myself a Dean Koontz fan, I have enjoyed the books I've read. I can't say that any longer.

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FSFThe Tribes of Bela: 05/03/09

Albert E. Cowdrey seems to specialize in long short stories. For the most part the ones of his I've read have been centered in and around New Orleans. The two exceptions being "Poison Victory" and "Seafarer's Blood." I can now add "Tribes of Bela" to this list.

"Tribes of Bela" was the cover story for the August 2004 issue and it's set on another world four light years away named Bela. There is a small mining operation of 1,200 people and in the last couple years a few people have been found murdered. Colonel Robert Kohn has come to investigate.

The short story is told in the recorded logs to be used later as testimony of those being deposed. Colonel Kohn, a doctor and one other are the principle narrators. Each provides information to chronicle the investigation, what it turned up and ultimately how the mining operation had to be abandoned.

"The Tribes of Bela" reminds me of a number of other excellent science fiction stories: Gateway by Frederik Pohl, The Left-hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, The World is Round by Tony Rothman and any number of Hal Clement novels. Then mix in the investigation and it's like the TV show Criminal Minds in a science fiction setting.

Read my other reviews of Cowdrey's FSF short stories:

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Shadow-Below: 05/02/09

Here it is the first weekend in May and I'm just now wrapping up the March issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction with "Shadow-Below" by my favorite recurring author: Robert Reed. It's the fifth of his Lakota Indian series but the first I've had the pleasure to read.

"Conrad" Shadow-Below has left the hidden Lakota to live in the open. He has worked as a security guard but is now giving wilderness survival courses to the rich and famous. He is Raven's uncle, the main character from the first story, and is being pestered to take the boy in to fulfill his part in a prophesy.

Shadow-Below's current life and the stories he tells to his students helps paint a world where food production has been so perfected that the wealthy are buying up huge acreage as personal wild life refuges. The once "tamed" landscape of the American midwest has been reverted to a wilderness state.

The native cultures, though, haven't been as lucky as the flora and fauna. With the return of the wilderness comes a romanticized view of what life must have been like for the Lakota and others. Shadow-Below while not revealing his secret connection to the hidden Lakota tries to dispel this mythology. He is constantly reminding his students that they were above all human and just as likely to be as selfish and destructive with the environment in good years as any other group. As the introduction describes the story: "This new tale takes a hard look at the future and the ways of the haves and have-nots." (p. 122).

"Shadow-Below" was my favorite story from the March 2009 issue. I would love to read the previous stories in this series some day.

The previous stories of the hidden Lakota are:

  • "Raven Dream" December 2001
  • "Buffalo Wolf" March 2003
  • "The Condor's Green-Eyed Child" August 2004
  • "Less Than Nothing" January 2006

Read my other reviews of Reed's FSF short stories:

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Ulysses: Episode 10: The Wandering Rocks: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: 05/02/09

One of R & G's many debates

The tenth episode of Ulysses called "Wandering Rocks" refers to rocks that Circe warns Odysseus about, allowing him and his crew to avoid them. Instead they opt for the narrow straight between Scylla and Charybdis (the title of the last episode). Episode 10 takes a breather from following any of the main characters to show the hustle and bustle of Dublin and does so in 19 short vignettes.

Tossed in the middle of this chaos is the procession of the Lord Lieutenant, William Humble, Earl of Dudley. It is talked about in fragments of overheard conversations but not directly shown. The missed big event reminds me of Tom Stoppard's retelling of Hamlet (appropriate for the many debates in Ulysses on Hamlet and Shakespeare), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

If I had a hammerWhile the drama and tragedy of Hamlet is happening in the background, most of play (and the equally fun film) focuses on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to sort out their part in things. As their roles in Hamlet are poorly defined, they begin to pull apart the constructs of the diegesis in hopes of finding a greater meaning and purpose beyond their need to die at the end. As they learn though, important things happen and sometimes you're a part of it and sometimes you're not and you can't always control how you end up being a participant.

Episode 10 seems to be saying the same thing. Life goes on in Dublin. Sometimes paths cross and sometimes they don't. In this episode, they don't and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter.

Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Ten: The Wandering Rocks. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print

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The Eighth Day of the Week: 05/01/09

I picked up The Eighth Day of the Week the debut novel from Marek Hlasko at a Bookcrossing meeting a year ago. I picked it up because when I was a film student I rather enjoyed Polish films from the same time period but I really didn't know anything about Polish literature.

The novel is a frustrated romance between Agnieszka and Pietrek. They want a moment together to consummate their relationship but where can they find the time when everyone is struggling just to meet the basics of life? Agnieszka while madly in love is still an idealist and doesn't want their rendezvous to seem cheap. At the same time she's not sure she wants to wait for Pietrek to borrow a room from a friend.

Against this romantic farce is Warsaw still trying to rebuild after near total destruction during World War Two. There are shortages in food, a lack of jobs, a lack of money and a lack of freedom. Agnieszka and Pietrek's relationship brings humanity back into the picture.

Like the films I saw in college, The Eighth Day of the Week is really more a moment in time, a vignette, than it is a full story arc. By the end of things, they have exhausted all of their initial plans but they have a new plan. Whether or not it works is left up to the imagination.

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