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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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Gambling for Good Mail: 06/30/09

In Gambling for Good Mail by Evelyn Cole, Felicia Wood's fourth husband has had it with her obsession with mail order catalogs and has filed for divorce. On her own again she has a few thousand dollars to put her life together. She goes back east to reconnect with her brother. Meanwhile her niece is looking to get her life back on track after a long bout with depression.

Back east Felicia spends time with Frank, her brother, Uncle Howard and his girl friend Harriet. She comes home from time there still without a job and now broke. Caitland bails her out by asking to rent a room for her.

Gambling for Good Mail has moments of humor and moments of poignancy. There are scenes that have stuck with me but I didn't click with the novel as whole. Part of the problem for me is Felicia's inconsistency. On the one hand she desperately wants to be in a committed relationship but she hardly takes any action to do her part in the relationship. Likewise she knows she needs to do something with her life but she doesn't take any action to do undo the mess she's in. Ultimately it takes personal tragedies to get her motivated.

My final thought on Gambling for Good Mail is this: there is a good and tight novel tucked away in a slightly too bloated book.

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Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: 06/29/09

I was half expecting >Going Postal to be a sensationalist history of the most violent of shootings in recent American history. Instead the book is a frank and curious investigation of the psychology behind these acts of violence.

What Mark Ames finds is that most people don't snap no matter how bad the situation is. An otherwise mentally stable human being won't rebel against a bad situation even if an act of rebellion would result in a better situation for himself and others. A mentally ill person though is far more likely to snap and he documents his observation with a number of historical profiles from history. (See Part II: The Banality of Slavery)
If you are interested in what makes people tick and what makes some people snap, Going Postal is worth a read. It's just shy of 300 pages with a lengthy set of end notes. While violent acts are described the are not sensationalized.

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Vigilante Witch Hunter: 06/28/09

Vigilante Witch Hunter by Gary Turcotte is a follow up to Memoirs of a Fortune Teller, a much tighter story coming in at novella length. This new book follows the daughter of the previous book's protagonist.

Melissa has inherited her mother's powers but hasn't taken up the profession of fortune telling. She for reasons never adequately explained helps a vigilante track down bad people. He then kills them in ways that can't be traced back to them. Stephen's cold hearted murders and Melissa's complete and blind following of him sets a very disturbing tone for the book especially when Melissa is otherwise acting like a bubble-headed chick lit heroine.

But the plot isn't really about Melissa and Steven taking out people. Instead it's sort of a romance with a paranormal twist. Melissa ends up falling in love for a financial planner who is devilishly handsome and seems to have the same powers she does. Thus begins the second third of the novel which comes in the form of an awkwardly paced and unbelievable romance that only gets worse when the mob is introduced.

Melissa's fortune telling powers come with limitations and these rules could have been interesting things to explore in the book. Rule number one is that a fortune teller can't read another fortune teller's fortune; it will come up blank. A blank fortune can either mean an imminent death or a fortune teller and it's not always easy to tell which is which one first reading. Finally, a fortune showing death can't be avoided. It might be altered to be less painful but it can't be stopped.

The rule about death, while well played in Karen's death early on in the book is later brought back for unfortunately executed melodrama. With the fate of death being so immutable it seems that Melissa is far to happy to just go through the dot-to-dot picture life has set up for her. I would have liked her to question things more.

If you want to read similarly themed novels, I recommend two Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett: Mort (1987) and Soul Music (1994).

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The Price of Silence: 06/27/09

"The Price of Silence" is a return to FSF for Deborah Ross. She originally wrote as Deborah Wheeler. It's the first story I've read by her but I hope to read more.

Delvin, new to the crew of the Juno recounts how they are sent to an out of the way colony to deliver a military man for an unknown reason. What they find is complete and utter destruction where the colony once was.

I would consider this story hard science fiction in that Ross remembers the basics of space. An explosion witnessed from the outside is bright but silent. The problem on the planet is first noticed by a combination of radio silence and a change in albedo.

In tone "The Price of Silence" reminds me of another science fiction I'm currently reading, Project Starseed by J M Snyder. Both share a sense of claustrophobia and the dangers faced by colonists.

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Ulysses: 06/27/09

Ulysses by James Joyce is a book I've had on my to be read pile for ten years. My husband originally got it to read during a Caltech Bloomsday celebration but finals or something got in the way and he didn't go to read the book. Instead I started it and got a couple episodes into it before I had to box up all my books for our big move from South Pasadena to the Bay Area.

Ulysses is a long book. It's just shy of 800 pages. It's also a complicated book. It was originally serialized and each episode is written in a very different tone and style. What they all have in common is a thematic tie to Homer's Odyssey as evidenced by the titles of each episode and of course by the title.

For reasons unknown to me, published versions of Ulysses don't seem to include the episode titles. It would help to have a book that was at least annotated to know where you are in the novel. There are online annotations online. For the most part I read with the wikipedia site open just to get a very basic sense of what to expect from the episode and to know its title. There are more dedicated sites if you really want to know Ulysses inside and out, such as Ulysses Seen (which also tweets annotations). My point is, you don't have to take this book on alone. There are resources out there. Also, it's a much easier book to read slowly. I took eighteen weeks to read it.

If you would like to read my more in depth thoughts about each episode, links to them are included below:

On July 4th I'll have my first post about Proust's Swann's Way.

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Ulysses: Episode 18: Penelope: Marge Simpson: 06/26/09

What keeps you up at night?

Here we are at the end of Ulysses. Just as The Odyssey is ultimately about Penelope, Ulysses is ultimately about Molly Bloom. Told in eight run-on sentences with no punctuation, Molly thinks about all the things that keep her up at night.

WoahComing so late in the book and after the incredibly long "Circe" I really wasn't in the mood for stream of consciousness.

So what keeps Mrs. Bloom up at night? Breakfast in bed (Calypso), Bloom's infidelity (Circe), and her own infidelity. She goes on to think about lovers past and present. From there she thinks of her lonely childhood writing letters to herself. From there she returns to sex and to love letters she has received. Then she's glad her period has started, meaning her latest affair hasn't left her with child. That then makes her think of financial woes past and present. Her thoughts end on wondering what a matriarchal society would be like.

All through the novel until "Penelope" Molly doesn't seem like much of a character. She's mostly just Leopold Bloom's wife. Then at the end she lets her hair down and in this incoherent sixty page ramble. I couldn't help during Molly's ranting of Marge Simpson who sometimes has her moments.

Tomorrow I will write a proper review of Ulysses which will include links my thoughts (silly as they are) on each of the eighteen episodes. Then on July 4th I'll have my first post about Proust's Swann's Way.

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The Angels of Morgan Hill: 06/26/09

The Angels of Morgan Hill is set in Morgan Hills, Tennessee in 1947. It's an all white town until the Turners move in to help with the tobacco crop. The only family to befriend the Turners is the Gables. Jane's mother is recently widowed and is seeking kinship after years of an abusive marriage. The friendship doesn't last long as the bigots of the town welcome them by burning down their home and killing everyone except for young Milo.

Jane Gable, the nine year old narrator tells the story of how mother takes in young Milo having made a promise to her dying friend. This act of compassion ends up being an act of rebellion that shakes the very foundation of Morgan Hill. Jane describes all these events in an authentic voice that brings to mind the Depression Era memoir, Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.

Surprisingly to me The Angels of Morgan Hill has a happy ending. With all the vitriol and violence I expected the book to end tragically. Near the end though, it changes direction and it was nice to see some of the adults redeem themselves.

The novel is only 220 pages and for that it can be a quick read. I wasn't able to sit and read it all at one go as some reviewers described. I found it too visceral to read all at once. I read it a few chapters at a time and then set it aside.

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Bark Up the Right Tree: 06/25/09

Bark up the Right Tree is a memoir penned by a dog with some help from her owner, Ruth Tschudin. It recounts her transformation from an abused dog to a rescue(d) dog. In her old age, Jessie was left at a shelter when the child of her original owners had started mistreat her. As a senior dog she wasn't exactly adoptable and that problem was compounded by health issues and timidity from her prior abuse.

On the other side of the equation is Ruth Tschudin, also a senior, who had an idea for using a dog in her volunteer work. She wanted a dog big enough to pull a child's wagon but old enough to be calm enough to fit the bill. After extensive searching, Jessie fit the bill.

Most of the book though is about Jessie's adoption and her recovery with the Tschudins. Each chapter ends with a summary of what lessons can be learned from the trials and errors just described.

Although Jessie and Ruth work with group homes and adoption agencies (both human and animal) very little of their actual work is mentioned in the book. I would have preferred this book be twice as long to include descriptions of what they do and what projects they've worked on together.

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Falling Free: 06/24/09

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold is about Leo Graf, an engineer sent to teach at a distant space station. What he finds there ends up turning him into an activist.

His students are a genetically modified human subspecies called "quads" who have four arms instead of two arms and two legs. They are also genetically adapted to live better in the low gravity of off world living. While the have the same intelligence, personalities and hopes and desires as humanity, they are treated by the research company as property and nothing more.

Lois McMaster Bujold excels at world building. The space station, ships and planets in Falling Free are as believable and fascinating as the ones I "visited" in Borders of Infinity.

The problem the book suffers from is its simplicity. The people in charge line up on either side of the line Bujold has drawn, either being for the liberation of the quads or against their very existence. There is no one with any conflicting feelings or thoughts to balance out this retelling of  Uncle Tom's Cabin as realized in space.

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Women in Family Business: 06/23/09

I know a large number of women who are entrepreneurs. I have even tried my own hand at running a business. None of the women I know are in a family business because of the men in their lives. >Women in Family Business by Patricia M. Annino, Thomas D. Davidow and Cynthia Adams Harrison, though makes it sound like women are only ever in business because of men. It has to be the most insulting and least useful business book aimed at women I have ever read.

If you are to believe this book, women are only ever in a family run business at the behest of their husband, father or brother. The would never start a business and would never know how to run a business without men.

The chapters are labeled: wife, mother, widow, stepmother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister and sister-in-law. Each chapter gets further down a presupposed patriarchal totem pole that I have only ever seen in one family run business (and it was by far the most dysfunctional company I've had the misfortune of working for).

Pity the widow who will be left clueless in the running of the business and will be pushed aside by her sons (and rightful heirs to said business). But worse still, a stepmother can expect to get nothing even in the form of a residual salary if her husband dies. The money will go to the ex-wife and her children.

In no place in this book is there any practical business advice. Instead there is talk of how to work with the men who run the business and how to ingratiate yourself to them. If you are a woman running a business or working as part of a family business, do yourself a favor and get a proper business book!

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An Ornithologist's Guide to Life: 06/22/09

The dedication to An Ornithologist's Guide to Life makes me tear up whenever I read it but it's important for putting the stories in context. The dedication reads: In loving memory of my daughter Gracie Belle / September 24, 1996-April 18, 2002.

The short stories in An Ornithologist's Guide to Life share the theme of family and loss. They aren't all about death and they aren't all about mothers and children but there is always a need for an intimate connection (through family, friendship, love) and a loss (either feared or actual).

Ann Hood creates memorable characters who linger longer after their stories end. There's a alcoholic woman who seduces a reverend nine years her junior and takes him spelunking. In another one, a pregnant woman recently separated from her husband bakes beautiful deserts to keep herself sane but doesn't eat what she creates. There is a friendship ended over an unwanted pregnancy. And so forth.

With the exception of one story, "Inside Gorbachev's Head" I enjoyed the book, connected with the characters and experienced the wide range of emotions that come with life. "Inside Gorbachev's Head" knocked me out of the moment though. It's the story of now grown children learning the truth behind the parties that went on in their home and next door. It's a much angrier and sensationalist piece than the other ones and it just doesn't seem to fit.

Despite the one disappointing story, I rated the book five out of five on GoodReads. It's a book that will stick with me and that I will consider giving as a gift in the future.

If you've reviewed this book on your blog, let me know and I will link to it.

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Dark Side of the Morgue: 06/21/09

Raymond Benson is probably best known for his time as the official author of new James Bond books from 1997 to 2003. He has since started his own series of mysteries staring Spike Berenger, a detective with rock and roll roots.

>Dark Side of the Morgue is set in Chicago and is the second book in the series. Berenger goes to Chicago to investigate a series of murders of the founding members of the Chicagoprog progressive rock music. The sound of this fictional piece of rock and roll history is compared to Pink Floyd, thus the play on "Dark Side of the Moon."

The book starts off strong with lots of work in blending of the Chicagoprog's fictional timeline with the real Chicago music scene past and present. It reads like a novelization of This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind if the band members were being stalked and murdered.

Early on it's clear that someone from the bands' past has come back with a grudge. While there are two completely plausible options for the identity of the murderer, the book unfortunately goes for a more "sensational" option. To add to my disappointment, it's not even all that original of a twist. I'm thinking mostly of the "Mask of Death" episode from The Streets of San Francisco. I'm not going to link to the episode description to spoil anything.

My verdict then on Dark Side of the Morgue is great mystery with a weak resolution. The book though was good enough that I want to read the first in the series, A Hard Day's Death (2008).

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Sea Wrack: 06/20/09

"Sea Wrack" is the second classic reprint in the April / May 2009 issue of F&SF. From the way it is lovingly described in the introduction I had high hopes for the story. Unfortunately I didn't connect with it.

The story takes place in some far future oceanside location where a strange man is pulled from the sea. He turns out to have remarkable healing abilities. He claims (and later proves) to be from the sea. There's a talk of war between the land living humans and the sea living humans (or mermen, I suppose).

Whatever the point of this terse story is, I didn't get it. I read two and a half times and didn't come away with anything more than what I described. A lot of the reviews of this issue have high praises for "Sea Wrack" but all I can give it is a shrug of my shoulders.

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Ulysses: Episode 17: Ithaca: "For Real": 06/20/09

It reads like something Control Freak would write.

I am down to my last episode, having now finished "Ithaca." While I'm glad to have read the book, I am ready to be done.

Episode 17 "Ithaca" of Ulysses has Bloom brining Stephen home for a late night cup of tea. The entire seventy page episode is told as a catechism. It's basically one last info dump in question and answer format of useless details from Dublin and Bloom's life on June 16, 1904.

Trying not to spewFrankly I don't care how many gallons of water the local reservoir can hold or what the exact longitude and latitude of Bloom's house is. I don't care for a blow by blow description of how Bloom or Stephen are feeling or how or where they are sitting.

The only thing I can really say about this section is that it's easy to read. The language is simplistic (compared to most of the book).

The Ithaca section of Ulysses reminds me of the season five episode of Teen Titans called "For Real." The Titans are traveling the world to prepare other super heroes for an upcoming threat. While they are gone, they send Titans East to protect their home. While it's not quite the same as finally returning home after a long war and dangerous trip home, there is still the combined themes of missing home and danger abroad.

Now I could have picked any number of episodes from season five to fit "Ithaca" but I think "For Real" is the best fit for Control Freak's fan boy attention to detail. He knows every stat for each of the Titans and when presented with a new set goes on to learn all of their stats and to build an ultimate test for each of them.

Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Eighteen: Penelope and write my final review of the book. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at .

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The Willoughbys: 06/19/09

Lois Lowry's written more than thirty books and of them I've read three. I'm a new comer to Lowry's books only having "discovered" her in the last couple of years. I also subscribe to her and recommend that you do. The Willoughbys has the added benefit of being illustrated by the author.

There are two basic types of family stories in children's fiction: the adventures that orphans have and the families separated by tragic circumstances trying to reunite.

The Willoughbys is Lowry's response to so many of the cliches of children's literature. The book follows two families: the Willoughbys and the Commander Melanoffs. The Willoughby parents and children share a mutual dislike of each other. The children decide its time to become orphans because in books they always find a wealthy benefactor and end up living a better life. Meanwhile, the parents decide they're sick of the children and decide to go on a trip around the world and have the house sold out from under the children.

For the separated family half of the book, there is Commander Melanoff who is living a sad life at home while his wife and son have been lost in a snow storm on a train in Europe. What he doesn't realize in his long time grief is that they were rescued years ago. They have assumed he doesn't want them to come home because he hasn't answered their letter.

Lois Lowry brings these two stories together with the help of Baby Ruth, an honest to god doorstep orphan, who has been passed from the Willoughby doorstep to Commander Melanoff's. The novel plays with the conventions of children's fiction and draws attention to the many tropes and cliches. Although it's not marketed as metafiction, it's as firmly grounded in metafiction as Ara 13's Fiction: A Novel. The only difference is that one is intended for children and the other for adults.

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Sparks: 06/18/09

Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers by Peter L. Benson offers ways for parents to encourage their teens to follow the things in life that make them spark. When I hear the word spark, I can't help but think of Agatha Heterodyne, main character of Girl Genius. Sparks, though isn't about mad science or steampunk. Instead it's a straightforward parenting book to help parents connect with their children.

The book began with the thesis that modern teens were so driven by the demands of school and so distracted by friends and modern media (texting, video games, etc) that they no longer had time for the hobbies that would help keep them happy, grounded and enjoying life. What Benson found is that more than half of all the teens surveyed were still active in hobbies and felt they had a concept of a spark (p. 27)

Sparks then is for the remaining parents and teens to help them either kindle a spark or to rediscover a long forgotten one. The book has five steps for parents (or other mentor adults) to help kindle that spark, a second section to help teens keep their sparks alive so they can thrive, and finally a section of resources for adults and teens. The book is full of common sense approaches to parenting and for interacting with teens that can easily be adjusted to work with younger children or for adults. Best of all, the book isn't built on any particular belief system leaving it open for parents and teens of any background to use.

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Beware of Tigers: 06/17/09

Beware of Tigers is written and illustrated by Dave Horowitz. It's set in New York and follows the adventures of Burp and Chirp, two street wise but wilds foolish birds.

When you live in the big city you don't expect to have run-ins with wild animals. Imagine Burp and Chirp's surprise when a third bird comes along warning of the impending arrival of a tiger!

Sure enough, a tiger arrives (on a bus!) and seeks to eat the birds. My children like to wiggle and pretend to be cats about to pounce just as the tiger is trying his best to charm the birds before pouncing.

I've been asked Beware of Tigers has a happy ending. Chirp and Burp survive their encounter with the tiger. The tiger gets a taste of his own medicine. The only ones who don't fare well are the worms at the beginning. There is some comedic violence but nothing frightening or graphic.

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Fiction: A Novel: 06/16/09

Meta is a Greek prefix that in English is used to mean something self referential. If you run a blog or a website, you know meta in the form of metatags. Fiction a novel by the oddly named Ara 13 is metafiction — a book that draws attention to its own fictionality to open a discussion about the barrier between fact and fiction.

At its most basic level, Fiction is yet another missionary on a quest to convert "savages" to Christianity. It's right there with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen and to a lesser degree Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

In Fiction, the missionary is a priest, Father Daniel who has gone in search of the "fierce Oquanato cannibals" whom he hopes to convert to Christianity.

Instead of just presenting the entire story from the priest's point of view and watching him slowly either sink into madness, go native or lose his life in the failed process of the mission. Instead, Fiction presents both sides of story and uses very similar language for both parties. The tribe members speak in a slang that's quirky but no different than any other small group of people. By making creating recognizable and memorable characters, Ara 13 opens the dialogue between "civilized" and "savage" morals.

In that dialogue the belief system of the tribe begins to come to light. Other reviews giveaway the source material for their bible but I'm not going to do that. A big part of the fun of Fiction is figuring out what their good book is. The choice of source material works. It's full of many of the same themes as the Bible but its probably never thought of in those terms. Dreamybee asked if the choice felt gimmicky to me. No. It made me laugh and then it made me think but at no time did it strike me as a gimmick.

The final third of the book deals with the aftermath of Father Daniel discovering the truth behind their religious beliefs. The dialogue ends with both sides accusing the other of believing in fiction.

One question I've been asked by Gautami Tripathy if I would read more books by Ara 13. The short answer is yes. He has another novel out, Drawers & Booth (2007) that I hope to read some day.

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Fool: 06/15/09

Christopher Moore writes too kinds of stories: light hearted irrelevant novels (set typically in California or on far away tropical islands) and parodies. The latter have recurring mix and match characters. I adore these novels, even the much maligned Fluke. The latter, not so much.

Fool is a parody and fans of Lamb seem to love it. I'm going to guess that the opposite is also true. If you're like me and didn't like Lamb, you probably won't like Fool.

The book starts with King Lear and more generally the works of William Shakespeare. It's told from the the point of view of the Fool, a character who disappears mid play to allow for dual role playing with for the actor playing Cordelia. Since Fool isn't a major character, Moore has to fill in the blanks, just as he attempted (and failed) to do in the middle years of Jesus's life.

Besides trying to fill in the blanks ala Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Moore is attempting (and failing again) to write in the style of William Shakespeare. There are a few problems with this approach. He doesn't understand British slang or British regional accents as well as he thinks he does and he's not crude enough. That's right; this "bawdy" tale is hardly bawdy. The humor never really gets beyond the pedestrian stuff in a typical Mike Myers film. Shakespeare's stuff is funnier and cruder. To make things worse, the book has all these pointless footnotes to "explain" the slang in the book. Unfortunately he picks obvious words and gives them rather plain definitions. Am I supposed to be shocked by a fellow American giggling at the word "wanker?"

My last complaint with the books, and Moore's parodies in general, is the pacing. Fool like Lamb starts off in the middle of the story being parodied and as long as it's following the original story closely. As soon as Fool disappears from the real play, Moore is lost. He tries to bandy around some ideas and throws some other Shakespearian tragedies into a blender and then giggles at the results. Then somewhere near the end Moore comes to his senses (just as he did in Lamb) and gets back to parodying the original text. For Fool he creates a completely different ending, reminiscent of the The Player and for a brief sixty pages the book reads like the Moore I enjoy.

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Voices Under Berlin: 06/14/09

Voices Under Berlin by T. H. E. Hill promises to be: "[a] story... told with a pace and a black humor reminiscent of that used by Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Richard Hooker (M*A*S*H*). " It is set in the early 1950s in Berlin in the days before the Wall and during the time that the city was still divided up between France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. With that setting in mind I was also reminded of I Was a Male War Bride (1949).

Like M*A*S*H* and Catch-22 the novel features an ensemble cast of characters. For the most part, though, the protagonist is Kevin, one of the language experts. He's a likeable sort, not perfect and not devoted to the army. He is, however, devoted to his love of language and to his Berlin girlfriend.

The novel follows the building of the tunnel, the trouble keeping it secret and about a year's worth of wire tapping. The wire tapped transcripts are worth reading because they are often very silly. Running the tunnel has its problems. It's below the water table so it has to be pumped. It's near an old cemetery. It's invisible as long as it isn't snowing. The tap itself isn't foolproof and the transcripts are only as useful as the person transcribing them.

At the start of the book the author includes an extensive glossary of terms. Most of them I already knew but if you're not familiar with military and cold war jargon, it's a good place to start. The book also includes a number of photographs labeled as if they were taken by characters in the novel. At the end of the novel the author provides information on their sources.

I thoroughly enjoyed Voices Under Berlin and I feel it holds up to its promise to be akin to M*A*S*H* and Catch-22. It's one of the funniest books I've been sent for review.

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Stratosphere: 06/13/09

I'm an American. Baseball is in my blood. I don't watch the games all the time but it's probably my favorite sport and I'm a sucker for a good baseball story. "Stratosphere" by Henry Garfield takes baseball and creates a near future tale of one of those big game moments.

The hero of the story is one Joe "Stratosphere" Stromboni who is remembered by a fellow player from the Farside league. Although the details of the game aren't spelled out, Garfield gives a number of hints about how the low gravity game would be different from how it is on earth. "Stratosphere" gets his nickname from one fantastic home run that sends the ball into orbit.

As an added personal bonus for me, Joe Stromboni started on Earth playing for the San Diego Padres. They're my home team even though I've lived for years now in the Bay Area. The A's and the Giants just don't do it for me. The Padres though seemed like an odd choice for a Red Sox fan. From reading the author's bio I see he has lived in Southern California and currently has a son in college in San Diego. So that explains the Padres connection and makes me love the story all the more.

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Guest Review: Can You Spell Revolution? 06/13/09

I don't read as many juvenile fiction titles as I might like. Since I try to cover all the different areas of the library in my book reviews, I am never able to really focus on any one area as much as I might like. Can You Spell Revolution? by Matt Beam is set in Laverton Middle School. Where the teachers mostly just pass out busy work and all of the focus seems to be on the rules, Rules, RULES that students are expected to follow. Then one day a transfer student named Clouds arrives and things start to get more interesting. The narrator, a boy named Chris Stren relates how he found a note in his locker one afternoon calling him to a secret meeting that Clouds is organizing.

At the secret meeting it turns out that Clouds wants to start a revolution at Laverton Middle School and wants each of the five members of the new, top-secret Revolutionaries group to study a particular period in history and draw parallels to the problems they currently face. Their first revolutionary act, Code Name: Get Nixon involves audio taping the teacher being unfair to revolutionary Landry. The next day the class is shocked to hear the tape played over the intercom system, and the teacher is forced to back off and start cutting Landry some slack. Another member of the group imitates Mahatma Ghandi and shaves his head and goes about the school resolving conflicts and preaching non-violence. Susan, a member of a sorority called the Magnas studies and imitates Queen Elizabeth in her quest to wrench control of her sorority from a couple of members who have dictatorially taken the group in a bad direction, while narrator Chris is emulating Lafayette who during the French Revolution wanted changes to make things fairer for the common people but did not want the King to be eliminated. And finally, Clouds himself, the instigator of the Revolutionaries group studies and emulates Vladimir Lennon of the Russian Revolution.

Can You Spell Revolution? provides a number of interesting history lessons, framed in a contemporary and engaging story that is sure to please middle schoolers and grown ups alike. This novel is Highly Recommended to anyone who has ever said to themselves "Enough" and set out to change the world.

Can You Spell Revolution?
by Matt Beam
ISBN 978-0-525-47998-7

Review ©2009 by
Alan Jobe.

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Ulysses: Episode 16: Eumaeus: Wayne's World: 06/13/09

Doughnuts in Aurora

I have two more episodes to read before I am officially done with Ulysses. That means two more episode comparisons and then a summary review. I have to admit that after "Circe" I'm still feeling burned out about the novel. I will be done ten days after "Bloom's day" (June 16th).

Episode 16 "Eumaeus" of Ulysses reverts to form, being only about sixty pages long. Mind you, those are pages filled with long rambling paragraphs for a scene that amounts to very little beyond recovering from a night of drinking, satisfying the munchies and shooting the breeze.

Trying not to spewEumaeus from The Odyssey is the old and loyal goatherd who must be older than dirt by the time Odysseus returns home. Although Odysseus is in disguise to avoid trouble with the suitors, Eumaeus treats Odysseus with kindness. He gives him a meal and a place to rest.

For Bloom and his buds, that place to rest and eat is the nearby cabman's shelter. Perhaps it was the sheer amount of bull-shittery in this episode and the post drinking spewing, but the trip to the shelter reminded me most of the doughnut shop where Wayne and Garth, et al, go to in Wayne's World whenever they need to hang out, recharge after too much drinking, or make plans.

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

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South-Sea Idyls: 06/12/09

South-Sea Idyls by Charles Warren Stoddard is a travelogue told in a series of letters to his friends back home in San Francisco. The book was first published in 1873 and revised in 1892. I have seen South-Sea Idyls classified as both fiction and non-fiction. From my own brief research, I'm calling it non-fiction.

The book has seventeen letters and they bounce around between and the Hawaiian islands and points in between. Stoddard starts off the book with letters from his kith and kin back home worried that he'll be miserable on the trip. He's just the opposite and he promptly "goes native." In and amongst his loving descriptions of the native traditions (including hula and luaus) and the gorgeous sunsets, Stoddard also describes the different men in his life. He sometimes dances around his relationships by blaming their native beauty or lamely saying he couldn't tell if his companion was male or female. The latter argument never works because he almost always goes on to say that he doesn't care that he can't tell.

None of his relationships last very long. One he loses to leprosy in a heart breaking scene that reminds me of Richard Rene Silvin describing the deaths of two different long time partners to AIDS related illnesses in Walking the Rainbow. Another lover follows him back to San Francisco but soon leaves him for a woman.

In "Stoddard's Little Tricks" (an excellent essay on the book), Roger Austen begins with the thesis that most contemporary readers of the book were oblivious to the homoeroticism that's threaded through the book. From looking at my own 1905 copy, I can see evidence to prove and disprove that theory. My book was given as a Christmas present from a Mrs. W. Griffin who strikes me as a very prim and proper matronly sort who would have been oblivious to the eroticism of the book. She gave it a Miss Harriet B. Foye.

Harriet B. Foye left her mark on the book in the forms of coffee stains (on the most erotic of pages) and pressed flowers between the pages of the bittersweet breakups. I fully believe she didn't miss anything in South Sea Idyls and re-read the book many times in her life.

South-Sea Idyls is still in print and it's available online. I am happy I found Harriet's old copy at my local Half Price Books. Harriet spent her whole life in the Bay Area and her book continued to stay in the East Bay, not that far from where she lived. Although I didn't know Harriet personally I do feel a connection to her through this book and I thought of her as I read it over my morning coffee (careful not to add any new spills).

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The World I Never Made: 06/11/09

Paris is one of those hot bed cities for international thrillers. Joining the ranks of The Bourne Identity and The Da Vinci Code (among others) is A World I Never Made, the debut novel by James LePore.

The novel starts with an apparent suicide and an estranged father being forced to come to Paris to claim the body of a daughter who will forever remind him of his wife's untimely death. The book though is no simple suicide investigation; the body in the morgue isn't Megan.

There are three main story lines and three protagonists: Pat Nolan (the father), Megan Nolan (the daughter) and Catherine Laurence (the lead investigator). There is large supporting cast including terrorists, the other members of the Paris police, and some gypsies. The present day (2004) search for Megan (both by Pat and Catherine) is intertwined with Megan's story (starting in 2003).

While the book doesn't have the art history and puzzles of The Da Vinci Code it does share the short chapters and the jumping around between locations. It also has the underlying mysticism in common.

For a debut novel, A World I Never Made is a strong start. It has memorable (although somewhat cliched) characters, interesting locations and a strong sense of time and place. It could be a little tighter and a little less melodramatic but it kept my attention.

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R is for Ricochet: 06/10/09

I have all Sue Grafton's alphabet series and I'm slowly working my way through them. I'm up >R is for Ricochet which I've also listened to as an audio book. Although I'm not normally a fan of audio books, Grafton's books are more fun to listen to than to read.

In R is for Ricochet Kinsey Millhone is hired to drive a wealthy man's daughter, Reba, home from prison. She ends up becoming Reba's friend and through Reba ends up in the middle of a case involving money laundering and the mob.

Meanwhile in a stupid subplot Kinsey's landlord is having a midlife crisis and a turbid love affair with a flighty artist and old friends of Kinsey are trying to set her up with a boyfriend. Just shoot me.

If Grafton's books were set anywhere else I would have stopped reading them ages ago. I keep coming back not for Kinsey but for Santa Teresa. The town is based on Santa Barbara and by R is for Ricochet it's starting to look a whole lot like the town when I went to school there in the early 1990s. In this novel the S.T. equivalent of the Paseo Nuevo mall opens and it was fun to watch Kinsey and Reba skulking around in a place where I spent a lot of my free time.

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The Take-Us: 06/09/09

Imagine an invention that could revolutionize the way the modern world works. In the past it was the combustion engine and now we're looking for alternative fuels. John Christenson, hero of >The Take-Us by John Raymond Takacs has managed to retrofit a car that can run without gasoline. Better yet, it's more efficient than any of the current electric or hybrid cars. Unfortunately for Christenson, the car is so revolutionary that a price has been put on his head!

I like a technological thriller. Throw in a fast car and a road trip and I'm usually there turning the pages. Not this time. The Take-Us is too taken up in the extreme ends of Republican rhetoric to be entertaining. The inventor protagonist is the religious right's everyman: male, God fearing and filled with good old American common sense despite being poorly educated. He's Henry Ford (including all the bad parts) but living in a world that has become so godless that his genius can't be recognized except by one beacon of hope: Fox News.

If John Christenson can just drive his car across the country with Fox News covering his momentous gasoline free drive then the world will learn how to free itself from the clutches of Islamic controlled foreign oil. His goal is to make it to San Francisco where he will meet up with the Republican god of alternate fuel vehicles, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The novel is full of bad science, stereotypes, cliches and other stupidity that it quickly earned its place in the "did not finish" pile. I stopped reading with any serious intent of finishing about a third of the way through. I did skim the rest and I gave the last few chapters a read to see if the book improves. It doesn't.

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Three Incestuous Sisters: 06/08/09

When The Time Traveler's Wife left me horribly disappointed for its obvious plot and melodrama I figured I was done with Audrey Niffenegger. Then on February 25, 2008, the late Dewey of Niffenegger's "visual novel" The Three Incestuous Sisters. Since her post I have been coveting the book and willing to give Niffenegger the artist a second chance.

It's somewhere between a graphic novel and a picture book for adults. It has the surreal matter-of-fact approach to story telling as Neil Gaiman's books all seem to have but with out the underlying darkness. Visually I'm reminded of Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine books.

The three sisters are incestuous in how closely their lives are lived. When one sister seeks to leave their home her absence opens up a cascade of events that leads to a family tragedy. The three sisters are Clothilde, Ophile and Bettine. Bettine, the blonde is the youngest and prettiest of the family. Ophile is the eldest and has the blue hair, so dark it might as well be black. Finally there is the middle sister, a red head named Clothilde.

Things start to go awry when the old lighthouse keeper dies and his son takes over. Paris, the son with a name that brings to mind epic wars, comes to the lighthouse and is soon dividing a wedge between the sisters. Ultimately he and Bettine leave the sisters' home. She is pregnant and they move to the city to raise their child.

The pregnancy further divides the family. One aunt to be has a spiritual connection with her nephew and the other is filled with jealously. As with The Time Traveler's Wife the pregnancy doesn't go well, though the tragedy this time is man made.

I enjoyed The Three Incestuous Sisters and want to read her other "visual novel" The Adventuress. She also has a new novel out called Her Fearful Symmetry but I'm reluctant to try it.

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Heroes of Googley Woogley: 06/07/09

Last week I reviewed The Sneakiest Pirates by Dalton James and now I'm back to review the sequel, 1>The Heroes of Googley Woogley.

The book begins right where the last one ended. Pete and his dad are now famous rock stars but they long for something more. They decide to use their new found wealth to go on a new adventure. What better way to have an adventure than to be come astronauts?

The space adventure that Dalton James imagines is surreal and humorous. The red and blue world of the Soodo and Soodont peoples reminds me of the off the wall space adventures from B000RPOCHK? Danger Mouse.

Despite the goofiness of the planet Googley Woogley the conflict between the Soodos and Soodonts is a good starting point for discussing war, slavery and bulling with children. Like The Sneakiest Pirates the resolution isn't clean cut. With the pirates, their gold is still stolen property and now on Googley Woogley the oppressed become the oppressors, though in a less heavy handed way. In that regard, I am also reminded of The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss.

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Andreanna: 06/06/09

Alfred Hitchcock made Mt. Rushmore the perfect location a big budget cinematic chase full of mystery and intrigue. Since North by Northwest Mt. Rushmore continues to be a popular landmark for adventures: National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Ben 10. Now S. L. Gilbow visits with his story of a homesick robot horribly damaged in an accident on the moon.

Andreanna the title character of the story is an Androbriefer who has been working on the moon for some undisclosed amount of time. Her purpose there and the reason behind her accident (falling three stories in the only room with Earth gravity on the moon base) is presented as a series of "slides" jumbled together with human dialogue as different people try to fix her.

The story reminds me most of "Mars, A Traveler's Guide" by Ruth Nestvold in the January 2008 issue of F&SF.

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Ulysses: Episode 15: Circe: Alice in Wonderland: 06/06/09

Things go awry for Alice and Bloom when they drink

Episode 15 "Circle" of Ulysses is the longest episode, being two hundred pages of the book's eight hundred. It's written in the form of a play and covers a lengthy alcohol induced hallucination by Bloom.

The Circe of the Odyssey lived in a mansion by herself on an island. She turned trespassers into animals (wolves, lions and pigs) by way of potions who were then doomed to wander the grounds of her estate.

For Bloom though, there is no one Circe. Rather it's a bunch of different women who work in the red light district of Dublin. He's so full of booze that he's not seeing the women. Instead he is being visited by ghostly representations of his family: Molly, his parents but it gets weirder. He goes from being the elected leader "Bloomusalem" to being declared a woman at which point he spontaneously births eight children. There is more weirdness involving sex and zombies (in the form of Stephan's mother and Bloom's dead child).

Bones wants to be a momGiven all the sex and drugs and bad trips I thought of a number of possible connections: the two part conclusion of this season's House, the spicy chili pepper trip of Homer Simpson in "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer" and any number of Family Guy episodes. Instead, I decided to go with the grandmother of all trippers: Alice.

Like Bloom, Alice's trip through Wonderland involve many talking animals, disapproving authority figures (in the form of the Duchess, the red Queen) and some very odd drinking buddies (Mad Hatter, March Hare and the Dormouse). Like Bloom Alice finds herself suddenly in the position of a mother (with the Duchess' baby).

Alice continues to inspire artists in all sorts of genres. While I was reading "Circe" I was most reminded though of my two favorite musical interpretations of Alice: "White Rabbit" and "Don't Come Around Here No More." See below to watch the videos.

The winneryAlice being a child in a book written for a child in Victorian times doesn't partake in alcohol or mind altering drugs but she does drink the "Drink Me" and eat the "Eat Me" and have physical alterations; she grows and she shrinks and she later learns the secret of Wonderland's magic mushroom from the hookah smoking caterpillar.

Alice also learns that adults don't always act as prim and proper as her own family would like her to behave. They are often bizarre, rude, violent, selfish, crude, lazy and insane. Bloom in his trip has a similar experience of being thrust along a surreal and sometimes frightening path.

Circe ends the "The Odyssey" section of Ulysses. Part three (The Nostos) contains the remaining three episodes: Eumaeus, Ithaca and Penelope. My final post and summary review of Ulysses will be on June 26th.

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

"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane

See also "" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (embedding is disabled).


Naked Pictures of Famous People: 06/05/09

I have relatives who are rabid fans of The Daily Show. I've watched clips now and then but never a full show. So when I came across >Naked Pictures of Famous People by Jon Stewart from before he was hosting The Daily Show I thought I should give it a read.

This short book of satire has eighteen essays crammed into 163 pages. There are all number of different famous people from the Kennedys, the Hansons, Martha Stewart, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa, Hitler and Leonardo da Vinci among others. Each essay is written in a different style and voice but they are all odd and out there.

I can't say that any of them made me laugh. I smiled a few times at "The New Judaism", "Pen Pals" and "Da Vinci: the Lost Notebook." Of those, the Da Vinci piece is my favorite for the included drawings.

Some of the essays are sticking with me for the ick factor. Top on the list is "Martha Stewart's Vagina" which is crude for the sake of being crude. The Hitler one is okay but lets face it, Hitler's been satired to death by now and Mel Brooks wins with The Producers.

I think I'll stick with nodding politely when the latest Daily Show is mentioned. He's sometimes funny to me but not frequently enough for me to consider myself a fan.

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The Silent Man: 06/04/09

The Silent Man by Alex Berenson is the third installment in the John Wells suspense-thriller series. In this one Wells goes undercover to post Cold War Russia to stop a plot to build a nuclear bomb that can be detonated on American soil.

By itself, a plot to stop a bomb can be a quick page turner. With enough care for building suspense by keeping the reader in the know and the hero always on the edge of danger. The details of political maneuvering can add depth to such a book and provide a greater social commentary (see Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana). The Silent Man is certainly action packed and is full of last year's politics but the pacing of the plot is too fast for any of it to gel.

In the style of a summer blockbuster, Berenson rapidly switches between characters and locations with little or no warning. Sometimes a scene will be a little as a sentence or two. I don't mind short chapters or short scenes but I found the rapid cutting between locations too much for me. I never really got to know any of the characters, even the protagonist John Wells and the people he's closest too.

I read half way through the book and then skimmed the rest. The deal breaker for me was the personal nature of the attack. A character who was apparently the antagonist in a previous book comes back to plot his revenge against Wells and everyone close to him. I'm never a fan of this type of plot. Political thrillers that take themselves seriously but include a "and your little dog Toto too" plot cease having any credibility for me. There's nothing wrong with that plot device if the overall series is silly (Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt books). But if the series is for the most part a straight up thriller (the Jason Bourne series) then things fall apart when the criminals start international plots just to get back at one agent.

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The Letter: 06/03/09

The Christmas Box trilogy by Richard Paul Evans wraps up with The Letter. Like Timepiece, The Letter is set in the past. It covers a tumultuous time after the death of their daughter. A mysterious letter shows up on her grave and threatens to break apart the marriage of David and Mary Anne Parkins.

Unfortunately for the melodrama to unfold after this letter, David and Mary have to have complete personality transplants. David is consumed by depression and bottles it all up (except for when he isn't) and Mary Anne suddenly falls out of love with him. She decides the best course of action is to high tail it England on a one way ticket.

I just couldn't slog all the way through this book. I did skip to the end to see that sure enough it has a happy ending and all the melodrama is swept aside with some hand waving. Where The Christmas Box was thoughtful and gently sentimental, The Letter feels rushed and manipulative.

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Politics in Compassion: 06/02/09

Politics in Compassion by Jack Schauer takes a look at the history of political compassion in the 20th century and tries to extrapolate a modern approach to undo recent gaffs in policy.

Schauer comes to this subject with two masters. He has done his research and the notes and citations are thorough. Unfortunately the book lacks focus in its editing. Schauer has the tendency to ramble. His sentences tend towards being run-ons and sometimes he has problems with agreement between subjects, objects and verbs. He also doesn't find a consistent voice. Sometimes he refers to himself in the third person: "the author shows" and other times he uses "I." Both are acceptable but not together.

I like political science books. I enjoyed reading Schauer's summary of key historical moments in U.S. politics but the editing mistakes became too much of a distraction to fully engage the book.

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Three Shadows: 06/01/09

Published in 2007 as Trois Ombres and translated into English in 2008, Cyril Pedrosa's graphic novel was inspired by the feelings of grief and hopelessness he after the death of a close friends' child. The translation was nominated for a Cybil in the young adult graphic novel category and it won a Reuben in the "comic book" division.

Life is simple on the farm for Joachim and his parents. It's a blissful existence dictated by the seasons and the chores on the farm. But everything changes when the three shadows show up on the hill at the edge of the farm. Rather than face the threat head on, the father and son decide to flee the shadows, leaving behind the grieving and worried mother.

Cyril Pedrosa excels at creating mood and suspense in his artwork. The shadows are at times eerie, threatening, dangerous and scary. He also captures the joy of a family at play. Sometimes though the moods jump to quickly for me. After a few times of being ping ponged between JOY and DREAD I stop caring.

As a mother of two children who has also suffered the loss of two others through miscarriages, I have a personal connection to that feeling of life being simpler before an unexpected and unwanted loss. No one wants a child to die but that's unfortunately part of life. By keeping the cause Joachim's death tied to the will of the three shadows it remains unreal. I kept wondering if the father's fear of the unknown caused that what he feared most: the death of his son. In "protecting" his son he ends up dragging him all across the countryside, onto a ship, through storms and so forth, putting him at unnecessary risks. They both nearly die in the middle of a snow storm and of course ultimately the three shadows get who they came for.

How different would things have been if they had confronted the shadows at the very beginning? Would they have given a reason for his early death? Would he have lived a comfortable few more weeks with the mother and father who loved him instead of being dragged through the unknown? Here's where I have the most trouble with the graphic novel: parents trying to protect their child from the harsh reality of life and death only to make the whole experience scarier and more painful!

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