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July in Review: 07/31/09
I only went over my quota of review writing by one this month. My favorite books this month were all from the library: Bronte's Book Club, The Egyptian Box, Ramona Quimby Age 8 and The Postman Always Rings Twice. My least favorites were She and I: A Fugue, The Vicar of Nibbleswicke and Warrior from Heaven.
This month the hot topic among book bloggers was how we choose which books to review. There's concern among some that we book bloggers are only doing reviews for the free books. I have listed where the books came from for this month's reviews. While most of them were free, most were actually from the library.
While the kitty is thinking of ways to torture the puppy, the puppy is working his way through any number of things to play with. But he really wants to play with the kitty and he dreams of an A to Z world tour of places to see and things to do.
As other reviewers have noted, the alphabetical lists aren't as off the wall in Poor Puppy as they are in Bad Kitty but it's still a fun way to lean the alphabet, learn how to count and to learn world geography.
My son and daughter like the book for the sibling rivalry. While they get along most of the time, they have their moments. Kitty does eventually learn to live with and perhaps love Puppy and Poor Puppy shows his over the top process of adjusting to the new family member.
I'm on my 5th week of reading Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann). Thirty pages a week is working perfectly and will keep on schedule to finish in twenty weeks.
From pages 120-150, the novel mostly focuses on the protagonists love of books. He is especially fond of a particular author named Bergotte. The adults in his life have certainly heard of the man but can't fathom why the young Marcel is so besmitten with his work.
Marcel also learns that Swann personally knows Bergotte but the author is too busy socialize with a child. Once again the dinner parties that send Marcel to bed early become a thorn in his side. Maybe some day his beloved author will be downstairs and just out of reach.
The boy's single minded devotion to books and to a specific author combined with his grandfather's habit of singing badly and at inappropriate times brought to mind Lisa Simpson's friendship early in the series with Bleeding Gums Murphy. Of course Murphy was a rather short-lived character in the long running Simpsons series but Lisa's complete and utter fangirl devotion to him really matches Marcel's feelings for Bergotte at this stage in the novel.
Previous posts: Lisa's First Word
Although I've read Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson I hadn't heard of The Secret of Platform 13, that is until the recent accusations of her estate over possible plagiarism in the Harry Potter series. Curious over that, I checked out the book from my local library and loved it.
The parents though in The Secret of Platform 13 are alive and well, living as the King and Queen of the Island (aka Avalon and many other well known names). Their son was stolen from them the last time the gump opened under Platform 13 in Kings Cross Station. Now that the gump has reopened (ten years later?) a rescue crew has gone to bring the lost prince home.
Gump being a nonsense word though ends up having many definitions. If you're an American and a fan of L. Frank Baum (as I am), "gump" will bring to mind a magical creature made up of the odds and ends of a typical Victorian attic. Most importantly though it will have a talking moose head tied to the front of two sofas latched together. What you won't immediately think of is a lump of dirt that sometimes opens to a magical world.
Most of the book though deals with the rescue of Raymond Trotter, the presumed prince of the Island. The rescuers have help from the grandson of the old nanny, both of who live in the basement of Trotter Towers.
Reviews I've read of The Secret of Platform 13 compare the relationship between Raymond Trotter and Ben to Dudley and Harry. They also see similarities in how Mrs. Trotter and Mrs. Dursley treat both boys. Yes, there are physical similarities between Raymond and Dudley but that's because they both fall on the old cliché of making very wealthy people spoiled and fat. As far as the two women go, Mrs. Trotter is actually nice to Ben than Mrs. Dursley is to Harry. Mrs. Trotter doesn't lock the boy up under the stairs, don't deprive him of food or deprive him of love and affection. He is treated as a servant, not as an abused child. He gets love and affection from the woman he believes to be his grandmother.
So having read most (not all) of the Harry Potter series, I don't think Harry Potter plagiarizes The Secret of Platform 13. I do however think that Ibbotson is the better writer.
I have a thing for Egyptian themed books so when I saw The Egyptian Box by Jane Louise Curry at my local library I snatched it up. It's about Tee trying to come to terms with being forced to move from Maine to Oasis California. There she is given a shabti as part of her inheritance from her late Great Uncle who was an antique dealer specializing in unusual and mystical things.
Tee's brother transliterates the hieroglphs on the shabti box well enough to activate the magic to turn the shabti doll into a living, breathing servant who is at first glance at the beck and call of Tee. Tee sees a way out of more than just the mundane chores of setting the table and washing the dishes. The trick is just in teaching the shabti to read and speak English like she does.
The Egyptian Box has a heavy dose of "be careful what you wish for." If this book were written for adults Tee would not have fared so well. For a chapter book there is a good deal of suspense. What was a fun way to get out of chores, PE and homework becomes a potentially dangerous threat.
Other Egyptian themed books aimed at younger readers that are worth reading: The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Magnificent Mummy Maker by Elvira Woodruff and The Cat in the Mirror by Mary Stolz
Beverly Cleary has written around forty books and has been writing for longer than I've been alive. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 is the first book by her I've read and I loved it. It won't be the last.
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 is the sixth book that features Ramona Quimby. Ramona is proudly starting 3rd grade. She gets to ride the bus. She's going to learn longhand. She has "Sustained Silent Reading" which she adores.
She unfortunately has a few things to worry about too: Yard Face who might be a friend or might be a bully, her teacher has called her a "show off" and a "nuisance" and she's had the embarrassing experience of throwing up at school.
Coming to this series though as a parent where my oldest is almost Ramona's age and my husband has just finished graduate school, I completely related to the Quimby parents. I nodded along when the car need a new transmission, when the dad was trying to do his homework over the noise of the kids being kids and the mom accidentally sending a raw instead of hardboiled egg in Ramona's lunch.
Despite some dated references (like Ramona playing with the cigarette machine in the restaurant), the book holds up because the characterizations are so believable. The Qumibys are a believable parents trying to get by on limited funds while still providing a loving and nurturing environment for their children.
Visit the author's website here.
Glenn Miller was a big band leader of superstar proportions. His music is still played. If you only know one Big Band or one song from the 1940s you'll probably know Glenn Miller and his Orchestra and "In the Mood." What you might not know is that he went MIA during WWII, presumably in a crash over the Channel. Further more, you might not know that there have been numerous conspiracy theories about his disappearance over the years. The Glenn Miller Conspiracy by Hunton Downs is the latest theory.
This short book starts off strong with outlining the history of events as first reported (both versions) and then goes about finding holes in both theories. Hunton Downs goes on to outline his theory that Miller was actually captured and tortured for information and then left for dead in a Paris Brothel. Unfortunately all of this is accomplished in the first chapter leaving the rest of the book to flounder.
The second chapter has some brief biographical information on Miller's early life and some thoughts on why he would have been perfect for such a dangerous mission. Apparently having German ancestry and a fair to middling grasp of the language is enough during times of war to be sent off to be a spy. On the other hand as Downs points out, most celebrity service men were given safer jobs acting as moral boosters to the troops, offering free publicity to the Allies and of course propaganda against the Axis. It doesn't make sense that Miller would be different from the others in his position. From my own family's experience in the war, those who were fluent in German ended up as MPs of the German speaking prisoners of war.
The remainder of the book devolves into something akin to The Best Friend I Never Had, the biography of Ernest Hemingway I recently reviewed. Instead of the research being put into Downs's own words with endnotes or footnotes to back up his theories and conclusions, he just paraphrases or does lengthy quotes from the people he interviewed. Then the last fifty or so pages are blurry photocopies of all his documentation rather than a more standard (and academic) bibliography.
While I have learned about the existence of conspiracy theories about Glenn Miller's death I am not convinced that Hunton Downs's theory is correct. My interest might be piqued enough to learn more about the artist and his music but I will start with more credible sources.
Cat and Mouse is an early novel by author and poet, Günter Grass. It's the second book in the Danzig trilogy. It's a German coming of age novel set during WWII and it reminds me quite favorably of John Knowles's novel A Separate Peace (1959).
The unnamed protagonist says early on that the book isn't about himself but instead about "The Great Mahlke." Mahlke was a childhood friend known for his big adams apple, the screwdriver he wore around his neck and his love of swimming.
Although the book is set during the war, much of the book is spent reminiscing about summer days swimming out to a sunken Polish minesweeper. While the boys sat on the top of the ship, Mahlke would dive down into the ship to salvage whatever he could find: cans of food, an old gramaphone, and so forth.
Like Finny in A Separate Peace, Mahlke is a bit of a rebel. He's later expelled from school and again like Finny, doesn't make it to the end of the book. While Mahlke's disappearance is more open ended than Finny's death, it's implied that he died in the war and that the Iron Cross is being awarded posthumously.
I posted the earlier review of Harriet's Hare by Dick King-Smith on automatic not even remembering that Saturday is my science fiction short story day. My life is upside down right now with the sudden news that I've been laid off and today was just busy. We had a birthday party for Sean, almost a month early, because my brother in law and his wife are expecting their first child. Her due date is the same as what Sean's was. So we're joking that she might end up sharing his birthday too.
"Retrograde Summer" is a classic reprint in the June /July issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story takes place on Mercury and is the meeting between clone siblings. Why one is a boy and one is a girl and they are otherwise genetically the same confused me at first. I think were I more awake I would have enjoyed "Retrograde Summer" from the first page. Instead, it took me about 2/3 of it before I really got into it.
The history of these two siblings and the reasons behind their separation, their different genders and how life on the different planets is possible comes out in their walks on Mercury. Near the end they are stranded and the clone sister connects all the dots both for her confused brother and for us.
Ultimately "Retrograde Summer" is an examination of family, gender and over-population. The story reminds me very favorably of "Exit Strategy" by K. D. Wentworth (FSF, March 2008).
Three of the four reviews I've found online on Harriet's Hare by Dick King-Smith are by students. All of their reactions to the book are highly positive, so keep that in mind when I post my thoughts.
Harriet's Hare is about a magical summertime friendship between a young girl (Harriet) and an alien on holiday who spends most of his time disguised as a hare (Lepus Pronolagus). As summer progresses, Wiz promises to do a favor for Harriet and of course he does and it's a happy ending all around.
I have no problem with the talking animals; they are pretty standard in books aimed at this age range. I do have problems with how apparently perfect Wiz is. He is from an advanced species who have no war, don't eat anything that was ever living, and are omnilingual. He's so perfect that Harriet practically worships him.
Except he isn't perfect at least not on the morality front. First of all he takes great pleasure in messing with the lives of the humans around him to make things "better" for them. He also can't keep it in his pants (except that he's not wearing pants). Apparently it's completely normal for an alien to mate with the species he's disguised as. Harriet interrupts these rendezvous at least twice in the book. I realize Harriet is a farm girl but some parents reading this book out loud to kids might be surprised to see these details included.
Finally there is way in which Wiz makes things perfect for Harriet. He manipulates the meetings of Harriet's father and a newly arrived woman so that in the course of a month they go from being strangers to fiancés! There is nothing in the book to imply that Harriet wants a stepmother or that her father is unhappy. Why should this breakneck paced romance be the happy ending that Harriet apparently wants or needs?
Fishing, For Christians by Tim Roux is the fifth book of the "End of the World Sextet" and the only one I've read. It's a "gnostic Christian" look at the Mayan prediction that the world would end and transcend to a higher state.
The novel takes place in multiple locations, some in heaven and the rest on Earth. Instead of an all powerful God in charge, it's the Devil and a committee of deities (old and new). They are scrambling to get the new simplified but perfected Earth ready. Much of the story in heaven is told through committee meetings and reads like the transcripts from a UN session.
On Earth the scenes are choppy and modeled on the typical disaster story tropes. There are characters to follow from all over the world and of course some of them will be hurt or killed before the finale. Unfortunately there are so many characters that none of them stood out or managed to earn my sympathy. It didn't matter what happened to them or to this multi-dimensional Earth.
I'm on my 4th week of reading Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann). Thirty pages a week is working perfectly and will keep on schedule to finish in twenty weeks.
Pages 90 to 120 reiterate themes: the protagonist's fascination with socialites his parents have by for dinner, the simple delights of tea and, his love for his mother, grandmother and aunt.
Near the end of this section, Proust's meandering text focuses on one socialite in particular. Throughout she is only known as "The Lady in Pink." She is funny, confident, mysterious and perhaps a little dangerous.
As a parent to two Backyardigans fans and the owner of a CD of music from the show, I was immediately stuck with the song "Lady in Pink" from Super Secret Super Spy playing in my head. From there I started casting other characters from the show. I think Austin would do nicely as the young protagonist in Swann's Way.
A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison is a time travel / alternate history story that starts as a straight up mystery. Sergeant Harmon is sent to investigate a large amount of missing gold and some violent crimes all tied to a missing Colonel McCulloh.
Eventually Harmon learns of a secret government time machine project. To everyone's surprise, McCulloh has managed to make the machine work well enough to transport himself and his stolen gold back in time, a few years before the start of the Civil War.
The exciting bit of the book is supposed to be Sergeant Harmon going back in time at great personal risk both from the time travel itself and because he's a black man going into the South. Unfortunately the situation felt so contrived that it left me cold.
There was too much attention paid to making McCulloh EVIL and Harmon GOOD that neither character was all that credible or interesting. The good parts of the book (the time travel, science fiction bits) get lost in an otherwise humdrum Civil War re-enactment.
Explorers on the Moon continues with Tintin, the Captain, Dr. Calculus and the other guy in the rocket. They've passed out from the severe Gs of lift off and the folks back on Earth fear the worst.
Of course they are fine and manage to wake up and get to the moon. They have a few adventures on the way and discover a pair of stowaways on board (can you guess who). With being in a rocket with limited resources, one stowaway would be a problem, but more than one? Things are getting dicey.
The moon landing itself begins as hard science fiction but it quickly devolves into typical Tintin. There is an unexpected threat, a trip into in some caves, ice on the moon and other stuff that just doesn't make sense.
All that being said, it was the most fun of three Tintins I read this month.
The Mouse, the Cat and Grandmother's Hat is the story of a birthday celebration gone horribly pear shaped when a mouse crashes the party.
Nancy Willard's rhymes mimic the pattern of "The House that Jack Built" but spares the endless repetition that the original does. There's just enough of the meter to build on the expectations of one event coming together with another to cascade into something out of control.
The bright illustrations by Jenny Mattheson help bring Willard's story to life. The work later on with the family on the table and the birthday cake sprung to life and rolling out the door makes my children laugh.
The Mouse, the Cat and Grandmother's Hat is a short, easy to ready picture book where you will want to spend time admiring the artwork after you're done reading the story.
In honor of the first moon landing that happened on this day in 1969, I'm reviewing Destination Moon by Georges Remi Herge. It was first written 19 years before the landing and translated a decade before.
Destination Moon starts where Land of Black Gold ends. Tintin is home but is soon sent to Syldavia to witness a test flight of a moon rocket that will go around to the darkside of the Moon and photograph it.
Destination Moon is better paced than Land of Black Gold, probably because it's not suffering from such a severe editing job. It also provides an interesting look at how space travel was imagined before there was space travel. It's quaint in places but no worse than a typical science fiction of this vintage.
The book balances 1950s hard science fiction with the usual Tintin goofiness. There are gags with Thompson and Thomson. The Captain needs to have his whiskey and his pipe. Snowy gets himself into trouble and Tintin out of it. Meanwhile the rocket ship is your typical pulp science fiction three-point deal.
The book ends with the space program advancing from the unmanned flight to one that will be manned by Tintin (why?), the Captain (again why?), Dr. Calculus (huh?) and some other guy. Of course they're needed to have the adventures in the next book, Explorers on the Moon.
A Walk in the Rainforest is an almost A to Z tour of the rainforest. It is brightly illustrated with the flora and fauna of the rainforest.
It starts with an ant talking a walk and the book asks in rhyme what he will see during his trip. There are certainly enough exotic things to fit every letter of the alphabet but the book doesn't. The book leaves off with X Y Z. My son points out that it could have included X-Ray fish, yapock (water possum) and zorro (flag tailed fox).
With the exception then of these three missing letters both of my kids enjoyed the book. The illustrations are lovely and the rhymes aren't too distracting.
John Kessel's latest short story in F&SF features an antique dealer in Prague offered the chance to acquire a piece of local history that would put his shop on the map. I'm not going to call him struggling because most antique dealers are.
The item is a "motorman's coat" from a previous war. It is apparently in vintage condition and the dealer decides to stake his entire financial health on it. The story ends up being a typical caveat emptor story with a Twilight Zone twist.
The story is short, only about ten pages but I didn't connect with the main character until near the end. I actually had to go back and re-read the first half after I got to ending. Most of the first half is devoted to the setting (Prague) that obscures the plot. I enjoyed the story more on the second read than I did on the first.
Other posts and reviews:
I'm on my third week of reading Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann).
The thirty pages a week seems to be working. Proust tends to ramble, sticking to a topic for about that length of time. From roughly pages 60 to 90, the young protagonist describes his grandmother and the time he spent with her.
From the way he lovingly describes his grandmother I can tell they were close. She though isn't someone he clings to like he does to his mother when he's sent to bed early. Instead, she is someone to pal around with. They go to church together and she has very firm opinions about places.
Grandmother isn't mother but she's the perfect grandmother. The protagonist's distinction between two forms of perfection: mother and grandmother made me think of that great Twilight Zone episode "I Sing the Body Electric" by Ray Bradbury. The grandmother in episode is a robot created to be the perfect grandmother for three children reeling from the death of their mother.
If you want to watch the Twilight Zone episode while thinking about Swann's Way, it's available on the CBS website.
Previous posts: Lisa's First Word
Someday I hope to read the Tintin comics in French. So many of the puns just don't translate to English. My local library has a bunch of Tintin comics and I selected one of the volumes at random. It contained Land of Black Gold, Destination Moon and Explorers of the Moon.
Land of Black Gold focuses on an oil crisis. Oil isn't running out here but it isn't working right either. Automobiles, planes, ships and anything else running on oil based fuels are suffering from exploding engines.
Tintin and his compadres first look at the auto repair company, sort of like a Belgian auto club. They seem to be profiting from all these automobiles breaking down on the highway. I personally would have loved to see the story play out as a case of local terrorism but instead Tintin must go to a fictional Arabian country.
Now here's where things start to go pear shaped in my review. The original adventure was serialized in 1938. In that version Tintin and his friends go to Palestine and the comic strip apparently plays up the tensions between Britain, the Zionists and the Palestinians. By the time the comic was being bound into book form, Israel was a fledgling country the old gags were dated and tacky.
So starting with the 1950 edition Hergé moved the location to a fictional Arabian country. The resulting editing hack job leaves most of the plot without any coherence, being strung together by a bunch of really stupid gags involving mirages, a brat of a kid and Thompson and Thomson being even stupider than normal.
The Girls by Helen Yglesias is about Jenny's trip from Bangor Maine to Miami Florida to be with her older sisters as they prepare for Naomi's death. The women range in age from eight to ninety-five.
The blurb in the book jacket says the book is here to fill the gap in contemporary fiction where there are no older woman as characters except as stock characters: the indulgent grandmother, the wicked witch and so forth. While that may have been the goal, I don't think The Girls succeeds.
My first problem I have is with their extreme age. I realize women do tend to live longer than men (and the brothers and husbands are all deceased) but it their age ranges just didn't seem believable for all they are doing. It seems to be trope in fiction that where there is one old character, he or she must come from a large and close family. The sisters from this book fall into that trope. Having Jenny coming to visit one, maybe two sisters, it would have been more believable than having a family reunion of four.
The second problem is Naomi's cancer. The odd thing about cancer is that the younger you are the more deadly it is. New, healthy cells mutate more in the presence of cancer than old and infirm ones do. Naomi at ninety five, may very well have breast cancer but it wouldn't be as well spread through body as it's described. Again, if all the sisters were fifteen to twenty years younger, the cancer would be a real and believable family tragedy.
The third problem is their attitude. I realize Helen Ygelsias was trying to create realistic older women by avoiding making them the old dearies that so often show up in fiction. Unfortunately she goes overboard in the other direction. For the entire book they bitch and mouth off at the world. They are rude. They are crude. They are bigoted. If the sisters hate the ethnic diversity of Miami so much why the hell are they still living there? Jenny is the only who can legitimately complain as she's the outsider. And complain she does, from the very first page to the very last page.
The only character I connected with at all and who truly struck me as a believable character was Eva. She's under medical treatment for something and the medicine has affected her appearance and her mental cognition. Despite all of this she's actually the nicest of the sisters. She genuinely cares for them and worries about them (although many of her worries are delusions).
While The Girls is a noble attempt at writing literary fiction with older women for an older audience I don't think it works.
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke by Roald Dahl was written for Dyslexia Institute in London (now Dyslexia Action) and published the year after his death.
The book starts off on the wrong foot by a heavy handed mentioning of dyslexia and of the foundation. It continues downhill from there as the boy has grown up to become Parson Lee and is so scared by his first assignment that he's now speaking in a fictional "front-to-back" dyslexia. This of course is just a method for Dahl to include his usual potty humor at the expense of the Vicar.
For instance, the Vicar tells a young group of girls getting ready for their first communion that they should "pis a little" instead of "sip a little." Later he tells the congregation not to "krap on the road" when he means "park on the road." Oh... funny stuff.... not.
The only good thing about the book is that it is short. It's sixty eight pages long and for me a complete waste of time.
Other posts and reviews
Mysterious Magical Circus Family Kids: The Chocolate Cake Turkey Lip Crumb Trail Mystery Adventure by R. Hawk Starkey is the first in a promised series of children's books about a family of circus performers who have as many adventures in between gigs as they do during their performances. If Roald Dahl had grown up in California and moved to Oregon, this is the sort of book he'd write. Except that this one is funnier and less crude.
The book is told from the points of view of the children who like the characters in Geek Love all have some sort of magical power and a nickname that is inspired by their abilities. There's 3D who can make figments appear, Goodnight Irene who can breath fire and do sonic screams, Bobby Sock who can make things appear and disappear, Sweet Lips who talks in rhymes and is good at tongue twisters, and Little Big who can calm any animal and has a pet elephant.
The goal of the book is to get from the last gig in California across the border to their first gig in Oregon. What the kids don't expect is to have their grandfather (Hawk) take them on a trail that appears to both enchanted and populated by magical creatures.
Each chapter is only a few pages long and the book itself is well within the normal length of a children's chapter book. It would make good nighttime reading for a parent and child; I plan to read it to my two later in the year.
Included with the chapters are delightful line illustrations of the children and their misadventures. The artist who did the portraits had his own children pose for the drawings and that added bit of realism brings the story to life.
I have to admit that I was sad when the book ended. The next in the series will be The Vanilla Cake Twiddle Britches Crumb Trail Mystery Adventure.
Other posts and reviews
The Canadian Book Challenge 3: 07/13/09
Vasilly at 1330v were tweeting back and forth about Canadian books because she's participating in the Canadian Challenge. I got so caught up in her enthusiasm that I have decided to join up too. The challenge runs from until Canada Day 2010.
The goal is to read 13 or more Canadian books, either by Canadians or set in Canada. I have no idea which 13 I will read so I'm not posting a tentative list.
My actual list:
If you haven't read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, don't read Bronte's Book Club by Kristiana Gregory until you do. I actually didn't read it for the O'Dell connection. Instead, I picked it up because of a recent twitter litchat about book clubs.
In Bronte's Book Club, Bronte Bella and her family are recently moved to a fictional town near the Channel Islands with an unobstructed view of San Nicholas island (the location of Island of the Blue Dolphins). As I did with The Valley of the Giants. I kept Google Maps open as I read to figure out where Gray's Beach would have to be. It ends up being squished between Point Heuneme and Ventura.
Bronte's first impressions of California are that everyone is perfectly beautiful and blonde. Yes, there are a lot of blondes here but we are a much more diverse state than that. Fortunately as Bella starts to make friends we are given a better sense of diversity but with the exception of Lupe none of them felt like genuine California girls from that area. If it were Malibu, maybe but once you cross into Ventura things become more laid back. There is a definite sense of "just do your own thing" there.
Mostly though this short book is about Bronte's attempts to set up a book club and make new friends. The book dynamics described here ring true from what was described in the Lit Chat. At first no one seems to be reading the book, except Bronte who adores the book. Everyone squabbles and the snacks and local gossip are the most interesting bits of the meeting.While it was fun to see Bronte try, fail and finally succeed with her goals, the problems of getting everyone reading the same book made me glad that we don't do that our local BookCrossing meetings. It also made me wish for a sequel, Bronte Goes BookCrossing.
Other posts and reviews
The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of a short list of novels my grandmother always described to me as "one of those books" meaning it was infamous, that she had read it and that she was under no circumstances going to describe its contents to me.
Here I am now in my mid 30s and when I saw the book on the library shelf (while looking for something else) I hesitated before grabbing it. Isn't that ridiculous?
Frank Chambers, the first person protagonist, gets tossed out the back of truck coming up from Tijuana on a rural road some twenty miles east of Los Angeles (around Pomona or Ontario). He sees the Twin Oaks Tavern and sees if he can con himself a free meal. He ends up with more in the form a beautiful lover, Cora, the wife of the proprietor.
If you're like me an more familiar with Double Indemnity you'll see a lot of the same insurance scam themes (although the scam was not the reason behind the murder of Nick Papadakis). The methods of scamming the insurance companies discussed by the prosecutors are actually tried in Double Indemnity (first published as a short story in 1936 and later as a novel in 1943).
The book is full of sex, cold hearted violence, corruption, racism and completely unlikable people. The only nice person in the entire novel is Nick Papadakis. That being said, I loved the book (as I know my blushing grandmother did too). If you haven't read this classic, go to your library and check it out!
Robert Reed, I am jumping at joy having read his latest story, "Firehorn" in the June/July issue of FSF. Like Gabe and Morgan, my son loves to tell stories and create monsters. So far though, none of his monsters have taken on lives on their own like the Firehorn.
"Firehorn" is told in a combination of flashbacks and present day events comparing the original creation of a 13 year old's imagination the 63 year old who now has to deal with the repercussions of his last big childhood prank.
But Firehorn isn't just a monster of the week type story. It's also a near future science fiction populated by AIs and a the environmental effects of global warming. It's not just people believing in Firehorn, but AIs too. The AIs are more like the robots of Futurama in that they gamble and have their own goofy religions. They aren't though dependent on Asimov's laws of robotics.
I really enjoyed "Firehorn" and I read all the monster's descriptions to my son. He thinks that Firehorn is an interesting and believable monster.
Murder Mysteries is metafiction in the form of a graphic novel. It's short, only 64 pages long, and easily read over a lingering cup of coffee. It's two stories, both told as flashbacks, one of a man who ten years earlier spent the night talking to a homeless man on a trip to Los Angeles, and then the homeless man's story.
The homeless man's story takes up the bulk of the book. He tells a story Raguel, the "Vengeance of the Lord" sent for by Lucifer to discover the identity of an angel who murdered another. Raguel learns the true horror of being an aspect and a function of the Lord at the event horizon of Lucifer's fall.
Raguel's story though is both a cautionary tale and a framing device for the truth behind the protagonist's last night in Los Angeles. Everything he tells before meeting the man at the bus bench needs to be re-evaluated in light of Raguel's story and the final warning whispered at the close of the nighttime tale.
I thoroughly enjoyed Murder Mysteries and was both drawn in and repulsed at the same time. The mixture of emotions and the fact that I'm still think of the book more than week after reading is the reason behind my giving it a full five stars at GoodReads.
I'm on my second week of reading Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann).
Proust moves from the joys and frustrations of going to bed to introducing Mr. Swann and his importance. For the young protagonist, Swann is a source of stories and early (and unwanted bedtimes).
Much of Mr. Swann's reputation is based around the things he has apparently done and the people he apparently knows. Some of the adults begin to wonder if Swann's period of influence is starting to wane. The boy through doesn't care if Swann is popular or important. What has him upset is being sent to bed early and not being able to get his usual bed time kiss and tuck in from his mother.
The tight relationship between the boy and his mother is why I'm including Dumbo and his mother. Try as I might I haven't been able to think of a better example in film (or TV) between a mother and her son. So often when children are the protagonists the mother is absent (usually dead). I find this absence of mothers in lieu of mother figures (aunts, nannies, teachers) in films disturbing.
If you can think of a better example than Jumbo and Dumbo, please leave your suggestions in the comments.
Previous posts: Lisa's First Word
This "nonfiction" book claims to be an alternative The Left Behind Series. Warrior from Heaven was sent to me unsolicited and has my blood boiling since it arrived in my mailbox a few months ago. My initial impulse was to recycle the book without acknowledging its arrival but I feel its better to let my readers know just how terrible this book is.
There is a small minority of Christians who are obsessed with Revelations and the so-called "end of days" prophecies. Warrior From Heaven begins with a preface that says all of the prophesies are true and "the most difficult portion of the Bible to interpret." (p. ix) Of course, though, this book will be able to accomplish that Herculean task! Further more the book accomplishes three goals: 1) it highlights the prophesies not yet fulfilled, 2) it puts them in chronological order and 3) are written about the present-tense in a journalistic fashion.
The very first chapter starts off with Christianity's biggest flaw, namely, that only Christians will make it into Heaven at the end of days. Extremists will go one further and say that only the most devout of certain sects will get in. The second problem is the agreed upon location, Jerusalem, a holy city to not only Christians but Jews and Muslims. The book tries to dance around the unpleasant truths of Christian hatred to non-Christians.
The book goes on to explain how we should be wary of a peace talks in the Middle East because the man who brings them together (and will be from there) will be Gog (Anti-Christ). He will collude with Israel in the name of peace. So there you go, non-Christians despite the initial promise to not fall into the old anti-Semitic traps will still be the cause of the world going to hell in a hand basket.
The book goes on like this for another 200 pages. I will spare you the details. It's an incoherent rambling on the most whacked out book of the New Testament. Interspersed with the author's "journalistic" account of the "future" are long quotes from the Bible slapped right onto the page with little thought to formatting. The chapter and verse citation are then in the margins making for a busy and eye hurting display of text. At least it fits the ranting tone of the message!
Night Watch is the last of a bunch of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels that my husband bought for me two years ago. As the title implies, it follows the Watch again with Vimes as the protagonist. This time, though, Vimes is doing double duty, having found himself back in time thirty years to train himself as a young recruit.
Ankh-Morpork was a much rougher city back then and it's on the brink of revolution. Vimes remembers this time and how his commanding officer, John Keel, kept him alive and taught him how to be a proper officer of the watch during these dangerous weeks. Now on the flip side, Vimes is in the role of John Keel and he doesn't feel like the hero he remembers.
As with so many of his later books, Night Watch is long. While the overdose of puns are missing the book still has pacing problems. There are some brilliant scenes that drew me right in but they were spread out between pages of Vimes's internal monologue or of the Watch milling around. I know that's what they do when they aren't being forced to work but this late in the series do I really need to be reminded of it?
Discworld novels in order of publication:
The Color of Magic (1983)
The Second Ship by Richard Phillips is the first book in the Rho Agenda. As it was sent unsolicited and as it has such strong Christian undertones, I wasn't expecting to like it. Despite those two hits against it before I even opened the book, the first novel is pretty good.
The book follows three teens, Jennifer, Heather and Mark, who find a ship crashed in the hills just outside of the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. After their initial encounter the begin to bond with the ship and it reveals the secrets behind a sixty year cover up that started with the original Roswell crash in 1947.
Meanwhile things are heating up at the labs. Scientists close to the project are ending up dead and the conspiracy might go all the way to the top. Through some good luck and alien aided engineering the teens find a way to uncover the truth and expose the criminals.
While the book takes place in "present day" and modern technology is used and discussed at length in the novel, book's tone had a strong Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys feel to it. First of all, the teens can do no wrong and they are close with their families. Second, they above all others are able to find the clues that everyone else seems to have missed (including the big ship lying in the wilderness). Finally, their word choices make them sound much older than they are. It's not that they are using out of date slang; they hardly use any slang at all. Instead, their names for things are out of date. The one that jumped out at me most was "computer banks" instead of just "computer" but there is a more general older style of grammar and word choice for the teens much in the same way that Nancy Drew sounds like a teen out of the 1910s instead of the 1930s in the earliest books.
Kittens First Full Moon is written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes and is a Caldecott Medal Winner (2005). In black and white line drawings it tells the story of a young kitten out to explore during a full moon. Unfortunately for the young cat the moon looks like a big bowl of cream.
The illustrations are done in the style of a graphic novel or manga. They are bold, expressive and could easily carry the story without the text. Sometimes my daughter just likes to leaf through the book to admire the artwork without having me read the book to her.
Kittens First Full Moon is the perfect book for a night time read when we don't have time to read a book to each child. It has the adventure elements that my son enjoys and it has an adorable kitten for Harriet. This book is one that both kids picked out together and it continues to delight them.
Other posts and reviews
Dawn Beautmont-Lane wrote the five fairytales in Fairy Glade and Other Enchanting Stories for her family. The first three and I think the final one were written as Christmas Gifts for her daughter in the late 1960s. The remaining one, "The Dove" was written for her grandson.
Four of the five stories are the sort of non violent, magical journey or easy heroism type stories we've come to expect from children's fiction in the last few decades. They involve children spending a magical time in the Fairy Glade (without consequences), a Teddy Bear bravely saving a train from derailment, and a frog and lizard becoming fast friends despite their differences. They are all fine little stories though lacking the colorful illustrations that usually would come with them.
It's only really "The Dove" that stands out from the crowd. It is a sad story of a young male dove who leaves his nest after his father has left the family for a younger female dove. Too depressed to face the loss of his father he decides to fly away to somewhere across the sea.
Of course once across the sea he is still nagged by his sad feelings and now he misses his mother and siblings. He is given the advice to go home to his mother and siblings because they must be missing him too. He does and along the way learns the value of family even in the hardships of divorce.
Other posts and reviews
John C. Wright, as the introduction explains, has written nine novels and has recently turned towards expanding on the works of others. In other words, he gets paid to write fan fiction. "On Bright Star to Guide Them" is one of these "expanded" stories, a piece of fantasy that builds on the Carbonel series by Barbara Sleigh.
I've only read the first book in the series so I have a feeling I've just read a whole bunch of spoilers by reading "One Bright Star to Guide Them." That's one of the pitfalls of reading fanfic.
So like Hook, "On Bright Star to Guide Them" revisits the characters long after they've had their adventure. It starts with Tommy who is trying to get into his flat and is shivering in the October cold. He's lost his keys and he makes a prayer to find them. Instead, he finds a very familiar cat wearing a very familiar key.
Tybalt, son of Carbonel, calls on Tommy to go on a dangerous quest to save humanity from a rising darkness. He takes up the call, throwing aside his humdrum adult life for the sort of adventure he hasn't had since he was a child. Unfortunately his remaining companions don't share he love of adventure or his belief in magic. He is seen as off his rocker and must contend with well meaning authorities who wish to see him committed for his own good.
The central theme of this story is one of innocence and it's inherent magical potential. To set apart the adult world from the children's world of magic and imagination, the story is much darker than I remember Carbonel: King of Cats being. Tommy is also forced to sacrifice the hero of his own childhood fantasies to save the world (and prove his faith in the magic behind his fantasies). Here the story collides head-on with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and I found the resulting mashup disconcerting and out of step with the one book I've read.
Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann) is the first of a seven volume fictionalized autobiography. I'm reading the Modern Library version, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. I don't have a fixed schedule for how much I plan to read in a week or when I plan to finish this volume. I plan to read at a leisurely pace and see how far I get. When I come to a natural stopping point or run out of time in a week, I'll put the book aside and think about my weekly post.
As an interesting side note, Swann's Way was rejected by a number of publishers. Proust finally convinced a publisher to publish it if he'd cover the costs. In modern terms, Proust was a P.O.D. person. He's a perfect example of why I am so willing to read self published books.
I'll be doing the same thing that I did with Don Quixote de la Mancha and Ulysses. I will make comparisons to something pop culture, probably either from television or the movies but it might be something else, depending on how the book inspires me.
For this first week I managed to read thirty pages of the first section, "Combray." Proust starts off the book in first person without naming the protagonist (but it will later be revealed to be a semi-fictional Marcel Proust). He spends most of these first thirty pages talking about going to bed early and all the many different ways he slept, or didn't sleep. He talks of dreams he's had, of falling asleep in the wrong place or wrong position, of not knowing what time it is when he wakes and of having long bouts of insomnia.
With all this talk of sleeping or not sleeping and the importance of a good bed, I couldn't help but think of the Simpson's episode: "Lisa's First Word" (December 3, 1992). To make room for soon to be born Lisa, Bart has to give up his crib and sleep in a big boy bed. Even at such a young age he was fascinated by Krusty the Klown so Homer sets out to make him a clown themed big boy bed. Unfortunately it's a completely demented looking thing, thus giving rise to the great Bart line: "Can't sleep... clown will eat me." That my friends is my take on the first 30 pages of Swann's Way.
I'll leave you with a classic bit of Monty Python.
Celebrating Independence: 07/04/09
The year of the Bicentennial I was two going on three so my memories are very vague. I can remember the 200 year birthday party being a big thing that started early and went late. Celebrations really got started in about 1975 and they petered out in 1977. The BIG DAY though July 4, 1976.
My memories involve three things: a patriotically painted train (and seeing it pass below my grandmother's backyard), snoopy painted fire hydrants done up in patriotic colors and costumes, and a huge street parade with lots and lots of marching bands.
The American Freedom Train:
Although the golden era of American passenger trains was over, a magnificent restored locomotive from that era spent 1975 and 1976 traveling the lower forty-eight states. It made it's stop in California in December 1975, stopping first in San Francisco where it was on display in the Presidio. From there it made its way south to San Diego, staying from January 14-18, 1976. From there it headed north again to San Juan Capistrano. All trains heading north from the station in San Diego pass through Rose Canyon that bisects University City. My grandmother's house sat right on the edge of the canyon and we could have easily watched the train go by.
To learn more about this train and the journey it took, please see the Freedom Train site.
Snoopy Painted Fire Hydrants:
All throughout the country different cities and groups ended up painting their fire hydrants in patriotic colors. It wasn't part of some master plan, as far as I can tell. It just sort of happened as people got caught up in the excitement of the upcoming Bicentennial.
In San Diego and especially around the Hillcrest area I remember there being Snoopy painted fire hydrants. In some of them he was also decorated with stars and stripes and on the fancier ones he was dressed in period dress.
The hydrants I think have all been painted over since then but they sure were cute.
San Diego Parade:
The traditional big parade in San Diego isn't in Downtown; it's in Coronado. In the 1980s my family participated a number of times by driving our 1923 Buick touring car decked out in flags and red white and blue paper.
For whatever reason though (and it could be complete fabrication on my part), I remember the Bicentennial parade being Downtown. I remember staring up at all the skyscrapers and sitting on my grandfather's shoulders.
It's possible though, that I'm remembering two parades, the traditional Coronado one (which is worth seeing if you're ever in the San Diego area on the 4th) and a Downtown parade for the train. See the train station is right in the heart of Downtown, near the skyscrapers. I don't know if San Diego had a big celebration for the train but being a military town, it probably did.
Those are my vague memories of 1976. That's also the only photograph I'll ever post of myself in a bathing suit.
I Spy Fantasy by Jean Marzollo is one of the early book in the I Spy series. This one as the title implies has a fantasy theme.
The book has some of the most beautiful and trickiest picture puzzles of all the books we own. There is one page made up of costume jewelry in the shape of a dove. After three years of reading and re-reading the book we're still not sure we've found all the correct pieces to answer the riddle!
Read another reviews from the series: I Spy Mystery.
I received an unsolicited "edited galley" of She and I: A Fugue by Michael R. Brown. It claims to be a memoir of a man who evolves through his interactions with the women in his life. What that amounts to is a 280 page memoir about sex, ICQ and blogs, all written in short sentences ala Twitter.
His "observations" come off as shallow, self obsessed and childish. I got to page 120 only by skipping about every other page. There was nothing interesting to keep my attention. The short "poetic" sentences are annoying and offer nothing to the process of learning about the author or what meaningful lessons he might have gotten out of life so far.
Read another review at: Bella is Reading.
The Third Doctor is still stuck on Earth and is working for UNIT. Meanwhile a probe studying energy signals from deep space has picked up a hitchhiker in the form of a superluminal signal carrying an antimatter blob intent on capturing the Doctor. To save the universe the Time Lords back on Gallifrey must break one of their cardinal laws and let the Third Doctor work with his previous selves.
The Third and Second Doctor along with his companion and most of UNIT and some innocent bystanders end up in a world in a black hole. They must go against the mysterious Omega.
What I enjoyed most about this book was seeing how the Doctor has changed in regenerating from Second to Third and then extrapolating forward to future Doctors. The book builds on the Doctor's feelings of contempt for authority and the Council's distrust of but absolute dependence on their wayward Time Lord.