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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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Testimony: 09/30/09

When I sit down to read an Anita Shreve novel I know it will be different from the last one I read. She seems to push herself in new directions with each book. I may not always connect with the characters she creates or get swept into the plot but I will always recognize the effort and skill behind the process.

Testimony I started knowing the basic plot and the basic narration technique. It's about the fallout from a video tape showing a girl having sex with three boys. The problem: she's 14 and some of them are 18. Worse yet, the school headmaster has had the brilliant idea of covering things up. All of these events are told as a series of short chapters, most of which are told from the first person  point of view of someone who either participated or was affected by the event.

For all those many different personalities all vying for a piece of the story, Shreve does an excellent job of creating unique and believable voices for each character who testifies. Her teens sound like teens. Her recent adults still sound like kids sometimes. The parents sound like parents. All of these voices come together to show how one night of bad decisions continue to have consequences rippling through the community.

As I read Testimony I was reminded in a number of places to J. Thomas's young adult gay romance Without Sin. Both deal with relationships at private schools and touch on the theme of consequences. Testimony shows the aftermath and Without Sin ends without playing through all the consequences. In both, the relationships are hardest on the parents, teachers and other adult authorities at the schools. Even for the young men in Testimony who had to serve time for their participation come through the book more hopeful than the older adults.

Testimony isn't a cut and dry morality tale. Instead, it is a character study. It throws people into a bad situation to see what can be learned about human nature.

Comments (10)

Kampung Boy: 09/29/09

Kampung Boy (Budak Kampung) is an autobiography in the form of a graphic novel. It covers Lat's childhood in the 1950s and 1960s in a village in the Kinta Valley. It starts with his birth and ends with his father riding with him to the boarding school as a teen.

I found this book tucked between a number of manga series at my local library. I was drawn in by the title and the publisher / importer: :01 (same publisher as Life Sucks). I flipped through the book, liked the art style and found the first few pages captivating.

Stylistically Kampung Boy reminds me most of Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa (another :01 import). There's a similarity with the jutting jaws, wiggly legs and the basic energy of all the characters (especially the children). What's thankfully missing from Kampung Boy is the underlying tragedy of Three Shadows.

Besides being a fun coming of age story, Kampung Boy was educational for me. I went into the book knowing next to nothing about Malaysia. I came away with a better feeling for some of the country's culture and a desire to learn more.

The sequel to Kampung Boy is called Town Boy. I hope to find a copy to read.

Comments (0)

The Water Hole: 09/28/09

The Water Hole by Graeme Base is a counting book with an environmental message. Each page shows a different region of the earth with native animals gathered around an ever dwindling source of water.

The book has Graeme Base's uniquely detailed illustrations. The back of the book has a list of the different animals presented.

To further add interest to young readers, the water hole is cut out of the book, giving an extra dimension to the experience. For the earliest pages, the different levels of water show through like ripples in a pond.

For fans of the book, there is also a coloring book available based on the original book.

Comments (2)

Girl on a Bar Stool: 09/27/09

Girl on a Bar Stool started as a request to write a handbook on brand marketing. It ends up being a novel about vodka, religion, politics and sacrifice.

Adam Melton, the first person narrator takes us through his rise and fall. An average career as an ad exec for a vodka distributor has the career making moment when he meets Yasemin. She ends up being the model for his latest campaign but her participation comes with a hefty price.

Yasemin is no ordinary femme fatale; she's an angel. She gives Melton a better ad campaign than he could ever dream of and pushes him into a political career, telling him he has a destiny to save the world.

Adam Melton's sudden switch to politics and his success at it reminds me most of the television miniseries of the 1990s that were inspired by the novel 0006176909?House of Cards by Michael Dobbs. The B00009MGGI?miniseries trilogy (for a total of twelve episodes) featured a devious character who also quickly rises to power named Francis Urquhart.

Now Urquhart's rise and fall was all self made and pure evil. Adam Melton is actually a sympathetic character for the most part. He is perhaps too trusting of his angel and too willing to play along as he rises in power.

Of the two Tim Roux novels I had the pleasure to review, Girl on a Bar Stool was by far my favorite. It's a nice mixture of social satire and metaphysics.

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A Token of a Better Age: 09/26/09


Today's story from Fantasy & Science Fiction by Melinda M. Snodgrass is in the same world as her Edge novels. I haven't read any of them. The introduction says that the story stands alone but I felt like I was missing something as I read it.

"A Token of a Better Age" is told in the same fashion as Heart of Darkness. Most of it is told as a series of conversations between a Centurion and a Patrician. The Patrician is soon to be executed. While he's waiting he tells how he came to be in this sorry state.

The story involves a dragon and rifts in space and other unusual things. Set though against the Roman empire though was enough to numb my brain. I'm really not into fantasy stories set so far ago. The other problem is that I'm currently reading Nightwings by Robert Silverberg (review coming). It is also set in Rome (Ruom), although a far future one but still designed after the ancient Rome.

That being said, the story does wrap up nicely.

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Wet Cats: 09/25/09

Wet Cats by Mario Garza is a book that collects the best of the "Wet Cats" tagged on Stuff on My Cat. The book is published by Chronicle Books, a local favorite of mine because they seem to specialize in off the wall books (regardless of genre).

Wet Cats I read at a local coffee shop. Someone had left a copy there and being a fan of both the website and the publisher, I put my own book aside to read (look at and giggle at the photos) it.

The cats featured divide into groups: unhappy cats getting a bath in a tub, cats who actually like water playing in the tub, cats coming in from the rain and cats drinking water. If you like cats, it's worth a read. If you don't like cats you'll still probably get a chuckle from the book.

There are currently six books in the series. You can see them here:

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Swann's Way: Swann in Love: Rose: 09/25/09


I'm on my 13th week of reading Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann). I'm up to page 390.

Last week I compared Odette to Hyacinth Bucket. This week I'm keeping on that theme but looking at Hyancinth's past as hinted by two of her sisters: Daisy and Rose.

As Odette and Swann become a couple and host dinner parties together and all those other niceties of society, some of shine comes off from Odette. She's crasser and less refined than the image created in Swann's head (in part from Vinteuil's sonata).

If Odette is staying true to Swann, she might be a Daisy. Faithful, loving and low class. If Swann is just a means to an end, a conquest among a long line of conquests, then she is like Rose. Things will come to a head. Can Swann keep his jealously and unhealthy obsession in check with Odette? Probably not. Can he survive being treated the way he's treated countless women? I don't know.

Swann's Way posts:

Lisa's First Word, Baby Mine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Lady in Pink, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Caturday, Cherry Blossoms, Marge Simpson, Liana Telfer, Bender in Love, Margaret Dumont, Hyacinth Bucket, Rose, Mildred Krebs, Pepé Le Pew, Jack Harness, Cordelia Chase, Saffron, Thomas O'Malley.

Within a Budding Grove posts:

Nanowrimo, Cheers, Robert Langdon, Kif and Amy, Dead Weight, Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, Paris is a Lonely Town, And Then There's Maude, A Cafe Terrace at Night, North by Northwest, Top Hat, Chez Deetz, Ah, My Goddess!, David, Auntie Mame, Brunhilde Esterhazy, Gusteau's, Shell Beach.

Comments (0)

A Handful of Dust: 09/24/09

A Handful of Dust is the second Evelyn Waugh novel I've read. I picked it up at my library based on my enjoyment of The Loved One.

The novel has three main parts and plays a light homage to Swann's Way with chapter titles like "Du Côte de Chez Beaver" and "Du Côte de Chez Tod." While the first part certainly reads like a parody of Proust with the bored young boy, the passion for ugly Gothic architecture and parties full of famous people this parody is merely a distraction. The second part is more akin to The Importance of Being Earnest and the final part is like a drunken rendition of Heart of Darkness.

The novel starts off like any number of high society parodies that have come out of British literature. Tony Last and his wife Brenda are putting on a good show of being a happily married aristocratic couple until the untimely death of their son. Then things take a turn for the surreal.

First there is the attempt at a comedy of errors with the husband pretending to have an affair so his wife can divorce him. He just can't bring himself to do it. So rather than go home and deal with the grief of losing a child he runs away to the jungle (Dutch Guyana).

The jungle third has me thinking that I've been reading too many stories like this recently. First there was the very funny Fiction and then the not so funny "Sooner or Later or Never Never" by Gary Jennings and now A Handful of Dust. Of course in order of publishing, they go front to back but I've ended up reading them youngest to oldest.

With one hit and one miss for me from Evelyn Waugh, I will try another novel from him. I will stick though to getting them from my library just in case I don't like it.

Comments (2)

Coraline: 09/23/09

Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a book I meant to read at the start of the year. I loaned it to my family who also wanted to read it, thinking I could find a copy in my library. With the movie still relatively new, the book was always checked out. By the time I had the book back I had other things I was reading. Eight months passed before I finally got it read.

With my husband and mother in law both having read it and loved it I came to the book with exceptionally high expectations. I had also read and loved a number of other Gaiman books this year. It has all the elements I normally enjoy: an adventure involving an old house, a secret door, "other" versions of characters, magic, danger, ghosts and so forth. But somehow it just didn't knock me over like The Graveyard Book did.

Coraline and her parents have moved into an old house that like so many old homes in Britain has been divided into flats. It's summer but an unusually cool and rainy one and Coraline's parents are too busy to entertain her as she's cooped up inside. In exploring the house she comes to meet the other neighbors, none of whom can remember her name; they all call her Caroline. She also finds a locked door that leads to a brick wall.

Locked or bricked doors are never an obstacle for long in this sort of book. Coraline does find her way to the other side of the door and encounters a magical but off putting interpretation of her own world, populated with "other" versions: Other Mother, Other Father, and Other Neighbors. Despite some alluring qualities to this other world, she quickly realizes she had best stick to her own world.

CoralineAgain, trips through portals are ever that simple. Coraline like Richard Mayhew (of Gaiman's Neverwhere) finds that things are not right in her world and the only way to fix them is to go back. Coraline has a lot of similarities with the older Neverwhere. There are doors to places that most people don't know about and doors where doors shouldn't be. There are mice and rats who bring messages. There is an ordinary protagonist who must give up everything to be a hero.

But there is something lacking in Coraline too. Although it is maybe a third the length of Neverwhere, it took me three times as long to read it. It did not hold my attention. I had to go back and re-read long sections to see what had just happened. Had I not been planning to see the film, I would have left the book unfinished.

I did want to see the film, having listened to the haunting sound track by Bruno Coulais. The film is very different from the book; a new setting, scenes moved around and the back story flushed out. The narrator is replaced by a new character named Wybie who serves to turn much of the lengthy descriptions into dialogue. So the book moves from Britain to Ashland, Oregon and the time of year to winter. I liked the changes between book and film and plan to get a copy for my DVD collection.

Comments (10)

The Lighthouse, the Cat and the Sea: 09/22/09

I'm surprised I couldn't find any online reviews of The Lighthouse, the Cat and the Sea by Leigh W. Rutledge. It's an absolutely delightful book about a life at sea and a home in a lighthouse. It's narrated by an elderly cat, Mrs. Moore.

The novel is Mrs. Moore's memoir of how she came to live as a lighthouse keeper's cat and what she has learned in her long thirty-one years.

Mrs. Moore's kittenhood is tied to the sea and to a ship that specialized in limes. Though these chapters at sea are short, there is enough time to build a memorable character in the form of the cook who has a thing for strays and keeps a pet chicken. At one point the ship has to come about in rough waters to save the chicken when it's overboard!

Mostly though the novel is about unconventional families and the misfits who make them up. The family who lives at the lighthouse are as odd and charming as the cook presumed lost at sea. It takes a certain sort of person to run a lighthouse.

I'm having trouble reviewing The Lighthouse, the Cat and the Sea because I so enjoyed it. I was swept away in the story even with the silliness of having it narrated by the cat. It has the charm of a Jimmy Buffett novel but with the narrative trappings of a Melville novella. Except of course told by a cat.

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The Case of the Climbing CatThe Case of the Climbing Cat: 09/21/09

The Case of the Climbing Cat is the second of the High Rise Private Eyes series by Cynthia Rylant. If you are like me, you know the title from the Backyardigans's episode: "The Masked Retriever" which aired near the end of the 2008-9 season.

Years before "The Masked Retriever" (by far my favorite episode) I received The Case of the Climbing Cat in a box of books. I registered the book on Bookcrossing and added it to my BTC database. I promptly forgot about it because my children were too young at the time for chapter books. When Don Austin had the book checked out and Tasha really wanted it my son asked it was a real book. My off the cuff response was "I doubt it" but I decided to check anyway. Imagine my surprise when I realized we owned a copy!

The plot is straight forward. It's a typical chapter book mystery, similar in level of difficulty to the Encyclopedia Brown books but with a better sense of humor.

Bunny Brown and Jack Jones share a high rise apartment where they run a small detective agency. For their second case (of nine) a neighbor saw someone run of with her binoculars and wants them back.

There's a twist behind the how and why of the binoculars' disappearance. As it's a short book I won't spoil the ending for you.

The High Rise Private Eyes  series:

  • The Case of the Missing Monkey
  • The Case of the Climbing Cat
  • The Case of the Puzzling Possum
  • The Case of the Troubling
  • The Case of the Fidgety Fox
  • The Case of the Baffled Bear
  • The Case of the Desperate Duck

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Myths, Magic and Legends of Sand Art: 09/20/09

Myths, Magic and Legends of Sand Art by Suzanne Lord is a short art history book aimed at elementary school children. It teaches about sand and how it has been used by a variety of different cultures in art and spiritual practices.

The parts of the book that fascinated me most were the comparisons between Buddhist mandalas and Navajo sand paintings. The book also talks about artistic representation vs. spiritual representation of traditional iconographies.

Real mandalas and real sand paintings are temporary. The creation of them is a spiritual event and as part of the process they must be dismantled.

The pieces created for artistic consumption (to be hung on walls) are based on traditional forms but will be slightly different. The forms might be drawn with key features changed or the colors will be altered. How exactly they are changed isn't disclosed.

At the end of the book there are suggested sand based art projects: sand pictures, greeting cards, frames, layered sand designs, pins, castings and textured painting.

If anything, I want the book to be longer. There are so many fascinating details about sand art and this slim volume is just an introduction to the topic.

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You Are Such a One: 09/19/09

I'm grateful that she second story in the August / September issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is short. I think it's only about ten pages (give or take). It was perfect for a hot end of summer day when I was busy cleaning house and suffering from a migraine.

So this week's story is "You Are Such a One" by Nancy Springer. Springer has fifty books under her belt. I need to look for them at the library when it re-opens. For the meantime I only know her writing through her FSF short stories.

Written in second person present tense, "You Are Such a One" puts the reader into the body of a middle-aged menopausal woman. She's on her way to the funeral of a distant relative. She's left her husband and children for this trip. On her way to the funeral she sees a house she knows inside and out; it's the home from her nightly dream.

Here Springer states her thesis: there is no difference between conscious life and dream life. If there is no difference, can one trade one for another? If you are middle aged nearly invisible woman in your job and your family life, maybe it's better to be the ghost your dreams allow you to be. So, where do you haunt in your dreams?

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Violent Cases: 09/18/09

Violent Cases by Neil Gaiman was his first collaboration with Dave McKean. It's a short graphic novel about boy hood memories of being treated by Al Capone's osteopath.

As with so many of Gaiman's graphic novels this is a story about story telling and faulty memories. Much of the plot is interrupted with asides from the now adult protagonist as he rethinks pieces of the story or admits to gaps in his memory.

Near the end of the novel there is an especially creepy and memorable scene that compares the violence of Al Capone as he single handedly bashes in the brains of a group of men who have slighted him to the petty squabbles that arise during a typical game of musical chairs.

What all my recent reads of Gaiman and McKean collaborations have told me is that I am guaranteed to enjoy anything they've worked on together.

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Swann's Way: Swann in Love: Hyacinth Bucket: 09/18/09

Hyacinth Bucket

I'm on my 12th week of reading "Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann). I'm up to page 360.

With Charles Swann falling more and more in love, most of these next thirty pages were still focused on Odette. She isn't very beautiful but is confident. She can't play the piano well but loves to and makes people listen. She carries herself as if she's a princess. Although people are starting to warn Swann to stay away and are beginning to wonder why he isn't running for the hills.

So the description of a woman who is all about "keeping up appearances" and not being very good at it brings to mind one and only one character: Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances. Charles Swann is on his way to becoming Richard Bucket.

Swann's Way posts:

Lisa's First Word, Baby Mine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Lady in Pink, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Caturday, Cherry Blossoms, Marge Simpson, Liana Telfer, Bender in Love, Margaret Dumont, Hyacinth Bucket, Rose, Mildred Krebs, Pepé Le Pew, Jack Harness, Cordelia Chase, Saffron, Thomas O'Malley.

Within a Budding Grove posts:

Nanowrimo, Cheers, Robert Langdon, Kif and Amy, Dead Weight, Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, Paris is a Lonely Town, And Then There's Maude, A Cafe Terrace at Night, North by Northwest, Top Hat, Chez Deetz, Ah, My Goddess!, David, Auntie Mame, Brunhilde Esterhazy, Gusteau's, Shell Beach.

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Secrets Unveiled: 09/17/09

Secrets Unveiled by Sheshena Pledger is a New Orleans thriller told from the point of view of the protagonist and antagonist. Nick Miller wants to escape the madness of the Harris family seeking revenge for the death of Natasha "Cleopatra" Harris.

Pledger writes in short, choppy sentences, sometimes only have a couple words on a line. It makes the book look like an attempt at 300 pages of epic poetry but the result is less than satisfactory.

With competing and opposite points of view it is crucial to have distinct voices for whomever is telling the story. Voice through writing style, word choice and sentence structure adds realism and builds interest. It also makes following the jumps between points of view possible. Secrets Unveiled does not have any obvious distinctions between who is telling the story making the opposition of views pointless.

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>How I Became a Pirate: 09/16/09

Sean and I picked How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long from a recent Scholastic book club catalogue. We both enjoy pirate stories.

In How I Became a Pirate Jeremy Jacob is at the beach with his parents when he sees a pirate ship sail by. The pirates invite him to join them and he agrees. See Jeremy has exceptional digging skills from all his sandcastle building and the pirates are in need of a digger to help them find their treasure!
The book is a good mix of adventure and the home life. The pirates don't make him eat his veggies and they don't expect table manners. On the other hand, he doesn't have a comfy bed or someone to tuck him in. I liked that the pirate life gave Jeremy reasons to want to go home. So often the adventures are so fantastic that there's no reason for the protagonist to go back home and yet he usually does.

It's a good start to the classic tale of a young boy befriended by pirates. See also Camp Buccaneer by Pam Smallcomb, Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones: 09/15/09

Doctor Who and the Faceless Ones is a novelization based on a mostly lost (taped over) second doctor episode, "The Faceless Ones." The Second Doctor, Jamie, Polly and Ben end up landing on the runway at Gatwick Airport. If that isn't enough, people are known to go missing from here. Somehow the disappearances are tied up with Chameleon Tours. Can the Doctor sort everything out, get his TARDIS back and save his companions?

As someone who has traveled without my family as a teen, I connected with the promise of adventure and the fears older family members must have of something happening. The opening scene with the plane nearly landing on the TARDIS got my attention. Airports are exhilarating and potentially dangerous. Other reviews have complained that it would be easier to just move the TARDIS than scattering in all directions. Given the TARDIS's unreliability and propensity to breakdown, I'd run too.

My only complaint is with the way things wrap up. After so much build up of mystery and misdirection when things are finally sorted out the doctor and his companions fix things very quickly. I think this is more an affect of the mandated novel length than of the original plot but I can only guess.

The series:

Episode 1  8th April, 1967   5h50pm - 6h15pm
Episode 2 15th April, 1967  5h50pm - 6h15pm
Episode 3  22nd April, 1967  5h50pm - 6h15pm
Episode 4 29th April, 1967 5h50pm - 6h15pm
Episode 5  6th May, 1967 5h50pm - 6h15pm
Episode 6 13th May, 1967 5h50pm - 6h15pm
Source: Dr. Who Guide

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Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars: 09/14/09

Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars is the first of the Miss Pickerell series of books and the second Ellen MacGregor book I've read. The other one is her delightful picture book Mr. Pringle and Mr. Buttonhouse.

Like Mr. Pringle and Mr. Buttonhouse I was drawn to the book by Paul Galdone's cover illustration. The cover here shows a typical mid-west farm woman standing gobsmacked before a 1950s style rocket ship. Her pose and the general set up of the cover reminds me of one of my favorite B001675ZJC?Backyardigans episodes "Ranch Hands from Outer Space." With that tenuous connection I chose the book to read.

Now as the title implies, Miss Pickerell is the one going to Mars, not the Martians coming to her farm. Her apparently abandoned farm is chosen as the perfect place for a covert government launch. Unfortunately for the mission, she has actually been on vacation visiting her niece and nephew and has just returned in time for the launch. She accidentally replaces the last astronaut, a man who is great at astrophysics but lousy at remembering day to day things like addresses.

Despite the goofy set up, the novel ends up being "harder" science fiction than the two similarly aged Tintin adventures: Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. It accomplishes this mostly by avoiding discussion of how the equipment works and by the sheer brevity of the work (only 124 pages). The book does stick to the basics: food and beverages in tubes, no atmosphere in space, physical differences between Mars and Earth, elliptical orbits and maneuvering between them and using gravity to your advantage.

Although Miss Pickerell doesn't have the sort of training as the men she ends up flying to Mars with, she does have the sense to listen to them and the smarts to adapt. She holds her own in the book and does end up being a positive contributing member to the mission.

The series:

  • Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars, 1951
  • Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter, 1953
  • Miss Pickerell Goes Undersea, 1953.
  • Miss Pickerell Goes to the Arctic, 1954

Completed from MacGregor's notes by Dora Pantel:

  • Miss Pickerell on the Moon, 1965
  • Miss Pickerell Goes on a Dig, 1966
  • Miss Pickerell Harvests the Sea, 1968.
  • Miss Pickerell and the Weather Satellite, 1971.
  • Miss Pickerell Meets Mr. H.U.M., 1971.
  • Miss Pickerell Takes the Bull by the Horns, 1976.
  • Miss Pickerell to the Earthquake Rescue, 1977.
  • Miss Pickerell and the Supertanker, 1978.
  • Miss Pickerell Tackles the Energy Crisis, 1980.
  • Miss Pickerell on the Trail, 1982.
  • Miss Pickerell and the Blue Whales, 1983.
  • Miss Pickerell and the War of the Computers, 1984.
  • Miss Pickerell and the Lost World, 1986.

Source: Wikipedia

Comments (6)

Baby Dance: 09/13/09

Our local library has a nice selection of board books in each reach for young children to pick from. I love seeing what Harriet will choose when we go for our weekly trip to the library. Among her recent picks is Baby Dance from a poem by Ann Taylor (1782-1866) and illustrated by Marjorie van Heerden.

For the book, the poem has been oddly edited to remove the mother from the story. She's still shown as part of the family but the moment of playful dance between mother and baby moves to a father and baby instead.

The father and baby are clearly happy and it's nice to expose Harriet to families of different backgrounds than her own. It's refreshing to see people in a board book about families instead of the usual collection of overly cute animals.

What does bother me though is the choice to edit the poem. Fathers have certainly gotten short shrift in books aimed at young children. Unfortunately for this book, a perfectly delightful (albeit old) poem has its rhyme and meter slaughtered to bring a father to the foreground. Why not hire a living poet to write an update in homage to Ann Taylor's poem?

Original poem:

The Baby's Dance

DANCE, little baby, dance up high:
Never mind, baby, mother is by;
Crow and caper, caper and crow,
There, little baby, there you go;
Up to the ceiling, down to the ground,
Backwards and forwards, round and round:
Then dance, little baby, and mother shall sing,
While the gay merry coral goes ding-a-ding, ding.

Taylor, Jane & Taylor, Ann. Little Ann and Other Poems. London, New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1883. p. 48. (Source)

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The Art of the Dragon: 09/12/09

I like to savor my short story collections. I need time between each short story to think about what I've read and to internalize the story. So here it is the second week of September and I am just now cracking the spine (not literally!) on the August / September issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Dragons in modern day settings seem to be popular plot devices. First on my radar was Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley, then the Dragons of Spratt Ohio by Linda Zinnen (review coming) and now "The Art of the Dragon" by Sean McMullen.

The opening line sucked me into this 30 page story: "I was there when the dragon first appeared — and ate the Eiffel Tower." (p. 7) Enter Dr. Carr, the last art history PhD who pays the bills by driving a garbage truck. Really it should be a dustcart since he lives in London but it says "garbage truck" in the story. Nonetheless, he's highly educated on the finest achievements of humankind and he makes his living driving away human generated trash.

On the science fiction front, "The Art of the Dragon" most reminds me of Fahrenheit 451 but for art, artists and art historians instead of books, writers and librarians. If the dragon wants to eat art, the best way to protect the world is to ban art. Not only ban it, but destroy it before the dragon can. As social commentary, it's an interesting look at what art is or might be. Why do we create art? Why do we need it? Where would we be without it?

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Thump Quack Moo: 09/11/09

Every October we head to a pumpkin patch in Livermore. Besides picking out pumpkins we go through the Corn Maze. We got our copy of Thump Quack Moo by Doreen Cronin right around the time of our last trip through the Maze and laughed ourselves silly.

The book covers the planning and building of Farmer Brown's annual Corn Maze. This year he gets the whole farm involved. Unfortunately for him, the Duck has ideas of his own. The last page unfolds to reveal a top down view of the Maze they have carefully grown. Duck's changes are immediately apparent. My only complaint with the book is with its construction. The fold out page is not sturdy enough to handle the unfolding by eager children. On our first reading it ripped at the seam and had to be repaired.

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Swann's Way: Swann in Love: Margaret Dumont: 09/11/09

Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont

I'm on my 11th week of reading Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann). I'm up to page 330.

Most of these thirty pages focus on Odette and her tightening grip on Charles Swann. Odette is an accomplished a seductress and in that regard is a perfect match for Swann. Though she is lacking in intelligence, beauty and social grace she captures Swann's attention and he will soon fall under her spell.

At this point though, he is still acting semi-independently. Swann breaks up his dates with Odette with other flings. She put on a show of hysterics and when that doesn't work, she leaves without him. It is the leaving that rattles Swann. The absence of Odette makes him long for her more violently than he ever expected he would or could.

Since the relationship is not cemented yet and both parties are acting absurd at times, I was reminded of the on screen shtick between Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont over a course of many films. She typically played the high society lady who is either a sponsor or in some other way desirable to whatever character Grouch is playing. They are always so very different and so very stubborn that they end up in verbal fisticuffs with Marx going for a string of increasingly silly non sequiturs and Dumont growing all the more flustered and indignant.

The image I'm using is her playing Mrs. Claymore from A Night at the Opera (1935).

Swann's Way posts:

Lisa's First Word, Baby Mine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Lady in Pink, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Caturday, Cherry Blossoms, Marge Simpson, Liana Telfer, Bender in Love, Margaret Dumont, Hyacinth Bucket, Rose, Mildred Krebs, Pepé Le Pew, Jack Harness, Cordelia Chase, Saffron, Thomas O'Malley.

Within a Budding Grove posts:

Nanowrimo, Cheers, Robert Langdon, Kif and Amy, Dead Weight, Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, Paris is a Lonely Town, And Then There's Maude, A Cafe Terrace at Night, North by Northwest, Top Hat, Chez Deetz, Ah, My Goddess!, David, Auntie Mame, Brunhilde Esterhazy, Gusteau's, Shell Beach.

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The Great American Marble Book: 09/10/09

Growing up my grandmother was a marbles player. When I was a child she taught me the games she knew and I would sometimes play them with my friends. I would also play against myself in my room imagining great triumphant playground battles in times long past. So when a copy of The Great American Marble Book by Fred Ferretti surfaced at a BookCrossing meeting, I had to snatch it up.

The Great American Marble Book was published the year I was born and it shows a fascinating snapshot of early 1970s culture as seen through the game. On the back cover the author exclaims: "This book is for all former marbles players... for present marbles players... and for future marbles players. Let their tribe increase." My grandmother would have loved this book as a former player; I feel like the "present" player being the same age as the book; I plan to hold onto the book at least long enough to teach the games to my children or the "future" players.

Ferretti used children and teen players from Yonkers in his book. The last page of the book has a group portrait with their names. From the looks of things, the photographs for the book were shot in one day's worth of playing in a sand lot. Besides the black and white photographs of different marbles games and techniques, the book has a lengthy and fascinating section on different marble types in the chapter called "A Lexicon of Mibology." I've read this chapter about a dozen times and it's by far my favorite. It brings back so many memories of my grandmother reliving her best marbles games.

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Simulacron-3: 09/09/09

A Preamble:

Simulacron-3 is one of about a hundred books I've had for as long as I've been a serious reader. When I got bitten by the reading bug back in 1987 I started to collect books by two criteria: they had to be affordable and they had to be hard to come by. Rather than spend my babysitting money on the then popular books, I tended to go for old books and ones I had never heard of.

As I was collecting the books, often paying a dime or quarter for each, I was also reading books for school and working my way through the library's collection of science fiction and mysteries. In other words, my shelf devoted to my books quickly filled up and I read maybe a percentage of them.

About ten years after I bought Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye my husband and I went to see a fun science fiction film, 0767821629?The Thirteen Floor. Now I'm normally a compulsive reader of credits but I did not catch Simulcron-3 mentioned as the source material. If I had, I probably wouldn't have even remembered that I owned the book. So the book remained unread and stashed with my original 100.

Five years later I decided to register my original 100 with the hope of finally reading them and releasing the books I didn't want to read again or didn't think my husband or children wanted to read. A Bookcrossing friend contacted me shortly after I had registered the book and asked to borrow it, pointing out the connection to The Thirteen Floor. After I got over my surprise I found the book and sent it to her.

Five more years and I have finally read it. Most of my reading commitments are now finished and I have been enjoying a year of reading mostly what I want. Part of that reading for fun is to finally go through that original 100.

The review:
Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye begins as a murder mystery set in a computer lab. But it quickly embraces its science fiction setting to explore philosophical notions of reality, consciousness and soul. The title is a pun on "simulacrum" meaning the representation of something often intangible (such as a God). The "crum" has become cron (short for chronograph jobs). The "3" hints at the three levels of reality that Douglas Hall becomes aware of as his own life is endangered.

Things go awry for Douglas Hall when fellow researcher Morton Lynch goes missing and then another colleague, Hannon Fuller is murdered. Hall finds himself accused of both crimes but he has no memory of having committed any crime.

The clues to solving the murders come though from Rien Reactions marketing research based simulator, the Simulacron-3. The ways in which Hall and the other researchers can interact with the Units who "live" in their pre-programmed city would witness the sorts of odd inconsistencies in their reality as the researchers enter and leave the simulation or reprogram the world to try different situations.

As Douglas Hall begins to think he too might be a Unit in a simulation that has gotten so real as to mimic the building of a simulator like that of the real world the book really takes off. I think all my years of playing different Sim games made the book all the more perversely enjoyable. Douglas ends up trying to hide from the creator of the simulator and has the whole world trying to kill him.

My favorite quote from the book comes on page 108: "I couldn't dismiss the incongruity implicit in the need of an immaterial being for immaterial food." It brought to mind a fun evening of Sim torture while playing B00166N6SA?The Sims.

See also:

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret: 09/08/09

I first heard of The Invention of Hugo Cabret from Dewey. I was taken in with the illustrations she posted and didn't even bother with the plot. It didn't matter to me what the plot was, it was a beautiful graphic novel. I waited though a full year before I bought a copy; the opportunity presented itself during a Scholastic book drive at my son's school.

What I didn't expect from the book (having done no research and not even reading any blurbs or reviews beyond admiring the pretty illustrations) is the sort of personal connection I had with it. The book's big secret has the same emotional ties for me as Tasmania details in The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay. My first clue that this would be a book I will treasure comes at the dedication: "For Remy Charlip and David Serlin." Remy Charlip wrote my all time favorite book of children's poetry, Arm in Arm. The second clue is the author's name: Brian Selznick. He is He is a first cousin, once removed, of David O. Selznick and I'm an ex-film major. 
Hugo Cabret is an orphan who lives between the walls of the Paris train station where he keeps the clocks running. He has inherited an automaton from his father but it needs new parts for fixing. Hugo collects the parts when he can but when his father's notebook is taken away by a grumpy old toy seller Hugo figures he'll never be able to finish his father's project.

That's the set up of part one, told mostly in pictures with a smattering of text and dialogue. Everything clicks into place, with the benefit of a suspension of disbelief at the end of this section. The "what-if" part of the novel comes full force in the second half of this novel.

As it's a graphic novel and heavier on the drawings than on the text, you can easily read the book in the course of an afternoon. I hope though that you will linger over the artwork and let it sink in. For anyone who knows the basics of French film history, the clues are all there. For anyone who doesn't, the author provides the info you need at the end of the book. Knowledge of film history isn't required but for early film buffs The Invention of Hugo Cabret is extra special.

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Fruits Basket Volume 1: 09/07/09

Tohru Honda, the female protagonist of Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya has a lot in common with Hattie Brooks. Both are orphans and both have been shuttled between families. Where Hattie gets her chance to find a home by inheriting her uncle's claim, Tohru decides its time to set out on her own. She'd rather live in a tent on a damp hillside then "inconvenience" her grandfather any longer.

Just as Hattie finds a family in the Muellers, Tohru finds a family with the Sohmas. They have a secret to keep but concern for Tohru trumps it. They bring her into the family and she quickly learns that each of them is cursed to turn into an animal from the Chinese zodiac whenever one is hugged by a member of the opposite sex.

Like the old Ramna 1/2 anime, the curse gives many excuses for comedic situations. People are turning into animals left and right, and each one is cuter than the next. Despite the lighthearted gags, it's a good story full of drama and heartbreak.

I have the next eight issues that I will be working through as time permits.

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Tom and Pippo Read a Story: 09/06/09

Tom and Pippo Read a Story by Helen Oxenbury is one of a series of board books featuring Tom and his toy monkey, Pippo. In this book, Tom loves having his daddy read to him. It's all about the balance of time between personal time and family time.

Tom's too young to read to himself so he needs his father (or perhaps his mother but she isn't in this book). Tom crawls into his dad's lap to be read to. At first Dad puts away his newspaper to read to Tom. Later he tells Tom that he needs time to himself so Tom "reads" to Pippo by imitating his dad. The rest of this short book follows with the initial imitation to the point that little Tom is asleep in bed and Pippo is propped up to read the paper by himself.

In a family of book lovers young and old, we loved this book. It captures what a typical day of reading is like here. Ian and I love to read to the kids but we also want and need time to read to ourselves. Now that Sean is older he can read to himself and he sometimes reads to Harriet. Sometimes though he doesn't want to or can't read to Harriet so she's left to "read" to herself. And sometimes I find her animals reading to themselves.

The entire list:

  • Tom and Pippo and the Washing Machine
  • Tom and Pippo Go for a Walk
  • Tom and Pippo Make a Mess
  • Tom and Pippo Read a Story
  • Tom and Pippo's Day
  • Tom and Pippo See the Moon
  • Tom and Pippo in the Garden
  • Pippo Gets Lost
  • Tom and Pippo and the Dog
  • Tom and Pippo in the Snow
  • Tom and Pippo Make a Friend
  • Tom and Pippo on the Beach

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Spaceman: 09/05/09

Before I jump into the last review for the June/July issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, let me explain that I'm posting remotely. Today is my daughter's third birthday. She's crazy for trains and asked for a train ride on her birthday. So here we are in Sacramento at the end of the line for the Capitol Corridor. We've spent a fun day riding trains and looking at trains at the Train Museum in Old Town. Because of all this adventure, I'm exhausted and possibly a little loopy.

"Spaceman" by Mike O'Driscoll is set in Wales in a location that will bring to mind fantasy adventures rich in Arthurian legends but this takes the old magic and gives it a science fiction twist.

Three children meet a spaceman, Captain Paul, who claims to be looking for his lost crew mates. When he tells his history they can see the moon and experience the danger and adventure of space travel in the 1970s. As the kids start investigating Paul's claims his version of history doesn't add up and yet his rocket and moon seem too real to be a collective hallucination.

Here though is where the old magic of Wales comes into play. In many fantasy stories children go missing. Sometimes they are replaced by changelings and sometimes they are just lost to the faeries. Here though, the are lost to the call of a space adventure.

I really liked this story. I love the location. I love the mixture of ghost story, faerie story, and science fiction.

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Hattie Big Sky: 09/04/09

Kirby Larson's great-grandmother Hattie Inez Brooks Wright had a homestead in eastern Montana and proved her claim. In researching the history of her great-grandmother, Kirby Larson began to realize she had a novel. To tell a more complete picture of homesteading during the 1910s she decided to create a very different outcome for her Hattie for Hattie Big Sky.

Fictional Hattie is a 16 year old orphan who has been jostled from family member to family member, never really finding a home as her own. When her late uncle's claim is willed to her she sees a chance to finally find a place where she belongs.

The novel takes place from December 19, 1917 to December 12, 1918. This is right during America's participation in WWI. Hattie quickly discovers the anti-German fears and hatred cropping up. By befriending a German American family Hattie puts herself and her home at risk.

Besides the war tension at home and having a good friend fighting over seas, Hattie has to deal with the elements (snow, hail, drought), rationing (flour, sugar) and quickly diminishing funds to homesteading expenses and mandatory war support.

The parallels between Hattie's life and our recent invasion of Iraq are intentional. Kirby outlines her reasons in the "Author's Note" at the back of the book.

I picked this book for two very shallow reasons: I loved the cover art and I liked the title. Hattie, of course, is short for Harriet, and I've been reading many books about Harriets now. I read some bits to my daughter and she enjoyed the pieces I read to her. I think when she is older I will get her a copy for her personal library. What I discovered was a well researched, fascinating, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking novel about life in rural Montana. It was a book I couldn't put down for the two days I was reading it.

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Swann's Way: Swann in Love: Bender in Love: 09/04/09

Bender in Love

I'm on my 10th week of reading "Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann). I made up last week's deficit, reading to page 300. I started the section called "Swann in Love."

The first thirty-five pages of this section describe Swann's many love affairs. As long as the person was a woman and willing he was able. Station and age didn't seem to matter.

The worst of Swann's behavior comes before the young protagonist is born but he is warned of Swann's rakish ways many times. In the present, Swann seems to be gearing up again for a new conquest. This time, she's a woman of means and all Swann has to do is live through some weekly piano concerts.

I couldn't help but think of Bender and his insatiable appetite for fembots. Sometimes he swears he's getting serious but it never lasts. He has gone through many an elaborate scheme either for a fembot or some other personal gratification.

Swann's Way posts:

Lisa's First Word, Baby Mine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Lady in Pink, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Caturday, Cherry Blossoms, Marge Simpson, Liana Telfer, Bender in Love, Margaret Dumont, Hyacinth Bucket, Rose, Mildred Krebs, Pepé Le Pew, Jack Harness, Cordelia Chase, Saffron, Thomas O'Malley.

Within a Budding Grove posts:

Nanowrimo, Cheers, Robert Langdon, Kif and Amy, Dead Weight, Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, Paris is a Lonely Town, And Then There's Maude, A Cafe Terrace at Night, North by Northwest, Top Hat, Chez Deetz, Ah, My Goddess!, David, Auntie Mame, Brunhilde Esterhazy, Gusteau's, Shell Beach.

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Love is a Many Trousered Thing: 09/03/09

Love is a Many Trousered Thing by Louise Rennison is the eighth in the Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series. All of Georgia's machinations have come together too well. She now finds herself with two potential boyfriends and she doesn't know what to do.

She has to decide between Rob the Sex God who has returned from New Zealand and Masimo the Italian Lurve God. She wants advice from her friends but Dave the Laugh is too busy with his own girl friend and Jas is more of a spazz than usual.

Despite Georgia's overly silly teenage slang, she has matured over the course of the books. Proof of this comes in the form of two tweens who get in trouble during a concert. Georgia (to her own surprise) tells them they are too scantily dressed and that children their age don't belong in the club (even though she had done the same thing at their age). It's refreshing to see silly Georgia actually age some and be surprised by it.

As with the previous books, Love is a Many Trousered Thing takes off where the last one ended. So far every single book has managed to entertain and amuse me. Although I don't normally do this: I highly recommend you start at the beginning with 0060288140?Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging.

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On Beyond Zebra: 09/02/09

On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss is a book I somehow missed in my own childhood. I have memories of reading through stacks and stacks of Seuss books but somehow this one wasn't among them. I first heard of it through my son who read it at his school library. He has been raving about it since he read it and I finally found a copy at our local library so I could read it.

On Beyond Zebra is a playful book that takes a look at our alphabet and proposes twenty-one extra letters with explanations of how they are needed. Although it might have been a typesetting nightmare for 1955, I would have liked to see Seuss's words spelled with the new letters. If I were still a child, I can see myself writing coded messages in Seuss's alphabet.

For Sean I can see why this book speaks to him more than almost any other Seuss book. He has just spent a year learning not only how to read in English but how to read and speak Chinese using the bopomofo and traditional characters. So from his point of view, that's two extra alphabets.

Dr. Seuss Reviews

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Outside the Lavender Closet: 09/01/09

Outside of the Lavender Closet is a novel about a woman interviewing lesbians in and around Austin Texas to see if she could determine a common thread behind their stories.

Each chapter (or interview) is almost a short story but the stories are intertwined as Margaret Allen follows leads and brings her own interpretation of events into the interviews.

Among her interviews are lesbian twins raised by different parents and ending up completely different except for their homosexuality. Then there is a nun turned poet who lives in a dilapidated house and needs to control every situation.

Together the twins and the poet made the Outside the Lavender Closet read like a lesbian version of The Thirteenth Tale, a novel I was reading in conjunction with Martha A. Taylor's.

I found the book a fascinating and quick read. I plan to keep my review copy to reread.

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