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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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What Happy Working Mothers Know: 12/31/09

When I agreed to read and review What Happing Working Mothers Know by Cathy L. Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor I was a happily employed mother. By the time I was reading the book I had lost my job of 5 1/2 years due to the contracting economy. Although I'm still unemployed and I'm frustrated by the added stress of making ends meet I'm still happy.

Except for the cheerfully colored circles on the cover, I didn't see much happiness from mothers profiled in the book. I think the authors were trying to show the transformation from stressed out super-mother drone to happy, well adjusted less than perfect mother but none of the lengthy excerpts I read struck me as very happy.

As it's a self help book, the assumption made throughout that the reader is an unhappy, overworked woman who is suffering from low self esteem. The title though implies that the book is full of uplifting insights from happy working mothers. Instead, the book was a downer to read. After a while the book just got boring. In other words, it was like reading Erma Bombeck with all the jokes removed.

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The Ten Best Library Books of 2009: 12/30/09

2009 was the year I rediscovered my local library. These books are my ten favorites:

  1. King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak
  2. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
  3. So B. It by Sarah Weeks
  4. The Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston
  5. The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry
  6. The Frequency of Souls by Mary Kay Zuravleff
  7. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
  8. Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
  9. Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi
  10. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


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Paddington Bear and the Busy Bee Carnival: 12/30/09

Usually my children and I are on the same page about a book. If they like it, I like it but Paddington Bear and the Busy Bee Carnival is a book that we cannot agree on.

In Paddington Bear and the Busy Bee Carnival Paddington and a neighbor go to a Busy Bee Carnival. Paddington decides to compete in a contest to find the largest number of things starting with the letter B to win a tour of the canal.

I find the pictures adorable and the I-Spy aspect of the book fun, though not as challenging as the actual I Spy books. My children though, find the book the most boring book ever. I've tried reading it to them both a couple of times and I always end up on my own by the end of the book!

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The Twenty Best Children's Books of 2009: 12/29/09

With two children, I read (or have read to me) a ton of children's books. Rather than try to boil down what I've read into a list of ten, I'm offering two lists. The first list is my daughter's favorite picture books (for preschoolers) and the second list is my sons (for first and second graders).


Harriet's list includes:

  1. Angus and the Cat by Marjorie Flack
  2. Yoko's Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells
  3. Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar
  4. Opera Cat by Tess Weaver
  5. One Yellow Lion by Matthew Van Fleet
  6. Grumpy Cat by Britta Teckentrup
  7. That's Not My Dinosaur by Fiona Watt
  8. Do You Want to Be My Friend by Eric Carle (review coming)
  9. Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Anne Miranda and Ed Emberley
  10. Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel


Sean's list includes:

  1. Stage Fright on a Summer Night by Mary Pope Osborne (and the entire Magic Tree House series, but this one is his favorite one so far)
  2. There's a Nightmare in my Closet by Mercer Mayer
  3. Happy Birthday Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel (review coming)
  4. Monsters!: Draw Your Own Mutants, Freaks & Creeps by Jay Stephens
  5. Field Guide to Monsters: Googly-eyed Wart Floppers, Shadow Casters, Toe Eaters, and Other Creatures by Johan Olander
  6. Whoo-Oo Is It? by Megan McDonald
  7. Goldilicious by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann
  8. Alphabet Rescue by Audrey and Bruce Wood
  9. A Very Hairy Scary Story by Rick Walton
  10. Dragons, Dragons by Eric Carle

If you have science fiction or fantasy recommendations for me to read in 2010 leave them in a comment.


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The Witches of Worm: 12/29/09

I love The Egypt Game by Zipha Keatley Snyder and decided to read The Witches of Worm when I saw it at my local library.

The Witches of Worm is set in San Francisco, presumably contemporary to when it was published (1972). Jessica lives in an apartment pushed up against a hillside (fairly common in parts of the City) and spends much of her time in the care of a neighbor. Her mother meanwhile is working multiple jobs so Jessica is left to her own devices. She decides to explore the nearby hillside and finds a cave where she stays well into the night. She also finds a nearly newborn kitten whom she takes home even though she doesn't especially like cats and isn't looking for a pet.

Worm as she and her mother decide to call the kitten, requires all of her attention (as all newborns do) and thrives under her reluctant care. Unfortunately he doesn't seem like any normal cat. He doesn't play. He doesn't purr. He just stares. And soon Jessica believes she can hear him talking to her and demanding she do horrible things to people.

Witches of Worm could have been a fascinating middle grades horror and psychological drama. It had some moments but mostly it was just a sad and oddly paced novel about a broken cat who had been taken from his mother too young and a similarly damaged tween who doesn't have friends her own age nor the love and attention she desires from her mother. She sees the solution to her problems in the form of an exorcism on Worm whom she believe is trying to make her into a witch.

If you've read The Crucible you will find familiar themes in The Witches of  Worm but set in modern times and without the mass hysteria of a town turned against the misfits of its society. With all the emotional build up in the novel the climax and resolution were lacking payoff for me.

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Journey Around the World: 12/28/09

Sean introduced us to The Backyardigans when he was about Harriet's age. Back then he called Pablo "Pa-blue" since he is a blue penguin. Now that he's seven, he's using his sister's enthusiasm for the series as an excuse to continue watching it.

Flash back to last year when Sean was newly into first grade and just learning to read, he bought a copy of Journey Around the World by Sarah Albee. It's a "ready-to-read" level one book with the most difficult words illustrated with pictures along with the words themselves.

The plot is typical for The Backyardigans: Queen Tasha doesn't believe the world is round. Explorers Uniqua, Pablo, Tyron and Austin vow to bring back gifts from around the world to prove her wrong.

From the cover you'd think their adventure is set in historic times and for the most part it is. Near the end though they travel to new world locations (New York City, for example). I find the switcher-oo a little disconcerting. It's not anything beyond what they do in the series (like the Emperor of China's modern sounding doorbell for example) but it just doesn't work as well for me in book form.

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Halfway to Each Other: 12/27/09

Susan and Tim Pohlman were on a business trip to Italy, their last trip together before they had plans to divorce. Both realized they were enjoying their trip and their time together. They decided to give their marriage a second chance by selling their home and living in the Rivera for a year. Half Way to Each Other is the memoir of their year in Italy.

The Pohlman family ended up living in an out of the way village. Since it was small and not especially touristy they had to learn how to live like Italians. The memoir covers many of their failures and later successes as they learned how village life works.

Many times throughout the book they are the typical ugly Americans: not bothering to learn how anything works before just jumping in and assuming that everything would be like their pampered life in Los Angeles. They've never made anything from scratch; they expect American style grocery stores; they're afraid of Gypsies and so on. The parents whine as much as the children do when things do go their way.

This sort of journey of rediscovery through a life abroad only works if you have tons of money to spend in the first place. How nice for them to have that ability. I'm not sure they realized just how fortunate they are in that regard.

I enjoyed learning about village life in Italy and when the Pohlmans weren't being stereotypical Americans they seemed like lovely people. I would have preferred to learn more about Italy and less about the state of their marriage but in all fairness, Halfway to Each Other isn't a travel memoir.

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The Ten Best ARCs Books of 2009: 12/26/09

I received about 100 ARCs and books for review from publicists and authors in 2009. For my list of ten best ARCs, I'm picking only from the 75 books I have actually reviewed on my blog to date.

  1. Across the Pond by Storyheart (Barry Eva): fiction
  2. Tsunami by Gordon Gumpertz: fiction
  3. Outside the Lavender Closet by Martha A. Taylor: lgbt fiction
  4. Mysterious Magical Circus Family Kids: The Chocolate Cake Turkey Lip Crumb Trail Mystery Adventure by R Hawk Starkey: children's chapter book
  5. Legs Talk: Let Your Legs do the Talking by D.E. Boone: graphic novel / photo humor
  6. Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary by T. H. E. Hill: fiction
  7. Fiction: A Novel by Ara 13: meta fiction
  8. Diary of a Dead Man by Walter Krumm: mystery
  9. Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII by Helen Electrie Lindsay
  10. Kosher by Design Lightens Up by Susie Fishbein: cook book

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I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears: 12/26/09

I think I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears is the first book I've read after hearing about it via a twitter litchat. With being unemployed and having very little budget for books right now I didn't expect to read the book soon. My library though had a copy sitting on the new books shelf.

I like language books and was intrigued by the title. "I'm not hanging noodles on your ears" is the Russian equivalent of "I'm not pulling your leg." The title reminds me of how my grandmother would threaten to "hit us over the head with wet noodles" if we were telling tall tales.

The book is divided into topics and after an introduction at the start of each chapter (topic) the list of idiom begins. Each chapter has at least one comic illustration of an included idiom. It's fun to see how different countries approach the same topic. I enjoyed the ones from Spanish speaking countries best having run into a number of idioms while learning the language.

Sometimes though an idiom will be repeated two or more times in a few pages making for an on-going sense of deja vu while reading. The author explains at the start of the book that there is some duplication of idioms but I would have preferred greater care in minimizing the duplication.


Within a Budding Grove: Clark Kent: 12/25/09

Clark Kent / Superman from

Here it is Christmas day and I'm watching Lilo and Stitch with my family. It's by far my favorite Disney film. The roast is in the oven and I've finished another thirty pages of Within a Budding Grove.

The protagonist is keeping up his friendship with Charles Swann which means being friends with Odette. She continues to host parties ala Mrs. Bucket much to Marcel's bemusement and horror. At one of her parties, she invites a princess (who ends up being the most boring person the protagonist has ever met). Then at another one, his hopes rise to impossible heights when Bergotte is invited.

After years of building up expectations "drop by drop, like a stalactite" (p. 165), Marcel goes to the party expecting Superman. What he gets is Clark Kent. He spends the rest of the party trying to reconcile the super hero artist with the buffoon who is at the dinner. So just as Lois has come to terms with her country bumpkin coworker also being the dashing man from Krypton, Marcel has to realize that being an artist doesn't automatically make someone suave.

See you back in next week for my thoughts on pages 181-210.

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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Max's Christmas Stocking: 12/25/09

On our trip to Oregon in 2008 we watched an episode of Ruby and Max in our motel room. That was our one and only exposure to the characters created by Rosemary Wells. Since then we've been reading through her Yoko series of picture books which we've all loved.

Max's Christmas Stocking is a board book with a stocking mix up. Max gets his sisters gifts: tiara, fairy wings and magic wand. And Ruby gets his gifts. The "problem" though is that Max likes the gifts in his stocking. He decides to play dress up.

When Max started playing with his sister's gifts I was worried that the book would make a big deal about toys for girls vs. toys for boys but it doesn't exactly do that. Instead Max has to swap gifts with Ruby because she's disappointed that she didn't get the gift she wanted and that was intended for her. However, she also enjoyed playing with her brother's robot dress up toys so they decide to share the gifts.

I liked the sharing solution because it avoids the more typical gender stereotyping that picture books so often fall into. I also like the positive reinforcement of sharing and being comfortable playing outside of "normal" conventions. It would have been perfect though if Ruby had seemed more comfortable with Max wanting to share her gift.

Other Rosemary Wells books reviewed here:

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The Ten Best Science Fiction / Fantasy Books of 2009: 12/24/09

One of my goals for 2009 was to read more science fiction and fantasy. Most of what I read came in the form of short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction but I also got a few books read too. My ten favorite science fiction or fantasy books read this year (though not necessarily published this year) are:

  1. Looking for Jake: Stories by China Miéville (review coming)
  2. Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye
  3. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (review coming and I plan to continue reading the series)
  4. The Dragons of Spratt, Ohio by Linda Zinnen
  5. The Wild Wood by Charles de Lint
  6. Nation by Terry Pratchett
  7. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  8. Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley
  9. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson
  10. Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson

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Can Kittens Take a Catnap? 12/24/09

It amazes me when a relatively new book has almost no information online. Take for instance Can Kittens Take a Catnap by Clair Palfreman-Bunker and illustrated by Adam Relf. We bought a book club edition from scholastic in the spring of this year and except for one tiny image on the Scholastic site and some previous posts I've made about the book, it might as well not exist.

Nonetheless, Can Kittens Take a Catnap is a cute animal book that teaches the names of baby animals while repeating the question can x take a y nap? It culminates on a very funny punch line involving an exasperated big brother and his infant sibling who refuses to take a nap.

The illustrations by Adam Relf are cute and colorful, though not as detailed as the work in some of the other books he has done. They are good enough though that Harriet will sometime just flip through the book to look at all the different baby animals.

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Murder in the Magick Club: 12/23/09

The blurb for Murder at the Magick Club by Byron A. Lorrier begins: "'Pure porn!' the critics cry. 'Throw it on the fire!' Murder in the Magick Club is an occult-themed murder mystery; perfect for your next banned-book bonfire. Oh how I wish it were that good, that shocking or even that interesting. It isn't.

Pornography is " The representation in books, magazines, photographs, films, and other media of scenes of sexual behavior that are erotic or lewd and are designed to arouse sexual interest." With our Puritan roots it also typically carries a negative, harmful connotation.

What Murder at the Magick Club offers instead of pornography is a filthy restaurant that desperately needs Gordon Ramsay. It has a disinterested owner and stoner employees and odd ball regulars. There's also a murder in the alley but frankly the plot couldn't get it's act together enough that I'm not sure what the point of the murder was. Instead of plot we get the owner rambling on and on about useless details. It's all tell tell tell with some time to laugh at his own stupid jokes.

I stopped reading about a third of the way through the novel.

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The X in Sex: How the X Chromosome Controls Our Lives: 12/23/09

The X in Sex: How the X Chromosome Controls Our Lives by David Bainbridge begins with the discovery of the X chromosome (by a man) and the Y chromosome (by a woman). From there it moves onto a variety of topics: the genes that control gonad growth, sex linked diseases and how human women are like calico cats.

David Bainbridge spends about a third of the book outlining many of the different ways that animals reproduce and how gender is selected. Although the XY (male) and XX (female) is the standard approach in mammals, there is even an exception among mammals. Of course birds, reptiles and all sorts of other non-mammalian animals have evolved different ways of reproducing. Despite all these different approaches, they all share similar genes to control the process.

Reproduction doesn't always work normally. Bainbridge discusses the ways in which things can go differently and what the outcome means for the offspring. My favorite part though comes near the end where Bainbridge compares the calico cat coloration to the genetic tug of war going on inside every woman's body.

The book is a fairly easy read for all the science that's included. It's written with clear and concise language. Sometimes I think Bainbridge lets too much of his own prejudices into the book, filtering all the information through the perspective based on his own upbringing. At least he's willing to admit this short coming in the book.

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Stop in the Name of Pants: 12/22/09

Here I was feeling pleased at having caught up on the Confessions of Georgia Nicholson having finished Stop in the Name of Pants and Louise Rennison has gone and written a new one: Are These Basooms I See Before Me? Seriously, these YA books are among my all time favorite of book series.

In the 9th book, Stop in the Name of Pants, Georgia hasn't managed to resolve the boyfriend problems. In fact, they've gotten worse. Now instead of two boyfriends, she has three. Dave the Laugh has made another play for her affections. Masimo, though, is her biggest obsession, especially now that he's in Italy for the summer and she can't figure out how to get herself there. She will have to suffice with postcards and phone calls.

Georgia's lack of options for contacting Masimo makes me realize that the book probably isn't set in present day. She seems to live in a world where cell phones and email aren't ubiquitous. Her short tight skirts and big fringe makes me think she's living in the late 1980s or very early 1990s. In other words, she's a teen when I was a teen. Maybe that's part of her appeal for me.

All silliness aside, Stop in the Name of Pants! has some absolutely heart breaking moments. A regular and usually comedic character has an accident further grounding Georgia and giving her a chance to grow as a character. Georgia suddenly seems vulnerable and real in ways I hadn't expected for thought I wanted from the series. Her reactions further show how she has matured.

I have purchased the next in the series (Are These Basoomas I See Before Me?) and I hope to get it read over my New Year's holiday.

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Harriet and the Roller Coaster: 12/22/09

My Harriet received Harriet and the Roller Coaster as a birthday present since she adores Harriet's Recital. Her birthday book has become an instant favorite which we've read many times.

In this book Harriet seems to be a little older. She's in school now and for a field trip she and her friends are going to an amusement park. George brags to how brave he's going to be on the roller coaster that he scares Harriet to the point that she doesn't want to try it.

Harriet though, as you'll remember from Harriet's Recital, she's capable of over coming her fear even if it does eat her up for an entire night and day. She's no different with the roller coaster. In fact, she gets a chance to one up George but in a good natured and humorous way.

Other books featuring Harriet and the rest of Nancy's Neighborhood

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Waterwise: 12/21/09

I picked up Waterwise by Joel Orff at my library at the same time I got Kampung Boy by Lat. I liked the cover art of a pair of funky fish swimming over a background of brick buildings.

Waterwise is a mood piece in the form of a young adult graphic novel. It begins with Jimbo sitting at the shore trying to capture the perfect lines in a portrait of a woman drawn from memory. He happens to be at the right place at the right time for a chance meeting with an old girl friend, Emily.

In their chance meeting they discuss what they have done with their lives. The artwork blends their imaged versions of their memories and dreams with the reality of their current situation. Waterwise, though isn't a romance. They don't seize the opportunity to reconnect beyond their afternoon together.

I loved this short and thoughtful graphic novel. It's a shame that it's currently out of print. If your library has it or you see it in a used book shop, grab it and read it.

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Frog on His Own: 12/21/09

December at Puss Reboots seems to be turning out to be Mercer Mayer month. I'm back with a third review of one of his picture books.

Mercer Mayer is probably best known for his Little Critter Books. Back when I was a child he had a delightful picture book series featuring a boy, a dog and a frog. At our most recent trip to the library, Harriet found a reissued copy of one of these, Frog on His Own and was immediately drawn to it.

The boy and his dog are in a park with the frog in a bucket. The frog sees his chance at freedom and hops away. Unfortunately for the frog, the park is full of all sorts of obstacles and dangers including a cute but hungry cat. 
Frog on His Own is literally a picture book. It has 31 pages of Mercer's ornate pen and ink drawings and absolutely no accompanying text.

When Harriet isn't enjoying the book by herself, something she is wont to do now that her brother can read, I've enjoyed a few strolls through the book myself. There's enough to each page to make up any number of stories from what Mercer has drawn.

The Boy, Dog and Frog picture book series:

  • A Boy, a Dog and a Frog (1967)
  • Frog, Where Are You? (1969)
  • A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend (1971)
  • Frog on His Own (1973)
  • Frog Goes to Dinner (1974)
  • One Frog Too Many (1975)

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Heat Wave: 12/20/09

Castle is in its second season on ABC. Author Richard Castle is played by Nathan Fillion. In the first season he had killed off his well loved detective and sets out to create a new detective, Nikki Heat. The second season his book is released and in "Fool Me Once" Detective Kate Beckett gets hold of an advanced reader copy and is caught hiding in a stall to read the sex scene on page 105. Now if you want to read the scene (and the rest of the book) you can in Heat Wave by Richard Castle.

Richard Castle, fictional TV author is taking on a metafictional life like Ellery Queen. Now Ellery Queen began as a collaboration between two authors and then went onto the founding of a mystery magazine, a movie franchise and a television series. Castle is doing things in a little different order but he shares a lot in common with Ellery Queen.

Ellery Queen, amateur sleuth helps Inspector Richard Queen solve murders in Manhattan. He has a secretary named Nikki Porter. Richard Castle of course helps Detective Kate Beckett. His main character is Nikki Heat (another Queen homage?). She is being followed by reporter Jameson Rook (yet another chess piece name).

Going into the novel then, I expected an easy to read, relatively easy to solve mystery akin to a typical Ellery Queen book. Heat Wave is exactly that. The mystery is no more difficult to solve than a typical Castle episode. The language and situations though are more adult (nudity, sex, swearing) that you won't see on a non-cable television network show.

The mystery involves a man thrown out of a high-rise apartment and the theft of his art collection. The different settings and situations draw from scenes in the television show. As the set up for the show is Castle using Beckett's cases as research for his writing, it makes sense to see a patchwork of episodes throughout the novel.

I'm a fan of the series and a fan of Ellery Queen. Heat Wave made for a fun weekend of reading. It took me two days to read it but I could have done it in a single day if I hadn't been busy.

Ellery Queen had a career that spanned 42 years. I don't know how long Richard Castle's will span. Heat Wave is currently selling well so it wouldn't surprise me if a second Nikki Heat book appears. If Castle truly takes off then I suspect we'll start seeing books from his previous series.

Castle is the creation of Jennifer Allen ("first reader always") and Terri Miller ("partner in crime"). While ABC isn't admitting who ghost wrote this novel, my money's on them.

How Ellery Queen, Richard Castle and Jameson Rook compare:

Ellery Queen

Richard Castle

Jameson Rook

Lives and works in Manhattan (later Hollywood)

Lives and works in Manhattan

Lives and works in Manhattan

Author and sleuth

Author and sleuth


Chess surname

Chess surname

Chess surname

Nikki Porter

Kate Beckett

Nikki Heat

Lives with father

Lives with mother & daughter

Lives with mother & daughter

Books, tv, magazine and films

Book and TV

Newspaper articles

Some notes on Ellery Queen:

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King Ottokar's Sceptre: 12/20/09

King Ottokar's Sceptre by Georges Remi Hergé seems to have had a straight forward history and it shows in the consistency of the story. There's always a certain amount of mayhem in a Tintin adventure but sometimes the gags flow together better than others. The books where the jokes seem out of place are usually the ones that have been revised when translated.

In King Ottokar's Sceptre, Tintin meets a sigilographer who is interested in Syldavian seals. Shortly after Tintin learns that he and Professor Hector Alembick are under surveillance. As Tintin tries to protect the professor he ends up taking a trip to Syldavia to stop a coup.

Of the three Tintins I've read most recently King Ottokar's Sceptre is my favorite. I like the mystery of Professor Alembick's unusual behavior, the made up but recognizable traditions for the Syldavians, and the uniforms of the king's court. It is a visually interesting comic with an interesting mystery to back up the panels.

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If You Give a Pig a Party: 12/19/09

If You Give a Pig a Party is the seventh book in the "If You Give A..." series of books. This time the Pig from If You Give a Pig a Pancake is back and she wants a slumber party.

Like the other books in the series, If You Give a Pig a Party follows a circular plot. Unlike some of the others, the logical leaps between steps are focused on the goal of the slumber party. For fans of the previous books the characters from them are all invited.

For any parent who has had to plan a birthday party, this book is extra funny. It captures perfectly the chaos that goes into the planning the way in which excited children jump from idea to idea regardless of feasibility or practicality.

Of the books in the series I've read, If You Give a Pig a Party and If You Give a Cat a Cupcake are my favorites. There's a new one out this year, If You Give a Bear a Brownie.

If You Give a... Series by Laura Numeroff:

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Within a Budding Grove: Dead Weight: 12/19/09

Dead Weight from season 1 of Columbo

This week I remembered to read Within a Budding Grove and even got my 30 pages done early. But then Friday rolled around and I was on my second day of a migraine and Harriet's school was having it's annual Christmas pageant. I had volunteered this year so my mind was anywhere but on Proust. Just before bed last night I realized I hadn't posted my thoughts.

Cracks are starting to show in the Swann marriage. Odette is preferring to go out alone for her social calls. Charles is getting jealous and worried that his wife is carrying on affairs. Given Odette's past, he's probably right but well meaning friends are telling him to stop trying to control her every waking hour.

As Charles Swann is in that state of knowing what is going on but having no one believe him yet, I'm reminded of an old Columbo episode called "Dead Weight." Here a young divorcee out sailing with her mother sees a man shoot another man in his condo. Since the sun is low (although behind a thick fog) and she's in the channel no one believes what she has seen. Columbo though does see errors in the man's account of what happened (or didn't) and can piece together a more accurate picture from what the woman says she has seen. Maybe Charles Swann needs someone like Columbo.

See you back in next week for my thoughts on pages 151-180.

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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Polar Bears Past Bedtime (Magic Tree House #12): 12/18/09

Polar Bears Past Bedtime is the final in the series where Jack and Annie are trying to become Master Librarians. It's the twelfth in the Magic Tree House series.

Jack and Annie go to the arctic circle where they met with an Inuit and learn how to live in the harsh snowy winters. They see how humans, animals and the elements are all tied together.

The book also introduces some of the Inuit traditions (ceremonies, beliefs and art). These details provided Sean and me talking points. We talked about their artwork and history.

Though the books are written for easy reading for children my son's age the sparse language captures the bitter cold atmosphere of the arctic. Sean and I really felt like we were there with Jack and Annie. When they were freezing in their jammies, we were shivering together.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Operation Starseed: 12/18/09

Operation Starseed was JM Snyder's first novel and the third one I've read. It is set in space, both on a station and on a distant colony world. It's part romance and part social commentary and all space opera.

Neal James works as a radio operator taking in calls from passing ships and relaying their messages as needed. The one voice he doesn't expect to hear is his ex, Dylan Teague. To further complicate things Dylan and Neal end up assigned to the same mission to check out radio signals from a Starseed colony ship years after the program was closed and deemed a failure.

On the romance front you have lots of awkward make-up sex in tight and semi-hostile quarters. Some of the scenes are juvenile at times but I think deep space just one you go stupid sometimes. I found the constant referring to each other as "that boy" out of character for both men but that is a minor quibble for otherwise interesting and well rounded personalities.

The colony itself brings to play the social commentary aspect of the novel. The survivors have developed a very strict society as a means for continued survival. Something killed most of the original colonists the taboos are there to prevent that ever happening. Unfortunately when you get outsiders you get unintentional taboo breaking and consequences for everyone.

Despite a few pacing issues, I enjoyed the book. I like how Snyder mixes science fiction and romance.

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Frog Goes to Dinner: 12/17/09

Frog Goes to Dinner is the follow up to Frog on His Own. Like all the Boy, Dog and Frog books, it's a picture book. This time the Boy and his parents go to a hotel for a fancy dinner.

The Boy though decides it would be a good idea to bring along Frog in his pocket. Frog once again sees his chance to make his escape. Frog gets into a number of misadventures that upset the restaurant and ultimately get the Boy and his family kicked out of the restaurant.

Interestingly though the parents let the Boy keep the Frog. They are angry and they scold the Boy but the Frog stays. Was the meal really that boring? Or do they know the Boy will get another Frog? How does their inaction reflect on their parenting skills or on the family dynamic as a whole?

The Boy, Dog and Frog picture book series:

  • A Boy, a Dog and a Frog (1967)
  • Frog, Where Are You? (1969)
  • A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend (1971)
  • Frog on His Own (1973)
  • Frog Goes to Dinner (1974)
  • One Frog Too Many (1975)

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Into the Volcano: 12/17/09

Into the Volcano by Don Wood is the last of the graphic novels that made it to the short list of the 2008-9 Cybils. It's an oversized graphic novel aimed at readers ages 9 to 12.

Sumo and Duffy Pugg are whisked away from school to spend ten days with an aunt on a south Pacific island called Kocalaha. What looks like a simple but unexpected vacation from school quickly turns unnerving and perilous. Auntie has plans for them to take part in an expedition inside the no longer dormant volcano.

The characters are well established. As things become dangerous for them it is easy to worry about them. There are some "edge of your seat" scenes. If you like adventure films, you will love Into the Volcano.

The illustrations are colorful and dramatic. The lava looks hot and menacing. The ocean churns with greens and other murky colors.

Unfortunately this book is oversized. It is awkward to hold. It isn't a book that can be slipped into a purse or read in bed. Most graphic novels are slightly smaller than a trade paperback. If they are oversized, they are thin and light weight. This book is neither. It is large and heavy.

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Pancakes, Pancakes: 12/16/09

Pancakes, Pancakes by Eric Carle uses the act of making pancakes to teach about farming and cooking. A hungry boy wants pancakes for breakfast and his mother asks him to gather all the ingredients before she can make them.

The problem with this approach to story telling is that realistically the son will have starved to death before he gets everything collected. Farming is something done over weeks and the food must be preserved for use later. It's not something done in one day. I'm pointing this out because my children complain about the set up of the story whenever we read this book. It would have made more sense to send the boy out to work the farm after breakfast to show how and where all the ingredients came from.

So while the book has the usual Eric Carle illustrations which by themselves are nice to look at, Pancakes Pancakes is our least favorite of his books.

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The Cat's Book of Romance: 12/16/09

The Cat's Book of Romance by Kate Ledger was a gift from a Bookcrossing friend and cat lover for a portrait I painted of her two cats. The book is one of those mini books like The Blue Day Book by Bradley Trevor Greive or Legs Talk by D. E. Boone.

This book has a single sentence of advice followed by a cute cat photograph. There are things like "It takes a positive self-image to be a good partner" to "Remember that claws can be sharp."
Harriet my cat loving daughter adores this book because it has cute cat photographs and is small enough for her to easily handle. Although the book was given to me, she has already claimed it for her library. We've read it together many times already. I'm sure there are more times to come.

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Madras on Rainy Days: 12/15/09

I had just finished reading North from Calcutta by Duane Evans and was thinking of the Business World review which complained about the lack of Indian literary fiction written by actual Indians. The article contended there was plenty of pulp fiction published every year but rarely was it written in English or translated into English. India was therefore left to outsiders to represent itself to the rest of the world.

I don't know how valid the Business World observation is but it did get me to thinking and I had it in mind when my eyes were attracted by the beautiful colors on the cover of Madras on Rainy Days by Samina Ali. A quick look at the author info on the back jacket flap and I saw that she had been born in Hyderabad and raised there and in the United States. I thought it a perfect book to use to expand my horizons.

Madras on Rainy Days focuses on an arranged marriage. A nineteen year old Muslim woman has been called home from the United States to marry a man she has never met. She has come home though bleeding from an unplanned pregnancy. She is damaged goods but her family has so much riding on the marriage that she doesn't tell anyone her secret, instead allowing them to believe she might be possessed by demons.

Her miscarriage is one of two elephants in the room that everyone pretends not see. The other is her husband's homosexuality. Both secrets are revealed in the context of Indian Muslim traditions and families that are somewhat broken.

I can't say I loved the novel but I did appreciate Ali's way of weaving in the rich details of Layla's marriage and day to day life in Hyderabad. She manages to engage all the senses with enough detail to paint a vivid picture even if one isn't familiar with all the words used. It's a short but ponderous novel that requires a slower than normal pace of reading.

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Sarah Whitcher's Story: 12/15/09

Sarah Whitcher's Story by Elizabeth Yates is a short chapter book based on an actual incident where a 3 year old child wandered away from the family homestead and was cared for by a bear until she was found a number of days later.

The crux of the story is that young Sarah stays alive because she isn't frightened. It's not that she's an especially brave three-year-old. Rather, she mistakes the sow bear for the family dog.

I find that explanation had to swallow for a normal, healthy girl her age, especially one growing up in such close proximity to nature. I did a test with my own three year old who has seen both bears and dogs. I showed her a photograph of a bear and a photograph of a dog (the same breeds illustrated in the novel). I asked her to name the animals. She got them right instantly.

Sarah Whitcher isn't the first child reported to have been helped by a wild animal mother but she's much older than the ones who end up "feral" and her time with the bear is much shorter than the ones who do end up growing up in the care of the wild animal. It would have been much more interesting and dramatic if Sarah of the novel had been aware that she was with a bear and perhaps felt like she had to pretend the bear was no scarier than the family dog, rather than just blindly mistaking the bear for the dog!
My thoughts and complaints are with the book, not with the real child who spent a few days and nights with a bear. I don't know what she thought or experienced, obviously.

The book though does have lovely illustrations. Fans of the Little House series will probably enjoy Sarah Whitcher's Story.

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There's a Nightmare in my Closet: 12/14/09

Mostly it's Harriet who likes Mercer Mayer's books but There's a Nightmare in My Closet has a monster and a happy ending, two things that make for a perfect book for him.

There's a Nightmare in My Closet reminds me of Monsters Inc. if it were told from Boo's point of view. The setting is a boy's room at night. He's convinced there's a monster in his closet who wants to scare him. Just like Boo, he decides to confront his fear.

Rather than entering the monster's world, this boy turns the tables and scares the monster as he comes out of the closet. In Monsters Inc. when a child is no longer afraid his door is sealed and he's never bothered again. Here though, the poor monster is so frightened to death he bursts into tears.

Sean took the crying scene to heart. He has a soft spot for monsters and sees them as more than just creatures to make stories scary. Before even turning the page Sean jumped to the same conclusion as the boy in the book. The monster needed comforting and might actually be a friend instead of a foe.

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Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-ha-ha! 12/13/09

Junie B. Jones gets to go Hawaii in the middle of the school year because her father has a job interview in Hawaii. That's the premise for Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-ha-ha by Barbara Park. It's a premise quickly forgotten as the gags follow Junie B.'s misadventures in "pair-o-dice."

Junie B.'s enthusiasm for the trip gets out of hand once they start on the family trip. She's too loud on the plane, she throws a temper tantrum to get her parents to buy her a parrot inner tube that's too small for her, and she bullies her parents into not cutting the too tight parrot off her body when she gets stuck. In other words, she's completely out of control.

Mr. Scary, her teacher, has given Junie a camera to record her trip to Hawaii as homework. Her photographs record just how out of whack she is and how her bad behavior affects the trip. The illustrations are supposed to be cute but frankly they're a little disturbing. Junie B's antics were funny when she was younger but they are getting less and less believable the older she gets in these books.

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Where Are Maisy's Friends? 12/12/09

Where Are Maisy's Friends is one of the many Maisy books by Lucy Cousins. As we've never had cable with the children they've seen only one or two episodes.

Harriet and Sean though have liked the books the few times they've come across them at the local library. Where Are Maisy's Friends is the latest title we've borrowed from there. It is a "lift the flap" book and under each flap is one of Maisy's friends.

The book is short, colorful and the flaps are easy for little hands to work. In those regards it's a great book for toddlers. Fans of the book series or show will probably get the most out of it.

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Junie B., First Grader: Boo and I Mean It!: 12/11/09

Over all I like the Junie B. Jones series of books. I've read a few from the original series when she was in kindergarten and now a few here and there from her year in first grade. The series suffers from an inconsistent character development. Junie B. seems to take on character traits to fit a comedic moment and then lose them again by the next book.

In Junie B., First Grader: Boo and I Mean It! it's Halloween and Junie B. wants no part of it. Apparently she's now scared of the holiday because of things a bully told her at school. The problem: she's been duped by this bully before and she's reminded of this in the book. Does it help her come to her senses when normally she wouldn't be this scared by a bully? No.

So Junie B. has to face her fears and she does it in her own unique way. She dresses as a clown. The reason for dressing as a clown is laid out in the book but the explanation is creepy itself and frankly if I were Junie B's mother I wouldn't have let her dress up as that clown.

Ultimately the book comes down to Junie B. not wanting to participate in Halloween and being forced to by her parents. To this I say, what the heck? Why is trick or treating that important?
Let's just say this wasn't one of my favorite Junie B. books.

Other Junie B. Jones Books I've Reviewed

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Within a Budding Grove: Madame Swann at Home: Kif and Amy: 12/11/09

Robert Langdon

This week has been crazy with my washing machine breaking and with my son's parent teacher conference and Ian's final at Davis. I almost forgot to read Within a Budding Grove.

It seems Marcel wasn't on his best game this week either. He's trying to date Gilberte Swann. She seems to be taking on some of Odette's personality and that's causing some problems. Maybe it's Gilberte or maybe it's her parents, but he's spends most of these thirty pages suffering through panic attacks which leave him so breathless that he ends up in bed.

It's his breathlessness that brings me to this week's comparison: Kif Kroker. I know I've mentioned him before in my discussion of the "Nestor" episode of Ulysses but he was popping into mind again every time Marcel worried over meeting Gilberte or when he would hesitate to knock at her door, afraid that he'd have to speak with her parents.

See you back in next week for my thoughts on pages 121-150.

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 Divorce Party: 12/11/09

The Divorce Party has a strong sense of place. It starts with the 1938 hurricane that destroyed most of Montauk Island (off the coast of Long Island). It's the ferocity of the storm that cements their choice to marry. Together they vow that the house will see everything.

Sixty-nine years later the love has gone from the home. Instead of a thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Gwynn Huntington is planning a divorce party. She and her husband have grown apart as he finds a new religion. Gwynn though knows it's more than just religion and the party is her way of getting a sweet revenge on her husband.

Meanwhile Maggie is coming to terms with learning her fiancé is obscenely wealthy when she's been struggling to make ends meet all her life. She's not sure if their relationship can work but she still decides to go along with Nate to the divorce party.

I loved the setting and the first chapter. I had high hopes for the rest of the novel but Maggie's on-going insecurities quickly became tedius. Maggie wasn't a strong enough character to carry her half of the novel. Meanwhile, Gwynn's constant anger isn't explained until the big reveal near the end. I would have preferred to know earlier the reason behind Gwynn's actions. As she's written she's just a constantly angry and bitter person and that makes her boring and unsympathetic (until the very end).

The strengths of the novel remain in the descriptions of the locations and the understanding of how the place has changed (or not) during the last seven decades. The book could have been something special with more attention to  characterization and more foreshadowing.

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Lions at Lunchtime (Magic Tree House #11): 12/10/09

Lions at Lunchtime by Mary Pope Osborne is the third of the four riddles and 11th in the Magic Tree House Series. Jack and Annie have their third scroll riddle to solve. It takes them to Kenya where they see zebras, wildebeests, hyenas and lions. They also meet a Masai warrior.

The book is full of interesting facts about the animals and the life cycle around the waterhole. The riddle this time is also focused on the animals of the area.

Like the previous two riddles, the answer will be obvious to an adult but will probably take the child reading the book a little long to sort out. My son came up with a number of possible solutions but had to wait to figure it out with Jack and Annie.

My only complaint with the book is that it makes Kenya seem more remote than it is. Now of course Jack and Annie can travel through time and space so they might have gone back in time in their journey to Kenya. It would though have been nice to include some details about how the Maasai are one part of Kenyan society instead of being represented as a mysterious and possibly threatening stranger near the waterhole.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Wolf Song Visions: 12/09/09

Wolf Song Visions claims to be a true account of a past life encounter remembered with a chance meeting back in 1991. The book covers the events of the meeting from some 400 years ago.

The uneven and sometimes amateur writing reads like an unedited Nanowrimo novel. To be asked to believe this narrative as fact is not something I'm willing to do. I'm just not that gullible.

I managed to read about fifty pages before I starting skipping ahead. Having read the last thirty or so pages, I'm glad I didn't waste my time reading the pages in the middle.

If I want to read a supposedly true account of reincarnation, I will read a Shirley McLain book. She writes better (or has a better editor).

I received a copy for review and have long since released it through BookCrossing.

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>Gravitation Volume 1: 12/09/09

From other reviews I've read on GoodReads, Gravitation was the series that either introduced or popularized shonen-ai manga here in the States. I first heard of the series from one of my favorite book blogs. I mentioned the series to my husband and he got me a copy of the reissued collection. The first book has volumes one and two.

The series centers on Shuichi and his band "Bad Luck." They are in a music high school and trying to graduate. Meanwhile, Shuichi's attention is drawn away by Yuki, a gorgeous and incredibly successful romance novel author. From the handful of romance authors I know, he's nothing like any of them with the exception perhaps of the late Sidney Sheldon. But this is manga and the set up to a new series seems to need about as much logic as a typical American sit-com.

To complicate things further, Yuki comes with baggage. He has ex-girlfriends. He's from a family of Monks. He's older than Shuichi and he's got a bad attitude. Now near the end of the first volume Yuki's age is revealed and frankly it's just not possible for him to be an established romance author. It would make more sense on that front for him to be at least ten years older but then there would be extra squicky details of a man dating a teen half his age.

The characters are fairly quick to fall into cliched roles that seem to crop up in fiction featuring gay or bi characters. Shuichi is overly emotional and fawns over Yuki like a star-crossed girl. Yuki is selfish, brooding and boorish sometimes. Sure, he's pretty to look at but he's basically a pig.

Despite all of the rampant cliches and over the top emotions, I enjoyed the first volume. I like all the asides about Techno and the music scenes. In that way, Gravitation reminds me of Nana but with a romance between the two main characters.

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Across the Pond: 12/08/09

Across the Pond by Storyheart (Barry Eva) synched up with Anita Shreve's latest novel, A Change in Altitude when both decided to highlight the oddities of American English. Both fall into the trap of a blanket assumption that all Americans speak the same dialect and use the same words.

The word in question that had me putting on the brakes to run an informal poll on the name of a particular type of intersection. What I learned is that in most (not all!) of the United States, the name for a circular intersection is "traffic circle." Most of the rest of the English speaking world (including most of California) calls it a roundabout. However, both books insist that the United States calls it a "Rotary." That's only true in Massachusetts.

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In all fairness to Across the Pond, the young adult story of Fred and his trip to the United States while his parents are in holiday in Australia, is set "an hour from Boston." I would still have preferred either parent to have said, "In Massachusetts we say..." but they never do.

The reason I'm making such a stink over regionalisms is because a big part of the plot is Fred's homework assignment to compile a list of differences between British and American English. There are the more obvious ones like boot vs. trunk, bonnet vs. hood and lift vs. elevator.

Another time though that the book seems to slip up is in Fred's internal dialogue. He's a football fan (soccer) and Brit (the American teenage girl) is a baseball fan. He makes comparisons between the fans of football to those of baseball but he always thinks the word soccer. Why? My guess is to avoid confusing American readers who don't know there are two sports called by the same name. Really; trust me, we know. Some off us even know that in other countries, our football is called gridiron (not that's played anywhere else) to not be confused with Aussie rules football (which is a nice bridge between rugby and American football).

Although Across the Pond had me grumbling and scratching my head at some of the included language lessons, I enjoyed the book a great deal. It's a short, easy read. Storyheart does seem to understand American culture as an ex-pat now living in Connecticut. Fred and Brit are likeable and believable teenage characters. 
What about you? Is it a roundabout, a rotary or a traffic circle? Do you have another British to American English story you'd like to share? Leave it in the comments, I'd love the hear it.

I received this book for review and have since released it through BookCrossing.

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So B. It: 12/08/09

Until I stumbled upon So B. It at my local library I only knew Sarah Weeks for Happy Birthday Frankie, a cute picture book retelling of Frankenstein that has been in my son's collection since his first birthday.

So B. It is a novel written for "mature tweens" (a description I read in a review). In it, Heidi It is trying to discover her mother's true identity. Her mother, though living, can't help in the process because she is mentally handicapped and only knows a limited vocabulary. Heidi's only other adult in her life, is a next door neighbor who suffers from agoraphobia. If Heidi is going to solve the mystery, she's going to have do it on her own.

The family dynamic of Heidi, her mother and the next door neighbor in  So B. It reminds me most of Lilo and Stitch. I'm thinking of the line about the family being a little broken but still good. Heidi, though she wants to know the truth of her mother's history, she still loves her family. She isn't looking for a better life, just someone to fill in the gaps and answer some questions.

There's just a hint of magical realism to So B. It. Heidi is lucky. Living in Vegas, her kind of luck helps pay the bills sometimes. Her luck can't answer her questions but it can get her on the right path.

I'm happy to report Heidi finds her answers. The journey is rough and what she discovered comes with a price but it provides for a satisfying conclusion that paints a full picture of an unusual life and gives Heidi a chance to grow.

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If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It in Yiddish: 12/07/09

I'm a language geek. If I had infinite time and money I would spend them learning as many languages as I could. One of the languages that has fascinated me more as long as I can remember is Yiddish. It used to be a vibrant language but post Holocaust it has dwindled to a dying language relegated mostly to academics and the elderly. There is a revival effort afoot and hopefully it will take hold.

In the meantime, Yiddish is mostly a language of phrases and insults passed down through different business cultures. Schmuck, chutzpah, spiel... I could go on. I bet you know them. I bet you've used them. They are all Yiddish.

If you want to go beyond the basics, Lita Epstein has compiled a bunch of insults and other phrases in her book If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say it In Yiddish. She has transliterated everything to her best approximation to how she learned them. If you're on the west coast you'll see some oddities in her spelling. Properly written, Yiddish is written with the Hebrew alphabet but uses a mostly Germanic grammar and lexicon.

Epstein's book is a fun introduction to Yiddish but it won't take you beyond memorizing a few funny phrases.

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Whoo-oo Is It? 12/07/09

Whoo-Oo Is It? by Megan McDonald is the story of a nesting pair of barn owls who are nervously waiting their brood to soon hatch. One night while the father owl is still out hunting, the mother owl hears an unexpected noise. Fearing her eggs might be in danger from an approaching predator she flies off in search of the noise.

Her search takes her throughout the farm and surrounding forest, introducing children to the typical night time sounds and animals in rural areas. There are farm animals, cats, mice, dogs and many other animals, all beautifully illustrated.

Fortunately for the barn owl family all is well with the nest. The book ends with the start of their family, giving children a chance to learn about owlets too.

We read this book for Sean's on-going fascination with owls.

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Ghost Town at Sundown (Magic Tree House #10): 12/06/09

Ghost Town at Sundown is the second of the four riddles and the tenth book in the Magic Tree House series. In this one, Jack and Annie go back to a ghost town in search of the answer the riddle.

While there they are frightened by a ghost, threatened by horse thieves and befriended by a wrangler of wild mustangs. Jack and Annie learn how to ride horses and Annie once again shows her talent at talking with animals.

Best of all is the time travel aspect of the book. In the other books I've read Jack and Annie's travels have been self contained. Where and when they go don't have any link between the present of their adventure and their present time in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. In Ghost Town at Sundown, Jack and Annie directly affect their future through their friendship with the wrangler.

The inclusion of the ghost town also gave Sean and me a chance to talk about my favorite ghost town, Bodie, California. We talked about the how and why behind a town being abandoned and what sort of things are left behind.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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The Dragons of Spratt Ohio: 12/06/09

Imagine if the Wilds of Ohio had a clutch of dragonets growing up among the white rhinos and reticulated giraffes. Imagine further that they were in the care of a ten year old boy known only by his last name, Salt. That's the idea behind The Dragons of Spratt, Ohio.

Shortly after the dragons hatch a long lost aunt appears to do research on a new wrinkle cream. She is part of R & D of a famous makeup producer in Paris France. She is idolized by Candi, a straight A student who is afraid she has to play dumb to stay popular.

The aunt, Dr. Salt, though turns out to be very different than Candi's imagined version. She only wears black, she only eats health food and she doesn't seem to have any sense of humor.

Meanwhile, Salt has the dragons to worry about. They are at risk from poachers and are a danger to the other wildlife at the park. When a dragon goes missing he has to risk his own life to keep them safe even if it means betraying someone very close to him.

Although Salt's parents are absent in the book he isn't an orphan. They are away on business and it gives Salt, Candi and the other teens in the book a chance to spread their wings just as the dragons are doing the same. Their reactions though are grounded in the values of their families and the parents do play important roles too.

Throughout the book Salt makes a number of interesting observations about dragon behavior and biology. These added details help bring the fantasy elements alive.

A similar book worth reading is Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley.

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If You Give a Moose a Muffin: 12/05/09

If You Give a Moose a Muffin is the second in the If You Give a... series. Here it's a moose wanting a muffin. The moose shows up in later books such as If You Give a Pig a Party.

Like the others in the series the book uses circular reasoning. It starts with the absurd notion of giving a moose a muffin (inside a house, no less) and ends up there. In between there is messy jam, puppet shows, borrowed sweaters and a host of other silly things.

My kids adore this series although I think my oldest is starting to out grow it. I expect though I have a few more years of reading them with Harriet who loves all the different animals. Her two favorites are the cat and the moose. My son's two favorites were the pig and the mouse. So that's pretty much everyone covered.

If You Give a... Series by Laura Numeroff:

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Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories: 12/05/09

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories has three short stories, one against fascism, one against jealousy and one against bragging. The two my kids enjoy reading most are the first and third, "Yertle the Turtle" and "The Big Brag."

Back when Theodor Geisel was working as a political cartoonist, he drew an anti Hitler cartoon showing a stack of turtles in a V-shape. The caption said "You can't build a substantial V out of turtles!" You can see it reproduced in Dr. Seuss Goes to War by by Richard H. Minear.

Yertle, the despot king turtle, decides he wants to increase his kingdom. Turtle law says he's the king of all he can see. To increase his view and thus his kingdom, he stands on the backs of his turtle subjects. His own lust for power ends up being his literal downfall.

The second story, "Gertrude McFuzz" is about a bird who is jealous of another bird with a more beautiful tail. She goes to great lengths to increase the beauty of her tail but loses the ability to fly in the process. She has to learn to be happy with who she is the way she is.

The final story is "The Big Brag" which reminds me of Sean and his best friend. They love to brag to each other about all the great things they have or all the great things they can do. Their bragging will often times come in the way of actually playing until they are called on it. In this story the bragging pair are rabbit and a bear.

Dr. Seuss Reviews

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Within a Budding Grove: Madame Swann at Home: Robert Langdon: 12/04/09

Robert Langdon

Last week I took a break from reading Within a Budding Grove but my reading then oddly parallels the thirty pages I read this week.

When I wasn't reading Within a Budding Grove I was either writing my nanowrimo (which I finished) or reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (review coming). Although The Lost Symbol is on the New York Times best seller list, I've gotten some ribbing for my near fan girl enthusiasm for Brown's Robert Langdon series (although I must say I detest the films).

Marcel's in the same boat. He continues to be a fan of Bergotte's writing. All the while others are calling him a hack and unreadable and so forth. Marcel feels a little guilty for enjoying his books and thinks about setting them aside. His feelings of guilt further delay his attempts at writing.

Meanwhile, I continue to read Dan Brown. Sure, he makes mistakes in his facts (most authors do; it's fiction after all). Sometimes I laugh at the gaffs (like the wifi problem near the end) but the books still entertain me. If a fourth one comes out, I will more than likely read it.

See you back in next week for my thoughts on pages 91-120.

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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Me, Myself and I: 12/04/09

I chose to read Me, Myself and I by Jane Louise Curry based on the strength of The Egyptian Box. The Egyptian Box is a tightly written horror written for middle grade readers. Me, Myself and I is a young adult science fiction. The time travel plot had potential and the blurb had me eager to start reading but I ended up having to struggle to finish it.

The best way to describe Me Myself and I is to call it the light version of The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold (1973). Being a young adult novel it lacks the odd sexual explorations of Gerrold's book but the basic idea of a man mentoring and working with copies of himself due to time travel is the same.

J.J. Russell, boy genius and graduate student in engineering (or something similar) is having the worst day of his life. A rival has developed a similar but possibly better chip and he discovers that his girlfriend of four years is dumping him for the rival. When he decides to bury himself in research he discovers his advisor's secret project: a time machine that allows J.J. the chance to travel back in time and fix his future while stopping some research espionage. He ends up working with his twelve and eight year old selves. Can they together stop the rival and win the girl's heart for good?

This time travel romantic comedy and mystery has a university setting somewhere in the south bay. From clues dropped during the novel the university is probably based on Stanford but I don't recall it ever being given a name. I liked the choice of location over the more typical choice of either Caltech or MIT.

The present day for J.J. is concurrent with the book's publishing (1987). The choice to make it contemporary contributes to the novel's weakest point, namely, the description of the technology. The biggest gaff has to be Curry's description of J.J. and the other students of Professor Poplov doing their college level programming in BASIC. Sure, the book is aimed at kids but I think even back in 1987 the computer geek kids who would have been drawn to this book would have scoffed at a described genius using BASIC. There were more robust languages available. I asked my husband and he named better possibilities: C, FORTRAN, FORTH, Prolog or Common LISP but definitely not BASIC.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: 12/03/09

Say the name Harriet Beecher Stowe and what pops into mind? I bet you thought Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her serialized novel is credited with lighting the fire that became the Civil War but there was much more to her life and her career as a writer.

Suzanne M. Coil's biography (aimed at young adult readers), Harriet Beecher Stowe covers the writer's life from her birth in 1811, her childhood, her pre writing adult life, her writing career and her death in 1896. The book includes a nice selection of photographs of Stowe and her family and the landmarks of her life.

Harriet was the sixth of eleventh children. Her seven brothers took after their father and became ministers. Much of Harriet's early work revolved around the church and women's education (from working with her sister Catharine who ran a women's school).

Harriet began writing before she married. Writing both nonfiction and fiction (short stories). Later as she and her husband were struggling to pay bills and keep the family finances afloat she turned her love of writing into a career. Her career spanned 51 years.

Harriet's daughter Isabella founded the Women's Suffrage Association.

The biography is easy to read and informative. The book is well paced and doesn't dwell too long on any period of the writer's life. As it's aimed at younger readers, it doesn't go into too many details but does give enough of an overview for readers to learn about her life well beyond her most famous book.

I read this book for the Woman Unbound Challenge.

More information about Harriet Beecher Stowe:

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Incubus, Succubus: 12/02/09

"Incubus, Succubus" by Neil James Hudson is the second of three short stories in the bisexual erotica collection Like Twin Stars.

The unnamed male protagonist, probably in his late teens, is waiting to be visited by his demon. A person's first sexual encounter in this world is always with a demon and it will forever define that person's place in adulthood. For this young man, he expects his visit will be different because he has feelings for both Thea and Carl.

So what happens to a young bisexual? The answer's pretty obvious; he's visited by two demons. What happens afterwards parallels the shunning that many bisexuals face. Thea rejects his love (even though she's willing to partner with pretty much any other man) and Carl who has left the sexually conservative society says there is no place for him outside the city either.

Though there are sex scenes described with more blatant language than the first story (The Dancer's War) they are set against the context of a desire to belong and the depression that comes from not finding acceptance or love. The story's ending recapitulates the duality of the main character, being both an ascension and a metaphorical suicide.

I received a PDF copy for review.


Wee Gillis: 12/01/09

Wee Gillis caught my eye at my local library. It was short, colorful and a Caldecott Honor book (1939). As it's only 80 pages and mostly a picture book, I snatched it up and read it that night.

Wee Gillis is a boy stuck in the middle of two different Scottish cultures. One parent is from the Lowlands where his family herds cattle. The other parent is from the Highlands where they stalk stags. When he is orphaned, he has to pick a family and a lifestyle.

Gillis learns how to herd cattle and how to hold his breath and be quiet in the highlands to not scare the wildlife. It takes years of living with both sides of the family before he finds his own. I like that Gillis was able to learn from both families and then make his own life the way he saw fit.

But the best part of the book are the black and white illustrations.


Mrs. Muffly's Monster: 12/01/09

Mrs. Muffly's Monster I originally checked out for Harriet because the monster looks a lot like a blue cat with funny stripes and a prehensile tail. I thought Sean might like it too since it's about a monster. What I didn't expect was a perfect combination of two of Sean's passions in life: baking and monsters!

The unseen narrator, a neighbor presumably, has been watching Mrs. Muffly. Every day she buys some huge amount of food: dozens of eggs, pounds of flour, gallons of milk. The neighbor jumps to the conclusion that these vast amounts of food are for Mrs. Muffly's monster. The colorful somewhat primitive illustrations show what the neighbor imagines the monster doing with the food in question.

What the neighbor doesn't suspect is that Mrs. Muffly and her monster (yes, he's real) like to bake. They've been working on a beautiful (and huge) cake for a bake-off. Included in the back of the book is a normally proportioned cake recipe for any other monstrologist bakers to try.

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