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January 2010

Rating System

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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Dino-Dinners: 01/31/10

Sean checked out Dino-Dinners by Brita Ganstrom from our newly reopened library but it was Harriet who ended up reading it. This picture book introduces children to the current science of dinosaurs including things like diet, appearance and habitat.

I especially liked how bird-like they've made the dinosaurs. When I was a child dinosaurs were still drawn as basically oversized lizards in awkward poses. The dinosaurs in this book are more plausible with the avian poses and beginnings of feathers in the case of T-rex and the velociraptor.

If anything, I wish the book were longer. There's a lot of interesting information packed into the few pages but they only cover about a dozen types of dinosaurs. A wider range of species would be a big improvement. Dinosaurs are certainly enough of an attention grabber; young children would sit through a book twice as long.

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Lizzi & Fredl: A Perilous Journey of Love and Faith: 01/30/10

Lizzi & Fredl: A Perilous Journey of Love and Faith by William B. Stanford chronicles the seven year journey his parents made from Austria to the United States by way of France. It's a WWII memoir covering the terror of surviving the Nazi occupation of France and the aftermath.

The events in the book are by themselves fascinating, terrifying and awe inspiring. The included photographs give a glimpse into an era that came before my parents were born.

Unfortunately the narrative falls short of presenting their "journey of love and faith" in a compelling and consistent manner. Sometimes it's written as historical fiction with dialogue, internal monologue and dramatic confrontations. Other times it's done as over-written lengthy paragraphs that read like propaganda from the Allies. Without that consistency the book failed to pull me into the lives of Lizzi and Fredl.

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I Wish That I Had Duck Feet: 01/29/10

I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Seuss is a story I missed somehow as a child. My son introduced me to the book. He checked it out from the library and read it to me as part of his weekly free reading assignment for school.

The book centers on a young boy, probably about my son's age, who wants to change. He wants duck feet, or antlers or a whale spout among other alterations to his body. He thinks of all the wonderful things he could do with his new powers and then the problems he would have with them.

Things get out of hand with his imagination and soon he's the latest attraction at the zoo. Sean felt horrible for the boy when he's locked up with only hay to eat. It wasn't humane treatment for a boy with "monster powers" nor was it proper treatment for a monster.

The book is cute but not one of my favorites. I'm not keen on his boy having adventures or imaging amazing things types of books. I prefer his sillier books like Fox in Socks and Red Fish, Blue Fish, Old Fish, New Fish. The one execption to this rule is McElligot's Pool.

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Within a Budding Grove: A Cafe Terrace at Night: 01/29/10

A Cafe Terrace at Night (link goes to Amazon)

I'm now up to page 300 in Within a Budding Grove and have no finished the "Madame Swann at Home" section of the book. Next up is "Place Names."

This week has been crazy busy for me. With that in mind, I've been running the blog mostly on autopilot and when it came time to crack open Proust I read my thirty pages in a daze. As it was the summary or conclusion of the first section the plot has gone on hiatus for the narrator to think instead of the broader picture. In this case, it's the beauty of Paris in April.

While I was reading the loving description of Paris I had the Judy Garland song "Rose Red, Violets Blue" from Gay Purr-ee in my head. The song isn't available on YouTube. If it were, I'd include it in this post. Rather than find a similar video or scene from a movie (maybe An American in Paris) I decided to go with a painting. The image on the right is Vincent Van Gogh's A Cafe Terrace at Night which he painted in 1888. It gives a good sense of Paris as experienced by Proust's narrator.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 301-330.

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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Clifford the Small Red Puppy: 01/28/10

My children love the Clifford cartoons that run on PBS: Clifford the Big Red Dog and Clifford's Puppy Days. They also enjoy Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Birdwell. A common question for both of them is: "How did Clifford get so big when he was so small?" Clifford the Small Red Puppy answers the question and if I had just bothered to check out the book sooner from my library, I could have given my kids the answer quicker!

Clifford as anyone who has watched the Puppy Days cartoon knows was a teeny tiny puppy. He's too small for the smallest collar.  As the book explains, not only was he small, he was also a sickly runt. Emily Elizabeth though takes to him and decides to give him a home and is told by her parents that he probably won't survive the winter.

But everyone knows Clifford somehow as an adult is a thriving, healthy giant dog. Runts of the litter do sometimes go on to be the strongest but it's a difficult and up hill battle. The answer for Clifford's success is wrapped up in a little bit of magical realism and follows similar logic used in The Shrinking of Treehorn (link to review).

The solution delighted both of my children and finally put to bed the question of how come Clifford is so big. If you want to know how, go read Clifford the Small Red Puppy. It's a short and delightful book.

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The Stars Down Under: 01/27/10

The Stars Down Under by Sandra McDonald is the sequel to Outback Stars. Like so many books I've grabbed from my library, I haven't read the first book. After having read the second I feel like I should and I think I would like the first book better.

The book starts up with Chief Terry Myell and Lieutenant Commander Jodenny Scott trying to make their marriage work. They are assigned to Fortune a planet far from the polluted Earth and within reach of the Wondjina Spheres that allow travel between worlds without the slowness of space travel. Myell though is yanked from his assignment to go on a dangerous mission to get the Spheres working again.

Fortune and the Wondjina Spheres are full of Australian Aboriginal imagery and that connection to Australia is the main reason why I chose the book. I spent a summer (my summer, their winter) in Australia between junior and senior years of high school. The trip, though short, continues to inspire me.

Although I checked out the book near the end of 2009, I didn't read it until after I had seen Avatar. I wish I had read the book first and seen the film second. The problem is that the film and book share many of the same tropes and it was just too much of the same thing for me with one coming on the heels of the other.

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Yoko's Paper Cranes: 01/26/10

Yoko's Paper Cranes is the third from the Yoko and Her Friends series I've read to my children. It's my favorite so far.

Yoko's Paper Cranes is about Yoko's grandparents who still live in Japan. The book shows how her grandmother taught Yoko to make origami cranes. When she has moved to California she makes a bunch of the cranes as a gift for her grandmother.

The illustrations match the theme of the book. They appear to be collages made of origami paper. Rosemary Wells includes a note of thanks to the people who helped with the Japanese paper craft part of the book. People familiar with Japanese art history will note a few recreated pieces but done to fit the style and plot of the book.

Finally, the book teaches readers how to fold the origami crane. The instructions are illustrated around the edges of the pages.

The Yoko Series:

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Minifred Goes to School: 01/26/10

Minifred Goes to School by Mordicai Gerstein sports a jolly looking ginger striped cat in a pink dress on the cover. Since there are many animal themed stories about animals going to school which Harriet likes I brought a copy home from the library. This book is different in that the rest of the characters are human.

Minifred is a cat adopted by a childless couple who for some reason decide treating a cat like a child is a better idea than adopting an actual child. Minifred rises to the task and ends up learning enough to demand a chance to go to school. After some hemming and hawing the school finally admits Minifred and the rest of the story focuses on how the cat and the school adjust to each other.

Of course cats living as humans in a human world isn't a new concept. Puss in Boots dates back to 1697 ( but there's always an element of magic and fantasy in the various Puss in Boots stories.

My daughter and I both disliked the book for the same reason: Minifred didn't seem plausible. The world she lives all the other characters refuse to believe that it's possible for a cat to be in school. Without the support of the other characters there's no reason for us to believe it's possible for a cat to learn how to walk, talk and go to school. The rest of the story becomes moot at the point that the suspension of disbelief fails.

Comments (10)

Austenland: 01/25/10

I came to Shannon Hale by way of Rapunzel's Ravenge and while I was eagerly awaiting my chance to read the sequel, Calamity Jack (review coming) I decided to go back and read some of her novels. I chose at random Austenland.

I'm not a Jane Austen fan. I've never made it all the way through a book but I know the plots having seen many an adaptation. So I come to Jane Hayes, Austen fanatic and a Colin Firth (as Mr. Darcy) devotee. Whenever I hear Colin Firth mentioned as the reason why so many women apparently now swoon over Pride and Prejudice I have to scratch my head. I can never remember what he looks like. As far as the Mr. Darcy angle goes, at least I know who he is but he doesn't do it for me either (but Calamity Jack does).

But hey, I didn't read the book to swoon over Jane Austen, her books, her characters or the actors who portray them. I read it because Shannon Hale wrote it.

So anyway... Jane Haynes is given a trip to Austenland, an estate in England where she can live the full Jane Austen experience. She may be a fan of the books and the films but she's not ready to live them. She can't make witty conversation and she feels lost without her technology. She finds the whole experience boring, frustrating and infuriating.

In the middle of all of this is a Darcy inspired man playing a role. There's an attraction but she can't decide if it's the fiction of Austenland or something deeper.

Austenland is a quick read but for me not the romp that Rapunzel's Ravenge or Calamity Jack was. It does have the usual plot points turned on their head and there's a wee glimmer of Jack in Jane's real world Darcy. I just wish I could have seen more of it.

Comments (4)

Another Life: 01/25/10

I read "Another Life" by Charles Oberndorf while sitting in a comfortable chair at my local library. It's not my usual place to read Fantasy and Science Fiction and I expect the experience of reading about an otherworldly place and a new life will associate the story with the location. Do you ever do that?

From other reviews I've read "Another Life" echoes themes in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, a book I haven't read but have it on my wishlist. Coincidentally Joe Haldeman has a story ("Never Blood Enough") in the same issue. People can be born into new bodies for the right price (and you can end up paying for previous lives in your lives to come). The military will also revive its troops if their service is still needed.

The protagonist and narrator awakes to a new life but under circumstances that don't match his expectations. He wasn't revived by the military and his former lover isn't among the revived soldiers. He can't find out who paid for the revival or why. Whatever the reasons, they have left him in a bit of a legal limbo and he has to find his own way in his new life.

Along with changes of lives come changes of bodies. Bodies can mean changes of gender. Do relationships both familial and romantic continue between lives even if the genders change? This aspect of the protagonist's new life is for me the central theme of the story.

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Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter: 01/24/10

Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter by Ellen MacGregor is the follow up to Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars. This time Miss Pickerell stays on earth and ends up discovering uranium while trying to get to the state fair with her nephews.

When the book opens Miss Pickerell and her nephews are on a steamboat heading up river towards the state fair. The cow can't be left at home so they've decided to bring her with them. Unexpectedly though they are put to shore early of the fair because the cow is too much of a hazard to carry up stream.

I was really hoping the mysterious drop off point was a sign that the ship's crew were doing something nefarious. The Miss Pickerell books though aren't the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series. In the two books I've read the characters are all basically good even when they're working at cross purposes.

The ship though is a clue just not one pointing at some sort of master plot involving uranium and world domination. The uranium is a means for Miss Pickerell to show of her knowledge of geology.

Overall I didn't like Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter as much as I liked the first book. The educational aspects seemed more forced this time and there was the underlying Cold War era weirdness of tying atomic research with patriotism.

My favorite character ended up being the local sheriff who really wanted to be a teacher. He seemed like an atypical male character for this era of book. He's a perfectly competent sheriff but he's miserable at it and wants to go back to school.

Comments (2)

The Digital Plague: 01/24/10

One of the difficulties with checking out books from the library is following series. Either they don't have all of them or the old ones and the new ones are shelved in different places. Take for instance, The Digital Plague by Jeff Somers. It's the second book of a four part (as of 2009 / 2010) series featuring Avery Cates. My library happens to have books one, The Electric Church and two, The Digital Plague. Unfortunately they are shelved halfway across the library from each other as one is in the "new acquisitions" and the other is shelved with the older books.

Although The Digital Plague is a fast paced dystopian romp through a futuristic New York City, it manages to stand well enough on its own. There are points of reference to The Electric Church to clue the clueless so that one can follow along as Avery runs, jumps and shoots his way through the book.

The Digital Plague reminds me most of the opening chapters to The Stainless Rat Gets Drafted. Like The Digital Plague I began the Stainless Steel Rat series out of order, although chronologically it comes before the earlier books. I remember being immediately swept into the action and that's what happened here too. I didn't care that I wasn't entire sure what was going on or who all the characters were because I was racing alongside Avery.

The basic plot is that a plague of nanobots has been let loose in New York. Everyone exposed dies within a fixed timeline. Avery is patient zero except he's not dying. He's now being chased down to contain the disease but he doesn't know who he can trust and who he can't. He's not even sure he wants to trust those who can help.

Nanobots aren't anything new but Avery's New York is enough wrapping to make this version of the story worth the read. I've now checked out the first book in the series, The Electric Church and I will post a review when I'm finished. Then I'll decide if I want to read books three and four.

Avery Cates series: (Click on a title to read reviews).

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Don't Say Ain't: 01/23/10

I chose Don't Say Ain't for the CORA Diversity Roll Call when we were asked to recommend early readers. I chose it for the beautiful watercolor cover.

The setting for Don't Say Ain't is Harlem in 1957. Three neighborhood friends are being broken up because on of them has been given a chance to go to an advanced school. The remaining girls shun their friend and the children at the new school shun her too because she's new.

Don't Say Ain't introduces children to life in Harlem in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The vibrant painted illustrations bring this era to life. While I read the book once, I spent another couple of times just admiring the artwork by Colin Bootman.

The book though isn't just about Harlem or civil rights. There's also the timeless tale of finding the balance between private life and public life. The lesson of Don't Say Ain't isn't to never say ain't but to know how when to be formal and when to be informal. It's also about self respect and self improvement and sacrifice while keeping friendships and family ties.

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Harriet and the Garden: 01/23/10

Harriet loves the series of books by Nancy Carlson that feature Harriet the dog. Her first introduction to the series was with Harriet's Recital . She has since read Harriet and the Roller Coaster, Loudmouth George and the New Neighbors (review coming) and Harriet and the Garden.

In all the books Harriet learns a life lesson but in most of the books the lesson is disguised by a decent plot and characterization. Harriet and the Garden though goes for a blatant moral, so blatant that even Harriet didn't want to re-read the book.

In this book Harriet and her friends are playing catch or baseball in the park. Unfortunately the park abuts a neighbor's yard and she hadn't put in a fence to separate the yard from the park. Harriet in trying to make the catch of her life ends up trampling the neighbor's prized plants.

Harriet does the right thing but only after suffering through some very funny nightmares. These vivid dreams though come too late in the book to salvage the heavy duty telegraphing of the moral (tell the truth and take responsibility for your actions).

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

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Tarot Cafe Volume One: 01/22/10

I've mentioned before the diverse selection of graphic novels and manga my local library has. The latest volume I picked up is the start of a seven part manhwa (Korean manga) series, Tarot Cafe by Sang-Sun Park.

Pamela reads fortunes for a living. After hours she takes special clients who need to harness her clairvoyant powers. After a brief introduction the rest of the book is divided into four episodes: one per tarot reading. They are: A Wish-Fulfilling Cat, Eternal Beauty, A Fairy and the first part of A Heartless Princess, an Alchemist, and a Jester.

Of the four my favorite is the first. The story of the cat's unnatural love for his human mistress is heart breaking. Eternal Beauty is the old emo vampire who falls in love but makes enemies in the process. That sort of story has been done (and is still being done) to death. A Fairy is the story of a fair folk cursed into the body of a little girl and forever pining after her fiancé. Time is cruel to her. The final story acts as a cliff hanger to the second volume; it's the creepy tale of an alchemist who desperately wants a princess to love him. His gifts though reveal an ugly side to his beloved.

Sang-Sun Park's artwork is beautiful but ambiguous. One reviewer complained that all her characters look like girls. I wouldn't go that far but her magical characters do tend to be overly beautiful beyond even what seems typical in the manga equivalents.

Tarot Cafe Volume 1 was one of the quickest manga volumes I've read. I plan to see if my library has any more books from the series.

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Evolution's Shore (aka Chaga): 01/22/10

A funny thing happened on the way to write this post. See I remember reading a short story that feature the Chaga or something very similar to the Chaga. I even remember writing a review of the story. There's just one problem; I can find no evidence of having done either. Further more, I can't prove that such a story exists! The existence (or not) of a short story set in the same universe as Evolution's Shore (aka Chaga) by Ian McDonald has no bearing on the strengths and weaknesses of the novel.

In 2002 over the rings of Saturn something weird happened. Meanwhile an object has crash landed on Mount Kilimanjaro and that something is forever altering everything it touches. How exactly it's altering things is kept a closely guarded secret. Gaby McAslan and her SkyNet news team to Africa to report the story. Evolution's Shore is mostly her story.

Here's where things get a little muddled. The book is presented as a disaster novel. Whatever the Chaga are they represent the potential to forever alter or destroy life as we know it. To keep things in the disaster genre the book is mostly "real to life" with a large cast of characters, an over abundance of details and a romance for Gaby. That sort of thing works great when the threat is something tangible: earthquake, flood, drought, hurricane, and so forth.

Weird ass evolution from space, in other words, something unknown, something "other" brings the book into the realm of horror. It's the fear of the unknown. With that expectation, things need to happen early and with building frequency. People need to disappear, or mutate or eat other people or something. In this regard Evolution's Shore fails.

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Within a Budding Grove: And Then There's Maude: 01/21/10

And Then There's Maude

I'm now up to page 270 in Within a Budding Grove. Most of these thirty pages focus on Odette and her missteps in high society. Her marriage to Charles Swann and taken her from just pretending to actually being part of those social circles. The dialogue and descriptions of her interactions with the other noble ladies shows how over her head she now is and how unwelcome she is in their circles.

Throughout this section the character who came to mind most strongly was Maude Findlay. She started as a one off character as Edith's cousin in All in the Family and was spun-off to her own show. KOFY TV, a local station where I live, has been showing reruns of the old CBS series and I suppose that's why Maude is so fresh in my mind.

Each half an hour show has the same formula. It's as predictable as The Incredible Hulk. The episode begins with Maude (or someone close to her) having a problem. Maude will then put on an act of being the best person to solve the problem and even if she is (it does sometimes happen) she makes such an arrogant ass of herself that no one wants to listen to her. That's part of Odette's problem too. She has bragged and talked so much in her past that she has annoyed the very people she wants to impress. As the half hour runs out of the episode everyone will come to their senses and they will apologize to each other much as Charles and Odette and their closet friends will always end up making up.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 271-300.

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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Tepper Isn't Going Out: 01/21/10

About three years ago Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin first appeared at our local BookCrossing group. Someone grabbed it and that's that last most of us thought of it. Until it reappeared earlier this year. Suddenly it was the hottest book in our group. Curious about it, I grabbed it when it reappeared at the most recent meeting.

Tepper works in marketing research. His day job it to figure out the magic product that would bridge the maximum number of demographic groups. Right there I have a point of love for Tepper as my mother is in the same line of work and I've skimmed it with my work in web marketing.

But the book isn't so much about that magic product or service. It's about Tepper needing a little time to himself and his quiet act of rebellion through parking. New York City has notoriously complex parking rules. Tepper though has figured them out. The only place he can get peace and quiet and the time to read his paper is in his car.

Unfortunately a person in a car draws attention. Hopeful drivers see him in his car and hope he's "going out" of the spot. If there's time on the meter or his time is otherwise not up, he isn't. When Tepper's parking and reading develop into a routine, he gets the attention of the mayor of New York. He sees a threat to his authority and possibly some sort of espionage.

Tepper Isn't Going Out is dry and slow book. You have to be in the right mood to read it. I struggled with it but it grew on me and continues to do so even though I've passed it along to a new reader in our book club.

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The Napping House: 01/20/10

Audrey Wood and Don Wood are best known for The Napping House. It was first released when my brother was four but I don't remember it being one of the books we read to him. I only just started hearing of it from my own kids as their preschool has a copy. For Sean and me, though, we know Audrey Wood (and her son, Bruce) for the Charley's Alphabet series (Alphabet Adventure, Alphabet Mystery and Alphabet Rescue). We know the husband and wife team best for Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear. Earlier this year a 25th anniversary edition was released. The copy though, that I read, was an original 1984 edition, well loved and wrinkled and crinkled, from the library.

The Napping House is written in the style of The House That Jack Built. It's a progressive tale where one thing builds upon another to a breaking point and then unravels itself to similar but not identical to the beginning. Here the thing in question is a napping grandmother who has her bed invaded by a large number of napping creatures (grandchildren, dog, cat, and so forth). Of course a bed can only hold so much and part of the fun is seeing just how full the bed can get before it breaks.

The illustrations are probably the book's best asset. The story is fairy typical of that type of picture book. That form of story telling has been done to death and in all fairness to The Napping House many of them came after it was published. Still, though, I much prefer the books I listed in my introduction.

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Logicist: 01/19/10

I am falling behind with my FSF reading. I tried to finish the October / November issue over New Year's and didn't. One of the stories I read was "Logicist" by Carol Emshwiller.

Set in some indeterminate time, "Logicist" reminds me of the American Civil War. The teacher ("logicist") protagonist takes his class to watch the war from the sidelines just as people tried picnicking in the fields during the early days of the war. The weapons were well beyond what had been used in previous wars and it quickly became a blood bath.

"Logicist" is a about arrogance, pride and the excesses of war. It's about culture clashes and men who find more  comfort among the "enemy" than at home. It's a short, visceral and thought provoking piece.

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Esoteric City: 01/18/10

Back in October I decided to stop featuring a review from Fantasy & Science Fiction every Saturday. My schedule has gotten too busy to guarantee I'll have time to read and review a story every week. I have though been reading the magazines and writing the reviews as I do have time. The reviews are included in the master list from which I pick one or two reviews to post every day.

The final story in the August / Spetember 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is "Esoteric City" by Bruce Sterling. It is set in Turin, Italy, a city of wizards of black and white magic. It's also the city of the shroud, the grail and Dante's inferno.

Achille Occhietti by day is an engineer. By night he's a necromancer. He rubs elbows with Djoser, the mummified remains of a third dynasty Egyptian pharaoh. Djoser comes with a message, warning him that Lucifer has plans for him.

The bulk of the of story is the preparation for the show down with Lucifer. Djoser and Achille go on a quest through old Turin, layers of death right to Hell to come up with a plan. I loved Sterling's descriptions of Occhietti's walk through Hell and how each layer had its own timeline and its own populations.

After all the esoteric preparation Lucifer's meeting throws all the theories out. It calls into question what it means to be the Devil. It's a deliciously open-ended conclusion, perfect for this type of fantasy.

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Day of the Dragon-King (Magic Tree House #14): 01/18/10

Day of the Dragon-King by Mary Pope Osborne is the second of the lost books series and the fourteenth in the Magic Tree House Series. In this one Jack and Annie go back to the first emperor of China to rescue a scroll that is slatted for burning.

With Sean learning Mandarin at school Day of the Dragon-King was extra special. We took time out from our reading to look at pictures of the terracotta warriors and to discuss the myth that plays a central part of the book.

For me the inclusion of the clew was the high point. It lead us on another tangent, discussing the similarities between the maze of the terracotta warriors and the minotaur in the labyrinth and how the word "clue" comes from "clew."

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Where is the Green Sheep? 01/17/10

Where Is the Green Sheep? is picture book by Australian author Mem Fox. The last book of hers I read was Possum Magic when I was a new Mom and a new member of BookCrossing. It was part of a bookring. In the years between I'd pretty much forgotten about her books until a number of random sources recommended Where is the Green Sheep? to me and my children.

On numerous recommendations I checked out a copy of Where is the Green Sheep? from our library. Sean read it to himself and I read it to Harriet. Sean found the book a quick read (as he should since it's aimed at preschoolers and he's in 2nd grade). Harriet liked the first few pages but quickly went into "play along mode" while I read on.

The book reminds me most of Sandra Boynton's books but it's about twice as long. I think it was just much repetition of "where's the green sheep" before the final pay-off.

When we were done with the book I asked Sean and Harriet for their opinions. Both complained that it didn't make sense for there to be sheep of so many different colors. So while the book is popular with many parents and children and has even inspired a children's play, it didn't win over my two.

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Sassy: 01/16/10

<Sassy by Gloria Mallette is a mystery-thriller with some romance thrown in. The main character is a successful author and she's about to have a new man in her life. He though brings danger.

At a book signing for her latest romance, Butterfly, Sassy is surprised to see a well dressed man in line with a stack of her novels. He claims to be a fan of her writing and that's how their friendship starts and later blossoms into something more. Meanwhile, the police are investigating a brutal murder and the evidence is pointing towards Sassy's new beau, Norris Yoshito.

Fictional authors pulled into dangerous and thrilling situations are nothing new. The literary world are full of authors forced to solve mysteries or suddenly in danger from something right out their imaginations. Sassy fits right in with them. She's intelligent, sharp witted and capable of taking care of herself. Although she does encounter danger she's never a "damsel in distress."

Meanwhile Norris has an interesting back story as a the child of a Japanese woman and a black U.S. service man. The cultural conflicts he grew up with in Japan and now faces back in the United States make him an interesting and well rounded character.

The mystery itself has enough tricks in the form of red herrings and other forms of misdirection to hint at possible, albeit clichéd endings to provide a satisfying solution.

Near the end of the novel the editing falls apart a little. There were a couple obvious and strange grammatical errors that should have been caught. These yanked me out of the story just as things were wrapping up. That being said, I will read another Gloria Mallette novel if I come across it.

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Constellation Chronicles: The Lost Civilization of Aries: 01/15/10

Vincent Lowry originally wanted to use Zodiac in the title instead of Constellation. As you can guess, he's planning to write eleven more books. The Lost Civilization of Aries is thus the first book in The Constellation Chronicles.

Glenn Sawyer lives in Rigel New Mexico. He is (of course) a UFO geek with his own theories of life on other planets and extra terrestrial visits to Earth. When a ship crash lands outside the town Glenn will have his theories proved right. He will also be recruited to save Earth from a centuries old war in the deepest reaches of the universe.

Lowry mentioned in the close of his book that his first draft of the novel was significantly longer. He cut it down for pacing. I think he cut too much. It feels choppy and rushed in places. There's not enough time to get to know Glenn, his family or their situation until the crash. Likewise, I wanted more time to learn about the Povars before Glenn agrees to join them.

Finally, there is the Povar's language. They use it on and off throughout the book even though they can apparently speak fluent English. It's an interesting addition to the novel and I don't think it's used enough. A glossary at the back would have been fun.

My final thoughts on The Lost Civilization of Aries is that it is a shaky but promising start to a science fiction series. If a second one comes out I would like to give it a try.

I received the book for review and have passed it on to a friend to read.

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The Sunless Countries (Virga #4): 01/15/10

Like so much of my reading I read the forth of Karl Schroeder's Virga series, The Sunless Countries first. My newly opened library has designed their new books section to look like a book store. It makes the new books so appealing that I've been grabbing books later in the series.

The first three books follow Hayden Griffin a man bent on revenge for the deaths of his parents. They had been sun builders, a very valuable skill in the dark balloon skin of Virga. In The Sunless Countries Schroeder introduces a new main character and explores life in the darkest areas of Virga.

Leal Hieronyma Maspeth is a lecturer hoping for tenure at her local university. Unfortunately her town is in the grips of a conservative take over and the new government has its sights on the university and any other point of view that is contrary to their religious views.

Of course though (and probably for fans of the first three books), Leal ends up being an outcast from her town and ends up in alliance with Hayden Griffin. Together they explore the darkest and scariest parts of Virga and learn more about the world's history (exactly what the relgious leaders don't want).

Schroeder does a fantastic job of creating Virga and the worlds contained within. He makes Leal's day to day life believable and compelling.

I tore through the book in about a day and a half. I loved it. I couldn't put it down. I know that's a cliche but for this book it's true. It was in my hands whenever I had a free moment of time.

I am now working my way through the previous three books.

The Virga Series:

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Vacation Under the Volcano (Magic Tree House #13): 01/14/10

The Magic Tree House books have become a bonding point for my son and me. He loves reading them to me or listening to me read them to him. The adventures that Jack and Annie have typically center on a piece of history or science that Sean will be learning about soon. There are always points in the book where we can stop and discuss the facts behind the story.

Back in college I took a "shake and bake" class (earthquakes and volcanoes) for one of my required science electives. Therefore Vacation Under the Volcano got my attention. It's set in Pompeii on the day Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

The book is the first in a four part series where the newly appointed "Master Librarians" have to find four lost stories to add to Morgan's library. The book is of course a scroll and although Jack and Annie can talk with the people they meet, the title Morgan gives them is written in Latin. Here the book introduces more talking points: what are scrolls, the ways the Pompeii scrolls are now being scanned, the Latin language and Greco-Roman mythology.

What really struck me though about this book is that it was the first one where I truly felt Jack and Annie were in danger. There's a point where they get stuck in a river of fallen ash that scared Sean and me.

For adults interested in reading another novel set at the end of Pompeii, I recommend Pompeii by Robert Harris.

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Within a Budding Grove: Paris is a Lonely Town: 01/14/10

Paris is a Lonely Town (link goes to Amazon)

I'm now up to page 240 in Within a Budding Grove. The last thirty pages have been filled with the highs and lows of young love. Still chewing on his new perception of Bergotte, the protagonist begins to re-examine all his relationships including the one he has with Gilberte.

In my last post for Swann's Way I compared the love struck Charles Swann with Thomas O'Malley from The Aristocats. Now I'm drawn again to an animated cat film, this time Gay Purr-ee (1964). In it, a young cat runs off to Paris seeking romance and fortune after a spat with her mouser boyfriend, Jaune-Tom. Realizing his own foolishness and the danger Mewsette is putting herself in, he makes the long walk to Paris to win back her heart.

For Jaune-Tom the journey is a long one and the reunion with his beloved is a path filled pit-falls. In his time away from Mewsette, she must fend for herself and grows in the process. At one particularly grim time in her life she laments through song that "Paris is a Lonely Town."

Sung beautifully by Judy Garland the song captures perfectly the emotional turmoil that the protagonist is feeling as things become rocky between himself and Gilberte. Below is a clip from the Jack Paar Show with Judy Garland singing "Paris is a Lonely Town."

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 241-270.

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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Jin Jin the Dragon: 01/13/10

Sean is halfway through this second year of dual immersion Chinese / English in elementary school. Along with learning the language comes learning the culture and stories. What he has learned has begun to shape how I look for books for him when I'm at the library. One of the recent books I picked was Jin Jin the Dragon by Grace Chang and illustrated by Chong Chang.

What attracted me to Jin Jin the Dragon beyond the adorable baby dragon on the cover is the inclusion of Chinese characters throughout the book. As Jin Jin is trying to learn what she is, she also learns how to read Chinese. Her lessons are included in the book as part of the story.

The book has the characters for mountain 山 , field 田 , fish 魚 , fire 火 , turtle 龟 , person 人 among others. Most of these are characters Sean has already learned so he was able to read the clues that pop up through out the book.

Jin Jin the Dragon we happened to read at the same time Sean was reading Dragon of the Red Dawn (review coming) which features the Japanese version of the rain dragon. It was fun to compare and contrast the similar dragons. He has also used what he learned in the book in school.

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Opera Cat: 01/13/10

I chose Opera Cat by Tess Weaver to read to Harriet. Madame Soso is a famous opera singer who lives in Milan with her Siamese cat. Her life is filled with a routine of singing lessons and performances. Unbeknownst to the diva her cat adores opera and has learned all of Madame Soso's arias.

The two things Alma the cat wishes for in life are to leave the apartment and to sing opera. When Madame Soso temporarily loses her voice, she gets her wish.

Anyone who has ever owned a Siamese will laugh at the thought of a Siamese singing arias. They are certainly a talkative breed of cat but their voices tend to be anything but sweet. Nonetheless Alma is a very special Siamese in deed and thankfully Madame Sosa is kind hearted enough to let her talented feline share the limelight.

I read this book to Harriet and Sean, expecting Harriet to love the book but it ended up being Sean and me who loved it. She just couldn't believe that a cat could sing. Sean liked the "helping hands" aspect of the story where Alma was able to help her owner. He also liked that Madame Sosa didn't try to take credit for the cat's hard work.

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I Spy Fun House: 01/12/10

Sean has been a fan of the I Spy books since he was two. Many of the books have been turned into computer games. We've played is I Spy Fun House, I Spy Spooky House and I Spy Mystery. After having won the I Spy Fun House game about a dozen times we found a copy of the book to add to our I Spy library.

I Spy Fun House the book has to be hardest and most disturbing to read of the series. The photographs consist of lots and lots of creepy looking clown toys, bright and clashing colors and mirrors. After a dozen or so attempts at the book there are still some pages where we haven't found everything.

We haven't played any of the other computer games in the I Spy series so I don't know how the I Spy Fun House game vs book compares to other computer adaptations. I can say though for I Spy Fun House the video game is a much more satisfying experience than the book. The animations for finding an object are entertaining, there's more to explore and the carnival world feels less surreal than it does in the book.

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City of Light, City of Dark: 01/12/10

Avi is one of those authors who has written an umpty-billion novels across a number of genres. He could easily be his own section in the library or bookstore. In my own local library, Avi's books take up three rows of shelves. I could easily spend a month just reading and reviewing his books.

City of Light, City of Dark is a graphic novel illustrated by Brian Floca. It reconstructs the history of Manhattan island in an urban fantasy framework. The island belongs to the Kurbs but they lease the land to humanity. All they have to do is keep safe a small token (literally a bus token) of their power and return it by the winter solstice to an agreed upon location.

Every generation has an appointed keeper of the token. It's always a woman and she's given the power to disguise herself but like so many New York heroes she has to keep her true identity a secret even from her own husband and child.

Most of the novel is told from the daughter's point of view. She's been told her mother is dead and her name has been changed. She lives with her father and they are forever in debt to a blind man who desperately seeks the power of the token.

Manhattan, though never called by name, is recognizable in Brian Floca's black and white illustrations. The surrounding cities and boroughs retain their names but Manhattan is just the Island or the City. The way the Kurbs control the city's fate reminds me of one of my favorite films, Dark City.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on DVD: 01/11/10

The DVD of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was released last week and we've been renting it from Netflix. As I write this post I'm in the middle of my 12th time of watching it. It's not a film I would have chosen to see in the theater or even to rent but my son had read the book in school and wanted to see it. When it was out in the theaters I gave him the option to see it and he said he'd rather wait to see it on DVD. So that's what we've been doing for the last week.

When I first hit play I had even lower expectations for it than I did for Avatar (a film I ended up enjoying). Surprisingly I was drawn right in, even to the point of missing all the actors who were cast in it. Now after having seen it twelve times (no I'm not exaggerating!) I am still enjoying it even though I've gotten to the point of being able to sing along with it.

The animation style isn't anything special but it's stylistically consistent. The characters fit in their world and the special effects (the weather mostly) doesn't clash with the sets. At the same time, the sets and food gags are a nice homage to the book by Judi and Ron Barrett. Although the book is set in modern times, stylistically (and especially in the 2D animated closing credits) references the late 1970s. The book was originally published in 1978 so I'm guessing it's one more nod to the source material. After seeing the film a couple times I broke down and borrowed the book from the library (on my son's insistence). I plan on writing a full review of the book at a later date. He had been pointing out the pages from the book in the film and it has been fun to pause on these homage scenes and compare them to the book.

The biggest difference between the book and film is the framing story. For the book it's explicitly a tall tale inspired by a breakfast accident. Feature films though are all about "motivation" so a more robust explanation for the food weather was needed. Enter Flint Lockwood (whose name always makes me think of the main character from Singin' in the Rain) who wants to be an inventor but can't find his career path on Swallow Falls island, that is until he accidentally launches a food producing device into the stratosphere.

This being a romantic comedy, there's also a love interest in the form of Sam Sparks. It's refreshing to see a nerd fall in love with a nerd. By that I mean Flint is attracted to her brains more than anything else. I love that her glasses and her scrunchy are improvements.

In the book, Chew and Swallow (which the film town eventually changes its name to) exists across two seas, a desert and over some mountains. In the film, Swallow Falls is a small island tucked under the A of the Atlantic Ocean. It though might as well be Monterey if it had fallen off the California coast at the heyday of its life as a fish cannery. Where Cannery Row recovered from the closing of the canneries by rebranding itself as a tourist destination and by building a world class aquarium, Swallow Falls tries first with Sardineland and then as a tourist destination for to experience the food weather. As it's a science fiction disaster film parody neither plan goes well for Swallow Falls.

My final thoughts on the film adaptation of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is that I'll probably end up owning a copy of the DVD. It's funny enough to survive watching a dozen (or more times). Steve the Monkey is hilarious (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris). I like the father's goofy fishing metaphors and there's something perversely enjoyable about watching a clone Monterey city destroyed by falling food.

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Do You Want to be My Friend?: 01/11/10

With Sean now reading, Harriet likes to have books on hand that she can read to herself without help. Her selected books are either ones we've read dozens of times together or picture books. Among her picture book favorites is Do You Want to Be My Friend? by Eric Carle.

In this mostly picture book, a little mouse follows a series of tails from page to page hoping to find a friend. What he mostly finds are disinterested animals.

The illustrations are typical Eric Carle painted paper collages. The animals are colorful and Harriet has fun pointing out all the different types shown in the book.

For a parent reading the book, it's thankfully short. It's perfect for nights when I'm too tired to handle a book with lots of words but Harriet wants to share a book together.

Books by Eric Carle reviewed here: (Click on a title to read reviews).

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Riding High: 01/11/10

Riding High is set in France and England. It's centered around horse racing, drug trafficking and betting. Things start to go awry for horse owner Alistair Rye when first his jockey throws a race and later when he ends up dead of an apparent drug over dose. Soon Rye finds himself as a person of interest in a homicide investigation.

Although the book has gangsters, drug dealers and bookies, the book reads like a cozy mystery. It's a thin volume, only 205 pages. There's a light hearted approach to the mystery, making it more of a caper than a thriller

Riding High isn't the best mystery I've read but it was a decent enough just before bed book. The chapters are short. The plot has enough red herrings to be interesting but is still straightforward enough to follow late at night.

I think fans of Agatha Christie and similar mystery authors will like Riding High.

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Angus and the Cat: 01/10/10

Scottish terriers always make me think of my teacher for fifth and sixth grade. Mrs. Sullivan had a scotty dog whom she doted on and bragged about. So when I saw Angus and the Cat by Marjorie Flack at the library to read to Harriet, I was also thinking about my teacher's dog.

Angus is a Scottish terrier who now has to share his home with a cat. He doesn't want to. The cat makes herself as unwelcome as Ralph the dog does to Alice the cat. The cat though has a few tricks for staying out of Angus's way, much to his consternation. Harriet and I especially love when the cat ends up on the roof to hide.

The illustrations, also done by Marjorie Flack, are bold, simple and effective. With minimal colors and details they capture the chase of the dog and cat through the yard and house. They are more realistic than ones in Ask Mr. Bear but are still recognizably Flack's style.

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One Yellow Lion: 01/10/10

When Sean was a preschooler, one of his favorite authors was Matthew Van Fleet. He adored Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings and Tails. Recently at the library I spotted a Van Fleet book we hadn't read that I thought Harriet would enjoy: One Yellow Lion. I was right; she loved the book!

One Yellow Lion is a counting book that mixes colors, numbers and animals together just as Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings does with shapes. Van Fleet's books incorporate a lift the flat piece into every page. In One Yellow Lion the flat opens to reveal the number being part of the hidden animal. For instance, the yellow one is the lion cub's tail, thus "one yellow lion."

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Madeline and the Cats of Rome: 01/09/10

In my review of Mad About Madeline, the omnibus compiled by Ludwig Bemelmans's grandson, I mentioned the posthumously published Madeline in America which was finished by John Bemelmans Marciano. Madeline and the Cats of Rome is Marciano's first attempt to write and draw a Madeline book in his grandfather's style.

Madeline and the Cats of Rome takes Madeline, Miss Clavel, the eleven other girls go to Rome on holiday. While on a walking tour of the famous sites, a child resembling the "bad hat" steels Miss Clavel's camera. Madeline as she is wont to do takes matters into her own hands.

Madeline's chase through Rome is done against paintings of the most well known buildings done in Bemelmans's style. The confrontation and resolution of the stolen camera is a bit preachy compared to the original couple of Madeline books. There's a twist to the resolution that lightens the mood but it's still not as light hearted as the classic Madeline is.

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Tiger on a Tree: 01/09/10

Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar has won a number of awards but we didn't know any of that when we checked it out from the library. We got it because it has brightly colored illustrations and features a tiger. My Caligula the cat fanatic had to read it.

The story follows the misadventures of a young tiger as he swims across a river and wanders into a rural Indian village. The villagers react with shock and with all their screaming manage to scare the tiger up a tree. Now they have to decide what do with him.

Around here we don't have many tiger stories (except for the unfortunate tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo). Instead, we have bears, coyotes and mountain lions. The bears and mountain lions do end up in trees in backyards, city parks and other urban areas from time to time. Each and every animal up a tree situation has its own challenges. Like the villagers in Tiger on a Tree we have to decide what is best for both the people and the animal. Best case scenario is the animal gets tranquilized and moved to a safer location.

Harriet and I enjoyed the book for the silly rhymes and cute illustrations. Sean said he liked the book because the villagers did the right thing.

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The West End Horror: 01/08/10

Last year I re-read and reviewed The Seven-per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer. This year I cracked open the sequel The West End Horror throws Sherlock Holmes into the middle of the London's theater district.

Some reviews point out a similarity between the Jack the Ripper murders and the deaths in the West End Horror but Jack the Ripper is not part of this mystery. He does, however show up in Time After Time, also by Nicholas Meyer.

When I was reading The West End Horror I was reminded most of The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. It has horrific deaths though not described in as much detail as in Pearl's novel and a mixture of famous people in a fictional setting: Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw among others.

The solution to the mystery in The West End Horror isn't as obvious as it is in The Seven-per-Cent Solution. Nor is there as much emphasis on Holmes's mental health. A difficult mystery with Holmes allowed to be himself makes for an entertaining book. The only gaff I noticed was the naming of the "Scottish play." Theater types wouldn't do that. 

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Emmaline and the Bunny: 01/08/10

Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan is a delightful and quirky graphic novel I found at my local library.

Emmaline and her family have the misfortune of living in the town of Neatasapin. Imagine the worst of the planned communities where everything is the same and nothing is designed with children in mind. Imagine such a tidy place that even the wildlife has been driven out.

In the middle of all of this regimented living is Emmaline, a normal, healthy, rambunctious child. What she desperately wants is a pet who enjoys her love of playing in the dirt. She wants a bunny. As you can imagine, bunnies are not allowed in Neatasapin.

Emmaline's parents strike a deal with her. If she can be tidy for a month, they will find a way to get a rabbit for her. I expected at this point that Emmaline would fulfill her part of the bargain and her family would be forced to chose between Neatasapin and their daughter's happiness. The book though does something different with a guest appearance from an Old One (in terms of a deity or force of nature older than man who speaks for the well being of the earth). She isn't drawn as any particular Old One but her long braid and enigmatic way of speaking makes her like any number of possible Old Ones.

The appearance of the Old One turned my feelings from the book from mild enjoyment to all out love. How and what she teaches Emmaline (and by proxy her parents) brings home the importance of living with nature instead of at odds with it.

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Within a Budding Grove: Lex Luthor: 01/07/10

Lex Luthor (link goes to Amazon)

Two weeks ago in my I compared Bergotte to Clark Kent but in the last thirty pages he is beginning to show his true colors. I'm now up to page 210 in Within a Budding Grove.

Bergotte is a man of power through his celebrity. He has a good reputation and he puts on a good show but his public persona is showing cracks. Underneath is a much less likeable man.

So once again the protagonist has to make an uncomfortable choice. He can continue being friends with the Swanns (and court Gilberte) or he can cut ties with them and be mentored by Bergotte. To make thinks worse and more confusing, Bergotte has been publicly praising the protagonist. With all the attention his parents now are pushing him to continue his friendship with Bergotte even though the family has been friends with the Swanns for years.

With the protagonist stuck in the middle I see Bergotte as Lex Luthor as portrayed on the WB / CW series. He's suave and friends (on and off) with all of Clark's friends but he's often the source of the trouble and is certainly on path to become something much worse and more dangerous.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 211-240.

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 Mammy: 01/07/10

The Mammy by Brendan O'Carroll is the first book of the Agnes Browne trilogy. The other two books are The Chisellers and The Granny. There's also a radio show, Mrs. Browne's Boys.

The book starts off with Agnes being newly widowed. Her husband was abusive but he never hit the kids. Agnes misses the brute but knows she has to stay strong for her seven kids.

These opening chapters are written with an oddly light touch. From the notes I took while reading the book, I compared The Mammy to the Georgia Nicholson series if the main character were older and with children.

Unfortunately this manufactured light-heartedness doesn't hold up well against all the different tragedies of Agnes's life and the lives of her friends. The humorous facade begins to wear thin. Agnes's mistakes and the narrator's flippant approach to her struggle cheapen a plot that would have been better served if written as a straightforward drama.

After all the tragedy and melodrama, The Mammy ends happily. There's a caper involved in this ending that seems out of place in this book even though it has been foreshadowed a little.

One thing the book blurbs on the cover promises is that the book is funny. I didn't laugh once. The humor is awkward and uncomfortable. Had I laughed, it would have been a nervous, embarrassed laugh. I don't plan on reading the last two books in the series.

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Strange Reading: 01/06/10

Strange Reading by Grant Uden is mentioned lovingly in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee. On the merits of my complete enjoyment of Buzbee's book I went online to find a copy of this older book. I had to order a copy from England and it was my last international purchase before losing my job in July 2009. I'm glad the book snuck in.

Strange Reading is a book about books. It's akin to Queer Books by Edmund Pearso, So Many Books So Little Time by Sara Nelson and of course The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

This thin volume has chapters on dedications, book size, and many other bookish aspects that if you're like me probably never think about but are fascinated to read about when given the opportunity.

One of my favorite essays in Strange Reading is on the lives of books. In a very BookCrossing spirit he writes: " 'Books are the world's greatest adventurers.'"  (p. 102). He goes on to describe some of the more remarkable journeys through history that famous books have had. Think for example of the most recently discovered first edition of Darwin's Origin of the Species that was found on a shelf in the family toilet.

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Castaway Cats: 01/05/10

Castaway Cats is a counting and rhyming book in the vein of Click, Clack, Splish, Splash by Doreen Cronin. It counts up to 15 and back down from 15 while telling the story of a boatload of castaway cats trying to survive on an island in the middle of the South Pacific.

The book opens on a scene similar to one which gets Mrs. Moore washed up by the lighthouse in The Lighthouse, the Cat and the Sea by Leigh W. Rutledge except with happier results. A mixture of breeds wash ashore, including a number of kittens. The one who ends up calling the shots is a calico named mittens.

Had I not read Cats are Not Peas I would have tossed the book aside at the appearance of Mittens. See, his calico is a very buff Tom. Under normal circumstances, calicos should be female but sometimes you'll get a chimera cat (XXY) who will be both male and calico.

What the cats have to decide is whether to try to affect a rescue either by building a bonfire or by building a boat or if they want to make a home for themselves on the island. They spend half the book trying one thing only to come to realization that separately they had settled on a very different outcome.

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Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House #1): 01/04/10

Last year Sean and Ian read the first eight Magic Tree House books together. Now that Sean and I have read a bunch of the later ones together I've decided to go back and read the first eight. The book that launched the series is Dinosaurs Before Dark.

In Dinosaurs Before Dark Jack and Annie have never seen the tree house before. They don't know who owns it or how it got Frog Creek. They do, however, figure out the basics of making it take them places. They end up going so far back in time that they see dinosaurs.

As with all the other Magic Tree House books, there's the hint of a story arc. In this case, it's a medallion with an M found back with the dinosaurs. Jack puts it in his backpack and of course takes lots of notes on their trip, though why he's doing it now isn't as clear as it is in later books. Without the stated missions which come later this first book lacks the urgency of the later ones.

Jack and Annie come off as kids just out to have an adventure and fall into more of the stereotypes of children in fantasy stories from my childhood. There's always the kid who leaps before looking and is usually rewarded for doing so. Then there's the nerd who invariably wears glasses and is the coward of the group. The nerd though always gets one chance to save the day. Fortunately though Jack and Annie grow out of their original assigned roles and become far more interesting and complex characters as the series progresses.

Although the first book isn't as compelling a story as the later ones I still recommend it to children who are just starting off with chapter books. The language complexity grows as the child's reading skills improve. The books also help teach basic story arcs and plot devices as I've seen from how my son's understanding of plotting has improved from reading through the Magic Tree House books.

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Queen Vernita Visits the Blue Ice Mountains: 01/03/10

Queen Vernita Visits the Blue Ice Mountains by Dawn Menge is the follow up book to Queen Vernita's Visitors. From reviews I've read of the first book has the same narrative style as the second: being a combination of the months of the year, with each month having a new visitor and new appropriately themed activities.

In Queen Vernita Visits the Blue Ice Mountains, the queen goes to the snowy north, to a fictional equivalent to Alaska where she hosts twelve different guests over the course of the year. Each month the queen and her guest do something relevant to the time of the year. Their activities introduce children to facts about the artic circle.

I enjoyed the story and the facts but feel the presentation of both needs some work. The illustrations of Queen Vernita are colorful and inviting but are crammed onto a single side with the typed text equally crammed on the following page. It gives the book the feeling of being longer than it really is and the drawings and text don't work together as well as they could if two were combined.

Book was sent to me for review by the author.

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Nightwings: 01/02/10

Nightwings is one of those books in my early acquisitions from the days when I had first fallen in love with books and was buying in bulk from the Friends of the Library sale at my local library. I've had the book on my to be read shelf for twenty years (or roughly 2/3 of my life!).

Nightwings is a short book set in the far future where our current modern civilizations have fallen, the world is inhabited in part by extra terrestrials and the earth civilization that remains mimics old medieval society except that there are some futuristic conveniences.

While I was reading the novel I noticed that there were three long chapters. What I didn't realize (and I could have done my homework, but I didn't) is that they are actually three short stories. These were originally published in Galaxy from 1968-9. I should have realized this because Nightwings reminds me most of "Against the Current", the very first FSF short story I ever read for Silverberg's efficient use of language. In his longer books he tends ramble.

The stories follow a Watcher whose job in life is to search the skies four times a day. He is looking for signs of a returning alien invasion. When it comes from an unexpected source he and the rest of the world have to come to terms with a sudden and drastic change to their lives.

What I liked best about Nightwings was the way Silverberg lets Watcher describe the future world and how he learns more about the history between now and whenever it is that Watcher lives. There are enough clues and ties to present time to make his future seem tangible.

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Avatar: 01/01/10

Ian and I went to see Avatar, a film I was not expecting to see in the theaters. I love science fiction but the big block busters usually rub me the wrong way. But the tickets were a gift so there we were this morning drinking coffee and eating popcorn and listening to piped in Michael Jackson music before the previews. Let's just say I went in there feeling more than skeptical. I was expecting to hate it and be stuck sitting through a three hour film wearing uncomfortable 3D glasses.

The gist of the film is that a paralyzed ex-Marine is recruited to take his twin's place when he is killed in a robbery. The avatars are grown from a mixture of na'vi and human DNA to allow the humans to interact with the natives of Pandora. Unfortunately the scientific and diplomatic aspects of human and na'vi interactions is being pushed to the wayside by the mining company's need to make expected quarterly profits. So think Monsters' Inc. (who also has a Sully as the main character) except that James Sullivan didn't put on a human body to harvest the scream from the kids.

Jake Sully comes on board as a mixture of the reluctant hero and the shit for brains jarhead. Throughout the film we get his voice over explaining what's going on and his thoughts on them but obviously told from some time in the future. Sully's cluelessness is our ticket to ride along. As he learns; we learn. Seeing how his life on the base is mitigated by being wheelchair bound added for me an extra and unexpected depth to the film.

In terms of storytelling, Avatar isn't breaking any ground. If you've read any James Fenimore Cooper novels, you've read the same story used in Avatar. There's of course a heavy homage to Heart of Darkness and it's cinematic adaptation Apocalypse Now except that Kurtz has opted to stay on the base to call the shots. It's not Kurtz who goes native in this one.

What sets Cameron's film apart from the novels by Cooper and Conrad is the world building. I especially loved the scientific team headed by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). Grace has some of the best lines while teaching the rest of us about the na'vi language (she "wrote the book") and biology of the planet.

Points too for bothering to create a language that has a recognizable grammar. Once you hear enough of it and read along with the subtitles you can start to get the gist of what they're saying. I also think some of the big choral music is actually sung in the language. I also like that the natives' ability to speak English is explained instead of just having it done that way for convenience. Having them speak with a Jamaican accent though was a bit weird.

To make Pandora seem alien the set design makes use of a lot of black light and glow in the dark features. All the plants glow at night in either green, violet or pink. To show how connected the Na'vi are to nature their footsteps literally light up the pathways that they walk. It's pretty to look at but hokey.

The 3D:

We saw the film in 3D. The glasses use linear polarized lenses. Think Captain E.O. When we saw Up over the summer that film used circular polarization which is more forgiving with the 3D effect. When we were watching Up it didn't matter if we lounged in our seats; we could still see the 3D images perfectly focused. With Avatar we had to sit bolt upright with our heads perfectly forward facing. A slight deviation in any direction and the images would start to separate.

Frankly though there's nothing in the film that needs the 3D. It's just there to make it seem "cool" and to drive up the ticket price. Sure, there are the typical chase and fight scenes where everything comes at the screen. It's been done to death and serves no purpose. The 3D isn't integrated into the story. I am looking forward to re-seeing the film without the 3D so I can concentrate on the artwork.

What I want to see next:

Although the film is long (and it does begin to feel long near the finally confrontation) there's enough detail and back story left to Pandora left unexplored. What I'd love to see (and I doubt they'll do because Cameron isn't Lucas) is a collection of short stories by current science fiction and fantasy authors to see how they can expand on what's presented in the film. There is however a book about the biological and social history of Pandora by Maria Wilhelm. That's a good start but I want more.

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Chicka Chicka ABC: 01/01/10

Chicka Chicka ABC is another of the Chicka Chicka Boom Boom series. Harriet and I have also read Chicka Chicka 123. We haven't read the original together yet but she has heard it at school.

From the reviews I've read, Chicka Chicka ABC is an edited version of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom that only covers the part where the mangled ABCs climb back into the coconut tree.

Harriet who knows the original story isn't bothered at all by the editing. I on the other hand was confused by the mangled letters. There's no explanation given.

I think this book is best suited for die hard fans of the series. It doesn't stand as well on its own as Chicka Chicka 123 does.

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