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March 2010

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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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Odd and the Frost Giants: 03/31/10

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One of my goals at the start of the year (as always) is to read through the books I bought for myself last year. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman is one of those books. I read the chapter book on my BART ride into San Francisco. At home my son is tearing through the Percy Jackson books and has gotten interested in mythology. I expect when he's done with the Olympians he'll be ready for some Norse gods.

Odd is as his name describes him: odd. He lives with his Scottish mother in Norse territory. As a younger child, he had his leg crushed so he walks with a painful limp with the help of a crutch. Odd though doesn't complain about his situation. He has more important things to worry about: winter has set in for longer than expected and shows no signs of ending.

Odd ends up befriending three Norse gods trapped in the bodies of fox, a bear and an eagle. They need his help to reclaim Asgard from the Frost Giants. Odd has what it takes to get the gods home and get their city back even though he physically isn't built like a hero.

If Coraline was like Alice and Nobody was like Mowgli, then Odd to me is like Christopher Robin. He has the same practical approach to magic and the same off kilter view on the world that makes him capable of solving the problem set before him.

The book was the perfect read for a BART ride. Once my son is done with the Percy Jackson books, I'm sure he'll love Odd and the Frost Giants too.

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Private Eye: 03/30/10

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For "Private Eye" Albert E Cowdrey is back in his home turf of New Orleans. Like my favorite of his Nolo stories this one is also a mystery with an underlying mysticism.

There's been a kidnapping and JJ's been recruited to help find the girl. He has a talent for finding things but he's reluctant to call himself a psychic or a seer. Sees things, though he does.

I liked "Private Eye." It's told in a chatty tone of voice and is a little shorter than a typical Cowdrey story. When he wants to he can write terse witty stories full of the Bayou atmosphere. This is one of those stories.

Stories by Albert E. Cowdrey reviewed here

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Knuckleboom Loaders Load Logs: 03/29/10

Knuckleboom Loaders Load by Joyce Slayton-Mitchell is a non-fiction children's picture book that describes all the pieces of logging through creating lumber. Sean picked it out for us to read together during one of his non-fiction kicks.

When we started the book I was reluctant, thinking the subject would be dry. It turned out to be a fascinating book rich in vocabulary. At the back of the book there's a glossary of all the technical terms introduced in the book. While I knew some of the words already, half to two thirds were new to me.

Among the words that I learned are:

  • kerf: the width of a cut made by a saw.
  • hammerman: the person who fixes the saws (by hammering them)
  • knuckleboom loader (the thing on the cover that picks up the logs)

Comments (2)

Songwood: 03/28/10

I've enjoyed every single story featuring Gorlen Vizenfirthe by Marc Laidlaw that I've read. "Songwood" takes place in the same universe but the bard is only there to hear a story told by a gargoyle named Spar.

"Songwood" is a sea faring romance between two magical creatures stuck at sea on a ship full of unseemly characters. Songwood is a type of enchanted wood. It's sentient and when happy, able to sing the most enchanting of songs.

I liked watching the friendship between the gargoyle and figurehead  develop. It's not an especially long story, just long enough. It's not my favorite Laidlaw story but it was still a good read.

Other stories in the same universe:

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Pharaoh's Flowers the Botanical Treasures of Tutankamun 03/27/10

Pharaoh's Flowers the Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun by F. Nigel Hepper was published when I was at the peak of my fascination with Tutankhamen and more broadly the Eighteenth Dynasty but somehow I completely missed this book during my frenzy of reading and book collecting.

Now as a kid I had certainly heard of "King Tut" (who hasn't?) and even knew an old novelty song that dates to the time when his tomb was first discovered by Howard Carter. Beyond that I didn't know much until I took AP Art History as a Junior. When the teacher first put the slide up of Tutankhamen's mummy I recoiled. He's such an important figure in history that I would be spending the next couple of weeks seeing that photograph.

I had to get over my visceral reaction. To do that I checked out every single book my then local library had on him. Somewhere along the way I went from squeamish to fan-girl. No longer satisfied by what was on offer at the local library I convinced my grandmother to take me down to Hillcrest where the best used book stores in San Diego are. I started collecting by getting Dover imprints of classic volumes of Egyptology and then a later edition Howard Carter's account of the work at the site. In the end I amassed about two dozen books which I read cover to cover two or three times each. Beyond that I also read another dozen or so books first from my local library, my school library and later my college library. And yet with all that reading I missed F. Nigel Hepper's book.

Hepper's taken an approach to cataloguing Tutankhamen's treasures in a way I haven't seen before. He talks exclusively of what can be learned about the flora of Egypt from the plant materials entombed with him and the plants and flowers depicted in the artworks. Not being a botanist I found some of the more technical aspects of the book over my head but it was still a fascinating and novel approach to a subject I've read so much about.

Included with Hepper's analysis of the flora are many excellent photographs and illustrations. Of course many of the photographs are ones that show up in most of the Tutankhamen books but his captions are completely different than the typical descriptions that go with the photographs.

If you haven't heard "Old King Tut" before, click play and have a listen.

Comments (2)

In the Beginning: 03/27/10

There is no one moment and no one book. Being a reader has been an ebb and flow part of my life. As a very young child I loved being read too. I had my three favorite Dr. Seuss books: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and The Lorax. I had my favorite book of children's poetry: Arm in Arm by Remy Charlip. I had my favorite picture book: Harold and the Purple Crayon and I had my favorite how to draw books by Ed Emberley. But I didn't read any of them; they were read to me and I had them memorized.

When I was four I watched the animated Hobbit on television. I got to stay up past my bed time at my grandparents' house to do that. I sat close enough to the TV I could see the colored dots of the screen. It was instant love. That Christmas I received a full color version of the book with gorgeous illustrations from the movie. The dust jacket was see-through showing the outline of Bilbo (wearing the ring) talking to Smaug. I still have the book. I still love the book.

But none of those books made me a reader. Kindergarten came and I hated Mrs. Winetraub and I think she probably hated me too. Or at least, I frustrated her. She believed in whole reading and had old Dick and Jane books (and similar). She would read them to the group as we would follow along and then we would read them back. Except that I didn't read it back. The books were so simplistic that I would memorize what she read and I would recite it back to her. I didn't learn a darn thing about reading that year.

Before first grade we moved and I changed schools. I was tested sometime in first grade (a whole other story to post sometime) and bumped up to the gifted track. But I still wasn't reading. I was reading and spelling enough to get through my work but by third grade that wasn't enough any more. My third grade teacher told my mother I was at risk for being held back if I didn't get my act together.

I got my act together. I'm not sure exactly how long it took but I remember sitting on the floor of my baby brother's room (he was a toddler at the time) and reading through our entire collection of Little Golden books. There must have been a hundred or so of them. That was how I got up to speed with my reading.

Somewhere between the Little Golden Book cram session and graduation from elementary school I started reading through The Hardy Boys series, the Trixie Belden series and then Agatha Christie. Still though I didn't consider myself a reader but reading was getting more fun and I was finally adding to my meager collection of books.

Sometime in my teens I mutated into a reader. While my peers were spending their allowance on music and clothes, I was spending it on books and art supplies. Just before ninth grade I started keeping a list of every book or short story I completed because I was finding it difficult to remember the titles of what I had read. That's a pretty clear sign that I was becoming a reader.

I didn't really though become the reader I am until just before my daughter was born. By then I was blogging and book reviews became the easiest thing to post about. Later when I was up through the night nursing her I would read books to pass the time. Breastfeeding by itself is a very boring pastime. So I learned the fine art of one handed book reading.

I don't know if I will always keep reading at the pace I do now (about 500 to 600 books a year). If I do, great. If I don't, then I will adapt my blog to fit my new reading pace.

Comments (12)

Snowfall: 03/26/10

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"Snowfall" by Jessie Thompson was originally published in 1988 and was republished for the anniversary issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. The reprint has a loving introduction by Harlan Ellison.

Thompson's story is what I would call a transformative mood piece. A young girl tired of her abusive father seeks to escape in her own fantasy world where she is a snow fox.

"Snowfall" required two times through for me. The first time I read it I was left feeling letdown and little bit confused. The second time I enjoyed the poetry of Thompson's words but it still wasn't as satisfying as it should have been.

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Within a Budding Grove: Gusteau's: 03/25/10

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I'm now up to page 540 in Within a Budding Grove. I have a good nibble on a job.

The girl with dark hair and green eyes who rides a bike was a short term obsession for the protagonist. He thinks she might work in one of the buildings in the center of town but he has more important things occupying his mind — gourmet food.

That's right. He's discovered fine dining with friends. Why go home for dinner with grandma when he can eat out? There's a restaurant that's always bustling, serving food that brings tears to his eyes. He describes the wait staff hustling about so quickly that he's always surprised when the soup doesn't slosh and the souffles don't fall.

So there was only logical place for my mind to go as I was reading it; Gusteau's near the end of Ratatouille. What pulled me there first wasn't the perfectly made ratatouille for the critic but the fact that they were so busy they were roller skating between the tables. I couldn't pull any good stills of the skates so I went for the scene right after he critic flashes back to eating his mother's cooking at a child.

For me, that meal would probably be chicken divan or pot roast. What about you? Do you have a meal that takes you back to your childhood?

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 541-570.

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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King Matt the First: 03/25/10

King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak is one of those gems picked at random from the library. The title caught my eye and although the cover art and blurb made it sound hokey, I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did even though it brought me to tears in a couple places.

Although my library puts the book in the children's section, I'd call it an adult book that happens to have a child protagonist. The book was first published in 1923 and was one of twenty novels by child advocate Henryk Goldszmit writing under the pen name Janusz Korczak. To learn more about his life and his mission, read the Boylan Blog post.

Matt becomes king at the tender age of five when his ailing father dies. He's just old enough to remember the good times when both his parents were alive. He's smart enough to know that his advisors plan to use him as a tool for their own agendas until he's of age. He also knows he has a lot to learn before he can be an effective monarch.

This 300 page novel chronicles the rise and fall of King Matt the First. His kingdom goes through war, through peace, the threat of another war and social justice reforms on the home front. Much of what King Matt tries to accomplish especially for his fellow children mirror the author's own causes.

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Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary 03/24/10

A still from Coraline

When I was in elementary, the third graders would haze the first graders with the Bloody Mary story. At my school, it was specifically a girl on girl hazing routine. A third grader would lead in the first grade girls into the bathroom across from the first grade classrooms (temporary structures at the edge of the school). She would tell the story about Bloody Mary and how she was risking her life warning us against the ghost in the mirror of this particular bathroom. If we spun around three times and said "Bloody Mary" three times and then looked in the mirror, she would jump out of our reflection and kill us.

Today my son came home warning me about the Bloody Mary ghost. Imagine my surprise! My husband then shared the version he had heard. Wikipedia has a few theories too about the origins and meanings of the legend. Mostly though, Sean's sudden interest in ghosts in mirrors got me thinking about mirrors as motifs.

Humans have used mirrors throughout history. The earliest ones were concave bits of polished metal. Now they are typically glass with a reflective backing. The provide an uncanny view of ourselves and our world.

Mirrors have been used in literature as portals between worlds. In Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Alice re-enters wonderland through the mirror in the family library. Her second trip presents a more structured view of the world beyond the topsy turvey insanity of the card game gone wrong of the first book.

In Breakfast of Champions Kilgore Trout calls mirrors "leaks", describing them as connecting points between alternate dimensions. Now in his case he was just being perverse. However in Mirror of Her Dreams and a Man Rides Through, a mirror does offer a portal (via a magic incantation) between our world and a fantasy realm.

In Coraline the mirror provides a glimpse of the missing parents and is the entry point to where the Other Mother hides her prey. In the "Family of Blood" episode of Doctor Who, the doctor entraps one of the Family of Blood in the edge of the mirror (all mirrors).

Mirrors also reveal hidden personalities, as Norman Osborn talks to himself as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man. They also hide as well as they reveal. The mirror gives Persius a way to fight Medusa without being turned to stone and in Lady from Shanghi (1947) the mirrors reveal, conceal and confuse in the final shoot out.

What about you? Do you have a favorite mirror scene or a version of the Bloody Mary tale you'd like to share? If you do, please leave a comment.

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Gravitation Volume 2: 03/24/10

I read Gravitation Volumes 1 and 2 by Maki Murakami over last summer. I got the first one reviewed quickly, although I stalled on posting my review until December. The second volume's review slipped my mind.

Volume 2 intensifies the goofy relationship between Shuichi and Yuki to somewhere between bizarre and unsettling. Stockholm syndrome crossed my mind in a few places. See Shuichi is perpetually emotional and he ping pongs between two extremes, hating and craving Yuki.

Meanwhile things are wrapping up at the school but Hiro is at odds between his commitment to the band and his studies. He's looking at med school but he really needs to study.  At the same time, the band has a chance of being something too.

I have volumes three and four to read still. Of the manga series I've read, Gravitation isn't sticking with me as well as the others: specifically Bleach and Nana. I think there's just so much going on at once at a such a frenetic pace that I'm having trouble keeping up.

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The Silent Boy: 03/23/10

I've read four books by Lois Lowry. All of her books have been very different and all of them have made me think. With the exception of The Willoughbys the books I've read have tended towards the depressing end of the emotional spectrum.

In The Silent Boy, Katy Thatcher, daughter of a doctor, befriends the local "touched boy" who by modern standards would probably be diagnosed as autistic. But this is a small town in 1911.

Katy whose own mother is expecting a second baby ends up spending a lot of time with her father as he makes house calls. She stays quiet with her ears open. She is privy to events that will unfold to tragedy and end up brining the blame on Jacob.

Some reviews complain about just how many "life lessons" are squished into this book. Yes, there are lots of lessons about life and death in The Silent Boy but Lowry manages to balance the lessons with the plot. I found it an engaging historical fiction, one I was able to read in a single afternoon.

As an interesting side note, the book contains photographs from Lois Lowry's family taken in 1911. The photos provide a backdrop for the story even though the book isn't about the people in the photos.

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The Last Dickens: 03/22/10

In The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl the clerk of Dickens's American publisher is murdered at the docks. He had been there to hopefully pick up a shipment of notes for the author's unfinished serial, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When there is no sign of the package the publisher and the clerk's sister go to London in search of an ending for Drood.

As anyone who has seen the Doctor Who episode "The Unquiet Dead" knows that Charles Dickens died in 1870. When he died he was only half way through Drood.
James Osgood on his trip to London comes up with a hopeful notion that Dickens wrote his serial front to back, so that the first published episodes were actually the last ones he wrote. In his search for the missing manuscripts he ends up solving another mystery.

Besides being about the last months of Dickens's life, the novel has flashbacks to a previous trip Dickens took to the United States and other installments involving Dickens's son Frank who lives and works in India. These asides from the main plot may seem out of place but they are well within keeping with Pearl's approach to writing. Each of Pearl's novels is written in the style of the author he's highlighting. His first book is just as grotesque and lyrical as Dante's Inferno; his second reads like a Gothic detective story and this one is Dickensian.

When my friend brought Matthew Pearl's latest novel, The Last Dickens to our BookCrossing meeting, I snagged it. I set aside the other book I was reading and made it my "must read now" book. It ended up being one of my favorites books for 2009.

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Cat Dreams: 03/21/10

Sean and I were shopping for a birthday present and we happened to swing by the books section of Toys R Us. It's not a place we normally buy books but there was an autographed picture book by local science fiction author Ursula K Le Guin. That by itself was a win but the fact that it sported a calico cat it became a must have.

Like When Cats Dream, Cat Dreams focuses on what goes on in a cat's head when she curls up for her nap. The calico (who looks a great deal like our own Caligula cat) tired from playing lies down for a nap in bed (just like Caligula) and dreams.

But Ursula K. Le Guin has done dream worlds before and although Cat Dreams is not by any stretch of the word a science fiction book, it pulls from her experience in that genre. Her dream world involves mice rain, a world without dogs and fountains of kibbles and cream.

As anyone who had read Lathe of Heaven knows, the dream world isn't perfect. The little calico discovers that too. Fortunately for the calico, her dream world stays in the dream world.

S. D. Schindler, who did the illustrations for Le Guin's Catwings series also did the pictures for Cat Dreams.

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No Mad: 03/20/10

So often a book will start with a woman finding her husband with another woman but No Mad by Sam Moffie does just the opposite. Aaron Abrams with a new book deal comes home to find his wife and brother together. Furious and distraught he goes on a road trip with his red vine loving dog to New York.

No Mad has many elements that I normally enjoy in a book: the road trip, the disgruntled author, the quirky dog and wacky adventures between points A and B, all tied together with pop culture. Plot wise the book is off center but memorable but the typesetting leaves much to be desired.

The review at the Self Publishing Review blog has an excerpt that shows exactly what's wrong with the typesetting of the book. Quotes are nested incorrectly, things are randomly bolded that shouldn't and so forth. In passages where Aaron is talking music or movies the bolding gets out of control. It's hard on the eyes and annoying.

I received a review copy from the author and have since released it through BookCrossing.

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Henry's 100 Days of Kindergarten: 03/20/10

I don't remember counting the passage of the days in school but my son's school makes a big deal out of hitting day 100. Last year he took in a print out of photographs of the numbers 1 to 100 and this year he's taking in 100 rocks from his collection. Apparently they aren't alone in their celebration of day 100 because there's even a book about it: Henry's 100 Days of Kindergarten by Nancy Carlson.

Henry's 100 Days of Kindergarten is a double bonus for me because it appeals to both my children. For my son there's the connection of the 100 day celebration. For my daughter, there's Harriet the dog who is by far her favorite literary character.

Henry the mouse is in the same kindergarten class as Harriet the dog. As far as I can tell, Henry has taken over as Nancy Carlson's protagonist. She though makes the effort to populate her "neighborhood" with characters from her other books. So for Harriet, the Henry books end up being a "spot the Harriet" game.

What I loved most about the book is how it refers back to Henry's Show and Tell and weaves that book into a running gag involving a tarantula who plays hide and seek with the reader for the remainder of the book.

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

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Hip Cat: 03/19/10

Jonathan London is best know from his many Froggy books. The book though that caught my eye at the library was Hip Cat published by local publishing house Chronicle Books. I got it at first because of the Matisse style cover and the fact that it had a jazz cat on the cover.

Hip Cat ends up being a cat and dog themed introduction to San Francisco's jazz history just as The Blues of Flats Brown introduces the history of blues and its ties to slavery but told through the point of view of a musical dog.

The title character is a saxophone playing cat who goes to the City to make his fortune playing jazz. Unfortunately it takes a lot to make an impression on a city already filled with talented musicians. Hip Cat has to make ends meet by working at the Doggie Diner which of course, for this book is run by actual dogs bearing a striking resemblance to the iconic old logo.

It helps to know something about San Francisco and jazz before jumping into this book. Without that prior knowledge, the book is still colorful and cute but it lacks the foundation that makes this off the wall book all the more special.

Other posts and reviews:

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The Mystery of Grace: 03/19/10

With my on-going goal to read more Charles de Lint, I chose his newest adult urban fantasy novel, The Mystery of Grace. I'd actually tag it as a contemporary Gothic horror but the two genres share many points in common.

Grace learned from her beloved Abuelo the fine art of restoring classic American cars. She's a fanatic for Fords to the point of having the company logo (along with many others) tattooed to her body. As she lives in a small south west town, she is well known. For those who don't know her, her tattoos would certainly make a lasting impression. Or so you'd think.

Now The Mystery of Grace wouldn't be a fantasy (or horror) if it was only about a tattooed woman and her love of Fords. But in a strange twist of fate Grace finds herself in an alternate version of her town. Is it the afterlife or something else? Grace's arrival in the alternate town reminds me quite favorably of Stephen King's novella: "The Langoliers" from Four Past Midnight.

The mystery of Grace is to figure out the secret behind the town and how to bring things to a close. De Lint moves quickly and smoothly from Grace learning how the alternate town works, its history (as best as anyone can remember) and how she can walk between her new world and the original (but only on certain days). The moving between the worlds is what keeps the book planted in the fantasy genre but the alternate town itself is pure Gothic horror.

I loved the book. Of the three I've now read (The Wild Wood, Muse and Reverie and The Mystery of Grace), Grace's story is by far my favorite.

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What Pete Ate from A to Z: 03/18/10

What Pete Ate from A to Z was one of Sean's first books. His paternal grandparents gave it to him. It's a book we've had for years and read many times. Harriet recently discovered it on the shelf she shares with her brother. I was surprised that I hadn't already reviewed it on this blog.

Pete in the book eats through the alphabet and is written in a similar fashion to the later Bad Kitty and Poor Puppy books by Nick Bruel.

From the last page of the book, Pete is apparently a real dog. Now whether or not he has such an exotic appetite, the book doesn't say. But it does make one think.

Maira Kalman also did the illustrations for the book. She has a long and varied career both as a children's picture book author and a designer and editor of books. You can see examples of her work on her website.

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Tonight on the Titanic (Magic Tree House #16): 03/18/10

Tonight on the Titanic by Mary Pope Osborne begins a new four part series in the Magic Tree House books. Jack and Annie are called upon to collect four gifts to help Camelot in the time of war. Their first stop is the Titanic on the night the ship sank.

Although Sean hadn't heard of the Titanic before reading the book he quickly figured out the book was based on actual events. We read the book with my laptop nearby so every few pages we would stop to look up facts or photographs about the Titanic.

This book also for me marks the point in the series where there's a greater emphasis on the historical setting and the way in which facts are incorporated into the plot. Although the earliest of the series didn't include reader's guides, the rest of the books do. Tonight on the Titanic was a good introduction to the Titanic as a subject for my son and might be for other children as well.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Within a Budding Grove: Brunhilde Esterhazy: 03/18/10

I'm now up to page 510 in Within a Budding Grove. Still no major leads on the job front. I'm hoping things pick up but it's discouraging.

This thirty page section goes back to the desires of men and women and how they pursue their intended mates. It's just just men going after women. Near the end there's a woman who appears to be stalking the protagonist.

She is described as having dark hair and dark eyes that might be black or maybe dark green. She has a bicycle. I couldn't help but think of Brunhilde Esterhazy, the cab driver from On the Town who helps the sailors track down "Miss Turnstiles" aka Ivy Smith. Along the way she falls for Chip and tries to get him to stop by her place instead of taking that tour of the town she first offered him.

I'm not sure how interested in the protagonist the girl with the bicycle is. That might play out in the next thirty pages.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 511-540.

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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Arthur's New Puppy: 03/17/10

I used to watch the Arthur cartoons on PBS when I was babysitting the neighbors. This was long before I had kids of my own. Neither of my two seem to like the Arthur series much; I like it more than they do. So it surprised me when Harriet decided to check out Arthur's New Puppy by Marc Brown.

If watched any of the episodes or read any of the books, you know that Arthur has a dog named Pal. Arthur's New Puppy tries to tell the story of how Pal came to be Arthur's puppy. It also tries to teach children responsibility with pets.

The book ended up doing none of the above for Sean, Harriet and me. Sean was horrified at how poorly they treated puppy Pal when he was clearly missing his mother and scared about his new home. He and I both didn't like how Arthur's parents didn't take an measures to teach Arthur how to care for Pal but were quick to yell at him when the puppy did typical puppy things. Harriet just found the book boring and didn't want me to finish reading it.

For a much better puppy back story book: Clifford the Small Red Puppy by Norman Bridwell. 

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Muse and Reverie: 03/17/10

I started reading Charles de Lint because he writes "Books to Look For" the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Since he lives in Canada and therefore qualifies for the Canada Reads challenge and the 42 Challenge I've been reading through my library's collection of his books. I knew Muse and Reverie was his new book having seen it reviewed on the book blogs I read.

Muse and Reverie is a collection of his urban fantasy short stories. Some are reprints and some are new. I didn't take notes as to which are which or what percentage of each are included. I mostly just opened the book and started reading until I was done.

All of the stories take place in or near Newford. I haven't read any of his Newford novels but the first story in the collection felt like a natural sequel to The Wild Wood in that both cover painting among fairies in the woods.

The stories included are:

  • Somewhere In My Mind There Is a Painting Box
  • Refinerytown
  • A Crow Girls Christmas--with MaryAnn Harris
  • Dark Eyes, Faith and Devotion
  • Riding Shotgun
  • Sweet Forget-Me-Not
  • That Was Radio Clash
  • The Butter Spirit's Tithe
  • Da Slockit Light
  • The Hour Before Dawn
  • Newford Spook Squad
  • In Sight
  • The World in a Box

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Heart-Shaped Box: 03/16/10

Here's a bit of advice: don't read Joe Hill on the heels of finishing a Stephen King book. Yes, I knew that Hill is King's son going into this reading venture. I did it anyway. See I had just finished Duma Key and the big showdown involves in part, a heart-shaped box. It piqued my curiosity and so I went from Duma Key right into Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Bad idea.

The basic plot is this: Judas Coyne collects things with bad mojo. He decides to buy a ghost off eBay. It comes with a nasty told suit and a heart shaped box. Of course, the ghost is real. Jude isn't some random schmuck stuck with the ghost; no he was chosen for an act of revenge.

Here's where I started to lose interest. The problem is Hill's book reads like a Japanese vengeance ghost horror plot wrapped up to look like a Stephen King book. I realize he comes by that wrapping naturally and maybe he likes Japanese horror (I have no clue if he does or doesn't). He's decided to write horror and be accepted on his own merits as an author (hence the different last name) but his debut novel doesn't get far enough away stylistically from his father's writing to stand up on its own.

King's writing works for me because his protagonists are usually likeable. They might be drunk SOB's like the writer in The Shining but their broken personalities are well established and well explained. Hill tries to explain Judas's dark past and make him a likeable protagonist but it doesn't work (for me). The explanation isn't solid enough while at the same time Jude isn't a despicable enough character to be a more typical horror lead.

Then there's the ghost. He seems to be making up the rules as he goes along. First he's just sort of stinky and annoying. Then he's trying to get Jude to off himself. When that doesn't work he decides to go after loved ones. Wait... that sounds like the plot of Dumas Key except without the tropical setting or the trippy art work. See the problem?

Joe Hill has a new book out, called Horns. I haven't read it. I'm not rushing out to read it but I might check it out if I see it at the library.

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Do You Watch Videos Online? 03/15/10

A still from the Maze Runner book trailer


Last week I asked my readers if they watched book trailers. I expected an overwhelming yes. I got exactly the opposite. You can still join the discussion on book trailers.

The big question that popped up in the discussion was: if your average book reader or book blogger isn't watching book trailers, who is? I decided to expand the question and ask my readers if they watch any sort of videos online.

I asked five questions:

  1. Do you watch videos online?
  2. Where do you watch them?
  3. How often do you watch them?
  4. Why do you watch them?
  5. What types of videos do you typically watch?

This time most respondents said they do in fact watch videos online. Their favorite ways to watch them are embedded in blogs, Youtube and via email links. I seem to be in the minority as I do most of my video watching through Netflix streamed to my computer.

Those who watch videos are divided into two camps: those who watch every single day and those who watch only once or twice a week. I'm definitely in the every single day camp but I'm mostly watching old TV episodes from Netflix.

Most of my readers watch videos for fun. There are few who also watch for work or for their blog. Back when I had a job I was mostly watching videos for work. I think the overdose of all those marketing videos is what kept me offline during my free time.

What people decide to watch varies widely. Here is where book trailers are probably failing to get all the eyes they can. There are certainly people interested in watching online content but what they choose to watch is all over the map. First and foremost, people seem to like homemade content and cute animals.

Maybe that's the problem with book trailers: they're too professional looking. Get some cut outs of lol cats to read your trailers and you'll have a book trailer hit.

People do watch professionally made content too: TV shows followed closely by movie trailers and music videos. That's what I watch. I get my TV shows and movies mostly through Netflix and the music videos mostly via (although they're all hosted in YouTube). Bringing up the rear: book trailers and cartoons.

So what about you? You can either weigh in via the comments form or take the poll.


Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit? 03/15/10

Apparently there's a new American edition of Is It Just Me or is Everything Shit? by Steve Lowe. Brendan Hay of The Daily Show collaborated on the Americanization of this encyclopedia of all things shit. Although I'm an American and an active book blogger, I apparently missed the memo on this new edition.

By strange book karma I got a copy of the original British edition through BookCrossing and that's the edition I read. So when reading my review please keep in mind I am reviewing an older and different book. For your convenience, I am providing links to reviews of the 2009 American edition.

Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit is an encyclopedia of whinging on the worst pieces of modern culture: it's excesses, it's celebrities, government, politicians, food and so forth. As it is a critique of British (for the most part) pop culture as it was in 2005 the biting humor by 2010 has lost a few teeth.

My two biggest problems with the book stem from just how dated much of it felt and the constant whining from the author. Yes I got the jokes and the references and the slang but after about letter F or G, I stopped caring.

I don't think the Daily Show revisions will make the book any better. If you've read both versions, let me know in the comments how they compare.

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Clementina's Cactus: 03/14/10

Clementina's Cactus is Ezra Jack Keats's only wordless picture books. It's the tale of Clementina living with her father in what looks like New Mexico. She finds a cactus which she claims as her own but she's forced inside by an unexpected rain shower. The rain brings a small miracle to Clementina and her cactus.

Ezra Keats does beautiful illustrations. His children are always so full of personality. Here his watercolors bring to life the New Mexico desert. They are rich in color and light and absolutely charming to look at.

I brought home the book from the library for Harriet. She's about the same age as Clementina and has been enjoying growing flowers at her preschool. Harriet though is now "too big" for picture only books. She looked at it once politely and was done with it. In other words, I liked it a lot more than she did.

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Creepy Crawly Crime: 03/13/10

Creepy Crawly Crime by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Neil Numberman is the first in what I think is a planned series of graphic novels staring Joey Fly and his eager but clumsy assistant. In this introductory case the detective has to find the missing diamond pencil case, stolen at a recent high society party.

The story is narrated in a Raymond Chandler style fashion and illustrated in bright monochromatic palettes: purple panels, blue panels abound. These single color approaches help to mimic the chiaroscuro lightning used in the old film noir mysteries the graphic novel is parodying.

Creepy Crawly Crime has the same level of complexity to its mystery as a typical Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. The story is engaging even if the reader is unfamiliar with film noir tropes. For older readers, or ones who have watched a few old movies, will laugh at the parody and visual jokes peppered throughout the book.

I read Creepy Crawly Crime as a second round panel judge for the 2009 Cybils.

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I Read Nonfiction 03/12/10

Callista at SMS Book Reviews loves nonfiction and she's curious to know what other book bloggers and book readers think of nonfiction.

She asks: "When you think nonfiction, what sorts of books come to mind? Textbooks? How-To Manuals? Essays? Scientific Papers? Biographies?"

Rather than write an essay long comment I've decided to post a blog response here. I hope though that you go to her blog and leave your thoughts.

When I first read Callista's question, my immediate thought was: "The other third of the library." My local library moved to a larger, brand new building last Halloween. They were horribly cramped for shelf space in the old location. The new library is about three times the size of the original. One third goes to the children's wing, one third to fiction and another third to nonfiction. There's also an expanded area for the Young Adult collection (it gets its own room now) and large print books. The nonfiction selection now is almost the size of what the original library was for all genres.

Nonfiction accounts for about 20% of my reading averaged over the year. Month by month what I'm reading can vary wildly. I currently have a bunch of nonfiction books checked out from my library. I also have a bunch I have returned and still need to review on my blog.

I like to walk the shelves to see what titles pique my interest. Left to my own devices, though, my nonfiction choices tend to reflect my life and hobbies. I have a masters in critical studies (film, television and electronic media) and I still like to read film books: theory, biographies, histories and other related topics. Since 1997 I've worked as a web designer and producer, so I also read a fair number of programming books. Since high school I've been fascinated with Egyptology (especially the 18th dynasty) and continue to pick books on that topic as I see them. That's just a small sample of the sorts of nonfiction books I chose.

My current nonfiction TBR pile from the library:

  • Tsunami Warning by Taylor Morrison
  • Quiet Owls by Joelle Riley
  • Can You Find It, Too? by Judith Cressy
  • Lost Worlds: Adventures in the Tropical Rainforest by Bruce M. Beehler
  • The Soul of the Rhino by
  • Pass It Down: Five Picture Book Families Make Their Mark by Leonard S. Marcus

The nonfiction reviewed on this blog (click title to see review):

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Dinosaur Train: 03/12/10

Most of the time when I'm in the picture book and early readers section of the children's library, I am looking for books for my children. Sometimes though a book catches my attention. Dinosaur Train by Steven Gurney is one of those books.

Two years ago I read "Bread and Circus" by Steven Popkes. The plot centers on a coach of a dinosaur soccer team who travel to their venues on a train.

As it turns out Dinosaur Train has fantastic illustrations that bring to life the night time adventure of a boy, Jesse, who loves trains and dinosaurs. His two passions come together as a train pulls up outside his bedroom window. The dinosaurs invite him on board for a ride.

Harriet loved the book. She's a bit of a train fanatic so she had fun seeing Jesse ride with the dinosaurs big and small. It was nice that the appearance of the dinosaurs wasn't explained at the end, leaving it open for the chance of magic.

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Within a Budding Grove: Auntie Mame: 03/11/10

Auntie Mame

I'm now up to page 480 in Within a Budding Grove. It's been another busy week for me mostly in the form of submitting resumes. Job postings seem to be picking up although the number of calls for interviews seems to be flat-lining. Since I have to be focused on finding work I haven't been as focused on Proust this week.

In this thirty page section the focus seems to be on manners and trend setting. Bloch and Robert share stories about the most outrageous people they've heard off or know. Their parents and grandparents also trade stories. It seems that everyone knows someone who knows someone.

All this talk about culture, setting trends and breaking with tradition and decorum I had two competing thoughts in my head: Lady Gaga and Auntie Mame. I decided to go with Mame because the emphasis of this passage is on people taking advantage of their position to change. I also prefer to chose fictional characters over living celebrities. Lady Gaga is a professional and a performer, whereas Mame is caricature of high society and liberal eccentricity just as the men and women in this section of Within a Budding Grove are.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 481-510.

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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Brideshead Revisited: 03/11/10

I started reading Evelyn Waugh quite by accident. I was lured in by the Edward Gorey cover art for The Loved One. From there I went on to A Handful of Dust. Whenever I mention Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited is always recommended. So I figured it was time to read the novel that everyone thinks of first.

The full title is Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. The plot meanders through Charle Ryder's life from his university days, his friendship with Sebastian, marriage and divorce and how Brideshead has changed him and changed with him.

Evelyn Waugh's books always seem to start in one direction only to go off on one or possibly two tangents. Of the three I've now read, The Loved One was the easiest and straight forward. A Handful of Dust went too far a field for me. Brideshead Revisited is somewhere in the middle. I had a few places where I had to go back and re-read to make sure I was still following along.

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Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation: 03/10/10

My husband is a regular reader of the web comic, Gunnerkrigg Court. I read it when I remember to but they don't offer an RSS feed and without that I just don't read the site each time it's updated. Like so many web comics, it's being published in book form too. The first volume: Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation by Tom Siddell was the winner of a 2009 Cybils (young adult, graphic novel category). I read the book as a second round judge.

Orientation follows Antimony "Annie" Carver as she starts school at Gunnerkrigg Court midway through the year. Her mother has recently died and her father is absent. The boarding school becomes her home. Fortunately though the book stays focused on the plot without wasting time on describing just how magical and mysterious the school is.

Instead each chapter is an episode in Annie's boarding school life. She's haunted by a second shadow, she builds a robot, she participates in the science fair and of course discovers that the school isn't quite what it seems. These moments of discovery about the school though are peppered in the book, not done as a grand tour ala Harry Potter's first year at Hogwarts.

Add to the great story, equally wonderful illustrations. The color is bold. The characters are interesting without being uncanny and the setting of the school and the neighboring forest are detailed and luscious. The artwork reminds me of another wonderful web comic turned book series: Girl Genius.

The second volume is out, Research, and I plan to get a copy.

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A Plump and Perky Turkey: 03/09/10

Sean checked out A Plump and Perky Turkey by Teresa Bateman to read to me. He had read it in school and loved it. So we checked out a copy to share together.

Squawk Valley is preparing for Thanksgiving and all of the turkeys have flown the coop knowing that they will be on the menu if they stick around. Not wanting to go vegetarian for their feast the towns people decide to advertise for a "plump and perky" turkey to "model" for them.

In this case the book has a happy ending for the turkey. He quickly figures out what's going on and decides to play along while he figures out a way to trick them in turn. Sean thinks this book and the way the turkey is tricked and then tricks them back is hilarious.

My own thoughts on the book were obviously tainted by my current situation. I felt sorry for the turkey being scammed into such a bad "job." He's probably out of work and has been struggling for some time to find a job or even a part-time gig. Except since he's a plump turkey, many of his prospective bosses might want to eat him instead of pay him. I think I'll try re-reading the book once I have a job and see if I think it's funny.

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Amulet 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse: 03/08/10

Amulet: The StonekKeeper's Curse by Kazu Kibuishi made it to the Cybils short list of the middle grades graphic novels. It was in a tight race all the way to the final vote with the winner.

I hadn't read the first book. My first impression was the artwork which seemed to be a good match to the teen winner, Gunnerkrieg Court (review coming) in terms of style not necessarily substance. The next thing that struck me was that I had come into the middle of something big and would want to go back to read the first in the series.

The pacing of The Stonekeeper's Curse is faster than the first book. No time is wasted on introducing characters or the world or even the new city they visit. There just isn't time because the elves are behind them and they want the stone. So there's a lot of running and hiding and it feels very much like a typical Doctor Who episode.

Author Kazu Kibuishi is based in Alhambra, California, close to where Ian and I were living before we moved to the Bay Area. I have since gone back and read the first Amulet book and will keep my eyes open for the next in the series.

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Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Death and Dementia: 03/07/10

Gris Grimly's illustrated four story volume Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Death and Dementia made it to the short list of the 2009 Cybils. I love Poe's stories and Grimly's illustrations do help bring them to life but we quickly disqualified the book because it's not a graphic novel. It's four illustrated and abridged stories.

The book contains four shortened versions of "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether", "The Oblong Box", and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" all illustrated and lettered as if they were graphic novel chapters. For younger teens who perhaps haven't read Poe yet, Gris Grimly's book would be a good introduction to the author. For graphic novel enthusiasts though it falls short.

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Hour of the Olympics (Magic Tree House #16): 03/07/10

Hour of the Olympics cover art (Link goes to Powells)

Hour of the Olympics is the sixteenth Magic Tree House book and the final of the lost stories arc. In this one Jack and Annie travel back in time to Greece to watch the Olympic games. Annie ends up in danger because women and girls weren't allowed to the games.

In school I read about a half dozen books on the ancient Olympics. Every four years when the Olympics were being played the history of the games were assigned reading. I can't remember a single one covering the banning of women from watching the games. When Sean started reading Hour of the Olympics I expected another glorified history of sportsmanship.

Mary Pope Osborne though decided to take things in a very different direction by focusing instead on women in ancient Greece. By showing up in the games Annie is in danger of arrest or worse by violating the rules and traditions by simply being there. Annie further exasperates things by ignoring the warnings and going in disguise to a chariot race. Annie learns that the poet they've come to meet is a woman. She circumvents society's rules by writing stories anonymously.

Here in the book though was Sean's aha moment when he realized most of his favorite books are written by women. He spent much of the evening after he finished the book talking about how unfair it was to live back then or any place where people are limited by similar rules. It's good to see a book make him think so much.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:


If You Take a Mouse to the Movies: 03/06/10

If You Take a Mouse to the Movies by Laura Numeroff is the fifth in the series. It's Christmas themed and one that we've read both in summertime and in wintertime. Both times we borrowed the book from our library.

The story is typical for the series. One even leads to a series of other events that come full circle. The starting event is the mouse wanting to go the movies. That leads to popcorn and from popcorn to decorating Christmas trees and so forth.

My children adore this series and If You Take a Mouse to the Movies is Sean's favorite. If You Give a Cat a Cupcake is Harriet's favorite. Personally I find them difficult to read more than once as this type of circular story telling grates on my nerves.

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

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Do You Watch Book Trailers? 03/05/10

Before I begin, you should know that I am not an expert on book trailers. In fact, I find them an alien concept. Books are about words and maybe illustrations. Sure, they get adapted into films, TV shows and miniseries all the time but they still begin as words.

To date, there's exactly one book trailer I've watched online: the one for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters. I'm not a Jane Austen fan but the mashup of monsters and her books just tickles my fancy.

I've also seen a book trailer on TV once. It happened to be for Changes in Altitude by Anita Shreve. The trailer came on at the wee hours of the morning when I was up late watching a monster movie. Normally that's the time for the "girls, girls, girls" type commercials so I was so shocked and surprised to see an ad for a new Anita Shreve book that I went out and bought a copy the next morning. I still haven't gotten a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters yet.

When I evolved my website into a book blog I had never heard of a book trailer. According to Wikipedia, the first trailers were made in 2002. That's two years before I began blogging. So they aren't a new thing and they probably aren't going away.

I should add that I'm not much of an online video watcher. I stream videos from Netflix and I'll watch the occasionally funny cat video or an anime episode that I can't otherwise rent. That's it. So that's another hit against book trailers for me.

More and more though I'm seeing in the book blogosphere and on Twitter that book trailers are a must have for authors to promote their books. It's high on the list along with a blog and a virtual book tour. Personally, the one thing I care about more than anything is an author's blog. I subscribe to dozens of them. I read them religiously. I subscribe to the blogs of authors whose books I'm thinking of reading but haven't yet. For instance, I subscribed to Meg Cabot's blog for over a year before I even cracked open one of her books. I knew Amanda Asbhy had her debut coming out because I happened to be subscribed to her blog.

So out of curiosity, I ran a couple informal polls regarding book trailers. The first one I posted on my livejournal account. It asked two questions: Do you watch book trailers? and How often do you watch them? Seven people answered and six of them responded with "No" and "Never". The few who left comments said they didn't even know what a book trailer was. These responses were coming from bookish people whom I've met through BookCrossing. The second poll I ran through twitter and again the resounding response was: "What is a book trailer?" Those who responded are book bloggers, members of BookCrossing or GoodReads. Finally I posted a poll on this site and only received two responses of "yes" and "rarely." For those who did admit to watching book trailers, said they did so only when asked to post a trailer to their blog as part of a virtual book tour.

It seems to me that book trailers are missing their intended audience, namely readers. Maybe they are aimed at people who like videos but aren't frequent book readers. How many sales from non-readers does a book trailer have to make to break even?

What about you? Do watch book trailers? Have you been asked to post them on your blog? Have you ever bought a book based on a book trailer? Do you have a favorite trailer? Do you even know what a book trailer is? Please leave your thoughts as a comment!

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Within a Budding Grove: David: 03/05/10

Donatello's David

I'm now up to page 450 in Within a Budding Grove. The protagonist is feeling more at home now in his grandmother's village. There are two new men in his life: Robert and Bloch.

Robert seems to have taken the protagonist's mind off girls. The protagonist spends about 15 of the 30 pages describing just how perfect, refined and gorgeous Robert is. He's the next best thing to a sparkly vampire.

In fact I thought about putting Edward on the right. I also thought of putting Collin Firth as Mr. Darcy over there. In the end, though, I decided on Donatello's David.

Why not Michelangelo's David? Not pretty enough; he's more appropriate for the other friend mentioned in this section: Bloch. Bloch is also a member of the nobility but he's the dumb jock friend. He says what comes into his mind without thinking about it. He cracks dumb jokes. He mocks people. He's overly full of himself. I'm not saying that Michelangelo's David represents all of Bloch's undesirable qualities; just that if the two statues were in a room together being cast for parts in this section, that's how I'd cast them.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 451-80.

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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Planting a Rainbow: 03/05/10

Besides being addicted to all things monster, Sean loves to garden. In the winter when it's too cold to plant flowers he likes to read about flowers. He recently read to me Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert.

Lois Ehlert's bright illustrations made of primary colors and basic shapes go through the rainbow with suggestions of things to plant to get those different colors. Although it's a picture book it does provide the names of the different flowers and plants highlighted. It would make a good reference for any budding gardener.

Ehlert is also the illustrator of the Chicka Chicka Boom Boom series of books by Bill Martin Jr.

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Return of the Homework Machine: 03/04/10

With all the recent hullabaloo over the whitewashing of covers for tween and young adult literature, I've been paying more attention to the cover art in the children's wing of my library. Return of the Homework Machine by Dan Gutman jumped out at me because of it's diverse cast of characters on the cover. The title also reminded me of The Secret Science Alliance, a graphic novel I was reading for the Cybils.

Return of the Homework Machine is the sequel to The Homework Machine which I haven't read but plan to. The story is told as a series of interviews just as Anita Shreve's Testimony is. I think Gutman did a good job of finding individual voices for each person testifying especially since it's a mixture of sixth graders and adults.

What pulled me into the novel though was the delightful combination of location (the Grand Canyon), and exotic treasure (and Egyptian burial) and danger (a strange man who is after the indestructible chip that made the homework machine so powerful). Seriously, this was like reading a tween version of a Clive Cussler mystery. I loved it.

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When Cats Dream: 03/04/10

If you're a Captain Underpants fan, you've heard of Dav Pilkey. If you're not and your kids aren't either, you probably haven't. Besides writing the Captain Understands series, he also has some stand alone picture books for children. The one Harriet chose was When Cats Dream.

The book looks at the "real lives" of cats vs. their "dream lives." The dream lives are done in bright colors that mimic famous paintings or periods of art. They are inviting to look at. The artwork was the definitely the highlight of the book for Harriet and me.

The text, written as a rhapsody has a difficult meter for reading aloud. I stumbled in places when reading the book. Likewise, the story left Harriet confused in trying to separate out the real from the dream even though they were represented by distinct visual styles. To her the book had two parts: ugly pictures and pretty pictures. She preferred the pretty pictures but didn't know how the story fit together.

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Sun of Suns (Virga #1): 03/03/10

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder starts the Virga series. Had I not read and loved The Sunless Countries (Virga #4) I probably would have passed on the rest of the series. The series has a slow start as it introduces characters and the unusual manmade world of Virga.

In Virga whoever controls the suns has political and economic sway over all the nations dependent on the light. As these are manmade suns the technology and resources to build new ones is heavily guarded. A splinter group from Slipstream, the largest and most established human civilization has decided to build its own sun and declare independence.

Haydon Griffin is the only survivor of the government crackdown. The unfinished sun is destroyed and the scientists hired to complete the project are killed. Haydon is their son and he believes he has the knowledge to complete their work.

Haydon's story though is only one part of Sun of Suns. There is also Venera Fanning, the wife of an Admiral who has a personal vendetta. Sometime ago she was shot by a stray bullet leaving her scarred and plagued by debilitating headaches that come at random. She keeps the bullet to someday return it to its owner in an act of revenge.

The problem I had with Sun of Suns is the balancing of the plots. Clearly Haydon Griffin was set up to be the big hero of the book but his piece of the book is rather dull. He grows as a character by the time he returns in The Sunless Countries but here he's a poorly realized throwback to the old Saturday film serials. Venera Fanning, the hard as nails, scheming and oft-times bitchy foil for him is the far more interesting character but she's presented as a throw away character who is there to lighten the mood in between Griffin's scenes of brooding.

Fortunately for me, Vanera Fanning is the main character for Queen of Cadensce (Virga #2).

The Virga Series:

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Salmon Doubts: 03/03/10

I love the oddball graphic novels that I find at my library. I'm not always willing to commit to yet another series but I'll pick up a stand alone book in a heartbeat. Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks is one of my latest impulse picks.

Salmon Doubts follows a school of salmon from hatching through spawning. As they grow up and form friendships one fish decides to question the purpose of life. He follows his own path, constantly questioning the accepted norms of salmon life.

It's a short but thought provoking graphic novel. The salmon aren't anthropomorphized at all. Nor is their life cycle cheered up any. If you know salmon you know they die right after spawning. So along with the inevitability of life and death comes the message of life choices.

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Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom: 03/02/10

Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom by Eric Wight was on the short list of graphic novels for the 2009 Cybils. Francis Piccolo aka Frankie Pickle is a boy with an over active imagination and a very messy room. He'd rather play than clean his room and his mother had decided she's no longer going to clean it for him.

When Frankie's imagination takes over the book becomes a graphic novel. The rest of the time it's written as an early reader chapter book. The library book blogs I read call this blend of genres a "hybrid." Whatever it's called, it's the easy reader version of what The Invention of Hugo Cabret is.

I preferred the graphic novel parts of Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom to the chapter book sections. The "real world" passages are very preachy and frankly how many books about the dangers of a messy room do we need?

Although the book didn't wow me, my son loved the book. He read the book three or four times in the course of a week. Since then I've seen him skimming through it.

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The Shrinking of Treehorn: 03/02/10

My local library is full of surprises in the form of funky, old books. In the children's section I saw a title that instantly struck my fancy: The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide. When I pulled the book off the shelf and saw the distinctive Edward Gorey illustration, I knew I had to read it.

Literally the book is about Treehorn who one days for no apparent reason begins to shrink. He can't get any adult to listen to him when he says he's shrinking. His parents get annoyed that he can no longer sit up properly at the table and that his clothes no longer fit. The bus driver can't understand why he's no longer able to get on the bus easily. The school principal thinks he's just doing it to break the rules.

But there's another side to the story. As Tristen (a third grade reviewer) points out, Treehorn is seeking attention. He like so many children is ignored by the adults important in his life. His shrinking is an outrageous act to get them to notice. Treehorn is a child living a parallel life to his parents. They pay attention to him only when he is part of their routine: family meals, bedtime and the like.

Treehorn though doesn't find a single sympathetic adult. Like so many children he has to solve his own problem. The solution is similar to the ending of Clifford the Small Red Puppy. The book closes with Treehorn faced with another unusual problem and deciding not to mention it. His parents don't even notice anything is wrong.

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Duma Key: 03/01/10

I grabbed Duma Key by Stephen King when it showed up at a recent BookCrossing meeting. I enjoy his novels and had heard good things about this one.

Edgar Freemantle goes to the Duma Key in Florida to paint as a way to recover after a horrific construction accident that crushed his right side. He wasn't an artist before but something about living in Big Pink has inspired him to paint and draw surreal seascapes of the view from his bungalow. Of course all that creativity is unleashing an evil that needs to be stopped. Can Edgar undo what he's wrought?

At the bare bones pieces of the plot, I enjoyed Duma Key. For example: I liked see the evil revealed through Edgar's paintings. I liked the brief glimpses of the past (not through her flash back chapters, though) of life on the key when the old lady was a prodigy artist. I also loved the final show down.

Unfortunately this tight horror story is bloated with at least a hundred and fifty, perhaps two hundred pages of padding. It takes forever for Edgar to describe his accident and his failing marriage before he finally gets to Florida. Likewise there's a lot of time wasted on him setting up shop on the key and these "how to paint" sections that are supposed to be windows into the first time the evil came ashore but they just get in the way of plot.

If this were by any other author I'd be ranting right now on how except for the location change (warm ocean vs snowed in resort) the book was a rip off of The Shining. Of course the same author wrote both books so I suppose he's just returning to similar themes after doing other things for a while. As you can probably tell, I prefer The Shining to Duma Key.

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